Thursday, 4 June 2015

Security Through Oldschoolity

Recent discussions started by Kiel and continued on G+ have got me thinking about why completely separating an adventure's text from its map, or printing the map devoid of details, still seems like a viable idea to publishers. Is it just tradition?

Looking at the design of the first TSR modules, it seems clear that one goal was to have the map contain as little information as possible, so that an accidental peek by players behind the screen would not reveal too much.

Thus, the need to constantly flip back and forth between the big map and the numbered section of text, rather than using map insets in the text or text notes on the map.

This technique is what security experts call "security through obfuscation." By making things hard to find for yourself, you try to make them impossible to find for others. Closely related is the idea of "security through obscurity," which you also saw in old school Advanced D&D with the injunctions that players not be able to access the DM book or monster manual. And of course, the very cerulean color of the old-school maps is another security device, to make them unreadable by the xerographic technology of the day.

Today, with everything available online legally or illegally for most published modules, the best defense is just to assume that players are their own security; that they play not to defeat you, but to enjoy discovery and surprise;and that you the GM help them in this goal by keeping the map discreetly covered, but with whatever marks are necessary to help you run the game smoothly.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Road Warrior Backwash

Mad Max: Fury Road is as great an adventure scenario and visual production as everyone says it is. But did it ever show out the concept of backwash: when an idea developed in one medium (say, fantasy literature) incubates andmutates in a derivative medium (say, roleplaying games)  until the mutant breed becomes the new standard and washes back into the originating medium.

The derivative medium is, as others have pointed out, Games Workshop's 40K and in particular its Orks and their Gorkamorka subgame, spawned from the unholy union of The Road Warrior and football hooligans. But damned if by parallel evolution or homage over 35 years, George Miller hasn't returned the dividend in the form of tribal skinheads called Warboys (or is it Warboyz?) and even a musician stand.

Now you get it.
Indeed, the way 80's and 90's franchises are clawing out of their shallow graves these days, I'm wondering if the keepers of the Aliens world wouldn't do well to inject a little Space Hulk and undo their last few regrettable outings.

The "Citadel": just me overreading, or a really high pitched dog whistle for nerds?

Thursday, 14 May 2015

This Monster Has No Picture

If you doubt the value of art, look upon the creatures in the AD&D Monster Manual that have no illustration. When you leave out the "you know what they look like" (bears, lions, etc.) and the hard to see vermin (cerebral parasites, ear seekers, floating eye, slithering tracker, gelatinous cube), and the "souped-up version" (ghasts but tell me why, why the neo-otyugh gets two illustrations of its own) and the inexplicably passed-up opportunity to illustrate a nymph ...

and the masher, already humiliated enough from losing the purple-worm status it enjoyed in Blackmoor (but it had art, it just got lost) ...

you are left with the monsters that have no illustration because there is nothing to illustrate. There is the shadow, which is visible but shadowy and also would have made a fine illustration. And then there are the monsters that are invisible by nature.

Also inexplicably, there are three of these. You have the aerial servant, the invisible stalker, and the wind walker. Each of them is spun off from the air elemental with a few variations in immunity.

Ral Partha's Aerial Servant. Funny.
Does nature create redundancies?  Ask the dolphin, tuna and penguin. But art demands unity; novels reuse characters, though it stretches the credibility of coincidence; and so, there is something more satisfying about surmising that these three creatures are all just different aspects of the same elemental being.

Otherworld's Invisible Stalker. Funny.
  • The aerial servant responds to a cleric's high-level spell. With the wisdom of holy magic, the spell only contracts the servant for a clearly defined short-term mission of capture and return, using the power of religion to control it. As a result, the creature serves willingly and commits more of its essence to the task, appearing with a nigh-unstoppable 16 hit dice.
  • The invisible stalker responds to a magic-user's high-level spell. This contract of service is more loosely defined, and tempts the wizard to push his or her luck at the risk of having the stalker undermine the instructions. Under these terms, the creature commits less essence, appearing with only 8 hit dice.
  • The wind walker is one of these creatures, loosed from service by the death of its summoner a long time ago, or bound to this plane because of some mishap. It is easier to hit because it abandons its dutiful silence to howl and rush, and weaker because of its long residence on the material plane (implying that there are fresher, larger specimens roaming around.) Alienation from their homeland has also turned wind walkers evil-natured and indiscriminate in their destruction. Their telepathy is something implicit in the description of the aerial servant and invisible stalker, else how would those creatures understand instructions in all the possible languages of wizard-dom?

Wind-powered walker is much cooler, anyway.
So, although naturalism in a magic world may breed a huge variety of invisible monsters, from the players' point of view the whole game of figuring out "oh, what invisible monster is attacking us today,or maybe it's a normal monster turned invisible by that darn mad wizard" is not really worth the candle. As well as being disrupted, very simply, by the handy bag of flour.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Improving 52 Pages: Overkill and Monster Experience

So if we are going to be handing out experience for monsters, and the 100 xp per hit die rule is generally good in my experience, there is one situation where it appears to fall down: overkill, where a higher-level party gets an overly large amount of experience for an encounter with six giant rats that is trivially dealt with.

To put it formally, a group in control of tactics is going to have a much easier time dealing with 8 x 1 HD orcs than 1 x 8 HD giant, for any number of game mechanical reasons. The danger ... the bad player behavior that you don't want the rule to encourage ... is that players will seek out weak rather than challenging combats in order to advance. And even if they don't (because that is a rather dim view of what they want in the game), they will have a weak encounter and realize it gave them quite a chunk of experience and wonder why the system is not pushing them toward the more exciting kind of play.

AD&D, as I've mentioned before, solved this just by giving very low xp awards for low-level monsters, altogether. Combine this with exponentially increasing the amounts of xp needed to level, and you have a situation where a high-level character effectively gets peanuts even from single-handedly wiping out a company of 100 orcs. Allow me to demonstrate the special technique of statistics:

That is not a typo: a single AD&D fighter, forced to gain experience only by fighting, has to kill 138 typical 1 hit die monsters to reach second level, so I've scaled everything from there. Going up in level, this number drops to a "manageable" 53 2nd level monsters to reach 3rd, but after 7th level experience required out-climbs monster experience again. To reach 10th level, over 15,000 orcs have to bite the dust under your sword, making your share of wiping out a small orc platoon seem negligible anyway.

(As I recall from playing AD&D, we were able to level at a reasonable pace not from monsters or even monetary treasure, but thanks to the generous experience awards for magic items. And you wonder, why the obsession with taking treasure and magic items away from the party...)

Of course, AD&D being AD&D, Gygax also put in a completely unnecessary rule toward the same goal, further complicating experience awards by instructing DM's to add up the levels and HD equivalent on each side after a combat, and dock the party proportional experience if they outpowered the foe. This rule, besides being cumbersome to apply and hedged round in even vaguer clouds of subjectivity, seems to be more appropriate to the original 100 xp/hit die rule.

My concession to this logic, within the 100 xp/HD system, was to have characters gain only 10% of the usual experience from monsters they outclassed by 2 or more level equivalents, and 50% if outclassing by 1 (although I didn't really apply this last one). In practice, however, even the 10% rule created an awkward splitting of points between higher and lower level party members.

Here's my latest try, and we'll see how it does in actual play.

Rather than using division, it uses subtraction: higher level characters simply discount one or two creatures of a sufficiently lower level. Although this appears in the "basic" 52 Pages rules that only go up to third level, the intent is to increase geometrically, so that 4 monsters per character are discounted at 3 levels up, 8 at 4 levels,, and so on.

If this means that an 8th level party of 5 can plow through a regiment of 320 orcs without getting any experience ... well, after the first 80 orcs or so fall without any casualties in return, the DM is better off just calling a rout than gaming through the whole tedious sequence, hoping to overwhelm the party tanks with a slew of lucky hit and damage rolls... lest we forget the lesson of the 100 linear attacking kobolds.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Anatomy of an Unused Rule

What prompts a game writer to include rules that they don't even use in their game? It happened to Gary Gygax, writing the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, putting in all those rules about weapon vs. armor and contracting diseases on the random and grappling.

It happened to me - the decision to give experience for sites, not monsters, in the 52 Pages  rules never came about in my own games.  I kept on with a version of the 100xp/ hit die rule from the oldest version of the D&D, the one that has worked well and given a decent rate of advancement of the last four years of play (together with xp for treasure, carousing and occasional story awards for momentous acts that deliver none of these) .

You could argue that writing a rule you don't play reflects a failure of playtesting; in my case, more like a mistrust of playtesting. Why deviate from something that works? Experience, and a look at the AD&D DMG, gives two main reasons.

1. Misguided realism. The driving force of blogs and heartbreakers - the need to install a system that more accurately models some process. These fail for a number of reasons.

  • The GM finds it hard to use the rule on the fly. See AD&D grappling and any number of "Rulemaster" procedures. 
  • The rule makes the game more difficult and less transparent for the players. Many rules that give combat options have this fault. Tactics shift to knowing which attack option or power move to use at which time, rather than common-sense ideas based on movement and positioning.
  • The rule takes away focus from the main action of the game. In 52 Pages I found that recording where on your body you kept each piece of equipment, although consequential for play, was not appropriate to an adventure game. Encumbrance is just fine as a list-based "you're carrying too much stuff" consideration.
  • There are other ways to save the peasants.
  • The rule misunderstands the way the players want to interact with the setting. If you want nasty element like disease or sexism in the game, it's better to present examples in the game (plague-ridden towns to be avoided, female NPCs having a hard time) rather than mechanically restricting or punishing the players with random disease chances or gender limits.
2. Misguided control. This kind of rule tries to use carrots and sticks to motivate player behavior, but ...
  • To encourage something that players do anyway (like giving benefit points for roleplaying).
  • To discourage something that really isn't a problem (like players killing monsters "just for the experience points")
  • To discourage something that really should be handled by better campaign management or interpersonal skills (like player misbehavior towards others, or characters gaining excesses of treasure from the system.)
My experience points rule fell into the latter category. It treated my players like cow-killing, rat-farming murderhobos when they really weren't --and when in any case there were easy fixes available, like awarding xp only for hostile attackers and awarding less xp for "overkill" of much weaker foes. More on that next time.

The advantage of having experience come from concrete achievements rather than abstract geographical goals? It's adaptable to using other people's adventures -- I don't have to go through Temple of the Iron God or Castle of the Mad Archmage putting little stars in key rooms. It also feels less arbitrary to give out experience through things that exist in their own right. The only feature I would consider adding would be to give some kind of reward for bypassing traps, and that is easily enough figured - say, 50 xp for each 4 points of average damage, with more for unavoidable or lethal designs.

So next time I'll explain the one innovation that I used in coming up with my new experience rule, to deal with a specific problem implementing it. Will it be destined for the dustheap? Let's see ...

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Six Alternatives to the Exposition Dump

At some point a campaign of sufficient gravitas will demand that certain hard facts be discovered in the course of adventuring -- insight into the history and cosmology of the world, more precious to the players' voyage of discovery than a stash of rubies or +2 arrows would be to their characters.

Well, that was easy.
The standard way to impart this mind-shaking knowledge is through an Ancient Book or Eternal Sage holed away in some corner of the world. Here are six alternatives that leave more room for player input, misinterpretation, or overinterpretation.

1. Reliefs or Murals. Lovecraft presented horrible, unbearable facts about the history of the planet this way in At The Mountain of Madness. Rather than shout "HEY YOU KNOW HUMANITY IS A FAILED SCIENCE FAIR PROJECT" far better to describe or sketch cryptic scenes and give the players wiggle room to misinterpret them. Also keep in mind that images are a common way to present propaganda - that narrative may very well be unreliable, although its visual reality will tend to fool people seeing it more so than words would.

2. Exam Questions. I did this recently for my Game of Iron campaign- they found a suite of rooms with a bunch of unmarked exam papers dealing with the Big Questions of the dwarven past, sans question, scattered around (these being ancient dwarves the answers were graven in runes on copper foil strips). I used four different fonts to create four different students with different styles of writing and degrees of knowledge, and pulled the resulting strips of paper out of a bag.This is one of the best ways I know to impart information while creating doubt and variously reliable narrators.

3. Rosetta Cryptogram. The players have to figure out a text that's written in a known language but unknown script, with just a few clues (known places on a map, captioned pictures of known gods or monsters). This is an actual puzzle,in English or whatever language they know, for the players. Make sure to leave a few letters that can be figured out only by context ("... and he shall be freed from the ...cage? cake? cave?")

4. Shadow Play. The shadows, ghosts, or bones of persons past still enact a dumb-show of the terrible events that went on in this place. Most suited to local history but, to convey cosmic truths, you can set up a whole stage where the spectral troupe enacts a mystery play.

5. Degenerate Chant. As done well in Riddley Walker, awfully in the old Star Trek episode The Omega Glory, and with ample historical precedent ... the clue to history lies in the correct interpretation of a children's rhyme, folk song, or ritual chant, which has become corrupted, streamlined, or sanitized over time.

6. Pop Quiz. Here, it's the sage or oracle who asks the players what they think happened. In the straight-up version, all they get is a "yes", "no" or "kind of"reply to their guess, with no follow-up questions. In the postmodern version, if you're OK with the players helping create the world, their answer becomes canonical truth, perhaps with one deviation ("the sage says, 'That's almost right...'") The important thing when running the postmodern version is notto let the players know this ahead of time.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Osgiliath Is Brasilia

There is something not quite right about this argument against the design of an unattributed map of the Tolkien city, Osgiliath (the art, if you look it up, is by Dan Cruger but I'm not sure how much of the design is his). That something comes from the hidden assumptions when we - meaning people in the English-speaking world - talk about "fantasy" anything.

* Merrie Olde England is the quintessential medieval kingdom. (Cue Robin Hood, jousts, chicken legs, friars, & c.)
* London is its capital.
* Therefore a realistic medieval city will follow the same planning logic (or lack thereof) as London.
* Etcetera.

First of all, this isn't even true of the medieval world, where most urban dwellers by numbers lived in Chinese cities built on a grid system. All right, it isn't even true of medieval Europe, where the Mediterranean world had Roman city planning to build around -- although as this lecture points out, the original grid often got clogged and complicated for reasons very different from cows needing to find water. None of these reasons enter into Tolkien's world.

Another totally unrealistic fantasy city.
And if you look carefully at Tolkien's Europe-by-analogy, Gondor is the successor state to Numenor's Rome-cum-Atlantis. Osgiliath, too, was a purpose-built capital founded by scions of an advanced civilization. In other words, there is every reason for it to look more like Rome, Washington DC, or Brasilia than London.

The city, in fiction, endured for a thousand years without any of the economic burgeoning or social decay in Tolkien's world that the real European Middle Ages experienced. Again, you can bust Tolkien's world for its assumption that vital goods are dutifully brought by silent farmers to the real scene of the action, where kings and knights rule steadily and wisely unless interrupted by Sauron's evil meddling. But Osgiliath's design in that Middle Earth Roleplaying product, its rational avenues and small size, fits perfectly with those assumptions in Tolkien's very low population density world.

The military critique is another thing, and you can surely see how Osgiliath fell --five hundred orcs in canoes floating downstream would be enough to cause serious havoc. Consider, however, that the place was founded as a refuge on a seemingly peaceful continent, and there might be room for the kind of planning hubris that plagues purpose-built capital cities ("But you must live on both banks of the river so I can build the BIGGEST BRIDGE THERE IS!")


  • Yes, there is room for a materialist analysis of fantasy literature and gaming.
  • That analysis, however, has to proceed from the terms of the fantasy world itself. 
  • So, internal contradictions raise the most problems. 
  • External contradictions are problems only if people think they are not -- like the popular view that Tolkien's world embodies "the medieval" (instead of what it does, which is to completely skirt around the medieval with an 18th-century bucolic society's view of the sanitized sub-Roman Dark Age in which it finds itself)
  • Analysis from original sources will always beat received ideas. I mean, the next fantasy city I design is at high risk to be, like Florence, a rational avenue-planned city now dominated by the blocked-off compounds of warring clans, arrow towers and all.