Wednesday, December 29, 2010

MKULTRA D&D: Session report

(See previous post.)

I was fortunate that we eventually wound up with four players and a lot of time to play in the game I ran this past Sunday. It looked for awhile like that might not pan out thanks to the Great Southern Ice Age of 2010.

The party consisted of a half-elf ardent, a half-orc brawler fighter, an eladrin thief*, and a human greatweapon fighter*.

* Used Essentials rules

The mission briefing was short and to the point. Matthew Jordan, a cadet at the Citadel, was under suspicion of being a communist, a Russian spy, or an unwittingly controlled foreign agent. The four would enter his mind, search for signs of Russian or other external influence, correct it if possible, and report back.

Entering his mind, they found themselves at the foot of the Washington Monument. There were a cluster of humanoid figures in tactical armor carrying a mix of swords, spears, and assault rifles, all jutting off of the Washington Monument at a right angle. They had ursine features and hammer-and-sickle insignias. In B-movie Russian accents, the leader commanded his comrades to stall the three agents. (The thief's player was running a bit late, so we started without him; he resolved into the world in the middle of the fight.) It was apparent that each face of the Monument had its own gravity plane. The opposite face of the Monument was glowing red as the agents materialized. At the peak of the Monument was a glowing blue oval.

Peren, the ardent, and Joyce, the slayer (ahem) leapt to the attack before the Russian commander could flee toward the peak. Peren teleported Mort, the brawler, into position behind the commander. Russian soldiers swarmed over all three of them, coordinating their attacks for maximum carnage. (Russians here are using gnoll stats, which grant +5 damage to all when their target is adjacent to two or more of the gnoll's allies. Being outnumbered 6 to 3 is rough.) The face of the Monument they were standing on began to glow, and soon erupted in flames, just as another face began to glow, and so forth. The three held their own, even so, until the thief finally materialized and joined the fight. At that point, it was mostly cleanup. Once the commander fell, the "mantle of leadership" passed to one of the other soldiers, and another after him; each time the soldier tried to flee toward the portal at the top of the Monument, and each time they were stopped. The brawler's combat superiority really paid off here. The Russians dissipated as they fell, snapping out of the psychic landscape.

DM's notes: The PCs fought three Gnoll War Fangs (6th level soldiers), two Gnoll Marauders (6th level skirmishers), and one Gnoll Huntsman (5th level artillery). I completely forgot to use War Fang's triggered at-will power that gives one of the war fang's allies an attack if you miss the war fang. This would have made them substantially nastier, but it was a pretty challenging fight even without that (and my obnoxiously high d20 rolls made it a lot worse).

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Boxing Day One-Shot

I'll be running a one-shot D&D 4th edition game on Sunday. I've asked the players to create 7th level characters of any race, but using only the martial and psionic power sources. This is a mashup of, at the very least, Psychonauts and Inception.

The players are MKULTRA operatives for the CIA in the late 60's. The project has discovered ways to project operatives (even those without their own psionic gifts) as avatars inside a person's psychic landscape, where they have a number of options for manipulating the target. Even the untrained reflexively resist tampering, and subtlety triumphs over direct action. Most agents are themselves targets early in their training, as the Agency hopes to uncover and correct dangerous psychic trauma and root out the seeds of disloyalty. It takes a target of strong but subtle will to conceal either of these for long.

Entering one's own mind, or the mind of another, is a risky prospect, as minds resist intrusion. If a psychic avatar dies, the agent suffers ejection back into the normal world and is overwhelmed with cognitive dissonance. Such agents must be relieved of duty until they can receive massive and complicated psychic surgery.

Fully-trained operatives traverse a different sort of space: that between the minds, where they track and infiltrate targets of interest. Most would characterize this space as a funhouse mirror of reality. The fears and dreams of the 50s and 60s have left indelible marks on the background psychic landscape, as people fear communist infiltration or nuclear annihilation and flee into the comfort of the science-fictional or fantastic: Asimov, Heinlein, Tolkien, Moorcock, and others. Avatars have come to reflect this in order to minimize the resistance they face in their work.

The Cold War against the Russians is only cold in reality; in the Elsewhere of psychic combat, it is most assuredly an open and brutal conflict. Just as the Agency can suborn a target through psychic intrusion, so can the KGB. Trust no one until you've been inside his head.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Follow-up to the Rout idea

So Samhaine and I got to talking in the comment thread of the previous post, leading to an IM conversation. The idea we came up with was Dungeon Inertia, allowing players to weaken superior numbers of enemies in a dungeon by demoralizing them, and allowing players to worry a little less about killing any that flee. We also discussed applications of this basic concept in MMOs, and it's something I'd like to include in the project I'm working on, if that job picks up again. (Which brings me back to the concept of morale failure!)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

3e/4e design idea: Rout

So, I was talking to a friend about an issue in my D&D 4th edition campaign that generalizes to most (though not all) game systems. Specifically, it's incredibly difficult to escape a combat unless the fleeing character(s) have a movement mode not available to the pursuers. Xorn movement (a.k.a. earth glide) is the one I've seen in games lately, and that one is frustrating because there's typically nothing you can do to pursue at all, because who the hell prepares move earth? (Tangent: If you didn't read and memorize the description of xorn's earth glide power, the text of move earth goes out of its way to convince you not to use it. Read the last line of the spell description, just above Material Component. This makes me irrationally annoyed with the 3.5e writers; technically, the statements can be parsed so that they do not conflict, but the text of move earth reads as if it is warning you not to bother with this spell.)

But I digress. The problem is that Speed is a fixed value that a character can increase only by fixed amounts, so that (assuming you knew the stats) you could know with near-perfect reliability whether or not escape is possible (ignoring for a moment the matter of the pursuer not caring enough to pursue). I'm sure a lot of DMs are okay with this; the community of game-bloggers being what it is, I'm sure there are DMs who think that the intention to change the viability of fleeing is heresy of thought, heresy of word, etc. This is for everyone else. I've roughed out a version for 3.5 and 4th edition D&D. This is just an idea I had, and has received no testing whatsoever.

D&D 3.5: The Rout Action, version 1 (simple)

As a full-round action, a character may accept the panicked condition for 10 rounds (with the specific exception that the character does not have to flee along a random route). In exchange, the character gains a bonus to Speed equal to (1d6 x 5 ft) when moving away from all enemies, and then performs the Run action.

Randomizing the bonus Speed is important because predictability is antithetical to the suspense of a chase.

  • Simulationists will hate this; a Speed of 30 ft already implies nigh-Olympic level running speed, and the best possible roll doubles this Speed. You could apply the bonus as additional movement from the Run, Withdraw, or Double Move actions (so that it isn't multiplied by those actions), though that certainly diminishes its usefulness. (It also changes the action away from being a full-round action, and is more a kind of meta-action.)
  • This rule doesn't generalize in form to a footrace or giving pursuit, which is kind of unfortunate but outside its intended scope.
  • Thanks to boots of striding and springing, monks in general, and the overall range of monster speeds, it's entirely possible for the pursuer to be so fast that the speed bonus granted here is trivial, but at that point it's a matter of class or treasure resources, so... fine, whatever.
  • Since there's no comparable bonus for pursuers, it clearly favors the possibility of an escaping character successfully escaping, which I regard as by design; remind your players, if you must, that the escapee has dropped everything in his hands (see the panicked condition) and they still get XP for the encounter. Any attacks launched against the fleeing character have the clear benefit of the target being denied a Dex bonus to AC (as per the Run action).

D&D 3.5: The Rout Action, version 2 (more complex)

As a free action, a character may accept the panicked condition for 10 rounds (with the same exception, as above). When performing the Run, Withdraw, or Double Move actions and going away from all visible enemies, the character makes a Strength or Dexterity check (whichever is higher) each round to pour on speed, and moves an additional 5 feet per 5 points of success on the check. As the panicked condition inflicts a penalty to all ability checks, it is possible for a low-Strength character to gain no bonus movement.

It would also be feasible to have a Flee In Good Order sort of action, in which you accept the shaken or frightened condition for the same duration, but your Strength or Dexterity check yields 5 feet of movement per 10 points of success.

D&D 4e: A few notes on adaptation

In 4e, it is a good practice to resolve chase scenes with a Skill Challenge, and what I'm doing here isn't intended to replace that in any regard. The problem that I see is that it is at present a matter of fiat to shift from combat rounds and grid-based pursuit over to skill challenge mode, where your Speed stat (whatever it might be) avails you not, and many spellcasting classes can pretty much forget about it, as compared to grid-based pursuit, where the caster's long-range spells are superior to melee attacks.

D&D 4e doesn't have the panicked condition as such, so I'm adding it for my purposes here.

Panicked: Fleeing in terror. You grant combat advantage to enemies making melee or close attacks against you. You get a +2 bonus to AC and Reflex against ranged or area attacks from nonadjacent enemies. You take a -2 penalty on attack rolls.

D&D 4e: The Rout Action, version 1 (simple)

As a free action, a character may accept the panicked condition until the end of the encounter. In exchange, the character gains a bonus to movement when moving away from all visible enemies and making the Run action or taking a double move. This bonus is 1d6 squares at Heroic, 2d6 squares at Paragon, and 3d6 squares at Epic.

D&D 4e: The Rout Action, version 2 (more complex)

As above, but instead of gaining 1d6 or more squares, the character makes an Athletics or Endurance check to pour on speed. Depending on the environment or terrain, Acrobatics, Dungeoneering, Nature, or Streetwise might also be options, at the DM's discretion. For every 5 points of success on the roll, move 1 additional square when making the Run action or taking a double move away from all visible enemies.

4e Version 1 and Version 2 are really quite different in the top-end outcome, but I haven't played around in epic tier yet to see if potentially as much as 18 extra squares of movement is good or bad, or really even what a character's skill bonuses are likely to be at that level. If you wanted to use version 2 for footrace rules, it would be entirely within reason to treat the panicked condition as representing sprinting.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Crafting Systems in LARPs: Part One

So Kainenchen and I got to talking this morning about crafting in LARPs. I touched on some of this in an earlier post, but I'm going into more detail here. While crafting systems in MMOs are sometimes problematic (too rewarding or not rewarding enough, ruinous to the economy, and so on), World of Warcraft, Fallen Earth, and Star Wars Galaxies are pretty satisfying to the player at the time. The things that we do in LARPs that we call crafting are problematic because:

1. In most MMOs, production skills do not cost a player any advancement potential, just time and money. WoW, LotRO, and Warhammer Online are examples of this (I'm mostly sure CoH/CoV are too); FE and SWG are exceptions. Production skills in LARPs cost advancement potential (character points) that you could otherwise spend on improving your combat capabilities. King's Gate's Brewing and NERO's Alchemy don't have this problem because they are a combat power set in and of themselves; in KG, that power set typically bankrupts the player's team. You need to have a weapon and some armor for combat effectiveness, but Weaponsmithing and Armorsmithing are the least efficient way imaginable to accomplish that because they cost XP and, later, money. (In Wildlands, where money is experience, this is especially agonizing.)

Many players in MMOs will pick up a crafting skill or two, because it's a sideline, a source of amusement, or a way to get loot. In LARPs, you might buy just a few levels of the production skill to keep it a sideline, but it's still advancement potential you could have spent elsewhere. I'm not looking to change this, though a thought experiment of how you could create a non-xp-based production system that included advancement over time is interesting. I might come back to this in a future post, even though it's a design dead-end for me.

A solution to this problem that shows up in some LARPs - Eclipse and RELIC both have this to varying degrees - is to offer a small amount of pure combat effectiveness as a side benefit at some levels of the production skill. Eclipse, for example, gives crafters a grenade or plasma-round recipe at levels 5, 7, and 10. Armor Techs are the exception to this, but they get Personalized Armor for additional armor value and building defense screens that are highly useful.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

From Here to There

Please excuse me while I blatantly publicize a work in which my own writing appears. The two adventures of mine that are in this book I wrote back when D&D 4th edition was still new, and though I have learned more about adventure design for 4e since then, I think I still had some pretty interesting ideas, and I hope you will want to purchase a copy.

This book includes:

The Quick and the Dead (level 12), by Aeryn Rudel: While en route to their next adventure, the PCs pass through a thick copse of trees and are ambushed by a group of quickling muggers. The quicklings, however, do not attack to kill; instead, the little fey attempt to snatch a valuable item from each PC and and then race off into the forest!
When Madness Seeps Through (level 5), by Philippe-Antoine “ChattyDM” Menard: While traveling from a nearby town to their destination, the PCs spot a group of aberrant humanoids running across the road, each clutching struggling humans who call for help. Chasing the humanoids or following their trail deeper in the forest, the PCs find a forgotten temple occupied by the corrupted remnants of cultists.
The Deadly Blue Yonder (level 13), by Brandes Stoddard: A group of evil cultists discovered a nest of wyvern eggs, and when those eggs hatched the cultists trained the wyverns as mounts. They have used this remarkable advantage to establish a dominion over the local countryside. As the PCs pass through their territory, they must defend themselves against aerial attack!
The Toll Station (level 6), by Adrian Pommier: While passing through a toll station, the PCs are beset by nightmare creatures pulled from the imprisoned minds of the road wardens. To awaken the sleeping guardsmen and end the attacks, the PCs must smash a profane idol and defeat a demon of the Nightmare Goddess!
The Crossing (level 4), by Chris Dias: The PCs are traveling near a river or through mountainous terrain when they find themselves in a thick fog. As they venture further, they come to a bridge. With no sign of alternate routes, they must make their way across. The bridge is an illusion generated by a predatory monster called a chosis mimic – a psychic creature that feeds on the life spirit of those traveling near it. The illusionary bridge has no beginning and no end, and no matter how long the PCs travel, they never reach its end before they reach theirs – unless they destroy the chosis mimic!
The Hanging Tree (level 5), by Lee Hammock: The village of Tarrow has been using a local hanging tree to execute criminals for centuries, but now an innocent man has been added to its roster of the dead. The spirits of those previously killed on the tree have now risen up in a quest for vengeance, making travel through the area very difficult. After escaping from the undead raised by the hanging tree, the players reach Tarrow and discover why the spirits of the tree are restless by talking to the locals.
Flying High (level 2), by Colleen Simpson: The PCs are en route to their next adventure, traveling through a lightly wooded hilly area, when they are swooped upon by steelwing hippogriffs, which attempt to carry one or more PCs to their nest site. When the PCs arrive at the nest area, they observe kobolds attacking the steelwing hippogriff nests. The steelwing hippogriffs need the assistance of the heroes!
Mystery at the Wandering Wineskin Inn (level 5), by Ken McCutchen: The adventurers are resting comfortably at an inn. When the sun rises on a new day, the characters discover that one of the party members is missing! There are several items out of place in the room, and a search reveals several interesting clues. To locate the missing character, the party must gain knowledge about the missing companion, overcome misdirection from false allies, and defeat the brigands who are holding the missing character for ransom.
The Hunting Party (level 2), by Brandes Stoddard: In the wilds, the PCs encounter a large group of goblins. The normally aggressive creatures recognize that the PCs carry their weapons with experience and skill, and they are reluctant to engage a foe who could cost them many of their own hunters and foragers. They even go so far as to buy off the PCs with a side of boar meat or venison from a recent kill.
You can buy it here or here. I'll also link to the Chatty DM's blog post about it, and I'll add other links regarding this book as I discover them.

This review on ENWorld makes specific mention of one of my adventures! (And in a positive light, which I really appreciate!)

Gnome Stew has posted a new review as well!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Shadows of Azathoth: Design In Progress

So a friend of mine is working on designing a game he's calling Shadows of Azathoth. There are a lot of neat ideas going on here, but the ones that interest me at the moment are that memory is priceless and memory is unstable. With his permission, this post comments on some of his neat ideas, and how the design could be tweaked to correct some unforeseen oddities.

During character creation, each player specifies a list of memories. The first is Identity, rated at 5 (more on ratings in a bit). If your Identity rating drops to zero, you have lost all of your sense of self and gone irretrievably insane. You also have Upbringing and Training, rated at 4; Important Person, Best Memory, and Worst Memory, rated at 3; and six slots for Other Players, all rated at 2. It's okay to completely lose memories other than Identity, but they're definitely worth maintaining.

Memory Rating
Memories are rated on a scale of strength from 0-5. (Without getting too deeply into the conflict-resolution mechanics, I'll mention that it's a d6 system where 4+ on a die is a success in normal circumstances, but sometimes only 5+ or 6 is a success.) When making any roll, a character can draw upon a memory to improve her chance of success. (It would be good to clarify whether the player declares this before or after the roll.) She receives a number of points equal to the memory's current rating to distribute among the d6s rolled. She might spend three points to bump a 2 and a 3 up to 4s, making them successes. The rating of her memory then temporarily decreases by 1.

At the end of the session or adventure, the player rolls Willpower (one of your core skills). For every success, she restores one point lost off of an existing memory. For every point she does not successfully restore, she forms a new memory, keeping her at the same total number of points of memories. This new memory is likely to have a pretty low rating.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Pendragon: Character Niches

This is a bit of a compare-and-contrast post. See, in Pendragon, the default assumption is that everyone will play knights. Some of those knights may come from far-off places (typically in search of interesting ethnic benefits - we'll gloss over the inherent racism in the fact that Danes, for example, get a bonus to Appearance), but you're still all expected to play fighters. On a very limited basis, GMs may allow wizards; we had one actual wizard out of the 19 player-characters that joined the group. (For the record, that was 19 characters over the span of 11 players.) It's also nominally possible to play a courtly (rather than knightly) woman, but no one ever pursued that idea, since it would mean not participating in huge swaths of gameplay. So we had 16 male knights, 2 female knights, and one male wizard. One of those knights was a dedicated archer, and another had a bow that he used occasionally.

Add to this the fact that there are some skills everyone needs, some Virtues everyone needs, some Passions that everyone possesses, and we all need to push the same ability scores as high as possible.

This means that during character creation and thereafter, you're working pretty hard just to figure out how your character is different from the others. In D&D, this is incredibly straightforward: your class (and possibly race, but mainly class) makes you work in a fundamentally different way in almost all situations from any other class. Early editions of D&D were pretty likely to see one or more characters of the same class in a party; later editions, much less so. (As late as 3.5, I did see parties with multiple fighters, though one typically multiclassed into rogue or something.)

I'd be interested to know how conscious Greg Stafford (link is to his Wikipedia page, not his personal page, which is not easy on the eyes) was of the effects of this design while he was writing it. When we watch other characters do things better or worse than our characters, but in the same way, it feeds competitiveness. Not to the exclusion of cooperation - we were sufficiently threatened by external (sometimes literally environmental) forces that we had to cooperate. In the first post, I mentioned the sort of leaderboards style of play that we got into. Watching the gigantic Saxon annihilate everything that stood in his way while my puny Roman knight (well, started out puny) was slap-fighting and struggling to stay standing... this was a pretty good reason to do something to tone down the huge dice pools of damage. But this isn't a post about balance issues; this is a post about character niches.