Thursday, August 28, 2014

Mythic Wilderlands

I'm a bit excited about ckutalik's Slumbering Ursine Dunes.  I've been reading Chris' Hill Cantons material for some time, and he's had a number of very inspiring; his news posts are always entertaining, I've linked his pointcrawling posts before, and I discovered world-engines through him (one of the things which I believe would make living worlds more viable to run).  But most recently he's put 'mythic wilderness' on my brain.

I think mythic wilderness is probably a very useful concept for a number of reasons.  First, the required degree of simulation fidelity is reduced for the judge (moi), because Out There is fuzzier than In Here, by the nature of Out There.  It has rules, but they're not quite the same rules as the woods out back in real life.  This works for my playerbase, too - we're not Boy Scouts, survivalists, and ecologists.  We're computer programmers, and we know about as much about real wilderness as your average ecologist knows about perl (if that), except maybe for our one guy who does orienteering.  We are, however, substantially more familiar with European mythology, so that's might provide a common set of expectations around the table.

Finally, the mythic wilderness offers me a nice chance to move away from 'black chaos' to 'green chaos.'  One of my players once told me "Every game you run is actually Warhammer.  Traveller, ACKS, 3.5, whatever - you can run Warhammer in any system."  And it's fairly true; I've been stuck in a thematic rut.  It's all about the ineffable demon gods and their cultists, piles of skulls, devouring horrors from beyond space and time, good guys who are bad, and bad guys who are worse.

So perhaps it is time for a change, from "man against the darker parts of his own nature" to "man against nature", as a theme.

But while the Ursine Dunes are tempting, they're also some months out, probably.  As a result, I am considering rolling my own.  I think the Wilderlands of High Fantasy would suit - there's a lot of the titular Wilderlands near the City-State which, for all its storied grandeur, stands as one of a handful of bastions of civilization in the region.  To the south lies jungled Altanis, and to the west the Tharbrian steppe.  Plenty of space for the fey to cavort and the wolf-men to howl. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Saving Throws - Convergence

Last time, I talked about the divergence between strong saves, weak saves, and saving throw DCs, as observed in 3.x and theorized in 5e.  Today, I will discuss two save systems that avoid the problems associated with save divergence, namely the high susceptibility of high-level characters to the nasty save-or-suck effects that get thrown around at that level.

Turns out, TSR got one thing right in B/X.  Well, at least one thing.  The fact that their saving throws grow in a very peculiar way is often obscured by the ridiculous category names that they chose for their saves, but upon some examination, it is notable that save DCs don't exist.  There is no question of your stats vs the stats of the guy who cast Finger of Death on you; your class and level give you a target number that you must roll to resist, and barring a handful of spells and effects that specify a modifier to your save, that's all that goes into it.  The save DC was inside you all along.  And that's actually how it started, too; saving throws were "You're dead to rights, but throw the dice and maybe luck will save you."  You weren't any deader-to-rights if the guy casting Finger of Death on you had 18 Int vs 16 Int, and high level characters were assumed to be tougher and luckier, so their saves were substantially better than at low levels.

This has some interesting effects on high-level [TO]SR play.  At low levels, spells that give saves are pretty great, because the enemies have few HD and consequently really bad saves.  We added a save vs death to Sleep, and it still wipes rooms with no problem.  But, at this level, spellcasters have few slots and little versatility.  At high levels, they have tons (well, more) of slots and more spells to choose from, too!  ...  but everyone's saves are much better than they used to be, so your spells are much more likely to fail or have limited effects.  There are a couple variations in the uniformly good saves, like fighters being relatively weak in saves vs spells, and clerics being particularly strong in saves vs death, but most saves tend to be pretty clustered together somewhere in the 50-70% success range (at ACKS' level cap, at least).  And high-HD monsters have really good saves, like -1+.  So at high levels, wizards are much more useful for taking out massed weak opponents or doing battlefield control or buffing or summonging than at save-or-sucking single targets.  This is the balance of the quadratic wizard.  They can have effective spells but few slots, or ineffective spells and many slots.  The power of the spellcaster is tied inextricably with the structure of saving throws.

So, summary: in TSR/Basic-derived games (caveats because I don't feel like digging around in my backups for OSRIC...), saving throw success rates get strictly better over levels.  This is exactly the opposite from the way saves work in WotC games.  What's more, the TSR save system is dead-simple outside of its save categories, requiring no math.  It's very straightforward to analyze, and its consequences fall out naturally.  Convenient!

The downside, of course, is that since saves are "you're dead to rights", at low levels, your saves really, really suck.  About as badly as save suck at high levels in 3.x, really.  When the entire party gets poisoned in an OSR game at low levels, you probably have one or two survivors, much like a banshee in high-level 3.5.  Further, all of your saves suck at low levels.

I think there's a happy middle ground to be had between the TSR and the WotC Ways of Saving, though. It plays nicely with the Hero's Journey, too.

Consider the archetypical farmboy with a sword.  He might be inured to bodily distress from years of hard labor, and honest, pious, and pure of mind as befits his status as 'salt of the earth', but he's not quick on his feet or courtly-mannered (I can only assume that Cha saves are for extricating yourself from social situations), nor will he best the Sphinx in riddles or perform feats of great strength.  But over the course of his journeys, he will become able of these things, and by the time he achieves full hero status, he is resistant to many things which would've spelled his end as a callow youth.

And so, convergent saving throws.  You get a set of good saves; maybe they're from your class, but even better would be from your background.  These saves start out high and grow slowly (say +6 +1 per three levels, on a 3.x scale) while the rest of your saves start out low but grow more quickly (+2+1 per two levels, again on a 3.x scale), meeting your good saves at or near the level cap.

Consequences: low-level characters are flawed and vulnerable, but not absolutely-godawful-dies-to-anything vulnerable like they were in TSR.  High level characters are invulnerablish like they were in TSR D&D.  They are also more resistant to effects whose DCs grow at the same rate than they were at low levels; they fail to degenerate, except possibly in their strong saves, but that's acceptable, because those start really strong.  Spellcasters are forced to diversify their role in combat at high levels and rely on finger of death and similar single-target save spells for dramatic effect, taking out soft targets quietly, or as desperate gambles.

To return to Trailblazer's problems with the save structure: action points are a dirty post-hoc patch rather than a systemic solution.  If saves aren't growing at rates sufficient for them to remain effective at high levels, change the base save growth rate.  If saves are diverging and causing people to keel over dead whenever they get hit in a soft save, fix the cause of the divergence.  Hell, give bad saves such a high growth rate that they pass good saves, on the assumption that good saves will tend to be backed by good stats.  I dunno man.  Write new laws on new tablets.

...  quoting Nietzsche is probably a good sign that I should sleep.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Post-Interlude: More Board Games

Today, more board games were played!  It was a shorter day today, though, because we all have to work tomorrow.

Sentinels: This game went on for a long time because we did not have a way to dispose of our enemy's permanent effects on the field.  If we had, I expect we'd've won.  The game itself seemed perfectly reasonable; just some bad choices in character selection.

Race for the Galaxy: I'd been meaning to try this one for a while, and I was not disappointed.  Had a number of novelty commerce developments going and gave a decent account of myself, but was hindered by failure to utilize the x2 score option for Consume.  Oh well, learned, will probably play again.

Coup: I listened to the rules and went "This does not sound like a game I would enjoy."  I am not a great liar / do not enjoy lying like this.  Instead went and played...

Hanabi: Which was billed as "the opposite of a lying game."  I had heard about this one before, and was interested by the concept.  The implementation delivered a very pleasant cooperative game of deduction and limited information.  We played two games to completion with decent scores, and called one game in the middle when we discarded both twos or threes (I forget) of one color for information tokens.

So that was my weekend...  and I do not regret a moment of it (except maybe the moments spent on Diamonds).

Interlude: Board Gaming

A good friend from college was/is holding a board gaming event this weekend, ytand was so kind as to invite me!  So a substantial portion of yesterday was spent playing new games.  The following are not exactly reviews and not exactly after-action-reports.

King of Tokyo: Fast and fairly straightforward; timing is the interesting part here I think.

Colosseum: Specialized in lions, which nobody else wanted, and then pulled the emperor and consuls into my final and largest show.  Even with all that, won
narrowly by stealing the soldier specialization in the last trading phase; thanks Emily!  I had fun even though I was behind most of the game.

Flashpoint: This game was like the last (and best) ten minute of every game of Dwarf Fortress, where everything's on fire and you're trying to save your legendary cheesemaker not because it really matters but because it's fun.  But with friends!  A+ would die in a collapsing burning house again.

Diamonds: A trick-taking game with lots of little fiddly bits and weird stuff going on.  Not really a fan of trick-taking games to start with, and the additions didn't do anything for me.  Meh.

Seven Wonders: Had never played before, while some members of group had logged over one hundred games.  Still, got set up with a simple wonder and Queen Tomyris (who reflects military defeats), and just sort of built a pile of resources and score-buildings.  Ended up in the middle of the pack score-wise, though I did have an advisor.  Was fun, though not a very sociable game as we played it; maybe I was just too busy to talk.

Sentinel Tactics: Mistakes were made.  My first instinct is to say that we made the classical mistake we make every time we teach a new wargame - give each new player a very small force.  As a consequence, when that force gets shat on, people are bored and/or frustrated and have no other units to command.  Yes, units come back up at end of turn in this particular game, but the frustration remains (unaided by the fact that I for one was very hungry by this point in the evening).  I suspect that the game was designed primarily for 1v1 rather than one hero per player.  Likewise, dividing a force between more players tends to reduce the ability of the units on the field to operate in concert, which grants more experienced players with more units under their individual command an even larger advantage than playing against a single inexperienced opponent might.  Unfortunately, our one experienced player seemed substantially more interested in winning than teaching, and dealt more damage on turn two alone than we dealt during the entire game.  Finally, I suspect that we were not exactly running balanced forces.  All three members of Team Evil had three actions per turn and some very nasty abilities, while all three members of Team Good had two actions per round and some decent but rather less spectacular abilities.  I suspect three good vs two evil might've been a better matchup, but maybe we were just bad.  In any case, not necessarily a poorly-designed system, but a less-than-stellar playthrough.

Arabian Nights: I did not expect this one to be fun, and by all rights it shouldn't've been, but it was.  It is a sort of storytelling game, with an enormous book full of pick-your-own-adventure tables.  Our hapless heroes wandered around the Arab world suffering mainly misadventures.  I got some pretty bad randomness, and at one point was Insane, Accursed, Ensorcelled, and Wounded all at once, which left me with little-to-no control over my actions and without the benefit of most of my skills.  As a result, Ali Baba spent most of the game wandering around the interior of Africa in a daze instead of sailing to Madagascar, there to fight a monster, as was his quest.  When I finally did make it to Madagascar, I was sucked back to Africa by a whirlpool before I could fight the monster, and when I made it back to Madagascar again I was imprisoned for fighting some dervishes (and then we called the game for the evening, since two of the other players had basically 'won' by this point).  I suspect that my skill selection was lousy; I don't think I ever heard a Quick Thinking test called, I only recall Weapon Use caming up twice (and one of those was the dervishes, where I still basically lost), and Stealth and Stealing came up a few times but not for me.  I suspect Seafaring, Wilderness Lore, Wisdom, Piety, Appearance, or Courtly Graces would've seen me in better stead, but by Allah I was out to kill that monster and had no way of knowing beforehand that my skill choices were not great for anything else.  And yet, for all that, the game was still fairly entertaining.  I suspect it would work better with three players than five, in part because other peoples' late-game turns started to get pretty long sometimes, but it wasn't bad.

Saving Throws - Divergence

I spoke the other day about 5e, and criticized their saving throw structure.  I am not sure I did a good job in that post, so I will attempt to make my position clearer here, as well as to provide some alternatives.  A lot of this is derived from Trailblazer's analysis of 3.5's saving throw structure, so I may drop into their parlance on occasion.

When I speak of saving throws diverging, what I mean is this: we divide saving throw categories into two classes, proficient ('good saves' in 3.x) and non-proficient ('bad saves' in 3.x).  Each has a starting value and a rate of increase; in 3.x, your good saves started at +2 and gained another +1 per two levels of experience, while your bad saves started at +0 and gained +1 per three levels of experience.  Despite increasing reliably, over the course of many levels your bad saves got weaker compared to your good saves and the save DCs you were up against, since save DCs also grew at about one point per two levels.  The gap between your good saves and your bad saves goes from +2 at 1st to +6 at 20th, while spell save DCs also rose from 11 or so (we're disregarding ability scores here; more on that in a moment) to 19, an increase of eight points.  Your good save odds have gone from 60% (9+) to 70% (7+ with your good saves), but bad saves've dropped from 50% (11+) to 40% (13+).  That's not so bad, thought, right?

Well, when save-or-die is in the mix, it sort of is.  And there are more aggravating factors too.  Ability scores don't stay constant, and tend to diverge as well.  Our hypothetical spellcasting adversary has, since first level, probably acquired +6 points of enhancement bonus, +2-4 points of increases from levelling, and possibly a few points of inherent bonuses from Wish or Tomes of Whatever.  Let's be conservative here and assume we're still fighting without magic items; let's call it +4 points of self-buffed enhancement bonus and another two points from levelling, for +3 points of DC.  Your good saves are typically correlated with your class' strong ability scores; as a result, you might've kept up with him there if you were a cleric or a rogue.  But your bad saves are typically tied to your off-stats, which you likely did not invest resources in bringing up over the levels.  So now you're looking at something like 16+, or 25% success rate, on your bad saves.

If your class happens to have two bad saves, you're even worse off - even if you do want to invest in ability score increases to try to close the gap, you have to split your resources between two scores while the enemy only needs to increase one stat to attack both of your weak points.  Meanwhile, the Adversary's spell selection has only expanded, and he now has more options to target your off-saves than he did at 1st level.

The final straw is the rate of monster HD growth in 3.x.  How many HD does a CR20 dragon have?  Ranges from 28 for red up into the low 30s for most colors.  And since supernatural and extraordinary ability save DCs grow at half HD, they're at +5 points of save DC above our friend the Adversarial Wizard.  You're not making that breath weapon save, pal, especially since it's based off of Con, which on big dragons tends to be in the high 20s.  Hell, even if you've naked-capped dex (18 natural +2 racial +4 inherent +4 cat's grace = 28, for a +9 modifier) and have reflex as a good save (+12), you're still probably not making the save (DC36 for a great white wyrm, so 15+ for you)...  without magic gear.

This is where Trailblazer's work left off, with the conclusion that against high level foes, your odds with good saves were bad and your odds with bad saves were impossible in the absence of cloaks of resistance and save-ability-score boosters out the ass.  Their proposed solution was action points.  I happen to think that's a lousy, duct-tape-and-band-aids solution, but more on that next post.  Ultimately I think their conclusions are sound - having different growth rates between save types is a dangerous position to be in.  Even if your good saves grow as quickly as save DCs do, there's still a very real risk that your bad saves will fall (relatively) to the point where they're no defense at all, as your opponents will tend to specialize in support of their offense.

Anecdote: I once saw two-thirds of a 20th level party in 3.0 die outright to a banshee during the first round of combat.  Saves at high levels are both serious business and very easy to fail.

To return to 5e, several of these conditions are met, if not as strongly as in 3.x.  Proficient saves keep pace with save DC growth, at one point per four levels, while non-proficient saves do not grow at all.  We start at 10+ with non-proficient saves at 1st level, and gradually fall to 14+.  Fortunately, our opponent can only increase his casting stat to 20; I expect that will give us an extra point or two of DC over 20 levels.  Meanwhile, we got some ability score increases over the levels, and subject to the same cap on our main stats, might've spread them out to cover our off-saves.  Unfortunately, we have more bad saves than we used to; I don't know if anything calls for a Charisma save yet, but if it does, the Adversary will find it.  Defending four off-saves with only six ability score increases, some of which we're going to want to put towards our main stats, is not a great place to be, especially given that something's going to be an off-stat in addition to an off-save.  That 10 from the elite array is coming back to haunt you, while your opponent is gunning for it with a 20 Int.  Let's say you boosted it to a 12, and he started with a 16 and boosted to a 20...  In any case, now you're looking at an 18+ to save with that stat, up from 13+ at 1st with ability scores taken into account, and you're going to have a bad day against a wizard who 1) is prepared to target any stat (not happening at low levels, and since I don't have access to the full spell list I cannot assert that this will be possible for any given spellcaster in Core - when the supplements start dropping, though, all bets are off), and 2) has the ability to perceive that you are weak in that stat.

Even if they can't do that, your basic odds of making a non-proficient save are worse at 20th than they were at 1st, barring buffs or magic items or other trickery, and the stakes have (again) only gotten higher.  Save-or-die may be off the table, but Dominate and Petrification and Disintegration are still around, and those can ruin your day.

Let us consider the monsters.  The good news is that monster base ability DC grows with CR, which hopefully grows at about the same rate as your level, so you're not at as big a disadvantage as you might've been in 3.x.  Unfortunately, monsters don't have the ability score caps you do, which means that they can still crank their save DCs up high enough that you are very unlikely to pass with a non-proficient save.  Even though I don't have the whole monsters section, I feel fairly confident in asserting that monster ability scores will tend to rise with CR and level, and that (for example) dragonbreath will utterly outpace any attempts you might make at boosting your Dex save if it's not one you're proficient in.  DCs for the sort of effects you really, really want to avoid will go up, your bonus won't change, and ultimately your ability to save against these effects will decline with level, producing high-level characters who are more likely to fail saves and suffer the full effects of spells and abilities from 'level-appropriate' opponents than they were at 1st level.

Will it be game-breaking?  Will the action-point-like Inspiration mechanic save the day?  Will high-level 5e characters just have so many HP and healing resources that they don't care about failing saves?  Will rings of protection rain from the sky, and everyone decide that they only really need two other attunement slots?  Remains to be seen.  Answer unclear, try again later.  Go play the game yourself in the upper-teen levels, and let me know how it goes.  But know that the risk is there with 5e saves as they are structured now - as a flattened mirror of 3.x's save structure.

(Even better is that since spell save DC scales with proficiency bonus rather than spell level, a 20th level fighter is more likely to fail his save against charm person cast by a 20th level wizard than he was when he and the wizard were both 1st level.  Do not dismiss the utility of low-level off-stat save-or-sucks)

Forecast for next post: substantially less doom and gloom, an alternate paradigm, and a modest proposal.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Further Thoughts on 5e

A summary of the interesting bits of the DM material released for free by WotC.
  • Monster types are pretty standard.  Hit die type (d4, d6, ...) is based off of critter size instead of type, though.
  • Monsters proficiency bonus grows with CR rather than HD, at a rate mirroring the PCs' proficiency bonuses.  Most monsters appear to have no proficient saves, but do add proficiency to to-hit and special ability save DCs (which are 8+prof+an appropriate ability score bonus).
  • Hit dice are decoupled from pretty much everything but hit points.
  • XP by CR grows with a weird progression that I haven't regressed yet.  Looks like a low-quadratic when graphed, though.
  • 4e-style recharge via die-roll is in, 3.x style "1d4+1 rounds to next breath weapon" is out.
  • The sample Big Bad, an adult red dragon, is interesting for a number of reasons.
    • AC 19.  That's right, within reach of magically-unenhanced human plate+shield fighters.  I retract my allegations of natural-armor accumulation.  Also, +14 to hit, which means that your AC is probably mostly irrelevant unless tankin' it up is your specialty.
    • CR17, 19 HD, more than half of its 256 HP (~73d6 damage dice, in expectation given all saves failed) are from Con bonus.
    • Gets a bunch of actions per round, but has to spread them out throughout the round at the end of other combatants' turns.  Basically it's a solo build.  Amusingly, this also means that in a dragon vs dragon fight, neither can operate at full capability per round, and as party size falls the dragon's actions per round fall with it.  Seems a little dissociated to me.
    • Damages are given as averages; I guess they're trying to discourage rolling damage?  Melee damage is in the 15-30 range, breath weapon is 63 with a DC21 Dex save for half.  Incidentally, that means that if you have no dex bonus and are not proficient in dex saves, your chance to pass is el zilcho.  More on the availability of defensive magic items later.
    • You get another save against dragonfear every round if you failed the first time, to shake it off.  Kinda nice.
    • "The odor of sulfur and pumice surrounds a red dragon,"...  what does pumice smell like?  It's a rock.
    • Anyway, that was probably the most interesting thing in terms of calibrating high-level expectations.
  • Most of the other monsters are fairly uninteresting.  A few noteworthy trends emerge, though:
    • HP seem higher than in 3.x for humanoids.  Like twice as high.  Orcs, hobgoblins, and even kobolds get two hit dice.  Ogres get seven, medusae get seventeen.
    • ACs are pretty much all in the 10-20 range; the next highest I saw after the adult red were the young green dragon (CR8), hobgoblin (CR1/2), and knight (CR3), all with 18.  ACs are not particularly tightly coupled to CR; most beasts have AC12-13 from their hides, most humanoids and giants are in the 13-15 range due to armor, elementals and abberations have high variance, and dragons are hard to hit.
    • Interesting fact about CR: the bar for CR X is "A well-rested party of level X should probably not suffer a casualty in a fight with a creature of CR X."
    • HP by CR is sort of noisy, but reasonably reliable for the CRs where we have numerous samples (CR3s and CR5s).  To-hit and sum of damage from all attacks are also surprisingly reliable within CR classes, with some exceptions like elementals and outsiders who have a lot of non-physical stuff going on.  I think someone might've done some math here.
    • Lycanthropy is contagious with a simple bite; no necessity of dropping to 0HP or crits or anything.  (sorry, that one wasn't really a trend)
    • Weasels can't drain blood. (nor was that)
    • Energy drain reduces your max HP rather than draining levels or aging you or stuff.
    • Most poisons won't kill you - if dropped below 0 by poison damage, most of them will stabilize+paralyze+poison (disadvantage to many rolls) you.
    • Unaligned is distinct from true neutral.
    • Some 4e-style monster abilities, like giant hyenas and gnolls can both make one final move+attack when dropped to 0.  OK.
  • NPCs
    • Also mostly have no good saves.
    • Some of them get two attacks, even though they don't have the HD or good saves of a 5th level fighter.  Inconsistent :\
  • Building Combat Encounters
    • XP budget by intended encounter difficulty; big table of 'encounter difficulty XP per character.'
    • BUT they take into account the action economy, by granting a multiplier to effective XP (for encounter-building purposes) as a function of number of monsters deployed.  Well done!  Similar multipliers also available for parties >5 or <3 PCs.
    • Basically says to ignore CR for purposes of encounter-building, except to be careful with things of CR > party level.
    • XP Per Adventuring Day Per Character table.  Oooh I'm excited about this one.  Though days to level range from 1 to 2.33 (in no apparent patten by level), it takes an average of 1.75 'standard' adventuring days worth of XP to reach the next level, for a total time from 1st to 20th of (drumroll...) 33.36 adventuring days, ladies and gentlemen.  Hooooly god that's terrifying and worse than in 3.x, where it was 3.25 'standard' days to level.
      • Fortunately, DMs everywhere will continue to ignore the XP rules like they've done since 2e, and players will go along with it because updating one more number on their character sheet once per session is 'too much paperwork'.
  • Magic items
    • Permabuff magic items largely require 'attunement', which you get by spending a short rest stroking them lovingly, and maintain by keeping them on your person.  Soliloquies about them are optional.  Max of three attuned items per character.  Magic weapons and armor appear to be exempt, but ability score boosters, rings of protection, boots of springing and striding, and so forth all require it.
    • Ability score boosters appear to raise the relevant stat straight to 19.  Since 20 is human max, an ability score booster can make you a solid contender but 'natural' characters can achieve higher scores than 'juicers'.
    • Items have rarity ratings, from uncommon to very rare.  Curiously, potions tend to be very rare, while ability score boosters are merely uncommon.  Are fewer potions available in the world because they get consumed, while the total supply of Gauntlets of Ogre Power grows slowly but monotonically?
    • Ring of Protection is +1 to AC and saves, rare, and requires attunement.  Remains to be seen how rare rare really is, but covering your off-saves with magic might not be really viable.
    • Wands operate inconsistently, but the interesting one here has seven charges, recharges at 1d6+1 per day, and has a 1 in 20 chance of crumbling to dust every time it hits 0.
  • Aaand that's all they wrote.
I don't know that I have any really hard conclusions.  I'm still somewhat concerned about off-save scaling if PCs are to go up against casters, since proficient and non-proficient saves to diverge (there's another post to be made of this).  It also seems like the main growth areas are damage and HP, with AC and to-hit remaining relatively flat.  I think I'm OK with this.  HP pools are really really big, though!  Adult red dragon here has 256 HP; adult red dragon in ACKS averages 45 HP.  Their ACs work out to mean pretty similar things when you take proficiency stuff into effect, but I don't know that damage in 5e is 5-6 times as available as in ACKS.  Slower combat might be foreseen.

Strong points: Spellcasting system, iterative attacks fixed, gear packs, counterspell.  Substantially less complicated than Pathfinder or other late-3.x games, but closer to 3.x than 4e from my point of view, with a flatter, OSR-ier to-hit and AC progression.  Unobtrusive skill system.

Weak points: Saves still diverge over levels.  Reduction of misc numerical and class bonuses means that having high ability scores is more important than ever, and also that die randomness will always be a factor.  Still substantially fiddlier than OSR games in terms of character and monster special abilities and such.  Leveling rate looks pretty whacked.  Enormous piles of HP abound; it seems the primary effective defense is ablative.

In sum: No, I probably am not going to go buy the books, unless WotC will sell them to me as pdfs for...  probably no more than about $20 per pdf, tops.  I would play this over Pathfinder, late 3.5, or AD&D without hesitation - they've made a credible attempt to simplify, and haven't yet hit the supplement bloat phase of the game's lifecycle.  I would probably play it preferentially over Trailblazer or Core 3.5 for novelty value.  I do not think I would play it long-term preferentially over a game of the TSR Basic lineage unless I was quite unable to find a group otherwise.

And it goes without saying that it looks like more fun to me than 4e d:

5e Pseudo-Review

I guess it's sort of a first impressions, really, from the free version WotC so kindly released in pdf.  Get 'em here, draw your own conclusions.

I've held off on looking at 5e much during the run-up; no sense getting up in arms about something that might get changed, and likewise little point in finding a feature you really like that is just going to get cut.  So I'm coming at this pretty fresh and reasonably* unbiased (modulo the conservative bias of "I have a game that I think I like and this is liable to pull players who would otherwise consider my system of choice").

Not going to have a lot of structure here, I think.  Let the bullets begin.
  • Races: The overwhelming (and underwhelming) first impression is that they looked pretty 3.x/Pathfinder standard.  No negative ability mods, humans get small bonuses to all stats but no special stuff (inverse of 3.x).  No favored class rules present.  Most races get two variants (hill vs mountain dwarf, for example) right in Core.  Sort of fiddly for my tastes, but most things are.
  • Ability scores are 4d6 drop-one and order as you please.  I was a little confused to see 'choose class' before 'roll stats'.  I've been out of it a while I guess.
  • Classes is where things start to get interesting.
    • BaB, base save, skill points, and spellcaster save DCs are all rolled into one number, 'proficiency bonus', which grows really, really slowly (+2 at 1st, +6 at 20th) and is uniform for all classes.  For weapons and skills (and I guess gear and languages, since lockpicks are a thing you can have a proficiency in), you only get the bonus with stuff you're trained with.  One interesting implication of this is that disregarding strength, magic weapons, and special powers, an nth-level figher's to-hit with a longsword is the same as an nth-level wizard's to-hit with a quarterstaff.  They've solved divergence, which means that playing at super-high levels is now somewhat more mathematically viable (at least in that the rogue will still be able to hit things; dunno about wizard-vs-fighter).  Damage and HP scale up at approximately 3.x rates (more on that later), while to-hit and AC barely seem to grow.  Buuuut...
    • The downside of putting everyone on the same numerical footing is that you have to hand out class features like candy.  There are no dead levels.  The problem with class features is that they fall into two categories: minor numerical bonuses (don't seem to be the case here; also, boring) and exceptions to rules.  The problem with exceptions to rules is that they're hard to remember and keep track of, especially when you're getting them pretty frequently.
    • Upon further examination, though, it looks like a lot of otherwise-dead levels were filled with Ability Score Boosts, for +2 to one or +1 to two.  The fighter gets seven of these over 20 levels; the rogue, six, and the wizard and cleric, five.  So I guess that's where you can differentiate numerical growth rates a little bit; my understanding is that you can also spend these for feats in the full rules.
    • All the classes get some sort of domain / sorcerer bloodline / school specialization / fighting style / paragon path mechanic, which determines a fair number of your special abilities at mid-to-high levels.  On the one hand, there are fewer choices (good); on the other, each choice is harder to understand individually, because it carries a lot of effects with it. 
    • Spellcasting is an interesting blend of Trailblazer and Expanded Psionic's Handbook.  It's Trailblazer in that arcanists get a set of ready spells per day and a set of slots which may be larger, and can map spells to slots in-play without unreadying them; divine casters get all spells on list readied perpetually.  When it comes to spending spell slots, though, it's morally equivalent to the XPH's Augment system, which means that most spells have a set base effect (say, dice of damage), and if you want your fireball to be boomier, you need to spend a higher-level slot to cast it.  If you want d6/level damage, you need to be burning your highest-level slots.  In terms of shaking up the traditional balance, this was the most exciting thing I saw in the Basic rules.
    • Spells go all the way up to 9th level at the same 'new spell level every odd class level' progression 3.x used.
    • The XP-to-level progression is really interesting.  It's definitely sub-exponential but bigger than quadratic.  I haven't gotten a good regression of it yet, and my libreoffice install's language is stuck in Dutch for some reason, so...  yeah.
  • By class, this time:
    • Cleric: 
      • d8 HD
      • No longer naturally proficient with heavy armor.  As it should be.
      • Destroy undead runs on CR.  By implication, CR is still around.  Ugh.
      • All domains grant an alternative use for turning.  That's sort of reasonable from a new-school perspective, and certainly if you're planning to compete with PF and 4e, but it contrasts substantially with the OSR approach, where specialization in fighting undead was a OK and an excuse for being awesome at it.  I guess it sort of followed from perceived necessity of cleric; if you're only bringing your cleric on corpse-hunts, the TSR cleric is way better because his turning kicks more ass.  But if you 'have to' have a cleric around all the time, that specialization is a perceived opportunity cost whenever you aren't fighting undead.
      • Divine intervention as a class feature.  Never did get around to writing those piety rules I was going to do.
      • Sample domain is the full-plate healbot; they get heavy armor as a bonus proficiency, increased yield on healing spells, maximized healing spells at high level, and a few other things.  *sigh*
    • Fighter:
      • d10 HD
      • Get a fighting style at 1st, which is about on par with Fighting Style in ACKS.
      • Some self-healing, take-an-extra-action, and reroll-a-save abilities with limited uses per rest.
      • Get an extra attack per Attack action at 5th, three at 11th, and four at 20th.  These don't appear to be at any penalty, and don't restrict your mobility.  Much, much better than iteratives from 3.x.
      • Also get an Archetype as their domain-equivalent; the sample gets some Improved Crit stuff, bonus to physical-stat-based skills, and at 18th level self-regeneration up to half health.
      • I've seen worse fighter implementations, even if the archetype stuff leaves me cold.
    • Rogue:
      • d8 HD
      • Gets four skills, while everyone else gets two
      • Some skill-focus type stuff
      • Sneak Attack is pretty much like 3.x, except that the target just needs to be engaged by an ally instead of flanked (no assumption of grid) and possibly weaker since you never get iterative attacks.  On the plus side, that means ranged rogue might be viable again.  No range limit for Sneak is mentioned either.
      • Get a thing that lets them take an extra action per round as long as that action is to run or hide.  Burning actions to do this has always been annoying for combat rogues.  Nice touch, sounds like fun.
      • Uncanny Dodge, Evasion, Blindsense, Slippery Mind, and other 'soft-defense' abilities abound at mid-high levels.
      • Sample thief archetype gets more skill-focus stuff, Use Magic Device, double action on first round of combat at high levels.
      • Overall, some interesting changes.
    • Wizard
      • d6 HD
      • See spellcasting, above, with the further note that number of spells you can ready is only wizard level + Int bonus.  Grows about as slowly as slots per day, actually - 22 slots at 20th level, 2 slots at 1st.  Slot growth is front-loaded but much slower at higher levels than in 3.x.  Huh.  Also true of Cleric.
      • Still learn two spells of player's choice on level-up, though.
      • Save DC is 8+prof bonus+int bonus; spell level doesn't figure into it.  OK...  so your low-level spell save DCs are always just as good as your top-level spell save DCs.  Hmm...
      • Sample specialization is evocation.  Faster learning time for evoc spells, sculpt holes in area damage, penetrate elemental resistance (with your at-will cantrips...  alright), Warmage Edge by another name, ability to maximize damage at expense of damage to self.
  • Backgrounds and traits and such:
    • Alignment is the 3x3 {C,N,L}x{E,N,G} again.  Blagh.
    • Inspiration = Willpower / Conviction points / Action points earned by playing character flaws.  But it's boolean / a status if I'm reading it right; you earn it, and then you can't earn it again until you've spent it.  Different; not sure if better.
    • Backgrounds grant two skills and two language or tool proficiencies, a little gear, and basically a 'network' / Shadowrun etiquette.  One set of people who know you and are trustworthy.
  • Gear
    • Economy is predictably amusing; my favorite thing is that skilled craftsmen earn 1GP per day, but are said to live at the Comfortable standard of living, which costs 2GP per day.  Do they all have secret investments with remarkable return?  Do all skilled craftsmen own houses, and therefore avoid rent?  If so, can adventurers buy houses?  Are all skilled craftsmen up to their ears in debt?  Very American.  These are the questions that I lose sleep over, just for you, dear reader.
    • Looking past that, though, there are some OK things.  The armor table is much-simplified from 3.x; Dex modifier is all-or-nothing, armor check penalty is all-or-nothing, some heavy armor requires Str score of 13 or 15 to wear comfortably.
    • Exotic weapons are gone.  Huzzah!  One-handed is default, with traits (Versatile, Light, Heavy, Finesse, Two-Handed, ...), damage, and damage type varying.  Sword weights are vaguely-reasonable.
    • Gear list is full of fun things like Ball Bearings and Shovel.  Also Potion of Healing and Basic Poison; I guess those are widely available here?
    • Oil is much less effective at burning things than in ACKS.
    • They have not one, but a bunch of quick equipment packs.  I approve of these wholeheartedly.  Their starting gear selection for each class is likewise "choose one of these two weapons, one of these two armors, one of these two backup weapons, one of these two gearpacks."  More options than ACKS templates without the overwhelming deluge of gear in the equipment chapter.  May steal.
    • Less approving: they're quietly advertising their Three Dragon Ante game in the equipment section.  What's the world coming to?
    • Mules are available at very reasonable prices, as are non-adventuring hirelings.  No henchmen, though :(
    • Lifestyle costs are a thing.  Let's see how many people actually use them (this time for sure, guys!...  right).
  • Customization options
    • Multiclassing is in, but not in Basic.
    • Likewise feats.
    • Well that was an easy chapter.
  • Using ability scores
    • Same ability score modifier distribution as 3.x; +0 at 10-11, increments of +1 per two points on either side.
    • They really failed to deliver on the potential for multiple dice per roll with advantage / disadvantage, and in some places are inconsistent with modifiers vs advantage (cover, for example, provides an AC modifier rather than disadvantage).  Would be much more interesting mathematically to sum all levels of advantage, subtract all levels of disadvantage, roll absolute value of that in dice, and then take best/worst depending on whether negative or positive.
      • Actually, something like this might make an interesting ACKS houserule...  I say this because the increments of +4 per bonus-source used in ACKS are mathematically fairly similar to rolling an extra die and taking the best.  But it could be generalized.
    • Skill list is much, much reduced.  Good.
    • Passive perception is, amusingly, equivalent to taking 10.  You'd think that if someone were actively searching / listening / whatever, that they'd do better on average than when they weren't paying attention...
    • Saves are based on ability scores, and each class adds proficiency to two (at least in Basic).  So your non-proficient saves never grow, and you end up with a total of six points of disparity between your 'good' and 'bad' saves, just as it was in 3.x.  Spell save DCs grow at the same rate as good saves; assuming ability score parity with the caster and no other modifiers, you should have a 65% chance of success on a good save across all levels.  On the other hand, success with a poor save starts at 55% and falls to 35% by 20th level (again assuming ability score parity, which is unlikely when pitting an off stat against a main casting stat).
      • Barring magic items, much-same is true for melee attack throws, though - the wizard is stuck with a non-improving AC 10+dex, while the fighters can gradually work up to 21 in plate+shield+fighting style, and attack throws range from +2 with proficient weapons at 1st level to +13 max at 20th sans magic (6 proficiency, 5 for a 20 Dex, which is the cap, and +2 for fighting style archery) (5% failure against AC10, 35% failure against AC20).  To-hit against well-armored foes starts lower and ends up higher at high levels than caster save-fail rates.
      • I guess the takeaway here is that offense is king in the absence of defensive buffs and magic armor and enormous piles of natural armor on high-level monsters (which I have little doubt will appear), and that I'm not at all sure anymore that they've solved scaling.
  • Adventuring
    • Overland travel times are somewhat reasonable.
    • Marching order is emphasized.
    • Mapping is mentioned, but in no real detail.
    • Short and Long rests, in the 4e idiom.  Everybody has "hit dice" that they can spend to heal themselves while resting.  This is very, very similar to Iron Heroes' reserve points, but with more rolling and less bookkeeping.
    • Very brief rules for spending downtime crafting, working professionally, recovering from disease / poison, doing research, or learning new languages.
  • Combat
    • Initiative is still roll-once-at-start-of-combat :(
    • Can split-move around attacks and other actions.
    • Move and Action every turn; also optional reaction, potential bonus action (conditionally, do an extra thing, typically from a limited set of options.  Ex: rogue's sneaking in combat ability)
    • Pretty standard combat stuff.  Dex bonus to damage from ranged weapons and finesse melee weapons.
    • Crits are roll-damage-twice-and-sum.  No confirm roll.
    • Two weapon fighting is an extra attack with the off-hand at no penalty (well, no Str to damage), but both weapons must be light.  I guess this is how you get your extra sneak attack on a dex-heavy rogue.
    • Grapple is skill checks, and a total of like...  four paragraphs.
    • Damage types use the 4e nomenclature.  Necrotic damage still makes me sad.
    • Instant death at negative max HP in one shot.  Otherwise, you get some saves.  But they're not modified by Con?  What?  Man, they really hate Con in this edition; dwarves only get +1, no skills based off of it, and it won't even save you from bleeding out.
      • Wait a sec, if humans get +1 to everything, +1 Con isn't even really a bonus compared to baseline.  WTF.
  • Magic
    • I went over the highlights of this already up top.
    • Cantrips are at will.  Meh.
    • Rituals also don't use slots, but take 10 minutes to cast.  Some spells are both rituals and not-rituals, so if you cast them with ritual duration they do bigger things.
    • V/S/M components are back.  Augh.
  • Spells
    • Some interesting things here, but I've only skimmed it
    • Would be useful if they'd list the spell lists each spell is on (Cleric or Wizard) in the spell description.
    • A lot of spells use the Augmenty mechanic to give you mass versions for 'free'.  ie, charm person affects one extra target per slot level above first.  All of the explicitly mass spells in the Basic rules are either healing or Suggestion.
    • The damage spells seem to have high starting points and a low growth rates with slot level; cone of cold starts at 8d8 with a 5th level slot (expected damage 36, vs 9d6 in 3.x for 31.5 expected damage), but only gains 1d8 per slot level above 5th.  Fireball opens at 8d6 vs 5d6 previously, but likewise only gains 1d6 per level above 3rd.  Magic missile gives you 3d4+3 at 1st level and 1d4+1 per slot level above 1st.  This is interesting.  It means that a caster running top-level offense can get more bang for his spell slots than a 3.x caster could (all other things being equal, which they're not exactly because the save-DC divergence rate is different but possibly higher actually if you can target a non-proficient save), but at the expense of versatility (since for max damage, you want an offensive spell of each spell level you can cast, which will pin down about half of your spells readied).  On the other hand, you get many fewer slots.  Hard to compare; there's math to be done, but I need to see more monsters first.
    • Healing effectiveness does not appear to have been similarly increased; Cure Wound started at 1d8+casting stat mod, and gains 1d8 per extra level.
    • Counterspell is glorious.  I've been waiting for a proper counterspell for ever.  On the other hand, wizard duels are going to be somewhat less interesting now, since there isn't the readied-action dispel-magic calculus going on (if that was ever actually a thing compared to just hammering the crap out of the other guy before he can cast).
    • Harm is nasty in interesting new ways.  Very much a DM Spell though.
    • No save-or-die except Power Word Kill; everything else is just a really big pile of damage on a failed save.  They also don't scale up.
    • Guardian of Faith is kind of neat.  When is a Wall spell not a Wall spell?
    • Identify's casting time continues to drop, now down to one minute.  Still a 100gp material component, though.
    • Imprisonment got some neat variants.  Very evocative of fiction.
    • Meteor Swarm range is now 1 mile.  Very reasonable.
    • Misty Step (a 2nd-level tactical teleport castable as a bonus (swift) action with only a verbal component) looks pretty solid.  A bit late-3.5 / 4e, but not unreasonable.
    • Cantrips seem a bit stronger; guidance and resistance grant +1d4 rather than +1, ray of frost does 1d8 and reduces target speed, things like that.
    • Shatter is just area damage now :(  2nd level needed it, but this still makes me sad.
    • Revivify - 3rd level tactical raise-from-dead.  Expensive material component, and must have died in the last minute, but wow.  (Also returning from the dead gives you a -4 penalty to like everything that wears off over a couple of weeks.  Simpler than negative levels or losing levels or whatnot, but more severe in the short term.  This is true of all return-from-death except True Res, not just Revivify).
    • Sleep's effectiveness is now measured in HP rather than HD, so it works better if you've roughed 'em up a bit first.  5d8 HP here is competitive with 3.5's 4 HD, but not at all with TSR sleep.  It does scale up OK, though, gaining 2d8 per extra spell level rather than the usual one die.
    • Stoneskin halves bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing for the duration.  Material component cost much reduced.  This is probably reasonable; DR /adamantine was a pain in the ass.
    • Suggestion is now 2nd level.  Huh.
    • Thaumaturgy - like Prestidigitation but not.  OK?
    • Ah, Time Stop.  I'd forgotten about you.
  • Appendix: status effects
    • Exhaustion's a thing, it comes from dehydration, lack of sleep, starvation.  It's not fun and can kill you.
    • Not a whole lot else jumped out at me here, except that a petrified creature maintains its hit points normally as a measure of structural integrity and takes half damage from all sources.
    • It looks like being incapacitated doesn't provide coup de grace capabilities?  Paralyzed and Unconscious mention that any adjacent attacker auto-crits, but incapacitated does not.  Weird.
    • Being poisoned gives disadvantage on some stuff rather than ability score damage.
  • Appendix: Gods of Forgotten Realms
    • Don't care, didn't read.
  • Appendix: Factions
    • WotC is trying to borrow from Paizo's faction mechanics in Pathfinder Society, I see.  Well, some revitalized Living campaigns from WotC might not be the worst thing to ever happen.
  • Character sheet
    • Very minimalist
    • Entire backside of sheet is fuzzy stuff (organizations, features, traits, backstory, place to draw character portrait), except treasure.  A third of the front side is this way, too; I think this might be the first character sheet I've ever seen that gives more space to fluff than crunch.
    • Admittedly, this is Basic, where there's no multiclassing or feats gumming things up.
    • Also there's an extra sheet for spellcasting stuff.
Conclusion: tomorrow after I've slept on it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Notareview: Mongoose Traveller - Cosmopolite

Mongoose has a new career book out, for Citizen and Scholar.  I almost want to buy it to review it, but...  I don't really have any reason to believe it's not going to be Yet Another Mongoose Career Book Full of Filler.

(Aside: it turns out 'cosmopolite' is, in fact, a word on the other side of the pond and not something someone made up.  So it has that going for it, at least)

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Irony of the Superhero RPG

is that they're almost all classless (at least all the ones I've met).  The superhero genre is precisely where a classes+feats+multiclassing model should shine.  Something like True20 or d20 Modern, both of which had very generic classes and special-abilities-from-a-menu every level, would work perfectly with a somewhat doctored (ie, upgraded) selection of feats.  At the end of the day, it mostly boils down to fighting-types (Wolverine, Hulk, Thor, ...) and wizard-types (Doctor Strange, Xavier, Scarlet Witch, ...).  The gear-users (Batman, Iron Man) are mostly actually fighters, while the blasters, speedsters, and one-spell wizards like Nightcrawler are more like a 50/50 split with all of their 'magic' focused into one thing.  I think it could work.

By comparison, yes, Mutants and Masterminds (which is based off of True20) lets you play as basically a normal human with one super-thing they can do really well.  Buuut...  point-buy adds a lot of complexity to character generation and balancing it is practically impossible.  I don't think it's worth it, especially when most superheroes do fall into an archetype or combination of just a few archetypes.

Sunday, August 17, 2014


I've been thinking about grand strategy games recently, and it occurs to me that supply rules are a lot like encumbrance rules, in that they're a pain in the ass but also worthwhile because they convey the same concerns the character experiences up to the player.  A dungeoneer worries about how much weight he's carrying; a general worries about how to keep his men fed.  What's more, as Keegan's History of Warfare suggests, supply concerns dictated the largely-coastal structures of campaigns in the Hellenic era.  Without supply, you get all kinds of crazy long-term unsupported actions in the enemy rear (this is a problem I have observed in, say, the Civilization series of games).

But the difference between supply and encumbrance is that we're reached a reasonablish compromise between complexity and realism in our encumbrance rules, with encumbrance by stone or with Traveller's low-kilos threshold.  I don't know if supply is amenable to simplication...  but until I find a set of rules for it which are really light-weight, I expect that it will remain one of those much-begrudged rules which is ignored by the players whenever I forget about it.

(Been thinking about wargame campaigns again, since I'm back in Collegetown and one of my main wargaming opponents / buddies is still around)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Grumble of Cyberpunks (also Heist Games)

I have been playing Shadowrun Returns (on linux!) recently, and enjoying it for the most part.  There are a few things that stick in my craw, though.

Nothing says "failed op in progress" like traipsing into a highly-secure corporate office without so much as a floorplan.  I like heisty games, where foreknowledge is key.  Most missions in Shadowrun Returns basically require that I go in blind and just shoot the place up with so little concern for opsec that my team is bare-faced and has mohawks up.  I presume that this is to make identification from the security footage easier, and thereby generate more gunfights, which are Fun.

This is a less than satisfying state of affairs.

Also: you got your fantasy in my cyberpunk.  Do not want.  Likewise, their hacking is adorable.  I recognize that it was added as a last-minute feature, and it's a perfect gameplay fit for a turn-based dungeoncrawler, but oooh man it's also terrible.

All this has me in the mood to roll myself a proper cyberpunk rpg.  The basic premise of Shadowrun, that the megacorps need dirty deeds done by deniable assets, is great.  I'm disappointed with the implementation, though.

What's more, heist games tend to not go over so well with my group, which has 1) a fairly limited patience for planning, combined with 2) a collective indecisiveness which tends to generate muddled and incoherent plans even after some time planning.  Halfway through the operation someone will go "wait I thought you were supposed to have done X ten minutes ago."  I have been that someone; I have also been that you.  So running a heist straight, in a perfectly chronological fashion, doesn't work so well for us.

Might be time to take a note from the movies, where things often cut back and forth between the planning and the execution.  Instead of a planning phase, followed by an execution phase, we might have an intelligence-gathering phase, followed by a combined planning/execution phase.  I see this working like so:

In the intelligence phase, the PCs take actions to gather some numerical manner of 'Intel Point'.  Actions which earn intel points include getting floorplans from the building inspector's bureau, hackin' around the intertubes, talking to hardware suppliers, maintenance contractors, and former employees of the target, dumpster diving, getting an employee drunk and pumping him for information (and a covert scan of the RFID tag in his ID badge), seducing the plant manager's wife, and all that fun stuff.  The more groundwork you do, the more Intel Points you have to spend later when things start to go wrong.  On the flip side, if the target catches wind of your intelligence-gathering efforts, they're liable to tighten security preemptively; put up an extra checkpoint, add metal detectors, double up the watch schedule, change all the passwords, keep a rapid response team in a black van on call, maybe shell out for that cavity-searchbot the chief of security's had his eye on for a while now.  The usual.  If gathering intel goes poorly, the number of surprises you wish you had intel points to preempt will rise.  If intel gathering goes particularly poorly, maybe one of your guys ends up ID'd or caught, and then you're really in trouble...

At some point you have to make the call and go for it; either your intel gets stale and starts to go bad, or you have a deadline from your employer, or the risks of continued intelligence gathering just aren't worth it.  So you formulate a preliminary plan - something like "The face is going in for a job interview under an assumed name.  He will 'get lost' looking for the bathroom, and then open a back door for the muscle and the ninja, who 'borrowed' a plumber's van and some overalls.  The ninja will proceed to the objective while the muscle and face provide distractions or covering fire, and the hacker provides security camera and comm interference from some local university's library wifi and a spoofed MAC address."

And then things start to go wrong, and the players start to spend intel points to alter the plan around these new obstacles if they can't think of a way of dealing with them on the spot.  The rule, though, is that when the obstacle is revealed, you have to choose immediately whether or not to revise the plan before you take any actions to circumvent the obstacle.  If you planned for it, you never met it; permitting actions gets you into an even weirder hypothetical state and basically gives you two shots at each problem.  Intel point costs are based on the relative secrecy of the obstacle; it's not a huge leap of logic and planning to assume that a secretive installation might have guard dogs and to plan accordingly, but it is probably harder to find out beforehand that the thing in the top-secret lab is actually an angry tankbot, and then even more difficult to smuggle antitank weapons into the facility.

I dunno.  It'd be an interesting experiment with a flavor of party-shared associative action point, and perhaps a solution to our heist-game woes.

If I were to really build such a game, I think I'd want to do it on a Traveller chassis, maybe with a slightly wider die spread (2d8 or 2d10, with 10+ and 12+ for success respectively) so that modifiers could be a little more granular and so a +4 modifier isn't as game-breakingly good.  But Mongoose Trav is about the right grade of complexity, and a lifepath-type character generation system would be perfect for cyberpunk.  Everyone's down and out, but not necessarily for the same reasons.  Likewise, Traveller has good support for dangerous performance-enhancing drugs, the law level mechanics would certainly be hands, their cybernetics book was reasonable, and there is no prior expectation of elves and mages.  Hacking would need some work, but it always does.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Open vs Living Worlds

Or, my sandbox games have not been all that they could have been.

In considering them and Alex's sandbox Traveller game, I came to the conclusion that I had made a choice without realizing it.  I had been running an open world in the Morrowind style - things mostly static except where the PCs acted and set off chains of events.  The advantage of this idiom is that the blame for everything almost always falls back on the PCs.  This is good, because it places the focus on the consequences of the actions of the PCs; player agency is emphasized.  It is eminently suited to classically tragic play; mistakes born in hubris come back and lay the mighty low.  Finally, this style works well for post-apocalypses where things have stabilized and everyone is afraid to leave their homes, or for wildernesses where a ecological equilibrium can be assumed.

It is, however, no less fundamentally exceptionalist than the 1st-to-20th adventure path railroad.  The PCs are necessarily unlike NPCs, in that they are (the only) causal agents in the world.  What's more, this makes for a pretty lousy simulation of settings where NPCs have any degree of power, as well as settings where the world is undergoing substantial changes.  But I am a lazy DM, and like to roll with material my players give me.

The pure-open world also has the disadvantage of leaving the PCs sans hooks or direction unless provided by themselves.  Reacting to external threats is easy; picking from the infinite menu is difficult.  Threat also unifies, while selection divides parties.

If I were to run more games, I think I would desire more world-engines; systems which drive the world in patterns, assist me with adjudication, and remind me that the Mongols are due to invade this winter.  One of the places ACKS shows great promise is in the noble court; we know how many vassals and henchmen everyone has, and those henchmen's henchmen, and so on down the chain. This cast of underlings could be a rich source for plotting, conspiracy, roleplaying, and other such shenanigans.  Part of the fun of the low-level ACKS game was the treachery; the competition for the allegiance of henchmen, the bribery and charm personing, and the never-quite-actual backstabbing were all quite entertaining for me as a DM, and it sounded like the crew I was playing with at the time enjoyed it too.  I suspect that an intriguey game could be fun for even my non-treacherous / Lawful Good players, provided that the party remained unified and plotted against NPCs.  But managing the sort of personality traits and relationships between NPCs that I'd need is at least an O(n^2) task, and beyond my brain - hence the necessity of tools.  Renegade Crowns' personality and relationship material was a good start, but I think I could do better.  VBAM's AIX stats are also moderately inspiring, while Pendragon's virtues might also come pretty close to what I'm looking for if I added a relationship score (persistent modifier to reaction rolls) on top of it.  I dunno; it's a hard problem.  People are complicated.  But if I did it right, it could become an endless font of procedural rumors, plots, allies, and enemies.

Posts potentially in the pipeline:
  • Barbarians are still coming (strongly related to living worlds / part of the impetus for this post)
  • Domains at War - Battles sub-platoon scale?  Six-man mercenary squads in a standard dungeon 10x10 square (er, hex)? 
  • Domains at War - Putting together a sample campaign?  I think I want to set it in Midnight, in a section of the Ice Forests.  The orcs have a line of forts guarding a supply line to the south; the rebels have a set of villages out in the sticks.  The orcs have a stronger supply situation and a larger force, but lack intel and need to balance striking at the enemy with guarding their supply train, while the rebels have better intel but need to feed off of orcish supplies and rely on attrition from small skirmishes in order to survive.
  • The time may have come for me to turn the ACKStools into a webapp.  I think I am going to use Flask; we're using it at work, and might benefit from some extra familiarity with it.  It is not going to be pretty, but it will work.
Mostly I think I am out of patience.  Previous job involved a lot of waiting (months and months).  Now I am burned out on waiting, which is not conducive to complex games.