Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Current 1:1 Timescale Campaigns

So apparently I haven't been the only person taking an interest in Gygax's timekeeping lately.  I stumbled into a cluster of blogs describing three campaigns currently being run with 1:1 timekeeping:

This seems like a very natural/consistent/worthy next thrust for the OSR.  Having recovered the early rules, and made them readily available, rediscovering and repopularizing the culture of play of the early days for which those rules were intended.

It kind of tempts me to run Traveller in this style...  the most obvious difficulty is figuring out the resources available to patrons, and Striker's rules for planetary GDP would provide a very workable starting point.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Traveller and Warhammer 40k

Another product of a discussion with my father.

We played Dark Heresy (1e) together for a short campaign or two.  We more or less agree that it's a fun premise for a game, but a lousy system.

Meanwhile, Traveller is a pretty decent system, but it's hobbled by the fact that its implicit setting and expected conventions of play are unfamiliar.  There is no Appendix N of fiction in the Classic Traveller books, unfortunately.  So people misuse it for Firefly when it was meant for Space Viking and Dumarest (or so I'm told).  About the closest I've read, works of that era that get at the "Imperial Science Fiction" feel, might be Dune or Foundation.

But it's not quite true that Imperial Science Fiction has no heirs.  Warhammer 40k is also Imperial Science Fiction of a sort, though a deeply pessimistic lens.  You have a sprawling, strongly human-centric empire with subsector and planetary governments who are only loosely under the thumb of central power - just like Traveller.  You have faster than light travel which is slow, unreliable, and leaves ships isolated from each other for the duration, just like Traveller.  FTL communication exists, and it's faster than FTL travel, but still not great in either.  All three of these are features which permit characters out on the fringes much more autonomy than would otherwise be expected.  Psionics are rare, dangerous, and stigmatized, much more so than in Traveller.  How many science fiction settings have psionics at all, nevermind agreeing on the general attitude towards them?  Ship ownership by private individuals, the Rogue Traders, is rare and inherited, versus ship ownership being rare and just extraordinarily expensive in Traveller (I guess you could do multi-generation-term inherited starship loans...).  Powered armor (and the skills to use it) is also very rare and expensive in both, while both also have very heterogeneous mixes of tracked, wheeled, and grav vehicles and both energy weapons and slugthrowers in common use.  The emphasis on melee combat is surprisingly high for science fiction in both - "cutlass" is a legitimate weapon choice in both.  And the position of anti-aging treatments in both settings has some similarities; they exist, but they're rare, expensive, for the rich and powerful, probably not for your character.

I recall hearing tell that Warhammer 40k's setting had its origins in Traveller's universe, but filtered through a British black comedy 2300 AD / Judge Dredd lens.  And the more I think about it the more right it seems.

So the natural conclusion is that Traveller is probably a really darn good system for running Warhammer 40k RPGs; almost certainly better than the baroque percentile monstrosities that have been churned out in the last ten years.  And if you want modern gamers to understand Traveller's default assumptions, you could do a lot worse than describing the setting as a lot like Warhammer 40k, but less grimdark, with all the craziness dialed down to like a 3.  Yes there are space marines in powered armor and they'll probably ruin your day if you try to fight them, but under the armor they're just well-trained dudes, not centuries-old super-soldiers.  Yes the planet is a feudal technocracy and it's sort of like it's run by the Mechanicus but they're not as culty and not as cyborg.

The real question is whether you'd use Striker or the actual WH40k wargame rules to resolve small mass combats.

And hey, nothing says "To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions.  It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable" quite like death in chargen.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Winning at D&D, Domains as Endgame

I've been playing Grim Dawn lately, in addition to a little Deep Rock Galactic.  I'm getting up towards "endgame" in both of them.  I had never really considered "endgame" in the context of RPG-like games with leveling / progression systems (as opposed to, say, grand strategy games where "endgame" is when your strategy has come to fruition, your position is secure, and you get to coast to victory).  The way it seems to be used in Grim Dawn and DRG is that your progression stops or slows, but difficult and very time-consuming content remains, to interact with optionally.

Looking at Basic D&D through this lens of CRPG terminology, it seems like name level (9th-10th) is almost a soft-cap.  The XP to level changes from exponential to linear (with a steep slope), the rate of HP gain is halved, you've gotten most of the attack throw and save improvement that you're going to get, and you start getting access to new, expensive content on long time-scales: domains.

There are problems with this model, mostly around MUs getting access to 6th level spells at 11th, and some thief skills still don't get up into the 90+% range until 12th - but switching from 5% improvements to 1% or 2% improvements is a very soft-cap "diminishing returns" change of progression structure.  I don't think I would mind a variation that made this more explicit, by making 6th level MU spells ritual magic, and compressing thief skill advancement so that eg Hide in Shadows did get up around 85% by 9th level and then improve by about 2% per level thereafter.

Incidentally, having very-fine-grained progress on thief skills post-9th level might be the best argument I've ever considered of for using percentile thief skills rather than d20 or d6.

I think it would be reasonable to think of making it into the 9th-11th level range as "winning" at D&D.  You've made it over the hump and fulfilled the default goal of accumulating personal power; further efforts to accumulate personal power will be slow going.  But now you have enough power to pick your own goals.  Or you could just retire to your tower and start a new character.

I've noticed among Grim Dawn players a sort of division, between players who enjoy leveling characters, and players who rush through leveling to focus on endgame stuff.  I think that (say) my past ACKS players also divided naturally into these two categories.  For some of them, domains were the game and leveling was just something you did to get there.  Other felts compelled to get domains just to keep up with the endgamers in terms of domain XP, but had no interest in domains as ends to themselves.

I think in a "MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN" with very high individual-player autonomy, having a few players pursue the domain endgame is probably less disruptive for everyone else than in a high-cohesion tight-party game.  Particularly without rules for XP from domains.  And if domains are explicitly endgame content, and at that point you're already about capped-out on XP progression anyway, who cares if they give XP or not?  The passage of time that Gygax describes, where you're probably only passing a couple weeks of game-time per week of real-time, also seems likely to keep adventuring PCs at the center of the action, while PCs hoping to only do domain stuff will be stuck waiting a lot.

...  I wonder what the 1e DMG has to say about domains specifically?

Sunday, June 6, 2021

"A Meaningful Campaign"

I was thinking in the shower about that oft-quoted bit of Gygaxiana:


(all-caps his).

His detractors use it to make fun of him - look at this guy, taking strict timekeeping too seriously and getting mad enough to put it in all caps.  His adherents take it as dogma.

But I got to thinking about Boot Hill's perspective on campaigns, and started to wonder - maybe he meant a structure with much more autonomy for individual players than we typically think of in campaigns.  He's not talking about an "adventure path", obviously, since the quote is from the AD&D 1e DMG and Dragonlance was yet a twinkle in Weis and Hickman's eyes.  Less obviously, I think he's not even talking about the way OSR campaigns are usually run, where the party has a lot of autonomy but players are more or less bound together by it.  One example of this position from Dungeon of Signs - "Old style D&D is not a story about any one PC, it's a story about the adventuring party as a whole, or ultimately about a fictional world as a whole."

I got curious about the context around the Gygax quote, so I dug up my previously-unopened pdf of the 1e DMG and lo and behold, a paragraph after "YOU CANNOT HAVE...", we get:

For the sake of example, let us assume that you begin your campaign on Day 1 of the Year 1000. There are four player characters who begin initially, and they have adventures which last a total of 50 days — 6 days of actual adventuring and 44 days of resting and other activity. At this point in time two new players join the game, one of the original group decides to go to seek the advice of an oracle after hiring an elven henchman, and the remaining three “old boys” decide they will not go with the newcomers. So on Day 51 player A’s character is off on a journey, those of B, C, and D are resting on their laurels, and E and F enter the dungeon. The latter pair spend the better part of the day surviving, but do well enough to rest a couple of game days and return for another try on Day 54 — where they stumble upon the worst monster on the first level, surprise it, and manage to slay it and come out with a handsome treasure. You pack it in for the night. Four actual days later (and it is best to use 1 actual day = 1 game day when no play is happening), on Day 55, player characters B, C, and D enter the dungeon and find that the area they selected has already been cleaned out by player characters E and F. Had they come the day after the previous game session, game Day 52, and done the same thing, they would have found the monster and possibly gotten the goodies!

Some penalty must accrue to the non-active, but on the other hand, the over-active can not be given the world on a silver platter. Despite time differences, the activities of the newcomers to the campaign should be allowed to stand, as Destiny has decreed that the monster in question could not fall to the characters B, C, and D. Therefore, the creature was obviously elsewhere (not dead) when they visited its lair on Day 52, but it had returned on Day 56. Being aware of time differences between groups of player characters will enable you to prevent the BIG problems. You will know when the adventuring of one such group has gone far enough ahead in game time to call a halt. This is particularly true with regard to town/dungeon adventures.

 (emphasis mine)

Can you imagine the drama that would ensue if two new players joined your campaign (group?) and your existing players decided to not go adventuring with them?  I suspect that even in the vast majority of OSR campaigns today, this would be seen as a gross violation of social norms.  Even the West Marches assumes a cooperative community of PCs, a sort of "whoever's at the table that day goes adventuring together".  And yet here Gygax writes as if it were perfectly normal, as if association within the game-world was never taken for granted (and this example wasn't even one of those 20+ person campaigns mentioned in OD&D Book 1 - this is six players!).  This is what I mean by "no party" - there are player characters in the world and they interact with each other as they will.  Sometimes they work together to achieve their objectives, but that's a choice.  A party exists only for a single adventure.  Outside of an adventure, you can do as you please.  You want to go haring off after some oracle (for about a month, in the paragraph following the quoted one)?  By all means!  You want to spend a month just resting and healing?  Sure!  But you might get scooped on treasure.

It makes a lot of sense that if you have that norm, of players going off and doing their own things, and splitting into multiple parties, then yeah, you are going to want timekeeping!  As he says, to prevent "BIG" continuity problems.

The time lines of various player characters will diverge, meet, and diverge again over the course of game years. This makes for interesting campaigns and helps form the history of the milieu. Groups of players tend to segregate themselves for a time, some never returning to the ken of the rest, most eventually coming back to reform into different bands. As characters acquire henchmen, the better players will express a desire to operate some of theirs independently while they, or their liege lord, are away. This is a perfectly acceptable device, for it tends to even out characters and the game. Henchmen tend to become associates — or rivals — this way, although a few will remain as colorless servitors.

You may ask why time is so important if it causes such difficulties with record-keeping, dictates who can or can not go adventuring during a game session, and disperses player characters to the four winds by its strictures. Well, as initially pointed out, it is a necessary penalty imposed upon characters for certain activities [mostly magic item creation]. Beyond that, it also gives players yet another interesting set of choices and consequences. The latter tends to bring more true-to-life quality to the game, as some characters will use precious time to the utmost advantage, some will treat it lightly, and some will be constantly wasting it to their complete detriment. Time is yet another facet which helps to separate the superior players from the lesser ones. If time-keeping is a must from a penalty standpoint, it is also an interesting addition from the standpoint of running a campaign.

Emphasis again mine.  A couple of interesting things in these bits.  One is that the "diverge, meet, diverge again" is very much in the model of, say, Thieves' World, where there are persistent characters who make temporary alliances.  I have heard fiction in this form referred to as picaresque, but looking up the actual properties of picaresque I'm not so sure (I do like almost all of those in my D&D though).  The temporary nature of "bands" is again emphasized.  "interesting set of choices and consequences" is a very gamey thing to say, as is "separate the superior players from the lesser ones".  Gygax here is talking about D&D as a game that you can be better or worse at, and I think would not only say that it is acceptable for some players to fall behind as a result of bad choices and bad luck, but desirable.

So, returning to "meaningful campaign".  It seems that "campaign" here is meant much like the Boot Hill style of campaigning, a big set of interacting characters and a series of skirmish actions with a degree of continuity.  It seems that "meaningful" is meant in some combination of "maintaining internal consistency" and "preserving the agency of each individual player, that their choices about how to spend their resources [time] have consequences."

I'm really curious to see how this notion of great individual agency squares against the practice of having a caller.  I get the feeling I'm going to end up doing a lot more reading from the 1e DMG in the near future.  I found this a more thoughtful position on time, and better-articulated, than I expected.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Entropy as a Character-Generation Currency

Had a conversation with my father today about character generation, random stats vs point buy, and Traveller character generation (including how death-in-chargen leads to intra-party balance in expectation more readily than allowing/expecting characters who fail survival rolls to be played in the company of those who passed all survival rolls).  While discussing point buy schemes and how it's sort of hard to put a number on the value of an 18, but that rolling dice has the problem of "auditability" (did they actually roll these stats?) I got to thinking...

Even if you don't want to actually obey dice, you can expect results that deviate from expectation to a certain degree, and that's a property that you can check.  Ability scores occur with certain probabilities.  Given a set of stats, one could compute the probability of that set occurring.  Depending on the sort of campaign one is running, one could establish bounds on the improbability of each set of chosen stats.

In information theory, there's a concept of "surprisal" in the occurrence of an event, which roughly quantifies how surprising it is given the probability of its occurrence (also called self-information).  If an event occurs with probability p, then its surprisal is -lg(p).  So given the probability of each ability score roll, we can compute the total surprisal of a set of stats.  And one nice property of logarithms of probability is that when you would multiply probabilities, adding their logarithms is equivalent (eg, 0.5 * 0.5 = 0.25.  lg(0.5) = -1, lg(0.25) = -2, so lg(0.5) + lg(0.5) = lg(0.25)).  Being able to work with them additively rather than multiplicatively is a desirable property for something like a point-buy system.

Stat% chanceProbabilitySelf-information (bits)Normalized self-informationScaled and rounded self-information (deci-bits)

So we could use these scaled surprisal values as points during character generation.  But a set of all 10s and 11s is surprisingly unsurprising; an average set rolled on 3d6 looks more like 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14 than like all 10s and 11s.  If you wanted to model stat-lines at this level of surprise, a reasonable approach might be that you get a 7 in any one stat and 8 deci-bits to spend on the other 5, with the option to take a 9 to get a credit of 1 deci-bit.  Realistically, this means you get either a 14 or two 13s and the rest are 10s or 11s (unless you take the 9, which buys you a 12).  Might also want to add a rule that you should have close to the same number of 11s and 10s.

Honestly 13, 13, 11, 11, 10, 7 is a very playable set in B/Xy games.  I could absolutely see giving new players pregens with this array.

But going from there to higher-entropy statblocks seems sort of tricky.  If you let players take a 3 to buy an 18 (or a 6 and a 7 to buy a 16), their stats are "in balance", but more surprising /  less natural / less likely than a statblock with an 18 and a 10 would be!

Average stats of 4d6 drop 1 are more like 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 16 - 34 deci-bits with the option to take a 9 for one more, I suppose?  Four 14s and a pair of 12s is nothing to scoff at in 3.x, while in B/X 16, 13, 13, 13, 11, 10 (or 12, 9) is a very solid set.

Perhaps it would make more sense to compute the probability (and then surprisal) of each ability score modifier band (per game-system), so that a 13 and a 14 are more-or-less equivalent?

Maybe the real problem here is that we're computing surprisal of each score in isolation, when maybe we should be computing the surprisal of the whole set.  Having an 18 as the highest score in a set isn't really that surprising - 6 stats, each with a 1-in-216 chance of being an 18, means a 1-in-36 chance that at least one is an 18, which is the same probability as having a 16 in any particular score.  But I'm not actually familiar enough with information theory to say if I would need something more complex like joint/mutual entropy (but it seems like there shouldn't be any mutual information between stats in a rolled character, because the stat rolls are independent, so you should just be able to add the self-informations together to get its aggregate information).  So I think this line of thought, evaluating the whole set of stats together, would take more thinking.

In any case, an aside - if we're considering using surprise as a currency in character generation, we could also use it to buy "weird stuff".  Want to play a lawful drow, or the lost son of the rightful king, or a balrog?  Fine, but those are extraordinarily rare and that costs entropy that you then aren't spending on your stats.  If elves are half as common among adventurers as humans in your setting, then being an elf is about 10 deci-bits of surprise.  And then maybe we can get rid of stat minimums for demi-humans (which currently impose roughly that effect - three-quarters of stat-lines qualify to be dwarves, and three-quarters qualify to be elves; call it 4 deci-bits).

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Chesterton on Letting the Dice Fall Where They May (but Unseriously)

Continuing with Orthodoxy (chapter 7):

I could never conceive or tolerate any Utopia which did not leave to me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself. Complete anarchy would not merely make it impossible to have any discipline or fidelity; it would also make it impossible to have any fun. To take an obvious instance, it would not be worth while to bet if a bet were not binding. The dissolution of all contracts would not only ruin morality but spoil sport. Now betting and such sports are only the stunted and twisted shapes of the original instinct of man for adventure and romance, of which much has been said in these pages. And the perils, rewards, punishments, and fulfilments of an adventure must be real, or the adventure is only a shifting and heartless nightmare. If I bet I must be made to pay, or there is no poetry in betting. If I challenge I must be made to fight, or there is no poetry in challenging. If I vow to be faithful I must be cursed when I am unfaithful, or there is no fun in vowing... For the purpose even of the wildest romance results must be real; results must be irrevocable.

which reminded me variously of illusionism (where the results aren't real), and storygames (where the players are authorially unbound), and of discussions of agency.

On the other hand,

Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One "settles down" into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness... Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one's self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good TIMES leading article than a good joke in PUNCH. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.

which reminded me of this post of mine, where I concluded "Perhaps the problem with my previous approach to RPGs was taking things entirely too seriously."  And that is not something I have remedied, really.  It reminded me also of Lurkerablog's excellent post on tiki and early D&D:

Thinking about it, the slow evaporation of the Tiki mood from DnD just might be what defines the edge between James Malichewski’s Golden and Silver ages. When DnD got its visual style defined as heavy metal it acquired metal’s earnestness – the wargamer tourists of the 70s gave way to a new player base of DnD natives who took it all very seriously and wanted to know just how heavy that axe was. Kitsch, whimsy, a lack intensity – these became signs of poor commitment.

It is an easy error to make, for irrevocability to become serious, for it to turn to grave plotting to limit one's risks.  But I do think my favorite ACKS players have been the ones who took irrevocability in stride, for whom it was not a deterrent to action.  "Ha, told you we'd survive!" (or "that was a really funny death, it's going to be hard to top that")  I don't know how I would encourage such an attitude though.

Maybe part of the problem is that ACKS takes itself seriously.  That's part of why it's good; because it was taken seriously during its creation.  But it's not without its costs.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Traveller: Why Are Radioactives Expensive?

Reflecting on Traveller and gross planetary product, I got to thinking about radioactives.  They're worth a million credits a ton, and it's a little puzzling.  What are radioactives used for in Traveller?  Nuclear weapons are purely the Imperium's prerogative, so that's pretty much out (but radioactives aren't illegal on their own, so it's also not like a black market price inflation sort of thing).  They're not being used for starship armor, probably (almost certainly not for crystal-iron or titanium steel.  Maybe for "bonded superdense"?  But that sounds more like neutronium than depleted uranium).  Is DU being used in infantry weapons and armor?  But you don't really need radioactives for DU, it's depleted.  It's probably not being used for medical imaging with all the higher-TL stuff available.  And it's not being used for power because fusion technology exists.

Fusion, incidentally, sounds like a decent way to synthesize radioactives, since that's how stars do it.  Horribly energy intensive, yes - but you have fusion power.  So fuse hydrogen for energy, and then use that energy to fuse lead or whatever to get your radioactives.

I've got half a mind to remove fusion power and make starships fission powered, as a means of explaining why anybody in Traveller gives a hoot about radioactives.  Doesn't matter how far in the future you go, fusion is still 10 years away.

But I don't think I'd want to use Mongoose's rules for fission power, which are pretty punitive.  I'm fine with the gameplay of the fusion reactor, just not the in-world implications.  Keep the same reactor volume and cost, keep the same fuel volume, but you only have to replace it once every, oh, ten years or so, and have the total cost of the replacement fuel rods add up to what you would've spent on refined hydrogen fuel for a typical fusion reactor over that time.  And then lift HOSTILE's hyperdrive and maneuver drive rules, you're heating hydrogen on the reactor and using that for thrust.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Traveller: How Big is the Militia of that Mining Colony?

(This is a "thinking out loud / showing my work" post)

Thinking about Boot Hill, Traveller, and (naturally) Starcraft led me to the question - how much military hardware and how many trained men does a backwater mining colony have?

Fortunately, Striker has rules for the GDP of planets based on their population, tech level, and economy tags, and suggestions about what fraction of that GDP is allocated to military spending (and ground vs spacy-navy spending) based on situation.

Let's take, say, the world of Serpentine from HOSTILE (subsector New Concession Zone, UWP D590355-C, Desert).  Population digit 3 means it has a few thousand people; applying Benford's Law and a d% roll, about 3000 people.  Per Striker, a TL12 Desert world has a per-capita GDP of 16kCr, so with 3k people total planetary GDP is 48 MCr.  Assuming 3% of GDP is spent on the military (Striker's baseline), that's 1.44 MCr/year.  60% (864 kCr) goes to the navy and 40% to the army (576kCr) (again, Striker's baseline for a world with an atmosphere).  

One place I'm diverging from Striker's assumptions is that 30% of defense spending goes to the Imperium.

That Navy budget is enough to afford a new police cutter (at MgT1e's prices) every, mmm...  65 years.  Once they have one, maintenance and fuel is about 120kCr/year.  A pilot is 72kCr/year salary, and a gunner is 24kCr/year, so TCO of a crewed cutter is 216 kCr/year.  Assuming the colony has been around a long time, their "navy" might field four such police cutters, and maybe 1-2 are on duty at any given time.  The limiting factor here might be human though - pilots have to sleep, machines don't.  If we went down to three cutters we could pick up an extra two pilots and three gunners (and maybe some admin staff) and that might improve availability somewhat but ultimately "between 1 and 3 police cutters on duty at any given time" is still going to be the right answer.

A solar system is a lot of space to cover with three cutters, at least one of which is probably off duty at any given time.  Pirates take note.

Meanwhile, on the surface, 576 kCr/year in army budget.  Government type 5 is the infamous Feudal Technocracy, which sounds like the sort of government that would field a mix of long-service feudal retainers and militia.  A long-service professional soldier costs 30kCr/year in wages, facilities, support personnel, etc, while a militiaman costs 10kCr/year.  So if we didn't have to buy or maintain any gear and were going just for number of bodies, the upper limit on the size of Serpentine's army would be (drumroll) 57 militia, about two platoons.  Which, to be fair, is about 2% of the population.  In times of crisis, with the military budget jacked up to 15% of GDP, they could support almost 300 militia, about two companies (10% of the population).

What gear do our infantry need?  Atmosphere type is 9, "Dense, Tainted", which means they'll all need filter masks.  Serpentine's temperature isn't listed in HOSTILE, but rolling it gave me Temperate, which is a bit odd for a desert world but whatever I'll allow it.  In any case, it seems like they don't need a great deal of protective equipment just to go outside.  Let's go with something like HOSTILE's ballistic vest (450Cr, 45Cr/year maintenance, AR5, 2kg) for armor.  Probably don't need more than one short-range radio per fireteam (250Cr each in HOSTILE), plus one medium or long-range radio for per platoon (1kCr in HOSTILE).  Assault rifles are on the order of 1-3 kCr each, depending on details.  Machine guns are in the same range.  So with equipment maintenance per year at 10% of its base price, we're looking at about an extra, say, 400 Cr/year in gear maintenance, which is peanuts next to personnel upkeep.

Without going through Striker's design sequences, we could consider picking up a couple of APCs at HOSTILE's prices; 100kCr to buy, 10kCr/year upkeep.  Crew of two, 13 passengers, means that four APCs would definitely cover us for the annual price of four militia.  Sounds like a reasonable deal to me, and helpful for moving them around in an unfriendly (though not outright deadly) environment.

So at the end of the day, neglecting the potential "feudal retainer professionals", we're looking at four APCs, 53 militia.  Eight of our militiamen are vehicle crew (four drivers, four gunners), leaving 49 infantry.  Maybe drop one more of the infantrymen and pick up a couple trucks or something in case one of the APCs is down for maintenance, and that also leaves us some buffer to buy a bit of new gear every year.  It is a little weird to give armored vehicles to militia, but it's a mining colony, they're operating and maintaining dump trucks and excavators daily anyway.

Or we could go up to professionals, and get one APC, 15 guys (two of whom are crew), and have a lot more slack to work with for replacing and upgrading gear (about 100 kCr/year - enough to replace the APC annually if necessary).

But the important thing here - this is a small enough army that PCs could conceivably go up against it, or make a difference against the sort of threats that it could deal with.  15-30 guys with assault rifles and an armored vehicle or two is a scary encounter in Traveller, but not impossible to deal with given command and control, morale, dispersion, defeat in detail, low skill levels on militia, and fighting dirty.  If you get the entire army of 50 militiamen and four APCs shooting at you at once, yeah, you're probably hosed.

But because Traveller's population codes go up exponentially, at Pop 4 we'd expect about 10x the population, 10x the GDP, and consequently 10x the army.  So that would be more like a couple of companies, and a much harder thing for PCs to deal with.  So I guess I got lucky picking the break point as my first testcase.  Meanwhile at population 2, which is 1/10th the GDP of Pop 3, you're looking at an "army" the size of the party.

In conclusion: Population 3 or less, maybe you can personally fight their army without having a military unit to back you up.  Population 4 or more, probably not.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Traveller: HOSTILE Review

HOSTILE is a setting book for Cepheus (an OGL clone of Mongoose Traveller 1e) very explicitly inspired by grungy, industrial 80s science fiction movies including Alien, Aliens, Outworld, Silent Running, The Thing, and Blade Runner.  The spaceships are dimly lit with metal grille floors, the aliens are not sentient but definitely carnivorous, space is for working-class heroes crewing 10k dton ships rather than tourists in 200 dton ships, FTL travel makes you go mad if you're not frozen, videophones live on your desk rather than in your pocket, and the corporation is usually hiding something.

This is a pretty darn good setting, and I could absolutely see using it more-or-less as written.  I think it will probably make a lot more sense than Traveller's default setting to many people my age, since it's grounded in media that they've at least heard of.

The good:

  •  Advice on design and employment of horrible alien monsters (HOSTILE was sold to me as "HOSTILE answers the question "How to run Aliens when the players know Aliens?" And supports that answer.")
  • I like what they've done with technology; no antigrav, no personal energy weapons, limited electronics.  A setting of big hydraulics, treads, slugthrowers, and Newton's Third Law.
  • The descriptions of the relatively well-settled and hospitable core worlds are quite good and make it clear that "hospitable" is very relative.  "Temperate climate, breathable atmosphere, a friendly biosphere: choose two."
  • Clever changes to the way jump and maneuver drives work in starship design; maneuver drives use reaction mass, but FTL travel doesn't, so you still end up with a substantial fraction of the ship's volume used for fuel (preserving loose backwards compatibility with other Traveller designs) but FTL plays more "normally" for science fiction.
  • I like that the new careers are simple, more like Classic Traveller careers than Mongoose's "three paths and an event table for each career" approach.
  • Pretty good production value; chapter heading pages look good, the book as a whole is structured as a corporate new employee manual, mix of black and white art and pictures of modern-day industrial equipment filtered for atmosphere color and with low-hanging celestial bodies in the background.
  • More detailed rules for decompression and opening airlocks from the outside.  There's even a diagram of "here's what the exterior panel for an airlock looks like, here is what each button does".
  • Putting everything under corporate control and making ships enormous solves Traveller's historical problem of "where is the economic niche for a tiny Far Trader when there are supposedly these bulk cargo lines?" by saying "Well there isn't, but that's OK."

The bad:

  • Some editing/proofreading issues.  Many run-on sentences, some of which don't make sense.  Some spelling / word-replacement issues (eg, "if" when clearly "of" was meant), but Zozer is definitely better at using spell-check than Mongoose.
  • Kind of a steep price-point for a pdf ($20).
  • Long (right around 300 pages - about 1.5 times the length of the MgT1e core rulebook) and colorful means that it is not very friendly to printing your own copy from the pdf.
  • Some oddities in the careers (eg medical career gets Medical skill 1, 2, and 3 at ranks 1, 2, and 3, while no other career get anything like that level of guaranteed skill for promotion).  This isn't really bad (lord knows we had problems getting a competent medic in MgT), but it is a little odd.
    • The changes to basic training mean that you get many fewer skills at level 0, which seems very questionable to me.  I could definitely see players used to having a broad range of skills at 0 objecting to this, and I don't think I would disagree with them.  On the other hand, this again works out pretty close to Classic Traveller's level of skills, where you got two skill rolls during your first term, one each term thereafter, and no basic training (whereas in HOSTILE you don't get two rolls in your first term, but most careers give a skill at rank 1).  But I'm not sure the utility of skills in CT and in HOSTILE/Cepheus/MgT is directly comparable; many skills in CT gave you a bonus of greater than +1 per point of skill level, and others seemed like you didn't need to roll them at all.  And many important skills, like Vacc Suit and weapon skills, were easy to get at level 0 in Classic Traveller ("Skills appropriate for level-0 are: air/raft, ATV, forward observer, steward, vacc suit, and
      weapons.", CT Book 1, page 23).
  • Equipment weights in tenths of a kilogram, breaking with Mongoose 1e's standard where equipment weights were multiples of 0.5 kg (at least in the core rules).
  • While I'm picking nits about units: in-system travel rates and distances in millions of kilometers, rather than gigameters.  Why would you ever pass up the opportunity to use the word gigameter?
  • I could have used a little less setting history.  I'm already on board with the premise, I don't necessarily need all the details of how we got here.  I skipped over some parts of this.
    • Felt very concrete, not a whole lot of gaps intended for DMs to fill in in order to produce their own variations on the setting's history (there are plenty of gaps in terms of described planets and suspicious facts about various corporations for DMs to author stuff into, though - there are six subsectors' worth of maps, but only the Core Worlds are described in great detail, with a few rim and frontier worlds getting 1-3 sentence descriptions and most undescribed except for UPP and trade codes)
  • The organization of the equipment chapter is pretty odd, with armor coming first and weapons coming last, with all the survival gear and chemicals and robots and android construction rules and vehicles in the middle.  I assume it's alphabetized by sub-heading, which is fine for reference, but it seems like it would be pretty annoying for, say, equipping a new character, where you probably want to start with armor and weapons (the heavy, expensive things that keep you alive), then misc gear, then maybe a vehicle.  In Zozer's defense, MgT 1e's equipment is organized armor, misc gear, weapons, vehicles and robots (but in MgT, it's only ten pages between armor and weapons - HOSTILE has 34 pages between armor and weapons).
  • I'm not really clear why the world generation rules (with the "hard science"
    modifiers baked in) were included/duplicated in this book.

The missing:

  • Thoughts on dealing with replacement characters - if you actually run it as a horrific game, people will occasionally die, and if you follow the advice that horror is made more effective by isolation, where are you to get replacement characters / what are players of dead characters supposed to do?  Playing the monsters only works when there are at least as many monsters as dead players...
  • Thoughts on agency.  Three models of play are proposed - Work (crew an industrial ship (probably cargo, because then you get around) and deal with things that go wrong), Fight (another bug hunt?), and Explore (gee I wonder what happens if I poke this egg).  Work and Fight are both pretty reactive, and if you're a corporate surveyor, Explore is likely to be too.  Just by the nature of the setting where the corporations own everything in space, it doesn't seem particularly amenable to sandbox play.  This is probably fine but it might have borne more discussion as a difference from how Traveller is often run.
  • Example in play of the burn / maneuver drive system.  Or just a rewrite of the Starship Operations chapter of MgT updated for the setting's changes to drives.  If there were five fewer pages of setting history and five more on how the new maneuver drive and hyperdrive work in play, instead of having them crammed into the ship construction chapter, I would be much happier.
    • I am informed that more detail on how HOSTILE's maneuver and hyperdrives work is present in the Crew Expendable supplement.
  • Wages / economy?  The Broker skill description mentions "Trade and Commerce rules" but they aren't in here, presumably it's pointing back to the SRD.  Does crewing a ship pay differently than under stock MgT assumptions?  How do you go about making money, and what can you do with it other than buy weapons and survival gear?
    • How much of your paycheck does the company take for food and gear?
    • How's the health insurance?
    • It would be kind of fun to have "accumulate a certain amount of money" as a win-condition; "I have enough to retire to one of the core worlds on, I'm getting out of this business.  Just need to survive a few more jumps back to the core and then I can buy me a soy farm and never set foot in space ever again".
    • Or a Charlie Company-style 9-month or 1-year contract; "And he was only three weeks away from finishing his contract...  damn shame."
    • I recognize that this is all a gamier perspective than HOSTILE's author probably intends, and that mixing horror and fair play is a hard thing.  But this is the Wandering Gamist.
  • Advancement - if you're a meat popsicle during jump, you don't get those free weeks of training.  It might take a week or two to get to (or from?) a jump point sometimes, but in higher-maneuver ships this will be shorter, so it seems like training time will be rather inconsistent (and may not come in nice one-week chunks, since distance to jump point is rolled).  Any mechanism to make up for that?  Shift training to days instead of weeks?  Or do people just not really run campaigns, and hence advancement isn't something anyone worries about?
    • On the other hand, the discussion of horror does suggest having frequent normal sessions only occasionally punctuated by horror, because this contrast makes it more effective.  So I don't think dismissing this campaign-play aspect is consistent.
  • More deckplans for big industrial ships.  You get one for free in a separate pdf with the main book, but you're probably going to need more for environments for PCs to explore after Something Has Gone Horribly Wrong and they're called in to investigate.  Looking at Zozer's supplements for HOSTILE, it seems like you get about one deckplan per supplement (eg Colonial Freighter for $8.99, Roughnecks has deckplans for a drilling rig, Alien Breeds has floorplans for a colony).  So I sort of wish there were just a "here are all the deckplans from all the supplements" book.

In any case, despite my complaints, this setting does a good job of evoking the feeling that it sets out to evoke, and as stated at the beginning, I could absolutely see running it with few changes to its canon, or mining its ambiance and technology for a less corporate but still grungy setting.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Orthodoxy, Giants, and Elfland

So I was reading Chesterton (uh oh) and a few things popped out at me as vaguely D&D-relevant:

Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity of the appetite of man. He was always outstripping his mercies with his own newly invented needs. His very power of enjoyment destroyed half his joys. By asking for pleasure, he lost the chief pleasure; for the chief pleasure is surprise. Hence it became evident that if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small. Even the haughty visions, the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations of humility. Giants that tread down forests like grass are the creations of humility. Towers that vanish upwards above the loneliest star are the creations of humility. For towers are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giants unless they are larger than we. All this gigantesque imagination, which is, perhaps, the mightiest of the pleasures of man, is at bottom entirely humble. It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything...

This seemed surprisingly relevant to OSR philosophy - the value of playing ultimately rather small and human characters in a big world, the enjoyment of surprises from the random tables and exploratory play, the fundamental boringness of fighting monsters against which you are evenly matched ("not giants unless they are larger than we"), the boringness of having a nice planned story arc and very little going wrong and ultimately getting what you want that sometimes happens in more modern games.

Even at max-level in B/X or OD&D, you're only a baron, not a king or emperor.  The feeling of being a small fish is still sort of there.  And during the wilderness levels, when you're dealing with 30-300 orcs - "that few stood against many".  Imbalanced combat-as-war is seldom heroic, but balanced encounters never are, because a requisite for heroism is fighting an enemy greater than you, which requires smallness.

But I deal here with what ethic and philosophy come from being fed on fairy tales. If I were describing them in detail I could note many noble and healthy principles that arise from them. There is the chivalrous lesson of "Jack the Giant Killer"; that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride as such.

This struck me as a very curious answer to the problem of justification of fighting sentient / humanoid monsters.

For the pleasure of pedantry I will call it the Doctrine of Conditional Joy. Touchstone talked of much virtue in an "if"; according to elfin ethics all virtue is in an "if." The note of the fairy utterance always is, "You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word `cow'"; or "You may live happily with the King's daughter, if you do not show her an onion." The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden. Mr. W.B.Yeats, in his exquisite and piercing elfin poetry, describes the elves as lawless; they plunge in innocent anarchy on the unbridled horses of the air—

"Ride on the crest of the dishevelled tide, And dance upon the mountains like a flame."

It is a dreadful thing to say that Mr. W.B.Yeats does not understand fairyland. But I do say it. He is an ironical Irishman, full of intellectual reactions. He is not stupid enough to understand fairyland. Fairies prefer people of the yokel type like myself; people who gape and grin and do as they are told. Mr. Yeats reads into elfland all the righteous insurrection of his own race. But the lawlessness of Ireland is a Christian lawlessness, founded on reason and justice. The Fenian is rebelling against something he understands only too well; but the true citizen of fairyland is obeying something that he does not understand at all. In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.

This sort of magic-with-a-condition seems like it could be fun in games and certainly fitting to the literature but I don't think I've ever seen it used.  It could get especially exciting if you start stacking up multiple taboos.

This is the tone of fairy tales, and it is certainly not lawlessness or even liberty, though men under a mean modern tyranny may think it liberty by comparison...  Fairy godmothers seem at least as strict as other godmothers. Cinderella received a coach out of Wonderland and a coachman out of nowhere, but she received a command—which might have come out of Brixton—that she should be back by twelve. Also, she had a glass slipper; and it cannot be a coincidence that glass is so common a substance in folk-lore. This princess lives in a glass castle, that princess on a glass hill; this one sees all things in a mirror; they may all live in glass houses if they will not throw stones. For this thin glitter of glass everywhere is the expression of the fact that the happiness is bright but brittle, like the substance most easily smashed by a housemaid or a cat. And this fairy-tale sentiment also sank into me and became my sentiment towards the whole world. I felt and feel that life itself is as bright as the diamond, but as brittle as the window-pane; and when the heavens were compared to the terrible crystal I can remember a shudder. I was afraid that God would drop the cosmos with a crash.

This is what I have learned in some years in the field of computer security.  The internet is brittle.  The power grid is brittle (one well-placed nuke away from ceasing to operate, never mind hacking).  All the wonders of our current way of life are brittle.  But sadly we do not have the fairy tale's clear rules of The Things That Must Not Be Done.

I may express this other feeling of cosmic cosiness by allusion to another book always read in boyhood, "Robinson Crusoe," which I read about this time, and which owes its eternal vivacity to the fact that it celebrates the poetry of limits, nay, even the wild romance of prudence. Crusoe is a man on a small rock with a few comforts just snatched from the sea: the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea. It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck. Every man has had one horrible adventure: as a hidden untimely birth he had not been, as infants that never see the light. Men spoke much in my boyhood of restricted or ruined men of genius: and it was common to say that many a man was a Great Might-Have-Been. To me it is a more solid and startling fact that any man in the street is a Great Might-Not-Have-Been.

Ode to the inventory.  Choosing prudently what to bring with you when you can't carry much and it is all that you will have in a dangerous place.  It's also been a long time since I shipwrecked some PCs, but on reflection a strict inventory would've been good there too.

Monday, April 19, 2021


Spring has definitely arrived here.  The cherry trees are blooming and the swallows have returned from wherever they spent the winter.  It has me thinking about haikus and seasons.

I have wanted to make seasons matter in my games back at least to the first ACKS campaign.  Rivers freeze or flood, pine barrens burn, passes close, leaves fall and encounter distance gets longer, monsoon rains fall and encounter distance gets shorter.  Rocs migrate, bears (and dragons?) hibernate.  Seasonal festivals and harvests, summer warfare and winter hospitality, ports closing in the winter.  There's lots of fodder for variations in gameplay.  Better still, it's cyclical variation, rather than a torrent of novelties, none of which ever recur.  What you learned last winter, you may get to reuse (if you live long enough).

I also think nothing says "This is not an adventure path, there is no cosmic threat that you are on a deadline to save the world from" like having a campaign sprawl out over years of game-time.  I think this was a big part of my initial attraction to seasons in play.  I want my players to be able to say, "Nah, adventuring in the snow sucks, let's just take the winter off and fool around town for a couple months."

Unfortunately, this runs into trouble if you have nonzero "background" cash flow.  If you're in a situation where your net cash flow is negative, like having too many mercenaries or a DM who actually enforces the cost of living table, your ability to take time off is very limited.  If you are in a net positive passive cash flow situation, like having a domain, then your DM will go looking for mechanisms to incentivize you to ever go adventuring again.

I like the idea of a campaign long and mellow enough that the aging rules actually start to matter, and you can use the Oriental Adventures randomly yearly theme/events system and not be stuck on that one theme for the entire campaign.  Let the dungeon and the wilderness by tense and hurried; let civilization be unhurried, month-to-season-scaled, stable enough for the farmers (and consequently the players too) to think about next year.

When I proposed to turn expenses-over-time and income-over-time into one-time lump sums [mercenaries][henchmen][domains], I was aiming at letting PCs disappear from the table for long periods of time, in the open-table style.  I hadn't considered that it would work for PCs disappearing from adventuring for a long period of time just to take time off in-world.  But I think it would work.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Traveller, Open Tables, and Boot Hill

There's been some discussion of Traveller on ACKS discord lately and it has me thinking.

All of the Traveller campaigns I've run or played in have been of the "crew of a single ship, small-cast" model.  And Mongoose Traveller, at least, explicitly encourages this with the party skill package.  But what would an open table Traveller campaign look like?  How would you make that work?

If I thought adapting ACKS to open-table play would be tough, Traveller seems a whole 'nother animal.

The biggest difficulty, obviously, is ships.  If there is no party-as-a-whole to own a ship, do you instead have individual players hold the leases on ships?  But then what do you do in a session where no player who has a ship is present?  Is this what the rules for paying for passage are for?  And likewise, what do you do if multiple players with ships are present?  Do you just both go to the same place, convoy-style?  Do you let one ship sit idle?  But then you're paying loan for something you're not using, which brings up another point - if you're a loan-holding player and you can't make a session but time passes in-universe, then what?

Maybe it's best to assume that ships sitting idle are doing boring local deliveries that just break even.

I suppose another answer to the trouble of ships would be "the party (as in the whole playerbase) is a corporation", with ships, debts, and treasury held in common.  But then what if some particular session's subparty really screws up and gets the ship destroyed, or loots the party treasury?

(I suppose another solution to the ship problem is to break with tradition and embrace jump-capable small craft, allowing you to move a party but not a whole lot of gear on a much smaller budget than a typical starship)

Another difficulty - what do you do if you do have a ship-holder at a particular session, but no pilot?  Here again, a seldom-used rule might be relevant: salaries for various crew positions on MgT1e page 137.  The rules in Pirates of Drinax for hiring NPCs would help too.  But it could get weird if the NPC part of your crew is getting paid salaries while the PC part of your crew isn't, and weirder still if you pay different PCs different rates.

Cost of Living for different PCs with different SOC stats (MgT1e page 87) also poses difficulties.

There also isn't really a good Traveller equivalent of a megadungeon.  I suppose one could build an enormous wreck to explore over the course of a campaign, but megadungeons benefit from being fantastical environments which admit lots of internal variance; in a simulated "real" space, you can't do that, so it risks getting dull. 

On the other hand, open table Traveller could be a lot of fun, in part on the basis of variety between planets.  One of the things I liked about Traveller is that it can vary a lot adventure to adventure; it's easy to do Firefly one session, Alien the next, and Mad Max after that.  And in an open table environment, with a broad set of players with different preferences and different skills, it seems like such variation might be more welcome than in a higher-continuity campaign.  It might even be a good excuse to bring out some of the supplements from time to time - if you don't have a ship this session, sign on for a short tour with some mercs and do Hammer's Slammers with Striker this session, or do a stint of private eye work and bust out Agent.

But the point about salaries brought another things to mind: Boot Hill's campaign structure as described in the books, where each player is doing their own thing and you occasionally convene to resolve combats.  A subsector with one or two high-tech or industrial worlds and a smattering of low-pop worlds starts to look rather like the Boot Hill campaign map, with a central "city" and a smattering of ranches, homesteads, and mines.  An X-boat route is a lot like a telegraph line, while an established jump-1 trade route has a certain resemblance to a railroad (using something like warpgate stations instead of ship-mounted FTL really starts to look like a railroad, in that you have to build expensive infrastructure and only service certain spots).  And like Boot Hill, Traveller admits high-volume automation of NPC generation; the process is more complicated, but the output is still simpler than most characters in D&D-type games (particularly if you prune some of the softer noncombat skills / go back to Classic Traveller).  Lining up the passage of real time with the passage of game-time like in OD&D's campaign rules puts the "one week per jump" rule in a new light (I don't know that you'd really want to do 1:1 time, but it's an interesting idea.  2:1 might be more reasonable, so you can do a week in jump and a week in port per IRL week).

A lot of interesting options open up when you break the notion of "party", move to a big cast of PCs with conflicting interests, and maintain campaign-time.  Multiple PC-run mercenary companies, possibly deployed against each other from time to time?  Some players playing at Merchant Prince scale, some players playing individual crewmen of ships and earning salary?  Cat-and-mouse games between PC leaseholders and PC jump tracers?  PC pirates and smugglers who accumulate bounties vs PC bounty hunters, like Boot Hill's dynamic between lawmen and outlaws?  PC belt miners claim jumping each other?  Your hit the motherlode of radioactives and next thing you know you're hiring PC mercenaries to keep the PC pirates off of you.

There's a whole weird world of ways of playing when you let each player play their own subgame which interacts with other players' subgames, and it seems under-explored in tabletop games.  If you don't want to deal with ship mortgages, or asteroid mining, or whatever, there's no party dragging you into dealing with that particular mechanic.  On the other hand, "many players independently playing their own interacting subgames in spaaace" may have also just described EVE Online.  But there's something to be said for games that have below Dunbar's Number of players and a flexible referee.

And Traveller covers two of Boot Hill's weaknesses: lack of information on economy and yields of various activities (if anything Traveller refs are spoiled for choices, across the various editions) and political difficulties around the Wild West setting.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Risk Floor

 This is not my original insight; it's something that comes up in the ACKS discord occasionally, but that I don't think I've ever seen talked about in the rest of the OSRosphere

It can seem kind of cruel to have monsters with save-or-die poison on the first level of the dungeon.  But it's actually important for the long haul.

Save-or-die poison threatens characters regardless of their level (particularly in combination with "a natural 20 always hits").  When you put save-or-die monsters in the first level of the dungeon (and then all the rest) you are saying "it doesn't matter how high level you are, adventuring anywhere always carries some risk, no matter how small, of death."

There is, in effect, a floor on the amount of risk that you are allowed to assume while still calling your activity "adventuring".  Without some amount of real risk, would it be an adventure?  No.

I think the existence of this risk floor is important to campaign gameplay as well as semantics.  Making adventuring never quite safe discourages players from just sticking to the weakest areas and grinding out levels in as much safety as they can manage, because "as safe as you can manage" still always has "losing the game" on the table.  Since you must take risks, you probably want to assume slightly more risk for a much higher payout (ie, push into deeper levels of the dungeon).  So it helps keep the campaign from entering a degenerate state and helps motivate progress through the environment.  It's probably also important for keeping play with mixed-level parties from getting boring for the players with higher-level characters.  Finally, in-world, it also helps explain why high-level adventurers might want to hire low-level adventurers for certain jobs /  delegate; the risk to those high-level adventurers is low, but never zero.  Better to let someone else do the dying if you can get them to.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Simple Domains: Vassals and Tributaries

I've been playing Crusader Kings 2 again lately, and the split between feudal vassals who give you troops and city vassals who give you money is interesting.  It has me thinking about my Estates ideas from back when.

Maybe a good option for Simple Domains would be to classify vassal and tributary domains a little differently.

A vassal domain is one whose ruler has entered into a feudal contract with another domain.  The vassal domain's primary obligation is troops - rather than paying taxes in cash, it pays them (all or mostly) by maintaining and supplying troops and putting them at the disposal of its sovereign.  Taking a quick look over Simple Borderlands domains, it looks like if you roll your taxes into garrison you end up with about twice the standing troops you otherwise would, so I don't think this is wildly unreasonable - it's not like we're taking domains with 5kgp/mo in garrison and asking them to assemble 50kgp/mo standing armies for their lords to call up.

Maybe this is a good spot to use per-culture mercenary mixes; when you call your vassals up, they don't bring super-specialist armies, just the troops of their peoples' way of war.

Henchman domains are typically vassals, because they're loyal enough to trust with troops.  When you call up vassal troops, roll loyalty of the vassal; if you roll badly they make excuses and send only a fraction of their obligated troops.

Tributary domains, on the other hand, pay all of their obligations to their sovereign in cash.  You don't need to trust them with a double-size standing army, but if you want to turn their taxes into mercenaries, it will take you time.

Perhaps the arrangement between sub-domains and their sovereign has some influence on morale, depending on the nature of the underlying domain.  A hill tribe that you've subjugated may be happy to provide warriors, but they're cash-poor.  A trading city has plenty of cash but no access to good troops; asking them to maintain an army for you is a greater burden, and will reduce their domain morale.

Vassal domains providing troops instead of taxes seems like it might be a good way to accelerate the domain game, where the ability to accumulate an army is the limiting factor of an up-and-coming fighter.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Return to Wilderness Level

Once upon a time, I thought about having wilderness difficulty scale up and down sort of like dungeon difficulty.  I think that proposal had several problems, but I think maybe I see a better way to do it now.

I've been thinking about how one would/could do low-level wilderness adventures in OSR games.  The monsters in wilderness encounters are just so numerous that any encounter is likely to wipe out a low-level party that gets a poor reaction roll and fails to evade, and none of your "win buttons" work - if you cast sleep on the goblins, you drop a quarter of the warband, and the rest will still get you.

Some OSR systems already sort of have a method to adjust encounter difficulty based on dungeon level.  It's possible it was in AD&D and I just haven't seen the original source.  In OSRIC,

Lesser monsters encountered on a lower dungeon level
should have their numbers increased by the same amount
for each dungeon level lower than their monster level. For
example, the sub-table # column lists 2d10 for goblins (1st-lvl)
encountered on the first level of the dungeon. If encountered
on the third level of the dungeon, they would be three times
as numerous (6d10).

ACKS has a similar rule, with a different constant:

Roll the appropriate number encountered for the creature to determine how many are present. Increase or decrease this roll by one-half for each step of difference between the dungeon level and the Random Monster table used (round down).

OSE, surprisingly, does not seem to have such a rule, which is part of why I think it might be an AD&Dism.

But if we accept that the number of monsters appearing scales up with dungeon level, then we can argue that the wilderness is something like the 7th level of a dungeon, on the basis that a wilderness encounter of goblins is seven times (on average) the size of a dungeon encounter of goblins.  Taking ogres instead, we get something more like a 4th-level dungeon, since ogres appear on the 3rd level of dungeons and an encounter with them in the wilderness is only twice as large as a dungeon encounter.  We could probably go through and figure out the average "effective dungeon level" of wilderness from all of the monsters that appear on the "random monsters by dungeon level" table.

Just looking at the table and a few entries instead of doing that analysis, I think something around dungeon level 5 is probably pretty close.  Possibly with an extra adjustment for ~1HD creatures that causes them to scale up faster.

If we characterize generic wilderness in this way, as a multiplier on encounter size, then we can alter that characteristic for different wildernesses, just as we do for dungeon levels.  This provides another way to create difficulty gradients in pure wilderness like we already have in dungeons - and a much finer-grained one than ACKS' borderlands-vs-wilderness distinction!  If you meet goblins in the Sunny Meadow, effective dungeon level 2, you only encounter two gangs, and sleep can still save the day.  If you encounter goblins in the Ash Wastes, effective dungeon level 7, you get your usual 2d6 gangs and sleep will not save you.

Characterizing biomes with effective dungeon level also provides a way to figure the size of unguarded treasures (or trapped treasures)  in the "wilderness as dungeon" model.

It might also be useful as a starting point for the effective level of the first level of dungeons located in those biomes.  If you're in the Ash Wastes and you find a dungeon entrance, the first level is not going to be as easy as the first level of a dungeon in the Sunny Meadow!

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Out of Characters? Play the Monsters

Had a discussion recently about how to handle players whose characters have died during a dungeon crawl.  One traditional solution, back even to Gygax, is to have new characters appear in the dungeon at the first plausible opportunity, maybe having been captured by monsters or being the remnants of another adventuring party.

I don't really like that solution though.  At the very least it messes with the resource management game, to have new characters at full HP, full spells, and full equipment joining the party in the middle of the dungeon as a matter of course.  As an infrequent thing, I wouldn't mind too much - meet another party, roll well on reaction, join up, fine.  If it were accompanied by some resource exhaustion on the incoming character, that might be fine too.  But the stated policy of many DMs, to have new characters join the party at the next possible excuse, does not seem like a policy that I would want to make known to my past (occasionally exploitative) players, particularly in the presence of the Reserve XP rule allowing them to bring in new characters of higher than 1st level.

Maybe the problem here is really Reserve XP.

But in any case, that's not the thought that I came to share.  As I mentioned last post, Beyond the Black Gate has been on my mind.  Another post of his which has been influential on my thought was about Arneson's impartiality, and this bit sprang to mind:

He would go so far, sometimes, as letting the players roll the dice for both sides of a conflict. Once, when the party's boat was a attacked by a horde of lizardmen, he told us how many there were, their armor class, their hit points, what they needed to hit us, and so on. They were stupid, he explained, and fanatic, and would fight to the death, so we should be able to take care of that ourselves, and he was going to go get a coke and he'd be back in a few minutes to check on us. Half of the players grinned at his audacity (me included), while the other half looked around for the hidden cameras or waited for the punch line.

And Boot Hill's bit about having players with no stake in a particular fight play the opposing NPCs is also fresh.  So...

If a player with all dead characters has finished rolling up their next one and is now bored, let them run some of the monsters in combat.  Heck, maybe let them direct some random encounters out around the edge of torchlight.  I could see this being tricky to do well given partial information - presumably you don't want to show the player the ground-truth dungeon map, because his next incarnation may well come back to this section.  But I think having them run, say, an humanoid champion and his goons in a combat is probably pretty reasonable.

When I was first starting to learn to DM, my father did something similar, I think, introducing me to monster statblocks and letting me run a few of them in combat.  Granted, that was in 3rd Edition, where the statblocks were a lot more complex, but I still think this might be a reasonable avenue to help players get familiar with how things work on the other side of the screen.