Wednesday, January 30, 2013

On the Application of Mercenaries

Towards the end of the ACKS game, we started to see the deployment of large numbers of mercenaries for hex clearing operations.  This wasn't necessarily a problem, and one of my players really wanted his PC to be a 'leader of men', so it was mostly OK barring issues of resolution.  We have a decent combat system for combats involving 10 individuals per side in the ACKS core, and a decent system for resolving combats of hundreds per side in the Domains at War preview, but there is not a particularly good way to resolve a battle between 34 pikemen and 57 ratmen.  We considered scaling down the DaW rules, but never got to it.  There's an order of magnitude range missing in there, which is unfortunate.  This meant that my options for fights using mercs were "OK, you win" or "I think you're going to need more mercs."  I've no problem with the "OK, you win" approach, but I felt there needed to be a clear cost for using it.  The natural and obvious cost is casualties, but determining how many casualties a group of armored L0 men take while engaging a small integer number of 6+ HD monsters was not at all obvious.  That the mercs were also cavalry archers further complicated matters of casualty estimation.  In the end I ended up dividing combats mostly into "fights which your mercenaries will win with no or minimal casualties" and "fights that your mercenaries will be effectively unable to help you with."

There was, though, in the metagame, definitely a conflict going on with regards to the types of monsters considered acceptable to destroy out-of-hand with mercenaries.  I was of the notion that there were certain monsters that took heroes to deal with; the litmus test for me was "Are the PCs and players legitimately afraid of this?  Yes?  Then the mercs probably are very, very afraid of this."  My PCs disagreed, employing mercenaries not only against beastmen and animals, where I was in agreement that they were appropriate, but also against proper monsters, and I felt kind of bad about mostly 'nerfing' their effectiveness for lack of a resolution system.  Upon further reflection, though, I realized that there are already several "Protection from Mercenaries" effects in the game.  The two that jumped out at me immediately were dragons' frightful presence and the immunity to non-magic weapons of gargoyles and incorporeal undead.  The first is effective because it means that low-HD creatures just can't engage a dragon effectively; a L0 man in ACKS flees in panic from a dragon with a fear aura, 100% of the time, no save, and characters of levels 1 through 3 are similarly out of the action.  This is a wonderful mercenary-proofing mechanism, and the fact that the penalties for characters higher than 3rd level are minimal suggests that this might be the original intent of the mechanic.  Similarly, immunity to non-magical weapons prevents the application of large forces of mercenaries to monsters, since it is effectively impossible to outfit hundreds of mercs with magic weapons unless you have many wizards working on that full time and a huge amount of cash and monster parts to burn.  I don't think that this is the original purpose of immunity to non-magic weapons, since we see it on much smaller monsters like gargoyles which are often encountered in low-level dungeoneering settings, but it is a nice bonus.  Lycanthrope resistance to non-silver weapons kind of qualifies too; you could buy silver weapons for all of your mercs, but it might be prohibitively expensive (and difficult to do with the equipment availability rules).

I still kind of think that mercs should think twice (ie, check morale) on meeting a 30-foot-long centipede with a giant venomous shark head, or other freaky supernatural monsters that eat villages (since mercs are trained and hired for "military campaigns"), but I do feel less bad about letting them engage and possibly kill such creatures since there is a distinct subset of monsters which is effectively immune to mercenaries.  Of course, on a re-read of the morale rules, it looks like we've been playing those wrong too.  Mercenaries, henchmen, and monsters are supposed to check morale not just when half of them have been slain or disabled, but also the first time one of them is slain.  There is some ambiguity here with what 'slain' means due to ACKS' mortal wounds system; is a merc at -12 HP 'dead' for the purpose of provoking morale?  If not, can you postpone morale checks by not seeing to any of your wounded in the field?  So there's some weirdness there, but I feel fairly justified in mercs, henchmen, and monsters all checking morale more frequently than we've been having them do.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Magic the Gathering and ACKS Summoners

Had a rousing round of draft Magic using a subset of Matt's cards last night.  I had never played any flavor of draft before, so the deckbuilding was an interesting experience; I grabbed Mephidross Vampire and Psychatog fairly early, and then build up blue / black from there.  Nobody else was using blue, since the cards there were fairly weak, so I was able to grab most of the blue cards, while Matt was building black / white zombies, so there was some competition for black.  Jared got green / white beasts, Drew played mono-red, and our other Matt, who had not played before, ended up with green / red kavus.  I lost to Jared and Drew, but managed to best zombie Matt before we decided to play a five-person free-for-all which took about two and a half hours. 

Jared and Drew had a feud going and I came down against Jared since he had a large number of creatures, some of which were effectively unblockable, and he had been attacking me with them.  Destroyed his hand, terrored his one flying blocker out of the way, and then managed to finish him with a Siphon Soul after Matt killed my flyer with a Zombie Assassin.  The life gain from the Siphon made me a target for a turn or two until Drew started to rebuild his force of hasty 4/4s and it was considered that he had a card in his graveyard which would let him take a second attack phase at the cost of discarding a land and removing it from the game.  Kavu Matt took him out with a massed frontal attack since he was only down around 5 life.  I drew and played Psychatog, which made me a target again, but soon after Zombie Matt drew the second part of an enchantment / artifact combo that would let him turn two mana into five life as many times per turn as he wanted, triggered during his draw step.  Since he was sitting on 10+ mana at this point in the game, Kavu Matt and I knew we had to finish him immediately or he would become unstoppable.  I cleared most of his creatures and snuck a little damage through, but he pulled a Second Dawn and brought his critters back, so Kavu Matt had to kill them all over again.  He did manage to take him out, though, and had even left a few blockers in reserve for when the game turned into one-vs-one.  The blockers were enough that I couldn't punch enough damage through to win, so I drew and played the Vampire and sat back.  I had two morphed wizards, some sort of 4/3 blue donkeyman, the psychatog (with one island in hand and six cards in graveyard), and the vampire, while he had nine creatures including an enchanted 3/4 Patagia Golem, a pair of 3/3s, three 2/2s, and some 1/2s and 1/1s.  It was late, and he decided to attack me with everything he had.  I blocked most of his small stuff, where I could find fights that would let my creatures survive and gain vampiric strength, and took about half of my health in damage, but since he was tapped out, I got him on my next turn.  I'm reasonably sure that if he hadn't attacked at all, I could've pulled some trickery with my morph creatures to eliminate his two half-flyers (the golem and a Thermal Navigator) with the vampire and win through air superiority, but if he had just attacked with his 2/2s+ and not given me low-hanging vampire fruit, I'd've been in a rough spot.

In sum, it was a fun and nostalgic evening, and I was pleasantly surprised at winning the Grand Melee with a tricksy deck rather than one full of giant creatures.

It got me thinking about summoners in ACKS again, along the old-school Magic lines.  I'm kind of liking the traditional notion of 'binding a creature to your service', which then allows you to summon it.  So I figure probably a spell-like ability available at 1st level which lets you 'mark' a creature for summoning.  Casting time of either a round or a turn, not sure how many times per day, and the creature must be willing (an unwilling version would probably be a reasonable application of Bestow Curse; a Bestow Curse version would either be once per 8 hours with a one-turn casting time, or once per day with a one-round casting time).  Note that deceived, drunk, and magically charmed all count as 'willing' for this purpose; many creatures (especially humans) will demand payment of some sort instead, and a creature which was marked while deceived may seek out a Remove Curse to release itself from service.  Once marked, the summoner can use the creatures to 'build' a summoning spell using the spell construction rules, which is immediately added to his repertoire.  A summoner may learn and cast mage spells as normal, but must research them or copy them from scrolls; he may not gain them randomly on leveling.  A summoner may also create summons too powerful for him to actually cast and store them in repertoire slots from high intelligence ahead of time (ex: a 7th-level party has a dragon on the ropes, and they agree to spare its life in exchange for its treasure and service.  If summoning the dragon would be a 5th-level spell, the summoner can build the spell and stash it in one of his int-bonus 5th-level repertoire slots until he gains spell slots powerful enough to actually summon it).  If a summoned creature is slain while summoned, it returns to whence it came with one hit point, and the mark is broken.  If a marked creature is slain while not summoned, the mark is likewise broken and it can no longer be called (unless raised from the dead and re-marked).

There are some issues with this approach.  I could see issues like "Well, if they're friendly enough to accept a mark, they're probably friendly enough to just turn into henchmen" and "Making monsters friendly is hard, and it's more efficient to just hire humans that we would want to summon."  Might just be easier to build a bunch of summon spells and some new wizard lists that are heavy with them, perhaps with a "summoning pact" spell somewhere in there that operates similarly to the ideas above.  I also have some fool notions about linking caster power to areas of land, a la both MtG and Sovereign Magic - I think this would be something very interesting to mix into a hex-crawling and domain-level game, but am not sure how to do it properly just yet.  Perhaps land areas providing access to specific bonus spells known (eg "He who controls the Mirkwood can summon its spiders")?  Midnight suggests an alternate approach with its places of power; there are places in the world which are saturated with magic of a particular type, and which might grant bonuses or 'arcane power' (like divine power, but naturally-generated) towards spell research and magic item creation in accordance with those themes.  Sounds like a good hook for a wilderness expedition ("We want to go to the magma vortex so the wizard can use it to research fireball on the cheap") or a good reason to build a mage's sanctum out in the middle of nowhere...  In any case, things to think about.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

What We Have Here is a Failure to Cooperate

Continuing the postmortem analysis of the ACKS game, I'd like to discuss an interesting emergent behavior that occurred, contrast it with what I see in other ACKS games, and examine its causes and consequences.  In my game, PCs established three distinct domains, with a minimum distance between each of 24 miles.  The first was had when the group knocked over the guild leaders of Opportunity, and the bard took control of both the thieves' guild and the town itself.  The second was won by the necromancer when he threatened the crocodile tribes of the eastern swamp into submission, and the third was established as a caravan outpost on the road between Opportunity and Ironbridge, and was ruled by the warrior Corinth.  At its height, the bard (and then assassin)'s domain controlled 3 six-mile hexes and I estimate around five thousand families, half of which were the urban population of Opportunity, though I do not have the exact figures.  The wizard's swamp domain achieved good rates of population growth via the assimilation of other beastman lairs, but had a very low starting point and never expanded beyond a single hex, while at the end of the game Corinth's domain at Camarone was just reaching a single-hex rural population sufficient for her to contemplate building a hamlet around her fortress to provide a market.  Corinth had a henchwoman to fill the role of spiritual advisor and use the worship of the peasants to fuel potion production, while the necromancer ruled alone, and the rulers of Opportunity somehow managed to wrangle the party and assorted henchmen, including Corinth and company, into clearing hexes for their benefit.  The other PCs set up small domain-like operations to make cash; the venturer owned a ship and sent a henchurer to trade on it, the wizard ran an unfortunately-successful spy network, and the last fellow organized a company of mercenary cataphracts and found employ under the Baroness of Opportunity.

Contrast this, if you will, with the apparent dispositions of the Grim Fist when they were in the early domain phase.  Only a single domain, albeit one of a size larger than the total of my PCs', was cleared, and the decision was made that the fighter with the high charisma (paladin?) would be Baron, the thief spymaster, the cleric patriarch, and the wizard guardian of the wood, in addition to continuing her duties as party treasurer on the domain level.  This "domain-level party treasurer" notion is very counter to what we did; each domain stood alone as an income source for its ruler and none other, by which he might earn many XP and advance his own ends.  I would and have argued that this led to a significantly less satisfying game; the aims of the various domain-owning PCs did not align with each other, since each wanted different hexes cleared, and these aims likewise conflicted with those of the non-landowning PCs, who found hex clearing dull and dangerous for low treasure.  In any given clearing operation, there was exactly one player who stood to gain significantly, and so interest waned.  Further, as each of the domain-level PCs were doing their own thing (and even the non-domained PCs had their fingers in many pies), party cohesion suffered.  I was effectively unable to get a single answer to "What are you doing next session?"; instead, I received a plurality of answers.  This made prep difficult, and in some cases I performed poor allocations of prep time which served a single player's interests rather than those of the group as a whole.

But the question remains, "why did the party fracture at domain level as it had not at dungeoneering level?"  I think an answer comes by way of the Fists, in this post:
[We received] an offer of vassalage if we finish clearing the mountain, since Iamanu technically owns this region, but isn't doing anything with it.
Technically, that translates to "won't kick us out." But it's STILL better than the half-baked ideas we were floating to keep Orléans or Atanung from taking the mountain from us once we do all the hard work of clearing it out.
It was about bigger fish; large domains with military and political interests and sufficient power to squash upstart domains.  I made it clear within the setting that there were no such domains in this apocalypse-blasted, monster-infested region of the world; the Dardantines to the south weren't going to bother conquering a backwater when they can already import anything worthwhile that is produced there, while the Myrmidian city-states to the north were busy in their own local struggles against the Skanucks and the Sorosi.  To the west lay dead Zahar, and to the east the ocean and the domains of the pirate princes who, again, had little interest in coming inland and conquering dirt farmers when there were proper riches out to sea.  This produced an environment without a unifying enemy on the domain level; yes, there were the witches, but for all of their lingering menacingly over the horizon, they took only one direct action against a player-held domain, and that was done by proxy and easily dealt with.  They were hardly threatening the player domains with imminent conquest (well, until provoked in the last session, but that is a story which may not be told).  While there were great and ancient powers moving in the region, towards the end of the game I was sufficiently overwhelmed with hex-stocking and trade management that I was unable to effectively play them properly.  And so any old PC with 12500 GP burning a hole in their pocket could build a tower and declare himself a baron, if he so chose and could get his fellows to help him clear the hex he wanted to build in.

The real consistency trouble here is with the presence of bandits.  A bandit lair in ACKS entails a 9th-level fighter, several lieutenants, and a great many men who fight as first-level fighters (much as the Hill Cantons tells it of AD&D).  In a land without liege lords, though, where a PC with the cash and some mercs can prop himself up as a domain ruler, you can bet the bandit chiefs are doing exactly the same thing.  One of the rules I like to follow is "Good for the PCs, good for the NPCs."  You want perma-haste items in 3.0?  Ooooh-kay, but don't be surprised when you end up fighting a perma-hasted great wyrm white dragon (true story; I was on the player end of that and took the lesson to heart).  This is also why I try my best to keep flexible illusions out of the game; it's not that I'm concerned about what PCs will do with them.  Monsters lose a lot, and I'm OK with simulating being illused.  The trouble is that if flexible illusions exist in the world, then NPCs will have them too, and I'll have to deploy them against the PCs, which, after playing under illusionist DMs one time too many, is something I'm unwilling to do.  In any case, the point here is that those bandit chieftains should have been doing the domain thing out in the wilderness, since they have the personal power and small armies to back their claims and provide some 'protection' to their local peasantry, if not proper hex-clearing.  This would have generated a somewhat different feeling to the setting; rather than an unsettled world ripe for expansion, we'd've ended up with a Border Princes vibe, with treacherous and shifting alliances between the PCs and bandit factions, which was much more in line with my vision for the setting at the outset (very Wild Westy, too).  Arguably, this would have been significantly more interesting than the way things actually went down.  The first event following the conquest of Opportunity should have been bandits knocking on the gates, testing the mettle of the new rulers and wondering why their old guildy drinking buddies were no longer in town.  Perhaps better still, bandits rolling in and treating the town as a neutral zone in inter-band feuds, but threatening to quash any attempts at domain expansion.  Many possibilities were missed, and this angle would have segued nicely both into resolving the first party's origin story (caravan guards lost in a sandstorm following an attack by bandits in the south) and developing Corinth's history with the Bandit King of the North.

Perhaps part of the problem was the relative dearth of Men on the random wilderness encounter tables I was using, or a dearth of bandits within the Men subtable.  But I kind of doubt that was the case; I distinctly recall the PCs meeting nomads once or twice, and in case severely offending them.  Those nomads were from a nearby lair, likewise led by a 9th level chief.  The offense given should have perhaps resulted in retribution against their domain in that area, and, had this happened in the early game, it probably would have.  Ultimately I think my list of "people who are after the PCs" just got too long to manage and I started dropping entries rather than using them.  Unfortunate.  Whatever the reason, the PCs lacked a domain-unifying threat, and so their domains split, management time exploded, and party cohesion disintegrated.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Hijinks Redux

I've put together a giant spreadsheet to determine how the math works out for ACKS' hijinks system over the last couple of days.  We had some issues with hijinks in the campaign.  First, the bard took over a town and accompanying thieves' guild, and turned the guild into a secret police force of unparalleled size and profitability.  At one point, it was earning enough money per month that I seriously considered having it count as taxes for the purposes of domain morale (and it would have had a reasonable negative effect).  The PC response was to expand the domain to dilute the taxation across a larger population and mitigate its impact on morale.  Later, the party wizard caught on to the fact that spying was ludicrously profitable, hired himself some thief henchmen, and sent them spying in a nearby town, thereby avoiding the associated morale complications.  Again, great profits ensued, and he rapidly levelled past the party's other wizard, who had previously been several levels ahead.  The extreme profitability of hijinks engendered much resentment in the PCs running normal domains, and helped lead to my proposal for guild morale, as well as the end of the campaign.

Hence my interest in taking a look under the hood, so to speak, and determine if the problem lay solely in permitting non-thieves to run syndicates, or if it ran deeper.  The trouble is that it stands to reason; just as anyone can logically hire an engineer to build them a fortress and then hire a garrison to impose their will on the peasants, it also seems reasonable for, say, a wizard to hire a gang of thieves to steal monster parts and spells from his rivals, and to sponsor the construction of a hideout for them.  But the numbers...  the numbers are interesting.

They were so interesting I wrote a really long post draft about them, then realized that they honestly weren't that interesting.

The main takeaway for me was that the numbers on the Monthly Hijink Income table are clearly based on different assumptions regarding the costs of punishments and legal defense.  What I'm seeing is significantly higher than the numbers on page 141.  Other highlights included "hiring a lawyer +3 pays for itself in expectation", "treasure hunting is absolutely the best, followed by spying, followed by stealing luxury goods at -4", and "asymptotically, income scales slightly super-linearly, punishment costs drop to constant, and wages grow exponentially, making it inefficient to employ thieves of 9th or higher levels."

But honestly, after staring at numbers for many hours and thinking about things, I think I've reached a conclusive house rule which is probably in the spirit of the original rules.  It's important to have these things written down, though.  I'm fairly happy with it on first inspection, as it creates a nice parallel to the wizard and cleric domain stuff and limits the potential for hijink abuse which did so much damage to my last campaign.

Thieves, assassins, nightblades, venturers, and whatnot of 4th and lower levels may perform hijinks only as part of a guild.  They do not keep the earnings for these operations, and gain half the GP value as XP.  They lack the contacts to effectively profit from their skills when operating alone.  They may still perform long-form skill checks for specific narrative or intelligence purposes; if the party wants to hire a Ruffian (Spy) to go to court and spy on the duke, they can do so.  However, without a network of criminal contacts, the ability to make a direct, monetary profit from what is learned or stolen in these operations without performing further adventure-type activities is limited to effectively nil.

Hijink classes gain, at 5th level, the ability to perform hijinks personally.  At this point, they have the experience to operate independently, and have a network of small-time fences and such who can get them cash for relatively small quantities of goods, but whose trust extends only to the character himself and not his associates.  It is at this level that guildthieves are considered for positions of authority in the guild, while those passed over often 'go freelance' before fleeing town.  However, while competent, the thief lacks the experience and wisdom necessary to train others.  This mirrors the ability of spellcasters to perform magic research and create minor magic items at 5th level, and the 5th level fighter bonus to hireling morale, both of which enable 'early domain / wilderness play.'  While the wizard and cleric can start making magical preparations for wilderness adventures and researching their own spells, and the fighter can now lead mercenaries with greater ability, the thief becomes able to provide maps and funding for expeditions by illicit means.  This gives thieves something to do while other classes are performing long-duration early-domain actions like research, but makes it effectively impossible for the players to directly hire thieves capable of performing high-value capers.  Thief henchmen of 5th level may, however, perform hijinks for the benefit of their employers, just as cleric henchmen of 5th level can make potions.  Henchmen do have to get there by either adventuring or guild work, though...  This inability to manage sub-thieves except as henchmen also puts the threat of punishment squarely on the head of a PC or his close allies for a while, rather than on "Anonymous Spy #12" as we saw previously.  That hijink income is now much more limited also brings it back into the realm of comparability to trade income, which makes the latter significantly more appealing, and hence traveling wilderness adventures in order to accomplish it rather than sitting in town waiting for the monthly guild finance report.

At 9th level, the thief's skill is legendary, and he is a master of his craft.  He attracts followers, can establish a hideout, and all the normal 9th-level whatnot.  Additionally, the thief's ruffian hirelings of 4th level and below may perform hijinks for profit and XP, as he now has an extensive network of fences and information dealers of effectively unlimited capacity and he can offer them effective intelligence and guidance won through hard experience. The cost of establishing a hideout is then explicable not only as the construction of front operations and secret tunnels, but the importation or employment of fences sufficient to move large volumes of stolen goods and the acquisition of supplies necessary for training new guild members.  This 9th level ability to train mirrors the ability of wizards to gain apprentices.

This is all I have to say on how hijinks should work.  It is probably pretty obvious, but we were running under a very, ah, loose interpretation of the rules as written previously.  More fools we; so it goes.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Conquest vs Resource Extraction, and Phases of Play

My ACKS game is kind of coming apart under various pressures, but it's shown us a lot about the system itself.  In this particular case, we had a few 7th-9th level PCs with early domains who were pushing for hex-clearing to be the primary activity of the campaign, and largely succeeded in directing things that way.  What we ran into, though, was that hex-clearing for a party of 4th to 7th level (as the rulers were frequently non-participating) was both difficult and not all that rewarding, since there were a great many low-yield beast lairs like giant catfish and crocodiles, while most of the remaining ones were medium-yield high-danger humanoid villages, occasionally backed by spellcasters (as they discovered to their peril while plotting a morning raid against weaselmen).  There was much boredom and frustration, and many grievous injuries and henchman deaths.  When brought to discussion, part of what came up is that "going through places and killing everything there just isn't that interesting."  And this comment brought to my mind a more general distinction in playstyles which is present in ACKS.

When dungeoneering at low levels in ACKS, you're not out to clear the dungeon.  You're there to find and steal treasure, because treasure gets you XP, and fights are generally to be avoided because they're dangerous.  Generally fights in low-level dungeoneering are a result of either a careful risk-reward calculation ("We hear what sounds like a snoring dragon on the other side; I vote we chance the fight because we have surprise and dragons have good treasure"), which is the unusual case, or the result of something going wrong - a bad random encounter check, negotiations going poorly with a group that were thought to be friendly, poor exploration technique, or what have you.  Those are more common in play than the first type.  This type of play I will term "resource extraction"-motivated; the party is in an environment seeking a particular resource, with fights being incidental and not the aim of the endeavour.

What we saw last semester in ACKS was a shift from extractive play to conquest-driven play.  The first two sessions last semester were the Conquest of Fort Camarone, and centered around clearing an abandoned Zaharan fort for use as a forward base, domain seat, and trading post.  All of the inhabitants of the first level were either slain or brought into the service of the PCs, the level was fully mapped, and the entrance to the second level was fortified to prevent things from getting out (mostly).  This was a very different style of play; whereas normally a dungeon lair of humanoids might be bypassed as "too dangerous for the treasure they'll probably have", it was now imperative that the threat of the lair be eliminated.  More fighting and less emphasis on treasure ensued.  It became somewhat reminiscent of a 3.x dungeon crawl, where, since the only source of XP was killing monsters, you wanted to kill all the monsters because that was what the system mainly rewarded. 

It was an unfortunate turn of events that this dungeon-clearing operation happened just as the semester started and we picked up three new players, who were never exposed to ACKS dungeoneering in the low-level style.  I suspect that this group of new players in the conquest mindset, combined with the focus of the players who had domains on expanding their domains, was what led us into conquest-driven wilderness adventuring straight from dungeoneering.  And it was there that we started having serious not-fun, which was further aggravated by hijink hijinks on the parts of some of the party and late-surfacing issues with the Venturer class.  And so the game goes on hiatus.

But, the upshot of this whole process was the realization that, if dungeoneering can be done in both resource extraction and conquest modes, wilderness play probably can too.  Once I realized this, it dawned on me that I had in fact run one session which was just such a wilderness adventure in extraction mode, and this was the Expedition to the Crocodile Temple.  In this particular adventure, the players had been informed by a treasure map that there was a valuable treasure to be had in a particular place in the wilderness.  They went to go extract that treasure, and any fights along the way were either accidents (random encounters) or against the treasure's guardians, well-justified by the expected value of the hoard.  This revelation also made ACKS' "treasure maps as treasure" mechanics make more sense.  Previously I'd mostly had treasure maps point to full-blown dungeons, but that was rapidly becoming infeasible due to elevated PC levels and prep time constraints.  Having maps pointing to high-value lairs as drivers for expeditions in the mid-levels is a much more sensible solution.  This means that mid-level parties should generally avoid tangling with low-value lairs like the weaselman village or the river full of giant catfish, and focus instead on large, high-treasure monsters like dragons where the party can focus fire, probably win via 3rd-level arcane spells (I really feel like d6 / caster level is where you start to get into proper Monster Killer spells that can take out real beasts), and gain large enough treasures to earn significant quantities of XP (part of the issue with knocking over crappy low-value lairs was that nobody was levelling, which made people grumpy).

Further, if this strategy is pursued at mid-levels, then by the time the party reaches name / domain levels, there will be 1) fewer lairs in the vicinity, since some will have been cleared in expeditions, and 2) the remaining lairs will be mostly of either humanoids or animal-intelligence creatures with no treasure.  The former poses significantly lower threat to 9th-level characters than to the 6th-levelers we were trying to take them out with (even given equal mercenary backing); a trog chieftain is about the equal of a kitted-out 6th-level fighter, and has a decent chance of winning a one-on-one fight against such, but is unlikely to win against a 9th-level fighter due to superior hit points and to-hit and probably better magic gear.  The latter category, giant animals, are generally not horribly dangerous (relatively), but there's just no compelling reason to kill them off unless the domain ruler is offering a bounty, you're the domain ruler and want the hex cleared, or you're sick of the random encounter result for that particular hex being giant spiders.  They're also much simpler tactically to deal with via mercenaries, area spells, traps and bait, and similar tactics which are readily available by high levels.

The other realization I had on this topic is that the trade rules are probably meant to be used in this mid-level range.  The party is supposed to pool cash, buy a boat, and start travelling as a group with the twin aims of reaching faraway high-value lairs and moving goods at a profit.   At least I think this is how the ACKS trade rules are supposed to be used; as a supplementary income to lair raiding for mid-level parties capable of dealing with wilderness random encounters, and therefore able to travel long distances.  Unfortunately, we were using trade as something more like "hijinks for the rest of us", where the party invested in autonomous caravans or the venturer PC's merchant company, and those went off and did their thing and many many die rolls later came back with a bunch of money.  This was the wrong way to play it; I should've been rolling random encounters for each wilderness hex traveled, which would likely have brought the PCs out into the wilderness in defense of their assets.

My conclusion, then, is that we accidentally skipped a 'phase' of the game.  OSR games are notable in that their gameplay changes significantly in manner and motive over the level range, as compared to 3.x / 4e where at first level you're fighting monsters in a room, and at 20th-30th level you're fighting scarier monsters in a bigger room.  In ACKS, though, what I'm seeing is more like:

1st-4th levels: dungeoneering.  You don't have the firepower and durability to take out wilderness encounters, so overland travel is probably a bad idea.

5th-8th levels: your wizard picks up fireball and the wonderful world of overland travel is now a lot safer.  Your thief and a few of his buddies start pulling treasure hunting hijinks to get you treasure map locations, the fighter leads the mercenaries, and off you go to fight dragons and other fun critters while avoiding the annoying crap like weaselmen whenever possible.  Optionally, engage in trade for a bit of extra cash or, if closely-affiliated with a local ruler, possibly pursue bounties for annoying critters that he wants out of his lands to get in good enough with him to get a grant of land when you hit 9th.

9th+ levels: the domain game, conquering hexes, realm politics, guilds, ???

And we made the mistake of skipping that middle one...  Definitely something to remember for the next campaign I guess.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Modest Proposal Regarding Hijinks and Income Therefrom

In our current ACKS game, we've had something of a recurring problem with hijink income.  When Garwyn the Bard took control of the town of Opportunity, he also inherited a thieves' guild from his successor, and he ran this guild with great success, generating many XP and filling his coffers.  When he died, his guild was inherited by Tualla the Assassin, as was his town.  She has continued to make a killing, generating very large sums of money via spying on her own populace.  Noticing their success, the wizard Leo set out to emulate their example, hiring spies and henchthieves to spy in the nearby town of Ironbridge and making ridiculous amounts of money blackmailing wealthy merchants.  These characters, propelled by hijink income XP, are in the level 8-9 range, while the rest of the party, including two PCs with traditional domains, are more-or-less stuck around 6th or 7th.  There is something clearly wrong with how we are playing hijinks, in that anyone who is not using (abusing?) them is playing really, really non-optimally

There are some who will argue that the proper solution is to disallow access to criminal guilds to classes who do not gain them as a class ability.  I argue that this is insufficient, as it is possible to hire a thief henchman and have them establish a guild, and then reap half the profits therefrom.  Yes, you run into potential hench loyalty issues, but it's easy enough to keep a non-adventuring henchman in good morale by avoiding catastrophes and paying them well.  Further, half of an order of magnitude more than the rest of the party makes is still a ton of money.  The discussion of relegation of the thief class to NPC-only status does not help, for the same reason.

A motion was made to ban hijinks altogether, but I do not think this is a particularly good solution either.  Treasure-hunting, in particular, is a sufficiently neat use that to scrap the system wholesale would be a damn shame.  Banning spying came up as another potential fix, but this still leaves the possibility that one of the trade hijinks, which are harder to run expected value math on, might also be very, very lucrative, and the system will continue to be abused.  Restrictions on spying do make sense, especially in areas where there just aren't that many secrets that valuable, but to eliminate it wholesale again seems like overkill (as it was useful during last night's session for the purposes of spying on an enemy army).

Probably the most apparently-reasonable patch suggested was to ban the establishing and running of guilds before 9th level.  I am, in general, not in favor of this plan.  The note from page 134 about losing followers was brought up in support of this proposal, but I don't think that makes much sense - if your guild is comprised completely of hired goons and henchmen, then you don't have any 'followers' from name-level to lose.  Further, if it makes sense in the world, as when Garwyn acquired a guild by force and charm, then that's not something I want to stop.  Finally, establishing domains and towers under 9th is a recurring theme, and to have guilds be an exception to this would be incongruous and punitive.

No, the solution to this problem is a morale mechanic.

Whenever a hired ruffian in the service of a criminal guild levels from hijink XP, he must check morale using the following modifiers:
  • A bonus or penalty equal to the boss's charisma modifier
  • A -2 penalty if the boss is not a thief, venturer, assassin, or other class which receives a guild upon reaching 9th level.  Bosses may be able to reduce this penalty to -1 by using their talents to provide benefits to their thieves, which a master thief provides for free via wise advice and connections.  Example offsetting benefits might be potions of invisibility, undue influence in courts of law, and so forth.
  • A -2 penalty if the boss is below 9th level or otherwise perceived as being weak or distant; possible causes might include extended bed rest due to grievous injury, extended absence from guild operations, or death.
  • A +1 bonus if the thief was caught performing crimes for the guild and the guild made it known that it "had his back", so to speak, via paying lawyer fees, bribes, and fines since last he leveled.  If the thief was convicted and maimed, but received a Restore Life and Limb or better magical healing at the guild's expense, then this becomes a +2 bonus instead.
  • If the thief has succeeded on half or more of his hijink attempts since last levelling, he receives a -2 to morale, as he is convinced that he does not need the guild's aid.  Some other "unreasonably successful" condition might work here; needs further consideration.
The result of 2d6 plus the above modifiers should be indexed into the following table:

2- : Attempt at guild takeover, possibly as conspiracy with other disgruntled ruffians when boss is weakest.  If attempt at guild takeover is clearly impossible, may defect instead; see below
3-5: Defection or betrayal; reports boss or hideout to authorities, joins a rival guild, or steals 1000 gp per level from the guild and flees town
6-8: Skimming the take - hijink income reduced by 10%, may be open to conspiracy
9-11: Remain honestly in service
12+ : Remain honestly in service, and report any brewing conspiracies to boss

This plays well with the notes in the Ruffians entry in the specialists listings that "Ruffians may or may not be reliable, and could stab the hiring character in the back (maybe literally!)."  This has been a non-deterrent so far, as with the current hijink system there is basically no threat to the boss from his ruffians within the system.  Note that followers acquired by guild classes upon reaching 9th level are not subject to this rule; they are personally loyal to the master thief whom they serve.  Likewise, direct thief henchmen may undertake hijinks without using this table, and are subject to normal henchman morale checks when leveling.  It is important that thief henchmen left in town for extended periods of time remain somehow useful to their employer, just as cleric henchmen left in town can gather congregants, or wizard henchmen can brew potions and perform item identification.  Permitting thief henches to perform hijinks without penalty is a reasonable way of achieving this aim, and the 4+cha henchman limit restricts the ability of would-be guildmasters to abuse hijinks via henchmen.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Game Report - Saturday 12 January

Had a rough session yesterday.  After resolving mercenary hiring for the winter of year 2, the players in attendance set out to clear the hex southeast of Opportunity during the fall of year 2, without much mercenary support.  First they went after a barrow of wights; I attempted to make this as challenging as possible, since they seemed overconfident.  To this end, I provided a lair structure which seemed likely to leave their rear exposed to attack, and this it did.  Turning again proved very useful, but since the number of HD turned doesn't scale up at all with level, it's not the game-ender it is at low levels by the time you're up against massed wights (aside - is Righteous Turning the only proficiency that scales with an ability score?  If so, why?).  As a result, much aging was had, and there was sadness.  I'm starting to wonder if aging instead of level drain is a good policy; it certainly promotes the sort of fear that undead should evoke, but, as some have mentioned before, the fact that it is near impossible to recover from is troubling to my players.  They have, however, done some research and those aged by the wights are considering questing for some potions of longevity to restore their lost youths.  This outcome pleases me - I'm a big fan of having PCs seek out powerful magic items, rather than just wandering through dungeons until they find the one they want, or buying one off the shelf.  The possibility of attempting to buy such potions off of the pirate king in Freeport was mentioned, but there will likely be complications to this approach.  The treasure here was decent; about 1500 gp, a potion of clairvoyance, and a warhammer +1 which one of the dwarves took an immediate liking to.  They also found a Zaharan holy book, which provided them with five questions on Zaharan religion and associated culture after extensive study.  I was glad to finally be able to use this mechanism to get information into the hands of my players.

After defeating the wights, they headed to a temple built of woven trees, and there met with a small band of elven clerics worshiping their nature gods.  Reaction rolls were neutral, and constructive dialogue was had.  Next were a band of berserkers.  The players considered bringing up siege weaponry, but decided against it since they could not find a good place to set it up outside of sight of the small, unwalled encampment.  Instead they sauntered in and challenged the leader to a duel, which the party fighter won handily with a mean shot below the belt.  The leader of the berserkers, Gunther the Maimed, swore fealty at swordpoint after recovering, as did his men.  Berserkers are always a bit tricky for me to play.  On the one hand, in my setting they're basically neutral-aligned vikings.  They're out for plunder, which is easy for adventurers to sympathize with.  On the other hand, they're also usually out for rapine, which pushes them towards chaotic territory, and they do make good chaos cultists.  So I get into a bit of cognitive dissonance on the basis of alignment when trying to run them; these ones came out decided on the "neutral, if unpleasant" side of that line.  Not a whole lot of treasure from this one, but henchmen kind of count.

The next lair on the agenda was a small village of weasel-men.  The players mustered the cataphract cavalry and the berserkers and set upon the village during the waning hours of day, when the nocturnal weaselfolk were mostly asleep.  Unfortunately, one of those awake was a powerful witch-doctor who knew fireball, and I rolled 34 on 6d6 for damage (that's two fives and six sixes), and several members of the party went down before the witch-doctor bought it via spiritual weapon.  Leaving the scattered weaselfolk to the mercenaries, the players assessed their wounds - one level six cleric missing a leg, one level four or so dwarven fighter missing a hand, and one level two dwarven fury at around -20 HP.  The fury rolled twice for mortal wounds, per his class, each with -8 on the d20, and managed a 19 / 6 combination which worked out to nothing more than a few missing teeth and some serious need for magic healing.  The other pair was low enough that his spine would have been broken instantly; the conclusion was that he was struck in the face with the fireball bead, which threw him back into a tree, and that "If I hadn't been drunk, I might've been injured."  Treasure here was mostly in trade goods that the weaselfolk had raided from the surrounding countryside, with the notable highlights of a magic greatsword wielded by the chieftain and the witch-doctor's spellbook.

Finally, they were considering a nest of stirges, and went "We really, really don't want to tangle with those...  Let's take a cow or four, douse them in military oil, drive them at the stirge nest, and have fire archers ignite them once the stirges are attached."  And it sounded like a good (and suitably old-school) plan to me, and so the stirges were summarily dispatched.  Likewise, a lake of crocodiles was neutralized by a company of mercenary archers with little injury.  The stirges actually provided the greatest share of the night's treasure, with a silver-and-amber torc worth 8000 gp and an as-yet-unidentified, but clearly magical, copper ring which is warm to the touch.

Remaining on the to-do list for the opening of tonight's session: a cave full of troglodytes, once allies of the weaselmen, a lake containing a few 15' catfish, and a deep lake, perhaps once a quarry, beneath whose waters lurks something terribly dangerous.  The party didn't get to the catfish for lack of time, and put off the other two until they had proper arcane fire support, as both of our wizard PCs were out.  We'll see if their return proves sufficient...

Friday, January 11, 2013

On the Power of the Cleric

I mentioned last post that I had run a few sessions of ACKS with my brother recently, and was struck by the contrasts with playing with my normal group.  He's been gaming for as long as I have, and he was both clever and cautious.  I sent him into a restocked version of the dwarven dungeon where the Morlock Massacre took place, and which the Old Guard abandoned as "too dangerous".  He took no casualties until the third expedition, which made it into the (more dangerous) second level, found a hidden part of the first level which the main group did not, and brought a mule to haul all of the crappy copper-grade treasure the previous party left behind.  I think the main reason he had an easier time of it, though, was that he had a cleric.  Not for healing, mind you - only one cure light was cast in three expeditions, and that was to remove gelatinous cube-induced paralysis.  No, the feature that really made the cleric MVPC was turning.  The rest of my players have a bad habit of leaving the bodies of their slain foes around, and the dungeon is a weak Sinkhole of Evil, which means that stuff reanimates if left there for too long.  Accounting for a fair bit of scavenger activity, this led to a lot of ambulatory skeletons, as well as a few zombies in sealed areas which were closed to large rodents.  It was all good, though, because the dice were rolling hot for turning; if he was on 7+ to turn, they could reliably be counted on to roll a 7 on the money, and after he levelled the same was true of 4+ rolls.  In seven combats with the undead, I think he failed one turning roll, and that was at the very end of a cleverly-planned combat where he had repeatedly turned a huge mob of dwarf skeletons to drive them back and forth through a wall of oil-fire to great effect (for my players reading this - this was the 20+ skeleton room that downed Gallivan and Corinth).

In any case, I was impressed with the power turning exhibited when wielded to its full potential with a little luck, as it was very different from what we saw in Bleak, where the party brought many a low-level cleric henchman only to see them devoured by ghouls.  I no longer feel any problems with first-level ACKS clerics having no spells, as they have about a 50% chance to do to an encounter with weak undead what a first-level wizard can do to an encounter with living creatures via sleep (namely ending it summarily), and the cleric can do this repeatedly, as well as wearing armor.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

ACKS - Mark of Justice

I ran a few sessions of ACKS solo with my brother earlier in the break, and after I informed him of our (probably incorrect) interpretation of the Hijinks rules, he began looking into hiring a few goons around town to carouse, spy, and smuggle.  Upon examination of the criminal punishment rules, his response was largely "eh, I can get these fixed with a Restore Life and Limb.  Might not be profitable, but losing a hand isn't as much of a deterrent as it might seem when you have backers."  And so, I present the Mark of Justice, a new application of Bestow Curse for ACKS.

A Mark of Justice may be cast only on a creature who has just rolled on the Mortal Wounds table, or who has been otherwise maimed, and applies to a single wound.  The casting cauterizes the wound, preventing blood loss and restoring 1d6 HP to the subject, but also marks the injured character permanently with a prominent, clearly-distinguishable symbol (as appropriate for the caster and circumstances, usually the seal of a particular court) over the cauterized area. The purpose of the Mark is to prevent the wound from being healed, and so it inflicts a penalty equal to half the caster's level to the d20 roll on the Tampering with Mortality table for any Restore Life and Limb attempted while it remains in effect.  In addition, the bearer of the Mark suffers a -2 penalty to reaction rolls with law-abiding citizens, though he may gain a bonus to reaction rolls among criminals.  The Mark is a difficult curse to break, as it is intended to foil high-powered magical healing, and so its removal requires a casting of Remove Curse by a caster of no lower than 9th level.  A subject may receive multiple Marks of Justice; their penalties stack.  Should the subject receive a Restore Life and Limb while subject to the Mark, the Mark persists and covers the restored area visually.  It retains its efficacy even if the subject is slain and returns from the dead.  The Mark is usually reserved for repeat offenders who have had legal punishments healed with RL&L, though certain chaotic sects are also known to use it for nefarious purposes.