Nov 29, 2017

Character Creation and Skills Extension in Openquest

I'm working on an extensive redo of Openquest based on the SRD / Developer's Kit. The final version will incorporate all of my house rules and preferences within the system. I'm going to present a few pieces of it in this post.

The first thing is a simple rationalisation of Openquest's skill selection system, which currently involves numerous sub-pools of points split across skill categories. Similarly to my Mythras Without Tears post, the alternative is to simply spend 250 points with one point = 1% of skill rating, with no more than 40 points allocated to a single skill. This is 25 more points than stock Openquest characters get, but the lack of sub-pools makes it simpler to distribute them. It also lets you spend an extra ten points per skill compared to stock Openquest.

The second thing is an expansion and revision of the skill list. I think there should be a few more social skills, and a few more skills covering outdoorsmanship. There are also a few skills that should be beefed up, clarified, or added to cover gaps. I'm also changing the base attributes of many skills.

Anything bolded on the list below is a new skill, anything italicised has changes in what it covers.

New Skill List

Athletics (DEX+CON)
Animal Handling (CHA+POW)
Close Combat (DEX+STR)
Craft (Job) (CON+INT)
Culture (Other) (INT)
Culture (Own) (INT+40)
Deception (DEX+INT)
Dodge (DEX+DEX)
Driving (DEX+INT)
Engineering (INT)
Healing (INT+POW)
Influence (CHA+CHA)
Insight (POW+POW)
Language (Other) (INT)
Language (Own) (INT+40)
Locale (Region) (INT)
Lore (Type) (INT)
Mechanisms (DEX+INT)
Might (SIZ+STR)
Natural Lore (INT+POW)
Oratory (CHA+POW)
Perception (INT+POW)
Performance (Type) (CHA)
Persistence (POW+POW)
Ranged Combat (DEX+INT)
Religion (Other) (INT)
Religion (Own) (INT+40)
Resilience (CON+SIZ)
Riding (DEX+POW)
Sailing (DEX+INT)
Sorcery Casting (INT)
Streetwise (CHA+POW)
Survival (CON+INT)
Track (INT+POW)

Trade (CHA+INT)
Unarmed Combat (DEX+STR)

On the new and changed skills:

Athletics now covers anything that is a sustained action - aerobic activity. Running, swimming, climbing, digging, marching, carrying heavy things, it covers anything where your progress is primarily dependent on your muscular endurance. Brute force now becomes the core of the Might skill. This is so you can have characters who are good runners, climbers, etc. but who aren't powerlifter types and vice versa.

Animal Handling is for dealing with animals, especially animals you don't ride, and is part of a larger break-up of Natural Lore, which in base Openquest is too broad a skill, and therefore almost always a must-have. It swaps in for Influence and Healing when you're doing those things to animals, and also is the skill that lets you train / tame animals.

Craft (Job) is probably the smallest change, simply making the varieties more apparent in the skill name (a constant source of confusion for new players in my experience). Its baseline uses CON as well as INT to represent patience and determination, which are more important to completing crafting tasks than a particularly deft hand or keen eye.

Culture (Other), Language (Other), Locale (Region), Lore (Type), and Religion (Other) all work using variations on the house rules I have for Mythras. So for every 20% rating (rounded up), you have in the skill, you get another speciality that your skill applies to.

Engineering, the skill Newt has threatened to remove from OQ at least once for lack of anyone taking it, gets a bit of a do-over in my version. Now, it applies to building or repairing any complex structure or device larger than a person (so fixing your wagon is Engineering). It also serves as the "dungeoneering" skill that lets you determine slopes and directions in enclosed spaces, provides an alternate way to detect secret doors and compartments (beyond Perception) and allows you to measure or estimate distances accurately. It also covers surveying the outdoors.

Influence now deals with social situations where the number of people involved is small enough you can have a conversation or discussion, with Oratory dealing with larger groups.

Insight is the skill for reading emotions, sussing out hidden motives and desires, determining if someone is lying, figuring out likes and dislikes of someone, seeing through disguises, and the like. You can also use it to investigate bureaucracies or hierarchies to find out who is responsible for what. You can also use it to oppose Influence or Oratory tests, representing seeing through the other person's motivations instead of just stubbornly resisting them with Persistence. This is another gap in the base version of Openquest.

Language (Other) requires one change from stock Openquest. In the original version, where there were multiple language skills, you became literate in a language when your skill rating exceeded 80%. One quirk of this system was that starting characters were never literate in more than one language. Obviously, that won't work in a system using specialities. Instead, I would recommend treating the written and spoken versions of a language as different specialities. I think this gets across the quirks of language acquisition in real life more accurately anyhow - one might read a language fluently but have only a rough idea of how to pronounce the words or carry on a conversation (the difference in being able to read Chinese characters versus being able to speak Mandarin or Cantonese is illustrative of this).

Locale (Region) covers your knowledge of places, including geography, landmarks, climate, foreign affairs, broad history, and important individuals. Lore (History) would get you a deep dive into say, the role of salt in the evolution of trade networks, Locale (Region) lets you know that the city you're outside of is a famous salt market, the name of the river it runs past, and who's in charge of that market and river. This is another gap that's sort-of capable of being filled using existing Lores, but not well and not easily.

Might covers sudden bursts of power, throwing things, and breaking stuff. Any task prioritising muscular power over endurance will probably fall under Might instead of Athletics.

Natural Lore is broken up with Track, Survival, and Animal Handling becoming separate skills. Natural Lore is an amazing skill in stock Openquest because it's got so many disparate uses. Now, it covers plant identification and herbalism; mineral identification and spotting avalanches, fault lines, quicksand, and other dangerous terrains; predicting the weather and navigating overland. I think it's still a bit of a grab bag and a very good skill, but less obviously a "must-have".

Oratory is another social skill, covering addressing large groups of individuals - basically, any group where it's too large for a conversation. Oratory also differs from Influence in that it can get individuals to act against their own instinct for self-preservation - people can get swept up in the "madness of crowds".

Performance (Type) is another minor change similar to Craft (Job). The original skill's wording makes it unclear if you become skilled in all arts or just one. This makes it clear that you learn one.

Streetwise almost goes through the reverse of what happened with breaking up Natural Lore. It still covers finding fences and other criminal contacts, but this is expanded to finding any sort of contact or service in cities, legitimate or not. It also becomes the urban equivalent of the Survival and Track skills, and it covers information gathering, gossiping and rumour-mongering to those ends.

Survival is the survival function of Natural Lore hived off into its own skill. It covers finding food, water, protection from the elements, and related tasks (e.g. identifying if water is safe to drink) while in the wilderness. Even on its own, it's a pretty great skill.

Track covers tracking and pursuing people based on physical traces, primarily in wilderness settings. It's another very useful subcomponent of Natural Lore that's broken off into its own skill.

On changes to the attributes used to calculate the base of skills:

I broke skills up into three groups for this purpose. There are three "cultural familiarity" skills that are INT +40 - average starting characters will have a base of about 53% in these skills before spending points. There are also a bunch of practical skills that are based off the sum of two attributes. Average starting characters will have baselines of between 21% and 23% in these skills. Most of the skills with specialities and a few other skills that I thought were similar enough to them start off with just INT (or, in a lone case off just CHA) as their basis, giving an average starting character a rating of about 13% before points are spent on improvements.

One of my main goals was to get rid of the STAT+10 skill baselines since I've always had trouble remembering which ones are STAT+10 and which are just STAT. Numerically, the option I've outlined will be almost identical to them for characters with average starting stats. Another important goal was to bring a couple of attributes that otherwise aren't represented in the skill system very well into it. CON, POW and SIZ in particular crop up more frequently - POW in nine skills (mostly representing perceptiveness, intuition, or personal presence), CON in four skills, and SIZ in two.

On potential expansions yet:

I'm debating expanding the skill list to a full 40 skills. The main candidates are to split navigation off as a separate skill from Natural Lore; to split stealth off as a separate skill from Deception; to create a separate acrobatics skill from Athletics covering balance, poise, tumbling and other aspects of trained kinesthetic skill and agility; and to create a skill specifically covering lies and social deception that's distinct from either Influence or Deception (which is more sleight of hand and larceny and the like). It's the last one I'm not decided on, and I'd be open to other suggestions.

Nov 14, 2017

Abolishing Arguments

I like to play crunchy systems: Mythras, later D&D editions, Shadowrun, etc. I often play in groups where there are widely different levels of familarity and skill at using these systems. I also play in groups where individuals have widely different levels of trust and standards of politeness. Such is life as an adult roleplayer in high demand.

One of the things I try to avoid in games I run are rules arguments. One of the things I try to contain are rules disputes. A dispute is a polite, though perhaps passionate, disagreement over some factual or interpretive matter that strives for consensus or persuasion. "I thought this rule means...?" is the kind of statement you find in disputes. Arguments are the other sort of disagreement, the one where positions rapidly become intractable, where accusations fly between people, where sophistry doesn't so much creep in as kick down the door screaming, and where people are striving to explain why they are right and the other person is wrong and should be ashamed of ever having believed differently.

The lines between the two can be unclear at times, but a clear sign that one is in an argument instead of a dispute is that no one is asking questions that aren't rhetorical or sophistic. Another clear sign is the "gotcha" where the fact that someone is changing their position is treated as an indication of weakness rather than the goal of the interaction in the first place. These aren't exhaustive signs, there are a myriad of ways of indicating that you're acting in bad faith towards someone else (constant repetition of the same points but louder each time is another).

I'm sure we all try to avoid these and conduct ourselves as respectable adults fulfilling our ethical and epistemic obligations to others, but that doesn't actually mean they don't occur from time to time. Rules in particular can provoke these since they exist as an intersubjective reference that defines how things work in the shared narrative of the game, and losing a rules argument can feel like one has lost agency and some level of control over one's (fictional) life. I am certainly not a pedestal here, if anything I am particularly temperamentally prone to disputes and arguments and thus am particularly concerned with how to proactively manage and control them from dominating situations.

In games that I run, I often appoint a "rules coordinator" whose job is to resolve simple rules questions. I usually pick the player who has the most expertise with the rules, rather than simply the loudest opinion on what they should be. In games with individual experience, this person gains bonus XP whenever they resolve a rules question that another PC has. If no rule exists, I make one up, take the time to write it down on a sheet of paper we can all review, and then go forward using that, with any further review or revision taking place in between sessions based on conversations with players. These methods help nip most arguments and disputes in the bud. But not all of them, of course.

For disputes, I think the important thing is to contain the dispute and resolve it fairly and quickly, ideally with as little intervention or attention paid to it as possible. Voting by the players sometimes works, but can actually drag things out more as many people will want to share their opinion and position, or express support for someone else before you can actually tabulate the votes. As well, it can sometimes turn a dispute into an argument if one player believes everyone else is mistaken and picking on them. So a simple incentive I use instead is to hand out bonus XP to to whoever proposes a mutually agreeable solution, and if no one can, to whoever concedes first. Not a lot of bonus XP, but just enough to mollify the conceding side. In fact, I'll often start at a low number and bid it up slightly over time if both sides are being intractable. This method should not be kept secret from the players, and frequent reminders may be necessary during the early phases of implementation.

Arguments are a little trickier. If someone is a vexatious and repeated arguer, the easiest answer may be to boot them, but I find the severity and difficulty of this (as well as the frequent presence of interpersonal complications) actually produce a perverse incentive, where no specific incident can be pointed to as sufficiently severe on its own, and so actually booting the person never happens. I hear lots of people saying that they would do it, but little evidence that people actually do it all that often. So less severe, easier-to-implement, and hopefully more effective? methods seem like a good idea as a first step. I also tend to prefer giving people a chance to correct their behaviour, tho' that's a personal tendency that I don't claim anyone else need to value as much as I do.

Therefore, what I will do in a group which has one or more individuals prone to argument, is to simply offer bonus XP for each session in which no one argues. This starts as a low amount, and if people argue, it increases next session, until it reaches a level where no one argues or I dissolve the group in frustration. If anyone gets into an argument with anyone else, everyone forfeits the bonus XP. People don't have to avoid voicing their opinions or disagreeing with one another respectfully (that makes it a dispute, subject to the above resolution methods), but if the exchange is in bad faith, that XP is gone for everyone. I'll often give someone a reminder or warning if it looks like they're about to veer into an argument in these situations.

This introduces a certain shame factor into their conduct for the arguer, without operating directly through the very points and positions being debated in the argument. It won't stop people all the time, but it does provide a mild incentive that can be invoked, and that doesn't require them to "lose face" (it instead positions them as magnanimously setting aside their righteous blah blah for the good of everyone).

I mention rules arguments here because they're something that specifically comes to mind, but the same techniques are broadly applicable to disputes and arguments over the progression of the shared fiction itself outside of the rules, with perhaps a few others that are unique to the kinds of problems that occur there. Anyhow, if one has a particularly argumentative group for whatever reason, I suggest experimenting with these methods to see if they work for you.

Nov 5, 2017

Some 3.5 Diviner Spell Ideas

A friend of mine is starting up an offline campaign using D&D 3.5, a system I haven't used for anything in nearly five years, but that I played from 2003-2009 pretty regularly, and only stopped playing completely in mid-2012. I'm going to be playing a diviner. If you've played much D&D 3.5 as a spellcaster (especially an arcane one), you probably know that divination is the smallest school with the biggest gaps in its capabilities, which means any smart diviner player should spend a bit of time in character on spell research. I can't find my old 3.5 notes (long since thrown out, I suspect), so here are some ideas I've had for spells over the years that I still remember. Some of them are slightly better than similar spells in the PHB II in particular (which had a bunch of really terrible divination spells in it) though nothing's a straight copy of anything I've seen anywhere else. A bunch of them are more useful for social stuff and roleplaying than for dungeon exploration per se. This list goes up to 5th level here, I'm still doing some thinking around higher-level divinations.

Cantrips (0th level):

Count - Medium range, 1 standard action, instant, V, S. Caster receives a count of all objects of a specified type within range. Does not reveal location or distance, only presence

The Time - Self range, 1 standard action, instant, V. The caster knows what time it is, using whatever measurement method is most meaningful to them.

Weatherman - Special, 1 standard action, instant, V, S. Caster knows what the natural weather will be like within a cylinder 1 mile in radius / level and centred on them, up to a number of days in the future equal to their level.

1st Level:

Calculate - Touch range, 1 standard action, instant, V, S. The caster touches a proposition or equation previously written down in a formal notation, and the correct answer or derivation appears below or beside it. The spell does not supply more information than was initially given - undefined variables remain variables, while supplying actual values produces an answer with the same.

Collapsing Favour - Medium range, 1 standard action, # of rounds = level, V, S, M. Designate a target (save allowed). Every missed attack on that target by the caster or their allies after the spell is cast grants a cumulative +1 insight bonus to hit and damage to all further attacks against it until it's hit by an attack. (e.g. one attack missed means +1, two missed attacks means +2, etc.) The material component is an albatross feather

Detect Life - Close range, 1 standard action, 1 round / level V, S, M.The caster can detect lifeforms of Tiny-size or larger within a 90-degree cone up to the range of the spell. By concentrating for one round, the caster can determine either number or the types, and may spend a second round to determine the other.

Flash of Insight - Self range, 1 standard action, instant, V. +10 insight bonus on one Knowledge check (even if not trained in it) or one Sense Motive check.

2nd Level:

Greatest Fear - Close range, 1 standard action, concentration, V, S. Spend 1 round to discover the greatest fear or concern a sentient creature has (save allowed). Can shift to a new creature each round, max # of creatures scanned = level.

Heart's Desire - Close range, 1 standard action, concentration V, S. Spend 1 round to discover the thing a sentient creature wants most (save allowed). Can shift to a new creature each round, max # of creatures scanned = level.

Liar's Tremble - Close range, 1 standard action, 1 turn per level, V, S, M. The caster asks the target one question (it may save) in a language it understands. It must either answer the question truthfully and correctly, or be dazed until the end of the spell. The question does not need to be one it can reasonably be expected to know the answer to. The material component is a

3rd Level:

Greater Flash of Insight - Self range, 1 standard action, instant, V. +20 insight bonus on any one Knowledge check (even if not trained in it) or one Sense Motive check.

Penetrating Vision - Close range, 1 standard action, concentration. The caster can see through inanimate objects within a 45-degree cone (magical objects may save). If more than one intervening barrier or object is within the area of effect, the caster may choose to "tune" the spell each round to only render some transparent, allowing them to read the pages of a closed book, examine the contents of a sealed chest, or book. Creatures may save to avoid having their personal equipment penetrated. Caster has line of sight but not necessarily line of effect to any creatures revealed, and the area revealed is not lit by the spell.

4th Level:

Darkvision, Mass - Touch, 1 standard action, 1 hour / level. The caster and up to 1 ally / per level that they touch when casting the spell has darkvision to 60' until the spell ends.

Decrypt - Touch, 1 full-round action, 1 page or inscription / level. The caster touches a piece of coded writing, and the text appears in their mind decoded. This spell does not translate the writing.

Retrocognition - Close range, 1 full-round action, concentration. [Scrying] The caster names a time in the past and receives a vision of what happened at their present location from that point forward, for as long as they concentrate, in real time. i.e. Concentrating for one round shows one round, concentrating for one turn shows one turn. Every minute watched requires a concentration check, starting at DC 10 and adding +5 for each additional minute that has passed. The vision includes auditory, olfactory, and visual components.

Psychometry - Touch, 1 full-round action, 1 question / level. The caster handles an inanimate object and is able to derive insight into its past. They may ask one question per caster level about the object's history (i.e. its place of creation, its age, or prior shapes it may have had), about the object's owners (i.e. how many it has had, who its last owner was, etc.) or about events it was directly involved in (i.e. a dagger about a murder it was used it). The answer to any given questions is either a short single sentence or a brief dreamy vision (DM's choice).

5th Level:

Analyse Material - Close range, 1 standard action, instant. The caster knows the composition and properties of the substance of any one object within range. This information is as detailed as the technical knowledge of the caster allows. A caster with knowledge of the periodic table would receive a molecular breakdown as part of their knowledge, while one with an Empedoclean conception of physics would understand it in those terms. The caster also learns whether the substance is poisonous, alive, magical (but not the details of the enchantment), radioactive, etc.

Architect's Bane - Long range, 1 full-round action, instant. The caster points at one building and receives a vision of its layout accurate enough to draw maps from. Only permanent physical features of the building (its walls, roof, fountains, etc.) are shown, not furniture or inhabitants. This knowledge includes secret doors and compartments. It will not show an area warded against divination, encased in 1" or more of lead, or any area containing an anti-magic shell.