Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Notion: Creation-time versus Play-time

In computer programming, there is the difference between compile-time and run-time. To create a program, the author first writes the instructions in a particular programming language. But a computer does not understand those instructions directly; they must be translated into binary machine code relevant to that particular computer hardware. The translation from the author's source code to executable machine code is called compiling. Once an executable program has been compiled, it can then be run. It is during run-time that the program actually does what it was written to do.

While compiling, the compiler can do a lot of error-checking--making sure that the syntax is correct, confirming that the data types for different variables are correct, etc. It can also link in other libraries or modules. It can optimize the program so it runs more efficiently. Generally, the more error-checking done at compile-time, the fewer errors encountered at run-time.

Not all programs are compiled in a separate stage like this, however. Some are interpreted: translated into machine code line-by-line from the source code at run-time. (This is a spectrum, of course: many modern languages compile to an intermediate form and are then interpreted from that form at run-time.)

The point of all this is: there's stuff you can validate at compile/creation time, and then there's stuff you validate at run/play time.

This is the same for RPGs. Something like D&D is like a compiled language: it takes hours to translate levels and skill ranks and equipment lists into all the particular modifiers listed on a character sheet. This is not necessarily a bad thing: character creation and optimization can be a very enjoyable activity, especially for power-gamers. And, as with programming, the more error-checking of modifiers you can do beforehand means fewer errors during play time.

On the other hand, a game like Risus is rather interpreted. There's still some authorship beforehand, but characters are represented as cliches. How those cliches then translate into particular skills or feats is actually determined during game time.

Overall, I'm a fan of compiled over interpreted, both for my programming languages and my RPGs. There's an initial overhead, but things seem to run smoother if as many details as possible are composed and validated beforehand. But this is just a preference.

Hopefully this difference/metaphor proves useful when considering RPG design.

30 Years of Stupid D&D Monsters

While I may not agree with the lameness of every monster listed here (I have a soft spot for owlbears), this author does have a very good point:

Dungeons & Dragons: Celebrating 30 Years Of Very Stupid Monsters (note that there are 2 parts)

Just a humorous reminder to keep your critical evaluative functions engaged while reading your next RPG supplement--even if it does come from a big-name publisher.

Paizo's Pathfinder: The future of d20 3.5 [backlog]

Last week at the bookstore, I stumbled across Pathfinder Chronicles: Classic Monsters Revisited. This book takes 10 of the most common humanoid monsters of D&D--including kobolds, goblins, bugbears, hobgoblins, orcs, trolls, ogres, lizardfolk, gnolls, and minotaurs--and tries to bring a fresh take on each by going back through both D&D's Monstrous Manual history as well as the scraps of original folklore on which these creatures are based. Though I flipped through only casually, I was quite impressed with what I saw. It was all "fluff", rather than "crunch", but very nicely done. I plan to take a closer look next time I'm in, and possibly pick this one up. [Update: And so I did. I didn't agree with all the characterizations, but reading it forced me to clarify my own. And that's the whole point: encounters with different kinds of humanoids should be significantly different, or what's the point of having more 1HD and 2HD humanoid races other than just Orcs?]

I'd never heard of Pathfinder before though. Turns out it's the product of Paizo Publishing, who used to publish the Dragon and Dungeon magazines. They've released a Pathfinder RPG, currently in beta and downloadable as a free PDF (registration required). Pathfinder is based on d20 3.5 OGL rules, so it's basically like playing D&D 3.5. But they've gone through and tweaked a few rules, streamlined others (including some skills), and beefed up some of the standard classes (so you'll think twice about abandoning them for prestige classes). Again, I only skimmed through the PDF, but I liked what I saw. It was like reading through 3.5 when it first came out: mostly small changes from 3.0, but all that tweaked the game to be a little more fun and a little simpler to play.

Some of the things of note that caught my eye were the alternative to having animal companions and familiars; the many bloodlines that characterize sorcerers based on the source of their magic; 0-level spells are now unlimited at-will powers; grapple and other combat maneuvers are simplified; turning undead is more impressive and useful, acting more as a positive energy burst.

Paizo is also releasing a 96-page adventure every month, forming 6-month long campaigns that take characters from 1st to about 15th level.

All-and-all, I got the feeling that Paizo is providing a lot of support and vitality for the 3.5 rules now abandoned by Wizards of the Coast. If you're leery about taking up 4E just yet (or just want to get a little more mileage out of your collection of 3.5 supplements), don't feel like you've been left behind: check out Pathfinder.

On Licenses [backlog]

I've been doing a lot of coding lately. During my run this evening, I got to thinking about licenses and IP rights, and exactly what rights I should be worried about retaining on both my recent software and gaming rules projects. These are the conclusions I came to for me personally (so feel free to hold your own view).

Most licenses concern opening up copyright. As explored earlier, copyright doesn't cover ideas themselves, but only the specific instantiation of those ideas in a document or other physical form (including digital media).

You can protect processes with a patent, though that tends to limit the free exchange of ideas. For that reason, I'm personally not really down with patents--especially outside of physical manufactured devices.

You can cover distinctive and identifying names and images with a trademark. I think that's fair. This is product identity--how people recognize certain producers, companies, and products. Protecting your trademarks prevents others from trying to impersonate you in the marketplace or in the sharing community.

But the bulk of intellectual property is covered by copyright. While I'm opposed to restricting the flow of ideas, I do see that it's fair to protect the work that goes into instantiating that idea into a particular form. (I think that the default copyright duration is too long though, but that's another post.) As soon as you create a physical (or digital) work, it's automatically protected by copyright, and others are not allowed to copy, modify, or redistribute it without your permission. However, various licenses have sprung up to allow you the ability to grant others permission to do some of these things, provided they adhere to certain restrictions. The thing I got to thinking about on my run is: which of those restrictions do I want to enforce for my works?

After visiting Creative Commons again, and reading the new GPLv3, here's what I've been thinking:

Attribution. I like this. I would want credit for the time and effort I put into a work, even if others then go on to build on it or change it. Interestingly, all the CC licenses include this option, so apparently this is a common human response to want credit. For game rules, the OGL does a nice job of ensuring this at a basic level by requiring modifiers to retain the copyright notices of all previous contributors.

For software, I find the GPL to be a little vague on this requirement. Presumably, "publish[ing] on each copy an appropriate copyright notice" refers to the original author's notice. Also, though the "work must carry prominent notices stating that you modified it", it doesn't explain or give examples of how this might best be done. (They give example for new programs, but not for modified ones.) Perhaps modifiers don't merit their own copyright, since they are producing a derivative work? That doesn't seem entirely fair though. Version 3 of the GPL allows certain other licenses to be enforced along with the GPL, so I would consider using CC's Attribution license with it in order to clarify some of these issues.

Non-derivative. For software, this would mean "non-free", since the user wouldn't be able to change and then publish the modified program. Since game rules are always tweaked based on the particular GM, I think those GMs should be free to then post those changes. This allows for an improving evolution of the system as a whole.

Where I could see restricting derivative works is in regards to what the OGL calls Product Identity: particularly, a campaign setting, world, or characters. The temptation is to prevent others from taking your carefully constructed vision and "messing it up". But, I think most people would be motivated to tweak a setting because they're fans of it, and would try to stay true to the basic spirit. I think opening it up would allow a setting of much greater depth (with many hands contributing to fill it out) and greater adoption in the larger community. And who doesn't want their world adopted by others? When combined with attribution, you'd still have some measure of "canon" control as original author. I can see why many would choose non-derivative for product identity, but I think there's some very good reasons to open it up.

Share Alike. This is what is really meant by copyleft: modifications of your IP must be just as available to others as the original material. For software, the source code for any published modifications must be released back to the community. Under CC licenses, it means the other terms of the license must also apply to modifications as well. I think this is very good idea--again, to encourage the exchange of ideas, to keep things open, and to allow evolution to something better. If my material gives someone a head start, I think they should pay it forward by letting their material boost someone else's efforts.

Non-commercial. This one I thought on the most. My first thought was: "If anyone's going to be making money off my work, it should be me!" But if I was really going to make money off of my IP, I probably wouldn't be giving it away free in the first place. Or I'd be making money off of it in different ways--such as associated product identity or support.

So, if I'm making it available for free, but someone else can think of some way of making money off it, it's probably because they've either added something valuable (derivative work) or are providing some extra service around it. Because of attribution, I'm still getting credit for the original idea. And because of their adoption and advertising of it, it's getting more coverage and support. And thanks to Share Alike, I'd be free to take their valuable additions and reincorporate them into the original and make money the same way they are--if I wanted to put in the effort to do so.

So while my gut response was to not allow commercial uses without a separate agreement (probably one involving royalties), I'm thinking now that--as long as I've got attribution (along with retaining any original trademarks or associated product identity) and share alike (with free access to their changes)--I may as well let others freely make money off it if they can figure out how.

Thus, I think the OGL, the CC BY-SA license, and the GPL (possibly with a supplementary CC BY license) are the best for me.

Monday, December 15, 2008


It's been a while. The hiatus was not due to a loss of interest in either RPGs or blogging. Instead, I've just been busy with other things, and so haven't had time for either.

This is a disappointing state of affairs. It seems each semester something gets neglected: usually either my research or my gaming. This semester, it was the latter (which, incidentally, had pretty good consequences for my research--I'm starting to implement Marlinspike now). Hopefully next semester it can be my TAing and grading job that's neglected--I could use some practice getting by with less time on that one.

RPGing has become part of my identity--a key feature of how I define myself. But this makes it all the sadder that I so rarely actually do it.

So it's time to get back to it all!

This evening during my run, I was thinking I might go back to the Monday gaming night at Ward Warehouse and rejoin my old D&D group there. It's been a year. Sometimes it was frustrating how slow things went, but at least it was playing. And lately I've been dragging my feet on things because I want more entertainment and less of the work involved with DMing and designing. I've even been pushing S. to try her hand at DMing.

Zludge still needs work. Getting back into D&D would be good just to index some of the irksome things that Drudge should strive to overcome. (Look for some Notion threads on those!)

But, if I just want to play, I do have a bunch of solitaire lying stagnant on scraps of papers and text files on my hard drive. Lately, I've been in a mood to play something, but RPGing just seems too daunting and time-consuming. Time to overcome that apathy.

So, in the spirit of revival, here are a few backlog posts from this summer that never made it up here.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Dynamo/Fluffy: Lily and Will

Last weekend, S. and I tried out Dynamo, which is a mechanic I've been working on for co-GMing. It's still rather tenuous at the moment, but we tried alpha testing it anyway.

For the gaming system, we used Fluffy, which also needs some testing.

Dynamo (pre-game): On Saturday, while strolling around town, we hashed out the general setting, which was basically film noir, but with slightly updated fashion and Hong Kong action style gunfights and vaguely Lovecraft-like occult powers at work in the background.

On Sunday, we came up with a list of motifs: scenes and elements that captured our desired genre and tone. Our list:

-obscure dying last words
-"damsel" in distress
-all a lie?
-PI gets roughed up
-PI gets dragged in by the cops
-PI offered a bribe
+a dusty, ominous tome
-connection to the decadent element and/or seedier part of town
-tangible evidence of evil (but evidence lost by end of tale)
+a disturbing figurine
+a shoot out
-the good bad guy
-no penalty for shooting a pistol in each hand
-an extra gun somewhere

The +s are those motifs we've used so far (see below). The last couple are almost aspect-like--an idea I want to work on more. It'd be nice to have "themes": general/story aspects you could invoke for a plot point. So, here, any character could spend a plot point to fire two guns without a penalty or to whip out another gun.

Fluffy (char creation): +6 attribute points to spend across 8 attributes. 1 attribute point can be traded in for 4 skill points. A skill or attribute can be reduced to raise another. Later, once the game has started, you can spend a plot point to add a rank in an unbought skill (+1) or to add quirk/hook and invoke it. (We haven't used this last rule yet though.)

LILY McNESSA (S.'s character)
Combat +2
Health: +1
STR: +0
DEX: +1
PERC: +0
KNOW: +0
APPL: +2
SOC: +0
[S.'s didn't bother buying specific skills.]

--Honor (sees things through)
--Doesn't smoke or drink, but has a Tootsie-Pop addiction.
--Weirdness/occult magnet.

Equipment: Beretta, boots, switch-blade, pentacle.

Background: Boxing gym father (died of heart-attack). Catholic maternal grandmother. Apprenticed to a detective, who was bumped off and she had to solve the case of his murder. Owns her own agency now.

WILL STANTON (my character)
Combat: +1 (Guns +3, Brawling -1, Defense +1)
Health: +1
STR: +0
DEX: +0
PERC: +0 (Taste/smell +1)
KNOW: +2 (Occult +4, Languages +3)
APPLIED: +0 (Forgery/docs +1)
SOCIAL: +0 (Disguise +2, Read Person +1)
[1 extra skill point left, which converts to an extra plot point.]

--Not respected in occult field (too young; methods too hands-on)
--Needs glasses to read
--Protector of innocent

Equipment: pistol (auto) in shoulder holster, derringer.

Background: Works as office clerk for Lily, both to pay the bills and because occult occurrences seem to follow her.

Dynamo (the game): We then came up with an initial conflict/inciting incident: a job to recover a strange box. This quickly turned into the first scene, with S. taking the lead in narration.

We didn't pause to do the story sketching phase of Dynamo: determine possible conclusion(s) and map out a few NPCs and waypoint scenes along the way. It seemed obvious at first: the story ends when we solve the case. But, though it seems like it might have taken some of the mystery out of things, having a few waypoints added to the motif and character hooks list probably would have helped. Doing so still would have left all the specific details that need to be adlibbed.

We then traded the limelight/narrative control (represented by a large silver coin) after each scene. Scenes seemed to be naturally delimit themselves, and generally corresponded with locations (as I suspected they would).

Here's how the story progressed:

Stolen item job: box, with gold corners and inlay. [S]
--Client: officious/fastidious business man, paying 3x normal rate
--Stolen by hood/crime lord: Citizen Frank Valenti
--Lily knows one of Frank's men from father's gym: Rocko.
Go see Rocko [Z]
--Uncooperative; knows nothing of Frank's "ivory" interests
--Fresh pink scars on hands
--Suggests we talk to Richard Ontario, Frank's art dealer
Break into R.O.'s office [Z]
--Past the lobby security guard by using fire escape
--Odd shrunken head in desk drawer
--Frank's file of purchased: mummified infant+cat, cabinet of curiosities, grotesque Venus-like statue, death-mask of Mata Hari.
--Current file: large cargo (6'x6'x4') coming in from Ivory Coast.
--Invite to Frank's party.

About this point, we took a break. This was tiring work coming up with the whole story on the fly.

Dynamo discoveries: GMs probably won't want to keep the limelight, as I first thought--it's a lot of pressure. And so it should probably regularly pass back and forth in turn (unless someone wants to pay to keep it).

Also, there's probably no need to spend plot points to contribute to the story as a player. The narrating GM should still be able to deny a contribution, but we found that any input was welcome, as the narrating GM was usually willing to grasp at any straw. S. did a great job of contribution, producing most of the items in Frank's file of purchased artifacts. She also was always conscious of placing a good solid lead into the next scene, providing both the connection to Rocko and the party invite. Overall, we largely ignored the exchange of plot point chips in relation to narration control.

The incorporation mechanic worked well. For example, in the Rocko scene, I threw in the "ivory" comment and Rocko's scars in the hopes that this would come to mean something later. "ivory" became "Ivory Coast" in the next scene, and S. built on it again later (see below). This is now becoming a clear thread.

The original idea was to work in a motif whenever possible in order to earn a plot point. However, S. suggested placing the motifs into a hat and drawing one out each scene and then having to work it in. We ended up rolling a die to pick randomly--but with the same result. This was a good idea, as the added constraint actually made scene construction easier, rather than harder.

After our break, we returned to the game:

To Frank's party [S]
--Check out his museum, seeing most of his artifacts.
--See box... but Frank walks in with Rocko [betrayed!]
--Escorted out, back to party
Rival gang arrives (Oscar Calzone) and start shooting up the place [shoot out] [Z]
--Dash back to museum room in confusion [S.'s contribution]
Museum room again [S]
--Box is gone... but do find a [dusty tome]
--Will recognizes it as containing African hieroglyphs, from Ivory Coast region.
--Slip out the French windows with book while shootout rages and alarms blare.

Fluffy discoveries: We never actually rolled the dice during the whole session. I almost asked for a roll to pick the lock of R.O.'s office, but I wasn't really prepared to handle a failure, and in any case, a Good Applied(lockpicking) skill should have been sufficient for Lily to just check (Take 0) on the roll anyway. This suggests that Dynamo might work best with diceless games (though rolling is certainly possible for those who miss it).

Overall, a very fun session with some good design feedback.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

D&D: 4E is not OGL

A couple posts ago I was talking about 4th edition D&D. I decided to go check on the 4E SRD and learned something interesting: 4th edition is not released under the Open Gaming License (OGL)!

(Standard disclaimer: The following is how I understand these things work. But I'm not a lawyer or copyright expert, and so I guess that means I'm largely speaking out of my ass on this. Just be aware of the sort of material that comes from most people's asses.)

Default state: You cannot copyright or trademark game rules or mechanics, per se. You could probably patent them if they are new ideas, as they are a process (but please don't, because such patents would suck). And you might be able to trademark certain specific words or phrases used in the game description. Or course, applying for a patent or registering a trademark costs money.

However, though the rules or mechanics themselves are not copyright-able, any particular instantiation of the rules in writing is covered by copyright as soon as it is written.

So all this means you could technically take any (non-patented) game rules, read them and put them aside, and then completely rewrite the same mechanic in your own words. This would be a lot of work though--especially for something as large as D&D. (And if someone did take offense from any resulting similarities, could you really afford to defend it in court?)

3E and OGL: But then along came Wizards of the Coast's Open Gaming License. As long as you adhere to the OGL rules--which mainly involve keeping the OGL itself attached to the resulting work--you are free to copy verbatim, redistribute, add to, or change any game rules (or other content) released as Open Gaming Content under the OGL.

Wizards then released the majority of the core D&D rulebooks as a System Reference Document (SRD) under this OGL. (The SRD didn't include certain flavor text and product identity--such as certain names, deities, some monsters, or how to create or advance characters.) So people could do practically whatever they wanted with the text of all these SRD rules (provided they followed the OGL in doing so).

In addition, there was a d20 System Trademark License (STL) and d20 System Guide (which are no longer easily available from their site). Together, these specified how you could use the d20 logo to claim that your game was d20 compatible. Generally, this meant you could not redefine any of the standard conditions or special abilities of d20, do anything indecent, or describe how to create or advance a character.

Note how the OGL and STL are separate licenses. You can take the SRD and make a stand-alone game (including how to create characters); you just can't claim it's still d20 and use the d20 logo if you do.

4E and GSL: Now things work differently with 4E, which is neither OGL or d20. Instead, there's the Gaming System License (GSL). (This was released just last week.) This is more like the the STL of 3E: it describes what you need to do to create a 4E-compatible game or supplement. If you follow these rules, you get to use their special D&D logo and the many D&D-specific terms, as laid out in the new SRD. Note that this new SRD no longer contains all the rules, as it did for 3E; instead, it's largely just a list of terms. In short, it's all the phrases you'd need to be able to describe D&D characters, abilities, and monsters in the context of a game supplement--but you'd need the D&D core books to look up all the rules and definitions for them.

Also, the GSL applies only to the production of books: hardcover, softcover, or digital (PDF). It specifically excludes software and websites. Another interesting rule is that if a company switches any part of one of their product lines from OGL to 4E, they need to switch all of it over.

So, what's this change mean? The major ramification is that the 4E rules will not be freely available. I can honestly see why Wizards did this. I mean, I never bought the 3.5 books because I could use online or downloadable versions of the SRD, which were actually faster to use for quick reference. And I was planning to do the same for 4E. Just excluding character creation and advancement rules wasn't enough to ensure sales of the core rulebooks.

It also means that software products--such as all those little character generating apps and online RPG tools that understand D&D characters--could get in trouble for making 4E versions. Something generic like a character with 6 abilities scored between 3 and 18+ isn't going to be a problem. But you're probably going to want to have your software list all the various possible standard powers for the different 4E classes. But this is copyrighted product identity (as specifically listed in the new SRD); using it could be seen as creating a derivative work--and you have no license now to grant you a special dispensation to break copyright. So this could suck. I guess Wizards is planning to release some DMing software, but (unless some later license grants these rights), you're not going to have any legal alternatives.

Another concern is the fan websites that post their character details and game histories. Technically, these are derivative works too. I doubt Wizards would go after such fan material, though. In addition, they're already planning to release a separate license for fan websites to cover this.

The thing that pisses me off the most though is that they're releasing all this new license stuff under the wizards.com/d20 URI. It's not d20! d20 is history as far as Wizards is concerned (since they've pulled all links to their d20 STL and System Guide.

OGL is still here though, and we'll always have the 3.5 SRD floating around. That's some consolation, I suppose. (Another bonus for Drudge, which will still be OGL!) But it looks like publishers that want to stay on the D&D bandwagon will have to abandon OGL. That probably won't be a major stumbling block for them, though, since most are in the business of producing compatible product identity material of their own. The new GSL still lets them do that.

Anyway, check out the licenses for yourself: http://wizards.com/d20. This "plain English" version of the GSL from ENWorld is handy too.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

D&D: Omri

Omri (S.) tried the assault on the goblin holdout again. It went very well, partly because the goblins couldn't roll worth a damn. (I don't usually use my yellow d20 for this reason, but it needed some love.) Omri was also well shielded and buffed with spells--she took out each foe with a single blow and wasn't even scratched in return! I remembered to consider NPC morale, and had a couple goblins surrender after witnessing the wholesale slaughter of their comrades by this suddenly-appearing avenging goddess. This turned out nicely, as the party was able to pump them for info but then had to spend a sleep spell and some rope to tie them up when they were done. (My original idea had been to use speak with dead if necessary.)

On gaming tools, that "battlegrid" overlay and chess pieces combo is working great. Beer and nuts made for nice DMing companions! I also didn't have my computer this time, which freed up some table space and made things a little more casual. It just meant I needed to copy down all the pertinent notes in the corner of the whiteboard before we started. I might try to do that again, though I have more info necessary for our next encounter: NPCs spell-lists and such.

Picking up the Scattered Pieces

Well, this past couple months have been a bit scattered as I work on various projects:

• D&D: S. and I played some on Omri's line this weekend. I spent a day hacking B.'s OpenRPG XML tree to streamline play on Dragonwars. And last night I put in a bit of dungeon crawling on Tellurian Tales--though nothing major to report there yet.

I also got to check out the new 4E books at Borders. I only had time to flip through the PHB, but I was pretty happy with what I saw. Interesting decision to cut alignment down to LG, G, N (unaligned), E, and CE. The new gods seem cool. A lot of things like skills have been nicely simplified (often mirroring changes I've made in Drudge), but things are a bit more complicated with characters in other areas, as there are so many powers to choose from at each level now. I think it was a nice idea to turn a lot of the spells into character powers for spellcasters, except for rituals which take too long to be cast in combat. Still, with all the other stuff I have going on right now, I probably won't buy the books for a while. (But the SRD is probably out there somewhere.... Oh, foul temptation!)

• Zludge/Drudge: I've been rereading the Fudge SRD straight through, just to make sure I've covered everything I should and to pull any missed good ideas for Zludge. I also combined the 3dF of Fluffy and the 4dF of Zludge Prime into a single 3dF progression for both systems. Zludge is getting more streamlined, and I'm quite happy with it on paper. I still haven't had a chance to playtest it much yet, of course.

I've also been checking out diceless games, and I've been hacking out some co-GMing rules. Hopefully those details will make it up here soon.

• Lite Gaming: Reading Fudge's magic system got me thinking about my "non-Scrabble" magic system and so I pulled that out again late last night.

• Inspiriation: I went ahead and bought the Iron Kingdoms World Guide off eBay. So far, it's made for nice bathroom reading. I plan to work their history into my general Tellurian history document; doesn't look like it will be too painful.

• IN Research: I've also finally gotten back into my IN research by reviewing my two big spiral sketchbooks of notes, writing up a Table of Contents/Summary for each.

Anyway, this is just an overview. A lot of these projects will turn into links as more of the details get posted.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

D&D: Slow Monks

A couple days ago I got to thinking how I've created over 25 D&D characters, yet I've never had a monk character. The reason for this is I feel that monks are a cool idea but lame in practice.

My biggest complaint about monks is that a Fighter with the Two-Weapon Fighting feat and a pair of gauntlets is better at unarmed combat than a Monk of equivalent level performing a flurry of blows. Under 3.5 rules, a 1st level fighter with 2WFing could perform two attacks at -1/-1 BAB. A flurrying monk would be at -2/-2. The monk stays -1 behind the fighter until 11th level when he at least gets an extra attack.

Sure, monks do a bit more damage (initially d6 vs the fighter's d4), and monks have a bunch of saves and other special abilities--but nothing that couldn't really be duplicated with some good magic items. And the fighter has the option of armor and upping his damage using a long and short sword at the same attack bonus.

In short, I feel the monk should be a whirlwind of accurate unarmed blows. Sure, they might not do much damage verses armored foes, but I see this a damage issue, not a base attack issue. (I guess part of the problem is they only have a fair BAB progression.) I'm imagining Wing Chun style combat here (think Matrix or wooden dummy speed). This is the flavor of the monk, but it constantly disappoints me that the math doesn't match.

However, I started thinking... what if the monk also took Two Weapon Fighting? Would that stack with a flurry of blows? After much pondering and research, it seems that the basic answer is: yes. Some of the finer details are still a little fuzzy though. Specifically, if performed unarmed, does the offhand attack get +STR or only +1/2 STR to damage? The rules say there's no such thing as an offhand attack for an unarmed monk; additionally, even offhand special monk weapons receive the full +STR bonus during a flurry. This suggests the first interpretation: even when 2WFing, the monk should still receive the full STR bonus if the offhand weapon is an unarmed attack or special monk weapon. This seems to be the interpretation of Skip Williams (at least when the offhand is unarmed), and the one I favor.

However, the official FAQs (by the Sage, Andy Collins, I believe) imply that a monk's off-hand attack would receive only +1/2 STR, even if made unarmed.

The DM's always right, so I'm basically going with: Monks can take the 2WF feat to get an extra attack. This stacks with flurry of blows, so now a first level monk could make 3 attacks at -4/-4/-4. (An impressive display, but most of them will probably bounce off the opponent's armor.) By the rules of 2WF, one of those attack must be made by the offhand. However, if this offhand weapon is an unarmed attack or a special monk weapon, it still gets the monk's full STR bonus. The offhand weapon doesn't actually need to made with a hand, but could be an unarmed attack such as a kick, etc. (This simplifies book-keeping and seems to keep with the general flavor of the monk's Unarmed Strike and Flurry of Blows.)

Technically, I still have a moratorium on new character creation. However, there's a future major NPC in Dragonwars that was going to be partly monk, so (loophole!) I'm fleshing him out a bit. For story purposes, I'm taking a level of Rogue and two of Ranger first. I'm thinking of using a glaive and Combat Reflexes too, which will provide a nice reach. While the glaive can't be used with a flurry, it can still be used with 2WF. Though the glaive occupies two hands, I can still make "offhand" attacks with kicks. By that reasoning, I could carry the glaive in one hand, make primary attacks with kicks in a flurry, and then an offhand attack with the other hand.

This should make for interesting/powerful enough martial prowess. Now I just need work on fleshing out the rest of the character and the non-combat aspects...

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Scattered Pieces and Tangled Threads

Well, not much to report this month because I just haven't had time for much roleplaying work. I've been busy with the end of term and the big grading backlog thereof. And then there's a few computing projects I'm starting to work on. Next month I need to start work on my IN research, which has been on hold these past 5 months. (Ouch.)

Looking back through my timelog, it seems February and March were spent on Zludge/Drudge design (over 90 hours!), and April was blogging and short/indie games. Right now I'm trying to pick up the pieces and decide which project to return to first.

• D&D. This week I've been refreshing my Dragonwars characters, dusting off OpenRPG, and doing some long-term planning in prep for some summer gaming with B. It's amazing how characters seem to get stale when you haven't played them in a while.

Working on D&D gets me thinking about all my other lines too. We haven't gotten back to S.'s Omri line since my last post on it. Tellurian Tales has been languishing in Mor Dunehaim for over a year now.

• Drudge/Zludge. Working with D&D is faintly depressing these days knowing that 4E will be out next week. This has also taken some of the wind of my Drudge sails, since so many of the little 3.5 irritants will be fixed in 4E. But D&D will remain focused on miniatures and combat strategy, so I think there will still be a place for Drudge.

On the Drudge front, I've been trying to slog ahead with my Ailithorn: Demon Hunter line as an alpha test. But Drudge is still in many incomplete pieces, and so progress is slow. Also, I'm trying to overhaul Zludge to be a proper parent system, but it's a massive undertaking. I've been tinkering with it this week though.

• Lite gaming. A Fluffy (non-Scrabble) urban fantasy magic system is still on the backburner, as well as an interesting potential storyline to go with it. Part of the stumbling block there is that the basic gist of the story/world (uninitiated character gains strange powers, learns of magical parallel world, and must deal with the machinations thereof) is essentially the same as DRYH, albeit with a slightly different feel. S. enjoyed DRYH, so I've been wondering if I shouldn't just stick with that for a while longer instead. So I've got a few idle notes there too.

• Inspiration. For all that on my plate, I feel the urge for something new. Admittedly, I'm looking for more content than rules (since I already have my Zludge pet project). I stood around in the local gaming store for an hour or so yesterday, trying to find something worth dropping $40 on despite my dire poverty. Nothing quite fit the bill. I'm thinking about checking out Iron Kingdoms though. I flipped through a couple books--their Monsternomicon and Five Fingers: Port of Deceit--but their core books seem to be out of print. But I've long been attracted to trying a sort of steam-punk, late Renaissance/early Enlightenment/Age of Discovery, musketeers-style fantasy setting. I think I could fit this well in the civilized Midlands of Tellure, currently empty on my maps. So this got me thinking of my Interludes D&D line, which I'd be happy to switch over to Drudge. Pirates, swashbuckling, dirty city intrigue, and blackpowder pistols! Yeah!

So all these things are simmering along. Hopefully this month some of them will get pulled together into some rousing game session or solid rules documents. If so, you'll hear about it here first!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Battle for Wesnoth, or The Siren's Call of Semi-Passive Gaming

Not much to report lately. There have been no play sessions, and work on the ex-Scrabble magic system has been sporadic and slow (mostly on the bus). My term ends next Friday, so I'm trying to catch up on my huge grading backlog. Still, most of last week was devoured by Battle for Wesnoth.

I found this computer game while trouble-shooting an old Linux laptop of mine. I wanted to see if the laptop would lock-up during use, so I was just going to play a bit of Tetris. But I had previously uninstalled all the games, so I pulled up the package manager... and happened to notice this turn-based war strategy game with a fantasy theme instead. Wesnoth is free in both senses of the word (as in speech and as in beer), and it's also available for Windows. I know this because I installed it on my normal laptop after it had consumed one evening of my life.

Now fantasy war/strategy might make you think of Warcraft. (The old Warcraft, that is, not WoW.) But Wesnoth is turn-based, which is much more enjoyable for those of us a little slow on the mouse. In fact, it reminds me a lot of an old DOS favorite of mine: Warlords II Deluxe. But they've taken Warlords and added a lot of RPG features to it (and did a better job of it than Warlords III did).

First of all, each of your armies is a named individual that gains experience and levels. Play is structured into campaigns, and so your battle-harded veterans travel with you. And so it hurts a little more when you lose an archer that survived your past two battles and was only a couple kills away from his next level! Each warrior of the same class even starts out a little differently, since each is created with a different combination of traits--such as strong or quick or intelligent.

The various scenarios are strung together into a story-based campaign, much as a series of dungeon crawls can form an RPG campaign. I guess some of the campaigns even have branching storylines, though I haven't experienced that yet myself.

The strategy is pretty interesting too. Terrain affects movement, but it also makes a big difference on how well your armies can defend themselves, and so you always try to use it your advantage. Time passes, and the current time affects the game: daytime makes lawful armies stronger, and nighttime strengthens chaotic armies. And so sometimes you find yourself just trying to keep your head down until dawn comes! Also, each figure on the board has a zone-of-control that limits how opponents can move around it. This reminds me a lot of D&D's attacks of opportunity. I still haven't quite mastered using ZoCs to properly protect my wounded soldiers on the backline though.

Overall, a very nice mix of turn-based strategy and RPG elements.

It also got me thinking about the addictiveness of semi-passive entertainment. It reminds me of the entire college weekends I lost to Diablo. I'd break only for two meals a day, which, incidentally, was usually just long enough to let my mouse hand uncramp.

Passive entertainment rarely gives me that degree of flow. Occasionally I've read a whole paperback non-stop--but that's usually only about 6 hours. Or I might watch two or three movies in a row. But with an addictive computer game, I can go from waking until I collapse completely exhausted in the wee hours of the morning... and be willing to get back on again as soon as I wake up again. Of course, I have too many responsibilities these days to have the great chunks of time required for this lifestyle.

But another source of flow like that for me is RPG rule-hacking and world-building. Since that has recently been my drug of choice, the return to the computer game addiction made me realize an important difference: After a day of world-building, I feel exhausted and a little guilty for neglecting all my "real" and "important" obligations, but I have something to show for it--some artifact I've actively created. I wasn't just consuming content. Although the time just flew by while plugged into Wesnoth, I felt rather deflated and empty when I finally jacked out.

Anyway, with all the grading due, I've been afraid to open Wensoth again since last week. And with all the Zludge and RPG ideas that need to be written up, I'm hoping I don't open it for a while longer after that. But active creation is daunting... sometimes we just want to jack in to a little semi-passive entertainment, with just enough challenge to keep us flowing.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Not a Scrabble-based Magic System

I can work on RPG design for 6 hours straight with only 2 breaks to pee, but grading for only 30 minutes makes me want to tear my eyeballs from their sockets. Today was my stay-at-home day, and I have about a 4-week backlog of grading to do. Therefore, a nap, dinner, a run, and 12 hours later... and I'm still working on my Scrabble magic system. (I did some grading in there though! And some laundry.)

When we last left it, I had a separate skill and power mechanic going on. However, I was running into trouble on pricing things. For instance, moving (M) anything--even a bottle cap--would inherently cost at least 3 mana. Yet banishing (E) a demon or holding (N) a person immobile would only cost 1 mana (though such acts would require a high skill roll). In short, mind-blowing magic didn't cost any more than subtle magic in the same discipline; it was the disciplines themselves that cost more or less.

Of course, the GM could adjust this per spell, but it still seemed too ad hoc. Or I could combine power and skill into a single mechanic. But I didn't want that either. I wanted them to be separate so you need both enough skill and enough power, and that one doesn't substitute for the other. Sometimes high-powered magic should be possible with low skill... it's just always much more dangerous if you mess it up. That said, it still seems there should be a general initial correlation--if you're highly skilled, you should be able pull together more power.

My post-run insight (I love those--it makes it all worth it) was the tile-based power levels I was considering varied only from 1 to 4, since I was saving the higher scoring tiles (8 points: J, X; 10 points: Q, Z) for mythical magical forms. But my skill levels run from +0 to +3, so just making the base power cost the Difficulty Modifier + 1 suddenly seemed so clean and simple, and fixed most of the hiccups I was struggling with. Now the simple skill steps also give a sensible base power requirement, but the two are still separate, so the GM can modify power as needed for certain odd spells.

So this means I am no longer using the tile scores. And then I decided to go ahead and drop the last real Scrabble-based constraint: the tile frequencies. Rather than requiring a certain number of a particular letter tile, just knowing the letter is good enough. Power levels should be set based on the task, not on the magical school.

And so suddenly I was free of Scrabble, because the only thing I'm using now is the 26 letters. And I think I'd do better if I dropped that too and used some other form to keep track of what "schools" or "runes" of magic a character knows. (A list on a sheet of paper comes to mind...) That way, it's more flexible--they can vary as needed by character or story, some broader or more narrow than others.

Overall, I'm happy with the way my Fluffy urban fantasy magic system is shaping up. However, I think the Scrabble aspect is done for.

I was thinking more about why this should be, though. I think the basic difficulty of a Scrabble-based magic is the flavor/world reason for it: why would a mage (randomly) vary in what spells he knows at any given time? That's basically what's being represented by a rack of limited tiles drawn from a larger pool.

Also, there's a game flavor at work here: resource management. So I think this system would work better for gamist games, such as D&D or GURPS. Also, then you could more easily map the tiles to a specific spell list (whether as stunts or specific skills).

The alternative to representing knowledge is representing power. This might make more sense--that a mage has various levels or fragments of power available at a time. (But again, why?)

The other thing to keep in mind is that Scrabble isn't the only way to approach such a "resource drawing" magic system. Playing cards, tarot cards, or dominoes might work better, depending on what you need. I particularly like the idea of dominoes--they just feel like little runestones in your hand!

So, while perhaps not completely abandoning it, I think I'll be putting this whole Scrabble thing in cold-storage after all... at least until I run across some magic flavor that actually cries out for it as a mechanic.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Scrabble-based Magic System

A month or two ago, I was browsing around the various Fudge pages and ran across mention of a magic system that uses Scrabble tiles. I never found a fleshed-out version; just a few discussions of possibilities. But it got me thinking...

Most of the discussion focused on spelling out English words with a limited number of tiles (usually 7 or so) to cast spells. I thought this would be too limiting and time-consuming. But the idea of having 7 tiles prepared at a time, and drawing from a larger pool, was interesting.

In Scrabble, there are 26 unique letters and a blank. Each letter tile (but not the blank) has a score marked on it. Because the score is in the lower-right corner, even symmetrical letters (like O and I) have clear orientations. So, if each orientation of a letter had a different meaning, it would be possible to have up to 4 * 26 + 1 (the blank) = 105 unique representations. Some letters are much more common, and there is a rough correlation between score value and frequency. This suggested to me that it'd be nice to use the score somehow as a casting cost. Therefore, there'd be lots of have cheap, low-level spells, all readily accessible due to their frequency. Expensive, high-level spells would be vary rare (1 in a 100 tiles).

With over 100 representations to work with, I thought first of a full but simple language, complete with verbs, nouns, and prepositions. I looked through the first two or three hundred of the most common English words for ideas. Then I realized someone had probably already done this language-constructing work. As an example, I found http://tokipona.org/, which is a constructed language with a little over 100 words. Examining this made me realize this was too intense--you'd have a to learn a whole new language just to play a spellcaster! That said, if you're embracing the idea that RPGs are a life-style game, and wanted to reveal the magic system slowly over months of play, this could still be a fun avenue to pursue.

Back to the drawing board, I decided to just focus on the 27 unique letters (including blank). This suggested some rune-like combo system of subjects and verbs. GURPS improv/rune magic has 25 runes. Fudge's Gramarye has 22 colleges and realms. And then there's Fudges 4x5, which as 9.

It turned out to be pretty easy to fill in 27 runes. Soon, I was creating 4 variants for each rune, each of increasing complexity. For example, the Earth rune might have 4 levels: 1) sand/clay 2) stone/solids 3) metals 4) crystals. Similarly, the Sense rune (separate from Knowledge) could involve: 1) heightened senses 2) see through material 3) true-seeing (see through magic) 4) scry (see through distance). Perhaps rotating each tile would add one to its basic mana requirement (which is initially its Scrabble score).

By this point I realized I was back to the original problem: 105 representations is too much! And that's before you even start combining them to make spells.

The other annoying thing I was running into was lack of orthogonality. That is, there was frequently more than one way to do something. For example, if Mind is a noun, then should controlling that mind require the Move or Transform rune? Or should there be a separate Control rune for mental actions? Is steam Air or Water? Do you need both Earth and Water runes to affect mud? Even if it's pretty thick mud? I decided that, if I was going to do this whole combo approach, I would just stick with the 4x5 system. (And, actually, I'd consider combining Mind and Spirit into one category, making it 4x4.)

At this point I was getting ready to give up the project as just too complex. But then I realized I didn't really have an idea of what I was trying to do here, other than use Scrabble tiles in some way. I had no overarching vision. So I went back to examine the real Magic System Basics in order to consider my options.

In the last couple months, S. and I have been watching and reading a lot of Dresden Files, which is basically an fun urban fantasy setting. It gels nicely with other similar material, such as from Neverwhere, American Gods, Nightwatch, etc. This gave me a flavor for my magic: I wanted some sort of subtle magic that could pass in an urban setting, but that is still capable of producing the world-shaking spells of myth and legend, and can include any kind of historical magic system.

We've also been playing a lot of Huffy/Fluffy lately, so I decided I wanted a simple magic system--which is almost in conflict with the complexity naturally suggested by a Scrabble system's potential.

I also realized I don't need to use the full Scrabble tile set. In fact, if I did, it'd mean every magic-using player would need their own full Scrabble game! So I cut the set in half. This means a few characters--such as K, the only 5-point letter--might get thrown out... but only if every caster needs the full half-set.

So, the past few days, I've been doodling ideas and finally inspiration hit last night that brought all my various notes together. I will use a single Magic skill to determine casting ability. Magic is an exertion of will on the world, and so it must overcome the inertial disbelief of those around you. (Though I've never played, or even read much of it, I guess this is basically the Mage: The Ascension idea here.) This makes it easy to adlib spell effects--it's basically dependent on how overt and unlikely the spell effect is. This is the core, simple thing used to adjudicate spell effects, and the system could probably just run on this alone.

The complexity--and flavor--is then in what kinds of magic a character knows, since not every character is good at every kind of magic. This is represented by the Scrabble tiles. I'd like to have these gained through gameplay, rather than simply bought with skill points. Each tile corresponds to a magical verb. There are no nouns; those are implicit/provided by the casting ritual of the spell. Each verb has a mana cost corresponding to the tile's Scrabble score. I'm not messing with different tile orientations, but multiple tiles of the same letter can provide more intricate effects (with appropriately higher mana costs). Most spells would involve a single letter, but some higher spells could involve more.

The challenge for characters in this system is to come up with enough mana at once to cast spells. A higher Magic skill gives a caster a couple more points, but the rest comes from special locations, rituals, items, etc. I'm using the magical laws of Similarity and Contact in all of this too.

Anyway, I think the basic ideas are together, but I still have to flesh out all the details. If it works out, this will likely become a possible Zludge/Fluffy magic system. Sadly, I'm no longer using the full information-encoding potential of the tiles, or the mechanic of tiles being drawn randomly from a pool, or 7 tiles being held in the mind at a time. But I think I made the right decision to start with the flavor of the magic and the nature of enclosing gaming system I wanted instead. I think the tiles will be a nice touch just as a physical representation of accumulated knowledge, as well as handy representations of spell costs.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Drudge: Ailithorn (vol 1)

Well, I just "played" a bit of Ailithorn: Demon Hunter (a Tellurian tale), which is finally posted. I say "played" since, for this line, my focus has been a bit more on the writing (at least at this point) than the gaming. Also, Drudge is still currently in pieces, so I can't even say this is alpha testing. My second character--Sophie--isn't even fully rolled up yet.

That said, of the handful of attack rolls I have made so far, I have the following to note:
1) My black Fudge dice seem to roll low more often than they roll high.
2) Burning an aspect for a repeat roll (getting the same result again) sucks.
3) I may need to go back to drawing board (again) on converting D&D HD to Drudge, or at least give it a bit more thought. In D&D, that mane should have taken (on average) 1.5 crossbow hits. In Drudge, it will consistently take 3 one-handed hits. (Actually, more, since I wasn't bothering with its natural armor. Oops, and I also see now I forgot its Acidic Cloud death-throes, though I happened to get the general dissolving spirit right.)
4) Related to 3, I do miss that thrill of getting in a good solid hit for more damage. Though there's less rolling without damage rolls, Drudge is currently a bit more slogging in nature.

Nothing I want to change yet; just things to keep in mind.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Notion: Magic System Basics

I've been thinking about magic systems this week. I've been pondering a while on a Scrabble-tile-based system for Zludge. But, as I often do, when I get stuck I explore the basics to try to figure out what the factors are.

First of all, there's a vast variety of magic systems. For examples, I've just been looking at D&D, GURPS, Fudge, and FATE--and that's been enough! There's also related and parallel magic-like systems, such as psi, ritual/incantations, and superpowers.

I think the great variation of magic is just because every fictional world tends to have its own magic/supernatural rules--what's possible and how hard it is to do. So one magic system is definitely not going fit all games, just in terms of flavor.

The other side of that flavor coin is the rule mechanics. I've identified three concerns here:

First, how detailed is the system? That is, is it based on just a handful of guiding principles, a few tables of modifiers, or a complete book laying out every spell in detail? Detail may be a boon or a curse, depending on your play style.

Secondly, how diverse is the magic that needs to be modeled? For instance, is magic in this world basically only telekinesis, where physical objects can be moved and that's it? Or are we modeling a long tradition of every diverse occult effect, from summoning demons to levitating to blasting fireballs, from combat casting to potions to hour-long rituals?

Finally, is the magic system balanced? This means between uses (so casting a certain spell has a consistent cost), within the magic system (so a mage specializing in divination gets just as much of the limelight and story power as one specializing in evocation), and with the rest of the game mechanic (so that non-mage characters aren't overshadowed by the mages).

With these concerns of detail, diversity, and game balance in mind, we can look at how various general mechanics satisfy these. First, there's the issue of how magic is purchased by a character. One option is as skills--where each use requires a check or roll, just as with any other non-magical ability. Another option is stunts--one-time uses that a player usually checks off when used (though not necessarily: a stunt may be more like a feat, usable at will). Additionally, there might be power levels, which usually determine the strength of effects. Power levels usually operate in conjunction with skills or stunts.

These purchasing modes--skills, stunts, and power levels--provide a means for game balance. However, magic could be something simply accumulated through play. D&D's wizard's spellbook and Unearthed Arcana's incantations work a bit like this.

So, aside from how the magic is purchased, what is the basic game mechanic? The first is the exhaustive, specific spell list. D&D uses this approach (where each spell uses a stunt-like spell slot), but so does GURPS (where each spell is a separate skill, with a diverse tree of spell-skill dependencies). This could also be used very nicely on a small scale, as with Fate's example of Pyromancy stunt magic. The advantages of the spell list is extensive detail and, assuming sufficient playtesting, good game-balance. But detail is its own curse--now every time a spell is cast, the books need to come out to check the rules. Also, one is not meant to adlib new spell effects when you have a spell list.

A second mechanic is the general skill. So, unlike GURPS one-skill-per-spell, what I mean here is that one or more skills determines success in a wide variety of endeavors. In short, details such as range, duration, and effect are not set by the spell itself, but adlibbed according to some guidelines. This is seen in simple Fudge-like magic systems, such as Fate's Improvisational Magic. In a very simple system, the GM specifies how hard a certain affect would be to achieve and the player justs roll against a single Magic skill to determine success.

Often the skill roll is combined with power-levels. GURPS psi works a lot like this. For example, the character's telekinesis skill determines the control the character has, but her telekinetic power determines how heavy an object she can affect. (GURPS psi skills are defined so narrowly to be practically a spell list, however.)

Stunts could be used generally too. For instance, a character could perhaps produce 3 Illusions a day, but determine at the time of casting the details of those illusions.

A third mechanic is the combo skill. This is essentially run as a per the general skill mechanics, but each spell success is determined by some combination of skills. This could be an averaging, one roll for each skill involved, or just rolling the lowest skill. Fudge's 4x5 and Gramarye systems and GURPS Magic's improvisational rules work like this (using a combination of college/verb and realm/object skills), as do D&D's incantations (using non-magical skills).

I don't know of any combo-stunt systems, but it seems such as system would certainly be possible.

Finally, magic might use some completely separate mechanic, such as using playing or tarot cards, marbles, or Scrabble tiles. But usually these can be boiled down, or at least compared to, stunts or skills.

So, from what I see here, a magic system is basically going to let a character roll some skill or invoke some stunt to produce an effect. This is because skills and stunts (and power levels) are the core RPGing mechanic and, to maintain game balance and functionality, any major/integral magic system should be in these terms.

So, the first question is to determine the flavor and diversity of the magic you want to model. Then, look to what detail you want to use to model this. With high diversity, high detail will be a major undertaking. Also, your game system will probably direct you on this--high detail systems (such as D&D and GURPS) favor detailed spell lists, while Fudge prefers general and combo skill rolls. The advantage of detail is all the consistency and game balance kinks can be worked out beforehand. The advantage of less detail is that you can make it up as you go, letting player and GM creativity shine.

D&D: Omri, Cheap Battlegirds, and Player Caution

S. and I played a bit of D&D this weekend. We overlaid some clear Omnigrid quilting rulers over the white board for a quick battle grid, and then used some old chess pieces for miniatures. Worked out quite nicely! Normally I just use the white board, but it always takes an extra minute drawing the grid before each combat, and then I have to erase each character's mark before moving them to another square. There's just something quick and satisfying about miniatures... but also something a bit pricey when doing it right! The chess pieces were a nice compromise.

I was also reminded what a cautious player S. is. While taking out a goblin army outpost that had her party pinned down with crossbow fire, her character, Omri, burst out of invisibility within the enemy dugout and immediately decapitated an orc and a goblin. Half the remaining seven goblins in the room were still flatfooted, and the rest of her party was about 3 rounds away. Omri had both Shield and Sheild Other in effect, and I was envisioning an awesome cinematic bloodbath as Omri tore through the remaining goblins while her friends dashed in, their own crossbows and spells blazing. But S. chose to retreat rather than press her advantage! So now the entire scattered goblin army--not just this one outpost--knows they're coming.

But upon reflection, I think this retreat is not so surprising. For one, Omri--who had never seen either orc or bugbear before and failed her Knowledge check to identify the orc before her--thought that she may have killed the commander bugbear they were coming for. (And S. did a great job of staying in character even after I accidentally let slip that it was an orc.) Secondly, I may not have been clear as GM that the army had little outposts scattered around these mountain valleys, watching all the passes, that this was just one such outpost that could alert the others given a bit of time.

But most importantly, it's just a (nice) surprise to have a player that isn't unconsciously meta-gaming the whole time, that doesn't have a good idea of the challenge rating of the current encounter, and who's worried more about avoiding unnecessary combat than just killing everything that moves and nicking all its stuff. And, I must say, if it were me in Omri's place, I don't know if I'd stand my ground in a cramped dugout when seven armed and outraged goblins turned to stare at me! Overall, it was still an impressive hit-and-fade attack... marred slightly only the by the 3 crossbow bolts the party took in the back as they fled into the surrounding hills.

Anyway, it was just another lesson in that constant GM balancing-act: providing enough challenge that players have to be cautious, but not so much that they're afraid to just rush in--swords swinging--when the situation calls for it. I guess that's the trick: successfully conveying whether or not the situation calls for it.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Making cheap dice

Don't Rest Your Head requires about 30d6 to play with only one player (and about 17d6 for each additional player, if everyone has their own dice), divided into four different colors. So I had to figure out how to make some cheap dice. When I made my first set of Fudge dice, I bought some blank black dice at 75¢ each--which wasn't going to cut to here. (Those didn't turn out all that well either. Sorry, I forgot to include them in the picture though.)

So a couple weekends ago S. and I went to the educational supply store that I knew had a mix of odd dice. I didn't find anything pre-made there that was affordable enough, but we did find a bag of wooden counting units. Remember those from elementary school--the 1s, the 10s, and the 100s? This bag of 100 little wooden cubes was normally $3.95, but it was 30% off, so I got out of there for less than $3 (meaning less than 3¢ per die)!

I didn't have any permanent markers, so I had to buy some of those too. (Doh! Another $5.) I bought the kind with fine tips on one end and ultra-fine on the other. I ended up using ultra-fine for the dice pictured here. (The lone black die in the foreground is an example of fine.)

Due to the wood, 4 of the 6 sides tend to cause the ink to weep a little along the grain. The other 2 sides really suck the ink in, making those numbers seem darker. I was consistent in how I arranged the numbers in relation to each other on the die, but I tried to vary the side and grain orientation I started with on each die. I'm not guaranteeing that these dice are completely random and unweighted, but I figured if I varied each one, the individual differences shouldn't matter much.

Although the different colored numbers are clear in daylight, it was hard to tell the blue and green (and black) apart in dim indoor lighting. To differentiate them, I tried outlining the edges of the green dice (which we use for DRYH's Discipline pool). This was still a little too subtle. S. suggested using a green highlighter, and that worked out quite nicely. I haven't noticed any staining on my hands using these dice.

The picture above shows the finished product, with a penny for scale. The dice are quite small, which is handy when you're trying to roll 10 or 15 at once. They're also very quiet on the table, which is a nice feature. The medicine bottle containing 3 Fudge dice is what we've been using for Huffy rolls. And, as you can see, I still have half a bag of blanks left!

Notion: Generating RPG Story Graphs

Please forgive me for the long way 'round. I tend to explore the problem a bit before proposing a solution. And, since I haven't touched my IN research in about 3 months now, I've been using the exploration of the past three posts as a bit of review and rejuvenation. But it's time to finally tackle the problem at hand: how, as human GMs, can we quickly generate a story graph to guide our game?

First, start with the gist. That is, what is the main conflict or central idea of the story? Keep this ever in mind, as it will tie everything else together. If some encounter doesn't further the gist, reconsider including it.

That said, there may be separate story threads that will eventually tie back into the gist. Also, certain character-building scenes might lay groundwork that will later be important to the gist. Often, the story might start with a lead-in thread--something that gets the PCs involved in the gist. Try to get them there quickly and into the main story.

The gist corresponds to an adventure. If you're running a longer campaign, you might start foreshadowing later adventure gists, and so one adventure serves as lead-in to another. But, like an episode in a TV series, each adventure should have its own gist and core structure.

Be aware of PC motivations. Before you even start, know why the PCs would be willing to involve themselves in the gist. You may have a lead-in with clear motivations, but will they then switch their interest over to the gist? This is less of a concern if the gist is forced upon the PCs--ie, the forces of darkness are coming after the PCs themselves for some reason, such that they can't run or hide (for long).

Next, work backwards. The gist should suggest some obvious conclusion that you'd like to strive for. Be aware this could change though, so perhaps think of a couple alternatives. For example, your gist might be an massive alien invasion. As GM, your intended conclusion is a dark one: the PCs manage only to rescue a few key people and flee the planet. But other places you could go is the PCs actually thwarting the invasion somehow, or perhaps even aiding the aliens. In short, you want to a desirable conclusion to shoot for, but also a couple fallback destinations if you want to give PCs enough freedom that you might miss your mark.

Now that you have a conclusion, what needs to happen immediately before that? Does the conclusion generally suggest some journey, needed information, or essential item? Try to work back one step at a time, but be aware that there may be a few threads that you can interweave as is convenient. For instance, in order to flee the planet ahead of the alien invasion, the PCs will need to know about the invasion, need to get the refugees together, and will need to get a ship. That's three threads. Start fleshing those out. How will they get the information? How will they learn that stopping the invasion would be impossible? What will their motivation be to gather refugees?

Essentially, you're working backwards filling in the preconditions (including justification and motivation) for each node. (Perez's MEXICA story gen system works this way.)

Work forwards. But, alternately, you want to work forwards as well. Your players have given you a starting point: their PCs, backstory, and motivations. From your gist and conclusion, you have a goal.

From here, you use the improv technique of tilting. In improv, you try to establish a scene or context and then tilt it by changing or breaking some expectation. This constant introduction of problems, even to some boring task, proves much more engaging than simply trying to do something interesting. For instance, brain surgery on an elephant might be interesting at first... but not if it goes smoothly. Washing dishes would be more exciting if the drain stopper suddenly stops working... now we have something to solve.

In this spirit, keep introducing some problem or obstruction between the PCs and their goal. Let them solve each one, always moving closer to the goal... but only to find another problem.

Work where you are. Whether working forwards or backwards, you still need to flesh out the details of the current encounter. In short, you need material. Much of the time, the story needs of the encounter will suggest things.

But if not, start with reincorporation (another improv trick). That is, how could you work some previous character or item or effect of a past event into the current action? This means you're building on the previous story, weaving things together, so it's all not just a string of unconnected events. (This approach of establishing the narrative necessity of earlier story events is actually the core mechanic of my current IN system, Marlinspike.) Theoretically, if you do this too much, you end up with a string of bizarre coincidences as old characters keep coming back in new roles. But if it worked so well for Charles Dickens and Edgar Rice Burroughs, why not for you?

If reincorporation isn't suggesting anything though, then it's handy to have a list of material on hand--one or two word NPC sketches, scene forms, etc. See if you can't work these in somehow to fill the needs of your current story--either throwing a temporary wrench in the PCs' current plans or else justifying/providing for later action you have planned.

So how does all this produce a quick game? First, establish a gist. (Again, Instant Game can do this for you.) This will give you the general setting and likely (or at least possible) conclusion. Let the PCs start creating characters in accordance with this. Don't be afraid of a little explicit player involvement--explain the gist and even discuss some possible conclusions with the players. This lets them create characters that will be motivated by the gist, and can give you more ideas.

Next, while the PCs are building their characters, generate some material appropriate to the setting--a handful of NPC hooks, and maybe a list of the kinds of scenes you'd like to see. Your story's Tone/genre can suggest a lot here. This material will serve as resource if you get stuck.

Now put the (likely) conclusion on the right side of a sheet of paper. Start working backwards, establishing the threads it'll take to get there. Then, within these threads, work forwards a little, thinking of ways to tilt or obstruct PCs progress. Once you have a rough idea of the major events in the story--the stuff that will generally need to be completed to get to the end--go to the far left side of your paper and work on the first couple encounters that will take the PCs from their starting conditions and tie them into the gist. Since you know where you're going now, you can start foreshadowing things.

Once you have the first couple encounters fleshed out, and a general outline for the rest, you're ready to start playing! You can work forward as you go, trying to reincorporate things the PCs did while tilting to produce problems for the PCs to solve. But don't bog down the action too much--keep things moving along your outline and remember the gist. If you're stuck, glance at your material list for things you haven't already worked in for ideas.

Now that I have a recipe for action, I'll have to try it next time I play and see if all this actually works in practice! It also suggests possibilities for collaborative GMing/GM-less gaming which bears thinking about...

Notion: Material and Form of RPG Story Graphs

So I've examined story graph structure in general. But what exactly contributes to this structure? It seems there's both the form/structure and the material/content.

The material is basically the world--characters and setting--and the game rules (verbs) for interaction. This is what makes up the substance of encounters. A campaign setting--whether adopted or constructed--provides much of the world: geography, history, culture, types of creatures and characters, major NPCs, etc. Even an Instant Game provides the basics for this with its Instant Setting rolls.

PCs also provide a lot of material if the GM is willing to incorporate it. PCs tend to have or suggest various dependent or patron NPCS or other backstory hooks that could be built upon.

If more material is needed, random tables work great for this. Just roll up your next NPC encounter, the next roaming monster, or the features of the next dungeon room. These random tables are usually campaign (or at least genre) specific, though there are a few table that give some general NPC trait or feature handy for quick caricature.

What random tables do not provide is the purpose or role the material will play in your story. Is this random, non-combative NPC meant to be a hindrance, a clue, or foreshadowing? You need to provide this structure.

However, sometimes structure will prompt material directly--if you need to hinder the PCs a bit at this point in the story, a certain apropos monster may spring to mind.

So these are some sources of raw material, but they must all serve the story structure in order to be relevant.

The core of a story is its central idea, also called the conflict, the opposition, or gist. A random table (or Instant Game) might provide this core story idea, but it then needs to be fleshed out.

One way to do this is follow some sort of story form. At its most basic, this is simply the rising-action/climax/falling-action of Freytag's triangle (the modern version, anyway). But there are more specific forms for each genre--such as Propp's Russian folktale morphology, Joseph Campbell's hero's journey, etc. Other forms have forms less codified but still recognizable--the sci-fi horror film, the romantic comedy, etc. Genre rules usually provide material as well, as with film noir's hardboiled detective, femme fatale, and dark gritty streets. Story forms are good for guidance, but can become a straitjacket if the PCs don't want to follow the traditional roles--such as being the moral heroes. (It took me a few months of research to realize this--see "The Limitations of a Propp-based Approach to Interactive Narrative" over at Argax for more.)

It's also possible to generate random scene forms (aka, encounter types) and try to append them to each other. For instance, a rescue, a car chase, or a dungeon battle. But what is the material of these scenes--who is rescuing whom? And what is their role in the story--is the rescue a climax of the story, or is it performed just to get another clue towards the final goal, or is it even the inciting incident for everything that follows?

We now have a good idea of everything that goes into one of these story graphs and were we might get some of it. So how do we put it all together?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Notion: Story Graphs in Theory and Practice

So, after a little contemplation it seems that a GM guides the story with a mental model of possibilities and potential stories. This model forms a directed graph of story nodes (that is, encounters). The game then traverses this graph of possibilities to produce a linear actual story. This linear story should then have certain characteristics of all good stories--coherence, rising and falling action (conflict), interesting characters and events, etc.

Here's a depiction of this: a graph of dark blue nodes with all possible connections (dashed arrows) and the path actually taken by the story (dark arrows). Some nodes have time requirements--they will happen at (or cannot happen until) a certain time. Similarly, some nodes might be dynamic, having contents that vary depending on which nodes were visited previously.

I must immediately note that most real GMs do not work this way! This is more of a brute force IN/computer game approach, where everything must be completely written before play even starts. As GMs, we don't plot out all possibilities in detail. For one, it's incredibly hard to think of all possible player actions that would necessitate a response. Secondly, it's a waste of time to do all this plotting for events that are unlikely to ever make it into the game.

Instead, I believe GMs work more like this:

That is, we have the main story line mostly planned, though there may still be a couple encounters (shown as outlined light blue nodes) we don't know all the details for yet. We may have a contingency plan for some of the obvious player choices that would take them off the main story line, and hopefully have a vague plan for how to work this back into the story. We might also have some world/content ideas with no idea of how these will affect the story (non-outlined light blue nodes). But these will be handy if we suddenly need to generate more of the graph to support a story that veers off of our planned outline.

In contrast, here's an approximation of the mental "graph" I was working from during our last Huffy session:

There's a clear starting point and a relatively good idea of where to end. There's a few ideas of the kind of action we might see--such as a rooftop chase or a rescue--but without any content--such as the characters or setting necessary for this action. These are shown as empty white nodes. And then there's a few other vague ideas that have no obvious story role yet, with a couple notions about how some of them might go together.

So, even if we do not need to generate a complete graph of all possible stories, how to we quickly generate a partial graph containing at least one complete possible storyline?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Notion: Story Management in RPGs and IN

In thinking about how we might make RPG story management more dynamic, it would probably help to review how it's done normally. The following view essentially comes from D&D's DMG, though it's been shaped a lot by my thinking on the problem of interactive narrative (IN).

An adventure is composed of encounters. Encounters are some short segment of interaction, usually phrased in if/then terms. For example, if the PCs enter this room, this monster will attack them. Or, if the PCs agree to lay down their weapons, the king will listen to their request; otherwise his guards will attack.

Encounters are really simply the story/world/GM response to player actions. So what determines possible player actions? The game rules and GM's description of the world provides affordances for PC action. That is, players know what sorts of actions they can perform based on their skills and powers, including the likelihood of success. The game rules and story context so far can provide constraints and guidance too--some actions are not possible in the world, would be out of character, or would be irrelevant/nonsensical to the story.

In terms of my IN poetics, the events internal to an encounter are world-level events. I call this set of possible world-level actions verbs. As already mentioned, the game rules provides the set of possible verbs. An encounter needs a setting (location, props, etc.) and characters (PCS and NPCs). Characters should include motivations to be believable.

So this brings us to what, in IN, I consider to be the story-level interpretation of world-level events. In other words, how do encounters combine to form adventures? That is, if we summarize each encounter as a sentence, how does that sentence further or change the story structure?

As a related parallel, I would say the main challenges of IN include:
1) defining the set of possible verbs widely enough that the player doesn't feel constrained yet so that the world can appropriately handle/respond to all (or at least all logical) combinations of verb and world object,
2) providing NPC motivations that lead to believable responses to both PC and other NPC actions, and
3) modeling the story so that the system can direct the story to some conclusion.

I believe point 1 can be overcome largely through brute force--coding up a complex rule-based interaction system. Similarly with point 2, though 2 is harder since NPCs have more complex internal states than objects and must also present their reactions in an audience-interpretable manner. But I find point 3 to be the most challenging. In particular, how can a computer understand what world-level actions mean at a story level, both when interpreting user actions and then when directing NPC/world responses? And, secondly, what model of story is the IN system trying to follow as it directs the action?

In terms of RPGs, human ability fills in a lot of these gaps for us. As mentioned, the rules tell us how to adjudicate the verbs (1). But where they do not, the GM can devise a substitute or house rule. NPC motivation (2) is provided by the GM as necessitated by the story. Story structure (3) is what I'm interested in here. I believe that, for a human GM given a story structure (providing constraints/direction) and a rule system and game world (providing affordances/material), the encounter details largely take care of themselves.

Okay, so in the interest of both IN and RPGs, how do RPG GMs model a story structure? D&Ds DMG suggest two basic approaches: site-based and event-based.

In a site-based adventure, encounters are laid out as a map. Site-based adventures are easy to run since both constraints and affordances are easy to communicate: certain spells aside, players have to move through the passageways, encountering each room in some sort of basic order. Locked doors and other obstacles can further direct them. It's easy to foreshadow what's coming up around the next bend. Choices are clear--do we go left or right at this branch? What do we do with the troll currently picking his nose in the next room?

The DMG points out that site-based adventures can be static or dynamic. Static dungeons don't change--there's a troll picking his nose in this room regardless of what the PCs did in the previous room. Dynamic dungeons change or respond to earlier PC actions. Perhaps the nose-picking troll is summoned from his room to sounds of battle, or perhaps he's warned by a fleeing guard that the PCs let get away. Or maybe the troll simply has a random chance of being asleep rather than nose-picking.

For event-based adventures, the DMG suggests starting with a goal for the PCS, and then consider their opposition. It's important to consider PC motivation and how to entice them into the adventure. Then the GM flowcharts the adventure--what events happen in what order. Again, encounters have an if/then structure, so remember preconditions and stress the consequences of PC actions.

As with site-based adventures, event-based adventures can be static--these things happen if the PCs do this. But they can also be dynamic (called timelines): this will happen at this time, regardless of what the PCs have done so far. Usually you end up with some combo--as in the advancing horde reaches the city on day 3 of the adventure, but the results of that battle will depend on what the PCs did before it got there.

What we can see here is that RPG story planning essentially means creating a directed graph. Each encounter is node. The story moves from one node/encounter to another based on what the PCs decide to do.

In a site-based adventure, the graph will have essentially the same shape as the dungeon--rooms connected by corridors. In event-based, we might end up with more various shapes, such as a linear graph when the GM has a single storyline that the PCs have no ability to change. (These can still be interesting games, as the players have to determine how to advance the story and overcome the obstacles before them. See these rough draft pages of my dissertation for more on potential story forms.)

Of course, there are a couple more concerns than simply the shape of the story graph. The DMG recommends that an adventure should offer a variety of different kinds of encounters (combat, puzzles, social intrigue, etc.) and should make good use of PC abilities. The encounters should be individually exciting, but, together, form the rising and falling action of a story. There should be at least some encounters that offer the players a chance to significantly affect the direction of the story.

So, in summary, we can say that an RPG GM works from a directed graph (often of the branching tree variety) representing all potential stories. Each node is an encounter, and the mechanics of those encounters are determined by the rules system and story world (setting, NPC motivations, etc.). But the actual story produced is a linear traversal of that graph as determined by player choices at each node. This completed linear story should then have appropriate story structure--coherence, rising and falling tension, etc.

So how can we speed the production of this guiding story graph?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Huffy: Testing notes

Huffy is a hiking version of Fluff(y), and served about as well. We only had a couple rolls for the combat scene.

The supplies needed include: a pen and scrap of paper (which got a little damp in a light shower), 3dF (small) in a transparent (medicine) bottle, 5 blue chips (plot points), 2 white chips (to mark light injury), and 3 red chips (for heavy injury). All this fits in a few pockets without much trouble.

Our hiking path didn't include too many road crossings, which is good. Your Huffy player party should include someone who can walk and chew gum at the same time to keep an eye on everyone, especially at intersections. S. does this well.

I found that combining hiking and gaming means the gaming goes a little slow as there are pauses to enjoy the scenery, and some of scenery is a bit of a blur because I was deep in thought on gaming. But I tend to think of gaming whenever I hike, so it wasn't that much different! By combining the two activities, you can focus more on one whenever the other hits a bit of a boring lull.

I felt that the biggest problem we encountered--which is larger than just some broken Huffy mechanic--is how to steer the story when we're making it up as we go. I'm still used to D&D, where time seems to divide roughly into 50% combat/strategy, 30% adventuring/dungeon crawling/narration, and 20% town/roleplay/interaction. (Well, that's recently in my Omri campaign. In Dragon Wars, it's probably closer to 65/20/15. In another campaign I play in, it's closer to 80/15/5.) In this context, the main challenge is to come up with dramatic battles and tricky dungeons puzzles (though, yes, it should all still be in the pursuit of some interesting goal).

But lately I'm trying to shift this time division to about 10% combat, 50% narration, and 40% interaction. But this means there needs to be a lot more story ready to go! Yet at the same time, I'm trying to play short, lite-weight campaigns that don't require more than 20 minutes advanced planning.

So what are some possible mechanisms to use here? I still think Instant Game does a great job of quickly giving you a campaign setting--the world and the basic conflict of the story. What I was missing yesterday was more of the story details that then flesh out that conflict.

I did include S. in more explicit story planning at the outset. This means we spent as much time planning as actually playing though. But S. seemed to enjoy being able to shape the world and the story as well as just her character. But once we were into the playing, I felt that the pressure is really on the GM to come up with the next encounter.

Another idea I had was to make a list of story elements before we started that we could then try to work in. Again, S. contributed to the list, which included things such as: feral hordes, a high speed chase, a fight on a narrow archway, a knife fight, spitting in someone's face in defiance, slippin' someone a micky, a foretelling. This did help a bit. I'm already foreshadowing the feral hordes. The knife fight didn't quite come through, but it did suggest the fight between the 3 men. We did a bit of foretelling too (though it's hard to prophesy when you have no clear plan beyond the next encounter!)

All of three of these--Instant Game's setting and opposition, player contribution to the world, and a list of potential story elements--helped. But all three of them require pre-game prep. Is there any generative thing we could do to foster play-time plot generation? And I'm not talking just rolling up another combat encounter here--though the idea of a random table could be used (which the story element list already hints at). In the spirit of Zludge, it'd be nice to stay away from reference tables during play-time.

Hmm... something to ponder more. It's also nice to see my RPG interests coming back around to my IN work!

Huffy: Liza Jaeger

Date: 11 Apr 2008
Player: S.

This was our first attempt at Huffy. We played for about an hour, I'd say, as we walked from Kahala Mall, along the coast at the foot of Diamond Head, to my house. We were playing an Instant Game with the following details:

Setting: Fallen Civilization
Tone: Action/Adventure
Thing: Neutral Ground
Thing: Epic Heroes
Tech: Lost Technology (Now: Wheel. Then: Automobiles)
Place: Camping Out
Population: >10 million

Opposition: (Cruel) Kingpin
Action-Thing: Rescue (Giant) Secret Society
Action-OtherThing: Survive (Strong) Soldier

The population of this corner of the world is spread out in little woodland villages, living a primitive but comfortable existence. S.'s character, Elizabeth "Liza" Jaeger is the greatest hunter in the region. But it seems her family is in debt to the local Godfather figure, who calls in the debt by giving Liza a choice: go on a little "errand" for him, or else he'll marry her young, innocent sister Amelia.

The errand is to travel east over the mountains to find more "sigiled meshal". The kingpin shows her the piece of meshal he already has--a hard, silvery sheet bearing a strange sigil: a circle surrounded by three triangles [a chunk of metal bearing the radioactive symbol, in other words]. The man who brought this to the kingpin suffered sores and internal bleeding. Before he died he explained that the sigil is significant as an indication of the meshal's power to cause disease. The meshal is now stored in the kingpin's shed, a fair distance from any living area.

Liza seeks prophesy before she leaves on such a long journey. The local wise woman reads her tea leaves and says to beware the mountains and the Green Bear.

A couple days journey later, Liza reaches the foothills of the mountains. Ancient myth tells that giants live on the far side, and heroes of old fended them off so that the Villages could live in peace here in the forest.

Liza hears a scuffle nearby and interrupts a fight between three men. One is a warrior dressed like her, but the other two are large, bald, blubbery, and dressed in loincloths and war paint. One of the savages--already wounded--roars and charges Liza when she calls out, and she sinks him with an arrow. The warrior slays the other savage with a well-placed blow of his macuahuitl; he then brutally dispatches the other fallen savage. Liza notices the savages bear weapons crudely fashioned from chunks of meshal, though they lack sigils.

Introductions are exchanged. The warrior is named Albert, and is a member of the Order of Holy Redoubt, a martial monastic order that serve as sentinels and guardians of the mountains. Though they have not seen any giants in known memory, lately small groups of these savages have been coming across the desert wastelands beyond the mountains. They do not seem to speak, but violently attack other humans and, occasionally, each other.

Albert offers that Liza come to the monastery for the night. It proves to be under-staffed with only a handful of warriors who come in from their diverse posts and watches for dinner. Albert explains that the Villages very rarely tithe their sons to the Redoubt as they once did, and the order itself has largely been forgotten here in the wilderness. Liza overhears a hushed discussion of "the rogue" further down the table...

[Liza's details: Fighting +1, Strength +0, Grace +1, Knowledge +1, Perception +1, Social -1, Survival +3. Quirks: Blunt/Tactless; Honorable.]