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

Welcome!

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!

Jul 1, 2018

Players Tracking the Damage They've Done + a New Role for PCs

Matt Colville has this video with some good advice on the logistics of running monster encounters. It also introduces a new PC role: the "monster wrangler" who is responsible for assisting the referee in moving the monsters and tracking their various abilities etc.

Colville also has this video where he recommends having PCs track the damage they've dealt to monsters, which I agree with (I also have PCs record and track initiative). If you're concerned about resistances and the like and aren't able to wrangle the mathematical tool Colville describes, you can have the PCs use 3 colours to write down damage. Blue, black and pencil works fine. One colour should be damage types they're weak against, one types they're resistant to, and one colour should be damage that's neither. You can change up which colour is which from each encounter so the PCs don't automatically know that "blue" means "bonus damage".

This is a good addition to the list of possible PC roles you can use, which currently runs:

Caller
Guard
Mapper
Monster Wrangler
Note-Taker
Quartermaster
Rules Coordinator
Timekeeper

Jun 17, 2018

A Proposal for Designing Rules

My proposal is that the referee ought to:

1) Keep track of recurring questions that the PCs ask them
2) Decide whether these have interesting but uncertain answers
3) Establish rules that balance PC agency and randomness for the ones that do
4) Explicitly dismiss the ones that don't have interesting answers as irrelevant to play

This sounds simple and yet is widely ignored in actual rules design. For example, one can find dozens of minor tweaks of how combat works in various versions of D&D, but very few designers have developed anything covering "Can we find a good spot to camp for the night?" One might say that's not an interesting question, though that position is difficult to maintain if one is also rolling encounter checks overnight.

A few years ago, I created my own rules for chases because I found that despite the frequency that chases appeared both in games and in related material, no one really wrote rules that covered them very well (a few people had written rules for fleeing that resolved doing so in a single roll and were mainly intended to be used by the PCs when fleeing monster).

On particularly appalling oversight is lacking teamwork rules. "Can I help?" is such a common question PCs ask, and yet anything other than a blind methodological individualism is uncommon. Long-time readers will remember that I was shocked to discover that the One Ring game doesn't even have rules for PCs to help one another with ordinary tasks. I've spent a lot of time coming up with teamwork rules for Mythras, Openquest, and Into the Depths because their absence in other games drove me up the wall.

I think there are many more examples of recurring questions at tables that have no rules or procedures to resolve them that probably should, and that effort to design new rules would probably be much better spent on them than elsewhere.

May 15, 2018

Making Rivers on Hex Maps

This post is so simple that it's almost cheating. In case you hadn't already thought of doing it, you can use the procedure outlined in my post on making paths through the wilderness to also generate rivers courses in hex maps. You can do this ahead of time or during play, as you prefer.

To make your rivers a little straighter, I suggest rotations of the d4 be to the second-next clockwise face that doesn't currently have a path on it (instead of just the next clockwise face, as per when you're creating paths).

I also suggest that any time you either generate something that looks absurd or that has 3+ streams flowing into a single hex, you make it a little pond or lake. Hexes adjacent to water-filled hexes count as having one stream flowing into them across the adjacent face if you're rolling for rivers. This will give you a handful of lakes and ponds of varying sizes.

I come from Canada, which has most (in the sense of a slight absolute majority) of the world's lakes,  so I always think fantasy maps don't have enough open bodies of water of significant size on them, but this is a bit of an idiosyncrasy. If you do this procedure a few times across the length of the map, you'll eventually end up with a nice hydrological basin with rivers and lakes all connected up.

May 9, 2018

Into the Depths: Errata Already

Beloch of Papers and Pencils (one of the original playtesters) very kindly walked me through a number of ambiguous wordings and suggested some minor rules changes for Into the Depths. I'm grateful for his keen eye, and have incorporated most of them in. As a result, eight days after my first major update to the rule system in two years, here is the new version of Into the Depths incorporating Beloch's suggestions and a few minor changes I decided on after hitting publish last time.

Most of the changes are very minor. You'll notice slightly clearer wording in the grappling section, the sections where carrying capacity is explained (backpacks now let you carry 8 + / - Armour Mod. items, with special Frame Packs adding +3 to that capacity), auction catalogues let you assess the value of things slightly more easily, and some minor formatting, punctuation and phrasing changes in a few tables and other sections. I also removed a rules loophole Beloch spotted, where you could spend a day creating a new spell and suddenly gain half a level repeatedly. That's been changed so that creating spells no longer qualifies, only creating magical artifacts does.

If you're not sure what version of Into the Depths you have, I've been date-coding them for a while, so this update is 20180509, versus the version without errata, which is 20180501.

May 1, 2018

Happy May Day: New Into the Depths

It's May Day today, and in the spirit of the day, here's a brand new expanded version of Into the Depths for free! (Link is to a downloadable pdf on Google Drive) (2018-05-11 edit: I've now changed the link to the newest version incorporating errata)

Into the Depths is my "core" ruleset for playing old school fantasy adventure games, as conveyed in four densely written pages. I've been running and playing in games using it for a little over two years now, and this is the first major revision since 2016, with the revisions based on my experiences playtesting it over that period.

Into the Depths might be the game for you if you're looking for a low magic rules-set that mechanically encourages dynamic fights and chases and that has a stellar gear list that serves in place of a power or magic system in most instances.

New material includes:
More gear options
More secret fighting techniques to learn
A magic system
An updated levelling rubric
The ability to be bad at things
Rule sections rewritten for clarity and ease of use
Numerous tweaks to the mathematical structures

One last change is that I'm opening up the copyleft on it further. Previous versions of Into the Depths were available under a noncommercial Creative Commons license. This newest revision is now available for commercial use (with attribution) for anyone who would like to publish and sell works using it as the ruleset.

Apr 24, 2018

Into the Depths: The Long-Awaited Magic Rules

I'm writing up some magic rules for Into the Depths finally. I'm drawing on a bunch of ideas that Beloch of Papers and Pencils (Magic Words), and Courtney Campbell of Hack & Slash and Benjamin Baugh (Spell power as trappings) have each developed, but using variations on those ideas within as simple a system as possible.

Here's the draft text of the Into the Depths magic rules. The list of magic words itself is forthcoming, I'm still deciding how fine a grain I want on the terms, and what selection will be most evocative and useful for referees and players thinking of coming up with their own.

Magic

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 induction. Levels 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.

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 for whatever price they want.

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

6) Effects: Negotiate with referee during spell creation. A typical spell targets one thing within 30m and either causes 1 instantaneous change or has effects that last 1 hr.

Magic Trappings

This is a selection of possible trappings, not an exhaustive list. Each type of trapping grants one additional spell per day.

Assistant / Apprentice Must also be initiated into same mystery cult. Can be another PC. Must spend an action helping cast.
Bric-a-Brac An accumulation of wizardly garbage: Stuffed alligators, jars of spider legs, etc.
Drugs / Mana One-use, usable only once per day. Save or hallucinate. Small item.
Familiar Counts as henchman who is of no combat value and full of sass. Unbuyable, must be recruited.
Grimoire A magical book full of cryptic suggestions, bizarre claims, and unsettling illustrations. Cost based on title.
Idol The creepier the better. Not normally portable.
Locus / Sanctum A sanctified and prepared location that focuses mystical energy. Not portable.
Obsession Unbuyable. Spell gained through obsession can only be cast to effect object of obsession.
Panoply / Regalia Priestly or wizardly robes, hat, etc. Cannot be worn with armour.
Sacrifice One-use, usable only once per day. Sacrifice a sentient being’s life. Usually unbuyable.
Staff / Athame Counts as two-handed weapon (staff) or small weapon (athame). Must be in hand when casting.
Talisman A cauldron, mirror, amulet, etc. that serves as a focus. Must be used to cast the spell.

And then, from the experience rules, because someone will ask if I don't mention it:

"3) PCs can be inducted into a mystery cult or magical tradition. This takes 3 months of training under a master, 10,000 SP, and completion of an initiatory task to be determined by your master. Gaining more levels of initiation requires a PC to complete more tasks and pay an additional 10,000 SP and spend three months training each time.

4) It takes one month and 2,000 SP to develop a new magic word of the PC’s choice, if a PC is capable of casting spells."

Apr 1, 2018

The Pack of Lies: Backstory as Equipment and Resource

I've been thinking a fair bit about backstories lately because I just started playing a D&D 3.5 campaign on a bimonthly basis with a group composed of two published authors (one is me), the former editor of a literary magazine, a librarian, and a video game writer, all people who as you might imagine have strong connections to literature. The game is strongly focused on narrative development, driven by proactive character decision making, and is in a way the best possible version of what something like AD&D 2nd edition and the whole "silver age" of RPGs aspired for.

We had a couple of months of prep between when we first sat down as a group to discuss potentially playing a campaign together and when we held our first session (a few weeks ago). Part of the prep included a questionnaire about our characters for us to fill out, and I basically ended up writing 5400 words of backstory for my character. I became the very "12-page backstory" guy that I've mocked in the past. While the referee of this campaign encouraged that and loved the backstory, as a referee I find the prospect of close reading, annotating and then summarising sixty-odd pages of half-complete amateur narrative dreadful.

In Necrocarcerus, PCs begin without backstories or histories, and they get them by finding and consuming "nepenthe", a distillate produced from brain juice that contains their memories from when they were alive. You can, of course, drink someone else's nepenthe and get their memories and thus their "backstory". On a related note, "experience points" from slaying monsters were also obtained by drinking their brain juice, which was essentially an undistilled version of the same fluid. I did this because Necrocarcerus is partially a parody of the tropes of Dungeons and Dragons, and I wanted to riff off the joke that PCs are often "murderhobos" lacking a backstory situating them in the world.

When we encounter "backstory" in narratives, it is almost always in the form of a narration delivered by a character during the actual story. It's backstory because it's a supplement to the narrative that precedes it and clarifies it, but the events of it are already completed. Authors have all sorts of clever tricks for introducing this material - characters in ancient epics brag about their past deeds as a prelude to boasting about their future accomplishments, while intellectuals in experimental novels cite one another's fake books, and detectives in noir novels muse about their past cases. In fact, the most derided way of presenting this material is probably the form most backstories actually take - supplementary, secondary documents that don't take into account the main narrative they're meant to be supplements for.

So getting away from that, I'm interested in a backstory system for use in my games that does a couple of things. I want backstories that are presented diegetically in the game, that are optional but that do reward players who come up with them, and that have different levels of player agency involved in generating them.

In Into the Depths, almost everything one can do is represented by a piece of gear, so here's some gear that ties into generating backstories.

Diary / Journal - Once per expedition you go on with a journal, you can choose to be Good At something. You must tell everyone an anecdote from your journal about why you're Good At this thing. This lasts for the rest of the expedition. If you lose your diary, leave it behind in town while you go on an expedition, etc. then an embarrassing anecdote gets out as someone takes the opportunity to peek inside. You lose your Good At and gain a permanent Bad At. If you make up the embarrassing anecdote, you get to pick the Bad At, if the referee has to, they get to pick what you're Bad At.

S'mores - When you camp with a fire and someone has s'mores in their gear, each PC who wishes may tell one anecdote about their character's life prior to play, and in exchange, they become Good At one thing related to the anecdote. Anecdotes need not be true. This effect lasts until they use the Good At once, at which time it fades. One can only receive a benefit from one s'mores at a time.

Self-Published Memoir - Cost to have it printed is calculated based on its actual title, which must include at least one colon and two adjectives. Carrying a copy of your self-published memoir allows you reroll a save whenever you can relate an anecdote about your past that explains your resilience. "Inspiring" anecdotes grant an additional +1 on the reroll.

Lucky Charm - You can only have one lucky charm active at a time. You must explain why it is lucky for your character. It grants a +1 to one kind of roll (same scope as Good Ats). If you ever lose it, you have -1 to that kind of roll until you recover or replace it.

Mar 6, 2018

Good RPGs for New Players


I'd like to suggest some good "starter" roleplaying games for new players who don't have a group of more experienced players to learn from. There's been huge growth in the number of people interested in playing RPGs thanks to streaming video of sessions and from mentions in popular media like Stranger Things and Community. Not all of those people will be able to find existing groups to join, and many will have to put together a group of people who've never played before to learn together. 27 years ago, when I first started playing RPGs, I was in the same boat, so I'm sympathetic to people facing the challenge of picking it all up on your own.

One, probably controversial assumption, that I'll be working from is that I think newer players tend to appreciate systems that provide lots of clear guidelines for how to do things, rather than rules-light systems that don't provide much guidance for what to do, especially when you have an inexperienced referee who isn't used to making judgement calls and house-ruling smoothly.

I'm also going to stick with systems that are currently in print, because I don't think sending people who have a casual interest in trying roleplaying thanks to a Youtube video on a bug-hunt through secondhand bookshops is a good introduction to the hobby. I'm also sticking to games I've actually played in some form. Also, with the exception of D&D, I'm going to try to stick to the cheaper end of the hobby, since asking someone to drop more than a hundred bucks for something they don't even know if they'll like doing is unfair.

So here's my list:



For science fiction games:

Stars Without Number Revised - Quick character creation and simple rules, while the adventure creation system is easy to use for new referees, and teaches them how to construct stories with minimal fuss. New referees are most likely to have trouble figuring out the experience and wealth subsystems, which are at least clearer than they were in the previous version of the game.

Cepheus - Character creation is a fun minigame, and the premise (you're petty-bourgeois speculators trying to stay ahead of debt in the far future) is easy to get. The text doesn't always explain itself super well, so expect a few delays on your first attempts at creating characters or vehicles, but the rest of the system is fairly easy to figure out. Go with Cepheus over Stars Without Number if you've got a lot of players with STEM backgrounds who want harder SF.

Diaspora - A great system for teaching people how to collaboratively build worlds and stories, with lots of minigames and mechanics that repeat in various ways across them. A great choice if you've got some players with really strong ideas either about the world or their characters going into the game. Some people can't wrap their head around FATE or the mapping components of this game, so if you're going to run into trouble, it'll be there.


For fantasy games:

Beyond the Wall - Get the Further Afield supplement and all the free playbooks as well. The game setup is a fantastic example of collaborative world- and party-building. The fronts and scenario packs are really good for new referees trying to figure out how to link together a bunch of sessions into a story. The simple premise is easy for new PCs to understand. I wrote a review praising it, and I stand by my conclusions there.

Labyrinth Lord + Yoon-Suin - I narrowly favoured this over Labyrinth Lord + Red Tide, but either would be good options. Yoon-Suin gives you a lot of different settings with generators and rules for running each one that differ slightly. While the weirdness might take some getting used to, the system for generating adventures based off of the PCs' social circles is really good, and I'm surprised more game writers don't adapt it. It also gives a new referee a fairly clear idea of how to generate and run the various campaign options it contains.

Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition - This one's fairly obvious. The part most likely to trip up a new referee is getting a handle on how the encounter-building process works, and learning what the magic and powers let PCs do. Mostly important, Dungeons and Dragons' core books tend to be written with the default assumption that the person picking them up doesn't know anything about RPGs, and while it won't give anyone masterful insights into how to play, the game covers the essentials well.


Assorted other genres:

Other Dust - if space opera isn't your thing, Other Dust is basically the original edition of Stars Without Number (mentioned above), but with mechanics to run it as a postapocalytpic game instead of as a space opera. Same strengths, same weaknesses.

Rifts - Rifts is simultaneously a western game, a fantasy game, a science fiction game, and a horror game all rolled up into one gonzo mess. It's fiddly and complicated. It's also great, and an incredibly popular introductory RPG. I started playing RPGs myself nearly thirty years ago using a derivative of it called "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness" back during the Ninja Turtles craze of the early 1990s.

Further suggestions are welcome in the comments / on G+ as always.

Feb 21, 2018

Into the Depths: Your Feedback

So I'm soliciting your feedback, internet community, on Into the Depths (link is to pdf download). For those just tuning in, Into the Depths is a classless, attributeless retroclone that I wrote at the end of 2016 that incorporates most of my favourite houserules from years in OSR games. It should be compatible with almost any d20-lite ruleset (Swords and Wizardry, Microlite20, etc.). I spent 2017 playtesting it, and I have some ideas for new material for an upcoming revision, but I thought I'd ask you, the wider old-school D&D community, to take a look at it and collect your feedback.

I'm particularly interested in any parts you think need clarification, expansion, or simplification in the rules as written.

Here's a link to some of the changes I'm planning to make based on my own playtest of it. I'm also planning to condense the experience milestones into a smaller list, add some overland travel rules, and a magic system of some sort. This will eventually become the core system of Necrocarcerus if I ever publish that setting, and it's creative commons so you can use or adapt it for your own ends as well.

Feb 19, 2018

Science Fiction Skills for Openquest

Following up on these changes to Openquest's skill system, here's a list of possible skills that should be added to the skill list for science fiction games. Many of them are drawn from the Mythras science fiction skill list. I'm mainly interested in moderately-hard science fiction stuff, so there's no "Psionics" or the like. Obviously, I'd recommend removing Sorcery Casting as a skill in a sci-fi game.

New Skill Additions

Communications (INT x2)
Computers (INT + CON)
Explosives (DEX + INT)
Gunnery (DEX + INT)
Piloting (DEX + INT)
Scanning (INT x 2)
Science (INT x 2)
Social Engineering (CHA + INT)

Skills Changed for a Science Fiction Setting

Athletics
Driving
Engineering
Locale (Region)
Mechanisms

New Skill Descriptions


Communications covers using complex communications mechanisms like encrypted radio transmissions, tight-beam lasers or entangled photonic systems. Communications also covers encryption/decryption, using ECM / ECCM suites, and is the skill used for issuing orders to autonomous drones, vehicles, and robots.

Computers
covers programming, hacking, data retrieval, and performing other tasks involve a computer's software systems. It's also used for setting up behaviour trees for autonomous systems (e.g. security systems, autonomous drones, etc.). Computers uses CON as one of its relevant stats because almost anything you'd want to do with it is an extended task requiring focus and concentration over long periods.

Explosives
covers deploying, detonating, and defusing explosive devices. Rocket launchers and other guns that shoot explosive rounds are covered by Ranged Combat or Gunnery. Grenades, IEDs and demolition-charges are Explosives. The skill also covers analysing or identifying explosives and their aftermaths.

Gunnery covers using, reloading, and repairing weapons systems that don't use direct sights to aim, ranging from artillery to air-to-air missiles to ICBMs and installation-based rail guns. It is used by drones and other autonomous vehicles and robots to fire, and is used in most vehicular combat.

Piloting
covers operating vehicles in three dimensions, whereas Driving covers vehicles that operate in two dimensions. Piloting is used for manoeuvring during vehicle combat, for astrogation and for space travel. Piloting is also used to remotely operate drones.

Scanning is the use and interpretation of complex scanning equipment whether these devices are hand-held or vehicle-mounted. Any device that returns results more complicated than a false-colour picture (e.g. thermal vision or low-light amplification) uses Scanning instead of Perception. Scanning is now also the skill used for surveying, replacing Engineering's role.

Science covers scientific knowledge, versus Lore which covers other kinds of knowledge (the humanities). Science uses specialities, so each 20% or fraction thereof in the skill grants another speciality.

Social Engineering allows a PC to engage in politics on a mass level. It deals with analysing and changing belief systems and ideologies through the use of propaganda and other means of mass communication. Influence covers changing an individual or small group's beliefs, Oratory covers a larger group, and Social Engineering works on the level of entire societies.

Changed Skill Descriptions

Athletics now also includes all zero-g / EVA manoeuvring in space.

Driving now explicitly covers all vehicles that operate in two dimensions, ranging from chariots to cars, trucks, and buses. Hovering vehicles with relatively fixed altitudes (skimmers, etc.) and humanoid robots are handled with Driving as well.

Engineering is now a speciality skill, and covers constructing or repairing any machine larger than a person, from groundcars and security systems to fusion plants and FTL drives. It also includes architectural analysis (Is the floor sloped? What's the gravity in this station? Are there secret doors here? etc.) and design. Surveying is now part of Scanning.

Locale (Region)
has only a minor change, in that "region" should be interpreted broadly to include larger areas than a medieval person would mean by that term. A space explorer might have Locale (Mars) or in a game of sufficiently grand scale, Locale (Sol System).

Mechanisms now includes the ability to build, repair, and subvert electronic and electrical systems as well as mechanical ones.

Feb 8, 2018

Into the Depths: Knowledge as Gear

In Feuerberg, I got rid of knowledge skills and added books to the gear list instead. If you carried a book (one of six to nine gear slots you might have), you could read it as you went and ask questions about the topic, and there was a chance (usually on a 4+ or 5+ 6) that it would answer the question. If you wanted to play a smart character who knew a lot of stuff it was easy enough - just carry a lot of books around with you. In theory it took a turn of reading to answer any question, though I was sometimes a bit flexible about this.

I liked this system a lot because it turned knowledge into a scarce commodity by tying it into two of the existing subsystems that govern scarcity (the marketplace of gear, and encumbrance). It also allowed encouraged PCs to plan ahead about what topics they thought might be relevant, while giving them flexibility about what they could know, instead of investing a ton of skill points or training into knowledges that might not turn out to be useful. I think most of its faults in practice (which were few) were the result of me not being consistent or investing enough time in producing possible book suggestions on my end.

One of the meta-game structures of Into the Depths is that instead of a ton of powers from magic, or your species and class, or some other intrinsic aspect of you, most of your "powers" are either obtained or enhanced by gear. The idea is that you explore a dungeon or wilderness area using your gear until you reach a set of obstacles that you can't overcome with your current gear, then go back to your home base, change out your gear load, rest up, and go on with the expedition until you hit another set of obstacles you needed new gear for, etc. I tried in Feuerberg, not always successfully, to often have treasure apparent but requiring special gear to extract. e.g. a fossil embedded in a boulder that would be extremely valuable but requiring you to bring along special tools to cut it out without damaging it.

Books as gear are meant to play into this cycle. You encounter some incomprehensible gibberish in a long dead language no one speaks - get a book on the subject and decipher it. You want to know what kinds of monsters are roaming around (i.e. are on the wandering monster tables)? Get a book on the subject and read it. You want to build a fortress? Better read a book or two on architecture.

To enhance this in future games of Into the Depths, there are three changes I'd make to the initial idea. The first is to simply add more books covering doing more stuff. Cracking codes, deciphering languages, explaining how to build complex mechanical devices like traps or certain machines, etc. This is in addition to books that just straight up answer questions on archaeology or geology or whatever.

The second change is to introduce expendability to books. I like the idea of a usage die but I think it'll be complicated to track, so I'm just going to have each book capable of answering 1d6 questions on a given topic before it's exhausted. Once it's gone, you have to buy a different book, even if you want more information on the same topic. This helps prevent PCs from sitting around asking infinite questions while they're on the expedition and have the book in their possession, as well as effectively dealing with the question of what they can do with the books during their downtime (they can exhaust all of the questions a given book can answer, which is what they were going to try to do anyhow). Rare books you get as treasure might allow for more questions.

The third change is to introduce differences in quality. This will take two forms. The first is whether the books allow you to a 5+ or a 4+ on a d6, with better books (more expensive or harder to find) allowing success on the lower rolls. The second is that basic books cover one topic, but better books can cover multiple topics. This means you can haul along more knowledge without more encumbrance.

Some book ideas (all work on a result of 5+ on 1d6):

Cryptography manual -  Decipher codes you encounter
Phrasebook - Speak a language you don't know
Grimtooth's Traps - Design and build an overly elaborate trap
Farmer's Almanac - Predict the next day's weather
Code of Law - Bullshit your way out of legal troubles
Bestiary - Fill in boxes on the wandering monster table ahead of time
Collector's Catalogue - Appraise the value of non-monetary treasures
Herbarium - Identify helpful and dangerous plants you encounter

Jan 26, 2018

Literacy Specialties in Mythras

I want to apply the specialities concept to the Literacy skill in the Dawnlands (my Mythras iron-age central Asian-inflected setting), but without simply having it be a repeat of the specialities of the Language skill. A simple repeat of the same specialities would just turn Literacy into a skill tax imposed on PCs. I also think it's pretty boring.

I also think we need to avoid the obvious extension of it, which is to separate the ability to interpret and decipher writing in a particular form into speech. I initially made this error and had five different alphabets, syllabaries, abugidas and pictograms, which Literacy would let you turn into something you then needed a Language skill to make sense of. I think this would increase referee cognitive load in planning and preparation, without adding much to the game.

You, my well-educated audience, may have already encountered the idea of "literacies" in contemporary educational theory. This is often used in the context of explaining various digital media competencies, but I think elements of this can be projected backwards in time, and laterally, for our purpose, to make the Literacy skill interesting and fun. To tip my hand, I want to expand the Literacy to cover a variety of hermeneutic practices, of which reading plain text on a page is only one example. Literacy now becomes the skill of interpreting symbol sets other than speech. I do want to be careful not to step too far into the domains of other skills and replacing the need for Customs, Culture, Lore or Art, but I think there are a few pieces that could fall under Literacy or one of these skills that we ought to bring under the Literacy skill.

NB: Along with allowing you to decipher the types of texts below, I think that in many cases Literacy should also cover producing examples of them.

Here's a brief list of ideas of interpretive practices that might be important to someone in a fantastical pseudo-ancient or pseudo-medieval setting.

1) Reading out loud
2) Codes and ciphers
3) Dreams, omens, oracles
4) Technical, mathematical, and scientific jargon and diagrams
5) Financial and legal records and accounts
6) Reading silently
7) Magical writing (or this may be a subset of #4)
8) Maps & calendars

A brief justification for each of these as ideas:

Reading out loud and reading silently are separate developments historically, as weird as it may seem to a modern person trained in doing both from a relatively young age. It seems like in the Western world, reading silently emerges shortly after monasticism, as part of the contemplative practices of monks. Until that point, so far as we can tell, people mostly read things aloud, even when they were reading for themselves. Breaking them up as specialties is a minor but fun idea with the effect of estranging the setting in a subtle way for players.

Codes and ciphers represents the ability to encipher and decipher texts written in codes and ciphers. It's handy and it doesn't cleanly fall under any other skill unless you make up a Lore speciality covering it. If you have "thieves guilds" or the like, you might want to make up a separate speciality for their specific codes, but I think the narrower this speciality, the less useful it is.

Dreams, omens, and oracles are in the representations we have from the ancient world almost always vague, riddle-like things that require expert interpretation, and dramatically much can turn on the ambiguous possibilities of an oracle or omen. I think this should also cover things like astrological charts, hexagrams from the I Ching, and the markings on the intestines of sheep. I think this is, like literacy in codes and ciphers, rapidly becomes less important or useful the more narrow it is (i.e. just interpreting dreams or just interpreting sheep intestines or just looking at chickens pecking grain out of a grid).

If you've ever tried to read an old mathematical or technical manuscript, you probably understand why this is distinct from one's familiarity with the scientific concept under discussion, or one's ability to read the plain text of the manuscript. For that matter, if you've ever seen two people quibble over what a blueprint means, you've probably had the same experience. Diagrams can be surprisingly ambiguous, especially if it's stylised so that particular design choices are intended to cover specific information rather than serve as a picture. It's also less relevant in an ancient or medieval setting, but I think reading graphs probably falls at least partly under this speciality as well. Whether you want to make a "high-falutin' writin'" speciality that combines this with the no doubt extremely similar problems of interpreting magical writings is your preference. I would separate them into two specialities mainly as a matter of personal taste.

Financial records and accounts remain a specialised form of literacy with entire certified professions dedicated to them (accountants, stockbrokers, etc.). Understanding them is distinct from mathematical knowledge per se (which I think is properly one or more Lore specialities). Historically, this type of writing precedes the others - records of debts and receipts are the oldest writing we can find evidence of. Legal records and documents, which are often tax records of some sort historically, are similarly obtuse and impenetrable even if one has a rough and ready sense of what the actual law applying to a situation is. You may want to roll these under the Commerce and Bureaucracy skill, respectively. Mythras doesn't have a forgery skill, and allowing this as a speciality allows you to make a forger, which I think is something PCs want to do often enough that it's worth having a special skill covering.

Maps and calendars are really two different types of literacy in real life (interpreting abstract spatial representations and abstract temporal relations), and understanding them were specialised skills historically. Thucydides found calendars in contemporary Athens so confusing that he simply invented his own method of tracking time in his historical work. How to calculate the exact date of Easter is a perennial dispute amongst the Christian sects even now. I'm not sure either kind of literacy is quite useful enough to be worth a speciality on its own, but together they're fairly handy, especially since having them as a Literacy speciality should allow a PC to produce them.

NB: I considering reading maps quite different than the Navigation skill, since the later covers going to places, and maps do all sorts of things other than guide you somewhere (here's a neat one that's useless for navigation).

Some of these might reasonably be Lore specialities instead of Literacy specialities. But, I think one thing to bear in mind if one is using the specialities system is that getting more than 5 specialities in a particular skill is a challenge because of the difficulty of acquiring skill ratings above 100%. So loading some potential Lore capabilities onto Literacy means that characters don't have to sacrifice one of their Lore specialities to get ahold of them, and can instead raise their Literacy skill (which is often surprisingly low).

Other than the ones listed above, I'm open to suggestions for other Literacy specialities.

Jan 23, 2018

Self-Plug: My Essay in Megadungeon #2

Courtney Campbell's Megadungeon #2 zine is out. I contributed an essay that's basically a cleaned-up and consolidated version of my blog posts on wandering monster tables and restocking dungeons that should be easier to follow and use. If you're looking for all of that in a single easily-referenced spot, you might want to check out the zine (it's got a bunch of other good stuff in it as well).

I got paid (very fairly) a per-word fee for the article, so sales won't benefit me, but I think Courtney's doing good work with the Megadungeon series (issue #1 here), and I'm probably going to be contributing to future issues as ideas come to me, so I encourage you to check it out.

Jan 8, 2018

The Disruptors' Plans

One of the great mysteries left to referees to decide on in Luther Arkwright campaigns is what the larger master plan of the Disruptors is. This is partly because the source material doesn't specify it, and partly so you can make it whatever you want it to be in your own campaigns. I did some thinking about it based on playing a bunch of Luther Arkwright and planning a bunch of one-shots, and wanted to lay out what I decided what I think makes sense in the sort of games I'm interested in running. The idea of all of the following is to give one ideas for Luther Arkwright plots that Valhalla agents can stop, in case that isn't apparent.

In broad strokes, I see the Disruptors are trying to collapse all of the infinite possibilities of the multiverse into one parallel, one where they are utterly triumphant and all-powerful. Once they have discovered this parallel, they will destroy all other parallels and become gods in the remaining universe.

To do this, they undertake several kinds of large-scale missions and campaigns.

1) Destroy parallels with a low-probability of becoming the "right" one, ideally after first harvesting all useful resources from them. This releases the psionic energy bound up in the parallel and distributes it back across the multiverse. These sorts of parallels are also probably the ones where they're doing their most strenuous and large-scale experimentation, like running genocidal eugenics programs on entire worlds to see if they can improve the rate at which psychics are born, or

2) Testing different historical developments to see which increases the probability of a parallel becoming their ideal-universe. This means both encouraging convergent developments that they know increase their possibility of success, while experimenting with new developments and new parallels to ensure they are not stuck in a local pseudo-stable maxima (that is, a course of development that seems to be progressing in the right direction but which ultimately turns out to plateau before success is reached).

3) Experimenting with the occasional high-risk, high-reward, parallel in case doing so pays off (parallels where aliens powerful to challenge them exist, parallels with lots of psionically-aware people, technologically advanced parallels sufficient to compete with them scientifically and militarily, etc.).

4) Infiltrating parallels where their enemies, potential competitors, or serious resistance to them is available, undermining the capacity of these forces to fight them by destabilising these parallels politically or otherwise, and eventually either destroying or isolating them from the multiverse.

To break these down further:

Destroying low-probability parallels

These operations first require an assessment of the situation culminating in an analysis of its probability of Disruptor success. After that, the Disruptors will attempt to strip the parallel of any useful resources, and neutralise or avoid any major threats to doing so. After that, the Disruptors must destroy the parallel, which means somehow causing the psionic energy that maintains its existence to disperse.

Dispersing the psionic energy can be done in a variety of ways. The first is to find some highly psionically active and powerful entity or object, perhaps a multiversal constant or a powerful spirit, and cause a psionic energy feedback loop that "explodes" the parallel. This might involve importing additional psionic energy from another parallel, or concentrating much of the psionic energy of a given parallel into a small area. The second option is to construct some device, or bring in some psionic entity, that will drain the parallel's psionic energy back into the multiverse. The device might operate according to impossible physical laws that the host parallel can't accommodate, or it might link two parallels and transfer the energy from one to the other. A third would be simply to kill every psionically active entity (every living thing) in a given parallel, and then simply wait for it to dissolve.

Utilising these parallels for the Disruptors probably falls into a couple of main methods. The first is grabbing or using any unique features of the parallel. Are there connections to more valuable parallels that can only be reached via this one? Technology from long-dead aliens? The second is running damaging and awful experiments. These are the sorts of parallels that are candidates for the Disruptors to use as vast eugenics farms to experiment with the birth rate of psionically active people, to test their most horrific and devastating weapons and tools on, and to examine the most dangerous unknown artifacts that they've recovered from the rest of the multiverse. The third is just straightforward economic exploitation - the enslavement of entire worlds to turn out the weapons of war for dominating the rest.

Valhalla is no doubt very interested in preserving these parallels, since they offer the least gain to the Disruptors' plans. Without the active interference of the Disruptors in exploiting and destroying them, these parallels get along just fine.

Converging and collapsing history

Boosting any given parallels chances of becoming the ideal-universe for the Disruptors probably take several forms. The first step is establishing whether the parallel is a good candidate for the ideal-universe. We know the Disruptors like powerful, hierarchical governments, preferably as few as possible, that they can take control of secretly. They also seem to prefer parallels where technological and scientific development can be made beholden to Disruptor influence. Worlds teeming with people, who produce a lot of psionic energy the Disruptors can utilise, are also ideal. The second is changing the world to better suit their needs. This means introducing various multiversal constants if they don't already exist, or aligning them with the ideal-form of each constant if they're slight deviations. It also means taking over the governments of the world. Chances are, the Disruptors also look for worlds with lots of psionic connections to other parallels that they can send psionic influence through. I figure there are probably "anchor" parallels that serve as the local node through which a series of parallels with minor deviations are connected (e.g. a bunch of worlds that are almost identical except for small quantum variations).

Once they have them under their control, the Disruptors are probably seeking to prevent them from deviating from developing into the ideal-universe. My basic assumption is that the Disruptors can't reliably see the future (except insofar as psionics allowed very limited precognition). So they don't know which one will pan out as the ideal, and have to constantly adjust and readjust their development in line with what they predict, but can't know, is the ideal course. Some will fail, of course - Valhalla or others will free them and drive the Disruptors out, asteroids will destroy others, and others will turn out to be pseudo-stable local maxima that will plateau rather than continue to develop into the ideal-universe.

I expect that ODIN, Valhalla's supercomputer, is pretty savvy to what these parallels look like, and can even guess how far along the Disruptors' plan is based on an in-depth study of its history. While these are the toughest nuts to crack, Valhalla gets the most gain when it manages to flip one of these from a high-probability parallel to a low-probability one, either by eliminating the Disruptors' control, or undermining their development and forcing them into pseudo-stable local maxima.

Experimenting with high-risk, high-reward parallels

These are parallels that are so unique or unusual that the chances of them becoming the ideal-universe are extremely low, but that can't be written off for all that. Worlds where the entire population is psionic, or powerful aliens friendly to the Disruptor cause are willing to trade unusual technology, or where technology is 10,000 years more advanced than our own world, or where some species other than humanity has dominated the planet. Depending on the multiversal savvy of the entities running these parallels and the resources they command, the Disruptors are probably more or less aggressive. Attacking an enemy who can chase you through the parallels with glowing clouds of mind force is stupid - trade or wary observation are more likely. On the other hand, even a galactic federation of energy beings can be conquered if you can simply retreat to another parallel and regroup safely whenever they start to make gains. Some worlds are also weird enough that the Disruptors probably have a small monitoring presence to continuously evaluate and nudge their development towards the ideal-universe, but little more.

This class also includes parallels like the one that Firefrost was found on, where the main interest is in some one thing that's super-powerful and is way more interesting and important than the rest of the parallel would be in its own right. In these cases, the Disruptors would only bother to get enough control to find and control that one thing, extract it to their home base, and then send a clean-up team to eliminate the parallel like any other low-probability parallel.

Some of these worlds will also be ones where a small group of Disruptors with a heterodox vision of the ideal-universe might be operating. You might have a small clique of knights and bishops who've taken control of a parallel (or at least a large part of it) and are using it to prove the superiority of their ideas versus the mainline Disruptor vision of development. If this parallel does well (by Disruptor standards) they'll be vindicated and rewarded, while if it deviates into a low-probability parallel or plateaus, they're liable to be punished for their heresy.

These are also the sorts of worlds that Valhalla is likely to send agents to for other reasons - trading with the aliens or super-intelligent chimpanzee empire, or whatever - who then stumble across Disruptor schemes. Or Valhalla agents might go on a variety of missions to deny the Disruptors whatever key resource they're drawing from this world.

Undermining the opposition

Parallels where the opposition to the Disruptors is organised and effective are no doubt their worst nightmare, with the absolute nadir for them being a parallel where the original aliens opposing them way back when succeeded without perishing. You probably see an escalation here, as the Disruptors go from identifying and analysing the opposition to adopting a plan to destroy them, and if that fails, seeking to destroy or isolate the parallel itself. 00-00-00, Valhalla's home parallel, is the most well-known of these in the Luther Arkwright universe, but we can assume there are others (heck, there's probably at least one more Valhalla out there).

Interestingly, it seems like a lot of parallels with alien contact and/or powerful psionics probably fall into this category. Disruptor control is probably highly contested, though they may have footprints in governments or other power centres that allow them to strike out at the opposition. In some of these worlds, the Disruptors will be trying to "flip" their enemies into allies, or at least neutralising them, perhaps by offering them resources they otherwise lack. In others, they may be trying to destabilise the mundane governments and institutions of the world to gin up chaos and destroy the support system that their opposition relies on to be effective.

Valhalla agents are no doubt assigned to get out there and form alliances with these groups, as well as to study their technologies and methods that make them so dangerous to the Disruptors. Once they are identified and alliances made, agents will no doubt have to occasionally go and help their allies fight off Disruptor plots to undermine or destroy their parallels.

Mixing and matching ideas from the above categories can help you put together a consistent and interesting set of Disruptor operations that either span several parallels or deeply engage with a single one.