Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Aurikesh: the Domains of Balioth

The map below, created in Paint.NET, shows the names and locations of the fifteen domains on the continent of Balioth. Each domain is a separate layer in the initial file, so sometime soon I'll divide these into their provinces and post them domain-by-domain. At that time, I'll probably also brainstorm additional details of each individual domains so that those posts aren't quite as shy on content as this one is going to wind up being.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Skyrealms of Jorune Review: Part One

Inasmuch as my current Mage: the Awakening chronicle will be drawing to a close soon, I'm trying to figure out what to run next. As it happens, last year at Dragon*Con I bought Skyrealms of Jorune (Third Edition) from the Chessex booth, because it would be a strange trip to Dragon*Con that didn't result in Chessex getting at least a little of my money. I first heard about Jorune from a video game guidebook that I purchased, oh, sometime in the mid-to-late 90s. I think I was interested in tips for some one of the Wizardry games, but it included a guide to Alien Logic. Based on its description, I was curious about the deeply-bizarre setting, and was impressed that it was also a tabletop game, but I never saw a copy of the video game or the tabletop game in stores, so I mostly forgot about it. Now, I sort of feel that the main reason to play Jorune is for the geek cred of being able to say I (we) have done so.

To help us make such a decision, I'm going to work through the book and post my commentary. Having skimmed the book so far, my expectation is that I will find the setting bizarre-but-fun, and the rules sort of... agonizingly early 90's. My eyes did not actually skeet blood on trying to tackle the combat chapter, but I'm desperately hoping that reading the whole thing in order will provide some of the context that is missing. The comments on Grognardia's review of the game, however, indicate that context won't help, and the common use of Jorune may be to replace the rules entirely.

This is your first and final warning: I will be linking TV Tropes. For God's sake, do not click a TV Tropes link if you have something you need to do this week. (Correspondingly, this post may take an unusually long time to write.)

Without further ado...

Prologue Materials

To set the stage, the book begins with three pages of intro materials: a Historical Essay on the History of Jorune, "Some Privileges and Responsibilities of Drennship," and an outline of drennship: how to rise from the lowliest tauther to the ranks of the Drenn. If you get the impression just from the descriptions of these pages that the setting is all about introducing unfamiliar words and assuming you'll work out what they mean from context (though the writer might get around to defining them later, perhaps in the Glossary at the end of the book), you would be right. I counted fourteen made-up words on the first page, several of them one letter off from an English word (some familiar, some obscure). I say without judgment that it is done in the style and tradition of schlocky sf; what makes me groan in a novel is perhaps not ideal in a tabletop game, but it is certainly more acceptable. World-building is the be-all and end-all of this text, and I ought not get upset when it proceeds aggressively in its attempt to immerse the reader. (It does mean, though, that you might need to read more than once.)

The Historical Essay firmly establishes Jorune in the same category as T├ękumel, Pern, and even Barrayar; a human spacefaring civilization colonized the planet, and then some disaster cut the planet off from outside contact for a huge span of time, during which the humans regressed to feudalism. In Jorune's case, this event was a massive war against the shantha, a species native to Jorune. At least at this point in the text, fault for that war is unclear, but I'm kind of pleased by the possibility that it's not just humans being assholes and deciding to wipe out the natives. The shanthas seem to mostly win, and over the next two thousand years and change, the shanthas kill a lot more humans, enough to be mentioned as a third leading cause of death (behind war and disease). In Chapter One, however, we learn that shanthas are actually more like Grey aliens, including ubertech-which-resembles-magic. At this point, I am amused by how nearly this resembles the tentaari of Dawning Star.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

You've Got to Know How to Ask

This post is about a very thorny subject in gaming: what does it take to get information out of someone who doesn't want to give it to you? I'll be attempting to address this point within both LARPing and tabletop gaming, as I feel that the visceral immediacy of LARPing intensifies the issue somewhat. There are interlinked issues of information control, the grimdarkness of the setting, the players' and DM/NPCs' conceptions of "enhanced interrogation techniques," mind-control magic, and whether there is any valid way to threaten PCs that will get them to back down. Since this is an issue in both tabletop gaming and LARPing, I'll be alternating between referring to DMs and Plot arbitrarily.

Also, a caveat to the whole discussion: nothing that I'm going to discuss here is necessary or helpful if the DM and the players can easily come to consensus on the issues. Rules exist to guide the flow of play when the sides of a conflict can't agree, or when uncertainty in the outcome is desirable. This is doubly true when applied to rules governing social encounters (or, in the case of interrogation, anti-social).

What can the PCs do to get information the NPC doesn't want them to have?
  1. Diplomacy Checks: If you're not careful with the Diplomacy skill in 3.x or 4e D&D, it becomes awfully similar to mind control, to the point that a bard allowed to open his mouth can (theoretically) stop combat with any sentient foe, even at early-mid levels.
  2. Mind Reading/Control: Being able to read or control a villain's thoughts is often carte blanche to wreck the rest of the villain's plans. This is obviously a lot of fun for players and rewards creativity about as thoroughly as one could want.
  3. Bargaining: From the DM's perspective, this is the best one, because bargains can have costs. By this category I mean to imply either a Bribery skill separate from Diplomacy, or a non-dice-based dialogue that leads to what our legal system might call a meeting of the minds.
  4. Trickery: Some percentage of the time, the Bluff skill or some quick thinking lets PCs trick NPCs into revealing information they had not intended to reveal.
  5. "Enhanced" Interrogation: Either through description (some tabletop games and every LARP I know about) or skill checks; typically Intimidate but sometimes a Torture skill (as in Hackmaster).
When can the DM just say, "I don't care how high you roll, this guy is more devoted to or frightened of the guy he would be betraying"? The DM has the option of pricing the DC out of the market, since most skill systems include a way to define something as "impossible." This sometimes fails to take into account all of the bonuses and situational modifiers that PCs could stack up to reach those DCs. There can be a lot of additional debates about DMs asserting this level of control over the course of the narrative; railroading is the less charitable term. My personal feeling is that as long as the DM shows restraint and does not insist that all of the NPCs are too (fill in quality here), this is probably okay. If the PCs have been stymied a few times by hardline loyalists, let them find a weak link in the organization. Including "these guys are known for not giving up information" as part of the exposition on the group (preferably before the first serious conflict) can do a lot to help it feel fair, because at least that way they can make other plans and they don't build up expectations that are going to be thwarted.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

D&D Next: Off the Cuff, Round 2

The next round of D&D Next playtest materials for public playtesters like me has dropped. I wanted to jot off a few thoughts as I skim through the files - it'll be another couple of weeks before my gaming group can actually meet to play with any of this. They made a lot of changes, and they were kind enough to sum up the changes in a single document within the playtest. I hope this stays on the sunny side of my fulmination rule.

First off, I know it's an unreasonable thing to ask, but I do wish they had released another adventure to go with this packet. The Caves of Chaos are a bit - a lot, actually - too old-school for my gaming group. Whatever the OSR folks say about the evils of having a narrative, there is a silent majority that feels quite otherwise. To give D&D Next a fair shake, when I do run this, I'll be operating off of my own material.

So, first-level hit points have changed back to 3e-style single-hit-die + Con modifier. This makes me sad, because we're firmly back into the territory where first-level characters are dropping in a single hit. Given the way sleep has been changed (no saving throw; starting with the creature with the lowest hit points, it keeps going until it hits a random hit point limit), hit points are carrying too much of the load of a character's resilience. I think D&D has always had a tough time accepting that sleep is an incredibly powerful, instant-kill kind of thing to do - in the LARPs that I play, sleep effects are typically either modestly challenging to apply (blade poisons have their limitations) or expensive to cast (typically one of the higher-level spells and subject to both magic and mental resistances).

I understand that the designers wanted to lower hit points overall "as a way to make healing more effective." I think this was wrongheaded from the start; the only way this change affects play for healers is that they will more often need to sacrifice their turn to cast the more reliable healing effect (cure light wounds or better) since healing word has little chance of fully healing a badly wounded wizard, much less any other class. I like healing word just fine for not taking up the cleric's turn, but I'm not sure it's worth the spell slot it costs until third level, and then only with the Healer specialty.

On which note, I am kind of stunned at how different the game's power level will be in comparing a party whose cleric has the Healer specialty and a party whose cleric does something else with his time. I am really very uncomfortable with how this is playing out, because I believe that the player community will come to feel that the cleric who makes any other choice is "just being selfish," when the whole problem with the cleric class in 3.x and earlier editions is that the cleric was required to be selfless in order for anyone else to have fun. The issue here is that a mechanic that everyone needs in order to keep playing their characters is locked to one class/role. Don't kid yourself - Hit Dice and out-of-combat healing aren't going to be enough, and if you want to rely on healing potions for all of your healing, that's cool, but the base unit of value in the economy quickly becomes the 50-gp healing potion. (Which means that the Healer specialty is once again the Only Correct Choice.)

While we're on spells, let's talk about Cause Fear real fast. It's a "save or you're out of the fight" spell. Sure, that's less bad than "save or die," technically. It can crowd-control as many creatures as you want (assuming a failed save) for 1 minute, until they take damage. A bit much for a first-level spell; I'll have to hope that this spell is revisited along with the game's entire approach to status effects. The second-level spell hold person paralyzes targets with fewer than 50 hit points on a failed save. So we're talking about characters of third level and above being able to paralyze every humanoid currently in the Bestiary. What I'm saying here is that that hit point limit is almost pointlessly high, unless the target is an elite humanoid of seventh level or higher. I get that they believe in this hit point threshold mechanic, but it would mean a lot more if there were actually creatures that it stopped the spell from affecting - otherwise it's like it's not there at all.

Interestingly, the inflict line of spells are super hoss. I'm not yet sure how I feel about this, but it might be okay. There's an attack roll (half damage on a miss), and then something probably dies. The average damage of inflict moderate wounds, for example, kills a regular opponent of fifth level, maybe sixth or better, straight out, or cripples that character on a miss.

I'm really not sure why they bothered with the hit point cap (which totally ignores a character's current hit point total) on bane. It's a -1 to hit for a group of opponents. I get that they're going for bounded accuracy and all, but I'm pretty sure no one will bother with this spell when there are other options on the table. The other thing about making spell thresholds respect hit point maximums rather than current hit points is that it asks the players to do even more guesswork about how tough the opponent is, and these effects (bane, suggestion, turn undead...) do absolutely nothing if the opponent has more than the threshold. This is exactly not how the threshold mechanic was originally presented, and loses the strengths of that option. Charm person and command offer another iteration: they offer a saving throw only to those with more than the threshold, and automatically succeed against those below the threshold.


Friday, August 3, 2012

Multi-classing, Or: "But Will It Blend?"

A discussion in the comments of my previous post brought up the many different forms that multi-classing has taken over the years in D&D, so I thought I might explore that in a post. It's also something that Kainenchen and I have talked about many times, because there are a lot of nuanced difficulties in every system that has yet been advanced. I'll start by saying that no edition has presented a perfect system, but their flaws have been wildly different from one another. As usual, I'm starting with the earliest edition that I ever played. Oh, and fair warning - this might get super-crunchy, but that's partially a result from multi-classing always involving more complex bookkeeping than single-class characters.

AD&D Second Edition
2e has two very different multiclassing systems, "multi-classing" and "dual-classing." Of these, multi-classing has the most in common with 4e's hybrid-class system, while dual-classing... has little in common with anything that has been done since, for reasons that will become obvious. Multi-classing lets demi-human characters (only) have two character classes, dividing your XP equally between them and only gaining half value of each hit die rolled (effectively granting the average of the hit dice of your two classes). Because of 2e's idiosyncratic advancement charts, such characters generally have uneven levels in their two classes, and are generally 1-2 levels (but not much more than that) in each class behind single-classed characters with the same overall XP total. This is a pretty clear outgrowth of the OD&D Elf class. Certainly elf fighter/magic-user is one of the best multi-class combinations in the game, since they get the additional benefit of being able to wear elven chainmail and still cast spells. Characters can even add a third class to that mix; elves can add thief progression, and half-elves can add thief or cleric progression (if I recall correctly). There are very specific lists of the classes that can be combined, based on race, and you can never combine two classes of the same header (that is, no fighter/paladin or bard/thief). The whole system is some of the most intensive bookkeeping that you'll find in 2e, which is to say that it is a bit of a pain, but still doesn't hold a candle to the bookkeeping of later editions.

Dual-classing, on the other hand, is restricted to humans, and involves starting the campaign single-classed, progressing for awhile, and then dumping every part of that old class except for the hit points while you gain experience in a new class. For all intents and purposes except for hit points, you are a first-level member of that new class, though presumably with a bit of accumulated treasure. Once your levels in your new class equal your levels in your old class, however, you regain all class features of that previous class, and can start gaining hit points from hit dice again. I don't know what to tell you. I absolutely never had a player hint, even jokingly, that he was considering dual-classing, because once the rest of the party is having adventures appropriate to 6th-level characters, do you really want to go back to having the abilities of a first-level character?

The good side of the multi-class system is that it's surprisingly close to balanced. It turns out that having two classes at about two levels lower costs you just enough that your single-classed companions aren't too badly overshadowed. The hit points that you're missing do sting a bit, but the overall gameplay environment of 2e and prior editions was much less focused on the tank/DPS/heals dynamic of later decades. The fact that you're contributing slightly less to the party's overall effectiveness just doesn't matter as much in 2e as it does in 4e. The bad side of the multi-class system is that you can't just dabble - if you want to be 80% fighter and 20% magic-user, that's not really an option, since you must divide your XP equally. The system is necessary in the first place because of 2e's atrocious demi-human level-capping rules, for which I have only fulmination. Anything that lets you gain more overall power and continue to gain XP at the "normal" rate a little longer is a good thing. There is no good side to the dual-classing system as far as I am aware.

The one thing I don't know, or have totally forgotten, about this system is how DMs are intended to award experience if, say, a fighter/magic-user spends the whole adventure behaving as a magic-user and totally ignores his fighter side, assuming the campaign is using XP awards for "class-appropriate" behavior.

The problem shared by both of these systems is that they explicitly contradict the world-logic that TSR put in place to justify level-capping demi-humans and not level-capping humans. To wit, demi-humans lack the focus necessary to stick with one class. Doesn't dual-classing represent a lack of career focus much more clearly than multi-classing? If anything, you'd have to call multi-classing the superlative ability to focus on two or more things at once, while dual-classing is getting bored and moving on to something else. In the best available real-world terms, which one is more flighty: the person who earns two simultaneous doctorates (actually, I might believe this as a representation of "elves don't sleep") or the person who gets an associate's degree in journalism, goes to med school for seven semesters, and then moves on to some third unrelated thing? (Okay, humans can actually do the latter and be awesome, because experience is additive - the point here is that they might legitimately be considered flighty.)

Oh, and there was something that could be called a gestalt system, if you squinted a bit; there were optional rules in the DMG for building custom classes, with the class's features, restrictions, and so on determining its XP chart. I certainly wasn't about to let players even discuss custom-building classes, no sir. Good lord, no. Skills and Powers also did some nominally roll-your-own stuff with classes, but it mostly stayed within a single archetype.

Anyway, let's move on to more logical but equally problematic approaches.