Thursday, February 28, 2013

New Year, New Games - February Report

So, let's just say that February being a terribly short month (by a whole two to three days!), I didn't get in as much gaming as I'd like to have. Sure, let's go with that. The truth is, weather and people's families and some illnesses and poor communication killed some of the gaming that I was planning on getting in this month. Here's what I've been up to in February:

Lots of DCC

Because DCC is badass. The Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad game keeps getting bigger, weirder and more fun. Just this last week, the number of folks looking to join in the game has swelled to the point where we've decided that we need to run a brand new funnel just to get these guys stables of PCs. One of the big developments in MGoUH is that we've finally gotten to the point where, if the players play all the PCs they've got, we'll have 24+ PCs eviscerating dungeons and trivializing encounters that makes +Edgar Johnson and I have to design deadlier and deadlier encounters just to thin out the ranks of PCs. Which of course creates a vicious cycle of the players then making new 0s, levelling them up so that we have to go through the whole process of killing off PCs all over again. Plus, I'm not keen on having to design killer encounters; it can be fun, but trying to write situations in which the players will fail just doesn't sit right.

So, +Edgar Johnson came up with a solution. Instead of designing non-funnel adventures for everything the players can throw at them, we're designing them the old school way, by designing adventures for a finite number of PCs. Whoever shows up builds the team for the night based on the needs of the adventure and we're good to go. We tried this model last Thursday when Edgar wasn't able to run (but was able to play!), so I did. I told the guys to pick one of their 1st level PCs to bring, as well as an alternate in case the party wasn't what they'd expected; turns out, we had just enough players that each got to play both characters, which was nice. I ran Brave Halfling's The Vile Worm and was really pleased with the module. It's short, to the point, and just enough story to be done with in a night. I don't want this post to turn into Brave Halfling fanboyism, but the stuff this company produces is just fucking fantastic. One of the neatest things about the module was a section of core features of the module so the Judge didn't miss any of them in the process of running the adventure which is sort of a "duh! why didn't I think of that?" idea. Anyway, the module was terribly well-written and provided an awesome challenge, even for Metal Gods players (although I did need to beef up the first encounter a bit). This week, we're back to running the Mysterious Temple of the Serpent God since Edgar's back in the driver's seat and I'm preparing a fresh funnel adventure to send a slew of brand new 0s to their doom or glory.

The Game of Taps hiatus continues, but is close to abating. I'm partnering with Mr. +Jonathon Repholz to start up a game night at the Tap Room in fabulous downtown Ypsilanti every Monday night, which coincides nicely with my old Game of Taps schedule. Basically, the idea is that every Monday night, folks who want to play table top games of all sorts show up and do so; for my part, I'll be running DCC every other Monday, resurrecting ye olde Game of Taps. I'm pretty excited about the idea of getting a bunch of the folks who helped reboot my interest in old school-yness together in one place for games (and possibly DCC), since they're the guys who put together Ypsi's last successful string of game nights over at the Corner Brewery. The Tap Room, though, stays open later and has more (and quieter) space with drink specials that don't cost in the "arms and legs" price range. For the reboot of the Game of Taps, I'm planning on running a funnel conversion of B4: The Lost City, allowing the players from the original GoT to opt to bring 1 of their level 1 characters to bring (alongside 2 new 0s); this plan ensures the longevity of the legacy of the Shoveller! Plus, I'll get to play some kickass board games. Fuck yeah! We'd be getting started on this plan this coming Monday if Jonathon and I weren't going skiing this weekend and not coming back until Tuesday.

Shadowrun

So, apparently, this is the year of Shadowrun. That's cool. Except that there's a new edition on the way and we're just getting started with SR4e. So, one has to wonder about the wisdom of investing heavily in a system that is about to be killed. That's all beside the point, however. This is the year of Shadowrun, and my group is getting in on the action. Mr. +Matt Woodard, who ran a terribly successful Savage Worlds one-shot in January, decided to start up a SR4e campaign, so I eagerly helped convince everyone else how awesome the idea would be. I'd be lying if I said that I'm a big SR fan, but I'm excited to (a) get to play with anuy regularity and (b) play in a style that I don't often get to. Most of my gaming these days is of the "badass dungeon crusher" variety, so "badass skullduggery crew" rp is a nice change of pace. And so, this past Sunday, the Sunday night crew set out to come up with some ideas of what our team of criminals would look like. I'm more than a little afraid of designing characters in SR4e (omg point buy madness!), so luckily Matt will be doing much of the designing for us. However, I'm kind of turned off by a system whose character creation system is so complex that the GM has to do it for you. I mean really, you can expect a certain amount of player buy in (to rules and setting), but the amount required by SR4e just seems ridiculous. So, I'll gladly let Matt build my dwarven trucker (rigger, really) as well as the rest of the group (obviously heavily guided by our crazy character concepts). And so, completely unbound by any regard for the rules whatsoever, the group sat down to come up with some ideas for fun and unique criminals.

Other Stuff

So, I never ended up getting a BLUEHOLME game going, which makes me sad. Once our Monday night games night at the bar (I'm thinking of calling it "Games on Tap;" how's that sound?), all of my wife's work nights will be filled with gaming, so I can't really add more gaming. There's always a chance that one of the old schoolers who'll probably show up to the Tap Room game night might start up a game on the non-DCC nights (which would be awesome), so that's a prospect. The ACKS game on Wednesday nights is still going strong (and has been awesome; I'm really digging the ACKS system) and has really helped me buy in to the BX gaming aesthetic. That having been said, I've started to get excited about BX gaming, just like I got excited about Holmes right about the time I got into BLUEHOLME. Further, my copy of the Edge of the Empire Basic box finally showed up, which is a really cool system and I'd love to find an opportunity to run it. I'd do it online if it weren't for the funky dice (I can't find a way to do the funky dice inside of a hangout yet). Oh, and I finally read DUNGEON WORLD. While I'm not super-excited about it, I think that there are a lot of things that can be stolen from it, which I'm sort of excited about. I'm actually really surprised by the amount of backlash against the system. Why is it when a system includes no mention of RP in the rules, people assume that the game has no RP content (D&D 4e), but if a system actually includes rules that quantify aspects of RP (even if it's just rewards for RP), then we decry it for telling us how to play? Sure, the list of names is dumb, but that's not really important to the game, is it? To be honest, when I first read through Dungeon World, my reaction wasn't "this game is awesome and I want to play it now," it was "this rule is awesome and I'm totally going to steal it."

Well, that's it for February. Let's see what awesome new games March brings!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Let's Talk About Bond, Part II: Live And Let Dice

So, I realized that I missed an opportunity with the name of this post series. It should have been "What About Bond?" I figure as long as I'm naming my posts after movies, why not go all in? Well, it's too late now.

So now that you know a thing or two about James Bond 007: Role Playing In Her Majesty's Secret Service, let's talk a bit about using Bond-like idioms (which tend toward a solo experience) in modern RPG environments (which tend strongly toward group play, duh).

Some Men With Golden Guns

One of the neatest things about the 007 RPG is that there's a built in sense of scalability. Ostensibly, each adventure (since they're based on the 007 movies) could be played through by a single 00-level (that's the highest of the three echelons of PC skill; it goes rookie, agent and 00 agent); as such, most modules will include solo play options. However, that's not how most of us play RPGs. Most of us get a group of friends (not just one other dude) together to play our games with. By the same token, if you're playing the 007 RPG with a bunch of folks, chances are, you're not all playing 00 agents. In fact, if any of you are playing 00 agents, then that one character will probably end up being the central figure of the campaign which is fun if you're that player, but can be crazy boring if you're anyone else in the party. And so, if you have a few friends around ye olde gaming table, then you'll be playing agents, but if you have a bunch of folks, then you're likely to be running rookies.

Somehow, this book isn't
completely and totally awesome
So, if you're writing adventures based on movies you have two challenges: (1) how to you make the adventure sufficiently different from the movie it's based on that players who've seen it won't "spoil the ending" but keep it thematically linked enough to the source material that it can still said to be the same story and (2) how do you tell a story intended for a cast of one with a cast of up to six? The answer to both questions is to change the basic assumptions of the adventures. If we, say, watch the movie of For Your Eyes Only and then read the adventure, we see that the same story is handled drastically differently in either work, yet it's still the same story. Instead of Bond sneaking onto Gonzales's Spanish estate to find out who hired the assassin (in the movie), the agents track Gonzales to a lavish party being thrown by Kristatos in Italy (where each agent has an opportunity to engage in his or her specialization) where they must then solve the mystery of who crossbowed him in the throat. Further, the module doesn't try to tell you "this happens, then this happens" but rather give the GM a potential series of events more like a flow chart which is merely a suggestion. It becomes less "this then this" and more "if you players do this, think about adding this other thing... or not." Very DIY, but a guided DIY that does a really good job of giving you the reasons why it's guided. Where it could very easily fall into what I'd consider the Dragonlance trap, the 007 RPG does a great job of instead emphasizing player decisions and giving the GM ammunition for different ways that the PCs can accomplish the same thing based on how they decide to do it.

In My Eyes Only

So, given what I've said this (and last) time about the strengths of the 007 RPG and what I said last time about the weaknesses of it (curse you, ridiculously convoluted percentile dice systems!), and how much I've been thinking about James Bond lately, I'll obviously have more than a few opinions about how I'd want to run a James Bond-esque game today. The biggest strength of the system, using solo plots for multiple characters by stripping out any and all forced plot points, isn't even a mechanical one, so I think we're in great shape to be able to adapt 007 to new and exciting (and non-table-based) modern RPG systems. In my eyes (perhaps only), the top contenders are FATE Core and GUMSHOE.

Unless you've been living under an RPG rock for the last six months, you've heard of FATE Core. I, like thousands of other gamers out there, backed its recent Kickstarter and now hungrily await the launch of the game proper. I think that FATE is a great candidate for a new 007 RPG because of its exceptionally simple method of taking brief descriptions of things and turning them into direct game effects (FATE calls these Aspects, which can be good or bad, but most float somewhere between and can even pull double duty). For the 007 version of FATE, you might have to introduce some new traits (maybe a new type of strain for action hero-y things, another for seduction-y things, etc.) and new systems (you'd really need a detailed look at narrating a chase scene since there's one in every fucking Bond movie) and probably a slew of new extras (Q branch, old chap), but FATE could quickly and easily adapt to 007 and you could probably do it on the fly based on everyone's shared knowledge of (a) the world and (b) the genre. The fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants nature of FATE and creating a FATE game (which seems largely to work on a consensus basis) fit the idea of the 007 world as I see it, and so, for me, FATE is a strong front-runner for "best game system to use to approximate the world of 007." But wait, there is another contender.

If you haven't heard of the GUMSHOE system, then you just haven't lived. Which is nothing like true. It does, however, mean that you haven't read Trail of Cthulhu and that, my friends, is a crying shame. The system is a great, story and choice driven engine that assumes that, say, your players are just going to find the clue that gets them from point A to point B, they just have to tell you how they go about getting there, whereas other systems might leavoe that sort of thing up to chance (like a perception skill check or something). Similarly, GUMSHOE doesn't require nearly as many task resolution rolls as other games, instead using a bidding system where you "buy" automatic successes by simply (temporarily) "spending" a point from a relevant skill. Nice and simple and straightforward. Dice rolls do become important, of course, when something you try becomes resisted by someone (or something, as is often the case in Cthulhu scenarios) else. I like the concept behind this system and it seems to work exceptionally well for working with some of the original 007 RPG's more old school concepts, particularly those relating to modules and such. It seems a little more "hard game-y" than FATE despite it's distinctly new school story game cred. Further, it seems to me that the Night's Black Agents version of the GUMSHOE system (in which the PCs are spies, black ops teams and other secret agents and not supernatural investigators) might just need minor tweaking (such as taking out all the vampires) to handle 007 stuff more accurately. I'd use GUMSHOE if I were looking at the game as more of a conversion of 007 and less of a rewrite, even if Pelgrane Press's logo creeps me out. It looks too much like the female reproductive system (not that there's anything wrong with the female reproductive system, which is kind of essential) to put on the cover of a book that isn't about the female reproductive system.

It's at this point that I'd like to say that I have not forgotten about or ignored Agents of SWING. I am not one of those folks who hates on James Desborough, believing he eats babies or molests goats or any of that other crap that he gets accused of on RPG.net. No, I just don't own Agents of SWING yet. Look folks, there are only so many RPGs in the budget right now, okay? I'm not made out of money and can't afford to buy every RPG that crosses my path. I'm really interested in this one, but it's going to have to be on the back burner for awhile since there's lots of other games vying for my attention. Agents of SWING just might be ideal for running 007 games, but my judgment will have to wait until the funds can support the purchase.

From Corellia With Love

During all of my thinking about James Bond and what I'd want in an ideal espionage game and how I love the old 007 RPG just not its cumbersome rules, I thought back to a conversation I'd had with +Brian Takle a few months back where he said that he'd spent some time sorting out a rules set for a spy game, had come up with some stuff that he really liked, but then realized that it was a game he had no interest in running. This memory made me ask myself "do I have any interest in running a 007 game?" The answer I had, much like Brian, ends up being "no." I just don't feel like I can keep up my own interest level or that of my players, were I to attempt to run a James Bond-like game in a James Bond-like universe with James Bond-like characters. Rather than stop there (because I have no brakes on this thought train), I proceeded to ask myself "in what universe and in what game and with what characters would I be interested in running a James Bond-like story?"

In other words, what setting do I know well enough to be able to use the strengths of Victory Games's "spy stories for groups" innovations, allowing player choice and agency to take the front seat and allowing me to adapt instantly to any of the OFF DA RAILZ crap that players will invariably invent? What characters interest me (and most of my players and potential players) enough that they'd have their interest held while cycling through different characters getting spotlight time to tell a cooperative story about subtlety and subterfuge? My immediate answer for both of these questions is the same: fucking Star Wars.

I'm not going to bore you with some lame story that you've probably heard before (and maybe even given) about how special Star Wars is to me, about how I was born the year it came out, about how it was the first movie that I saw and that I "saw" it the weekend it was released despite being an embryo at the time (maybe a fetus, I don't know the stages of fetal development that well; perhaps I need that book that Pelgrane Press's logo looks like the cover of after all), and all that crap that is true but you're sick of reading. I'll also ignore the irony of the last sentence and hope that you do, too.

So, I've been spending a lot of time lately not just with Commander Bond, but also with the new Edge of the Empire Star Wars RPG from Fantasy Flight Games. My copy of the basic box finally showed up about two weeks ago and I've torn that damn thing apart (which is easy because the box itself SUCKS, but that's a discussion of materials not the game itself). I'm always critical of Star Wars games because I feel very much like West End Games set the bar really high back in the 80's & 90's and that it's very hard to meet up to the standard that they set. I tend to think that Wizard of the Coast largely dropped the ball on their early versions of the d20 Star Wars system but came close to the mark with the Saga Edition; I largely think that "class & level" is absolute shit for the Star Wars universe, but Saga was the least intrusive (and most logical) of the d20 "class & level" systems that WotC tried to bolt on to Star Wars, so while I'm not really excited by it, at least it wasn't completely offensive (I'm looking at you, RCR!).

Back to EotE. I really dig the system, but that's for another time. I'll probably do a Stupid Dice Tricks post about the dice involved because, well, that's sort of my thing. In short, I think that EotE could handle the espionage mechanics required by a 007 game in an inspired fashion, it doesn't get bogged down (or at least apparently doesn't; I haven't test driven the rules yet) by wonky rules and happens in a universe (and era of that universe) with which I'm intimately familiar and inspired by. As I've said before, I spent the bulk of the 90's running WEG's d6 Star Wars (well, that and WoD stuff; sorry, Self-Respect, but I can't deny the truth) and back then I developed an abiding aptitude for just making Star Wars related shit up like mad and particularly cleaving closely to what I felt (and still feel) was the aesthetic of the original trilogy. And really, to make Bond-like stuff work in the Star Wars universe, not too many changes need to be made. Instead of the Soviet Union, you use the Empire. Instead of SPECTRE, you use Black Sun or the Hutt cartels. Instead of Neo Nazi megalomaniacs (View to a Kill), you use hold overs from the Clone Wars or even rogue Inquisitors or some such nonsense. Instead of the gambling houses of Macau, Monaco or Las Vegas, you use those of Cloud City, Nar Shaddaa and Mos Eisley. Chase scenes happen on speeder bikes instead of motorcycles, a YT-1300 instead of an Aston-Martin and cloud cars instead of speed boats. Shadowy secret agents might work for the Hutts, the Vigos or Prophets of the Dark Side, the Empire proper or even the Rebel Alliance. And then you've got corporate espionage on top of all that... so much for an enterprising fringer to do, so little time. Gadgets? We've got gadgets! And stranger stuff than even Q branch could come up with, rolling off the assembly lines of the Roche Asteroid Belt and Sluis Van. Your basic "scum and villainy" campaign in Star Wars is halfway to 007 already, so why not push it that extra mile?

There's nothing wrong with running a 007 game, even just running it for the sake of running a 007 game. For me, I don't know if I could ever dig deep into Victory Games's dense rules and make the thing work as written; I'd have to use another system like FATE Core or GUMSHOE and bolt the Bond-ness onto it. However, I'm afraid that the game I'd end up with isn't one I'd want to play or run. In the end, I think it makes far more sense for me to take the things I love from VG's classic RPG and import those into a game and game world that I have a personal investment in and in which I can tell 007 stories naturally and with impunity. For me, 007 belongs firmly fixed in the stars, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Let's Talk About Bond, Part I: The Rules Are Not Enough

By now, my wife is a little fed up with James Bond. It's not that she's an anti-fan or something, just that she doesn't particularly care for Bond films. One of the most amazing things she's ever said to me is:

"I like the movies and all, but it's not like it's important. Not like Star Wars or Star Trek. I mean, those are important. I can watch James Bond, but I'm not going to think about it."

This sort of logic explains why I love my wife, but I've got to disagree with her on the Bond front.

So anyway, as I mentioned yesterday, I've been reading through a lot of old White Dwarf magazines lately. A lot of them. I actually took my time reading through the first 100 or so issues and spent a lot of time thinking about what I read there. One of the most inspiring things I saw there was an ad for a game that I remember terribly fondly: James Bond 007: Role Playing In Her Majesty's Secret Service. Ever since then, I've been on a bit of a Bond kick, my wife's exposure to which led to the amazing quote above. It also led to me spending an awful lot of time thinking about James Bond, watching James Bond films and even to me buying a copy of the RPG off of eBay (which I thankfully got terribly, terribly cheap). My James Bond ideas and thought experiments have been percolating for about a month now, and just the other day, I realized what it was all for, what I can take from it and where James Bond and the fantastic RPG that was built around him can take me and my games.

Role Playing In Her Majesty's Secret Service

Before I write anything further, I'm going to confess, in proper fashion, that I have never actually read a Bond novel. I have no idea how Ian Flemming meant for the character to be portrayed or anything about Bond beyond that which shows up on film or in the RPG. There, now that we've git that out of the way, let's get down to brass tacks.

For the uninitiated, James Bond 007: Role Playing In Her Majesty's Secret Service is the best-known and best-regarded role playing game released by Victory Games, an off-shoot of Avalon Hill games spawned in order to help AH cash in on the RPG market (more than a little too late). Yes, I know about Powers & Perils. This ain't about that. So, in 1983, Victory Games came out with the James Bond RPG and marketed the hell out of it. Big splashy comic-esque ads in all the gaming (and some non-gaming iirc) mags. At the time TSR had come out with its own espionage RPG three years earlier in 1980, so James Bond really needed to knock it out of the park in order to anchor AH and Victory Games as key players in the RPG market. The strange thing is, AH/VG did knock it out of the park but failed completely at the anchoring itself part.

There is a school of thought that states that game system doesn't matter and if you've got the right system (usually a stripped down system that allows lots of flexibility), it can be right. A good DM can make any game happen in (most) any system as long as he does it right. Sure. That's awesome. But there's also something to be said for systems that encourage the sorts of behavior that the RPGs genre tend to thrive on. A lot of folks, for example, like to say that there's no role playing in 4e D&D, and this misperception (in my opinion) stems largely from the fact that the rules don't ever talk about role playing but talk an awful lot about how to kill things; thus, 4e games often skew away from the story and rp stuff and toward face-smashery. By the same token, if you're making a game that's designed to emulate James Bond movies, it makes sense to include rules for the things that James Bond does in order to encourage those things happening. The 007 RPG, as a result, includes rules not just for combat and skills, but also for chases (foot, car, plane & boat), interrogation, gambling and seduction. Obviously, if there are rules that tell me how to go around seducing enemy agents and potential assets, then the rules want me to go around seducing enemy agents and potential assets. This is the solid foundation upon which the 007 RPG was built.

Rules Wonkery

The down side to having rules that cover all the awesome James Bond-ly stuff is that those rules have to be good. And for their day, these rules were good. They used tried-and-true mechanisms of their day to do things that weren't terribly common at the time using the sorts of logic that designers were really enjoying designing back then.

The Good: The system used a consistent mechanic across all actions without any of the "use these rules for this, those rules for that" that still plague game design today. You needed to know one rule and one rule only. Well, one rules mechanic. And how to read a table (see The Bad, below). The other really neat thing about the game is that it uses the early "degrees of success" system (sort of like the color coded one that TSR would use in the same year for their seminal FASERIP Marvel Super Heroes RPG) that helped players and GMs interpret the results of skill rolls to provide for properly Bond moments (such as when your spy barely succeeds at the cunning plan you've concocted).

The Bad: First off, it's percentile dice. Which almost always means "roll low" which, to me, means that it's counter-intuitive. You'll notice that this is a theme with me. The second glaringly huge problem is the table system that I mentioned above. It's not just one table, it's two. You first need to know which difficulty class you're facing, then you cross-reference with your skill/ability. Only then do you roll (and roll low, remember) and after you roll, you compare your result to the degree of success (or failure) chart and then go from there. Oh, and your stats? The only thing that they do for you is to tell you which line to look at on the first chart I mentioned and they have no mathematical significance to any rules or rolls beyond that. So... yeah. Stats just sort of describe a line on a table in an ordinal fashion, rather than describing any mechanical benefit associated with them. Awkward...

I'm going to leave it there for now. Next time, I'll get into what I think the 007 RPG does well, how it manages to pull off a solo-cast movie in an ensemble-cast game, how I'd write the game today and what James Bond has inspired in my own gaming. James Bond will return in "Let's Talk About Bond, Part II: Live And Let Dice."

Monday, February 25, 2013

Fiends from the Folio: FF Rejects

Can you believe how long it's been since I've done a "Fiends from the Folio" post? It's been since September since I've converted any monsters from that venerable tome -- my personal benchmark for monster awesomeness -- so I figured that what with this being Monster Monday, it's time for more FF-style monstrosities. But wait! I've been spending far too much time lately reading old issues of White Dwarf (and by old, I mean old). It dawned on me that it might be much more interesting to convert some of the monsters from the Fiend Factory column that never quite made it to the Folio. And so, I give you some of the stranger monsters that Don Turnbull decided were too weird even for the Fiend Folio.

Stinwichodech

Black blots upon reality warped by the most fiendish influences of Chaos itself, stinwhichodechs eke out a sparse existence in improbable places where only the most desperate beings without recourse to home or succor might dwell. In badlands, barrens, salt flats and frozen wastes, stinwichodechs are universally reviled by all other creatures who live there, even other servants of Chaos. Eight feet tall humanoids of stooped posture and covered in thick, close-cropped hair, they possess bug-eyed, frog-like heads sporting long, nearly prehensile tongues. Pitiable creatures to look upon, and barely possessed of enough intellect to survive, some consider it a kindness to slay these warped monstrosities, and indeed, those who slay them appear to be smiled upon by all the gods, even those of Chaos.

Stinwichodech

Init +1; Atk claw melee +2 (1d4 each) and tongue melee reach +4 (1d4 + 1d6 Luck damage); AC 13; HD 3d8 (13 hp); MV 20'; Act 3d20 (2 claws, 1 tongue); SP Luck damage (from tongue), Luck bounty (see below); Fort +4, Ref +2, Will +0; AL C.

The long, weaponized tongue of the stinwichodech unhinges its victims from reality with each slash, not merely doing 1d4 points of physical damage, but also 1d6 points of Luck damage. This Luck damage heals normally, but so long as it persists, the victim is reviled by any common folk who behold him; he appears to them to be more than a little "off" (due to his fragmentation from the universe) and acquires a -2d* penalty to Personality-based skill checks when dealing with superstitious people. Any and all of this Luck damage is repaired upon killing a stinwichodech. Further, the slayer (and only the slayer, not everyone who contributed to the kill) receives a bounty from the gods in the form of a permanent +1 to his Luck score, though he may only benefit from this bonus once per month.

Okay, I'll admit it. I didn't just convert this guy. I completely rewrote him. Originally, the stinwichodech's tongue attack, when it initially hit, added 1d6 to a random ability score, but its next hit did 1d6 damage to that same ability score. Apparently, back in the day, this led to people rotating front liners to gain the bonus to a random score while whittling these guys away. That just didn't sound like fun to me. It seemed like more fun if they stay a threat throughout the combat (and not just on round 2), but also that there's some reward for defeating them.

*Reduce the die type on these rolls by two steps. From a d20 to a d14, for example, or a d10 to a d7. 

Stair Stalker

There are strange monsters abroad in the world. There are monsters with heads not unlike giant nuts that haunt kitchen pantries in search of the puddings for which they crave. There are monsters who live only between the hours 3 and 5 in the afternoon, summoned forth from the ether and dimensions beyond man's reckoning by the aroma of steeping tea, floating like jellyfish in the air above teapots, stinging the carriers of tea services and the eaters of scones with poisonous tentacles unless anachronistic nursery rhymes are recited backwards. There are stranger monsters than even these and then there is the stair stalker.

This bizarre humanoid covered in shaggy green hair seems to spend the entirety of its life cycle only on staircases. Some suspect that staircases themselves call to these insane creatures across an unimaginable gulf of time and space and that they work great magics to come to bring these creatures across boundaries separating realities so that the staircases might always have someone to tread up and down their lonely steps. Others claim that, despite the stair stalker's clearly physical existence and ability to die, it is the ultimate reward for the souls of some degenerate race of stair-worshipers from some unknown, less-sophisticated dimension that has yet to discover how to get to the second story of a house. Still others claim that the stair stalker is the remnant of some poor wizard or elf whose delves into the arcane arts have left him irrevocably corrupted and mindless. Regardless, the stair stalker lives purely to ascend and descend stairs, never attacking except in self-defense, if someone tries to stop in its incessant ascent or descent, or if someone tries to push past it, say on a particularly narrow set of steps.

Stair Stalker

Init +0; Atk shaggy claw +2 melee (1d6); AC 19 (hair of steel!); HD 3d8+1 (14); MV 25'; Act 2d20 (claws); Fort +4, Ref +1, Will +1; AL N.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Stupid Dice Tricks: The Return Of Central Tendency

It's funky dice Friday, which means it's time for more dice math!

Last time I visited the concept of central tendency, I spent some time talking about why we using it for some things (like rolling ability scores) and not others (like to-hit rolls). Just to reiterate what we talked about back then, rolling multiple dice to achieve a single result creates a strong tendency toward the mean result (the average) since that number can be made out of more combinations of dice results; we use this sort of roll for things like ability scores because they're most likely to be middling scores, but have at least some chance of being extraordinary (good or bad). The other side of the same coin is that when you roll a single die, every face is equally likely as the others, so for situations where we want a simplified randomized result where the probabilities are easy to intuit, such as in a success/failure sort of situation (like to-hit rolls), single-die rolls (like a d20) make for a very simple way to generate a result with very little (and easily intelligible) math.

So, after that last post, it's a virtual certainty that someone is going to come along and mention that some game systems use multiple-dice, central tendency-influenced resolution systems. GURPS, for example, uses 3d6 for rolls and the venerable Tunnels & Trolls uses handfuls of d6s at a time. Some folks have suggested to me using a 2d10 resolution system for attack rolls in D&D-like or -inspired games. Hell even the 4dF dice pool of FATE is an example.

The problem with using multiple dice for task resolution is that you have to account for central tendency.

Since most resolution systems employ a "target number or higher" success standard, the probability of rolling any target number (or better) gets lower and lower the further away you get from the range's mean, but not in a linear fashion (for most distributions at least). If success on a 2d6 roll required an 11 or 12, this would be far less likely than for any other 2 number pair within the range (except for 2 & 3); there'd be a higher chance, for example, of rolling a 7 or 8 than an 11 or 12. So how do we determine success or failure in an environment like this?

Answer One: Mean Plus One

Fig 1: Likelihood of rolling the mean or better
Here's a thought: in a system where you are more concerned with a degree of success rather than just a binary pass/fail result, what if we aim close to the mean of the expression's range, then aim just a little higher? The chart here (how cool is it that I made a chart?) demonstrates the probabilities of rolling the mean result or higher for any particular dice expression. For a 2d8 roll, for example, you have  a 56.25% of rolling the mean result of 9 or better. That's pretty good odds. Here's the thing, though: most resolution systems will have some sort of influence from character abilities (ability scores, skill ranks, talent points, whatever), so you're likely to be getting +1s or +2s to that 2d8 pretty early on, which skews the "target number" probability.

The Moongoose version of Traveller (and possibly other versions of Traveller; I'll be honest, I'm still a newbie on the Traveller front) uses a 2d6 roll for everything, counting a success as anything higher than an 8. If an adjustment for something being harder or easier is needed, it's made not to the target number, but rather to the dice roll (six of one, half dozen of the other, really) and success or failure beyond pass & fail is determined by the distance of the result from 8. The mean of the 2d6 distribution is 7 (58.33% of this or better on 2d6), but they chose 8. Why?

Fig 2: Likelihood of rolling the mean +1 or better
They chose the number 8 precisely because it's not the mean of the distribution, but damn close to it. You're 41.64% likely to roll an 8 or higher. Those are pretty good odds, right? Particularly in a system with relatively low skill modifiers. The idea behind this decision is that an untrained person has a 41.64% chance of success in a normal environment, whereas someone with training is rewarded for it with significantly higher chances of success and with a greater impact when those successes occur. Furthermore, a positive modifier to this roll from skill will represent an improved ability to cope with adversity (negative dice modifiers).

This strategy (which I'll call "Mean Plus One") does a very good job of providing a simple standard of success that works very well with a "degree of success" mechanic. For all you folks who love the "no and," "no but," "yes but," "yes and" sorts of success logic, the Mean Plus One mechanic will work really well for you. For folks who insist on rolling odd numbers of dice, however, it will not be as successful as those rolling even numbers. This is due to the fact that odd numbers of dice produce means that are halfway between numbers (like 10.5 in a 3d6 distribution), so the Mean Plus One ends up actually being Mean Plus One And A Half.

Answer Two: The Mean As Hump

Some folks out there like "roll under" systems. I can dig that, even if it seems counter intuitive to me (dice are for rolling HIGH damnit!), and here's why: in these systems, the mean acts as a benchmark for when you become 50% (or more) likely to accomplish the thing.

Colonial Gothic, a game which I've only recently picked up (since the Second Edition came out), uses a very simple "roll 2d12 low" number, using as the target a number equal to the ranks in the skill being used plus the relevant ability score (with adjustments). Thus, since we're trying to roll that target number or lower, a target number of 13 (the mean) will result in a 54.17% probability of success. That "13" is the big fat hump in the middle of the probability distribution that the target number wants to get over. The funny thing about the distribution is that the further away from 13 you get, the less contribution to the overall success the increase will have. There ends up being diminishing returns on success rates.

Does this game logic work? Sure! Does it soundly use the central tendency to good effect? Hell yes! If anything, this sort of success mechanism encourages diversification in skill choice due to the effect of the diminishing returns and thus suits the sort of game that Colonial Gothic is trying to be with real (non-hyper-specialized) characters.

[EDIT] It turns out that GURPS runs this way as well, using a 3d6 dice roll. I knew that GURPS used 3d6, I just couldn't remember the "roll low" aspect of it since it's been since the early, early 90's since I've played GURPS. To tell the truth, I'm just not interested in the system, which might be because SJG gave their game the worst freaking name for a system imaginable. GURPS. Sounds like intestinal distress.

Answer Three: Pre-Calculated Objective Difficulties

Right, so, let's say we define a task with an Average difficulty of having a 50/50 chance of success. If we're rolling 3d6 (let's say we're rolling 3d6 for this imaginary resolution system), then our target number (on a straight unmodified roll, assuming a "roll high" standard) would be 11, since you have a 50% chance of rolling an 11 or greater. We can set similar benchmarks for other difficulties. We might set an Easy task at 75% likely, a Hard task at 25% likely and an Extremely Hard task at 10% likely. Again, assuming the 3d6 distribution, our target numbers will  be 9 (Easy), 13 (Hard) and 15 (Extremely Hard).

A word to the wise about this strategy: First, it works best (and by best, I mean "is easiest to calculate") using odd numbers of dice. Second, it requires an interpretation of the nature of task difficulty that unhinges the difficulty of the task from the person undertaking it. It just is this difficult to do this task. Climbing this wall is an Easy task, but surviving that 100 foot dive is a Hard task, and the numbers associated with the difficulty of those tasks never change, even if the skill and ability of the characters undertaking them does.

Final Thoughts

Any of these strategies toward game mechanics are equally viable and each influences the way the game is played in specific ways. Before you pick one of these methods, think about how you want the task resolution method to interact with the rules. Do you want a system where the degree of success (or even failure) is important? Then use a Mean Plus One system. Do you want to subtly encourage skill diversification to approximate a "jack of all trades" system? The Mean As Hump mechanic's low-roll diminishing returns will push your PCs in the right direction. If you're planning on using few, low modifiers to dice rolls and want a simple system that easy for you, the GM, to keep track of, use the Pre-Calculated Objective Difficulties method (man, we've got to come up with a shorter name for that).

That's it for this week's Stupid Dice Tricks. Let's hope a new and exciting topic in dice math pops into my brain before next Friday. Until then, thanks for reading and I hope this clears up a bit.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

DCC Donnerstag: More Weapons of the Apocalypse

Remember last time I talked about the weapons the Elder Races used before their own personal apocalypses? Well, I'm sure you knew that there would be more, right? Good, I'm glad we see eye to eye.

The Breath of Thunder

Close enough!
For long millennia, the lizardmen's marshland empire required no better ranged weapons than small bows, javelins or their favorite weapon, the blowgun. Since most of the swamp-jungle warfare that the saurials engaged in occurred at very close range, long bows and artillery weapons were illogical choices for them, but their long-darted "breath of the serpent" blowguns rained death upon the saurials' enemies for nearly two thousand years until their alchemists developed a chemical propellant and explosive called "thunder sand" and  applied this discovery to the blow gun. The first "breath of thunder" weapons used thunder sand-filled pellets as ammunition that would explode upon contact, but the inevitable conflicts between the lizardmen and the elves and serpentmen required longer-range weapons and the saurials developed a version of the breath of thunder that used thunder sand for both a propellant and an explosive, effectively creating the world's first firearms. Over a millennium of innovation and invention, the breath of thunder was refined and perfected into the weapon in its most common form: a long rifle-like weapon that fires an explosive round,is  accurate at ranges well over a mile. The sighting mechanisms on later breath of thunder weapons were usually powered, meaning that they've usually long since lost all ability to influence the wielder's targeting ability, but if the mechanism is powered, all penalties for firing at range are negated. A short-barreled assault version of the weapon was constructed as well, once an automatic fire mechanism was perfected, which sprays a large area (30' by 30') with breath of thunder rounds. Breath of thunder weapons hold ten attacks' worth of ammunition (whether single shots from the sniper rifle version or area bursts from the assault rifle version), after which they must be reloaded (which requires a movement action to do if a full magazine is at hand, two full rounds if no magazines are ready). Breath of Thunder Sniper Rifle: 4d6!R damage*, Range 100/200/400**. Breath of Thunder Assault Rifle: 2d6!R damage*, Range --/60/120***. *!R means that the dice expression explodes (if the maximum value of a die is rolled, that die is rolled again and added to the total) and raises (the die type is increased; thus a d6 becomes a d7). Thus, if 1d6!R is rolled and the result is a 6, 1d7 is then also rolled and added to the total. **All creatures within 10' of the target must make a Reflex save (DC = attack roll) or take half damage from the attack. If the target was missed, it must also make this Reflex save. *** The wielder may make an attack roll against all targets within a 30' by 30' area within range, who must all succeed on a Reflex save (DC = attack roll against them) or take damage. This weapon may not be used at shorter than medium range. 

Reality Shredder

The serpent men of Kickassistan are well-known for their brand of super-science that borders closely on the realm of magic, if indeed these two may be separated. As the ophidians unraveled the mysteries of space and time, the Scientist Kings commissioned ever more twisted weaponry with which to fight their rivals and subjugate would-be slave races. One such device was the Mind Detonator, the devastating weapon that bridged a victim's consciousness to dark dimensions of chaotic thought that would shred not just the victim's sanity, but also his mind. Another was fiendish weapon known as the Reality Shredder, a ray projector that would unhinge the victim from reality and slowly disperse his being across multiple different dimensions, some parallel, some decidedly not. The wielder of a reality shredder makes a normal missile fire attack roll against the target, which is resisted by the target's Reflex save. On a successful hit, the target takes 1d6!R* (see above) damage and a roll must be made on the following table (1d6):
1 - Strength damage 1d4!R; -2 penalty to melee attacks for 1d4 rounds.
2 - Agility damage 1d4!R; -2 penalty to missile fire attacks for 1d4 rounds.
3 - Stamina damage 1d4!R; Fortitude save (DC = attack roll) or paralyzed for 1d4 rounds.
4 - Intelligence damage 1d4!R; unable to take actions or communicate with others for 1d4 rounds.
5 - Personality damage 1d4!R; Will save (DC = attack roll) or unable to cast spells or use spell-like effects for 1d4 rounds.
6 - Luck damage 1d4!R. What, that wasn't bad enough?
As per normal healing, all ability score damage dealt by the Reality Shredder is recovered at a rate of 1 point per day. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Monster Monday: Attack of the Vermen

No man presumes to know when the first Chaos Lords set about experimenting upon the flesh of Mankind, debasing and warping it to form the first beast men. What few records remain from the days of the Elder Dominion suggest that the even before the fall of Ur-Hadad into the hands of men, the human form was being perverted by Chaos routinely and that the beast man was as much a threat then as now. Several notable Elder Race scholars even suggest that the mutability of the human form was the greatest reason for Man's enslavement; should he acquire complete control over his form and the secrets of working and wielding metal, he could easily overpower the Elder Dominion. 

Despite their strong allegiance to Chaos, the Elder Races could not wipe clean from the world the stain that the beast men represented. Perhaps, some few of their number heretically mused, the Chaos magics that elven conjurers, saurial sorcerers and ophidian mathemagicians worked had worn thin the walls between this world and the domain of Chaos and that now the warp and weft of the wild space beyond had found a home in the human form and had twisted it into the myriad shapes that composed the breeds collectively known as beast men. If this hypothesis bears true, then the damage done seems irreversible, for though the spell forges and sacrificial altars of Ur-Hadad have ceased channeling dark energies to the Chaos Lords, the beast men yet spawn new breeds and new tribes, some of the most wide-spread being those known as the vermen breeds

It would be unwise to simply categorize the vermen -- or even a single vermen tribe -- as being wholely from the descent of man and one sort of animal. While many resemble rats or mice, many also exhibit traits of opossums, raccoons, shrews, bats and other species of strange vermin sorts. Within the same tribe, the traits of many different vermin manifest themselves, sometimes alongside more drastic mutations wrought by the influence of Chaos, such that a tribe of predominantly shrew-like vermen may often possess bat wings, beaver tails and the hind legs of hares, as well as having a family or two of larger, badger-like vermen among their number. Yes, many of the vermen that Mankind comes into contact with in the sewers and ruins beneath his city seem to have a distinctly rodent-like apsect, but in the wilds outside of Man's cities and towns, more tribes seem to share descent with hares, oppossums, badgers and other species.

The Scourscum Tribe

Not far from the Keep on Kickassistan, in the twisting warrens of perfidy and poison known as the Caves of Chaos, the Scourscum Tribe of vermen makes its lair. The tribe is predominantly composed of smallish vermen, most little more than three feet tall, and many bearing the distinct traits of rodents and mustelids. The tribes' scabbers make up the bulk of its numbers, sneaks and rogues who spread disease and discord throughout the Caves of Chaos. An elite corps of plaguewing fliers and mutant maulers keep the scabbers in line, enforcing the will Rot King Scourscum, who styles himself the demigod son of the Chaos Lord of death and disease, Ahriman. Further, Rot King Scourscum maintains good relations with the nearby 'Possumbrute, a beast man of considerable size and strength who has some familial ties to the Tribe and whom Scourscum considers a nephew; the 'Possumbrute, Hep, does not deny these claims (nor is he intelligent enough to understand them), but maintains separate lodgings to keep "mine is mine!" 

Scourscum Scabber

Init +2; Atk diseased dirk +0 (1d4 + disease) or bite +1 (1d3 + disease); AC 9; HD 1d6+1 (4 hp); MV 20'; Act 1d20; SP Disease (Fort save DC 10 or disease), Infravision (120'); Fort +3, Ref +3, Will +0; AL C. 

Plaguewing Flyer

Init +4; Atk diseased dirk +3 (1d4 + disease) or bite +2 (1d6 + disease); AC 13; HD 2d6+2 (8 hp); MV 20' (fly 30'); Act 1d20; SP Disease (Fort save DC 10 or disease), Divebomb (when flying, may charge target for +2 attack, +2d6 damage), Infravision (120'); Fort +3, Ref +5, Will 0; AL C.

Mutant Mauler

Init +1; Atk diseased dirk +1 (1d8 + disease) or bite +0 (1d10 + disease) or by mutation (see below); AC 9; HD 2d10+2 (12 hp); MV 30'; Act 2d20; SP Disease (Fort save DC 10 or disease), Chaos mutations (as Judge decides), Infravision (120'); Fort +5, Ref +3, Will -2; AL C.

Rot King Scourscum

Init +3; Atk diseased dirk +4 (1d6 + disease) or bite +3 (1d8 + disease) or tail slash +2 (1d4 + trip (Fort save or fall prone, DC equals attack roll), see below); AC 17 (Chain mail); HD 5d8+5; Act 1d20 + 1d14 (tail slash); SP Disease (Fort save DC 14 or disease), Infravision (120'); Fort +6, Reflex +6, Will +3; AL C.

'Possumbrute, Nephew of Scourscum

Init +0; Atk possum pounding +5 (1d8) or bite +3 (1d10 + disease) or tail slash +3 (1d4 + trip (Fort save or fall prone, DC equals attack roll), see below); AC 14; HD 5d10+5 (30 hp); Act 2d20 + 1d14 (tail slash); SP Disease (Fort save DC 14 or disease), Infravision (120', -2 to all rolls in bright sunlight), Filthspittle (on a roll of 1 on a d3, the 'possumbrute may target d5 enemies, 30' cone, Ref save DC 14 or disease); Fort +6, Reflex +6, Will +3; AL C.

Note on Special Properties: Chaos mutations should be determined by the Judge according to his favorite method (Realms of Chaos anyone?). The Judge should also pick a disease for the tribe to carry. Note that the tribe suffers no ill effects from the disease and acts solely as carriers. 

I wrestled long and hard with how to handle the goblin caves in B2 in a world with no goblins. I think "rat men" were my first or third pick, but I was on the fence about using them in Kickassistan due to the long-standing Skaven connection. Then, two things happened: (1) I uncovered the (not so) secret origin of the goat-headed beast man as the Broo of RuneQuest (and wrote about it); (2) Mr. +John Carr wrote a couple of great versions of the rat man over on Age of Ruins. Both of these things inspired me to just say "fuck it, I'll make these rat bastards my own!" And so, I have. Hats off to you, Mr. Carr, for keeping rats in the game for me!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

DCC Donnerstag: More About Dogs

I've previously talked about buying war dogs and what their stats would look like. Well, for the past few days, my wife and I have been (separately) re-playing Fable II and since the dog in that game is such a core component, I had some more thoughts about them and particularly why you might want to work hard to keep them alive, rather than just viewing them as an extra set of attacks per round to sick on the monsters you encounter in the dungeon. With the recent death of Ol' Sucky the egg-sucking hound in the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign (sorry, +Wayne Snyder) and with how nuts the sheer number of attacks that the PCs in that campaign have been able to throw at the monsters that +Edgar Johnson & I throw at the players, it's high time we give a reason for these dogs to exist other than as free attacks. Here we go:

Guard Dogs

Guard dog on duty; pink chair optional
War dogs may be employed to assist in the guarding of the camp during periods of rest the same as PCs might. Similarly to PCs, guard dogs may be assigned one watch if they participated in adventuring that day (even dogs need rest, man), or may assist in guarding for the entirety of the rest period if they are allowed to rest while the party goes off adventuring. Guard dogs give the party +1d (that's a one die type raise) to notice would-be ambushers for the guard shift (or shifts) that they're active within. A guard dog may wake sleeping party members, should the guarding PCs allow it. A war dog on guard duty will engage in combat normally if the PCs on guard duty let them off the leash.

Rescue Dogs

Sometimes, it may be advantageous to have war dogs on hand whose expressed purpose is to quite literally pull the PCs' asses out of the fire. Dogs may be employed as rescue dogs in an encounter only if they have not been involved in combat during that encounter or provided any other benefit to the group (such as any of the other things discussed here in this article) during it. If a war dog on rescue duty can reach a character in need of rescuing, he may do one of the following things:

  • Drag the character to safety. This is done at half the dog's normal speed and often works well with unconscious allies. 
  • Save a life. In the case where an allied character is actively working to save his own life, the war dog may assist, allowing the ally to make his next saving throw against the condition involved at +1d. 
  • Provide an immediate saving throw to the allied character. This works particularly well for allies under the effects of spells, diseases or poisons. 
These rescue actions may not be stacked together (the war dog will not allow the ally to instantly make a saving throw at +1d, for example).

Bodyguarding

Some times, it makes sense to assign a war dog as a bodyguard for a specific character, often a character of the less-durable sort (like the party wizard). A war dog on bodyguard duty may not take part in offensive actions and must stay adjacent to his guarded ally throughout the encounter for the benefits listed below to stay in effect; furthermore, a war dog assigned to bodyguard duty will not initiate combat with any targets that have not attacked his guarded ally. As long as the war dog remains adjacent to its guarded ally, the following benefits must be accounted for:
  • The guarded ally is at +1 AC and +1 to Reflex saves (but not Will or Fortitude saves). 
  • The war dog may attack any adjacent foe that makes an attack against the guarded ally immediately as a reaction to that attack at -1d. In addition, the war dog may attack any target that attacks its guarded ally as normal on its turn.
  • Once per day, the war dog may intercede during an attack aimed at the guarded ally. This attack is now made against the war dog, who takes all damage from it (unless the attack used effects multiple targets) and the guarded ally takes none. If the war dog dies from this intercession, no amount of healing may prevent its death. 

Bloodhounding/Tracking/Detection

Apparently, sleeping dogs go on the left.
Dogs may readily be employed to raise the party's awareness in a dungeon environment. If given a scent to follow -- or if the dog has already engaged in combat with the particular enemy in question -- a dog assigned to tracking duty assists allied trackers by improving their tracking skill +1d. Dogs assigned to tracking (or "bloodhounding") may have previously participated in combat without any penalty to tracking ability; thus, if a war dog participates in the party's fight against a group of goblins, it may help the party track the goblins back to their lair. Conversely, war dogs that participate in combat may not assist with general detection, but dogs who haven't may. A war dog assigned to detection duty gives allied scouts and searchers +1d on attempts to search, find traps, locate enemies and the like. 


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Kickass History: Zheng He

Zheng-He: BAMF
Chances are that if you live in the western world, you've never heard of this dude named Zheng He (he used to apparently get called Chang Ho by Europeans and Americans who couldn't give a flying fuck for accurate Chinese pronunciation), which is a damn shame. A very real and historic figure, Zheng He was an incredibly important and successful mariner, explorer and admiral during the Ming Dynasty in China and is widely regarded as the most important figure in Chinese navigational history, having ranged as far into the "Western Sea" (Indian Ocean) as East Africa. He made seven colossal tours of the Western Ocean between 1405 and 1433 marking him as one of, if not the, best-traveled mariners of his day. There's even one historian (Gavin Menzies, although perhaps the term "historian" is too generous, here) who believes that the famous admiral made it across the Atlantic Ocean and discovered the new world (the Americas) more than fifty years before Columbus would accidentally do the same thing.

So, what makes Zheng-He so kickass? Here's the skinny. First off, he helped the Zongle Emperor usurp the Ming throne and in the process earned a place at the emperor's side as one of the emperor's favorites; no small feat, particularly since he was a Hui Chinese Muslim, not exactly a majority, that the Ming were trying to "integrate" through forced marriage into "proper" Han Chinese families. How did Zheng He keep from being "integrated?" He became a eunuch. Yup. That's right. When faced with the prospect of getting "integrated" out of his people and religion, Zheng He said "fuck it, I didn't need these testicles anyway*." Kind of a badass way to solve that problem. According to the logic of the time, eunuchs earned sorcerous powers in their emasculation, so maybe there was some up side.

Maps!
Okay, so, the emperor's pal, a member of an ethnic minority who gave up his manhood rather than his peeps, who may or may not be a sorcerer, is given a fast floating entourage by the emperor and told "hey, find out what's out there, will ya?" Not only did he find out what was out there, but by rolling up on it with a flotilla of heavily-armed Chinese sailors, Zheng He won the respect, loyalty and "tribute" of many cities along his path through a brand of diplomacy that, while being bloodless, probably had some sort of threat of violence hidden inside it somewhere. He cruised around the Indian Ocean like the HNIC, taking down pirate bands like Batman with an armada, giving him a chance to flex his muscles so the folks in Champa, Sumatra, Ceylon, Hormuz, Moghadishu and all those other places he went would know what he could do if he set his mind and weapons to it. Plus, me made a lot of maps and brought all sorts of treasures back to the Emperor, including giraffes. Giraffes!

Giraffes!
Is there more to Zheng He than just being a badass sailor and explorer? Of course! He filled the role of super-diplomat, built himself a long list of enemies and even had a cult in his name after his death. Subsequent Emperors and dynasties tried to downplay Zheng He's awesomeness to the point where he was nearly completely forgotten by his people (obviously not the ones with the cult to him) until a scholar, Liang Qihao, wrote a book about him in 1904.

*Eunuchs of this particular time period in China did not merely have their testicles removed, but also their penises. The exact process was crazy-demanding and required cauterization-hot implements and urethra-clearing tubes so that the healing process didn't scar over important orifices needed to remove wastes. Still, lots of folks died during the eunicization process. So, not only did Zheng-He say "fuck it" to his balls, he also said "fuck it" to his penis, risked his life to blood loss and infection, and he probably had to spend his whole life pissing sitting down. Quite the sacrifice to make for his people and faith, sorcerous powers or not. 

Zheng He In Your Campaign

Zheng He was one of history's biggest badasses and there's plenty of room for a guy like him in most fantasy RPG campaigns. Here are a couple of the thoughts I've entertained about including him (or an NPC inspired by him) in my fantasy games.

The First Glimpse

Many scholars point to descriptions of ships found in the writings of the Italian Fra Mauro, in prison in India, that ostensibly describe Indian ships, but the descriptions more accurately reflect the ships that Zheng He and his crews would sail. Similarly, your PCs might encounter a fleet like Zheng He's while in some foreign land: decidedly unfamiliar ships belonging to a decidedly unfamiliar people from a decidedly unfamiliar land. Perhaps these sailors and their empire will become important later in the campaign (or even in the next campaign) or perhaps they will act as a red herring (where the players believe that they'll become important and look for signs of development throughout the campaign). In any case, these foreigners are well-regarded and treated with respect -- and perhaps a little fear. Perhaps the PCs are looking to acquire something important, only to find that the foreign sailors have been promised it or awarded it as tribute. These guys are just as alien to the locals as the PCs, but carry more clout, which often means that they have a leg up on the PCs in any meaningful rivalry or competition.

An Unexpected Ally

Zheng He and his armada often took on pirates in the seas he visited and even fought a land war against a kingdom in Ceylon on one of his voyages. While acting against pirates or tyrants -- even on their home turf -- the PCs may find an ally in a foreign power like Zheng He's fleet, one that is eager to spread its influence locally. If the party accepts the fleet's help, what are the long-term ramifications? What does this mean for foreign relations? Will the foreign power begin to demand tribute from the local government and threaten violence if their "efforts on behalf of the kingdom" are not recognized?

The Eighth Voyage of Zheng He

This is my requisite gonzo idea (and the idea I'm most likely to use). What if Zheng He (or his analog in your campaign) survived his seventh voyage and set off on his eighth? Gavin Menzies wants you to believe that this voyage was to the New World, but what if, instead of exploring the far side of the globe, he explored the Celestial Seas? In this scenario, Zheng He and his fleet set sail on moonlight to explore the domains of the Celestial Emperor, cataloging and mapping the heavens (and acquiring due tribute for his Imperial Highness) along the way. Perhaps the PCs encounter him as he returns to the world from the heavens and he enlists them to help him find the Emperor (now long-dead and -deposed). Or perhaps Zheng He needs reinforcements (or conscripts) for a new voyage; who better than the PCs to accompany him across the vastness of space for glory and treasure?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Stupid Dice Tricks: Exploding Dice and the Dice Chain

Oh look, it's "funky dice Friday!" Why not? I mean, we all love dice, right? If we didn't love bizarre polyhedrals, we'd all have a different hobby, no? And so here we all are again, ready for more stupid dice tricks. Last week, we took a look at the concept of central tendency and how important it is in multiple-dice situations. Believe it or not, I do have more to say on the topic, but I'll be saving that for at least another week. Today, I want to talk about a different spot of modern dice logic, exploding dice, its connection to another spot of traditional dice logic, the dice chain, and its origin in a very early RPG dice mechanic, DARO.

Exploding Dice

Exploding dice are a very common feature of a lot of modern RPGs. Sometimes it's just one die (such as WEG's d6 system and its Wild Die), sometimes it's every die that a player rolls (such as in Savage Worlds), but whenever exploding dice are rolled and the maximum value is shown, the die is rolled again and the new value is added to whatever has been rolled thus far. So, if you're rolling 2d6, say, and the dice come up 3 and 6, you would re-roll the 6 and add the result to 9. Okay, you've got that, nothing really ground-breaking there. Standard notation for an exploding die adds an exclamation mark ("!") after any die that explodes (for example, 2d6! means that both dice explode, whereas d6+d6! means that only one of the dice may explode).

Image Search for DARO = Cool Ruins

DARO

Way back in the day, Tunnels & Trolls came up with this spot of dice logic called DARO: Doubles Add and Roll Over. Look at that! D&D's redheaded cousin had an exploding dice mechanism! How's about that? Here's how it would work, say you were rolling 3d6 and the results came up 3, 3 & 4; you'd re-roll 2d6 and add the result of that roll to 10. Fascinatingly enough, getting a DARO result has the exact same probability as getting a die to explode, but has a far greater impact on the re-roll since two dice are being rolled instead of just one.

The Dice Chain & Raises

So, this concept may have a bigger impact on some games (such as DCC & Savage Worlds) than others (like any of those games that just use one boring sort of dice), but all games that mix polyhedrals seem to use some sort of dice chain or another. The dice chain of any game is the progression of dice from fewest number of sides to most. Here are the two most common dice chains I tend to see in games I play:

Standard Dice Chain: (Sometimes d2) => d3 => d4 => d6 => d8 => d10 => d12 => d20
Extended Dice Chain: d2 => d3 => d4 => d5 => d6 => d7 => d8 => d10 => d12 => d14 => d16 => d20

You probably recognize the extended dice chain from DCC and that's where I learned to love it, too. Recently, the concept of raising die type on the dice chain has figured more and more into RPG mechanics, some of which I'm sure has to do with the influence of DCC, but it has pretty solid roots in prior systems as well (usually using the standard dice chain). Basically, raising the dice type just means replacing one particular die with the dice type immediately larger than it on the chain. My invented notation for a dice type raise is to add a capital "R" after the dice type of any die being raised (for example, 1d4R is 1d6 in a standard dice chain but 1d5 in an extended dice chain).

Explode or Raise?

Really, there are two different questions here. One is "given the opportunity to raise a dice type or choose to make a lower die exploding, which should you choose?" The other is "is it worthwhile to or desirable at all to raise the dice type upon explosion of a lower die?" I'll answer these questions in the order that I asked them.

Given the opportunity to raise a dice type or choose to make a lower die exploding, the answer is technically to take the raise. The mean of the raised roll in this case, is 4.5, whereas the mean of exploding die result is 4.18, meaning that technically the better answer is to take the raise. However, the low probability difference being discussed here (is 32% significant? I'll leave that for you to judge), I'd say take whichever result you like more. You were going to do that anyway, but if you happened to like the raise, then now you have some math to back you up.

Right, so, on to the next question. Some folks out in interwebsland have suggested some mechanics where exploding dice also raise the dice type. It started with +Erik Tenkar statting up a magic dagger, with the thought that maybe if max damage would explode and increase the die type. Using the dagger's d4 damage type and several urgings from +Harley Stroh, I started doing some math to figure out which would do more damage, and I ended up figuring out that a straight explosion would average out to do more damage than the raising explosion. And, I'm sure, over a set of equal numerical results, I was right. However, if you factor the results out over an equal number of explosions (that is to say, explode the dice an equal number of times between the d4! results and d4!R results; let's say over three explosions and raising explosions), then the results end up skewed in favor of the raising explosion (d4! = mean of 3.32 and d4!R = mean of 3.458), but very narrowly (again, 0.138 isn't very different).

What does this all mean? Take the raise. Take the raising explosion. Give us a reason to mess around with our funky dice and use all of the weird polyhedrals in our dice bags. We brought them for a reason, so the more cool stuff we get to do with them, not only will we be happier, but it's something close to scientifically proven to be better! Not only is fun on our side, but so is SCIENCE!

Specifically, Gamescience.

Because they're the guys who make all the cool funky dice.

Friday, February 8, 2013

DCC Donnerstag: Weapons of the Apocalypse

First off, it's been far too long since I've done a DCC Donnerstag article. Apparently, I let the entire month of January slide without one.

Second, I'm getting started on this late, so it'll probably technically be a DCC Freitag article, but since I've not slept yet, I'm calling it all the same. Forget hair-splittery, that won't stick here.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, there's a lot of good work going on over at the Google+ Gamma Crawl Classics community. Here, you'll find all sorts of crazy DCC enthusiasts who're hard at work on a conversion of DCC to a Gamma World-style post-apocalyptic setting.

DCC, I feel, is already post-apocalyptic. Or rather, the genre that it emulates is nearly always post-apocalyptic in one way or another. Consider the Dying Earth books or CA Smith's Zothique. Hell, try Barsoom on for size. Sometimes, the apocalypse is impending or temporary (Hyperborea) or it was a fantasy apocalypse (Hyboria), but the case remains, Appendix N is rife with apocalypses and DCC already has a strong post-apocalyptic vibe going on. After all, didn't all those civilizations who fell into ruin (you know, the ruins that you're now looting?) experience some sort of apocalypse themselves?

Thus far in the development of the world of Ur-Hadad, I've talked about three specific species, known as the Elder Races, who've all shared one apocalypse (the Rise of Man) and left a bunch of their junk lying around where pesky humans can get their hands on them. Before Mankind rose up against them, the Elves (the ancestors of those now known as the Dark Elves), the Lizardmen and the Serpentmen each had their own technologies, their own empires and their own sections of the great city of Ur-Hadad; should any human dare delve into the rubble of these fallen civilizations, they may yet find some of the forgotten tools of these deposed races...

Saurial Chainsword*

Though sages term them "saurials," common men know certain survivors of the Rise of Man as lizardfolk. Today, they hide in marshes and make their homes in once-proud ziggurats, but once, they made glorious warfare from one side of the world to another and enslaved every species they overran. When one tribe met another, brutal wars for dominance filled the lizardmen's native bayous with the dead. To exert dominance over other tribes, these lizardmen sought every advantage they could find, their scientists fueling the species's war efforts with ever more gruesome weapons. One weapon designed for fighting amongst the lizardmen tribes was the chainsword: built to shred the tough scales and thick hides of lizardmen, it proved even more effective against "softer" races and wrought massive devastation upon the bodies of the lizardmen's enemies. The chainsword is a melee weapon with a rotating series of teeth along its blade, built in the style of ancient tooth-bladed swords employed by lizardmen for millennia. These weapons were ubiquitous in the old lizardman empire, but today are rarely found in working order, their power supplies having been drained a thousand years ago. In such cases, they are treated as swords of an appropriate size. If one can be found with a power supply, however, it is much more deadly. Lizardmen being slightly larger than humans, most chainswords may be used as one- or two-handed weapons; they deal 1d12 damage when used one-handed but 1d16 when used two-handed. In either case, the wielder of a functioning chainsword fumbles on an unmodified roll of "1" or "2" (instead of the normal "1") and has his critical range increased by 1 (for example, most wielders will crit on a 19-20, whereas 1st level warriors will crit from 18-20). Whenever the chainsword is activated, the wielder must make a Luck check (roll d20 less than or equal to Luck score) or the chainsword's power cells will be drained requiring either a recharge (using some advanced and long-lost technology) or replaced (if a suitable power cell may be found); the chainsword functions as a normal sword until it is powered-up again.

Elven Painlance

Highly unlikely
Between the age when elves were first orphaned on the world and when the minions of the King of Elfland finally returned to the world, those elves who were left behind did everything they could to survive. They built a society from the ground up, using every tool at their disposal, becoming masters of their domains through sorcery and strategy; when this proved too little, and their enemies too great, the elves turned to darker influences, discovered the might of supernatural patrons, and eked every secret of mortal existence from it. As they gained mastery over their world, the elves warped and changed, became creatures of cruelty and chaos. Somewhere along this path, the elves invented the first painlances to counteract the strengths of their many rivals for dominance over the world. Horrifying weapons, painlances are long, spear-like devices of a curious black metal, surprisingly lightweight, that fire a beam of purple energy that wreaks havoc on the nervous system of anyone it hits. Before attacking with this weapon, the wielder must take one point of Luck damage, powering the device with his own will. He may then make a missile fire attack against the desired target with a +2 bonus; should he hit, the target takes 1d8 damage and must make an immediate Fortitude save (10 + the result of the d8 damage roll) or be paralyzed with pain for 1d5 rounds. Through judicious use of these weapons, the elves were able to fight back the onslaught of lizardman raiders and made a name for themselves as conquerors and slavers in their own right.

Ophide Mind Detonator

While the painlances of the elves were a devastating weapon, they were minor wonders compared to the atrocities capable by the serpentmen capable of controlling the device known as the mind detonator. Few of these terrible weapons were ever constructed, leading most modern scholars to believe that they either required such vast resources to build as to be impractical or were so difficult to control that the serpentmen felt that the fewer mind detonators built, the better. Surely, the few mind detonators ever discovered since the downfall of the Elder Races are ancient things that their discoverers have been unable to master and that, ultimately, lead to the deaths of those same discoverers. The mind detonator works on principles ill-understood by the arcanists and scientists of the human race, but seems to seek out the minds of would-be victims -- the stronger the mind, the better -- and then to flood that mind with echoes of of dimensions of thought and experience beyond Man's comprehension. Apparently, any mind reflecting upon this madness for too long goes not merely irrevocably mad, but the fevered thought patterns cause brain hemorrhages and, usually, death. Looking not unlike an iron crown, the mind detonator is a circlet of black metal (the same metal as the painlance), covered in intricate scrollwork and fine engraving, lined with eight equi-distant points jutting outward from the center, that hovers mere inches above the head of its would-be master, slowly rotating. Learning to use the mind detonator can be just as deadly to its wielder as to targets; the operator first must open his mind up to warped energies of the outer dimensions before he may direct them at any other living things. First, the wielder must make a spellcasting check, modified by his level and the higher of either his Personality or Intelligence; any result less than the user's own Will save modifier plus 10 causes an immediate backlash against the user as his mind is flooded with impossible thoughts and he takes 1d12 damage for every point of Intelligence, Personality and Luck bonus that he has (only bonuses count in this way; penalties do not detract from the dice rolled). If the user rolls a "1" on his Spellcasting check, he takes twice as many dice in damage. If the user makes his Spellcasting check, he must target the strongest mind in his line of sight and does 1d12 damage for every point of Intelligence, Personality and Luck bonus the target has (the target may make a Will save for half damage). If the user rolls a "20" on the Spellcasting check, he does twice as many dice in damage (although the victim may still roll a Will save for half damage). Any character killed by this damage (whether a target or a caster) becomes a demonstration as to why the object is called a mind detonator; their head instantly explodes in a gory storm, coating all those nearby with brain matter.

*Credit Where Credit is Due: Huge thanks go out to the Gamma Crawl Classics group in general for this one and +Vincent Quigley+Epic Prime+Darien Mason & +Wayne Snyder in specific. Thanks a lot, guys!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Gods of Kickassistan: The Wholesome Path

The Wholesome Path of Perfected Duality

"As Within, So Without"

The devotion of those who seek to perfect the soul through perfection of the body, they who cleanse wounds and sins, curers of ills of flesh and the spirit.

Lawful Alignment


The Wholesome Path of Perfected Duality (known most commonly as the Wholesome Path) is not so much a religion as the belief that the body and soul are inextricably linked and that health of the body equates to health of the soul and vice versa. Healers, herbalists, alchemists, doctors and surgeons practice this faith every day as they look to the physical well-being of their patients, secure in the belief that should their bodies be free from disease, their souls shall be free from evil, selfishness and impure intent. Lesions, cancers, infections and the like are the physical source of evil, they claim, and that to cure one is to cure both. By the same token, they often claim that some physical infirmities may be caused by a stained soul and that to cure one is to cure both.

Practitioners of the Path espouse a brand of physicianship (not uncommon in sword & sorcery settings) that mingles anatomical scholarship, practical experience and contemplative mysticism to create a bizarre melange of esoterica. Treatments will often require, in addition to sound medical treatment based on fact, repetitive chants (to focus the mind), burning incense (to focus the senses), occult writings and holistic practices such as acupuncture and tefillin-like use of phylacteries. In short, the Wholesome Path will throw every medical and spiritual treatment they can come up with at a problem in hopes that at least one of the treatments work. That having been said, these healers recognize that there can be such a thing as over-treatment and malpractice, and so they prefer to proceed slowly with one treatment following another.

Organization

There is no orthodox organization to the Wholesome Path. Rather, it relies on the communication of the philosophers and physikers who practice the Path's teachings to spread word of new treatments from one to another. Rather than temples, many devotees (who might be considered "priests" or "clerics" in other religions) run hospitals and sanitaria, many of which also serve as teaching centers for the healing arts. There is no central philosophy of how these hospitals should be run according to Path precepts, but rather an emphasis that all care provided should nurture both the patient's body and soul; as such, these hospitals will often feature chapels (without representing any deity or faith in particular) and libraries as well as other diversions. Between believers in the Path, there is no hierarchy per se, but rather a mutual respect between peers and the deference necessary to master-student relationships. For practitioners of the Wholesome Path, who you are is far less important than what you have learned.

Daily Devotion

Like clerics in most other religions, the healers of the Wholesome Path spend at least one hour per day undergoing a regimen that mirrors the daily devotions of those clerics. Instead of proffering prayers to the divine, Wholesome Path healers exercise, eat purgative foods, practice acupuncture upon themselves, self-medicate, do yoga and otherwise spend at least an hour each day perfecting their own bodies that they may heal others from a place of greater authority. Along with physical practices, followers of the Path also meditate and practice mantra-based introspective thought throughout their daily devotions. If the practitioner has not "balanced" himself through his daily observances and exercises, it is widely believed, then any imbalance or imperfection within himself may be transferred to his patients; thus, each adherent to the Path feels strongly the need to work a little bit each day toward his own personal physical and spiritual perfection.

Typical Followers

Though each follower is an individual and, to some degree, an authority unto himself, there are some commonalities between adherents. Each is obviously interested in the physical and spiritual well-being of those around him (as well as himself) and often pursues what we might today consider humanitarian aid, particularly toward the less fortunate who usually cannot afford proper care (or even church tithes). He tends to be of a scholarly and philosophical bent, but tempers his academicism with a strong amount of practical application and action, spending more time "in the trenches" as it were than in a library. His urge to while away hours in contemplation and scholarly pursuit rarely eclipses his need to save the world from its ills, whether they be of the body or of the soul. Thus it is that occasionally adherents of the Path will become adventurers, a life that affords them an opportunity to see distant lands, heal desperate folk in need, learn new secrets of medicine and confront the corruption of body and spirit that rise up as the great evils of the world. Is it not better to destroy a body infested with evil than let it infect another?

Apostates

While the philosophy of the Wholesome Path of Perfected Duality is an open and accepting one, available to any who would seek to actively cure themselves and others of all imperfections and maladies, there are those who both forsake it and who are forsaken by it. Some apostates actively seek to warp the physical body, to see what changes to the soul might take shape if the flesh to which it is bound is altered; such heretics are anathema to the majority of adherents of the Path, who will refuse to aid such beastly research or correspond with the experimenter. Some apostates become so through refutation of common practice or by demonstration of malpractice. The most well-known of such heretics is Master Guang-Yuan Jo who claimed for years that the commonly-accepted application of quicksilver toward life-prolonging treatments and medicines was in fact deleterious to health, which had him in hot water with his contemporaries who believed in the substance's recuperative and regenerative powers. When Master Jo's most famous patient, the last Pascha of Ur-Hadad, fell dead to mercury poisoning, the Grand Vizier pronounced that the death had been due to Master Jo's malpractice -- a statement contravened by Master Jo's outspoken opposition to the use of mercury but instead supported by learned men, even followers of the Path (who know Jo's opposition well), as a wise treatment against the Pascha's advancing age. Today, Master Jo (still alive and well with an office near the Eye Market in Ur-Hadad) has turned his apostasy into true heresy with the belief that if he adequately poisons his own body enough (primarily through the ingestion of alcohols and narcotics), it may act as a leech for the maladies of others; his corruption in body and spirit may yet prove the salvation of others, but the majority of adherents to the Path doubt it.

[This post started as my attempt to explain the views of my cleric Zullgunn Tarr in +Brian Takle's Wednesday night ACKS game. As the writing got more in-depth, I decided that the Wholesome Path had a home in Kickassistan as well, so here it is. Previous to this, Dr. Tarr had been seen by the other players as a "sort of hippy" for his belief in the connection between physical and spiritual wellness. Let's see what they think now. I really liked including Master Guang-Yuan Jo in this article; expect to see more of the Master in further posts about Ur-Hadad.]