Posts Tagged ‘emergent behaviors

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.

07
May
12

Dungeon! and the Invention of Old-School Play

In Eric’s original post about the original Dungeon! boardgame, he writes “It’s amazing how well the gameplay lines up with the OSR playstyle.” I’m going to go out on a limb and argue that this is because Dungeon! is where the original assumptions of play were first codified.

Level 6 of Dave Megarry’s original prototype for the Dungeon! boardgame

In my first post about Dungeon!, I talked about how the Blackmoor session in which referee Dave Arneson introduced roleplaying’s first dungeon inspired player Dave Megarry to create a boardgame which would systematize the idea of the dungeon as flowchart.

At Gary Con IV, Megarry said that he created the prototype of the Dungeon! boardgame shown at right over the course of about 72 hours in October of 1973. Most of this time was spent working out the right ratio of monster difficulty to treasure payoff.

The Dungeon! board is grouped into six levels, with stairs indicating a change between levels. Each level has its own set of monster and treasure cards. On the sixth level, you may loot the the King’s riches, but fantastic wealth is guarded by equally potent monsters.

Working out the appropriate ratio of risk to reward by level was clearly a priority for Megarry. Given that the law & economics of reward incentives is a major focus for Adventurer Conqueror King, causing me to put a ridiculous amount of effort into determining how much treasure different kinds of monsters should have, I feel a great debt to the first person to come to grips with these issues.

Playing Dungeon! feels like old-school dungeon crawling because you’re weighing the same risk-reward decisions. For my first character, I played an elf whose ability to move through secret doors would let me quickly zip down to the sixth level, where I hoped to score some game-winning phat loot. Unfortunately I soon found that I needed some magical help to take on the guardians on that level, and was on my way to find some on a more shallow level when I died. For my second character, I wanted to choose a more conservative approach but all the easily-reached low level treasures had been snarfed up by other starting characters, so I couldn’t engage in what players of roguelike games (another branch of Dungeon!’s heritage) call scumming and instead had to dive a little deeper than I might have liked. This kind of thinking was totally natural from playing in the Glantri campaign and elsewhere; it’s one of many ways that Dungeon! crystallizes the experience I know from old-school D&D into a fast-acting nugget of crack.

In my next post I’ll talk about another old-school mechanic whose genome I think can be seen in Dungeon! – requiring variable amounts of XP for different classes to advance.

EDIT: As shown in the letter below, Gygax and others added a number of monsters and treasures to each level of the boardgame when it was published by TSR. Doing so would have given him some hands-on experience achieving monster/treasure ratios by level as well. Letters I didn’t take photos of might confirm that this development process began before D&D went to press, in the period when Gygax was shopping the game to Guidon and other publishers.

Letter from Gary Gygax to Dave Megarry, dated April 18, 1975

23
Jan
12

Standard Pack Comes Filled With Fresh Monster Gore

Be prepared! Preparedness begins with knowledge, to whit:

Edible items will have a small likelihood (10%) of distracting intelligent monsters from pursuit. Semi-intelligent monsters will be distracted 50% of the time. Non-intelligent monsters will be distracted 90% of the time by food. Treasure will have the opposite reaction as food, being more likely to stop intelligent monsters. (Gygax & Arneson, 1974)

This is all well and good, but how do you make sure to have both edible items and treasure always ready to provide a distraction? The New York Red Box has a solution!

Infographic by Scott LeMien, credited to an idea of Thaddeus's.

In the forum thread from whence I have ripped off this bit of practical advice, Ridiculossus further notes:

The jars are filled with fresh monster gore when you start, or other animal kill.

Pack cost (backpack) = 5g
Mini-loot drop = <20g
5 vials of oil: 10 gold
Clay jars (and padding) = 1g

It is to my great shame that I didn’t think to include this in my section on mundane gear and adventuring kits for Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium. I blame Scott, who should leave these ideas lying around ready to be swiped when I need them, not months later.

20
Jan
12

Q&A with the 2nd Dungeon Master in Champaign-Urbana, 1974

Folks whose memories span several ages of creation may recall that my friend Nat Sims was a co-founder of Behemoth3, my first venture into RPG publishing. Nat went on to found the successful iPhone app developer Night & Day Studios, and although being its CEO keeps him pretty busy, over the last year I’ve had the pleasure of playing the card-based diplomatic wargame Here I Stand online with him and some members of his extended family.

The first cRPG, "The Dungeon" aka PEDIT5, may also be from Champaign-Urbana, written by Reginald "Rusty" Rutherford on a PLATO terminal at the University of Illinois. Click pic to learn more.

One of my first experiences on the road to the old-school renaissance was hearing Nat’s stories about playing D&D in the 70s with his parents. His mom was the DM for a group of players mostly made up of his dad’s graduate students in a drama program. What Nat remembered most clearly was impatiently waiting for the “grown-ups” to finish drinking wine and describing what their characters were wearing, hoping that at some point during the night they could kick down another door and kill something.

On one visit home, Nat picked up his old D&D stuff including a mimeographed set of rules and one of the dungeons that his mom used. At the time, I thought that the ruleset might have been some draft of proto-D&D; with the wisdom of hindsight I bet it was actually one of the re-typings that were popular at the time as a way to integrate houserules (and avoid buying multiple copies of the expensive D&D “white box”).

At some point I’ll tell the story of what Nat & I made of this ’70s dungeon, my first exposure to the wonderful improv challenge of trying to make sense of a funhouse on the fly – and doing it without any help. (It was the ’90s, so the Internet and OGL-based support system on which the old-school brain trust relies was just a glint in Mozilla and GNU’s respective eyes.) What I want to do now, however, is pass on some conversations I’ve had with the creator of that dungeon, Nat’s uncle Mike Metcalf.

My questions for Mike (presented henceforth in italics) began with:

I’ve been making a point of seeking out all the original D&Ders I can – most recently I met Michael Mornard, who was part of both Arneson’s gaming group in the Twin Cities and Gygax’s in Lake Geneva. I would love to pick your brain about those days! Do you still have any of your old maps and whatnot?

He replied:

I had the 2nd dungeon in Champaign-Urbana in 1974 and went on to be a dungeon master up at Gencon once. My Dungeon stuff is at Nat’s Moms (my sister) who borrowed the stuff once to copy etc.  Used that dungeon with the family once and ended up turning my Mother into a zucchini; great fun.  I think it is secreted away somewhere in their house.  But, I do have stories, experiences and ideas.

One of the things Gary Gygax did before Arneson introduced him to proto-D&D was to run a Diplomacy fanzine. It seems to me that part of why he latched onto roleplaying right away – it only took one session of Arneson DMing his Blackmoor game for Gary before he was ready to start DMing it himself (for his kids, the first Lake Geneva players!) using Dave’s fragmentary notes – was that the kind of writing as if you were a historical world leader that we do while playing Here I Stand and that people used to do in diplozines is much like pretending to be an elf.

 Does this ring true – did you have experience with Diplomacy zines or other correspondence-based kinds of writing-as-if-you-were-someone-else? Or were there “playing in character” aspects of board or wargames that you just brought over to D&D play?

The way I got into D&D was that a friend of mine had gone to GenCon and come back with a copy of the rules and a graph paper dungeon (#1 in the area).  Pretty basic stuff with a list of main character types and monster types etc.  Our group had played ‘Chain-mail’ miniatures and this was a partial take-off on that idea.  We just took to it.  Easy to get into character.  We had already done Diplomacy and, of course, had to play our character-states.  As we killed off character after character (never got to the points necessary for a level-2 – hard damned dungeon), we got into a flow.  I had the never-ending ‘Botnick’ brothers starting with Coors Botnick, Budweiser Botnick etc (down the list of bad beers).  I quickly made a dungeon (2nd in the area) and we played each dungeon in a revolving mode.  Didn’t have a ‘zine at the time – just those rules which were modified by each dungeon master as he saw fit.

I’ll tell you of my other Dungeon – where I tired of D&D being an open-ended game to one of fixed dimensions (meaning that it would end at some point – no possibility that it could continue).  After playing many a dungeon trip in many a dungeon and watching other people with more time (I was in veterinary school) make giant above ground (and below) fantasy realms etc., I realized that I was losing interest in the open-ended role playing genre. Yes, one’s character might eventually be killed off (though rarely after gaining a certain upper-levelness) but things just went on and on. I guess I was too much of a history-based gamer. So, years later, I concocted this idea of a Dungeon. I found 4 other D&D players who were interested. Each players tribe lived on an island having a causeway to the dungeon complex with no outside interaction with any other player/side. The dungeon was finite: geometrically 4-sided with a middle entrance level and one level above and below the middle. I stocked the dungeon with all the requisite treasures; once found and removed – no replacement. Monsters/traps were easier in the middle level and more diificult above/below.  As all 4 players and I were in the same room during the game session, I devised some fog-of-war.  Each player could enter the dungeon with 9 men (randomized characteristics but possible to improve).  Each player thought that their entrance into the dungeon was to their North.  In addition, I numbered each room with a color-number that was meaningless to them as to level etc.  Each player did a few moves, exploring, fighting, discovering then passing to the next player.  This was all being done game-time simultaneously so there was the chance that the parties within the dungeon might meet (and fight) each other was.  If one party got to a room previously sacked, they would see the results of the previous visit.  Since ‘North’ was different for each player, orientation of other players experiences was very difficult unless they could recognize the area of the dungeon being described.

A very enjoyable experience – everyone quite enjoyed it.

This evolution of play sounds like it’s coming from the sense of D&D as a “squadron-based war game, with a couple doses of light humor and the occasional funny accent” that James took away from Michael Mornard’s game. What’s interesting is that Nat’s memories suggest that, around the same time that Mike Metcalf was making D&D into a squad competition he found more compelling, his sister’s game was been moving in the direction of “the wacky imaginative, pretend to be a Cleric bullshitting drunk people to convert to your faith, stuff” that James thinks “wasn’t a strong part of the earliest playstyle; it seems to have been an opportunistic growth, like a lichen growing on a rock or something.” (Quoted from here.)

Got other questions for Champaign-Urbana’s second-ever DM? Let me know and I’ll pass them on!

14
Dec
11

strahd gangbang

Neisseria, the Medusa navigator by Scott LeMien

With the help of my Medusa navigator, I crashed the spaceship into to the mouth of the enormous ghost-robot that hovered over Swamp Town, and we disembarked to rob the spoiled teenage were-tiger picnickers…

Oh wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

we killed strahd, you missed it

Well actually, it looks like Beedo’s gang did it too, but they had more people involved.

In our game of I6: Ravenloft, the four remaining PC’s had found all these curiously specific items of Strahd-slaying, but the best weapon was, of course, a mule to the face.

Our Normal Magic-User negotiated with Strahd to return a painting of the vampire’s little girlfriend–and threw a mule (from a robe of many things) through the painting right as Strahd was examining it.  “A mule to the face would at least be distracting,” so our Kryptonian Assassin got a backstab  with the Sun Sword.  I ended up facing the vampire lord for a round or two of single combat, and then Sensible Half-Orc blasted him with a mystic amulet or something.

The Ravenloft module was entertainingly and ably run by “Naked Sam” on the Red Box site, and it was a nice change of pace.  I think the four players that night all agreed that while we had a fun time, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1e was a laughably pretentious game with little to recommend it over LBB, B/X, or BECMI.  I practically cried reading the “Gaining Experience Levels” section on page 86 of the Dungeon Masters Guide.

Forget Strahd: somebody needs to run a stake through Gary Gygax for sucking blood out of gamers with that nonsense.  Ugh.

the necromancer is dead, so what else is new?

A couple days later, I swung by Tavis’s game, where we had the aforementioned Medusa-navigated spaceship crashing into the ghost-colossus to rob teenage lycanthropes having a picnic on pickled robo-dwarf.  You know: Tavis’s game.

we are here for the picnic (art by Jedo)

One of our off-screen enemies, going back to the days when I was a regular player, was a necromancer named Ashur-Ram, who keeps Wraiths and Spectres imprisoned inside crystal phials which he throws as grenades.  We never have enough priests to turn back these level-draining undead, so we usually gave Ashur-Ram a lot of latitude.

But it turns out he was on board the ghost-colossus when we smashed into it.  This precipitated a panic when long-serving members of the party realized the danger we were in, especially after Ashur-Ram’s Dragon killed all of our meat-shields. “Quick,” said the other party members, “the necromancer appears willing to pay us to leave him alone!  We want to leave him alone!  We want to get paid!  Let’s take the offer!”

BAH!

Now, it may be my -2 Wisdom modifier talking, or the fact that I was playing a brand-spanking-new character in contrast to guys who had invested for 40 sessions in their toon.  But when you have an insanely wealthy necromancer by the throat and you outnumber him 8:1, and he’s already spent some of his best spells, you strangle that fool.  And so for once I exploited our consensus-driven process by refusing to give in until everyone else got sick of arguing with me.

We killed the necromancer, who had filled us with dread for like 30 sessions, in like 3 rounds.  Nobody took damage except for one guy who got drained two levels and who had been staunchly opposed to fighting this guy.  (Sorry, dude.)  But we are now even more ridiculously wealthy than we had been, and I’m sure fixing the level-drain will be fairly easy.

Plus I think some dude got it on with a Sphinx.

big bad encounter design in old-skool D&D

Both of these episodes are related.

What surprised me about the big fight with Strahd is that there was, in fact, no big fight with Strahd.  We encountered him three times, and it was no biggie each time:

  • Our scout teleported away without any lasting harm thanks to a magic item
  • Our Assassin decapitated him with a single attack (no lasting harm to Strahd)
  • Mule to the face!  And then super-death.
  • Before we got to Strahd the last time, we fought a Nightmare.  The Nightmare put up a better fight.

My impression of this fight, and the hit on Ashur-Ram the necromancer, is that the Many versus One fight is really hard to get right in D&D.  Either the adversary is going to be way out of your league, in which case you need to run like hell, or it’s a plausible foe at your level in which case the group of you will crush it easily.

Furthermore, in order to be taken seriously as a fictional adversary in the world of Dungeons & Dragons, you need to cast spells–which means that you can’t get punched in the face even once if you want to cast, but now there are like 4-8 people surrounding you.

The Nightmare alluded to above was pretty much Many versus One (there were some Hellhound minion-types), but the Nightmare had the advantage of an insanely low Armor Class (like -4 or -5) plus an aura of nausea that made it even harder to hit.  As a result, the Nightmare could afford to stick around for a while and dish out damage.  I realized after leaping onto its back to attempt to tame it that it could run away to some Hell-Plane any time it wished and simply ditch me there, so in trying to avoid its weaker attack I accidentally opened up its special killer move.

But Strahd, and the poor Necromancer, didn’t have great defenses (anti-magic would have worked as well) or an infallible yet deadly escape plan.  Run like hell.

So how do you make the Many versus One fight work?

My advice would be: you don’t.  Give the Boss Bad Guy a retinue of henchmen, maybe appropriate to the Charisma score, and have them follow the Boss around at all times.  (Works for world leaders!)  And failing that, no enemy of any brains will stick around to fight on someone else’s terms: if you’re caught at a disadvantage–like, say, eight adventurers crash a spaceship into your bunker and polymorph your Dragon into a flounder–then you retreat, regroup, and get revenge at a time of your choosing.  As someone said at the end of the Necromancer caper, by the time the adventurers reach your throne room, you’ve already lost.

Extremely intelligent NPC’s should probably auto-fail their morale checks in such circumstances, and should think twice before attempting to negotiate with murder hobo’s for safe passage.

But eventually that confrontation is gonna happen, at which point your Boss NPC has to do several things very quickly:

  1. Protect against melee combatants blitzing you
  2. Knock out enemy casters
  3. Cancel any on-going status effects the party’s got going
  4. Take out as many targets of opportunity as possible

It’s hard to say which of those four is the most urgent, though taking care of #1 early hopefully will buy you some time.  My thought is that debuffs can wait a bit since players may try to keep tossing them on as the fight progresses.  You probably shouldn’t waste time buffing yourself, because (a) it takes up time that you need to spend taking care of other things, and (b) the players will just hit you with a dispel anyway.

One helpful trick, though it is sort of unfair: design your throne room in a way that takes care of at least one of these problems for you: maybe you get to drive around in an armor-plated Pope-Mobile or your throne levitates 20 feet off the ground so melee guys can’t reach you.  Or there’s 3 feet of sucking mud all over the place which basically cancels out any haste spell, or a constant rain of cinders that inflicts steady damage so casters can’t rely on getting a spell off.

Relatedly: divert attention with a MacGuffin, hostage, dead-man switch, or some other strategic necessity so that the players can’t get away with killing you immediately.  The problem here is that your distraction probably won’t keep everybody occupied, and things will likely escalate into a very non-standard combat encounter, which favors the players’ hive-mind.

I’m uncertain as to the best timing of summoning help, such as from demons or conjuration spells.  It’s good to have somebody running around taking the heat off you, but they’re mainly just meat-shields.  (I think we summoned 8 Goblins to help us fight the Nightmare.  All they did was get in the way, though we did propose a variation on our beloved Baby Armor, namely Goblin Sponge Armor, to ablate the vampire’s attacks.  Alas they faded from view before we could get our armorer on the case.)  Summoning help costs at least one round, and it’s probably only going to buy you two at best, unless the enemy absolutely must put down your helper.  Bringing two Wraiths into the fight sure didn’t help the Necromancer.

(Related question: why is Animate Dead such a high-level spell?)

My short prescription would be something like slow (surprisingly, does not exist in the B/X version of the game!), confusion, growth of plants, or wall of ice to keep attackers at bay, followed by (say) hold person, darkness, silence, or feeblemind on enemy casters.  Cause Fear is a nice spell for either purpose, though it only affects one target.  I also like casting a charm person on a Cleric: it not only saves you from a melee attacker, it also steals the players’ buffs for your own use.  My general thought is that while invisibility is a pretty good spell, it’s a pain in the neck to run because you’re always sweating whether your next action will blow it.

Any other thoughts on the Many versus One spellcaster thing?  What am I missing?

31
Oct
11

the Citadel of Defenseless Babies

That'll teach you to try to escape from the Citadel of Defenseless Babies!

Readers of the Mule may wish to check out a series of posts I’m doing at the Adventurer Conqueror King blog. These mini-essays appear over there because they grow directly out of my experience wrestling with revamping legacy D&D procedural generation systems like wandering monsters and treasure types for the ACKS system, but I often find myself linking back here because they also continue conversations we’ve had like

  • why the Citadel of Defenseless Babies – the fabled goal of all adventurers seeking profit with no risk, which is to our murder-hobos what the Big Rock Candy Mountain is to ordinary hobos – is specifically comprised of dwarven babies
  • why giving XP for gold is important (see also: murder-hobos)
  • how unintended consequences, like fetishizing balance, arose out of decisions made by WotC designers in the course of overhauling legacy systems – something constantly on our minds as we work on ACKS
  • wonky analysis of the mathematical underpinnings of Basic/Expert D&D, or at least reporting on what happens when you get actual mathematicians like Delta on the scent of these problems
  • how to fill in the gaps left in older editions of D&D without reducing their flexibility for individual takes on the material

Also there are many excellent posts by people successfully overcoming the disadvantage of not being me, including insightful analysis by ACKS lead designer Alex Macris and art by Ryan Browning like the awesome griffon above. If you read the Mule via Google Reader or similar subscription service and you haven’t added the Autarch blog’s RSS feed, what are you waiting for?

19
Sep
11

The Incredible Indestructible Halfling

In B/X, halflings are much like fighters, but with a slew of minor changes that seem geared to make them good ranged combatants. On the one hand, they get a bonus to hit with missile weapons, an initiative bonus and an Armor Class bonus against larger than man-sized creatures. On the other hand, they can only use weapons “cut down to their size” (limiting their offense in melee) and they use six-sided Hit Dice instead of the fighter’s eight-sided dice, making them more fragile than their human and dwarven counterparts.

But in actual play? It’s all frontline halflings in plate mail, all the time.

Your typical halfling warrior in plate mail, ready for action.

The reason for this is an emergent property of the B/X rules for ability score adjustment (p. B6). Characters can drop points from some stats to raise a prime requisite on a 2-for-1 basis. And who has Dexterity as a prime requisite? Halflings. So everyone who plays a halfling trades away Intelligence and Wisdom to get an 18 Dexterity, which is impressive when a natural Dexterity score is rarely higher than 15. Combine that with plate mail and shield and you’ve got a base Armor Class of -1, which goes up to -3 against larger than man-sized creatures. The resulting survivability boost more than makes up for having one less hit point per level than the fighter.

The first question here isn’t what’s to be done, but whether anything should be done at all. Is there anything fundamentally wrong with a party with a bunch of plate-armored hobbits anchoring the front line? If the players seem happy enough with the situation, it may be best to let them keep doing what they’re doing.

On the other hand, if the DM’s dissatisfied with the resulting flavor, there are a number of approaches to be taken:

1) Disallow ability score adjustment, so halfling PCs are stuck with their initial dexterity roll. The downsides here are that this may be a case of taking out a housefly with a hand grenade if it’s the only problematic situation caused by ability score adjustment, and that a player who rolled a high dexterity can still choose to play a plate-armored halfling anyway; this makes the situation rarer but does not abolish it.
2) Put a limit on how much of a dexterity bonus a PC can get from heavy armor, like in later editions of D&D. So plate mail might cap the wearer at a +2 (or even +1) AC bonus from dexterity. This meshes well with the movement rules; if metal armor slows you down, it’s reasonable to think that it also makes you less agile in combat.
3) Remove plate mail from the halfling’s list of allowed armor types. This may have an overly negative effect on the halfling’s survivability, and unlike some other solutions, it requires grandfathering in exceptions to the rule for existing characters if you want to let them keep playing as they have been playing. But it has the advantage of matching the race’s original Tolkienian flavor; they’re not the sort to dress up like knights in full armor.

06
Aug
11

When Players Frustrate Themselves in Sandbox Play

The promise of sandbox play is that players can choose to do whatever they’re going to enjoy doing in a wide-open environment. In practice, though, it often doesn’t work this way.

Some of the problems come at the beginning of the campaign, when a lack of information prevents players from translating “what is there for our characters to do” into “which things will be fun for me as a player.” This is a pretty well-discussed problem, with excellent suggestions from the classic sources including the West Marches and Rob Conley’s Bat in the Attic.

A problem I haven’t seen discussed as much develops in a sandbox campaign that’s well underway. The players have made a choice about what their characters want to pursue, and they’ve really gotten invested in it. The problem comes when that investment turns the sandbox into a tunnel of the player’s own making.

In the White Sandbox campaign, we saw that happen between the second and third level of Caverns of Thracia. The players had identified “killing the Beast Lord” as the thing that was going to be fun for them. But the intense opposition they faced as they drew near his domain was pushing them towards a style of play they really didn’t enjoy. Hiring a big force of mercenaries and pushing these disposable troops in front of them seemed like the only solution available to them. They wanted to kill the Beast Lord with the same madcap brio they’d dealt with previous encounters, but the way the dungeon was set up made this difficult to impossible. (Ray Weiss told me that this is an emergent property of dungeons stocked using the OD&D procedures; perhaps, as Oban was saying, “saturday night specials” are assumed to become important in this zone, so that the generated treasures no longer have to carry the load of character advancement.)

As the referee, it was really clear to me that the sandbox was full of other dungeons that would support that style of play – many of them also designed by Paul Jaquays.  As I watched the players becoming frustrated with Caverns of Thracia, I suggested in increasingly overt terms that they might want to try going on some side treks which I knew they would both enjoy more for themselves, and would also yield the gold and magic items that would allow them to become powerful enough to deal with the Beast Lord’s forces in their accustomed style. But there was a remarkably strong commitment to continuing to bang their heads against the same wall.

This seems to me to potentially give the lie to the sandbox promise: all the opportunities to choose what you’ll enjoy are for naught if you can’t unchoose a previous decision that is proving not to be enjoyable.

In the Adventurer Conqueror King demo we ran earlier, I refereed for characters who were about the same level as the Grey Company of old. The key difference was that the players had also previously played the characters who were the mentors and lieges of these “adventurer”-level characters. In this role, they chose which mission their low-level characters would be assigned to.

The intentional design feature was to highlight the ways that the different spheres of activity in ACKS come together. Over a long-term campaign this can become clear, but in a demo where each player might only participate for a few hours, we needed to highlight right away all the experiences that ACKS supports. Having players switch their viewpoint between three characters at different levels proved to be very successful in this regard. (I initially resisted the idea because I don’t love the troupe style of play in Ars Magica nearly as much as I love its noun-verb spellcasting. I think the difference is that in Ars Magica, a grog will never become a companion will never become a magus, so switching viewpoints feels like playing different games. In ACKS, the organic progression from adventurer to conqueror to king makes switching as natural as reading Conan stories outside the character’s internal chronology).

The unexpected design benefit of this is that it offers a way for players to switch out of the mindset that leads to frustration. In the Abandoned Monastery, the low-level party ran into bugbears tough enough that the characters had to retreat and rest after a single fight. Normally this is where the dogged “never surrender even if it becomes a bitter grind” approach sets in.

But because  I thought it might be a good switching point, I said “OK everybody, your lieges don’t want to see you get killed and they do want you to come back with information. Do you want to try to return through the wilderness and report – in which case we’ll play out what the kings do with this new data at the domain level, and you’ll get a pat on the back? Or do you want to go back in the dungeon and get something for yourselves, whether that’s treasure or revenge?”

Framing it this way turned around their initial beat-head-against-wall tendency. I think it’s because it offered a choice where both results would be fun. A choice between admitting defeat and going back for another beating is never fun. So introducing the option of switching to play the characters who had a different range of things to do, related to but possibly independent of the situation with the bughears, restored the wide-open possibility of doing lots of enjoyable things that is, to me, the essence of sandbox play.

One of the design posts of Adventures Great and Glorious mentions that players will play factions instead of characters, which I suspect is going to afford the same kind of anti-frustration switching of perspective as we’ve evolved through the ACKS demo and the playtesting thereof.

 

17
May
11

The Power of Saying No

The New York Red Box group has two ongoing old-school campaigns: Eric‘s Glantri and my White Sandbox. Just as the presence of two professional baseball teams in NYC gives rise to the enjoyable rivalry of the Subway Series, the different approaches of these two campaigns create one of the productive tensions within our group.

I’d estimate that about a third of us play regularly or semi-regularly in both campaigns, with the remaining two-thirds being players in only one or the other. This largely boils down to whether people are available on weeknights for Glantri, on weekends for White Sandbox, or enjoy the luxury of having time for both.

But even if the division within our player base is basically due to factors extrinsic to the game, all of us enjoy having two mirror-image campaigns so that we can better understand the way things go in this one by comparing it to the way they do it over there.  As Naked Samurai memorably expressed:

Most of the Glantri campaign believes the White Box campaign goes like this. The session starts in a magic item bazaar, where they pick up stray magic items with the metric assloads of gold they are carrying in bulldozers. After lapping up a few Staffs of Striking and a Long Sword of Sharpness +4 or two, they wander around a valley until they seduce a few werebears, who sire their children. Then they enslave, like, a few tribes of gnomes to take care of their griffon mounts and tiny giraffes. After threatening several giant kings, who aren’t worth their time, they bump into a couple demons from the depths of hell, who they vanquish within half a round. Then they discuss, philosophically, why death has no meaning, as they stroll back home.

Not bad for fourth level characters.

Is this just the grumblings of players who should be content that they survived an adventure in Glantri, and even came away with a single silver spoon as treasure? No, there are indeed measurable differences that underlie the distinction N.S. is making here.

As in chaos theory, many of the biggest separations  in how the campaigns have evolved come from their original conditions. The Glantri campaign has always started new PCs at first level, while characters enter the White Sandbox at third level (following my decision to use Gygax’s house rules). At that link Cyclopeatron notes that “Gygax’s house rules are interesting because most of them make characters stronger”, but even the pre-house-ruled systems Eric and I each use differ in this regard; spells like hold person are much more potent in OD&D than their counterparts in Moldvay/Cook B/X.

But other differences suggest a divergence in play styles. James’ analysis of XPs earned in each campaign suggests that the rate of advancement per session of adventure is eight times faster in the White Sandbox than in Glantri. The fact that the bulk of these experience points come from gold means that we do indeed have adventures structured around the logistical difficulties in moving metric ass-tons of coin – one of the few kinds of difficulty that Glantrian players are not regularly exposed to. Back when we were grinding through the upper levels of the Caverns of Thracia, I made a conscious decision to increase the treasure levels (to a rough guideline of 4 gp for every 1 combat XP, suggested by Alexander Macris in a comment here at the Mule way back when) and have been playing out the implications ever since.

I’ve been saying recently that the White Sandbox is an exploration of the improv principle “always say yes”, while Glantri is a demonstration of the power of saying no. You could perhaps map this onto the distinction between paidia, “the power of improvisation and joy,” and ludus, “the taste for gratuitous difficulty.”

Let me be clear that I’m not painting Eric as a joyless denier, or saying that the only reason to play in Glantri is a masochistic enjoyment of difficulty for its own sake. Experiences are fun because they balance both of these extremes; awesomeness is produced by the tension between them, and I can personally attest that the Glantri campaign is a reliable source of awesome fun. I’m interested in seeing Glantri as an example of the power of saying no because I need to harness that power for my own play, which has a tendency to go too far in the other direction.

Here are the things I think saying no contributes to a RPG experience, especially in a long-form campaign:

  • The satisfaction of overcoming opposition. Players in the White Sandbox really are worried about death losing its sting; even as raise dead becomes a more common event in the campaign, they want the possibility of the ultimate, character-sheet-shredding NO. (Spiritual mishaps are one way we’re hoping to balance these). The more often a character’s desires are denied, the more thrilling it becomes when they finally succeed. Heroes with a surplus of Staffs of Striking can be hard to challenge, whereas in Glantri, as Naked Samurai said earlier in the thread quoted above, “we need to actually be, you know, resourceful, to make it down the river.”
  • Maintenance of a consistent reality. Gene Wolfe turned me on to Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, many of which have a structure in which the priest-hero does things that seem really shocking and the mystery is why this is actually moral and necessary. There’s a great one where Father Brown sees this young man watching raindrops on a tavern window, and subsequently abducts him and ties him to a tree out in the rain. “I could see that you were on the verge of a grave theological error,” our hero explains. “I knew that you were thinking that the course the raindrops took was a product of your own mind, and took it upon myself to demonstrate that there is a reality upon which your desire not to be tied to a tree has no bearing.” Saying no to things that violate the fictional reality is necessary not only for believability and immersion, but also player agency. The world needs to work in predictable ways for people to be able to plan the likely consequences of their actions; we base our game-world expectations on our common experiences of the real one, in which stubbed toes reliably refute solipsism. The higher power level in the White Sandbox makes this harder because each magical effect the characters can produce gets us further away from the world in which we know what is and isn’t possible.
  • Lines and veils. I realized how much I’ve internalized the New York Red Box’s coolness policy about what kind of things shouldn’t be brought into a game at all, and which other things should be alluded to instead of shown, when I recently participated in a game that wasn’t played in a public space. All of a sudden I was dropping f-bombs left and right, liberated from self-censorship and able to speak all the things I normally say no to.
  • Maintaining the campaign’s tone. This is one Eric struggles with; having given up on a kind of saying no that looks like hard work means that my campaign automatically assumes the gonzo tone you get when nothing is forbidden. Wanting to do a different kind of game would mean having to say no to dissonances and mis-steps.

One thing I think is important is that saying no isn’t just something the DM does. That’s been the way it’s traditionally conceptualized, and in the above I’ve been focusing on Eric because as Glantri’s DM he’s the easiest way to personify that campaign. But in fact I’m the one who censors my own language when I play in Glantri, and I can’t think of any times I’ve needed to police the lines and veils policy in White Sandbox because respecting that is a communal effort.

This is crucial for me because I tend to get the power of saying no mixed up with having all the power and needing to be in control. When I’m DMing for kids and they come up with some totally unexpected idea, I often observe that my first impulse is to say no. On further reflection I realize that there’s no good reason to do so; in this context there’s no real game balance to be maintained, no consistent tone to be respected. I’m just reflexively saying no because I’m afraid that opening up to player input will cause things to spiral out of control and fall apart, with the implied fallacy that I’m the only important one who is capable of holding it together.

Saying no is one of the DM’s jobs, and in the afterschool class it’s a job I get paid for despite not doing it very well. Being disciplined about defining where the power of no holds sway is important, because it makes improvisation joyful by providing something to strive against. But doing this can be a collective part of playing, and sometimes relinquishing control to the players lets them enjoy the power of saying no.

In the White Sandbox, James gets a lot of enjoyment out of his character Arnold Littleworth, d/b/a Zolobachai of the Nine Visions, because he’s decided never to memorize any useful spells whatsoever. Even in a campaign where endless tiny giraffes could be his for the taking, he’s created his own gratuitous difficulty in order to make the one time that a useless spell saves the day a triumph over adversity. Sure, that adversity is imaginary and self-imposed, but what in D&D isn’t?

12
Apr
11

Emergent Behaviors: Don’t Sacrifice That Hireling!

A year ago, I posted about how players try to ditch their hirelings in order to avoid giving them a share of treasure. While not exactly counter-intuitive, this is a situation that doesn’t always go hand in hand with the DM’s preferred style of play. But it’s an emergent behavior that comes out of the intersection between rules and player goals: if the aim is to acquire gold and XP, and hirelings bleed off gold and XP, then it’s in the PCs’ interest to ensure that the hirelings perish in the line of duty before they can get their share.

(It also leads to weird situations, such as when a PC becomes an NPC and the party decides to stop giving him a full share of treasure for no apparent in-game reason. Which is perfectly explicable from a player perspective but utterly silly from an in-game perspective!)

In the following year, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no reason not to twiddle the rules in order to create a more desirable outcome. So, how might one go about encouraging players to keep their hirelings alive — or at least not discouraging them from doing so? By tweaking the distribution of gold and XP.

1) Hirelings that demand a flat fee instead of (or in addition to) a share of the profits will spend or cache that money before going on an adventure. This avoids the ghoulish prospect of PCs looting their hirelings for their fees.

2) If the PCs give a share of treasure to a hireling, give the PCs some of the XP value of that share of treasure! Now, you probably don’t want to give the PCs full value here — hirelings already provide significant benefits in play, and you may not want the choice of whether to use (or betray!) hirelings to be a total no-brainer. But if the players know that their characters gain at least some XP from rewarding their hirelings, then those who want to play their characters as decent employers don’t have to feel like total chumps for doing so.




Past Adventures of the Mule

July 2020
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