Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Skills and Tasks Revisited

So the debate in the OD&D community rages on: Should every task the PCs attempt simply be a matter of an ad hoc decision on the part of the referee, or should one employ some form of skills system, as Rob over at Bat in the Attic does? Fortunately, the Old School renaissance is not about everyone doing everything the same way. Or so I'm told.

As I noted when I originally posted on the subject of skills in OD&D, I do believe in having some kind of simple, consistent skill system in play for the same reason that I believe in having a simple, consistent system for resolving combat. I believe that only having some kind of skills system makes the thief class consistent with the way the rest of the game is played and avoids the "have to have a thief to disarm the traps" syndrome. I believe that a good system should neither require certain skills in order to have a chance of success at an action that is physically possible, but should only provide a minor bonus to the chance to succeed in the action. I also believe that a character's stats should provide a significant influence on the outcome--a character with a natural 18 in dexterity should have more than a 20% improvement in his chances to hide over one with a 10. And finally, I believe that skilled play should count most of all.

When I first unveiled my little attempt at creating a skills system last year, a lot of people were confused, and understandably so. I frankly didn't present it very well, lumping several concepts together into a single, confusing chart. That was definitely an error on my part, especially since I didn't explain exactly how I came to my design decisions. So here I thought I'd talk about some of the alternatives suggested in dealing with non-combat, mundane task resolution:

No Skills; Referee Fiat
James of Grognardia fame has repeatedly stated his preference against any kind of unified skill system altogether, and that's certainly his right. However, his position has left him conflicted about the role of thieves in his campaign; on the one hand, they have a quite venerable pedigree in OD&D, but on the other, they require some sort of consistent adjudication of their special skills or else the class ceases to make any kind of sense. And if the thieves get special skills that get bonuses to accomplish certain actions, how can one reasonably deny these to other classes? As the Alexandrian notes, the game's consistency quickly begins to break down and becomes DM-vs-Players instead of NPCs/Monsters/Environment-vs-players.

Most other options suggested for OD&D involve using an existing mechanic in a new way.

Saving Throws as Skills
One rather ingenious idea is to use the saving throw mechanic, applying applicable modifiers for ability scores, and a plus or minus modifier depending on the background of the character and the difficulty of the proposed action to determine the final target number. For example, a fighter is attempting to leap onto an already moving horse to pursue an opponent. He has a saving throw of 14 and a dexterity of 14 (+1 bonus), gets a +2 bonus for the physicality of the action and comes from a tribe of mounted nomads, so the referee gives him another +4 to the roll. The action is of moderate difficulty, so the referee gives no penalties to the attempt (though if done while trying to dodge an opponents swing, he might apply a -2 or -4). In the end, the player needs to roll an 11 or better to successfully catch the horse in motion and mount it without causing it to come to a halt. A roll of 1 might indicate that he falls on his face.

This system has a couple of advantages: First, it doesn't really require the creation of a new mechanic other than some thought into how to ad hoc modifiers for difficulty. And since the saving throw target number automatically decreases as the character rises in level, it can serve to reflect a generally rising competance in all areas as the character grows. The major disadvantage--although your mileage may vary on this one--is that it minimalizes the role of the characters ability scores in determining success or failure; depending on how much of a bonus the referee gives for high stats, a character with an 18 in the relevant score may only have a 10%, 15%, or 20% increase in their chances for success over one with an average score.

Use the Reaction Roll Table
Another attempt to use the Encounter Reaction tables as a general way of resolving tasks. A roll of 2 = catastrophic failure, 3-5 indicates failure, 6-8 indicates a partial success or success of a relatively easy action, 9-11 indicates success, and 12 indicates a fantastic success. Due to the bell curve of the dice, small bonuses count for a lot: A person with no bonuses only has a little under 3% chance to roll a 12 (fantastic success), but a +1 bonus improves that to an 8% chance, a +2 to a 12%. A +3 bonus not only gives one a nearly 17% chance of fantastic success, but reduces the odds of any kind of failure to 3% (which is why B/X and BECMI only grant a +2 to reaction rolls for an 18 charisma).

This is actually not a bad system at all for general task resolution, and I've adopted it for my own campaign as a sort of "heck if I know" table. A character wants to try to shove a heavy boulder over to start a rock-slide; heck if I know how to calculate that, so roll 2d6 and add your strength bonus. A cleric wants to know if they've come across a certain symbol in their studies? Heck if I know; roll and add your INT modifier.

But while this system makes for a handy mechanic for those situations when you just want a general idea of success, it starts to fall apart if you try to implement any special bonuses for background, learned skills, etc. due to the aforementioned power of even modest bonuses.

Ramping Up the Dice

This is the system that I've implemented and described back in Skills: The Middle Road. It basically developed when I noted how often the d6 is used to resolve action in play (hardly a surprise given D&Ds pre-polyhedral Chainmail origins). For example, surprise is determined on a d6, with a roll of 5-6 indicating surprise. Getting lost is rolled on a d6. A roll of 1 or 2 on a d6 indicates successful foraging for food. And so on.

From there, it was a simple step to invert some of the rolls as given in a simple fashion: High is always good, low bad. And from there, it wasn't hard to imagine characters with relevant backgrounds and/or learned skills using something other than the ol' d6 to determine success. Instead of needing to roll a 1 or 2 on a d6 to find enough food, one had to roll a 5 or better--only it didn't have to be a d6; it could be on a d8, d10, or d12, depending on the skill of the character.

Ability modifiers can and often do, of course, play a significant role. The question is whether a single ability score in a single character would be the deciding factor in the success or failure of the action. So, for example, Dexterity will modify an attempt by a single character to actively hide, but not the surprise roll (which is rolled for the party).

Clever use of equipment also makes a much greater difference to characters under this system. In D&D3 a +2 circumstance bonus doesn't go far; under this system, a +1 bonus for cleverly pouring water on the floor to look for a pit trap, using a climbing harness to scale a wall, or using a spear to aid in balance while walking across a narrow parapet makes a considerable difference to the character in question. Therefore, it actually makes sense for a party on a scouting mission to carry minimal equipment and use only light armor and to move at 2/3 their normal pace, granting a total of +2 to the surprise check--especially since, in my game, winning the surprise roll means that you detect the other party before they detect you, giving you a chance to avoid them altogether. Even without the whole party consisting of elves, halflings, and thieves, its a significant advantage.

I've deliberately avoided target numbers (Difficulty Levels, or DLs) higher than 6 in most cases, and in cases where they do run higher I've tried to make sure that there are ways for even low-level, unskilled characters to have a chance at achieving success through careful play. For example, the DL for hiding in the shadows with no actual cover in bright sunlight when someone looks directly at you is something like a 10. A halfling might be able to pull it off (in the wilderness, at least), or a high-level thief. Everyone else had better find some cover or climb a tree or something to get that target number down.

I've come up with a list of probable PC actions, the appropriate ability scores and backgrounds, if any, and some DLs to use for comparison, but it lends itself to easy ad hoc rulings, and it doesn't seem to be confusing my younger players at all. Mostly I just tell them what die to roll and which ability modifier to use, and they're happy with that.

Is it "Old-School"? I really don't know--and I really don't care anymore. It's fun, and that's all that really matters.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

More Mapping Love

I'm really loving this map.

Mapping in D&D is always one part science and two parts art. The science part is a matter of very consciously putting the PCs in a place where they can manage to get to a wide variety of environments very quickly. Putting them into the equivalent of, say, Medieval France, is likely to bore them sooner or later ("Yay, more woods."), and they're not too likely to deliberately travel down to the Middle-East. This is why Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms both have inexplicable magic deserts right next to the core campaign areas.

And, of course, there's the art.

Many game masters complain about their lack of mapping skills but when you get down to it, how much do you really need? The famed West Marches campaign was drawn as a simple vector map that was easy to zoom in or out of at will. Blackmoor was apparently based on a redrawn map of Denmark. For a non-gaming example, Robert Jordan's original Wheel of Time world map isn't all that much to look at. I doubt Ed Greenwood's Forgotten Realms maps looked much like the finished product either.

And yet all of these worlds have enjoyed fame and long life. Why is that? Simply put, because each of them had the map as a starting place, a framework on which to build the narrative, not as the end goal. I noted in my previous post that I've been guilty of forgetting that when creating my own maps, resulting in work that is very pretty to look at, but not robust enough for continued adaption in gameplay. My current map project hits a nice middle ground, I think, between inspirational beauty and gaming utilitarianism.

Despite the above, I do have to say that inspirational beauty is an important component to me when making my maps. That's not to say that the map needs to be a frame-worthy work of art, of course. What it does need to do is make the DM wonder, "What's in this little corner over here?" and "I wonder who lives around that lake over there?" It should be a jumping-off point for fleshing out the world even in the middle of play. A simple sketch on graph paper can be every bit as useful as a professional poster map for that--it just has to have enough incidental detail.

Incidental details like odd little woods in the middle of the grasslands, long lakes in the middle of rivers, the odd hill overlooking the great plains, circles of monoliths, cairns, broken towers, etc. should be sprinkled in liberally. They give the PCs landmarks, places to get a better idea of the lay of the land, mysteries to pursue, and otherwise give the world a feeling of verisimilitude. Not every ruin needs to have a dungeon beneath it (though enough should to encourage the player's to look), a five-page history, or even a name. Nor does every hill, though if a random encounter roll turns up goblins, one should consider the possibility that the hill is their lookout. If you come up with names and histories for them all later, wonderful--especially if such development was for the needs of the campaign. If not, they only took a moment to scrawl in anyway.

As long as we can avoid the temptation to barrage the players with six minutes of historical exposition every half-hour, they'll enjoy the detail of a map well made.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mass Cannibalism

This blog has certainly been all over the map of late: First I talked about doing a homebrew, then I started up a Kingdoms of Kalamar campaign at the behest of my players, and now I'm back to doing a homebrew. A few weeks ago I complained that CC3 took too long to generate a map in and was looking at other hexmappers, and now I'm back to using CC3. It's been very schizophrenic, to say the least.

A lot of it has to do with the group dynamic that I hinted at in my "Drama" post a few weeks ago. The request by my players that I run KoK again had a lot to do with the desire of some to get into a deeply political campaign, and they knew how well that particular setting lent itself to that kind of game. This proved to be an enormous frustration to me since it was my desire to get into an old-school exploration game, and as I noted was a great frustration to my wife and daughter as well.

Going back to a homebrew world is honestly the desire of my heart and seems the natural extension of getting back to my roots: A small but wide-open area with only a few human outposts but lots of ruins, lost cities, dangerous terrain, and fell creatures to contend with. It also avoids the urge to overload my players with too much information up front. But that doesn't mean that everything I worked up for KoK is going to waste. Oh, no. As I said back in "Green World Design," "All authors, whether professional or amateur, steal from someone. Might as well start burglarizing my own home." Except that I'm going to plunder a bit from Kalamar as well.

After all, there's no need to waste the material that I ran up for Religion on the Frontier; I'll just transplant it. Ditto the material that I worked up for the secondary campaign base, Daruk; it's now fleshing out Raven's Gate, my own little City on the Borderlands. The rough outlines of the world and its lands are already there in my Recycling Redux post.

Game tonight; I need to find more material to cannibalize for my Shrine of the Cat. Maybe something involving actual cannibals.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Joys of Mapping

James over at Grognardia has complained about not liking mapping all that much. I have to admit that I feel exactly the opposite. I love mapping. In fact, I have whole notebooks filled with maps that I've never used for anything, but just made for the fun of it. I do a lot of cannibalism, stealing names I like from unused maps and reusing them in others.

To the left is my current campaign map, still in progress, rendered in Campaign Cartographer 3. Yeah, I know a few months ago I complained that it took too long to render a map in it, but I ended up catching the bug again and working up the above. It's a different style than I'm used to using for the program, one that doesn't try to close the space between the trees and has a bit more emphasis on contour lines than I have in the past (having been impressed with their use by the Kingdoms of Kalamar Atlas). For reference, here's a map of a kingdom in my original campaign world, Newoldearth:

As you can see, I put a little too much emphasis on trying to give it a "finished product" look while still trying to show the hills among the forests. The result is disjointed and, frankly, far less amenable to attempts to update it by, for example, inserting a vale into the mountains or a ruin into the woods.

Sometimes we just need a fresh start. I knew it was time for me when I found myself more and more wanting to map something fresh, something where I could be surprised by what was over the next hill, something that didn't have a bad case of canon lock-out for new players. Right now, Asryth is that world for me, because I don't have a clue about its history beyond vague outlines of the last two hundred years. Pretty much all I have is one map showing an area about 200 miles across.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Caves of Chaos: Sessions 1-3

Well, with the bulk of the group currently out, I've been playing with my wife and daughter, running them through the ever classic (B1) Keep on the Borderlands. Our sessions have been short due to our daughter's bedtime, but fun nevertheless.

Shamayim the shamaness, Kitty Crystal the elven warrior-mage, and Joshua the fighting man met by chance in the free city of Daruk, called the City of Brass by some. Hearing rumors about a humanoid-infested collection of caves somewhere to the west, they decided to try to win their fortunes.

In the first session, they entered the goblin caves, headed right (west) and ran into the goblin guards adjacent to the ogre. They managed to kill most of the guards, but Joshua was severely wounded before the ogre even showed up. Kitty (my daughter's character, if you couldn't guess) ran after the goblins who escaped through the secret door in back just in time to see the ogre stand up. As already noted, she tried to attack the ogre and got in a pair of thin scratches before her character's meat was properly tenderized for the cooking pot by the ogre's club.

In the second session, Shamayim and Joshua finished recovering in town and set out to hire some additional help to go back to the caves. They recruited Leah Kitty, another elven warrior-mage and hired a pair of freeswords (or rather, a freesword and a freemace) named Frejar and Brennan. The five opted to avoid the goblin caves with the friendly ogre, opting instead to try a cave on the opposite end of the valley.

Entering the cave, they traveled thirty feet before their front two ranks, including the two hirelings and Leah, fell into a pit trap, taking a battering in the process. Immediately, six reptilian dogmen (kobolds) appeared from a nearby alcove and attacked them. Josh leapt across the pit and fell too with his sword while Shamayim lowered a rope to their trapped companions. By the time they were out, the whole party had taken serious wounds, with just about everyone down to one or two hit points, but they nevertheless carried the day and managed to keep any of the kobolds from escaping to warn their kin.

In session three, having found but a few coppers on the bodies of the kobolds, the party took their remaining shields and spears to better equip the hirelings and took off down the left hand corridor, lighting torches to see. They found a room filled with trash and rubble--and eighteen giant rats led by a rat the size of a wolf that wore a silver chain set with gems.

At this point, the shaman needs to be explained. It's a subclass of the cleric, based on the 3.5 ed Kingdoms of Kalamar variant. Among its class abilities, rather than turning or controlling undead, the shaman can turn and control animals. The shaman succeeded in her turn check (aided by the rats' low hit die) and managed to get control of all eighteen. Shamayim started to take the larger rat's necklace, but noticed that her control started to slip (it actually tried to bite her), so ended up returning it. They searched the room before backtracking and wandering deeper into the kobold caves.

They found the kobolds' storage room, but made sufficient noise (Shamayim screamed when they discovered a human arm in the meat supply) that a pair of the kobold chieftain's bodyguards came to investigate. Leah slew one, but the other managed to kill Brennan and make a break for it. The party took off in pursuit and encountered the third guard and the chieftain, who came to support their comrade. Shamayim summoned her new rat friends, who made short work of all three and the chieftain's women. The largest rat bowed to Shamayim before returning with his fellows into the darkness of the cave. They searched the room quickly, found the chieftain's golden necklace, his treasure chest, and a few other coins, and then made haste to the exit.

End result: 1280 gp worth of treasure, split among three PCs (320 gp each), one hireling (160 gp) and one dead hireling's wife and children (160 gp, enough to keep them comfortably for a good few years if they're careful). The party members got about 50 xp for the monsters each, but since xp is principally awarded by spending gold rather than finding it, I won't know how much closer each PC is to their next level until they report their intra-adventure expenditures.

All things considered, a pretty good collection of adventures. Hopefully they'll continue to be fun for all involved and hopefully some more of my regulars will start showing up again.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Painful Lessons of Growing Up

I ran another game for my wife and daughter today. We're still doing the ol' B2: Keep on the Borderlands. My brother wasn't there, but they went in with his character anyway (a bit unorthodox, but he wouldn't have minded, I happen to know). They picked Cave D: the Goblin Lair and started working their way through. I used dungeon tiles to illustrate the terrain for them and they soon ran into the goblins adjacent to the ogre's cave. Mistakes were made, hilarity ensued.

The fighter went down on the second round (at exactly zero hit points, I ruled he wasn't dead, but stunned and out of the fight), but not before taking a goblin with him. The little one used her burning hands spell, but a bit too late for best effect. Meanwhile, they didn't even try to stop the goblin running for the back corner of the room, nor did they decide to break things off when he disappeared into the secret door. Instead, they managed to finish wiping out four of the five remaining goblins, the fifth running after his buddy.

My daughter took off in hot pursuit, arriving just in time to see the goblins bribing the ogre next door for help. "I'll attack him!" she announced.

"Are you sure?" I asked, describing again the 10' monster with the giant club.

"Yeah!" she said.

After that, there was nothing for it but to let the die roll where they may. She managed to draw blood through a couple of scratches on its thick hide before he whalloped her with his club. My wife's character, a shaman, high-tailed it out of there with the fighter with sound of a meat hammer slamming against a rack of ribs until the bones cracked ringing in her ears.

My daughter was upset at losing, but listened to me as I explained to her why it was sometimes better to run than fight before heading off to bed. We're going to roll up her new character tomorrow, possibly a sister or cousin of the dead one bent on getting her vengeance.

Live and learn. Or die and learn. It's all the same in ol' D&D.

A Good Old-Fashioned Hex Crawl

I started on this post before the drama mentioned last post kicked-in, so some of the details aren't immediately relevant to my campaign anymore. Even so, the overall

Just on a lark, I did some poking around a couple of weekends ago to see what sort of gaming software I could find on the web and I came across a little piece called RPG Manager and another called Hexographer, both of which can be used to make hex-based maps. I saw some potential in both for my own campaign.

As I played with the programs, I found myself recreating the maps from the Kingdoms of Kalamar Atlas in hex form, using a 6-mile hex as my scale. I found myself surprisingly delighted with the results. I haven't used a hex map as the basis for a D&D game since . . . well, almost ever. I used the more easily obtainable graph and plain white paper in my younger years and Campaign Cartographer since my 20s. The latter made beautiful maps and was fairly easy to scale, but was time-consuming to use. Nevertheless, I remained far away from hex maps for years.

Recently, I came across my old JG stuff and had some fun going back through it. While it didn't sell me on the wisdom of the hex entirely, I did like the way it enabled sandbox play, since one could simply set up the contents of each hex and assume that if the party passed through it, they had a good chance of encountering whatever was there. Some have decried this as unrealistic, but it serves a useful purpose: It gives the party a basic unit of exploration in the wilderness, just as the 10' square does in the dungeon. Few referees would force the players to describe the area they are searching down to the square inch; rather, we rule that it takes a turn to search a 10'x10' area. In the same way, while it may be realistic to have the party miss the entreance to the dungeon by a mere hundred feet in a forest, it's bound to lead to frustration and styme exploration.

Of course, not everything in a 6-mile hex (an area encompasing approximately 20 square miles) need be seen the instant a party enters it. A lot depends on the type of terrain, how big the object (or creature) is, whether it was built on a hill (as most human fortresses are) or hidden in a cave, whether the area's paths (whether paved roads or just the easiest way to traverse its contours) pass near it, etc. There are too many factors to create a table that would cover all situations, so the referee will need to make a ruling based on his best estimate of the object's size, form, and prominence.

To give an example of how this works in actual play, let me share some highlights from this last week's game: The party, following up on rumors of Dejy raiders wearing palid masks, decide to seek them out in a nearby wood. The first day, they left late, traveled a hex through clear terrain and two hexes into the woods. A random encounter showed a result of a "wreck" of some sort, so I ruled that the players found a crude cart at the bottom of a ravine. One player asked if there was any sort of trail. I said there was (common sense dictating that a cart needs a trail to go far in heavy woods) and the party followed it along the ridge of the hills that lay to the south.

They encountered nothing of note the second day, but on the third day, a random roll indicated a band of cultists. Fortunately, the party's thief, scouting ahead, won the surprise roll and was able to hide before they noticed him. The cultists were turning on another trail leading to the south and, as it turns out, up the slope towards the monestary of St. Gaxyg. At that point, the party is outnumbered and decides to avoid a confrontation, instead taking shelter for the night in a nearby cave . . . which another random encounter indicated was the haunt of four dryads.

What tickled me is how well the hex-crawl worked with random tables. I simply created the encounter tables for the forest, including a "Ruins/Relics" result which directs me to a set of random tables drawn from the old JG Wilderlands sets. The existence of an actual trail through the woods all followed from a random cart on the road, and the path of the trail followed the contours of the land. The other encounters were equally random, with the imagination filling in the blanks. There's definitely something to be said for the Oracular Power of Dice.

Of course, not everything in the campaign is random. After all, I created specific encounter tables for the region in the first place, which gives a good idea of the local population distribution, and my map does include specific sites to visit. But by including that random element, I got a chance to be surprised, and being surprised is one of the greatest pleasures of a referee.