Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Higher Struggle

TLDR: a cool, free game that could be used as a campaign sub-system to model the struggle between factions and powers.

One of the things that always impresses me when I read The Lord of the Rings is the time Tolkien spends setting up the higher struggle between powers. Sometimes we see it in the form of councils and plans, other times we see it in the form of a conflict of wills. Galadriel or Aragorn contesting with the Eye of Sauron, for instance. This battle above and beyond the literal battlefield is fascinating. It informs the latter as well, allowing us to see in every clash of arms the larger forces at work.

What am I rambling on about?

Well, it's the desire for that layer in our RPG games. Often GMs achieve it with recurring villains and reveal it through rumors and one-on-one interactions with NPCs. But is there a better way to model it?

I have seen political struggle represented in sub-systems before, or at least models that approach it. There is a nice social combat model in Diaspora, for instance. But I'm not sure I've ever seen anything as useful or simple as this little design by Mark Hunt.


Get the game here!


Scandalous Goons is a hack of Tunnel Goons, which I mentioned in a previous post. The rules of the game are basically the same, but instead of classes Mark supplies the stats of Reputation, Rumor, and Connections. And in place of inventory items we have assets like Military Honors, Spy, Blackmail Information, and Married Well. The third change is really about trading out health for a bank of Influence points.

Two things make this little game an ideal "bolt on" to about any campaign.
  1. It's very easy to adapt to your particular scenario. Change or add stats. Come up with new/different assets. Allow different factions to start with more or less Influence. An hour's work would probably be more than enough to totally customize Scandalous Goons to be completely in step with your group's campaign.
  2. It's easy to implement without interacting or interfering with the mechanics of whatever RPG you are playing.
Oh, did I mention it's also free?! 

I can't wait to take this game and use it to model the politicians, gang lords, and guild masters of a fantasy town. Or to play out some huge space opera game where star lords and planetary tyrants develop assets like warp drive levels, planetary defenses, cloaking devices, trade goods, super soldiers, etc. 

Thanks, Mark!

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Simple Skills System (Revised)

TLDR: an idea for implementing simple skills in pre-2e D&D. 

Each character details their background in 50 words or less, using full sentences. This background can be revised between adventures to incorporate an extra sentence per level gained.

When a character attempts something that would require unusual skill, and the GM agrees that it is possible, even if it’s very unlikely, he sets a difficulty at 4, 5, or 6 and indicates the most-closely related ability.

The player then rolls dice as follows, trying to meet or beat the difficulty on at least one die.

  • 1d6 if unskilled
  • 2d6 if skilled (character background suggests a related skill) OR the related ability has a positive bonus
  • 3d6 if skilled AND the related ability has a positive bonus

The odds to work out to be:

  • 1d6 ≥ Dif. 4 = 50%, Dif. 5 = 33%, Dif. 6 = 17%
  • 2d6 ≥ Dif. 4 = 75%, Dif. 5 = 56%, Dif. 6 = 31%
  • 3d6 ≥ Dif. 4 = 88%, Dif. 5 = 70%, Dif. 6 = 42%

If all the dice show a 1, the failure is a “botch” and is worse than a normal failure, if that’s possible. “Extra” successes usually add minor positive benefits.

Example

A player wants his character to run at full speed across a tightrope between high buildings to escape pursuers. . 

The GM says, "that will be a difficulty 5 DEX test." Note that the GM wouldn't necessarily have to call out the difficulty; that's probably a matter of style. The GM should not consider the character's skill at all when setting difficulty. Rather the difficulty should be solely based on the situation. Is there strong wind and rain? Is the character carrying a lot of stuff? How hard would it be for a normal person to do this given the situation?

The character has a positive DEX bonus and, according to his background, was once a circus performer, so he rolls 3d6. If the highest die in that pool is a 5 or 6, the character succeeds. If two or three successes show, perhaps he gets across at high speed and can get out of sight before the pursuers catch up. Or he has plenty of time to cut the rope and not get shot at by crossbows.  

If the highest die is less than 5, he fails. The GM might allow him to catch the rope or a ledge on the way down, but the character will be in dire straights.

If all three dice show a 1, the character plummets to the ground with no chance at grabbing the rope. If he survives, the pursuers probably had people tracking him on the ground as well. 

Monday, August 12, 2019

Gakking Goon

TLDR: Nate Treme wrote a neat little game, Tunnel Goons, and has invited people to hack it.

The marvelous Nate Treme recently created a rules-light role-playing game called Tunnel Goons as part of his amazing Eternal Caverns of Urk.* A few days ago he announced Goon Jam, a call for people to hack his game. To help, Nate offered up a text-only version to help people get started.

I've been "called" lately to design something fun that isn't combat or violence focused. My first response to the Goon Jam was to use this opportunity to scratch that elusive itch. So let's take a quick look at what there is to hack in Tunnel Goons and what kinds of games it might support.


Bounty from Nate's Patreon


The Game

In a nutshell, you divide three points between three classes and select three items to add to your inventory. In Tunnel Goons the classes are Brute, Skulker, and Erudite. When you try something you roll 2d6, add the points from your relevant mode and a point for each relevant item. Your inventory can get up to ten items in it before it starts imposing a penalty on your Brute and Skulker rolls. Sometimes tests are merely succeed/fail; other times you are fighting enemies and difference between the difficulty score of the enemy and your roll is the damage you do (or take). Damage reduces the enemy's difficulty, so that there is a death spiral kind of mechanic. Each hit makes the next attack easier to land and makes higher damage more likely.

So what is there to hack? Without changing the basic rules – and I think not changing those too much is in the spirit of the challenge – you have the three classes, the equipment list, and whatever flavor text you add to work with.

Classes (Modes)

I'm going to rename the classes as "modes" just to shift your thinking away from any associations with traditional RPG terminology. In calling them modes, I want to highlight that they are essentially an angle through which you address any challenges. The most obvious change here is to rename the modes. For instance, you could make them Wit, Soul, and Antics to create a game about bards who use logic and riddles or heart-felt performances or humorous capering to make their way through life's minefield. You could also increase or decrease the number of modes, with corresponding shifts in the initial points a player can spend on them. Be careful to set a limit. The game is based on a 2d6 curve, so every +1 is a really big deal. Since the original game has an initial limit of 3 on any mode, I would stick with that.

Equipment

It is a time-honored tradition in RPGs to define characters by equipment. Many look down on this because it seems a little superficial, but it doesn't have to be. The things you carry around with you say a lot about you. But more to the point, the initial list of things you offer to players when they make their characters does a lot to determine the type of game. If you want to move away from a "fighty" game, for instance, don't supply a fighty mode and certainly don't list a bunch of weapons that players can choose for their inventory. In the aforementioned bards game, I could supply all kinds of bric-a-brac, but no traditional weapons. Though I might supply a few things that could be used as a weapon – like a jester's scepter (club) or pocket knife (dagger). I think the primary goal here should be to supply interesting items that aren't necessarily useful in an obvious way, or at least not useful for doing things you want to de-emphasize in the game. If you give players a bomb, you can't complain if they go around blowing things up, right?

Is That All?

Yeah, I think so. Modes and items are the core of the game. You could bolt on other stuff, but ... I guess I would caution against adding mechanics of a different kind. If you find yourself adding other kinds of dice or a roll-low mechanic, you are getting away from the heart of the original.

For my money, the equipment list is a wide-open space for tinkering. After all, who says it has to be equipment? It could be spells, stunts, assets, or just about anything you can draw on in a situation for a dice bump.

Good luck! I can't wait to see what y'all make.


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* I hope I don't sound disingenuous throwing around words like "marvelous" and "amazing;" let me assure you they are well earned. Of all the Patreons I back, the ones for Nate Treme and Evlyn Moreau have been giving me the most joy – with apologies to all the other Patreons that also give me joy.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Do You Play It RAW?

TLDR: rules-as-written (RAW) means different things to different people. Here are some distinctions that I personally think make sense.

Rules-as-written, or RAW, as most people like to write it. What does it mean?

RAW
Used literally, it means whenever you have a question about how to play you follow what the rulebook says to the best of your ability. If you make a ruling at the table and a player looks it up then, or after the game, and finds a contradiction between your ruling and the text, you go with the text. It also means, in a literal sense, that you aren't subtracting, adding, or modifying the rules in any way.

RAI
It's pretty hard to play any game like that. There are bound to be some awkward and unclear phrasings, typos, or missing rules that make playing RAW difficult. The next step away is, I believe, rules-as-intended, RAI.

Rules-as-intended means that you stick close to the rules and play them as you believe they are supposed to be played. You are not adding, subtracting, or changing the rules unless there's clearly an error in the text, a rule is unplayable (wasn't play-tested), or you have to fill in a gap where the rules are silent. When you do fill in a gap, you do it by following the logic and spirit of the rules. You aren't inventing so much as extrapolating. Personally, I still consider this RAW, especially if the rules encourage you to invent/fill in the gaps.

Rules+
Taking another step away from RAW is adding things that don't obviously change or interfere with existing rules, but clearly weren't intended by the original rules either. Let's call this Rules+. For instance, you bolt some kind of sanity mechanic onto Oe D&D. Or allow two-handed weapons to do more damage than other weapons to make up for the fact that their wielders are forgoing the use of a shield and may be attacking late in a round. The thing about adding rules is that no matter how careful you are, you are affecting existing mechanisms. Perhaps adding a Sanity mechanic makes the Intelligence ability score in D&D less important? Or adding a differentiation for two-handed weapons begs you to add rules for parallel instances, e.g. dual-wielded weapons, reach weapons, rate of fire, etc. Adding rules is a slippery slope, especially if what you liked about the original rules set was their "simplicity." Adding rules begets greater complexity.

Rules –
Clearly, if there is a Rules+ there is a Rules–, meaning you drop some rules because they feel clunky, slow down play, aren't meaningful, etc. Subtracting may reduce complexity, but you may also be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. As with adding rules, you can quickly find yourself playing a different game. For example, the Save progressions are part of class strength and weaknesses, as well as a way to differentiate between the peril of various threat types, in Oe D&D. If you dump those in favor of straight roll-under tests by ability, you may be losing one of the classes' primary advantages (good Saves) or negating one of its drawbacks (bad Saves). Also, dropping Saves means dragon breath, poison, and rays are all roughly the same type of threat, aside from prescribed damage (and in Oe it's all d6 based).

Hacking
Finally, there's hacking. It's hard to see where house-ruling ends and hacking begins sometimes. Changing the setting is a clue for a lot of observers, but you could very often change the setting of a game without touching its mechanisms, other than perhaps relabeling a few weapons. It's a distinction of quantity and quality. One big change or lots of little ones can result in the feeling that you are playing a different game. And the minute you feel like that, you have hacked the original. You have voided the warranty on play experience; if it goes south it's on you!

So, Are You Playing RAW?
It's my opinion that if you are doing literal RAW, RUI, or perhaps even light Rules+, you are. It's a matter of not believing you know more than the designer of the game and taking care to try the rules as written first before you make any adjustments or outright changes. Any such adjustments or changes should be governed by making the game play to its strengths, rather than making it feel different or fit a different style/genre of play. If that isn't your mindset, then you probably aren't playing RAW.

Fair enough?

Monday, July 29, 2019

Design Noodling in the 2d6 Space

TLDR: I couldn't sleep so I made a game. Skip down to Give It a Name! to get past the process notes.

If you were to ask me what my favorite die was, I would probably say the d6. While it's odds are rarely intuitive or seemly, there are so many things you can do with it that are interesting and quick to read at the table. The point of this is that I am up late tonight working on yet another way to use these basic cubes to make an interesting resolution engine. 

The Idea

Here is the game in a nutshell:

Roll 2d6 and get 8+ to succeed. If you have a relevant skill, power, or specialized bit of gear you can "push" and roll 3d6 instead, and drop the lowest die. Succeed or fail, your highest die indicates the degree of success/failure. A high die on successes is the damage you do. (No separate roll to resolve damage.) 

The odds work out that you succeed 41.67% of the time on 2d6 and 68.06% of the time on a roll 3d6. Which is kind of nice in that 3d6 puts you above the 50-50 threshold, AND moves the middle of the curve above the 8+ success line. 

Criticals

Success is its own reward, since you do more on a high roll. But I wanted to give the GM permission to screw people (make a "move" in PbtA parlance) when a player rolled really poorly. So I started with the idea that any failure that includes a 1 is a critical fail. That was problematic because the odds were way too high (31% on 2d6, 19% on 3d6) and it ran counter to the idea of high die (not low die) indicating degree. In fact, the idea of high die indicated degree of failure as well as success came after I looked at the odds. Before it was high die on success, low die on fail.

As a result, a critical fail became any failure that included a 6. The odds of that came out to 5.56% on 2d6 and 1.39% on 3d6. That seems to be in the right range and I left it there for a while. But as I was jotting down design notes, I realized two things:

Raising the Bar

The first was that I wanted some way for the GM to raise the bar on really tough things. I came up with two variations. Since players need to roll 2d6 to hit an 8, the GM can't take away a die. Variation 1 was for the GM to raise the bar by requiring 2 or even 3 fictional advantages for the push. The other was for the GM to make 5's and 6's a critical fail. Or even a 4+ on the high die a critical fail. (The odds of a high die of 5 on a fail are 17% for 2d6 and 5% on 3d6. The odds for a high die of 4 on a fail are 33.3% on 2d6 and 11% on 3d6). I didn't like either of these options because they didn't feel good or were too fiddly to explain/not intuitive enough.

The second note I made was that I was originally hoping that the math would work out such that a player who pushed not only increased their overall chance to succeed and their chance for a "critical success" (which I suppose equates to hitting a 6 on the high die), but to also increase their chance for critical failure

In writing that second one out, I realized I could meet both of my design goals with one simple change.

The Final Version?

Roll 2d6 and get 8+ to succeed. Succeed or fail, your highest die indicates the degree of success/failure. A high die on successes is the damage you do and a 6 gives you an extra benefit in the fiction. On the other hand, a fail with a high die of 6 is a critical failure; the GM can heap on the pain!

If you have a relevant skill, power, or specialized bit of gear you can "push" and roll 3d6 instead, and drop the lowest die. This of course increases your chance of success and your chance to get in some big damage. However, when you push, any fail is a critical fail in that the GM can do things to make your character's life a lot worse than a simple failure. 

I liked this idea, but wasn't fully married to it yet, and I'll explain why in a moment. First, though, I want to show the odds:

2d6 chance of success = 42% and critical fail = 6%.
3d6 chance of success = 68% and critical fail = 19%.

This makes pushing dramatic! 

I suppose my one reservation is that it may not be very logical. Yes, putting extreme effort into something can raise the stakes on failure. On the other hand, higher skill, the right equipment, or a relevant ability, which I give as the justification for a push, probably shouldn't result in a higher chance of critical failure. 

One more tweak? Let's give it a shot.

The Final Version (Probably)

Roll 2d6 and get 8+ to succeed. Succeed or fail, your highest die indicates the degree of success/failure. The high die on a success is the damage you do, and a 6 allows you an extra benefit in the fiction. A fail with a high die of 6 is a critical failure, and the GM will make your character's life worse!

If you have a relevant skill, power, or specialized bit of gear you can "push" the roll; Use 3d6 and drop the lowest. This increases your chance of success and your chance to get in some big damage or gain that extra benefit. 

If you don't have a relevant skill, power, or specialized gear,
you can still push. However, any fail is a critical fail. Whether you roll a 6 or not, the GM can do things to make your character's life a lot worse than on a simple, non-critical failure.

Now the odds look like this:

2d6 chance of success = 42% and critical fail = 6%.
3d6 chance of success = 68% and critical fail = 1% when you use skill, power, equipment or 19% when you use pure willpower, desperation, or reckless effort.

Give It a Name!

Hmmm. I'm not sure how original this mechanic is. I've never seen it before, so I'm going to name it and release it under a Creative Commons. (Yes, I know you can't really copyright mechanics. Humor me. If you use this mechanic somewhere, stroke my ego by giving me credit.)

The text of the rules may change a little over time for brevity. But for now you should use some variation very close to the following. Feel free to use it exactly as written.

Dice Punch 
Roll 2d6 and get 8+ to succeed. Succeed or fail, your highest die indicates your degree of success/failure. The high die on a success is the damage you do, and a 6 allows you an extra benefit in the fiction. A fail with a high die of 6 is a critical failure, and the GM will make your character's life worse!
If you have a relevant skill, power, or specialized bit of gear you can "push" the roll; Use 3d6 and drop the lowest. This increases your chance of success and your chance to get in some big damage or gain that extra benefit. It also reduces your chance of a critical failure.
If you don't have a relevant skill, power, or specialized gear, you can still push. However, any fail is a critical fail. Whether you roll a 6 or not, the GM can do things to make your character's life a lot worse than on a simple, non-critical failure. 
Text of Dice Punch is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, 2019, Ray Otus. 

What Is It Good For? 

I feel like this bit of mechanics would be great for a micro-game or a very cinematic game where characters are defined by only a handful of adjectives/labels. It leaves the question of what damage means wide open. I would give most characters/opponents d6 hp per "level" and consider 0 hp to mean "out of action" (dead or the equivalent in most cases, probably something impermanent for player characters). Here's an example game written with Dice Punch.

Dice Punch Bowl 

In know, the name makes no sense whatsoever.

Get together with a small group of friends and three dice to share. Each of you should add one element of inspiration: e.g. Jedi knights, a death race, and neanderthals! Figure out some kind of world where these things make sense together. These rules assume you know a bit about role-playing games. One of you will be the Game Master; the rest will make characters as follows.
 
Choose:
  • A folk (like human, lizardfolk, trollkin, or cat-people)
  • A calling (like sailor, mystic, librarian, or psychologist)
  • Three to five mundane bits of equipment that might prove useful
  • One "special" – a power or bit of specialized equipment that is unique to your character.
  • Your character starts with 6 points of health. If you lose all 6 you are out of action for a while. The GM will tell you what it will take to get going again, if you aren't actually dead.
When you do something risky, roll the dice!

Roll 2d6 and get 8+ to succeed. Succeed or fail, your highest die indicates your degree of success/failure. The high die on a success is the damage you do, and a 6 allows you an extra benefit in the fiction. A fail with a high die of 6 is a critical failure, and the GM will make your character's life worse!

If you have a relevant skill, power, or specialized bit of gear you can "push" the roll; Use 3d6 and drop the lowest. This increases your chance of success and your chance to get in some big damage or gain that extra benefit. It also reduces your chance of a critical failure.

If you don't have a relevant skill, power, or specialized gear, you can still push. However, any fail is a critical fail. Whether you roll a 6 or not, the GM can do things to make your character's life a lot worse than on a simple, non-critical failure. 

Failure can mean you take damage. The GM will give you a wound or two. 

When you play the game, the GM frames scenes and poses questions. You answer for/as your character. It's a conversation! Keep up the exchange until the GM tells you it's time to roll. After you roll, the GM will describe what happens or ask you to describe it, and the conversation continues.

After a session or major accomplishment, the GM may award everyone an "advance." An advance gives you an additional d6 of health; roll a die and add it to your total. An advance also means you can add a stunt. To add one, write down a bit of useful gear you used, or a special trick you did in the fiction of a previous session. In any subsequent session, you can name a relevant stunt (once per stunt per session) to reroll the dice. You must take the second result, however.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Is It Worth Spell-ing It Out?

TLDR: the simplest expression of a spell may be the most fun in play and engender the most creativity.

For your consideration, five iterations of one of the most basic of all D&D spells, by edition (skipping over a few):
Light: A spell to cast light in a circle 3” [30'] in diameter, not equal to full daylight. It lasts for a number of turns equal to 6 + the number of levels of the user; thus, a 7th-level Magic-User would cast the spell for 13 turns. 
[Oe Men & Magic, WotC collector's edition "reprint"]
This is our baseline. As far as I can tell it is faithful to the '76 Whitebox edition. I am trying to find an earlier scan.
Light*     Range 120' / Duration 12 turns
This spell casts light in a circle, 30' in diameter. It is bright enough to read by, but not equal to full daylight. It may be cast on an object. The light may be cast at a creature's eyes. The creature may make a saving throw, but if it fails, the victim will be blinded for 12 turns. In the D&D BASIC rules, a blinded creature may not attack.
* Reversible
[Moldvay/Cook Basic]
The spell gains a fixed duration, range, and some adjudication text because somebody decided to cast it "on" a creature's eyes and some GM allowed it. Note that the monster gets a saving throw. Also, it's now reversible. 
Light (Alteration) Reversible 
Level: 1   /   Components: V,S
Range: 12"   /   Casting Time: 4 segments
Duration: 6 turns + 1 turn/level   /   Saving Throw: None
Area of Effect: 2" radius globe
Explanation/Description: This spell causes excitation of molecules so as to make them brightly luminous. The light thus caused is equal to torch light in brightness, but its sphere is limited to 4” in diameter. It lasts for the duration indicated (7 turns at 1st experience level, 8at 2nd, 9at 3rd. etc.) or until the caster utters a word to extinguish the light. The light spell is reversible, causing darkness in the same area and under the same conditions, except the blackness persists for only one-half the duration that light would last. If this spell is cast upon a creature, the applicable magic resistance and saving throw dice rolls must be made. Success indicates that the spell affects the area immediately behind the creature, rather than the creature itself. In all other cases, the spell takes effect where the caster directs as long as he or she has a line of sight or unobstructed path for the spell; light can spring from air, rock, metal, wood, or almost any similar substance.
[AD&D PHB]
The spell now has a school and components, the duration is a level-dependent length, and the area is increased to a 40' diameter (assuming a 1":10' grid square). The spell gets a physics justification, and the brightness is characterized more specifically as torch-like. Details on the reversible version are given (and vary in duration). Magic resistance is mentioned, and there is some text about what happens if the target resists or saves vs. the spell.
Light     Evocation [Light]
Level: Brd 0, Clr 0, Drd 0, Sor/Wiz 0
Components: V, M/DF
Casting time: 1 standard action
Range: Touch
Target: Object touched
Duration: 10 min./level (D)
Saving Throw: None
Spell Resistance: No
This spell causes an object to glow like a torch, shedding bright light in a 20-foot radius (and dim light for an additional 20 feet) from the point you touch. The effect is immobile, but it can be cast on a movable object. Light taken into an area of magical darkness does not function.
A light spell (one with the light descriptor) counters and dispels a darkness spell (one with the darkness descriptor) of an equal or lower level.
Arcane Material Component: A firefly or a piece of phosphorescent moss.
[D&D 3.5, Online SRD]
The spell school is changed, and it gets a clerical domain. Components are expanded and specified. Range is reduce to touch, duration is still level-specific but simplified, and the spell is no longer reversible but instead "counters" spells of its opposite. Note that it's a lot harder to tag an enemy's eyes with Light now! 
Light     Evocation cantrip
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Touch
Components: V, M (a firefly or phosphorescent moss)
Duration: 1 hour
You touch one object that is no larger than 10 feet in any dimension. Until the spell ends, the object sheds bright light in a 20-foot radius and dim light for an additional 20 feet. The light can be colored as you like. Completely covering the object with something opaque blocks the light. The spell ends if you cast it again or dismiss it as an action.
If you target an object held or worn by a hostile creature, that creature must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw to avoid the spell.
[5e PHB]
Light is leveled-down to an at-will cantrip (probably happened in 4e, actually), duration is fixed, and a Dex save is included for unwilling targets. So it's even harder to tag an enemy; you must first touch them and then hope they fail their Dex test? Or, perhaps there is no longer a touch attack roll, you just do it and then they try to dodge it. Yeah, probably that; I'm not a 5e expert yet.

So, I ask you, did the spell get "better" along the way?

What I believe is going on in this progression is an illustration of the attempt to systematize all the common aspects of the game – to replace GM rulings with set rules. There is good and bad in that.

By spelling things out (yuk yuk), the player experience is possibly more consistent from session to session and table to table. Also, the player has the fairly complete knowledge of how the spell works. One might even argue the load is lighter on the GM, though it's really a question of whether the GM prefers to memorize/look up rules or just make them up as needed.

However, spelling it out constrains the use of the spell. The more words devoted to the exact behavior, targeting, etc. of the spell, the narrower its usage becomes. This gets dangerously close to that strange argument about whether you can only do the things the rules say, or whether you can do anything the rules don't expressly forbid. I'm not getting into that tedious argument with anyone, but I think it's safe to say that this spell description rules out certain things. The phrase "one object that is no larger than 10 feet in any dimension" means that the spell has to be cast on an object – not living tissue like an enemy's eyes (reinforced by "if you target an object held or worn by a hostile creature") and it can't just emanate from you. This, very clear picture of how Light works – down to letting the caster choose the color – shuts out other choices that might be made for flavor or utility. What if I wanted to use a jar of fireflies as a component? Or cast the light on my palm so I could open and close my fist to send morse-code like signals? Maybe I wanted a halo around my head so I could look angelic.  

For fun, here are two more descriptions of light, one from a streamlined take on the old school rules, The Black Hack, and one from a Oe retroclone, Delving Deeper. To my way of thinking, the brevity of these entries rules! 

Light: Creates dim light from a Nearby spot or object that lasts for Ud8 Minutes.
[The Black Hack 2e, "Ud" references the usage die mechanic.]

Light (reversible, duration: 12 turns, range: 120ft) Causes an object to shine as brightly as a torch, illuminating a 15ft radius. The reverse, darkness, creates a sphere of impenetrable darkness with a 15ft radius. [Delving Deeper v3, Vol. 1]

* Froth of the Thought Eater Podcast has suggested the spell summary in D&D 3.5 to be an excellent resource. There we have this gem: "Light: Object shines like a torch."

Sword & Backpack: On Dice

TLDR: Dice are cool. 
... each player should possess a personal 20-sided die. The die is used to resolve combat, make skill rolls, and so on. Sharing a die is fine, but it’s weak magic. In Sword & Backpack, dice aren’t just tools, they’re a direct line to fate, a link to the great mystery. As such, they should be respected. Your personal die should be carried in one’s pocket at all times. It’s a totem. Respect it as such.
Emphasis mine.

You can find a primer on, and links to, Sword & Backpack here. S&W is a tongue-in-cheek presentation of the simplest RPG rules imaginable. Basically roll a d20 and see if it's high or low, and how high or low. Sounds simplistic, sure, but what more do you really need? Also, the formatting of the rules is kind of cool; the small pages are meant to be printed, cut out, and pasted into a 3.5" x 5.5" (or thereabouts) notebook.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Choose Your Own Story, or Stop and Smell the Slimes!

TLDR: avoid linearity in your adventures, yes, but also learn how to make recursiveness not tedious.

I have a mild addiction to the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. They are an early example of what we refer to now as Interactive Fiction (IF) and share a lineage with the text-based adventure games of old: Colossal Cave and Zork, for instance. As such, they are role-playing games that evolved along a different path from tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, it works like this. You begin a story and, after a few pages of text, are given a choice like "If you go decide you can't delay in finding your lost dog and go down the stairs into darkness turn to page 114. If you decide to go back for a light source and supplies first, hoping that Spot can take care of himself for a while, turn to 32." As you read you are offered choices and follow the branching story path until you reach a passage that culminates, for good or ill, in "The End."

[If you find the CYOA books fascinating, there is an interesting (and freely-available) role-playing game – or perhaps story-telling game, if you make such distinctions – called Cheat Your Own Adventure. It is based on the story-telling style of CYO and the experience of reading the books with a thumb-in-the-page to mark options you didn't take.]

As I read the CYOA books, I map them to keep track of storylines I have abandoned with my choices and want to follow up on later. I keep reading through to various ends until I know I have visited every passage in the book. Here are three books by Edward Packard that I have read in the last year or two, and what I learned from mapping them.

CYOA 12: UFO 54-40 (1982)
You are abducted by aliens while traveling on the Concorde. Will you get along with the aliens or will you be brain-wiped? Will you find human allies to help you escape? Will you reach the paradise planet, Ultima?

I mapped this one some time ago and used a method that later evolved into something more data-oriented and less visual, as you can see. If I were to re-map it like the others, it would look more like #18 than #45, which is to say less recursive.

Whether intentional or through a printing error, there is a thread of the story you can't reach without cheating in this one.

Lift on left is cut off, let me know if you have a use for the full data

CYOA 18: Underground Kingdom (1983)
You enter the hollow earth through a fissure that seems to be rapidly closing. At the core you discover a black sun, mysterious golden birds of high intelligence, and warring tribes of furry people.

Green = redirect to target (boxed), Red = ending, Gray = no choice

CYOA 45: You Are A Shark (1985)
You enter a temple where you find yourself trapped by a chimeric idol. A seated monk leads you through meditations in which you experience many lives as different animals. (Or maybe just one, depending on your choices.) The not-subtle subtext is that humans are jerks.

This is the most "recursive" CYOA I have read to date, with many ways to loop back through the story. I was surprise that, for me, the recursiveness did not make the story better. For one thing, there are fewer endings because different lines end up merging into the same track.  I suppose the upside of is that you can experience most of the book in a single read with the right choices – looping back naturally and choosing a different path each time. In some ways, I felt like I was robbed of the many-stories-in-one-book nature of earlier CYOAs.

Green = redirect to target (boxed), Red = ending, Gray = no choice
Same data, but visualized in tree form

How This Relates to Tabletop Role-Playing Games
It seems that over time Packard worked fewer endings into the books. UFO 54-40 has 30 endings. Underground Kingdom has 21. You are a Shark has only 14! This may have been a reaction to readers frustrated by very short story lines – in Underground Kingdom you can die in four pages, having only made two choices. And some of the endings are abrupt and disappointing. Very few take up more than half a page. The trade-off is that a lot of the story-lines, instead of ending, loop you back to an earlier point. 

This brings to mind some essays I read a while back on Jaquaying the Dungeon. The reference is to Jenell Jaquays, who wrote The Caverns of Thracia (1979) and other classic RPG modules under the name Paul Jaquays. 

Turning Jennell's name into a verb, the author, Justin Alexander, contends that dungeons should be looping, not linear. That's a gross over-simplification of what is spelled out over five essays, but it relates to the CYOA structures above. If we can think of non-looping, branching paths as linear – and I think we can – "Jaquaying" would mean to mix it up a bit by having multiple ways to progress through the story that aren't mutually exclusive. In You Are A Shark, you can take a "left-fork" that later returns you to the same fork, allowing you to go right (or left again). When it comes to dungeons, you can add the idea of multiple entrances (beginnings) as well as exits (endings), and I generally agree with Justin.

However – and I think you knew there was a "but" coming – re-treading the same old paths can be tedious. So how do we design dungeons that are "Jaquayed" without being boring?

Recursive, not Repetitive
First of all, we don't have to work too awfully hard at this. There is an inherent interest in "the road not taken." Players will naturally want to return to areas where they skipped over a door or turning, just to see what they missed. And humans have a kind of completist itch in any case; they want to know they have set foot in every available square foot of dungeon.

So really the tedium of going back through the same areas is about the signal to noise ratio. Think about your drive to work, there's nothing qualitatively positive about the repetitive part of it. You've seen those roads a million times. So how do you keep the drive fresh? Well, nature helps. An unusually lovely sunset, the change in seasons and conditions, the random appearance of interesting animals. All of those things can make "the same old drive" eventful. And there are things you do yourself to break up the drive, you play different music or an audiobook. You play games with license plates, doing math or trying to make words out of the random letters. You call an old friend or parent.

These same tricks work in the dungeon. The GM can change the conditions or introduce new creatures into old areas, of course. Instead of a pretty sunset or a flight of geese, the dungeon has become smokey with accumulated torch use and stings your eyes, or the sounds of the party has drawn a patrol of bugbears into the area, or killing the displacer beasts on the way in now means the kobolds can lay claim an area they long avoided. 

The GM can also throw up detours. Perhaps there is a new cave-in or hastily thrown up barricade. Maybe a shifting hallway trap or an illusion makes the characters believe they are in the same hallway when they really aren't. 

To complete the analogy, the party can play "road games" to pass the time, perhaps with some encouragement from the GM. Not fighting their way through the halls and rooms this time might give the party more time to explore on the way back/out. Maybe there were runes they didn't notice before which help fill in some of the dungeon's history, or they could use the time to search for secret doors (again). I generally use the "you get one attempt" rule unless the fiction changes. So here it is; the fiction changed – the characters are traveling through the hall way at a later time, or in the reverse direction, or after having cleared it out. The GM might even let them find the secret stuff automatically this time, or at least throw out really pointed hints and reduce all the difficulties by a step or two.

Stop and Smell the Slimes!
This advice might take a little effort to employ, but it's worthwhile. I'm as guilty as anyone about short-handing things that are repetitive in role-playing. After a while it's natural to not describe the same halls or the same attacks and just say things like "you go north for 40 feet" or "I attack the kobold." But it's a quick death for a game to indulge in this form of abbreviation. After all, you are playing the game to experience the excitement and the wonder of being a different person in a different world. Don't rush through it! Take a moment to stop and smell the roses: admire the dwarven stonecraft or collect a sample or two of various useful slimes and molds.

Unlike a Choose Your Own Adventure, you can change the "text" of the game as you go. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure, the fun is in the journey, not the end.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

A Quick Creature Design Primer for Troika!

TLDR: what it says on the tin, really. A quick breakdown of Troika! monster stats, guides for creating original monsters, and a linked spreadsheet containing all the core book creatures.

Art by Shoji Ohtomo

Designing from Scratch

Let's keep this simple. Just pick numbers based on comparative creatures and consider the typical stat ranges as follows:

SKILL
Skill ranges from 3-16, but about two-thirds have a Skill of 7, 8, or 9. Just remember you are working with a curve. There's a big difference between those three numbers! The "drop off" on either end of that middle range is severe.
  • Low Skill 3-6: Gremlins, Pisceans, Goblins, Living Dead 
  • Moderate Skill 7-9: Knights of the Road, Orcs, Harpys, Lizard-Folk, Man-Beasts, Thinking Engine, Ogre
  • High Skill 10-16: Tower Wizard, Manticore, Dragon
STAMINA
Stamina ranges from 3-46, spread pretty evenly. Remember that creatures that use spells don't spend Stamina on them, so you don't need to adjust for that. This is just a measure of toughness. Base your score on how long you want them to stay up in a fight.
  • Weak 3-6: Gremlins, Pisceans, Sympathy Serpent
  • Average 7-14: Feathered Folk, Knights of the Road, Lizard-Folk, Orcs, Man-Beasts, Living Dead, Trolls, Harpys, Tower Wizards, Parchment Witches, Thinking Engines
  • Tough 14*-21: Cyclops, Salamanders, Ogres, Manticores, Dolms, Alzabos
  • Titanic 22+: Dragon, Ekodat, Loathsome Wurm
* 14 is a kind of slip-point between really tough humanoids and loutish or "puny" giants. And if you prefer, you could use 3+ 1d6, 2d6, 3d6, or 4d6 as rough "hit dice" guides for creature size.

INITIATIVE
Initiative ranges from 1-8, but only 4 creatures out of 36 exceed an Initiative of 3. Creatures with multiple, area, or follow up attacks need an extra point or two to get those in. 
  • Slow 1: Goblins, Living Dead, Trolls
  • Average 2: Pisceans, Feathered Folk, Knights of the Road, Orcs, Lizard-Folk, Man-Beasts, Tigers, Parchment Witches, Thinking Engines
  • Fast 3: Gremlins, Harpys, Tower Wizards, Cyclops, Salamanders, Ogres*
  • Supernatural 4-8: Alzabo, Manticore, Loathsome Wurm, Dragon
ARMOUR
Armour ranges from 0-4.
  • None 0: fifteen creatures from Living Dead to Tower Wizards
  • Light 1: nine creatures from Goblins to Thinking Engines and Ogres
  • Heavy/Tough 2: six creatures from Trolls to Cyclops
  • X-Heavy/X-Tough 3: five creatures including Salamanders and Manticores
  • "Impervious" 4: the dragon
DAMAGE
Damage as weapon or creature size/type. Seriously, I can't make this easier than just thinking about the creature's "weapons" and looking at the damage tables for a comparable. 

MEIN
Pick any six labels. They don't need to represent any kind of sequence and there are 158 unique ones among 36 monsters, so I think it's safe to say you can be creative. Common ones are Aggressive, Confused, Curious, Fearful, Hungry, Playful, Spiteful, Tired, and Watchful. Some of my personal favorites are: Absent-Minded, Beatific, Blooming, Doubting, Hagridden, Inveigling (and Fake Inveigling), Mewling, Plagued by Thought, Rancorous, Rowdy, Smug, and Unstable. 

SPECIALS
Specials aren't always directly combat-oriented. While the Manticore and the Dragon have special combat attacks, lots of other creatures have specials like the Cyclops' foresight, the Parchment Witches spell variety, or the Pisceans' penchant for eating the party's supplies. 

The Data

In case you are wondering where these numbers came from, I put the Troika! creatures into a spreadsheet (also in available in comma-delimted form). Enjoy.

Converting from Advanced Fighting Fantasy

Troika! is based on Fighting Fantasy. The monster manuals for the RPG based on FF (AFF) is called Out of the Pit and Beyond the Pit. The presentation of each is slightly different: 

Troika! Goblin
Skill: 5
Stamina: 6
Initiative: 1
Armour: 1
Damage as Weapon 
Mein
1 Curious
2 Dismissive
3 Preoccupied
4 Gossipy
5 Overly Friendly
6 Paranoid
Advanced Fighting Fantasy Goblin
Skill: 5
Stamina: 5
Habitat: Hills, Plains, Wilderness, Caves, Dungeons, Marshes
Number Encountered: 1-6
Type: Humanoid
Reaction: Hostile
Intelligence: Average 
The stats are The obvious differences are that Troika! includes Initiative, assigns a number to Armour, and teases out the reactions with a Mien table. AFF, on the other hand, supplies a Habitat, Number Encountered, and Intelligence rating.

To convert an AFF monster to Troika! you will minimally need to assign an Initiative number, Armour rating, and Damage Track (or list it as "as Weapon"). You can obviously work with the ranges above. The rest is icing. And you shouldn't need to adjust the scores where the two systems' stat categories align.

Solo Gaming Part 1: Why Not/Why?

TLDR: I try to shatter some assumptions about solo RPG play and discuss reasons for trying it.

Prejudices and misunderstandings abound when it comes to solo gaming, and it would try my patience to address all of them here. Snap judgments like "I guess it's okay to just try out the rules" or "Sure, but it's not like really role-playing" are, as of this moment, gently but firmly set aside. I want to begin from a place of no assumptions.
It seems strange to me and totally incongruous with the notion of using one's imagination NOT to enjoy playing alone. – Stephen Gilbert
Why are the majority of wargames played by more than one person in the first place? – Stuart Asquith
These quotes are from blog posts on the hobby of solo wargaming, but I think they are legitimate and disarming questions from which to approach solo RPG play. They invert the assumptions that solo play is something you only do when you can't find other players or that it is inherently weaker, qualitatively, due to the lack of other players.

When playing RPGs what do others bring to the table? More, and more diverse imagination, sure. Also a kind of surprise factor – ideas that originate from outside of our own experiences. Other players help us increase bandwidth so that there can be more things going on and more characters acting simultaneously, with a low cognitive load on each individual player. Other plays allow us to immerse in a single role and to not try to imagine what other characters, villains, or monsters are doing, or how the world itself reacts to our probings. Other players make RPG play a social event.

That seems like a lot!

But it would be wrong to think that you can't take on a character role (or roles) on your own or achieve some of the same diversity and surprise with other tools – dice and tables, primarily. Before you dismiss this idea, think of gamers you have played with before. Can you not imagine what they would do, in character, given certain situations? I won't say that replacing other players is easy, but a sufficiently complex "model" in our heads or in some table-driven programmatic form can give us very similar results. After all, Game Masters do this all the time – jumping from one NPC to another with sometimes radically different backgrounds and agendas. Additionally, playing alone removes most time constraints, making bandwidth less of an issue. And a degree of social interaction, of a different kind, can be had by sharing your play narratives with others.


You can worry when your characters start talking back. :)


All this amounts to a "why not?" argument, but let's switch to the "why" of solo RPG play.

To deal with a lack of players.
We might suffer from a lack of other willing participants. Of course, the online world has made this less of a problem. With a decent Internet connection and a little exploration to find the right groups on social media platforms, you can find other gamers willing to play with you. However, getting an online game started usually requires you to be reasonably flexible in arranging times and chosen systems. Your "why" could be that you have lots of available free time at odd or unpredictable hours and that you want to play a specific system or setting that doesn't capture the interest of others.

To learn or practice.
Solo play is an ideal way to learn rules, test modules, practice voices, etc. There are tools out there for working either end of the scenario – tools that simulate parties of adventurers so that you can practice running a game or scenario, as well as tools that emulate the game master so that you can try those same systems or modules out in character.

To entertain.
We can't overlook the argument that it's just plain fun. Maybe you already have a gaming group, but you want to play more than you do currently. Maybe you are looking for something to do when you suffer from insomnia or when you are stuck in a hotel while traveling for work or as a quiet-time respite from all the computer, tablet, and phone screens you stare at the rest of the day. Don't be embarrassed to embrace solo play. Why is telling yourself stories somehow pathetic but passively absorbing stories through the television an acceptable pastime?


I seriously doubt this list is exhaustive. Feel free to add your own reasons "why" or your "why not" reasons – the things that keep you from solo play – in the comments below.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Initiation Dungeon!

Glen Robinson shared this wonderful old cartoon in response to Dungeon Logic. Here we have a dungeon designed for "initiation" and lots of cool (and lethal) ideas. It's also fairly trippy.

Betty Boop: Bimbo's Initiation, 1931


On Art and Innovation

TLDR: same old art = same old ideas; challenge yourself. 

I was recently re-discovered the art of Kay Rasmus Nielsen and Virginia Frances Sterrett. In their work you can see the illustrative qualities of Arthur Rakham mixed with the design sense and Art Deco stylings of Erté!


Kay Nielsen
Virginia Sterrett


Take a moment (or a few dozen) to absorb the art styles I'm talking about here with some quick Google image searches, it will feed your soul.


Looking at these artists started me thinking about the range of styles, or relative lack of range, in modern fantasy art. You don't see works like this very often! Why not? This next paragraph is the result of a good deal of rumination and, frankly, the result of writing more than 4,000 words and then erasing them.

Where you find innovate art, you will find the innovative words they inspired. Where you find innovative words, you will find the innovate art they inspired. Conversely, the "same old art" – speaking stylistically – will give rise to the same old ideas, and the same old ideas to the same old art. 

I have so much more to say about this, but it's all messy and sounds like a value-laden manifesto. The take-away is this. Look at your RPG book shelf. Consider the art you find there. Are you programmed, or being programmed to think about fantasy in only certain ways? Challenge yourself! I could tell you where to look, but part of the joy is in the exploration. Different things are out there! Exciting things, innovative things, weird things. Things that will make you uncomfortable but which will help you grow and pull your imagination out of long-established ruts.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Scrolling for Moon-Powered Monsters?

TLDR: imagining spirit-monsters that are bound by circadian rhythms.

The Bakemono Zukushi Scroll
Check out this Edo-period Japanese Monster Manual ... er, I mean painted scroll featuring shape-changing Bakemono. The artist and date is unknown, though it is thought to hail from the 18th or 19th century.

A portion of the Bakemono Zukushi Scroll

One of the great things that comes out in the discussion of this scroll is the way whole classes of monsters are distinguished by the time of day in which they are active.

The founding father of minzokugaku (Japanese folklore studies), Yanagita Kuno (1875–1962), drew a distinction between yurei (ghosts) and bakemono: the former haunt people and are associated with the depth of night, whereas the latter haunt places and are seen by the dim light of dusk or dawn.
It reminds me of the three spirits that visited Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens' Christmas Carol, each one appearing only when the other had disappeared. Of course they represented a sort of chronology (past, present, future) and they could only appear on Christmas night. But the association for me is that gateways to the spirit world may operate a bit like a time-lock vault that is regulated by the calendar, the moon, or the day/night cycle.

Circadian rhythms would be a really interesting twist to put on creatures in your RPG adventures. The characters might be in an otherwise safe place, and then twilight comes, or the witching hour, and things get dicey (literally). This idea also works as a pacing mechanic. In the "off-hours" characters could run around in relative safety, trying to find some formula or weapon to use against the creature(s), but the clock is ticking and they must assemble the right things and perhaps even be at the right location to drive off or destroy the monster(s).

Perhaps a villain who is invincible except at sunrise and sunset. Or malformed spirit creatures that can only break through to the material world when someone harbors violent thoughts at midnight.

Another parallel, in my mind, is the play of light and dark in The Lord of the Rings. Orcs went all weak-in-the-knees in sunlight, so there was a measure of safety while during the day – or at least while abroad under a sunny sky. At night you wanted to be behind fortified walls if you could. And, I believe it is Gandalf who says "look for my coming at first light" and Aragorn who calls down to the Uruk Hai "None knows what the new day shall bring him ... Get you gone, ere it turn to your evil." Of course that sense of safety was soon to be eroded by the blanket of dark clouds Sauron sent forth to shield his troops.

There's a lesson to be had there. Once the characters figure out that the evil sorcerer comes at twilight, because that is when his powers are strongest, how can you surprise them? How could you artificially induce twilight? An eclipse, perhaps?

There's a lot of meat on this bone. And a lot of cool ideas for creatures embedded in that scroll, as well as ready-made, copyright free illustrations!

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Troika's Strong Bones

TLDR: when writing new material for a system like Troika!, don't be fooled by system simplicity. Simpler systems are often more tightly crafted and therefore easier to screw up. 


Troika! art by Andrew Walter

I recently ran a session of Troika! by Daniel Sell (order it here) for the first time. Having read it over a several times, made my own notes/cheat sheets, and even written some material for the game as well as having run it, I feel like I can make some comments on the system's core architecture. It's not a deep system, or I wouldn't even attempt this kind of statement after only one outing at the table!

That's the "what" of this article. The "why" is because Troika! is very "hackable" and I see people out there writing material for it, mainly new backgrounds or creatures, with almost no understanding of the system. By that I mean, they are writing things in such a way that it runs counter to the spirit of the system, is not intuitive within the context of the system, and ultimately may be destructive to the play environment of the game.

Here are the core tenets as I see them, in no particular order, each concluding with a statement about how they should affect your design-brain.

Based on 2d6
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the game uses only d6s to accomplish all of its goals. Most player actions are resolved with a roll of 2d6, usually under a skill or versus an opposing roll. In addition to that, all randomness in the game is based on simple six-sided dice. Creature reactions (miens), for instance, are expressed in a d6 table. And one rolls for a background using d66 (two d6s rolled in the manner one rolls two d10s to get d100, which is to say one die for tens and one for the singles).

Rolling 2d6 gives you a curve whereas rolling d66 (or d6, or even d36) generates an even distribution. But since rolls other than 2d6 are used exclusively for random table stuff, not task or combat resolution, I think we can safely say that the success of actions in the game are more predictable than in a flat d20 style curve. (It's easier to figure your "odds" in a d20 universe as every 'pip' represents a 5% swing, but it's easier to predict success or failure when a curve is in play, since results of 6-8 occur 44.5% of the time.) That's aside from the main point I want to make, however, which is...

Don't create material for Troika! that uses dice other than d6s.

Backgrounds over Setting
Troika! builds an implied setting using the 36 (d66) backgrounds included in the core book. We know there are "golden barges" that carry passengers between the "crystal spheres" primarily because there are references to them (barges) in the backgrounds for Cacogens, Lansquenets, and Thinking Engines. We encounter spell magic first in the Befouler of Ponds background, and in several dozen other backgrounds as well, before we get to the mechanics of spellcasting or the spell descriptions. Creatures, items, and spells are other places where one can create setting, but they are usually foreshadowed in backgrounds. (Gremlins are foreshadowed by the Gremlin Catcher, demons by the Demon Stalker, and guns by the Cacogen, Lansquenet, etc.) Consider that the Chaos Champion has in his possessions list ritual scars and a nearly full dream journal! Those add ideas as to what a Chaos Champion is (how he lives, thinks, acts).

There are no text-heavy passages of pure setting and every item that might be categorized as setting has direct rules implications. While a spell listing may or may not contain stats, it is something that directly affects the fictional world when brought into play. There are no instances that run contrary to the "Chekhov's Gun" principle. If a thing is represented, it is intended for use; there are no purely ornamental set decorations, which is a shock given how baroque Troika! feels.

Utilize backgrounds to build the world; don't write pages of setting lore.

[Edit: I think adding setting through d66 tables is within bounds as well.]

Skill Specificity
Some have described the skill system in Troika! as a mess. I don't believe that is the case. It is true that there is no exhaustive taxonomy of skills, as one sees in most traditional RPGs – any that feature skills at least. And the book encourages you to make up new skills as needed. However, in reviewing the skills you see a consistent level of specificity. There is no catch-all "fighting" skill, only skills like "hammer fighting," "wrestling," or "fist fighting."

One can assume a character that has advanced skill in fighting with fusils, would not be especially trained in bows, even though both are missile weapons. Hence the need for a default skill stat, which represents a kind of natural dexterity or deftness of mind, and advanced skills to represent training. Writing a new skill that is too broad; e.g. weapons or logic, erodes backgrounds (by trumping a more specific skill) and makes the game more boring (applies to too many situations).

Be mindful when you write skills! Make them sufficiently narrow/situational.

Interaction Over Combat
Only three spells specify damage and many backgrounds lack an advanced skill in any form of fighting. 'Nuff said? If players want to fight, they will. The Assassin's Dagger spell can be used to send a poisoned blade after a target, but it can also be used to send a message scroll. Troika! is heavily focused on exploration and imagination, partly because it leaves so much white space that players can/must fill with their own inventions and partly because what is provided is often already weird.

Whenever possible, create material that is flexible – without a narrow focus on combat.

Summary
Troika! is a different animal. You get that from the minute you pick up the book. While feeling very ornate with it's bizarre art, high-end production values, and exotic "classes," the underlying core is a lean, mean machine. And the two, exotic flavor and simple mechanics, are married like two sides of a coin. You can't write new mechanics without writing new flavor and vice versa. So be mindful when you create and hew closely to the established patterns unless/until you have a deep enough understanding of the game to break those patterns for a purpose.


Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Is Dungeon Logic Overrated?

TLDR: logic in adventuring spaces is good, but only up to a point. Gaps in logic make for a higher verisimilitude. 


How to Host a Dungeon session drawing by Tony Dowler

I recently asked the following question on multiple social media platforms.

Do you care about logic in the floorplan of your dungeons?

The overwhelming answer was, "Yes," though a number of responders indicated that they wish they could stop caring and be more like their younger selves! For most, the preference boiled down to some form of desire for verisimilitude. Spaces should feel like they have purpose and make sense on some level. (Or in the case of dungeons, all the levels. <wink!>) Things living in them need places to execute basic functions: sleeping, eating, and eliminating waste, at the very least.

A few respondents pointed out that the logic of a space helps player characters predict what's ahead. This seems like an important point to me. It helps players feel competent and feel like their characters are competent.

However, I want to present a few arguments against space-logic that is too transparent – or even transparent at all. I'm using the word "space" because the word "dungeon" is, after all, kind of a universal stand-in for the place in which characters adventure in an adventuring RPG. It could be a literal dungeon, or a city, or a huge desert, chain of islands, or mountain range. But most of what I have to say applies to created spaces.

1. Changes over Time
In many cases the spaces in question are occupied by creatures that are not the builders. There may have even been multiple inhabitants in the space since the builders. With each new wave of occupancy, there is no guarantee that usage of the space is consistent. Humans aren't even consistent in the usage of houses they purchase from other humans, turning bedrooms into home offices, dropping walls to "open things up," and converting attics and porches into bonus rooms. Imagine how much more likely discontinuity is when the hand-off involves a different culture and/or species. Evolving technologies play a role too. Houses built in the 1700s didn't have toilets. The further back one reaches the harder it is to accurately assess the purpose of a space. Modern archaeologists struggle to understand, with any certainty, how neolithic sites like Gobekli Tepe or Stonehenge were used.

2. Differences of Worldview
What is "logical" or "intuitive" for one species and culture is often radically different than what is logical and intuitive for another. Why would goblins need or desire human-sized ceilings or hallways? Kuo-toa might use pools for spawning where Dwarves use them for quenching metal and Elves for baths. A religious culture might set aside a large space to honor their god while a hive culture would need a large space in which to huddle for safety or sleep. (And a dragon would assuredly use it for the all-important hoard.) If there is logic to be discovered, characters would need to discover who/what lives/lived there and be straining to think like those inhabitants in order to figure out the space.

3. Illogical by Nature
Some spaces strive to be non-intuitive. A mad wizard's deathtrap dungeon, a modern "funhouse," a massive tomb made to befuddle grave robbers! Generally, if player characters know the motive behind such a space, the players will be more at peace with a lack of logic.

The most satisfying (and "realistic") compositions often mix the new with the known. Humans crave some variation and mystery. A subject of study that is utterly predictable becomes tedious and boring. Conversely, humans crave the familiar. A subject of study that "makes no sense" can be unsettling or boring in a different way – as the examiner gives up trying to figure it out at all. Therefore most spaces should contain some mix of the familiar/predictable and the unfamiliar/bizarre. There is a time and a place for spaces that skew hard toward one of the poles, but oddly enough the result of such extreme spaces – whether it is the unknowable interior of an alien spaceship or the utterly known interior of a small town tavern – the result is the same; they quickly fade into the background.

If you want your spaces to engage players, give them a few "logical" handles, and make them work for the rest. And to be fair, you don't have to fully understand the space as the GM either. The players will come up with the answers (or not); just use the ones that seem the coolest.