Thursday, August 25, 2016

Five Cities for Five Gods

While considering the post-apocalypse, Iron Heroes, and the fantastical South, I realised that Babylon is actually a really good fit.  Civilization is young and rough, the city-state is the standard political unit, and civilized life is centered on The River, with deserts to the west, mountains to the east, water to the south and swamps along the coast, and jungle a bit further off.

Babylon, in turn, led me to an old post on five old-testamenty gods, and reflections on idol-stealing and holy cities.


The settled realm of man is defined by the River.  In its floodplains agriculture took root, and cities followed.  The plough, the wheel, the forge, the sword, and the sail are recent inventions, and the saddle, stirrup, and crossbow are yet unheard-of.  There are five great city-states along its length, one where man met each of his gods.  In the northeast, Ur-Hadad, first among cities, sits below Eagle's Gate, the pass in the mountains through which the chariots of the steppe-nomads first thundered out of man's harsh cradle.  Here were erected the first ziggurats, atop which were burned offerings in thanks for the River's bounty and the weakness of its previous inhabitants.  Caravan trade from Punjahar, Leng, and the Dragon Kingdoms meets the River here.  Every few generations, fresh hordes from the steppe arrive here too.  Such conquerors are greeted by the priests and people of Ur-Hadad as holy men, come to do Hadad's work to the soft folk of the River Cities.

Upriver of Ur-Hadad is found Ur-Kothar, beneath the Smoking Mountain.  The soil there is rich with ash, and bears figs in abundance.  Here man learned to smelt and shape copper, lead, and bronze from the dwarves, who are few in number in this age, and learned also to sacrifice to the mountain for its wealth and its continued mercy.  The city's walls are the highest and strongest in the Five Cities, hewn from black granite which scorches those who would climb them.  The men of Ur-Kothar are known for the order of their ranks and the weight of their armor; these too the dwarves taught them, though no man has yet matched dwarven skill in armory.  These skills they put to regular use against nomads and bandits from over the mountains.

Downstream from Ur-Hadad the River joins a great fork, and here is Ur-Moloch.  Though metalworking was learned in Ur-Hadad, it was in Ur-Moloch that coin first clinked.  Debt, poverty, and wretchedness were invented here shortly thereafter.  Ur-Moloch is physically and culturally central to the Five Cities.  Its palaces are the most opulent, its artisans the most skilled, its merchants the shrewdest, its administration the most complex, and its delicacies the finest, but its slums and open sewers are also the foulest; the two sides of the coin, as they say.  Here much treachery is plotted, and if rumors are believed, sorcery too.

Upriver from Ur-Moloch, on the other branch of the fork from Ur-Hadad, the River rises into the foothills well west of Ur-Kothar.  Here the climate is milder, and date palms grow abundantly.  Among the palms is Ur-Astarte, where man made the acquaintance of cats ("domesticated" would be untrue, then as now) and where the amazons and their hunting-lions rule.  Often their prey are monsters and beasts from the deep desert to the west.  Fine bows of laquered horn are made here, and Ur-Astarte's palm wine and healing herbs are also prized.  Its terraced gardens and hunting-parks are a wonder to behold.

Last, downriver from Ur-Moloch at the River's delta and mouth, is Ur-Dagnu with its stilts and its raft-neighborhoods.  Here man learned from the lizardmen of the marshes to sail and fish, and to live in awe of Dagnu's abundant catch and terrible sea-monsters.  Here still man does battle with the frogmen, who worship some foul deity and are long enemies of the worshippers of Dagnu, reptile and mammal alike.  To Ur-Dagnu come occasional ships from Kalanda, Nishapur, and other countries of the Philosopher Apes, but the coast between has few harbors and little fresh water, and is plagued with leviathans and homarids, so trade is risky and infrequent.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Wilderness Machine

Reflecting on my attempts to automate the wilderness (eg hexstocking), I realize that there was a failure of...  ambition, almost.  And definitely some failures of engineering, which made greater ambitions untenable.

If I'm going to automate, I should go whole-hog for a level of complexity which would be utterly unmanageable by a human, and design the system for that from the beginning, rather than just doing what a human DM would do given an abundance of free time and a dearth of creativity.  Does a submarine swim?
  • Stock lairs in hexes according to terrain type.  Dwelling-type may be chosen from the random dungeon types table, if reasonable for monsters of this type to live in a hole in the ground.
    • Actually, looking at the end of this where I'm considering migration, the more-correct solution is to start with an empty wilderness and run like 10 years of immigration and migration beforehand.
  • For each lair, construct a "hunting range" of other hexes into which its monsters frequently wander.  Hunting range primarily based on monster speed, movement type, diet, and hex types.  Range concretizes some of Trilemma's nonmechanical difficulty elements.
    • Sentient monsters taken prisoner can serve as wilderness guides throughout the range of their lair
    • Monsters unlikely to pursue parties beyond the edge of their range
  • Construct per-hex random encounter tables, based on the lairs whose hunting ranges contain that hex.
    • Do not attempt to manually query these tables.  The user interface for this is "Machine, give me a random encounter for hex 0423" -> "Goblin warband from the village in hex 0625, with n champions, m goblins on wargs, 15kcp and a sword +1 interacting with 4 wild boars from lair in hex 0321".
      • Actually though, I should drop lame-ass animal lairs and assume a reasonable, dense distribution of mundane wildlife (eg herd animals, normal-sized hawks, rats, ...).  If it isn't going to ever kill a wilderness-level PC, I don't need to track it as a monster.
    • Favor monsters from lairs that the players have met before.  This both encourages narrative recurrence / campaign capital development, and is generally reasonable in terms of shared movement habits - if you reuse the same game trails and they reuse the same game trails, you're likely to run into each other again.
    • Optionally, vary encounter tables with time of day, weather, season.  Bears hibernate in the winter, big cats hunt at dusk and dawn, giant bats are nocturnal, humanoids don't like hunting in the rain, ...
      • Cut the day into 4-hour blocks - dawn (4-8), morning (8-12), afternoon (12-4), dusk (4-8), first watch (8-midnight), second watch (midnight-4)
  • Likewise, vary probability of random encounter by individual hex, day/night, weather, season, ... instead of just terrain type.
  • Manual update with results of encounter -> "goblin warband from village in hex 0625 destroyed"
  • Monthly, check for monster migration. Monsters migrate based on monster-density in their hunting range, terrain types, season.  Monsters can also migrate in off the edges of the map (bounded area being simulated), and migrate off the edge of the map (though maybe known lairs do not migrate off-map).  Monsters less likely to migrate if they have a village, dungeon-lair, or lots of treasure.  Maybe also kill off some lairs during monthly rollover.
    • Changing ranges might be a better approach, with lair migration only if no workable range is achievable that includes that lair hex.  On month rollover, greedy search from each lair for a set of hexes which generate an amount of population support sufficient for the lair and which minimize exposure to predation.  If no satisfying solution found, the lair migrates.  Perform updates in ascending order of speed; fast predators can reactively update their ranges in response to slow prey migration.
    • Or each lair has a fixed amount of time/effort/utilization available to it, and this can be assigned to hexes to derive population support from them or to travel through them, with environmental factors and presence of predators making this less efficient.  Utilization of each hex also determines on a per-hex basis the weighting of the lair in that hex's random encounter table - you're more likely to have an encounter with wyverns in their hunting grounds than in the hexes under their flight path between hunting grounds and lair.  High utilization also means greater familiarity with the hex among captured sentients.
And then you feed the machine a big-ass hexmap, press go, and run an illegible Western Marches, where regions emerge from complex monster behavior over varied geography but don't have names and don't stay the same.  A really illegible approach would do away with hexes entirely, and make rollover a continuous rather than discrete process, but that's a lot more annoying for a computer (you can only approximate continuity, via very granular time or space), and this is probably crazy enough already.

The obvious question is "would this be fun to play in?"  And that I do not know.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Traveller: Initiative

Mongoose Traveller does this weird thing where some actions in combat modify initiative:
  • Hastening adds to init but gives you a penalty to rolls for one round
    • We've never seen anyone actually use this
  • Leadership skill boosts one other character's initiative for a round
    • Also doesn't see much use
  • Recoil penalizes your init next round for using autofire this round
  • Combat reactions (dodge, parry, dive for cover) penalize your initiative for next round
Keeping track of this is sort of annoying, though, because you have to remember your original initiative roll (with modifiers for Dex and Tactics), modify it every round, and then reset it every round.

ACKS has a simplifying solution for once: reroll initiative every round. Keep track of your flat initiative modifiers (Dex+Tactics).  Over each round, keep track of your initiative debt via poker chips or a d6 that you can increment.  At beginning of new round, roll init, add flat modifiers, add temporary modifiers (and clear your counter), and then the DM does the initiative countdown.

This also addresses another issue with Traveller's autofire and combat reactions: when used by characters with very high dex (as PC gunslingers tend to have), small init penalties often don't matter, because they're dominated by dexterity.  When they do matter, the consequences (acting after a particular enemy) are usually perfectly predictable, and then they can be avoided.  Rerolling initiative makes modifying your initiative an informed gamble, an interesting / not-trivially-solved choice.  It also makes combat messy and chaotic.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

ACKS and Traveller

  • ACKS is the lovechild of B/X and Traveller by way of a classical history education
  • Mid-level ACKS is structurally Traveller-esque, particularly when played nautically
    • We see this especially in the trade system
    • Traveller's no-ship, have-ship, and "oh god what do I do with all this money" phases of play are analogous to ACKS' dungeon, wilderness, and domain phases
    • Traveller-style Patrons, with money but without land or force, are a good solution to "why hire adventurers" for ACKS
  • Traveller is better at Traveller than ACKS is. 
  • God I'm burnt out on ACKS.
  •  Maybe I should run Traveller but add the best parts of ACKS
    • Steal holdings and trade rules from Suns of Gold
      • Probably lots of things worth mining from Stars Without Number, really
      • Might also be things worth taking from Classic Traveller
    • Add mercenaries and henchmen 
    • Add "treasure map" high-risk high-reward (megacredit+) opportunities (eg starship salvage, piracy, big caches of illegal goods)
    • More exploration focus
      • Maybe steal SWN's "scream" background too, player maps pre-fall and out of date, jump tech rare

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Crazy Idea: Better Half-Casters

Venturer and Nightblade both have this problem that fractional arcane casting kinda blows.  Nightblade is OK during the dungeoneering levels, where he can contribute usefully with Sleep, but when wilderness levels roll around, he is kinda SOL, because he doesn't get fireball until 9th level.  His magic no longer contributes effectively.  On the flip side, the Venturer gives up a whole classpoint for a rapid casting progression starting at 8th level...  but he's running on 3 points for most of the adventuring range, and by 8th level Charm Person has stopped winning encounters.  Granted, Venturer is an Arcane 1 class, but the problem still stands that delaying the onset of casting is really terrible during the levels before it kicks in, and then isn't very useful after either.

What if...  we gave half-casters access to spells that solve problems appropriate to their level range, but not very many of them?  Like, half as many as a mage of their level, and also halve bonus repertoire slots from Int.  Maybe round spells per day up, and repertoire slots down.  So they don't get many spells per day, and also don't have a whole lot of options to use them, but they always have something useful in their current tier of play.  They will never be as good as the wizard at the wizard's job, but they also won't ever be "wasted points" either.

Under this system, a 6th-level nightblade with 16 Int gets 1 1st, 1 2nd, and 1 3rd-level spell per day, and gets two known spell at each of those levels, whereas the same character as a mage would have 2/2/2 and 4 spells known at each level.  Sounds about worth half a caster, no?  And this "worth about half a caster" remains true across the level range.  They're worth a little more at odd levels, because that one spell of the new level is more than half what the mage gets, but their reduced repertoire from Int (combined with their increased multi-ability distribution relative to mage) means that they are less likely to know any given useful spell.  One exception is 1st level, where the first spell is judge-selected, typically Sleep or Charm Person.  As a judge, I would not feel bad about making a half-wizard roll his spells at 1st level rather than guaranteeing an encounter-win spell, because they have ways to contribute besides magic (maybe add a "reroll really terrible spells" option.  The other option, rounding down at odd levels, makes the half-mage substantially less useful than half of a mage a lot of the time, especially in high-wilderness levels where being one level behind is actually a lot of XP and time spent without current spells.  It also denies them any casting utility at 1st level.  As a result, I think I'm happy with round spells up, round repertoire from Int down.

A reasonable justification for this system is that half-casters keep up with full-casters on arcane theory and esoteric lore (hence comparable max spell level), but do not devote the same amount of time and resources to rituals for maintaining more repertoire slots and tapping more raw power, because half-casters are busy doing other stuff (like backstabbing people).

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Simple Domains: Bonus Resources

In Civilization, "bonus resources" are tiles that contain unusual natural resources, like gold ore, fish, wheat, and so forth.  In ACKS, these might raise the Land Value of a given hex.  In the Simple Domains subsystem, this turns into an adjustment to monthly income and taxes.  I assume here that a resource is limited to a single six-mile hex, and that it boosts that hex's production from an average roll of 6.  Marginal resources like bog iron raise it by 1 point, average resource sources like a typical iron mine raise it by 2 points, and excellent resources like a gold mine raise it by 3 points.

Given the population density assumptions of Simple Domains, each point of LV in a hex is worth about 400gp/mo of domain income.  If you're a vassal, you owe about 100gp/mo of that in taxes, and keep the remaining 300gp/mo.  So in the best case, as an independent ruler with control over a +3 resource hex, you're earning an extra 1.2kgp/mo.  In the worst case, as a vassal with control over a +1 resource hex, you're earning an extra 0.3kgp/mo and paying an extra 0.1kgp/mo in tax.

In the interest of simplicity, keeping track of +1 resources probably isn't worthwhile; about 22% of hexes as rolled will have +1 land value, with a counterbalancing number of -1 LV hexes, so in total around 70% of hexes fall into this range.  About 10% of hexes have a +2 resource (and 10% have a -2 penalty), and only about 4% have a +3 resource (and another 4% have a -3 penalty).  I'm more than willing to assume that the majority of the world's penalty hexes are unsettled, to not keep track of them in domain play (until someone decides to go settle a desert...).  Even just having 15% of hexes be bonus hexes might be annoying to track; that would mean that an average 16-hex county would have 2-3, which leads to increased paperwork.  Just tracking +3 hexes might be best; an average county probably won't have one.  On the other hand, the gains for a count from one +3 hex are pretty marginal; given that his income is around 50kgp/mo, 1.2kgp/mo extra might not be worth going to war over.  Maybe lines or clusters of +2 or +3 hexes in (for example) prime floodplains farmland would make these worthwhile objectives for warfare?  But then you're back to the tracking problem.  Ugh.  Maybe tying land value directly to hex/terrain type, since that's state that is already tracked?  Desert and glacier at -3, floodplains at +3, and then infrastructure projects (clearing forest, irrigation) can change the type of the hex?  This is Civ's solution before even adding bonus resources...

At the end of the day, the correct solution for Simple Domains is almost certainly a per-domain modification to average land value - this immutable domain is Rich, with an average land value of 7 instead of 6, and produces an extra 400gp/mo per hex (or 300 for you and 100 for your liege, if a vassal).  So a Rich Vassal County has 16 hexes, earns an extra 4.8kgp/mo, and pays an extra 1.6kgp/mo in taxes.  That's enough money to be worth keeping track of (a >10% increase in income), with little enough paperwork.  Boom, done.

Probabilistically, a +2 or +3 average land value would be quite rare for any domain larger than a barony, so I probably only need to worry about having Rich (+1 LV) and Poor (-1 LV) modifiers.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

ACKS and Apocalypse

I stumbled on Hill Cantons' posts about AD&D's implicit post-apocalypse setting again recently.  I conclude that one of the difficulties I have had with ACKS is that my settings want to be post-apocalyptic, lawless wastes dotted with city-states ruled by tyrannical despots.  ACKS' implied setting, however, is of an empire in decline, where order has yet to break down.  The apocalypse is a thing that happens in play, via domain pillaging and Cataclysm rituals.

I'm sure ACKS' demographic guidelines can handle starting from ruins, but I may need to push them a little.  The real troubles in play are likely (and have been) market class and making any sense of "how does anyone survive here", which heavily-armed patrols on the civilized encounter tables answer historically.

Thinking about it further, Simplified Domains are actually perfect for this sort of world.  They reflect a very centralized, "everyone lives near a walled settlement that you can flee to" settlement pattern.  They're self-contained, with no "radius of civilization" projected around large markets (I mean, there is a "radius of vassals", but that's easier to deal with and leads to fewer incongruities, like "well this trackless wasteland is technically within 25 miles of town, so I guess it's civilized and there are peasants here").  They have very clear garrison numbers and suggested ruler levels, which though lower than what AD&D would suggest are workable.  They resort to feudalism only when administratively necessary, which is fine by me because I tend to associate feudalism with high-medieval rather than post-apocalypse.  Feudalism is order; order has collapsed, now all is despots, with one layer of treacherous, non-hereditary crony-"counts" beneath them.  I think if I worked up stats for independent counties and duchies and tweaked the troop types a bit (towards "mobs of light infantry in Mad Max-style black leather with spikes, armed with mismatched Iron Heroes-looking weapons and supported by cavalry on wasteland beasts, with city-states fielding rangers and paladin-armigers" instead of "pikes and cavalry"), I'd be in good shape to throw a bunch of city-states and bandit camps on a map and start running.

Actually Iron Heroes is also a pretty good basis for the general aesthetic I want in a game, now that I think about it, though I could take or leave dangerous magic...  maybe steal DCC's casting rules?  Hell, you people keep asking me about patrons for Sorcerers, those DCC guys have threads and whole books of 'em just waiting for conversion.  Anyway.

Looking at it briefly, I'm pretty sure an independent simple duchy would actually have a class III market under current assumptions, which is adequate for most mid-level operations.  I also like that the max level from domain XP for dukes is 13th, which means that they're about the top of the food chain.  It is also true that an independent simple county would have a class IV market, which is perfect as a base for low-level adventuring.

One additional advantage of such a setting for ACKS is that political legitimacy is relatively easy to come by, for PCs.  You don't need to worry about heredity, swearing fealty, de jure claims, and justified war; political power flows from the tip of your sword, by which you maintain internal order and deter external threats.