Saturday, September 30, 2023

Poem a Day, Quantity Begets Quality

I read a (pdf warning) really interesting paper recently about writing a poem a day.  It got me thinking about quantity and quality in a lot of things in life besides just writing poems (though I did have a haiku-a-day habit for a while during the pandemic; it helped me mark the passage of seasonal time while basically locked in solitary confinement in an apartment).  One interesting passage:

In the book Art & Fear, they tell a story—which may be true, maybe not—of a university pottery class broken into two halves. One half was told their grades depended on the quality of the one pot they each handed in, and other was told their grades depended on the total weight of all their semester’s pieces. That is, each person in the first group would work however they wanted, but that person’s grade was determined by the quality of a single piece; each person in the second group would work all semester, and at the end each person would put all their pieces on a gigantic scale: 50 lbs and up was an A, 40–50 lbs was a B, etc. The best pieces of course all came from the group going for weight. The reasons are probably that the second group had no reason to fear the artistic process while they were learning craft techniques, and that they were practicing and experimenting through repetition.

But I think one of the most important reasons for their having the best work was that they could select the best piece rather than shepherd it along. You see, the first group could have worked this way too, but they all decided to just focus on making one perfect pot. Which is what we do as poets often.

I suspect that some DMs are tempted to do the same, trying to make one really good dungeon instead of ten dungeons, one of which is actually good.

It's interesting that he doesn't really couch it in the language of habit, though I suspect that once it does become habit the barrier to beginning on any given day is very low.  I kind of wonder if this is how eg Dyson works.  Dyson is incredibly prolific and it has to be a habit.  It also makes me wonder how Dyson picks which maps will get published where and what fraction he considers to be experiments that turned out mediocre / not worth publishing.

To a certain extent this is also the Dungeon23 approach, of making a habit of producing a little bit of a dungeon every day.  Dungeon23, though, seems to not really want to select / discard down to just the good bits at the end, instead throwing them all into a big megadungeon.

I am also reminded of evolutionary algorithms / reproduce-and-select, fuzzing, and distillation.  These are all kinda the same processes; produce lots of stuff, most of which isn't what you want, and then pick out the good bits and work from there.  Stupid generation processes that you do a lot of will still generate good stuff from time to time and it's just a question of separating it out.  And a human producing things will tend to increase quality of the mash over time, in a way that a pot still won't.

It's probably also true of sessions.  If you want to have great games, run lots of games, don't sit there prepping for the perfect game.  If you want to run great sessions, run lots of sessions - many will be mediocre but some will be great.  These are harder because you can't really throw away the bad ones; they still get inflicted on your players.

Possibly also of games/procedures/systems too.  Maybe this is an advantage of the rules-light / approach that I hadn't considered.  When you make lots of very small games, you get to iterate quickly, highlight the stuff that you think is the best, and sort of bury the stuff that turned out mediocre.  Arguably that's kind of how I blog!  Publish first, then link people to the ones that turn out to be relevant or that keep returning to mind, and the ones that nobody cares about just sit there doing very little harm.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Randomized Starting XP

I was thinking the other day - I kind of want to start a game around the 2nd level range.  But I was having trouble settling on the precise XP number.  If you start at 2000 to get fighters to 2nd, MUs are only 1st.  If you start at 2500 to get MUs to 2nd, thieves are already 3rd.  So picking a single ideal numerical solution is hard.

It is also a little weird when all the PCs start with exactly the same amount of experience.  We already admit significant variation between PCs in terms of ability and starting gold - why not XP?  Particularly in an open-table situation, where it's expected that character level will vary within a party.

3d6 * 200 starting XP seems like a promising amount, averaging just over 2000, and never high enough for a fighter or MU to hit 3rd.  The interesting question is whether you roll it before or after committing to a class.  If you let it inform class choice, then you might get some interesting choices, where a stat line which is otherwise mediocre for a particular class gets played as that class because the XP roll is good for it (like low int, high XP to MU) or even worse otherwise (like a low XP roll where you can get 2nd with thief or cleric but nothing else).  I suspect that taking a high XP roll and using it for thief 3 instead of MU 2 or fighter 2 would probably not be a frequently-chosen option.  So this might be a great way to get a pretty consistently 2nd-level starting party, outside of very low rolls that don't even crack 1200.

On the other hand, a simulationist argument in favor of rolling XP after choosing class might be that it would be weird if nobody ever started a 1st-level MU.  Although maybe if you roll less than 1200 XP, where you're at 1st regardless, maybe MU becomes a real option again.  One sleep per day is one sleep per day...

(And then once we're rolling starting XP, clearly we need some rules for risking terrible injuries in chargen in order to potentially gain more starting XP...)

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Mapping and Measuring - Paces

I recently picked up an old used copy of Sleightholme's Better Boat Handling.  I had some trouble with docking this summer and it seemed like it might be a worthwhile read over the winter to build up a set of drills to run in the spring.  I haven't sat down and read it yet but I flipped through and looked at some exercises.  On page 22 it suggested:

Exercise 3: Distance judging

Whenever you are out walking and the opportunity occurs, note objects ahead such as typical two-story buildings, people, cars, gates, etc.  Guess their distance and then count your paces.  It is not merely size of distant objects but detail that gives the clue to distance.  A window, for instance, loses its bars as distance increases, then its rectangular form, and then finally it becomes a dot.

Lack of intuition about distances is a serious problem I have had - many canonical-ish instructions in docking or man-overboard drills measure distances in boat-lengths.  I know how long the boat is in feet, but projecting that out multiple times across the water is more difficult.  So I took note of this exercise and have started playing with it; I can do it even if I can't put a crew together for a given day, or the weather's bad, or whatever.  It seems like it would also be useful for anyone running wilderness encounters.  How much detail can you make out about a group of people and/or orcs at, say, 50 yards with the naked eye? (see also this old post)

The mention of measuring distances in paces also got me thinking about the dungeon game.  If I tell the players that the room is 30' by 40', how did they determine that?  I have never stopped the game to ask my players how they want to measure a room.  The default dungeon exploration speed is low enough that I could definitely see pacing the length and width of the room being viable for getting pretty accurate measurements within the allotted time.  But doing this would also expose you to danger from traps or enemies in the room.  So now I'm wondering whether I just want to give descriptions like "big, longer away from you than it is wide" and "small room" up until they have paced it.  Or give them estimated distances in tens of feet, but with a roll for error, and then if they pace it they can get accurate distances?  idk.

I also think it would be fun to give room sizes and distances in paces instead of feet.  Just like using stone for encumbrance, it's a quaint and evocative unit with a little bit of slop.

As usual, this led down a shallow wikipedia rabbithole, with a couple of interesting findings:

  • Alexander the Great brought specialist pace-counters along with his army to measure distances, and their accuracy was so good that some now think they must have had an odometer.  How much does a specialist bematist demand in monthly wages, I wonder?
  • You know those wheels surveyors use to measure distances?  Another name for them is a "waywiser".  I love it - it's alliterative and very Olde English.  If you put them on your equipment table, definitely use that name.
  • Apparently pace-counting is still used by the military and they use beads on a string to help keep track of large counts.  I did find myself wondering if I were occasionally slipping up with counts up towards a hundred while I was walking my block this morning; these make total sense.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

1e DMG: Further Precedent for Player-Controlled XP Allocation?

I was poking around in the 1e DMG's section on experience points due to a discussion on /r/osr and stumbled across this on page 85:

Division of Experience Points:
How treasure is divided is actually in the realm of player decision. Experience points (x.p.) for slain monsters, however, is strictly your prerogative. It is suggested that you decide division of x.p. as follows:...

Italics mine.  And then the procedure for dividing XP only discusses XP from monsters. Further down on that page there's a discussion of XP from treasure but it discusses only things like lowering the ratio for XP from GP if the party was stronger than the monsters it took the treasure from, the value of magic items, and when XP for treasure is awarded - nothing about how XP from treasure is divided.

I think this could be interpreted in support of my old speculative post about players controlling how XP from treasure is divided through their choice of who to allocate treasure to.  The heading where this note about treasure being divided by players is explicitly about XP allocation.  The existing division procedure only covers XP from monsters, and no procedure for dividing XP from treasure is provided.  I wouldn't say it's clearly Gygax's intent that XP from treasure should be divided as the players choose, but I think it's the most reasonable interpretation of the gaps here.

Tangentially, the other thing that surprised me in the 1e DMG's section on awarding XP was:

If your campaign is particularly dangerous, with a low life expectancy for
starting player characters, or if it is a well-established one where most players are of medium or above level, and new participants have difficulty surviving because of this, the following Special Bonus Award is suggested:

Any character killed and subsequently restored to life by means of a spell or device, other than a ring of regeneration, will earn an experience point bonus award of 1,000 points. This will materially aid characters of lower levels of experience, while it will not unduly affect earned experience for those of higher level. As only you can bestow this award, you may also feel free to decline to give it to player characters who were particularly foolish or stupid in their actions which immediately preceded death, particularly if such characters are not “sadder but wiser” for the happening.

 Gaining XP for dying, rather than losing it!  Wild!