Monday, September 28, 2015

Weekend with Dad, Nightblade Playtest Notes

It was good to see him, and there was much gaming and playing with my cat (who, we discovered, rather likes shredded coconut).

Taught him (dad, not the cat) Race for the Galaxy friday night, and played quite a bit on saturday too.  I learned that I really like trade-focused strategies, but neither of us are at the level of quickly reading our opponent's intentions for the upcoming turn yet.

We also played one game of Carcassone, which I had not played before.  Interesting, would play again, still not really clear on all the rules.

Saturday evening was a Pathfinder Society event.  Dad plays a lot of PFS and I decided to come along.  A very different style from my usual; lots of boxed text, skill checks, and name-drops of NPCs and places with which I was unfamiliar.  I wonder if there's something in the nature of large-scale company-backed organized play that leads to settings which are both highly detailed and kitchen-sink in their approach to new material - perhaps the players demand kitchen-sink and the business demands volume of setting book sales?  Notable counterexample - the Legend of the Five Rings large-scale play organization seems to have done a decent job of maintaining thematic consistency.

Anyway, we brought a party full of diplomats and ended up accomplishing our objectives without killing anything!  Probably a first in my gaming.  The space they were running the game in (a church basement) was really nice, and my fellow players were fine folks, but there was a lot of organizational / administrative paperwork and general powergaming (both of the game rules and the organization's rules).  Not my cup of tea at this point I think.

Today, there was more Midnight-esque (Midlite?) ACKS!  Dad playtested my nightblade mods and the Bear God's Rebellion engaged the two biggest, scariest threats in the first level of the mountaintop monastery they've been working on for the last couple of weeks - a group of four mummies, and a young dragon.  Their original plan for dealing with the mummies involved a ward scroll against undead, a pair of bearsarkers (who, being immune to fear, are not "paralyzed with dread" when confronted by mummies), and a blindfolded wizard who knows burning hands.  This plan did not survive contact with the mummies, who acted more offensively than expected (I'm still not really sure why the party didn't use the ward scroll, though).  There were many failed paralysis saves and webs and fire and shape strength and in the end nobody died, though the nightblade and the vaultguard PCs both contracted mummy rot, which the witch circumvented with Delay Disease.  There was much loot (including two magic shields) and rejoicing, and after sending the nightblade on a gaseous, infravision scouting spree (during which they learned that the rumors of a dragon in the tower were true, of a secret door in the abbot's quarters, and that the monastery's well leads into a caverous lake), they hauled the holy relics of a forgotten sun god down the mountain to Bearholm, there to level up their henchmen.

While in the nearby market village of Ostergot trading gems for alcohol, the PCs learned that yetis and ghouls are eating the local farmers.  The PCs feel somewhat responsible for this, since they did recently kill the local constabulary.  The PCs were coming down the mountain and met the constables coming up to check on a burning building at the dungeon site.  When the constables caught one of the bearsarkers in a lie, they demanded the party's weapons and (gods forbid) taxes!  This did not end well for them, and now the village lies more-or-less defenseless save for its wooden palisade walls.  The PCs resolved to look into these unintended consequences next session.

After three days in the market and levelling, back up the mountain they went to fight the dragon.  They gathered outside its tower, and sent the wizard up the tower alone with a vial of yellow mold spores to throw down into the tower.  Unfortunately, the dragon heard his climbing, and was perched on top waiting for him on his arrival.  He stalled with diplomacy long enough for the nightblade to come check on him invisibly, and the rest of the party rushed into the tower to distract the dragon.  One of the berserkers hit it with a yellow mold vial, but it made its save and replied with a breath weapon.  Shortly it was laid low by well-placed arrows from the two explorer henchmen and a barrel of lamp oil thrown with shape strength by one of the berserkers, while the wizard fled back down the side of the tower during the chaos.  There was more loot, and nobody died (again...  I need to step up my game.  On the other hand, pretty much everybody has levelled since that dragon was placed in that tower, and they were playing a man up, so...  I'm going to need to make the mushroom-men in the second level tougher).

Notes and feedback on nightblade performance:
  •  Jumping into the enemy rearline is very tempting, and there is probably a right time for that maneuver.  Fighting mummies is not that time.
  • Today I learned that ACKS' infravision has a 24-hour duration.  I'm not sure how I feel about giving it as a power to the nightblade.  On the one hand, infravision encouraged PCs to split the party for scouting.  On the other hand, giving the thief infravision+gaseous form at 5th level could just operate as a hard phase-shift away from dungeon exploration towards wilderness play.
  • It was remarked that one use of invisibility per day is enough to get to the target or away from the target, but not both.
  • Acrobatics+Jump generates a lot of pretty reliable backstab, such that the nightblade was trying to stand in front with the fighters.  The primary incentive to not do that was that her AC was not front-line material.  This session's structure of "two monster hunts against things that paralyze you and things that breath fire" was not really conducive to having the nightblade out front in the zone of shadowy illumination, so being in melee range entailed being in a dangerously well-lit position.
  • Did not have enough combats in any single day of adventuring this time for resource constraint on number of 1st-level spells to come into play.  Part of this is the structure of this dungeon, part of it is just the place this party is in the exploration process for this level.  Happens.
  • ACKS' stealth system continues to be tricky for me to use in practice, and I think this trickiness is part of why we have "thieves are bad" as a meme.
    • The dragon made its Hear Noises throw to hear the wizard climbing the tower.  All well and good.
    • I don't remember if it made a surprise roll to see if the wizard got a round to act before it did, but it was fast enough flying to beat a climbing wizard to the top of a 40' cobblestone face handily.
    • When the nightblade snuck up on it invisibly, she failed her Move Silently roll by 1 and in play was detected immediately upon reaching the top of the tower.
    • However!  The dragon should've made another Hear Noises throw to see if it detected her moving less-silently than intended.  In practice, it probably would've failed this (it's an 18+ roll, maybe 14+ if dragons have super-senses like my players expected this one to).  Which I guess might be canon now for dragons in this setting, because man this one was pretty good at detecting sneaking characters.
    • Even if the dragon had made the Hear Noises roll, the nightblade should've gotten a surprise roll against it, which had a 33% chance of giving her a surprise round to either freeze (which, being invisible, would've taken her off the radar) or close and backstab.
    • So what we see here is the interaction of several mechanics (thief skills like Move Silently, everyone skills like Hear Noises, combat mechanics like Surprise, and their attendant class features and proficiencies like Naturally Stealthy) put together is a way that is not necessarily intuitive.  It's not a bad system, just very different from the 3.x stealth systems of our youths, where rolling a 4 on a Move Silently to sneak up on a dragon meant you were toast.  Instead of an opposed roll, we have several boolean rolls whose results are interpreted together.
  • We did do multiplied-damage in the correct way this time at least, and at one point the nightblade rolled a 6 on a d6, multiplied by 3 for backstab against a mummy.  Under our previous crit interpretation, that would've been a 1 in 216 event; this time it was a 1 in 6 event.  And it was good.

Monday, September 21, 2015

ACKS Class: Nightblade Redux

Nightblade Redux
Prime Requisites: Dex, Int
HD: d6
Max level: 12

Nightblade is a neat class in concept, but ultimately slow arcane casting progression on a thief base is a hard sell.  We had one in the first party of our first campaign, and then there was one nightblade henchwoman who survived a single adventure, but they get no love in this group.  Perhaps this could change that, and offer an a way forward for thieves in general.

Nightblades are elven spies, assassins, and covert operatives.  Their occupation entails some degree of combat training, though it is not their forte.  They advance in attack throws by two points per four levels of experience, like a thief.  They may use all ranged weapons and all one-handed melee weapons, and may fight with a weapon in each hand.  They cannot use armor heavier than leather, and cannot use shields.  Their saves and to-hit numbers are as an ACKS Core Nightblade of their level.

Elven Nightblades may move silently, hide in shadows, climb walls, and backstab as a thief of their level.  In addition, they may perform feats of acrobatics, as the proficiency of the same name.

While not true spellcasters, Nightblades master a number of supernatural tricks to enhance their stealth capabilities.  At first level, nightblades learn Chameleon, Silent Step, and Jump, as the spells of the same names.  They may use these powers a total of three times in any eight hour period, and each takes a round to activate.

ex: a nightblade wants to sneak up on a group of orcs, so he casts Silent Step.  A turn later, his party is in position to engage, and he casts Jump for maximum backstabbing.  In the next seven hours and 40 minutes, he can cast one more of Chameleon, Silent Step, or Jump.

At 3rd level, the Nightblade's ability to cloak himeself in shadow is perfected. He may cast Invisibility once per 8 hours, with a casting time of one round.

At 5th level, the Nightblade's mastery of shadow goes beyond merely concealing himself; concealment becomes part of his nature.  He may make his form insubstantial (as Gaseous Form), and adapt his eyes to the darkness (Infravision).  These powers are usable in any combination a total of twice per day, and take a single round to activate.

At 7th level, the Nightblade begins to understand the universality of the shadow, and this enables him to transcend distances as they are commonly thought of.  He may leap through shadow (as Dimension Door) once per week with a casting time of 1 round.

At 9th level, the Nightblade's occult studies of the void as the foundation of the structure of the cosmos have reached their inevitable conclusions, unlocking the most perilous secrets of his art.  Once per week, with a casting time of one turn, he may walk the dark road (as Teleport).

Also at 9th level, the Nightblade's endarkenment is recognized by all, and he may attract a cabal of 1d6 1st-3rd level Nightblades seeking to learn from him.  Cabals obey the standard rules for thieves' guilds and hijinks, though most are loathe to accept non-elven members, lest the esoteric wisdom of the nightblades be misused by the rash and younger races.

Nightblades also get the usual elf powers:
  • Attunement to Nature: +1 to surprise rolls in the wilderness
  • Elven Tongues: Elf, Gnoll, Hobgoblin, Orc
  • Keen Eyes: Nightblades can detect secret doors on an 8+ on d20 when actively searching, or at 14+ on casual inspection.
  • Connection to Nature: Nightblades are unaffected by ghoulish paralysis, and gain a +1 bonus to saves against Petrification/Paralysis and Spells.
  • +125XP to 2nd level.  +50kXP/level beyond 8th is unreasonable here; going with +10kXP/level beyond 8th (like dwarf fighters, where abilities don't synergize particularly well).

Class proficiencies (30): Alchemy, Alertness, Arcane Dabbling, Battle Magic (applies to spell-like abilities), Black Lore of Zahar (substitute -2 to enemy saves vs death with +2 bonus to proficiency throws to extract, refine, or use poisons), Blind Fighting, Cat Burglary, Combat Reflexes, Combat Trickery (incapacitate), Contortionism, Eavesdropping, Familiar, Fighting Style, Intimidation, Mystic Aura, Passing Without Trace, Precise Shooting, Prestidigitation, Quiet Magic (applies to spell-like abilities), Running, Sensing Power, Skirmishing, Skulking, Sniping, Swashbuckling, Unflappable Casting (applies to spell-like abilities), Trapfinding, Wakefulness, Weapon Focus, Weapon Finesse

XP Title Level HD Acrobatics Backstab
0 Elven Mole 1 1d6 20+ x2
1825 Elven Asset 2 2d6 19+ x2
3650 Elven Courier 3 3d6 18+ x2
7300 Elven Spy 4 4d6 17+ x2
14600 Elven Agent 5 5d6 16+ x3
29200 Elven Occultist 6 6d6 15+ x3
60000 Walker on the Dark Road 7 7d6 14+ x3
120000 Left Hand of Darkness 8 8d6 13+ x3
230000 Elven Nightblade 9 9d6 12+ x4
340000 Elven Nightblade, 10th 10 9d6+2 11+ x4
450000 Elven Nightblade, 11th 11 9d6+4 10+ x4
560000 Endarkened One 12 9d6+6 9+ x4

Design notes:
Playing a little fast and loose with classbuilding rules here.  We've seen arcane elves, we've seen divine elves, and now this is a thieving elf.  Basically it's a fighting 1 / HD 1 / Thief 3 / Elf 0 build that swaps most of its thief skills for magic powers.  The old nightblade started off as a passable wizard and a normal (ie, bad) thief at low levels, and then inverted at high levels into an OK thief and a bad wizard.  This one starts off as a strong wizard in terms of spells per day, but they're all thief enhancement, so at low levels he's a better thief, and that's OK, because low-level thieves are the worst.  At higher levels, he doesn't need the magic as much to supplement the raw thief numbers, and instead gains a few extra tricks - gaseous form and infravision are very good for scouting, dimension door is a good escape ability, and teleport "strategic utility".  I'm a little conflicted on teleport because once per week is not much compared to what a real wizard can do, and one turn casting time makes it useless as an "escape" ability.  I'm not convinced it's worse than passwall, though, which is sort of the other "thief / utility" option at 5th level.

Place in Midnight:
The "use the weapons of the enemy" branch of Elven Intelligence.  Vulnerable to corruption, mistrusted by their brethren and the enemy alike if their powers are known.  Also probably common among the dark elves (provided that the rumors of the existence of such elves are substantiated, of course).

Hmm...  maybe there are some other branches of Elven Intelligence that need "thieving elf" classes.  We have here the operational (get in, kill target, get out) arm; maybe we need HUMINT (er, ORCINT - charm, ESP, disguise, alter self; enchantment and transmogrification) and SIGINT (MAGINT - detect *, locate *, scrying, prophecy; detection and divination) arms.

Friday, September 18, 2015

ACKS Class - Varangian

Prime requisites: Strength and Charisma
HD: d6
Maximum level: 14

You hear a lot about the Vikings raiding Britain and France, but you hear less about their exploits in Eastern Europe, where they controlled the Volga trade route between Northern Europe and the heartland of the Byzantine Empire.  They traded, raided, served as mercenaries, and settled as far afield as Constantinople and Azerbaijan.  In this country they were known as the Varyags, Varangians, and Rus', and famous among their number is Rurik Rurikid, who settled in Holmgarthr (later Novgorod) and whose descendants would go on to become the tsars of Russia.  Many Norsemen also served in the Varangian Guard, a group of elite mercenaries in the direct service of the Byzantine Emperor.  This class serves to portray these opportunistic soldiers of fortune.

Varangians are fierce fighters, advancing in attack throws by 2 points every 3 levels of experience and gaining a bonus to damage with all weapons.  They are proficient with all weapons and armor, and can fight with a weapon in two hands or a weapon and shield.  They save as fighters of their level, may make one cleave per round per level of experience, and may use magic items useable by fighters.

Varangians travel extensively, and have mastered the arts of Navigation, providing parties they lead with a +4 bonus to avoid getting lost in the wilderness.  They are able sailors, skilled at both Seafaring and river travel.

The Vikings were a consummate gifting culture, and so the Varangians are talented both at giving gifts without insult and receiving gifts graciously (as the Bribery proficiency but with somewhat different cultural implications).  Additionally, when they bestow irrevocable favors on their vassals, these favors are remembered for three months rather than the usual one month, so skilled is the Varangian at choosing gifts.  Their reputation for open-handedness helps them to cultivate a network of contacts, which allows them to treat a market to which they return as one market class larger than it actually is.

At fifth level, the Varangian is a man of renown, known to bring death to his enemies and wealth to his friends.  Followers whom he leads in battle and on trading expeditions gain a +1 bonus to their morale.

At ninth level, the Varangian may establish or capture a trading post, typically on a navigable waterway.  When he does so, (1d4+1)x10 0th level mercenaries and 1d6 Varagians of 1st-3rd level will arrive, hoping to profit in his service.  If hired, they must be paid standard rates for mercenaries.  A Varangian's trading post is otherwise identical to a fighter's castle.

XP Title Level HD To-Hit Damage Bonus
0 Varangian Porter 1 1d6 10+ +1
1850 Varangian Trader 2 2d6 9+ +1
3700 Varangian Marauder 3 3d6 9+ +2
7400 Varangian Mercenary 4 4d6 8+ +2
14800 Varangian Hero 5 5d6 7+ +2
29600 Varangian Merchant 6 6d6 7+ +3
60000 Varangian Champion 7 7d6 6+ +3
120000 Varangian Guard 8 8d6 5+ +3
240000 Varangian Chieftain 9 9d6 5+ +4
360000 Chieftain, 10th 10 9d6+2 4+ +4
480000 Chieftain, 11th 11 9d6+4 3+ +4
600000 Chieftain, 12th 12 9d6+6 3+ +5
720000 Chieftain, 13th 13 9d6+8 2+ +5
840000 Varangian Tsar 14 9d6+10 1+ +5

Class proficiencies (28): Alertness, Ambushing, Bargaining, Berserkergang, Blind Fighting, Combat Reflexes, Combat Trickery (Force Back, Overrun, Sunder), Command, Diplomacy, Dungeon Bashing, Endurance, Fighting Style, Gambling, Intimidation, Language, Leadership, Manual of Arms, Military Strategy, Prophecy, Riding, Running, Seafaring, Skirmishing, Survival, Swashbuckling, Weapon Focus

Design notes:  Yet another stab at a fun venturer variant, this time by taking venturer abilities and putting them on a fighter chassis.  As my players have remarked, the +market class ability is so good as to be nearly mandatory; the other proficiencies are useful but not killer, except Seafaring which is probably a dud most of the time but hey sometimes these things come in handy.  I considered a "portage" ability to boost carrying capacity, but that doesn't come up much and we don't really want guys running at full speed in heavy armor anyway.  One tradeoff, two-weapon fighting for an extra proficiency.  The armor selection gave me some trouble; the Varangian guard is often portrayed in lamellar, which is available with unrestricted armor but not with broad armor.  I figure if plate had been available, the Varangians probably would've used it, so went with unrestricted armor.  Likewise the limits of their weapon selection are not well-documented (though historical accounts make clear that they favored shields and heavy axes), but having access to the crossroads of East and West in Byzantium, I figured it was probably wiser to give the benefit of the doubt here.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Of Featured Reviewers

So there's another review up for the Mongoose Traveller Second Edition beta on rpgnow.  It tells you basically the same things as the press release, and it's five stars.  Huh.  Better yet, it's by a featured reviewer, and this reviewer's history is sort of absurd, with 124 reviews so far in 2015 (with 254 days elapsed; mighty close to a review every other day) across several systems and publishers (Mongoose Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, the Firefly game, Dark Heresy, Spycraft, Shadowrun, some Pathfinder...), and only one lower than four stars (and that for layout issues; "the actual content is worth 4!").  With a reading and reviewing schedule like that, I would think one would be hard pressed to find time to actually game.  The icing on the cake, of course, is their five-star review of the MongTrav Campaign Guide.

Curious indeed.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

More Boardgames, Four-Hero SDE

Last night, more boardgames were played!

We began with another game of Red November.  Matt drowned, as he passed out due to grog in a compartment that filled with water shortly thereafter.  We failed to stop the accidental launch of the ICBMs, thereby precipitating global gnomish thermonuclear warfare.  As a result, the ship which was supposed to come rescue us did not arrive, and we lost.

Then we played two games of space alert, both of which we lost.

After this we played two games of Super Dungeon Explore, with Drew as consul fielding a fire elemental spawner, a bramble knight spawner, and two spawners of kobolds.  We fielded the bearman berserker, the sniper, the thief, and the ember mage.  The first we lost in the first room due to over-aggressive tactics, while the second we lost in the first room mostly due to abominably poor rolls on our part and excellent rolls on Drew's.

We switched Matt to playing consul, and brought the paladin, the lancer, the ranger, and the ember mage.  Matt fielded a pair of turtleman spawners and a pair of plant spawners, and stacked all the troops of each type on only one of their spawners, leaving the other undefended.  We could not attack the undefended spawners, as we would then have to fight a miniboss with no loot, so we instead attacked the stacked plant spawner.  We drew a fortuitous environment card, which spawned some enemy squirrels who were quite annoying but also gave us temporary treasure items when we were in the plant spawner's tile.  These proved very useful, and let us destroy the plant spawner and hunt down the succubus miniboss that Matt subsequently spawned.  Ultimately, however, the game was too slow and we called it a Probable Hero Victory after that, because we all have to work today.  There was some discussion of how to speed up games, but the only definite conclusion drawn was the four hero-players is definitely too many.  We did reach the consensus that the early game and the late game are both interesting, because the heroes are in consistent danger, but that the middle-game is a slog where the heroes are under little threat except by minibosses.

But yeah, our track record for cooperative games this weekend was preeetty atrocious.

Monday, September 7, 2015

SDE2 After-Action Report and Red November

Played another game of SDE2 last night.  We had the Questing Knight, some sort of elfy scout, and a healer princess against a mixed force of turtlemen and fire elementals.  We opted to spawn into the room with the fire elementals, in hopes of knocking the spawner out before it could spawn an enormous beetle of fire.  We achieved this, but this aggressive strategy did not bear fruit.  One of the types of fire elementals, when killed, spawned two smaller and weaker elementals which the Consul could activate for free every turn and which did not provide loot when killed.  We were not aggressive enough in eliminating this disparity in the action economy; individually the small elementals were weak, but there were lots of them and we had little defensive gear this early in the game.  Likewise, killing the spawner on turn 1 resulted in an immediate miniboss spawn.  Matt elected to spawn the succubus.  The succubus seems like very much a support miniboss; she can move players out of position and steal health, and her defense is excellent.  Being pulled into burning terrain doesn't feel like she's doing damage, but it was a substantial contributing factor to one PC kill, and between the high defense and health stealing we barely managed to injure her (spoilers: we lost).  It also allowed individual PCs to be isolated and beaten down by the gang of tiny elementals.  We did try to push towards one of the turtle spawners, but were forced to retreat by bombardment from a turtle cannon.  This, combined with our elimination of the remaining tiny elementals, heralded an advance by turtleman reinforcements which in combination with the succubus pretty well wrecked us.  The turtles, like the tiny elementals, also had extensive loot-denial in play, because turtles killed by being thrown (or by area damage from thrown turtles) provide no loot.  We did have a little bit of bad luck with the loot we drew (no strength items), but at the end of the day we just weren't generating enough of it.

Overall, the conclusion was that our hero selection was OK but not amazing.  Questing Knight's lance ability is good, but it's tricky to set up a line of foes to hit it with.  I think most of the time you'll end up settling for hitting two targets at a bonus to hit for two actions, which is good but not amazing.  His massive damage attack is also kind of swingy and very action-expensive; this would have been more worthwhile with more strength boosters.  The healer princess' Regenerate ability was very swingy; she tried it once, healed none of her three wounds, and promptly died.  The rest of her capabilities were not amazing; perhaps she'd be stronger in a party larger than 3.  The scout's abilities were sort of a mixed bag.  We were trying to build him as a dex character, but his bomb relies on strength, so we had some multi-ability distribution issues (also: no strength items).  His boomerang ability would probbly support aggressive treasure-grabbing tactics, but we were not in a position to do that.  Good (healing) potion, though.

After some discussion, we concluded that a good "core" party is the Ember Mage, the Paladin, and the Sniper, with possible additions or substitutions of the Ranger for the Sniper and the Sorceress for the Ember Mage.  The Ember Mage, Paladin, and Sniper all have healing potions.  As we play, it's been pretty much a necessity to have a healing potion character in the party, and redundancy in this area is good.  The Ember Mage and the Sorceress are the only two heroes with one-action status effect attacks, which means that they can apply status effects without compromising their ability to deal damage (status effects are weaker than they were in SDE1.0 because monsters can heal them off, but still useful).  The Paladin has one of the best raw melee statblocks, as well as one status-effecting special attack, one defensive area buff, and the best healing potion.  The Sniper has some status effect stuff and the healing potion, while the Ranger has an area attack at range (the Ember Mage's area effects are only up-close) and a unique ability to remove all status effects from a nearby friendly as an action, which is situationally very strong.

One alternate party composition we were also looking at is Barbarian, Druid, and Sniper.  The barbarian kills things with strength and the Berserk ability, the druid plays defense/tank and makes area attacks at range with will, and the sniper attacks with dex and potion-heals the barbarian.

After concluding our discussion of SDE party composition, we decided to play a game of Red November, wherein a crew of alcoholic gnomish submariners must try to avoid asphyxiation, crushing pressure, reactor meltdown, unintentional ICBM launch, being devoured by the kraken, and other hazards until they can be rescued from their sinking vessel.  This was sort of like Flashpoint, but with more randomness, many more ways to lose, and more grog.  Matt spent most of the game stuck in an airlock with a jammed hatch, Ethan passed out on the missile controls right after stopping the launch sequence, and ultimately we all suffocated because everything was on fire.  There was much laughter.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Mongoose Traveller 2e Beta Released

Available at rpgnow.  Here's a partial changelog from the press release, as quoted at CotI:
* The last edition rested heavily on the minimalist approach of Classic Traveller – the new edition has all the bells and whistles you expect from a modern RPG. From isometric deck plans to flow charts that walk you through character creation and ship design, from subsector maps to equipment pages that look as though they come straight from a space-based mail order catalogue, we have spent months striving to make the new Traveller not only look the best it can, but also to use these graphics to help it play better on the table top.
* A fully integrated combat system that seamlessly moves between Travellers, vehicles and ships. You can now fly your Corsair through a system, destroy the orbiting defence stations, then descend into the atmosphere to dogfight the aerospace fighters. A critical hit system for ships and vehicles allows you knock out vital systems in your opponent’s craft, while an expanded action system will give everyone on board something to do in battle.
* Power systems for ships - starship captains will now be worrying about the amount of Power available to them. In most situations, it will not be a factor (and this will not intrude on gameplay) but if you overload a trader with high-powered weaponry or take damage to your power plant, you’ll be screaming down the comms to your engineer to give you more power!
* We have made changes to the way animals are handled, making their creation a thing of simplicity for referees; come up with a concept for your creature, assign Hits and Attacks, then add Traits and you are done. The Traits for animals handle special abilities such as heightened senses or psionic capability and we will be adding to them in future supplements – especially useful as they are also used for alien species, forming another common bond within the mechanics of the game.

I, uh...  that's it?  That's the stuff you thought was cool enough to actively sell us a new edition?  Chargen flowcharts are all well and good, but I'm pretty sure I've seen some posted for free to the MgT Play Aids mailing list.  I really don't care about "space-based mail order catalogue" chrome, and I think I actively don't want isometric deckplans.  We already had a conversion factor between starship and personal scale damage (50x) and damage to components - what more do you want from a critical hit system?  If you rolled really high effect, you got a bonus to damage, and that was more likely to break more stuff.  Power sounds alright at least.  And animals...  meh.  The animal rules in 1e were fine.  Fun, even.  And we never really had a place for nonhuman sentients in Trav, outside of AI.

I guess at the end of the day I'm happy enough with 1e.

There are already some critical reviews out there (one, two).  Fortunately, this means I don't need to buy it and review it!  Hooray!  Maybe I'll look into it once the beta's over and there are reviews of the final version, but Mongoose has earned my skepticism, especially with the concerns raised by the linked reviews.

UPDATE: To be fair, the CotI changelog is incomplete.  Some actually decent things from the press release: 

* Ship shares – these no longer provide a few measly percentage points on a ship. They will either get you a ship (with varying stages of mortgage paid off – and there are now rules that only one ship will be present in the party during creation) or are considered an investment, adding to your pension. 
* Proper rules have (finally!) been added to handle the changing of assignments within a career. So, if you are an Agent you might start off in Law Enforcement, but you now have a path to the world of corporate espionage!
* The skill list itself has been revised to make more sense and create characters who will be a little more capable. For example, Computers, Comms, Sensors and Remote Ops are no longer separate skills but have become specialities of Electronics. This means that anyone with the Electronics skill has at least some chance of being able to use an electronic device – not an unreasonable assumption in a technological society that has interstellar travel.
* Creating new worlds and universes has always been a staple of Traveller, and you will find planet creation in this Core Rulebook with a few minor tweaks. However, we also wanted to provide a complete subsector (with patrons!) to give starting players an area to immediately explore and start adventuring in with their newly created Travellers.
* The Traveller Companion [to-be-released mid-2016] is our ‘odd bits’ book, the ‘toolkit’ book. Basically, it contains all the rules and additions that did not quite fit in the Core Rulebook and is intended for referees wanting to create their own universes or put a spin on an existing one. These would include, to give just the briefest of examples, varying character creation systems, new approaches to various skills and their specialities, introducing new characteristics, using an abstract wealth system rather than counting credits, variant technologies, alternate planet creation rules, and a host of new ways of creating aliens and animals.  It is a dip in/dip out book, a toolkit that will allow referees to fine tune their own Traveller games to avoid being locked in by one play style or another.
The ship shares thing addresses a common gripe among my players, though I suspect that this change will push against Traveller's old-school mechanics of desperation towards more heroic sci-fi.  Specialization change would make a reasonable houserule for 1e.  Skill list merger is sort of reasonable if you've already got engineering as merged as it is in 1e.  I've mixed feelings on providing a sample sector, because it may establish in players an expectation of that sector as standard, but not having to go through all the effort to start a game is kind of nice for newbies.  Traveller's Companion sounds like the book I wish they'd written for 1e.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

ACKS and the Open Table

I have been thinking lately that there is a contradiction, a tension, in the way that we play ACKS (and probably in other OSR games as well).  The two competing modes of play are the open-table game and the domain game.  The demands on the structure of the game that each imposes are inimical to the other.

The open table more-or-less requires episodic play.  It's possible to run a coherent non-episodic game with an unreliable cast, but it's a lot of work.  Beyond the Black Gate suggests a number of approaches to episodic play - relic retrieval, monster hunting, and the megadungeon.  Justin Alexander cites the megadungeon as his path back to open-table gaming.  The Western Marches, long the canonical 3.x open-table game, actually has a lot in common with the megadungeon.  It has the same difficulty gradients, hidden treasure rooms, high lethality, unclearability, and internal logic one would expect of a megadungeon.

These styles of play (except for the relic retrieval) are well-designed for denying players their impersonal resources.  In both the megadungeon and the Marches, mercenaries are inviable due to morale concerns (it's considered suicidal to go there and you can't hire), and establishing anything resembling a domain is impossible due to the unclearability / restocking property.

This is not accidental.  Episodic play starts to get really weird when you add domains and mercs, mainly due to time, continuity, and boundary conditions.  If you're not at a session and they elapse a month of travel time, do you need to pay your mercs their monthly wage?  Does your domain generate income?  If the next party is totally separate, maybe not, but what if someone who was at the last session (and acquired XP and treasure, and whose 'timeline' was advanced that month) is at the next session with you?  If another party accidentally leads a goblin army back to your domain during a session where you're not present, what happens?  In strict episodic play, it's very easy to handwave a character's absence for a month, but in the domain game, time and continuity are both sort of important.

My conclusion from this, then, is that we have another subtle shift in play in B/X and its derivatives.  Not just within the rules, but within the structure of the party and the game.  At low levels, when you're dungeoneering, open table works fine.  You can swap out players and characters and it's all good.  Expeditions to the dungeon and back are only a day anyway.  When you start doing wilderness adventuring, continuity and time become more important, because you start accumulating mercenaries and expeditions get longer.  Switching to the relic retrieval and monster-hunting episodic modes mentioned above can keep a wilderness-level game open for a while, but disparities in level and personal power will begin to emerge between reliable and unreliable players, and continuity and time headaches will start to accumulate if mercenaries are in use.  It might be sensible to fork the game at this point, with reliable wilderness players who are accumulating mercenaries splitting off to form their own game with a separate, coherent continuity from the continuing open table game.  It seems like such a "forking" measure would be nearly necessary by domain level.

ACKS, for its part, does not make running an open table easy even at low levels.  The primary offenders here are the market rules and henchman wages, which require timekeeping from 1st level (though I suspect that many a henchman's monthly wages have gone unpaid and unnoticed in my games in the past).  The spellcaster repertoire-swap and spell-learning times also encourage timekeeping.

At the end of the day, I might just be disillusioned with both open table's continuity and timekeeping issues and the domain game's paperwork, though.  I keep trying to run open tables at around the wilderness level and they keep being pains in the ass.  I'm sorely tempted to try falling back to a small, reliable party of 2-4 players for a wilderness-level game.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

On War Stories

Something I have noticed about ACKS, talking about ACKS, is that my previous ACKS group really likes telling ACKS stories.  I take this as a compliment of the highest order.  The trouble comes when they ask me "Tell the morlock story!  And Kroner's story, and Carcophan's story!"

I knew a guy, at my previous job, who was a really good oral storyteller.  His control of pacing, hand gestures, facial expressions, and posture were excellent.  Many hours of productivity were lost to his influence.

I am not that guy.  Oral storytelling is not something I've ever really practiced.  I know my pacing is off; I tend to rush the conclusion.  I'm not conscious of my gestures and expressions, and I probably tend to go into irrelevant detail.  It's something I recognize that I'm not great at.

Worse, having listened to a few D&D stories in my time, I can safely say that most D&D stories suck, and outside of self-indulgent blogposts (that you, dear reader, are free to skip at minimal time-cost as soon as you realize it's a story) I tend to avoid telling them.  There are a couple reasons most D&D stories suck:
  • Most D&D stories are pretty predictable.
  • Most D&D stories involve characters in which the audience is uninvested (but in which the storyteller is highly invested).
  • Details about the characters and worlds in which the audience is uninvested matter to the story, so the storyteller has to talk about those details, which makes stories long and boring.
ACKS stories, fortunately, are a little different.  They're predictable on their own terms, but if you're in a group of people telling D&D stores, "and then everything went wrong and all the henchmen died" is not the ending most of your listeners were probably expecting.  Most of the ACKS stories that we tell (the Morlock Massacre, the Teleport Debacle, the Sword of Slaying, Hao-Dee, the Albanian's Demise, the Chest of Spectres, the Perils of Yellow Mold, and the Basement of Spiders) are also pretty short and don't require much in the way of backstory and context.  This is a good thing!

It occurs to me also that of those, I've only written a few up here.  Maybe I ought to put more up (in short forms with little background).