Nov 26, 2018

Some Methods for Establishing Prices

For the past few years, I have adapted a technique elaborated by Zak S. in his Vornheim supplement for setting the basic prices of goods. Here, I want to discuss the technique, some expansions and adaptation I've made to it, and some alternative techniques I also deploy to resolve the question of "How much do things cost?" and "Can I get a deal?"

Zak's technique is to calculate the cost of an item as a number of silver pieces (in a silver standard economy) equal to the # of letters used in its name and description. "Rope" costs 4 sp, for example. This runs into a bit of a wonky situation with the way plurals work in English, so I generally ask people to specify quantities (getting ten of something for slightly cheaper than the cost of nine is treated a bulk discount).

The first expansion of this technique I've introduced and experimented with is to modify the cost of the item through the application of negative adjectives. The negative adjectives reduce the value of the item by the # of letters in them. If they would reduce the cost of the item to zero or less, instead reduce the type of currency down one step (so from silver to copper) and then continue subtracting copper pieces based on the remaining unused letters in the negative adjectives. If you bottom out of copper, well good luck, it's trashed.

You can, of course, fix up or repair an item to remove negative adjectives, restoring its value.

The second expansion involves using this to haggle. Each side gets one or two passes at describing the object, trying to tack on adjectives describing its quality, value, etc. to boost or diminish its price. I typically allow three adjectives to be added per pass. Anything they say about the object becomes true, but you can't fundamentally change the object, so no taking this "jade ornament" and saying "It's actually a katana".

I usually make the NPCs go first, partly to give the players an idea of how long a pass is and what kinds of claims you can make about items during one. You should encourage the PCs to write down the specific adjectives they're asserting, and write down your own in turn. The fun of this can evaporate and it can be tedious to track everything after more than two passes on each side, and after four statements of three adjectives each, you have twelve modifiers (Try this: Write the adjectives in matching pairs from each side on grid paper with one letter per square. Cross off letters in each instance until you're left with a subtotal for each side, then subtract the smaller subtotal from the larger to arrive at the actual price difference).

This whole process works well when you're buying or selling individual items, especially if they're high-value treasure like magic items (and you can slide in plot-hooks about them through careful preparation for your descriptions as well).

One minor but important point is that once PCs decide to do this, they are locked into the sale or purchase - no backing out. The assumption is that this represents the best price they're able to get for the item.

For treasure items that don't have a clear value because they're made of precious materials, magical, or whatever, I use this technique to quickly generate their value.

For large bulk purchases or sales of mundane items, like when the PCs are resupplying their mundane gear; equipping a caravan, ship or castle; or engaging in the speculative trading of bulk goods, I just roll (2d6+3) x 10% x list price. That gives you a range between 50% and 150%, with the majority (2/3rds) of all results between 80% and 120%.

I got this trick from Mongoose Traveller, which uses 3d6 x 10% to calculate the sale price of bulk goods. But having played around with it a bit, I think the extremes are a little more extreme than I normally want, except in a game where the PCs are merchant-traders trying to get rich and so those rare purchases at 30% of list price and 180% sales are huge wins for them (that is, when playing Traveller). And conversely, sales at 30% of value and purchases at 180% are really disincentives to get rid of stuff, disincentives that stop the conversion of treasure or goods into cash entirely. A system for pricing that set them so that people don't want to buy and sell is not a good pricing system.

I also only roll the 2d6+3 once per visit to town, instead of doing it for individual transactions or shops. It covers both sales and purchases simultaneously - if you're in a market undergoing inflation, you're also taking advantage of that inflation when you sell things, and vice versa with deflation. This means you only have to do the calculations once (I use an Excel spreadsheet when I have a computer handy) instead of repeatedly.

If PCs are unhappy with market conditions, then I provide them with two options, one of which they can engage with prior to going on the market, and the other they can engage afterwards. First, for specialty treasure, they can use the haggling procedure mentioned above. Second, along their adventures, I try to have them encounter and form relationships with merchants. If they have a special relationship with someone, then they can make a single new roll just covering things they're buying or selling from that merchant, and take the better of the two for their purposes.

I roll the market conditions after the specialty items are dealt with because it speeds things up by removing the comparison between the market prices vs. possible haggled prices prior to decision-making.

e.g. The PCs in one of my Necrocarcerus campaigns once saved a gas station clerk from being transformed into a skeletal warrior by a fire cult / undead rights organisation. This would count as a special relationship that would allow the reroll if they tried to buy gasoline or other supplies from his gas station.

The order of procedures for integrating all of this in my games is as follows:

1) PCs arrive in town and announce they want to buy / sell supplies and treasure.
2) Magical and specialty treasure is handled first. PCs haggle with merchants over the prices and the sales are concluded as described above.
3) Roll (2d6+3) x 10% and calculate prices for mundane and bulk goods.
4) PCs draw up a list of goods they want to sell or buy w/o fuss or muss. The modified prices are applied. If there are specialty items the PCs didn't sell via haggling, they may now sell them as well, at market prices.
4a) PCs may withold some items to sell at special merchants they have relationships with. If so, they may reroll for those merchants and recalculate the prices then make their sales or purchases.

Nov 12, 2018

[Review] Mothership Player's Survival Guide

The Mothership RPG is a mutant deriving primarily from a mashup of WFRP 2e and old-school D&D with bits and bobs drawn from a half-dozen other systems, with a strong presentation that focuses on conveying information clearly using flowcharts, illustrations and diagrams. There are classes but they mostly determine your starting stats rather than your skill progression, and the core mechanics for doing things are built off of skills rather than your class or levels.

It's meant to primarily run space horror games, but I think if you have access to Traveller and Stars Without Number, you could very easily use it to run a space opera game by plugging in material from those games, and there's just enough alignment around certain features of how space travel works in Mothership that it should be fairly easy.

The two most convoluted systems are the panic & stress system, and the ship-building rubric. The former is IMHO just slightly more complicated than it needs to be, and it lacks a graphic flowchart because stress and panic checks show up in the middle of other processes instead of being a separate subsystem. The ship-building diagram helps, but isn't as clearly laid out as many of the other flow-charts, and some of the phrasing requires you to read it a few times to understand exactly what's going on.

That said, if you're looking for a relatively light d100 relatively-hard science fiction system, Mothership is pretty good. It passes the essential test (I once heard it called the "Chubb test" after the last name of the RPG designer who first proposed it as a test of the quality of RPG products) of making me want to create a character or run a game after reading it. The flowcharts, diagrams and other graphical elements really help explain how the game works concisely and effectively, and I'd love to see more games that incorporated these kinds of elements to explain their subsystems.

The main change I would make to the rules-as-written would be to change the core mechanic to stat +d% to beat a target number of 101, since this is intellectually an easier mathematical operation for most people to perform than rolling under a variable target number. The second change would probably be to slow down levelling slightly - characters get 10 XP per session survived (in a system where PCs level up with tens of XP instead of thousands), which implies to me a short campaign built around a single central mystery or horrific experience with a moderately-high fatality rate. The third would be to simplify the panic and stress rules in a couple of ways. First, I would make "Resolve" simply work as a bonus on your stress checks (where you are trying to roll over your current stress). Second, I would organise the panic effect chart into three bands - 2-10 (mostly positive), 10-20 (mostly negative), 20+ (cripplingly negative), pile a list of options under each one, and let the referee or PCs choose from the list each time for simplicity's sake.

Overall, my impression is a positive one. I'd love to see a follow-up "Referee Guide" that focused more on fleshing out the implicit setting and constructing mysteries / horrific situations for the players to survive. The Mothership Player's Survival Guide is a 44-page PWYW pdf or is available directly from the author as a $12.00 printed book.

Oct 28, 2018

Songlines in the Dawnlands

I've written about songlines before, back when I was using Openquest to run the Dawnlands, but as I convert it over to Mythras, it's time for new rules.

A brief recap of songlines for those new to the Dawnlands:

Outside of the cities of Durona and Kaddish, there are no maps of the Dawnlands, and even in the cities, most maps are cadastral surveys used to sort out parcels of land rather than tools of navigation. While people are loosely familiar with the concept of maps, the low levels of literacy in the hinterlands would make them near useless anyhow.

Instead, people use songlines to get around. These are songs that encode the necessary directions for someone to get from one place mentioned in the song to another place mentioned in the song by decoding the rhythm, tempo, mode, scansion and actual semantic content of the lyrics.

Most songlines are vast historical epics tracing the journeys of heroes and peoples across the Dawnlands, criss-crossing and entangling one another to create both a tight mesh of navigational information as well as a comprehensive history. Songlines do not necessarily trace the shortest distance between two points it may connect, and part of the expertise and lore of using them well is to understand when and how to switch from one songline to another to cut a journey short. The elders of a clan typically serve as a storehouse of knowledge about the songlines, and clans trade unfamiliar or new songlines with one another as prized goods.

What this means is that there are two skills in Mythras that allow one to find one's way from place to place. The first is the Sing skill, and the second is the Navigate skill. Navigate covers overland travel off the songlines (which for the purposes of the skill's description on pg. 48 of Mythras are "unusual journeys" "in completely unfamiliar territory"). It works exactly as described in the Mythras corebook, and is mainly used by people who learn it as a professional skill through their careers.

When PCs are following songlines, which count as the "normal" way to travel in the Dawnlands, they use Sing to find their way (Sing is a standard skill available to all characters).

To determine the length of a journey, either pick a number between 50 and 1000, or roll 1d1000. This is the percentage the navigator has to accumulate in an extended task roll using their Sing skill in order to successfully guide the party to where it wants to go.

Each day of travel, they roll their Sing skill. On a critical success they accumulate 50%, on a standard success 25%, on a failure 0%, and on a fumble, -25%. When they have accumulated a percentage roll equal to or higher than the roll of 1d1000, they have arrived at their destination. If for any reason they drop below 0 due to fumbles, they are lost. It's very hard to get lost while using songlines, but they also channel travellers along courses that may not be the most direct route, and other travellers, bandits, etc. are much more likely to be following songlines themselves rather than roaming around randomly.

PCs may aid one another or augment their Sing skills with relevant passions, skills, etc. If they can collect an especially useful or direct songline, they can shift the base difficulty of the Sing rolls down to Easy (rolling 1.5x their skill).

For every 100% accumulated, the PCs will come across a landmark or area of interest that serves to reorient them with a new verse (that is, verses typically cover 2-4 days worth of travel).

PCs can also use the rules for crafting equipment on pgs. 65-67 of the Mythras corebook for crafting songlines, using the Sing skill for task rolls. This requires them to have travelled the course involved, and can either involve merging together two or more songlines, or being part of a group where someone successfully uses the Navigate skill to find the way.

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.