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:

YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.

(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.