Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Balance Dilema - Part 3

In the previous article of this series I gave a definition of character "value" which is the power the character has to influence the game and take the spotlight.  I gave a brief example of how a character's value depends not only on the character class, but also on how worn out it may be, and how usable its powers are at that given moment in the story.

A lot of games try to set a boundary to the character's strength by setting a progression path with classes and levels.  This limits the power a character can have at a given time, but also limit the possibilities the player has.  The game says your character can do all this, but nothing more.  This is what I call preemptive balance.  The character classes are designed to balance the character's power.

A mechanism I'm preferring now is realtime table top balance.  Do so by measuring what the character has power to do.  Instead of saying the character can have such and such spell or make so many attacks per round I prefer a design based on values that allow actions to the players.  Mana for magic, stamina for harm and damage, will power for world affecting actions and resisting spiritual damage, and fatigue to limit activities.

Instead of designing a fighter based on combat skills, weapon proficiencies and and attacks per round I can establish a certain amount of physical condition points.  A character can now have all sorts of special training and proficiencies.  Combat can become diverse and adaptive to the situation.  She can fight two handed, with shield, or without and change weapons.  The constraint is laid on the amount of physical stress she can handle.  After all with 50 points to spend on fatigue there is a limit to what can be done and obviously more powerful and fancy maneuvers cost more.

Spells work out the same way.  By limiting mana you can limit the amount of spells to cast in a period of time and by associating fatigue to spell casting you can also control the amount of spells used in a period of time.

The other key element is the concept of XP Tax.  Some games use levels to limit progression.  As each level is bound to a certain amount of XP required to achieve it.  These levels grant skills and powers to characters or points to purchase things in a point-buy mechanism.  The XP Tax mechanism works by taxing the character's XP for all that which she already knows and needs to maintain.  Our fighter needs to keep up her training and the more training she has the more expensive it is to maintain.  This opens up the possibility for new learning rules.  Quit paying, lose the skill and learn something new in its place.

Balance is thus achieved not by thinking beforehand how all the pieces fit together, but rather by setting a numeric value and a cost attached to all items.  It is easier to compare two characters by saying this has 50 mana and this one 80 than by trying to rank spell vs spell.  Characters with 50 fatigue points each are pretty similar in the amount of actions they can take, what they actually do is quite another thing and depends on the player and the gear equipped.

There are quite a few things I like about this mechanism:
  • You can arrive at character classes very easily while still having all the flexibility in the world. This helps entry level GMs and players.
  • You can easily build more into the game.  Since each power or skill is ranked so to speak you don't need to reevaluate a whole class just because five more skills were added.   Just define the new skills with their strength and cost and any character can pick it up as long as the price is paid at purchase time and afterwards in maintenance costs.
  • You have a power cost documented so it helps as a reference to creative players and GMs who want to expand the system.
  • You have a simple system to fine tune.  If you find a skill too powerful just increase the cost and it will balance itself relative to other skills.  Want a world where magic is scarce?  Just multiply mana costs by 10.
  • For my more computer savvy readers it will be clear that a simple program can be written out to intensively playtest and balance the system.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Brass balls & winged feet

It seems like D&D characters not only have brass balls and never check morale.  They've got winged boots as well and are never hindered by encumbrance.  Sure a character's max speed is limited by the armour and general weight of all equipment, but lets face it it's not very realistic.

Take a couple of rules:
  • armour encumbrance does not affect your AC
  • equipment encumbrance does not affect your AC
  • encumbrance does affect the maximum amount of DEX bonus you can apply
  • armour and equipment encumbrance affects your skill checks as per a check penalty
Now that doesn't seem quite right to me.  A fully armoured fighter has less a chance of dodging a swinging axe than an unencumbered one.  I've seen players equip everything AND the kitchen sink.  It doesn't quite seem fitting that no AC penalty is applied.  I can see the benefit in simplicity doing it like this brings (sort of), but we're already adding like three values and checking a DEX cap.

I understand armour encumbrance not affecting AC because it is probably already factored into the AC value.  But not considering extra equipment encumbrance is just crazy.  AC is a strange value.  It is both the resistance to being contacted by a weapon and the protection from damage from said contact.

It is this overlap of concepts that got me thinking in breaking combat into to parts.  Achieving actual contact with the target and determining the armour's effectiveness at stopping the damage.  On one side there's the "hit roll" which does not include armour bonuses.  Actually it includes armour penalties.  All that which makes you easier to hit due to having armour.  On the other side there's the "soak roll" which counters the "damage roll".  Damage rolls are only done after the target is hit.  The soak roll depends on the armour and is clearly better the better the armour is.

So heavier armour works against you in the hit roll, but for you in the soak roll.  Lighter armour works for you in the hit roll, but against you in the soak roll.  Thus, by separating this two rolls it is much easier to factor in elements like total encumbrance and armour quality.  A light elven armour of great quality is both beneficial in the hit roll as it is light and of low encumbrance and it is also beneficial in the soak roll due to its toughness.

The point behind this is to provide a counterbalance to excessive armour and thus min-maxing.  To provide an incentive so players take a moment to think their gear layout and armour.  An incentive so players can consider unarmoured play a real possibility.  Take the following example on a ship.

Travelling fully armoured on a ship is extremely dangerous.  Fall overboard and by the time the ship comes around you're a permanent part of the coral reef.  On the other hand in D&D fighting without armour is extremely risky.  Chain mail gives twice as much benefit as leather and full plate 3 times more.  Currently there is no clear incentive to use leather over chain mail in D&D.  Chain mailed characters are not hindered enough to be worth the risk.  If you have a +2 dexterity bonus it still adds up with chain mail.  That's because for the average and slightly above average character (most of them) there is no encumbrance penalty for amour usage.

If you break it into "hit roll" and "soak roll" both characters have the same odds of getting hit (without applying any penalty for chain mail).  While your soak roll will be less effective with leather than with chain mail you can still gamble on not getting hit in the first place, and thus still survive a sea boarding.  In D&D you have twice as much chance of getting hit and thus suffering damage if you use leather.  Clearly this promotes heavy armour usage.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Skilled but unarmed

I won't be gearing up my four playtest characters.  I want to put a spin to the gameplay.  Let them be skilled, but unarmored and barely armed.  Working on the monetary system got me reading lots of things about ancient Rome,  particularly the cost of things, and some ideas for character creation have come up.

Instead of having the fighter roll out with his shinny banded mail and brand new sword he'll have his sword from his time in the legion.  His armor will be some pieces of metal hammered out with his basic smith skills and some rough leather armor.  On the other hand he was "Pilus prior" or senior centurion in his cohort.  He has good fighting skills and has built himself a rudimentary scutum shield out of wood.  Lacking metal edges it is a primitive scutum at that.  His name is Iluth.

The local temple priest down by the auditorium has a lad who is fond of adventuring and traveling around.  He's began learning the ways of the gods and quite often finds himself wandering in Iluth's farm where they sit down and chat about adventures in far away lands as a centurion.  Aronth is his name and he has managed to build a morning star out of metal pieces fused together and set on top of a wooden staff.  His armor is basic leather.

The wizard is a pretty hermit woman who lives alone further upstream.  She helps the locals with some fortune telling, but Iluth knows better and has seen her cast some spells.  She wards of intruders, animals and the unknowing thief who thinks her an easy prey in the forest.  Pria is her name.

The rogue, Galth, a small time smuggler from the river sector of town is known for running small time errands for the local guild.   He's good handling boats and running up and down river.  He knows Pria up river and provides her with goods he obtains at preferencial rates.  She on the other hand provides potions for Galth's most valued clients.  He's managed to adquire a short bow and has made a few arrows over time.

When they come together the members will lack any worthy piece of equipment.  Just some robes and leathers and a makeshift armor.  They'll rely on skills and training rather than weapons and armor.  Compared to D&D they'd be starting somewhere like 3rd level in regards to combat training not magic.  Maybe a bit more spells than a 1st level magic user or cleric, but not so much power either.  

The characters not only face the creatures in the woods and the monsters in the dungeon.  They face the society that surrounds them.  How do they obtain the proper equipment in a non industrial society like ours?  They must first obtain the monetary resources to buy the more expensive armors and weapons.  The more scares and costly magic components.  The best crafted tools for the trade and the greater blessings of the gods.

Their fame will come at no small price.  As the simple farmer becomes wealthier the locals will question his intentions.  The authorities will want to know what he's up to.  Maybe their first adventure will be to help the town and thus explain their new found wealth.  But in the long run it will raise questions.  The successful priest will rise up the steps of his order.  The wizard will command more power and fear and the rouge will endeavor in ever riskier deals.

What is my goal with the game?  Well to open the possibility of successful adventure without excessive gear and weapons.  I want more realism in the setting.  Factor in real costs of acquiring the equipment 1st level adventurers usually begin with.  I want the 0 level fighter to tell his or her story.

The three main points I have focused on are : combat mechanics, skills and magic.  With them I have focused on allowing the low level player to succeed.  Not to allow the peasant to defeat the fully armored knight, but rather to begin play as a peasant and succeed.  No matter how hard it would be.  So when you reach the equivalent of 5th level you get the great feeling of achievement that comes with that.  I want higher level characters to shine with their skills and training and not just buy their way up higher levels.  I want mastery in a skill to really signify mastery while still allowing the experienced adventure to succeed.  Magic is not vancian and that will turn off many as unbalanced.  Mana based magic allows for a more continuous casting and seems unbalanced.  On the other hand it is more realistic and can be limited in a way so the wizard can't just cast till he drops.  Find a midpoint between cast one spell and go home to sleep and chaingun casting.


Hold the line!

Ok so what makes your character engage all those enemies without a sweat?  Why doesn't the party route when faced with overwhelming odds?  Why don't they turn and flee when their first buddy falls?  Do they have steel nerves or is it that the players are safe and sound in someone's living room drinking Coke?

Morale is certainly something that doesn't come into play too often in D&D, at least not much on the player's side.  Acting as a coordinated group is something that takes military and police units long periods of training.  Yet a party meets at a local inn and all of a sudden they're the town's SWAT team. How's that so?

One type of training is weapon training and that's covered pretty well in the rules.  You get a weapon and become good at it.  Holding the line against an incoming foe and actually acting as a coordinated group is something else.  The Romans were great at conquest because their units knew how to hold the line.  Shouldn't parties go through some training to allow for this?  How would you represent this in the game if so?

During combat players chat time should be a representation of what they really have time and foresight as characters.  Usually there is too much planning (verbal planning) going on  during the round.  What if that were limited to a sentence the player could say or a note he or she could pass to the DM indicating the action.  As the party adventures more and trains better (put $$ here) they can work as a unit and more player conversation is allowed.  Even a set of formations and actions could be agreed upon to promote quick communication in combat.  To change strategy and tactics quickly.

I'm including special training called infantry proficiencies that allow that sort of skills to be represented. To command and work in order.  To work as a single shielded front.  To stand as a group and improve the general morale of the party so as not to route at the first incoming Orc.  That way players can plan and coordinate and be ready for a general set of encounters.  By giving a bonus to this type of preparations I'm looking for better player integration and roleplay before and during the encounters.  So it isn't so much an engage and hope for the best.  Rather than that the party becomes a coordinated unit that is good at holding the line against an incoming foe.

Adiuta - Deus!

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Cost of stuff in Rome

Following up on the coins issue I found a very interesting article about the prices of stuff in ancient Rome.  These prices are for the year 301 AD.  The complete article can be read here.

First surprising finding is the usage of a common dinarii (denariicommunes). Which was actually a notational currency.  

A quote from the article:

All the prices and wages are listed indenariicommunes, which were not actually silverdenariias we usually think of when discussing ancient Roman coinage. Denarii communes, or d.c., were notational currency.  What this means is, an exchange rate was given, telling how much of the currency in circulation at that time (nummi) it took to equal one d.c.  This made it easy to change the value of the money in circulation, without having to rewrite and redistribute the entire edict.  A series of exchange tables are at the end of this handout.

I'll list some of the most interesting prices, but first some units:

modius = 8 liters dry unit
libra = 326 grams
sextarius = 546 ml

Common Food Items

Barley, Rye60 Denarii per Modius
Beans, Crushed100 Denaris per Modius
Beans, Whole60 Denarii per Modius
Beef, Mutton or Goat8 Denarii per Libra
Beer2 to 4 Denarii per Libra
Cabbage and Lettuce1 to 2 Quintarius
Cheese8 Denarii per Libra
Chickens30 Denarii
Eggs1 Denarius
Fish, River8 to 10 Denarii per Libra
Fish, Sea15 to 25 Denarii per Libra
Goose100 to 200 Denarii
Ham20 Denarii per Libra
Honey10 to 40 Denarii per Sextarius
Lentil Beans100 Denarii per Modius
Sausage10 to 16 Denarii per Libra
Olive Oil40 Denarii per Sextarius
Peaches1 to 2 Quintarius
Pheasant125 to 250 Denarii
Pork or Lamb12 Denarii per Libra
Rice, cleaned200 Denarii per Modius
Salt100 Denarii per Modius
Wheat100 Denarii per Modius
Wine16 to 30 Denarii per Sextarius

Common Wages

Artist, mosaic worker50 - 60 Denarii per day
Barber2 Denarii per customer
Bath Attendant20 -25 Denarii per day
Carpenter50 Denarii per day
Farm Laborer25 Denarii per day 
Fortune Teller20 - 25 Denarii per day
Fuller (Wool weaver)175 Denarii per cloak
Linen Weaver20 - 40 Denarii per day 
Manual Laborer25 Denarii per day
Messenger18 - 20 Denarii per day
Scribe1 Denarius per 5 - 7 lines
Secretary30 - 35 Denarii per day
Skilled Tradesman35 - 75 Denarii per day
Stone Mason50 Denarii per day
Teacher, elementary50 Denarii per month 
Teacher, advanced250 Denarii per month 

Soldiers' Base Pay:                

1800 Denarii per year               Praetorian Guard:         5500 Denarii per year
Annual Grain Annona:             600 Denarii per year
Donative (bonus pay 4 per year)             2500 Denarii
Grain allotment                      30 Modii of wheat per year

For the next article I'll be working up some prices for weapons and armor.  Stay tunned!

The burden of treasure

Bullion weighs a lot and burdens the party down.  But sometimes the nature of the bullion weighs down even more.  I want to take a moment to consider the wonderful (mis)adventures that can rise from the successful return from a dungeon with a great deal of treasure.  What can the GM and players get going to create exciting settings and adventures derived from gaining a large amount of treasure.  Here are some ideas:

Old currency
It turns out those coins have been underground way too long and are no longer minted in the realm.  It turns out they have the current king's "not so appreciated" grandfather on them.  Thus you can't really use coins which are out of circulation unless you change them to new ones or melt them back to gold bars.  Good news is money tended to lose its value so you probably have more gold and silver in the old coins than in the newer ones.  Explaining ownership of 100 old coins is easy.  Explaining ownership of 50,000 old coins is quite another thing.  How do you trade in your old coins for new?

Ransom money
It turns out part of your treasure is specially minted coins used to pay for a noble's ransom.  Unfortunately the noble was found dead and the kidnappers never found at all.  It seems you're the newest lead to solving this case and in medieval settings that spells guilty.  How does your party escape persecution?  How did that money end up in the dungeon?  Can the party figure out the money trail left?  Go back and investigate the dungeon.  This opens up a nice little investigation in which the party must succeed before the local authorities catch up to them.

Currency from another realm
The better part of your treasure is in coins from another realm.  Unfortunately for you your kingdom is at war with that realm.  Ups!  Can't go around buying stuff with that money.  They might think you're the enemy come to shore to buy supporters and wreak havoc through sabotage and infiltration.  Birth certificates and passports to prove your nationality??? Come on this is the freaking middle ages.  Good luck using your hard earned cash.  The party is forced to flee and live on the run while the whole war settles and they can explain what happened.

Too much treasure
Ok ok, so there really isn't such a thing as too much treasure.  Just like there isn't such a thing as too much chocolate.  But lets be honest a lot of treasure will call a lot of attention.  Like I mentioned in my previous article.  Lords will want a share of that money.  Taxes will be an issue.  Too much money also threatens the lord if he believes your party could subvert the land with it.  How do you go about keeping the most possible amount of it?  What do you spend it in?  Remember all that money can buy a lot of influence.  Think of the local temple.  How does your party cleric feel about this?  Does he or she belong to the local temple?  If not what are the consequences of not supporting the local temple?  A creative GM can create interesting NPC that interact with the party, that have their personal agendas and seek the players to promote interest and support to their plans.  Lots of role playing opportunities here.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Want ye not in me fiefdom

We're used to travelling up and down the kingdom.  Going from town to dungeon and back to town.  What if getting back to town was just the beginning of yet another great adventure.  Put yourself in a medieval setting.  You're getting back to town with a lot of money.  A lot of money that can buy a lot of food and sellswords.  That's going to make a lot of people very uncomfortable and they might not want you living in their fiefdom.

More so, who ever gave the adventurers permission to travel.  They belong to their lord and should do as they are instructed.  Plow the land!!!!  So take a moment to think about this and the government system in your setting.  Is it a republic like old Rome?  A theocracy?  A feudal barony?

How are your players allowed to travel freely overland?  Do they require special permits?  Maybe it's ok in their barony, but what if they enter other lands?  What about being armed?  Chainmail could be the only viable armor they can hide as they travel as common folks with robes.  Same applies to weapons.

Now consider this.  Even if they travel to and from the dungeon without being noticed by local or foreign authorities, arriving to town with a large sum of money will have its effects.  First of all taxes.  The liege lord will want a part of it.  A substantial part may I add.  Returning with 50,000 gold is troubling for the local authority.  What are you going to do with that money?  What favours will you buy?  Remember how worried the Roman senate was with Julius Caesar returned from Gaul with all that money.  He offered bread to the people and bought the mob's support with that.

The local cleric will come knocking on your door. Asking for some help for the gods.  If you refuse you might be facing the fundamentalist mob.  Unless you buy them food.  In which case you'll find yourself facing the local temple and quite possibly the local lord too.

How do you use that money to push yourself into court.  Which in those times was the way to earn the king's respect and support.  Thus you swear him fealty and are then entitled knight or noble of the land. What lords do you support on your path to knighhood?  What favours do you buy to promote your social standing?

Maybe the local government is more like the Roman republic.  What senator will approach you for support?  What will you give him?  What are his intentions?  Does he support the republic or is there an empire in the back of his mind?  What are your ambitions?  Are you happy killing zombies for life or are you looking for something broader?

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


I really want my game to have flavor when it comes to money and currency. We're all used to treasure in gold pieces and buying stuff by the hundreds of gp. I believe that putting some detail into the coin system really adds some flavor to the campaign. Put a story and name behind each coin. Maybe a nice design to it as well.

The coins I've come up with are based on the Roman Republic coins:

1 Aureus (gold)

2 Gold Quinarri

25 Denarius (silver)

50 Silver Quinarri

100 Sestertii (bronze)

400 Assarius (copper)

So far this is pretty D&Dish, b ut it doesn't stop there. If you research a bit into the coins of ancient Rome you'll see a great deal of things you're missing if you just stick to gold pieces. Coins were made thinner over time. Less metal in them, mmmmhhh? Inflation? Devaluation??

There were odd values too. The bes (2/3 of an assarius) and semis (1/2 of an assarius). Also some odd ones like the quincunx (5/12). Notice how small the fractions are. It's like paying with pennies. Everyday life went on with low value bronze and copper coins.

This got me thinking on the value of things in medieval settings and imagining what great things could be done with treasure. But that's stuff for another post.

Here's a summary of the fractional coins to an assarius (fractions of a Roman as, 280 BC)

bes (2/3)
semis (1/2) - 800 to an Aureus
quincunx (5/12)
triens (1/3)
quadrans (1/4) - 1600 to an Aureus
sextants (1/6)
uncia (1/12) - standard unit
semuncia (1/24)

Some costs during the third century AD. Do notice that a great deal of inflation had occurred since 280 BC when the lesser coins were used.

Farm laborer salary, with meals = 400 asses
Elementary teacher's salary, per boy = 800 asses
Barber's service price, per client = 32 asses
1 kg of pork = 380 asses (1 lb = 170 asses)
1 kg of grapes = 32 asses (1 lb = 15 asses)

Source : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/As_(Roman_coin)

All the world's bullion couldn't fund your party

Well I've been researching into ancient coins and currency. Particularly Roman currency.  I stumbled into an interesting calculation.  If D&D were played on Earth there could only be 10 to 20 high level adventurers.  Four of five major dragons and a lich or two.

Look at it this way an Aureus, the gold coin of ancient Rome and equivalent to 25 Denarii weighs about 8 grams.  The total world production of gold (for all times up to today) is 160,000 metric tons (see Gold Reserve).  That allows us to mint 20,696,625,096 gold pieces.  If a 11th level fighter requires 1 million XP the world's gold allows for 20,700 11th level fighters.  But there has to be some money in circulation and some money in hidden treasures and more money with the dragons and vampires and liches.  What about all those second, third, fourth and fifth level adventurers??  A fifth level party of 5 requires about 200,000 gp to get there.  All this of course is including 20th century production with modern extraction methods.

What would an empire's bullion amount to in ancient times?  Well according to one source Alexander the Great took 120,000 talents (aprox 4200 metric tons) of gold from the ruins of Persepolis.  That's about 562,500,000 gold pieces.  That's a lot of XP!!!!  But if you take into consideration his army's strength of 40,000 men, how much does that leave for character progression?  About 14k per soldier if evenly divided.  Not so much when we realize we just pillaged the gold reserve of the Persian Empire!!!

So while one XP per gold piece sounds nice in D&D it isn't quite sustainable in real economic terms.  Thank goodness the impact of such amount of bullion entering a city's economy isn't taken into consideration.  Save the town from the orcs one week and wreak economic havoc the next by flooding it with the dragon's bullion.