Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Class Archetypes and the Sub-Games

Very quickly- I have mentioned last week that D&D is divided into a number of sub-games. And thinking further I would wager that the most famous and effective classes are those that dominate one of these sub-games.

Obviously the Fighting-ManPerson or some variation of it dominates the combat sub-game. Magic-User (or variation thereof dominates the Magic sub-game. The Thief and variations dominate the dungeon exploration sub-game. The ranger would be the logical next for the wilderness exploration sub-game with a possibility of the Druid.

Though there are sub-games for air or sea travel and combat these seem to be rare edge cases that would be filled by very specialized Ranger or Fighter offshoots that few would play unless the campaign centered on it. The Cleric is binary here- depending on edition and build the Cleric is a master or all or none with a default to magical healing. Which highlights the problems of the class in my opinion. But also stands him up as a counterpoint to the Magic-User and the Fighter.

It seems that this would lead t the idea that what classes you have in your game are dependent on if you want an adventuring archetype to dominate a particular sub-game, or do you want that shared? Classes that share archetypes would be interesting. Again a Ranger with a more limited combat ability compared to the Fighter seems like it would be the poster boy for this approach. Also there is the idea of building out the base archetypes to share in the sub-games the other classes dominate.

It seems the Thief was an interesting design accident that could be used as an example for the future game development. What seems to have happened in a subconscious collective sort of way was that players understood that there was a sub-game of dungeon exploration that The Cleric, Fighter, and Magic-User while dominating their own parts of the game were not masters of. Ergo the Thief develops. It seems it would come back to essential spotlight time. Is it shared or not?

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Discrete Worlds II or The Tipping 'Scales' of the Game

Ladies and Gentlemen: The Tessellated Point Crawl...
When you look at the primordial history of the game Dungeons & Dragons you see that there is a clear trend to build on it with games that already exist. The obvious example here is "Outdoor Survival" as the rules for overland travel. But when you look at it there were many more - "Braunstein" and "Chainmail," "Don't Give Up the Ship," just to name a few. This makes sense when you think about it - if you need a system to model something, it is more expedient to find one that models that something than spend time crunching the numbers and building a system from whole cloth. And so what you get as time and printing runs distill the systems is really a game of games.

When you study the Hebrew/Christian scriptures in Comparative Religions 101 you quickly discover what the western world calls "The Bible" is really not a book, but rather a library of separate books just printed in one volume. It contains poetry, history, law, letters of instruction, letters of prophecy, history of law, etc. It is a book of books. And I use this to belabor the point above - When you ask someone to read "The Bible" you are really asking them to read many different books. And when you ask someone to play D&D, you are asking them to really play many different games.

While using multiple games tears down barriers in design it may build up barriers to entry. As the modern game stands in the "OSR" or in the "managed properties" you often have a "game" for creating characters, a separate "game" for exploring dungeons, a "game" for wilderness travel -which may include other "games," and a "game" for combat. What I am doing here is taking the "_______ system" of any role playing game and identifying it as a separate "game." Because really it is. The d20 grappling process is a prime example. And each "game" is complicated by the fact that some things in one "game" have to seamlessly work with the other "games" if they affect things in the other "games."

Where do we go from here? Let's talk about scale next. Each "game" operates on some sense of space/time scale which defines its granularity. In modern "managed properties" the space/time scale for combat is 5ft/6s. The OSR seems to hang around the 10ft/10sec paradigm. Combat is easy to keep discrete. Travel on the other hand, to name an example, quickly stops being discrete in some sort of geometric progression related to how far you travel. That's because you might not take the same route back and more "Cartesian" space needs definition the further you go afield.

Multiple games indicate the possibility of multiple scales which introduces complexity as the abilities of the characters have to be able to operate at all scales. A lot of this complexity is part of the assumption of RPGs and because it exists as the way things have always been done, it does not get noticed as a stumbling block to play and entry into the game.

Some might not see this as a problem. Which is fine - the Game - big 'G' - gets along in this way pretty well, and I don't want to discount that. And the first reaction I have is to try to see if there is a way to set up a resolution framework that is "retargetable." That is a framework that can be applied to anything to provide for procedural or dramatic resolution. And what this would do is reduce the number of games you need to learn to one which can be applied to different tasks and time scales and moving around point crawls. At first it sounds like a good idea.

The genesis for this comes from two places- first there was a post from 2010 on a stack exchange board that made the suggestion of 3 round combats using intent for each side and resolving those intents. Each round the sides that were successful in their intents scored points and the ultimate resolution was in favor of the side that scored the most over the three rounds. Then there was part 3, 4 and 5 of Justin Alexander's The Art of Rulings found here, here, and here. and this bit by The Angry DM.

All combined it gave me the idea of a "number of rounds" framework that would allow you to resolve any action with scale and time being applied as needed, but only requiring the players to use one set of steps to resolve their intents. This would be another step, along with the point crawl on making the world more discrete.

The issue with something like this is that it can threaten to make the game bland. You keep moving through the same seven steps, no matter what. Essentially you are taking a suggestion about the procedure for combat and mapping it to the rest of the game. This leads to issues. And its really not what Justin Alexander was talking about in the first place- no matter what madness I am inspired to when I read his posts. He is talking about presentation and response when a game has a particular arbitrator "resolution conventions which GMs habitually fall into."

The real solution is actually hiding in the set design and point crawls mentioned earlier.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Discrete Worlds or Why the 6-Mile Hex Can't Save You

Image result for 6n graphWow, Feb 2013. It has been a while. I hope people are still listening. What have I been up to? Largely revising my gaming Magnum Opus, ad infinitum it seems. Life stuff. I am a very very busy person. But enough of that. This blog has never been about whats going on in my life and keeping it “professional” is how it is going to stay.

I have been thinking about a lot of things gamey and mathematical. Like I usually do. One of the big things I have been doing with the math is putting thought into why time, distance and light are concepts that are difficult to track in the context of even the most basic form of the game and grow to near impossible when presented with “the rest of the world.” Or, to be more sussinct: why am I playing this game if its always going to get caught up in minutia?

The best way I can describe this is with the dungeon corridor. Imagine a corridor in an anomalous subsurface environment aka a dungeon. The corridor is 50 feet long and ten feet wide with a door at each end. Now either one of two things is true- either there is something special about the hall, like a trap, a clue in the dungeon dressing on the walls - something that makes the hallway important; or the hallway can be represented as a line on the paper. Its a conduit from “area 1” to “area 2.” If it is important the hallway is really just a 10ft by 50ft room.

And there lies the rub - characters are discrete. Whereas much of the made up world they inhabit is not.

What is discrete? In math discrete numbers whose values have a clear demarcation from one another. Integers. Character stats are probably the best example here. You have a strength of 17 or 18. There is no 17.234534 strength characters. And most things about a character are described in discrete terms. Probably the one thing that approaches being continuous (the opposite of discrete) is the character’s wealth, but only when the currency is decimalized.

The “world” has discrete elements but more often is interacted with and operates in a continuous way. Lets go back to our corridor - often when it just needs to be a line on a sheet of paper it is still handled  in a continuous “object” that is it is given space on the map, but not given a description, and thus becomes dead space that must be “exercised” through - it has to be explored without payoff - it is simply a passage that only matches the description of the default dungeon features at best.

And that is the ultimate conclusion: The world must be rendered in a discrete format.
And its corollary is also true: The hex (6-mile or otherwise) is simply the DM’s survey grid used to measure distance when setting up a point crawl.

Got ahead of myself here. Because see, Chris at Hill Cantons and C at Hack and Slash have done a lot of legwork on how to bring adventure worlds into the discrete. Point crawls and set design go a long way here. Read up on what these gents have to say.

And that leads us to the design part here- people don’t think of the world in a continuous way. Its all discrete. Think about how you move around your town or travel to other places. You think in lines and destinations and landmarks. Think about how you keep track of where things are - your mind is built for chunking - In your room is a dresser, and in the dresser are drawers, and in each drawer is some set of clothes or other thing.

Almost all travel is along some predefined line, be it a road, trail, path, ridge, river, hallway, etc. The added benefit of the point crawl, the set design and random tables is things become easier to handle. They are written out the way that you think about them, and you can make the world just big enough to build illusion that there is stuff over the horizon.

The byproduct of all this is that it opens up player agency which leads to easier play: You already know what lies down that road the players just took without warning and as a result adventures happen without heavy handed "design" but as a byproduct of action and interaction.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Clerical Issues

Real quick: JB over at B/X Blackrazor has been talking a bit about clerics. Mainly its about how they really don't work given the source material that D&D draws on, and how the game might work better if they were removed. Delta figured this out way back in 2008. And his reasoning was my main inspiration for banning the cleric in my own OD&D house rules.

Its odd that we both were thinking about cleric banning at the same time. I was revisiting my decision to answer the question of "what 5 things would you change in D&D if you could only change 5?" I have said before that we live close enough to each other that we are drinking the same water.

The really interesting thing here is that JB is coming very close to the same line of conclusions as Delta but I am pretty sure he is completely unaware of Delta's work and reasoning. Maybe not. But including this blogger, that makes three guys in the OSR that have outright removed clerics from the game. Which makes me think we are on to something here. Both these guys make the points for me so I won't put them up here. Check out the posts linked above and draw your own conclusion. For me, I think the Thief has more right to be in the game than the Cleric. So I think we should kill the cleric. And take his stuff. Delta chose to just nix the cleric spells all together. I chose to give them to the magic-user since he was now going to be pulling insane priest duty for the foreseeable future.

What I realized reading JB and rereading Delta was that my solution for what to do with turning made sense but was inelegant. I gave everyone the ability to turn. It made sense, if you thought about it. Turning is based on vampire lore and more specifically Van Helsing's use of a cross in Dracula. Note however that Van Helsing is not a priest. He is not ordained. He has a sum total of 0 supernatural power. So in my book that means that everyone can turn. The mistake I made was that I gave everyone access to the chart. What a mess.

First off the turning mechanic is really clunky and a little fiddly to apply. This obviously varies with edition, but you catch my drift. Secondly applying it to everyone made it even more clunky in that you had to figure out how to determine at what power level the characters turned undead. Work. Work. Work.

Here it is: If you must be rid of that meddlesome priest, make vampires superstitious.
Holy symbols of any faith keep Vampires (and only Vampires) at bay. Anyone can hold up (or wear while facing) any symbol of a god and the vampire won't touch them. However the symbols are directional. So while Count Dracula in front of you is held at bay his minion vampire behind you is not.
This way you get the ability exhibited in the source material but you don't have to worry about clunky mechanics. What about the other undead? There is no pre-D&D precedent of priests holding other undead at bay, and undead are meant to be feared. Turning is really powerful and thus it is like healing: it is something a party can't go without if it is available in the game. Take out turning and the fear of undead returns.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Ultimate Dread

Legendary. That's the word. Not only in the numerous gaming worlds it inhabits, but also in our own real world the Isle of Dread is a thing of legend. It sits beside the Caves of Chaos and The Tomb of Horrors in the shared experience of D&D players of every edition.

The island is a strange eclectic mix. Start with one part homage to King Kong and the lost world literature that inspired it. Add stories of magic, pirates, castaways, mysteries, dungeons and of course dragons. Sprinkle with a bit of Sword and Planet and you are all set. Going to "The Island" is supposed to be a game changer. Arrival is easier than departure, and survival is always in question. As a location based module the adventure contained within the pages is perennial not just as an adventure but also as part of the lost world genre.

In recent years "The Isle of Dread" has reentered the field of vision of players and publishers alike. with expansions, retcons, retoolings and such found in Dungeon to ideas in the OSR, I wanted to try to tie it all together in this post so as to create a resource for information and ideas about the "The Isle of Dread" and to further develop notions about what the island is and what it could be.

First off I think the mistake that many writers and Dungeon Masters make when they try to use the "The Isle of Dread" is that they don't see it or populate it as a campaign setting. This mistake is an easy one to make, especially if you are not aware of geographic scales.  When we look at the map we think we are looking at something along the lines of a smaller Hawaiian island - or some small island  in the Carribian. We think Treasure Island, Skull Island, Jamaica and Gilligan's Island. We just don't see it as the the size of Ireland.

Yes, Ireland.

When you look at the map and count out the length and width of the outlying islands and reefs surrounding the main island, you get an area pretty much on par with Ireland. The actual Isle is about the size of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, or twice the size of Vancouver Island (which is longer than the western coast of the state of washington by the way). In truth, to really use the Isle of Dread is a major commitment. It's a very specialised campaign setting so given its size it might be best to treat it like one.

When it was left on its own in 1983 the Isle of Dread was just an island in the known world. 21 years after we see an update in Dungeon #114 that brings the Isle to Greyhawk. This creates the first new notion about the island - it moves from plane to plane.

This propagates the idea that we actually don't have to use it as an insular setting (with all the puns intended). We can make it far more interesting as a plane hopping island that touches other worlds and the planes themselves. In essence you have an island that can be the best of pulp adventure in one place. If skull island from King Kong is the conceptual father of the Isle of Dread, a strong argument can be made that it is the grandson of Neverland- native tribes, pirates, skull shaped rocks, and everything else that comes with the island that can only be found if you go straight on till morning and follow the second star to the right. 

So the isle of dread is in essence an amalgamation of all the mysterious islands from pulp and lost world literature and fantasy. But I would wager that the ideas about this island have not stopped, but that it continues to develop.  For me the most recent inspiration for an addition to the Isle of Dread is the television series LOST. In LOST you have an island not unlike the isle of dread and its adventure fiction cousins. Mystery and magical realism abound. Most of the concepts in LOST we have seen before and can easily move to the Isle of Dread. But the one real innovation was an island that moves in time and space.

So I like to imagine the Isle of Dread as this plane walking, time and space traveling island. It manifests from prime material to outer plane and back again fluctuating through time and all existence, picking up horrors, and strange things. A sort of mobile Carcosa. When it manifests it is surrounded by storms that draw in ships that get too close, like a hurricane that forces everything it touches into its eye. It stays for a time, often long enough to get on the charts, then it disappears to a different time and world, taking the sea of dread with it.

Given what we have learned about the 6 mile hex and how big the Isle of Dread really is, it turns out that we can put A LOT more on the island. Thus it becomes tempting to add in WG6 The Isle of the Ape. Since the natives come from the isle of dread, and both are inspired on some level by Kong's Island, why not just make them the one and the same. Imagine Castle Greyhawk not leading to the Isle of the Ape as a part of its dungeons but in those places it connects to the Isle of Dread itself. Imagine that combined with the Isle of Dread as a demi-plane that wanders around and is connected to Castle Greyhawk and numerous other dungeons like the Cavens of Tharcia. If you think about it, there are some planer doors in Thracia- a couple are not functional.  Why not make one of the broken ones lead to the island?

Using the Isle of read this way, you have a dungeon nexus. A way to plane hop, a way to get your retro stupid on. Here are some resources to help you with makeing your "Ultimate Dread:"

Official Sources:
Isle of Dread 1981
Isle of Dread 1983
Dungeon #114 Torrents of Dread
Dungeon #142
Dungeon #143
Dungeon #144
Dungeon #145

Adjunct Sources and connections: (possibly take these and put them on the island. Really, why not?)
Isle of the Ape
Drums on Fire Mountain
Savage Coast(?)

Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (Dungeon magazine played with this in the savage tide. They didn't put it on the island but it does bring up the question again - why not?)
Dwellers in the Forbidden City - could easily work as a location on the Island.

Caverns of Thracia (like I said before, one of the planar doors could connect well to the island)

Inspirational Viewing:

LOST - esp the first two seasons
King Kong 2005
King Kong 1935
Peter Pan original play

Inspirational Reading:
Journey to the Center of the Earth - Jules Verne
The Land that Time Forgot - Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Lost World - Arthur Conan Doyle
Peter Pan - J.M. Barrie
Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson
Robinson Crusoe - William Defoe
Lord of the Flies - William Golding
The Mysterious Island - Jules Verne
The Island of Doctor Moreau - H.G. Wells

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Mountains and Mole-Hills

I am going to try to get this one out really fast. Limited time here. Rob over at Bat in the Attic posted some long distance sighting rules. They are a great set of rules. The real genius behind them is the kind of linear rock paper scissors thing he has going on with the mountains, hills and plains with an assumed height for generic mountains and hills.

I wanted to offer a correction. The heights and distances presented are off by an order of magnitude for the mountains and in my opinion a little short for hills. If you go on the idea that the average height of a notable mountain peak is around 10,000ft (great peaks like Mt Ranier, and others land between 10k and 20k with legendary peaks like Everest and Denali topping out in the upper 20k's), and the United States and England both draw the "official" this is now a mountain line at 990ft and 2000ft respectively you see what I mean. You can see mountains from quite a distance on a clear day - getting into the 100's of miles.

So lets turn this into game stuff:
I have been thinking about mountains a bit in my game design efforts when it comes to travel and sighting. So this info is stored in my trivia banks an easily ready.  Humans start to experience altitude sickness at about 8000ft. Tree-line fluctuates around this depending on latitude an atmospheric conditions generally we could say that 7500ft is a good round ball park number. So I would assume that given navigating mountainous terrain is essentially a matter of finding your way through spurs, around mountains, along rivers and over saddles (the low arts between peaks) casual travelers will be at about 5000ft if they are in a mountain hex. 
Hills are a crazy beast. No one really knows when a hill starts being a mountain. There are all sorts of ways that use height to slope and distance around base. I like hills ending at 1000ft for game purposes. It allows us to say that most mountains are an order of magnitude higher than most hills. Just like when traveling through mountains, in hills you aim for the low areas rather than follow the ridge lines and go from peak to peak. So we can ballpark the height for casual travelers in hills at about 500ft. If you decide that hills go to 2000ft then you will obviously use 1000ft as the casual height.
I work on the 6mi per hex scale. So the hexes here are going to reflect that in my calculations.
Rob's note of about an hour to find a good sighting place is pretty accurate with my own hiking experience in hill like areas, but I would stretch this to 2 hours in mountains. On open area I would reduce it to 30 minutes and for swamps I would say you can only ever see into the next hex. If they want to strike out to tree line throw in an additional hour.  Breaking tree line is handy and generally offers wide unobstructed views. The same is true for peaks and I would say that gaining a summit allows you to see over the next 2 mountain hexes in mountains or hills.
Another point of note: Broken or overcast clouds are totally going to ruin your view from a mountain, but generally not hills.
If the mission of the party is to map large amounts of area they very well might want to climb the highest mountain. At this point they are climbing a specific mountain and are out of the scope and intent of this rules exercise.
Time Needed: Mountains: 2 hours (3 hours for tree line; 4 hours for peak)
Hills: 1 hour (2 hours for peak)
All other: 30 Minutes
Distance Sighted Over Lower Terrains: (counting for refraction: d~= 1.32 * Sqrt(h) where d is in miles and h in ft.)
Random Peak (10000ft): 22 hexes
Tree Line (often 7500ft): 19 hexes (may be high enough for altitude sickness, referees call)
Mountains (5000ft): 15 hexes
Hilltop(2000ft): 10 hexes
Hills/Hilltop(1000ft): 7 hexes
Hills(500ft): 5 hexes
Distance Sighted to Equal or Higher Terrain:
Mountains to Mountains: 1 hex
Mountain Peak to Mountains: 2 hexes
Hills to Mountains: 1 hex
Hills to Hills: 1 hex
Hilltop to Hills: 2 hexes

Broken or overcast clouds block mountain views to 1 hex, and may do the same for hill views.
The distance sighted over lower terrains is also the maximum distance that such a particular elevation can be seen. So a mountain can be seen fairly certainly 15 hexes away- but the foothills 10 hexes away won't be discerable (or only just so)  but any foot hills 5 hexes away would be visible but would block the view of those between 5 hexes and 15 hexes away.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Book of Wands

Recently there has been some talk about wands.
Timrod over at Unfrozen Caveman Die-Chucker fired the first salvo sometime going into the holiday season with Degrading Wands. Its a good idea that follows one of my game simplification axioms (reduce book keeping) to go against one of my others (reduce die rolling). The comments are good as Brendan and 1d30 offer up some cool alternatives that work if you are alright with adding more rolls to your game.

Speaking of Brendan the keeper of Untimately- He entered the mix with his post entitled Basic Wands just a bit ago. His post is full of pretty cool ideas. Initially I didn't think I would go with the elemental thing- then he cites a darn good post by Delta, but the target rolls a save to avoid 1d6 damage is complete gold. It gives MU's some kick in a fight. Somewhere the complexity gets out of hand but that's okay as you can pick and choose what you like here.

Next up was the first "unification post" by C over at Hack & Slash. Lots of good ideas there. Some decent stuff in the comments. The fact that he missed Timrod's post is pretty much the reason this post exists.

Now class, turn in your copy of Playing at the World to pages 198 and 199 for a description of the source material for wands and staffs from sources in Appendix N. The most interesting thing here is how Sword and Sorcery literature in specific and Fantasy literature in general does not really distinguish between a wand and a staff. They are simply sticks; with sticks being a requirement for working any magic.

This is something I would use as part of the argument that magic items should not be classed by form, but rather by function (a.k.a. the hat/cloak of invisibility problem from 3e). That is a history and argument for another time. 

Since ideas are free here are some more ideas about wands from our labs here in the steam tunnels:
  • Wands permit a MU to cast the last spell cast using the wand indefinitely.
  • Wands permit the magic user to cast any spell memorized without burning a slot.
  • Wands associated with a spell (like a wand of fireballs) can be used by any magic user that has learned that spell, and the magic user does not have to have memorized the spell.