May 1, 2019

Motive, Means, and Opportunity

I have said many times that I don't plan out plots so much as create situations that drive decisions. As part of this, I require a fairly large cast of antagonists, potential allies, and other persons of interest who interfere in its development. What makes these people relevant to the situation is that they have some sort of agenda and are pursuing it, and that these tie into the situation in a way that influences a decision.

Because of this, I don't have a ton of time or use for the sort of huge backstories written in long text blocks that many published modules use when they try to set up their villains that go into their elaborate backstories in great detail but culminate in a guy sitting in a dank room waiting for the PCs to show up and stab him in the face.

So rather than writing this sort of stuff, I primarily concern myself with three characteristics of NPCs, and I suggest that if you want to write interesting NPCs who engage meaningfully with the players, you might want to try this yourself.

These three characteristics are their motive, their means, and the opportunity for them to put their plan into action.

Motives

Motives are what a NPC wants. I recommend writing it out as one short phrase.

NPCs can have more than one motive, but I suggest you concentrate on one good one instead of a bunch of crappy ones. A good one should either be extremely concrete, or it should be a broad abstraction - stuff in the middle tends to be lacks the benefits of either.

A very concrete motive should have an object it is directed at, an emotional tone or affect that adheres to it, and a clear sense of the outcome. Something like "I want to release the vampire I love from undeath by killing him permanently" is what I have in mind. For "clear sense of the outcome" I suggest you think about what the change the person wants to happen is - that's the outcome that's at stake for them and that drives their participation.

The change here, can, perhaps counter-intuitively, include preserving the status-quo antebellum, though in that case you should think about what threatens the status-quo and phrase the goal as the removal or neutralisation of what they think of as threatening it.

Broad abstract goals work best for recurring NPCs who crop up in a lot of different situations as forces or constraints but aren't necessarily direct actors challenging the PCs. Abstractions work best when they motivate lots of different actions instead of just one action. e.g. A particular character might lust after power, and constantly crop up at the periphery of different situations angling to see what they can get out of it, without directly being one of the antagonists opposing the PCs.

You also should consider carefully whether a NPC actually should just have a progression of concrete motives instead of a single broad abstract goal. Typically, the former works better than the latter.

Means

Means are the tools, skills, resources, allies, etc. that a character brings to bear on accomplishing their motive. A common error at this stage is to phrase their means as a set of desires - they want to gather an army, build their death ray, etc. Those ideas are motives. Means are what they have in hand to progress towards realising their motives.

I recommend that you create 1-3 means that NPCs have to realise their agendas. A good split is at least one internal means (a skill or ability) and one external (a set of helpers, a magic item, a fortified location, etc.), with the third means as a back-up or contingency in case one of the first two fail.

Means are the mediating elements between PCs and NPCs. A NPC with no means has no way to effect their motive. For this reason, they often serve as key differences between NPCs. You can actually get away with recycling motives a fair bit between NPCs so long as the means by which they try to achieve them are different. Everyone can want the Gem of Ultimate Power, but if one NPC is intending to get it by sending his minions to retrieve it, while another is going to use her ninja powers to steal it from whomever has it, the PCs should have no trouble telling them apart.

Opportunity

An opportunity is the moment or set of moments when the NPC uses their means to try to accomplish their motives. Theoretically they are working towards their goals the entire time, even when they are not in conscious focus by the group, but in practice what you want is clear sense of when they enter the narration as agents trying to accomplish their goals.

I like to phrase these as IF-THEN statements, but you might something else useful. I try to avoid focusing specifically on PC actions, and use someone, everyone, anyone, or no one as qualifiers to push myself away from doing so.

I also like to phrase these so that there is a clear sense of what is not the opportunity. You want to be able to make a clear snap decisions that now is or is not the time for things to happen.

e.g. The opportunity for a NPC ninja assassin might be: If anyone retrieves the Gem of Ultimate Power (from inside the Dank Dungeon), then she will try to steal it from them the next time they are asleep without guards.

In that example, you know that until the PCs (or whoever retrieves the gem if they fail) are asleep without guards, the ninja assassin will bide her time.

Bringing This Together

The great advantage of this method is it steers you away from writing fan fiction about the NPCs that details their elaborate backstories and instead focuses on their decisions and interactions with other characters. It does so in a concise way that clearly lays out their future decisions and courses of actions, which are the most important parts of playing them at the table.

I also recommend doing this iteratively, and updating NPCs as you go along, rather than trying to frontload it all when you're coming up with them. Get a motive, a single means, and an opportunity written out on an index card or in an Excel spreadsheet, and then add more of each, or change entries, as inspiration strikes or the game develops in some direction.

I'm not overly rigid about things and prefer some loose improvisation as I go along, but I tend to keep a couple of big questions or decisions in mind that I'm driving towards, and what I'll often do is take a sheet of paper, write each question or decision out on it, and then write out the NPCs under each who I think bear on that problem.

From there, I can figure out whether the problem is sufficiently interesting (i.e. whether it has enough NPCs competing over it), or whether it needs more NPCs (or if there's some interaction between them that doesn't make sense or trivialises the problem accidentally).

Anyhow, I suggest trying this in your own adventure games to facilitate producing "dramatic" situations that are "character driven" without having to lapse into railroading or constraints on PC agency to make "the plot" happen (I'm putting all of these in quotes because these are the superficial impressions produced by what is ultimately a substructure of PC agency interacting with modular components).

Apr 26, 2019

The Big Dawnlands Reference Documents

I'm sure after a decade of me talking about the Dawnlands in bits and pieces, people are eager to actually get a true overview of the setting. As part of my new Dawnlands campaign, I wrote up a 25-page reference document for my players. I also wrote this 8-page campaign pitch for my new PCs which specifically focuses on one sept of the Kadiz.

The idea wasn't that they would read the either document in full in one sitting, but rather that they could refer to them as needed, and dip into them to gin up ideas for their characters.  It also helped my organize my thoughts and present a "conceptually dense" version of the setting that was laid out as something other than a series of vignettes, disorganised reflections, and occasional partial introductions.

I cranked these out in about four days of writing after my workday, so it's not my finest and most evocative work (rereading them, I notice the usual mishmash of sub-typos present in that sort of work), but I hope people find it interesting.

Apr 23, 2019

Learning New Combat Style Traits

More Mythras-posting is coming as I refresh my memory of the rules and prep for the upcoming Dawnlands campaign. This time around, I was reflecting on this post I made at the end of January talking about combat style traits.

I think its reasoning is still solid, but now that I'm looking at teaching three new players the Mythras system, I want something a bit simpler. I want to pace the accumulation of exceptional situations to the players' growing familiarity with the system. I also want them to be able to look rules up in the book independently of me, which should reduce the amount of time I spend explaining, rationalising, and recording house rules, and empower them to answer rules questions themselves.

Therefore, I think the easiest rules change that resolves my frustrations with the limited number of combat style traits without loading on complexity for the PCs is to allow them to spend Experience Rolls to add new traits onto their existing styles. I'm going to set the cost to acquire a new combat style trait as Five (5) Experience Rolls.

This makes acquiring a new combat style trait as difficult and time-consuming as learning a new spell or talent in the advanced magical traditions, which I think is about right. It should also keep the number of combat style traits people acquire more limited than the other obvious option, which would be for them to cost 2 Experience Rolls (the same as opening a new Professional Skill or learning a Folk Magic spell).

So, to summarise:

New Trait for Existing Combat Style = 5 Experience Rolls

Apr 22, 2019

Mounted Combat Damage in Mythras

"A mounted warrior may, when charging with a braced weapon, substitute his own Damage Modifier for that of his mount." (Page 104 of Mythras)

Superficially, this seems to say that you can use your own Damage Modifier instead of your mount's when you charge while mounted. I think this is confusingly worded, but actually means you can substitute your mount's Damage Modifier for your own. Even if it's not what this passage means, it is what should be the rule.

My reasoning:

The average human has a Damage Modifier of +0 and when charging, this goes up to +1d2.

The average horse has a Damage Modifier of +1d12, and this goes up to +(1d8+1d6) when charging.

These are not aberrations in the rules, but rather almost all mounts are stronger than their possible riders, and because of the doubled bonus to Damage Modifier increases that quadrupeds receive when charging, they will almost always have a higher Damage Modifier than their riders.

The mounted warrior normally makes the attack when the combined unit charges, not the mount.

I can see no situation in which someone charging would want to substitute their Damage Modifier for their mount's, and for the situation to even make sense, the mount itself would have to be making the attack on the charge, which is a nonstandard situation itself.

Therefore, it seems sensible to assume that the preposition "for" is being used in a slightly odd way here, and what the rule is asserting is that a rider can use their mount's Damage Modifier when they charge (which makes charges that hit super powerful).

As a further piece of evidence, I ran a one-shot for Lawrence Whitaker once, and someone got charged by a mounted foe, and we used the interpretation of the rule that I'm elaborating here at that time without complaint.

I'm doing a big review of Mythras combat in preparation for a Dawnlands campaign I'm starting up with my D&D 3.5 crew come mid-May. I'm spreading the good word, getting some experienced roleplayers but newcomers to Mythras to try it out and see how they like it compared to D&D 3.5.

This line struck me because I thought I knew Mythras combat reasonably well, and yet suddenly I thought that I had misunderstood a situation that I've adjudicated many times. I'm posting this at least partly so that no one else undergoes the confusion I did.

(Also, happy Easter)

Apr 2, 2019

Flipping the Core Mechanic of Mythras

I'm prepping for another Dawnlands campaign, and one aspect I'm debating is flipping Mythras' core mechanic around and simplifying it.

Mythras is a typical BRP game in that all skills have a percentile rating which one attempts to roll under on 1d100 to succeed. Critical successes occur when one rolls less than 1/10 of the skill's percentile rating (rounded up). Regardless of skill level, a roll of 01-05 is always a success, and a roll of 96-00 is always a failure. Fumbles occur when the roll is a 99 or 00. When two characters make opposed rolls, the one with the higher result within the same band of success (regular or critical) succeeds.

This isn't hard, but it's more complex than it needs to be. As Delta has pointed out in designing the Target20 system for OD&D, based on a commonplace amongst math educators, addition is the least demanding and most accurately performed mental calculation. Because of some of the fine details, logjams tend to occur in a couple of places in the current Mythras skill algorithm.

The first place is understanding that bonuses and penalties change the percentile rating you're rolling under, not the roll itself. This takes people a bit to wrap their head around.

The second is that you're trying to roll under a skill rating, but as high as possible within that band. This is sometimes called a "blackjack" method - you're trying to get as close as possible to the rating without exceeding it.

The third is determining which band of success you're in for certain low rolls. It's very easy to confuse a high critical success roll with an extremely low standard success roll, especially when you start adding on difficulty grades, augmenting skills with other skills, and all the other stuff.

To resolve many of these issues, I'd like to offer my simplified Mythras skill resolution system, which I am tentatively calling Target101.

1d100 + skill value + difficulty value + augmenting skill with a result greater than or equal to a value of 101 is a success. If two rolls are opposed to one another, then the higher result wins.
Successful rolls (not total sums) ending in 5 are critical successes. 

A roll of 01 or 02 is a fumble.
A roll of 00 counts as 100.

NB: I'm electing to go for the static difficulty values per the "Simplified Diffcult Grades" table on page 38 of Mythras.

The advantages of this system are that it involves a sequence of simple 2-digit additions that sum to a single score. It reduces or maintains the range of possible exceptional rolls (fumbles, automatic successes). And it allows a simple one-digit recognition operation to determine whether a roll is a critical success or not. The chances of success are mostly mathematically identical to stock Mythras, with only the range of automatic failures and successes reduced.

I haven't play-tested this yet, but I'm hoping to in the upcoming Mythras campaign.

Mar 17, 2019

The Rhythm of Procedure

I've been thinking about how to structure the rhythm and progression of the game lately, so my apologies for the scattered and incomplete character of some of these reflections. I think part of keeping a good pace going in the game involves careful management of the rhythm of procedures that constitute it.

There are, in my mind,  five basic types of procedures by which one can play the majority of any adventure game. These procedures are all loops - you iterate and reiterate them over and over again while the PCs do something, shifting between them based on which is the most appropriate for the PCs' current actions. I mainly want to talk about the first three in this post, since they're the ones that are the best defined and that vary the most from game to game.

Encounters (Combat, socialising, and some types of urgent problem solving)
Site Exploration (Marching around, mapping, searching areas, etc.)
Overland Travel (Travelling from hex to hex or landmark to landmark, searching hexes, etc.)
Recuperation (Spell recovery, healing, dealing with long term status effects, etc.)
Downtime / Projects (Pursuing personal projects, the domain game, creating magical items, etc.)

The turn, the round, and other abstract measures of time are all durations that exist to regulate the rhythm of the procedural loops that form gameplay. The actual time they measure (10 minutes, 6 seconds, whatever) is secondary to this more important function.

The value of rounds, turns, and watches is that each one allows you to synchronise all of the decisions, rolls, and consequences of a particular iteration of a procedure in a way that prevents the formation of a lot of asynchronous cycles that are demanding to track. I use the following rubric:

The round - One iteration of the encounter procedure
The turn - One iteration of the site exploration procedure
The watch - One iteration of the overland travel procedure

NB: The "watch" or "shift" is designed to serve the same function as the round and the turn do but for overland encounters. If you are running overland games, I suggest using it, pegged to either six or eight hours, depending on how often you want the PCs to have to make decisions while travelling.

The actual length of these units of time is strictly secondary to their value laying out the rhythm of play and its progression. That's why you can have a combat round be anywhere from six seconds to a minute without affecting play, but the moment one combat round doesn't represent a complete set of decisions, rolls and consequences, you get chaos.

For the purposes of game-play, the second, the minute and the hour as units of time are inferior to the round, turn, and watch because they lack any connection to a procedural loop. You can turn them into ersatz rounds and turns, pegging the durations of effects and procedures to them, but I think this tends to create procedural loops that are too short for the tasks we want them to handle - the second is too short for combat, the minute too short for dungeon exploration, the hour too short for wilderness exploration (or resting).

By too short, I mean that the ideal length of a loop is long enough to contain the decisions, the rolls, and the determination of their consequences within it. Having to remember decisions made more than one iteration of the loop previously tends to tax people's memories, and it destroys the effectiveness of the loop iterations as counters.

e.g In combat, you want to declare that you're going to hit someone, roll to hit, and then resolve the hit if it's successful. You don't want to declare one round that you're going to hit, wait another round to roll, and then a third round to resolve it.

People confuse having a common unit of time (an hour, say) with having a synchronised procedure, even though the opposite tends to be the case. Using this sort of actual time measurement (in particular, hours) encourages desynchronised cycles that test one's ability to keep track of them.

e.g I've played in many games where a task takes eight hours and another task takes six hours, and what ends up happening most of the time is that the referee just abstracts out to the scope of a full day, everyone counts up the rolls they need to make, and then they do them en masse (three for the first person, four for the second person, etc.).

If the rolls fail, then the referee has to back-calculate to when this failure occurred, and discuss what happens at that point with the player, and it just turns from a smooth forward progression of time into a more zig-zagging movement that jams up much more easily.

The more you can synchronise all of this procedurally, the easier it is to run. That synchronisation helps both you and the players keep track of the progress made during play.

Beyond this point, I have a few scattered reflections to tack on here at the end:

1) Historically, the turn as a unit of measurement has been deprecated as site exploration procedures have become less and less formalised, while the combat round, the clearest and most robust procedure in the game, tends to be the one people default to when the other procedures aren't as clearly laid out, both as designers and as players of the game. That's why when you're dungeon-crawling in lots of new school games, you do it round by round instead of turn by turn. The firmer your site exploration procedure is, the more you need something like the turn to handle it.

2) The reason "the encounter" as a duration in some new school games confuses lots of people is that it's neither a real unit of time nor a single loop of a procedure. Instead, it's the worst of both options - a unit of time without clear boundaries, both within the fictive world and within the procedures of the game itself. This illustrates for me what happens when you screw up the rhythm of the game (thinking of it as a series of encounters and rests suspended in a non-time of exploration or travel like lumps of marshmallow suspended in jello).

I would just allow a "per encounter" power to continuously remain in effect until the procedure type you're playing changes. So a power invoked during site exploration remains in effect until you shift to overland travel or dealing with some encounter, and so on. This sounds weird, but works well in my experience. I mostly avoid this problem by changing "per encounter" powers and the like to some other duration.

3) The recuperation procedure tends to iterate each day. You might want to append "The day - One iteration of the recuperation procedure" as a fourth statement above. I didn't because I have recuperation as an option during the overland travel procedure so it occurs each watch, but I think for most people it's a daily procedure.

Good questions for a referee to get straight in their own head are:

a) When in the day the recuperation happens (Do healing and spell recovery happen at dawn, midnight, etc.)?

b) When the wandering monster or other interruptions occur, do those happen before or after the recuperation?

One nice effect of linking it to watches was to eliminate the 15 minute adventuring day. Once you pick the watch action of "searching a site" you're committed for the next six hours and can't invoke the recuperation procedure until the next watch. Blame it on adrenaline, paranoia, and traumatic flashbacks - you're too keyed up to rest until enough time has gone by.

4) I think downtime's ideal unit is either the week, the month, or the season, and have seen all three used successfully. Seasons are good in games where the main downtime activity is domain management, months work well in games focused on expeditions or that require training to improve characters' powers, and weeks work well in games mostly driven by narrative urgency, where the PCs will almost never have a month or three in between the villains coming up with some plot.

Mar 5, 2019

Summarising Key Elements

One of the skills I have that makes me a good referee is a particular style in my games whereby I summarise and restate the most salient and relevant aspects of a problem or situation immediately before asking players to figure out a solution, and then I do this again several times throughout the problem-solving process that they engage in.

It's not particularly difficult or challenging or insightful to do so - as the referee I can reference, remember, generate, and / or adjudicate which elements or aspects of the problem are the ones that must be overcome in order for a solution to be acceptable. But it's also surprisingly uncommon for referees to do this. I don't think there's any good reason not to, so I assume it's mainly due to referees either forgetting about doing this or never having learnt this for some reason. Therefore, this post is a simple exhortation to remember to do this.

There are three additional techniques of restatement that I think can improve one's practice of doing this even if one already is. The first is simply to pair proposed solutions with the aspect of the problem they purport to resolve during the restatement. This demonstrates progression and prevents constant relitigation of things which the players have already developed a successful solution for. It also highlights when a purported solution is inadequate to the task.

I often grade these slightly, mentioning whether a proposed solution completely trivialises the aspect such that no roll or expenditure is required, or if it merely allows a roll or expenditure that would otherwise be impossible, or if it represents an opportunity for an ordinary roll or resource use.

The second is to prefer to present the aspects in a flat and clear way. Sometimes referees want to keep some aspects of the problem hidden until the player characters are part-way through the task. This can be done, but it has to be done accepting that it will cause the player characters to pause and deliberate mid-task, and it must be done in a way where there is one cannot simply stop the solution, return to the initial state, and then start over from scratch. If the latter is possible, then the referee has simply wasted everyone's time through their lack of foresight.

By contrast, presenting all obvious and even some inobvious elements of the problem during the initial framing of the problem, and then including them in restatements and summaries of the problem allows the players to accommodate them meaningfully in their planning. It also encourages avoiding wasting time where the players ask questions the referee knows are meaningless and irrelevant. These aren't always bad, but en masse across the course of a session, they represent lots of wasted time, indecision, and inaction.

The basis of the game is making decisions, and while being tricked and fooled can be interesting for players, a referee should employ them sparingly in ways that emphasise the quality of surprise instead of merely keeping them as a tedious valence of ordinary moments of play.

The third technique is to use the question answer-question pattern with summaries and restatements. Once again, this helps deliberation progress, by providing a way of refocusing consideration on remaining elements of the problem. Using questions like "What information do you need to make the decision here?" helps avoid players getting bogged down in irrelevant side-issues.

Anyhow, if you already do all of this regularly, know that as a player I appreciate it greatly when referees do it, and if you don't, I would suggest experimenting with these techniques and adopting them if you find them successful.