Sphere of Influence: Sword Coast

I made a book. It’s an examination of the Sword Coast from the perspective of conquering it in the style of my earlier blog post on spheres of influence. I’m atrocious at marketing, I can’t write decent summaries and I have no idea how to make a good book cover, but it’s pay what you want so drop a penny on it and give it a look. If the stats on the raw downloads look good enough, I may come back to write another on the heartlands region (including the Moonsea, Cormanthor, etc.) and we’ll see how it goes from there.

Sphere of Influence (or: Conquering The World One Quest At A Time)

Taking over the world is fun. It’s so much fun that entire genres of video and board game can present world domination as the end goal and on basis of that alone, players will be engaged. The main campaign of an FPS will need to present you with some kind of story or characters to keep most (though not all) players on board, and even those that don’t tend to have a powerful sense of atmosphere to fill in that gap. DOOM didn’t really have a plot past the introduction (found in a .txt rather than in the game itself), but it felt like a playable heavy metal album cover, and that was enough. Until 2016, anyway, when DOOM got itself a parody of a plot, but still an actual plot. Galactic Civilizations, meanwhile? Crusader Kings? Civilization? “This is a map. Make it yours.” Done.

So it’s no surprise that people want to take over the world in D&D, but there’s a bit of a problem there. See, you can go on adventures to take over a kingdom just fine. You loot dungeons to amass wealth, and you infiltrate the court, and you scout out the wilderland to find places to establish a rebel hideout where you won’t be easily found, and you storm a boat to save the dark lord’s rebellious daughter from an arranged marriage that would secure his alliance with the kingdom of Sinisteria across the border, and then at the end you capture his castle, and these are all either roleplay-heavy intrigue plots or they’re exploration hex crawl-y things or they’re good old dungeon crawls, but all of them are within the scope of three-to-seven heroes getting things done by personally being awesome.

From now on, though, you’re nailed to this kingdom, aren’t you? Like, you go and conquer Sinisteria, but you do it with a giant army. So anytime you storm a dungeon, there’s like a thousand dudes storming it with you. A lot of characters might not have any good motivation to stay on the front lines when you’re probably not contributing all that much to the success or defeat of those thousand dudes. If you’re dedicated to cash, you can probably make a lot more setting up trade routes and soaking in a 5% cut from taxes than personally storming enemy castles for a share of the loot, especially since 5% of that loot will come back to you anyway when victorious soldiers spend it all in shops that you tax (or even own). If you’re dedicated to justice, you’re probably going to do more good acting as a judge in your capital’s hall of justice and trying to set as many fair and equitable legal precedents as you can in a day. If you’re in it for the glory, then you’re probably better off on the front lines, but most of the other common adventurer motivations break down once you own an army that’s significantly more important on a battlefield than you are.

What you want out of a world domination campaign is a setup where things like mass battles and kingdom management happen in addition to dungeon crawling and overland exploration and such. If you want that, you want a world that operates on spheres of influence.

Continue reading

CIP Ep. 2: Carefully Avoiding Controversy

Stubbazubba & Chamomile proudly present the Critical Insignificance Podcast, Episode 2, attack of the new age music, in which we carefully avoid a few controversies that are simply too significant for this podcast. More importantly, we plug a little-known but much-loved RTS game with a unique twist called Majesty (see Cham’s prior heads-up on the Steam sale), and Cham briefly reviews Gone Home.

We also lay out how GMs can engineer better pick-up games online, which should be a boon to anyone running a play-by-post, play-by-email, or virtual tabletop a la roll20.net game. The tl;dr version is:

It's not what you think.

It’s not what you think.

I’m going to leave this a little ambiguous, because 1) who ever understands Bane perfectly the first time? And 2) because you should listen to the podcast, though I will say this discussion starts at 14:55.

Finally, we talk about what’s going on with the D&D movie rights; Hasbro and Sweetpea Entertainment (the studio behind this, this, and this) have concluded the trial over the future of the rights, and…well we’re still waiting for either a last-minute settlement or a decision from the judge, but either way, something is going to happen on that front. We talk about why that is and what it means for D&D fans in the near future.

Listen here:

Or download.

Like the show? Please Like and Subscribe! We love positive feedback! Have some criticism? Let us know, too. Criticism is essential to this getting better, tell us what’s not doing it for you.

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Announcing the Critical Insignificance Podcast!

Podcasts seem to complete blogs. Sometimes, there are interactions that you can’t really capture in an essay or article. Sometimes people don’t have the time to sit down and focus on words, and would much rather listen to a discussion while they do something else. As of today, Chamomile and I are proud to announce that Matters of Critical Insignificance will now cater to both sides of the information-consumer coin. It is my privilege to unveil the Critical Insignificance Podcast, a biweekly (that’s once every two weeks) romp between Chamomile and myself discussing, creating, and critiquing movies, games, and any other critically insignificant topic.

Our first episode, below, probably sounds like a first episode. Bear with us, we are fast learners and it will get better. That said, our first episode explores the line between evocation and conjuration and “telling” in both computer and table-top role-playing games. We take the film and fiction adage “show, don’t tell” one step further for interactive media: “evoke, don’t tell.” Whether that’s in creating a character in a video game or in creating an adventure for a Dungeon Master to run, designers/writers need to stop writing where the interactive player can pick it up on their own and run. Or do they? There’s also a side order of Cham channeling his inner Poe in more-than-a-decade-old The Sims. Yeah, we’re that kind of premium.

Without further, ado, then, and for your listening pleasure, I give you: the Critical Insignificance Podcast!

…Or Download Here

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Critical Insignificance Podcast by Matters of Critical Insignificance is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://k007.kiwi6.com/hotlink/6zhz1wuby1/Episode_0001_-_Evocation.mp3.

The Noise Before Defeat

Sun Tzu once said, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” I assume, then, that strategy with tactics is the quick, noisy way to victory, but I guess that wasn’t poetic enough for Sun Tzu to say directly.

Sun Tzu + Internet Meme = Bad Pun

Sun, I am disappoint.

I’m not going to try and improve on the Art of War, but you know what does need improving? The tactical positioning system used in D&D-style RPGs. Currently, D&D’s positioning system is plagued with legacy issues only a 2,500-year-old general could love. No disrespect to Mr. Sun, but this town deserves a better class of elf game, and it starts with updating one of the core fundamentals of the combat engine: the battle grid. Continue reading

A New Hope for Combat

Over the past two days I’ve had a bit of a break-through, or at least an idea that has captured my attention and hasn’t collapsed in on itself yet, so I consider that pretty good.  It’s a new take on the very basic premise of combat in RPGs.

Over on this thread on RPG.net’s forums, the OP asked why people seem to think that “do damage or do something interesting” is a worthwhile trade-off.  He was confused that someone would find damage uninteresting and “other stuff” interesting.  That, along with talking to people about FFG’s new Star Wars game, Edge of the Empire, and it’s…interesting…dice mechanics made me realize something:  Damage isn’t interesting.

And that’s not just because damage is the “default” effect that you do all the time, so you’re now numb to it.  No, it’s even more meaningless than that.  Damage, as an effect, doesn’t change anything.  Your raging barbarian swats away the puny enemy’s shield and swipes across the Orc’s chest with his battleaxe leaving a red (or black!) gash an inch deep…and the Orc, unphased, just gets back in his “on guard” position, totally unchanged from before the exchange.

There’s no opening to capitalize on, no opportunity to take advantage of, no new tactical information; you totally hit the Orc and it actually did nothing for you that you can tell.  When was the last time that was ever the case in a movie, TV show, comic, or book?  In fact, what does happen in the source material is usually a lot of positioning, a lot of harmless going back and forth, maybe one or two solid connections which draw blood, which finally ends in a decisive and sudden death for the unlucky one who must die to serve the plot.

The fight between Aragorn and Lurtz from the Fellowship of the Ring is pretty much one of the most intense battles in fantasy cinema, and has a lot of injuries/blows landed, but I think there’s a grand total of 7 actual hits exchanged, and that includes Aragorn’s tackle at the beginning, and both his running Lurtz through and decapitating him right at the end.  Most of what they end up doing is disarming, dazing, grappling, and knocking down (actually, those mostly all happen to Aragorn).  There are, AFAICT, 2 instances where damage is directly dealt for its own sake, and not along with another effect.  See for yourself:

Now I’m going to approach this from another topic, raised in this thread, which is that missing is also intrinsically boring.  Tactically, nothing has changed from before you attempted.  I’ll bet Aragorn wished he had that option!  The only fights where I can imagine nothing happening like that is a saber duel between two masters, like this:

And that included a lot of testing the other guy out and sportsman-like restraint (also note the complete lack of “damage”).

Posters in that thread claimed that tactics did change since you’ve spent your turn and that’s a resource.  That’s very true, and that argument is also technically true.  However, I think that is the most boring option available.  It doesn’t work that way in most games; even in Chess or Checkers, you can’t fail to achieve any change in the game on your turn.  I think RPGs, and in particular, After Next, will be helped by discarding the old Whiff Factor paradigm for one in which combat is far more dynamic, fluid, and full of effects.  Combat where failing is fraught with danger, and the tables can turn very quickly.

To that end I’ve got a rough working design, a very barebones framework that I have to expand upon and probably retool in the future, but so far the results excite me:

  1. No HP or any kind of health, at least not in the traditional sense
  2. Armor is rolled actively by the defender, but only when a Wound is triggered
  3. Wounds are triggered when the attacker’s attack total is at least 5 greater than the defender’s defense, and a Mortal Wound is triggered when the attack total is 10 greater
  4. If, however, the attacker’s total is 5 less than the defender’s defense, then the attacker triggers a Wound, and a Mortal Wound if 10 less
  5. There are other effects, based on weapon or character abilities, that can be activated depending on the margin of success that you roll (0-4 above, 5-9 above, or 10+ above)

So what this means is that if you have a +10 attack, and your target’s defense is 15, then if you roll a natural 20, you trigger a Mortal Wound, where they have to roll what is essentially an “Armor save” against a DC set by your weapon, or receive a mortal wound and die.  If you roll a 15 or higher, you trigger a regular Wound, which they still roll against the same way.  Once the target sustains one Wound, a second Wound counts as a Mortal Wound.  Wounds and Mortal Wounds happen in addition to another effect.

Now, I really want to avoid additive bonuses in After Next.  I’d rather situational modifiers and bonuses and such be represented by stacking Advantage or other non-additive mechanics.  So, so far I have a short list of effects available for the three categories of 0-4, 5-9, and 10+:

  • Tier I (Margin of Success = 0-4) –
    • Knock Off Balance/Feint/Stun (gives Advantage to next attack against target)
    • Jab (gives target Disadvantage on their next attack)
  • Tier II (MoS = 5-9) –
    • Knock Back (Disengages the target from you, moves them away from you)
    • Grapple (Neither you nor the target can attack until ended)
    • Dis-Shield (Target loses any Shield bonus until they spend a turn to retrieve it)
  • Tier III (MoS = 10+) –
    • Knock Down (Target is knocked Prone; all attacks against the target get Advantage, and the target’s attacks take Disadvantage until he uses a turn to get up)
    • Disarm (Target cannot attack with that weapon until they spend a turn to retrieve it)

OK, so, besides the fact that Knock Back and Grapple need a little more context to be very useful, that’s a good starting list.

In case you got bored.

Shall we run a sample fight to see how it would go?

First, some rules contexts here;

  • Weapons
    • Longsword (Wound DC 14, +1 Defense)
    • Spear (Wound DC 15, Reach weapon)
    • Battleaxe (Wound DC 17)
  • Armor & Shields
    • Leather Armor (+2 Armor)
    • Chain Armor (+5 Armor)
    • Plate Armor (+7 Armor)
    • Buckler (+2 Defense)
    • Shield (+3 Defense)
    • Tower Shield (+4 Defense)
  • Offense
    • Expert (+7 Attack)
    • Average (+5 Attack)
    • Poor (+2 Attack)
  • Defense
    • Expert (+6 Defense)
    • Average (+3 Defense)
    • Poor (+1 Defense)

So, let’s put 2 heroes against 4 villains, 3 of which are mooks, 1 of which is their captain:

  • Hero 1 (the Knight)
    • Spear, Shield, Plate Armor, Average Offense, Average Defense
    • Attack = d20 + 5, Defense = 16 (10+3+3), Wound = 15, Armor = d20 + 7
  • Hero 2 (the Barbarian)
    • Battleaxe, Shield, Chain Armor, Expert Offense, Poor Defense
    • Attack = d20 + 7, Defense = 14 (10+3+1), Wound = 17), Armor = d20 + 5
  • Bandits (3)
    • Longsword, Leather Armor, Poor Offense, Poor Defense
    • Attack = d20 + 2, Defense = 12 (10+1+1), Wound = 14, Armor = d20 + 3
  • Bandit Captain
    • Longsword, Shield, Chain Armor, Average Offense, Poor Defense
    • Attack = d20 + 5, Defense = 15 (10+1+3+1), Wound = 14, Armor = d20 + 5

All right, I’m going to run this simulation.  Initiative is as follows: the Knight, the Bandit Captain, the Barbarian, then the Bandits.

Round 1)

The Knight attacks the Bandit Captain (d20+5 vs. 15 = 13, MoS = -2), but the Captain evades and knocks him off balance (Advantage on next attack against Knight).  The Captain then attacks the Knight, instead (d20+5 w/Adv vs. 16 = 6, MoS = -10), but the Knight easily counter-attacks (Armor roll, d20+5 vs. 15 = 20), and though the Captain is thrown to the ground, his armor protects him.  The Barbarian seizes the opportunity and attacks the Captain, as well, (d20+7 w/Adv vs. 15 = 25, MoS = 10) (Cap’s armor d20+5 vs. 17 = 21), but it only disarms the Captain, who is able to evade his attacks.  Bandit 1 attacks the Barbarian (d20+2 vs. 14 = 9, MoS = -5), but the Barbarian counters (B1 armor d20+3 vs. 17 = 5), leaving a painful gash on the bandit’s forearm.  Bandit 2 attacks the Barbarian, as well (d20+2 vs. 14 = 13, MoS = -1), but the Barbarian is able to knock this one off-balance (Adv on next attack on B2).  Finally Bandit 3 attacks the Barbarian (d20+2 vs. 14  = 15, MoS = 1), and is able to knock the Barbarian off his balance (Adv on next attack against Barb).

Round 2-

The Knight goes to finish off the Captain (d20+5 w/Adv vs. 15 (sans Sword bonus) = 25, MoS = 10) (Cap armor d20+5 vs. 15 = 14) and plants his spear into the Captain’s chest.  The Barbarian attacks Bandit 2 (d20+7 w/Adv vs. 12 = 17, MoS = 5) (B2 armor d20+3 vs. 17 = 5) and leaves him wounded, in addition to a little dazed (Dis on B2’s next attack).  Bandit 1 attacks the Barbarian (d20+2 w/Adv vs. 14 = 14, MoS = 0) and is able to keep him off his balance.  Bandit 2 attacks him, as well (d20+2 (Adv and Dis cancel out) vs. 14 = 17, MoS = 3) and manages to keep him off balance.  Bandit 3 attacks him, as well (d20+2 w/Adv vs. 14 = 13, MoS = -1), but the Barbarian turns the tables and leaves him off balance.

Round 3-

The Knight attacks Bandit 3 (d20+5 w/Adv vs. 12 = 23, MoS = 11) (B3 armor d20+3 vs. 15 = 10) and spears him in the gut.  He falls to the ground.  The Barbarian attacks Bandit 1 (d20+7 vs. 12 = 14, MoS = 2) and gets a jab to his face (Dis on B1’s next attack).  Bandit 1 attacks the Barbarian (d20+2 w/Dis vs. 14 = 5, MoS = -9) (B1 armor d20+3 vs. 17 = 17), and though the Barbarian counter-attacks, he is only able to knock him off balance (Adv on next attack against B1).  Bandit 2 attacks the Barbarian, as well (d20+2 vs. 14 = 19, MoS = 5) (Barb armor d20+5 vs. 14 = 11), slashing him deep across the arm.

Round 4-

The Knight attacks Bandit 1 (d20+5 w/Adv vs. 12 = 19, MoS = 7) (B1 armor d20+3 vs. 15 = 7) and similarly manages to spear him through the chest.  The Barbarian attacks Bandit 2 (d20+7 vs. 12 = 9, MoS = -3), but the Bandit is prepared and leaves the Barbarian off-balance.  Bandit 2 makes a last ditch effort against the Barbarian (d20+2 w/Adv vs. 14 = 21, MoS = 7) (Barb armor d20+5 vs. 14 = 12), and scores a penetrating blow into the Barbarian’s side, leaving him on the ground.

Round 5-

Enraged at his friend’s demise, the Knight attacks the Bandit (d20+5 vs. 12 = 8, MoS = -4) but the Bandit is able to turn it around and knock the Knight off balance (Adv on next attack against Knight).  The Bandit attacks the Knight (d20+2 w/Adv vs. 16 = 22) (Knight armor d20+7 vs. 14 = 15), which leaves him shield-less, but unhurt.

Round 6-

The Knight again attacks the Bandit (d20+5 vs. 12 = 18, MoS = 6) (B2 armor d20+3 vs. 15 = 18) but only manages to land a jab (Dis on B2’s next attack).  The Bandit uses his turn to pick up the Knight’s discarded shield!

Round 7-

The Knight attacks the Bandit (d20+5 vs. 15 = 21, MoS = 6) (B2 armor d20+3 vs. 15 = 4) and despite the shield’s help, is able to run the Bandit through.  It’s over!

Wow, that took an obscenely large number of rounds.  Bandit 2 was way too lucky, I gotta say.

But this helped me realize one glaring flaw in this system, and that is when it’s more likely that less-powerful enemies will hurt themselves rather than hurt their target, their optimal choice is indeed to not attack, which I don’t want.  I mean, I suppose that’s a good time for a flee mechanic to come into play, but even that would mean once the captains (the ones supposedly keeping the weaker ones fighting the heroes) are gone, everyone flees, ergo killing captains is all that matters.  I suppose that’s an option, but it isn’t something I initially planned for.  That and the non-damage effects are a little weird.  Those need some serious work.

I’ll continue to tinker with this idea, but I do feel like it makes for far more tense combats, and more cinematic ones (if I ever manage to figure out how to do the non-damage effects right).

Save or Dies in After Next

Hey, folks.

My work on After Next (and this blog in general) has been completely side-lined this semester, and I apologize for that.  Hopefully I’ll have more time to devote to it in the future, but until I’m more sure, I’ll try to keep posting shorter things that arise out of what I see on forums or my thoughts on network TV shows or who knows what.

Joker from TDK - coin flip

Today I want to talk about Save or Die/Lose spells in games like D&D; an ability (often a spell) which takes out a target in one shot, usually with a lower probability of success than a less lethal ability.  In D&D the target rolls a Saving Throw to try to avoid some or all of the effects of spells, hence the name.  The classic example is the Medusa’s gaze attack which turns on-lookers to stone.  These tend to be somewhat controversial in game circles.  I want to briefly consider some different implementations thereof and talk about the issues they raise for designers and some theoretical implementations that would address some of those issues.

In older editions of D&D as I have come to understand it*, powerful magic, including SoD spells, had a chance of backfiring or otherwise harming the caster.  This dramatically increases the risk associated with using such magic, with the payoff being dramatic, powerful effects like instant death or petrification.  In addition, due to their lower save DCs and higher save bonuses for many classes, SoDs were a large gamble to cast and likely to fail regardless of the risk of backfire.  This about evened-out their utility to casters, PC and NPC alike.

D&D 3.5 ported over the spells from AD&D 2e without much alteration, but changed both the way spell DCs were set (now based on the spell level and caster’s stats) and the risks associated with casting powerful magics; namely, it was all removed.  Casters in 3.5 had the risk removed and the chance of failure increased so that SoD spells were superior to almost any other choice of spell.

So, many people advocate simply going back to the AD&D paradigm, where casting spells was risky and the enemy made their save and negated the attack entirely more often than not.  While that would be a step forward, balance-wise, I think it’s kind of missing the point.  Casters didn’t like how that worked in AD&D, hence 3rd Edition changed it.  By focusing on just the spell’s odds of success/backfiring, we’re either putting arbitrary mechanical frustrations on the caster, or, by removing them, on the targets of those spells.  There’s an alternative way of looking at this problem, which I believe solves all of those problems while simultaneously making the game actually more interesting to boot.

The inspiration for this train of thought came from Extra Credits, which did an episode on a relevant topic a few weeks ago, called “Counter Play.”
The main thrust of the idea is this:

When designing an ability or a mechanic, you can’t only be thinking about how to make that ability or mechanic interesting for the player who gets to use it, you also have to think about how its interesting for the players its used on. And on a more rigorous level, it’s the idea that a mechanic or ability in a multiplayer game should increase the number of meaningful choices available both to the player using it and the player its being used on.

TTRPGs are not considered multiplayer games, but the psychology and importance of this principle is true because at the combat round level, they function exactly like one; the DM is one player controlling a single monster on any given turn (mostly), and the player is controlling their one character, and they are slinging these abilities back and forth in a way that is essentially indistinguishable from a competitive multiplayer game.

This tactical genius leaves grown men crying. Don’t ask about the grown elves.

EC goes on to make the point that abilities that are an interesting tactical option for the user but not for the target is a good way to create frustrated targets. However, when you consider both sides of that equation, you create a richer play experience for both. So the question of whether or not SoDs are cool for the SoD-user is not the only consideration we have to take into account when designing SoDs. We also have to account for the SoD receiver’s experience and what options SoDs provide to them. Obviously, the only tactical implication of a traditional SoD for a target is “jack up that save modifier in your build!” That is one-dimensional (it’s not really a choice if it’s the only way) and irrelevant in combat (the decision is made outside of combat and nothing in combat will change it). This is not an enriching option as-is.

So SoDs need to be counter-able by the party, whether that’s by beginning an SoD at the end of one turn and then casting on the next and where taking any damage in-between either negates or greatly diminishes its effect if cast, SoDs only working on targets below a certain HP threshold, or something else that gives the opposing party/character an actual tactical option it can take in the midst of combat to attempt to prevent or counter it.

A third consideration for these mechanics in a TTRPG, I would say, is how it interacts with the user’s allies. You want abilities that interlock with the roles/actions of others, and gives them interesting options on their turns, too. The mundane half of the party’s contribution to the battle can’t be meaningless with one successful SoD. The mundanes have to contribute to SoDs somehow, whether that’s as simple as protecting the caster from having their concentration broken during casting, or contributing to meeting the necessary HP threshold for the spell to work, or some other combination of tactics.

Also, giving mundanes SoD abilities certainly couldn’t hurt, either. At some point a rogue should be able to just sneak up and stab a guy through the heart, and the fighter should be able to cut off the monster’s head with one mighty blow, so long as those have tactically interesting mechanics backing them up.

I’ll come out with some samples, but first I think I want to talk about the tactical mini-game. Grid-less tactical mini-game, as has been described previously.

*My understanding of the specifics of older D&D editions, I admit, is pretty lacking, so this is going off of what I have come to understand from others.