Moving Around

A common complaint about D&D combat is that you don’t really move around much during it. Two characters will get into melee range with one another and then takes turns punching each other until one of them falls down. Then the winner will go find another melee friend to trade blows with. Whereas in source material, fights are fluid. They move, people swing on chandeliers and jump on tables and such.

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Dark Lord: Troll King

So, it’s been two weeks since this site had content, mostly because I’ve been running around putting out fires for a while after everything went belly up over in my actual real life. So let’s put up some more Dark Lord stuff while I procrastinate editing more Chrono Cross episodes. After my friend got me a Google Chart that crunched all the probabilities for me, I was able to discern that the stat pre-requisites needed to be tweaked slightly, which is why these ones are a bit different from the Lich King prereqs.

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Dark Lord: The Lich King

So I spent some time tinkering with the idea about combining Ars Magica wizard plus grogs with Paranoia competitive party members. Though originally planned for a vampire sire and his childer, I’ve decided to port the idea over to medieval fantasy, because that genre unfailingly gets more traction. Seriously, just look at the difference in popularity between Dungeon World and Apocalypse World. Dungeon World is not a better game than Apocalypse World, but Dungeon World is in Roll20’s top ten most popular games and Apocalypse World is like twenty spots below.

Anyways, the Lich King is one of six dark lords that a player can play as in Dark Lord, with the other five being the Troll King, the Fey Queen, the Demon Lord, the Black Prince, and an arctic themed one that will either be the Frost Giant Jarl or the Ice Queen. Either way, we’re focused on the Lich King right now, and his domain in the crypts. When the Lich King is in focus, the other players roll 3d6 in order six times to generate their grog’s stat line. They’ll be sticking with that grog until they perish, at which point they’ll roll up a new one. After rolling, they compare their stats to the following to see what kind of class they can play:

-Lich King (dark lord). Has debuffs and can raise mindless undead minions controlled directly by himself. Good against hero-type enemies (single, powerful enemy with high AC and low or no DR who can be buried under crit-seeking goons).

-Death Knight (lieutenant). Requires 16 CON, 14 STR, 12 CHA (0.3%). Undead knight, hits hard, moves fast, good defenses, bad at swarms (compare Black Prince).

-Necromancer Acolyte (elite). Requires 16 INT (4.6%). Weaker version of Lich King.

-Vampire Duelist (elite). Requires 14 DEX, 12 CHA (6.1%). Glass cannon, moves fast, hits hard, folds quickly under enemy damage, can ignore enemy AoOs. Good for bringing down a squishy but dangerous backline enemy, can hopefully survive the retaliation long enough to get away.

-Vampire Blood Mage (elite). Requires 14 INT, 12 CHA (6.1%). Control and leech healing magic, squishy but has no reason to leave the backline.

-Ghoul Bruiser (elite). Requires 14 CON, 12 STR (6.1%). Slow but powerful, works well with a Blood Mage to keep evasive enemies close enough to nom on, can also serve as bodyguard keeping squishy vampires close enough that anyone who wants to attack them will face retaliation from the bruiser.

-Ghoul Assassin (elite). Requires something like 14 DEX, 12 CON (6.1%). Waits patiently, analyzing a foe with bonus, move, or even full round actions before striking for massive damage. Moves slow, can take a beating.

-Skeleton Infantry (troop). Requires something like 11 STR, 11 CON (25%). Congratulations on not being fodder. Mainly you are tough and are basically a bishop in chess, in that your main purpose is to make the battlefield harder for enemies to traverse by threatening lots of squares. You probably have a reach weapon and then a long sword or something as a backup.

-Skeleton Archer (troop). Requisites are 11 DEX, 11 CON (25%). Reasonably accurate and hits harder than infantry or fodder, but not as hard as a bruiser, assassin, or duelist.

-Skeleton Fodder (fodder). No stat requirements. You’re probably screwed, but you get some kind of prize for reaching higher levels with one of these nobodies. Or you can charge headlong into the first trap-filled corridor or powerful enemy party you find and hope your fragile bone body crumbles to dust so you can reroll.

So how common are any of these classes to actually show up in a basic Lich King party with no upgrades? This common:

00.3% are Death Knights
04.6% are Necromancer Acolytes
05.6% are Vampire Duelists
05.6% are Vampire Blood Mages
01.0% can be Vampire Duelists or Blood Mages
05.6% are Ghoul Bruisers
05.6% are Ghoul Assassins
01.0% can be Ghoul Bruisers or Ghoul Assassins
29.0% can be elites of any kind
05.6% are Skeleton Infantry
04.9% are Skeleton Archers
10.5% can be Skeleton Infantry or Skeleton Archers
21.0% can’t be elites but can be troops
49.7% must be Skeleton Fodder

25.0% can be Skeleton Infantry. Of those, 1.5% each can be a Necromancer Acolyte, 0.3% qualify as Death Knights, 6.1% can be Ghoul Bruisers (i.e. everyone who qualifies as a Ghoul Bruiser qualifies as Skeleton Infantry), 3.0% can be Ghoul Assassins, 1.5% each can be Vampire Duelists or Vampire Blood Mages. 5.6% can be Skeleton Archers as well, and the remaining 5.6% must be Skeleton Infantry.

25.0% can be Skeleton Archers. Of those, 1.5% can be a Necromancer Acolyte, 0.1% can be a Death Knight, 6.1% can be Ghoul Assassins (all Ghoul Assassins could be Skeleton Archers), 3.0% can be Ghoul Bruisers or Vampire Duelists, 1.5% can be Vampire Blood Mages, 4.9% can be Skeleton Infantry as well, and the remaining 4.9% must be Skeleton Archers.

That summary there looks like it took ten minutes on the back of a napkin, but it was seriously like two hours of effort. A friend says she’s working on something that will automate this, which is good, because there’s already a major flaw that will require some revision: Even without any upgrades at all, elites are more common (30% of all spawns) than troops (20% of all spawns). My current plan is to add one more requisite stat at 10 to each elite, which should shift the probabilities down towards 20% elites, and hopefully the troops will absorb the 10% the elites vacated. If fodder end up eating too much of that 10%, some new troop types might be needed that key off of stats besides CON, STR, and DEX. Currently thinking Necromancer Cultist (12 INT, 10 WIS) and/or Vampire Thrall (10 CHA, 10 DEX, 10 INT), both of which have probabilities in the same neighborhood as the 11/11 sets that the skeleton troops have. I’m not looking forward to spending another two hours crunching numbers to see whether or not the two new troop types are necessary or not, and I am especially not looking forward to spending two hours crunching numbers at least once per dark lord type (this assumes that my first guess is correct every time).

Alternative Party Structures

The overwhelming majority of tabletop RPGs rely on the same basic party paradigm that’s been with us since the hobby was some house rules for Chainmail: Three to seven dudes with varying skills work together to accomplish some shared goal. Even if the goal is something mercenary, like amassing wealth, it’s a conceit of the game that the party will work together rather than double-crossing each other for a bigger share, and the game goes very poorly if that conceit is ignored[1]. Even if one person is very noble and idealistic and another is very mercenary and cynical, it’s assumed that this is going to be a buddy cop story where the two overcome their differences and learn to work together (and also there’s a third guy, but he doesn’t roleplay so much, mostly just swings his sword at the orcs).

There’s a reason that’s the norm and it’s a good one, it’s hard to mess that up. Everyone is on the same team, no one has any reason to get in anyone else’s way. There’s alternative party structures, though, ones so rare that they can be referred to by the name of the game that created them, because they have never been reused. You might think that this is because they are evolutionary dead ends, but I don’t think that’s accurate. These alternative party structures are interesting and refreshing and while I doubt that they’ll eclipse the original D&D structure for me, there are many games that seem eminently better suited to some other kind of party structure, but which use the classic D&D instead, just on pure momentum, I guess.

The first party structure is what I’m going to call the Paranoia Party, although in this case there is another game that tried the same basic concept, which is good, because it helps shed Paranoia’s party structure from all of its other quirks (Paranoia has a lot of innovative ideas going on, and a lot of it doesn’t really work well for anything else but a dark comedy about dystopias run by paranoid AI that may or may not be a commentary on megalomaniac GMs). That game is Great Ork Gods, and while I think the rules on that game are tragically too sparse to be interesting for longer than one session, I love its more pure and undistracted development of the Paranoia Party.

In a Paranoia Party, the party as a whole has a single goal, but players are competing with one another to accomplish that goal. In Paranoia, the goal is to accomplish whatever mission the party has been given, but you compete with other players to take credit for all successes and deflect blame for all failures. The easiest way to do this is to be the only survivor of the mission, so no one will be around to contradict your story at the debriefing. What makes this tricky is that everyone has six clones, so you either have to kill everyone else juuust before the debriefing, so that their replacements arrive after it’s over and just in time to be executed for treason, or else you just have to kill all of your party members six times. In Great Ork Gods, the goal is to come out the end of an adventure with the most glory (called Oog in the game, for some reason) by killing powerful foes, accomplishing specific objectives of your troll overlord (or whoever’s in charge), and there is a pool of glory for surviving to the end of the session that’s split between any player who didn’t ever have their ork killed and replaced. If you die, you generate a whole new orc with his glory set to the minimum standard of 1 (or 2 if you pick a name that offends the gods – this isn’t always wise).

Both Paranoia and Great Ork Gods have a sort of Fate point, but which can only be used to hinder another player’s rolls, not improve your own. In Paranoia XP, these are called Perversity Points[2], and in Great Ork Gods it’s called Spite. We’re going with Spite because it’s easier and communicates the idea. Spite is the main tool that can be used to prevent a clear leader, someone who has more glory or who’s lost fewer clones than everyone else, from staying in the lead indefinitely. Like being the most powerful person on the board in Risk, it’s actually the most dangerous place to be because you’re the most likely target of an alliance.

Great Ork Gods refines this concept with an innovation Paranoia doesn’t have. In Great Ork Gods, the GM decides which of seven skills is appropriate to roll in any given situation like normal, but he doesn’t set the difficulty. Instead, the player who’s been assigned to the relevant ork god assigns a difficulty of easy, medium, or hard. If they’re using a skill governed by their own god, the difficulty is easy automatically (though it can be modified if other players spend Spite). Why would anyone set the difficulty to anything but Hard for a rival ork, though? Because if an ork succeeds at a skill check governed by a god assigned to another player, that other player gains Spite. This leads to Mario Kart balancing. Players in a weak position are given easy difficulties because it lets other players build up Spite without empowering a more threatening rival, and then they turn around and spend that Spite to jack up the difficulty of the lead player’s skill checks, even when it’s for one of the lead player’s own gods. Someone who’s just had his ork killed and lost all his glory will get a bunch of Bullet Bill and Starman power ups, and someone who’s about to soak up the entire survivor glory pool because he’s the only one who hasn’t died at least once is going to get sniped by a blue shell.

You don’t have to chew up the GM’s role in the game to do this (not that this is necessarily a bad thing). You could have every player have a pool of, say, five Fate points, three curses and two blessings. Every time you spend a curse to harm another player, you flip it over to get a blessing. Every time you bless another player’s roll, you flip it over to get a curse. You can only bless people’s rolls in certain situations, with different players having different portfolios just like the ork gods, but you can curse whenever you want. This encourages players to bless every single roll made in their portfolio by a weak player, in order to build up a reserve of curses so that they won’t run out at a critical moment and possibly be forced to bless more powerful rivals to replenish their supply.

A game that this isn’t used for but would benefit from it is Vampire: the Masquerade. Although direct PvP murder should not be such a prominent feature as it is in Great Ork Gods or especially Paranoia, the idea of competing for the favor of your sire or the prince or whoever (and you could set up a campaign structure that starts with neonates answering to their sire and has them outgrow him only to find themselves caught in a near-identical relationship with a primogen, and then a prince, and then a justiciar) is extremely evocative of the backstabbing intrigue that vampires get up to. If you don’t succeed in your task, the best you can do is try and deflect blame onto your allies, but at the same time you must sabotage your vampiric siblings to stop them from stealing all the glory, and you may have secret missions given you by other factions within the city’s kindred population, missions which may contradict your siblings’ own secret missions or even your primary objective, and then you might have some scheme of your own brewing on top of all that.

The second alternate party structure I want to talk about is the Ars Magica Party. In Ars Magica, everyone plays a wizard. You do not, however, spend very much time in a party together. Instead, each wizard has his own wizard monastery and his own set of non-magical grunts who are not nearly as cool as him. The wizards might work together to some ultimate goal, like defeating a common enemy or completing some kind of megaproject, but they don’t spend a whole lot of time actually in the same room as one another and wizards will probably spend a lot of time pursuing their personal projects, perhaps even to the total exclusion of whatever the common goal is supposed to be. Wizards don’t compete against one another, but they don’t have to be team players, either.

The way this works is that players take turns playing their wizard, and while one person is playing their wizard, everyone else plays a grog in that wizard’s retinue. A grog is a muggle, and their muggle skills pale in comparison to the power commanded by the wizard. Grogs are expendable, if one dies, an NPC from the monastery is promoted to replace them. Your real character is your wizard, and all the grogs you play are just giving you something to do while you wait for your turn.

The obvious downside to this is that you have to be willing to be patient. In a group of four players, you have to be willing to play three hours of a four hour session as underpowered cannon fodder, although on the flip side you also get to spend one hour having other players be your underpowered cannon fodder. The less often you play, the worse this deal is going to be. If you play three times a week, it’s not as big an imposition to spend less time as your wizard than if you play once a month.

It has a lot of advantages, though. Firstly, it’s the only way to properly represent a party whose schtick is that each member wields significant authority. Having tokens on the battlemap who are your minions is not significantly different from having tokens on the battlemap who are the minions of a king, to whom you are also a minion. Spending five minutes on some guild management mini-game isn’t that different from just allocating XP. They’re perfectly acceptable compromises for a classic party, but the advantage of the Ars Magica party is that when the GM says “Rakthar the Vermillion, it’s the beginning of autumn and you’re in your monastery, what do you do,” your response can be “organize an expedition to the Elemental Plane of Fire to retrieve fire mana with which to forge a flametongue” and then you have an actual adventure where you go and do that with your minions, the other players. For however long your turn lasts, you are actually in charge, and when your turn is over, your party isn’t handed over for someone else to completely change course, you go play as a minion in someone else’s party. Your party will be exactly where you left it when you get back to it, and you can keep doing whatever you want with it.

The main thing that Ars Magica lacks is some means of advancing your wizard’s agenda while playing a grog without having every grog you play be a sleeper agent for your wizard. This could be solved by allowing players to accumulate some kind of abstract resource as grogs, like Fate, which they can then spend as their wizard as a free bonus or rerolls on skill checks or for more of some kind of “concentration” resource spent on magical experiments and item creation and the like in their monastery. I’m undecided whether it would be better to have the wizard assign Fate to his grogs from some kind of limited pool or to have the GM do it. If the former, probably for the best to have the amount of Fate available for each wizard to hand out be almost, but not quite, equal to the number of grogs, so that it can’t just be distributed evenly (otherwise there will be lots of social pressure to do just that, which defeats the point), and also it should definitely not be the same pool of Fate that they have to spend from their own grog work.

This is another party structure that Vampire: the Masquerade would benefit from. Playing now as older and more powerful vampires, you switch off between playing as a powerful sire with childer of your own and playing as the childe of another player (perhaps playing in the Paranoia paradigm, where you receive Fate only if you win more favor from your sire than any other (surviving) childe).

Holy Hercules that sounds amazing. One second, I’m gonna go tinker with this.

[1]Usually. Sometimes it works out and it’s awesome, but that’s dangerous and should only be left to trained professionals. Don’t try this at home, kids.

[2]I don’t know much about other versions of the game, except that Paranoia 5th edition doesn’t exist.

Quiet Time in TTRPGs

So that December reboot thing hasn’t really been going according to plan, has it? I’m sure my audience of regulars is horribly disappointed.

Here’s a question that’s been bugging me: Is there room for quiet time in TTRPGs? What I’m referring to is moments in video games right after an explosive set-piece battle when the player is given nothing to do except explore the level for a while, maybe find any spare collectibles they missed, and they can move on whenever they feel like they’re ready for more gunfighting. An important note is that quiet time is not when gameplay is drastically reduced or taken away entirely. Quiet time is not a lobby, especially not a lobby that doesn’t even have chat. It’s not a cut scene (even if it’s a quiet one) and it’s not following your NPC buddy as he walks from one door to another. Quiet time is exploring and taking in a level at your own pace, free of enemy interference. It serves a critical pacing purpose by deflating the tension so that tension can be built back up again, instead of turning into a Michael Bay style constant, fatiguing malaise of maximum energy that becomes dull. I was going to link a YouTube video by game design pundit and recovering hipster Chris Franklin on the subject, but I can’t find the damn thing, so my text explanation will have to do.

How could you translate this to TTRPGs? Direct conversion is clearly impossible. Collectibles just don’t make sense in a TTRPG, not in the way they serve as a vehicle for quiet time, anyway. You could have collectibles attached to random loot tables, like having some awesome magic item like a Ring of Three Wishes be split into components (say, seven golden balls each marked with between one and seven stars) and let players quest for them and that would essentially be a collectible quest, but you wouldn’t find those things by tediously dragging your token across each and every room of a cleared dungeon and rolling a new Perception check each time, and at the end wondering if you should run through every single room again just in case you missed one of those Perception checks. TTRPGs don’t have any sense of movement, which means there’s no sense of exploring the environment. You can have a sense of discovery still, of finding out what’s over the next ridge, but you can’t have a mini-game where you try to find a small and easy to miss thing in a large and complex level.

Unless, I guess, you have complex custom maps which are visually clear enough to communicate necessary information in fights but also visually complex enough that a keen-eyed player can spot a hidden magic item like it’s a hidden objects game. That would be cool and it would be quiet time, but is well outside the ability of most GMs to create, so it doesn’t really solve the problem.

What about roleplay? A bit of relaxed conversation can serve as quiet time, but this can end up feeling more like a loading screen or a cut scene than quiet time. You’re stuck listening to this NPC while the GM deflates the tension so he can build it back up – except the GM is also deflating the momentum, which is different and bad, because you don’t actually care to shoot the shit with these particular NPCs. If the climax that was just reached happens to be of emotional importance to one or more NPCs, or even if it’s only of importance to PCs and the NPC is just there to prompt a discussion about it, this can work great. PCs discuss how they’ve been affected by what just happened or what they just learned. It gives people a chance to establish their character, brings all the PCs’ motivations to the forefront (which helps remind players why they as individuals as well as their teammates care about the quest outside of the metagame reason that they showed up to play D&D and don’t want to leave early), and it releases some tension to give the GM something to build up to again.

You can’t always do this either, though. What if the PCs have little to talk about? What if the events weren’t much of an emotional blow for anyone? What if you’re playing through a published adventure, and it turns out that your motivation of “save the world from Tiamat” is going to keep through pretty much the entire thing, without much need for discussion? What if all your players but one have a barely sketched out motivation to play at all? Having NPCs along for the ride who all have emotional reactions to what’s going on threatens to turn the game into that NPC’s story instead of the party’s, and there’s no guarantee that any of your players will be able to out-soliloquy your NPCs and thus retain the spotlight.

Is there a way to add quiet time into a TTRPG that can be done with the average GM’s resources and skills without relying on the players to have sufficiently well-developed characters to carry a scene with just a little prompting? Bear in mind that the solution (if one exists) doesn’t necessarily have to involve roleplay at all, although I suspect that’s a fruitful avenue of investigation.

Dinosaur Riding Barbarians: Classes

I’ve made a few posts about the setting for the game I’ve been working on, working name Dinosaur Riding Barbarians, and the “working for [whoever]” sections gave some idea of what you can actually do in this game. In the interests of providing a closer look at the game as a game, here’s a quick rundown of the ten classes that will probably be in the game. Not all of these classes have actually been designed yet, so some of them may prove unworkable once I get into the nuts and bolts, but I feel pretty confident about them.

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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.