Saturday, 24 January 2015

Big Freaking Map

I promised this to my patrons a long, long time ago, but now that I'm about to hit $200 (thank you!) I'm getting my butt in gear to finally make the Big Freaking Map.


As I said, it's a work in progress - I suppose it will be a WIP indefinitely, as I extend it and add detail. At least half my adventures are on the periphery of the underworld "Ur-Menig", so eventually there will be a version that shows where that lies, and some of the ways up and down.

There's something about this sort of map that tugs at my heart, it's like a gateway to hundreds of places, each one containing some detail of interest, a mystery, adventure, or a poignant ending.

I've always felt this way about maps, but I imagine that the beautiful cloth maps of the early Ultima series cemented this feeling. Each point of interest on those maps was an invitation to explore a richer world.

This map doesn't have that level of reality behind it, and it may never, but if you look at even one place on it and wonder what's there, we're sharing the same feeling.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Night's Black Agents

We're playing Night's Black Agents, GMed by the ever-capable +Stephen Shapiro. We're loving the campaign, but have very mixed feelings about the system.

If you're not familiar with it, Night's Black Agents is a GUMSHOE based game where you play burned spies on the run, who gradually realize that the powers they're up against have a distinctly supernatural flavor - the Illuminati is vampires.

You Must Be Taller Than Rocky To Solve This Case

GUMSHOE was originally created to power investigative scenarios, and there's a somewhat hippie mechanic at its core: rather than your skills being modifiers, they're exhaustible pools. When you have a '3' in Forensics skill, that means you can spend 3 points out of it until you refresh it.

On the other hand, spending a point is pretty powerful - instead of rolling to find the clue, if you spend the point, you've found it. As someone clever pointed out, shows like Sherlock and CSI aren't about people trying to find clues (and sometimes failing), they're about people finding clues. There's no flailing around, only furrowed brows.


Investigative pools refresh infrequently - only once per 'operation' for the most part, so they're a precious resource. We often find we've run out of something critical. This makes no in-game sense, but it has a few useful effects:

It shares the spotlight around - when you're out of the right kind of points, someone else probably has one.

It makes for 'good TV'. It may not make tactical sense to fire a bunch of gunshots then close to melee range with your combat knife, but it's kinda badass.

I can imagine if you're devoted to a strongly character-identified style of play, this would be really frustrating: there's no in-game/fictional reason you can't use your forensic scene. I thought this would feel annoying, but it seems to line up with good play habits well enough that it doesn't feel intrusive.

For me, that was the system's big surprise - given the 'out there' core mechanic, gameplay felt remarkably similar to other, more traditional games.

If you need one (and I usually don't), a rationalization that works for me is that we're just seeing the highlight reel. Forensics 3 doesn't mean you're Sherlock homes exactly three times and Watson the rest of the time, it just means that with a bunch of faffing around not shown on screen it turns out that your Forensics skill is what gives you the big break three times, and that's all we see.

The Conspyramid

On the GM's side is a piece of brilliance, the "Conspyramid".  The GM is encouraged to structure the vampire-controlled organization as a series of hierarchical nodes - at the top you might have a cabal of ancient vampires nestled in an NSA hard room; at the bottom you might have crooked local piece, 'turned' intelligence stations, or the Serbian mob dealing drugs out of a laundry.

At first, the players are tangling with the lowest levels; clues (inevitably found, one way or another) lead them to other nodes - but also, as the PCs cause damage, the conspyramid reacts like a wounded organism, at first curious, then angry and vengeful.

Villains higher-ups start asking questions as the low-level nodes go dark, using other low-level nodes to investigate. As the party makes its way up, the reprisals escalate, until finally they're being hounded in the night by carrion-fed ghouls that hunt by scent, targeted by SWAT teams acting on mysterious orders, or facing unmasked vampires themselves.

I Shoot Him For Zero Damage

Given such a fast-moving engine for tangling with the clues left by vampiric minions, the big disappointment was the combat system.

The skills that get used in combat are treated differently than investigative skills - here, rather than 'spend a point to find a clue', you dip into (much larger) pools for one-time modifiers to d6 rolls. Want a chance to shoot the bad guy? Spend a point of Shooting.

Definitely want to hit him? Spend three, or more if it's an especially hard shot.

That would be fine if combat weren't so freaking whiffy. It's like the worst of mid-level retro-clone combat. It's so unsatisfying to spend five points of Shooting to pull off that make-it-or-break-it shot, and then roll 2 points of damage.

It achieves spotlight-sharing, but in an awful way - individual actions are often either ineffective or inconsequential, so everyone gets a turn and scrape a couple of hit points off the villain.

It's irritating enough that there's a special combat system for fighting groups of low-powered villains if you get the jump on them, which mercifully allows you to kill them without rolling damage.

Full-Auto Point Spend, Please Hold

All the little tactical action and gun porn frills are handled, but holy snot, the special cases! Everything has its own little rule, and no two things are handled the same way. Like:

Point blank range modifies damage (but not the odds of hitting, unless the enemy is charging you); long range doesn't modify the odds of hitting, but you need to spend 2 extra points of Shooting to make the shot at all. Scopes reduce this cost (but not the odds of hitting), while laser dot sights reduce the long-range point cost and modify the to-hit roll, and allow your partner two free points of Intimidation.

Depleted uranium ammo (yay!) is resolved in three different ways (boo!), depending on the target. Against armor of grade 3 or less, it acts like incendiary ammo (flip flip), meaning it can ignite fuel/explosives but has a two-round penalty to both your and the target's to-hit threshold; against hard targets (regardless of their armor value) it bypasses armor completely and does +1 damage; otherwise it acts as armor-piercing rounds (flip flip) which reduces armor by half, rounded down.

I've taken to writing down the page numbers next to each skill, piece of equipment and accessory. It badly needs a reference sheet (booklet?), then a second edition edited by a scalpel.

A 9mm pistol causes d6 damage. An MP5 with a silencer, laser sight and hollow-point ammo, on the other hand, causes a d6-minute delay.

Why?!

Try Shooting Him In The Eye With A Wooden Bullet!

It's taken us a few sessions to figure out what the combat system wants us to do. It's demoralizing to spend 5 points on a brilliant display of martial arts but do no damage, because combat knives do d6-1; you really need a gun.

But choose wisely, fully automatic weapons just allow you spend more Shooting points (literally, spend 3 more points to roll more damage). On the other hand, flash-bang grenades seem to bypass the GUMSHOE ideology completely, doing massive amount of stun damage to everyone in range.

This led to a hilarious scene in our third session, with +Tim Groth's character having crippled two flak-armored ghoul-handlers in their BMW with a well-aimed flash-bang toss, only to follow up with hilariously useless rounds of SMG fire, failing to hurt them at all.

Then it came to me. The combat system is the framework for a second type of investigation.

Seriously, why would there be this mad little table with separate to-hit and damage penalties for each body part.  (Chest, -2 to hit if the target is facing you, -4 if they're facing away, +3 damage in either case; limbs, -2 to hit, +0 damage; heart, -3 to hit, +4 damage, etc.)?

The game wants you to try it all out!

NBA encourages the GM to customize their vampires for their campaign, giving them different basis (supernatural, viral, etc.), powers and weaknesses. You can explore this space, but instead of Forensics or Streetwise skill, you use different combinations of weapons, ammunition, and called shots.  Wooden bullets to the heart not doing it? Try incendiary ammunition to the eyes!

All that grindy combat certainly gives you plenty of opportunities.

Combat As Investigation

I feel like it would be an improvement to ditch all the modifiers and whiffing, and treat combat skill usage much more like investigative skills: every time you use a point of Shooting (or Weapons, or Hand-to-Hand) you succeed, with an effect appropriate to the in-game situation:

If you're trapped in elevator with two thugs and only a pen as your weapon, a point of Weapons will let you kill one of them and take a bit of a beating from the other, getting horribly bloody in the process.

If you've got an SMG, one point of Shooting will let you cause lethal damage to whoever you have in your sights, unless you're shooting at something SMGs don't hurt, like armored cars or vampires.

Scopes, laser sights, depleted uranium rounds, are all just tweaks to the fictional positioning that let you spend your Shooting points on tougher targets, in just the same way that a 10' ladder lets you climb better.

Why not let the GUMSHOE engine do its work?

The Burning of Intermodal X LLC

Last night's session was great fun, and I think it's worthy aside to my ranting about mechanics.

We're in Serbia, following leads we've gleaned from a stolen laptop. Belgrade is seeming decidedly unfriendly these days, and we've caught the attention of the very pissed off Bonchev mob, who we've managed to figure out are working for the suspiciously pale Sergei Dragonov.

A lot of our options have been cut off or burned, including our former handlers. Licking our wounds in a safe house, we're ambushed by a pack of ghouls - incredibly strong undead things wearing GoPro cameras, which was our first scary brush with the supernatural, back in session 3.

Reeling from that fight, we decided to take the fight to the enemy. Intercepting the ghouls' broadcast signal, our hacker managed to track them back to a warehouse controlled by shipping distributor Intermodal X, where they're 'stored' in a steel vault.

In session 4, we successfully infiltrated the apartment of Intermodal Belgrade's general manager. Stephen rendered this in heartbreaking detail, down to the bottle of antidepressants in his bathroom cabinet. Dressed as HVAC repair crew, we replaced his smartphone's USB charger with one that'll inject our hacker's custom apps.

Session 5, licking our wounds from another ambush while trying to extract a burned contact, we decide to take down Intermodal and the ghouls.  We show up as exterminators (Intermodal is mostly a legit business) in a hastily repainted van, and try to talk our way in.

Fortunately, our hacker has cloned the general manager's phone by now, so when they call to get authorization for something not on the schedule, he takes the call.

Simultaneously, a surprise delivery shows up - a truck full of packing peanuts, courtesy of our hacker +Tim Groth.  While Moisha (our tweed front man played by +Sean Winslow) kills time with Intermodal's irritated security team, +Michael Atlin and I (playing the wet work heavies) head down to the basement where the ghouls are stored.

We've come prepared! You know what sorta looks like industrial pesticide-applying gear? A thermal lance.  Fsshhhhhhhhh

We jump our security escort and make short work of the pair of them, then set to burning our way into the vault. We don't need a big hole, because you know what also sorta looks like industrial pesticide-applying gear? A scratch-built flamethrower.

Rebreathers (also standard industrial exterminator gear) keep us cosy while our smoke bomb goes off; the hacker trips the alarms to cause more chaos upstairs. Intermodal starts evacuating. Thing is, there's a detail of Bonchevs upstairs, led by surprisingly pale and strong Dragonov, and it doesn't take them long to realize something is seriously wrong.

But Moisha, on the lookout, spots them coming down the external staircase - he ambushes them with a flashbang tossed through the security door, and move in with my flamethrower. Turns out that flamethrowers at the right range are like flashbangs, awfully cheaty and point-efficient. The mooks don't stand a chance, and even Dragonov goes down under the intense one-two combo. It's hideous, but then that's the job some days. 

In Conclusion

Night's Black Agents combines excellent GM advice for campaign-structuring with a hippie approach to investigation, resulting in fast-moving conspiracy-hunting gameplay; we're having tremendous fun.  For no good reason this beautifully humming engine groans under a fatty layer of mediocre combat rules in dire need of simplification.

Would play again.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Railroading, Illusionism and Engagement

One of the most potent avenues to get invested in a game is through our creations. It's easy to care about things we've made - they often express something personal about ourselves, whether it's something deep or just an inclination.

When people praise them it's satisfying, and when they take on a life of their own it's especially cool. There's nothing so memorable as seeing one of your creations celebrated (or booed!)

For players, however, once character creation is done, the canvas they have for this sort of creating is very small - their words, their reactions to the situation, their plans, their actions, and that's usually pretty much all they have.

Nevertheless, the group (and especially the GM, who has the largest canvas) can highlight player creations, giving them a broader effect, build on them, and turn them around into new forms.

A GM that makes players' choices consequential to the campaign world is sending a subtle signal that they care about the players' contributions: they're valuable, and have shaped the world.

Railroading and Illusionism


When a GM railroads, they are neutralizing a player creation in order to inject one of their own.

This can be done clumsily and overtly, which is how it feels when the GM does it at the level of individual player choices. The party tries to go west, but there's bad weather (in-game railroading). The players suggest going back to town, but the GM lobbies them out of character. "You don't wanna do that, do you?"

This is sending the social signal, "I don't care about your contributions."

Illusionism is sometimes held up as friendly alternative to railroading - it's railroading in secret. The players' choices appear to be relevant, but they're not. They go west instead of east? The GM inverts the map so they find the ogres planned before the session started. They go back to town? Surprise, the ogres are in town.

This avoid the unpleasant taste and resentment of overt nullification of player choices, but at the campaign level is the same.

They might not be able to put their finger on it, but none of the major events of the campaign will have come about because of their planning. For them, the most memorable stuff will be the inconsequential "fucking around in camp".

In a sense, the GM and players are creating two separate things - the characters and their antics, and "the plot" - and showing them to one another, but neither was meaningfully shaped by the other.

Good For The Goose

My favorite objection to illusionism, though, is to reverse the scenario: player illusionism!

Before the game, the players get together and plan out how they're going to render a pre-planned dynamic, like an intraparty conflict. Whatever the GM throws at them, they'll carefully neutralize as best they can, ideally without the GM noticing.  They'll converse with NPCs, but they'll be trying to ensure the GM has as little impact on their plans as possible - won't it be awesome?



Friday, 9 January 2015

A d20 Dice Pool Table

This is just me noodling on something I was curious about - what would a d20 table for dice pool results look like?

Dice pools have some nice properties. Chief among them is the lack of swinginess - the number of successes (e.g. the number of d6 that turn up 4+) you roll tends to cluster in the middle, so the wildly extreme results don't come up quite so often.

In Burning Wheel, for example, you might be rolling four dice for your sword skill, with any that turn up 4+ counted as successes. Four dice could generate as much as 4 successes, but there's only a 1 in 16 chance of that - rolling 2 successes is more likely by far.

One of the things you can do with this is use the result as a measure of how awesome you did: the margin of success or failure is a number that's also not too swingy. Bad shit can happen, but it will be rarer than near misses.

If, however, you don't like the aesthetics of rolling 4D6 every time you swing your weapon, or you have a nostalgia-induced allergic reaction to attacking monsters without a d20 in your hand, you've been shut out of this particular statistical bliss. Until now! Aren't you lucky?  (At least, as long as you don't mind tables.)

# Dice
d20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
1
0
0
0
0
0
1
1
1
2
2
2
0
0
0
1
1
1
2
2
2
3
3
0
0
0
1
1
2
2
2
3
3
4
0
0
1
1
1
2
2
3
3
4
5
0
0
1
1
2
2
3
3
3
4
6
0
1
1
1
2
2
3
3
4
4
7
0
1
1
2
2
2
3
3
4
4
8
0
1
1
2
2
3
3
4
4
5
9
0
1
1
2
2
3
3
4
4
5
10
0
1
1
2
2
3
3
4
4
5
11
1
1
2
2
3
3
4
4
5
5
12
1
1
2
2
3
3
4
4
5
5
13
1
1
2
2
3
3
4
4
5
5
14
1
1
2
2
3
4
4
5
5
6
15
1
1
2
3
3
4
4
5
5
6
16
1
2
2
3
3
4
4
5
6
6
17
1
2
2
3
4
4
5
5
6
6
18
1
2
3
3
4
4
5
6
6
7
19
1
2
3
3
4
5
5
6
7
7
20
1
2
3
4
5
5
6
7
7
8

This table converts d20 rolls into an appropriate number of successes on a dice pool from 1-10 dice. If you want to roll 5 dice, just grab your d20 and roll - 17?  4 successes.

To make this table, I worked out the probabilities for n successes for m dice, and then rounded to the nearest 5% (representing 1/20th of a d20 roll) to see how many times on the d20 n should show up. I hand-tweaked a couple of entries where the total wasn't 20.

One could use this as a basis for an opposed combat system - Fighters roll d20, treating their level as the # of dice, while monsters use their hit dice. For every point the winner wins by, they do their damage.  (So a 6th level fighter duels a 2HD orc, rolling 14 to the orc's 8. The fighter's result is 4, the orc's is 1, for a difference of 3. The fighter comes out unharmed, and the orc takes d8 x 3 hp damage from the fighter's sword.)

It could work similar for saving throws - a fire trap activates with a target of 4. Everyone rolls a reflexes save (maybe that's half-level for everyone but the thief), taking 5 points of damage for the margin of failure.

Or whatever. :)

Monday, 5 January 2015

Interaction Layers in RPGs

In this post I articulate a simple idea that's been on my mind for a while, using a lot of words (probably too many) and pictures. This is either obvious or controversial, I'm not sure, but here goes:

All in-game interactions in a role-playing game are mediated by real-world interactions.

When we play an RPG, and it's running smoothly, it feels like this:

We have a shared imaginary space in which our characters are interacting (talking, fighting, passing equipment back and forth, etc.). Graun the desert warrior is talking with Sophola the arcane.

But that's just how it feels - what's actually happening, physically, is this:
In reality, Graun never speaks directly to Sophola. Alex and Karen are speaking, pretending to be their characters, and while they do this, each is imagining the interaction. Graun and Sophola get to speak, but only through their players.

The imaginary space isn't really shared, Karen and Alex are imagining quite different things. Only our real-world actions (e.g. talking in character, the GM describing the room) get us on the same page, but when that's working smoothly, the illusion is good enough.


In other words, all in-game interactions are mediated by real-world interactions. This holds true whether we're talking about PCs, NPCs, monsters, the demographics of the market square or the broader setting - if someone at the table is talking or showing something, the interaction isn't occurring.

The power of role-taking is that, when the game is running smoothly, we can forget this completely and immerse in our characters.

What's Real Here?

Things feel real when they're tangible - that is to say, when there's resistance. If Karen (when talking and acting in-character) consistently behaves as if Sophola has her own goals and plans, which Alex needs to consider, Sophola will start feeling like a real person. If Alex does the same, Graun will too, until everyone feels as if they're surrounded by these imaginary characters.

When we meet resistance, it engages our problem-solving, learning grey matter. Like a blindfolded person feeling their way around a room, Alex uses in-game interactions to figure out what he's up against, gradually bringing into focus, and simple explanations are powerful.

When Alex understands and trusts/or his relationship with Karen well enough that he can disregard it as a source of any resistance he feels, the simplest approach is to treat Sophola as a real, independent person (merely given voice by Karen). Sophola starts to feel real:
Man, Sophola is really fucking me over.

When something seems off in the real-world relationship, Alex is less likely to perceive Sophola as real, and instead tries to figure out Karen. When Sophola's behavior is more simply explained by something Alex imagines about Karen (e.g. that she doesn't like him, or thinks his suggestions are stupid, or is more interested in supporting Peter's ideas), Sophola disappears completely:

Why is Karen being a dick?

Messages are simultaneously exchanged at both layers. Every in-game interaction is mediated by a real-world interaction, and both have meaning.

Alex (Player): I grab the shopkeeper's apron. [I interact with that character you created.]
Karen (GM): Hah! You grab a hold of it, and he totters off-balance towards you. [I'm incorporating what you said into the game.]

Alex (Player): I grab the shopkeeper's apron. [I interact with that character you created.]
Karen (GM): He dodges your clumsy swipe and breaks the vase anyways. [I'm ignoring your suggestion.]

Now, the meaning of the real-world interaction is only inferred - Alex has to guess. Perhaps Karen has decided that the shopkeeper is a demon, far more dextrous and quick than Graun. Perhaps Karen is annoyed by Alex's constant attempts to start fights. Alex will come to his own conclusion over a series of interactions.

Trammel of Archimedes

Back in the summer I posted a method for drawing the type of foreshortened ("squashed") circles one needs when drawing circular rooms on axonometric dungeon maps.

Unfortunately it's a bit math heavy and slow, and +Nate McD was quick to point out that if your axes are truly isometric (most of my maps are actually dimetric), there's an approximation with a pair of compasses that's much faster.

Recently, however, I needed to draw this:

If you squint, you can see that it's built out of several foreshortened circles.  The problem is that perspective basis isn't isometric, the foreshortening is much steeper than that.  This rules out compass approximations, which start to look wonky at steep angles.

Making foreshortened circles is trivial in Photoshop or Illustrator, but I was working on paper, old-school style.


This method is pretty simple, once you get your head around it, it's exact (not an approximation), and it can be used for any degree of foreshortening.  It's fairly quick, but you do need to be willing to draw a freehand curve through a series of dots.

Using the Trammel


First, you figure out how big you want your ellipse to be.  Assuming it's wider than it is tall, the width is the 'major axis', and the height is the 'minor axis'. Divide each of those values in half, which gives you the 'semimajor' and 'semiminor' axes.  I've illustrated as green and blue lines, respectively.

Lay these distances out on your ruler, but in a particular way.  Starting at zero (blue circle), go up your ruler the length of your semi-major axis (green), and make a mark (shown by the red circle).

Then, come back towards zero the length of your semi-minor axis, and make a second mark (shown by the green circle).

Now, here's the neat trick.  If you place the tip (blue) of your ruler on the minor axis, and your second mark (green) on the major axis, the first mark (red) will tell you where to draw the ellipse.


Now, work your trammel: the tip (blue) slides up and down the minor axis, and the middle point (green) slides back and forth along the major axis. As you move it, make tick marks at the outer mark (red). These will trace out your ellipse:



It takes a bit of practice to get used to sliding your ruler around (it can be helpful to have a second ruler to slide the tip against), but in no time you'll have traced out your


You'll need to freehand the ellipse itself, but that just adds charm. For the Zentac Dreadnought, I used this technique for two of the eight ellipses, and then used a ruler to translate them up and down by hand:

You still need to draw the rest of the owl, of course, but it's a lot easier once you have solid elliptical guides to work from.






Sunday, 28 December 2014

A Litany in Scratches

Several astute readers have wondered where adventure #3 is.. here it is!  A Litany in Scratches.


This was the scenario I concocted for a Torchbearer playtest some years ago - though of course at the time it was a few scribbles and bullet points, rather than clean maps and a PDF.

I was fascinated by a style of pacing I'd seen in a one-page dungeon, 'Zombie Elves': the players go quite a ways in, through creepier and creepier stuff, before finally the ceiling falls in and they're suddenly fighting for their lives.

Torchbearer is largely about dungeoneering logistics; players are constantly aware of the load of their packs, the limited space they have for anything extra, and the short distance that their food and light will take them into (or out of) dark, dangerous places.

This scenario unfolded slowly; the two adventurers inching their way through the darkened gatehouse, searching and finding little, and wondering where all the doors had gone. They got a bit scraped up in the ravine after tangling with a vampire bush, which was good as it made them pretty wary of the tree branches in the cloister. When they figured out what the tree was up to, they were properly creeped out!

This didn't deter them from climbing down into the shrine, however, for a scene whose memory I treasure: the duo desperately trying to decide what to toss out so they could carry more treasure, all while listening to the Master's cackling, and the sloshing of the undead advancing on them. This cemented in my mind that defeating the dungeon is not the end of the adventure, it's just the start of what might be a long and dangerous journey home - especially if you've left your tinderbox behind.

For reasons I forget now, the players decided to flee through the catacombs, running directly into the barricade.

That was awesome - it was like the sickening punchline to a long joke. I had mentioned the missing furniture at every opportunity, and now, standing in knee-deep water lit by their last torch, listening to an army of crypt servants coming to tear them limb from limb, the mystery was solved. Alas!

As always, the adventure and all the art is released under Creative Commons cc-by-nc.