Archive for the 'Adventurer Conqueror King' Category


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.


Mass Combat as Sport, Mass Combat as War

D@WThe Kickstarter for Domains at War launched yesterday, and my fellow Autarch Greg Tito recommended it on Facebook by saying “Domains at War is probably the most versatile fantasy wargame I’ve played.”

Versatility is an important feature to have in something you’re going to use in a RPG campaign, because of what S. John Ross said

may be the most unique feature of RPGs: tactical infinity. In Chess, the White Queen can’t sweet-talk a Black Knight into leaving her be; in Squad Leader, a group of soldiers can’t sneak through an occupied village dressed as nuns. In an RPG, you really can try anything you can think of, and that’s a feature that thrives on anarchy.

Game systems cope better with this infinite possibility than stand-alone games. One of the first things the original D&D set tells you is that you should have several other games on hand before you start playing, which you’ll then glom together to make a Frankengame.

Dungeon! is a great game, deeply linked to D&D thematically and developmentally, but it’s not on the Recommended Equipment list. I think this is because it is the closest to what ordinary players would recognize as a game instead of a set of rules for making your own game: it’s immediately playable out of the box, no elaborate customization needed, which means that it can’t be easily incorporated into a RPG. It’s only useful for gaming out the outcome of dungeon-crawling this one dungeon represented on the board, with these specific heroes printed on these cards. As a result, Dungeon! manifests in OD&D not as itself but as an abstracted set of principles for dungeon-crawling activities like finding secret doors, gauging risk/reward by dungeon depth, and earning victory points by bringing treasure out of the dungeon.

Outdoor Survival fares little better. This one is more of a hobby game, and less of a mass-market ready-to-play boardgame: the rules provide for several different scenarios, each of which introduce variant rules. It makes the Recommended Equipment list mostly because its hex map is such a useful play aid for RPGs (which is why we’ve included a version of it an add-on reward for Domains at War). You’re not encouraged to actually play a game of Outdoor Survival to resolve your character’s wilderness travel, although doing so may help make sense of D&D procedures like getting lost that are abstracted from its rules.

Chainmail is the game that actually makes it whole into OD&D. With the exception of the “alternate combat system”, you are encouraged to set aside playing a RPG whenever your characters get into a fight, at which point you’ll translate the shared imaginative space from D&D into the setup conditions for a Chainmail battle. Not coincidentally, this is the one on the list that, to the uninitiated, looks least like a game and most like a self-help manual in some esoteric discipline.

Domains at War can be as versatile as Greg says because, like its inspiration Chainmail, it’s a game system rather than a game. This DIY element means you can use it to recreate ancient or medieval battles from real-world history as easily as you can use it to resolve mass combat situations from your favorite hit-point-and-armor-class RPG. Domains at War’s default scale is 1 unit = 120 foot soldiers, 60 cavalry, or 30 giants, but it’s simple to adjust this to play out engagements between a large adventuring party and its mercenaries vs. an orc lair, or titanic conflicts with thousands of troops on each side.

ACKS Afterschool

That said, the goal of Domains of War is to present a system that’s quick and easy to use to generate a game. It succeeds at this well enough that nine-year-olds all jumped up with having had to sit still all day can learn and play it in an afternoon, while still retaining enough complexity that their impulsive tactical decisions have consequences.

The kind of versatility that makes Domains at War most valuable when incorporated into a RPG is that you can use it for both combat as sport and combat as war. In the game at right, I set up the forces opposing the kids’ characters to give them a well-balanced challenge, because I wanted the process of playing out the battle to be enjoyable in its own right. It took a long time to get the system presented in Domains at War: Battles to the point where it can be used to set up a game that’s fun in itself rather than just an exercise in dice-based resolution. That’s what I wanted in that particular after-school class, and it made sense in the imaginary scenario of the campaign.

In this afternoon’s session, however, it’s entirely possible that the kids will choose to lead their surviving armies somewhere else on the hex map and run into a wilderness encounter that’s not at all balanced. In a game like D&D 4E that’s strongly designed for combat as sport, this would be a problem because every combat is a symphony of interlocking choices that takes a long time to play out even when the outcome is more or less pre-ordained. Using the detailed tactics in Domains at War: Battles to dice out the kids’ armies wiping out a tribe of goblins, or getting stomped by an entire ogre village, would be no fun for the same reason. Here’s where the abstract resolution system in Domains at War: Battles – or the Free Starter Edition which you can download at DTRPG right now – shines. It’s got just enough dice rolls to make squishing goblins feel satisfying without taking up the whole session, or to make having one’s troops exterminated by giants while the PCs run and hide feel like a misfortune instead of a lengthy ordeal. And the rules for armies attempting to avoid detection by enemy forces in Campaigns make even the attempt to run from enemies fun and gameable.

Even accepting that most players didn’t use both Chainmail (which itself encompasses three different resolution systems) and the “alternative” d20 system to handle OD&D combat, old-school games work well in sandbox play because they facilitate their own versions of this toggle between interesting, slow, and detailed and trivial, fast, and abstract. As a result, you can do sport and war with the same rules. When a major fight comes up in the White Sandbox, the pace of the game naturally goes into bullet time; I’m very careful with the initiative count, and each player’s turn takes a long time as they search their character sheet for the half-remembered magic item or special ability that might save the day. If it’s a random encounter with nothing more at stake than a few hit points here or there, everyone accepts that I drop the individual initiative count-down and ask everyone to roll to hit as one big volley; we all want to get back to the exploration or logistics or narrative-building which the combat is interrupting. To my mind, the way the overall Domains at War system can be used to mirror either of these modes is its single biggest asset to me in running a RPG campaign.


Into the Woods We Go

In 1984, TSR published N2: The Forest Oracle, a module for characters level 2-4.  I hate it. It’s a ham-fisted, credulity-straining railroad laid down on a track of base Tolkien stereotypes. The landscape makes no sense, there are obvious PC choices that are entirely foreclosed on, and the event-driving NPCs seem to play by a completely different set of rules than the players. This isn’t even getting into a ridiculous table of mishaps borne out of falling into a river (“a magic item, or 200gp if the player has none”) or a comically blunt Raiders of the Lost Ark ripoff.

On the other hand, I also kind of love N2. It’s got a ruined castle camped by worg-riding goblins that would be perfect for putting Dyson’s Delve under. It’s got no less than 4 hidden groves/glades. It’s got what are basically the underpinnings for a nice little sandbox: A dungeonous cavern, lairs for creatures from the encounter tables, and a comically blunt Raiders of the Lost Ark ripoff.

So I’m trying to remediate the module by tearing it down and putting it back together again. I’m modifying the map- expanding it to the local (6-mile hex) ACKS regional map template, re-arranging and rationalizing it a bit. I’m also re-thinking all of it against the ACKS recommendations for building a campaign map, since it seems useful to have a swatch of low-level campaign fodder I can pull out of the binder when I need it. So this is like a kick-off post for that work.

Reworking and expanding a classic map

Reworking and expanding a classic map


The ACKS map template I’m using measures 15 x 25 hexes. If it’s a typically-populated realm unto itself, it would clock in as a principality of 100k-120k families.  However, I’m thinking of this as an agrarian/borderlands realm, I’m knocking that population down a rank to a duchy of 52k families. ACKS predicts right around 5200 families in settlements, with 1042 of them in the largest settlement of the realm (you can see it off the river near the bottom of the map above). That’s a Class IV market that brings in 617gp monthly income for the duke.

It doesn’t really sport any other settlements that even show up on a  map at the 6-mile scale: Its most notable settlements after the largest would be 6 villages of 75-170 families that center the counties of the duchy.  Because much of the map is occupied by somewhat hostile territory, I’m collecting two of them into one which brushes up against the Class V threshold for mapping (250 families) at this scale (it’s in the Southwest of the map near an intersection of roads and a freshwater spring in the nearby hills). The rest will probably end up on the roads out of the mountains and forests, which looks grim for the Count and Countess of Marshy Fens up in the Northwest and Lord Scrubland of the North. There’s a reason no one lives there.


DIY Dungeons

In my recent post about posers and players I talked about a comment requesting that my fellow Mules and I, being hipsters who have ruined everything else, would leave D&D alone for those who genuinely enjoy playing the game. I would claim not to be a hipster, except I don’t wantdiy dungeons to miss out on my share of what must be a sizable XP award for ruining everything in the modern world. Also it is undeniably true that I organize RPG events  in places like art galleries and DIY spaces where people wearing skinny jeans are known to congregate.

The latest such venture is DIY Dungeons, which benefits tremendously from the access to non-conventional gaming spaces conferred by my co-organizers Ray Weiss and Tim Hutchings’ local cred as a musician and an artist, respectively. My contribution is just to think about how to make RPGs function as a party game – meaning that they’re immediately accessible whether or not folks have played before, and structured in a way that people can sit down and get involved whenever they arrive (like we do at parties, unlike how we do at most RPG sessions) and easily move on to whatever else they like to do at parties after they get a taste of the gaming experience.

The next DIY Dungeons event is tomorrow night. 12/12, at a DIY space called Olive Garden. I don’t really understand what DIY spaces are, but a common element seems to be naming them for things they are not; one of the precursors to this series of events was the Everything is Dolphins release party held at Shea Stadium, which has no more relationship to baseball than tomorrow’s venue does to Italian food. (Playing in an actual Olive Garden would rock, though.) Here’s the description for the game I’ll be running:

CONQUERORS OF BRONX RIVER ROAD. The zombie apocalypse is here! Can you rebuild civilization using your wits, nerve, and the resources you can loot from the neighborhood around you? In this hack of the Adventurer Conqueror King roleplaying game, you’ll play yourself struggling to survive in a bleak future by fortifying a stronghold, recruiting other survivors, and decapitating zombies with chainsaws.

Over at the ACKS G+ community people hoping this presaged the release of Adventurer, Conqueror, Mutant Badger wanted more details about this hack, and a previous one that mashed up ACKS and XXXXtreme Street Luge. (The latter scenario took its cue from the intro to the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, where Bobby, Shiela, et al. wind up in fantasyland after going on a roller-coaster ride. The ACKS characters had discovered this portal and taken the trip in the other direction – I found a great map of Knott’s Berry Farm circa 1983 as a prop to show the strange land they discovered. The XXXXtreme Street Luge characters, meanwhile, had broken into the amusement park, shut down after kids disappeared on the roller coaster, and were using it as a racing venue). Here’s the skinny:

They’re designed for a particular goal – being able to get new players going very quickly and also letting them get up from the table 15 minutes later if they want to move on – and aren’t meant for anyone but me to be able to run (so nothing is written down). That said:

– In XXXXtreme Street Luge you quickly randomize characters and then players take turns in the spotlight. Each other player asks the spotlight player “In this made-up circumstance, how did you deal with the situation using this particular stat?” The ACKS mashup uses the same GMless narrated-action-after-the-fact approach (so it’s functioning more like a storytelling game) but turns it on its head – players take turns in the role of party leader, in which they invent a problem and then ask the other players “How does your character help us get out of this jam?”

– The zombie hack relies on a) converting ACKS gp into a genre-appropriate unit of exchange (a day’s food); b) squinting at the ACKS price list until a chainsaw looks like a sword and a Corvette looks like a light riding horse; c) using pennies to represent gp and track encumbrance; d) building a map of the real-world location on the table as stacks of coins: if you capture the auto parts store, you’ll be able to loot this many resources, which you can then spend to fortify other map locations. The “you play your character” thing is mostly there to make it easy to get into the game – you just think about what you’d do in this situation – and mechanically means that everyone is a fighter with average stats, except that if a +1, 2, or 3 bonus would mean they’d succeed I’ll give the player a chance to tell me why their abilities would help in this situation and then convert that to a 3-18 score.

I’m interested in doing every kind of outreach for RPGs I can arrange, whether it’s to hipsters or kids 8-12. One of the things DIY Dungeons has been able to achieve that other approaches like the afterschool class (formerly D&D, now ACKS) has not is to achieve a better gender balance than I usually see at conventions and gamedays. Here are some pictures from the first event, at the Clocktower Gallery, where we had to talk loud to be heard over the sound of a robot gamelan installation:

50% of the women at this table had played D&D before (which is to say Anne, in red on my left) so maybe my observations about usual gender balance say more about me.

Ray running his new game Cyberpanky N.O.W., scenario “McDonald’s Mercs”; cyperpunk proved to be an immediately relatable genre even for non-gamers.

Brian, from the band The Nuclears, running a Call of Cthulu scenario set in the Sex Pistols’ London; this also proved immediately accessible.

My experience so far has been that convincing people to try role-playing games at these venues is an exercise in anti-hipsterdom. My job is to say Hi, I’m glad I’ve caught your attention with these colorful dice and maps! In addition to being aesthetic objects for your aloof, ironic appraisal, these are used in game I hope you will sit down and genuinely enjoy right now. You can choose whatever degree of distance from the events in the game works for you. Me, I’m going to fully commit to having a good time, goofy voices and all.

If you’re in or near the Bronx tomorrow, come out and join us at 5 pm (or whenever if you want to put my easy drop-in goal to the test). Gaming will go on until around 9, when the bands Cave Cricket, Old Table, and The Widest Smiling Faces will make it too loud to hear one another’s funny voices. If that’s too short notice, the next DIY Dungeons events will be on 1/4 at Big Snow and 1/20 at Silent Barn. Hope to see you there!


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 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.


Orc Stomp

Orc Stomp is a 5K fun run being held twice at this year’s Gen Con – once on Thursday at 8 am, and once on Friday at 6 am. I didn’t get it together in time to register, but will be doing it anyways on Thursday morning. If there’s room, I’ll join in with generic tickets; if not, I’ll cheer on the official runners and then do the route myself once they wrap up.

Click for the Orc Stomp page on Facebook!

I’m currently training to run an entire 5K without walking, which hasn’t happened yet. Yesterday’s combined walk/run time gives me an ACKS movement rate of 76 feet per round, which falls woefully short of the 120′ I should be able to do as an unencumbered human. However that pace is an average of my speed over 228 rounds. ACKS assumes I can only run at 120′ for a number of my rounds equal to Constitution x 2, after which I will become exhausted and have to walk at 40’/round for the next 60 rounds until I can run again. Somewhere in there is a way to calculate my Constitution score, which vanity and/or laziness compels me to put off until my time improves a little.

I heard about the 5K at last year’s con from Rich Rogers, who I’d gotten to know online when he interviewed me for the Canon Puncture podcast and then met in person when he stopped by for the continuous Adventurer Conqueror King demo game. I’d been finding that doing things like running up the hotel steps was helping me stay alert during said extravaganza, so I was excited to commit to something longer and more structured at this year’s convention. Rich interviewed me recently for This Just In… From Gen Con – you can hear the results here – and hooked me up with some 5K guides from that helped me get started. Rich is going to be running on both Thursday and Friday morning, and it would not surprise me if he will also be running to and from each of the far-flung This Just In reports he’s got scheduled throughout the con.

Also planning to run on Thursday are Andrew Pascal and James Sprattley, two-thirds of the team behind the forthcoming Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary. At least one of them is training to do a marathon, so they are probably fully capable of discussing the project during the run. (I’m still at the stage where I’m breathing too hard to talk, against the advice of those running guides.)

Other less-strenuous opportunities to learn about what promises to be a truly excellent documentary (and meet third member of the team Anthony Savini, who plans to sleep in on Thursday) will be the Filmmakers Meet & Greet on Friday at 10 am, and the panel devoted to their documentary on Friday at 4. Following a ten-minute preview of their footage, I’ll be moderating the panel discussion. Since this is scheduled immediately after the Kickstarter panel I’m on, getting from one to the other will provide me with another opportunity for running!


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.

Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2017
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