Tuesday, June 6, 2017

An Experiment In Thuggery

At GaryCon IX this past March, I had the pleasure of meeting +Paolo Greco. Paolo and I hadn't really interacted before this, other than a passing admission of admiration for each other's work. I was hoping to meet him last year at GC VIII, but our paths never crossed. This past year, though, I was headed back to our room and when I crossed paths with him (I didn't recognize him at all, since in real life he looks nothing like a My Little Pony -- Geeplussers will get that -- but he was wearing a Lost Pages shirt) it turns out that he was in the room next to us along with a bunch of other great folks! (I'm not sure who all stayed in that room, but I know that +Jason Sholtis+Jeremy Duncan & +Richard G were a big part of the crowd hanging out there.)

Kate and I had the opportunity to play in Paolo's Gangs & Bullshit game, and it was here that we realized that he and I share a particular proclivity for the "thieves' guild" or gang-style game. Paolo's Gangs & Bullshit is just this and, he says, he wrote it as a reaction to Blades in the Dark and Dr +Edgar Johnson's own Street Kids of Ur-Hadad from MGOUH #1. As it so happens, I was planning on running Blades in the Dark as an after-hours game the next night with +James Smith, so there was this really cool confluence of things kind of running together in a few short days that really left its mark on me.

Gangs & Bullshit was a really neat game. I think I can talk about it a little bit without giving too much away -- but if Paolo says to shut this post down, I totally will. Gameplay is structured around two alternating phases: a planning phase and an... action phase? You know, the phase where stuff happens. The thing that really worked for me was that the planning phase had a real-world time limit attached to it: the entire party (gang, crew, whatever) has twenty minutes of real-world time in which to plan what they're going to try to accomplish in the next phase. Once that time limit was up, it's time to get shit done! During the action phase, everyone gets one broad action to take -- and this could be to participate in a heist, investigate leads, cook up a batch of drugs, pretty much anything -- and the phase ends when all of these actions are resolved. Back to the planning phase. It's pretty much this back and forth the whole time, with one cycle of phases representing around one week of time, more or less. Between each cycle, time passes, things move on and then before the next planning phase, the players get to learn about how things have changed in the game world since the last cycle ended. I loved this dynamic; it felt kind of addictive. I kept feeling like I wanted just one more turn... that same sort of feeling that keeps me up late at night playing Civilization.

As I said, the next night, I ran Blades In The Dark with James Smith. We knew this was going to end up a multi-table event because that's how shit happens with after hours con games, so we set up the first gang by the book (ish) and got them started on their nocturnal depredations. This game went pretty well, but suffered from something that Paolo's game didn't: the Kate & Kovacs Effect. You see, when my wife and +Doug Kovacs get together, they pretty much wreck shit. Maybe that's unfair. They didn't wreck this game. They played it precisely the way that they wanted to. That having been said, the way they wanted to play the game wasn't quite the way that the game wants to be played, so they made some table mayhem. All in all, the game was fun, but very little got done and when we added the second table things got confusing and muddled... but still fun.

I enjoy the mechanics of Blades, but it does take some buy-in and a small degree of system mastery (or at least system curiosity) to make its core principles work. Here, I think Gangs & Bullshit has the advantage: you don't really need to have any degree of system mastery to have a fun game where people can play a fun gang-scale game without any of the fancy doo-dad-ery of Blades. That having been said, the fancy doo-dad-ery of Blades is often its strength! I'm not going to say that the optimal game for me lies somewhere in between the two (I think that sort of logic tends to over-simplify things), but that it would likely employ aspects of either.

And so, I propse an experiment in thuggery.

I'd like to spend some time with these rules and see what I like about them, what works for me, what I feel I can take from them and make the game that I want to run. Here, Blades has the distinct advantage of actually being in print. Gangs & Bullshit, Paolo has admitted, is having a hard time making its way into a written format, so maybe we'll try to tackle that one later. For now, I think what I'd like to do is try to run Blades In The Dark for a predetermined number of sessions (maybe a certain number of heists?) and then do a little postmortem where I and my players sort out what we liked and didn't like about how the rules worked. I'd like to be able to do the same with Gangs & Bullshit, but it's not like I can twist Paolo's arm into getting him to write something just for me.

And so, who's up for playing some Blades In The Dark so I can figure out what I want to steal from it?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Michelson, Morley and the Winds of DWIMMERMARS

In 1887, the physicists Albert A. Michelson and Edward Morley, in true model of scientific rigor, sought to test the working theory of the day by a critical experiment. The prevailing theory that scientists of the day used to describe the wave-like motion of light, aetheric theory, posited a medium through which light waves move, particularly in a vacuum. Previous to aetheric theory, all forms of waves described by Physics were known to travel through a medium (consider the very use of the term "wave" as a descriptor for the phenomena and the motion of waters is conjured, is it not?), so was it not meet to attribute to the transmission of light waves a medium as well? How could light travel through a supposed vacuum if there were no medium -- imperceptible to human senses as it may be? After all, we do not instinctively identify air as a thing, as a medium, save by logical inference, primarily in the notable effects of its absence. And yet, even in the absence of air, the transmission of light remains possible, thus the presence of a medium, an aether (after the primordial Greek deity of light), may be inferred.

As one invents experiments to disprove rather than prove any theory, so did Michelson and Morley create an experiment to test the aetheric theory that they trusted. They predicted that if one refracted light far enough that its speed could be measured (the speed of light had been calculated as early as 1676 and accurately from 1729), and compared that measurement against those taken of refractions made at different angles, different times of the day, different points in the Earth's orbit and rotation, were aetheric theory correct, then some of those measurements would reflect a slowdown, an amount of drag, a sort of aetheric wind that would make some measurements of the speed of light slower. The Michelson-Morley experiment ultimately showed no difference between any measurements taken in any direction, at any time, under any conditions and thus was the nail in the coffin of a well-regarded and widely-accepted hypothesis. Aether was dead, despite the hue and cry of conservative scientists and future generations of steampunk enthusiasts.

It is undoubted that the Michelson-Morley experiment would be known, particularly for its revolutionary revelations, to the science-minded attendants at the 1889 Expedition Universelle, such as our beloved Professor Kingsley Bridger of the Royal Society (now peaceably returned to the relative safety of the fortress at Mun-Bur from his convalescent torpor within the Dwimmering Mount). It must have been a shock to Dr. Bridger, then to discover that the alien world of Tellus is cursed by no such deficiency of aether. Dr. Bridger's earliest experiments in Tellurian wireless telegraphy quickly taught the good doctor that not only was there an aetheric wind on the planet, but an entire aetheric weather pattern!

Much as predicted by the aetheric theory that Michelson and Morley disproved, were it to have the benefit of understanding the electromagnetic spectrum upon which future work in light and optics would be based, the aetheric wind affects all manner of phenomena. The long-distance communicators employed by the Tellurians, for example, may be interfered upon by aetheric weather, and the airships they fly sail on foils of light, the aether refracting light to create lift unimagined by the men of earth. Even stranger, the aetheric climate may affect and be affected by the electromagnetic emanations of the nervous systems of living beings; thus it is that those acclimated to such an environment may possess a certain telepathic capacity (I must also conjecture that this same capacity, when exercised, is what gives rise to the powerful mentalists of Tellus).

Professor Kingsley Bridger has learned much of the nature of the aethersphere of Tellus, and yet its greatest secret lies hidden in the depths of the Dwimmering Mount. Now that he has recovered from his suspended animation and nigh-mortal injuries, perhaps Dr. Bridger shall discover these secrets, the features of the Tellurian aether that Michelson and Morley ensured that no other Earthman would learn.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Arsenal of DWIMMERMARS

This post will not be revolutionary, it is merely me discussing the rules that DWIMMERMARS appropriates from other OD&D-ish games. As a reminder, all of the player-facing dice rolls (as I intend it) will be d20's and d6's to keep it as old school as possible. This makes damage and weapon rules of exceptional interest here, right? Well, here's some words about it.

Weapon Categories

Some definitions before we go too much farther. Obviously, we have the distinction between melee and ranged weapons, but largely we're going to treat these types of weapon the same, just use them at different points in the combat round. Instead, we're concerned with three different sorts of weapon at this stage: light weapons, hand weapons and large weapons.

Hand Weapons

Hand weapons are the easiest to sort out. They are used at the normal point in the initiative and combat round order, whether they are melee or ranged weapons. All hand weapons do 1d6 damage (bonuses for high Strength or Agility or range [see below] apply normally) and require only one hand to wield. At the Judge's discretion, certain weapons may be wielded with two hands and be treated as Large Weapons (see below).

Light Weapons

Light weapons are small affairs and may only ever be wielded in one hand, things like daggers or saps or small holdout pistols. All light weapons do 2d6kL (roll 2d6, keep the lower of the two rolls; modified for high Strength, Agility or range as normal) during normal combat situations, but allow the wielder to act before any character using a heavier weapon during the appropriate phase of combat (ties follow standard initiative order). Further, if the wielder of a light weapon has Advantage on his attack roll (for surprise or any other reason), the weapon is treated as a Large Weapon for purposes of determining damage (see below).

Example: Osterhagen has sneaked up behind the leader of a group of swinemen and strikes the unaware fiend with his dagger. Since the swineman leader is not aware of Osterhagen's attack, he has Advantage on the attempt and, since he is using a light weapon, he may treat it as a large weapon for purposes of determining damage! Phil, Osterhagen's player, rolls 2d6 and gets a 2 and a 5, and thus Osterhagen scores 5 damage against his foe. In the next round, since Osterhagen is still wielding his dagger, he gets to attack before the swineman leader does with his battleaxe in the melee portion of the round. Phil rolls a hit and then rolls 2d6 for damage. This time, he rolls a 3 and a 6; sadly, Phil ignores the 6 and Osterhagen deals 3 more points to the swineboss, a total of 8 points before the villain could even react!

Large Weapons

Large weapons are weapons that, by definition, must be wielded in two hands, things like halberds, pikes and rifles. When a hit is scored with a large weapon, roll 2d6kH (roll 2d6, keep the higher die value) for damage (modified for Strength, Dexterity or range as applicable). Due to their large size, however, large weapons always act last during their normal phase of the combat round (ties follow standard initiative order). At the Judge's discretion, damage done in excess of that needed to fell a foe may be applied to another nearby foe. Similarly, at the Judge's discretion, some large weapons may strike as a Light Weapon (before any weapons heavier than light) only during the first round of a conflict. It is not recommended that the Judge allow both of these options, however.

Example: Fonso the Remarkable is fighting a brace of swinemen while Osterhagen dispatches with their leader. Enduring a hail of blades from the swinemen, encountering only the most superficial of injuries, Fonso strikes back against the brutes. He swings his heavy maul into the side of one of their number, and Gabriel, his player, rolls for damage. He rolls 2d6, getting 4 and 6 for his rolls, taking the higher and adding one to it due to Fonso's prodigious strength, dealing a total of 7 damage! The maul strikes true and crushes the swineman's rib cage with enough force that the Judge rules that the strike carries through and strikes the proximate swineman, though without enough force to slay that fiend as well. 

Range And Ranged Weapons

At Long Range for any ranged weapon, that weapon strikes without penalty or bonus to either attack or damage rolls. At Medium Range, however, both attack and damage rolls gain a +1 bonus. At Short Range, these rolls gain a +2 bonus, making them exceptionally deadly!

Post Post Mortem

Turns out, this post was in no way about the weapons of DWIMMERMARS, and I should probably rectify that in a future post. Also, it became apparent that a post about combat procedures should happen soon because, in a way, this was one.

Monday, April 24, 2017

DWIMMERMARS: Rules & Goals

The brain-hurricane that is DWIMMERMARS has a series of discrete design goal, and each of these goals is as much of a consequence of my thoughts on what would make DWIMMERMARS an awesome campaign to run and play as it is a contributing factor to those thoughts in the first place. It's a sort of ouroboros-style system that would make a coherentist proud. 

Rules Goals

First, I want, no, personally, I need rules to be simple. To not get in the way of the game. To be the thing that we fall back to when in doubt. Something that assists play and does not intrude upon it. Like you do, I've been tinkering with what this means to me for the past few years and finding that I really want less and less in the way of rules since I'm going to ignore large swaths of them anyway. 

I can't describe the thought process that led me to decide that I wanted to run a Barsoom-influenced game, but I'm pretty sure that somewhere in there was picking up Warriors of the Red Planet by Al Krombach. Now that I think of it, I was pretty inspired by some early readings of Traveller and thinking about how to Barsoom it up, and a lot of those thoughts have been with me for awhile. But I really loved Krombach's approach of a Barsoom-flavored game that wasn't quite Barsoom, but was recognizably Barsoomian. Also, in its style and format, Krombach's book reminded me of an earlier text, Gygax & Blume's Warriors of Mars, which, I suppose, is the point, right?

G&B's Warriors of Mars was written as a wargame, but hey, this was 1974 and back then D&D was still considered a wargame. WoM does include 1-to-1 scale rules, which makes me think that it was intended to at least occasionally be run as an adventure-style game the same way D&D was, or at least it was designed to include that mode of play as an option, perhaps using D&D as an adjunct to facilitate it. This is probably where I started to think that what I wanted to run was an OD&D Barsoomian-style game, the white box-ier the better. 

When it comes to White Box-style gaming, you'd be doing yourself a disservice not to look at three specific rules sets: OD&D itself, Swords & Wizardry Whitebox (duh) and Delving Deeper. Regular readers of the blog (any of you who are left) will know that DD is my go-to rules set here, but I have some commentary that goes beyond "Adam likes Delving Deeper the most-est." First, while I do want the rules to be simple, I also need them to be clear. I don't feel that OD&D adequately hits that particular rubric; you'll often have to re-read the same passage over and over before hitting the ODD74 proboards to sort out what other meanings people have teased out of that oracular text. Aside from clarity, there was a degree of authenticity that I wanted to preserve as well, a sense of playing the game the way it was played in 1974, and I don't get that feeling from S&W's ascending AC and single saves. There is one thing, however, that I feel S&W White Box hits squarely on the head and that's ability score adjustments. 3-6 is -1, 7-14 is 0, 15+ is +1. I love that sort of simplicity, so that's something that we're stealing right there. As far as the nuts and bolts of the game go, I a huge fan of how Delving Deeper handles... pretty much everything else. So, with some minor substitutions, Delving Deeper is the chassis onto which the important moving parts get bolted with some important replacements. 

But that isn't where I stop because something big is missing to me. So far, we have a few rules for the thing that's hardest to adjudicate in games without those rules; combat. As an aside, I'd like to go out on a limb with a wild supposition that I just came up with right now for why so many games have rules for combat even if combat isn't the thing they're supposed to be about: think back to when you were a kid playing in the backyard or on the playground with other kids. My big childhood example is Star Wars, but yours could be anything. When imaginary play comes down to shooting each other with imaginary blasters or dueling with imaginary light sabers, eventually one kid asserts "I killed you!" to which the other kids' options are either to die or to "nuh-uh!" as loudly as they can. Either one of these options are equally possible, and imaginary play gives us no structure for how to adjudicate the possibility beyond "nuh-uh"s and "yeah-huh"s and name-calling and threats to call someone's mom, which never ends well. Instead of that stuff, in D&D-ish games, we have rules for combat, but that doesn't mean that's what the game is about.

Old Dogs, New Rules

In keeping with my goals of simplicity and clarity, I want a way to adjudicate non-fight-y stuff that comes into question. Where does one character's wheelhouse butt up against the world in a way that requires a method of sorting out which wins? 

Bear with me a moment, friends, as I take you on a little trip through my own thought process about a number of topics, because we're about to mash up a bunch of rules into a huge mass of that thought-ouroboros that we were talking about earlier, only to end up with a coherent system where the parts of that system end up making sense out of the influences and the answer. Here goes.

Way back when this blog got started, I was really excited about the Fate RPG. For a moment, let's suspend our later judgments about the faults and failings of that system (yes, even my own!) and think about the one way that Fate got one thing fantastically right: it uses common language to define details about characters in a contextual way. If my cowboy is The Fastest Gun in the West and has that detail as key part of his character (in Fate terms, an Aspect), then that detail, that rule element can have a bearing on gameplay whenever it is appropriate. This hits my sweet spots as far as rules go: common language is used and it's contextually applicable. 

Another game that does things well even if I'm not 100% on board with everything it does is Christian Mehrstram's WhiteHack. In a lot of ways, I think that the biggest thing that WhiteHack gets wrong is only being in print and not offering a pdf version, but that's a shot that I'm obligated by own personal goals to include, not because it has any bearing here. The applicable rules element from WhiteHack is what that system calls "Groups." As bland and obfuscatory as that name is, Groups are basically the same thing as Fate's Aspects: short, common-language terms that define details about the character. While the name is strange, one of the cool things that WhiteHack does is give some PCs more Groups to make up for poor stats; after all, if you're the incapable, unwise, clumsy guy in the party, why are you even there? Groups give us an answer by providing a competency for each deficiency, often in the form of a tie to a group beyond that character themselves, called an "Affiliation" in the text. 

However (and you knew there would be a however, right?), I take issue with one thing in WhiteHack and that's its roll low mechanic. Ugh. Not a fan. The "roll just under" mechanic and the "roll below this but above that" mechanic that show up here and there make it a little more interesting, but rolling low just isn't my bag. Also, I'm not a fan of the lack of strong central tendency in the distribution of a d20. (This is the point where I grudgingly admit that Fate got something else right, even if I don't like their implementation of it.) Instead, I'm a bigger fan of "success counting" mechanisms like that of Shadowrun or The Burning Wheel. Let's all take a moment for ourselves to scoff at the complexities and time-sinks of these games before we all come back and actually give their mechanics the attention and focus that they deserve. 

I love dice pools, but they have to be of a manageable scope. Rolling 36d6 is not an option. BW does a better job here than SR. Also, I don't want to track a bunch of discrete skills the way either of these games does, so we're going to do something different instead. Some of you may remember my post about my negotiated skill system [HERE]; in this post, I posit building a dice pool based on a dialog between the player and the DM where, in the end, you've managed to roll a die for each relevant factor that you can apply (or convince the DM that you should be allowed to apply). For DWIMMERMARS, I take this basic concept and tie it to Mehrstram's "Groups" (but we really need a better name for them, any thoughts? Maybe "background elements?"), so that your short descriptions of story elements of your character can have a real impact on the game itself. Thus, +Gabriel Perez Gallardi's Fonso, the fugitive anarchist, may negotiate bonus dice whenever he has to deliver a screed against an unjust power structure, hiding from the authorities or when making explosives. Oh, and we'll give Fonso a bunch of bonus Groups/Aspects/Whatevers because he has a 6 (-1) in one thing and a 5 (-1) in something else. That's how we roll, but literally and figuratively. 

A perfect use for these dice
In the end, our skill system works like this: tell me, the DM, some junk about your character. We're going to pick some of that stuff as being important, relevant from a rules perspective. If you didn't come up with a detailed enough story (because we have some "open slots" yet to define), let's make your story more convoluted. Every time one of those relevant elements comes up, you get to add a die to your dice pool and we'll count successes. Since I don't want to get into a "number of successes necessary" trap here, let's say that all you need is one success to do the thing; since we're requiring so few successes, it makes sense to make those successes scarcer than they are in something like the Burning Wheel. For most heroic tasks, you succeed on a 6; for easy ones, you succeed on a 5 or 6. That's it. While we're at it, let's throw binary success/failure out the window, too. If you don't roll any successes, the DM can rule that you do succeed, but at a price; or introduce a complication that explains why you didn't do it. Basically, if you succeed, dear player, you take authorial control of the situation; if you don't, you pass that baton to the DM and they take control. 

What do you think? What's a better name for the Groups/Aspects thing? What problems can you see taking shape here that I haven't foreseen? How can you see this working (or not) in your own games? I'd love to hear your thoughts and feedback. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Let's Talk About DWIMMERMARS

I've been talking about DWIMMERMARS a lot over on DSR's G+ page and Twitter. Last night, the first DWIMMERMARS session was streamed on DSR's Twitch channel (twitch.tv/dsrcast). But WTF is DWIMMERMARS anyway? After some prompting from +Christopher Mennell, I figure it's about time to talk about it. 

I'll be honest: I never read any of the Barsoom novels before I got started on my own personal OSR, and even then, it wasn't until a few years ago, after I'd started this blog.

I'll be honest: I can't run a game straight, the way it was intended. I have to chop it up, rearrange it, swap out parts I don't like for parts I do, make it my own.

I'll be honest: my fascination with World's Fairs began with reading Devil in the White City, but there's so much cool history to the World's Fairs that I just got hooked. It's like looking at a snapshot of how scientific and societal innovations shaped history over time.

I'll be honest: I just can't stop monkeying with rules and so I'm always looking for an opportunity to test them.

I'll be honest: DWIMMERMARS is what happens when all of these things get together and give me the opportunity to run with it.

The Set Up

After its maiden voyage on the morning of May 8th, 1889, the 2nd day of the Expedition Universelle, it would be decades before another lift would make another voyage up the height of the Eiffel Tower. That ascent would be accompanied by phenomena throughout the Champs de Mars. One reporter from Le Monde Illustre reported that as that fateful traverse began, the arc lights pulsed brightly several times -- despite the glare of the rising morning sun -- before flaring in a bright flash that burst many bulbs in a hail of glass shards and blue crackling electricity. One of his compatriots from Le Figaro was, at the time, at the pavilion of the Theosophical Society. The Le Figaro reporter was regarding a series of stone artifacts, recently rescued from Neptune's clutches, that the Theosophists purported to be relics of Atlantis or Mu or Lemuria depending on one's source. At the moment of the arc lights' eruption, their hellish lightning corruscated through the Theosophist's pavilion, channeling through the unnamable, inscrutable runes, previously invisible, across the stony facades of those forgotten objets. Those unlucky few who crossed the threshold onto that lift did not merely ascend the tower, but rather were transported, accelerated at a rate hitherto unwitnessed by man, up into the heavens, on a bolt of blue and violet fury that tore its way skyward, beyond the limit of any attendee's vision.

The lift and her doomed entrants would not be found anywhere in the arrondissements of La Ville Lumiere. Mr. Eiffel's engineering marvel would allow her visitors to ascend no higher than her second platform, and then only by the stairs. Arc light bulbs would be replaced, as would the glass in the Theosophists' pavilion. Time would pass and soon  the articles in Le Monde Illustre and Le Figaro would be forgotten, for other feats of scientific wizardry and happenstance would soon cloud the popular consciousness.

For the passengers on the lift, however, these events were eminently memorable. When they regained their senses, they found themselves naked, lying in the multicolored dust under an alien sky. They had arrived on the foreign badlands of Tellus, their only path home through mythical Dwimmering Mount, the looming stone colossus on the western horizon.

And that's all we have time for today. Next time, I'll get into particulars.