Thursday, July 16, 2015

Paradox and Conqueror

This is a somewhat roundabout post, but ends with putting the Conqueror back in ACKS.  Bear with me.

I've been playing a lot of Europa Universalis IV recently.  I'm fairly rubbish at it, but I enjoy it nonetheless (and more than its sibling from Paradox Studios, Crusader Kings II, which I've mentioned previously and am even worse at).  These are both essentially domain games; Crusader Kings in particular has commonalities of scale, feudalism, and frequent assassination attempts with ACKS.

One thing I have noticed is that upgrading your lands in EU4 is a slow, expensive process, and even more so in CK2.  I think the only time I had the cash on hand in Crusader Kings to upgrade one of my castles was as a Swedish viking-king who made a habit of multi-year raiding expeditions against the English and Irish coasts, and in EU4 most of the money I've spent on upgrading has come from tribute extracted from nations defeated in war.  Saving cash from the normal budget for a new castle is liable in CK to be a multi-generational affair with years of build time once you've finished gathering the money, while in EU it might take only a decade of prosperous peace and a year of buildtime.

As this suggests, the big money is in warfare.  Even better than temporary extraction of tribute is permanent (or hopefully-permanent) conquest of provinces and vassalization of smaller states.  To use Civilization terminology, playing Tall (a few highly-developed provinces) is much inferior to playing Wide (many poorly-developed provinces).

In Civilization, most of the map is basically empty at the beginning of the game, and at least in the Civ5 games I've played buffer zones between countries are fairly common even into the late game because playing Tall works well - you settle a handful of cities in good positions and then you tech up.  In the Paradox games, almost all the land is somebody's land, even if they're some backwards tribe of Siberian nomads - if you want to expand (and you do, because building up is extremely expensive), you must conquer.  Conquest notably does not typically entail the extermination of the inhabitants of the land; merely their subjugation, taxation, and drafting for future wars.  In that ten years of time it would've taken you to fund and build a new castle, you could instead take two of your neighbor's castles, and those come with land and serfs and tribute!  Sure, they might rebel later, but that's what you've got a garrison for, right?

To get to the point, finally - when I ran the early domain game in ACKS, it was played in the Colonization rather than Conquest mode.  The natives of the hexes to be annexed were put to the sword rather than swearing oaths of fealty, and then human settlers were imported.  This was a slow and expensive process.  Granted, the natives were beastmen and had no castles, but even beastmen are likely to prefer paying tribute and tolerating the presence of human farmers to extermination.  I guess this might be another case of failing to play as Resource Extractors - we never really asked "can we get taxes and troops from your land without actually killing you?"

Notable exceptions to the Extermination Protocol occurred when faced with human natives, in three cases.  Two were bands of nomad horsemen, who feared the party because many of their resurrected members made the horses nervous, and so fled their lands.  The last was a band of berserksers, whose chieftain the party's top fighter maimed in single combat and subsequently took as a henchman.  I'm not sure what became of his men but I presume that some use was found for them.  Yet another reason I am not keen on beastmen for future use - they make aggression a very easy choice, and diplomacy an unattractive one.

Subjugating tribal / organized occupants of lands-to-be-conquered also sets up a known faction for later reuse.  A small war between the subject tribes and tribes on the other side of the border might become the overlord's problem (since the tribes from the next valley over see the settlers as valid targets) or an opportunity (great justification for more subjugation).  Wars between multiple subject tribes might threaten the realm's stability if they escalate, or conveniently weaken the tribes so that they can be integrated more readily.  A coalition of subjugated tribes might rebel if they can overcome their differences (and a rival tribal coalition might offer to assist in suppressing the rebellion).  None of this tribal warfare fits into the Monolithic State model we moderns are used to, but I expect it would make for a fine source of interesting intra-realm gaming, and one for which my playerbase is much better suited that courtly intrigue.  This sort of "use what the tables give you" approach seems to have some support in the literature, too.  Hell, we could do away with the d10-d10 civilian population growth mechanic entirely and cut down on the paperwork and agricultural investments while we're at it.  Then switch thieves' guilds over to spy networks (you want to know what your tribal vassal leaders are up to, right?) and we're approaching a domain game I'd rather play than ACKS' default.

Also: in future, I'm totally going to try to make sure most mass combats happen at agreed-upon times and places, because resolving them otherwise, in messy circumstances not well-suited to formations, is quite a pain.

Monday, July 13, 2015

VBAM 2e Review

Victory By Any Means, Second Edition, finally came out a bit over a week ago now.  It was originally scheduled for winter of 2009-2010.

There's some good news and some bad news.

The bad news is that it's close enough to 1e that I had trouble finding the places where the core rules definitely differed (admittedly, it's been a while since I looked at 1e).  The things that immediately jumped out at me were:
  • The way Intel Points works has changed a fair bit.
  • Trade fleets now operate in a single system, less work plotting paths and less potential exploitability of convoy escorts.
  • Constructing ships now takes time and there are a limited number of construction slots on shipyards.  Civilian fleets are exempt from construction time and slots (they're just contractors).
  • Colony fleets don't have to pick up census in order to establish a new colony (but get a bonus if they do).
  • I think the Reinforcements Pool in space combat has changed but I'm not really sure?  This is also true of the system morale changes table.
  • Leftover damage changed in space combat, in a way which produces more satisfactory outcomes but also requires a little more bookkeeping.
Those are about the only things in the core rules that I could point to and go "I would bet you money that this changed."  This was not a half-decade and a new major version number's worth of update.  It's entirely possible that I'm missing plenty of small numerical changes to things like tech investment thesholds or phases being slightly reordered or something, but overall it all looks pretty much the same.

(Also, the editing isn't great - there are some sections that are organized poorly, and the phrase "imperial thrown world" drives me mad)

The good news is that you can probably still use most of the Menagerie and the Moderator's Companion material from 1e in 2e.

The actual good news is that there are some new and improved optional rules (though the WMD rules seem to have gone missing), the new unit design system looks pretty good, and there's a lot more advice for moderators on setting starting conditions and generally making the game work.  The provided scenarios have been improved; starting force values are higher (meaning you can skip or reduce the boring buildup phase of the early game) and there are more victory conditions across the board.  The changes to Barbarians at the Gates are particularly well-done.  The new starmaps are really aesthetically pleasing, too.

At the end of the day, though, VBAM2 has failed to escape 1e's "World War II in spaaaace" nature.  Its economics are solidly Industrial Era, its navies are along battleships-and-carriers lines, and the whole game structure is of War for Vast Territorial Conquest (which van Creveld has argued in both Rise and Decline of the State and The Transformation of War to be obsolete in the Age of the Nuke).  Admittedly space changes that dynamic some, but if you're willing to allow ships with stealth and FTL (as these rules do), second-strike capability with nukes or grey goo bombs or whatever is possible and a MAD situation seems likely to follow logically.  Overall it feels rather like a Pacific Theatre island-hopping game with some colonization rules and "FUTURE" stamped in front of it in big red letters.  The 2e draft materials that I recall reading back when bore some promise in this regard - more custom tech, more interesting things like planet destroyers and Homeworld-style nomad fleets, stuff like that.  But as a consequence of sticking close to 1e, 2e has failed in this regard.

It's a pity, too, because computers are generally inadequate for science fiction and fantasy grand strategy games.  Computers handle historical games well because they're tightly scoped with limited possible deviation, but in a scifi/fantasy grand strategy game, breaking the rules is sort of the point.  If I can't build ringworlds and planetary disassemblers and industrial-scale cloning vats and targeted bioweapons...  why bother?  You could write all these things into the rules, but it'd be a bloated mess.  My understanding is that this is sort of what happened to the 2e I was hoping for.  At the end of the day, you have to have plenty of human discretion in the loop to run a game like that; codifying infinite diversity is self-defeating.  But the assumptions in VBAM's core rules, things like "population is a meaningful factor in determining production", make it kinda hard to use as a basis for exploring interesting universes.

In conclusion: It is difficult to compare the work to the author's intent, because that intent clearly changed substantially over the course of development.  Speaking personally, I will probably never play this game.  It is an upgrade from 1e, but not in any of the areas that were keeping us from playing 1e.  It'd be a fine computer game, but there're still too many rules and too much paperwork for any of the potential players I know to be interested in playing it manually, and once you automate it you lose the flexibility to do interesting things (which the system already doesn't support without some elbow grease).

Saturday, July 11, 2015

ACKS Class: Bearsarker

As I mentioned previously, it's theorized that berserkers in Norse society were holy warriors dedicated to animal cults.  Here's the first of three classes in that tradition, with a healthy dose of inspiration from Egil's Saga.  This is the least-divine and most fightery of the three.

I apologize in advance for any puns; I hope you find them bearable.

Prime Requisites: Str, Con
Requirements: None
Hit Dice: 1d6
Maximum Level: 14

Bearsarkers are the fearsome warrior-servants of the Great Bear, renowned across the land for their ferocity and stylish bear's-head hats.  They occupy a dual role in Skanadian society, viewed as both the epitome of masculine virtue and threats to the structural integrity of local drinking establishments and political order.  As a result they spend much of their time outside society; the arrival of a bearsarker in town is a noteworthy event which typically heralds violence.  Some powerful monarchs have been known to maintain a bodyguard of bearsarkers, though this is a messy and expensive proposition.

Bearsarkers are terrifying combatants, though trained in a limited range of weapons and armor.  At first level they hit AC0 on 10+ on a d20, and they advance in attack and saving throws by one point per level.  They also increase their melee damage by +1 at first level, and by an additional point at 3rd level and every three levels thereafter, and may cleave once per round per level of experience.

Bearsarkers have an intuitive grasp of hand-to-hand combat, and may use all melee weapons.  They may fight with a weapon and shield, or with a weapon in two hands.  As they are from societies where metal is precious and plate is unheard of, however, they are not trained in the use of armor heavier than chainmail.

Bearsarkers are servants of the Great Bear, and are often aided by their fellow servants.  They gain a +2 to reaction rolls with bears, soldier-bears, bearmen, owlbears, werebears, and other ursine creatures, and may converse fluently with all such creatures and hire them as henchmen.  If using Domains at War, they may serve as Creature Handler specialists, though only for bears.  If a bearsarker is reincarnated and rolls an Animal result, they may choose to return as a bear; if restored of life and limb and rolling a "body part of another creature" result, that body part is likely from a bear.  Bearsarkers take only half the usual penalty to reaction rolls for having bear arms and other bodyparts.

Bearsarkers spend much time roaming the wilds alone seeking communion with the Great Bear and guarding its shrines in uncivilized places, and so possess keen wilderness senses, granting them +1 to surprise rolls while in the wilderness.

Bearsarkers are notoriously hard to kill, and may roll twice on the mortal wounds table and choose the result.  They also reduce any required bed rest from their injuries by a number of days equal to their class level.

Bearsarker initiation rituals typically involve wrestling a bear, and almost always end with the initiate's head in the bear's mouth.  Only by the mercy of the Great Bear are the chosen spared, and the experience typically leaves them without fear of death, for they know the Bear watches over them.  Bearsarkers are immune to all fear, mundane and magical.  Bearsarker henchmen and (extremely rare) units comprised solely of bearsarkers gain +4 to morale in combat (though not to loyalty and similar rolls, as such men are headstrong and difficult to control).

At fifth level, the bearsarker masters his shape-strength.  Once per day, he may spend a round howling, beating his breast, or biting his shield in order to become enormously strong for 1 turn (10 minutes).  While in shape-strength, he attacks as an 8HD monster (3+ THAC0) or his own class and level (whichever is better) and inflicts double damage with his attacks.  He can also throw boulders, small trees, and other heavy objects at foes up to 200' away for 3d6 points of damage and gains a +16 bonus to force open doors and break objects.  Shape-strength does not stack with any other effects that alter a character's strength.  After a bout of shape-strength, the bearsarker is fatigued, taking a -1 penalty to attack and damage rolls until he has rested for 1 turn.  This stacks with fatigue from skipping rest-turns during exploration.

Also at fifth level, the bearsarker becomes a bearrifying presence on the battlefield.  Opponents who face him in melee, and units facing troops led by him in melee, take a -1 penalty to morale rolls.  This penalty does not stack if multiple bearsarkers are present.

At ninth level, the bearsarker may call upon the Great Bear to make him an unstoppable juggernaut, whom iron bites not.  Once per day, he may spend a round howling, beating his breast, or biting his shield in order to become impervious to normal weapons for 1 turn (10 minutes).  He may use this round to activate his shape-strength simultaneously if he so desires.  While so impervious, the bearsarker is immune to injury from non-magical, unsilvered weapons.  Creatures immune to nonmagical and unsilvered weapons may still injure him, as may creatures of 5 or more hit dice.  He is also not impervious to fire from siege weapons.  However, he may weather any number of hits from normal weapons wielded by weak creatures without injury.

Also at 9th level, the bearsarker may contruct a den-fortress in a remote location in the borderlands or wilderness, as an Explorer's Border Fort.  When he does so, up to 2d4+2 grizzly bears and 1d6 bearsarkers of 1st-3rd level will arrive to attend him.  Settlers also begin appearing as normal, though there might should be a population growth modifier for "abundant population of hungry bears."

Experience Title Level HD Damage Bonus
0 Cub-Initiate 1 1d6 +1
2600 Bear Wrestler 2 2d6 +1
5200 Bear Armiger 3 3d6 +2
10400 Bear Cavalier 4 4d6 +2
20800 Grizzly Veteran 5 5d6 +2
41600 Kodiak Champion 6 6d6 +3
85000 Polar Protector 7 7d6 +3
170000 He-Who-Mauls 8 8d6 +3
290000 Bearsarker 9 9d6 +4
410000 Bearsarker, 10th level 10 9d6+2 +4
530000 Bearsarker, 11th level 11 9d6+4 +4
650000 Bearsarker, 12th level 12 9d6+6 +5
770000 Bearsarker, 13th level 13 9d6+8 +5
990000 Ursine Overlord 14 9d6+10 +5

Level Petrif & Paralysis Poison & Death Blast & Breath Staves & Wands Spells To-Hit
1 15+ 14+ 16+ 16+ 17+ 10+
2 14+ 13+ 15+ 15+ 16+ 9+
3 13+ 12+ 14+ 14+ 15+ 8+
4 12+ 11+ 13+ 13+ 14+ 7+
5 11+ 10+ 12+ 12+ 13+ 6+
6 10+ 9+ 11+ 11+ 12+ 5+
7 9+ 8+ 10+ 10+ 11+ 4+
8 8+ 7+ 9+ 9+ 10+ 3+
9 7+ 6+ 8+ 8+ 9+ 2+
10 6+ 5+ 7+ 7+ 8+ 1+
11 5+ 4+ 6+ 6+ 7+ 0+
12 4+ 3+ 5+ 5+ 6+ -1+
13 3+ 2+ 4+ 4+ 5+ -2+
14 2+ 1+ 3+ 3+ 4+ -3+

Bearsarker Class Proficiencies: Alertness, Ambushing, Animal Husbandry, Berserkergang, Blind Fighting, Caving, Climbing, Combat Reflexes, Combat Trickery (Wrestling), Command, Divine Blessing, Divine Health, Dungeon Bashing, Endurance, Fighting Style, Healing, Illusion Resistance, Intimidation, Laying on Hands, Naturalism, Navigation, Passing Without Trace, Prophecy, Riding, Running, Skirmishing, Survival, Trapping.

Bearsarkers gain class proficiencies at 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th, 8th, 10th, 12th, and 14th level, due to their Fighting 3 / Monster save progression.

Mead-Drinker Template: This pre-generated template represents a drunkard bear cultist living on the outskirts of civilized society with his trusty polearm.  The template is ready for adventure.  In the unlikely event that your bearsarker's intelligence is 13 or higher despite all the alcohol and head trauma, you may pick one or more general proficiencies before play (Endurance and Gambling are also recommended)
Proficiencies: Fighting Style (Polearm), Intimidation
Equipment: Sparth-axe (polearm), sax (short sword), boot knife, rusty chain mail shirt, spangenhelm, battered wooden shield, wool tunic, leather belt, bearskin cloak, iron brooch, a dead man's boots, muddy backpack, bedroll, tent, tinder box, six torches, 50' of rope, a week's worth of smoked fish (iron rations), half a wineskin of mead, slight hangover, no coinage.

Design notes:
Fighting 3 / HD 1
Four tradeoffs: reduced weapon selection, reduced armor selection, dropped two-weapon fighting style, dropped ranged damage bonus.

Servant of the Bear God is about half a power; much less useful than Beast Friendship in preventing wilderness encounters unless bears are incredibly common in your game.  Likewise, sort of limited-use for acquiring henchmen.  At the end of the day the level range where bears are available and effective combatants is narrow; they make lousy mounts and warbeasts, and leveling up monstrous henchmen is a black hole that you can throw almost any amount of XP into for little gain.  This a thematic and fun ability, but probably doesn't bring much utility.
Keen Wilderness Senses is half a power, by the book.
Hard to Kill is just Savage Resilience by another name, one power.
Without Fear of Death is a power by the book.

One remaining power from tradeoffs is turned into a power at 5th and a power at 9th.

Shape-Strength is a modified Giant Strength as a spell-like ability.  Duration reduced to 1 turn, target self-only should bring the level down to about 3rd, for the one-use per day with 1-round casting time.  Shape-Strength is perhaps a bit over the top, but it provides a good "dragon-fight" source of damage.  It also addresses the issue with Berserkergang and Fighting Fury, which is that they're like ok mechanically but unimpressive and not really Norse Saga-grade berserkering.
Kveldulf had in his hand a battle-axe; but when he got on board, he bade his men go along the outer way by the gunwale and cut the tent from its forks, while he himself rushed aft to the stern-castle. And it is said that he then had a fit of shape-strength, as had also several of his comrades. They slew all that came in their way, the same did Skallagrim where he boarded the ship; nor did father and son stay hands till the ship was cleared. When Kveldulf came aft to the stern-castle, he brandished high his battle-axe, and smote Hallvard right through helm and head, so that the axe sank in even to the shaft; then he snatched it back towards him so forcibly that he whirled Hallvard aloft, and slung him overboard...  It is said of shape-strong men, or men with a fit of Berserk fury on them, that while the fit lasted they were so strong that nought could withstand them; but when it passed off, then they were weaker than their wont. Even so it was with Kveldulf. When the shape-strong fit went from him, then he felt exhaustion from the onset he had made, and became so utterly weak that he lay in bed.
And hey, a source for the rock-throwing!
Skallagrim then became so strong and he caught up Thord and dashed him down so violently that he was all bruised and at once got his bane. Then he seized Egil. Now there was a handmaid of Skallagrim's named Thorgerdr Brak, who had nursed Egil when a child; she was a big woman, strong as a man, and of magic cunning. Said Brak:
'Dost thou turn they shape-strength, Skallagrim, against thy son?'
Whereat Skallagrim let Egil loose, but clutched at her. She broke away and took to her heels with Skallagrim after her. So went they to the utmost point of Digra-ness. Then she leapt out from the rock into the water. Skallagrim hurled after her a great stone, which struck her between the shoulders, and neither ever came up again. The water there is now called Brakar-sound.
Bearrifying Presence is a replacement for the "+1 follower morale" that fighting classes usually get at 5th.  Bearsarkers aren't great leaders, but they're scary.  Arguably -1 enemy morale is applicable in more combats than +1 follower morale, since there are plenty of fights that don't involve followers, hence the "engaged in melee" caveat.

Whom Iron Bites Not is a modified Immunity to Normal Weapons effect as a spell-like ability.  Again, self-only and 1-turn duration bring the effect to about 3rd level, for one use per day with a 1-round casting time.  This is somewhat weaker than King Harald's Berserks in Egil's Saga, but close enough.  
King Harold proclaimed a general levy, and gathered a fleet, summoning his forces far and wide through the land. He went out from Throndheim, and bent his course southwards, for he had heard that a large host was gathered throughout Agdir, Rogaland, and Hordaland, assembled from far, both from the inland parts above, and from the east out of Vik, and many great men were there met who purposed to defend their land from the king. Harold held on his way from the north, with a large force, having his guards on board. In the forecastle of the king's ship were Thorolf Kveldulfsson, Bard the White, Kari of Berdla's sons, Aulvir Hnuf and Eyvind Lambi, and in the prow were twelve Berserks of the king.
The fleets met south in Rogaland in Hafr's Firth. There was fought the greatest battle that king Harold had had, with much slaughter in either host. The king set his own ship in the van, and there the battle was most stubborn, but the end was that king Harold won the victory. Thorir Longchin, king of Agdir, fell there, but Kjotvi the wealthy fled with all his men that could stand, save some that surrendered after the battle. When the roll of Harold's army was called, many were they that had fallen, and many were sore wounded. Thorolf was badly wounded, Bard even worse; nor was there a man unwounded in the king's ship before the mast, except those whom iron bit not, to wit the Berserks.
I see this being useful primarily in mass combat, where I expect it should let a bearsarker wade through massed troops while laughing maniacally, especially when combined with a d10 weapon, shape-strength, and the penalty to enemy morale.  Being a bona fide badass, even for only 10 minutes of game-time, is occasionally fun for PCs.  This is also a fun ability for NPCs to deploy, because the bearsarker lord who is personally collapsing the left flank is something the PCs are going to have to deal with themselves (while balancing that threat against the necessities of leading their troops effectively).

Is this class even sort of balanced?  ehhhh.  The crazy abilities are within reach of a fighter with a wizard henchman, and fewer times per day than that combo.  Does it look fun to play?  Probably.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Notes from the Salt Marsh

I spent a fair bit of time out in the swamp over this holiday weekend, and brought back a couple of thoughts.
  • A fun model for a "the dungeon closes at sundown" would be a megadungeon in a tidal zone that floods every 12 hours or so, with changing water levels and levers and pumps and things to open and close areas...  Sorely tempted to build one of these.
  • Six mile hexes are still big.  In a mile of trail, saw several differnet biomes, including stands of dead trees, fields of cord grass, tidal mud flats, pond full of red tannin water, thickets, beach, bay, numerous islands...
  • Small islands make good isolated microbiomes for something like Western Marches (Western Marshes?)
  • Saw a worm that looked like a twig.  Scaling up to a giant worm that looks like a dead tree and eats human-sized critters would be entertaining.
  • Heat, humidity, biting insects, jellyfish, sunburn, the smell of the pluff mud (actually I don't mind that one much), blaugh.  Minor environmental inconveniences often get ignored, even as flavor text.  Bring extra water rations and a hat next time.