Archive for the 'Becoming a Better Roleplayer' Category

05
Jun
13

the pulsating heart of AD&D

Skidoo, one of the regulars in our on-going Pendragon epic, wrote insanely awesome combat charts for how to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1e) “by the book,” near as he can figure out.  Everything is explained in flowcharts.  Because Skidoo has done this, and has spent session after session watching his knight’s agenda go down in flames before the titanic incompetence of my own Sir Carabad, I must conclude that Skidoo is a masochist.  But a devilishly handsome one.

But the files are right here (36 meg PDF), and this is Skidoo’s explanation for what he’s done:

skidoo’s explanation for spending time away from his family

Hi.This is a combat flowchart for AD&D 1st Edition, by the book.  It attempts to include all the rules in the three core rule books (PHB, DMG, MM).Everybody playing AD&D 1E ignores some of these rules.  I wondered if it was possible to include all of them in a game, when I joined a campaign that attempted to play AD&D strictly by-the-book.  I created this flowchart to see how all the combat rules fit together, to see if it’s possible to play through combat with all the rules, and what that might look like.I admit it looks nuts.
This is not:
How to play AD&D.
How I play AD&D.
How you must play AD&D to play it right.
One other point:
Because a flowchart gives as much space to a rule that’s used 2% of the time as one that’s used 98% of the time, the format makes it look like there’s a lot of rules to deal with in every combat, when there aren’t.  Many of the rules would only come into play at higher levels.  Multiple attack routines are not an issue at low levels.  BtB psionics will hardly ever happen.
In a way, it reminds me of a heavily house-ruled Basic D&D game.  I imagine many DM’s combat resolution systems would actually look just as crazy if you laid them out like this.  It’s just that the decision points and sequences are so ingrained from years of play that they don’t have to think, “Okay now I’m noting all of the spells in order of # of segments” or whatever.
I don’t have a big philosophical purpose for doing this.  I did it just so I could get my head around how it (might) work.  Kind of like dissecting a frog.  Or drawing what I think the dissected frog looks like.  Use it as you will.  Please leave a message in the comments if you have a different reading of a rule, or know one that I missed.

Special thanks to DM Prata for his ADDICT document, to which this project owes a lot, especially the chart illustrating how multiple attack routines work.  And to the makers of the game.

when you meet the buddha, kill him and take his flower sermon

(These are my opinions, not Skidoo’s.)

What I fucking love about this chart is that, at least for me, it ends the OSR as a rabbinical quest for The True Game Text.  (I suppose the rabbinical quest to play the game “as Gary actually played it in the year ______” can go on indefinitely, until we get a bunch of people with Gygax Number 1 together to thrash out that beast.)  This is Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Everything else is just monster descriptions, maps, and character classes, all of which are simply inputs to the engine which Skidoo has exploded out for study.  And, uh, frankly it looks kind of un-fun.

This chart also ends the Edition Wars, at least for me.  I never cared about that stuff as an adult, but as a kid, even though I was playing a game called “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” it was the Second Edition.  I had this sneaking suspicion key things from 1e, such as demon tits, had been left out.  But dugs of darkness aside, I think Skidoo has pretty much demonstrated why creating 2e was a good idea, even if you don’t like the specific game that emerged from that redesign process.  It probably explains why the OSR seems to love Labyrinth Lord / BX and games derived from it so much.

Also, for me, this document kind of ends the OSR as an outlook.  My earliest interest in the OSR came from the puzzling realization that, despite mucking around with it for years as a child and teenager, I had never actually played Dungeons & Dragons, to the extent that “playing Dungeons & Dragons” meant playing by the rules.  But what these charts show is that, very likely, nobody has ever played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons by the rules.  Back in 2008-2009, there was a lot of reminding ourselves about “rulings not rules” and “if the rules have gaps, fill them in yourself,” and that kind of thing, as a rebellion against the comparatively rigid styles of 3e and 4e play.  But damn, man: the same problem of rigidity existed in 1979!  And people solved it the way people always solve it: by making up their own stuff to route around the bullshit: the hell with level caps and encumbrance rules.

In other words, no one has played 1e, 2e, 3e, 4e, or (likely) 5e by the rules.  Gaming didn’t need to be saved.  It had been saved the whole time. (“Saved” here of course isn’t meant to be taken seriously.)

The other thing I wonder about, when looking at these charts, is about the design process in RPG’s.  I am, despite playing D&D almost exclusively for 5 years, a Forge guy at heart, and I do believe that game design is important: it’s why I love B/X so much, for example.  But these charts, man!  When I was 9 years old, we had the super-simple Mentzer Basic rules, and we couldn’t be bothered to actually understand the text, or even read it.  We made up our own rules as we needed them, and then broke them.  Years earlier, however, poor Gary or Dave or Larry Schick or Mike Carr or Zeb Cook or whoever else, was slaving away on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1e, with a zillion times more rules.  What’s the ratio of design effort in Lake Geneva to fun at your table?  I think us kids had a far better labor-to-fun payoff.  No matter how old you are, nothing beats Super Awesome Let’s Pretend Time.  And maybe that’s what, in practice, the players of 1e figured out too.

17
May
13

Playing Domains at War and Papers & Paychecks

As a blogger and a signatory to the Joesky Accords I have a responsibility to talk about play. As a publisher I need to let you know that if you want to back the Domains at War Kickstarter but haven’t yet, you should do so soon because it closes tomorrow, May 18th at 3:32 pm.

These may boil down to the same thing. I’m helping create Domains at War because I enjoy playing it. If you’re also excited about what having a wargame integrated with a RPG system for mass combat and strategic campaigns will mean for your gaming, your Kickstarter pledge is part of that process of creation. Sharing excitement about D@W is good for Autarch as a publisher because it’s in our interests for people to get into the games we make, and it’s good for me as a gamer to learn from what other people are doing with the systems I’m interested in.

You might not share either of these interests, but as a reader of blogs I often find something of value even in reading posts about games that I feel no urge to play. In the case of posts about publishing with Kickstarter, that game is Papers and Paychecks. Here are some of the system-neutral insights it’s generated.

To be a publisher, one should first be a corporation. This is the difference between rolling up a player character to go adventuring and actually descending into a hole filled with deadly traps while wearing your own skin. One of the foundational mistakes in the Dwimmermount Kickstarter was that James didn’t incorporate Grognardia Games. Happily, the potentially dire consequences of doing business as an individual have been averted in this case. We’ve managed to warp the ship off the shoals, but even if it’s wrecked on some other obstacle having Autarch at the helm will mean that all the casualties among the crew will be purely fictional entities.

It is interesting to be running a player character in real life, although usually not in the ways you’d think. Playing a role that’s made distinct from your own by the rules of the game or the laws governing corporate entities gives you the chance to act as if it is you and is not you. I think it comes down to protection from risk. Doing business as a company means that you can always roll up a new character if the current one gets killed, which leads to the same kind of exploration-based, consequence-embracing play we celebrate in games that don’t implicitly require that your guy will survive until the final act.

Autarch is actually more like a chartered adventuring party, and I think that the robustness that comes from making this the fundamental unit of play is as useful in other games as it is in Papers & Paychecks. Original D&D is the story of the world rather than the story of the characters who explore it, but making the party the recurring lens through which this takes place focuses the cumulative actions of the players and makes it easy to bring new actors into the story.

One of the cool things about roleplaying games is that they’re not just an outlet for your DIY creativity, but a chance to participate in the creativity of folks who have talents you don’t. My Night of the Walking Wet game at this year’s Gary Con introduced me to Fred Liner, who had one of the original pieces of Jonathan Bingham’s art that the Adventurer Conqueror King Kickstarter made possible. For Domains at War, Fred pledged for a backer reward that let him choose the subject of an illustration for the book. His description nods to the Walking Wet party in which Mark’s hobbit has a special ability that makes him always appear to be a member of a group of 14:

The foreground of the picture is a small command group with a banner the banner bearer is a dwarf, Snorri One-eye, one of his eyes is a glittering black orb in the hand not holding the banner he carries an axe, his helmet is made of lizard skin. The headpiece of the banner is similar to a roman standard with “The XIV”, the banner, if it can be made out, is a griffon on a white field. The other members of the command group are 2 mages and a cleric. One of the mages specializes in fire magic and the other is a dark, necromancer. To the left and in the background are a of couple siege engines. To the right the rest of the company is in the middle distance advancing on an earthworks. There are 8 figures in this group all soldier types with various weapons with one exception. One of figures in this group should be a scout type in leathers and a cloak that is swirling around him as the cloak transforms into smoke.

Here’s Ryan’s compositional sketches for this idea:

Here’s the final piece:

I find it fascinating to be part of this process in the same way I’m amazed by people in my gaming groups who can do more than one funny voice. Of course, Ryan has a more than professional level of talent, and some of the people I’ve gamed with actually get paid as actors. Still, the personal involvement – the fact that it’s my character’s foolhardiness they’re talking about in that funny voice – means I value it much more than any exercise of skill I would appreciate as an outsider.

The last thing to say about Papers & Paychecks and other kinds of non-real-life gaming is that they fundamentally cross over. You can play Metamorphosis Alpha and you can play AD&D, but how much cooler is it to be transported from one to the other by a wish spell and realize that your campaign encompasses both of these multitudes? Likewise you could be a publisher and not play your games, or (more happily) a gamer who doesn’t feel the urge to aspire to what Gygax perhaps self-servingly saw as the ultimate level of player achievement in Master of the Game, but the greatest enjoyment comes from combining the two.

Here’s a game I ran in which the players led armies across the original outdoor map, seeking to be the first to extract the riches of Dwimmermount:

You can read more about the session from Tenkar’s perspective here. The thing I learned from it as a gamer is that I tend to make my scenarios front-loaded with choice. As a player I love the stage where we spend a long time coming up with a plan after considering all options and making elaborate preparations, and there’s a legitimate argument for including some of this even in a one-off game. Given a finite amount of time for play, though, spending more on these choices means having less room in which they can become meaningful by creating consequences at the table.

Something I’ve been doing with the character generation templates in the ACKS Player’s Companion might suggest a workable intermediary. You roll 3d6 for starting wealth, and this gives you the package of thematically-related equipment and proficiencies that your village elders or whoever have invested in providing for you. The option I give players if they don’t love that template is to swap it for any of the lower ones on the table and pocket the difference in gp value. This is awesome not just because it creates choice but because it immediately creates a context in which it can become meaningful. Why did your forefathers want your Dwarven Fury to be a Foehammer? How did you become a Vermin Hunter instead? These are juicy questions to launch directly into from character creation.

Here’s a snapshot of the final turn in my spur-of-the-moment recreation of the Battle of Arsuf with Paul, which you can read more about here.

The thing I learned here is about limits of attention rather than time. When I ran a Domains at War battle at Gary Con, it was the switch between playing a commander of units and zooming in to focus on your leader’s actions as an individual hero that I found most exciting and immersive. At that game, we had multiple players per side so each of us could manage the decisions about when to make that switch. When Paul and I played we were each running a general and three commanders, and the tactical decisions they were making for the divisions of thousands of troops each one led occupied our complete mental bandwidth.

One mark of a good game is that it can expand or collapse to meet the circumstances around the table. For me, Domains at War does this really well. I enjoyed the ebb and flow of battle lines seen entirely from an eagle-eyed commander’s view as much as I did the more heroism-focused game at Gary Con in which characters sometimes duked it out man to man. If we didn’t have enough attention for either we could have used the abstract resolution system in Domains at War: Campaigns, and the game was fun in the Dwimmermount session above even when no mass combat ensued at all!

This flexibility is one of the key features of Domains at War’s inspiration Chainmail – sometimes you use the man-to-man system, sometimes the fantasy combat table, sometimes it’s purely unit-based. In the afterschool class when we started out playing 4E, I saw the importance of collapsibility. I’ve had great times with 4E’s uber-tactical resource management, but it breaks down when you play it with a group of kids with the attention span of 8 to 12 year olds and in the confines of an 80 minute session. I’m eager to use D@W more in my life as a gamer because of the extra degrees of expansion and contraction it offers, letting the story of the world be told at a number of scales from player characters in nightmare mazes to rulers of mighty hordes.

16
Jan
13

On Dwimmermount, And Failure

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, maybe in the comments to this post about Gygax, Arneson, and a music video. My mom was a little girl when Hawaii became a state. She’s about the age of D&D’s original gangsters, and the vogue for Hawaiian shirts and hula hoops affected her the way Tractics did them. The world wasn’t changed by my mom’s lifelong devotion to hula dancing, but it did mean my childhood was surrounded by the paraphernalia of a hobby most people left behind decades ago.

In 2000, her halao, a hula group made up of dancers who commuted between Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio (for non-Texans, this is a whole lot of six-mile hexes) to practice together, was the first in the continental-US-other-than-California to be invited to the Merrie Monarch festival. This would be hula’s equivalent of Gen Con, if Indy had this big contest we all cared about so much that just being allowed to enter was a big deal.

A women’s group competing in the Merrie Monarch festival. We had all these kinds of cowrie shell necklaces and coconut shell bras around the house when I was a kid.

The day my mom was getting ready to go on stage – braiding all those grass skirts takes a long time – the rest of my family,  my fiancee, and I went swimming at a black sand beach on the big island. After a while the rest of us went in to build sand castles while my dad looked for coral with a snorkel. At one point we looked up and wondered if he was swimming a little far from shore; when we looked again a minute later he had drowned. My brother and I swam out to try to rescue him, but our attempts at CPR failed.

Kehena Beach can be seen in the background of this shot. Most of the folks who helped with the rescue weren’t wearing any clothes.

Like many gamers I grew up devoted to science fiction, especially everything Robert A. Heinlein ever wrote, and I was strongly influenced by its cult of competence. Years later, in a class on SF, Chip Delany identified this as one of the genre’s fixed ideas – the delusion that an exceptional person should be able to do everything exceptionally well, whether it’s to skin a squirrel with your boot or fix a gourmet meal or repel an alien invasion – but it was gospel to me as a kid. I never built a bomb shelter using rolls of toilet paper as radiation filters the way Heinlein told me to in Expanded Universe, but I did lots of other stuff, from taking karate lessons to getting certified as an emergency medical technician, for the time when my training might mean the difference between life or death. When the time came, I failed.

One failure followed another. The Ph.D towards which I’d invested five years of my time and a bunch of other people’s money stalled and eventually sputtered out, a long painful process of disappointment for my mentor, my friends, and others who’d counted on me to deliver my thesis. For a long time I felt like a loser, hiding myself away in shame to avoid evidence of how I’d let people down or fantasizing about grandiose ways I could re-establish myself as an exceptional person. Eventually I got over the idea that I deserved to have life suck forever; the decision to get myself into therapy was a key step, but that and its interesting relationship to what we do in roleplaying sessions is for another post.

This one is about Dwimmermount. If you supported its Kickstarter, or if you’re reasonably attuned to an online community that contains folks who did, you’ll have heard that the project is in some trouble. As the person at Autarch who’s been the public face for the Dwimmermount crowdfunding effort, I’m doing all I can to make sure that what it promised is delivered – although, since James has both the funding and the copyright that are required to release his work, I’m not in the best position to do so. Autarch is still looking for solutions, but everyone’s best efforts can never banish the possibility of failure.

I can’t talk about what’s going on with Dwimmermount author James Maliszewski and how it relates to the project’s problems – mostly because he’s not telling me, and the desire to respect his privacy covers what’s left – but here’s what I can say from my experience following my father’s death.

  • There are worse things in the world than a delayed Kickstarter or a pre-ordered gaming product that fails to ship. People have to take responsibility for their actions, sure, but the reality is that life contains some tragic fucking shit and the only thing that makes it bearable is our compassion for one another.
  • Sometimes failure is a way to realize you’re on the wrong path. I’d been going nowhere as a grad student long before my dad died, and although this isn’t the way I would have chosen to get there, I’m now happier than most of the people I know who continued down the track I got jolted out of.
  • You have to fail if you’re going to learn from your mistakes. The biggest thing I had to overcome was the feeling that I was a failure, and since that’s all I’d ever be there was no point in trying. The flip side of this is the science-fiction fantasy that I should be good at everything, meaning the best way to evade the sneaking suspicion that this wasn’t so was to avoid doing anything at which I might fail. Either way, I was shutting myself off from the opportunity to see that you win some, you lose some, and meanwhile it’s fun to play the game.

Autarch is a new company, and we’re still making rookie mistakes. Going into the Dwimmermount project, I felt like Autarch’s success with the Adventurer Conqueror King Kickstarter, and the failure of mine for the Arneson Memorial Gameday, had given us considerable expertise. I see now that those those were relatively smooth hits or misses. We’ve learned a lot more from a project that’s been rocky and whose fate remains uncertain; we won’t again put ourselves in a position where we’re holding the bag and have left ourselves so little control over the outcome. Although I still think there’s a valuable role for crowdfunding to act as the testing ground and collaborative inspiration for projects early in their development cycle, the Kickstarter currently on Autarch’s drawing board, Domains at War, will have a basically finished draft ready to give to backers as soon as they pledge and will explicitly be seeking funds just to illustrate, print, and ship a thing that already exists.

Kickstarter is a new thing under the sun too. Without being privy to their process, the fact that they are growing successfully means they must be learning from their mistakes. I’d like to think that the requirements for project creators to discuss risks to backers, which have been put in place since we launched Dwimmermount, might have helped us avoid another serious mistake in not being transparent from the start about Autarch’s contract with James and the ways it could go wrong. But hindsight is misleading, and there are still many ways that Dwimmermount could come out right.

To bring this back to gaming and pay the Joesky tax, roleplaying lets you make mistakes and learn from the consequences in a safe space. I’ve written before about my frustration with party optimization in 4E, where I felt like no feasible amount of play time would give me enough observations to statistically distinguish successful group strategies from sub-par ones. Tim Harford’s fascinating Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure shows that it’s not just statistics that can be make it hard to recognize when you’ve made a mistake (this being an obvious prerequisite to learning from it). Some of the unconscious biases he points out are kind of a benefit for roleplaying: the tendency to retrospectively cast our bad decisions as good ones can make the story of a gang of insanely greedy, stupid, merciless cowards trying to bullshit their way to a wholly undeserved victory seem a little less undeserved.

But the fear of failure is what drives these attempts to airbrush away one’s mistakes, and it makes for bad gaming. Fudging the dice robs us of the ability to learn. The wisely titled Play Unsafe presents techniques like holding ideas lightly (because they might be wrong) and not planning in advance (because no amount of worrying will never eliminate the possibility of rolling a natural 1) that I think are at the heart of the old-school approach. Best of all, they’re things you can try out and see if they work for you right away, no statistical analysis necessary.

08
Nov
12

RPG Retirement

This is a post about how, back in the day, players would set a safe and comfy retirement as one of the driving goals for their player characters. The post about the RPG Retirement Home, the safe and comfy place (probably in the Midwest) which I am driven to create so that we can spend the last years of our lives pretending to be elves 24-7, will wait for another time.

Original gangster Tim Kask, founding editor of Dragon magazine and co-founder of Eldrich Entertainment, posted recently at the latter’s blog:

End-game goals? What a novel idea, at least for what seems to be a majority of contemporary players. Just what were those novel ideas? Same as you and me in real life: make a stack of cash, buy or build the home/castle of our dreams on our own substantial property where nobody is likely to mess with us and retire to enjoy the fruits of our labors. Yes, Virginia, we really did play like that. All of us had PC’s that were “retired” or “semi-retired”; we did not use them except for special circumstances.

Adventurer Conqueror King is as interested in setting out a system for players to pursue end-game goals as I am in exploring how these goals arose out of the original conditions of play. In playing and talking to some of the OG’s, I’ve seen secondary evidence for PC retirement as the ultimate end-game goal. During one of the side chats during the campaign Michael Mornard ran in NYC, he talked about how, because clerics got their stronghold so much sooner than other classes, everyone wanted to play the class that was the easy route to becoming landed gentry. It didn’t occur to me at the time that this castle would be a de facto retirement home, but because clerics in OD&D also hit their more-or-less maximum level earlier this makes sense. (Tim’s post is mainly talking about class level limits. It also gets into players having a big stable of different characters in the same campaign as a corollary of PCs retiring, which Mornard posts about here.)

Last night’s game was the first time I’ve seen a player in one of my campaigns (Ray Weiss, author of Everything is Dolphins) expressly say that the main goal for their character (whip-wielding, whiskey-drinking Randy Buffett) was to reach a safe place and retire. After having celebrated this sighting of an old-school trope arising spontaneously in the wild, I’m now ready to speculate on the reasons why PC retirement might be sought after in some games but not others.

Character sketch for Randy Buffett, retiree wannabe.

Lack of advancement. We used the original edition of Metamorphosis Alpha as the player-facing rules in last night’s session. (Behind the screen it’s Adventurer Conqueror King, or a mutation thereof.) Metamorphosis Alpha has almost no system for a player to improve their character’s abilities through play. I’ve cobbled together a Burning Wheel-style advancement mechanic using the closest thing there is in MA – when you make five successful tests against Mental Resistance you get to improve it one point – but the zero-to-hero payoff is muted. My houserules mean that MA characters start off at the point an OD&D character reaches at name level, where further adventuring might get you some extra hit points and more spells per level but you’ll never get another hit dice or new level of spells. When MA is played as written, a new character is more like a max-level D&D character of one of the classes referenced in Tim’s article that have a hard level cap: they’re basically as bad-ass as they’ll ever be. Note that the original group of D&D characters to visit Metamorphosis Alpha’s Starship Warden ranged from 18th to 20th level, plus an intelligent sword and some level-capped characters: “Tom and Tim went as druids (probably because they liked all types of herbs).”

Recent editions of D&D place a lot of importance on offering many benefits from advancement evenly spread all the way to level 20 or 30. Given this incentive to keep adventuring, it’s not surprising that retirement isn’t on the minds of players in these games; few will ever run out of zero-to-hero. Mornard and Kask described groups in which, having reached the point where rewards from further adventures diminished, retirement became “the ultimate and totally honorable goal of the game.” Such lofty levels remain a distant dream for any of the New York Red Box D&D campaigns, but last night suggests that retirement is a much more immediate goal in MA where advancement isn’t much of a hook right from the start.

A long road to the top. No goal that’s easily achieved is worth setting for your player character. Original D&D, and Adventurer Conqueror King even more so, very clearly lays out a lot of worthy obstacles between you and building your own gated retirement community, all of which – like amassing a lot of gold and clearing a hex of monster lairs – can be achieved through play. (Interestingly, you’re assumed to do this at the point where your character’s stats can still advance by adventuring, and one of the benefits of levelling up is getting free followers to staff your castle with, so the system uses the zero-to-hero carrot to reinforce the retirement incentive.)

Last night the group had a chance to return to their home village and lord it over everything they surveyed, but they passed up this chance at early retirement because they hadn’t yet achieved true security. Retiring onto a patch of land that isn’t hurtling out of control through interstellar space, rapidly breaking down, and in the power of the deranged intelligences Mother Brain and the Captain is almost as beyond Randy Buffett’s grasp right now as a level cap is to a newly-minted D&D character.

Love for your character. Some of the strong reactions to Kask’s blog post at RPG.net and theRPGsite come from the assumption that a rotating stable of characters means that the player has no more attachment to any of them than you would the counters provided to your side in a wargame. (Some also derive from the fact that Tim is either enough of an OG to have stopped caring who he offends, or enough of a showman to know the value of controversy.)

This is obviously wrong, even setting aside the ample evidence in Playing at the World that wargamers have been developing personalities for, and emotional ties to, individual units for centuries. If none of your characters means anything to you, why would you derive satisfaction from knowing that one of them has escaped from the fray to enjoy the good things in its imaginary life? The reward for advancing a pawn across the board is the exact opposite: it levels up and can fight more effectively, and because you don’t care about it like you do a player character you’re glad to pay the price that turning your pawn into a queen has also painted a target on its back.

As a point of OSR research and intellectual interest, I’m glad to see that this campaign has generated the conditions necessary to make an end-game goal emerge organically from play. (This bears out an observation of Chris Clark’s that the most important innovation of Metamorphosis Alpha was to make the end goals explicit and urgent: whether you’ll try to save the ship or escape from it becomes a pressing issue as soon as the players figure out what’s going on.) But as a player, what makes me proud is that in just two sessions of play Randy Buffett has gone from being 3d6 in order to a person who Ray cares enough about him to fervently hope he reaches a place where he’ll never again risk being sliced apart by animated bottles of Aunt Jemima syrup.

EDIT: I just remembered that one of the first OD&D characters ever created in my White Sandbox campaign, Lotur the Scurrilous Cur, was also explicitly retired from play. The omission was probably because Lotur’s goal seemed primarily to achieve domestic bliss with his beloved gynosphinx Ontussa, which seems different but is really just a specific flavor of retirement home. To the points of a large stable of characters and threat of death, though, Lotur’s player Greengoat was also explicitly interested in making room for a character whose stats wouldn’t suck so bad and perhaps would thus not be so constantly on the edge of mortal peril.

20
Jul
12

Watch Out for that Fjord: More on Wilderness Encounters and Spotting

Yesterday I talked about wilderness encounters I had while hiking along the Naerøyfjord during a recent trip to Norway, and how the experience matched up with the rules for spotting distance and terrain in the Adventurer Conqueror King System. Today I’ll continue this investigation and look at how creature size affects when creatures become aware of each other.

My second wilderness encounter came maybe ten minutes after the previous wandering monster (three sheep). The local terrain changed as the trail emerged onto one of the infrequent areas of flat land – in most places the ground rises sharply up from the water of the fjord. Here’s Rudy’s picture of a similar area:

As I walked out into this expanse, the cry of a bird alerted me to its presence; looking up I saw it already taking wing. ACKS would say that the bird achieved surprise on me, made an “unfriendly” reaction roll, and used the advantage of surprise to flee. I paced the distance to the rock on which the bird had been perching: seventy paces or about 60 yards, a plausible result for the 4d6 x 10 yards specified for mountain terrain – especially if we imagine that the bird’s more adventurer-like spotting abilities had me pegged some time before its decision to flee gave me a clue that it was there. In my defense, I’ll note that I am man-size but the bird was not.

ACKS notes that “Larger creatures can spot and be spotted at greater distances”; rules are given for increasing the spotting distances for larger than man-sized creatures. Judges could easily reverse these rules to account for the difficulty I experienced in sighting a smaller creature. (ACKS also points out that having a higher vantage increases spotting distance, such that adventurers in a tower can see farther than those on the ground. In clear terrain, a giant’s ability to see above obstructions in the landscape, further over the horizon, etc. will counteract the fact that its height will also make it easier to be seen, increasing encounter distance bilaterally. Rough terrain which gives concealment to smaller observers might enable them to spot the giant’s head standing out of the landscape well before it was able to see them in return.)

A deeper issue is that it seemed to me that the bird reacted first not merely because it was more alert (as a city dweller I likely suffer a penalty on wilderness surprise rolls) but also because I was easier to spot. In ACKS, the determination of surprise and spotting distance are separate and unrelated procedures. Especially in cases where one party is larger (bigger, taller, or more numerous), it might make more sense to roll modified spotting distances for each side separately. The group that achieves the greater distance would then effectively have surprise, which would last until the other party closes to the spotting distance rolled for their side – so long as nothing changes like the first party hiding, making noise, etc.

Using this rule would cause surprise to happen more often – since ties for spotting distance will be infrequent, it’d basically mean that almost all wilderness encounters start with only one side aware of the other. I think it’d be wise to roll the usual surprise checks. This would make characters’ modifiers to those checks meaningful, and allow for the possibility that both sides are distracted and bump into each other at the standard spotting distance rolled once, rather than once for each side. If neither side achieves surprise, instead of going to initiative, have each roll for spotting distance. The group with the larger distance will act first, with the other side still unaware of their presence.

I think that having disparities of awareness (like you normally get from unilateral surprise rolls) happen more often in wilderness encounters is beneficial. Setting the distance at whichever of two rolls is greater would mean that most wilderness encounters will happen much further away than in the dungeon. I’d rule that most things that could be done to take advantage of first awareness – closing with the foe, casting spells – would make enough noise to potentially alert the other party, going back to the regular initiative procedure.

In old-school D&D, wilderness encounters can be famously lethal, and ACKS is no exception. Unlike the dungeon encounter tables, which are scaled to the depth at which the encounter occurs, the possible results in the wilderness are all over the map. Having the small adventurers spot a large dragon before it sees them can generate suspense and (perhaps) avoid a TPK. Contrariwise, a wandering monster that is too puny to hope to challenge a large and well-prepared party can, if it can spot them first, avoid combat; this is both sensible and avoids wasting time at the table (since the Judge can quickly resolve the monster’s attempt to bugger off unseen, without invoking initiative and all the other standard encounter procedures).

And in new-school D&D, wilderness encounters are infamously hard to stage as a combat sporting event. The ability to set up an interesting battlefield full of the sorts of hazards and opportunities that make detailed-resolution combat fun is limited by the randomness of the encounter, and the wilderness situation makes it susceptible to the party “going nova” and firing off all their resources, confident that they’ll have time to rest before the next encounter. Making unilateral awareness more likely can help with this situation. If the party spots the monsters at a greater distance, they can plan their approach, making the encounter a more satisfying example of “combat as war”. If the monsters become aware of the party, they can retreat to a fortified position and send out a few of their number to lure the party into an ambush, while the others go for reinforcements. The result can be a encounter with the kind of tactical depth and multiple waves of enemies that you normally don’t get from a wilderness wandering monster.

19
Jul
12

Wilderness Encounters with the Adventure Cartography Society

Members of the Adventure Cartography Society seek to deepen their understanding of imagined events in RPGs by mapping and measuring similar phenomena in the real world. A few weeks ago I interacted with some animals while hiking along Norway’s Naerøyfjord, and in support of the Society’s mission I recorded data on the encounters. Here I report these findings and see how well they correspond with the guidelines for wilderness encounters in the Adventurer Conqueror King System (and, likely, B/X D&D which I don’t have handy).

Encounter: The path was passing through a forested area on the slope of the mountain above the fjord. I heard a noise, likely from a fallen rock – there was lots of scree on the slope. I looked around and didn’t see anything, but a moment later an ewe strolled onto the path and stopped to regard me. Two lambs hot on her heels rushed in to suckle as soon as she stopped moving. I started pacing the distance between my position and the point where we’d sighted one another, and about halfway there – nine out of eighteen paces – she trotted away, with the lambs still trying to get in there for some more milk.

In ACKS terms: This would be an encounter in which neither side achieved surprise and the reaction roll was “neutral”. ACKS notes that “wilderness encounters can take place in a variety of terrain types with greatly varying line of sight.” The actual encounter distance in this case – about 15 yards – is roughly average for the 5d4 that ACKS specifies for “Forest, Heavy or Jungle.” It’s also within the lower end of the range of 5d8 for “Forest, Light,” which might be more appopriate given that I was walking along a clear five-foot-wide trail and only spotted the sheep once they crossed this path. We might well expect me to achieve a below-average spotting distance, since a blogger on a solo hike is likely less alert to wildlife than an adventurer who tends to travel in groups and can expect spotting other creatures to be a matter of life or death.

However, my 15 yard encounter distance was well outside the possible results for the 4d6 x 10 yards ACKS specifies for mountain terrain. This is problematic because if I was making a hex map of the region I’d definitely enter Naerøyfjord as a string of mountain hexes. Here’s a picture SF author Rudy Rucker took on a similar trip in 2009:

Does Google also give you Rudy’s blog as the top search result for Naerøyfjord, or does it somehow know he officiated at my wedding in 2001 and thus directs me to his site?

Seen from the perspective of a real-world visitor rather than a hex map, of course, many wilderness areas are a mix of terrain types which can alternate quite quickly. Rudy writes: “In most spots the fjord walls are at least partially wooded. Up above them is an undulating highland of gray-brown mountains, patchy with snow even now in midsummer. It’s like Norway has only two elevations: sea level and 1 km high, with a labyrinth of steep cliffs connecting the two.”

Suggested House Rule: The Judge should consider the micro-scale terrain an encounter will take place in and use that, rather than the macro-scale contents of the hex, to guide the determination of spotting distance. When I roll a random encounter, sometimes the kind of monster tells me right away what kind of landscape it’ll be in, especially since I know the details of how the party is traveling. In the White Sandbox, a mounted contingent of the Grey Company once encountered giant weasels while traveling through a plain hex; I immediately decided that the weasels had dug tunnels in an area of low hills and sandy soil, with the attendant risk of a horse’s leg breaking when it steps into one of the tunnels.

The choice of local terrain may be guided by considerations of what would make for an interesting combat encounter – if it had been giant apes, I might have had the party riding through a rock formation and used the mountain spotting distance as the apes rose up from among the boulders. Since reaction rolls and player choice mean many wilderness encounters won’t actually be combat, scenery chewing is another important consideration. If a low-level party encounters a roc while traveling through a forest, I am likely to decide that they spot it while cresting a ridge or entering a large clearing – in part so that the spotting distance won’t put them abruptly face-to-face with such a fearsome beast, and in part so that I can describe more of the majesty of the landscape as long as the possibility of death has focussed the player’s attention.

In terms of prep rather than improv, Judges who prepare random encounters ahead of time (e.g. ACKS’ dynamic lairs) will likely want to specify the local terrain and use its spotting distance, rather than that of the hex in which this terrain/encounter package might appear. In preparing a wilderness map, it might also make sense to draw up a chart of sub-terrains within each grouping of hexes. The Dark Woods and the Barrens might both be made up of forest hexes, but the d6 chart for the dark woods might be 1-5 heavy forest, 6 light forest, while the Barrens might be 1-2 heavy forest, 3-4 light forest, 5 hills, 6 plains. Adventuring in the Dark Woods will thus be more like a horror movie with creatures almost always popping out of the thick bushes right in your face; travel through the Barrens will tend to be more suspenseful, as the scragglier trees allow foes to be seen and evaded or approached at greater distances.

12
Mar
12

Roll for the Caller: Using Initiative for Faster Group Decisions

Delta’s D&D Blogspot has posted a session summary of Saturday’s expedition into Dwimmermount. He notes:

Tavis may have more courage than I do, because he had something of an open call out to players, and once we had dinner, piled into the Brooklyn Strategist, and set up to play around the custom gaming table there, he had no less than nine players ready for the session… About the first thing that Tavis said to me was, “You can have 4 henchmen, does that appeal to you?” Does it!? (I’m semi-infamous for gleefully playing multiple characters. Here I would get to play a whole crew of 5 dwarven plate-armored fighters. This was a very good sign.) With similar rulings around the table, we had a total of eighteen characters assembled and marching up to Dwimmermount.

I'm glad Stefan insisted that we actually put all the miniatures into the layout; the work he put into wrangling them was well worth the visceral sense we got of just how insanely stretched-out our marching order was.

This weekend there is indeed an open call for players at the Dwimmermount sessions I will be running on the evenings of both Saturday 3/17 and Sunday 3/18. After that, the expeditions will continue every Saturday until 4/14, but I will be passing my spot at the big Sultan gaming table on to other GMs.

I am famous for running groups of up to 15 players, but normally those are shambolic affairs in which we are glad to spend six or eight hours chatting and chewing the scenery and not getting much done. The Dwarven Forge scenery we have at the Brooklyn Strategist is so appealing that it begs out to be played with right now, so I evolved a way to get this big group moving faster than I normally do. I hope this house rule will be useful to those who come after me.

Because we were using the Adventurer Conqueror King System, when combat occured I would ask everyone to roll for initiative at the start of each round by holding up a d6. This part is standard, and with the possible exception of the kobold massacre, each of the fights on Saturday was sufficiently complicated and high-stakes to make it worth paying close attention to who got to go before the monster(s) and who didn’t.

When we weren’t in combat and the next course of action wasn’t obvious – basically whenever the flow of action seemed to pause a little as people wondered what to do – I would hold up a d20 and ask everyone to “roll for the caller”. (Actually I said “roll for initiative” here too but that led to confusion. Do as I say, not as I did.) Only the high roll counted, so once I heard a pretty high number I’d say “OK, can anyone beat an 18?” I didn’t have the players modify the dice roll by anything, so that all participants had an equal chance of winning. I don’t think it makes sense to have charisma modify the roll – this is a procedure for the players, not their characters – but it might be interesting to keep track of how many times this call for callers had been issued, and tell everyone who had not yet been a caller to add that number to their roll.

Once a high roller had been established, I would find a way to describe the scene to explain why that player’s character now found him or herself in a position to set the next course of action for the party. The first time I called for a roll was in town as soon as everyone had a character sheet ready. Stefan and Peter tied with an 18, so I said “OK, Father Roy and Dewdrop Morningwood, you were the survivors of the previous expedition. As you’ve been here in the Fortress of Muntsberg healing and re-equipping, you become aware that news of your exploits has brought a new crop of adventurers who are looking to repeat your success. Do you want to lead them to the dungeon right away, or spend more time in town seeking out special equipment or pursuing the truth behind some of these rumors?”

It was intentionally implicit in this setup that all the new and old characters would form a party together, but I think Pete picked up that it was not actually covered by anything we’d roleplayed, so he had Dewdrop’s henchman Lafonte Shimmersky give an elaborate recruiting/motivational speech, and then Stefan and Pete read the mood of the group and decided to head for the dungeon right away. (This was what I thought everyone wanted, and also what I wanted myself – all that Dwarven Forge terrain begged to be marched upon – so the caller procedure worked!)

At the top of the landing, we rolled for caller again and the dice chose Miguel. His character was a prestidigitator named Obed Marsh, so I said “As the group reaches the head of the stairs and the metal Thulian doors, a feeling of eeriness settles over the party and they unconsciously look to Obed for his expertise in arcane matters. How do you direct your fellow adventurers?” Miguel chose to have his characters take the lead and investigate the situation, asking questions that let me feed the group information. But just as you can see in historical accounts of parties using callers like the example of play in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, the caller was the decision-maker but not necessarily the spotlight player. Other players might speak up to contribute – when Obed learned that the mountain was protected from tunneling by some kind of enchantment, Dan said “My dwarves put away their axes and picks, disappointed that their plan is shot” – and sometimes the caller would designate another character to perform a task, whose player would then take the spotlight (for example, Carl’s thief who led the exploration of the rockfall that exposed the gorgon cave).

I felt like this procedure worked very well for speeding up decision making by giving the power to the dice. As the Judge, I didn’t have to think “how can I get the players to start moving and stop debating; I only had to recognize when it was time to call for a roll, and then hand off the problem to the randomly appointed caller. A key part of the method was to set up the caller’s authority by setting the scene for their character. By describing to everyone how and why Obed had emerged as the leaders for the other characters, I was encouraging everyone to start thinking in character as well, which thus included accepting that their character was going to be regarding the caller as the natural leader for the moment.

I think the caller procedure would work even for smaller parties. If you try it out in your games, let me know how it goes!




Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2014
M T W T F S S
« Aug    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031  

RPG Bloggers Network

RPG Bloggers Network

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog & get email notification of updates.

Join 1,036 other followers


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,036 other followers