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