Monday, November 2, 2009


I saw this animated short over a year ago, but something reminded me of it again tonight and so I had to track it down:

Pyrats (on YouTube)

I love the animation, the music, and the ending. But, regarding RPGing, I love the party class mechanics. This is how RPG combat should feel!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

An XML spell list

Today, I got to thinking about XML. Last night I was poking a bit more at the z20 spell list, slowly importing/converting things from d20, and realized what a hassle it was. I'm doing way too much formatting and linking by hand in HTML. Instead, I should probably be making a separate XML document, which I could then format differently for different needs. I'm comfortable with the theory behind XML documents, but I've never created and reformatted one of my very own. So I got to wondering if anyone's come up with a standard DTD or schema for d20 spell lists. Some searching ensued, with the following results:
The biggest name/site I found in regards to still-active d20 XML. In the latest version (zipped XML+SQL bundle), the XML includes markup of spell details, but also a fulltext section including a table-based HTML view as well.

I was more interested in his "obsolete" version (2004) of only spells and monsters, which includes only XML markup of the spells. The OGL licence suggests this came through the PCGen Character Generator project somehow.

The oldest version of all (2003) includes an XSLT as well, for decent formatting. This is what I have in mind for z20--a nicely marked up XML backend with different formatting options through XSLT (or similar tools). The content isn't itself quite a clean as the previous option though.

The site also has an XML markup of the whole SRD, though this XML simply marks tables, rows, cells, and paragraphs.
From John Kim's more general SRD page, this page includes a zipped XML file of the spell details. This is from the 3.0 version of the SRD though. Sadly, the online CGI options to search through it don't seem to work.
A Yahoo! Group that ran from 2000 to about 2006 working towards a complete d20 XML schema for character creation and possibly even gameplay. I did not read more than a few of the first posts and the last posts. Different people were working on their own projects, and no consensus or central DTD was apparently formed.
A personal d20 XML project--spinning off from the d20-xml group--to get an XSchema for all the d20 content. The focus is on having the XML usable by software tools, so machine-readable is preferred over human-readable. (I agree with that approach, since you should be using XSTL if you want truly human-readable output.) However, the project focused more on characters and monsters and the rules logic than simply data storage. The project ended in 2008 (or, rather, rolled into a different approach using Lua).

Conclusion: There is no readily available XML schema for d20 content because everyone has different needs. PCGen and OpenRPG are doing some XML stuff backend, but that doesn't really fit what I'm going to do. So I'm on my own... which is probably just as well.

My current thought is that it'd be fun to play around with the different d20 XML versions I downloaded, and to try generating a HTML snapshot page of each spell pulled from different versions of the SRD. Then I could build a z20 spell list, and pull those into the same snapshot pages for comparison. I've been meaning to learn more about XML, XSchemas, XPath, XSLT, etc. for some time. But I really don't need a new project right now! So we'll see what happens.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

History of z20 and Zludge

As the last couple posts have hinted, my z20 project has been quietly resurrected, despite earlier posts suggesting this is a doomed endeavor. I started wondering at this--where did z20 come from? How did I get here, and where do I think I'm going?

However, in digging for the answer, I found that z20 is intricately tied to the history of Zludge. Pouring through my archive of Sent email messages to S. and B., I was able to reconstruct the following chronology:

Jun 2007: I become intrigued by Fudge and Fate 2.0 (effectively a specific flavor of Fudge). Fudge in particular is filled with good ideas, but in a very "...and here's another good idea" style, leaving the GM to roll these ideas into his own perfect system. I start my own Fudge derivative named Zludge: a mixture of Fudge, Fate, d20, and GURPS ideas.

Jul 2007: I finish an early version of Zludge largely shaped for a sci-fi campaign (including psi rules, for example), though still intending to be a largely universal system.

Dec 2007: After repeatedly being frustrated by the slow rate of D&D combat--particularly the modifier tracking and rule details--I consider a possible simplification project. Zludge comes to mind as a base, and so I begin a document to blend Zludge and d20.

Feb 2008: The Zludge-d20 project grows beyond a simple hack document and becomes its own system: Drudge.

Mar 2008: After playing around with Animal Ball's Instant Game, one day S. and I just sit down and play a rules-lite system I come up with in an hour based on bare-bones Zludge. Originally named Fluff, this soon becomes Fluffy.

There are now three flavors of Zludge going: the lite Fluffy, the original Zludge (which I start calling Zludge Prime), and the relatively rules-heavy Drudge. The idea comes to make Zludge a roll-your-own system. However, instead of just being a jumble of ideas, it would be a system of clearly-defined, compatible modules. GMs could define a "zenome" document for their particular instance of Zludge that would specify which rule modules they are using. Thus, the rules could be lite or heavy depending on GM preference or the particular campaign. Furthermore, when I found a good mechanic idea in another system, I could port that single idea into the framework of Zludge, thus being able to experiment with small pieces here and there while still keeping the bulk of my gaming system constant.

I begin surfing more and more RPG test drive rules and indie RPG system for neat ideas.

Apr 2008: I start this blog, whose name is even inspired by Zludge.

Jul 2008: Fluffy (and its basically synonymous incarnation Huffy) sees some action on a long car trip with B. in a Heavy Metal Atomic Wasteland campaign setting. (Sadly, this never got documented properly here on SludgePit.)

May 2009: After 18 months of work (not 15), I call an end to Drudge. Essentially, Drudge had wandered too far from d20 to be at all useful. It would have been easier and faster to just completely reimagine the d20 content in a Zludge system. Intrigued by True20, I instead consider a d20-True20 blending named z20.

Jun 2009: I essentially realize the differences between True20 and d20 are too minor to be bothering with a synthesis. In short, I'm simply bastardizing d20 without significant advantage. I decide to end z20 in favor of d20house, which is just a handful of house rules for d20 and an digital DM's screen to speed play.

Aug 2009: I discover Microlite20. This is d20 streamlined! I think my own strength is streamlining--making simpler rules that are still effectively equivalent to the source. But I suck at actually trimming and drastically cutting away the fat (and even some of the meat, if necessary). Microlite provides the core I've been looking for.

However, there are a number of things I don't like. For instance, the core rules are so lite and streamlined, but the equipment lists are so long and detailed, spells are still straight from d20 (and so too detail-oriented), translated monsters have no special abilities at all--essentially just attack bonuses, AC, and hit points. In short, it feels like a hodge-podge.

I start pulling Microlite20 into a single document and tweaking what I don't like. Of course, I find myself adding a lot of old Drudge ideas, etc. It grows beyond the Microlite core, so I call it mini20.

Sept 2009: mini20 has stopped being even "mini". But it seems to also be close to my original goal way back with Drudge: a lite version of d20. In short, its the d20 that I always wanted to play. I resurrect the name z20.

So that's how I got here. As to where I'm going... maybe in another post soon I'll talk about some of the things I proud of in z20, and see if I can ever answer that still-haunting question: "Why convert or change d20 in the first place? Why not just play d20 as is, or else start a new system from scratch?"

Monday, October 19, 2009

z20/Omri: Shroom

Got in some more of The Amazing Escapades of Omri Buckle & Co. this evening. Omri had a bit of a mishap (no GM karma point expenditure required after all: S. missed the Reflex save DC by 1 point), met Shroom the goblin, and made it back to her party again.

In related news, I've been poking at z20 combat actions this weekend. I was flipping through my True20 books (Blue Rose and Mutants & Masterminds) and started thinking how all these different systems really have the same set of actions you can perform in combat: grapple, disarm, charge, etc. Even my work a couple months ago on a Zludge version of Dark Heresy has most of the same actions. So I decided I should compile my own list with simple, standardized rules to use across all these systems. This list is currently in z20, though I think the same list will end up in Zludge Prime eventually.

S. and I also went looking for some colored pipe-cleaners this weekend, but no luck at Office Depot. I have a little condition-tracking idea, but I'll share that another time...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Korgoth of Barbaria

This is mostly just a ping to show I'm still alive! Too busy for much gaming the last couple weeks.

I ran into this months ago, but remembered it again this evening after a week or so of reading Conan short stories:

Korgoth of Barbaria on YouTube
(first part of 3; others parts available at the end of the clip)

It's an awesome show originally made for Adult Swim. Very sadly, this was the only episode made. Still, possibly good inspiration for a beer-and-pretzels sort of game.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

z20/Omri: Death of Myrksog

After a 3 month break, S. and I got in another Omri session today. Omri and party managed to find and slay Myrksog the bugbear; details appended to the "Myrksog" section of The Amazing Escapades of Omri Buckle & Co.

We played using z20, which is what I quietly renamed mini20 to earlier this week (thus effectively reviving that old obsession). I had drawn up some crude character sheets a couple weeks ago. They worked well, though I need more room for gear and maybe less room for tracking spell effects. I still haven't found the best way to track spell effects--how much the GM should track and how much the player should be responsible for, and how to note it in either case.

We played a little more than 2 hours, which is quite a bit longer than our normal goal of 1 hour, but it seemed to move along pretty well.

As usual, I forgot a few details here and there--such as the miss chance for shadowy light, especially when characters without lowlight vision moved away from the torch-lit area. But that's pretty minor.

I used poker chips to track hit points and spell points and that worked nicely.

z20 grapple rules worked well--there was a significant amount of grappling happening, all without GM pain! S. also used the "Heroic Exertion" rule that I came up with just a day or two ago in order to turn a failure into a success on the last blow against Myrksog. This made for a much better story (rather than trying to chase Myrksog down into some tunnel, and maybe even seeing him get away). The exertion also left me with a karma point, which I already have plans for. (Bwahhahahaha! <--Evil GM laugh.)

A couple z20 alpha test notes for myself: While I really like being able to choose from the whole spell list, it does means spellcasters can do almost anything. I think more specialist spells would be a good way to encourage focus/customization. Imposing limits on spell selection would mean more rules (so I'd rather not do it), but I may still give it some thought. The number of spells cast felt about right though.

There were some other d20 features lost in the adaptation. For instance, without feats, Jimmy doesn't have Rapid Reload anymore and now takes a turn to reload his crossbow. Also, Solomon Jack isn't very "bardy" in terms of game mechanics. Again, not sure what I want to do about that.

Not having to track squares and attacks-of-opportunity was nice. Overall, z20 flows pretty well, though it still takes a pretty hefty amount of time just adding up various modifiers. (Admittedly, there were 9 combatants involved.) I don't think I'll make any changes on any of those until after a few more game sessions.

Overall, a great evening--fun story and good feelings for the z20 game system. Maybe soon I'll be able to successfully end this 2 year obsession with streamlining d20!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Fallen Clerics in a Morally-Objective World

Waiting for the bus today, I began to puzzle over the idea of the corrupted D&D cleric and, by extension, the fallen paladin and the innocent church-goer deceived into cult worship. These things make good story hooks, but how could they ever happen? In D&D, deities grant spells directly, so how could a cleric ever unknowingly stray from the path of light? Surely the sudden lack of spells would be a wake-up call! Here's my take on it.

First of all, clerics can be one degree of alignment different than their deity. So a LG cleric of Heironeous could drift to LN without losing his spells. And a cleric doesn't have to be evil to disagree with the PCs and get in their way. Indeed, this can be an even thornier issue when the cleric is not evil and so cannot simply be dispatched.

However, the idea of a cleric actually turning to dark magic while still believing he serves the light is pretty thrilling. I think it could happen in D&D as follows: Most deities have many appellations beyond their normal (true) name. For example, Moradin of the dwarves is also called Soul Forger, Dwarffather, All-Father, and Creator. A cleric would likely develop their own personal appellation for their deity--even something as simple as "my Lord" or "my Light". Driven to distraction by sorrow, hate, greed, or a quest for revenge, they may rely on this personal appellation more and more as they slip from their true faith. Eventually, when they finally cross the alignment line and their deity refuses them spells, they would likely have a conflict of faith. Perhaps this would lead them to a period of fasting, flagellation, and praying, calling to their deity by their personal appellation. Eventually, their call is answered again. In their relief and rush to return to their work, they don't fully investigate the presence now granting their spells. (Indeed, there's probably a lot of self-deception going on by this point.) Unbeknownst to them, a new deceptive deity is now granting them spells and receiving their worship and appellation.

Now, when the PCs catch up with this cleric, they can still point out certain objective facts: the evil cleric channels negative energy, has an evil aura, and receives no reply if he calls upon his old deity by its true name. Faced with such facts, the cleric may be redeemable: he may atone and eventually return to the light. Or he may embrace, knowingly and whole-heartedly, his new patron deity and be forever corrupted to evil.

Adventurers: Embracing the Cliche

I started working on mini20 again this weekend. I also went to my local gaming store to browse around for a bit, as I've been feeling a bit dry when it comes to good story ideas. I looked through the bargain bins of old 3.0 and 3.5 OGL adventures and the like, but didn't find anything very exciting. For most of them, I thought: "Hmm... same old, same old--adventures come to town, find trouble, and so need to clear out a dungeon."

But I realized later that I'm being snobbish: adventurers clearing out dungeons for wealth and glory is the very essence of D&D! I've realized the same thing when reading pulp stories by the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and H.P. Lovecraft: yeah, this stuff may not seem particularly original today (especially after it's been rehashed and imitated in fiction and film for decades), but the stories are still damn exciting! And a sort of lite, fast, almost beer-and-pretzels dungeon-crawling campaign is exactly what mini20 is supposed to be good for. That's what's so great about using genre and cliche: you know what you're getting into, you know what the background assumptions are, and you can just jump straight into the action.

During this morning's shower, I considered this further and realized that the concept of the "adventurer" is key. Indeed, the adventurer concept is at least as important to the fantasy roleplay genre as magic and exotic beasts.

What I mean by the adventurer concept is that the fantasy world has areas of darkness and danger. These could be great tracts of wildness or simply the creepy-crawliness of the city sewers. These places are dangerous because of the foul beasts that dwell there, but are frequently well-stocked with gold and treasure accumulated by said beasts. The common citizen fears these dark places, but is willing to hire independent contractors to deal with them when the irregular need arises. Thus, in the fantasy setting, there is actually a well-established career of "adventurer". That is, the citizen of a fantasy setting should think "I need to hire an adventurer for this" as readily as they might consider hiring a plumber or a blacksmith. Sure, adventurers might not be thick on the ground--particularly since the fresh, eager, inexperienced novices are the most likely to be picked off--but their rag-tag bands are easily recognized in the fantasy world when they do show up. In such settings, there's nothing strange at all about a local striding up to such a band in the inn, tossing a pouch of gold coins on their table, and offering to hire them for an odd job.

Thus, the adventurer is an independent problem-solver for hire: mercenary, detective, explorer, spelunker, and exterminator all in one. Starting out, of course, they serve as simple caravan guards, mercenaries, and message-carriers. Some may fall from the path, becoming little more than highwaymen, brigands, freebooters, and grave-robbers (and thus giving other adventurers a bit of a bad name, though also employment to deal with their fallen colleagues). But those that do make it, and that strive for noble altruistic ideals as much as for buried wealth, become heroes, revered throughout the land: part war-hero and part rockstar.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Idea: Zombie Sim Game

I guess this is a good a place as anywhere to jot this idea down:

This summer, B. and I were chatting that it'd be fun to roll ourselves up as ordinary level characters in a high-simulation system like GURPS and then run an end-of-the-world zombie game/simulation. It would be cool to set this up in a specific city location, so the DM could have a real map of the area, thereby determining how long it'd take to get places, where certain supplies would likely be, zombie concentrations, etc. It'd be fun to see how long we'd last with all our now-useless skills, like computer programming and psychoanalysis. :)

mini20: Tensions in RPG design.

Last week, I stumbled across Microlite20, which is a very pared-down incarnation of d20. I find that, while I'm ever seeking simplicity, I have a difficult time actually hacking large swatches of a game system away. I make only little snips here and there, always minding backwards-compatibility (or at least equivalency) with the source material. In contrast, Microlite20 reminds me of pruning in the tropics: you can cut all the branches off, leaving only the stump behind. And instead of this killing the tree, it grows back as lush and beautiful as ever in 6 months.

That said, there were a few little quibbles I didn't like, so I set about tweaking it a bit. This did turn into putting a few things back in (in reduced form). The result is mini20.

Like I said, a large portion of my week went into this (despite having other more pressing projects!). I even drew up some hand-drawn character sheets and converted S.'s Omri line to mini20. However, we didn't get a chance to play this weekend; instead, we got drunk on pizza, beer, white wine, and 70s TV Wonder Woman. I woke up a few hour later, a little hungover, and started thinking about the project.

As this blog demonstrates, I seem to be constantly hacking on various game systems, yet never seem to reach a satisfied conclusion. These are some of the tensions I've identified in the past 24 hours:

DMing vs Design. DMing is a live, dynamic, social activity. While the game is underway, quick decisions are called for and the game moves ever forward. Design, on the other hand, is a largely solitary activity, where the resulting document can be reiteratively edited until perfect.

I'm coming to realize that DMing actually scares me. I think that's why I keep falling back to design, in this vague belief that the perfect RPG system will make for flawless, perfect DMing.

Rules vs Rulings. On the heels of the previous point, some systems provide tomes of specific rules. The advantage here is consistency and a crutch for the DM; the down-side is that then the DM has to recall or look up the specific rules at game-time. The alternative is to provide a simple system for the DM to make rulings on: to apply a modifier or make a call at game-time, and then move on. There are no lookups involved here. The downside is that the DM needs to manage making fair, consistent rulings, along with all the other game details going on at the same time.

Desiring a lite system, I want rulings; but being a little fearful of screwing up as a DM suggests more established rules. In short, rules compile all the possible rulings into rules before the game starts. But of course it can never be perfect: some situation can always arise not covered perfectly by the rules, requiring adjudication (ie, a ruling).

Game vs Story. On the one hand, an RPG is a game: characters are bought, described, and balanced in terms of points. There's a simulated world with clearly defined possible actions (skills, powers, etc.) On the other hand, especially these days, all of this is supposed to serve only as the underlying foundation for a story. (I would argue that, in the past, dungeon-crawling was more of a simulation/game than a story.)

Character detail vs simplicity. So, in terms of the game/simulation, we need character modeling. The more detail and customization possible in terms of the rules, the more stats, rules, and preparation time needed. Otherwise, character details are left superficial to the rules--which often does already happen with roleplaying details. Also, if too simple, there's no way to differentiate different characters and abilities--like different fighting styles, a smooth-talking con man vs an earnest likable diplomat, etc--in terms of the game world itself.

But in terms of story, it is frequently not the numbers and die rolls that determine the ultimate course of the story, but in-character decisions made by players based on the "superficial" personality traits of their character. This suggests that if story is the goal, simplicity and letting the game aspects take a backseat should work just fine.

Complete System vs Hack Document. This is my personal preference: when hacking on a system, I tend to want a single finished document that describes the resulting game, rather than simply producing a hack/errata-like document that lists the changes to make to the underlying system. I should really try to get over this, since it takes a lot more time to do it this way.

So, in conclusion, I'm not sure if mini20 is a good idea or not. It could just be more mental flailing around on my part, largely due to my failure to resolve the above tensions and decide exactly what the hell I want from my gaming system.

Friday, July 31, 2009

GOLD: An RPG web series

This is where a couple hours of my yesterday afternoon went:

GOLD: The web series that does double damage.

The site sums up the series this way:

The World Goblins & Gold Role Playing Game Championship is only a few short weeks away. The perennial second-place American team has undergone an upheaval: their longtime team leader, Jonathan Drake, has suffered a tragic gaming-related accident. Maverick player and loose cannon Richard Wright takes the reigns and tries to wrestle his new team into shape before the competition, while despondent Jonathan battles his personal demons. Meanwhile, the World Champion British team, led by the crafty Oliver Crane and sultry Martha Thistlethwait, prepare for the Championship by enlisting a gaming legend as their new coach...

The series is fun and certainly tongue-in-check, but it also has moments of memorable depth and emotion. It's also fun to see some free independent film made possible by online distribution. Check it out!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Omri: Myrksog

In the spirit of getting back into the game, S. and I played a bit of my new d20house form of D&D today. It had been 1 week short of a year since our last session!

For session details, check out the "Myrksog" section of The Amazing Escapades of Omri Buckle & Co.

It went well mechanically. The new damage mechanic (the most obvious d20house change) was pretty smooth. My new DM screen worked well, especially when combined with more intelligent use of the SRD's spell index and monster index pages. Chess pieces still make great cheap miniatures.

Story-wise, there were a couple minor snags--mainly, how to balance the power of social manipulation with combat? For example, Jack charmed the lead hobgoblin and told a good story about having an important prisoner... but I couldn't decide whether this should be enough to let the party pass the whole encounter. (Of course, this still may have worked out interestingly since they would have had to come back this way later.) But, if I wasn't going to let them bypass all the guards with it, it seemed something useful still should come of it so that there's at least some value to trying tact before steel.

First, I rolled a contest between the charmed hobgoblin and the orc to see if the orc could talk some sense into his companion: that this rabble shouldn't be allowed into the inner sanctum without Myrksog's express approval. Turns out the orc won. But even in this case, there was some benefit to the charm: it got rid of the hobgoblin. Sadly, this backfired slightly, since this logically left the party locked outside without any lock-picking skills! Turns out the standard DC of 25 to break down a barred door was just barely in range (with a bit of magical aid), so it all worked out decently enough.

So, in retrospect, I think I played it pretty well. And, as a personal note for the future, a spell and a successful skill check should be enough to bypass an encounter, especially if those creatures are still available to serve later as monster re-enforcements (and now behind the party besides!).

z20 is now d20house

A couple weeks ago, Drudge became z20. As I mentioned then, it was still shrinking in scope as I realized more and more that I shouldn't be changing d20 as much as I was. To reflect this, I've changed the name of the project (again!) to d20house.

As the latest name implies, this is simply my collection of house rules to d20. While still pretty heavily tweaked, it is actually d20-compatible. I've been putting my time into consolidating what small changes I still do want to make (because I just can't help myself!), as well as making a personal digital DM Screen that links into the SRD. I think this will serve to speed play--which was really the whole point of the initial project.

While still not complete, the project is taking shape here:

I hope to convert (nearly) all of my D&D campaigns to d20house (since most are currently weird hybrids with different options from 3.0 through 3.5), and then get back into playing again!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

RPG Settings released

I just uploaded my RPG Settings page, which currently includes God's Dogs and Heavy Metal Atomic Wasteland.

B. and I played some Fluffy/HMAW last summer. I still have a vague hope of getting the play notes up here at some point.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Fluffy: Alpha-testing notes 1

The recent God's Dogs game went pretty well. Observations:
  • Combat can be pretty deadly when damage is based on degree of success: one good blow and it's all over. (While not actually physical combat, the contest of wills with Castigation is basically the same mechanic.) So maybe tone back how DoS determines damage? (At least with the static defense factor mechanic I'm currently considering, ordinary combat will only have a 3dF range of variability, rather than 6dF, which will limit the possible DoS.) I'm going to wait to decide on this though, because actually the only combat was of +2 vs -1, so it should not be surprising that 3 dmg was dealt. I perhaps should have made the demon a 0, rather than -1....
  • There are surprisingly few rolls with this kind of story-based roleplaying. It's weird after coming off D&D, where the object is to get into the next battle so you can start rolling again. Half the rolls didn't really need any variation on them. Checking is certainly a good idea (and one I need to get more comfortable with as GM--but it's just so exciting to hit a chance to roll!), and I wouldn't mind eventually trying fully diceless.
  • The skill set was pretty good--even in only the few rolls made, it was a pretty evenly used: Speed, Will, Social, Magic, Knowledge.
  • What I still see a strong need for is some roleplaying character aids. The "Extras" section of Fluffy is still unwritten. What I'd like to see here is a more objective and point-based way to earn plot points. I'm going to have a closer look at Fate 3.0/Spirit of the Century's aspects and True20's Blue Rose's conviction mechanic.
  • I need to get God's Dogs and Fluffy finished so I really know how the magic and combat systems work!
  • Fluffy certainly needs more testing.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Fluffy: God's Dogs (B; vol 1)

About a month ago (early May), B. and I talked about reviving his world of Tor-Lomlin using a different rule system. Fluffy seemed like a possibility, so I've been doing some overhauling and clarifying of the system. (I hadn't really touched it in over a year.) I also created the God's Dogs setting for some alpha-testing gameplay. (Both Fluffy and God's Dogs should hopefully be publicly posted soon.) Here's how our first game today went down:

B's character is Patrick Callahan, a young farmer-turned-friar working for the demon-hunting Order of the Holy Faith in early 17th century Ireland. Patrick's immediate superior, Father Havishant, has received a letter forwarded from a friend of his (Father O'Malley). This letter, originally penned by a young priest named Sean O'Keegan, comes from the remote French Isles of Galleon in the south Atlantic. O'Keegan believes a man in his congregation there has been possessed by a demon and seeks advice or aid. Since his prize student Finnegan is otherwise engaged, Havishant decides to send Patrick to deal with the case, as Havishant believes he's ready to handle a simple, contained case like this one.

Booking passage aboard the Sanguine Tide, Patrick arrives at the main village of San Galleon. Like a tarnished bauble, the Isles of Galleon have been passed back and forth between the powers of Europe: discovered by the Portuguese, conquered by the Spanish, a hideout for English pirates, and currently claimed by the French. The barren crags of the isles have collected various settlers like so much driftwood left behind by these successive waves of Europeans.

The Tide drops anchor in the harbor. Once ashore, Patrick pauses to chat up the harbor master, learning a bit about the recent winter storms and the girl (Maria Luz) that stands at the end of the seawall, awaiting in vain for the return of her fisherman beau. Patrick then continues through town to the church with his letter of introduction to the local parish priest: Padre Joachim del Gabana. Patrick meets the young O'Keegan at the church, who leads him to the back courtyard to del Gabana's small but well-appointed home.

Though oddly impressed by Patrick, the Padre insists that no demons infest his parish. The case is not supernatural. Rather, a farmer--prideful and a bit isolated--was driven to drink and madness by a series of misfortunes, culminating in the murder of his wife. Though usually not so extreme, cases of such seasonal madness is not unheard of during the bleak winter months in tiny, isolated Galleon. It is clear from the looks del Gabana gives O'Keegan that the two have debated the issue before, and the Padre is not happy his underling has now involved others in the case.

Patrick still requests to see the farmer (Allahn). So after a short repast, he, O'Keegan, and del Gabana head to the French military outpost, where Commissionaire Jacques Du Font sends a private with them to unlock one of the stone storage sheds out back. Within, Allahn lies bound and shackled, wearing a strange dented metal plate strapped to his forehead. The function of this plate becomes obvious when he begins to mutter and smash and scrape his forehead against the wall.

Patrick, in a moment of keen insight, notices some subtle presence behind the blurred eyes of the inmate. Patrick questions the man, who only mutters such nonsense as "he cometh he cometh he cometh..." O'Keegan admits he has also spoken the name of Azabel in the past--which is not the name of anyone in town. The name of a demon perhaps, but not one Patrick is familiar with.

In a rather sudden moment of clarity, Allahn begins to complain of the pain in his head, of the burning on his brow, claiming that the two priest have come to torture him in the past. Requesting the assistance of his two companions, Patrick removes the protective device, revealing a rune of Binding bloodily etched onto the man's forehead. O'Keegan guiltily admits that he did this--a tip given to him in the past by Father O'Malley for cases of suspected demons possession. Allahn suddenly manages to roll free of the men and struggles to scrape away the skin of his forehead against the rough stone of the shed walls. Patrick hastily sketches a Circle of Exorcism, which succeeds easily as the rune of Binding is scraped away: a black mist rises from Allahn, assuming an short, twisted gobliny form with glowing red eyes. While the other two men step back in hesitation, Patrick leaps forward, shouting the Litany of Castigation and thrusting his glowing hand into the demonic form. The Castigation is extreme: the form explodes with a scream into wispy tendrils, which quickly disperse.

Allahn is largely comatose. Patrick calls for the military doctor and has Allahn moved to a different cell for observation. O'Keegan's eyes sparkle from the excitement and the vindicating proof of demon possession; Padre del Gabana is subdued, apparently deeply disturbed by the presence of such tangible evil among members of his flock.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Notion: Speeding Play

Since I'm already posting today, here's a few thoughts from the last couple weeks on z20 work to speed of D&D gameplay. In short, how do we make an RPG faster? (I'm just thinking in terms of game mechanics here, not table-talk and other social reasons for slow play.)

Fewer rolls. Rolling the die and then totaling the result and relevant modifiers takes time. Instead, we could just use static numbers. For example, use a static Defense Factor or Armor Class instead of a defense roll. Or roll initiative once at the start of combat, rather than every turn.

Group rolls are also possible: roll the dice once and then apply everyone's modifiers separately to determine everyone's results. So this is good for speeding initiative rolls or doing quick Spot check to determine who sees what.

Rolls just provide randomness, so the average outcome over the long haul is the same as not rolling. It means there are no lucky breaks, but also no unexpected failures. But, since not everyone's looking to go diceless, we just need to decide which rolls really need this randomness.

Quicker rolls. The more dice a roll involves, the more totaling is required. The same is true of modifiers (even in the absence of a die roll). Most of the time this is not a big issue, but consider the math required to determine the difference between normal AC, flatfooted AC, or touch AC if they're not pre-totaled or if some component of those totals has since been modified (such as if the character was subject to a Shield of Faith spell).

Fewer lookups. This is the difference between having a list of specific spell descriptions verses a general magic mechanic. The more rules you write, the more players and GMs feel obligated to look them up and follow them exactly. (Of course, general mechanics can also take time to adjudicate, especially if these leads to social argument.) Still, if GMs know there are only a couple simple mechanics and are empowered to apply those on the fly, it saves bogging down in rule lookups.

Lookups also happen in just recalling what modifiers or effects are currently in play. The fewer possible states or conditions, the less often this has to happen. For example, if a game has stunned, shaken, dazed, disabled, and clobbered conditions, someone's going to have to look them each up at some point. On the other hand, if there's only a single Impaired state in place of all these, there will be fewer lookups required.

Quicker lookups. Even if lookups are needed, how fast are they to perform? For example, how handy and visible is the information needed? This is the realm of DM aids like a screen, outlines, notecards, etc. Player's need to be able to quickly find the info on their character sheet: attacks, damage, AC, saves, skills, etc. And then there's all the stuff that fluctuates during play: spells in effect, conditions of characters (including hp, location, status, etc.), and so on.

The time saved on rolls is pretty minor, but adds up over time. Changing lookup frequency usually means changing the game mechanics. So probably the technique with the most payoff is to figure out how to speed lookups.

z20: What game is this again?

Following on the heels of my insight that Drudge was a bastardization, I'm realizing there really isn't much overhauling that you can do to a game system and still have it work.

Gary Gygax stressed this in his book, Role-Playing Mastery. He points out that every game has a spirit, and you can't violate that spirit without ruining the game. The 3.5 DMG asks the same thing in more specific terms: Why are you changing the rules? Do you really know why you're doing it and what it'll mean for the game as a whole?

As I've worked on z20 this week, I'm realizing more and more that trying to change D&D is a futile endeavor. Even simple changes have sweeping effects. For example, I consolidated and renamed some of the skills. This was a good change, since now the skills are all equally valuable purchases for players based on how I actually use the skills as a DM. (For example, I don't think I've ever called for an Appraise check, but I do Spot checks all the time. Certain skills are just way more valuable than others in my campaigns.) But I realized this morning that this totally breaks the character sheet--half the skills are missing or renamed. (Missing is okay--players can just cross them off--but name changes are irritating.)

Another change I considered was dropping Attacks of Opportunity. Instead, characters would just lose their DEX bonuses while performing any action that used to provoke an AoO. But I realized this morning that AoOs really aren't that big a problem. They really don't crop up all that often in normal combat, since players do their best to avoid them. Changing that rule still means I need to remember which actions (used to) provoke AoOs. And it has unexpected consequences. For example, the Mobility feat: +4 vs AoOs while moving. So how would this translate according to the new rule? It implies that moving across the battlefield must leave characters defenseless. If so, should Mobility just allow a character to keep their dodge bonus while moving, or should it still grant the same +4 bonus? And then there's the Combat Reflexes feat... In short, even a simple rule swap really does lead to cascading changes through the whole system.

That's not to say that neat tweaks here and there are impossible though. I decided that damage rolls would just consistently do their average. For example, 1d6 always does 3 points of damage; 2d8+1 would do 9 points every time. This one change--simple enough to done mentally during play--suddenly cuts the need for all the other dice besides d20 (and possibly d%), as well as all the mental totaling of die rolls. But otherwise the game effect is basically the same as the original. Unlike the changes made by True20, I still have a hit point mechanic and all that goes along with that. (There's actually a bit more to this rule change, since I also have the degree of success on the attack roll modify the damage dealt slightly, just so things are not completely routine for every attack!)

This afternoon, I started thinking about how to streamline modifier tracking... and the approaches I used with Drudge just won't work without massive overhauls. In short, hours and hours of creation-time to save a few minutes of game-time.

So my conclusion from all this is a more visceral understanding of Gygax's point: if you choose a gaming system, then play that system. Don't try to make it something it's not. If you don't like it, choose a different system--there are certainly plenty of them out there to choose from if you just look around!

So z20 continues to shrink in scope... which is a good thing! It's becoming mostly a collection of house-rules and clarifications to reflect how I DM. I'm also trying a few little shortcuts to speed a few things up here and there, but I'm learning I really need to leave the mechanics themselves well enough alone. Instead, I should put the time into producing DM aids for myself--like a good/personalized DM screen or a better way to track game modifiers--than trying to overhaul the system itself.

I should also be playing entirely different (separate) systems to fill my need for change and lighter rule systems.

"When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep." -- Zen adage

Saturday, May 30, 2009

RAB 5: "Dungeons and Christwagons"

In honor of getting back to D&D roots, here is my favorite characterization of D&D ever: Retarded Animal Babies 5: Dungeons and Christwagons.

RAB a little coarse, but insightful and eminently quotable. It also amazes me that the series (including all the voices) is constructed by one man. This is hosted on Newgrounds, which used to be described as "The problems of the future, today!" (which I still think is way better than their current "Everything by Everyone."), so you may feel like you need to shower afterward.

The End of Drudge

Today I decided to end my work on Drudge.

Drudge was my attempt to simplify D&D. Frequently, while playing D&D, I despair at the slow rate of combat and tedium of tracking countless modifiers. In those campaigns that I DM, my players (all 2 of them) are not very familiar with the rules, and so I end up tracking every modifier currently in play. In the one campaign where I was only a player, a single battle would take a full 3-hour gaming session. Even though the group was large--about 8 players--this still seemed excessive.

So, thinking about how to streamline D&D, I turned to Zludge. Zludge is my own custom RPG system based primarily on Fudge, but also pulling ideas from a great number of other systems. I've been working on the Drudge rules for over 15 months now.

But last night, I started looking through Green Ronin's Mutants and Masterminds again. Today, I read through the True20 Quickstart again. This is really d20 simplified, complete with a d20-to-True20 conversion document.

I realized that Drudge had really gone too far from d20 to be useful. While everything still converted from d20 in an easy mapping, everything had to be touched. Essentially, conversion became as much work as just re-imagining the same content from scratch in a completely different system. It was a weird, hybrid bastard that no one was ever going to use (possibly not even me).

But still, the exercise was not without its value. It's like learning how to write an operating system: no one's ever really going to use what you produce instead of Windows or even Linux, but it's essential to learning what goes into an OS. I still believe that, in a generic RPG system of my own design, feat and spell lists are something to avoid. They are too constraining while also require too much effort to construct and record. Instead, I think general rules and a purely skill-based system are the way to go. But stripping these out of d20, along with hit points and various die shapes (including the d20 itself!), leaves something largely unrecognizable behind.

Instead, I've realized I need something that cleanly translates. That means, all the 3.0/3.5 feats, spells, monsters, etc, need to translate over with very little effort. It's just the gameplay that needs to be tweaked. So I'm taking a lot of my Drudge work and trying something called z20: a hybridization of d20, Pathfinder, and True20--possibly with a few other odds and ends thrown in (such as from Castles and Crusades). I'm also giving up any notion that this would ever be widely (or even narrowly!) adopted by others. It'll just be my own construction of excessive house rules. Maybe then I can easily convert my many d20 campaigns, and recapture the joy of just playing again!

Monday, April 6, 2009

D&D: Tellurian Tales (vol 11)

Sadly, it had been almost 2 years since I posted a volume of my main Tellurian Tales line. After being inspired by a post over at Head Injury Theater about spending more time posting excuses about not posting than actually doing something productive, I decided after my afternoon nap to do something about it. Yay!

Lately, Tellurian Tales has involved simply slogging through a long dungeon. Running this solo, now that I'm comfortable with the D&D rules, is not quite as exciting as it once was. Also, I've moved on to hacking on Zludge rules as my primary form of entertainment, rather than building D&D characters that need a story to shine in. I guess this partly explains why it's been 2 years.

I'm looking forward to the end of the current story cycle. I'd like to dust all the characters off while I level them up and (as already planned) break the party into smaller groups for more story-focused adventures. I'll probably leave things running as D&D though. The characters I have (some of whom haven't even entered the story yet) represent countless hours pouring over D&D rule books and supplements, squeezing out the max advantage from combining diverse feats and prestige classes. Seems a shame to lose all that history by switching to Drudge. Also, it's a good idea to keep one foot in d20 while I contemplate translating it to Drudge.

Besides, I already have plans to alpha-test Drudge with Ailithorn, and I'm currently toying with a Western D&D setting for beta-testing games (with either S., B., or even a gaming group). I'm also wondering about a Zludge adaptation of Dark Heresy...

Time's at a premium though, so we'll see how it goes. I really need to focus...

Oh, and the slowest point in this evening's game was the pause to determine whether a ranged touch attack counts as a simple or natural weapon. My conclusion: No. Which makes sense if you think of it as just an attack and not a weapon. But there's confounding issues such as unarmed attacks sometimes being equivalent to simple weapons and the ability to take Weapon Focus for magical rays.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Notion: Modifiers suck

Modifiers are the essence of an RPG: some things are easier to do than others, and some people are generally better at certain tasks than others. Modifiers to the roll (or even without the roll, in a diceless game) represent innate skill or external circumstances that may aid or hinder your action. Even if modifiers are applied to a target DC rather than the roll itself, the Game Master still needs to track them.

However, modifiers tend to suck when there's a lot of them. They're easy to overlook: "Oh, wait, I forgot the +1 from the Bless spell! And I would have hit last turn if I'd remembered it; can we back up?" If you remember them, they take time to tally: "Let's see, that's a +4 from the Bull Strength and another +2 because I got Enlarged last turn; I'm raging right now, so that's +4 more..." And then there's issues of which apply when: "Oh, wait, I'm wearing a Belt of Giant Strength, so that means I don't get the +4 from the Bull Strength after all, since they don't stack." And then there's those modifiers that affect the calculations of the numbers already on your character sheet (rather than just adding or subtracting from them): "Okay, so that's a total of +6 to strength. That means +3 to melee attacks, +3 to damage, but only +1 to off-hand damage... oh, but considering my normal strength of 12, that's actually +2... now I can carry a heavier load and, since I was right on the edge, I'm no longer encumbered, which means I can move 10 feet further this round!" And all this d20 headache comes from only three spells, one magic item, and one class ability in effect!

Actually, I'm talking about more here than just a modifier: a + or - number. I'm talking more broadly about all effects--which can also include spell or magic effects, character abilities (including feats, maneuvers, powers, etc), and conditions (flanked, paralyzed, fatigued, etc). Even damage taken--especially to attributes/abilities--can be seen as an effect. Some effects (such as conditions or states) do not affect rolls but instead determine what actions are even possible.

So, with this broad definition in mind, the problem remains: how to streamline the tracking of all the active effects during a game? The first step is to look at what exactly comprises an effect:

Size (or condition)
First is there is usually some positive or negative modifier to a die roll. Alternatively, if a condition, the effect may instead limit or allow certain actions, or else represent a number of different modifiers. For example, being entangled might impose a -1 to all physical actions, reduce speed to half, and prevent all spellcasting.

A modifier is usually applied to only a certain subset of rolls, such as only a certain skill or skill group. For example, a modifier might apply to all Jump checks, all saves, all combat rolls, or all STR-based skill checks. (As mentioned above, this applicability can be simple to add on to existing inherent character modifiers, or it may require recalculating other modifiers.)

Type (Stacking/Overlapping)
Modifiers are not always cumulative. Some may have a type or category that determines how they stack or overlap with similar modifiers. For example, in d20, natural armor stacks with mundane armor, resistance bonus do not stack (the highest applies), and damage or energy resistance overlaps.

Effects can either be inherent/permanent (determined at creation time from things such as skills, attributes, or even worn magic items) or circumstantial/temporary (determined at play time based on the current surroundings, spells in effect, relative positions of the characters, etc.) Temporary modifiers usually expire after a certain number of rounds, minutes, hours, or days. Or (even more of a headache) the modifier may vary over time, such as gradually degrade. (In general, it is temporary effects that require effort to track.)

Effects usually have a source that determines how the effect can be canceled or manipulated. For example, magical spell effects can often be dispelled or nullified in anti-magic fields. Or certain defenses may exist if an ability damage effect comes from an undead creature but not if it comes from disease or poison. (Knowing a source often implies its type, applicability, and duration, but only indirectly.)

Finally, there is the question of whether other characters/players can tell if an effect is currently in place. First, there's the question of how apparent effect is in the game world. Secondly, there's a question of how other players track global effects, even if those effects are not apparent to their characters. For example, one character may be exuding some 30-foot healing aura that other players must be made aware of whenever their characters enter the range.

Now that we've had a look at what goes into an effect/modifier, we can start thinking about how to simplify the tracking process.