Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Trap Design

In a tabletop game, "traditional" mechanical traps are awkward to include in a dungeon, and that is a real shame. I commented briefly on the problem of traps in my post on module construction, but now I want to dig into that topic more deeply and propose a new solution (or at least a new tool for addressing the matter; it isn't a single-solution kind of issue).

Up through 3e, traps remain consistent in their general form*: something for the rogue to do. With a few exceptions, the only thing other classes can do is suck up the damage, since they have no particular chance to even spot the trap. (A special exception goes to those earliest editions of D&D that had no rogue or thief class.) Anyway, traps consistently represent a lot of dice-rolling by the rogue while the rest of the team sits on their hands. On the other hand, in some editions the thief is such an undesirable class that this is just about all they have going for them. 3.x completely changes this - as long as you're not fighting things that are immune to Sneak Attack, the rogue is a wonderful class with a lot of interesting options.

Still, 3.x retains the ham-fisted approach to niche protection, making it impossible for any other class (no matter how hard they try) to equal the rogue's trapfinding and trap-avoiding abilities. Trap design could not do a lot more to exclude other classes. The next problem is that, even for the rogue, it isn't all that engaging - there's a skill roll or two, and failing any of these rolls results in harm or death. The apparent decision points are whether to advance slowly enough to check each square thoroughly, and whether to disarm traps or just bypass them (usually with varying degrees of difficulty).

Let me break this approach down just a tiny bit more. Given the setup, what's really going on is that rogues provide the party with an extra layer of saving throws against the trap. If the first saving throw (detection) is successful but the second one (disarmament) isn't, the rogue takes the damage instead of someone else, or everyone else, doing so. Like all saving throws, there aren't a lot of choices to make; unlike other saving throws, the player is expected to alter her approach to gameplay in order to be allowed the "detection saving throw."

There's a countervailing point to this criticism of trap mechanics: they're designed based on feel, nominally imitating mechanisms that make sense for the dungeon's residents to have installed, both tactically and technologically. Tripwires, pits, pressure plates, trapped locks (and locks themselves, for that matter) and so on, are relatively simple and easy to understand. I'll be coming back to this point.
*Especially in the 1e era, another approach to traps also appears, in the works of the incomparable and bizarre Grimtooth, by Flying Buffalo. Grimtooth's traps are famously elaborate, ridiculous, and unfair - the latter of which may be a reasonable tactical decision for the defenders, but is a terrible gameplay decision on the GM's part. Still, convoluted traps that endanger the whole party are not all bad - everyone is invested in and able to contribute to finding a solution. In Grimtooth's works, the insane deathtraps are often obscure, guess-what-I'm-thinking physics challenges. I hesitate to call them puzzles, on the principle that puzzles have clues. They fit tolerably well into funhouse dungeons, but most of them would feel out-of-place in a dungeon more focused on verisimilitude.
Then there are glyphs and symbols. Rogues can theoretically do something about these, but it's a lot easier for level-appropriate spellcasters. Glyphs enter play when other kinds of traps are still relevant, while symbols make their first appearance in 5th-level spells, and keep improving up to 8th-level spells, long past the time that the hardest traps in the game are trivial for a rogue who has put any points into traps skills. My point here is that magic completely replaces mechanisms, and 3.x glyphs and symbols can combine with a normal encounter, or they can be an encounter. (Ahem, greater glyph of warding, spell: with summon monster VI, this becomes a single creature of CR 5-7. Maybe a little low for PCs going up against a caster of level 11+, but as a way to delay and raise an alarm, it's not too shabby.)

4e took a drastically different approach to traps (and hazards; for simplicity I'll use "traps" to cover hazards as well). Recognizing that the 3.x approach to traps generally entertained only one player, and didn't offer that player particularly interesting choices, 4e brought traps more in line with monster design (including giving them "creature" types) and linked them directly to encounters. That is, players really only encounter traps in connection with monsters. Also, dealing with traps very often requires the skills of other party members: Athletics, Dungeoneering, attack rolls, and Nature. Around 16th level, Arcana and Religion suddenly replace all of those as the useful skill of record. This follows "high level = high magic" well, but it's a bad mistake in terms of game support for all of those other skills. The bounded accuracy of D&D Next pays off well here in redeeming this error - those low-level traps could still be a hindrance, if not a threat, and thus the skills to thwart them retain this more interesting application.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Mage: the Awakening - The Five Supernal Winds

Some time back, Onyx Path Publishing put out an open call for writers to work on World of Darkness lines. I submitted the following, and since I was not sworn to secrecy on pain of death, I've decided that it would make some good blog content. It's a... kinda weird idea, but it seemed cool to me! In keeping with the recommendations stated in the open call, I've used the God-Machine Chronicle rules update to the new World of Darkness.

The Five Supernal Winds

“Though the Five Supernal Winds have not descended upon the Fallen World since time out of mind, the spells to summon them may yet exist. The lords of Atlantis once commanded them, not only to rule the sea but to summon the inexhaustible power of the Realms into the world. The Five Winds blur the line between a force and a sapient presence, for while they do nothing without impetus, their reactions to the commands of the Wise are as unpredictable and dangerous as a wild beast. Wherever they go in the Fallen World, they leave change in their wake, whether subtle or profound.” – Greenstone of the Spider Lords cabal, in The Tome of Aetheric Resonances

When a Supernal Wind goes entirely uncontrolled, it changes the world according to its desires: a few more mages awaken into the Watchtower of its origin, and the Astral and Shadow Realms roil with chaos. The motives of a Supernal Wind are abstruse, by human standards: the exaltation of a lowly novice mage, the humbling of an archmage, the discovery or occultation of a ruined temple. In a year and a day, it naturally disperses. When commanded by an extraordinary mage, the Supernal Wind loses cohesion quickly, but it can work lasting changes upon the world that Quiescence is slow to erode. The effects vary by the wind’s Realm; Covert effects cost minimal cohesion, while Improbable and Vulgar effects rapidly drain the Wind’s mystic integrity and hasten its departure from the Fallen World.

Archmages go through all of this trouble for two compelling reasons. The first is that a Supernal Wind can easily affect vast areas, measured in square miles rather than yards. The second is that, by creating an independent casting force, the archmage insulates herself from Paradox – an increasingly important consideration for one so exalted.

Each of the Supernal Winds has a common name indicating its parent Realm, and a name of high mystery that must be learned through research or numinous revelation. Their common names are the Fools’ Gale (Acanthus), the Scourging Wind or the Nightmare Wind (Mastigos), the Shade Tempest (Moros), the Breath of God (Obrimos), and the First of All Storms (Thyrsus).

Once one of the Supernal Winds is in the world, it is visible to sensing spells, but otherwise imperceptible. It follows the weather patterns of the world, such as the jet stream, unless and until a mage acts upon it with will and great power. Supernal Winds possess a limited sapience of their own; willworkers must bend it to their own authority, or negotiate with its alien intellect. This makes control of a Supernal Wind chancy and challenging, even for the mighty.

The following spell summons the Nightmare Wind; the spells for the rest of the Supernal Winds are quite similar, but as appropriate to their Realms of origin.

Summon the Nightmare Wind (Mind 7, Space 7)

By the power of the Nightmare Wind and Pandemonium, the Realms of Mind and Space influence the Fallen World in a localized but mobile area: a magical weather pattern.

Practice: Making
Action: Extended
Duration: Lasting (up to 366 days)
Aspect: Covert (with some Vulgar effects)
Cost: 2 Mana

A single success summons the Nightmare Wind from Pandemonium into the Fallen World. Additional successes grant this Supernal Wind greater strength of will and power to enact effects. As an ephemeral being, Supernal Wind starts with Resistance 1. For every additional success, the Supernal Wind enters the world in a stronger form, adding 1 to Power, Finesse, or Size. For every five successes, the Supernal Wind gains an additional point of Resolve and Composure.

Other than these traits, a Supernal Wind behaves more like a mage than other ephemeral entities. The Nightmare Wind always has at least Mind 5 and Space 5, increasing to 6 when any one Attribute exceeds 5. It has a functional Gnosis equal to its summoner’s, though this represents the strength of its summoning, not its actual awareness of cosmic Truth: it is, after all, a manifestation of that Truth in the first place. It is capable of speaking High Speech and any language its summoner knows. A Supernal Wind internally generates five Mana every day, and can store and spend Mana according to its Gnosis.

To move the Nightmare Wind off of its current course, a mage (not just the summoner) may make a (Mind or Space) + Gnosis roll. If the Nightmare Wind is already moving according to a command (including a prior command from the summoner), the second roll’s successes must exceed the first. This continues to require higher and higher numbers of successes until a month passes without a new command taking effect, at which time the value resets.

Compelling the Nightmare Wind to alter the Fallen World by magic requires a social challenge against the Wind’s will. Mastigos mages enjoy a Perfect first impression, while mages of other Paths have a Good first impression. Though they do not have Virtues or Vices, Supernal Winds have Aspirations that may factor into the challenge. If successfully persuaded or compelled, the Nightmare Wind can work an extraordinary variety of improvised spells appropriate to Mind or Space. If a social challenge against a Supernal Wind fails, it might do almost anything, in accordance with its Aspirations and, frequently, a desire to punish hubris. It uses Mana to cast spells, but cannot use it to mitigate Paradox as a mage does. Instead, it absorbs Paradox into itself, losing one Attribute dot from Power, Finesse, or Size for every Paradox success. If any Attribute falls below 1, the Supernal Wind is dismissed from the Fallen World.

Silver Ladder Rote: Scourging Zeitgeist
Dice Pool: Intelligence + Expression + Mind
The Supernal Winds are a pure expression of the Thunder that the Silver Ladder regard as a symbol of their Order. A Supernal Wind is an ally of the greatest possible magnitude, and with proper commands, the Order’s hegemony is secure.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

LARP Design Diary: Mega-Teams and Other Social Dynamics

Now that another Dust to Dust event is in the recent past, I can spare some time for blogging. Today I'd like to talk a little bit about the social dynamics of LARPs, with particular attention to mega-teams. This post is inspired by a conversation I had with Samhaine; ironically it isn't primarily about DtD, but relates to comparable situations in salon-style LARPs.
Serious Disclaimer: This is not about your mega-team in DtD, or any of the others either. If you feel like I'm attacking you, understand that I'm writing from a place of empathy, and my only interest in this post is how these things affect design. I like everybody who takes weekends out of their lives to play DtD.
So let's say you're about to start playing a particular boffer or salon LARP for the first time. Are you going to show up by yourself, or are you going to lure one or more friends into your shenanigans? Most games would probably love it if you would bring people along with you. When trying something new, having some people around that you already know is a great way to provide yourself with a comfort zone and a ready-made ally as you meet all of these new characters and find your niche among them. This is the social dynamic of the new player, and there's so much that needs to be said about how Plot committees can sculpt and support the new player experience that it should really be a separate post.

The brief version, just enough to get us through this topic, is that it's easy for a single player to get overlooked. Many encounters and plot elements build specifically off of what came before, and it is both difficult and contrary to instinct to provide new expository on-ramps every time a topic comes up. Further, many (most? all?) games based on heroic action in a high-danger setting go out of their way to inculcate paranoia among its playerbase - so experienced players need a reason to trust and include the new character. Games with advancement systems in which characters grow stronger (including resilience to harm, improved gear, and increased magical potency) just double down on all of that.

Bringing friends along to your first game can help with this, because what one new character can't quite accomplish, two or three coordinating their efforts often can. It's harder to ignore two or three people - and a lot harder to ignore five or more. Getting noticed and included is easier if you make a splash. If you are assured the ability to tag along, every friend you bring along is another chance to get dragged into something cool. So this is one of the thought processes that creates mega-teams. If a team of three to six is good, a team of ten to fifteen is obviously better, right?

The other side of it is the experienced players who do have the social cachet that would allow them to, in a sense, go it alone and still expect to get included. (The larger the playerbase, the higher of a bar this is - in this way games can be victims of their own success.) Experienced players still want to hang out with their friends, and still need people to share a cabin with, so calling that collection a team is reasonable. If the game includes any significant amount of political conflict or a spirit of one-upsmanship, for many players there is never "enough" social strength - teaming up with the peers you like best might give you the upper hand on other, similar groups.

Thus far I've discussed the good reasons, but I have heard something approaching horror stories from other games, where large and dominant teams are more like collegiate Greek society, with the newest members denied any of the engagement or agency that the team exists to create. The outermost members may have an advancement track within the team, but until that progresses, they might be worse off than an independent player. Once the team is large enough, the team no longer ensures that everyone gets involved; it's not unrelated to the concept of Dunbar's number, though the pressure restraining its size is not so much long-term memory as module party size limits and housing density limits (for games concerned with either of those). For salon-style games, I would expect that these two things aren't meaningful limits, and it's comparatively easier to sustain the social bonds of much larger teams.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Character Creation by Card Draft

Not that long ago in G+, Rob Donoghue proposed the idea of distributing secrets to players at the start of play by means of a card draft. Shortly before Cam Banks posted the same idea, it occurred to me that starting character stats could be distributed with a card draft too. Now, Cam Banks is at least a thousand times more famous than I am, but I'm still going to take my own run at the idea. By no means is this approach right for every game, so I'm also going to talk about the kinds of games where it could fit well.

The strength of the idea is that character creation should wind up a lot more organic than a completely planned system, while at the same time including elements of choice. The weakness of the idea is that players who only want to play one race, class, or background, or players dedicated to optimization, may not get what they want. There's also a pretty reasonable chance that two characters in the same group won't be balanced against one another. I haven't tested the idea yet, by any stretch of the imagination.

Start with a deck of cards with a variety of different abilities or bonuses written on them. Personally, I like the idea of cards involving two choices; in a D&D context, this might be "+1d4 to one ability score, or begin play with a treasure map to a destination within a day's journey." Now, it's probably the case that a lot of players choose the numerical bonus over the story option, but that's not the worst thing in the world.

A deck suitable to a group includes enough cards to give them stats, and to make sure each player has several choice points. For D&D, this might mean a final hand of 10-12 cards per player, of which they use all but one or two to determine the character's abilities. For WaRP, this might mean a final hand of eight cards, of which 4-6 determine the character's abilities. As in a draft for a card game, you generally want to leave in some room for discarding cards you simply got stuck with, and never especially wanted.

The drafting mechanic itself is nothing new. I recommend splitting the (shuffled) deck into a number of piles equal to the number of players; each player selects one card and passes to the left. A snake-draft style is fine, but slow, since every player has the whole deck to consider.

I strongly encourage a strict ban on table talk during the draft. The whole point of the idea collapses if players discuss and collaborate in the process. Also, with this many choice points and ways for players to influence other characters, many groups would find that one or two players "quarterbacked" the experience, rather than allowing the characters to form organically. Guidance from a more experienced player is usually helpful to making sure newer players have a good time; I'd simply say that drafting has enough choice points that it may not be appropriate for groups whose players have widely differing amounts of experience with the game.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Menzoberranzan Rebuild: Lloth

About six months ago, I wrote about my conflicted relationship with the Forgotten Realms setting, and mentioned that I might like to rebuild Menzoberranzan and the conception of the drow as a whole. My problem with them is that the Menzoberranzan boxed set is written to support an urban, all-drow campaign, but the drow style of kitten-eatin' evil is just not interesting to me. My three-word pitch for a revamped Menzoberranzan: arcanopunk inverted Venice. My approach won't be for everyone, but that's fine - I like what I like. Unrelentingly evil villain protagonists are overdone at this point - and even Walter White would not have been compelling if the show had started with the tone of Season 5.

Important Note: I began collecting FR material somewhere round 1994, and stopped collecting FR material right around 2005 or '06. The finished work won't cleave to canon, so don't be surprised when I miss some points in discussion along the way. My primary sources are the aforementioned boxed set and Drow of the Underdark (the 2e one, not the 3.5 one published on '07).

Second Note, Far More Important: This post is going to discuss religion, including real-world religion. It may be searingly offensive to readers who identify with the religions mentioned. Offense is not intended; where it results anyway I offer my apologies, as I have an outsider's ignorance on religions and spiritual traditions other than Episcopalian Christianity.

My starting point is the Queen of the Demonweb Pits and her priesthood. Menzoberranzan is the "default" drow culture and city of FR - other drow city-states define themselves by their difference from it. For example, the cult of Lloth rules the city with absolute control, as she is often said to do for all dark elves - but if I recall correctly, Vhaeraun has his city, Ghaunadar has its city, and Eilistraee has a camp or something. (I am not checking the whole of FR's text for this.) I digress; the point is that it doesn't make any sense to change Menzoberranzan without changing the character and the religion responsible for its madness.

The Lloth in the text isn't overburdened with motives that one could reasonably parlay into results. She encourages constant murder between the drow Houses, ruthless racial purity and supremacy, capriciousness (a dodgy virtue by any standard), and total matriarchy. I do believe that one could write a setting with a very active god (as Lloth is described as being - she's apparently in avatar form all the frickin' time) who is almost completely unpredictable. Actually, TSR did this, three years later, and the way they did it is the start of my model for Lloth 2.0.

So what if Lloth were inscrutable rather than capricious? In final form, the actions can be relatively similar - the Lady of Pain is described as Mazing people for any visible reason, or none, and flaying people just by casting her shadow over them. Untouchable, awful power fits in fine with inscrutability; by virtue of having stats, Lloth must be a step down from the Lady of Pain. (Whether or not gods or the avatars of gods should have stats, and thus be possible to defeat in combat, is another argument; let's briefly short-circuit it by saying that FR's answer is a consistent Yes, throughout the product-line.) Making Lloth seem inscrutable requires little more than giving her a guiding purpose - an alignment shift to be sure, but I have a sufficiently low opinion of alignment rules that I am not attempting to maintain consistency with a classic Chaotic Evil alignment.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Quintessence Design Diary: Skills and Attainments

In working on Quintessence of Dust, I decided that I liked some parts of D&D Next's skill list, and didn't like others. Of course, I've talked about D&D Next's skill model extensively. I particularly liked the skill-die model of earlier playtest packets, with skills rated +0 to +1d12, and with each skill carrying a preferential but non-binding attachment to a particular ability score bonus. On the other hand, there's a lot I don't like, especially when it comes to skills designed to manage character knowledge.

So I composed my own skill list, and introduced Attainments to cover the things that I want to track, and even use to modify skill checks, but that I wouldn't classify as skills. I've talked about the resolution mechanic of Quintessence before; Attainments are scaled like task bonuses and are often appropriate to use as such. (I'm not 100% satisfied with this, and it may need some alteration - but this is a design blog, y'all, I don't claim to get it right the first time.)

Each skill is made up of three or more Tasks - specific applications of the skill, allowing characters to further specialize. The Tasks also say a variety of things about what I expect a Dust to Dust tabletop game might involve; many of these would be unusual choices for other settings. The actual text includes more discussion of each Task's coverage, but I don't want this post to become unbelievably long, so I've cut that text for now. (Also, some Task names are ambiguous or misleading without that text; filing "Plot a Route" under Acrobatics seems weird until you get that I'm talking about studying an area for acrobatic passage, more or less like studying an area in one of the Assassin's Creed games.) There are plenty of valid arguments to be made that some two tasks should be collapsed together, also. Tasks include recommended ability score modifiers; the ability scores of QoD are Strength, Agility, Vitality, Intellect, Wisdom, and Spirit.

Easy checks use Action Difficulty 5.
Normal checks use AD 9.
Hard checks use AD 13.
Very Hard checks use AD 17.
Legendary checks use AD 21.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

High-Level Plot Writing

Quite some time back, I talked about the problems of high-level gameplay in D&D and made an assertion that the concepts weren't the problem, and that it was easy to scale up to higher fantasy and power on the story front. This assertion was not supported in the comments. It comes up now because of a prompt from one of my readers to suggest some plot seeds for interesting high-level play. Faced with thesis and antithesis, I intend to attempt synthesis, showing that pure concept needs just a few seeds of ideas. My guess as to the source of the problem - contradict me as needed - is that once you've gotten to the mid-levels of a campaign, you've explored most of the content that you really laid a foundation for in early exposition, and it's hard to figure out how to start up a new storyline that fits with what has gone before.

I'm speaking mostly from my own experience of running games. I've run a number of games from first level (or whatever the starting stats are) up to the threshold of high level - 9th level in 2e, 13th level in 3e, 13th level in 4e (not a good example... 21st is the true "high-level" for 4e), and 5 dots in a primary Arcanum in Mage: the Awakening. My common pattern is that low-level sessions are single-session or two-session adventures (for the obvious reason that the PCs don't have the reserves of power to do more). Low-mid adventures start stretching out a bit more in scope, with mini-arcs of 3-6 sessions. This continues into "mid-level" adventures - yeah, I know the terminology is imprecise. All throughout these adventures, I've been seeding other things, usually far more than I could reasonably run; this means the PCs have plenty of choices of things to pursue, or not. Finally I run a big storyline that takes a whole heap of sessions; in D&D that single goal might take three or more levels to complete.

When it's done - and I've been lucky that games have lasted long enough to finish their "big" stories - I have a bit of a problem. The players have solved the major problem that they invested time and energy into resolving. The central questions of the campaign are answered, and I have built all that I readily can on the foundation that I've laid. That is, my problem is how to cross the bridge into high-level play.

What I need to do, but never seem to consider when I'm on the spot in a campaign, is flash the timeline forward six months or a year, so that the characters rest on their laurels a bit and enjoy the fruits of their victory, rather than trying to have them move to the next thing in-character. This makes sense to the English majors out there who think of Freytag's pyramid. The adventure that ended mid-level play was a climax. I need to embrace the denouement and let the tension ease off for awhile. This doesn't have to last long - even one whole session might be stretching it. Once the tension has tapered appropriately, I should start in with new exposition, either picking up on earlier threads or introducing new ones. Instead, I try to jump from the climax to a new rising action.

A campaign's structure plays into this dynamic as well. For these purposes, I think there are four structure choices (if you can think of more, tell me):

  • Serial Drama: This structure has fallen a bit out of favor in the online communities I frequent, where it's seen as an invitation to railroading. It can be that, if the GM isn't careful, but there's still room for intricately-plotted games. In some of the best games, players gradually solve the GM's intricate puzzles and hurl themselves against challenges that push both players and characters to their limits. (For more about the virtues of this style in contrast to pure sandbox play, read here.)
  • Character Drama: This kind of game is driven by the drama of the primary characters rather than external conflict. Hillfolk and Smallville are notable cases of this kind. The GM may be little more than an impartial adjudicator of conflicts. There usually are still NPCs (in the tabletop implementation of this structure); their main point is to apply new pressures to the relationship dynamics between the main characters.
  • Procedural Drama: Depending on how you look at it, a lot of dungeon crawls could just about slide into procedural structure, but GUMSHOE-family games like Ashen Stars and Mutant City Blues are great examples of this. (If you're noticing how much Pelgrane shows up in these categories of structure, then you've got a pretty good understanding of what makes Pelgrane tick: experimentation with structure is their bag.)
    • There are a lot of good and useful advice about procedurals to be gained from just watching TV shows with an eye toward structure. You're in luck, though: Leverage exists. Also, the show is fucking phenomenal and John Rogers can teach you everything you need to know about building a reversal into every procedural story.
    • Also, Shadowrun. SR, in its many incarnations, is one of the best-known and most popular examples of a game built from the ground up to embrace this structure.
  • Sandbox: The OSR has waxed eloquent about sandbox play, and other bloggers have excessively conflated sandbox with the West Marches style or huge wilderness hexcrawls. The only obligatory element of Sandbox structure - at least as I'm using the term here - is that the GM seeds plots rather than planning outcomes, and lets the currents of emergent play do whatsoever it will (with a judicious eye toward making sure things stay engaging and fun for all involved - Sandbox is not code for absentee GMing).