Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Social Mechanics for OSR D&D

I'm looking for feedback on this system, which I haven't playtested yet. The purpose is to give more structure to tense social encounters, such as with monsters in a dungeon. The Patience stat puts a time limit on the conversation, and the 'End of conversation' boxes make the stakes clear to the players. I hope this will make the social encounters feel more 'fair' and thus allow the DM to dole out serious consequences if the social encounter goes poorly.

 This system combines a few ideas from OSR bloggers (I don't think I'm the first to come up with a 'Patience' stat) with dice math based on Apocalypse World moves. Design notes are in italics.

The Conversation Game
This subsystem is for use when encountering unfamiliar or potentially hostile NPCs, particularly in the wilderness or dungeons. It is not necessarily applicable to simpler social encounters such as with a quest-giver or a shopkeeper. The purpose is to create tension and interesting choices for the PCs.
These rules refer to NPC (singular) but can also be applied to a whole group.

Basic Procedure
-       When the NPC is encountered, make a Reaction roll to determine their Attitude and Patience.
-       PCs converse with the NPC. Each significant action in the conversation takes one Conversation Turn.
-       After each Conversation Turn, reduce Patience by 1. When it reaches zero, the NPC ends the conversation in a manner appropriate to their current Attitude.

The Reaction Roll
When the NPC is first encountered, roll 2d6 and add the highest Charisma modifier of the PCs’ group. The total amount is the NPC’s Affinity. The number shown on the highest die is the NPC’s Patience. (This is the only place where Charisma affects the encounter. I did it this way so that a player with high CHA gets to feel rewarded, but everyone can still participate in the conversation without being suboptimal.)
 Affinity represents the NPC’s overall disposition toward the party. Patience represents how long they will converse before taking an action that ends the conversation.

Affinity Track
Affinity Mod
General demeanour
End of conversation
Attacks; flees
Leaves; pursues own goals even if in conflict with PCs
Leaves; pursues own goals if not in conflict with PCs
Offers alliance or gift

(I envision this track on a sheet of paper in the middle of the table, with a token to show where on the Affinity Track the NPC is sitting.)
Conversation Turn
A Conversation Turn is an abstract measure of how the conversation has progressed. One Conversation Turn is something that moves the conversation forward and has a measurable effect. One Conversation Turn might cover:
-       A few sentences of back-and-forth dialogue
-       A single important question asked by the PCs
-       One of the specified Conversation Actions below

Conversation Actions

Improve Affinity: Covers all attempts at flattery, boasting, charming, gift-giving, and anything else where the main purpose is to make the NPC like the PCs more.
Roll 2d6+Affinity modifier:
On a 10+, move one step up the Affinity track. 
On a 7-9, the NPC may be unmoved, or may demand a gift or promise; if the demand is met, move one step up the Affinity track. 
On a 6-, the NPC is irritated and one extra point of Patience is deducted.
Bonuses from +1 to +2 can be applied by giving a gift the NPC likes, making a concession (e.g. throwing down weapons), or using techniques relevant to the NPC (e.g. flattery gets a bonus on a prideful NPC).

Make an Offer: Covers all attempts to trade, swap information, make an alliance, etc.
Roll 2d6+Affinity modifier:
On a 10+, the offer is accepted. 
On a 7-9, the NPC makes a counter-offer. 
On a 6-, the offer is rejected. Move one step down the Affinity track.
Bonuses and penalties from -2 to +2 are applied if the offer is unusually favourable or unusually unfavourable.

Make a Threat: Covers all attempts at extortion, scaring away, forcing submission, etc.
Roll 2d6 (no Affinity mod)
On a 10+, the NPC submits to the PCs' will, but moves 1d4 steps down the Affinity track.
On a 7-9, they retreat or make a counter-offer, and move 1 step down the Affinity track.
On a 6-, they attack or flee.
Bonuses and penalties from -2 to +2 are applied based on the relative strength of the PCs versus the NPCs.

Tell a Lie: Covers all attempts at deception.
Depending on the content of the lie, it can instantly set the NPC’s Affinity track to a higher number (e.g. if you convince them you are an agent of their king, their Affinity is set to 11 or 12).
When you tell a lie, roll for its starting HP based on how plausible it is:
Implausible: 1d6-3
Plausible: 1d6
Airtight: 2d6
Add the NPC’s Affinity modifier to this roll.
(I envision a space on the sheet, below the Affinity track, where you can write down lies and put dice to show how much HP they have left. These lies could potentially continue across multiple sessions and multiple encounters with the same NPC.)

Each lie told has its own pool of HP (Hoodwink Points). If this pool goes to 0, then the NPC no longer believes the lie. A lie’s HP can never go higher than 12.
-       When the NPC sees/hears something that seems to disprove the lie, then the lie takes damage (1d4 for mildly suspicious, 1d6 for quite suspicious, 2d6 or more for blatant contradiction).
-       When the NPC sees/hears something that seems to be evidence for the lie, the lie is healed (1d4 for mild evidence, 1d6 or more for strong evidence).
-       Whenever a lie takes damage, the PCs have a chance to negate the damage if they make up another lie that explains the inconsistency. Roll HP for this lie separately.
-       When a lie reaches 0 HP, it ‘dies’ and the NPC stops believing it. When this happens, all other lies told to the NPC take 1d6 damage (possibly causing a chain reaction) and the NPC’s Affinity track moves down 1d6 steps.

Friday, 3 May 2019

Harry Clarke Bestiary Project: The Bull-Witch

Harry Clarke

An old bull becomes crafty and cruel. He wants revenge on the men who have imprisoned him and used him all his life.

A virgin girl becomes aware of her place in the world, and rebels against it. She wants strength and masculine power, the power to run free and to destroy.

They come together to help each other. The bull knows secret arts that run deep in his veins, memories of a distant age when his kind were still wild. He teaches these secrets to the girl. With his consent she tears off his hide, leaving only a flayed corpse behind.

When she wears the hide under the moon, she becomes a bull. She breaks down the doors of her enemies and tramples them in their beds. When she wears the hide during daylight, the old bull rides her body. He uses her voice to spread lies and hatred amidst the community, spurring men to violence against each other.

As long as she wears the bull-cloak regularly, the girl will not age. To keep it fresh she must leave it hanging on a post in the woods. She must remain a virgin, or the bull-cloak will shrivel and die. Eventually her immortality will become impossible to hide, and she will flee into the forest to become a Bull-Witch.

Sometimes Bull-Witches find each other and form covens. They may be peaceful and reclusive, keepers of secret knowledge; or they may be vengeful witches who work in secret to undermine whole societies. After a Bull-Witch has lived one hundred years, her cloak gradually fades away and becomes a phantom mantle on her shoulders, visible only in moonlight. She/he can shift between forms at will, and his/her mind is one with the bull's.

Human form
HD: 2
AC: Leather
Attack: slap 1d8
Morale: 8
Move: Normal human
Silver tongue: 1/day. Target must save vs. magic or believe whatever the bull tells them. If made to believe something plainly impossible, they instead become feverishly ill for 2d6 days.
Bull strength

Bull form
HD: 4
AC: Chainmail
Attack: Trample 1d8+1 or charge 2d8
Morale: 10
Move: 1.5x human
Shadow step: When in deep shadow, can teleport up to 50' into another area of deep shadow.
Bullfear: 1/encounter. Roar triggers primal fear in humans (save vs magic or flee blindly for 1d6 rounds).

Older Bull-Witches may cast spells as per Magic-User.

Through Ultan's Door Session 3: Pulling Punches

Sidney Syme

In the third session of my Ultan's Door campaign, the PCs went way off the map. This was exciting because I got to use some content I had developed myself; it was also challenging because I had to improvise a lot of things on the fly, which is not my strong suit.

The party found the Great Sewer River which lies at the edge of the map in Through Ultan's Door #1. They took a boat and rowed it upriver, which eventually led them to emerge from the dungeon into the streets of Zyan Above. Some of the party got captured by a group of paranoid Zyanese warriors, while one character made friends with some priests. At one point the party was split into three groups which was quite difficult to run. Eventually, through some fast talking and leniency on my part, they managed to bluff their way into escaping and took the boat back down the river to where they had started.

Overall the session was a success, but there were a few points where I think I could have done better. I felt like I pulled my punches a lot when the PCs were interacting with the paranoid Zyanese. The PCs willingly gave up their weapons and let themselves be captured. Based on what I had established about the Zyanese, it would have been reasonable for them to kill the PCs or at least imprison them indefinitely. Instead I let the PCs get away with some fairly outrageous lies.

I think I was reluctant to make 'hard moves' because I was improvising (therefore the danger was not set in stone like in the dungeon areas I had prepped) and because I failed to properly outline the stakes to the players. Two of the players who got captured were new to this campaign and their idea of D&D is shaped largely by a) comedy D&D podcasts and b) my old Dungeon World campaign. Because of time constraints I had neglected to give them the full 'OSR spiel'. I think they were still in the mindset of "we can say silly things to these NPCs and we might get captured but we'll get free somehow" - which was reasonable, because I had not properly set expectations.

In hindsight, I wish I had explicitly framed the stakes before the PCs gave up their weapons. I should have said: "Look, you don't know who these people are, but they look threatening. If you let them take you captive, you might end up imprisoned or executed. At the very least they will probably take your stuff. Are you ok with that?" Then if the players persisted, it would have felt fair if they got killed.

The other weak point in the social scenes was the lack of dice mechanics. I had been set against using Charisma checks because I wanted it to be OSR style - "you just say what you say and the NPCs react accordingly". But there were several spots where I genuinely didn't know how the NPCs would react, and a roll would have come in handy there. I might start using "reaction roll modified by Charisma" to resolve these situations.

Aside from those points, though, the session was a success and I'm excited to see how the campaign grows from here. Depending on what the players want to do next it could stay as a dungeon crawl, or evolve into a citycrawl/political game.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Ritualistic Design

I've been thinking lately about a type of game mechanic or procedure which I'm going to call 'ritualistic design'. By that, I mean a case where the game or gamemaster calls for an action that superficially seems to have a purpose, but actually has no impact on the way the game plays out. A common example of this is the Perception check. Probably everyone reading this has experienced the situation of a GM saying "make a Perception roll", but you know that no matter what you roll the GM is going to give you roughly the same information - or if you fail your roll, another player will "check Perception" and so on until someone rolls high and the GM gets to tell you the thing that they wanted to tell you anyway.

Incidents like these are often seen as failures of design. Many people dismiss Perception checks as pointless. It's bad enough that they waste your precious gaming time on something that doesn't really matter. But also there's a feeling of fakeness that many players react against. It feels wrong to be offered a choice, or made to roll a die, only to realise later that there was actually only one possible outcome. It's like a tiny version of the Quantum Ogre.

I'm definitely one of the GMs who prefers not to use Perception checks in my games. But looking more broadly, I wonder if we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss a game action just because it "doesn't matter" in the grand scheme of things. Here's another example: asking the players "Who's carrying the torch?" as they enter a dungeon. This information might be relevant once in a while. Often it's not. But even if it never affects the game state, it's still an effective way of conveying to the players that they're entering a pitch-black environment - something that might otherwise be handwaved and forgotten.

You could just say "The cave is pitch black. You light your torch, but it sheds scanty light upon the darkness..." But involving the players in the descriptive process gives it more weight, makes it tactile.

Let's go back to Perception checks for a moment. In their "always succeed" mode, they can waste a few minutes of game time but are ultimately harmless. The real problems arise when the GM doesn't realise that what they're doing is a ritualistic technique. They call for a Perception check, everyone fails, and now the adventure can't move forward because the PCs didn't fight the specific clue they needed. The GM thinks the Perception roll is actually part of the game, not just colour.

So this is my recommendation for game designers: don't write off a game mechanic just because it "doesn't matter". Ask yourself if it's effective at setting the mood, engaging the players, developing the world... all sorts of things that don't involve directly affecting the course of the game. If you do use a mechanic in a ritualistic way, be honest about it. Let the GM know: "Everyone should make a Perception check here; the highest check will notice [blah]". Maybe that's a bad mechanic and maybe it's not, but at least if you phrase it that way then everyone can see what it's doing.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Play Reports from Conquest 2019

I went to my first RPG convention on the Easter weekend (Conquest) and I had a lot of fun! I played in three sessions in total. I generally don't care much to give blow-by-blow accounts of my gaming sessions, since I don't often enjoy reading such play reports from others. However, I was interested by David McGrogan's assertion that we can learn more about gaming from actual play reports with commentary than we can from generalised prescriptive advice. With that in mind, here's three brief play reports with discussion of what I learned from them.

1. Achtung Cthulhu - Savage Worlds

 This was a pretty standard occult-WWII scenario. The PCs got their mission briefing, parachuted into Germany, and made their way to Auschwitz to prevent a team of Nazi sorcerers from sacrificing Jews to summon some kind of demon. (Yes, this was a little bit on the nose.) We spent a lot of time doing D&D-style planning ("We'll all hang off the roof, then throw grenades through the windows at the same moment, then you run down the stairs..."). The combat scene took a while to resolve, so we ran overtime and the GM had to 'cutscene' us through the last part of the scenario. Overall I had a good time.

'Fast & Simple'
I'd be suspicious of anyone who tries to tell you that Savage Worlds is a 'fast, simple system'. The exploding dice, bennies and fiddly initiative mechanics made the combat scene take a long time to play out. Then again, I've noticed that a lot of systems get touted as 'fast & simple' by people who have played them a lot. I'm not necessarily innocent of this myself - there are lots of details in LotFP that make sense to me, but could be hard to grasp for a new player.

The lesson is: if you have mastery over a system, that's great and you should make use of it, but don't fall into the trap of assuming everyone will be as fluent as you.

Pacing in Con Games

The convention timeslots were three hours each. The GM spent probably 1 hour giving us backstory and briefings before we got to the real start of the adventure (parachuting into Germany). We could have avoided going overtime if some of that cruft was cut out using hard framing. Obviously, pacing and time management are really important in a convention game. But also - most of us are adults with jobs now. Our gaming time is intermittent and limited, with an unpredictable lineup of players. In that sense, pretty much every game I run is a 'convention game', so the same principles apply.

2. Night Witches

This game was the reason I had signed up to the con, and I wasn't disappointed. After running Dungeon World for a year and never really grokking it, I felt like this game finally showed me how PbtA games are supposed to be played.

Night Witches is a game about Soviet airwomen in World War II. Most of our time was spent in the 'Day Phase', which meant we were on the ground at our airbase, struggling with obstructive bureaucracy, threatening Military Police and demeaning attitudes from male fighter pilots. The actual bombing run (the 'Night Phase') took about 15 minutes at the end of the session.

GM Mastery

The guy who ran the game was really slick. He was good at asking leading questions that developed our characters, he had lots of interesting NPCs to draw on, and he did a good Russian accent. Unsurprisingly, he told me after the game that he had run Night Witches dozens of times before. The lesson here is simple: if you run a game over and over, you'll probably get good at it. That's easy to say but harder to implement: I tend to hop between systems, never spending enough time to get a deep mastery of them.

'Choose One'

Dungeon World has often been derided for its forced 'character appearance' choices. For example, each Bard player must choose whether their character has 'Knowing Eyes, Fiery Eyes, or Joyous Eyes'. There are similarly bland choices for hairstyle, clothing, and so on.

Night Witches has a similar structure for character creation, but the choices are a lot more interesting. For example, I chose that my character's uniform was greasy, that her home was in Siberia, and that she wrote letters home to no one. These things actually helped to distinguish my character in play, and they also grounded me in a historical setting that I didn't know that much about.

These 'choose one' lists appear in a lot of PbtA games, and they act as a sort of funnel towards the genre or setting that the game is going for. I found this funnel really useful in Night Witches because I needed some guidance as I entered into an unfamiliar narrative space. By contrast, the Dungeon World lists just funnel you into the space of 'generic D&D', which I'm really not interested in.

I might try using these 'choose one' lists in my own games if I want to prime my players for a particular setting. For example, here's a quick draft of what the lists might look like for Carcosa characters:

You wear: Dinosaur feathers; stinking hides; silken robes; nothing.
You hail from: The purple desert; the fungal forests; the pale mountains; the dread city of Carcosa.
You are marked by: A livid scar; a warrior's tattoos; the ravages of a fungal infection; a slave tattoo; something behind your eyes.
Your connection to the tribe: A close family member; a lover; a promise to someone who is gone; a fear of being alone.

3. Game #3

I don't want to name this game because then I'd feel a bit bad about saying this: the third game I played in really sucked. It was painfully railroaded, the pre-planned storyline was boring and hyper-focused on combat, and the GM seemed intent on saying 'no' to any interesting ideas the players came up with.

The funny thing is, I enjoyed it anyway. This was largely because of the other players. I had never met any of them before and never learned their names, but within half an hour we were riffing together like a regular game group, talking in character and making fun of our lame pre-generated backstories. I noticed a similar kind of natural camaraderie spring up in the other sessions. It's pretty incredible how the shared experience of roleplaying can bring people together, even when the game itself is 'bad'.

I wonder if this fact--that even a shitty RPG session usually offers a baseline level of entertaiment--is precisely why the hobby supports so much cargo-cult design and dubious gamemastering advice. People don't always have that drive to excel because, at the end of the day, a roleplaying session is pretty hard to fuck up.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Status Effects as Choices

While riding my bike today it occurred to me that maybe combat status effects would be more interesting if they were always designed to offer players a choice. For example, instead of "Stunned: miss one round", you could have "Shaken: -2 to all rolls until you take one round to clear your head." That leaves the player with something to think about and do on each combat round.

Below is a table that cross-combines different negative effects to produce various choices.

Penalty to rolls
Drop an item
Miss a turn
Acid on you: Lose 1hp per round until you take a turn to brush it off.
Shaken: -2 to all rolls until you take a round to clear your head.
Pack torn: Drop a random item each round until you take a turn to tie it back up.
Weighed down: Weird heavy jelly stuck to you. Slowed by 30’ until you take a turn to wipe it off.

Sucking wound: Take action carefully (-2 to rolls) or forcefully (lose 1d4 hp). Effect continues until you take 10 minutes to bandage yourself.
Heat Metal: All metal items you carry grow red-hot. Drop them or take 1d4 damage per round.
Iron Brambles: You got iron brambles stuck all over you. Move slowly (30’ max) or take 1d6 damage. Take 10 minutes to carefully unwrap yourself.
Penalty to rolls

Wood Growth: All wooden items you carry begin growing green shots. Drop them or take -2 cumulative penalty to all rolls.
Inner Ear Disruption: Sonic attack has wrecked your sense of balance. You can move or you can take an action, but not both in the same round. Ends after 10 minutes of rest.
Drop an item

Heavy Metal: All metal items you carry become progressively heavier. Drop them or be slowed by 60’. (LotFP encumbrance: any regular-sized metal item becomes an oversized item; any oversized metal items add double to encumbrance.)

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

You Can't Force It

In my previous campaign, I told the players straight up that it was going to be a Magnificent Seven-inspired scenario, where they would have to protect an isolated village from a gang of bandits. I started the first session with them in the town, and pulled a few cheap tricks to try to get them attached to the villagers. It worked fine. The players' attitude was: "Sure. We have to protect these people because that's the premise of the story." But they never became very emotionally invested in the town.

In my new campaign, I started out with the PCs at the entrance to a dungeon they knew nothing about. I told them: "This system is more brutal than Dungeon World or 5e. There is a real risk you will die, so play carefully."

They entered the dungeon with trepidation and soon encountered some human-looking NPCs (the Guildless from Through Ultan's Door #1). The Guildless are all mute, so communication was difficult. They seemed wary of the PCs, but the players wanted to make friends. After some deliberation, the PCs laid down all their weapons and allowed themselves to be taken into custody as a show of good faith.

As they were led through the Guildless' outpost, the players were terrified they had made the wrong choice and were about to be killed. Their fears reached a peak when they arrived in a room full of bloodstains and butchering tools. They were very relieved when it finally became apparent that the Guildless weren't going to hurt them. Since then they have helped the Guildless several times and formed a strong attachment to them both in an out of character.

There are two lessons I'm taking away from this. The first is that you can't pre-determine which NPCs the players will become attached to, or which in-character goals they will want to pursue. You just have to let it develop naturally.

The second lesson is more specific to old-school play. The credible threat of death can obviously be used to evoke the emotion of fear. But I suspect that it also enhances other emotive reactions by association. The fact that the Guildless might have killed them made the players that much more relieved when it didn't come to pass.

Social Mechanics for OSR D&D

I'm looking for feedback on this system, which I haven't playtested yet. The purpose is to give more structure ...