Posts Tagged ‘game structures’

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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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.

A short little post while I chew on bigger problems.
Unofficial Games has a post up about using a stealth system to help determine the occurrence of Wandering Monster events.  It’s a neat idea and something that I already do in a loose way: ie, if the PCs do something noisy I have the world around them react, and in certain environments that reaction can be guards showing up to see what’s going on.  Zzarchov seems to imply that there’s a more-formal system he’s using that tracks “suspicion” points, and he doesn’t go into details of how the system works (except generally that noisy things generate suspicion and at some point that suspicion becomes an encounter).  It’s not clear if there’s a threshold, or if it works like old Mage: The Ascension Paradox in that the GM can choose to slowly “burn off” suspicion in smaller encounters or let it build up into something Big and Bad.

I think it would be interesting (and it’s again something I implement informally) to use a similar system to track whether the PCs become aware of wandering monsters, whether it’s a sneaking goblin raiding party or a lumbering ogre looking for a meal.  Not sure exactly how you could translate that to this “suspicion points” system — either you’re telling players “he’s gained enough points, you’re suspicious that there’s something just a couple passages away,” or you’re dropping hints each time the creature gains points and waiting for the players to decide they’re suspicious enough to check it out (“an innocuous sound?  The GM said it, it must be important!”).

(Except When It Does)

So a little bit ago I listed a few topics I was planning on addressing when life gave me a break.  Instead of giving me a break I got a nasty head cold which has killed my productivity.  I’ve taken that as a sign from The Universe that “this ain’t going to get easy anytime soon,” so I’ll just have to press on.

At the end of that list (which wasn’t written in any particular order) was a statement about how more and more I’m of the opinion that, in role-playing, the system doesn’t matter.  I waffled on that a little bit — after all, if system doesn’t matter then why do we have D&D and GURPS and Savage Worlds and World of Darkness and RIFTS and ad nausiem — but I think I’ve come back around and decided that System Doesn’t Matter (Except When It Does).  Let me see if I can explain myself in a meaningful way. (more…)

I’ve got a few different irons in the fire right now, maybe a half-dozen half-started posts.  Real Life — the stuff I do between thinking about and playing RPGs — has been more intense than usual lately, and that’s put a real drain on my energy.  So we end up with half-posts like this.

Some things I’ve been thinking about:

  • Initiative, and the flow of combat in general, is kind of wonky in most games.  I want a system that rewards a character for a high Initiative bonus as well as rewarding characters for a high Initiative score.  Some games do one or the other, but I’m not sure anyone does both. (Dr. Gentleman has a series of posts about combat that may cover some similar ground, or not; I haven’t read them yet.)
  • I want to get back to thinking about Hit Points in D&D 3.X; my first post was really just a preliminary introduction, and I haven’t gotten around to the real meat of hit points.
  • I don’t like the way Magic is split in D&D, or the way Class Spell Lists are broken up; but I haven’t thought hard enough about it yet to be sure that changing it won’t make ever caster just a Wizard with a funny(er) hat.
  • I’m intrigued by what I’m hearing about running RPGs through Google+ — my first gaming group (my brothers) is spread out over several states now, and the potential for running a game with them again is very attractive.  I may finally get a chance to play RIFTS.
  • More and more (and more) I get the feeling that system doesn’t matter, because the core of role-playing is making choices, and mechanics are just ways to arbitrate consequences.  A system is necessary, but does it really matter what system?  It seems lots of people answer that with an emphatic “yes!” and I need to do more research on that. Minutes after writing this I already feel the lie in it; I have to confess that system does matter, but I haven’t unpacked that concept enough to say how, when, or why it matters — that’s what I want to do research to understand.

Once life lets up on me a bit, I plan to address some or all of those thoughts.

Each month the folks from the RPG Blogger Network organize an RPG Blogger Carnival, where a bunch of bloggers all tackle the same question or topic.  This month Game Knight Review is hosting, and the question is “what’s in your backpack?”  The Gassy Gnoll kept the question pretty open — your real world backpack, you’re in-game backpack, whatever — so since this blog is supposed to be about GM tools and game structures I thought I might whip something up about what’s in my “backpack” for running a campaign.

I strongly feel like the most important piece of gear is a hex-map; this may be less true if you’re running a game that takes place entirely inside a megadungeon, or if overland travel is specifically unimportant and hand-waved (as might be the case in any reasonably-civilized setting), but hex maps seem to have been a key component of the game originally and it’s the biggest “missing piece” in modern games if you ask me.  Lots of people have lots of ideas about what makes a good hex map, but I’m going to go ahead and say that it should consist of 6-mile hexes (this makes some of the math a bit easier) and have a moderate-to-high amount of keyed locations (something between 80% and 100% coverage).  These keyed locations can be used to mark settlements, monster lairs, dungeons, etc and can be used to inform “random encounters.” (The Alexandrian has a long-running series discussing his complete hex-crawl system.)

The second bit of gear should be a random encounter mechanism, and you should have one whether the party is in a dungeon, in the wilderness, or even in a city (though that last might be a bit of a stretch). Random encounters give your world a sense of being “alive” and functioning even when the PCs aren’t around.  There are lots of ways to do this; I haven’t had time to use them to great extent, but my favorites are probably the one-page encounters method or more standard, region-based tables.  I think it’s important to note that these don’t all have to be combat encounters (I’d argue they shouldn’t all be combat) but one of the tings that random encounters ward against is the 15-minute work day (because going nova on an early encounter leaves you vulnerable to a random encounter later, and being vulnerable could mean death).

The last piece that I think is essential (and Gygax agrees with me, apparently) is a solid notion of time. Modern games still keep time during combat, and in general people keep track of days (at least in vague terms of night and day), but without the right granularity of time it becomes difficult to keep track of what might be going on “off-screen” and how long it takes your players to accomplish certain tasks — it’s possible that you can get by without a solid notion of time, just as characters can probably get by without flint and tinder, but I think you’re making it harder on yourself.  For me, I use the following:

1 Combat Round = 6 Seconds
10 Combat Rounds = 1 minute
1 simple non-combat action = 1 minute
10 minutes = 1 turn
6 turns = 1 hour
4 hours = 1 watch
6 watches = 1 day
7 days = 1 week
4 weeks = 1 month
13 months = 1 year

Most other tools I’ve found to be essential so far tend to come standard with modern games: things like a combat system, a notion of healing and damage, systems for skill-based action resolution.  A mechanism for adding or tracking weather in your world can add flavor, too; Gnome Stew has a system based on a Dragon article that’s “good enough for fantasy.” I’d recommend finding a system for NPC morale, but I haven’t gotten around to finding a good one yet. And I think there’s a lot to be said in favor of published modules, especially encapsulated ones that can be plopped into any campaign, either for filling out your hex key or presenting to your players when you’ve had a bad week for prep.

What do you think?  Anything I’m still missing from my pack?

So I’ve been trying (and mostly failing) to prepare for a quick little hex-crawl game to run with my wife.  A big problem for me is, apparently, “information architecture” or “how do I know what I know?”  I thought I’d use some space here to talk about what my plans are, structurally.

I’m planning on using a six mile hex as the basis of my map, and I’ll plot geography based on Welsh Piper’s guidelines (though it’s a bit of a kludge since I’m not using their Atlas Hex, template for now).  The bulk of my hexcrawl system I’m going to be taking from The Alexandrian (though it seems to have stalled after the 7th entry); I’m planning on keeping the hex structure invisible to my players, and Justin has a good system for tracking progress over the grid, getting lost and getting found, sight lines, encounters and encounter distance, and so on.  I’ll be keying each hex to a ‘default location,’ and then building up encounter tables. (Of course, on a 180mi by 180mi map, that’s 800 to 900 unique locations to key…)    Justin hasn’t given us an example of his tables yet, and I may use some combination of the one-page encounters, multi-table encounters, and hand-keyed encounters I’ve mentioned before.

I’m using the time structure I mentioned before (with simple actions taking a minute and longer actions taking a turn, when it matters to track them). I’m going to have 4-week month (aligned with the cycle of the moon), 13 months in a year (for 364 days total).

I’m putting together a year of weather per Gnome Stew’s suggestion, and may be incorporating other systems from Dragon 137 and the Wilderness Survival Guide (both of which I’ve recently purchased).  I’ll probably use a tracking sheet not unlike the one that inspired Gnome Stew.

I feel like I’m still missing some structures that I need to account for, and this doesn’t get into the real meat of the setting (ie, the city-states and societies that will be the focus of the crawl).