Saturday, June 4, 2022

Magic Swords, Proficiencies, and the 1e DMG

This is actually like three short posts about magic swords rolled in to one.

  • I've been thinking about trying to organize some in-person D&D, and OSE is probably an easier sell than ACKS in this part of the world.  So in the absence of proficiencies, my previous post about magic items in place of proficiencies has been back on my mind.
  • If I also wanted to keep cleaving in an otherwise mostly-stock B/X game, that might also be a good thing to attach to magic swords.  At first wag, something like three cleaves per round per point of bonus seems likely to keep pace with 1 cleave per HD at least up to name level.  This has a number of other interesting properties:
  • Second, there was a discussion in discord recently about sentient swords.  Thinking about magic swords through the lens of "class proficiencies for fighters and thieves that clerics and MUs don't get", sentient swords are actually a restricted form of spellcasting for non-caster classes.  I think they're really important, that using them should generally not be a hassle, and neglecting to roll for them is a contributing factor to caster superiority.  The whole ego / conflict of wills mechanic is to keep high-level powers out of the hands of low-level fighters, and to keep fighters from amassing too many spell-like abilities by having multiple sentient swords. 
  • I've been skimming the 1e AD&D DMG recently, because it also keeps coming up in various discussions.  I went and looked in the treasure tables because I was curious about how it handled sentient swords, and several things struck me:
    • 25% of swords are "unusual" (sentient).  This is in the same ballpark as B/X's 30%, but much higher than ACKS or later editions.
    • "All abilities function only when the sword is held, drawn, and the possessor is concentrating on the desired result."  This isn't "ask the sword nicely to use its powers".
    • AD&D computes willpower score differently - sum of a character's Int and Wis scores plus their level (with the level bonus reduced by damage taken).  This means that cap for character willpower/personality score is basically unbounded!
      • A "typical" random sentient sword has about 13 Int, empathic communication, two detection abilities and an Ego of 3 or so, and is reasonably useable even by a low-level fighter of average mental stats.
    • "N.B. Most players will be unwilling to play swords with personalities as the personalities dictate. It is incumbent upon the DM to ensure that the role of the sword is played to the hilt"
      • har har
  • Reading the 1e DMG's magic swords, I was also struck how a number of them had effects that activate on a natural 20.
    • This wraps back around to limiting the scope of proficiency-like exceptional cases by making them magic items.  Rather than taking Weapon Focus in order to get the ability to crit, it's a property of some swords.
    • Making crits a property of magic weapons means monsters aren't critting PCs, which is the usual trouble with critical hit rules.
    • It also means you can have a variety of critical hit special effects, like vorpal's save-or-die vs the sword of life stealing's level drain on crit, without needing a complex critical hits table or system.  These effects can also be quite fantastical, since they're magical in origin.
    • This might also be a reasonable way to handle combat-maneuver like effects.  Magic hammers that sunder weapons on a natural 20, axes that break shields, rapier of disarming, magic shield that knocks foes down when they nat 1 against you, ...
  • Magic swords might also be a reasonable way to sneak backstab multiplier scaling into B/X, where even a max-level thief only does x2 damage.  idk whether I'd want to make just particular backstabbing swords that boost it, or something as simple as "a thief backstabbing with a sword +1 multiplies the die roll by x3 instead of x2, +2 -> x4, +3 -> x5".

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Material Components in the Wilderness Levels

I wish I could say this was my idea but I'm happy to give credit where credit is due and just preserve/propagate/expand it.

Olle Skogren had a proposal in discord recently about requiring expensive material components for spellcasting in ACKS, their prices scaling exponentially with spell level.

This is both meant to make magic a non-free resource, which normally is wasted if you don't use it daily, to differentiate profane and sacred magic [by the different types of components required] and to make lengthy adventures logistically problematic for casters as you need at first backpack space for reagents, then a mule load and finally cartloads.

Emphasis mine - as that was the bit that most caught my attention.

I could take or leave the exponential cost scaling.  I think just having material components with mass that you have to haul into the wilderness seems like a super-viable solution to my issues with the spellcasting resource model in the wilderness game [1][2], where spellcasters can dump their full load onto any wilderness encounter because you very seldom have more than one encounter per day.  Material components are a resource that is attritable on scales of weeks; they create a limit on total spells expended during a particular expedition, without reducing the total amount of spell-power an MU can bring to bear in any one tactical engagement.  And they're super-associative; they're object in the game-world, no need to impose wonky spell-point recovery systems that operate differently in the wilderness and civilization, or argue about what constitutes an adventure for purposes of spells-per-adventure.  And since they're items-in-the-world, they interact with market mechanics, and their encumbrance introduces tradeoffs around speed vs preparedness.

At the bare minimum of complexity, where all components are an abstracted "spell components" item just measured in weight with a fixed cost per stone (maybe arcane components and divine components), it would not be hard at all to add to the wilderness logistics spreadsheet.  And then you could set up the material component costs of spells by level, so that maybe 1st level spells don't use them (so MUs have something always fall back on), and then component-mass required ramps up with spell level.  Or set up material component costs per spell, like Wolves of God does with its spellcasting system (I forget what he calls the points expended to cast, but spells of the same level cost significantly-varying numbers of points) - so sleep and fireball could have their high utility balanced by having to expend component-mass, whereas your lower-tier combat spells like burning hands might be free or just inexpensive.

One could, of course, go the traditional / AD&D route, where particular spells had particular components and they weren't interchangeable.  This would be an interesting avenue to introduce a layer of Vancian-style planning on top of ACKS' spell repertoire system.  And then non-consumed/focus components (like the amber rod and rabbit fur for lightning bolt) dictate how many parallel/simultaneous castings of a spell your collected MUs can drop in a single round.  But I don't know that I need that degree of precision to solve my wilderness-level problem.

This seems like the sort of thing where I should jump up and down and yell "Gygax knew!"  This is exactly the sort of "crufty old mechanic that nobody uses turns out to be critically important" thing that this blog was started onGygax's Fence, if you will.  But I'm actually not sure.  The 1e DMG's encumbrance section (page 255) notes that material components aren't assumed to encumber unless they're unusually bulky.  I guess that yeah, if you're going to have spell-specific components, that would be a lot of paperwork.  And then I suppose the limiting factor on number of casts worth of a particular component that you'd bring on a wilderness adventure was cost, maybe?  Maybe in the misty dawn era before the shared Google Sheet of party encumbrance, it was hard to get players to actually honestly track it, whereas gold was an easier thing for a DM to keep account of, since you know how much each PC earned each adventure, and you can know how much they spend on each transaction.

But the age of the spreadsheet is come...

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Red Nails

I don't read much fiction, but someone recently pointed out that several of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories are available for free from Project Gutenberg.  I had previously read The Hour of the Dragon, the most-downloaded of the lot, and found it alright but not great.  The seams of the serial structure in which it was originally published showed through pretty hard.  The next most-read on Gutenberg was Red Nails.

I enjoyed Red Nails quite a bit (with the usual caveats about '30s pulp fiction), but more important, this is really good inspiration for old-school style dungeoncrawls.  Without spoiling anything, there's a multi-level dungeon with competing factions, and those factions aren't monolithic, precisely in the way that dungeon factions are talked about in the OSR blogosphere.  There are also a couple neat ideas for magic items and dungeon set dressing pieces.  The dungeon bits of Hour of the Dragon don't hold a candle to this.

The Appendix N entry for Howard doesn't call out particular Conan stories, but I have to imagine that if it did, this one would've made the cut.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Market Availability and Diminishing Returns

Status: speculative proposal

From another of Rick Stumps' posts that I enjoyed:

Most of the light sources in the Mountain ended up being torches, then candles because they bought all the oil in the region and the few torch makers couldn't keep up with demand. Food prices in Esber skyrocketed because they bought all the smoked ham, salted fish, and cheese to be had for ever-increasing prices. They also stripped the area of oats and sheep tallow, making the local favorite breakfast (unleavened oatcakes fried in sheep tallow) rare and angering many...

The party also hired factors (merchants that buy and sell for you) in 5 towns and cities, bought an inn within Esber as a base and storehouse; met with the local Baron and Bishop to smooth things over  with them, and; gave generously to the poor affected by the lack of food...

If I simply said, "Don't worry about food, water, light, or time. Let's just play." None of that happens. They don't have ties to NPC factors in five towns and cities (that have already triggered 3 more adventures), no meeting with the baron and bishop, no interaction with farmers, or the beggars, no long argument with the muleskinners about if they should get paid as much as light infantry if they also fought the kobolds, no stash of 3,000 gp worth of gear on Level Three, none of it.

Obviously, any ACKS enthusiast is on board with limiting the amount of stuff available for purchase in a market every month.  But except for mercenaries, there isn't really a system for having prices rise as a result of buying up particular goods.  What would such a system look like, with a minimum of book-keeping?

ACKS' equipment availability table is a reasonable starting point for availability without any price increase.  Just at a wag, after buying all normal availability for the month, we might let players roll availability again, but now the goods cost twice as much per unit.  Then triple, then quadruple, up to a hard cap of say x10 (one of ACKS' underlying assumptions is that adventurers generally only have access to about 1/10th of the market).  The next month, take the highest multiple paid for a particular good, decrease it by 1, and that's the new starting multiple.

For example,


A mule is 20gp.  A class 4 market has one of each item between 11gp and 100gp per month.  So the first mule costs 20 gp.  The second mule costs 40 gp, the third 60, etc.  The party ends up buying 5 mules for a total price of 300gp - which would've been enough to buy 15 mules if they hadn't been in a hurry.  Next month, they return to the same market and a mule still costs 80gp, and even if price were no object, only six can be bought (at 4x, 5x, 6x, ... 10x the normal price).

One wrinkle here is substibility of goods.  If the party buys up the entire stock of plate mail and drives the price through the roof, people who would buy plate are going to buy banded mail instead, and smiths who would make banded are going to make plate instead, and prices for banded are going to rise too.  So it might make sense to put goods in buckets, and raise prices for the whole bucket.  In Rick's example, "food" is the bucket.  But on the other hand, a lot of goods aren't really substible; a light riding horse and a medium riding horse fill quite different needs, even though they're both mounts.  So maybe it isn't worth worrying about - the players themselves are likely to think hard about substituting banded mail for plate when it's a quarter the price.

Open questions:

Is it worth it to track price multiples across months?  Should the multiple decline differently based on how "connected" the market is to trade networks?  Is linear price growth right, or should be it exponential or something?  How do price multiples interact with hiring henchmen?  Could switching to per-season availability or something lessen the book-keeping here?  Is this competitive with just commissioning goods (the stock ACKS way to circumvent market limits)?  How does the venturer interact with this (maybe he just gets you access to extra goods at one lower price multiplier)?  Heuristics for effects of standing price multiples on domain morale, or a system for having them queue trouble?

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Seasonal Overland Travel Times

I stumbled upon Rick Stump's blog recently.  There's a lot of good stuff here!  There was a line from this post that got me thinking:

This means that if there is a good road directly between me and, oh, the market 8 miles away if I leave at sunrise (call it 6:30) and want to return home by sunset (call it 8:45) [I am using the sunrise/set times for Seaward for this time of year] then I wouldn't get to the market until about 9:30 and need to leave by 5:45.

As I've noted elsewhere [2], I'm always looking for more ways to inject seasonality into the wilderness game.  And varying travel per day with available daylight makes a lot of sense!  Taking fall and spring with ~12 hours of daylight per day as your baseline, we'd see negligible seasonal change in available travel time per day in the tropics, but even as far south as Miami, the shortest day of the year is 10 and a half hours, while the longest is around 13 and a half.  So that's a difference of 12.5%, an eighth.  Up here the shortest day of the year is around 8 and a half hours, while the longest is more like 15 and a half.  So just on the basis of having more or less daylight, something like a 30% reduction in overland travel rate in the winter and a 30% increase in the summer would be reasonable at these latitudes.  Dealing with modifying travel speed by an eighth might not be worth the hassle, but 30% certainly seems big enough to warrant consideration!  For latitudes somewhere in between Miami and Seattle, something like a 20 or 25% modifier might be reasonable and fairly easy on the math.

And then if you're already figuring seasonal overland travel speed modifiers for daylight, you could also just abstract weather into that modifier, especially if operating on scales of weeks.

One could also make the slower (winter) speed the default, and then scale everything else up accordingly, since multiplying is easier than dividing.

(Granted - this ignores historical details like the afternoon halt during summer marches.  Maybe the difference between getting 12 hours of rest in the dark and getting eight at night in the summer plus four in the middle of the day doesn't work out to that big a difference in practice.  Maybe it makes sense as just a winter penalty, where your time to break and make camp cuts into your marching daylight time.  And then there are those rascals with infravision mucking things up as usual...)

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Senryu Backstories

How much backstory is too much backstory?  Especially in OSR games, where characters are likely to die at low levels?

I had been kicking around a proposal like "six words per level of experience", but an amusing idea occurred to me this morning.

Senryu is a form of Japanese poetry with three lines of five, seven, and five syllables (er...  technically morae, but trying to write english within mora counts that tight is not practical), typically about people and their vices (vs haiku, which are about nature and must include a season-word and a cutting-word).  They're pretty easy to put together and give you enough room to tell a little story that explains why you're adventuring without going into too much detail:

Orcs killed my parents
Shoulders that once pulled a plow
now carry plate mail

Chased too much elf tail
Washed out of wizard college
Student loans comes due

On long pilgrimage
Red-nosed cleric lost his way
Time to pay the tab

Won fast ship at cards
Dumped hot goods, now owe crime lord
When in doubt, shoot first

Rightful king of dwarves
Dragon haunts my father's halls
I will get what's mine.

Our lands disputed,
King turned 'gainst us, brother slain,
I sailed for far shores

One nice property of these, I think, is that it would get really hard to fit proper nouns with relations into them.  If you take a backstory senryu as canon, it might tell you that somewhere in the setting there are marauding orcs, a wizard college, a crime lord, or a dragon under the mountain, but it doesn't try to shove them into any particular place.  As a DM, it would be easy to link these up to any particular band of orcs, wizard college, crime lord, or fallen hold that you might already have planned.

And they're quick and fun to come up with, which makes them a relatively good fit for characters who might be short-lived.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Grim Dawn's Dungeon Blockers and Ye Olde Evil Doors

Grim Dawn does a couple of things in its dungeon that are sometimes annoying but fundamentally clever.  There are no randomly-generated maps in Grim Dawn.  The closest thing is a randomly-generated infinite dungeon, but each level is drawn from a pool of fixed level maps.  Given that a typical character runs through all of the campaign content in the game several times, in the traditional Diablo model, one would expect players to develop highly-efficient routes through the campaign area maps.

In order to prevent these repeatedly-traversed campaign zones from becoming stale without having to resort to random generation (with the difficulties that that would entail, like nonsensical outputs), the Grim Dawn devs have put places on some maps (mostly dungeons and towns, but a few wilderness areas) where random blockers can appear.  Piled of burning garbage, doorways that are full of rocks, that sort of thing.  They have the potential to appear in a fairly small number of carefully-selected spots in each dungeon, they're re-randomized per session (save and reload, basically, which also returns you to town), and generally you can't see them until you get fairly close to the spot they're blocking.  What all this means is that you can't consistently run optimal routes that you plan out before entering the dungeon.  There's a good chance that any such planned route will be blocked and you'll have to detour off it and then find a way back onto it, and your detour might also be blocked!  This means that finding paths remains gameplay even with hundreds of hours in the game and tens of runs through each area.  There are real choices and problem-solving in path-selection even when you have perfect knowledge of the unrandomized parts of the underlying level.  So despite having a constant underlying structure, navigating these areas remains engaging.

This seems like something which, obviously, could be adapted to OSR dungeons.  As DMs, we're under the same pressures to reuse content that Grim Dawn's devs were, and fully-procedural dungeons carry similar difficulties.  And it would be consistent with the No Homework ethos - no homework'd plan to traverse known parts of the dungeon will necessarily survive.  Reducing the rewards for homework is likely to reduce the amount of homework done.

Another clever, engaging thing that Grim Dawn does in its dungeons is find any excuse to have enemies "appear" in close proximity or behind you while you've engaged enemies in front of you.  Zombies, skeletons, and giant insects burrow out of the ground behind or around you.  Spiders drop from the ceiling.  Wraiths and outsiders materialize out of thin air.  Often these animations take long enough that if you're in motion, you can leave these appearing monsters in the dust and never have to deal with them.  This works great if you're running a nice planned path...  but when you run into a blocker and have to backtrack, or run into stern opposition, these guys can really catch up with you.  So blowing past them is a gamble, and they serve as a sort of potential energy mechanic.

But obviously, it would be silly to have goblins just appear out of nowhere near and behind you.  Unless...

Enter the much maligned stuck/evil door.  Obviously, goblins can come out of it on short notice!  And where better to place planned-path-breaking blockers than in doorways?  You could place your careful cut-points in hallways, but your dungeon already has all these doorways!  But it's not quite the same, because they're not blocked per-expedition, and a party can retry opening them.  Right?

Well...  not necessarily.  Looking at OD&D and the 1e DMG, it really isn't clear how long it takes to open a stuck/evil door, and doesn't explicitly say that it can be retried.  Not being able to retry forcing would give you a good reason to bring out the axes and exercise the door-breaking mechanic, so in a certain light the door-breaking mechanic's existence might be circumstantial evidence for rejecting retries on forcing doors.  And indeed there are apparently folks who play without permitting retries to open stuck doors - this post from Knight at the Opera, down in the "Dense Megadungeons" section, takes this position, and examines the effects on potential paths through the dungeon.  A door which the party failed to open on the first d6 roll was stuck closed to them for the rest of that expedition into the dungeon.  Knight at the Opera mapped out the paths that four expeditions had taken as a result of doors that they couldn't open.  Their patterns of exploration ended up deeper and more linear in structure than the patterns of dungeon exploration I'm used to seeing, because if they found a room with three doors, probably only one of them would open, so they explored where they were able, subject to door luck.  And obviously a door amenable to being opened by the party could then also be reopened within the same expedition (though it might require a roll that could be retried).

It's still not quite the same as Grim Dawn's dungeon blockers, but if you change the probabilities to something like 1 in 6 doors stuck (for the party) in any given expedition, I think you'd end up with a similar disruption of planned paths through explored areas and a similar excuse to have monsters sneak in behind parties, without wildly altering the pattern of exploration.  One complication is that you may want to leave all areas accessible during any given expedition, which could require sometimes rejecting a roll's result (if a stuck result would block the last path to an area).  But that's a rather principled sort of rejection of a random result, and one with good gameplay consequences (probably?).

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Productively Repressed Novelists

Executive summary: Write stories about things that have already happened in your world prior to the PCs' involvement.  Cut those stories into bite-sized chunks and scatter them around adventure sites for PCs to find.

I've been playing a lot of Grim Dawn recently.  Possibly an unreasonable amount.  It's an ARPG in a "Victorian+magic" setting that has recently had an apocalypse.  Grim Dawn's main story is...  thin.  It's kind of a checklist of "oh no we've discovered a new threat to the surviving humans", with occasional choices in how to handle humans you meet on the road.  Most of these choices are reducible with experience to their mechanical outcomes.  In practice it's an excuse to go interesting places, vaporize monsters, and take their stuff.  This is fine by me - never let a narrative get in the way of gameplay.

Where Grim Dawn succeeds at storytelling is in its lore notes.  You find them scattered around the world and they give you many more perspectives on that world.  The baddies plotting, your NPC allies realizing apocalypse is coming, refugees fleeing the capital, regular folks turning to dark powers to survive, stubborn farmers refusing to leave their land, a civilization collapsing to a previous apocalypse, all of this stuff that happened before the game starts is delivered to the player in written notes.  It's the polar opposite of the exposition-dump; rather than getting a single long, boring account of the world from a third-person narrator, it's delivered in bits and pieces by a multitude of (sometimes unreliable and conflicting) in-world sources.

Grim Dawn does a couple things here that might be worth noting and stealing for tabletop RPGs.  The first is that notes are short and often serialized.  Rather than dropping a 12-paragraph story on you, they'll cut it up into four notes each of three paragraphs and scatter them around an area.  When you find part three first and read it, and realize there's no closure, you know that there must be more before and after.  It encourages you to explore the world to find the rest of the series of notes.  It leaves gaps for you to speculate into - to imagine into.  You wouldn't just show them the map - don't just show them the full lore!  (Does it strain disbelief to have pages of a diary scattered over a half-acre?  Maybe.  Is it worth it?  Probably, I think)

Reading lore notes in Grim Dawn also gives you XP.  I don't know that this is quite the right thing for a game like D&D, but selling lore notes to an historian for GP, by which you earn XP?  Hell yeah.  Some players may be excited about finding lore for its own sake, some may need a more concrete reward, but as long as the table as a whole's reaction to finding a lore note is "score!" you're headed in the right direction.  Make finding them gameplay, and reward that gameplay.

Finally, Grim Dawn is never pushy with the lore notes.  When you mechanically "read" a lore note and get the XP, it gets copied into your quest log and remains available there.  Maybe you only have an hour to play tonight and you need to grab that next portal, so you're not doing any reading.  No worries, it'll be there next time when you've beaten the boss and are taking a breather in town to rebalance your gear.  This is kind of a confident move on Grim Dawn's part; when a game makes you sit through cutscenes and exposition, it is because they're worried about what will happen if you miss something.  Grim Dawn says "whatever man, if you miss a lore note or never get around to reading all the ones you do find, it's fine.  My core gameplay is strong enough to bear it."  Just so - don't read lore notes to your players like boxed text!  Pass them a paper copy and make the page on the campaign wiki visible to them.  If they want one guy to skim and summarize, fine!  If they want to read it aloud, fine!  If they just want to pass it to the one guy who cares about lore (who becomes the party archivist), fine!

Taken all together, Grim Dawn's approach to lore notes strikes me as an eminently appropriate attitude for lore-delivery in tabletop games, especially OSR games.  In exploration-driven games, it is a given that players will miss stuff - you have to be OK with that anyway.  In a game that keeps AD&D's apocalypse, having surviving lore in the written word rather than being able to ask people questions about the world makes sense.  And stories about the past of the world don't step on the toes of player agency; you can have your well-structured narratives and character development, just separated from your emergent narrative by time.

In conclusion: if you must novelize, OSR DMs, serial-novelize the history leading up to the PCs, not their current actions, and scatter your serial in adventure sites.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Everybody / Nobody is Wizards

 I was kicking around a setting pitch recently, something like

The fire from the sky has ceased, and the earth has mostly stopped shaking.  In the isolated hamlets and manors that escaped the destruction, peasants and nobles alike dare to hope that perhaps the Wizard War is at its end.  The ambitious wonder what treasures and lore lie ripe for the taking in ruined towers, while the wise worry what warbeasts and fell engines have yet to be released.

Such a setup seems like it would have some nice properties - it fits the post-apocalyptic assumptions of old-school D&D by making the apocalypse explicit.  It gives me a lot of liberty to place fantastical ruined environments and landscapes close to utterly mundane surviving settlements, rather than having to go hard on realism/consistency in my dungeons like I do in most ACKS campaigns or having to go interplanar like in the Rathell campaign.  It's a good excuse to not have any class I or II markets, which in turn prevents the accumulation of large numbers of spies to break hijinks, makes it hard to sell magic items, etc.  And it supports a rather Iron Heroes relationship between player characters / civilization and magic; magic can be rare and scary.

It got me thinking that maybe it would be interesting to treat magic user as a side-class.  It's not something you can start with; all the master wizards were involved in the Wizard War and are dead or worse.  You gotta go dig up a book and read it, and that lets you become a 1st-level wizard as a side class (and that book becomes your spellbook).  Then to advance further as a wizard, you reverse-engineer magic items, destroying them to gain XP.  It would be appropriate to have reading tomes grant XP, but then if you have multiple wizards in the party they could pass them around and that gets ugly - destroying items has a finality to it.  Plus you can get still new spells reading tomes, so it's not like books aren't useful.  And if you make reverse-engineering items take time (like a couple weeks in-game), then your wizards will have more down-time than your non-wizards and will end up with less adventuring XP in their main class, even though they're not actually splitting that earned XP between their classes.

And then because nobody likes wizards (not even other wizards!) you get a reaction roll penalty scaling up with level.

Practical complications here: no sleep to win hard fights for 1st level parties.  Need XP values for items.  If thief is a side-class and wizard is a side-class...  are you only left with fighter and cleric as your "base" classes?  Or do you make cleric also a side class (maybe that also gets XP for destroying "profane" magic items).  Do I want to deal with fighter/wizard/thieves or just limit to one side-class?  How does casting in armor work if every wizard is also a class that gets armor?  If you have a very limited set of base classes, what do you do with with stat-lines that have eg bad Str and bad Wis?

Wednesday, January 19, 2022


Arrow!  Black arrow!  I have saved you to the last.  You have never failed me and always I have recovered you.  I had you from my father and he from of old.  If ever you came from the forges of the true king under the Mountain, go now and speed well!

Bard's request to the his arrow in The Hobbit brought to mind an idea, perhaps just by close proximity between "asking your weapons nicely for things" and the word "bard".  If magic weapons have spirit, feelings, morale, can be delighted by deeds and moved by fair speech, then maybe enhancing/inspiring weapons is a reasonable ability for a bard of all classes.  Or something much like a bard, anyway.

There's sort of precedent in the Loddfafnismol, too, where Odin tells a young man about the magic songs he knows.

An eleventh [song] I know, | if needs I must lead
To the fight my long-loved friends;
I sing in the shields, | and in strength they go
Whole to the field of fight,
Whole from the field of fight,
And whole they come thence home.

(It's easy to forget that Odin was a rather bardy god; one of the early acts of his feud with the giants was seducing Gunnloth, the daughter of the frost giant Suttung, and with her help stealing the mead of poetry from Suttung.  While fleeing the giants he spilled some of the mead, and men got poetry by his mistake)

This all comes back 'round to Dwarfhack.  I had wrestled with painting runes on equipment as an appropriately-dwarven way to get potent effects that win combats decisively in the absence of sleep, filling the function of the MU without the classic MU spell list.  But the annoying little details around time to paint runes and smudging when used and so forth seemed significant.  And the dwarves in The Hobbit don't do much with runes - while the treasure map is written in runic script, and the moon-writing on it too, the only runed arms they find are of elvish make.  They do sing a lot though...

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Week as Wilderness Turn

Last post, I noted that the distances and times involved in wilderness travel in The Hobbit were so great that a game in that style might want to use 24-mile hexes as its smallest unit, and a week as its "turn" of wilderness travel.  What does it look like if you take B/X's or ACKS' rules for wilderness travel and rescale them this way?  What would you probably have to change and what could you leave alone?

If you're taking a week as your base unit of time, then you no longer have to worry about taking a rest day per week, and can just bake it in.  So you're scaling up your movement or actions per "turn" by a factor of 6, since you get six working days.  Using 24 mile hexes vs 6 mile, you're scaling up your unit of distance by a factor of 4.  So movement will be ~1.5x more hexes per turn.

Exploration movement speed : 24 mile hexes / week

  • 30' : 1.5
  • 60' : 3
  • 90' : 4.5
  • 120' : 6
  • 180' : 9
  • 240' : 12

So that's rather inconvenient, having to reckon in half-hexes.  I suppose we could do something like this, taking woods or hills as the default and multiplying everything by 2/3, so we get 1 24-mile hex per week per 30' of speed.  Which would be pretty clean, until you're on plains or road.

Nautical and aerial distances covered get quite large when you look at them on per-week timescales.  The lowly rowed canoe makes 4 hexes per week, while sailing ships with good winds might make nearly 8 hexes per day, or north of 50 hexes per week (assuming no weekly day of rest under sail).  Aerial travel gets pretty nuts when you multiply it all by 1.5 as well.  These modes of transport are fast enough that you probably don't want to track them hex-by-hex on a map on weekly timescales. You use sailing ships to move between maps.  You fly Eagle Airways for a couple of hours, not for a solid week (and still might get to move a hex or two).  Getting a personal, permanent flying mount is a phase-change event where you have outgrown thinking much about wilderness travel.

Since forced march is only one day of extra speed, followed by a day of rest and no speed, if we're dealing purely in weeks you might be able to just remove the option.  On the other hand, I like leaving this sort of option available to players; trading off now vs later is always interesting.  Maybe the right way to handle forced march on this scale is through something like strategic initiative in mass combat, where when you have a wilderness encounter, you can choose to forced-march to maybe gain a terrain advantage, bonus to escape roll, or surprise bonus at the expense of fatigue if brought to battle.

The right way to handle getting lost / failed navigation rolls is probably that they reduce your movement for the turn.  Maybe halve it; you spend a couple days wandering around within hexes that you were traversing, but going 24 miles out of your way is hard.  Could do hunting the same way; spend the whole week hunting, don't move at all, and get two rolls, or spend half the week hunting, get one roll, and half movement (and then if you also get lost that week, you end up still in the hex you started in).

Rations might actually get simpler, at a stone per man per "turn".  And fresh ration decay could be simplified too; you could just have all uneaten fresh rations go bad every turn.  Then hunting and foraging can work entirely within a single week; if you find a week's worth of fresh rations, that's a stone of iron rations that you can skip eating and carry over into next week.  So then you only need to track one number: the stone of iron rations you're carrying, which might also be thought of as your buffer against foraging failures.

As far as combat resources go...  for a Hobbity feel, you really want some refuges in the wilderness where you can recover hit points.  I still think recovering spells there too (not every night in the wilderness) makes sense, provided some reworking of mid- and high-level spells.  But I could see going the other way with it too, where you're pretty much always going to have full spells for any encounter.  This lends itself to very large encounters where you need lots of spellpower to bail the party out.

Wilderness encounter frequency definitely gets weird.  You probably don't want to have to roll a pile of d6s every "turn", and having multiple encounters per unit time is awkward.  I could see having one encounter per week, with the difference between terrain types being "roll n encounters and pick the scariest / biggest one".  Or just a quantity multiplier like dungeon level, where if you're in mountains you get 3x as many goblins as if you were in plains.  But this also doesn't quite square with the frequency of wilderness encounters in The Hobbit, where they can go a couple weeks without an encounter.  I could see having some <100% chance per week of an encounter, but when there's an encounter, it's always a lair - a kingdom of elves, a whole cave system of goblins, a big honkin' pack of wargs, a gang of trolls with accompanying cave full of magic swords of elven make.  On the time-and-space scales you're dealing with here, you might encounter a warband from a lair initially, but within a week they'll report back (or be noticed missing) and you'll be dealing with the whole village shortly.  Maybe winning surprise lets you only deal with one warband initially.

Domains get...  maybe a little messy.  Clearing a 24-mile hex is a lot of work.  You could do something like wilderness lords, where every wilderness hex already has a "lord" of a sort, and if you can knock him and all his monsters over that's good enough, the rest migrate or fall into line.  This is particularly plausible in a setting where everything talks, but might feel a bit strained after the third or fourth time, and maintaining relationships between all the "lords" of neighboring hexes is a lot of work.  Another approach might be clearing to capacity; if you want to build a village, you have to displace a number of HD of monsters comparable to a village of goblins.  This is what you might expect in a wilderness that is at capacity, saturated.  But this isn't the wilderness we see in The Hobbit, which is as post-apocalyptically empty of monsters as it is of men.

Maybe that's an answer - "clearing" a wilderness hex just means dealing with any already-known lairs in it, and then the real game is dealing with wilderness random encounters, which could have wandered in from nearby hexes, or could be from unknown lairs in the hex.  Taking land is easy; holding it is the hard part.  This creates a sort of "the dungeon is too big to be cleared" feeling, and is also consistent with the incomplete clearing of eg Mirkwood by the elves.  It pushes domain rulers into the same sort of reactive posture of incomplete control in game that they held in the fiction.

Switching to 24-mile hexes changes visibility somewhat, in that the edge of the hex is over the horizon.  You could spend a week exploring within a single hex, easily, and unless the next hex over is elevated, you might not know what terrain type it is until you enter it.  Finding a dungeon within a hex might take a while, but that's consistent with the fiction too, where they can't find the back door into the mountain.  They have trouble finding Rivendell too.

This mode of play doesn't seem terribly well-suited to 1:1 timescales, if most weeks you don't have an encounter.  I could see doing two turns per week of real time though, to make sure there's time to resolve wilderness encounters without too many more piling up.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

The Hobbit

I realized I hadn't read much in the last year, and that I had been dancing around Tolkien, reading his Catholic British contemporaries (Ker, Chesterton, and Lewis' Screwtape Letters), and decided I ought to just go revisit the man himself.  I'm pretty sure my mother read The Hobbit to me and my brother when we were small but I don't think I'd read it myself (certainly not since coming across OSR D&D).  I have not seen the film(s?) and do not plan to.

It may be worth noting here that I am taking the text of The Hobbit alone, ignoring the whole rest of the canon from elsewhere as best I can.  I think I like it better this way.  I will probably read The Lord of the Rings next, but for now I want to consider only what is written in The Hobbit.  And I want to get it written down, so that after the trilogy I can look back in on it.  This may not be the "correct" way to read the The Hobbit, but it may turn out to be a worthwhile way nonetheless.

I found it delightful.  I wish more D&D were in the model of The Hobbit than in that of The Lord of the Rings.

They're not out to save the world.  They're very explicitly not heroes.  The motives of most of the characters most of the time are Thucydidean - "fear, honor, and self-interest".

There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much.

That [attempting to slay Smaug] would be no good, not without a mighty Warrior, even a Hero.  I tried to find one; but warriors are busy fighting one another in distant lands, and in this neighborhood heroes are scarce, or simply not to be found...  That is why I settled on burglary.

Of the dwarves, only Thorin gives a consistently decent account of himself in battle (hitting a troll in the face with a stick,  holding the goblins with Orcrist, and shooting the white hart).  They get stuffed in sacks, chained up by goblins, webbed by spiders, and imprisoned by elves without offering any effectual resistance.  They sing better than they fight.  Their courage fails at the foot of the mountain and only Bilbo prods them on.  They worked as blacksmiths and coal miners before this; Fili and Kili are young and inexperienced, Balin at least is old, and Bombur is very fat.  These are not Dain's elite heavy infantry, "strong even for dwarves".  These are dwarven vagabonds with a map, a key, desperate scheme, a hobbit, sometimes a wizard, and a good deal of luck.  They are, in short, exactly what we might expect of low-level dwarven PCs in OSR games.

The mere fleeting glimpses of treasure which they had caught as they went along had rekindled all the fire in their dwarvish hearts; and when the heart of a dwarf, even the most respectable, is wakened by gold and by jewels, he grows suddenly bold, and he may become fierce.

He did not reckon with the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded, nor with dwarvish hearts.

And like my players of old, how loathe they are to give up what is theirs!  Though it be a great burden and a danger in itself!

The treasure is likely to be your death, though the dragon is no more!

How on earth should I have got all that treasure home without war and murder all along the way, I don't know.

And like a third-level character come suddenly into a great deal of treasure and a fortress, Thorin handles it ineptly and it is his doom - in contrast with Dain, who "dealt his treasure well". 

And like combat in the OSR, defeat is miserable and victory is pyrrhic.

I have heard songs of many battles, and I have always understood that defeat may be glorious.  It seems very uncomfortable, not to say distressing.  I wish I was well out of it.

"Victory after all, I suppose!"  he said, feeling his aching head.  "Well, it seems a very gloomy business."

And then the setting (or at least the parts much described) is the sort of howling emptiness implied by OSR systems.  But working from just this text, there isn't much of an apocalypse.  The Wild was not ruined by any central force, no great, shattering event, no unveiling.  Most of it was ruined by just...  neglect.  Decay.  Entropy.  Nobody is putting in the maintenance.  Certainly there are evil forces at work, but for the most part they're opportunists filling a vacuum, not part of some grand plan.

The marshes and bogs had spread wider and wider on either side.  Paths had vanished, and many a rider and wanderer too, if they had tried to find the lost ways across.  The elf-road through the wood which the dwarves had followed on the advice of Beorn now came to a doubtful and little used end at the eastern edge of the forest; only the river offered any longer a safe way from the skirts of Mirkwood in the North to the mountain-shadowed plains beyond, and the river was guarded by the Wood-elves' king.

There were many paths that led up into those mountains, and many passes over them.  But most of the paths were cheats and deceptions and led nowhere or to bad ends; and most of the passes were infested by evil things and dreadful dangers.

The old maps are no use: things have changed for the worse and the road is unguarded.  They have seldom even heard of the king round here, and the less inquisitive you are as you go along, the less trouble you are likely to find. 

An argument could be made, of course, that Smaug is the relevant apocalypse.  But that hardly explains the lawlessness of the Lone-lands between Hobbiton and the Misty Mountains, unless the reach of Dale was once very great indeed.  The giants have the power to shut up the exits of the goblins, but they don't (unless Gandalf is able to "find a more or less decent giant").  The wood elves waylay travelers, hunt the white hart, and get drunk on Dorwinion wine, and the spiders multiply.  The eagles seldom take notice of the goblins.  Beorn keeps his territory clear but only goes so far.  What has Elrond done lately?  The Lake-men have surplus enough to outfit and feed the dwarves but don't seem to be pushing out either, as the Master is content to maintain his little bubble of peace.  Dain waging war on the goblins of Moria seems to be very much the exception in that he is active (with Gandalf being the other active player for good, setting the trip in motion and working on the problem of the Necromancer while they're in Mirkwood).

No, the real cause of the ruin of the Wild seems to me to be apathy.  Not so grand as a Dark Lord, but much more true to life.

I love the passage of the seasons; it is something that I always want to evoke in my open-world games and something that I never seem to get quite right.  The distances are so great!  To run a campaign in this style, one might be well-served by 24-mile hexes as the smallest unit, and wilderness turns of a week.  I love that the place-names are plain English - Misty Mountains, Lonely Mountain, Iron Hills, Blasted Heath, Rivendell / Riven Dale, Mirkwood / Murk Wood, Long Lake, Wood River, River Rushing, Dale, and Lake-town.  Moria, Gondolin, and Dorwinion are proper names but only referenced, never seen; only at the end does Tolkien sneak in "Esgaroth" as a proper name for a place seen (Lake-town) in the style of the names of places in the trilogy.  

I love the talking of all the animals; everything bigger than a bat seems to have a voice and a language.  How often have I bemoaned that animal encounters on the wilderness encounter table are a waste of time for a mid-level party of reasonable size?  How much less of a waste would they be if they could talk?  If they could be bargained with, asked for information, deceived, taunted?

"O Thorin son of Thrain, and Balin son of Fundin," he [a raven] croaked (and Bilbo could understand what he said, for he used ordinary language and not bird-speech).  "I am Roac son of Carc."

In the middle of the circle was a great grey wolf.  He spoke to them in the dreadful language of the Wargs.  Gandalf understood it.  Bilbo did not, but it sounded terrible to him, and as if all their talk was about cruel and wicked things, as it was.

In the silence and stillness of the wood he realized that these loathsome creatures [spiders] were speaking to one another.  Their voices were a sort of thin creaking and hissing, but he could make out many of the words that they said.  They were talking about the dwarves!

 Weapons, too, have a touch of soul to them:

It burned with a rage that made it gleam if goblins were about; now it was bright as blue flame for delight in the killing of the great lord of the cave.

Arrow!  Black arrow!  I have saved you to the last.  You have never failed me and always I have recovered you.  I had you from my father and he from of old.  If ever you came from the forges of the true king under the Mountain, go now and speed well!

When was the last time a magic weapon in your game was delighted?  Sure, sentient swords are in the tables, but how often do you even bother rolling for them, so seldom rolled and then so inconvenient to sort out and keep track of when you do?

It's just...  grounded, I suppose.  There is no cosmic struggle here.  Magic when it appears is mostly small wonders, in talking birds and delighted swords and water that makes you sleep.  Dwarves can be wicked, eagles can be cruel, Beorn and the Elf-king are very suspicious of visitors, and Thorin and the master of Lake-town are overcome by avarice not because there is any agent of a dark power whispering in their ears but just...  because of a moral failing.

I have dodged entirely talking about the hobbit himself and whether his desire the whole time to be home in comfort is of a kind with the apathy that is the ruin of the Wild, or wisdom, or both.

The stars are far brighter
Than gems without measure,
The moon is far whiter
Than silver in treasure;
The fire is more shining
On hearth in the gloaming
Than gold won by mining,
So why go a-roaming?

Maybe Bilbo's peculiar virtue is that he can be moved to adventure in the first place, and that once begun, he remains to see it through to the end in spite of his want of comfort and normalcy (which I suspect is quietly shared by almost every other "good" character but the dwarves).  And that like Rary as played by Blume, he knows when the job is done, rather than having his appetite for treasure become insatiable once whetted.

In any case, I am glad to have read it, and apologize for the rambling post (initially I had planned a series of more tightly-focused posts, but oh well).