Aug 30, 2016

Running Technical Plots

The technical plot is the type of plot where the resolution of the problem relies on the characters' technical knowledge of futuristic science, or magical knowledge, or something of that ilk. A good way to determine if the story or problem you're thinking of can be resolved by defeating a specific person or creature. If so, it's probably not a technical plot. If it requires you to somehow dissipate or prevent the build up of magical (or weird science) energy, stop an environmental or ecological problem, or change some feature of the world using a level of knowledge that only your character possesses, it's probably a technical plot.

These sorts of plots are very common in science fiction media like Star Trek. The Enterprise or whatever discovers a strange phenomenon, the stakes are established, the main cast debates what to do, and then acts. The most high-profile one in a fantasy module that I can think of is Dreams of Ruin by Geoff Grabowski, where you're trying to deal with a fantastical ecology that's trying to invade your home plane. The villain responsible for setting up the ecology is long-dead, or at least missing, and defeating them won't actually stop the Dreams of Ruin from colonising your world anyhow.

Despite how common these sorts of plots are in the media that serves as inspirations for many games, I rarely find these sorts of plots set up or run well in published modules. The core challenge of a technical plot is how to maintain player agency in a plot that relies upon the characters' technical skills. Badly done, these sorts of plots turn into a railroaded series of skill rolls that are even more frustrating when characters don't have all the necessary technical skills.

I would therefore propose the following mental model of how to run technical plots in a way that maximises player agency.

First, there is a Problem with some Effects. The Problem must undergo an Examination. The Examination suggests one or more Apparatuses to resolve the problem. The Apparatus must be assembled / collected / stolen and then undergo an Activation. The Activation either resolves the problem, or the Effects grow worse.

Let's look at each of these in turn.

Problems

Problems should be simple enough to be stated in 1-3 sentences. Much more than that, and you start getting overly complicated. A problem should avoid vagueness and ambiguity. In fact, one extremely common mistake in technical plots is to make figuring out what exactly the problem is the main task of PCs.

For example, a few weeks ago I played in a game where the problem was "Our supercomputer predicts this world is going to blow up" without any further information about how or why (except for the location where this was likely to occur), and much of the actual playtime involved piecing together the clues about how and why. The actual problem was "The bad guys are beaming psionic energy from an entire city at a transdimensional object while causing a multiversally unique event. They hope to use this to blow open a portal in reality and escape." But the route to this was convoluted enough that no one actually figured it out until the debrief after the scenario (which we failed).

A clear concise statement of a problem should state a few (2-5) possible elements which suggest immediate lines of investigation or action. Using the above situation as an example, one might ask "Can we stop them from beaming the psionic energy? Can we destroy the object or prevent it from channeling the energy? Can we stop the multiverally unique event?" It can even be useful to write out the problem on a sheet of paper, underline each one of the elements of the problem, and hand it to the PCs. I prefer this method to the most common alternative I've experienced, which is to push them to make guesses about what's relevant, then skill rolls to determine if those guesses are correct.

Examinations

Examinations are one of the three main areas that I prefer play to focus on during a technical plot. An examination is where the PCs investigate some element of the problem, and determine whether they can deal with it, and how.

The challenges of an examination typically involve getting close enough to the problem's element to examine it (for example, sneaking past guards, or going on a long journey or flying your starship near enough to the phenomenon to suffer some of its effects, etc.), and getting enough time to study it (having to make hasty readings of your instruments while the alarm is blaring, or rip files from the server before ICE takes your avatar down).

Typically, this is where you bring in one or more of the effects of the problem, possibly even staging them so that each examination the PCs make is tied to the occurrence of another effect. This can be used to force PCs to prioritise which elements they want to examine, rather than being able to find out about all of them.

After completing the examination, the PCs should have some data or information about that element, and what's going on with it.

It's only really at the end of an examination that the PCs' skills come into play. The role of the skills is not for interpreting the data they got (just give the necessary conclusions to them), but rather for determining what kinds of solutions they can figure out to deal with this element of the problem. Let the players roll whatever skills they have to determine what apparatus they need to solve the problem. If they fail all the rolls, they have to examine another element of the problem to try again. Skills can be mainly technical, but it's useful to allow a few others - usually social skills - so that if the PCs don't have the right skill set, part of their solution to the problem can involve recruiting people with them (e.g. the problem is a build up of psionic energy, so they're going to need to recruit a bunch of psychics to help).

You can increase the scope of relevant technical skills or tighten it up as one way of controlling the genre-fidelity of the game - fewer skill possibilities tend to feel more like hard science fiction or low-magic settings, while being able to use your biology skill to figure out how to stop the black hole from consuming your home planet puts you firmly in science fantasy and epic fantasy.

Apparatuses

The apparatus is the combination of gear, resources, allies, and other stuff the PCs need to be able to stop the problem.

The apparatus the PCs need is generated from their skill rolls after the examination, and should fall within its domain. A bunch of physicists might try to solve the problem with a weird ray apparatus, a wizard might need to assemble a bunch of artifacts and cast a special ritual, etc. The challenge at this phase is to assemble the apparatus. It might be as simple as a few skill rolls (if you wanted to gloss over it and focus on other parts of play), it might be some fetch quests to grab the rare materials, it might be the case that someone has already built the necessary bits and you just have to steal it from them, or any other option you can think of.

Regardless of how difficult the apparatus is to assemble and how complicated you want this part of the adventure to be, I do recommend that any apparatus contains at least 1-2 flaws. These don't necessarily prevent it from working, but they represent hindrances and risks associated with activating it. For example, a weird ray gun might be extremely short ranged, and require you to get dangerously close to zap the hole in space and time with it. Or the artifacts might only be one-use with a low chance of functioning.

To compensate for these flaws typically requires further examinations as above, but of different elements of the problem. Each time the PCs complete another examination, they can either try to create another apparatus (which will have different flaws, perhaps more easily ameliorated), or eradicate some of the flaws in their existing apparatus (adding more uses, a longer range, a better chance of working, etc.). As mentioned above, by increasing the effects of the problem with each examination, you can prevent the PCs from being able to completely trivialise solving the problem by examining things over and over until they have a flawless apparatus.

Activations

The activation is the part where the PCs go to use the apparatus and try to resolve the problem. Typically, you're trying to ameliorate or avoid the flaws of the apparatus, without being overwhelmed by the effects of the problem. You might be trying to get your spaceship close enough to the black hole to fire the graviton bomb without being torn apart, you might be trying to insert the virus into the command terminal, you might be trying to overcome the field of blight energy to get close enough to bless the unholy altar, etc. Enemies might be trying to stop you, but the referee and players should understand that defeating them is only a secondary goal (avoiding, bribing or otherwise neutralising them should be fine). Usually at this point, the effects of the problem are ramping up in severity. They may not climax (especially if the PCs are unsuccessful and need to try again with a different apparatus) but they should be enough to significantly affect almost any action characters are taking.

A successful activation resolves the problem. There might be consequences, but the problem will not get any worse from this point on.

Effects

You typically need multiple effects for a good technical problem (2-5). Effects should drive decision-making, and should start off mild, able to compensated for with minimal effort. As time goes on, the effects worsen, until much of the final activation's success is driven by how well you can deal with the conditions.

One common problem I've found in technical plots is to escalate too rapidly or slowly. In the first case, you go from everything being fine and normal, to the sudden, imminent, looming destruction, with very little in between (sometimes there's some atmospheric description, but mechanically, nothing changes). The second option often involves getting lost in book-keeping, with something like "You get a cumulative -1 to all stats per day" (or whatever) which then goes wonky the first time the referee fudges on time. I suggest designing your effects as clearly distinct phases which replace one another, rather than simply being cumulative. Cumulative stuff is harder to keep track of (for very little thematic pay off).

Not all phases should be fatal if you fail a roll (in fact, most shouldn't be) but instead should require the PCs to expend resources, whether in-game ones like oxygen, rare materials, spells, etc. or metagame ones like friendship points or whatever as the crisis takes a mental toll. One big non-fatal effect at a time lets you run a scene or two where the PCs notice and compensate for it, while clearly indicating the progression towards the final crisis, as phases gradually grow more severe.

Anyhow, this is just a mental model, but I find it's a useful one that has helped me run technical plots without missing essential details or focusing on the least fun parts of such plots.

Aug 26, 2016

Openquest House Rule Retrospective

Back in early 2012, when I was gearing up for an Openquest campaign set in the Dawnlands, I came up with a bunch of house rules for Openquest. I thought it would be useful to go through them and pick which ones I wanted to keep. I thought I'd do a bit of retrospective on these, having playtested them and run a successful campaign using them.

My weapon and armour creation system for Openquest, with the rules for calculating ENC. In hindsight, I should use these to pregenerate a weapon and armour list rather than hoping to do it on the fly. It also needs something to determine when a weapon gets the flex, set or range qualities, and I need to rewrite the set weapon rules so they're more relevant and useful. This ruleset has a tendency to generate swords as dealing 1d6 damage, rather than the typical 1d8. Specifically, "longer than a metre" should become "longer than 60cm" (two feet, in moon units).

My teamwork rules. These work well. My experience was that the most confusing part was collaboration, where PCs are rolling different skills. The difficulty wasn't mechanical, it came from trying to explain how their alternate skill was relevant. There were just a number of times the PCs wanted to do it and couldn't figure out how to have it make sense in the world. I don't think this is a problem with the rules though, the PCs just needed to get into the right head-space.

My new major wound table worked well. I learnt that one piece of information I should keep at hand about PCs (along with their Evade, Persistence and Resilience scores) was their major wound threshold.

My overland travel tracker is straightforward, and was the beginning of the line of thought that brought me to my procedure for exploring the wilderness in Swords and Wizardry. It could probably use an update and freshening based on the intervening years of development. For people who don't want the complexity, it's a simple way to determine how far the PCs move in a day, and what they run into.

My mounted combat rules work well and don't really need to be changed. They're a straightforward improvement over the baseline Openquest rules (fewer numbers change, but more options open up). I hate the "Riding is your skill cap when riding" rule in Runequest, since it basically turns Riding into a skill tax.

The movement, called shot and "free hand" rules here all work well. I would keep them unchanged. I did allow characters with a free hand to initiate grapples using them, which occasionally gave things a MMA feel as characters would hack at one another with swords and then suddenly lock up into a grapple and resolve the fight through that.

Competence bands are basically just a procedure for doing what plenty of other referees in Basic Rolepaying games do anyhow. They work and are simple to use in play.

Abolishing attribute differences between species worked fine, though occasionally people wanted some slight distinction between their jackal-headed brutes and their elvish archers. I think what might work well here is to grant each species a single distinguishing trait that is not merely an attribute difference or percentile bonus to skills, but rather allows you to use one skill in a way no one else can - dogmen can bite with unarmed for extra damage, dwarves can use Perception to see when it's totally dark, etc.

Advanced plunder ratings didn't work well at all. The system was too complicated to easily parse, and involved making numerous decisions about what a create did or didn't have that merely added an extra layer of adjudication. The options for modifying this are either treasure generation tables with types, similar to old school D&D, or to simplify it drastically down to the two most important factors - what loot does the monster have, and how valuable is its body as loot? I should write something about this, but I now use a simpler system where every monster is ranked from A to F in terms of its loot, and then has either a + or - for how valuable its body (or body bits) are. +A would be a dragon or demigod, a creature that both has a horde, and is priceless when it's knackered, while a F- is a creature with nothing whose body is near-worthless. If you want to encode a bit more information in the notation, you can shift the + or - to either side based on whether the loot is in its lair (on the Left side for Lair) or on its person (the right side) as I did above.

Abolishing spell ranks didn't give me the results I wanted. I had a few PCs with high POWs who were able to pull off extremely high spell ranks very early in their careers, which made them disproportionately powerful in whatever campaign they appeared in. I think the correct solution for what I want is to expand the rules for divine magic (which I ported over from MRQ2 / RQ6) and use the tens digit of your relevant skill to determine the spell's magnitude. The 5 IP for new spells was good though, and I'd stick with it. It gave each PC a few signature spells they used over and over again, which also reduced the amount of player skill and attention required to manage spells, especially buffs.

Abolishing the common magic skill is the one that I still haven't made up my mind about. Some players really struggle with wrapping their heads around using other skills, and some love it. The rules themselves work fine, it's mainly an issue of playstyle. I think I'm going to keep on using this, but I expect it to play differently if I adopt the above-mentioned rule about spell ranks. So you'll use the tens-digit of whatever skill you use, instead of Battle Magic Casting. I also think I'm going to ask PCs to pick 1-3 skills off a small list that are the skills they use to cast magic ahead of time to help them get a clearer idea of how their own personal style of magic works. When I initially playtested these rules, I let PCs pick whatever skill they wanted in any given situation, but this meant a lot of people trying to use "abstract" skills like Perception and Influence and Language (Own) because they saw these as requiring the least amount of preparation and effort compared to Natural Lore or Craft. There was also the occasional attempt to piggyback battle magic spells on other spellcasting skills, like Sorcery or Religion (Own), though I discouraged this whenever it occurred. I think locking PCs down to a handful of prechosen skills will encourage them to more clearly conceive of how their character cast spells, which should avoid most of the problems. If that doesn't work, I'll probably just make Language (True Names) [a Language (Other) skill for everyone) the skill one rolls.

Anyhow, I plan to continue to experiment with new rules and variations, though it's been a bit since I've run an Openquest campaign.

Aug 15, 2016

[Review] The One Ring

I played a one-shot of the One Ring this weekend at LozCon. This is more notes from that experience than a review of the book:

1) The One Ring is a game about friendship and fellowship that doesn't have rules to allow two PCs to assist one another on a task. Or, if these rules exist, they are not registered in the index at the back, or clearly indicated (via a subheading or something else) in the task resolution chapter. I know because I spent ten minutes looking when we tried to sing a song together. It's also weird because during the journeying phase and at the start of combat, there are group checks where everything throws their successes into a common pool.

2) The scenario we played in (the opening scenario of Ruins of the North) was a good experience, but a bad adventure. There were two main changes that the referee made before the game that made it a better scenario, along with several smaller ones along the way. The big changes were to include a goblin horde that marches down with an orc warboss leader to pin us in the abandoned manor while the ghost stuff was going on, and giving one of the PC pregens a magic sword so we could actually fight the ghost big bad. The small changes included changing the table of possible journey problems so the hazards weren't mainly just wolves, but instead were goblins prefiguring the later horde. Also, all hobbits, PC pre-gen option and NPC alike, were removed.

3) I sang a song to my dwarf bud while he was fighting the orc warboss in single combat, and it made him tougher so he could keep on fighting the warboss (the song was "Atmosphere" by Joy Division). This would be the Tolkieniest thing that ever tolked, except that earlier in the session I had said "What ho! I see the faces of Men and they gladden my heart!" with a straight face when we encountered the NPCs that are a thinly-obscured rip-off of As I Lay Dying.

4) It's one of those games where you have abstract gear, and most of your resources for getting things done (like hope points) are kind of abstract, though thematically it's kind of cool that you burn out and become hopeless when you're in a desperate situation. Everything is meant to tie together to create consistent, recurring themes that are driven by the mechanics, and it succeeds on that for the most part, though obviously point #1 still holds, and also there's a ton of stuff that should have been group checks by default that isn't. Perception and stealth were two obvious points - if I ran this, I'd probably make everyone check perception or stealth and pool the successes on their rolls and then allot them out to notice or hide various traces of passage.

5) I dislike the era of Middle Earth they chose for the game. It's too hemmed in by the published properties. You're not going to refound the kingdom of Arnor, you're not going to prevent Sauron's rise, you're not going to stop Saruman's fall, you're not going to be the ones who win the War of the Ring, etc. What it gets you is that the jive-talking wizards who give you your mysterious quests are all named characters from the books, which is OK, but I'd rather play something set in the Fourth Age where you've got more narrative freedom to make big bads and plots and the few things that you do know about are really open, or the Second Age, which has an overabundance of material that's suitably vague about who did what (at least until they publish yet another volume of Tolkien's grocery receipts).

I'd play it again if it was on offer, but I don't think I'd ever really seek it out as a game to play by preference.

Aug 2, 2016

Necrocarcerus Update: Ribshack of the Demon Prince

Hopefully I'm gonna be running the latest Necrocarcerus adventure, "Ribshack of the Demon Prince" at LozCon, August 12-14. Here's the map:

The back of the menu at Morguul's Place (Click to enlarge)
Morguuland Gift Shop (Click to enlarge)
The hook in is that you're trying to get somewhere else in the afterlife and the only way to get there that you can afford is a package tour through a crappy travel agency that takes you to every tourist trap along the way, including the educational theme park that the cultists of an arch-demon have built atop the place of his imprisonment. Write-up to follow once I run it. Gonna test drive this one with the Black Hack, and see how it handles Necrocarcerus.

Jul 17, 2016

A Few Add-Ons for the Black Hack

I'm putting together a "pick-up-and-go" campaign that's going to start with an as-yet-undetermined group of new roleplayers sometime in the next couple of months. I decided to give the Black Hack a try, and if I like it, I'll switch over to using it as my main OSR ruleset, instead of Swords and Wizardry Core / Complete.

While setting up for the campaign, I created the following documents:

1) A weapon table expanded to include bombs and guns, as well as rationalise which class can use which weapon. Download [pdf].



2) A list of my PC roles (with the Timekeeper and Quartermaster roles merged) and done in something like the Black Hack font. Download [pdf].



3) A levelling rubric for the Black Hack, which I will use in the upcoming campaign. The Black Hack tells the referee to assign a level whenever they think it's appropriate, but I think a clear rubric will help PCs plan their actions better and incentivise them to do interesting things. Download [pdf].



Anyhow, hope folks find these useful.

Jul 3, 2016

[Review] Ursine Dunes / Marlinko / Misty Isles / Hill Cantons

I bought Misty Isles of the Eld a few days ago and read it, which caused me to go back and reread Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko (as well as rereading the two compendiums and the cosmology document). All of these works are all done by Chris Kutalik of Hills Cantons fame, and are set in his Hill Cantons setting, which mixes Vancian Dying-Earth-type absurdism with fantastical trappings drawn from medieval / early modern Eastern Europe, Northern Michigan, and a bunch of well-thought through D&Disms. My understanding is that there are at least two more forthcoming documents, which are referred to by various titles in the existing works, but mainly as "What Ho! Frog Demons" (another point crawl adventure similar to Misty Isles and Slumbering Ursine Dunes) and "the Kezmarok City Supplement" (an even larger city than Marlinko, though the suggestion appears to be that it will focus on the Cerulean Vaults portion of the undercity of Kezmarok).

Overall, I have a fairly positive impression of the Hill Cantons setting and the related works. The books are well-written and genuinely funny, but they also are clearly derived from a well-thought-through conception of what a world with D&Disms in it must include. In particular, all three books are written with a clear idea of how a group of antisocial, violent, impulsive adventurers would navigate them. This is true not only of the parts that are clearly adventure locations, but of the social situations as well. I'm sure anyone who reads modules regularly has encountered ones where the premises of social encounters seems to rely on PCs not acting like PCs, and / or where the NPCs act as if the idea that there are bands of magical murderhobos wandering around interfering in anything they please was a completely new idea they'd never had to deal with before. The Hill Cantons really almost assumes the reverse, and the situations the books present are therefore all the more robust for it.

Of the specific books:

Slumbering Ursine Dunes' strong points are well-realised factions, two good dungeons, evocative imagery and trappings, and its pointcrawl layout, where instead of a hex or a free-form map, the set-up layouts out the various points of interest that PCs are likely to encounter along the way. Its weak points are that it could use a little more set-up for referees. In particular, it needs a few adventure seeds that would bring PCs to it in the first place, push them to keep exploring, and keep them coming back when they suffer a set-back. There are a few quirks of layout that make information occasionally a bit unclear. In particular, there is a hermit who is mentioned without introduction in the major NPCs section, but who is only described in the pointcrawl map key. As well, the maps for the dungeon are found at the back of the book, rather than adjacent to the map keys for them.

Fever-Dreaming Marlinko's
strong points are the clever and evocative writing, and the abundance of gaming-oriented material. The book explicitly tells you that rather than focusing on shopping lists and dull descriptions of shops, it's going to focus on the interesting bits, and it does a great job of this. You come out of it with a clear idea of what Marlinko is like as a city, and what parts to focus on. I do think the book would benefit from a slight reorganisation of the material. In particular, it looks like there's about four or five streams or tranches of adventure ideas which most things tie into, and it would be useful to have a table or other graphic arrangement that would help referees understand this, possibly with some clear inciting events listed for each tranche.

On a very short side note, one very nice thing about this book is that while it contains some puerile humour, this humour is not fundamentally misogynistic or homophobic in character. There are dwarven masseuses who offer "happy endings", but the joke is in the "joyless" character of such in a subversive contrast the usual "wenches and wine" depictions of sex work in adventure games. There are also giant eagle mounts who dump misogynists mid-flight.

I would say that if you were only going to pick up one of the three books, this would be it. I also think it should be your first purchase of the three (I bought them in the order they came out, where Fever-Dreaming Marlinko is the second in the series). Fever-Dreaming Marlinko contains adventure seeds and suggestions for both Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld, filling in the gap one might otherwise have for those adventures. If I were to run a mini-campaign on the current Hill Cantons material, it would go FDM to SUD, back to FDM, then off to MIE, then back to FDM for the wrap-up.

Misty Isles of the Eld's best point is really its organisation. The party will be dealing with a coordinated and professional opposition, and the book does a good job making the encounters and NPCs interesting while not forgetting that. There's a great deal of time spent laying out for referees the various resources the Eld (evil space elves from hell, with Melniboinean flourishes) have at hand and how they use them. I also appreciate how the book manages to make them weird and creepy without having to rely on much explicit gore or sex, instead using the occasional suggestive flourish to allow the imagination to expand in the space it leaves. I think overall this is an excellent product, but one thing it could use is a slightly clearer idea of the process the Eld are following to accomplish their goal (the goal itself is clearly laid out). PCs will encounter several of the things they're using (an imprisoned god, etc.) but it's not always clear how much of a hindrance messing with any specific component is. Does freeing the god mean the Eld's plans are doomed, or can they still accomplish them without it? Information about this, especially in a form where it's at least partially PC-facing, would be very useful for helping PCs focus their activity.

I'm looking forward to What Ho! Frog Demons and the Kezmarok supplement, and I would recommend that if you're interested in pointcrawls and ideas for how to do city-adventures well, these are excellent supplements to pick up.

Jul 2, 2016

[Review] The Black Hack

I've been seeing a lot of mentions of, and material for, the Black Hack lately, so I thought I'd pick it up and take look for myself. In broad strokes, it's basically an adaptation of elements of White Box Swords and Wizardry, Dungeon World, Castles and Crusades, and D&D 5e with some house rules thrown in at critical parts. Surprisingly, it looks like this mix works reasonably well. This will be a review of the game with the Additional Things supplementary PDF available for free download.

Overall, I think the Black Hack is good, but it's good because it's a mix of some great and inspired ideas with some very badly done ones, rather than because it's modestly well-done all the way through. The basic mechanic is d20-roll-under-stat to accomplish anything, with PCs making most rolls. i.e. they roll to avoid monster attacks instead of monster rolling to hit them.

The great and inspired ideas tend to be little ones that aid playing the game. I particularly like the new time system (moments and minutes), the usage die for consumable items, the resting mechanics (an OSR adaptation of the D&D 5e rest mechanics), and the use of opponents' HD as the main stat you have to track. From Additional Things, the tags for gear, the rules for panicking if one runs out of light, and the coin-dice rules are all very clever. These are all solid ideas, most of which could be integrated into any retroclone you're playing, and would add a great deal if they were.

The bad parts tend to be the more slapdash elements of the book. Firstly, the gear list is incomplete, lacking 1H weapons or bows in the gear list. Similarly, it has different weapon proficiencies by class, but these are just random lists of weapons, none of which are mechanically different from one another. The morale rules and the reaction rules should be simplified into the same set of rules, and the old 2d6 system was superior to the one in the Black Hack. The fighter class needs its ability reworded (Additional Things proposes one fix, and I see other versions repeatedly proposed or discussed in the community on G+). The gear list is the same slight alterations on the basic D&D 3.5 gear list that everyone's been using for a decade and a half now. Probably the worst of these various rules is the one for random encounters, which assumes that you're rolling every 15 minutes of real-world time, which I think is just unworkable in most situations.

After reading it, my general inclination is that I like it and want to play it, albeit with some heavy house-ruling. The chassis underlying that house ruling though, is generally pretty solid. If you like universal mechanics, rules-light systems, and / or systems where PCs do most of the rolling, I think you'd like it as well. Even if you don't, I suggest adapting the usage dice mechanics, the coin dice mechanics, the moments and minutes time tracking, and the rules for panicking in the dark for use in your own retroclone games.