Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Mapping and Caving: A Compromise

I was working on adding general proficiency selection to the henchinator today, and in the process ended up re-reading parts of the Proficiencies chapter.  There I once again encountered my old enemies, Mapping and Caving.  I like mapping as a player, and I like having my players make maps.  As a result, the ability to "map an area by memory" is sort of annoying - it kills off that part of gameplay (and that artifacts that generate it) that I enjoy.  Previously, I've soft-banned these proficiencies, but upon further consideration, I think a compromise is possible.

Mapping continues to permit an illiterate character to map for the party.  In addition, on a throw of 11+, he can produce an accurate copy from memory of a map he has studied or which he created, though doing so takes an amount of time varying with the size and complexity of the map.  This provides insurance against threats which destroy the party's map within the game world - water, burning oil, losing the guy who usually does the mapping - but permits the players to continue to use their map even in the event of such destruction.  Likewise, caving permits a party to retrace their way out of a dungeon or cave when their map has been destroyed, but without the necessity of taking time to sit down in the dungeon and let the mapper re-scribble from memory on a piece of parchment.

And speaking of maps (with apologies to people who actually art)...

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Scripts and Things

Mostly scripts.

Upgraded the henchinator script to allow generation of NPCs of arbitrary levels and to generate magic gear at the standard 5% per character level rate for NPCs (though 'useful' is a funny categorization for some of these results...  10th-level Explorer with the Ring of Weakness and clerics with a handful of magic arrows, I'm looking at you).  Now useful for generating NPC parties, bandit heroes, and a host of other folks of greater than 4th level.  Added names while I was at it, pulling down part of the Onomastikon and adding both gender and naming to the scripts (first did random names, then started getting combinations like "Wulfram the Valkyrie" and decided I needed to separate names by gender and add gender probabilities by class).  Next up: general proficiency generation.  Don't think I really want to do class profs, but general profs I can generate mostly based on ability scores.  Class profs depend more on weapon selection, spell availability, and other factors.  I also added waypointing to the merchant demandinator a while back, so that's now in a more-or-less finished state except some output formatting improvements (sorting outputs into a sensible order, possibly a csv output option).  Would be nice to have a save/load function for when market classes change, but that's not all that interesting of a problem.  The recursive hex-stocker of awesome is mostly functional, but I'm bogged down on data entry / transcription; I got up through Leech, Giant before my brain and fingers shut down.  Considering regex / pdfgrep, but that will involve doing a lot of manual post-processing too.  My output formatting on this one is also really, really terrible, but there isn't a particularly good way to print the list of warbands in an orcish village down to the gang level along with each of their treasures.  Still need to add support for taking a csv or text map file and combining auto-stocking with trade value generation to get a whole region fully-stocked and ready to go in a single command, too.  Also unfortunately, my webspace is disappearing since it was through my college, so I need to find somewhere else to host this stuff.  Still considering a github.

Have also been working on setting stuff for the summer game.  Coming along nicely.  More on that soon (perhaps tomorrow).

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Of Nethack and Item Identification

During some downtime last week between finals and graduation (also - yes I am graduated!  Now taking a break at home before job and lease start), I decided to take up Nethack.  It turned out to be a wonderful hybrid between Dwarf Fortress and TSR D&D, and I had quite a bit of fun (including DF-grade 'FUN') right up until I found and ID'd a wand of wishes and suffered a crippling case of decision paralysis.  But the whole experience did tickle some brain cells on a problem that has bugged our ACKS group before - how to identify items?

Really the problematic items here are the command-word items (wands, staves, swords of charming, those sort of things) and some of the edge-case passive items like rings of fire resistance.  Potions are easy enough to get with Alchemy, scrolls are quickly deciphered with Read Languages, and we tend to let people determine the bonus of a suit of magic armor or a weapon after sparring with it some (we assume fighter-sense and combat experience provide a fairly good sense for how much better than normal those sort of things are, and I'm way too lazy to keep those secret in use for any longer than I have to).  But I think the keys to handling charged item identification are suggestive descriptions and blind activation.

To say that Nethack's wand descriptions are suggestive would be quite misleading, as they're random, but they are at least consistent and got me thinking about charged-item description, which we have to far slacked on pretty hard.  Perhaps all detection wands have a small crystal ball embedded on the end of a stick whose type is appropriate to the type of detection, or offensive wands appeared charred, or so forth.  This lets players get a general idea of the type of a wand, but not its exact function.

Blind activation is something which Nethack does do well, and it is one of the standard ways to identify wands.  ACKS, however, has no clear facility for it.  Upon a re-reading of the magic item identification rules and the wands, staves, and rods rules, it's not entirely clear whether the user needs to know a command word or just sort of points and clicks.  Given the sort of hilarity that building experimental wand-testing setups can result in, I'm inclined to rules in favor of blind activation (particularly with the caveat that a blindly-activated staff will use one of its capabilities at random).  Limiting blind activation to Magical Engineers and Arcane Dabblers (both at -4) might also be reasonable (also wow, I never realized bards got Arcane Dabbling for free...  that's a pretty serious proficiency at mid-to-high levels).  In either case, there's still a trade-off; running a full identification will tell you how many charges it has, but will take time and money, while a blind activation takes maybe a turn but burns a charge and has a chance of frying your whole party if it turns out the copper stick with a piece of amber on the end that you thought was a wand of treasure detection is actually a wand of lightning...

Other thought - Alchemy II is kind of a bummer, and given how potion miscibility works in ACKS, it would be cool if there were a way for players to pre-identify the 'potion countdown' (potency?) of a given potion so that they could better plan their imbibing.  I'm sort of thinking potency identification on 18+ for Alchemy 1, then +4 extra per further rank (as usual) so that taking Alchemy II lets you more than double your ability to do it.  On the other hand, alchemy is already quite good on the whole, and allowing methods to pre-determine potency generates more paperwork / record-keeping.

I also sort of want to build an extensive themed potion descriptor table for parties lacking an alchemist, but given how often that prof gets taken and how effective it is, I'm not sure it's worth the effort.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Domains at War: Battles Playtest

Ran a first game of DaW:B yesterday afternoon for the old ACKS crew.  Just played the first scenario with no terrain, and it went alright.  Our main difficulty stemmed from having too many players; we had one player for each of the three beastman divisions, one player commanding the human cavalry division, and one running the human infantry divisions.  Given that only I had read the rules beforehand, this produced very slow turns.  The boredom that slow turns caused was further aggravated by the almost IGOUGO pattern resulting from the strategic ability gap between the humans and the beastmen (the human commanders had strategic ability from +2 to +4, while the best beastman commander has +2 and the other two have -1).  Since this modifies initiative, that usual pattern was 'cavalry acts, human infantry or ogres act, any more human infantry acts, orcs act'.  Part of the problem here was that we mostly ignored the Delay rules, which would allow higher-init divisions to stay their hands until an opportune moment and mix the order in their favor.  This was counterbalanced by the fact that the beastman commanders didn't realize that they could charge-move without an attack at the end (to haul their ogres across the field), which delayed closing the battle lines significantly, and also mistook the leadership of their main commander for 4 when it was actually 5, which would likewise have sped their advance.

Tactically, the first and second beastman divisions advanced down the center towards the human infantry line while the cavalry advanced up one flank and was blocked by the third division (commanded by yours truly) in a valiant but suicidal screening action.  This bought time for the main force to meet the human infantry line, and once there they inflicted severe casualties, killing both of the human infantry commanders in two rounds of battle.  However, by this time the cavalry had crushed the third division under their hooves and lances, and they were able to hunt down stragglers and retreating units to push the beastmen over their break point just as the beastmen pushed the humans over theirs.  Due to lower strategic ability, the beastmen rolled morale first, and the ogre chieftain's unit immediately routed after finding its line of retreat cut off by a screen of friendly units protecting its rear from the cavalry :\  We then called the battle in favor of the humans, as with the beastman general routed their morale was shot to hell and all further morale rolls were going to go very poorly.

So an unusual victory at the Fangs, to be sure - a human victory with barely a scratch on the ogre chieftain's unit.  The power of morale.

...  in retrospect, we may have been forgetting to apply the base morale scores for units.  Not sure it would've saved them.

 The group's conclusions were:
  • It seems like a fun game, but we were sort of using it wrong with as many players as we had.  With 5 players, it might work better 4v1 in the standard RPG model rather than in 3v2 like we usually play wargames with this many.
  • Would be much more fun in the context of an RPG campaign.  Which is a good conclusion to draw, since that was what it was designed for.
  • There was some interest in programming a VTT / turn-based tactics sort of interface for it.  I think this might get inordinately tricky with some of the extra elements like terrain and heroes and magic and the delay queue that we didn't use, so we'll see.
  • It actually got people wanting to play ACKS again; we rolled up some low-level characters and hit a semi-random dungeon after, just for kicks and because we couldn't really come up with a good context / structure for running another game of DaW right after that.  There was some discussion of running Fangs with terrain or a battle from the previous ACKS campaign, but it was mid-afternoon and everyone was sort of sleepy and hungry, so we went with low-effort dungeon crawling instead.
  • Likewise, it would be cool to see a pre-written DaW Campaigns scenario which would let you play the whole system and give you framing for multiple battles (region hex map, starting forces and locations, available hero assets, aaaand fight!).  Maybe I'll work something like that up...
My personal conclusion was "Get people to read the rules before the playtest if at all possible, to avoid silly mistakes and to let people use the interesting rules like delay and terrain" :P

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Trouble With Divine Elves

Upon further reflection, I'm not sure Divine Elves is such a good idea.  My main reason for this conclusion is that if you remove elves as an arcane race, spellsword and nightblade are no longer really viable by the classbuilding rules as written without the introduction of another arcane race.  Further, fighty-mage and thief-wizard are fun archetypes, and to remove them seems a bit unfortunate.  Since the cost in points for a decent divine value is so low, we also don't gain much in the class design space by adding a race which provides divine value; an elf divine 2/fighter mix is pretty close to the existing paladin, and divine/thief, while interesting, is also an easy enough thing to hack together as a human with divine 1, fighting 1, HD1, and thief 1 (or drop HD to 0 and boost thief or divine by 1).

So, considering the following solutions:
  • To hell with the rules - if I want to build an 8-point wizard/fighter class, I can make it work as a human with a lower max level and justify it as 'jack of trades, master of none.'
  • Another arcane race - probably the Zaharans.  Honestly they match the flavor I'm looking for for elves in the new setting anyway, where the elven empires of the south have fallen to darkness from within in the Melnibonean style.  Ruinguard fits the fighty-mage archetype well (though it could stand some better casting and fewer prime reqs), and a Zaharan nightblade equivalent would be both thematic and easy to cook up.  About the only thing I don't like about the Zaharans is the name.  I need to spend some time reskinning things and coming up with better names, I guess.  I suppose High Elves (arcane, fallen) and Fey Elves (nature-based divine casting) will do as working names for now.  Then it's just a question of unifying a few racial traits and tweaking a few new classes (ruinguard/spellsword, nightblade, elven ranger as explorer + fey divine, and then a wood elf shaman+arcane sage/farseer class).

Sunday, May 5, 2013

ACKS Backgrounds - Design Goals

The Autarchs did an AMA today, and Traveller came up.  In particular, Alexander mentioned that he considered a Trav-like backgrounds game for character generation, but that in order to keep things compatible with the OSR-at-large, he ended up going route with character generation.  This got me thinking...

In particular, I was reminded of Traveller d20's character generation, which was sort of a hybrid of d20's class/level system and Traveller's background system (technically also reminded of D&D's optional backgrounds rules, but those are unspeakably terrible, and so are omitted from here on out).  Trav20 handles it by awarding XP per term, even for terms where survival rolls were failed, which I think is probably a reasonable way to go about this.  But their XP numbers are...  interesting, to say the least.  The first design goal then: sensible and internally consistent with XP awards in ACKS.

Another thing that bothered me when rolling up Trav20 characters was that assignments per term were extremely random, and both risk and reward followed from a single random roll per term.  Instead, I think it would be desirable to have a clear risk/reward decision point per term.  Meaningful choices are good.

Finally, we'd probably want to be able to use this subsystem to bring characters into an existing party more-or-less seamlessly.  This means at the very least henchmen and magic items should be accounted for, and possibly domains as well (domains being an interesting case; on the one hand, a domain-level character is one in most need of some background detail, while on the other, if you're joining a domain level party, perhaps it's because you don't have one of your own).  Repurposing commission and promotion-like mechanics seems promising for hench-management; not sure about domains.

One possible point of annoyance is age and time; in our experience, it takes characters about a year to go from 3rd to 7th, including a fairly high number of casualties as a result of lack of cleric.  I'm not sure time and aging are really a meaningful limiting factor here like they are in Traveller, even for humans (never mind elves or dwarves).  So if time and discrete Trav-like terms aren't as much a thing, we're really looking for a broad-view adventure simulator; pick a danger level (perhaps using the Dungeon Level chart as a guideline), roll to survive and apply mortal wounds as appropriate, roll event, roll treasure / determine XP, determine time taken, repeat.

So those are initial thoughts.  Will develop further later (perhaps after final projects are due...).

Friday, May 3, 2013

Setting Generation - Parameters

I'm considering launching some play-by-internet ACKS for friends and family post-graduation.  This has naturally led me back the Setting Problem.  Upon further considering the Wilderlands and Midnight, I have concluded that conversion work is sort of a pain, and that there are things that I would like to have in a setting that I am to run which are not necessarily present in them.

So, switches I'm considering throwing during setting generation this time around / themes I would like to have:
  • Crumbling Empire / Beastbarians at the Gates - a default assumption of ACKS is that there is a powerful lawful empire in decline.  I like it.
  • Rival Houses - makes good sense as constituent parts of the empire that is coming apart.
  • The Craplands - A lot of settings have these under names like the Shadowlands, the Chaos Wastes, and Beyond The Wall.  Places right-thinking folk don't tread.  Wonderful places for an adventure.  Also a very handy way for the DM to telegraph danger gradients to PCs, so they can make informed wilderness exploration decisions.
  • Divine Elves - Per Micah Blackburn, because this is just an awesome idea.  Very Tolkien, and very in keeping with the elves as either 'firstborn and favored children of the gods' or 'fey folk of the woods', depending on the subset of the divine spells you give them.  Also makes 'seeking the wisdom and council of the elves' more sensible, since they get stuff like divination and augury.  Dark elves also very easily differentiated by a variant spell list (and maybe addition of the Zaharan After the Flesh / Death is Bad ability / drawback pair).
  • Chaos cults - I love 'em.  There's something very pulpy about having 40 chanting cultists, a sorcerer leader, some summoned demons or giant snakes or other 'bruiser' baddies, and an innocent on the altar when suddenly, heroes!  Plus you get to make up ridiculous demon names like 'the tentacled goat' and 'the spider with seven faces' for them to worship.  A nice 'threat from within' for our crumbling empire.
There are a couple of other things that I'm not so sure about yet:
  • Man Has Always Been His Own Worst Enemy - no beastmen, just humans and demihumans as your 'standard-issue intelligent foe'.  Baddies not marked for your convenience.  Would make things a little more morally ambiguous, but would require more effort on my part to differentiate ethnicities of humans.  Not something I think I really want to have to do, but it's something that's been on my radar ever since Iron Heroes.
  • Cultural influences - not really sure about the time or place to set this in.  The ACKS standard is classically Romanesque, but I'm also sort of tempted by the Holy Roman Empire further north (bonus: chaos vikings), a Rokugan clone, or a Midnight-like crumbling alliance of races.  Mesoamerican influences also vaguely tempting; maybe the Craplands are the Crimson Jungles to the south, full of cannibals and worse.  Currently leaning slightly toward Holy Roman, though, for a sort of dark ages "plagues and huns and vikings" feel.  Also a good place to steal historical names from.
 So just sort of throwing this out here for comment by potential players.