Sunday, 30 September 2012

One Page Chases: Final

So, thanks for all your input. It was clear that the graphics-only version of the chase rules wasn't cutting it, so I've gone back to the text plus graphics style of One Page.

This is just more economical of space; for example, rather than rest the interpretation of difficulty of terrain on a squiggly brown line, or actually put in graphics representing all different kinds of terrain that could be difficult, I let a line of words do it for me.

Even so, the One Page format forces simplicity on the rules. So, instead of the "roll to lose sight" in the text incarnation, now it's just a flat number - the randomness and excitement come from the chase procedure itself.

An extended ruleset would cover things like tracking and listening after losing sight, but an aware enough GM can handle that kind of thing ... right?

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Chase, No Words

What do you think? Is this a clear enough expression of the basic chase rules from earlier this week (everything except "losing sight")? Or does it come across more like a rebus you have to figure out? What icons or symbols would you add? Where do you need some words to come in?

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

In Search of the Universal Visual Language

Players of the "Eurogame" type of board game may have noticed that often the cards, board and everything else but the rulebook are produced with a language-free iconography. This reduces the production costs for the international market, because only the rulebook needs to be translated.

But can these glyphs be deciphered without reading the rulebook in your native tongue? Getting this across successfully depends on communicating either in icons (pictures with a one-to-one, analog correspondence to the thing being described) or in universally accepted symbols (pictures understood to stand for a concept without depicting it literally.)

Sometimes this is easy:

From these tiles in the game Caylus, you can see that they either produce a resource cube of that color, give you a choice of two resource cubes, let you trade the resource cube for 4 cash (white here meaning any color), or build you another game element (at top left).

Sometimes, as I've pointed out before, this is hard:

The clear sign that the Race for the Galaxy designers have lost the plot by this expansion - if not before - is their need to explain the iconography in tiny text below. So do you have icons with illegible text on a see-through background, or do you have text with clumsy big uninterpretable icons? Hey, why not both.

I've been mulling over these issues because of a French-language blog that recently linked to me with praise for my old one-page graphic on breakage. While I was glad of that, it made me think that part of the appeal was the language-free simplicity of that graphic. Most of my One Page graphics since then have had a lot of words on them, getting away from the original inspirations by Telecanter that he has produced more or less word-free.

While it's easy to express graphically "5 or more points of damage breaks this," it's hard to put into pictures: "He heals one disease and, unless he makes a Mind save, may not use another miracle that day." Things that are hard to express are those that need symbols rather than icons. A few symbols like the arrow of sequence or causality, or the red X of negation, can be used in limited senses. But how do you express choices or conditional statements? With a flowchart? Even negation is often ambiguous. if you have a red X over a sword does it mean you can't attack, can't attack with bladed weapons, with swords in particular - or you can't be attacked with all those possibilities? Or can't carry a sword?

I use the One Page format to keep rules to a basic level of simplicity. Would No Words be even simpler? Could you even code D&D that way, let alone my fancy house rule D&D with all the subsystems?

In any case, I'll be looking back as I review my One Page rules to see if any bits of text can go. And next time I'll show my attempt at a No Words version of the chase rule from the previous post.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Last Word on Game "Fans"

xkcd just nailed it to the wall.

Nailed: the worst variety of dilettante players of competitive games. Doubly so if the game involves identification with a strategy or faction. Heck, any simulationism opens the door to "I should be able to win doing this!"

What would the RPG equivalent be? Something like

"Hey, can I play? I heard this game really encourages fun!"

(backstab) (grind) (argue) (derail) (nitpick)

"This game isn't very well designed. For starters, it didn't keep me from ruining your fun."

Monday, 24 September 2012

Back to the Chase

Picking this up from a while ago, what kind of complications should we add to a simple "roll d6 for each 30' of movement" to make a more engaging chase system?

At a minimum this needs to have:

obstacles, generating them during play if the chase isn't going through a detail-mapped area - giving an advantage to nimble or athletic racers

fatigue,  giving an advantage to fit racers

things that end the chase - the chase leader disappearing from view and being untrackable by sight, or deciding to hide; at which point the chasers have to either split up or use other tracking and detection means. Also rules for what happens when the chasers catch up.

So here we go...

Layout of the chase: At the point where one group or individual flees an encounter, and an enemy group or individual pursues, create a chase track of about 20-50 spaces where each space = 10' (using a battlemat, Snakes and Ladders board, etc.; or just use percentile dice to represent their distance along the track). Lay out the fleeing and pursuing figures representing the relative distance between them. To save space on the track, you can assume that a figure must move 12 spaces just to stand still, and move them backwards or forward on the track according to how much they exceed or fall short of this number.

Conducting the chase: First the fleeing, then the pursuing figures move. Each fleeing figure rolls 1 d6 for each 3 points (30 feet) of movement he or she has.

For each die that rolls 1, the figure moves ahead 2 spaces.

For each die that rolls 2-5, the figure moves ahead that number of spaces.

For each die that rolls 6, the figure makes a Body save (aka Fortitude, Poison). If it succeeds, it moves 6, if it fails, it gets fatigued, moves only 3, and has a -1 to its movement rate in future rounds (that is, subtract 1 from the number of squares moved on any die roll). Penalties from multiple failed fatigue rolls add up. Staying in place for 1 round removes all fatigue penalties.

Movement Obstacles: These procedures generate random terrain for areas of the chase you don't have closely mapped. You can use the rules for how these obstacles affect pursuit even if you have them mapped out already.

Rolls of 1 made by the leading figure may create Movement Obstacles. If running across flat ground (dungeon floor, plains) the leader creates one obstacle for every 3 1's rolled. If running across ground with some obstacles (shrubs, fields, bumpy floor) he or she creates one obstacle for every 2 1's rolled. If running across ground with many obstacles (forest, city alleys, busy streets, jagged ground, swamp), one obstacle is created for every 1 rolled. Put the obstacles separately in the spaces right in front of the leader before he or she moves.

Each obstacle requires the leader to make a Speed save or have -3 movement that round, to a minimum of 0. Pursuing figures must make the same save when moving through an obstacle. If you're subtracting 12 movement spaces from each figure, this would make the obstacles travel backwards on the track 12 spaces per round.

Losing Sight: At the end of a round after everyone has moved, roll dice to see if the pursuers have lost sight of the pursued, who may have disappeared around a corner, over a ridge, or behind some foliage. The DM rolls a number of d6 that will tell how many 10' spaces the leading pursuer can see ahead in the environment. If this is less than the distance to the last fleeing figure, sight is lost.

Flat, clear land: d6+100 spaces
Low hills: 3d6 x 2 spaces
Steep hills/mountains: 3d6 spaces
Light forest, city streets, light mist: 2d6 spaces
Heavy or hilly forest, city alleys, heavy fog: d6 spaces

If the total dice roll is even and sight is lost, the pursued figure may try to hide on the spot, subject to skill resolution. If the total dice roll is odd and sight is lost, there is an opportunity for the leading figure to go one of two ways and not be seen in the act; pursuers must then try to track their quarry, or split up to continue the pursuit.

Next up: Some issues in representing this all visually.

Friday, 21 September 2012

What To Do With A Blank d20?

Yep, I bought one at GenCon.

I've got paints and a fine-point brush. What goes on it?

Thursday, 20 September 2012

On the Resolution of Tropical Beasts

The big silhouette .zip file expands yet again with a bunch of beasts for the Warm/Natural table.

I have to give fair warning - all these silhouettes are done at a scale with 250 pixels as their maximum dimension, so they can fit into Hexographer. They are also all-black - no grays for smoothed pixel edges, because when made transparent those just halo the image. So, at larger resolutions they may look grainy.

To be fair, some of Telecanter's original silhouettes have the same problem, as you can see from Adventurer Conqueror King where they were used as spot illustrations. Now there's a daunting task - to go back through my collection, sometimes revisiting the source files, to try and reconstruct every silhouette at a higher res!

Any interest in a silhouette tutorial? I've developed my chops in the freeware paint program GIMP to the point where, once I grab an image with good edge definition, it's a pretty quick road to the finished silhouette.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Spell Cards: Unseen Servant, Translate

 Unseen Servant is one of those spells that's like a Rorschach test, or perhaps a red cape, for the DM and game designer. Eventually players who get this spell are going to want to push it - doubly so if you're using a rules-light system like my "all on one card" mandate for spells. They'll want to know whether they can send the servant ahead to scout, what it can see or hear, how it can communicate with you ("tap once for a humanoid, twice for an arthropod"), whether it can spread flaming oil or run through flaming oil or crouch behind an enemy so you can knock it down with Three Stooges footstool-jutsu.

One approach is to write out more and more rules to cover every possible angle. Truly the task of Sisyphus, because you can never cover every possible angle ("DM, is my unseen servant as 'fully functional' as Lt. Data?") Going down that path, you end up with a binding document of indeterminate length that you are obliged to consult and that still doesn't cover players' full creativity.

But think about the effect that has on the players. In Indianapolis, there is a nightclub where posted signs forbid the wearing of gang insignia, athletic wear or "jorts" (jean shorts). Does that sign make you feel safer, knowing that gang bangers and casually dressed ruffians are denied entry? Or does it serve the same purpose as the two-page legalese spell description - typecasting the patrons of your establishment as hooligans to be legislated against, daring them to find the loopholes?

Now consider the other approach. You're a live referee, not a dead tree rulebook - make the most of it. Inspirit the world. The few short lines on the card are what the player-wizard knows about the inscrutable contracts binding the Unseen Servant to its master. Much is left uncertain, and the servants have a reputation for arbitrary pettifoggery. For this purpose only they are allowed to form sounds in your inner ear. They belong to one of six different extraplanar labor unions, each of which forged a slightly different agreement, and the clauses in the contracts are constantly changing.

This gives you license to make things up as you go along, to balance the game as you go along, to correct mistakes where you give the players too much or too little. Using the servant for scouting ahead? Sure, but ... he will only answer, by tapping, three yes or no questions about what he's seen. It's not the DM making things up. It's not the rules document trying to nail them down.  No, the unseen servant has a mind of its own, and only the most ill-tempered player would question the DM's puppetry.

As for Translate ... it is what you make of it. Knowing an inscription in a long-dead language or whatever the rhino people are saying amongst themselves can be the difference between life or death.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Take Your Scrimshaw Dice And Shove Em

I know it's bad enough to play a dice game where players are encouraged to bring their own dice to the table. I know this because I was having a conversation with the ghost of legendary bluesman Slippery Okra Van Buren and when I told him he just shook his head and offered to hold on to my wallet for safe keeping.

I know it's worse when players then get possessive about their dice and develop all kinds of rituals and superstitions. I have some news for you. Your "super special lucky die" is actually a loaded die due to inevitable manufacturing defects. You are not blessed by Gary Gygax's ghost, you are cheating at roleplaying. In fact, sometimes I think the "sometimes roll high, sometimes roll low" mechanics of yore are a blessing in disguise because they route around dice bias.

The World Series of Dice is not having any of it.
But hey, I try not to get bent out of shape about it. And then along comes the character who bought these dice that only Abdul Alhazred can read from across the table.

OK, so those last couple of 3D printed ones look cool. But leave them in the display case, wouldya? You're not doing yourself any favors, either; your most lightweight side is the 1 and that's going to constantly roll to the top. And everyone else, it's bad enough you bring your own dice but now I have to trust you to read them off from their 6 inch legibility range? And don't you know that special symbol is robbing your natural 20 of its game-galvanizing power, as everyone sits there going "Uh ... is that a 1 or a 20? Oh, a 20. Uh... cool."

Your dice can be pretty ... but first and foremost they're tools of the game. And everyone else at the table gots to be able to read them.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Putting Two Great Encumbrance Ideas Together

The first great idea, of course, is James Raggi's Lamentations encumbrance: heavy items are written in a separate list, and encumbrance can just be figured out as the count of that list. By "heavy" I take it to mean objects longer than about two feet, or heavier than 4-5 pounds or so.

The second, which you might not have seen, is Rotten Pulp's visually interesting location-based encumbrance, by Matt Rundle and Jack Mcnamee. Their logic is solid: in fiction, adventuring characters never think about their total load like eighteen-wheelers at a weighing station. Instead, the drama revolves around backpacks, sacks and belts; individual carrying items that can be pilfered, damaged, or dropped in a hurry.

Realistically, too, so much of packing depends on a good distribution around the body. If you pile too much onto your back or your hips, you're not going to move as effectively as if you've packed in a more even way. So shouldn't it make sense that it's the location rather than the whole body that can get overloaded?

 Here's what I came up with as a combination of the two ideas. You have a list divided into three sites: backpack, torso harness, and waist belt. Half of the lines in each list are "overload"; any item placed on them will reduce your move by 3. Dwarves and strong people get free items. Bad things can happen to items outside the backpack - they'll have a chance to break on body criticals or if you fall down, and can be pickpocketed - but things inside the backpack need a full combat round to retrieve.

Armor worn can be thought of as an extra area, with leather being part of the free zone, chain giving -3 and plate giving -6.

Smaller and lighter items are non-encumbering, but it makes sense to also have separate areas for backpack, pouches and purses that are handier to get to, and items secreted on the person, in blouses, boots and so on (these take a round to get out as well.)

Loads should be listed out assuming the character is carrying nothing in the hands. If carrying a shield or weapon makes a difference, this should be noted. If not carrying any useful tool or weapon, the hands can also be used as an extra space that can carry up to 4 weights without losing movement, or 8 weights with an additional -3 move.

(Incidentally, I changed "Encumbrance" to "Heavy Items" as the title for the list and system - it's more understandable to normal folk and leaves behind the baggage, so to speak, of old encumbrance systems detailed down to the copper piece.)

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Player Wilderness Map and Doodle

 Here's another awesome player map from my campaign - an overland journey from Kaserolle (in the south) to Goran's Anvil (unmarked, in the north). Along the way, the players met with owls of doom, a goblin head on a stick, an archaeopteryx flying out of a misty chasm, and much more.

Click to enlarge ...

The same player sketched this scene of a shepherdess' reaction to a group of six armed strangers emerging from the woods, led by a dwarf, near the start of the "Faerie" episode they are currently in. This is the moment before she screamed and ran for the village.

We all agree that she should remember to bring her sketch book to the game more often ...

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Spell Cards: Featherweight, Light

A while back I posted about the idea to use spellbooks from the defunct collectible card game Zatch Bell as a lodging for players' spell cards. It required a little resizing to the skinny card sleeves they have but I'm now proud to say that the player of Sivir the Elf now carries her four spells in a little gray book. And will never again forget how Sleep works ... right?

Two years ago I posted a long series reworking the standard spell lists that had remained much the same across editions of D&D. Later, I tried boiling the spell list down to the most essential spells and stating them as single cards. This time around the spell list is expanded, some of the dog spells thrown out (Temptation/Fortitude anyone?) and I think it's a good time to go two by two through the card-based spells I use in my current games.

The one thing I'm missing, I think, is crazy-ass spells. Stuff like Tobias' Obeisant Simian Valet from the New York Red Box campaigns, or Matt Finch's Strange Waters spell that got into Flame Princess. Always looking for the good suggestions on those. But now, on to the mundane stuff...

The number in parentheses is the caster level required to cast the spell; the range of both of these is sight, 30' and they represent the Yellow School of Change and the Red School of Energy.

Featherweight is the ultimate repurposing of the Feather Fall spell. Brendan on Untimately has recently posted some good insights about how OD&D spells can be understood like equipment, solutions for specific exploration problems like locked doors and illegible inscriptions. Well, if that approach to spells is Phillips-head screwdriver for Phillips-head screw, I want spells to be more like Swiss Army knives with strange emergent properties.

Players in my games have used Featherlight to cross a pit in the course of escaping a troll - who nonetheless batted them around like a party balloon - and to make opening a secret door that much easier. Nobody's yet had the chance to use the Wiley Coyote gambit ... cast it on the big bad monster, push it back with a pole over the cliff edge until 10' has passed, and then bye-bye. By the way, it's "weightless" in the sense of  "zero gravity," so that monster will still exert force and do damage as normal. (Even more devious, find yourself a 300 lb weight in the dungeon, go stand by it and yell until something comes along; then toss it up until it has flown 10' in the air, and run like hell.)

With Light, I cut to the chase and make provisions for its offensive use. Straightforward enough, but both of these spells with a little luck and ingenuity can get even a beginning party out of an out-of-level monster encounter in a jiffy. I guess if you see spells-as-equipment, then these represent the kind of creative uses of equipment that are the pinnacle of Old School play style.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

D&D's Modular Bounty

Last night the players met the Three Fine Gentlemen, who in the Dragonsfoot module "Red Tam's Bones" are set to bedevil the players as they go about the quest of recovering the bones for the good of the Holy Church and the erotically haunted Duke's daughter.

In the course of conversing with these foes, my players realized they liked them and the roguish, departed Tam better than they did the sourpusses of the Church and State, their ostensible employers. Avoiding a donnybrook, they still got experience from the encounter, and a new tip - perhaps the spirit of Red Tam could be found elsewhere, placated by other means?

"Yes, but ..."

So off the railroad and on to  the Faerie Road to a certain Market, from where it should be possible to find the Winter Court wherein Red Tam's spirit might be found ...

Oh YEAH. The thing about D&D is that, over nearly 40 years of this game, there is an insane amount of material that is more or less compatible with whatever version you're playing. Need a Faerie Court? There's Ravenloft stuff and 3rd edition stuff  and even a tasty-looking module from the renowned Wolfgang Baur which comes wrapped in a 4th edition crust ...

Well, despite the wrong turn in later editions, D&D's basic simplicity makes it ideal for improvised, free-running campaigns like the one I run. And sure, there are plenty of other simple systems. But what I appreciate about D&D is the ready availability of material - to be modified and hacked and hijacked to be sure, like my players hijacked "Red Tam's Bones," but that's part of the fun, and having the D&D corpus at my beck and call means I only have to put in a fraction of the work.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Menagerie Almost Done

Another update to the Menagerie zip file of 250 pixel public domain silhouettes (link on the right) and the last of the Savage outdoor encounter table.

Su-monster: What the hell, right? Has anyone ever used a su-monster, ever? Anyway, some kind of monkey man from Phylopic did nicely.

White ape: Lots of people want these Burroughs stalwarts in their game; my reference is Joe Bloch's version in Castle of the Mad Archmage.

Tar pit: Homage to the Aurora model kit.

Fossil: A favorite from the Hamsterish Hoard.

Wind walker: Hard to illustrate. I ended up drawing a human shape around some wind lines from an old engraving.

Island Fish, Island Turtle, Ape Men: Guess I'll have to stat those up at some point.

Grimlock: Gold star to anyone who can identify the source image.

Minotaur lizard: Monitor, minotaur, let's call the whole thing off.

Does that mean the outdoor encounter tables are finished? Hell no! There's still a tropical and an arctic table, and I've started work on those.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Climbing-On Bandwagon

Scrap Princess made some rules for a cool thing that almost no rulesets cover: smaller creatures climbing on larger ones to attack them. Like this.

Zak simplified the rule down, getting it more in line with the D&D chassis. I mean, Scrap's idea of damage reduction if you can only attack something's legs makes sense, but that's really changing the D&D rules rather than adding on. The one thing I'd like to keep, though, is using multiple climbs to get a really good advantage on a much bigger enemy.

Then I realized that climbing-on fits perfectly with the One Page brawling system. Once you get into brawling range - effectively giving up your initiative to do so - you can take down or pin your opponent if you're about the same size, pick it up and throw it if you're bigger, and now ... climb on it if you're smaller. The "shaking off" rules even use the same system as the throwing rules. Adding the climb-on stuff also helped me find the will to clean up and simplify the rest of the system from its previous version.

Here I'm assuming for simplicity's sake that a climber either finds a place it can't be attacked from, or that the big creature prefers to use its attack to try and scrape off the climbing creature rather than injure itself.

This has the potential to turn the tables considerably, especially for high-dexterity types. Think of it as a kind of continuous backstabbing, but with some amount of risk involved. Just remember, if vermin with some kind of climbing ability are allowed to get on you - and it's in character for giant spiders and centipedes, who'd probably get frustrated trying to bite boot leather - they become a lot nastier, too.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

I Cut My Twee With Some Gangster

Look, I'm not expecting D&D module writers to be Hermann Hesse. I'm not even ... sheesh, OK, let me back up here.

This is about my current campaign, so anyone who's in that campaign (or about to make a guest appearance) might want to look away and come back in a few months' time.

So, our heroes got teleported to an area on the border between a stodgy theocratic state and the Elven realms. Wanting to have a change of tone in the campaign, I set out looking for published materials involving fey or faerie realms. I put out a call for help on the RPG Site forums and got a number of general pointers as well as a few specific modules.

Now when it comes to non-Tolkien elves - faeries, sprites, terrible monarchs and rotund little toadstool nobodies - and the human types that seem to crop up alongside them - roguish seducers, merry bards, manic pixie dream girls, pratfalling authority figures - there are three ways you can go.

You can go serious, as Gene Wolfe in his Wizard Knight series and Susanna Clarke in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Christina Rossetti in her poem "The Goblin Market" handle the fairy world, as Hermann Hesse (I warned you) in Narcissus and Goldmund handles the devil-may-care second titular character. There is magic, there is enjoyment, but it's glimpsed from a sober vantage point, and there are consequences. Terrible consequences for the faerie magics that annihilate space and time and cause and effect, tragic consequences for the thoughtless seducer like Goldmund or Don Giovanni.

You can go wistful, like Hope Mirrlees did in Lud-in-the Mist, like Shakespeare did in A Midsummer Night's Dream, like Neil Gaiman who avowedly was inspired by Mirrlees' approach, like rakes and fops in Restoration comedy. The fairy realm is strange and frightening, the seduction and carousing disruptive, but the overall mood is kindly and comedic. Out of the roleplaying materials I've seen, the closest thing to successfully evoking this kind of atmosphere is a One Page Dungeon contest winner, The Faerie Market (pdf link).

(Back to literature, let's not forget Jack Vance's wonderful Lyonesse, navigating its fairyland with skill between the dreadful and the merciful.)

But then - alas! - we have a couple of role-playing modules who take an approach sadly reminiscent of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Outrageous Okona". They grab you by the neck, shove your face into the funny, and scream "Look! Are these not some merry pranks we have got here?" It is my duty to report that, as interesting as their adventure situations are, the Dragonsfoot module "Red Tam's Bones" by John Turcotte and the early-period d20 module "The Goblin Fair" by Matt Finch fall into this category when it comes to style.

Here's some advice for anyone trying to write a lighthearted adventure: You are not writing jokes for the DM to read aloud. You are setting up potentially funny situations for the DM and players to work with, which is the only way there is going to be laughter at the table. So, please do not write boxed text in a Renfaired-out, Keebler O'Shaugnessy voice. Do not wink and leer about the naughty goings-on, especially if your coy innuendo is laid on so thick that we have no idea what's going on and we're forced - forced I tell you! - to come up with perverted possibilities much worse than what you probably intended.

Anyway, even with that stylistic chaff out of the way, there's something in me that rebels against going full-on twee. This is why the aspect of faerie fiction that grabbed me most in the lead-up to this campaign was the addictive, disinhibiting "fairy fruit" explored by Rossetti and Mirlees. So the base for this campaign is turning out to be a kind of "Hamsterdam" from The Wire, the town of Famorgane through which both licit and illicit trade between the theocratic Inviolacy and the elven and faerie realms is conducted.

And naturally, there's a local strongman movin' that fairy fruit - "The Greengrocer," Anton the Mountain. Last night the party had some entertaining interactions with him, trying to sell off the purple worm ivory they had brought with them from the previous adventure, and somewhat unwittingly being tried out for roles in his gang, before setting out on their quest for Red Tam's bones.

There's time enough for fairy rings and little people later on, the way the adventure is headed. It's just amusing to realize that I've got to grit up my twee with some gangster to make it work for me.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

From One-Nerd Game to Multi-Nerd Game

People who write about role-playing games sometimes harken back to a Golden Age of the olden hobby. In this white box dreamtime, the nerd did sit down with the jock and everyone in school was swept up in this crazy D&D fad, before [your least favorite edition] happened and everything collapsed.
The last time D&D was ever marketed to cool people.

Others quest for an El Dorado, a revitalized hobby scented by Febreze instead of cat piss. In this odyssey, families, regular folks, and the ever elusive middle aged soccer mom are skilfully steered clear of all things stigmatizing, difficult and awkward - lost sheep emerging into an engrossing world of participatory narrative that they never knew.

These twin idylls are probably distorted and certainly unrealistic as a characterization of the past or the conceivable future. They read like the “glorious past, glorious future” thinking of extremist terrorist groups (pdf link) although I’ll allow that those who follow roleplaying dreams destroy only disk space on forum servers.

All the same, many of us have glimpsed the possibilities. The impromptu game on a train with an utter non-gamer. The clique of punks in my high school who ran a wild mishmash of Runequest and D&D. And the Eden myth is somewhat true - earlier versions of the rules are more friendly to non-geek play. This is not because the rules themselves were readable and playable by the average person – quite the opposite! Rather, it’s because they invested most of the rules knowledge in the referee.

The approach up through AD&D was to give the DM authority and keep as much of the rules secret as possible. The DM Guide was supposed to be a secret from the players, the attack and saving throw matrices locked away inside its covers and behind the sacred screen. Skill use was entirely the province of the DM.

This meant that players could take a naive, analog approach to the game. With no rules knowledge at all, they could proceed by just saying, “I do this, does it work?” More to the point, they didn’t need to be confronted with a wall of stats and procedures. It’s not that they had no agency; it’s that their agency was completely in-character.

And then the nerds ruined it for everyone else; the way that, buying cases of cards at a time, they destroyed Richard Garfield’s vision for Magic: The Gathering as an ever-unfolding surprise. The nerds had to know what they needed to hit armor class zero; they had to have clearly defined skill procedures; eventually, they had to have feats and powers to feel special. As character options< became more complex, optimized builds became a focus and obsession. Instead of the wall of nerd elitism stopping at the DM screen, it grew to enfold the whole playgroup.

So D&D stopped being a one-nerd game and started being a multi-nerd game. Rule systems that put everything up front, no matter how simple, miss this point. To get non-nerd players into the game, you don’t need to increase their sense of understanding or control over the rules. In fact, you want them to ignore the rules and trust the referee. And that’s something you can’t buy in a store – a DM who is socially skilled, deeply knowledgeable, and trustworthy.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Weather Dice

Today's topic is the eight-sided weather die from Chessex, produced in 2007 and still available from dice dealers at various cons - but not, apparently, online.

Alas, I had high hopes for this little guy, but he turns out to be a precipitous type. Fully half his sides have some kind of precipitation on them, three rain and one snow. Even Seattle only has 153 precipitation days a year, coming out to 42% (New York has 103, or 36%, which is more typical of a temperate climate.)

Even if you take "snow" as just "cold," rolling one of these leaves a lot of questions open. Is it windy? How can it be hot and cloudy at the same time? When does it actually snow?

Fortunately (for dice vendors that is) rolling three of these gives a pretty good spread of results, if a little system is applied. You can also use normal eight sided dice, with some mnemonic help.

We start out assuming the temperature is average for the month, there is a light breeze and no clouds overhead.

WEATHER DICE TABLE: Roll 3d8 and apply each effect rolled.

1. "Sunny/Warm" = Warm (mnemonic: One is the Sun.)
  • Add 10 degrees F/ 5 degrees C to the temperature. 
  • This die has a big sun, so it cancels out one rain or drizzle result - rain first, then drizzle. 
  • If it cancels one die and the remaining die says rain or drizzle, there is sunlight through the rain; a roll of sunny-raining-raining gives a rainbow. 
  • If there is no wind result, this die means there is calm air instead of the default breeze.
2. "Moderately Cloudy" (mnemonic: Just 2 clouds)
  • Raise the cloud cover to "Some clouds." 
  • This die has a big sun, so it cancels out one rain or drizzle result, except in a wet climate.
3. "Partially Cloudy" (mnemonic: One more than moderately cloudy)
  • Raise or the cloud cover level to "Many clouds." 
  • In a dry climate, this die cancels out one rain result, like the previous two.
4. "Overcast" (mnemonic: Clouds to all 4 directions)
  • Raise the cloud cover level to "Overcast."
5. "Light drizzle" (mnemonic: Rain snaking down like the figure 5)
  • Cloud cover level, if uncancelled, is "Overcast."
  • One of these, uncancelled, means drizzle, light snow if below freezing, or light sleet if near freezing.
  • Two or three of these, uncancelled, make heavy fog.
6. "Raining" (mnemonic: Rain coming down into a puddle like the figure 6)
  • Cloud cover level, if uncancelled, is "Overcast."
  • One, uncancelled, means rain, snow if below freezing, and sleet if near freezing.
  • Two uncancelled "raining" results are heavy precipitation. 
  • Three means very heavy precipitation.
  • If both "drizzle" and "raining" are rolled without being cancelled, and it is below or close to freezing, there is hail.
7. "Stormy" (mnemonic: Flag flying in the wind like the figure 7)
  • Wind result: Increase wind speed by 30 mph/50 kmph. 
  • Two of these means a gale, with overcast sky.
  • Two "stormy" and an "overcast" on a large plain means a tornado.
  • Three "stormy" means a hurricane, with overcast sky and heavy rain.
8. "Cold/snowing" (mnemonic: 8 is a snowman).
  • Subtract 10 degrees F/ 5 degrees C from the temperature.
Example 1: Rolling 2-5-7 gives a bright day with some clouds overhead; drizzle from the "5" is cancelled by the "2" unless the climate is wet, and the wind blows briskly at 30 mph.

Example 2: Rolling 7-7-6 gives an overcast day with gale force winds and lashing rain.

Example 3: Rolling 1-1-8 gives a warm, sunny, becalmed day with +10 degrees F to the temperature; the other warm and cold results cancel each other out in effect.

To get the weather on consecutive days, roll d6: on a 6 the weather is the same as the previous day, on a 4-5 reroll one die, and on a 1-3 reroll two dice. This roll can also be used to see if the weather changes during the day, but adding 2 to the result.

It feels good to finally figure out how to use these dice effectively...