Thursday, June 26, 2014

RPG partisanship leads to reading incomprehension

I'm amazed at the knee jerk reactions some people will do when some of the fundamentals of the RPG rules they love get questioned. To the point they'll read what they want to read and respond accordingly oblivious to the actual content of the blog post.

Yesterday I wrote up a small post touching on the effectiveness of a sword vs full plate and how, given the ineffectiveness of a sword swing, those combats usually boiled down to grabbing, pinning and killing with a dagger or with a blade pushed through the softer spots. My point was that wrestling and grappling played a key element in such combats and that the game rules were "divorced" when it came to such cases.

I got all sorts of responses. None of which were pleasant. Most addressed my "lack of imagination". Others asked if I had never done a fight without weapons. Who the fuck was talking about fighting without a weapon? Sword vs sword in full plate is hardly unarmed combat. I was addressing the lack of leverage the character's wrestling and grappling skills had when fighting WITH a sword against full plate.

Why does this reading incomprehension exist and what's its impact? I'm troubled that this leads to a lack of progress in the game development arena. When someone raises a hand a points out that some modifiers would be better applied somewhere else and gets hammered with arguments against something that is not the actual text of the post then idea exchange and improvement in the game gets hampered.

Is this caused by rules heavy games? A "don't rock the boat" syndrome when players don't want their rules questioned because it would break too many things and lead to a new learning curve?

Have you suffered this? What do you think?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

OSR is like a river

I see the OSR as a river. Looking up river you'll see tens if not hundreds of smaller rivers contributing to the main stream. You can paddle upriver and take any one of these tributaries. When you get tired or want to enjoy something new you just let the flow take you downriver until you find a new path to paddle upriver.

Some people believe there's only one true river worth rowing up and down in. Others have chosen a particular river and rowed upstream so far they've seen it reduced to simple stream so small their canoe can go up any more. There are even those that believe there is only one true canoe worth using to row up and down the river.

All this is of course bullshit. To focus on the river is to lose focus of what is important. The view, the sense of adventure and exploration, and, above all, those friends who accompany you on the journey.

To explore new horizons, new games and take on new adventures one must be willing to flow back to the main river and then choose another branch and row upriver through it. I'll add that it was very refreshing for me to read Michael F. Korns' "Modern War in Miniature". A very early (1966) WWII war "RPG". It literally made me throw away a year's work on the Weapons Free game in favor of Saints & Sinners. I guess that over time I had grown to accustomed to certain ideas and needs in regards to mechanics, and although the game's dice and mechanics were very different from what I had played with in other games, it was in essence still much of the same stuff I had vowed to step away from. Slowly, but surely, the game had gotten over complicated with things I liked but were not the true essence of what I was looking for. I was still too influenced by games I had played before. I was rowing upriver so to speak. I needed something new, broader and refreshing.

At around 90 pages Weapons Free was by no means "big", but when I read "Modern War in Miniature" and saw what Korns managed in just 11 pages with huge font size and a small page, I was instantly driven to create something new, simpler, a synthesis of my previous stuff. I realized then than I was being pulled downriver and would soon be finding a new river branch to row up. I realized that up to then I had been dragging the canoe overland, walking, trying to find a new branch to set it in and row, once again, further upriver.

This was not only harder, it was also much more limiting. Quite obviously walking overland carrying the canoe is a lot harder than having the canoe carry me. More important than this is the fact that going overland will only take me to the closest tributary rivers which surely flow to the same main tributary I came from in the first place. That's why after a year's work it still felt pretty much the same as the previous stuff I'd played. Overall a lot of effort for very little change.

With the upcoming release of D&D Next the talk about OSR, D&D and OSR fundamentalism has risen in tone and level. There's always been talk about D&D Next appealing to all their users. I thought and still think that is a bad idea. In the river analogy I see this as looking for a point upriver that all branches meet, and we all know that's impossible. Rivers branch out as one goes upriver. This is also a way to visualize what has happened with D&D over the past decades. Over the course of the last four decades D&D has rowed further and further up a chosen river branch. As the watercourse began to run dry they'd haul their canoe overland and find another nearby branch and milk it for all it was worth. This lead to the fragmentation we see today.

With the release of D&D Basic I see WotC rowing downriver, opening the options for players to choose from the multitude of branches available downstream. A set of wide and affluent branches. It takes us back to the older days of D&D when anything was possible. What we saw over time with 2nd, 3rd and 4th editions was a company choosing a particular tributary and rowing upriver. OSR was a response to this. A move back to the main river. A rejection of WotC's choice.

Unfortunately many OSR supporters have become as polarized if not more so than WotC was back in the day. They believe the river branch they have chosen is the one true OSR tributary. As if all water in it flowed from the fountain of eternal D&D youth or something like that. As much as I value and respect their rules, settings and style of play, I can't fathom their intolerance. There are even those who come to the point of dictating what is a proper canoe and what isn't, who can row in it and who can't. Isn't going against this type of attitude what got OSR going in the first place?

To me OSR isn't about a particular set of rules or even a particular type of die. It's about a spirit of play, a sense of adventure, a drive to explore those yet uncharted rivers. I believe WotC has made a good move with the next D&D version, although only time will tell.

Image Source

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

It's havoc time!

Somethings never get old, and playing a band of orcs raiding a human city with "a smart plan" is a classic example. Playing a band of orcs raiding a human city with a smart plan live on hangouts the day it rains like never before and your house floods mid game is just priceless. This is what did last Saturday and boy was it fun! +Grant Howitt ran a session of his game Havoc Brigade for us last weekend and I seriously recommend it if you want to play something new this weekend.

The game is really easy to grasp and get going. I played a grumpy old orc shaman who dislikes the "new stuff" and what can be newer than a "plan" and a "map". What happened to the old ways? You know: skull crushing and dismembering? Unfortunately in orcland muscle outweighs good judgment and at 4 feet wide shoulders Ox had the final word. So we went along with the plan which was to infiltrate the city through the southern door, enter the keep and kidnap some important person. What could possibly go wrong?

Our day's rations, uhhh, I mean the band of goblins that accompanied us took to the task of infiltrating through the gate. Gone are the days when we'd just tie them up in pairs and catapult them over the wall. One always survived. Why didn't we just do that? No, no, we had "a plan".

So anyway we take to the task of going through the gate according to "the plan". Handsome as we are we didn't go by unnoticed. A little brawl ensured in which our tinker orc Wrench (the Copper Clan Inventor) had to pull out his rail whatever crossbow and unfortunately miss. Did I mention I dislike the new stuff? Specially the clever inventive new stuff. Unreliable as hell. Whatever happened to charging the enemy with a troll high on wyrdforest mushrooms? That always worked!

Well to make thing short after some old school magic from our fellow ettin the guards were neutralized will a pus blast spell that rendered them well... lets leave them at neutralized.

From there on we "followed the plan", and after a little brawl with the local guards (again) which were overcome by more ettin magic(which I'll refrain from detailing this time), we got a few nice dresses (five of them for our friend Ox) and then headed to the party in the castle. Our entrance into the castle was louder than the party itself. Fortunately to us nobody though something that loud was up to something bad. Once in the castle we secured our "target" and made a quick exit. Not without guard resistance of course. Which we had to handle the good ol' way by crushing skulls and dismembering bodies. My joy was so great I even rolled my mayhem dice and got an outstanding success using my thunderbear cloak and wyrdforest mushrooms. I was roaring, the room was thundering and there were lightning bolts flying all over the place. Needless to say nobody challenged our exit from there on and we made a hasty retreat back to our clan's village.

Overall it was a great game I'd recommend and a one shot weekend game. I'll certainly be playing it over and over again. Please make sure to check out the game here.

PS, my house did really flood mid game. LOL talk about havoc!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

What is initiative?

We're used to seeing initiative as a die roll to determine who goes first. Is this really initiative and how does this "initiative" build up round after round to build combat momentum? While one meaning of the word initiative is "the power or opportunity to do something before others do", there is also the meaning "at one's own discretion : independently of outside influence or control". Using this definition we can understand that holding the initiative is leading the battle or encounter and not necessarily attacking first.

If the party has a plan and they want to push the orcs to the ravine then it should not matter if the orcs attack first or they party attacks first. What matters is that the orcs don't break out and flank the party.

In that sense the characters must be able to impose their will even if the orcs attack first. Most attack mechanics work by gaining the upper hand and rolling first. The outcome is favorable for the attacker or neutral. Neutral in the sense that no benefit is gained (damage to the opponent), but no loss is suffered either. Except maybe in some systems that contemplate epic failure, but that is sometimes in the way of "you drop your sword", "hit the wizard instead" or "cuts your leg".

The way I see this working better is to have the roll represent a challenge between attacker and defender in a way that the defender may become the attacker if things go sour for the attacker. This calls for greater set of outcomes from a single roll. It's not limited to two outcomes: attacker hits or attacker fails to hit. Instead the outcomes are: attacker achieves something, neither achieve anything, defender achieves something. In this case the one who moves in first is called the attacker and the other the defender, although in truth both are attackers. The attacker is the one that "has the initiative" in the classic sense, but not necessarily the real initiative. The attacker may have a polearm and the defender a short sword. The attacker enjoys the advantage of reach, but does he enjoy the benefit of skill? A skilled defender may lead the fight by dodging and looking for the right time to move in for a kill. It is the "defender" who really holds the initiative and may guide the encounter as the "attacker" tries hopelessly to hit him, misses and instead gets injured instead of delivering damage.

Have you handled situations like this? If so how? I think that being a key player in an encounter while always losing the "initiative" roll is a great opportunity to add more flavor to a game. What do you think? Is it interesting to you?

Image soure

This post also appears on Indie+_ and is covered by the Indie+ Community Standards.

Monday, June 16, 2014

D&D Basic PDF, a move in the right direction?

I've read the rpg pundit's article on Prophecies on the Impact of the Basic D&D PDF with great interest. It seems like D&D is finally coming around to making a compact and easier to use version. One that will be easier to pickup and start playing and may also be more prone to extending and building on top of it by creating interesting content and not just more and more rules.

Back in 2012 I mentioned that WotC should make D&D more like its flagship product: Magic The Gathering. No, not by turning D&D into a card game. Instead of building what looked like a complex system at the time they should build a slim and compact rule set. Externalize all the other stuff to additional books and modules. In the same way MTG has very simple and long lasting rules and simple easy to understand cards, but put together the rules and the multitude of cards make for a very interesting game to play. I enumerated the following points:

  • Make D&D a game with long lasting rules.
  • Make D&D a game with simple rules.  The complexity in Magic appears in the cards not the rules.
  • Make D&D a profitable game. 
I mentioned that instead of the immense complexity that D&D seemed to be building at the time WotC should be focusing on:

  • Reduce D&D to no more than 10 rules or so.  Make it fit into 20 to 30 pages.  Like the basic edition.
  • Open up a zillion classes and powers.  Magic has the white cards, and the black ones, and the green ones, and the blue ones, and red ones, and probably more I don't know or recall.  It has creatures, and spells, and artifacts, and also more I don't know or recall.  Can't D&D do some equivalent to character class, skills, power, spells, etc.  with that?
  • Place the "modular" part on the "cards" (read: classes, spells, skills, powers) not on the rules.  Sell "modules" with ideas, thoughts, inspiration and all that which gets the campaign going.  Do what Magic does and "sell cards" or the equivalent you come up with for D&D.

It's clear from the pundit's article that the first point is coming to be. The Basic (and free) version will be a fully functional and compact book. A starter deck so to speak. Points two and three require a different focus on WotC's part and also a strong community as the pundit mentions. If they manage to ignite that I'd say we are quite possibly looking at some interesting times. Only time will tell. 

Thoughts? Do you think D&D Next offers new ways to put out new content? Can a community be built around this and can WotC make a business on this instead of rolling out more and more rules?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Team Cooperation Rules

We're used to having characters work as a team when they're on adventure. Yet this is usually in a complementary way. There are fighters and clerics, there are rogues and magic users. Each member of the party has a specific role and is specialized for it.

Now what happens when two or more characters work on a single task using the same skill? How would we handle this when the participating characters have different skill levels? For example two rogues trying to disarm a trap or two magic users casting a spell or two clerics trying to raise a dead party member. Or two shadowrunners trying to hack into a system. Or two members of the enterprise trying to fix the warp drive before the Romulans catch up.

What would we expect out of this and what use would it have? There is for example the task that can't fail, like disarming a nuke. Bad things happen if that goes wrong so it can't go wrong. On the other hand there can be tasks that can't be resolved without two or more members participating. For example the classic example of turning two keys that are four meters apart. Not that you need a special skill or roll for that, but you get the point.

In terms of rules this is what I'm looking for:
  • There is a difficulty rating for the task.
  • Characters have a skill that grants them some probability to succeed.
  • Characters have attribute bonuses that grant them a better chance to succeed.
  • Individually the task can be very challenging. Each can try, but with their individual odds of success and only with their individual attribute bonuses.
  • Working as a team they should get a bonus from adding their individual attribute bonuses and for teamwork.
  • Working as a team their individual skill level should affect the overall odds of success. 
    • Having many good characters of the same skill level should improve the overall odds. 
    • Having one good character and many of lesser skill should not improve the odds as much as the prior case and/or should increase variability (the odds of rolling further from a good central value).
  • Working as a team should reduce the time spent at the task. For example many observers should spot the enemy faster than one. This may finally end up in the GM making the call, but it would be good to have a mechanism to convert time to success rate and vice versa. In the previous example many eyes could be on the lookout in a 360 perimeter that reduces the time required to go full circle around the camp, but is not so good at reducing the odds of failure in any one area. There is a lower chance of success, but if it happens they enemy is spotter further out. On the other hand there can be a focus in one area at a time (like a lighthouse). The odds of success are higher, but only apply when the "lighthouse" is painting the area. There are higher odds of success, but the enemy may be spotted later (or sooner if they get lucky, but luck is the topic of another post).
  • Rolling as a team is done by a single roll instead of many for each individual character and that's always good.

If we're to see this graphically, I would look for distributions that work like the following:

Task and characters acting individually

Experience isn't only a bonus modifier that moves the curve to the right. It changes the curve making it more compact and higher on the central value (reduces variance). This means the expert is more consistent being an expert and tends to roll closer to a good value than a lesser trained character. You may notice the less skilled character can also roll higher in some cases. This is a particularity of the dice mechanics I'm using which I'm keeping and calling it beginners luck, but I digress, more on that in another post.

I see characters of distinctively different skill levels acting as a team to behave in the following way. The graph shows three levels of expertise: novice, skilled and expert. When building teams we see that the expert and novice together don't add much except maybe the novice's beginners luck. The green curve for the team is right underneath the black curve for the expert. Things get interesting when the expert works with the skilled (yellow curve). The change in variance isn't that great (the yellow curve is just slightly under the black one), but there's a considerable shift to the right. Showing an improvement in odds of success when working as a team.

As a final note I'll add that I haven't included individual attribute bonuses or other type of bonuses. Things can really get interesting when characters pool their attribute bonuses. What may only be a + 1 for intelligence when working individually may convert to a + 3 if all members pool their + 1.

How do you handle team work in your game? What bonuses do you provide for team work? Have you forced your players to work in teams because that was the only way to overcome a challenge?  Like the aforementioned "turning two keys at once" example in which the fighter or wizard need to help the rogue unlock something or disarm a trap because the mechanical parts are too far apart for one person to handle.


Saturday, June 07, 2014

We tackled the Atlantic wall and killed a tiger!

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day I ran a D-Day session last night using the Saints & Sinners game rules. +Gabriel Perez Gallardi , +Lan Kelly , +peewee rota and +Randal McDowell joined the session to recreate that famous landing that took place on Normandy.

I had them running over the beach, rushing for the cover of some sand dunes and ditches, giving some cover fire as they inched up trying to get a better shot. Gabriel joined the game just in time to bazooka an MG nest into oblivion. This opened the way for the group, and all the men behind them to storm up Hitler's Atlantic wall. I have to say, I had never played with so many NPCs before. It was fun!

You know what also was fun? Just jumping in the game after rolling 6 attributes and giving the character a name. Players got a choice of M1, BAR, Bazooka, flamethrower or sniper rifle (actually a somewhat better M1).

The trench encounters were packed with grenade throwing, shots coming in and going out, bazooka rockets flying down the trenches to hit enemy positions. It was mayhem, but after about two hours they had secured their part of the wall and were ready to move inland.

The next hour was played on a march into Formigny where the group was ambushed and their tank destroyed. It was looking like a dire situation. More so when the Tiger broke through the morning mist and marched up the road to their position. Only Gabriel's lucky shot with the bazooka saved the day. In a miraculous roll the shot breached the thinner lateral armor and killed the engine. Without it the tank was a sitting duck and it was quickly taken out. The remaining Nazi forces in the area either retreated or surrendered.

We were all left craving for more. It seems like this just spawned another exciting campaign. Possibly the best yet. Second only to the Merc Ops Maersk Alabama one.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Can it be tactical if it's balanced?

Tactical: of, relating to, or used for a specific plan that is created to achieve a particular goal in war, politics, etc

By tactical I don't mean running the game on a grid with miniatures. I mean building a plan and executing it with success. When asked Arneson said the following.

What makes for a really great encounter?
Arneson: That the players overcame the obstacle by wit and not muscles.

What's the point of having a plan if the encounter is already balanced? If it relies more on "balanced muscle" than wit.

Does balance mean that unless the players do something really stupid the party will succeed?

Does this also mean that no matter how well planned the actions are the moment the party enters the room it will all depend on the initiative roll, the damage rolls and the mechanics? After all if the GM knows an encounter is balanced because he rolled it on a table and the outcome is known (with a high degree of certainty) before the first die is even rolled. Otherwise it wouldn't be balanced, right? The rules will work as a safety net around the character.

One of the issues I've got with the current D&D combat mechanics is the lack of urgency and planning in high level combat. It's something that's been in the game for years and we notice its lack of more when we meet level draining monsters or such critters as the rust monster. Get touched once and wham, lots of pain no matter how many hit points your character has. Ever sat down to think how differently those encounters are handled vs the average monster. Even breath weapons and regeneration don't convey that sense of urgency and instill the fear a level draining wight does.

That sense of fear, of need to plan and really stay ahead of the monster, or even run if it comes to that, is something we begin to forget as players as our characters reach mid to higher levels. We're in the 40 to 50 hp range, we've got fireball, some serious armor and cure serious wounds. We are rocking!

What would it take to keep encounters challenging throughout all levels? Without it boiling to some sort of calculation we do in our head: hit points delivered minus hit points received on average, number crunching, ok, let's attack it. Or worse yet, let's attack because the GM surely planned it for our current character level and adventure difficulty. So it should be safe to attack. Even worse yet, have to hear the complains of a player or all the players as some members or the whole party gets killed because they engaged an opponent they were not supposed to engage. They did so because the encounter was there and it was supposed to be balanced, right?

Does this bother you as it bothers me? How do you handle it in your game? Is the fix possible within current combat mechanics? If not, would a game that does a grass roots change to the mechanics still be considered OSR?