Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Gisli's Saga and Boot Hill

I read Gisli's Saga the other day and something about it reminded me of Chocolate Hammer's Boot Hill campaign.  It got me thinking about how one could set up a powderkeg for a saga quite similar to that, but perhaps smaller in number of characters.

Thorkel and Gisli are brothers from Norway who settle in Hawkdale in Iceland, and marry into Hawkdale families.  Gisli marries Auda, the sister of a man named Vestein, while Thorkel marries Asgerda.  It comes out that Asgerda fancied Vestein, leading to suspicions of infidelity and eventually the deaths of about a dozen men.

Asgerda's interest in (already-married) Vestein is a pre-existing fault line in the micro-setting that the player-character-like outsiders Thorkel and Gisli stumble (and then marry) into.  It doesn't seem like it would be too much of a stretch to build a tiny setting of 5-10 extended families with a bunch of such fault lines:

  • a long-simmering dispute over grazing-land or property lines
  • a contentious dividing of property among a man's heirs
  • a father who mislikes his daughter's favored suitor
  • a bastard child whose step-mother hates it
  • a badly-treated thrall
  • a wheel of cheese stolen in a hard winter
  • a good sword borrowed and never returned
  • a badly-given gift
  • a lad whose father was slain, who wants eventual revenge on his killer but can't get it yet
  • an insult in one's cups at the Althing some years back; cooler heads prevented bloodshed then but still it rankles
  • weregeld accepted for a relative slain but some family members still think the slayer should've been made an outlaw instead
  • a suspected cheater at sports or horse-fighting
  • a man envious of another's wealth, desirous of the priesthood / chieftainship
  • a rich man who is miserly to guests and alters deals, gets away with it because he has several strong brothers
  • a skilled duelist who runs roughshod and takes what he pleases, challenges those who object (returns from sea-roving mid-campaign to shake things up, presumably)
  • a suspected sorcerer feared by those outside his family
  • three town gossips poking their noses in everything and spreading news of dubious veracity
  • a skolding wife who urges her husband to unwise deeds
  • a husband who mistreated his wife, causing her to return to her family's house; a dispute over the dowry
  • a hot-headed young man, yet unproven in battle and eager for it (probably about ten of these, really)
  • a cool-headed young man, goaded by his father as unmanly for preferring words to violence
  • a wise man's foreboding prediction
  • an ominous dream

And then let some player characters loose into it to get into trouble over the course of a few years of game-time.

I don't know what system you'd use for such a game - Pendragon, Mythras, and Wolves of God all spring to mind, but they're not quite Boot Hill.  But it's an interesting thought.

... I suppose it would be amusing to hack up Boot Hill's ranged combat system to instead do high-detail, few-combatant, armorless melees of axes, bill-hooks, spears, swords, and shields...  "Grim cut off Skiolld's foot at the ankle-joint, but Helgi thrust him through with his spear, and he got his death there and then" seems like the sort of thing a derivative of Boot Hill's combat system would do well.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Tooling for 1:1 Timescale Games

I've had boring, practical questions about how to run 1:1 timescale games rolling around in the back of my head for I guess a couple months now.

  • World-design considerations.
    • Many of the games of that era seemed centered around a single city and/or megadungeon (Blackmoor, Castle Greyhawk, and the City-State of the Invincible Overlord, for example), and Jeff's Trollopulous seems to have followed a somewhat-similar pattern.  How important is having a central locus like this?
    • Is the right way to lay out a region for this style of play more radial, with wilderness increasing out away from The City, rather than a linear civilization->borderlands->wilderness gradient from a large, civilized heartland?
    • What's the right scale, so that travel is long enough to be a meaningful allocation of time-resources, but not so long that the game grinds to a halt as everyone is traveling?
  • Session structure.
    • BDubs' game seems to have a core community of players who play adventuring PCs and have a regular session, often dungeoneering, every week, plus some set of patron players doing their own thing in the background.  This seems like it doesn't scale up arbitrarily (but what does, really?).
    • Jeffro's adventurer-level players seem to play more like patrons, doing their own thing, maybe jumping an injured patron and taking his stuff, rather than partying up and having regular sessions where they go into dungeons.  
    • And then there's Gygax's example, where (purportedly) people would show up at his house unannounced and he'd run a session.
    • Under what circumstances do which of these different approaches to sessions (or lack thereof) work well?
  • Keeping the information organized.  What's the right (or at least adequate) way to keep the information about who is doing what when where (and when they'll be finished) organized?  And how do you keep (at least some of) that information secret, to let the interesting behavior emerge from patron interactions under fog of war?
    • Index cards?
    • Spreadsheets?
    • Shared google calendar?
    • Paper calendar that only the DM has access to?
    • Gantt charts (lol)?
    • Database?
  • How do you make such a style of play amenable / accessible to more casual players rather than just "elite auditor mindset" players?  (I'm bummed that I can't find either BDubs' or Jeffro's post where that phrase was invoked)

I think I have an angle of attack on one of the information organization question, at least.

The answer is databases.

This post brought to you by my assignment at work this week, auditing code that interacts heavily with databases

Why?  Because you can automate around them.

The barest, crudest sketch goes like this: have a table of ongoing operations with start dates, end dates, and descriptions.  When someone starts something, add it to the table.  Have a table of players, including their discord IDs, and a table containing (operation ID, player) pairs of "players who should be notified when this operation finishes".  Have a discord bot that runs every night at midnight, checks to see if any operations have finished on day rollover, marks them complete, and notifies players (and probably DM) by PM.

Ha, maybe run the bot at 5PM instead, right as people are getting off of work - a character's work for the day is done at that time too.  And any "orders" gotten in before 9AM the next day are completed by 5PM the next day.

But this doesn't really let you answer the question of "what is any particular character doing at the moment?"; there's no notion of character there.  So maybe we also want a table of characters (including an "owning player" column), and then a table with (operation ID, character ID) pairs indicating "this character is currently unavailable for play because they're busy with this long-running thing".

Of course, once you have a table for characters, it's very tempting to throw their stats and XP in there too...  and a table for all the unidentified magic items they're hauling around, with both the in-world description you've given and the actual identity of the item.  And how many charges that wand that they figured out the command-word for but never really properly identified has left.

It would be kinda nice to put wilderness expedition logistics information in there too and update it on nightly rollover...  but that gets a bit thorny because then we need a notion of a party, which presumably can have a set of characters (as well as a count of NPCs like mercenaries and shared equipment like wagons), and which might be busy with an ongoing operation (like overland travel).  So then we run into this: do we have a table of party/operation pairs, for parties that are busy?  Do we then query party membership to determine which characters are busy, or also still have a character/operation table and have to check both it and party membership?  Or do we just have a party/operation table, and have parties of only one character sometimes?  That might be kind of nice, for the case where you pick up friends along the way (or lose friends along the way and a party goes down to just one member).

Do we want some notion of location?  Of grid coordinates?  (I really hate programming against hex grids)  Parties having a location which is updated overnight based on their overland speed?  (But then I would need to encode their paths too, which sounds painful...  maybe this is a good argument for Arnesonian "12 miles a day regardless of terrain")  But it would be neat that if there are multiple parties in the same location in the wilderness, they might have a chance meeting.  Automatic random encounter determination, putting a pause on the travel operation until resolved?

If we're already considering notifying players in response to stuff in the world, we could extend that for information flow and intelligence.  Maybe having a spy in a location adds you to the notification list for start and completion of operations in that location.  Maybe operations should have secret vs common-knowledge descriptions, with spies having some chance to uncover the secret descriptions and town gossips yielding the common-knowledge ones.  Spies might dispatch messengers in response to some operations beginning or ending, creating operations in their turn for the messengers to travel to their destination.  Some notion of queuing news at a place (to be received on your return) might be necessary.  Automatic weekly collation of common-knowledge events in (say) a central city into a "News in Kezmarok" style digest sent to all players could be neat, and a good way for players to advertise "looking for group" or patrons to advertise "looking for temporary, deniable help".

Finally, NPC actions.  If you have all this tooling for keeping track of what PCs are up to, it seems natural to extend it to also keeping track of what NPCs are up to.  Clocks on steroids; give "orcish warlord gathers horde" a concrete end-date and set it up to notify just you, the DM, when it finishes.  And if players interfere, move the end date around accordingly.  Likewise, if you want to send an NPC party on a wilderness/trade expedition, make a series of operations, one to travel there, one to buy and sell goods for a week or two, and one to travel back.  NPC party raids a dungeon?  Make a single die roll to see how they did, make an operation where they take a week of bedrest and recruiting, and then put them out of your mind.  They're in motion, you don't need to worry about them for a week.  But your players might hear about them automatically.

This starts to look a lot more like a living world.   And the table of operations starts to look like a log of all the stuff that happened outside of combat, which would be a pretty neat artifact of a campaign (much like player-produced maps are a neat artifact). 

It also seems like it would be pretty easy to keep it game-system-agnostic.  Character stats seem like the most likely place to break this, and I'm not even sure I really want them.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Clean-up Blips - Janitorial Random Encounters

I had a dream last night that I was a rat-man in a dungeon that human adventurers invaded.  Lacking the strength to confront them and their hunting-cats directly, I worked to douse their light sources, lead them into ambushes, and change the environment behind them to make it more confusing.

It occurs to me that this is basically the life of a sensor-blip-style random encounter, where they linger in the dungeon near parties rather than moving to confront them directly.  And the idea of having random encounters behind the party "clean up" the dungeon is one I hadn't considered before; I know the idea of "dungeon clean-up crew" monsters appeared in some of the older books, but I took it as an ecological consideration, something that happened between adventures rather than during.  It amuses me, the image of a crew of ratman janitors armed with a mops and buckets, doing their part to fight the humans by hauling away the bodies, cleaning up the blood, erasing the chalk or charcoal graffiti, trying to put out the oil fires, maybe even moving the furniture around so that they'll have a harder time finding their way back out of the dungeon.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Wilderness and Attrition Revisited

Back in 2016, I wrote a post arguing in favor of shifting the resource model in wilderness adventuring towards that of the dungeon adventure, with spells recovered only in civilization.  I'm still not sure that that's wrong, but I have come to look at a piece of evidence that I used there in a slightly different light.

I noted that parties on foot were likely to have only one or two random encounter rolls per day, with less than one encounter per day in expectation, and consequently parties will tend to have full spells almost every encounter.  I have several new observations on this:

One: While this is true of ACKS, where entering a new hex triggers a random encounter roll, it isn't true of B/X (as represented by OSE) or OD&D.  In both of these, you only get one encounter roll per day by default.  Not sure about AD&D.  But in OD&D and B/X, parties on foot and mounted parties get the same number of encounters per day (less than one in expectation), and if you choose to interpret OD&D's spell recovery the way that most people do, this means you're at full spells every encounter there too.

Two: In ACKS, this might be viewed as a "circuit breaker" or comeback mechanic, where a party which is too poor to afford horses, or which has had its horses lost, stolen, or eaten, experiences a lower rate of encounters per day and is consequently more likely to survive.  Similar to how the wilderness evasion rules favor small parties, to make wilderness encounters survivable (but not winnable) for low-level characters who cannot yet afford mercenaries; if you just hit 5th and only have one fireball per day, you can still do wilderness adventures, you just have to take them slow and cautious.

Three: If going slow makes the resource situation easier, then hopefully it's a choice which should have tradeoffs.  The obvious resource being spent here is time.  Rations and starvation in ACKS are pretty forgiving.  So the main way time is expensive, outside factors like NPCs acting / clocks ticking, is costs-over-time of mercenaries, henchmen, and cost of living.  But linking in-game time to out-of-game time seems like it too would heavily discourage overly slow, cautious travel...  and I don't know that the bookkeeping would be any more onerous, really.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

From the Archive: Adventures from Pegasus Magazine

I was revisiting Hill Cantons' AD&D and Apocalypse index and noticed a page I hadn't read before, comparing population density between Greyhawk and the Wilderlands of High Fantasy.  One of the links in the post, to supplementary material for the Wilderlands published in Pegasus Magazine (which I hadn't heard of), seemed dead.  So I went poking around on archive.org and am happy to report that mentioned pdfs are still available here.  I skimmed them as I was pulling them down, but haven't read them in detail yet.  Most of them seem to be site-based adventures around 40 pages in length.  Some include pre-generated characters.  Several cover islands.  Some of the stats (particularly in the later entries) look to be for a percentile system rather than for D&D.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Traveller's Terms and HBR's Tours of Duty

I had an interesting text-chat conversation with a former coworker recently (excerpted):

me: I suppose maybe that is a good argument for me going to XXX next rather than YYY...  Just to see if XXX is the way that I think it is (which was part of why I wanted to go to $CURRENT_EMPLOYER - to see it).  The tourist approach to career planning.
them: Ha, I like how you describe your career strategy!  Kinda reminds me of Reid Hoffman's tour of duty https://hbr.org/2013/06/tours-of-duty-the-new-employer-employee-compact

It's a pretty good article.

I have thought about careers and life in terms of Traveller's terms for quite some time; my blogger profile used to have what I estimate my Traveller stats at, including terms in various occupations.  When I'm at a new company, I think of staying a full four years as a good solid run; I've only done it once so far, and it was a pretty darn successful four years, definitely worth an extra benefit roll (with a shift in company direction in the final year or so which I did not think promising).  More commonly, after 18-36 months, if things are looking mediocre, I move on.  Not a failed survival roll, but more like a failed roll to promote.

So I think it's a little funny to see a serious publication like the Harvard Business Review take basically the same perspective, following in the footsteps of some geeks in the '70s trying to model careers.

Monday, July 26, 2021

The Caller and the Vietnam Hypothesis

In order to command well, we should know how to submit. He who submits with good grace will eventually become worthy of command.

- Cicero, On the Laws.

There was a post on the osr subreddit the other day asking about the caller.  This post is an elaboration of my comments on that post.

In what seems to be my idiom lately, I decided to go have a look at what OD&D and 1e said about the caller, and was a bit surprised at what I found.

OD&D makes only a brief mention of the caller on page 12-13 of Book 3, where there is a dialogue between the DM and the caller, in which the caller describes a series of actions the party takes during exploration.Curiously, none of the other players say anything.

AD&D 1e largely replaces the term "caller" with "leader". A dialogue demonstrating exploration on pages 97-100 of the 1e DMG does include separate voices for Leader Character (LC) and Other Characters (OC). The OC voice seems to do a fair bit of asking questions of the DM, undertaking combat actions, and in a few cases undertaking independent actions when separated from the party. There is also a note after one of the LC's proposals ("The other players concur") which indicates that this dialogue is perhaps not intended to capture the full discussion at the table, just what passes between the DM and players (but on the other hand, there are also lines that are more or less just other characters agreeing to a plan proposed by the leader, so the text is somewhat inconsistent). The LC does seem to have a very active role in proposing courses of action.

The 1e PHB also makes a few mention of party leaders. The heading "Obedience" on page 106 notes,

The leader and caller of a party might order one course of action while various players state that their characters do otherwise. Your DM will treat such situations as confused and muddled, being certain to penalize the group accordingly.

(emphasis mine).  It is foreign indeed to modern gaming sensibilities for any player to give orders to the party as a whole. I have often thought of callers as sort of like the chairman of a committee, responsible for keeping the party moving coherently, but perhaps "elected expedition captain" is closer to the original role.  Maybe "caller" is meant as in "shot-caller".

This doesn't seem like something that would work well with the sort of people I have historically gamed with - contrarian engineers suspicious of all authority, who can't take orders even from the people paying them without arguing (to be fair, a big part of the job is figuring out which orders are impossible and pushing back on them).  But it probably worked for some sort of player, once - but what sort?  And then I remembered that I had read of a game at West Point that used a caller in very much this commanding style (with a second-in-command even, I believe).

Maybe, like careful dungeoncrawling and Tucker's Kobolds, this commanding way of playing the caller comes out of the American experience in Vietnam, where a broad cross-section of men were exposed to giving and receiving orders as a consequence of the draft.  And like careful dungeoncrawling and Tucker's Kobolds, maybe its decline in the '80s reflects the spread of the game beyond its original audience of historical wargamers and veterans.

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.