So things have been quiet here at the Toolbox; a part of that is because I’m doing a lot of prep work for a thorough investigation of Pathfinder feats, but an even bigger part is boring “personal life” stuff, like a big move for work that I’m in the middle of.  Anyways, hopefully I’ll have interesting things to talk about here soon, but my “hobby time” has been pretty scarce lately.

But that’s for another time.  Today is Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day!

So, Swords & Wizardry is one of many game systems that are indicative of the “Old School Renaissance  movement in tabletop RPG gaming. The idea is that RPGs these days aren’t like they were “back in the old days,” and that we’ve lost something in modern games that we had back then.  I generally agree with the notion, with the caveat that I don’t think modern games are bad, just different, and there’s value in reviving this older style of play.  S&W itself claims to be a “restated” version of the “Original Game” written by Gygax and Arneson in 1974.

In a lot of ways, I feel like Swords & Wizardry matches up a lot better with my assumptions about characters and the world than modern interpretations of Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons – not because those games don’t match my expectations, but because they are more-general systems that allow for a wider range of experiences, and Sword & Wizardry intentionally restricts itself to the grittier core of fantasy RPGing.

So, let’s look at some of what S&W does and how it does it, and I’ll throw my thoughts in as well.

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I’m generally loathe to talk up products on this blog; it’s not really what I’m about, and it feels a little bit vulgar. That having been said, I spend a lot of time on Kickstarter backing various neat games, and this one at least feels like it might be pertinent to my readership. And since I’m already backing the already-successful project, any increased funding gets me more awesome stretch goals, and I like getting more awesome in my games.

The game is called Myth and it’s a cooperative-style dungeon-crawl type game.  Players choose a deck to represent their character’s class (Soldier, Archer, Acolyte, Apprentice, Brigand, Trickster, or Skald), and the cards represent actions and abilities that character can use to fight the monsters spawned by the board.  Killing monsters lets you get treasure, and treasure lets you kill more monsters! (We all know that formula.) The board is powered by The Darkness, which has it’s own deck of actions and rules for how the bad guys behave. One of the neat things is that The Darkness reacts to your play style, sending stronger challenges as you get more treasure and show off your moves, and punishing you for being too cautious. If you’re character is kicking ass and taking names, the monsters are likely to notice and gang up on you. The game is played in Stories which are comprised of three Acts which can be played successively or in separate gaming sessions, and each Act can take a couple of hours to play (so most gamers will probably play one Act per session, unless you’re a college kid during Finals – then you might do two or three Stories in a massive gaming binge… I miss college some times).

The project was successful at $40,000 and they’ve raised over $200k by this point; all of that means the game is getting more and more awesome as they’re able to add in new characters, villains, and features. They have stretch goals listed out to $400k and they claim they have even more tricks up their sleeves, but they’re down to just about a week before the Kickstarter ends. If it sounds like the sort of game you and/or your buddies might be in to, please go check it out and pledge for your copy.  If we reach $400k and get the multi-headed Ratling Boss I will be ever so grateful.

MYTH -- Kicktraq Mini

So I’ve been scouting around the Internet for dice stats since LS posted his “race-weighted attributes” post because work blocks me from Anydice.com but lets me wander around all sorts of message forums (and with two sick daughters at home, work is the most likely time I can do this sort of research). I found a link to an old (circa ’93) newsgroup post that lists probabilities and expected values for 3d6-drop-zero to 9d6-drop-six (they’re arranged by “drop lowest” but you can reverse the tables to get “drop highest”). That’s useful information for a number-crunching nerd likle me.

But in a couple places in the thread I found a meme that seems all-too-common in certain parts of the hobby, and I wanted to address that.  Specifically, it’s the notion that 3d6-roll-in-order or other systems that approach it are better because you’ll get low scores, and low scores “provide much color to a good ROLE-playing experience.” I submit to the reader that this is crap.

I’m not saying that all characters should have 12+ in every stat to be “worth” playing. I’m not saying that playing a character with some (or many) low stats can’t be fun. I’m not saying that stretching your horizons and playing out of type isn’t a good thing. But I am saying that the notion that playing a statistically-average or mathematically-likely character, especially one that is wholly or substantially generated randomly, is a better roleplaying experience is disingenuous at best.

At it’s core, role-playing has nothing to do with statistics. Role-playing is about taking on a persona and acting through scenarios, making decisions as though you were your character. We make a game out of it and attach mechanics so that you can understand and predict the likely outcomes of your decisions in a consistant way, but those are structures we build up around the core of role-playing.

The statistics are simply a way of describing our persona in a common language so that players and GM all understand the character and how he interacts with the environment. To say that a mathematically-likely character is better than any less-mathematically-likely character, we are first asserting that one persona is better than another for role-playing, and are then further asserting that it is better because of the randomness of it’s generation. Or, perhapse, it is better because it “forces” the player to “deal with” a flawed character. But why is that better, for role-playing? Can you not have just as-satisfying an experience role-playing as Superman as you can role-playing as Jimmy Olson?

Even if your character is stronger, faster, smarter, and better-looking thabn everyone else, there can still be interesting motivations, internal struggles, and decisions to be made, and that is what makes for good role-playing. Statistics say that my character is weak or clumbsy or stupid, and that’s one class of flaws, but it doesn’t say if he’s an alcoholic, a misogynist, bound by his word, or an extreme pacifist.  That’s another class of flaws. You can have an interesting, flawed character who’s stats are all 15+.

And here’s the crux of it: you can have an interesting time with a character who’s statistically perfect, but that wouldn’t be a terribly interesting character to me. I wouldn’t choose to play that character, much the same I wouldn’t choose to play a character who was randomly handicapped. I might choose to play a character with low INT or WIS or DEX, but the love-affair that gamers have with random generation has rarely made much sense to me. I have a couple theories:

It’s a game, and since it’s a game the notion of “fairness” comes in to play.  People want to know that they’re on even footing with their opponents, that no one is starting out with undue favor. But the problem here is two-fold – firstly your fellow players are not your ‘opponents’ (nor is your DM, if you’re “doing it right”), and secondly, how is random generation “fair,” exactly? It’s like the card game “We Didn’t Playtest This At All” where the rules not that star cards are simply better than other cards, and for game balance every player has an equal chance of drawing a star card. Rolling 3d6 is only “fair” in the sense that everyone has an even chance of rolling a superstar (or a dead-weight).

I suspect that another factor is that “that’s the way it was done” in the old days, and that’s the way it continued to be done out of tradition (and probably the above notion of fairness), and so people who played back then (or have adopted that mentality) had to live with bad rolls.  And occationally, having to live with sub-optimal results causes some people to rationalize and justify and find some reason to believe trhat sub-optimal is better, or at least not so bad. And from what I can tell, in old school rules attributes meant a lot less than the do in more-modern games. In Swords and Wizardry (ostensibly based off the 1974 rules), most stats are either +1, +0, or -1, so the swing between a “good” score and a “bad” score was minor. In 3.X, though, the swing is from +6 to -6 which is +/- 30% (a swing of 60%) on a d20! That is significant. Modern stats try to cover a larger range of variation, from vegitative 3s and retarted 6s to genius 14s and Ozimandian 18s. I suspect that all of old D&D’s 3-18 range covers just 7-14 in modern stats, because old D&D had a narrower focus.

My point is this: yeah, random-rolling characters makes things quick and ‘fair’ and can give you the ‘opportunity’ to play a character you might not have chosen for yourself. That’s fine and good and if it’s what you like, have at! But it isn’t going to fit everyone’s tastes, and please don’t act like it’s objectively better in any way. The core of role-playing doesn’t care about stats, except in that it’s how we describe our personas to the game. Hand-picking stats is just as valid, so long as everyone in the game agrees on what an accepitble character looks like.

So while I’m working on a couple of longer-term projects (discussing Pathfinder feats at-length; comparing D&D3.5 and Swords and Wizardry, demonstrating that the systems focus on different scopes; discussing healing in D&D, particularly in D&D 5) I wanted to point you over to a really cool idea from LS at Papers & Pencils.

He noted (as I did this weekend, breaking in my new Swords and Wizardry books) that the fist experience new players have of D&D is “”roll these dice, record the resulting sum. Repeat this task five more times, then assign one score to each of these six abilities, the functions of which you probably don’t fully understand yet,” and that’s a kind of sucky introduction to a Fantasy setting.  Instead he suggests describing the Races (dwarves are strong but clumbsy, elves are graceful but frail, gnomes are weak but charismatic) and then weighting attribute rolls by Race, with take-highest and take-lowest rolls replacing flat bonuses and penalties. I haven’t chewed on the numbers yet, but LS claims that 5-take-lowest averages a 7 and 5-take-highest averages a 14 (and 4-take-highst/lowest is probably about 8 and 12 respectively), so you get the benefit of the flat bonus but eliminate scores above 18 at level 1. And if nothing else, I think I really like that result.

So check out his post and then leave me your thoughts in the comments; I’ll probably make another post on this topic once I’ve had some time to look at the implications.

Hexographer Hex-ifies Anything

Posted: 8 February 2013 in Toolbox
Tags: ,

This one snuck past me, but catching up on the other blogs I follow I just learned from Trollsmyth that the Hexographer program just got a new feature that will convert any .png file into a hex map, making it easier to build RPG maps from any old map you find laying around the Internet.  This sounds like a GREAT feature, and I can’t wait to try it out: I’ve been very pleased with Hexographer so far, anyways.

So I mentioned before that the Crafting rules in Pathfinder as essentially useless as-written. I went through the whole of it in my previous post, but here’s the cliff notes: success is practically guaronteed given time and materials (if you’re bad you’ll waste a lot of money on ruined materials), and how much time is inversely related to the DC of the item being crafted, so more difficult items take proportionally less time to craft than simpler items (of the same value).

That’s actually the only complaint I can really level squarely at the system, I think. I have a little bit of concern about impractical craft times (my calculations show a Master smithy taking upwards of 9 months to make a suit of plate armor, but I have no notion of how realistic that is) and the fact that there are several different systems for crafting common items, traps, magic items… But each of those things are mechanically different in the game as well, so having different mechanics for crafting them isn’t absurd of its face. I think I’ll need to address both of these, but it’s more a matter of argument and investigation, whereas my primary complaint is simply math.

Of course, the fly in that ointment is that it takes less time to craft a more-difficult item of the same price, and in general it looks like more-difficult items tend to cost more, so the otherwise-wonky math just offsets the escalation, so that it doesn’t take a hundred years to forge plate armor.

Here’s a comparable pair: hook hand (DC 12, 100 sp) and a short sword (dc 15, 100 sp). Assuming a Master of moderate talent we have a Take 10 score of 18 (10 base +1 attribute, +1 skill, +3 class skill, +3 skill focus). His weekly crafting score is 216 for the hook and 270 for the short sword; in each case it’s double-but-not-triple the target (100), so they each take a half-week to complete. Huh. That doesn’t tell us anything.

If instead of a Master we assume a craftsman of minimum capable skill, with a Take 10 of 12 and 15 respectively, the hook will score 144 for the week and the sword will score 225, so the hook is done in a week and the sword is done in a few days… but the sword was done by a better craftsman. But that same craftsman would score a 180 on the hook and take a full week!  Aha!

I’m… not sure what this proves. Maybe hooks are harder to make than swords? Maybe the abstraction is good enough, without getting into the minutia of every item’s form and composition?

One more.  A Dwarven Longaxe (DC 18, 500 sp) and a Greatsword (DC 15, 500 sp). Our Master would get a weekly score of 324 for the longaxe and 270 for the Greatsword, so it would take two weeks (648 and 640) to complete each. Again, doesn’t really tell us anything, I think.

So, here’s the question that I’m left with, given a flawed system that seems to work out alright in practice: why are we doing this?  What are we trying to accomplish? LS at Pencils and Papers was actually looking to change the Crafting skill, he said so deep in his first post on Crafting: “If characters are to be able to craft magic items using the crafting system (as is my goal)…”. As-written, D&D3.X/Pathfinder Crafting isn’t intended to create magic items, as those are covered by a Feat and a separate system that (if I recall) requires no roll. By declaring that Craft should allow players to create magical items and then declaring that Crafting is broken because you can’t find a hapy medium where Decent Characters and Focused Characters can co-exist, he’s kind of making his own problem. (Sorry for the slight, LS.)

Crafting in D&D is meant to model, to some rough level of “good enough”, mundane craftsmanship. A first level character with moderate talent and training can master all but the most difficult of crafts – Alchemy has DCs in the 20 to 25 range, but most other items top off at DC 18; a Master craftsman with a few apprentices (or high-quality tools) can Take 10 on a DC 26. I propose that it is mostly a tool for guaging the efficiency of NPC craftsmen – it’s deep enough that it can be applied to PCs because NPCs and PCs exist in the same world and abide by the same mechanics.

I think this comes down to a difference in philosophy: why have a skill in your game system if it’s only really meaningful to NPCs? One of the things like I like about D&D is that, for the most part, it is a complete system. That is, it can model the whole world. Others don’t like this, and there are game systems designed with minimal mechanics, or mechanics that only pertain to PCs, or rely on GM fiat to cover anything that the designers didn’t think was important. And although I think Craft (and other skills) are mainly intended for NPCs, that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful for PCs. It’s unlikely that a Player will have the time or opportunity to forge plate armor while on an adventure, but if the group uses downtime well (and I propose that all groups should use downtime, and use t often) he might have a few months to put some together. Will it be better than the magical gear he can find while adventuring? Probably not, unless the DM decides to fudge things the way LS intends to.  But is it a pointless endeavor? Again, no – it’s cheaper to forge your paladin a new suit of armor (if you have the time and talent) than to buy a new one, and it can be used (if you have the time and talent) to pad your coin purse a bit if you can find an interested buyer. It’s not directly related to dungeon crawling, but I propose that it doesn’t need to be, and it doesn’t even need to be directly related to PCs. The power of the D&D system is it’s completeness.

(As an end note: this isn’t where I expected to be when I started the post, but in investigating the actual application of the Craft rules I don’t think it’s as broken as I thought.  Wonky? Sure. Perfect? No way. But definitely meaningful and workable.)

LS over at Paper and Pencils has been doing some great stuff at re-inspecting Pathfinder, much of which I’m still catching up on.  And seeing as last night was a “no sleep for daddy” night and this morning has been a “coffee weak as water” kind of morning, this probably isn’t the best time for me to try digging in to such a topic.  But I go where the spirit moves me!

Both LS and I agree that D&D/Pathfinder Crafting skills are pretty much useless as-written. We both think there should be a way to re-cast the crafting system so that it still works within the bounds of the Skill System (skill points, roll d20+bonuses against a DC to determine success or failure, etc). But LS and I are working off of a different set of assumptions; he wants to balance Crafting PC-to-PC (focusing on game balance and utility), and I’m interested in balancing PC-to-NPC (focusing on in-world modeling and meaning). I think LS and I had words over this difference of opinion before, but it’s mostly a matter of taste and interpretation.

LS draws up a table comparing a moderately-invested PC (we’ll call him Min) versus a heavily-invested PC (he’ll be Max), level for level. Min has a +2 attribute bonus, has the skill as a Class Skill (+3) and takes a point in the skill every level (+lvl); Max has a +5 in the attribute at level 1, adds to his attribute at every chance (+1 at 8 and 16), takes Skill Focus (+3 at Lvl 1, another +3 at Lvl 10), has the skill as a Class Skill (+3) and takes a point in the skill every level (+lvl). Right off the problem is clear, as Min has a score of 5+Lvl and Max has a score of 11+Lvl at Level 1, 12+Lvl at Level 8, 15+Lvl at Level 10, and 16+Lvl at Level 16. Max starts out essentially double Min’s effectiveness and has several hops in his progression where Min increases linearly. LS concludes that crafting can not be balanced, I conclude that we’re trying to balance the wrong thing.

Based on my assumptions, I think there are three characters to consider when determining how we should treat the skill: the Amature NPC (Al), the Professional NPC (Paul), and the Master NPC (Matt). Like most people in the world, they are all level 1 and do not advance. Al has an average attribute (+0) and no formal training (not a class skill), just what he’s able to pick up by doing (+1 skill point). Paul is talented (+1 attribute) and has been trained (+3 class skill) in addition to applying the skill (+1 skill point).  Matt is truly gifted (+2 attribute) and has been not only trained (+3) but focused on his craft (+3 Skill Focus) in addition to applying the skill (+1).  So we have three flat values that most of the world will conform to: +1 for Al, +4 for Paul, and +9 for Matt. With an assiatant (+2 help) and taking their time (Take 10), they can respectively hit DC 12, DC 16, and DC 21. Reaching beyond their skill (ie, rolling the die) gives them the chance to hit DC 22, DC 26, and DC 31, but risks ruining the whole effort.

Player characters will start out as an amature, professional, or master – possibly with some variation and potentially with much more raw talent (if the GM allows high ability scores). But unlike most of the rest of the world, PCs perform deeds that gain them Experience and raise their level, gradually becoming more than mundane. Higher level NPCs may exist, but just like PCs they are suitably Heroic, Mythic, Legendary, or God-like as well.

Masterwork items should have a DC of 20, so that a talented Master can create them reliably. The entirety of mundane crafting should be achievable within DC 30 or less, noting that these crafts are beyond the normal ability of a Master. Beyond that (and I might even say beyond DC 25) we enter the realm of crafting things that are more than mundane.

LS tosses out this notion, concluding from his treatment of Min and Max that there’s no good way to make the skill useful for Min without being broken by Max if item quality alone determines the DC. But this is because he’s comparing players to players in a competative sense, where as I’m comparing players to the world being modeled with the understanding (or even expectation) that players will quickly outshine all others. (That’s part of the point, isn’t it?) I also think that there’s a component of Skill bonuses that LS is neglecting – yes, it determines maximum range of the feats you’re able to pull off, but it also determines the complications that you can cope with and still be successful. Crafting an item without proper tools, in an unsuitable environment, or clandestinely (such as creating weapons in a jail cell without the guards catching on) might heap on a bunch of penalties, andit would take a suitably talented and skill individual to pull it off.

As-written the Crafting skill uses time, cost, and DC in an interconnected way that leads to non-intuitive results and/or absurd crafting times.  I’d like to address that, probably just by de-coupling the three of them.  But I’ll have to say that for another time.