Posts Tagged ‘ACKS

01
Jan
15

0-Level ACKS Alices

Introductory Complaining

If I’m running a low-power game, I like 0-level play: It sets the tone, establishes more of the character at the table, and introduces new players to the game in play rather than in prep. What I don’t like about it is a tendency for the (scant) modules to concretize class restrictions in a particularly unbelievable way. Consider N4: Treasure Hunt:

Zero-level characters all know how to use one weapon. Before your adventure gets underway, have each player choose his character’s weapon proficiency. (Weapon proficiency is explained under “Weapons” in the Players Handbook). A player may only choose dagger, quarterstaff, or dart. Tell the player to write his character’s weapon proficiency on the character sheet.

If, in the course of the adventure, a character picks up a weapon and states that he’s going to try to learn to use it, let him. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that, while these characters are in their “state of grace” and learn things speedily, they can learn a weapon proficiency after using the weapon in two combats. A character can learn no more than three extra weapon proficiencies.

Tell the character he should swing the weapon around for a while, get used to its heft and characteristics, and that after a couple of combats in which he uses the weapon, he will have a proficiency with it.

The characters are not limited to dagger, staff and dart after they enter the adventure but, again, the choice of the weapons they learn can limit their character class choices.

If a character tries to learn more weapons during the course of the adventure he starts limiting the number of character classes he can choose. For instance, a 1st level magic- user can only have one weapon proficiency. If the 0 level character learns a second weapon before taking 1st level, he can therefore not be a magic-user when he reaches 1st level. That’s how it works.

Some of this is a consequence of the AD&D weapon proficiency framework, but I’d dread having a conversation at table about whether a PC wanted to surrender the chance to become a magic-user because they used a dagger and a dart. I get bored just thinking about it. Instead, I thought projecting a Jack-of-all-Trades class backwards to 0, with accreting abilities after creation, would work better with the group I’m running a game for.

The ACKS approach to weapons, classes and proficiencies gives a GM some tools to work around the rough spots in the 0-1 progression, and I thought that an ACKS conversion of the Alice class from A Red & Pleasant Land would make an especially good 0-level class for the group I was running.

The Alice: A 0-Level ACKS Conversion

As you might expect, it’s pretty easy to convert between LotFP and ACKS. The Alice is built on the Thief without a backstab ability, and over the course of the 0-1 progression they:

  • Get a +1 to hit (going from 11+ on AC 0 to 10+)
  • Get a +1 to saving throws (going from Thief 1 with a -2 modifier to a -1 modifier)
  • Get a +1 to skill throws in 3 abilities (equivalent to the 1/2 level progression in RPL)
  • Get an ability from the Alice random progression table (see RPL, this happens twice)
  • Get the exasperation ability (see RPL)

There’s a lot of room there to set up minor XP milestones or success feedback checks along the course of an adventure to result in level 1 Alice characters, and none of it is jarringly binary (with the possible exception of exasperation, but that worked well to establish the kind of fantastic space the PCs were in).

The ACKS Thief skills improve more-or-less by 1 with each level, so I started them with thinly renamed throws as follows:

  • Take Things Apart: 19+
  • Find Hidden Things: 18+
  • Sleight of Hand: 18+
  • Be Not Heard: 18+
  • Climb: 14+
  • Be Not Seen: 19+
  • Eavesdrop: 14+

Three of those are 1 better than would be expected from the ACKS Thief, but I thought it was fair for the worse initial climbing and rounding the 1/2 level progression down to improving 3 skills instead of 4. Given the style of progression, I found it easier to leave the throw targets static and have the players record a modifier on their character sheets.

Play Report: Waking Up, or Possibly Falling Asleep, in a Library

Caddy Jelleby, Percy the Urchin, Robert Call-Me-Bob, Scotia and Tadcaster awaken with a start from the falling dream in a library (map) with a ruined roof. A quick wealth roll revealed the quality of their clothing and the number of things in their pockets (modifier of a 3d6 roll, +1).The room they were in was full of numerous books, crockery, broadsheets from all over the world, several partial decks of playing cards, and a military saber (with which Scotia armed herself). Feeling like they needed to find a place with a sturdier roof to escape the snow beginning to fall, the 5 of them set out to look for an exit.

When two of them tumbled into the giant pneumatic tubes under the map room’s floor, the rest followed and were shunted to a reference desk staffed by the last remaining librarian: A hulking bear in a tweed suit named Ian. Ian drinks gin from a porcelain tea set (-3 to hit and AC when drunk, save vs poison each round or lose an attack to hiccoughs). Ian dissembles over questions he doesn’t know the answer to, and is prone to fib responding to those he does. Ian regards the PCs as items from Special Collections, and makes up elaborate classifications for them that shape the contents of rooms in the library.

Ian can be tricked into classifying PCs as outdoor goods, he can be killed leaving his pneumatic controls to the PCs to decipher, or he can be bargained into “remaindering” the PCs outside by bringing him the 2 dozen or so catalog cards that have gone missing. His catalog is full of many shifting cards- if the drawers are turned out, the cards will flap through the air on a middle crease like a swarm of bats.

The 5 PCs set out to find the cards. They discover a talking penguin named Birdtha who just wants to go home to Pengland, and promise to aid her (Caddy: “a quest!”). They discover the missing cards being used as a makeshift deck in a Euchre-LARP conducted in an inexplicable garden party in one of the library’s salons. After establishing one of their own as the best, correct, and right bower, the PCs won most of the tricks (but not all). They cheated by swiping the last trick, and an enraged Left Bower (a level1 Alice) came after them with a sword-cane. Scotia confronted him in the doorway with the saber, and Poor Percy seized the opportunity to drive a silver letter opener into the poor Bower’s neck. The rest of the party fell into panicked chaos as the Left Bower fell dying to the ground, and the PCs escaped with the cards.

Ian proved trustworthy enough in the card exchange, and the PCs ended the session shunted into a bin outside the library with the saber, some maps and newspapers, and about 40 xp apiece. The xp is earning them 2 of the accumulating abilities before the next session.

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.

17
Apr
13

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.

21
Dec
12

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!

09
Aug
12

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 Active.com 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!

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.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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