Friday, 20 November 2015

Paraphrase Third-Party Conversations

It's always an awkward moment in any role-playing game when the game master has to represent two, or worse more, non-player characters talking to each other. The exercise resembles nothing so much as young Danny's conversations with his own wagging finger in "The Shining." Using funny voices, the GM ekes out an extended scene while the players sit and watch.

But this is as destructive of the social nature of RPG as any paragraphs-long set-piece room description or boxed text would be. The point of the game is to construct a shared reality through interaction. Awareness that you, the GM or player, are entering into a monologue-as -dialogue should be a sharp signal to shift gears.

To what, exactly?

While some advise to skip such scenes entirely, I don't think it's possible or desirable. Instead, what I do now when I feel a sock-puppet play scene coming on is to paraphrase. That is, switch from this:

COURT WIZARD (bad Peter Lorre impression): Eeeuhh, my lady, what these adventurers propose is verrry reckless.
QUEEN (bad Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones impression): But the bones of my forefathers are endangered if the rumors are true!
COURT WIZARD: They were placed there to watch over an ancient evil! Who knows what these bumbling louts will awaken?

To this:

YOU: The Queen supports your mission to rescue the bones in the tomb, but the wizard is agitated and warns her that you may disturb an ancient evil.

This leaves it open for the players to intervene and address either party, at which point a player-GM conversation can take place in character again.

Come to think of it, the goal of maximum interaction also suggests a light touch when describing scenes, but that'a topic for next time ...

Friday, 6 November 2015

Easy Rule for Broken Arrows

Among the logistics of adventure gaming that I currently handwave is the depletion of arrows and other missile ammo. In practice it's too tedious, forgettable, and character-sheet-messy to cross off every arrow (and pick them up again).

So, if there is a thing that people are supposed to do, and they don't do it, and you think it adds to the play of the game, it's on you as the rules hacker/designer to make it easy. I think as long as people are buying arrows in lots of 12 or 20 they should pay attention to depletion. But until now I haven't come up with an easy rule that makes some kind of sense.

So happy, sucking up all your ammo.
Here it is:

1. If an arrow or crossbow bolt does damage but does not kill its target, cross it off; in effect it gets stuck in there and broken off by the still-alive creature. Sling bullets are hardier, so do not suffer this fate.
2. If the party flees the scene of a combat without time to rest and pick up missiles, anyone who shot missiles crosses off two if the fight was short, five if the fight was long, and more for epic fights. If a player thinks this is too many, they are free to keep track of their missiles one by one.

If your players are marking down TWELVE ARROWS or TWENTY ARROWS IN QUIVER, they can just cross off letters from those phrases as ammo gets depleted. Same goes for TWENTY BULLETS IN POUCH and TWENTY QUARRELS IN CASE.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Bigger, Badder Gelatinous Cube

Gelatinous cubes in D&D have a strong bid to be one of the top ten iconic monsters. They embody the silliness and peril of the dungeon, the conceit that a whole ecology has sprung up around this artificial monster zoo with perfect 10' cross-section corridors. You can outrun them, perhaps, but you can't outflank them, and therein lies their threat.

My players killed a wandering gelatinous cube, in the last session but one. They were lucky I filled an oddly shaped but unkeyed corridor in the Castle with peaceful if creepy slugs whose markings resembled human faces. The slugs creeping out of the way of the coming cube alerted a rear guard, whose location at the edge of the lantern light would have otherwise been just what the cube is made for. Now aware of something fishy, they saw light reflections on the surface of the cube and melee was joined.

G-cubes in AD&D go down easy, with only 4 hit dice. Even the players remarked on the oddity of a 10' cube of biomass being so easy to kill. AD&D didn't even make them immune to blunt weapons and taking only 1 damage from piercing (as any amorphous corporeal creature does in my game), but a couple of rounds of magic missiles, a few slashes, and one big sword crit did the deed.

Remember, this is a space filled with solid jelly equal to four hill giants in a huddle. Really, it's more a surging obstacle than a monster you can trade blows with. And the trouble doesn't stop when you kill it: the cube should spread proportionately,creating a 6 foot high mound of jelly spread over 20 feet of corridor. Jelly that for a while will retain its paralytic qualities. As you clear it, more slumps to the floor. The players had to spend a long time clearing it to the side, during which some wandering boring beetles appeared, but lost resolve as the party pushed the gel forward at them. (Yes, the paralytic mass has some potential as a short-duration weapon.)

Below is a write-up that shows-not-tells the other observations and innovations I had after the encounter. You'll see that I reject the traditional increased chance of surprise in favor of more descriptive factors that give it an edge, in line with the more situation-based way I handle first moves in combat.


HD: 16 (attacks and saves as 4 HD)
AC: 9 [10]
MV: 3
AT: Engulf 2-8 on a 10' front, save or paralyzed; transparency.
DF: See below.
Mind: Mindless.

This mass of transparent, semi-rigid jelly by preference takes the form of a 10' cube, but can squeeze itself by 50% in any single dimension with corresponding elongation, if needs be. It may have been created long ago to clean the corridors of some underground complex, but along the way has picked up some antisocial habits.

The cube sweeps up and digests organic and siliceous matter: flesh and bone quickly, wood and stone more slowly, but cannot process metal. Owing to its composition it is particularly fond of bone and can smell it at 100', flesh at 30'; in other respects it moves blindly.

The gelatin is translucent, and so virtually invisible if a light source is not within 20' to reflect off its surface. This is not the case if it is carrying partially digested debris (10% chance), metal debris (10%), or metallic treasure (5%), all of which will appear to be floating in the air.

It attacks by surging forward suddenly in one direction. Any creature within melee range takes an attack. A hit means partial engulfment by the gel and its secretions that are both corrosive and paralytic. A failed save on a hit means the creature is paralyzed for d6 turns if human-sized or smaller, rounds if larger. Creatures that do not fall back are engulfed if the cube moves over them; they are automatically paralyzed, take damage each round, and in any case will suffocate to death in a number of six-second rounds equal to their CON score. Digestion is a matter of minutes.

The cube cannot be harmed by blunt weapons, lightning, or cold, and has the immunities of the mindless. Piercing weapons do a maximum of 1 point of damage. Slashing weapons do full damage, the best way to kill a cube being to slice pieces off it. Even on a miss a slashing weapon will scratch the barn-like surface of the cube for 1 point. However, if the cube moves over its sliced pieces it will start to reabsorb them, regaining 1 lost hit point a round. Even with a slashing polearm, which gives immunity to the cube's melee attack, it can take a very long time to kill a cube this way, while it presses forward at 30' a round. Escaping a cube can be as easy as running or ducking into a small door, but dead ends can be fatal.

Fire harms it for full damage with no saving throw, in the manner of an egg white, the "cooked" pieces sloughing off. After it is dead, the cube will subside into a formidable pile of jelly 6' high and 20' diameter, slowly turning cloudy gray. The gel loses its corrosive and paralytic properties after death, to a depth of 1' from contact with air.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Dragonmeet 2015: Carry the Lantern High

Dragonmeet, London's one-day gaming convention, is coming up on the 5th December and unlike last year I can actually attend. It is my tradition to run an adventure from the one page dungeon contest, using the 52 Pages system, and name it after a rock song. This year is no exception, as I run Michael Prescott's winning adventure.

In which you have to get to that octahedron in the sky and wrestle forth its secrets. And now the theme will extend to the pre-generated characters, viz.

Well, there isn't much of a schedule visible yet because hey, Dragonmeet. But I am looking forward to it!

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Street Guide Without Streets

Cities in adventure games demand a different logic than underground or wilderness adventures. The house-to-house detail that has traditionally characterized city supplements doesn't work and isn't needed, as Zak S first figured out in Vornheim.

Is all of this strictly necessary?
Wildernesses or dungeons are places where access is difficult (so mapping them is fun),but cities are places usually set up so that access is easy through a network of streets (so mapping them is pointless). There is discovery, but it doesn't follow geographical lines. The exceptions to openness -- forbidden cities of privilege; no-go slums of peril -- prove the rule. These areas cease to work as cities do in an adventure game, and begin to work as dungeons, like the hoary cliches of the monster-infested urban sewers or necropolis.

In my own Muleteers campaign, built from Joe Bloch's works, the Grey City counterpoises the tentpole dungeon of the Mad Archmage. Visits to the city sometimes end in impatience to get on with the adventuring, but still can take up to half of a four-hour session. But even though I'm using a detailed street map of the place, the geography never seems to stick, I don't keep a good idea of what shops are where, what they are like, and so on.

This suggests that I need a way to write down and systematize what matters in the city experience.

The Muleteers use the city for the following activities:

  1. Buying equipment
  2. Selling and identifying treasure finds
  3. Leveling up (taking one day per new level, in my rules)
  4. Carousing and other means of spending money for experience
  5. Brokering deals with religious, trade, scholarly and government bodies
  6. In the campaign's early days (less so now, as action has concentrated onto the megadungeon and frontier village), mini-misadventures from random encounters in the streets
For the first five, the journey and exact location are not as important as what can be done there. The random happenings (#6) do sometimes spill out into a full-fledged chase, but for this only a vague sense of geography is needed: the city is divided into districts; each district's streets all connect to each other and the process of finding out where things are is usually trivial; only between districts are there changes of atmosphere, walls and divisions.

The result is this template and guide (click to enlarge):

You'll see that with access to private and secret establishments, there is a process of discovery in the city too, but it works differently. The examples give an idea how: random encounters and establishments, if treated right, give clues and leads to others. This can be expanded to whole districts of social elites being off-limits unless you know the right people. I'm going to try this method at the next city phase of our adventures and see how it turns out.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Wizardry Demands Cosplay

Having discussed the armor-mobility tradeoff, another balance issue in fantasy games is whether wizards get to wear armor.

In editions of D&D up to 2nd, the explanations were as vague as hit points. The metal in armor disrupts magical energies;the encumbrance limits the wizard's gestures; you need training to wear armor, which the wizard doesn't have. While earlier editions ignored the rather obvious exceptions to the first two explanations (wear leather armor; cast spells without gestures), the third eventually became canon, starting with 3rd edition. With the rationalization of this rule came the rationalization of the way out. If the wizard becomes proficient in stomping around heavy armor, at the expense of more class-appropriate character development, he or she can certainly wear it.

These game-world reasons, though, are maybe besides the point. Their slow development over time shows that a stronger reasons is game balance. More specifically, class role protection. A wizard should have reasons within the game mechanics to act like a wizard, lobbing spells from the back row, protected by tougher characters up front. So, we make the wizard weak in single combat; fantasy artillery.

But I think there's a third reason. Wizards need to look like wizards, and the archetype of a wizard (unlike a knight, or a cleric militant) has nothing to do with armor.

Here's what convinced me: Let's accept the "game balance" reason and any of the game-world reasons of conductivity, encumbrance, or training. How would the strategic wizard dress for adventure or the battlefield?

Remember, this is a world where a spell-caster can turn the tide of battle, if not interrupted by a well-timed arrow. So your wizard is standing there like the officers of Napoleonic warfare, in a bright costume of visibility and authority, ready to be picked off. In civilization things are not much better; sometimes wizards are respected, other times they're burned at the stake. The logical, rational play is to dress your wizard normally - as a goose girl, traveling peddler, pack bearer, or whatever. Letthe magic do the talking, when it needs to.

Indeed, these considerations (or maybe just the inconvenience of flowing robes and a tall hat in a cave crawl) seem to have come into play designing the Ral Partha line of official AD&D 2nd edition miniatures. In keeping with the mundane fantasy-realism of that period, the "adventuring mages" and "wandering sorcerers" all sport practical breeches-and-jerkin combos, with nary a horned headdress or navel gem in sight,

Well, to hell with that! Wizards should be flamboyant, identifiable; that should be their mark, their pride, their penalty. It's not that armor encumbers or disrupts the magic, but it'snot part of the outfit. And the outfit is necessary for the magic to work - the wizard needs to feel like a wizard, needs the ritual vestments of the role in order to believe and have the forces of the universe believe. This is a principle of hermetic ritual magic (pdf) and it is a good reason in a game world as well.

What can wizards look like? They can go for shabby but unmistakably sorcerous, like Gandalf; they can dress like a god, a priest, a performer, an extreme dandy; they can show too much skin or cover up too much skin. This series of photo posts gives a good idea.

The "cosplay" rationale also means that there are certain type of armor wizards can wear. If flamboyant, impractical, otherworldly, then the armor can be worn, but it's likely to give less protection for more restriction of movement. For example:

I would rule this "ritual armor" as costing 10 times as much as light (leather) armor and either encumbering as medium armor, to a move of 9" (Bam and Biggs) or giving only 1 rather than 2 points of protection (Cher).

Friday, 25 September 2015

Armor vs. Mobility

D&D and many other fantasy skirmish combat rules include a delicious tradeoff between protection and movement in choice of armor.

Even "D&D for Dummies" says so (via Google Books)

This tradeoff shines brightest when the DM applies old-school logic and throws in monsters that can't be defeated in a toe-to-toe combat, but can be run from. Each armor-wearer has to decide whether their armor makes them half as likely to be hit by low-level grunts, or lets them get away from slow and overpowering monsters.

The weird thing is that in  D&D up to 3.0, plate mail is really not that expensive compared to the tons of treasure you are required to harvest to level up (xp from monsters being stingy). So cost doesn't figure much in the tradeoff - especially given that armor is a common form of loot. In my campaign, armor is expensive and monsters and carousing count for more, so treasure amounts can be moderate at early levels; character typically get access to medium armor around level 2 and heavy around level 3.

The other weird thing is that as you get magic armor, the tradeoff disappears - it gives both greater protection and mobility. In my campaign, magic items are rare and the standard improved armor comes in either dwarven steel (+1 to armor class) or elven steel (+1 mobility class), where each bonus is valuable separately.

But hold on! Isn't the mobility-protection tradeoff overhyped when you look at actual medieval armor?

Plate armor wasn't all that restrictive of movement.
Armor didn't have to be expensive.
Wearing armor slows speed only through increasing fatigue.

And leather armor affording the same protection as metal, although lighter, would restrict movement in the same way, because to be effective at all against weapon it had to be thick, or treated through boiling to become a hardened material.

Well, the sovereign answer to all of this is that gaming combat doesn't have to be realistic - in fact, should include any and all misconceptions that are crucial to a fictional genre.

But here's the more satisfying answer: the mobility tradeoff is true on a large scale and over the long haul. Along with time and distance scales and archery ranges, this assumption built into D&D seems to be imported wholesale from the larger-scale wargames both Gygax and Arneson were most familiar with.

So while a heavily armored fighter can indeed run around and do jumping jacks, they tire a lot quicker from that activity. And being able to sustain a pace is what matters for a unit-based wargame where turns are a matter of minutes.

So in a gaming context there are three situations where movement matters.

1. Exploration and long-distance travel. Over ten-minute turns, hours or days, fatigue and needing to rest would definitely slow an armor-wearing person to about half the move a non-armor-wearer.

2. Tactical movement in combat. Here,movement from one foe to another, to flank, and so on tends to be short and sporadic. I've noticed that movement rates in dungeon combat, even if cut short to reflect being cautious and the possibility of making an attack. In a 30'x30' room, a plate-armored fighter's six 5' squares are enough to cover just about any kind of tacical movement needed, and an unarmored 12 squares are just excess. So even though the lobster-plated guy is entitled to more because fatigue's less likely to come in, it probably won't interfere -least of all if you are using area positioning or "theater of the mind" to run combat.

3. Hauling ass. In chase situations, armor and load will determine who catches up or gets away, and while it makes a slight difference in timing whether this is due to fatigue or movement, the ultimate effect is the sme,

4. Charging. Again, realistically an armored fighter making a long charge might suffer a round or so less of arrows and spells from the defenders before closing than their low  movement rate would indicate. But it's likely they would get there in less than full fighting trim. So, the slower movement here can reflect the fighter conserving energy.

In short, "realism" is often invoked as a reason to "fix" D&D but in this case I think the stark simplicity of the speed/armor tradeoff. If you want to cover short-term speed bursts I recommend ruling that you can move as unarmored in armor, but take 1 hp nonlethal fatigue damage per level each round you do so, that can be regained at 1 hp/level with each round of rest.