21 September 2015

Magic Words

Here's something I like a lot. 

If you don't want to click the link, here's the gist:

Spell lists suck. You know what doesn't suck? Magic words. If you look through the spell list and take the words, you can recombine them into new spells and have a lot of fun doing it.

That's it. Go read the blog post.

Alright, you done there? Check this out, too, if you liked it.

As I've written before, I'm working on my own heartbreaker, which is really just a set of house rules that I like and have used, plus a couple of things that I want to try out. And minus all that dumb shit that shouldn't have been in there in the first place. [1]

One of the things that I wanted to deal with was magic. Writing a list of spells sucks, and playing a wizard who summons his arcane might from what amounts to a really boring shopping list also sucks. What super sucks is that you have in front of you all of the spells in the game [2] and so magic battles come down to figuring out what the other wizard shopped for and hoping that your selections were more appropriate to the situation.

At first, I was going to write up a spell system where you took a handful of fairly vague spells and then rolled dice and built it on the spot. If you've got Weather and you rolled 3d6 for a result of 15, now you can look at your list of spell effects and... let's see, change the weather to stormy for 1d6 turns!

Pretty good way to avoid having to write a list while still keeping magic a little unpredictable. You just describe the effects you can get and how high you need to roll for it, you keep wizards from all doing the same thing, and you never know what the other wizard's going to get up to even if you know that he likes blasting things.

But I like this better.

So you're a first level wizard. You have X magic points available per day for your spellcasting. [3] You also have a couple of words, rolled randomly from a list. Write down what they mean, and tell the GM what you want them to do (more or less).

Spells have levels, determined by the amount of MP you spend to cast them. A first level spell costs 1 point, a 2nd level spell costs 3 points, a 3rd level spell costs 7, a 4th level spell costs 18, and so forth.

The level you cast the spell at determines what it does. There's a smallish chart- a spell that takes an attack roll does 1d6 damage to a single target per level. If it doesn't take an attack roll, then it does 1d4 damage. If it's an area attack, then divide up the damage. [4] Everything else is between you, the GM, and your collective senses of wonder and creativity.

What does "Hold Magic" do, exactly? Is it a counterspell (as Lum suggested), or is it a method for delaying magic (as in, a delayed fireball, perhaps). Does it let you capture a spell and use it later? Does it have a mnemonic-type "memorize more spells" effect (as in, holding the magic in your mind)? I dunno, man. You tell me. Go ahead and write up some spells and let's think it over.

The best thing, though, is that finding spells isn't about finding pre-made spells somewhere. Now you're looking for the Words of Magic, scouring seemingly boring tomes to find a veiled reference to a magic word, and hidden formulae- a ha, there it is! "Teleport!" Now what do I do with it...

And then at a certain level spellcasters should be able to chain more words together, right? Only now they cost double, or whatever, because "Teleport Unseen Fire" is a pretty cool spell and so is "Prismatic Steel Servant," and, again, I have no idea what those do because I haven't written it down.

Oh, also: Wizards need to write down their words into spellbooks. "Word" is a bit of a misnomer because wizards are actually writing down syllables in the language of creation which, as it turns out, is nearly incomprehensible to the human mind and only years of study, great note-taking skills and some fairly decent shorthand allows magic users to utilize. Capturing spellbooks gives you a chance to learn their spells and maybe even their words but it's not guaranteed and it's going to take you a while!

So that's what I'm working on including. Lemme know what you think.

[1] Man, people who don't have the same opinions as me are dumb! Right?

[2] Unless you invent your own spells, but that requires writing them up and then giving them to the players, who can still choose not to take them because they'd rather prepare the already overly efficient Sleep, Magic Missile, and Fireball. Your options thus are: A spell that's too efficient (and will get picked first now), a spell that's too narrow (that somebody might prepare once in a blue moon), or a spell that's really weird that somebody might pick because it's fun.

[3] I was going to do spell slots but as I was brainstorming with a friend, he was like "why not just use MP?" Here's the original idea: You have a handful of spell slots per day. They have levels- a 5th level wizard might have four 1st level spell slots and 2 second level spell slots. When you cast a spell, expend a slot. A spell counts as the level of the slot it's cast from- a fireball might do 1d6 damage per spell level, and magic missile creates 1d4 unerring force blasts per 2 levels. Or whatever. Magic points makes the math a little easier and lets you shoot lots of little spells during the day, if that's what you want, so it's a plus. And it's not that much harder to track, really.

[4] I know that this makes fireball a little weaker but honestly 5d6 damage (or whatever) is a lot and having a sort of choice between "do I plug this dude over here" or "do I blast minions" is kind of a neat choice.

18 September 2015

"The Story"

You know what bugs me?

When people look at "the story" as being some sort of separate entity from whatever it is that you're doing during the game. The story happens at the table- if it's the players getting slaughtered, or them discussing whether or not to travel down another level or stay where they are and explore more, that's the story.

I write this in response to a post on r/rpg where a player writes, essentially "when play slows down and your players are hesitating, do you narrate ahead so that the story moves on?"

Why would you do this? There's nothing wrong with hesitation. There's nothing wrong with "slow play." And most importantly, obviously, "The story is what happens at the table."

I'll detail these one after the other, for clarity's sake, and for anybody that's managed to stumble here wondering what I'm talking about.

First, there's nothing wrong with hesitation. If your players are hesitating, it means they're not sure. It means they're looking for more information, or trying to build a consensus, or simply weighing their risks. There's no need to rush them! Let them stew a little, and you can even add thumbscrews if you want- adding more pressure is a lot of fun, and one of the most basic ways to wring drama out of any situation.

That said, sometimes your players are going to waffle, whether it's because they're new and unsure, or if they have been burnt before by going in without a solid plan. Like any game, players will learn how to best get what they want out of it. If there are lots of traps, then they're going to look for traps a lot. If there are a lot of ambushes, they'll extinguish their lanterns and send their scout around to flank. Players will learn how you like to run games and adapt their responses to that, and you should learn how your players enjoy their time. Ideally, you should be alternately challenging and surprising each other in equal measure, and then when you've hit that solid medium, you should both be happy with the way things are. [1]

And I'm not saying that you, as the GM, should ignore what you enjoy either. Your enjoyment is just as important as any other player's, and you have a right to be bored with what they're doing. But you're not in an equal relationship, here. [2] And part of being the GM means that you don't overstep your authority in a way that the players don't enjoy. This partition is different for every player and thus, for every group. You need to find the middle here.

Alright, now lastly: "The story is what happens at the table." There's this weird notion among people who came to tabletop gaming from video gaming that story is separate from medium. I'm here to tell you: that's wrong, and if you think that way, you need to stop it. There is no story that the players are not a part of. Full stop.

Let me explain.

If you write a Tolkien-esque backdrop for your story, full of ancient evils and long-dead heroes and legendary swords, none of it matters one bit until your players interact with it. Just like how the history of the American Revolution doesn't matter to me except when I'm wondering why we speak English or why our government has three parts, the thousand-year reign of the Archlich Xaxxax'x literally couldn't matter less until it impacts your players in some fashion. Say, by reanimating its corpse, or stumbling upon its tomb.The orc king's mighty armies don't matter until they attack the town that the players were going to travel to, causing the guards to bar the town gates and refuse entry to those without cause. Now it matters. [3]

Makes sense, right?

Viewing the story as something other than what happens during play is just plain silly and needs to stop. You're (probably) playing a game where a handful of players are playing individuals that run around creating or solving problems. Everything in the game is about what they do, where they are, and what happens around them. Every mechanic is dedicated to what they can or cannot do, or else who they are. Your game is about the exploits of these characters. Why oh why would anybody think that's not 100% what the story is about?

Nobody watches the Lord of the Rings and says it's a story about Sauron. It's not- it's about Sam and Frodo, Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn, and a little bit about Gandalf and Eowin and Galadriel. Nobody reads Fahrenheit 451 and says the book is about society. [4] It just doesn't follow.

The story is what you spend most of your time talking about. That's it.

[1] This is a basic facet of human interaction, but somehow people forget that the GM-player relationship is literally just a set of interpersonal relationships, the same as having a friend or romantic interest. When both sides are contributing to create a positive whole, the relationship is healthy. When one side is not getting what it wants, abusing its power to trample over the other side is not fucking healthy. I really can't stress that enough. If your response to "I am bored with this" is to say "OK it's done now and we're on to what I want to do" then you're abusing your players' trust. I am willing to argue this point. 

[2] In a traditional GM / player split, the GM has more authority over pretty much everything, and wisely using this power is what separates a GM whose players are having fun and a GM whose players are just sort of enduring play. I've written about this before (somewhere) but the GM / player relationship has a lot in common with a D/s relationship, in that one side is intentionally ceding power and formally recognizing the other as being "in charge" for purposes that suit both of them.

[3] If you're still not sure, try it out in a game. Write down "the orc king's armies are massing" on your notes. Hint to it, if you want, when the players are in an inn, or have a herald shouting the news on a street corner. Alright, so the players have been exposed to it. Now cross it off. Didn't happen, orcs got defeated, whatever. Hey look, nothing changed for your players- unless they ask about it or pursue it.

[4] In a sense, it is about those things, but, again, it's about the background to the characters as it affects them. We don't learn about the benefits of the society Guy Montag lives in as it is constructed, or about the conditions of factory workers, or the economic superstructure of such a world. All we know is how Guy is shaped by the conditions he finds himself in- the same thing we find in your standard D&D game. The story is about how a group of characters reacts to the situation they find themselves in, and that's it.

12 September 2015

Morale Scores

I've been working on a minor B/X heartbreaker as a personal project, you know the drill. It's a combination of my favorite house rules alongside some quality-of-life changes that makes the game easier to run at my table. You know, like every other one. But this one's mine!

And one of the things I really want to do is deal with the bronze age. I mean cmon, look at this guy! If you don't want to play as that guy, you're nuts.

Part of this approach means taking some early D&Disms and giving them a more prominent place- "armor class" is the sum of your defensive equipment as usual, but helmets explicitly give armor class, and so do greaves, breastplates, and shields. A bronze-age warrior fully decked out in their panopoly should be pretty damn tough.

I don't want to talk about equipment today, though. I want to talk about morale.

Morale has always been sort of a funky mechanic in D&D, and it's not really a surprise that it got abandoned by the time 3rd edition rolled around. [1] It just sort of sits there, the modifier never changes, and it's really a monster-only thing. You hit a monster- roll morale. The monster gets reduced to 1/4 health- roll morale. The group of enemies suffers a casualty- roll morale. It's too much.

Here's my solution: Everybody gets a morale score, from 2-12. That includes players. When you have to check morale, roll 2d6. Higher rolls are good.

There are a handful of times when you check morale: When you're reduced to half health or less, when your leader [2] is slain, or when half your group has stopped fighting (fled, dead, paralyzed, whatever).

If you pass the check, then nothing happens. You're doing alright, for the time being.

If you fail the check, then your Morale is reduced temporarily by 2, as the stresses of combat wear you down.  [3]

Morale feeds lightly into your attack and defense bonuses- the reason for this is to make the players, not the characters, afraid of trying to hang around a losing battle. "We gotta get out of here guys, I'm at 4 Morale! I can't fight like this!" [4]

This also lets me do something that I've always wanted to see represented in a game: Shouting matches.

If you read heroic classics, like Beowulf, the Iliad, or certain Norse epics, you see that before a fight, champions would often meet to exchange words, insult each others' heritage, and call each other cowards. This is something I want to put in the game, and with Morale being an actual statistic, it's easy.

Just have an opposed Morale check. Both leaders add their Appearance bonus and their Charisma bonus. Lowest result suffers 1d6 Morale damage. That's it. If you refuse to send out a champion of some sort, if your leader refuses to meet in the middle, then it counts as an automatic loss. What kind of ragged army doesn't have a champion? What kind of cowardly fool won't meet his peer in combat?

Now that I think of it, there has to be some sort of "outclass" situation, where obviously the Pharoah of the Eternal Empire doesn't have to meet with the squabbling barbarian tribes' dirt-covered chieftan, but I'm not sure a hard-and-fast rule makes any sense in this situation. We're all smart people here. Use your best judgement.

The last thing that having a Morale score does is allow musicians to be an important part of the game. This deserves its own post, I think, so I'll deal with that later. Soon I'll write another post, detailing either music, Appearance scores, or else possibly just the way that equipment is going to work.

See you soon!

[1] I think it was in 2e AD&D but I'm not a big fan of that game so I don't honestly know.

[2] Typically controlled by a character's Appearance bonus, which is another rule that I'm going to add, because it again guides players towards emulating the right style of play- you should be spending money to gild your helmet, purchase gemmed swords, and acquiring purple capes because it looks cool, and because it ties into your personal Morale bonus, which makes you fight more effectively.

[3] 2 just feels right, and means that if an average untrained human being has 6 morale, that half of them will flee when the leader is killed, and then most of the rest will turn tail and run after the remainder is chopped down. This feels about accurate to me- in these times, generals were also soldiers, and were expected to charge into battle, protected by elite bodyguards. Losing them was a massive blow to morale, and generally troops that were already struggling would break and flee as they saw the commander's standard fall.

[4] I'm thinking 0 modifier for 6, and then +/-1 for every 2 points. This has the added benefit of making elite troops better at fighting than their hit dice represents, and then making low-morale creatures a little weaker. A horde of 4 Morale goblins fights terribly, but six berserkers with 12 morale? You better watch yourself, even if you have more hit dice.

05 September 2015

Three Luckless DCC Goons

Tomorrow I'll be playing through a DCC module, and in the spirit of preparation I managed to roll up three 0th level characters.

In the spirit of getting back into the habit of writing every day, I thought I'd give them all a short background.

Character 1: The Elf Falconer

I can't remember what brought it up, but it came up that our characters were probably doomed, so I decided to make that a personality trait of one of my characters. "The Gloomy Elf" is a fun archetype, especially if he's not just melancholy but actively certain that he's probably boned in some vague, cosmic way.

It'll also allow me to be a little silly at the table, insisting that completely mundane events are certain portents of our group's overarching Doom. I'll figure out a way to prounounce it with a capital D, maybe if I over-enunciate it...

Since he's a falconer, that means that he's probably some sort of petty nobleman, or maybe some sort of retainer to a lord. I don't want to go eastern European or central Asian with the elf, since I'm not entirely sure what sort of world the DM's got in mind, and also that'd mean figuring out some sort of cultural differences that the character has from other characters that are hanging around. I really don't know if the game will get that far, but if it does, I'll make something up on the spot and then my character will insist that's how it is in his homeland. Whether it's true or not doesn't really matter- if it turns out that he's just particular in some way that is unique to him (and other people from his culture don't care about it, or even feel the opposite way) then he'll have just been lying the whole time. And then I'll figure out on the spot why that is, again.

He is the most hardy character, at 3 HP.

Character 2: The Confidence Artist

This one's pretty fun, because the confidence artist has an awful Personality score (5), which leads me to believe that this individual is not actually a confidence artist and perhaps just styles themselves one. I mean, clearly nobody is going to believe any lies and they probably ooze sleaze, like a fantasy Frank Reynolds.

But I don't want to go with Frank Reynolds. I want to take it in a different direction. First thought- the con artist is a woman, and she's sort of a sleazy type. Not in some weird sexual way, but just that she's vaguely untrustworthy and maybe a little grasping, while managing to rub people the wrong way. Maybe she's too direct- she's brusque and a little mean.

She also might end up being a wizard, since her sole promising stat is a 12 Intelligence.

She also has just the 1 HP.

I also don't have any art on hand for a pushy peasant woman, unfortunately.

Character 3: Dwarven Apothecarist

This right here is why I like randomly rolling for occupations- a Dwarven apothecarist? Sign me up!

I'll probably play this guy more or less straight; he's a somewhat fussy, somewhat proud dwarf who learned to make poultices and brew liquids and talks about fine dwarven crafts, and has a long beard and a beer belly. He's not much of a warrior, so if he makes it to first level, then I'll just have him be sort of a bumbler, really more of a brute force smasher than a proper warrior. He hasn't really got any warrior training, but he's doing his best and he's going to do what he can to break things when they need to be broken. He'll probably avoid any sort of unnecessary battlin', since he really did enjoy being an apothecarist and plans on returning to it, sometime.

If the dwarf survives I might add some more personality to him, but I think that a sort of declining personality scale between my three characters is the most useful. We're all going to have three 0th level characters, at least for a while, and if we all try and "hog" the spotlight then we're going to have one hell of a time getting anything done.