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?