Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The roles of Wandering Monsters in old-school games

In old-school RPGs, wondering monsters had several roles.

1) The most important role, IMHO, was to turn time into a strategic resource. Even if you carry plenty of supplies and torches, random encounters are pretty frequent in a dungeon, and thus wasting time means risking encountering monsters, some of them quite powerful for your level. So every action which takes significant time, risks a wondering monster roll, and thus requires a strategic choice on part of the players: should they rest now, that they have expanded 50% of their resources, and thus risk encountering something nasty while they sleep - or rather press on (or leave the dungeon to rest in a safer place)? Should they spend a turn doing a "take 20" search of each and every room in the dungeon, and thus risk encountering a monster, or try and notice clues in their environment? Should they kick down every door they encounter (thus making a LOT of noise and forcing an immediate wandering monster roll), or try to use discretion? Once time has a concrete cost in risk of encountering monsters, you reduce the tendency of players to resort to "15-minute adventuring days" and "take 20 to search everything", by making such actions into meaningful choices rather than routine acts.

2) Making dungeons, and deep wilderness, actually dangerous in-game. Peasants avoid the Accursed Moor because it is haunted. PCs who venture there - take a risk of meeting undead. Not just set-piece undead in barrow mounds, mind you, but random undead - after all, it is the Moor where the dead are reputed to walk. A nasty place. Not a place to tread casually through. The same goes with entering the Ghoul Castle of Doom - hungry ghouls abound there, and not just in set-piece encounters - the place is crawling with them. On the other hand, you shouldn't roll too often for random encounters in civilized areas - ACKS, for example has one encounter check PER MONTH in civilized areas. This strikes home the reason why peasants stay close to civilization and shun the wilderness - there are bad things there out to eat you, and you have to go prepared.

3) Making things interesting for both DM and players. A typical DM has a style - the kind of monsters and encounters he or she is likely to set up. A good random-encounter table goes beyond that - something surprising might turn up, and make the game more interesting It also pushes for encounters which are not "level set" to the PCs, and thus might necessitate something other than combat - maybe negotiating with the dragon who turns up in a random encounter and bribing him with treasure, or running away from him - not everything the PCs encounter is a balanced fight or even a necessary fight.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

[Visions of Empire] The Cicek

This is something I have in mind for my Visions of Empire setting(s). The idea came to me when I was trying to imagine what the society of sentient Tokay Geckos will look like. The end result is quite different from a gecko, but similar in certain terms...

These are the Cicek - bipedal, though horizontally-oriented (think modern representation of theropods) warm-blooded reptilian-equivalents. Their ur-species predecessors were pouncers, mostly carnivorous though technically omnivorous, of approximately 100kg (200 pounds) each in weight, about 2 meters in length, balancing tail included. The body is covered with scales (color ranges from green to reddish-yellow depending on morph), and the jaws and teeth are well-developed for killing prey and tearing its flesh. They are originally grassland dwellers, and do not climb well, but spread into lightly forested areas as well before achieving full sentience.

Cicek show strong sexual dimorphism - the female is about 75kg and much smaller than the 100kg male. The overriding social instinct of the ur-species were highly different between males and females. Females were social, tolerated each other and cooperated in hunting, while males were highly antagonistic towards each other, and highly territorial, trying to kill and each other at sight. When climatic change and the introduction of larger prey into their habitat forced them into social units larger than a single male and his harem of several females, the males had to conquer their instinctive antagonism towards each other in order to cooperate. So Cicek culture, especially in regard to males, revolves around mitigating this aggression, though very elaborate and highly ritualized systems of politeness and honor which have evolved during early sentience in order to prevent cannibalism between the males of the same tribe. Despite all of this, even the modern Cicek male sees all other males as rivals; culture teaches him how to channel this rivalry into (usually) non-lethal avenues, such as competing for honor and (usually) non-lethal duels, but, at his most basic impulse, he is full of aggression towards any other male.

Female and male social systems work differently. Male social organization is hierarchical, with the weaker male submitting to the stronger male, while all the time looking for an opportunity to best him and take his place, while the dominant male sees his subordinates both as a resource and a threat. This is not just a physical competition, but also a social one; if a subordinate gains significantly more honor than his superior, he will replace him, possibly without a serious fight. Female society, on the other hand, is far less competitive, and far more egalitarian: a female sees her female tribe-mates as sisters, not as rivals. Females think of the good of their tribe and only then of their own good; males think of their own position in the ever-changing hierarchy and only then of the good of their tribe. Even today, Cicek possess somewhat differentiated economic and social systems for both sexes, competitive for males and cooperative for females.

The Cicek led, until relatively recently (several centuries before the current timeline), a TL1 tribal existence on their homeworld, bound into tribes of a few thousand Cicek each, possessing primitive metalworking techniques and agriculture based on herding. But then the Reticulans came - aliens who'd rather see others fight for them, than fight themselves; and, to them the 100-kg Cicek male, in all his predatory might and temper to match, looked like a great shock-trooper to fight Reticulan wars. So the Reticulans uplifted the Cicek, providing high-tech weapons and equipment to friendly tribes in return for recruiting Cicek mercenaries to fight for the Reticulans. This had a profound impact on Cicek society. While other species, such as Humans and Reticulans, have gone through millennia of cultural evolution to support more and more complex social forms and collective identities, the Cicek have received modern technology ready-made without all of this. Culturally, the Cicek are still strongly tribal, and have difficulties to form any higher collective identity - concepts such as "nation" or "Cicek-Kind" mean little to them, despite the fact that both Reticulans and Humans tried to introduce them into Cicek society. The modern Cicek is typically very loyal to his or her tribe, but feels very little affinity to any larger body of Cicek or even to the whole species. The introduction of modern technology also meant that within a few years, almost all tribes on the Cicek homeworld were using tanks and plasma guns to fight wars which, only a short while before that, were fought using bronze axes and composite bows. The homeworld became a very dangerous place indeed... So many Cicek tribes were quick to put their hands on starships (bought from Reticulan traders) and emigrate to far-away stars. The tribal nature of the whole affairs also meant that very soon, the Reticulans had only partial control over the Cicek tribes, as each tribe has its own independent will. Soon enough, Cicek mercenaries and pirates became very common all over known space.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Regarding skills in Classic Traveller

On this thread on the Citizens of the Imperium Boards, people discussed the Classic Traveller skills, their meaning, and whether or not a typical Book 1 character is playable. I'll give you my views on this.

One (1) skill point is a profession. Enough to hold a job and make a living. The average non-adventurer, non-military and non-criminal civilian probably has one or two skills at 1 and probably a few at 0. For example, a professional mechanic would have Mechanic-1 and very likely also Ground Vehicle-0 (he has a driver's license) and possibly Steward-0 (if he knows how to cook and is a good host). On a vacuum world he'll also have Vacc Suit-0. Skills above 1 denote specialization; for example, a paramedic would have Medic-1, a nurse Medic-2 and a full doctor Medic-3. Colonists on dangerous frontier worlds will probably have a few weapon skills at 0 as well, but not too many - say, Carbine-0 or Shotgun-0.

Let's see a typical Book 1 character:

Computer-1, Gunner-1, Vacc-1

This is a multi-skilled professional. He can work as a programmer; work as a gunner; and work as vacc suit technician or EVA specialist. He has THREE full, money-earning professions. He is also HIGHLY educated and very smart. If he were an adventurer, he'd also have all Book 1 (but not Book 4) weapons at 0, and probably also a vehicle skill at 0. He can hack, he can shoot all common guns (though he isn't a marksman), he can fire big guns with professional skill, he can work very well in zero-G/vacuum, and probably can drive/pilot a vehicle as well. He can even wear Combat Armour with no penalty! Very playable.

Look at it from the old-school D&D angle. Your Fighting-Man has, essentially, skill-0 in all weapons at level 1; later on he gains a higher skill (in CT that would be in specific weapons). old-school D&D Fighting-Men do not have any other skills on their character sheet. Yet they're perfectly playable.

Another way to look at it - in D&D 3.xE/D20, CT skills are much more akin to feats than to 3.xE/D20 skills. A weapon skill is like a Weapon Specialization feat in that weapon. Medic is essentially a "Medic I" feat (allows you to be a Medic on a starship and treat wounds where one characteristic has been reduced to zero with no roll needed) and its advanced/"Greater" feats, "Medic II" (gives you a bonus to revive low-berth passengers) and "Medic III" (allows you to treat all wounds - including serious ones - with no roll needed). Vacc Suit is like an "Armour Proficiency" feat.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

[ACKS] Planning the Swap Rebels campaign!

After a discussion with my prospective players for my upcoming Barbarian Conqueror King campaign (ACKS Dinosaur & Wizardry AKA Sword & Lizardry), I've had an idea - rather than start the game in the current timeline, i.e. the year 3341 AS, with the City-State of Harat already liberated from its tyrant Sorcerer King and ruled by the slave-rebellion leader Hardun, why not start the game 15 years earlier, in 3326 AS, when the Sorcerer-King still reigns? The PCs will be escaped slaves, or peasant rebels, and will have their chance of participating in Hardun's Army of the Free, possibly ending up as his vassals when they'll reach name level; eventually, after 3341, they might even replace him as the rulers of Harat!

This will give the game a clear conflict to motivate things. This will still be a sandbox, and they can sill amass treasure and power (probably as part of an independent detachment fighting the Sorcerer King's forces). But there will be the backdrop of rebellion against the forces of evil sorcery.

The idea is as follows: early in their travels, the PCs, possibly escaped slaves, will join Hardun's Army of the Free fighting in the Great Servile War against the sorcerer king; they'll be an independent detachment, fighting for the Cause, as well as for gold and glory, detached from the main forces. At the beginning, this will mostly be a guerrilla war. Eventually, especially as the PCs will rise in level and hire mercenaries (or shape escaped or liberated slaves into an army) and grab power locally, and, later on. on a larger scale, as vassals of King Hardun, the Lizardman Gladiator and leader of the rebellion who'll take Harat itself.

Dungeon crawling will be part of this; after all, they'll need money and resources to fund their war, and also they will have to protect locals against Chaos and marauders (who are usually in league with the Sorcerer King).

The campaign will take place in the swaps south of Harat, where the rebels - escaped slaves - hide, and where much older things sleep (AKA Barrowmaze), and will, eventually, reach Harat itself.

The main point here I'll have to handle delicately is to preserve the sandbox and players' freedom and avoid a railroad. So what I'm thinking of doing is:

1) They'll be provided with motivation (either as escaped slaves or as villagers whose friends and families were enslaved). They could follow it, or ignore it. Or become bandits.

2) They'll be provided with background events, i.e. the growing rebellion, and will be able to participate in them, or ignore them. Or raid Barrowmaze.

3) If they do take part in the rebellion, eventually they'll be granted regional command (i.e. nobility and local rulership) once Hardun grabs Harat, as his vassals.

4) Once Hardun grabs Harat, he won't adventure much, while the PCs will probably do so, so eventually they'll surpass him in level, and if they want, they could depose of him and take power over the entire city-state. Or ignore him and go invade another city, probably with his blessings.

I'm also thinking about how to start this. One option is the funnel; but I'm not sure if the players will like it (too sharp a transition from 3.5E). The other options are:

1) They were all slaves, and the first adventure would be to escape, possibly while their masters' stronghold is under attack (by the rebels? by another noble? by monsters?). The main problem here is that I'm not sure if powerful level 1 characters would be slaves; maybe warrior types (as gladiators) but what about Mages and various priests?

2) They were all rounded up recently by slavers working for the sorcerer king. First adventure would be a prison break.

3) They're villagers. They go on a simple first adventure, then return home to find their village ransacked by slavers (under the sorcerer king's Banner of the Tentacled Eye), their families and friends mostly gone. They have to fight a small slaver garrison, and then they'll have a strong motivation to free their friends and family and take revenge.

I'm leaving towards #3, as revenge is a major motivation. Of course, they'll be free to ignore that motivation and go being bandits/raiding Barrowmaze etc. What do you think? Also, they'll need a base of operations; I'll need to find a way to introduce them to either a liberated town or a rebel camp... One hex from Barrowmaze, possibly...

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Why do Commercial RPGs Succeed?

Basic D&D - a successful commercial RPG.
I posted this as a comment to the RPGPundit's column "Why do Commercial RPGs Fail?", and thought that this might be interesting as a blog post of its own.

So why do some commercial RPGs succeed?

1) Usability out of the box. You take the book, read it cover to cover, and can start an actual game with people around an actual table. Good products, especially good "big" products (i.e. rulesets and settings), should always include a starter adventure with pre-generated PCs so that the book would be of immediate use to any group. This is the reason old-school D&D boxed sets always came with a pre-packaged adventure.

2) Editing and proofreading. Significant errata kills games. The game should be perfectly playable at its first printing, with no need for looking for errata online due to missing tables and similar screw-ups. Both old-school D&D and Classic Traveller could be played out of the box without needing much errata.

3) Focus on actual play. An RPG is a *GAME* first, anything else second. Mechanics should facilitate play. Fluff should be limited to what is useful in play. Setting histories of over 2-3 pages rarely figure in play, especially if they come in the first product in the line. Old-school D&D and Traveller, for example, came with VERY little fluff, yet were highly successful, as they were focused on play. In my Outer Veil setting for Traveller, for example, there are about 2 pages of setting history; and most other setting material is game-relevant (a few paragraphs on things such as culture, politics, etc with some hooks); flavor text is usually a paragraph or two at most at the beginning of each chapter.

4) Art and layout. Too much text with no art is painful on the eye. Tasteful stock art will do. Custom art conveying the feel of the setting is better. D&D always had art, especially in later editions. An index can help, too, and if you're publishing a PDF, make sure that it is indexed, bookmarked and fully searchable for maximum usability.

5) Aiming at the casual player. Most people who play RPGs are not the big enthusiasts, but rather people who play every 1-2 weeks for 3-5 hours each time over beer and pretzels (or Mountain Dew and pizza). They want a game which is easy to understand and use, requires little commitment, and which is fun from the get-go. Generally speaking, for the casual gamer, simple rules and quick chargen are preferable. The casual GM/DM/Referee/Judge, i.e. one with limited time to devote to the hobby, needs a game for which it is VERY easy to prep adventures. Old-school boxed-set D&D, or Classic Traveller for that matter, fit this to a T.

And, the most important -

6) Aim towards subjects and themes with a broad appeal. A lot of people dig faux-Tolkien fantasy, for example, and thus D&D appeals to them thematically. Traveller appealed very much to all Battlestar Galactica, Alien and Star Wars fans. Being overly unique and "original" can be bad for your game - it is generally better to take a common, even cliche, theme and build a good game around it than re-invent the wheel around something too focused.

Operation Protective Edge - I am alive and well.

Gaza being bombed by the IDF as part of Operation Protective Edge

In case you are worried about me due to "Operation Protective Edge" - the current round of fire between Israel and Hamas around the Gaza Strip - I am pleased to announce that I am alive and well. I live in Rehovot, Israel, which is over 40km from Gaza, and rarely gets hit by rocket fire. Yesterday we had an air-raid alarm, and had to run into our staircase for protection, and even heard four explosions (they were near Ashdod and Gan Yavne - about 17km to the south from where I live), but nothing fell on Rehovot. I am, generally speaking, quite safe.