Wednesday, 7 October 2015

PC Knowledge and the Bandwidth Problem

In my last post, I wrote about how vigilance is an experience that's very hard to simulate in role-playing games. This is one symptom of a very general issue: talking is slow.

Role-playing is very low bandwidth.

This comes up a lot for lore-heavy games. There just isn't enough time, in-band, to communicate anything but short tidbits of information about the game world.

I've occasionally tried (and nearly always failed) to create a form of suspense where the players know a bunch of lore, and then in-game events relate to it.  In my imagination, players notice discrepancy I've planted, and react with appropriate alarm.

"Wait, what? A Sigornian Templar without a cassock? He's an imposter!"

In real life, they never notice.

I've seen many posts by GMs, frustrated that they've got all this canon, but the players aren't interested in doing homework to absorb it all - so they don't understand the subtleties the GM is trying to convey at the table.

"Now, over here is where the empire invaded in 485 NE, or 982 ZE by the Orgothan calendar.."

Talk Faster?

Not only is talking slow, but few players have any interest in listening to a gargantuan info-dump that I stayed up all night writing.  You could write a big setting book, but then the problem is finding players that want to read it.

I do know some players who lap this sort of thing up, (history buffs and whatnot) that love rolling around in canon and try to use it at the table, but in my travels they're a small percentage. Many people I've gamed with can barely remember the single major clue they found last session.

Nevertheless, the problem endures because playing knowledgeable characters is awesome.

So, how do we get players to feel like their characters aren't idiots, bumbling around in an unfamiliar world?

The Solutions I've Seen

a) Write down all your lore, and find a bunch of players that enjoys reading it and make your group out of them. (Be prepared for this to be almost none of your original group.)

This seems to work best with popular culture settings like Middle Earth and Star Wars, mostly because the 'lessons' aren't an info dump, but emotionally interesting stories with setting information as a byproduct.

b) Ask the GM, "What do I know?" Sometimes this requires a test of knowledge skills. I see this sort of thing in the context of GM-initiated knowledge challenges (like, you need to know something about elven portals to open this portal.)  GUMSHOE has a particular take on this, where the skills in questions are just pools that can be dipped into a number of times.

This works well for some groups, but it has a few implications:

  • it creates a subtle mismatch between playing a knowledgeable character and feeling like one
  • it reinforces the 'star' pattern in the group, where the most meaningful interactions occur between one PC and the GM

c) Ditch the lore. Scorched earth - focus on what happens at the table, filling in with a sentence or two for context when necessary, but never hanging any developments on whether the players have memorized some in-game lore.

d) Let PCs propose reasonable facts. I see this a lot in the context of player-initiated plans: while the party is figuring out how to infiltrate an elven community, the bard player wonders aloud whether elven patrols could be temporarily deceived by an impression of elven music the bard just happens to know.

The GM hasn't invented any elven songs, but clearly there would be some, and it's plausible the bard might have heard one somehow - success and he performs it well enough to fool the elves. Fail the roll, and by gum he mixes it up with a Sigornian dirge and arouses the curiosity of every elven patrol within two miles.

"Orcs shamans would totally have their own private latrines!"
Burning Wheel uses this to good effect, making it the explicit method for using knowledge skills. (BW has another stat, 'Circles', that lets players propose plausible NPCs the same way, one of the killer apps of the game).

Many play groups do this informally without thinking about it much, with players asking leading questions, "Well, does the Bishop use some kind of washer woman I might know?" or observer-players lobbing in suggestions from the peanut gallery that the GM uses as inspiration (sometimes covertly, sometimes openly).

e) As seen at some Dungeon World tables, one option is to let players propose anything. Even things relating to NPC factions that have just been discovered by the party.

f) Create the lore together, perhaps using a structured procedure like a game of Microscope or The Quiet Year. This will create a group who is super-familiar with the material and deeply invested in it (because they invented most of it), at the cost that you control very little of it. (You could ask that they stick to certain parameters.)

What have I missed?

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Making Knowledge Valuable

This is a half-formed idea with potential.

Nearly a year ago I wrote about red herrings in dungeon dressing, and how room/area descriptions can instead be useful if they give players knowledge about what's going on in the dungeon.

Reconnoitering the Shrine of Woe

Let's say that the party has committed to taking down the Shrine of Woe - it's a blight on the landscape, disgorging troublesome beasties almost monthly, etc. etc.

They don't know what's there, but rather than go kick in the door and go toe to toe with whatever it is, they equip themselves for a long journey, to tour all the little marshlands villages to see what can be learned about the Shrine.

They then plan out a second and third missions to do recon - one approaching the Shrine from the west, another from the east, to scout out the lands around that place before planning a fourth and final journey to assault the Shrine directly.

In a linear campaign, making this happen is easy: you just structure the chapters of the pre-planned adventure accordingly, but I've never seen this happen organically in a campaign.

If you have, I'd love to hear your tale!

Until then, here's my ideas for ways to bring this about.

Some Principles of Valuable Knowledge

  1. Danger is distributed unevenly
  2. There are hidden exploits
  3. Rewards are distributed unevenly
  4. There are clues that explain the layout
  5. Preparation involves trade-offs

Uneven, Hidden Dangers

Danger varies wildly - some areas are safe, while other areas nearby are downright lethal. Much of this isn't obvious. Monsters have horrible, non-obvious powers - infection, curses, leap attacks.
  • They are warded off by certain preparations or weapons
  • They are dangerous unless unusual preparations are made
  • They inflict harm that requires unusual treatment
Consequences might spring, trap-like, from innocuous sources. You ambush a small pack of goblins, but reinforcements boil out of every hole in the ground for miles. Deadly things are sleeping in caves, but awaken with determination to punish any who have disturbed them.

Potential allies are easily offended, and have unadvertised cravings and needs.

There Might be a Way..

On the other hand, there are exploits. Monsters have hidden weaknesses. Sites have solid defenses, but hidden access.

There's a long, winding canyon through Jutland that keeps off the worst of the sun and stops the orc ridge-scouts from ever spotting you. Morton villagers know a dry path through the Gormarl. Water shades can't stand the taste of vinegar, so sprinkle some in your footprints.

The Spawn of Ubratna will turn you inside out with a look, but powdered limestone sends them scrambling for the dark places.

The Gomarl is dangerous, sure - especially if you get lost, but in the summer (and only the summer), it's full of blackfruit, which will keep you alive for days. If you know the ways in and out, it can be worth diverting through.  Anders' Rock is hollow, and conceals a spring of good clear water.

A Bowlful of Nothing

Even so, not all pain is gain, because rewards are distributed unevenly. You might know how to placate the Devil of Folly's Basin, but the only things there are sand and broken glass. Avoid it!

On the other hand, the wasteland giants are weak and divided, and their emperor rules in name only. The outer clans will benefit from his downfall so won't come to his aid, making his vault is ripe for the picking. Better yet, Queen Malian's tomb is completely unguarded, all you have to do is find it.

The Skirts of Athena

This is all well and good, but if players don't have a way to find out, they'll be blundering randomly into fame and fortune, or a gruesome, profitless death.

As I wrote in Interesting and Useful Dungeon Descriptions, I like to build descriptions from a short list of emitters - core facts about the adventure location that are constantly throwing off evidence.

A halo of clues, sightings and rumors, that spreads out through the dungeon, rewarding investigation. Sometimes, the edge of the 'hem' makes it as far as nearby communities.

Players come to expect that by looking for facts, they can steadily build a picture of the situation around them, a picture they desperately need.
  • What sort of place is this? (What can we expect of the layout of the rest of it?)
  • What's been happening here? (What might happen again, soon?)
  • What's in here with us? (Where is it? How do we prepare for it?)
  • What does it want? (Should we avoid it?)
  • How bad is it? (Is it a militaristic, vengeful gestalt? How brutal is it with prisoners?)

Trade-Offs in Preparation

The party can't balance itself against all possible threats and obstacles. They can be as prepared as possible, but a general state of being well prepared is inadequate for the variety of challenges out there.

They need to make specific preparations, and if they're wrong they'll be out of their depth quickly.

If it's easy for the part to prepare for any eventuality, there's no need for recon.  Recon missions are about going in quietly, learning what needs to be learned, and getting out again - so a subsequent foray can be planned that makes different trade-offs.

If the party is full of plate-armored spell-mages carrying their repertoire of magic and two hundred pounds of useful gear with them in a bag of holding.. they're not going to need to make multiple forays.

Instead, imagine expedition prep is all about trade-offs:
  • Specialist gear is heavy, or has other side effects (e.g. warm clothing makes you hot)
  • Magic must be chosen well in advance (perhaps components or spellbooks are heavy, expensive and/or easily lost)
  • Special preparations are expensive and have a shelf life (e.g. potions, ointments, poultices)
  • Hirelings provide strength in numbers and can carry everything, but they eat a lot of food and leave a trail that can't be missed
  • Certain foes require large, specialist armament (pikes for giants, crossbows for water shades, the wheeled scorpio for wyverns and harpies)
If this all works, I suppose it's players going out and creating their own hard-won assets and options, top-quality gameable campaign capital.

The Water Shade

We'd been travelling in the parch for days, making good progress. If luck held out, we'd be at Arijan by month's end.

But then the signs started - first with Elwon, draining his wineskin before noon day after day, at the barrel again before supper. He'd always been a greedy shit, but even after the captain had a stiff word with him, he wouldn't stop drinking.

Come that third morning, he was in bad shape. Skin drawn, cracking, raving about water.. always water. Then Nedlo spotted it, clear as day.

A water shade.

Head cocked, bold as brass it stood, looking at us one minute, licking at the sand the next. Nedlo said he could feel it in his guts, stealing his water right outta him, but the chaplain told him to shut it. That sorta talk was for drunks and bannets, not proper Kingsmen.

But I felt it too.

The captain started after it, waving his arms to scare it off, but I reckon it was as thirsty as us, and not likely put off the trail by a bit of noise. Without horses, what chance of catching it?  It moved off, came back, moved off, came back.

* * *

For days it followed. After a while, we didn't have the strength to shoo it, and maybe it didn't matter.

Nedlo said every where you go you leave a bit of yourself behind, in your footprints like. Everyone's is different, and the shade can smell it. We always knew in these parts not to say our names to folk, chaplain was always saying, less we knew we could trust 'em. It gives a power over you, to the wrong hands anyways, But how's a man to keep his footprints to himself?

Chaplain didn't have an answer for that one. Fact is, I don't think he ever spoke again.

That's about all I have to say about the water shade. The rest of the story's not fit for your green ears noways, less you're heading into the parch.

You are? That case, I'll tell it, for your insistence - but you'll need a drink for this one. Be a righty and buy me one too.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Making a 3D Map, Part 2

With my trusty cyan maquette and my PITT pens, I've been slowly adding ink to the Tomb of the Timeless Master.  There are quite a few rooms, so I've annotated my SketchUp drawing with notes cribbed from the module.

At this point I'm grateful for the copious perspective-reference lines I sprinkled all over the maquette. For irregular structures like rocky cliff faces (which are really just scraggly lines), it's really easy to destroy the sense of perspective without constant reminders of the 3D space they're filling.

Once I've filled the page, I scan it into Photoshop to use its magic to pull out the blue lines, and clean off any crud.

To add more to the illustration, however, I add a blue gradient map, so that I can use what I've completed so far as a structure to attach the rest to.

Time to stock up on cyan printer cartridges!

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Where Art Thou Vigilance?

The tip is credible: at some point in the next few hours, a sniper will attempt an assassination in the Piazza del Campo. The party has stationed you up in the Mangia tower on counter-sniper detail - your job is to wait and watch for any sign of the threat.

This is what you can see:

Aaaany second now..
This is vigilance: the visceral experience of remaining alert and watchful in a high-stimulus environment with no guarantee you'll ever see what you're looking for.

I've experienced this many times (especially in large-scale outdoor paintball), and I find it so engrossing - yet I have never experienced this in a role-playing game.

What brought this to mind was an Arma video posted by John Harper.

It seems to arise from the fact that Arma missions aren't scripted (as is the case with single-player missions) - I'm on the look out for something that might or might not happen, a state of meaningful, heightened awareness.  If I pay attention, it matters, because I might run into massive opposition.  Or nothing might happen.  A visceral suspense.

Grateful for Nothing

I had the same feeling many years ago during a long ammo supply run on a Battletech MUSE (think Zork as an MMO, with mechs).  I was driving a truck out to an factory on the periphery of my faction's turf to pick up some badly needed replacement armor. My lone escort? A 3025 Catapult: not much if we ran into any real opposition.

I was glued to my scanner the whole time, and despite the fact that we never ran into anything at all, it still scores highly in my memory.

I never experience this in table-top role-playing games, I assume because there's no way to be vigilant.

Players have to ask the GM to see anything, and they're told faithfully what they see, at least to the limit of their perception.  Obscurity doesn't feel like a veil you can pierce with effort, like it does in real life (staring into the twilight to make out if that log is really a log or a sniper).  You can emulate this, but it's more like the GM is stringing you along.  "I look."  "It looks like a log, but it's hard to tell."  "Okay, I look really hard."

I'm working on a hack that has a vigilance mechanic, but it doesn't produce this experience. If anything, the opposite, by pushing the decision to be vigilant up to a strategic level, instead of feeling like it's something you're applying effort to on a moment-by-moment basis.

Tell me your thoughts!  Have you ever felt this way at the table?

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Full-Dark Stone

Great as they were, the Seree wizards of old would never have been able to cast their most powerful magics using talent alone. Still lying around the realm are their spell vaults, tomb-like fortifications that hold the secrets of their magical supremacy.

The Seree are gone, but the vaults remain. But the gnawing of time cares nothing for secrets..

On the big map, the vault is located in the foothills of the Wintpeaks, north of Aridenn, but you could situate it in any mountain or escarpment. Relatively close to an existing settlement is better, since that gives a greater chance that there are some 'river people' encountering the vault servants, or exhibiting odd, magical side-effects from the vault's runoff water.

There's very little loose treasure in the vault, but remember that nearly every skull contains a wizard flower!

Vitrum Aquae for Player Characters

If PC spellcasters experiment with the vitrum aquae ritual, it's basically an opportunity for a permanently-memorized spell (which uses up the spell memorization slot), at the cost of a point of one or all of Int, Wis, Cha.

The quantity and quality of gemstone should be commensurate with the level of the spell being crystallized - anything less will worsen the side effects, which include:
  • Losing more points from Int, Wis or Cha
  • The spell uses up one or more additional spell slots
  • The spell is miscast, and can never again be cast in its correct form, and always comes with either minor or major side effects (e.g. fireball always detonates at the wizard's fingertip, invisibility can only be cast on someone else, levitation only works upwards, the wizard can never fly to the east, etc.)

Art Files

Thanks again to everyone supporting this project on Patreon! Thanks to their generosity, everything in the adventure is released under cc-by-nc, so you can pull it apart and remix it for whatever non-commercial purpose strikes your fancy.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Making a 3D Map, Part 1

I'm doing another 3D map for Bedrock Games, and figured I'd show the process I'm using here.

As usual when I do maps for +Brendan Davis, he showers me with sketches, documentation and reference images to help me out. It can be a lot to read at times, but it comes in handy when doing 'dungeon dressing'.

In this case, we're doing the Tomb of the Timeless Master, an adventure location for the upcoming Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate wuxia RPG. It's got a lot of vertical elements - great for isometric or other 3D maps.

Here's part of the sketch Brendan sent me:

After a bit of back and forth, I knew the altitude of everything, which way the stairs climbed and so on, so I could start thinking about one of the big challenges of doing a 3D map: which angle do you pick to draw it from?

Sometimes you're rendering a location that follows Q*Bert topology. That makes the decision easy: you draw the dungeon from the angle that makes it more or less co-planar with the surface of the paper.

3D Maquettes to the Rescue

Some dungeons just aren't that simple, however, and the Tomb of the Timeless Master is one of them. After staring at it for a while, I realized the only way I was going to figure it out was to play with an actual 3D model of the dungeon.  Time to bust out SketchUp!

One of the great features of SketchUp is that you can import a 2D image to use as a reference. Below, you can see Brendan's original sketch.  I've traced the rooms, then lifted them vertically to the correct height.  Before long, I had a little 3D maquette to experiment with.

This let me rotate the model this way and that, looking for the angle that presents the dungeon in an interesting way, and with the least number overlapping elements. Some more discussion with Brendan helped here, as he decided to collapse a few stray bits to help it read as clearly as possible.

Cyan Is Your Friend

How to get from here to an illustration? I like to draw at an exaggerated scale, because that helps with the detail. Unfortunately I only have a letter-width printer and scanner.  I decided to do what I did on a previous illustration: to draw it piecemeal, and assemble it digitally.

To this end, I needed a template to make sure that all the pieces fit together properly.  The basic idea is this: print out a reference in non-photocopy blue, draw it, scan it in again, and pull out the blue using Photoshop, leaving a clean illustration for me to assemble.

With a few tweaks to my SketchUp settings, then a bit of adjusting in Photoshop, I had my template.

As you might be able to tell, I've actually decided to go with a 3D perspective rendering, not isometric at all. SketchUp makes this easy, and 

Working as a mosaic, however, means stitching together pieces of the illustration. Fortunately, the same technique I'm using for the template can work here, too. Where the pieces need to overlap, I can actually just print out the "seams" in blue, connect them by hand, and scan them in again.

Pull out the blue and I'm left with just the new, hand-drawn connection piece (in black), which fits like a puzzle piece with the two halves of the illustration I'm connecting:

Above, you can see part of the chapter heading illustration from the same book. This image appears in a few variations, which required me to join up a few "alternate" pieces of the illustration.  The woman on the left appears in two different poses, but she needs to connect to the same piece of scarf.

Stay tuned, I'll post the map once it's done!