Sep 12, 2019

[Review] Pathfinder 2e

I picked up a hard copy of the Pathfinder 2e core book last Wednesday, and have read it over enough to feel like I can offer a review of it. I'm still digging through the details of the spell section, but I've read the rest of it cover to cover (and separately, read the SRD).

The book is 638 pages not counting endpapers, and like the Pathfinder 1e corebook is composed of material that in stock 3.5 was scattered across the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide. The Monster Manual equivalent - the Bestiary - is out but I haven't read it yet, except for glancing through some of its content in the SRD.

As many people know, the offline game I've been playing in for the past eighteen months or so has been a D&D 3.5 game. I'm not a great fan of D&D 3.5 (the group is good enough to bear with the system) and much prefer the various rationalisations and clean-ups of it, like Arcana Unearthed / Evolved, Iron Heroes, and Trailblazer. Pathfinder 1e, which is a slight rebalance of 3.5, didn't go far enough in the core book for me, and I never became invested enough in the system to follow the various developments and tweaks it made to the d20 core over the course of its run, as extensive as I understand they eventually became.

Pathfinder 2e however, has impressed me with how extensively it's cleaned up the d20 system. The strength of the d20 system is its systematic character, and I find Pathfinder 2e has doubled-down on that strength. It's not a system that leaves much implicit, from defining the three rhythmic structures of play (Encounters, Exploration, and Downtime) to explaining exactly how far one falls in a single round spent falling (500 ft. the first round, 1,500 ft. each additional round). You can hate this systematicity if it's not something you care for, but insofar as one does enjoy it (and I do), Pathfinder 2e is a surprisingly well-done implementation of it.

I designed a first-level human wizard character in Pathfinder 2e to test out how cumbersome a process it would be, and I found it took about half as long as creating a D&D 3.5 character. The main time savings were in attribute selection, skill selection, and feat selection. In D&D 3.5 these are all processes that demand a lot of consideration and often provoke "analysis paralysis" in new players, with inobvious long-term consequences and large lists of options, Pathfinder 2e breaks these processes up into a lot of smaller decisions that accumulate over the whole process of character creation and involve picking from smaller lists. That speeds things up considerably.

I also think it will be relatively easy to design your own backgrounds, ancestries, and other bits for character creation because you can get a clear sense of the scope of work for each piece. After looking over the backgrounds once, I understood what each offered (an ability boost tied to one of two stats; a free ability boost; two skills, one of which is a Lore specialty; and a skill feat tied to one of the skills) well enough that I feel comfortable designing my own.

5e breaks down parts of its character creation process in similar ways, and that brings me to the final piece of this short review, which is comparing 5e and Pathfinder 2e. I've been middlingly positive towards 5e as an edition: I own the core set and Xanathar's, and prefer it to 3.5 at the end of its run and to 4e. But I've never been in love with it as an edition either. I don't like the importance of attributes in its system, and I'm not wild about its skill list, and there are various other small choices or gaps in its design such that I'm not an enthusiast.

By contrast, after reading the Pathfinder 2e core book, I was excited and interested in running a d20 game again for the first time in maybe a decade or more. Certainly if I was going to run a campaign using a d20 system, Pathfinder 2e would be my preferred system for doing so. This is surprising for me, but I think it does a better job extending and intensifying the core strengths of the d20 system, whereas 5e tends to be structured in such a way as to mitigate d20's weaknesses.

I think Pathfinder does a better job structuring the cycle of exploration, relies less on attributes (and more on skills) to determine character capacity, and has more granular combat. I wouldn't say any of these was a key criterion for my decision, but each contributed to it, along with my more general admiration of its systematic character, whereas I think D&D 5e tends to leave much more open (and this is probably why many people love it - I'm not trying to start a fight about whether it's good).

Anyhow, I'm at the beginning of a larger conversation with my group about switching from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder 2e, and I'm quite hopeful that we'll decide to do so eventually.

Jul 9, 2019

Rationalising Overland Travel Paces

I wanted to follow up on my popular Rhythm of Procedure post with an example of a deduction one can draw from it (and that I think one should) about rationalising the pace of overland travel.

The concise version of it is that one ought to structure the pace of travel so that the PCs travel either 0 or a whole number of hexes per iteration of the overland travel procedure, from the centre of one hex to the centre of another.

This probably seems obvious, and yet you get versions of overland travel where the hexes are 6 miles across, overland travel moves you 20 miles per day, and going over sufficiently rough terrain reduces your speed to 25% of its normal rate, so you might move three-and-change hexes, or you might move less than one, depending on terrain.

These fractional moves need to be tallied and accounted for over time (every three days of travel at full speed you will get a bonus hex of travel) and break the self-containment of the procedure's iteration. Moving back to a system where the vast majority of movement is whole numbers of hexes (with the possibility of an occasional failure to progress at all) is a way of restoring that self-containment. I think AD&D 1e did this but don't care to check or use it as a precedent, but I mention it in case you wanted to see such a system.

I think most of the OSR has arrived at a consensus around 6 mile / 10 km hexes being ideal for overland travel, primarily based on this decade-old (!) post from the Hydra's Grotto that makes the case persuasively. I favour "watches" (the basic unit of time of overland travel) lasting about 6 hours (Tho' I didn't get the idea from him, Justin Alexander has been calling these "watches" since at least 2012. He uses a 4-hour watch instead of my 6-hour one).

An unencumbered person without impairment walks a kilometre in level, clear terrain (like a city street) in about 15-20 minutes. So in six hours, we could expect them to walk 18-24 kilometres under those conditions, albeit they would probably be pretty tired by the end of it. But PCs travelling overland are usually not traveling in level, clear terrain; they are eating, defecating, resting, stopping to orient themselves, etc. sporadically throughout their travels; they are finding the easiest path through a hex and are avoiding calling undue attention to themselves; and they are travelling slowly enough to be ready to fight monsters, avoid ambushes, or perform other daring deeds during or immediately after the end of their travels. So I think it's reasonable to cut their travel pace nearly in half, and make it 10 km per 6-hour watch of travel (or 6 miles if you use American units).

Because this is such a leisurely pace, I wouldn't cut it due to PC encumbrance in most cases. Similarly, it already accommodates the slowing effects of most sorts of "rough terrain" (forests, wet meadows, ridges, etc.). Taking 6 hours to go 10 kilometres is a slow pace for a troupe of boy scouts. so rather than fiddling around "Oh, now you're in forest and you're going half speed", just accept they're always going about half-speed unless they have a reason not to be, and that half-speed is 1 10km hex per 6 hour watch.

There are three unusual cases that I think could use spot rules here. One is when you're on a road, one is when you're rushing and trying to pick up the pace, and the last is nigh-impassable terrain.

Roads and paths in normal terrain allow you to add one hex to the distance you travel in a single iteration of the travel procedure.

Rushing means the PCs conduct a fast march. They don't try to avoid people noticing their passage; they select the most direct route instead of the easiest; they don't stop to eat, crap, or rest; and they are probably going to arrive at their destination exhausted.

The rules here are pretty simple:

The PCs move 2 hexes instead of 1 in a watch where they rush.

They each make a saving throw at the end of the watch, and if they fail, they are exhausted and must rest (iterate the rest procedure) before marching again. 

Riding horses or riding in wagons / carriages means the mounts make the roll instead of you.

If no PCs or mounts are exhausted, they can continue rushing. If some are, they can be left behind if the others want to continue rushing.

Nigh-impassable terrain covers your bogs, swamps, mountains, and other types of terrain where the problem isn't so much that they slow down your pace of marching, but that they are impassable without either specialised gear (e.g. mountain climbing equipment, boats) or specific paths (valleys, passes, solid ground, etc.) What counts as impassable varies based on whether you are riding, boating, or marching on foot.

Nigh-impassable terrain is impassable until a path is found. PCs must search for a path through the hex (taking a watch) unless they already know about one. Once they have found a path, they can then travel through the hex on their next watch. Depending on terrain, paths have concealment scores of >6.

The search takes 6 hours once again assuming the PCs are moving slowly and carefully, and that they must explore a number of dead-ends, false-starts, and the like to find a proper path. The right equipment in this case would aid the search roll since it allows one to convert more marginally traversable paths into usable ones.

e.g. If you have the right mountain climbing gear, you could choose to move between two ridges of different elevations that would allow you to traverse the mountain range in a way that you couldn't exploit if you couldn't actually climb from one ridge to another.

These rules are just proposals tho'. The core conceit is that regardless of the rules you use to implement it, the pace of the travel procedure should move PCs a whole number of hexes in each iteration for simplicity's sake, regardless of terrain or other obstacles.

Jun 16, 2019

Simplifying Theism in Mythras Pt. II

Blog comments have been reactivated and the spam wave appears to have passed.

This is a follow-up to this post, using some of the problems with theism and religion in Mythras that I mentioned there as the basis for a post discussing my changes to theism. Thanks to the Raptors NBA finals run, the start of the new Dawnlands campaign has been pushed to July, so I have even more time to plan than I originally thought.

There are two proposals I'm going to advocate for here:

1) Opening up theism miracle lists by removing cult restrictions on miracles
2) Eliminating the High Priest rank of initiation and changing the size of the devotional pool of the "Priest"

Miracle Lists

My proposal here is basically to allow every cult access to almost every spell. It's worth creating a list of spells you don't want any cult to have access to (except maybe a bad guy cult) and then allowing everything else to whoever.

Theist miracle lists tend to be very similar at the best of times, and limiting the number of miracles available in a cult is the worst of both worlds. Allowing only a subset of miracles per cult emphasises the duplication problem - where there are some miracles that every cult needs to have (e.g. Consecrate, Dismiss Magic) and if you follow the rules-as-written about how many miracles a cult has, these semi-mandatory options mean that out of a total of nine maximum miracles, four or five will be identical across most cults.

Allowing every cult to offer every spell doesn't fix this problem per se, but it dissolves one level of ineffective differentiation (the cult-level restriction) but intensifies the second level of restriction: the individual's knowledge of miracles.

This is good because this is de facto the point at which restriction is going to be managed in the game anyhow. By clearing away layers that obscure that fact, we can consolidate our attention on what actually matters.

Doing this also has the advantage of lowering the overhead for creating new cults. Picking out miracles and then double-checking to make sure it's not a bad or near-useless list of miracles, is one of the more onerous elements of creating new cults, and making this faster and easier is an unmitigated good if you want lots of cults.

Finally, because most PCs only ever belong to one theist cult at a level beyond "Lay Member", the broader miracle list deepens cults' offerings and encourages PCs to stick with a single cult, rather than trying to jump around and learn from 3-5 cults (which mechanically, is a recipe for being mechanically terrible at doing the thing you want to do - be a priest - for long stretches of game time)

Here's my recommended list of miracles from the Mythras core to restrict: Awaken, Corruption, Harmonise, Heart Seizure, Obliterate, Raise Undead, Resurrect, Sever Spirit

From Monster Island: Ageing, Grimoire, Summon Dead, Wish

This list is mostly composed of the most deadly "zap" spells, as well as the ones most likely to be disruptive to a campaign in a PC's hands, and the ones that work best in villains' hands.

Another alternative is perhaps to create a universal theism miracle list which all cults have access to, and then to add on additional miracles to delineate a cult's theme. This is a more conservative solution, which may make it more appealing to others.

If you want to do this, here is my suggested list for universally accessible theist miracles::

From the Mythras core: Consecrate, Dismiss Magic, Excommunicate, Exorcism, Extension, Lay to Rest, Soul Sight, Spirit Block, Steadfast (I would either restrict Awaken to NPC-only cults, or make it universal and include it on this list - your choice)

From Monster Island: Foreboding, Omen, Sagacity

Eliminating the High Priest Rank

There are only three levels of theism spells in Mythras, but there are four levels of initiation (not counting lay members). Each level of initiation increases your devotion poll by a quarter of your POW. I think it makes more sense to make "High Priest" purely a roleplaying thing, and to reduce theism to three levels because as it stands, High Priest is unexciting to achieve.

e.g. A theist PC has 12 POW and becomes an initiate. They can cast 3 initiate spells (1 magic point each). They become an acolyte, and can cast 6 initiate spells, or 3 acolyte spells (2 magic points each) or some combination of them. They become a priest, and can cast 9 initiate spells, 4 acolyte spells, or 3 priest spells (at 3 magic points each) or some combination. Then they become a high priest, and they get a devotional pool equal to their POW which allows them to cast 12 initiate spells, 6 acolyte spells, or 4 priest spells.

Compared to the previous levels, High Priest doesn't grant a new level of miracle, and it grants only a marginal increase in # of miracles over priesthood.

I believe you're supposed to sweeten the pot by making the rank of High Priest also come with a bunch of Gifts that give it extra oomph, but this violates the otherwise straightforward progression up the ranks, and Mythras is a bit shaky on how you get Gifts (e.g. do you automatically get all the relevant gifts when you attain that rank, or do you have to spend experience points, etc.).

Another benefit is supposed to be that it's comparatively easy (only a Hard test of Devotion) to invoke divine intervention for a high priest compared to anyone else, but I've never actually seen anyone do it at the table. I'd alter it so initiates and acolytes make Formidable tests of Devotion (as opposed to RAW, where only priests can do this) and let priests make Hard tests. The drawbacks - burning your skill points - to pull it off are already adequate to prevent abuse of it, and this change doesn't affect those drawbacks.

So I propose reducing initiation to three levels, and having the rank of Priest allow access to a devotional pool equal to your POW and to make a Hard test of Devotion for divine intervention. "High Priest" ranks can still exist, but they are not sacrally distinct, rather they are functional roles within the hierarchy of the cult (perhaps accompanied and distinguished by acquiring Gifts from holding the office).

Since making these two changes in the design of the Dawnlands, I've found it much easier to create theist cults and characters. I'm going to be testing this out in the Dawnlands campaign when it finally gets going, and we'll see how it does there.

Jun 13, 2019

Comments Temporarily Deactivated

I got hit with a wave of spam comments last night - a little over 60 different identical comments from a spam bot, with some posts hit more than once after I deleted the first wave. It's the same crank vampire spam I've seen a bunch of other people get as well.

I'm busy cleaning them up, but I've changed the commenting system temporarily so that only members of the blog can make them (which means de facto, only I can).

I'm going to let things sit until Saturday, June 15th, then open comments back up to the public, with the hope that the wave of spam will have passed by that point.

May 21, 2019

Shapeshifting Mystics in the Dawnlands

So there are shape-changing cults in the Dawnlands, and I model them using Mysticism from Mythras. They're most commonly found amongst the plains nomads - the Jarushim and Kadiz - where they are cross-clan associations of hunters and herders. Eagle, bear and coyote are the most common male shapechanging lodges, and crane, snow leopard and deer being the most common women's lodges.

Here's the talent list for the Coyote Runners, one of the more common male shapechanging lodges:

Augment (Athletics)
Augment (Endurance)
Augment (Survival)

Augment (Track)
Enhance Healing Rate
Enhance Movement Rate
Formidable Natural Weapons
Shapeshift (Coyote)


So this necessitated creating a Shapeshift trait. I'm using some of the information drawn from the shapeshifting spirits in the Animism chapter of Mythras (pg. 152).

In the Dawnlands, the mystic must be wearing a cloak made from the skin, feathers, fur, scales, etc. of whatever the creature they want to shapeshift into is, and they must hunt the creature and make the cloak themselves. They also can learn a "Beastform" combat style (common to all forms) that gives proficiency with Unarmed and Natural Weapons, and comes with Unarmed Prowess as a combat trait.

Shapeshifting is associated with a specific animal form - it's always Shapeshift (Coyote) or Shapeshift (Bear), etc., allowing access only to that animal form, rather than shapeshifting into any animal whatsoever. The mystic gains the average physical characteristics, armour points, hit points, creature abilities, and locomotion types of the animal when they shapechange, but keeps their own skills.

Unlike other traits, Shapeshift has variable intensity (similar to augmentations), costing 1 Magic Point per point of intensity. The mystic must maintain the trait with a minimum intensity equal to the intensity of a shapeshifting spirit able to transform them into that animal, as per page 152.

e.g. Transforming into a giant lizard requires a minimum intensity of 2, since a giant lizard is SIZ 19, and one requires an intensity 2 shapeshifting to transform into creatures between SIZ 13 and 21.

However, each level of intensity beyond the minimum required that the shapeshifting mystic invokes allows them to increase the SIZ of the animal form by 3. The mystic's new form gains the benefits (increase hit points, damage modifer, etc.) of the increased SIZ.

e.g. If our lizard-transforming mystic were to maintain their shapeshift trait at intensity 4, the extra two levels of intensity could be spent to increase the SIZ of the giant lizard to 25 (3 per additional level of intensity beyond the minimum).

Wounds and fatigue are carried over between forms.

Shapeshifting's meant to be a capstone ability for mystics who are progressing through one of these totemic cults, so I'm pretty good with it being a strong trait.

May 1, 2019

Motive, Means, and Opportunity

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

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

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

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

Motives

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

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

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

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

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

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

Means

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

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

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

Opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing This Together

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

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

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

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

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

Apr 26, 2019

The Big Dawnlands Reference Documents

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

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

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

Apr 23, 2019

Learning New Combat Style Traits

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

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

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

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

So, to summarise:

New Trait for Existing Combat Style = 5 Experience Rolls

Apr 22, 2019

Mounted Combat Damage in Mythras

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

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

My reasoning:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Also, happy Easter)

Apr 2, 2019

Flipping the Core Mechanic of Mythras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 17, 2019

The Rhythm of Procedure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 5, 2019

Summarising Key Elements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 22, 2019

Overland Travel in Mythras

So I've been running overland travel in Mythras since back when it was still Mongoose Runequest II. I used to use a convoluted hexcrawling system that I ran off a cheat sheet I put together, but these days I've come around to running most overland travel in Mythras as pointcrawls.

In the Dawnlands, I use a songline system for pointcrawling, partially to show some love for the much-neglected Sing skill, but the system I'm going to lay out here is probably more useful to people using generic settings without songlines. The system I'm outlining is really a variation on the system for extended tasks laid out in this (free to download) expansion of the Mythras task rules, which I think is good enough that if there's ever a second edition of Mythras should become part of the core rules.

Basically, I think you should set up Mythras overland travel as an extended task where each extended task covers travelling from landmark to landmark. One PC should be appointed the expedition leader who makes the rolls (which are team rolls, effectively), but other PCs should be able to assist the expedition leader using teamwork to augment their skill rolls (Conveniently, I wrote some teamwork rules for Mythras a while ago).

The base difficulty of the rolls should be based on how easy to traverse and straightforward the path is. A road leading from one landmark to another should set base difficulty of easy while navigating trackless wastes from the peak of one massive sand dune to the peak of another sounds like herculean difficulty.

I also think that the extended task system for overland travel works best with a slight variation. Instead or rolling the same skill four times and determining the outcome based on that, breaking it up into four different skill rolls will make other PCs feel like they are meaningfully contributing, and encourage them to mix-up who is the expedition leader from time to time, instead of always relying on the one guy with Navigate 90% to lead them everywhere.

In particular, when no better ideas suggest themselves, I would recommend Navigate, Bureaucracy, Endurance, and Survival. Streetwise, Track, Seamanship, Boating, Ride, Stealth, or others might be appropriate as well depending on circumstances. Basically, think of the four biggest obstacles to overcome, find the appropriate skill for dealing with those obstacles, and make those the skills that are checked. The good thing about doing this is that whenever the PCs fail a roll, you'll know exactly what obstacle is slowing their progress down, instead of having to make stuff up off the cuff. Are they failing their Bureaucracy checks? Clearly, their camp is disorganised, and packing things away, getting everyone ready to go, making sure all the chores have been done properly, etc. takes forever.

The final result of the test tells you the pace of travel - 150% means you travel 150% your normal speed (The base for travel per page 69 of Mythras is 3 km/h for a normal marching pace or 5 km/h while riding horses). 25% means it takes you four times as long to get there. Survival rules in case you run out of food or encounter bad weather are on page 82.

I roll for random encounters on each leg (landmark to landmark) of the journey using an encounter grid, and I use my reaction roll system for weather for each leg as well (weather effects are on pg. 85 of Mythras). If these are too D&D-esque for you, in the past I have used a die drop map and you might prefer something like that to determine random encounters and terrain the PCs see around them.

I haven't playtested this system yet, but it's cobbled together out of bits that I have playtested previously, and I'm curious to see it at work in the Dawnlands campaign I hope to run later this year. If you give it a try before then, let me know how it goes for you.

Feb 5, 2019

Adventure Games: What I Meant When I Coined the Term

I coined using the term "adventure game" for roleplaying games in February 2012, and I've been using it since then consistently instead of "roleplaying game". There's been a recent discussion around the term started by Ben Milton, so I thought I might as well explain why I started using it in the first place.

I've summarised bits and pieces of my philosophy before on my blog. One doesn't have to read all of these, but they show variations and developments in my thought over the past seven years.

The Long Narrative
Roleplaying: Beyond Talking
The Basis of the Game Is Making Decisions
Anti-Narrativism
Running Technical Plots
Layers of the Sandbox
Low Concept Campaigns
Crappy Plotting

 I would say I first began thinking along these lines in 2008, when 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons came out and there was a sprawling online kerfuffle over "dissociated mechanics" at the same time as a concept known as "bleed" began to sweep LARPing circles. There was also a lot of debate around how "collaborative world building" and "collaborative storytelling" could be used to help referees give up the idea that they were writing an epic fantasy novel with the players as the railroaded protagonists. I don't know how successful this actually was (I still see questions regularly on Reddit about how to get the players to follow the amazing story the referee has come up with), but it was the context around when I began to think about what I used to call "anti-narrativism".

Anyhow, the four years from 2008-2012 not only had me reading a lot about these controversies, but it also saw the end of my then-regular gaming group (in late 2009, when the referee moved out of town) and my first foray into OSR-style games (Swords and Wizardry Complete, in particular). I engaged in a process of reflection about what I was trying to do with and in "roleplaying games" as I still mostly referred to them at the time.

The answer to what I concluded isn't simple or easy to sum up, but one element was that I realised that my prior conception of "roleplaying games" was not that different from the "immersion" crowd, and while not wrong, it was simply insufficiently broad to encompass all the things I liked about games, and also, from the perspective of producing enjoyable games, it misled me about how to do that by encouraging an emphasis on dramatic elements like acting out characters and vividly narrating a story.

Instead of skill of the portrayal of the character, it was the agency (and on the level of the party and group, the deliberation that fed into that agency) that I particularly prized as a player, and that I realised formed a set of key skills that players needed to develop even before they built up their acting chops.

To provide the stable and intelligible foundation for the shared world the player-characters move through, I needed to structure the decisions and consequences of those decisions, and to constantly communicate them clearly back to the players.

A player might talk in the third-person about their character or not, they might use a funny voice or not, their character might not have any family or background or whatever, but if we could make the choices that character made interesting and evocative and varied and relevant, the rest fell into place.

I chose "adventure game" to represent that refocusing (I also chose to begin referring to the "dungeon master" or "games master" as a "referee" most of the time). For me, the core of gameplay is not narrative (not a series of rising actions that develop to a climax and then resolve in a denouement), but iterative, and the things being iterated and reiterated are procedures, little list of instructions that govern how and when to apply or not apply the various rules.

The classic example in most adventure games is the combat procedure, which tells you how to set up combat encounters, determine in what order players proceed, how and what they can do, and then delivers some set of consequences based on their decisions and various randomising factors. Once you complete a loop of this procedure, you reiterate it for the next combat round until some end condition is met.

My preference is to be continuously enacting one procedure or another, or when not possible, to provide a set of structured steps that lead the players through deliberations with one another that resolve into decisions they make and consequences they bear for them. Oddly, this often ends up resembling a traditional story (and I have no objection to its mere appearance as such), but I treasure the times where it doesn't in particular, as these are the moments where the adventure game medium generates something new and unexpected.

The "adventure" then is not the narrative the player-characters flow through towards an inevitable climax and resolution, but the procession of problems, challenges, etc. they face; the decisions and deliberations they make about what to do about each problem or challenge; and the procedures they enact as part of those decisions, and the consequences of all the above interacting with one another.

Many people have been calling this sort of playstyle "OSR-style", though that to me associates it too closely with a particular subset of games (mostly rules-light D&D variants) and subculture of product design, and loses the idea that it is a playstyle that can be applied to almost any "roleplaying game" (Some with more easily than others, admittedly).

Recently, as people have begun wanting to move away from calling themselves "OSR" for political reasons and to characterise their playstyle using a different term, I've repeatedly suggested "adventure games" as an alternative. I think of the OSR as a particular subculture, with a particular attitude towards independent publishing, the history of gaming, etc., but I think the playstyle characterised by "adventure games" is one that is not specific to it, and that this playstyle should be developed and shared more widely so that even people who are not part of that subculture can learn it and adopt whatever practices from it they find most useful, in the same way people think of "storygaming" or "trad roleplaying games" as distinct playstyles to be developed and studied.

In that sense, I don't see "adventure game" as a replacement for the "OSR" concept itself (referring to the subculture), but only for the "OSR-style" or "OSR playstyle" terms. And obviously, I encourage you to use it as such.

Jan 30, 2019

Building my Own Referee Screen

I'm building myself a new referee screen out of four 11 x 14" mounted artist panels (pre-gessoed) that are being bolted together with hinges and held together by magnetic tape. The large size and the hinges mean that it'll fold up into two boxes each with an internal cavity big enough to hold 8 1/2 x 11" pages without folding. The outer surface will be covered with chalkboard paint so I can write on it easily (using erasable chalk markers).

Here's a work-in-progress photo from last night, after the main panels had been painted (I did the sides after taking this photo). It took about four coats of the chalkboard paint (I used the Rustoleum one) to get a nice thick coating, and it'll take three days to fully cure. I'm going smooth it out with a fine-grain sandpaper on Friday, check if I need to reapply another coat anywhere, and season the chalkboard paint (You rub chalk all over it to block up some of the pores in the paint) if it's totally cured.


Really looking forward to trying this out at the table. Depending on how it works, I might try a second version using the rest of the paint and magnets that's made of unmounted wooden panels with glass cabinet hinges (no-screw clamping hinges) holding it together. Wish me luck!

Jan 29, 2019

Combat Style Traits in Mythras

If it's never come up, I'm not a huge fan of the default combat style traits in Mythras, since the effect of most of them is to make you ignore a cap on your combat style in some situation. e.g. When you're riding a horse in combat, your Ride skill "caps" (determines the maximum percentile value of) your combat style - unless you have Mounted Combat, in which case you get to use your full combat style.

Rules-as-written, a combat style trait only grants one benefit, and you can only have one trait per combat style, but this seems to be something honoured in its breach in fan-made material (Shout out to the Notes on Pavis guy for running a great blog). My assumption is that this represents running up against the limits of how this works in actual play, since it's something I've run into as well.

To recap the situation with combat styles in Mythras: The average Mythras character has 1 or 2 combat styles to start, and perhaps learns 3-4 total over the course of a long career. These combat styles form the primary skills characters use in combat for both attack and defense, and thus are a priority for most characters to boost. Those 1-2 additional combat styles will primarily be driven by either the traits of a new combat style, or the need to shift the weapons they use (or some combination of these two).

With the typical split between combat and non-combat characters in the parties I've seen (about half of all characters being combat-focused, meaning they get two styles), assume a starting party has about 1.5 combat styles per party member, except these aren't unique styles - most characters have a single cultural style common to all of members of that culture, and most Mythras parties are from a common cultural background. So only the 0.5 extra combat styles per PC are actually unusual or unique ones. In a party of four characters of shared background, that means you'll have one common style, and two unusual ones, each accessed by only a single PC.

How many combat styles there are in a particular setting varies widely, but typically you have between 3-6 per culture, depending a lot on military specialisations available within that culture. Most Mythras settings only use a small subset of the giant list of weapons included in the Mythras corebook - between 6-10 is typical, with 3-4 weapons per combat style, and in practice, you see a lot of repetition of the best weapons in different styles (Hello shortspear my old friend).

What this means in practice is that a lot of the odder combat style traits tend not to appear - they're either not attached to the main 3-6 options available, or they're just not present among the 3 different combat styles in a 4-person party (if you run with six PCs, you'll end up with 4 different combat styles on average). Also, some of the traits are far better than others because the combat situations they apply to are far more common, and these traits tend to be the most common, repeating across combat styles.

One of the outcomes of all of this is that combat style traits are not actually a very good method to ensure PC combat styles aren't capped. I'd rather just not have the caps in the first place, since they tend to take exciting action combats where the PCs are doing things like chasing people around on horses or climbing the rigging of a ship or storming a castle's walls and turn them into frustrating whiff-fests. Realism be damned, this is a game where you can play a cat-man wizard, and that cat-man wizard should be able to stab a guy while swinging from the rafters.

In place of the current combat style traits then, I propose that caps should be abolished in most cases, and combat style traits should not be the mechanism by which they are nullified. Instead, combat traits should focus on empowering characters with options or intensifying their combat advantages.

Here are some proposed new combat style traits. Each one has several abilities it grants to someone trained in a combat style, and most a couple of regular combat style traits cobbled together.

Berserker
Allows the use of the Flurry special effect so long as the character is wielding two weapons and the extra attack uses the second weapon.
If a character's damage modifier is two steps higher than an opponent's, their weapon size is considered one step larger for the purposes of bypassing parries.
Any psychological resistance rolls by an opponent are one step harder.

Duelist
May use Evade to dodge attacks in melee combat without going prone.
Allows use of the Flurry special effect so long as all extra attacks are made with a single weapon.
Can use the Change Range action to automatically withdraw from combat without a roll.

Lancer
Making a mounted charge with this style does not incur the one-step penalty to hit.
A character may spend action points to defend against attacks targeting their mount.
A character's damage modifier counts as one step higher for the purposes of calculating knockback.

Line Infantry
If three or more characters with this trait are in close order with one another, then:
Any enemy who engages them has their action points reduced by one.
They automatically get the benefits of using the Brace action against Knockback, Leap Attacks and Bash attacks.
Each character can ward an additional location using a shield or secondary weapon.

Marksman
A character may make ranged attacks while running (but not sprinting).
When using a ranged weapon, the hit location of a successful attack may be shifted to an adjacent location.
If three characters with the Marksman trait attack a single target or group of targets in close order, the targets are automatically Pinned Down (per the special effect).

Mounted Archer
A character may make ranged attacks while their mount is running (but not galloping).
When using a ranged weapon, the hit location of a successful attack may be shifted to an adjacent location.
A character can evade attacks without going prone while mounted, using their Ride skill in place of Evade.

Self-Defense
Can use the Change Range action to automatically withdraw from combat without a roll.
A character increase the size of your weapon by one step while parrying so long as they don't attack that round.
Outmaneuver rolls are one step easier.

Stalker
Can use the Kill Silently special effect.
When using a ranged weapon, the hit location of a successful attack may be shifted to an adjacent location.
Opponent's rolls to outmaneuver an attacker using a combat style with Stalker are one step harder.

Wrestler
Can use Grip as a defensive special effect
Opponent's rolls to evade, break free of, or resist immobilisation in a grapple are one step harder.
Unarmed blocks and parries count as "medium" sized.

Because the average character has only 1-2 combat styles, adding a couple of extra conditions or abilities onto each combat style trait doesn't increase the complexity very much for any given player. Monsters and most opponents don't even have combat style traits, so while the occasional custom-built major villain will have a touch more complexity due to this, most opponents won't be any harder to run for the referee.

You can make combat style traits that require 3 or more characters to get their full benefits available as cultural styles, so that most of the party will end up with them.

If you don't want to get rid of caps, then I would suggest at the very least combining a no-cap combat style trait with at least one other combat style trait that does something interesting.

I haven't play-tested these yet, but I'm hoping to later this year when I start up a Dawnlands campaign.

Jan 14, 2019

The Basis of the Game is Making Decisions

Some people are going to find what I'm talking about in this post so obvious they won't understand why I feel the need to mention it. To those people, I offer my apologies, but I have realised from discussion with a broad spectrum of roleplayers over the years that it is not so obvious as it seems.

The core activity of roleplaying games is making decisions. Every other activity feeds back into this core in one way or another. Rules are there to control and shape the field of possible decisions, determine the likelihood of particular outcomes of those decisions, and to structure who makes which decision. Characterisation, party dynamics and the world exist to shape the style of decision-making and the values and tools brought to it; to establish decision procedures; and to provide stakes and consequences for decisions.

I would contrast this understanding with the one that superficially claims that a roleplaying game is like a television show, novel or movie that is focused on telling a captivating narrative for an audience. This kind of understanding, taken to its extreme limit, leads to railroading, which I understand as the negation of player characters' ability to make meaningful decisions, combined with the players' knowledge that this is the case.

I think a decision-based understanding of gameplay is superior to this narrative understanding for two reasons. The first reason is paedogogical, and the second is schematic.

When explaining to a new player or potential player what the game is and how it is played, people often repeat some line like "You're like the star of a TV show going on an adventure" or "You're a character in a fictional world who lives out a story". This implies that the most important activity or skill is acting, and the structure of play will follow the scene-framing and development of other narratives. It is therefore, a rude shock when they start playing a game and they are not very good at acting out their character and the flow of a session does not follow the narrative progression of other media.

This shock is now sometimes called the "Matt Mercer effect" after players who got into D&D from watching Critical Role, but who are displeased to find out that they can't plunge immediately into a complicated and immersive narrative. I don't blame these people for this shock. They were led to believe one thing, and rudely surprised when it turns out that belief was just propaganda. On top of that, they don't necessarily know how to improve the situation they find themselves in and move to the sort of immersive game they were lured in with - witness the endless threads on Reddit and rpg.net and other forums on this very topic.

Paedogogically, I think focusing on decision-making instead is probably more useful for that new player. The new player begins by making and justifying decisions with the character as a pawn (on the character's behalf), then learns how to make decisions based on the character's subjectivity (as the character). Similarly, they learn to justify their decisions to the referee or other PCs on behalf of their character (or out of character), and then how to justify them as the character to the other character in world.

They're not rigidly locked into any one of these four options, of course, and further learning would be how and when to deploy each. This helps new players to feel like they're increasing their agency over time, rather than constantly failing. In my experience, this is both an easier course of development for new players to grasp, as well as being more likely to retain them as players than frustration and failure are.

Schematically, I've written about this before in my long post on "anti-narrativism" in constructing D&D stories. A distillation of the basic point is: Rather than structuring the progression of a campaign as a series of dramatic scenes with the PCs flowing from one to the other, I think games should be structured as a set of situations where PCs must make decisions. The occasional montage or descriptive flourish isn't awful, but thinking of the development of the story in terms of decisions actually provides a clearer and more effective plan than trying to think of the next "chapter".

As a bonus, the superficial sensual effect of a decision-based structure is that it actually seems more like a traditional narrative than trying to plot out a story as if it were a novel, television show, or movie, because making decisions and dealing with the consequences of them is what happens to characters in a well-written story.

I think many people will claim that they already accommodate the idea of decision-based adventure gaming in their planning, and I'm sure many do, but I am 100% certain that there are many more people who could improve their games by shifting their mindset over to this, or increasing its prominence and salience within the mix of ideas they have about planning. I especially encourage new players and new referees who are having trouble creating the kind of richly immersive world and story they admire in other people's games to try adopting this mindset.

Jan 3, 2019

Improving Descriptions Using the Gricean Maxims

I rarely make absolute statements rather than propositions or suggestions, but I can't think of a countervailing example to the statement that good descriptions improve roleplaying games. That is, the better the descriptive powers of the referee and players, the better the game. I don't necessarily mean complex, verbose descriptions (some people like them, some people don't), nor do I idolise the modern imitators of Hemingwayesque concision.

Rather, I want to talk at the level below that aesthetic level, at the level of the cooperative principle and its derivations, the Gricean maxims. For people who've never heard of them, here's a brief explanation in text, and one in video. The basic idea is that Gricean maxims are the principles that an audience uses to evaluate a speaker's utterances in a cooperative exchange. One can not only apply them, but also flout them (and opt-out of them under certain circumstances, and just straight up lie, of course).

The Gricean maxims are the root understanding behind the old roleplaying joke where a referee describes a throw-away NPC and the mere act of describing them causes the players to want to interact with them or suspect them of being involved in the plot somehow: the joke is just that they incorrectly apply the maxim of relation beyond a reasonable level.

Anyhow, weird as it may be to say about something this basic, I'm amazed at the number of games I've played in where the referee flouted or failed to wield the Gricean maxims fluidly when describing the world to the players.

Sometimes this is because they don't frame the utterances well. They fail to establish that this bit of scene-setting is just a bit of evocative description like an establishing shot in a movie, there to create a picture in the players' heads, instead of a sequence they're expected to execute decisions in relation to. (Secret bonus referee tip: I tend to gesture more dramatically than usual while doing these so that people understand I'm just describing things)

Sometimes this is just because they describe a ton of irrelevant crap in a manner that disguises instead of distinguishing what is relevant. Sometimes it's because they withhold essential information, often because they mistakenly think they're in a competitive exchange: Waiting for the PCs to ask about it or to figure out that they need to use a skill or power to discover it.

Sometimes this is because they're working from a module that was written by someone who didn't follow the Gricean maxims in its composition, or that was just otherwise written in an unclear way that buries the relevant, truthful information the players need in a place where it can't be easily reviewed.

All of those are bad situations to be in, both as a player and as a referee. They could all be improved by following the Gricean maxims. In fact, if you robotically follow the Gricean maxims for any situation the players are in, while merely speaking concisely and using prosaic terminology, you'd be surprised at how players will compliment your descriptive powers (I know this because I do it all the time). Add in the occasional evocative or captivating flourish, and they'll rave.

Individual referees have their own unique styles, and the members of any given group will be happier or not with a given referee's style. I don't think aesthetics are purely arbitrary and individual, but I also don't think it's worth trying to denounce or bolster a particular aesthetic style or taste outside of a concrete instance. But with the Gricean maxims, we are sub-taste, at the level of the pragmatics of speech and conversation, and mastering the pragmatics will only improve things for everyone involved.