Monday, December 28, 2015

Let's Build With These Dice: A Negotiated Skill System

I'm having one of those nights where I'm just feeling cruddy about a bunch of stuff. There were things I meant to get done today that didn't happen. I found out that we'd been double-billed for health insurance and I found it out the hard way. I meant to get some minis painted this afternoon and that didn't happen either. Thus, I feel the need to write something to get me out of the funk. Please forgive the indulgence of everything this far. One way of looking at the rest of this post is that it's Joesky Tax for this paragraph.

So, let's get back to These Dice, shall we?


Today, we're going to concern ourselves initially with the Green Dice. As shown in the picture above, the Green Dice have successes marked on the 5 & 6, meaning that a single Green Die has a 33.33% chance of succeeding at whatever. Let's make that a thing, let's make it skill checks.

A Negotiated Skill System

If your character wants to do a thing, you tell the DM how you're going to do it. If you're convincing enough, the DM agrees and it works (like finding and deactivating/bypassing old school traps). This is the first part of the negotiation: does it make enough sense that it does what the player wants? If the DM isn't convinced, we can go to dice. The player gets one Green Die to roll to see if he succeeds or not.

But maybe there are other factors weighing in the chance of success. Maybe the PC involved is really attentive or has great eyesight or something. Shouldn't those considerations be worth something? This is the second part of the negotiation. For every factor that the player can convince the DM that he can bring to bear on the situation, the player gets to roll an additional Green Die.

Part of the negotiation is that the DM should be prepared to say "no" when he feels a factor will not add enough or will not make a significant difference. Maybe one or two allies helping will add a die, but more than that won't. Who knows? The important part is that the player presents his case and the DM weighs it on its merit rather than reference some foreign, non-diagetic rubric like a rule book.

I used this skill system in my Delving Deeper Quasquetherion session at U Con this year and it worked out so well that it renewed my interest in making a zine for OD&D retroclones after my particular idiom. Then, over the weekend, I just now had an idea to complicate matters even more.

Behavior-Rewarding Skill System

This one works just like the Negotiated Skill System or at least it starts that way. This system exists to emulate a specific type of fiction, in effect creating categories of "behaviors of a sort that you want players to take," "behaviors of the sort that you don't want players to take" and "everything else."

 You're rolling Green Dice for most actions ("everything else), but you reward the types of actions you want your players to take by letting them roll Blue Dice in these circumstances and penalize them for taking the "wrong" types of actions by making them roll Red Dice. Maybe add something on the end where if there are no successes on a roll, things get more complicated for the players.

I had this idea while thinking about what I don't like about just about every Doctor Who RPG I've ever read. The "Tempus Fugitives" idea I've kicked around before (see here) exists to satisfy my need to have a game that scratches the itch left by Douglas Adams/Tom Baker-era Doctor Who and Douglas Adams's books. Let's solve our problems through clever tongues and clever-er plans, not with blasters and karate chops. That's what I want out of the system, and I've never seen a game system that designed to make it work.

Until the other day, when I figured out how I'd do it.

  • If the DM describes your action as CLEVER, you get to roll Blue Dice
  • If the DM describes your action as VIOLENT, you have to roll Red Dice
  • Everything else rolls Green Dice
Add to this a complication if no successes are rolled (like hard and soft moves in Dungeon World). You've now got a system where you're more likely to succeed if you've got a clever plan and more likely to suffer a negative consequence if you charge in guns blazing. While pretty much everyone can figure out when something's violent, not everyone will agree when a plan is clever or not, so the negotiation process is important to look into. 

The Nature of Negotiation

The idea of negotiating skill checks may seem odd or awkward at first, but to me it seems like we already negotiate with dice rolls all the time. "Can I get another +2 because I'm on higher ground?" "Does this game give flanking bonuses?" We do this shizz all the time. At this point, it's largely instinctive, too. "Can I get a bonus to disarming the trap because of my advanced degree in mechanical engineering?" Yeah, it happens all the time. 

I've had this attitude toward the zany schemes of my players that amounts to: "convince me." If you can spin me a good enough story that I'll just accept it out of hand, then we're good. You did your job. You convinced me. Good player. We don't need to subject your good ideas to randomness or probability because you done good. 

If, however, I think that your idea is pretty good, but I'm not completely sold, then we can get down to dice. Maybe you'll get some more dice or a bonus or whatever. This is that wide berth that DMs are given to interpret the realities (such as they may be) of the game to their players. This already happens, as I've outlined above, in pretty much every game ever. The only way my plan differs from the way that most games present stuff is that I'm putting all of my cards on the table and not hiding behind a pretense of a bunch of paper-thin rules that are nothing more than mirrors and smoke obscuring the actual processes involved in adjudicating games.

The idea of upfront negotiation as part of a task- or conflict-resolution system is one that's been dancing around my brain for awhile now. Months? Years? Who can say. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Inevitable Post U Con 2015 Post

Since it's almost a month ago, I should probably finally talk about U Con 2015, right? Okay, here goes: U Con keeps getting better and better every year, despite some minor inconveniences that seem to get piled on top of it.

The plan for U Con worked like this: I wasn't going to register for any events as a player because I like to go where I'm needed, to play in games of awesome DMs that are lacking in players to help make sure those games go off. I registered to run one game each day, registering for the last time slot each day; I am not a morning person. I am, however, as listeners to the +Drink Spin Run - An RPG Talk Show Podcast know, a beer person, so part of the plan included meals at the hotel bar where I could get a decent drink. The con food last year was okay, but nothing to write home about. The bar food was much better.

Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Thursday

The con was to officially start on Friday, but if GenCon and GaryCon have taught me anything, it's that you really need to be there the night before. Now, my wife and I have a five-month-old (then four-month-old) and Katie was working that night, meaning that I had to bring Stan with me. I knew that +Donn Stroud was going to meet me at the hotel and I knew I'd run into at least +R.J. Thompson in the process. Good. We have people we know we'll see. Stan and I packed up our gear and headed down to the Marriott to see who we could dig up.

Donn is the one with the tats
The first person I saw was +Bill Webb of Frog God Games. After greeting him (and reminding him that we'd met when he did the Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day episode of DSR), he invited me to roll up a character and sit in on the game he was about to run for some of the assembled folks. I stalled for a moment, some line about having to check in with some folks or something, when I realized that +Tim Snider was one of those guys sitting on the couches around Bill. Oh, sweet! Good to see you, man! Okay, now I know I'll be back, but I've got to pop over to the bar real fast to get a drink and say howdy to Donn.

Meanwhile, over at the bar, Donn is talking to +Pete Schwab who had come all the way from Austin, TX for the con because he signed up to run events while he still lived in Chicago and is an Ypsi native, so it gave him the chance to see family (this becomes relevant on Saturday night). While catching up with Pete, we ran into R.J. (Ryan hereafter) and his lady Crystal (sp?), and +Clayton Williams and his lovely wife +Laura Rose Williams. All of them great folks. Some more stuff happened, then it was time for Bill's game. What the hell, why not?

Joining in on Bill's game with the Little Man in tow was a great idea. Not only were there tons of folks for him to meet (he loves meeting new people), but he melted more than a few hearts. Awww. So, Bill took a huge liking to Stan and kept calling him "Baby Frog" (he'd call me "Baby Daddy" for the next few days until he could remember my name), thinking that Stan's dinosaur/dragon hoodie was a frog (hard to tell in the picture above, I know). Bill held him for a while, as did his daughter Jillian, Donn, Crystal, Laura and probably some folks I can't remember. Don't tell Katie that last part.

As the game collapsed (like late night con games do 50% of the time), Stan was getting really tired, but we were supposed to (by wifely decree) wait until +Doug Kovacs & +Roy Snyder got to the hotel. Just as I was throwing in the towel and packing up el Hombrecillo, the guys walked in the front door. Literally. We were packed up and on our way out when they showed up. I let Stan spend a little time meeting his "punkfather" and Roy and then the Muszkiewicz boys had to turn in.

Super-pleased to meet Uncle Doug

Friday

I cannot remember how Friday started. I want to say that we tried to get an early start on the day, but something kept us from it. Some morning obligation that kept us busy much later than we had anticipated. Thus, we got to the convention at 2 or 3p when I'd hoped to get there sooner. We also arrived hungry, so we sat down at the bar to eat. This is probably where we met up with +Andrew Moss and it wasn't long before we were hanging out with Bill again. Doug was there, too, as was +Jim Wampler. This is a part I can't remember very well. I know we pretty much hung out here for awhile. I probably ducked into the vendor hall to check out Roy's booth, but I'll be honest, I didn't get anywhere near the amount of booth time I'm used to. The next thing I knew, it was time for the OSR Panel. You know, this thing: http://saveordie.info/?p=1412

The panel was fun, as usual. I forgot that Ryan "lovely co-hosted" me on this. Well played, sir. 

(Also, you can totally hear Bill talk about Stan at the beginning of the seminar.)

After the panel, it was time for me to run DCC, one of my "A Night In Ur-Hadad" games, continuing the story started at Marmalade Dog 2015. Some folks in on the session (like Andrew Moss) were veterans of my "invent what you need as you need it" sort of improv and didn't skip a beat. Folks who were new to the format were, predictably, really good at it. It seems that when I ask folks to make stuff based on facts A, B & C and they're not used to it, their answers are wilder and weirder than the folks who are used to it, WHICH I FUCKING LOVE! All in all, it was a good game that involved each player going off in his own direction, shooting cannon into the crowd and ultimately resulting in the death of yet another Grand Vizier of Ur-Hadad. 

I should really start keeping track of the Grand Viziers.

Saturday

Saturday is going to read a lot like Friday but there were some notable exceptions. First, it snowed, which isn't too strange, since it's goddamn Michigan, but it was Stan's first snow. Ever. Here's what happened: 


He didn't exactly know what to do with it. That's great. 

Second, once we got there, we met up with +Cory Gahsman and his son Chase right away. I'm currently working on a project with these gents, and we had planned to talk business, so we went looking for a quiet place to talk. That ended up being the bar. We talked some business, somewhat renegotiated some terms of our project licensing contract and showed off a lot of Chase's work to some of the folks around. That's when things got really cool.

First, Bill Webb ended up joining up with us, hanging out and drinking Bloody Marys while we talked shop, which, of course, he joined in on. And that's when the artists started showing up. 

First, Chase got an art lesson from Doug. Down to "these are the kind of the pens you need to use." Then +Del Teigeler showed up and Chase got another art lesson. Art lesson number three came from +Stefan Poag who got there as the snows really started to intensify. 

Can you imagine being a 9 year old gamer, working on becoming a games industry artist and three known industry artists gave you advice? So cool. 

In the mean time, the snow had gotten completely out of control. 

The assembled personages at the bar shuffled a bit from hour to hour, but most of the time, it came down to me and Bill, until it was time for me to run my 7pm game. I spent about 7 hours (less the time it took to bring Katie & Stan home when they got tired) just chilling with Bill. Good times.

Saturday night, I ran the old Victory Games James Bond: 007 RPG for the first time ever. I had a great group of players (3 in number) including Del Teigler and Andrew Moss. Our 3rd player was a guy (whose name I sadly cannot remember but will insert if Del reminds me) who had come all the way from England to participate in U Con's Tekumel track (U Con's old school cred goes waaaay back!) and had seen my 007 game in the program and had to sign up! Pete Schwab would have been there for this session, but he ended up meeting with some family and with the aforementioned insane amount of snow, he didn't make it. Despite no Pete, we had a blast and would have saved the western world from the threat of a 3rd super power if the players hadn't ended up blowing up a uranium enrichment facility beneath the ruins of Carthage. Good times! 

Sunday

Katie & Stan showed up on Sunday mostly just to show up. We'd had a nice breakfast at the Wolverine in downtown Ypsi (which has sadly now closed its doors) and took our time getting there. By the time we were there, it was time for me to run "In Search of the Unknowable," aka Quasquetherion, my take on B1: In Search of the Unknown using Delving Deeper and some houserules designed for ease/speed of play. I had a really full table (8 players, I think) including a bunch of friends like Pete Schwab, Andrew Moss, Laura Williams, Stefan Poag (it's the second year in a row he's showed up to my games, so I must be doing something he enjoys), +James DeYonke, and other folks I can't remember right now (don't hold it against me!). The players explored Quasquetherion and plundered some riches, fought crazed cannibal halflings and zombie animals in clothes, had strange hallucinations caused by the echoed memories of a nigh-forgotten spell, had a few close brushes with things that freaked them out, wasted some time playing with curtains and managed to survive sleeping in the dungeon. Somehow. We had a good enough time that I agreed to run the group (or whoever could make it) through Quasquetherion again next year, which folks seemed to be pretty jazzed about.

At the end, I don't feel like I left U Con 2015. In many ways, it feels like U Con left me. I got to spent a weekend with so many great folks who I love spending time with, engaging in our favorite communal hobby, but in the end, they had to leave, and I stayed here in Ypsi. Thanks for coming, folks, I can't wait for you all to come back again. You're welcome any time. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Let's Talk About These Dice

I posted this pic on Instagram and G+ yesterday in preparation for talking about it over here. Here it is:


Let's talk about these dice.

Clearly, they're color-coded. Red dice have an Elder Sign (the crappy new Elder Sign, not the real one, but seriously, I'll take what I can get) on the 6. The blue ones have an Elder Sign on 5 & 6. The green ones have the Elder Sign on the 4, 5 & 6.

Some background: I got these from a Kickstarter I supported a while back (this one); they're for a series of Cthulhu Mythos games that include Arkham Horror and Eldritch [I'll just assume Horror]. I've written about the other Mythos-themed dice I picked up from the Q-Workshop booth at GenCon a few years back here: http://www.kickassistan.net/2013/09/stupid-dice-tricks-ad-hoc-game-system.html . (That last bit is important and we'll be coming it again over the next few days.)

These dice aren't exceptionally nice. They're a normal size and don't appear to be the high-impact sort of plastic that I'm used to in my gaming dice. More of a standard-grade, "you use this plastic to make cheap stuff" sort of plastic. The numbers are filled okay, but with lots of irregularities; I've not seen a number I couldn't read, but I've seen a few that look not-so-great.

What's good about them is that they represent something I really dig: they work like normal dice (every facet is numbered, so they can do your standard 1-6 in a pinch), but they have very clearly-marked "success facets" coming in nice, round probability chunks. Red die: 16.67% Green die: 33.33% (1/3). Blue die: 50%.

If you're rolling one red die, it's because you have a 33%, 1-in-3 chance of success. A blue die is 50/50, either/or. A red die is because you have a slim-ish chance.

1-in-3 is the point where I think it makes sense to start rolling dice. 50/50 can be dramatic I guess, so having the blue dice aren't a complete loss. 1-in-6 is mathematically interesting, particularly when we start adding multiple dice together to form a pool, especially when the pool size should have a dramatic impact on the probability of "positive" results.

I have uses for all these things, and I'll try to show you over the next few days. It's my Christmas gift to you. Pssssh, no it isn't. It's my first draft and exploration of an idea I'm working on.

photo via boardgamegeek.com
The reason my brain went to this place at all and why I bought these dice: the probability break downs on each "positive" result type by color is the same as in HeroQuest (the board game, not the pretender) broken down by action. For those not in the know, HeroQuest used unique dice to govern most actions. These d6's had faces in the following denominations:

  • Skulls - three facets
  • Shields - two facets
  • Black Shield - one facet
As a player or the game's DM (the unfortunately-named "Zargon," here present without the requisite Jim Holloway drawing [just an obtuse reference]), whenever you rolled to attack, you counted skulls rolled as successes and individual points of damage dealt. Players would hope to roll shields to defend and thereby negate Zargon's successes, while Zargon could only defend on a black shield. Thus, we see an interesting probability break down. Hits are fairly likely to accrue (50/50 for each die, with die pools ranging from 1 to 4 at the outset), players are more likely to defend (33% for each die) and monsters more likely to die (16.7% chance to defend per die). This, as far as d6 dice can go, is pretty interesting but simple probability.

Here are some things I'm working on using These Dice:
  • A "Negotiated Skill System" using the Green Dice. 
  • A d6-based system of supernatural patronage and corruption for games other than DCC using the Red Dice. 
  • I'm going to try hard to come up with a way that uses 50/50 probability (and thus Blue Dice) in ways that haven't already been used for Prince Valiant (d2!) or Burning Wheel (I've gotten far enough in BW to know how its dice work!)
If you have any ideas for how to make 50/50 probability interesting from a gaming perspective, I'd love to hear them. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Alignment Ain't for 1st Level

I had this thought last night while talking to the gorgeous wife: there is no reason for PCs to choose an alignment at first level, so why not save the decision to align oneself with the forces of Law or Chaos until the point where such a decision (a) makes sense for the character and (b) will contribute one way or the other toward the "eternal struggle" between the two forces?

Allow me to elucidate.

First, I'd like to re-introduce my concept of alignment as "that with which a character aligns himself." This is both a literal interpretation of the word "alignment" and a reference to how the concepts of Law and Chaos are used in the source literature of D&D, Chainmail and White Box D&D itself. The idea of alignment as a guide to behavior is, I feel, ridiculous. One does not "act lawful" or "act chaotic;" one has aligned himself with one of these "sides" or not. (As a side note, I won't even consider a "good vs. evil" axis as part of an alignment; it misinterprets alignment and is not the game I want to play.) "Chaos" is not "hey I'm a mischievous anarchist who loves personal freedom!" it's "I have dedicated myself to the cause of Chaos."

This distinction, I feel, requires that I discuss my ideas of what Law and Chaos represent and for this, I'll be using my Philosophy background. Law is the side of the eternal conflict that is governed by the logic of Kant's categorical imperative; that is, that (a) there is a universal "right" and a universal "wrong" in that if something is "right" now, it is always right, and if something is "wrong" now it is always wrong and that (b) a deeds "right-ness" or "wrong-ness" is determined by the following axiom.
If all people throughout history were to practice deed/action X, would society fall apart or flourish? 
If society crumbles, the thing is wrong. If society flourishes, it is right. Thus, the focus of Law is the society (whatever society) and placing the collective above the individual. Thus, the Lawful are expected to give and sacrifice of themselves in favor of the greater good while being vigilant against the deeds and actions that could cause society to crumble.

Similarly, Chaos's guiding principle is that of Nietzsche's nihilism and Rand's "enlightened self-interest:" that I, the individual, am supreme and not bound by any morality except that I should do as I will. As the plant lifts its leaves toward the rays of the sun, so too should I seek out the greatest personal power, for such is the way of nature. Sort of. As a "side" in the eternal struggle, Chaos exists by the seizing of personal power by leaders, the investiture of power to wizards and clerics by Chaotic supernatural beings like demons and by the exercise of personal will against beings lower on the Chaos totem pole than the exerciser. "Shit rolls downhill, so do everything you can to not be downhill."

Allow me to make a proposition at this point: it makes no sense for first-level characters to join the forces of Law or Chaos. If they are Chaotic, 1st-level characters start out at the bottom of the hill down which shit will roll. At best, they're amoral bandits who take what they want. At worst, they're hench-mooks in service to some greater, demanding Chaotic personality. The flip side is true of Lawful characters: at 1st level, can they expect to be anything but cannon fodder for the front lines of the war between Law and Chaos.

Or rather, shouldn't they be?

Shouldn't alignment matter? If it doesn't, what's the point in choosing it?

If alignment doesn't matter at first level (the way I've outlined it above or in some other thought-out way) then why should we waste the time writing one down?

Personally, I think that alignment must matter, even at first level and, precisely for that reason, it shouldn't be chosen at first level.

I'll develop that a little further.

In my Iron Coast game, we've had a mix of alignment for the past few years and it didn't really seem to matter (my bad). Now, as we're getting into the Conqueror phase of the ACKS game, I've been forced to ask myself, "what are each of these dudes conquering things for?" What does the fact that this character is Chaotic mean for anything that he chooses to build or the way in which he chooses to build it?

And then the realization hit me: if he hadn't needed to make an alignment decision at first level, but could have made it later on in his career he would have made a decision that fit the way the character has developed. Sure, Chaotic may sound great at level one when "no one's gonna tell me what to do, I'm out for teh phat lewts, son!" But at level 9 when you're carving out a kingdom for yourself, do you really want that kingdom to be all full of orcs and goblins and ogres and such? Maybe you do, that's cool. That's what Chaos is for.

My point, though, is that maybe we should hold off making that decision until it's an educated one.