Wednesday, 30 March 2016

A Turn Sequence

Here's my current thoughts on a turn sequence for fast-paced activities, such as combat. By fast paced, I mean those times where the rate of irrevocable, bad things happening outstrips the party's ability to integrate what's going on, talk it over, and come up with a plan that takes into account everything they've perceived.

Those times when, suddenly, arrows are skewering the hirelings, one of the ponies bolts and—for some reason—Cyril's on fire. Bad things are happening, quickly.

The adventurers have to act now, on partial information, or risk being cut down while they're taking it all in.

So, some design assumptions.

First of all, turn length is somewhat plastic.  A player's turn might represent a few seconds in melee, longer in plains chariot warfare, or half a minute in an archery duel at range.

Secondly, this is theater of the mind combat. There are no miniatures to tell you how many enemies and where they're standing, or even where all your companions are standing; to get that information you have to look. If your turn consists of dragging Cyril to the side of the bridge (which is hopefully sheltered from whatever the hell is happening), all you get description about is Cyril. Obtaining information about the battlefield costs time, and maybe lives.

Thirdly, turns aren't simultaneous, they're sequential. Shocking things are happening quickly enough that most of the party is simply hesitating: summoning up the gumption to run through the hail of arrows, mind overwhelmed with which direction is safest, looking from Petryn to Garom, seeing what the party's most experienced warriors are starting to do, wrestling with the instinct to chase after the pony, or just standing in shock, listening to that god awful noise Cyril is making.

When Petryn charges forward to engage that shadow behind Cyril, the green and awed recruits just watch him go, at least for now.

Fourth, while the players have to take turns, every time they do, all the baddies go at once.  When Petryn charges to cut down that shadow, the shadow gets an action, as do the unseen archers, as does the troll climbing up over the side of the bridge. It's not looking good for Petryn.

At least, that's true in an ambush. Several things modify this default, horrible situation: initiative, cohesion, exertion, leadership, and preparations.

Initiative is the readiness and wherewithal to start decisive action. It's held by one side or another - the side with the initiative is choosing the bad things that happen, and forcing the other side to react. The side without can't form plans of their own, at least not without suffering terribly as they ignore the enemy side's moves.

If the adventurers have the initiative, they'll have a moment to decide whether and where to strike, rather than simply screaming and trying to hold the line as the shock troops come crashing down on them.  When the enemies act, there's a beat where they telegraph their moves, drawing swords before they charge, aiming before they fire, letting an organized party adapt and pre-empt them.

Cohesion is the somewhat abstracted, physical arrangement of the party. They may be ready to act, but are they placed to act together? Did they get spread out while crossing the bridge, as the foragers took a moment to look down into the valley. Did Garom stop to make water by that tree stump while the rest moved on ahead?

When a cohesive enemy has the initiative, they act decisively and in unison, and they'll do something bad. Maybe they unleash a volley of arrows at every single party member; maybe ten of them all charge Garom, who is forced to meet them alone.  When the enemy lacks cohesion, they act piecemeal; a few charge, a few retreat; some bellow orders while others shout competing ideas.

Exertion is a per-adventurer resource that lets them interrupt the turn sequence. A point of it lets you join someone else's action (say, charging in with Petryn, or helping to drag Cyril), and two points of it lets you interrupt completely (e.g. going before Petry or anyone else to plant an arrow in the troll's face as it crests the railing).

I'll get into the details of exertion another time, but suffice to say it's a precious resource that adventures have in very small quantities, more if they're rested, and much less if they're burdened with armor, gear, or the duties of travel. Exertion can represent a heroic burst of adrenaline-soaked speed, or it might represent sustained vigilance - say, that you had your bow out all along, because you've had a bad feeling ever since leaving Grunford.

It's a little bit reconny in the sense that it can establish details in the recent past, but just a little - not so far back that it would seem out of order if it was a two-second shot in a movie's action sequence.

Lastly, leadership and preparations. If it's been established that the party is only waiting for Petryn's signal to break for the south end of the bridge, then if Petryn does that, the cohesive parts of the party can all act in unison.  The plan might be to run for cover, to fire a volley of arrows, or to do several things at once.

Leadership is the second best thing - an impromptu order from someone with the party's trust can galvanize some of them into action, at least as long as the trust and confidence are equal to the chaos at hand.

The point of all this is to really double down on perceptual play, emphasizing the difficulty of integrating a complex situation.  A party with a plan, the initiative, proper placement, and with a strong leader to issue orders when things go off the rails can be devastating. They act together, steamrolling the enemy piecemeal, while the opposing side struggles to make sense of what's happening and acts as a fragmented mess.

A party that kicks in the door is just going to get chewed up immediately, taken out by enemy actions they only recognize after it's too late, if at all!

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Bring Forth the Strange Weapons

This afternoon, the adventurers start out as dirty, half-starved villagers emerging from winter to find the landscape around unfamiliar and deadly, steeped in the poisons of the Martoi. The village elders are bitterly divided on the first priority, what will the adventurers do?

All the PCs will have to go on, for now, is their intuitions, a precious few parting gifts from the elders, and a Seree-era prefecture map.

For those of you following along on the big map, this is Slumbering Tealwood, from Nall Lake in the north to the Near Soont in the south. Let the stocking begin!

I have a few immediate 'fronts' - the effects of the poisons; goblin slave-takers moving in to round up the dreamers; a necromancer meddling with the ancestral bargains to the south; chalk mermaids eager for gullible acolytes who will collect magic in return for scraps of power.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Writing an RPG

I've been pecking at it long enough that I might as well come clean, I'm writing a fantasy adventure role-playing game.

I mention it because I've been sitting on an ever-expanding pile of drafts and design notes, and I the closer it gets to it being something real, the less I've been posting here. That needs to change!

Like many games, probably, the impetus for writing it lies somewhere between an elaborate preparation for a specific campaign and a laborious expression of my preferences.

So, what am I trying to do?

The core idea is geographic advancement.  Like a West Marches campaign, it's focused on wilderness exploration, and adventure sites reached across that wilderness. In this game, the regional wilderness map is a central artifact of play, not only so the players can fondly recall where they've been and where they might want to go next, but as a strategic representation of how they're doing, their capabilities, and what they ought to be worrying about next.

Where are the threats? Where can they get to quickly? Which trips will exhaust them? Where can they find allies and safety along the way? Which settlements do they have close enough ties with that they can enlist reliable hirelings and replacement PCs? Where do the ancestors ignore their calls? Where is their magic strong? What don't they know at all?

This gives treasure a somewhat different role - a talent of silver is always a welcome haul when you return home, but knowledge, leads, safe routes and access to resourceful or usefully placed settlements are comparatively more important.  (This is why some of my 'adventures' are 'fantasy settlements' - they are potentially treasure.)

The other goal is player planning. I'm in love with chunky logistics, using systems for inventory, supplies, seasons, weather, terrain and navigation that are simple enough that they can be used all the time without inconvenience. The point is to create a tangible and consistent experience of these things so that players can take them into account and making meaningful plans and informed trade-offs.

We can't afford to leave the handwolves to spread for another season - by the time spring comes, they'll have reached all the way down to Morton. But tackling them in winter means we can't take the village militia, they're not hardy enough for the crossing.

On the Michael's preferences front, it'll be skill-based, lethal and perceptual. Skill-based, because I'm enamored with use-it-to-advance-it systems like Burning Wheel (and many classic games). Classes are a concise way of communicating an archetype, but I want players planning adventures to find the hirelings, trainers and experiences they need, and I want their characters developing in unexpected directions as the approaches they take to the adventuring problems shape them.

Lethal, because I want characters to feel like precious assets, not to be taken away from safety lightly. A form of troupe play is the default, with multiple characters available players to choose from when they plan their forays. Replacements emerge from experienced hirelings, which are limited to the settlements where the party has established sufficient ties. At the same time, character death is an prerequisite to some elements of play.

Perceptual for immersiveness. While the strategic level plays out in a slightly chunky way, I prefer moment-by-moment play to really focus on individual perception. This means theater-of-the-mind combat rather than battle maps, but The Regiment opened my eyes to how that can be supported by the system in a way that emphasizes team actions and the narrative of tactical combat.

Despite all this, I want it to be lean enough for pickup play.  Characters need to be playable in ten minutes the first time through it, and there's relatively little emphasis on rules mastery. (Naturally, the critical table will teach you all you need to know by the time you're on your third character!)  I want this to hold true for the GM as well - rather than meaty stat blocks (as was so well done in Dungeon World), I like iteratively defined monsters and NPCs that can be characterized with just one or two numbers, with other detail added as it becomes important. It should be possible to play with a sketch of the dungeon you made at lunchtime.

So.. tables. I have Rolemaster nostalgia and I don't care who knows it. I know, I know. But as the OSR community knows well, a good table can do really interesting things to your game. One of the things that Rolemaster did a bit of was to encode some of the game's opinion on the way the world works into the tables, but I think this was steeply underused (too many tables, and too large, for one thing). A lot of tiny modifiers, for instance, can be compressed into a result that only happens occasionally. Carrying a vial of dragon's blood for a +2% modifier is far too fiddly, but if having one makes a difference when 67-68 comes up on the spell failure table can give you the same effect with no marginal increase in handling time. (Except for the one-time hit of using the table in the first place of course!)

Anyways, that's part of what I'm up to these days.  I've done focused playtests of bits and pieces of it, but a campaign begins in earnest this Saturday.

Friday, 11 March 2016

The Motes of Eternity

This adventure heads into the steaming jungles of South Wyv, a lush, volcanic peninsula.

River travel being much easier than hacking your way through the jungle, it's most likely that the players will encounter Nulga's cave first. This is one of the possible hooks - Nulga knows a lot about wizards and their ways. His knowledge might even be the players' goal.

Dendra knows a lot, too - in particular about the ancient world and its deepest magics. But talking to her should feel like going to a serial killer for advice. She honestly believes that the gods are wayward, primal impulses to be avoided, and the best course of action is to flout their intentions as flagrantly as possible. (She knows nothing about more recent demigods like Cicollus or Deel.)

The unearthing of her temple will have been noticed by sensitives a long way away. She has no expansionist agenda, but her message will appeal to the worst sorts of people.

The Motes are a new people, but avoid playing them as rubes. They've had to learn quickly in a dangerous environment, and they've been the first ones to recognize Nulga's well-meaning guidance is out of touch with the challenges they face. Dendra has exploited this, to make her point, and doesn't truly care whether the motes live or die.

The Void Gulls around the river system are lost, and not an organized threat, but it's their frantic attempts to escape that have exposed the long-buried Pyramid of Dendra.  Their shatterwisping, and possibly fragments of the dread scepter are the most useful "treasures".

Here are the art pieces, released for reuse under CC-BY-NC.