Tuesday, April 29, 2014

D&D Next: The Alchemist

I haven't done much of anything new in D&D Next home-brewing for a long time, but this Thursday I'll be reviving my Aurikesh campaign, which has been dormant since January. I remain very glad that the campaign doesn't rely on having the same set of characters from one session to the next. Anyway, I thought I might try to work up an alchemist class and an alchemical crafting list. As with a lot of my ideas, credit for many of the cool parts goes to Kainenchen and Stands-in-Fire; I added a few more, and tried to implement our ideas in a workable way. A lot of good ideas got left by the wayside, though, and I may try to circle back and reincorporate them over time. Most of the time, the tough part was working those ideas into the design framework of D&D Next.

The Alchemist

The practice of alchemy is a central element of kagandi society; many practice this art in a less dedicated form. A true alchemist, however, recognizes that only through dedication and an inquisitive spirit will alchemy yield its highest mysteries. This class applies to those who pursue combat applications, rather than pure research or mercantile production. All of these paths rely on the Quintessence that is refined within the alchemist's humors and soul.

The combat applications of alchemy begin with the hurling of acids and poisons, healing of wounds, transformation of the body, and similar effects. Alchemical effects straddle the separation between what is natural and what is magical; it is the foundation of science and chemistry, but it also reaches past the bounds of the Possible into the Numinous.

While all alignment systems connected to class mechanics suck, if you really care about the Gygaxian nine-alignment model, alchemists defy stereotype: theirs is an ordered study that surrenders to the chaos of creation.

Creating an Alchemist
When you create an alchemist, you gain the following features.

Hit Points
Hit Dice: 1d8
Hit Points at 1st level: 8 + Constitution modifier
Hit Points at Higher Levels: 1d8 (or 5) + Constitution modifier

Armor: Light armor, Medium armor
Weapons: Simple weapons
Tools: Alchemist's tools, Healer's kit
Saving Throws: Constitution, Intelligence
Skills: Choose one from Arcana, Nature, or Medicine

You can make an alchemist quickly by following these suggestions.
Background: Sage
Equipment: Studded leather, spear, formula book, adventurer’s kit, 64 gp, and 8 sp

Level  Prof. Bonus  Features  Quin.  1: Copper  2: Silver  3: Electrum  4: Gold  5: Platinum
+1  Alchemy, Stone of Refinement 
+1  Unstable Alchemy 
+2  Tradition 
+2  Ability Score Improvement 
+2  Tradition Benefit  2
+3  Refined Humors 
8 +3 Improved Retribution  4 4 3
9 +3 5 4 3 2
10 +3 Ability Score Improvement   5 4 3 2
11 +4 Shared Draughts (choose type) 6 4 3 3
12 +4 Tradition Benefit  6 4 3 3
13 +4 7 4 3 3 1
14 +4 Ability Score Improvement   7 4 3 3 1
15 +5 Refined Soul  8 4 3 3 2
16 +5 Tradition Benefit, Shared Draughts (second type) 8 4 3 3 2
17 +5 9 4 3 3 3 1
18 +5 Tradition Benefit  9 4 3 3 3 1
19 +6 Ability Score Improvement  9 4 3 3 3 2
20 +6 Magnum Opus 9 4 3 3 3 2

Monday, April 21, 2014

Setting Thought Experiment: The City of Mists

Once Dust to Dust ends, I will need a long break from running LARPs. Possibly permanent, but who knows? The point is that this post is just something I have to write to get it out of my head: a LARP setting and approach to game-running that are quite different from DtD. (Otherwise I'd be thinking about how to pack more Cool Stuff into that game, in keeping with Brustian literary theory.) In offset blocks below most of these points, I will say a few words about why I like each idea.

There is a village, surrounded by a sea of impassible mists. The only things the villagers can get to outside of the village are a mountain with a cave system beneath it, and the river that flows from the mountain. All of the players are from different families of this village, and each family is responsible for some of the things that sustain the whole village. Was there ever anything beyond the mists? There are tales of dreams, nothing more.
The reasoning here is that I'd like to experiment with making the world more accessible to players. I love what we've accomplished with DtD, and I'd like to see what the other end of that spectrum looks like. Scaling down to stakes that are immediate, visible, and quantifiable also has a lot of appeal. I don't expect that the whole campaign would stay at that level, but that's fine.
In the village there is a Great Machine that has lain dormant for as long as can be remembered. When it sparks back to life, it brings change to the village, spouting instructions and teaching the villagers to use strange new talents. In this way the villagers begin to relearn the secrets of magic and science. Many adventures center on repairs or modifications to the Great Machine.
Ideally, there is also some kind of no-marshal-needed way to interact with and enjoy the machine. I've been very pleased that Martel's Table has given players something to look at and think about, but they can only do things when a marshal is present. The next step on the path of Interesting Stuff is to give it moving parts that the players can mess with and resolve without a marshal present. 
Several years ago I wrote this post about changing the scale of games. I'd be pursuing this idea, with the addition of a few more tasks - something that was like being nobility, but not. Maybe a "family of the Council Fire" - a few families that for some reason have a hereditary right to lead the village council. They're a priestly and judicial caste. These backgrounds are a big part of how the game sets its tone for the players. The more unorthodox version of this is a more formalized character history process, but I'd need to give that more thought. I don't know what kinds of dramatic events might have shaped this village, but I am happy enough with Historical Events that it would be tough for me not to repeat that trick. Some of the burden currently shouldered by Historical Events would instead rest on familial connections that Plot goes out of its way to help establish.

There are at least three options open as player races - that is, human and two others. I might go with something like elves (green highlights, pointed ears) and veytikka (gray skin, maybe black nails, claws; fangs optional), and further give each of them another distinctive skin tone option (maybe veytikka also sometimes have human-looking skin that is dappled with black, and maybe some elves are dark elves (but not evil as a result... they just look different, to make the point that non-humans have as much internal variation as humans). Also, new player races are very likely to become available over the course of play. Fortunately I am never going to have to implement this, so I can stop at the brainstorming stage. (It is worth noting that the earliest conversations that eventually became DtD were predicated on "never having to implement this.")
This setting seems like a perfect chance to have an all-humans campaign, but in working on DtD I've realized that makeup races are really useful in distinguishing two different characters played by the same person. It's easier and more memorable than making sure every single character you need to play has a distinctive piece of costuming. At the same time, I've never quite gotten on board with the huge numbers of character races seen in some settings.

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.