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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.