Monday, May 6, 2019

Attacking the Stat for Fun and Profit*

Ascending Armor Class at the time of 3rd edition was a major intuitive and time saving innovation. But what is more important is how it points to rolling over as a consistent concept. The OSR darling Lamentations of the Flame Princess runs with this when it makes Dexterity the target number to hit a character is not wearing armor. This rule and Ascending Armor Class really do open Pandora's box if you are willing to step further away from D&D traditions.

Related imageIn the original game there were saving throws of various kinds like "Death Ray", "Dragon Breath", "Paralysis" and "Petrification." From OD&D to AD&D to BX and BECMI these seemed to morph. And in the greater OSR they continue to do so. Swords &Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, Flame Princess, etc all seem to have their own take on saving throws. But there was also another kind of save - the stat check - where you took a d20 and tried to roll under your ability score. Remember when you had to roll under your Dexterity to make sure you don't slip on that log while you are crossing the river or some similar situation?

What we are going to do here is invert that mechanic to follow something more akin to an attack roll where the attribute is the target number. Rather than have the player make an awkward check it might seem better to have these environmental and situational elements attack the character instead. Simply choose the appropriate ability score as the target number and roll a d20.

So when you have an unarmored character, and attack him with a sword you try to roll over the character's dexterity score. The poison when ingested tries to roll over the king's constitution score. The giant constrictor snake tries to roll over Conan's strength score. Lying is an attack on intelligence. Roll against the Guard's wisdom of 8+(1d6-1) to see if your distraction worked. Have a crowd attack a character's charisma when the character is trying to rally them to fight against the invaders.

The possibilities are endless. This more adversarial approach may bring more drama and tension. The log is not steady and sound, its wet and slippery and it may betray you. This solves the grapple issues and more easily moves checks related to the environment behind the screen if needs be - I roll all rolls in the open but others may not. It may or may not replace the old school (and new school?) saves but your mileage may vary. But in the end the player is no longer rolling against themselves but rather the stats are being directly tested against things in the environment which seems to open up the game more.

*In an old computer hacking zine from the 90's there is a landmark article called "Smashing the Stack for Fun and Profit" this article borrows it's name from that article.

Friday, September 21, 2018

The Ergonomic 3 Mile Hex

So if my blog numbers are correct, everybody loves the six mile hex. It has the top number of posts with the most comments. All in all the 6 mile hex is handy for marking continuous Cartesian travel. However, while the 6 mile hex is computationally handy and conforms to base horizon calculations, my third point in that post is total bunk: the sub-hexes are far to numerous to streamline things and actually undermine the core feature of the 6 mile hex which is easy distance measurement. When you add the sub-hexes, you have stopped using the handy distances of the 6-mile hex and actually switched to a discrete model.

Early versions of the game are somewhat undecided on how hexes get used. On one level the hexes are discrete units with contents like spaces on a game board. Reaching a hex more often then not grants access to the contents. The other paradigm is where hexes are used for measurement of distance. The 6-mile hex falls squarely in the second which is great if you are tracking travel in a continuous Cartesian method.

However human beings generally don't think about travel in a continuous Cartesian way. We think of it in a discrete linear way. That is as lines between origins and destinations. The rivers, roads, passes, trails, and other linear routes that we use to navigate about our day are really just lines connecting origins and destinations with sequences of landmarks we are familiar with. This is why the point crawl is such a powerful and familiar idea. The most important thing we ask ourselves about these lines is not the question "How far?" but rather "How long?" And this question should drive how we determine hex size.

Lets take a page from Delta's book and look at the ergonomic and mathematical factors we are dealing with again with the idea that we want to keep the hex as a discrete object:
  • Humans leisurely walk  about 3 miles in an hour. 
  • Humans can see 3 miles to the horizon on a completely fictional smooth side of a sphere approximating the size of the Earth with a completely clear atmosphere.  
  • People think about travel in lines and landmarks rather than areas of Cartesian space.
These factors indicate a 3-mile hex is the superior measurement and here is why:
  1. Travel from the middle of one hex to that of the next takes 1 hour over open terrain. This makes counting time easier. Time to cross can be adjusted to allow for various terrain features.
  2. The center of the next hex can be viewed form the current hex rather than the edge as is the case in the 6 mile hex.
  3. This allows for all movement to be discrete and informed - we no longer need measurements.
  4. A smaller size (approximate to 1/4 of the 6 mile hex) allows for a better focus for what is in the hex and thus a better discrete location. 
  5. A 3 mile hex is still easily converted to metric and this is advantageous if you are using metric as your standard of measurement. There will be another post about why metric is superior for measurement later.
 In conclusion I would suggest the 6 mile hex if you were using continuous Cartesian movement. The 6 mile hex is large enough to have the positions of its contents mapped and then use the hex as a measurement tool for continuous Cartesian movement. If your game is not that detailed I would suggest the discrete movement offered by the 3 mile hex for wilderness travel.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

What's the Big Secret? Concealed vs. Secret Doors

Secret and concealed doors have both long been a part of the game. If I recall correctly the difference between a secret door and a concealed door is that the secret door is designed not to be noticed, where a concealed door is a normal door covered up by stuff. I am not sure if it was in OD&D, Holmes, B/X, AD&D, or BECMI where I first read this difference.

Secret doors are really just very elaborately concealed doors. Somthing blocks the observer from immediately noticing the door. But how does this separate it from the door that is hidden behind say a curtain or tapestry?

It seems like the real difference is that one kind does not have it's camouflage built in while the other does. The door to the Lonely Mountain, the gates of Moria, the bookcase that swings out to reveal a hidden passage, the fireplace that rotates to do the same, the door that is designed to look like part of the wall etc. etc. on and on are all just concealed doors that exist on the cleverness of the concealment spectrum. And so the classic roll to spot a secret door in my mind should be combined with the roll to detect a concealed one.

And this could work quite well in any system. For example with "Set Design" method you can establish a clue that exposes the door when someone investigates an area in the right way. The roll to notice is the roll to notice this clue right away - but with the clue still discoverable through careful investigation. This streamlines the flow of game play a bit - rather than being an "only chance" roll the roll to detect becomes something that speeds up the game.

But what is interesting about all this is that there is still space for the "secret" door. That is - the thing that makes a door secret is not that it is concealed (or not), but rather that the means to open the door itself is secret. And this bears out in the trope- the doors to both Erebor and Moria are known to the protagonists. But in both cases how they opened was the deeper mystery. For Erebor the big secret was the location of the key hole. For Moria it was the word that opened the gates. With the bookshelf it is finding out what book to pull, or where the catch is on the fireplace.

So from now on in my games:
A door designated as hidden is one where someone has taken effort or nature has accidently concealed a door. A door designated as secret has some riddle about its opening rather than just being hidden. 

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.