Oct 16, 2018

Searching: Describing Actions and Rolling

When I run old school D&D, I use a group-based perception system. You can find an old version of it on this blog, and versions in both the Necrocarcerus house rules document and Into the Depths, but here's a summary that doesn't require you to click somewhere else:

Every object has a concealment score (obvious objects have a concealment score of 0), ranging from 1 to infinity, with most hidden objects being between 3 and 10. The party as a whole has a base or passive perception score equal to the number of PCs in it.

This is their base capability to notice things as they move along in an orderly fashion. It represents them looking around for potential points of interest or danger, but not interacting with or examining things in detail. It requires no time or actions spent to observe the world around them at this level.

If the PCs stop moving and start examining the area around them, they roll a d6 and add it to the base perception score. Typically this kind of search requires a turn.

If the party's perception score equals or exceeds the concealment score of the objects, they discover the object once they come in sight of it (which is usually limited by the availability of light).

If the PCs are broken up into small groups, then each sub-group has a passive perception score equal to the number of PCs in it. If only a few PCs stop to examine things, then that's a sub-group as well, but they still add a d6 roll onto the sub-group's score as they actively search.

Hirelings, retainers, pets, etc. don't contribute to this score unless the specific specialty skill that they were hired for is spotting things, like a tracker dog or something.

These are the mechanics that slot into a larger process. That process is actually split down the middle. The initial phase is that of passive observation as PCs move. This passive observation is interrupted when they encounter various obvious objects in the space around them (furniture, architectural features, creatures, etc.).

Then, instead of immediately allowing PCs to roll for actively searching an area, I stage the "roleplaying" element where they can interact with and examine the objects. That involves them making specific statements that clearly indicate what and how they are examining something. "I check under the bed", "I cast detect magic and examine the room for auras", "I bang on the walls and listen for echoes", "I cut open the monster's stomach".

If a PC describes something that should reveal the hidden item or object, then it simply does, no roll required. This is their reward for clever ideas. It doesn't matter if it has a concealment score they could never reach numerically, if they luck into or deduce how to find it, they do.

Eventually, I bring this phase to a conclusion when the PCs run out of obvious ideas (it can be very quick sometimes if they're stumped). At that point, they can invoke the active search rule and spend the turn. But that's it. Once they get whatever they're getting out of active searching, they're done and can't find anymore stuff until the situation changes somehow.

The combination of benefits and restrictions here is surprisingly effective at pushing players to at least come up with a few ideas about how they're searching, and it prevents them from just spending a turn and actively searching an area instead of doing any sort of description of how they do it. I recommend attempting it in one's own games if one does not already.

Oct 11, 2018

A Brief (Re)Introduction

My blog traffic has suddenly picked up through a combination of reblogs, Reddit comments, mentions in Youtube videos, and people adding me to RSS feeds as G+ slowly wraps up. I figured it was time for a reintroduction for all of you new readers.

I've been playing roleplaying games for 28 years now, since I was eight years old. I started with Palladium Games' TMNT and Other Strangeness before moving to the Rules Cyclopedia of D&D and from there through many other games in the intervening decades before coming back to old school D&D.

I play a lot of different games, but I mainly write about Mythras, Openquest, Stars Without Number, and my own "neo-clone" of old school D&D, Into the Depths. I also write a fair bit about my ideas about playing the game, though I try to keep the theory-posting to mostly practical matters. My two main campaign settings are a Central-Asian-inspired psychedelic dark fantasy setting for Mythras called "The Dawnlands"; and a gonzo post-apocalyptic afterlife setting for Into the Depths called "Necrocarcerus" that satirises a lot of the tropes of D&D.

The most important considerations I have when running games include information presentation and accessibility; creating surprise and wonder during play; how to shape and vary the risk PCs face and the agency and control they have; distributing tasks throughout the entire play group (but not "GM-less" play); the operation of incentive systems and social dynamics; creating "living worlds"; and all sorts of play that don't involve the imposition of narrative control by the referee on PCs, but that nonetheless emerge into satisfying situations evocative of the best parts of fantasy and science fiction narratives.

The things I've written that people have found the most useful (as determined by page views, reblogging, copying into their own games, etc.) are:

My redesign of the traditional wandering monster table
My extension of the concept to handle traps 
My use of it to populate and repopulate dungeons as the PCs pass through them
My use of it to determine magical item components
My use of it to create radiant quests
My notes on randomly determining how tables can interact with one another

My notes on running "technical plots" (Plots where a situation has to be resolved through a technical solution instead of punching someone out).
My thoughts on designing rules to make them feel like more skill or luck in involved
My thoughts on how to determine what you need to come up with houserules for
My reviews of popular OSR products

My procedure for PCs who are exploring the wilderness in hexcrawls
My chase rules
My teamwork rules for Into the Depths (Mythras, Openquest)
My perception rules
My alchemy rules for Necrocarcerus
My rules for treating backstories and knowledge as types of gear

My ideas about moving beyond the party-structure in RPGs
My ideas about PC roles (and here's an update on which ones I use these days)
My ideas about letting PCs make rolls for things like wandering monsters


Sep 10, 2018

Patachemical Extraction

Other settings have long-dead alien gods buried deep beneath the earth, ancient layers of fossilised vampires, the residual sludge of entire eras in which everything was magic, an entire Underdark filled with magical beings. Necrocarcerus doesn't. Instead, what it has is a megacorporation that goes to those places, throws those rotting gods and insane liches into threshers, and then extracts whatever valuable substances, divine energies, negative planar energy, or plain old hydrocarbons are found in them. This is where you come in.

PetroNec, the Necrocarceran gas and oil corporation, is an old hand at this dirty business, and it's happy to hire adventurers to jump through a portal into one of the Living Worlds, poke around in the tome of some ancient god-king, trigger all the traps, slay all the skeletal tomb guardians, and then show a lode of forty cubic metres of enchanted bone and ensorcelled metal (2.5% finders' fee) with a gangue and overburden of some hundred thousand cubic metres of useless gold, silver, assorted pieces of granite, and dead adventurer.

Get in, find the dead god or the sea of mana-tar, kill whatever could wreck an extraction pipe stuck into it, get back to the portal. Everyone wins. The people who need liquefied undead for coolant get their liquefied undead coolant. The Council of Ninety-Nine sees their share price go up. You (probably) get paid a hefty sum of obols, if you survive. And then it's onto the next portal, the next claim, and so on until you either manage to retire or you end up a smear of hyle and ichor in some blighted chasm, gnawed on by ancient imprisoned horrors. Not that this will stop the patachemical industry. Nothing ever does.

Jul 31, 2018

Managing a Living World Using Rumour Tables

In this post, I elaborate a method of using reaction rolls and rumour tables to generate a dynamic background to the world as PCs adventure through it. I've been told that I'm very good at creating the feeling of a "living world", and this is one of several techniques I use to do it.

The method is fairly simple: Take a rumour table with a bunch of rumours and roll on a reaction table for every rumour your PCs haven't followed up on. Use the result of the reaction roll to determine how the situation develops and update the rumour appropriately. Remember, some rumours should be false or misleading, and a hostile result should make them more so, not less.

e.g. Rumour: Blue lights and strange noises seen around abandoned Castle Windwell (true; a ghost is causing it)

Reaction Roll Result:

12: Julie the Amazing found and reconsecrated the ghost's body while the PCs were busy with something else. She's now got a ghost-blessing and is roaming around looking for more adventure.
9-11: The ghost has been quiet lately. A local shepherd snuck in to explore and saw a golden chalice, but got scared and ran off before he could grab it.
6-8: No change
3-5: The baron sent out some men-at-arms to investigate, but they never came back. (The ghost has killed them and reanimated them as zombies).
2: Julie the Amazing went out to deal with the ghost, but she came back possessed with ghost powers, and has been roaming around town causing trouble when people least expect it.

You just keep on doing this after each adventure. For extra "verisimilitude" recycle names and problems across each local area, so you get the sense of who the movers and shakers are in that area. If Julie the Amazing pops up in three different rumours each covering some of her recent exploits, you get the sense that she's an important person locally, both because of her deeds and the interest others show in them.

The nice thing about this method is that because of the bell curve, you'll have slow developments and changes over time that feel like a world in motion happening in the background of the PCs' adventures. This is a pretty simple technique, but that's it's advantage - it's fast and easy and doesn't require a ton of reflection to work.

Jul 28, 2018

Wiki for OSR Rules Variants

If you're in the OSR Discord channel, you've probably seen quite a few links to this recently, but I thought I would share it for those who aren't: Valzi / Michael Bacon is putting together a wiki for OSR house rules and variant rules. He's developed a standard submission format if you're interested in uploading your own. At the moment it's primarily Bacon's own material, interspersed with some of the better known works of Courtney Campbell, Skerples and Brendan S. and a handful of pieces by others.

Anyhow, I recommend people go add their own stuff to this, since I think a wiki-reference for all of the creative rules design work the OSR has done over the past ten years would be extremely useful. If you're not sure how, either reach out to Valzi at the OSR Discord channel or via his blog.

Jul 20, 2018

Mystery Cults and Magic Revisions in Into the Depths

The new magic system in Into the Depths is the piece of the game that's undergone the least playtesting. I've played in campaigns using Magic Words variations, but haven't stress-tested the implementation of the system currently in Into the Depths (if anyone has, I'd be interested in their feedback on how it worked).

Current Magic Rules

For those who don't want to check the PDF, here are the current published rules in their entirety:

1) Initiation: To cast spells a PC must be inducted into a mystery cult. A PC can only be a member of one mystery cult at a time but can abandon their old tradition and join a new one by undergoing a new initiation. Levels of initiation don’t carry over from one cult to another. A PC learns two magic words (referee’s choice) when they join a mystery cult.

2) Knowledge: PCs can know a number of magic words equal to their character’s level (not level of initiation). They can know a number of magic spells equal to their character’s level. PCs can forget words and spells with one day’s work.

3) Creation: All spells are combinations of words. PCs can use as many words in a spell as they have levels of initiation into their mystery cult. Words cannot be used twice in the same spell. It takes one day of work to create a new spell, or to replace one a PC already knows with a new one.

4) Learning: PCs learn new words by finding them on adventures or experimenting on their own time. If a word is found on an adventure, only one PC can learn it. If a PC develops a magic word, they can teach it to others.

5) Casting: You can cast as many spells per day as you have types of spell trappings at hand. If you get more types of spell trappings over the course of a day, the number of spells you can cast increases. Lose some, and it decreases (losing unused castings first). Rare trappings may grant more castings.

6) Effects: Negotiate with referee during spell creation. A typical spell targets one thing or person, or one 3x3x3m cube within 30m and either causes 1 instantaneous change or has effects that last 1 hr. The base damage of a spell is 1d8. Adding words to a spell can modify these factors.

There are a few changes I think I want to make already, plus some additional elements about getting initiated into a mystery cult that I want to add. I suspect in the next version, the list of magic words and the list of magic items will be moved to another page to free up space (and hopefully, expanded in both cases).

Revisions to Magic Rules

A PC learns one magic word (referee’s choice from the cult list) when they join a mystery cult, if they are able to. If they can't learn a new magic word, they may forget one they already know and instead learn a new word from the cult. A PC's initiation level can't exceed their character level.

They can know a number of magic spells equal to their initiation level. If they change the mystery cult they belong to, they decrease the number of spells they know to one until they gain more initiation levels in the new cult.

It takes one week of work to create a new spell, or to replace one a PC already knows with a new one.

PCs learn new words by finding them on adventures, by increasing their initiation level in their mystery cult, or experimenting on their own time. If a word is found on an adventure, anyone who studies it can learn it by spending one month studying it. If a PC develops a magic word, only they can understand it well enough to use it. Each time a PC increases their initiation level in a mystery cult they automatically learn one new word (referee's choice from the cult's list). PCs can't teach one another magic words.

These changes are mostly minor, but they invest more importance in advancing your initiation level, and give you more bonuses for advancing it, while disincentivising jumping mystery cults. A PC's spell selection is locked in a bit more. My overall goal was to get away from treating magic words as if they were a golf bag of possible effects that you could simply draw from on the fly, or spend a trivial amount of downtime to adapt to the situation.

I also changed how one learns words to make it a little less easy for PCs to simply exchange words with one another. Now, only words found as treasure (i.e. as spell codices or ancient carvings or whatever) can be learnt by multiple PCs from the same source. That incentivises you to go out and find those carvings and grimoires, while rewarding PCs who spend time and money on developing new words a special reward for doing so. 

I also decided that advancing your initiation level should give you a free word to make the financial hit less daunting. You can still know a number of words equal to your character level. From what I can tell, a typical wizard will have a 2-4 level gap between the two, giving you enough space to make developing your own or finding new ones worthwhile. I was debating separating spell scrolls from the sort of magical writing you can learn words from, but instead I decided that requiring a month of study per person was a severe enough penalty.

Mystery Cults

So I'm eventually going to get around to writing a mystery cult supplement that'll be a couple of pages long. There are two new abilities that membership in a mystery cult will bring you that I don't have formal write-ups of yet.

The first is that every mystery cult is built around a Mystery that only members can understand. You learn the Mystery when you join the cult. The Mystery lets you command one type of thing (narrowly defined). Members can, as an action, issue a command to an instance of the thing (no more words than initiation levels) and make a reaction roll. If they succeed (9+ on 2d6) then the thing complies to the best of its ability until the command is fulfilled (referee's discretion). Command the stones to speak, and they might just (better brush up on your ancient tongues). On a 6-8 nothing happens. On a 5-, things go sour - the stones lie, or they deafen you when they answer, or they lash out in anger at your hubris (possibly by falling down on you, or burying you in an avalanche).

I wouldn't allow this to serve as a "blast" spell that could be used an unlimited # of times per day, but I might allow it to be used to create incidental damage if appropriate. I'm also debating if you should retain mysteries if you change cults, with the caveat that your old cult will begin hunting you down, or if it would be simpler just to lose access to it (your whole weltanschauung has changed). 

The second is that every mystery cult teaches its members one form of manteia (divination) when they're first initiated. You can learn a new type each time you increase your initiation level (but you don't automatically learn it). I'm still figuring out the exact rules for performing and learning manteiai, but the root stock of what I'm working with is some ideas developed by Marquis.

Along with these two cult-specific abilities, each mystery cult will have a list of magic words they teach members or that you can learn from gaining initiation levels in the cult.

That means that to come up with your own mystery cults, you need the following:

1) A name for the cult
2) A type of thing (stones, shadows, integers, anger, the colour blue, right hands, undead, flames, etc.) that their mystery can command.
3) A manteia every member learns (or a table of possible types to roll on)
4) Some magic words, preferably with a theme (I'd suggest 8-12)
5) A couple of initiatory rituals that PCs can do to go up (I'd suggest 1-3 to start, and make up more if anyone shows interest in going further)

I'll be creating sample cults for the Old Lands and Necrocarcerus once I have all the details hashed out on how this system works.

Jul 18, 2018

Three Variations on Other People's Ideas

I wrote a sticky note to myself with the best three ideas I've seen other people come up with so far this week (and it's only Wednesday!) and decided to write a bit about how I would implement them.

The first is from Rob Monroe's G+ feed, and is pretty simple: Use Letter:Number for the cell coordinates on hex maps. So the top left corner is A1, the next cell to the right is B2, and the one below the original cell is A2. Use AA...ZZ etc. when you run out of single letters to use as labels. I like this because it is isomorphic with Microsoft Excel's cell coordinate system. I think it's a great idea because it's one of those things that seems obvious in hindsight but that I'd never thought about doing until Rob mentioned it.

The second is Jeff Russell's idea of "flexible reaction rolls" where you either vary the die size of the 2d6 (or use advantage / disadvantage) reaction roll to represent situational modifiers to the encounter, instead of adding or subtracting a static modifier. The particularly brilliant part of varying the die sizes is to make the source of the variation different for each die. One die is under PC control, and varies based on how much they're trying to make a positive or negative impression, while the other is based on the NPC's sentiments and situation.

Jeff lists a couple of possible modifiers for the NPC die, but I think I'd want to abstract out from the ones he lists. The key thing in terms of modifiers for the NPC die is that they should relate to factors external to the NPC themselves rather than being adjudicated as if they were the sum of the possible subcomponents of their attitude. That is, the NPC die grows larger the more secure their position, or shrinks based on their relative deprivation, rather than summing up the relative importance of them being an angry, aggressive but also easily amused individual. Which of those predominates in the current encounter is determined by the actual result of the reaction roll, not its die size.

The third idea is from the Marquis, and involves getting rid of divination spells and replacing them with a divination ability that produces answers to questions with varying degrees of success. The magic rules in Into the Depths are the part of it that has yet to be playtested - in the next campaign I run, I'm going to be fiddling around with them quite a bit, with the expectation of issuing something with extensive changes.

With the Marquis' idea itself, there are three components:

1) Pick a style of divination. Each kind has a focus it requires and a type of information it provides

2) To use divination, roll 1d6 and add various bonuses and penalties to the roll. Depending on how high you roll, you get better and more clear information.

3) You can learn more kinds of divination each time you level up.

I think I would use a 2d6 reaction-type roll for this (I use a system with three bands of outcome - <5 is negative, 6-8 is neutral, 9< is positive). I might even do something like the above with flexible reaction rolls but am still thinking over whether that might make it too easy to do divination and be too complicated to adjudicate here with all the different types of divination.

<5 provides cryptic symbols with lots of room for interpretation; 6-8 provides an answer with at least one solid piece of information, though you might have to decode what it is, 9+ provides an exact answer with at least one clear, reliable and solid piece of information.

Anyhow, it's been a great week in the OSR so far. Keep up the good work everybody!