Thursday, 23 March 2017

Cold Iron: Forgery and Reality

European folklore often paints fey creatures as allergic to iron. This supports the idea that people with Bronze or Stone age technology, defeated by iron-using peoples, passed into the victors' mythology as faeries and other weird beings. The first and finest expression of this belief in gaming comes from Runequest, where technology is Bronze Age, meteorite iron is rare and near-magical, and elves and trolls can't stand it.

As with so many other issues, Runequest had the elegant solution and D&D ham-fisted it. In a medieval, iron-using society, there's nothing special about the metal itself. Thus the peculiarity, in the AD&D Monster Manual, of seeing iron as the bane of demons and other evil creatures. And the backpedaling, in a couple of entries, to insist that only "cold iron" bans a ghast or harms a quasit.

Adding injury to St. Dunstan's insult.
As I understood this back in the day, "iron" must mean something different from steel. Most likely, the carbon involved in forging weapons in the medieval-Renaissance world somehow disrupted the mojo of iron, so you would have to special-order a mace head of the same stuff as your cauldron or door handle. And, it would be reasonably balancing to say that non-carbon iron couldn't make up a useful blade, because it would be too soft or brittle.

"Cold iron" is near-meaningless, more a poetic epithet than a technical term. Iron can't be extracted from ore without heat, and "cold forging" is a modern industrial term which assumes you can die-stamp a sheet of rolled iron (which passed through heat in the smelting and rolling processes). One obvious way to get iron "cold" is to chip it off a meteorite, but with what tools exactly?

Over the years, the D&D rules got cleaned up to the point where only this "cold iron" can harm some immune monsters, and the 3rd edition SRD lists it as a special material: "This iron, mined deep underground, known for its effectiveness against fey creatures, is forged at a lower temperature to preserve its delicate properties ."

Well, but there's something too game-y balance-y about this solution, full of vague and passive rules-speak. "Stuff that harms the Weird is super expensive because it comes from a Place of Rareness." It makes sense but lacks resonance. The same goes for meteorite iron. I suppose if only dwarves or lost human races had the technology to whittle blades from meteorites that would sound a bit cooler. But ...

Why not have iron (as opposed to steel) just show up the ability of non-carbon-forged tools and household implements to resist the supernatural? After all, the silver that devils and werewolves fear is dirt-common in the D&D world. Silver pieces are crappy coins that make slightly more expensive sling bullets than lead. A party in my campaign once bought a silver teapot, filled it with sand, and swung it as a flail against the equivalent of wights. So why not have desperate halfling housewives fending off a quasit with a skillet? Or adventurers chucking their iron door spikes at ghasts? 

As a bonus, if elves can't stand iron spikes, it throws a little game balance into elven PC's who (at least in AD&D) are far superior to poor old humans.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Content, Advice, Procedures and a Rat Carpet

Chris McDowall on G+ asks:

GM Sections

Advice is better than Content
Procedures are better than Advice.

Where does this sit on the Truth to Horseshit Spectrum? 


I reply:

I just see a continuum of description from static to active. Pure content just describes what is there and lets you (GM) figure out what is going to happen. Add advice, and there are some suggestions as to likely things which will happen. Add procedures, and you have detailed mini-rules for some of these things. I don't think there is a law for balancing the three, but I do think that good game writing contains all three.


To elaborate:

Writing rules or scenario for a game that will be run by a Game Master is actually a very forgiving job. What you omit, the Game Master can just fill in using improvisation. What you overwrite, the GM can just ignore. Every GM wrestles somewhat with the texts they interpret. Some even enjoy wrestling -- as I enjoy filling in the details of the mainly bare-bones Castle of the Mad Archmage, as others enjoy using a stripped-down rule set and making with the rulings.

But there are also costs to each of these excesses. 

Working on-the-day to fill in gaps is necessarily going to be slapdash. Cliches will be reached for. Things won't connect. I take it as an article of faith that GMs have more trouble inflicting great ruin or reward on a party if those consequences are not written down. 

Overwriting descriptions and rules has three costs. First, the cost in time for you to think it through and write it. Second, the physical cost to print it - there is less adventure for the buck in a tome stuffed with page-long rooms. Third, the cost for the GM to locate what's important in a piece of writing.

How to get the balance right? In the megadungeon I'm writing these days, each room is described in 50 to 500 words. 

Content is the usual monster, treasure, and hazard description; beyond that, each description must pull its weight either as potential player interaction, as atmosphere, or as a "clue" that gives meaning to the larger structure of the dungeon.

Advice comes about when there is an obvious thing the player can do or the room can do. Advice should not try to out-think the players. There should be gaps for the players to surprise the GM. If this creates an advantage you didn't anticipate, you are allowed one cry of "My precious ENCOUNTER" and then just roll with it. They are sure enough to compensate with some incredible bonehead move somewhere else.

Procedures are needed when the action in the advice can lead either to gain or harm in a way not covered by the rules. Most rule sets will cover the basics of combat, some simple hazards like falling, and treasure gain. For anything else important it is better to rules-write than to hand-wave at the table. Most GMs have a soft spot and writing down the butcher's bill ahead of time is a way to keep yourself honest.

Rat king rug by Pupsam

Here's one room, inspired by Margaret St, Clair, with Content, Advice, Procedures in different colors.

===

56. MINOTAUR BARRACKS. Both doors to the room are closed. Above each door, in the lintel, is carved the head and arms of a minotaur with a two-headed axe. Opening them is difficult because the floor beyond is a living, chirping carpet of 100 pink-eyed albino rat swarms, stinking of urine and musk. A pulsing mauve light suffuses the room, from something blue glowing through the mass of bodies in the middle, piled up 2’. The room’s 50 bunk beds have been turned against the walls, so that the carpet is 14’ wide.

The rats will not leave the room and will not bite, but en masse they are psychically sensitive and very frail. In their midst the mind fills with their agitation, frustration and hatred. Being trod on or roughly handled kills d4 rats per 10’ trodden, broadcasting their death agonies to sentient minds within 10’, who must save (spell/Will/WIS) or take 1 damage per killed rat. If multiple groups are killed at the same time, the range of the death throes is increased by 2’ for every 10’ x 10’ area cleansed, and the base damage is 2d20 per 10’ x 10’ square.

The pile in the middle is a couple of fallen bunks stacked under the rat carpet, with a Lamp of the Azurite shining through, and silver coins worth 1200$ falling out of perforated, urine-soaked bags.

===

So, the Description gives the room meaning, both in-setting (it is part of a series of barracks for units named after mythical monsters; the bunks establish this) and out (the minotaur and axe pay homage to Sign of the Labrys and its carpet of white rats). It establishes atmosphere through light, sound, smell. It gives the "monster" (more of a trap really) and the treasure. Things, too, are described in the order players are likely to find them.

The Advice is short and covers the most likely actions: opening the door, going through the rats to investigate the light. "Psychically sensitive and very frail" plus the other descriptions help judge what might happen if players take creative action. The GM can decide whether, for example, scooping the rats with a shovel is also fatal to them, or how players might fare if they try to leap 7' onto the bunks on the side and make their way to the things in the middle.

The Procedures are necessary to regulate how the "trap" deals out damage. The mass-death effect is important to spell out because of the temptation of dealing with the mass using a fireball or flaming oil. Observing what happens when just a few rats are killed should be enough warning to avoid the disaster. A more merciful GM can alter the damage to stunning, but the level is swarming with very frequent wandering monsters, so this only gives the players a half-fighting chance.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Midkemia's Matrix: Rationality Unbound

The Black Tower (Guinasso & Abrams, 1981) is not to be confused with Dark Tower or any other low-albedo third-party edifice from the early days of D&D. It was a product of Midkemia Press, material from a campaign that inspired Raymond Feist's Magician series of novels, one of many gaming-fiction backcrossings to come. You can get a pdf of it here, although I'm pretty sure the typesetting is not the original.


We have here 100+ rooms of evil wizard's castle, with a number of fairly interesting tricks and characters, and a large cast of unique Midkemian monsters living in close tenancy -- screamers, hard luck "snagers" (indistinguishable from doors!), fuzzy pests, goldmoths (indistinguishable from gold pieces!), etc. All are statted out in conformity with THE TOME OF MIDKEMIA fantasy roleplaying game. This game, never published, works with "hits to kill", levels, d20 to hit rolls, damage done with various dice sizes, and spells of familiar stamp with flavor words tacked on like dishes from a gastropub menu (MATCHLESS SLEEP, UNALTERABLE QUEST, THROW LIGHTNING).

But the most interesting thing about TTOM is its attack matrix, reproduced in the module.
This matrix actually earns its pay - unlike the frankly boring matrices from (A)D&D, based on monotonic effects of attacker's level and defender's AC, with a few quirks that were not memorable or justifiable enough to survive being simplified into THAC0 and eventually done away with. Here, though, armor counts for markedly less the larger the attacker is, and is even a liability against huge creatures and undead. Why? Read on!

This simplifies the effects sought by a system like Runequest/BRP or GURPS, in which defensive skill reduces chances to hit while armor reduces damage directly. A similar effect might be had by having large creatures deal massive damage that armor does little to reduce, while the chances to hit are based on relative size, with smaller and more mobile creatures being stymied by strong armor but having the upper hand on both attack and defense.

Now, an advantage of Midkemia's matrix presentation, compared to those other rules possibilities, is that it makes choices transparent. Instead of fiddling with spreadsheets to try and figure out the optimal damage dealing and evasion per round, Midkemia's matrix shouts loud and clear that there is a role for your Frazetta-style fighter just as there is a role for your buttoned-up plate tank -- and the scarier the monster, the nakeder the hero!

Heartbreaker rules are the Burgess Shale of roleplaying -- collectively, a lode of stillborn ideas that might have been. The Midkemia matrix points a way, not taken, for the core mechanic of the game to escape the tedious bonus-and-target escalation spiral already visible in AD&D and reaching a peak in 3rd edition. Instead of high-level play just being a bigger-numbers version of low-level, fighting huge monsters is essentially different, shifting to a table that reverses the logic of armor and requires no further bonus pumping to make for interesting play.

The same impulse underlies more recent rules ideas that recognize, for example, that you can't kill a tyrannosaurus by whaling on its shins with a dagger, and that going toe-to-toe with a giant shark-elephant centaur is not just a matter of hit and miss. Instead of 5th edition's "bounded rationality" approach, which deals with the treadmill by cutting it short at the end, we can call these qualitative shifts in power level "unbounded rationality." They deal with the treadmill by making it a conveyor belt to somewhere new and strange.

Monday, 12 September 2016

My Precious Dungeon Walls!

Dungeons preventing teleport, passwall, and other magical ways around or through walls have been a design cliche since Undermountain. It's been so endemic that Bryce Lynch gives special kudos to designers who don't fall for it. But what, exactly, are they afraid of?

The hypothetical cheater who uses spells to get to the last room of the dungeon must first find the last room of the dungeon. In a sprawling underground maze this is nearly impossible. If you're just using it to get through a locked door, that's the equivalent of a knock spell, and nobody legislates against those.

But let's say you've found the last room of the dungeon, either because it's bloody obvious (top of a tower, sealed chamber in the middle of the maze with the Gallstone of Four Parts) or because you have scried it out with clairvoyance, wizard eye or the like -- another tool type often suppressed by cautious adventure designers.

Let's even forget about the mechanical possibility, in a teleport spell, of having a fatal or disfiguring targeting error happen.

What do you think is going to happen when that teleporting or flying or dimension-dooring wizard gets there? A wizard, alone? Passwall and mass teleport are more of a problem (I don't allow them in my game). But without intelligence on the dungeon, again, they're just shots in the dark.

A better explanation of the obsession with fettering knowledge and movement spells lies in a clash of game design principles.

For incremental game design, everything is a matter of quantity, hit points and resources are worn down bit by bit, and a fair fight can be gauged.

Catastrophic design, though, allows for sudden winning moves, daylight frying the all-powerful vampire, a poisoned shirt killing Hercules. Balance here is non-linear, hard to judge. Discernment, avoidance, and preparation are more important than the toe-to-toe slog. Death is sudden, not gradual. Characters with a spell can kill a maze just like characters with a mirror can kill a basilisk.

The struggle between these two views, one "fair" and one "real," determines any given gaming experience. Another front in the war: turning undead vs. anti-turning medallions.

But even if you commit to the incremental way, "can't" is still the uglest word. Recently I made a try at fixing"you can't move." The obvious fix for "you can't teleport" is for the wizard's lair or whatever to be guarded by a chaotic teleportation zone that dumps you in a random location in the dungeon or even another plane of existence.

You can turn the undead? Fine, but the undead can also turn you. "Can," not "can't" if you please.


Thursday, 8 September 2016

Not Just Ruins, But Strongholds

Joseph Manola is onto something in this well argued, erudite essay on the importance of the ruin to classic and old-school-influenced D&D. Ruins, of course, are part of the post-apocalyptic milieu. And yes, part of that genre is allowing characters to have freedom to loot and wreck without getting in trouble.

"Uh, I think they saw us coming."
But another part of the genre are the strongholds. Auntie Entity's fortified town, Immortan Joe's mesa complex. The zombie plague survivors holed up in the mall. The fall of Rome left not only ruins, but also feudal castles, and some places that were both.

An impressive number of classic adventures are actually stronghold raids. The first full adventure from the supplements, Blackmoor's Temple of the Frog. The Giants and most of the Drow series. The Slaver cycle. Even Castle Ravenloft, although its mood is very different.

Quick break for a definition. The difference between a stronghold and a ruin is that the walls of the stronghold enclose a nominally unified fighting group. Sneaking through, avoiding raising the alarm, isolating the different groups, thus becomes part of the adventure. A ruin may have sub-areas held by organized groups, but either they are working against each other, don't care about each other, or they are but a nugget within a larger disorganization. So, adventures like the Village of Hommlet's moathouse or the Keep on the Borderland's Caves of Chaos don't really count as strongholds, even though they have stronghold-like areas.

True strongholds are challenging, and you'll notice they were all written for medium-to high-level characters. They are crafted to overwhelm players who come without subterfuge or tactics. In fact, if the importance of strongholds in gaming has faded, this may be because the hobby has drifted apart from its wargame roots. Early D&D grew, via Chainmail, from miniatures wargaming scenarios involving sieges or spying against organized opposition, like Bodenburg and Braunstein.

The ultimate proof of the importance of strongholds comes from the "win" condition of the game, right through AD&D: get together enough men, moolah and mojo to build your own. The victorious player ascends to the Dungeon Master's throne, using the iconic graph paper not just to snail-creep a copy of someone else's dungeon, but to plan and build a stronghold and delvings of their own. Some old-school revival games, most notably Adventurer Conqueror King, hold on to this goal. And it's surely no coincidence that ACK's meta-plot of rising through the ranks of an organization by doing their dirty work can lead in turn to more stronghold busting than you might usually see in a modern-day campaign.

As a final example of the yin and yang of strongholds and ruins in gaming, consider the vast and uncompromising amateur PC game, Dwarf Fortress. You can play in two modes. First, dig and maintain a dwarven town complex underground, mining and crafting treasures and defending it from enemies. Then, after it is overrun (near-inevitably) by demons of the magma layer or invading zombie hordes or simply collapses in civil war, play in Adventurer mode within the same world, as a wandering figure bent on exploring its ruined fortresses, defeating their occupiers and looting their wealth. For sooner or later, every stronghold becomes a ruin...

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Sorcery World

Five more to go in a highly irregular series of 36 d20-based encounter tables. Roll d20, read straight across, or roll 2 d20's and connect the two columns as best you can using the verbs for inspiration.The bold, italic entries are things that can be left behind in a site with currently other inhabitants. This one's about wizards and their doings. For more of these look under the GENRES tag.


Thursday, 1 September 2016

Victor Hugo's Les Misérables: A Review For RPG.Net

Les Misérables
Author: Victor Hugo, 1862 (tr. Norman Denny)
Publisher: Penguin Classics
System: System-neutral/free-form
Setting: French social realism/pre-steampunk

Let me just start with the elephant in the room: If you like GM-PC characters; if for you the whole point of Forgotten Realms is to rub elbows with Elminster, and you would willingly mount a campaign in the world of Conan even though it means the characters are either going to be Conan or someone who isn't Conan, then "Les Mis" is your bag.

The pachyderm in question is Gary ValStu -- sorry, I meant Jean Valjean. He strides through this sourcebook, soaking up attention in every scene he's in. And make no mistake, in spite of the system-neutral descriptions, he's clearly 18 Strength:

"In physical strength Jean Valjean far surpassed any other inmate of the prison. On fatigue duties, or hauling an anchor-chain or turning a capstan, he was worth four men. He could lift and carry enormous weights ..." (p. 99)

But the stat carnival continues:

"His dexterity was even greater than his strength" (p. 100)

So, 19? Book learning-as-dump stat aside,  he's a super-high level rogue who climbs walls like a staircase, bowls people over with force of personality, and survives death plunges. His disad's are many but they're of the kind that only add to his cachet: some kind of helpless dependent or other, false identity, wanted, hunted, and above all a nitpicking adherence to Chaotic Good alignment.

But is alignment really a disadvantage when the book lays out ways and means to weaponize it? Yes, if you stick to your Good behavior even when it would do you great harm - even when your beneficiary is a scoundrel - even when they are actively trying to rob you - even when doing the right thing would ruin thousands of people - Hugo describes benefits ranging from forced alignment change in the target, to confusing and paralyzing adversaries, even to the point of suicide.

Valjean, then, works best as a benefactor for hard times, striding in, doling handouts and plot coupons - but you can't escape the temptation to put him in the hands of a player, if only for the fun of seeing them play him "sensibly" and never attain the full potential that's sitting under their noses.

Then we have the arch-villain NPC, Inspector Javert, Lawful Neutral over into Evil. Say one thing about this guy, he's the absolute right way for the GM to handle a persistent adversary. As much as he's unbelievably skilled and lucky at hunting down his prey - he finds Valjean twice from a cold trail in completely different cities of France - he also will make that little fudgey mistake that lets the players get away, assuming they haven't made any serious mistakes themselves and don't actually (like Valjean) want to get caught.

There actually aren't that many other NPCs for a 1200 page book. This is due to Hugo's habit of having coincidental meetings pop up routinely, so this new person is "none other than" someone we met 200 pages before. Paris and indeed all of France thus behave in Hugo's hands like a village of a couple hundred. Corny as it may seem, at the table this is actually a great way for both GM and players to stay emotionally invested in the developments. Frankly, too, it's easier to remember a plot with six or so recurring names than with thirty-six of them. Those that are described, in more or less detail, are very good - the Patron-Minette gang, with its varied characters and capabilities, almost begs to come to life as a player character party.

Fortunately, the characters, their doings, and other things "storyline" take up only about half of Les Misérables. The rest is great sourcebook material: minute descriptions of buildings, neighborhoods, and historical adventure sites like the Battle of Waterloo, the 1830 barricades, and of course the sewers of Paris; long essays about politics, necessary if you're going to understand 19th century France with its parade of monarchies, empires and republics; and quirky sidebar material like the analysis of convents in France, or the description of Parisian thieves' cant.

Pretty much all the locations are gameable, whether as sites to loot, PC hideaways, or places of intrigue (the scenario where PCs have to help a convent carry out an illicit burial and at the same time help Valjean escape is a tense masterpiece.) Infuriating, though, to see a complete lack of maps and illustrations - the GM will have to dig up historical ones or rely on the "theater of the mind's eye" to fill in. Fan material online can't quite compensate for this crucial flaw.

More of this, please.
Overall, while Les Misérables is a worthy sourcebook, it also takes a lot of work on the GM's part. I understand the limitations of system-neutral, but at times it seems the author feels the need to narrate rather than describe happenings in a systematic way the GM can use.  Less plot railroading, less of the author's own political rantings (fortunately, these are contradictory, half pro-Republic and half pro-Napoleon, so it's not as annoying as it could be), multiple system stats, and above all maps and encounter tables, these would take this product to five-star territory.

Style: 2
Substance: 4