Tuesday, 22 February 2022

Errant Deep Dive #7: Downtime

 Oops, it’s been a year since I last posted one of these. We are skipping ahead in the book, leap-frogging past The Zealot and The Occult and their respective magic schedules, as well as travel and exploration procedures, to talk about the final (and most extensive) chapter in the book: Downtime. Check out the rules at errantrpg.carrd.co to follow along!

The reason for this, specifically, is because Ben Laurence is currently Kickstarting a compilation of his original Downtime Activities blog post series, which is the main mechanical basis for Errant’s downtime system, along with Nick Whelan’s work. But really, this is just pretext, because Downtime is honestly my favourite part about Errant as a system and what I was most excited to explain in these posts, and I was really bummed I didn’t get to do that while the Kickstarter was running.


If you back modest you're a coward


To set the context for why that is, let me outline the current situation in my home Errant campaign set in Dolmenwood: the players started off in Lankshorn where, after their starting adventure (Winter’s Daughter) they got involved in the local power play between Lords Barrathwaite and Malbleat. They set up a few businesses, which were then promptly sabotaged; they hired a spy to find out who was behind this, and were informed that it was a woman by Madam Shantywood, the madam of a renowned pleasure-house and ruler of the independent territory of Shantywood Isle. After an intervening adventure, they travelled to Shantywood Isle to confront her, whereupon the Madam revealed that this had been a set-up to get them into a room with her, and offered a deal: that the party relocate their base of operations to Shantywood Isle, such that their adventuring proceeds funnel into the local economy and thereby provide resources for Madam Shantywood to grow her sphere of economic and political influnce, in exchange for her patronage (mostly related to increased partying opportunities for more XP and reduced lifestyle expenses because of provided lodging, as well as a more favourable interest rate on her debt). They spent some time doing this, mostly venturing to the nearby dungeon, before they decided to head off north to check out the nearby town of Prigwort. When they got there, they learned it was a renowned brewer’s town, and so they sought to broker a deal with the brewer’s council for a wholesale supply of booze to Madam Shantywood’s brothel; in the course of doing so, they found that both the town’s booze supply was under threat from what was thought to be kobolds (but ended up being a malevolent sentient fungus, the kobolds were chill) and that the local Lord had just died and his children gone missing (the result of a covert plot for usurpation). The party managed to be quick enough so as to narrowly deal with both problems, and for their efforts were rewarded by the local Lord with a plot of land in a northerly hex, which is currently untamed and chaos-blasted; the party’s next move is planned to be surveying and clearing that hex to begin establishing a domain there (though this may contravene the spirit of their agreement with Madam Shantywood). They’re all about level 3.


All of this happened with basically no planning or forethought on my part; it all came together as the result of one fortuitous (or unlucky, for the players) roll that happened in the second downtime turn the party took, around the 6th session of the campaign, which is the sabotage setback that happens as a result of rolling a mixed success. From there spun out pretty much the entire rest of the campaign. And this is not by accident; this is by design. The way the downtime mechanics are structured in Errant basically makes them function as an engine for generating adventure hooks, becoming both the pumping heart of the campaign events and the glue that binds them all together. If you read Ben’s Downtime in Zyan zine you’re likely to experience an eerie sense of deja vu, as he says basically the same thing, but this is something I had planned to write since last year, basically down to the word; we arrived to the same conclusion independently, I think, because anyone who spends some time actually playing with these rules will experience this effect first-hand for themselves.     


This is, I think, quite significant because while there is no dearth of downtime systems available (domain play could even be said to predate D&D qua D&D itself), most of the traditional ones end up being so complex or onerous, involving calculations of taxes and incomes and tithes and square footage of land, so as to predominate gameplay to the point of subordinating traditional adventure based play. If one prefers a phased campaign structure like traditional classic D&D, where there is a transition between the dungeon mode, the wilderness mode, and the domain mode as characters level up, each mode being characterised by a different gameplay structure, this might make sense (though even then, what tends to happen is that the campaign becomes stratified among these modes, with players having characters at every phase, and thus the domain level play tends to need its own special time to occur, whether that be specific domain sessions or as inter-session homework for players/referees). But I, and I would wager most modern players, prefer a variety/smorgasboard/masala style campaign, where each of these elements is present in varying proportions throughout the campaign length, with dungeon style adventuring remaining the focus. 


As well, in traditional gold-for-xp campaigns players tend to amass wealth so quickly that the question of why they would continue to adventure becomes ridiculous in the face of the diegetic logic that they could just retire and run a bakery; and when players are allowed to open their bakeries, both the low-risk and simple pleasure of it, and the fact that there isn’t any structure to facilitate the running of the bakery thus requiring the logistics to be handled on a sort of detail-by-detail basis, threaten to turn Dungeons & Dragons into Danishes & Donuts. Which is a fine game and all to play, but not the one I signed up for. I want to allow my players to make meaningful investments in the world without the game becoming a bean-counting or business-management simulator.


Ben and Nick’s systems, with their abstracted turn structure and generally simplified accounting, go a long way on their own to reducing the overhead downtime exerts on play, but there’s a few things Errant does that I think facilitate this even more. The lifestyle rule, which sees an errant’s remaining money halved at the end of their downtime turns, in addition to simplifying book-keeping, solves the accumulation problem and keeps an incentive to adventure. In addition, it encourages players to spend, waste, and invest all their money so that they still gain some value from it, rather than it being removed with nothing to show for it; the net effect of keeping the players cash-strapped is preserved, but the players become more invested in the game world. 


The fact that the downtime structure proceeds such that players spend fixed amounts of money (on buying equipment and investing in businesses/training/etc.) before proceeding to a phase where they waste a random amount of money often means that they will end up wasting more money than they actually have; this nets them extra XP, but puts them in debt, essentially allowing players to level up on credit. But the debt rules mirror the lifestyle rules, with debt doubling at the start of every downtime turn, which prevents them from gaining any XP; this tends to light a fire under the ass of players to go adventure and get enough money, and tends to push them to take bigger risks going deeper into dungeons than they usually would, while the power bump they got from their “credited” XP usually means that they just barely have the capacity to take such risks. (I discussed these two rules in a previous deep dive somewhat).


The other factor that keeps the focus on adventure is an innovation that resulted from the admixture of Ben’s 2d6 downtime rolls and Nick’s complications table from the haven turn hazard die. For several activities, but most notably improving an institution, in Ben’s system, a mixed success of a 7-9 indicates a setback that requires the completion of a task (generally understood as an adventure) to resolve before that activity can be completed; in the case of institutions this also renders the players unable to benefit from the institutions benefits until the setback is resolved. This dovetails nicely with my waste rules, so I specified that such setbacks grant XP to the players when they happen; I then adopted the 2d6 structure Nick uses for encounter tables for the downtime complications table, so that I could make the result of 7 automatically trigger a setback for one of the player’s projects. This means that about 5% of the time (closer to 3% but let's round up to nice d20-based numbers) the game itself will proc an event that both passively rewards XP to players without requiring an action or resource to be spent, which incentivizes them to make such investments so that it can pay dividends so to speak, but also by its very nature spawns an adventure hook. The rest of the downtime complications table also in general create hindrances to what the players may normally want to do during a downtime turn, which is why downtime turns are structured so that the event die is rolled before player actions, allowing them to “suspend” the downtime turn so they can go on an adventure to remove the complication. This mechanic, and also the fact that I expanded the “on a mixed success, go an adventure” to be on almost every downtime activity (Ben and I differ slightly in this regard, he prefers to reserve the rolls that have mixed successes a bit more judiciously) means that the game will constantly be generating adventure hooks for the party to capitalise upon. 


The other results of the downtime event die serve to prevent the game world from becoming staid, by introducing prompts that make the game world change dynamically, much like random encounters do at the wilderness and dungeon level. This also introduces spaces for collaborative worldbuilding, as downtime offers a space outside of the challenge-based gameplay of exploration, and so allows for more “white space” where the DM can share authorial control; a prompt of “a new NPC arrives in town” is a chance for the DM and players to collaboratively work on adding to the setting. Other mechanics such as accounting for the presence, movement, and activities of rival adventuring parties, long-term campaign threats/BBEGs, and factions are all mechanically pinned to downtime turns and the downtime event die, allowing all of these factors to neatly coalesce around a singular mechanic rather than having to manage them all in turn. This provides the DM great latitude in allowing for the machinations, conspiracies, and agendas of all manner of world powers and secret societies into their game without great burden. It also means that when the players ascend to that stage themselves, they will be slipping into an already pre-existing structure designed to facilitate their desires, like a pair of already broken-in shoes.


In general, the way downtime turns integrate what is generally considered high-level domain play from the very start of the campaign is something that I find incredibly rewarding. It really makes sandbox play cohere on a structural level. Before I implemented downtime turns, I would always have players who had ambitions like starting a revolution or founding a cult or somesuch, which is I think ideal in a sandbox campaign; you wanted players to have self-directed motivation for interacting with the game world and the various powers in it. Hell, The Zealot class basically directly incentivizes players to spread their religion far and wide. But I never had a way to deal with these ambitions that felt satisfying; again, I could resort to dealing with it on a nitty-gritty, detail-by-detail pace at the level of adventure play, or I could just sort of hand-wave it as a reward for doing a given quest, but neither ever felt really satisfying or meaningful, either taking up too much time or kind of agency robbing. As a player I’ve also been in campaigns where I had such goals but would quickly become burnt out on such characters as there was never any game phase where I could handle the advancement of those goals in an abstract level, and so would have to basically always be “on” in terms of recruiting NPCs one by one, managing transactions one by one, etc. Which is a bummer, because those characters are the most rewarding and fun to play, but invariably I would retire them in favour of playing a simpler character who just wants to fight-n-loot.


There’s a lot of functions in downtime turns that also scale and metamorphose into something new as players advance in level. For example, the Supply/Inflation mechanics, which at low levels is there to sort of gate player access to resources like torches, healing kits, armour, etc. at high levels becomes more about managing region-wide inflation as the players undertake the economically taxing work of supplying an expedition for clearing and settling domains and building castles/estates. The progression of settlement types from hamlet to metropolis then also tie in to activities in downtime like setting up institutions and domains (i quite enjoy how there’s almost a step-by-step order for building up a domain from scratch, progressing from expedition to building an estate, setting up a settlement, then a loop in which institutions allow settlements to expand which then allow institutions to expand, with the domain-kingdom level also being added to the loop at a certain point).


Mechanically, the downtime turn essentially functions as another level of “rest” above and beyond the 10 minute dungeon rest or the night’s sleep at the travel level, with the “full HP/exhaustion” restore being pegged at the downtime level (armour restore at the dungeon rest level, and partial HP/exhaustion restore at the travel level). It also creates a little binary between the travel rest classes (The Violent/Occult) whose abilities are hard-coded and resources restore on a night’s rest, and the downtime rest classes (The Deviant/Zealot) whose abilities are soft-coded and resources restore on a downtime rest. It also functions as a “speedbump” moment to deal with all the little things like shopping, socialising, paying retainers, receiving bonuses from institutions, and so on. I think of it almost as equivalent to something like the upkeep/untap phase in Magic: The Gathering.


Because of that mechanical function, along with providing the opportunity to take campaign level actions, downtime turns are a resource that players are generally going to want to take advantage of. This solves the issue many campaigns have of functioning in “Die Hard time” where they’re rushing from target to target, quest to quest, with many significant events happening in a compressed amount of time. Especially, I like to keep them at the level of a “month” because it gives the campaigns the same quality as many picaresque stories like those of Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser or Conan where we follow their adventures over a scope of time, usually with little preambles at the beginning that set the context of what the characters were doing in their off-time between adventures. It also allows the feeling of the deepening of character relationships over time, as in-game time will start to align to real-world time (if you play weekly and take a downtime turn every 3-4 sessions). You get to have cool “getting the band back together” sessions, and if you allow your players to take several downtime turns in a row (say if they take the winter off of adventuring), then you could feasibly start to enter into generational play territory for some characters. Its important to balance downtime turns a little bit, where you generally want to ration out a downtime turn per 2-4 sessions of adventuring, but the lifestyle and debt rules tend to end up self-regulating for players who take too many downtime turns anyway.


On a purely “game-feel” level, I find that the downtime turn tends to make the game feel structurally complete. It slots into the action economy of travel/explore/fight quite well, forming a pleasing chiasmus where there are two turn lengths at a more ‘abstract scale’ (downtime/travel) and two turn lengths at a more ‘concrete scale’ (exploration/initiative), and also two turns where actions are taken at the party level (travel/exploration), and two where they are taken at the PC level (downtime/initiative). 


There’s a lot of sources that served secondary influences or reference points for the downtime system as I’ve developed Errant that I think are worth checking out. These include Leback’s Into the Wild, Crawford’s An Echo Resounding, Metzger’s The Nightmares Underneath, Cocking and William’s Beyond The Wall: Further Afield, Diaz Torres’ “Playing Cute”, Kutalik’s article on “Pendragon Epic-Time”, Gundobad Games’ “Simpler Downtime” series, and Manola’s “Meet the New Boss” post.

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Also, I’d like to take this chance to plug a bunch of ZiMo projects apart from Ben’s zine. I would be remiss not to mention Barkeep on the Borderlands, which is a pleasing mirror-reflection of what I’ve been talking about in the way that it turns a traditional downtime activity (carousing) into something played at the adventure level. There’s also going to be a tonne of content in there applicable to more traditional downtime style carousing as well. Also ya girl is an editor and guest writer on the project.





Friend of the blog and contributing artist for Errant Lazy Litch is also running a Kickstarter, completing his zine trilogy of Willow and The Haunted Hamlet with The Toxic Wood. I’ve known Litch longer than anyone else in the RPG scene; we started as accountability buddies while he was working on Willow and I was still developing Errant (yes, he has literally lapped me twice in terms of releases). As a result, I’ve gotten to see an in-depth look at his maturation as an artist and designer, and with no hyperbole every project he does is better than the last. Check this one out.





Finally, there are a few ZiMo projects that are itchfunding right now which I’ll also be editing. These definitely need more love, as breaking off of Kickstarter is really hard.


Emiel Boven is starting the first issue in a series of zines called The Electrum Archives, which will Vaults of Vaarn-style detail a science-fantasy setting of Orn. I previously worked with Emiel on editing DURF and its associated adventure Lair of the Gobbler, as well as him contributing some art for Errant, and everything he does absolutely oozes personality.





The inimitable Evlyn Moreau needs no introduction in the old-school zine. She’s writing a delightfully uncomfortable scenario for Liminal Horror called The Potato King, about an eldritch god who is being unwittingly fed to the inhabitants of a small town via a fast food stand. Besides the merits of the adventure itself, Evlyn is one of the kindest and most generous folks I know in this scene, and I’d love to see her get more support. Oh, she also illustrated the delightful naked mole rat people in Downtime in Zyan, whose majestic bepises were unjust censored by the overlords of the bird site.





Finally, there’s SageDaMage’s city supplement of Discordantopia for Pulka and Troika. Everything I’ve seen of the art work and writing has been stellar so far, so if you're a fan of weird science fantasy I recommend checking it out!



Saturday, 18 December 2021

Collaborative Subsystems

I am overdue to reply to Josh for an answer to this question by almost a fortnight.

This is something I began thinking about explicitly after Prismatic Wasteland wrote their post on freeform spell systems. There were a number of reactions to that post about how people feared it would take up too much time, be too complex, and drag the game to a halt as it focused on one player as they had to navigate a subsystem individually; my lockpicking system I think also received a similar critique, with someone commenting that it seemed boring for other players at the table as they had to wait for one person to make a bunch of decisions. People made references to a lot of things like Shadowrun's Decker system or DCC's spell lists/mishaps that had caused similar experiences.

This was honestly pretty surprising to me because in about half a decade of playing with freeform spell systems and my lockpicking subsystem and all other varied manner of subsystems, I had never run into this problem before. What was the difference? I have an anecdote that I think might be pretty illustrative.

A few years ago in a session I ran, the party was at a masquerade held by some fucked up nobles and one of the characters was manoeuvred by one of the NPCs into playing a game of chess with slaves as the pieces (a piece that was "taken" involved the actual person being killed). We busted out an actual chess board to play out the scene, and despite the fact that this was supposed to be a fairly emotionally charged moment, it completely drained the energy out of the room: me and the player I was playing chess against stayed at the table, along with two folks who spectated and occasionally gave suggestions for moves, while everyone else dissipated to grab snacks, go to the bathrooms, chat in the hallway, etc. until we resumed normal play.

Then, about a year ago, when I was running Tower of the Stargazer for my new group, I noticed there was a room in which a ghost challenges a player to a game that the group is supposed to actually play out, with the text suggesting chess. Having read reviews of the module I'd noted that other people had shared my experience bringing chess into a D&D session, with this particular choice in the module being pretty widely acknowledged to not lead to a fun time. I decided to swap it out for Connect Four and set up a room in which all the other players could spectate (this was an online game). The resultant game of Connect Four, which involved every other player commenting with suggestions for next moves and pointing out where I was setting up, ended up being one of the most tense and hype moments of the campaign thus far. Essentially I ended up playing a 5 v 1 game of Connect Four, but the resulting player engagement was super high.


Of course, the difference between the two situations was the level of "backseat participation" they allowed for. This, I think, is the main difference between subsystems like freeform spells or my lockpicking minigame vs the Decker problem in Shadowrun or the huge spell tables in DCC. The latter involve a player looking up a bunch of things and rolling a bunch of dice on their own. By comparison, the individual subsystems that the Archetypes in Errant have are all quite mechanically straightforward: all they involve is choosing how many of a particular resource (in the case of the Deviant or the Zealot, with Jettons/Favour) or which one of a particular resource (in the case of the Violent and the Occult, with Feats and Sorceries) they want to use, and then making basically one roll. In that sense they all share a similar structure, which helps to offset the complexity of having asymmetrical subsystems.

The difference mostly comes about in terms of the effects that these subsystems have and the kinds of parameters they define for the players to define those effects, all of which are incomparable across each other. And when it comes to the subsystems which have freeform effects (within certain parameters) like those of the Deviant and the Zealot, I find that often times everyone at the table is participating actively in terms of making suggestions of what kind of Miracles the Zealot could perform or what Wagers thee Deviant could be making. All in all, the amount of time spent negotiating these effects is probably as long as it would take to look up a spell or an effect in a book, but that time is spent actively talking and engaged at the table. It also helps that this process is basically congruent with the basic procedure of the game, which is "talk about ways resources can be leveraged for solutions, use those resources, and then maybe make a roll." Freeform effects like these aren't dissimilar from the way items are used in OSR games, where they don't have defined effects but instead have any number of potential creative applications they could be put towards.

In the case of subsystems where options are defined, like those of the Violent or Occult, or even things like the lockpicking systems, I find that the collaborative dynamic of the whole table contributing potential options persists. When someone is picking a lock and a player declares their next move is going to be a Tap, after I say whether or not that move is successful I've noted that everyone else at the table usually chimes in to point out what the next moves could be, like "Oh, so the next move is either Twist or Turn," or "oh then it has to be Twist since Turn failed." I think what helps in these cases is that, like Connect Four, these subsystems present a number of finite states with the available choices transparently arising from those (e.g. in the case of the lockpicking system, there's three moves, three actions that need to be taken, and no two actions can use the same move in a row).

In take away, that's my solution for maintaining player engagement even while dealing with a number of asymmetrical subsystems: keep "backseat" engagement high. I do this by either using systems that employ free-form prompts (within certain parameters) or finite states, while keeping the actual "mechanical" overhead (in terms of discrete dice rolls or operations that have to be performed) low. It helps when these subsystems can be integrated into the normal procedure of play (in OSR games "inform > talk > decision > roll; Slayers does a similar thing wherein every class has a unique subsystem for player but everything hinges off a core mechanic of "4+ on a dice roll is a success"). Of course, the corollary of this is that its incumbent on the group to create a table culture that encourages active participation and collaboration in terms of brainstorming problem solving so that these subsystems continue as an extension of that, and you want to be wary of the tipping point where "backseat participation" turns into "backseat gaming" which generally isn't fun for anyone.



Saturday, 9 October 2021

Errant Anti-Archetypes

Junk Food

The archetypes in Errant, I think, are pretty comprehensive of basically any class or character concept you could think of. This is intentional. Creating classes and subclasses for RPGs is the potato chips of game design: satisfying, but substantively empty.

But sometimes you just wanna eat potato chips damn it.

I've been long mulling over a fifth archetype for Errant. I confess, I have a soft spot for psionics, so even though such a character could be easily and readily handled by The Zealot archetype, I've been turning the idea over in my head. I've been particularly inspired by Lexi's approach to the class.

But of course, adding a fifth class would break the "rule of fourths" motif Errant has going on, and the correspondence between Attribute to Archetype. So, may as well come up with 3 more then?

Other concepts that aren't covered by the base four archetypes are harder to think of. Perhaps an archetype to fit generic monstrous characters, like dragons or werewolves? I've done a take on Vampires before which I enjoyed.

Coming up with two other possibilities was challenging, until Nick suggested a Fool type character, someone who succeeds by failing, who is unlucky in the luckiest ways. So similar to The Deviant's narrative-bending abilities, but distinguished by their lack of skill, rather than their ampleness of it. This made me think of the idea of anti-archetypes, which reward you the lower your attributes are.

If we can acknowledge that this activity is indulgent and totally pointless, we may as well have fun with the absurdity. Each of these archetypes is dependent on the use of a licensed and trademarked Hasbro gaming product: these should be acquired through scrupulous means, and any unauthorized and inappropriate use of fine corporate wares will result in immediate and lifetime banning from the fine game of Errant forthwhith. 

An image that oozes integrity.


The Freak

You're a misbegotten defect of nature. If you're a monster, you're a piss poor one.

Your PHYS must be 9 or lower to select this Archetype. If your PHYS ever increases above 9, your Archetype switches to The Violent.

Damage Die: d8

Jenga: If you want to draw on any of the powers traditionally associated with whatever it is that you are, make a pull from a Jenga tower. For each successful pull, you can use a power once (e.g. if you're a dragon, one pull might allow you to fly, to breath fire, to whip your tail, etc.). 

If duration, damage, or any other mechanical effects need to be determined, use the scaling for Sorceries, except that damage/healing effects are d8s. 

You can make a number of pulls per day equal to 20 minus your PHYS.

If the tower collapses, you lose control of yourself. The Guide gains control of you as a hostile NPC and can use your powers at will, until you have fully rebuilt the tower. Once your tower has been rebuilt, the number of pulls you can make that day resets.

The Fool

Everything you touch, you make worse. But everyone else is left to clean up the mess.

Your SKILL must be 9 or lower to select this Archetype. If your SKILL ever increases above 9, your Archetype switches to The Deviant.

Damage Die: d6

Bop It: At the start of a session, play a solo game of Bop It until failure or until you have successfully completed 20-SKILL commands. Create a list of all the commands you successfully completed, including how many of each command.

At any time during play, you may declare a command from your list and remove it. The command affects anything you wish, in a way that is generally beneficial to you and detrimental to every one else. 

You may change a number of commands on your list to any other possible Bop It command equal to your Renown,
 

The Oaf

You've never had a single thought inside your head. You've had plenty outside it, though.

Your MIND must be 9 or lower to select this Archetype. If your MIND ever increases above 9, your Archetype switches to The Occult .

Damage Die: d4

Scrabble: Pick the die that is closest in number to 20-MIND. If you've got weird dice, use them. Better yet, use a digital roller you Luddite.

Pick a target, roll your die, and pull out that many Scrabble™ tiles. Compose a sentence, or as close to one as you can get, with those tiles. Whatever that sentence is becomes true of the target until you compose a new sentence.

If the result of your die roll is below your MIND score, step the die down one step. Your die resets to its original size every day.

If your die is stepped down into nothing, you can let everyone in the room say a sentence about your character. Those sentences become true of your character forever. Your die resets to its original size.

You can add a number of prepositions and conjunctions and other filler words to any sentence you compose equal to your Renown.


The Lout

A face not even a mother could love. You're so wretched, you make other people actively worse by your mere presence.

Your PRES must be 9 or lower to select this Archetype. If your PRES ever increases above 9, your Archetype switches to The Zealot.

Damage Die: d6

Operation: For any living creature that you can see, you can attempt to pull out any piece from an Operationboard. You can make a number of pulls equal to 20-PRES per day.

You create a strong influence, compulsion, or feeling in that creature corresponding to the area you removed the piece from. If you removed the Adam's Apple, for example, you might compel the creature to yell or shout something of your choosing. If you remove the Wrenched Ankle, you could make the creature run away.

Once a piece has been removed, it remains outside the board. You can return a number of pieces inside the board equal to your Renown per day. All pieces return to the board each day.



Sunday, 19 September 2021

Memory Problems

Memory

When I first started running OSR-style games with The Black Hack (1st edition), I found it almost impossible to track torches. Or ammo. Or random encounters. I really wanted to be able to track those things, I wanted them to be things that mattered in my game, but I found it difficult to meaningfully implement in my sessions in a way that I don’t now. In retrospect, this can, I think, be attributed to three related rules from TBH.

There are 2 important types of tracked time - Moments (rounds) and Minutes (turns). Moments are used during combat and fast paced scenes of danger and Minutes are used when exploring and adventuring. A GM may advance the clock as they need substituting Minutes for Hours, Days or even Months should the adventure require it.               

The GM should roll a d4 every 15 minutes of real world play (you are paying attention, right?) A result of 1-2 means the players will encounter a randomly generated creature or distraction in the following Minutes (turn).

Any item listed in the equipment section that has a Usage die is considered a consumable, limited item. When that item is used the next Minute (turn) its Usage die is rolled. If the roll is 1-2 then the usage die is downgraded to the next lower die in the following chain.

 The very first problem lies with the turn rule: minutes is an ill-defined concept, by design obfuscating exactly what span of in-game or real-world time constitutes one ‘minutes’. It is left solely to the provenance of the GM to choose what constitutes a ‘minutes’ and when and how to advance it.

The second is the disjunction between minutes and random encounters. While in classic D&D random encounters and turns are yoked together, in TBH they are separated: random encounters are entirely dependent on the amount of real-world time that has elapsed (is this supposed to be used even when the characters aren’t in a dungeon?). Yet it still retains a vestigial connection to the turn structure, as the encounter occurs in the next ‘minutes’ after it has been rolled.

Item usage faces a similar problem, as again rather than tracking a numbered supply or duration in turns (e.g. a torch lasts 6 turns), you have to remember when you use an item that the next time the GM decides to move to the next ‘minutes’ that you’re supposed to roll the items usage die.

Looking at these rules now, with an understanding of turn-based exploration play, they are perfectly serviceable as a rules light distillation, but with no experience in that style of play, these rules left me adrift.

I didn’t understand minutes, so I basically didn’t track time at all except for in combat. Without a turn structure, it became impossible to actually even consider when a torch had been ‘used’ and when to roll its usage die. Ammo was a clearer case, just roll usage die after combat, but it was a toss-up whether I would remember to ask players to roll their ammo usage die. And random encounters, there was absolutely no way I would be able to keep track of when every 15 minutes had elapsed. I tried setting timers on my phone, but without setting it on an intrusive ringing noise it was easy to overlook, and a complete hassle nonetheless.

The problem with these rules, to me, is that they rely so heavily on a GM remembering things extemporaneously. Instead of tracking 3 things at the same time (turns, wandering encounters, torches all in one procedure) you have to separately remember to advance ‘minutes’ when appropriate, keep track of when 15 real world minutes have elapsed to make a random encounter check, and remember to call for a usage die check the turn after an item has been used. Being a GM constantly threatens cognitive overload, and having to keep track of so many things is a sure-fire way to ensure that most of them get left by the wayside.

Notably, there was one consumable resource that always managed to stay relevant in my TBH games and that was food. This was because I ran my campaigns in a hex map, and so it was very easy to note that each time players moved from one hex to another, they had to roll their usage die for food.

What the hexes provided, and what a traditional turn structure provides (one in which a party performs a set amount of actions, or moves a certain distance before a turn ends, a new turn begins, a random encounter is rolled, torch duration reduced, etc.) is what Josh describes as a speed bump, a moment in the game where there is a structured pause that allows the GM/Players to check things over.

And of course, to reduce the memory load of bookkeeping even further, we can think of something like the overloaded encounter die, where the result of the die will tell you when to tick down a torch’s duration, or when the party needs to rest. Rather than the GM needing to keep track of how many turns have elapsed, the GM just has to remember to do one thing: roll the die at the start of each turn.

Given this, we can conceive of a three-tiered model of how much a given rule demands of a GM or player’s memory.

Extemporaneous > Speed Bump > Automatic

This is not to say that Automatic rules are better than Speed Bump rules which are better than Extemporaneous rules, but rather that they ought to be considered when designing rules. If we consider a typical modern D&D game actually, we can see these 3 types of rules in the 3 most common rolls of the game: skill rolls, attack rolls, and damage rolls.

Skill rolls are pretty much extemporaneous, as its totally up to the GM’s discretion when to use them, but they remain easy to remember and use because 1) it’s the core mechanic of the game and 2) it is still pretty clearly defined what actions trigger using them. More importantly, the GM’s memory is cued to apply this rule because it will happen in response to something, rather than them having to remember off the top of their head with no prompting.

Attack rolls are speed bump rules: you roll the dice, then you check to see if you’ve hit. This pause allows additional complexity to be added to the rules in the form of critical hits/failures or special attacks/feats/abilities, because they can all be inserted into that ‘pause and check’ phase after you’ve rolled when you’re trying to see if you successfully hit.

Damage rolls are usually pretty automatic: whatever number is rolled on the dice is then subtracted from the enemy’s HP without need for any other consideration, except in cases where there’s things like resistances of vulnerabilities to consider.

Problems

I discuss all this because recently I was faced with a bit of a design dilemma around Errant, namely the fact that during combat I always forgot about the Quality rules (which is that when a weapon rolls min. damage, it loses 1 point of Quality, and when an attack is blocked by armour, if that attack rolled max. damage on any of its dice, that armor loses 1 quality per max. damage die). Back when I still used attack rolls, this was less of a problem, as I attached Quality loss to crit successes/failures, but since switching to auto-damage rolls a la Into the Odd the rule is only applied sporadically, and usually only when a player reminds me.

If we look at our previous memory model it’s easy to see why this is the case, as the Speed Bump nature of attack rolls naturally gave us a chance to check for Quality loss, as well as the fact that they’re tied to crits, which are something D&D players are conditioned to look out for. One could make sure to pause and check every single time damage is rolled to check for Quality loss, but 3 factors pretty much guarantee that this won’t happen: 1) you’re stopping to check only for a single effect 2) that only occurs very rarely and 3) that only has a minimal mechanical effect.

I was discussing this problem and possible solutions with my cohorts; having some sort of combat flowsheet/cheatsheet was suggested, as well as making watching out for Quality loss a formal player responsibility, but ultimately this just offloaded the memory problem from the GM to the players.

Ty, however, suggested something which led to the solution I settled on.

Full size here

So put formally, the rule is something like this:

REACTIONS: Whenever any die rolled as part of an attack rolls a 1, the target of that attack may immediately make an action.

This new rule fixes the problem by essentially creating an effect that has a really significant mechanical effect, thus incentivizing remembering and checking for it, and then by tying Quality loss to the same trigger.

While it may on first glance seem like this only solves the problem of remembering when weapon Quality degrades, without addressing armour Quality degradation, it actually still does this due to the rule that “damage that is impaired down to dealing 1 damage counts as dealing maximum damage”. So the interaction of these two rules leads to a tactical consideration: if you use enough blocks to impair damage down to 1, you get a reaction, essentially allowing you to trade armour Quality for action economy. I find this interaction really pleasing because it makes sense on both a mechanical level (trade one resource for another) and a diegetic one (by blocking an enemy attack, you get a chance to counter-attack). Also, because using a block is deliberate decision already, and that I always ask my players whether they’d like to use a block any time they take damage, there’s already a Speed Bump moment there that lets us remember to check if armour Quality degrades.

Now, aside from alleviating the memory problem, what I find really interesting about this new rule is how well it meshes with other parts of the system; I really feel like I stumbled into something that unlocked the greater tactical potential of the rest of the combat design.

For one, like I said in my conversation with Ty, this rule adds a really pleasing sense of dynamism that is often missing from traditional D&D combat. Attacks of Opportunity are often seen as a common fix for this problem, but paradoxically I find it makes combat even more static by discouraging movement. However, I feel like this new reaction rule really mimics what we see in great fight scenes in movies and whatnot, where it’s often about who has the initiative, who can seize it, counter-attacking and taking advantage of gaps in an opponent’s attack to seize an opportunity. That it presents a flexible action, rather than just allowing the targeted character to counter-attack, adds to this, since they could feasibly choose to run away, cast a spell, throw sand in their attacker’s eyes, or even attack someone other than the person attacking them.

Second is how it plays with the enhance/impair system. I’ve talked before about how combat in Errant is designed around using fictional positioning in order to accrue enhancements, and then capitalizing on that increased damage die with abilities such as The Violent’s feats or magic weapon’s true strikes, causing a multiplicative effect. The reaction rules plays into it by adding a new dynamic: enhancing damage means you’re less open to counter-attack, and consequently finding ways to impair your opponent’s damage gives you more chances to attack. However, now when one tries to parlay the advantages of enhancing damage by adding more damage dice through feats, poison, or other abilities there’s a risk reward angle to consider in that the more dice you add, the greater the chance of rolling a 1 on those dice become; if you aren’t able to finish your enemy off with that one big strike, they’ll get a chance to respond. 



This comes into play in a way that I really enjoy with The Deviant’s sneak attack ability, which allows them to roll two damage die when attacking an unaware target; with their base damage die of d6, this means that there’s a ~30% chance that the target will be able to respond right after the sneak attack if they haven’t been killed. Granted, I usually rule that attacking an unaware creature also leads to an attack being enhanced 1 step, but this incentivizes the player to seek out as many sources of enhancement possible when making a sneak attack, ensuring their kill is as clean as possible. You get a nice probabilistic chiasmus too, where a single damage die is swingy in terms of damage, but less likely to roll a 1, while multiple dice have a bell curve for damage, but more likely to roll a 1; diegetically this might represent a more reserved attack vs more wild attacks, but it adds an interesting dimension when designing monsters for the GM to consider.

Third is the pleasing symmetry it causes among the archetypes. The Occult already has their retort ability, which allows them to react to spells cast by other creatures by casting spells of their own, my take on the counterspell ability. The Violent, meanwhile, has feats that also allow them to respond to actions taken not on their turn, and are now the character least likely to be counter-attacked due to their large damage die. Essentially, the reaction rule has created “acting out of turn” during combat a significant tactical arena, and two of the existing four archetypes have emerged as having greater capacity to do that. The Deviant and The Zealot, on the other hand, have abilities that favour greater pre-planning, so we essentially end up with two archetypes that are more “reactive” and two archetypes that are more “proactive”, which also dovetails nicely with The Violent and The Occult having stronger offensive capability whereas The Deviant and The Zealot are geared more towards utility.

Summing Up

So, two big main take-aways in terms of design lessons from this post I guess.

First is to consider the role of memory, especially in terms of the cognitive overload demanded of the GM, when designing your rules. Some rules are designed to be fringe and referenced only when needed, but for the core design, think about ways of making sure the rule will actually get remembered at the table.

Second, and this is really broad, but note where the gaps and flaws are in your design, what isn’t working as tightly as it could be. By addressing these problems, especially with positive rather than negative solutions (e.g. adding in new rules rather than removing rules that don’t work) you might find something new and exciting in your game that you hadn’t even seen before.

 

 

Saturday, 1 May 2021

On The Ecology of Gold & Dragons

 Gold became the standard coin of trade first primarily for its metallurgic qualities, but it remained so because of its supra-natural qualities. Gold, you see, must constantly remain in circulation; the movement is essential to counteract the malign will of the gold itself.



Gold is a heavy, lazy thing; it pulls itself towards the ground, and desires above all else to nap lazily in a cool, dark place, perhaps with a stray sunbeam warming its back, in a large pile of its kin. The subtle whispers it trickles in the ears of mortals, the sapping light it exudes, the way it pushes its weight all the way down to the boot heels of those who carry it, causing them to drag their feet, all compel those who carry gold disturbed from its slumber beneath the earth to return it to such a state, till eventually they lay all gathered somewhere in an enormous pile.

Two curious things happen when a concentration of gold is formed in this way. One, fearing that its slumber be disturbed again, it sends subtle vibrations through the air which induce a kind of monomania, causing heady fools to rush to discover and uncover it. Many will be drawn by this call, though inevitably violence will erupt and only the most brutal and deranged will lay claim to the prize. This is the first part of the selection process.


Upon finding such a cache, the victor naturally appropriates it in order to gain great power in the world of men. This involves, of course, some levying of the gold in trade, such that it moves again, but for the gold this is a small and necessary sacrifice; in the scale of its lifespan, this stage is but a speck. For the gold-mad inevitably build around themselves great fortresses, and send out others to bring back yet more gold, while they lay languorously and covetously on their pile, basking in the joys of accumulation, and stirring only on the occasions where yet more aurum is to be added to the pile.

Eventually the great lord or queen or viscountess or whatever she be passes out of public view, recedes into herself, till she seems to die. In yet another act of influence, her followers will be compelled to act with wanton destruction in burying their great ruler with their wealth, denying themselves the myriad use-values they could obtain. Here is where the gold begins its work in earnest.

On the still, barely living body of its soon to be guardian, it exerts its changes; fashioning the corpus into that of an eternal, living weapon who will ensure the gold shall never again be disturbed.
 



The gold will send this creature out to rescue more of its kin, such that their joys may be magnified by each other's presence. It will ensure that the beast lives as long as they do, and that as it ages they continue their work upon it to make it ever more fearsome. If the gold finds itself continually under threat, it may yet call out for and create even more dragons, who all by slumbering upon the same pile, gradually merge into an even greater monstrosity.





A Note on Playing Dragons

One of the things that strikes me every time I read Beowulf is the twinning of the hero and the dragon; the dragon emerges when Beowulf is at his most dragon-like, and he must become ever more a dragon in order to defeat him. 

This applies to your standard D&D characters even more readily, I think, whose power grows in proportion to their material accumulation until they are literally possessive of abilities that allow them to go toe to toe with a dragon: in game terms, judging by AC, HP, and amount of damage that they can put out, the actual mechanical difference between them is negligible.

People always urge you to play dragons as if they are insane, though like most appeals to the pathological this is using tired ableism as a stand-in for actual characterization and motivation; some slightly better writers may pick a specific type of mental illness as a stand in, such as narcissism, or obsessive-compulsion, but this again lacks specificity.

If you actually want your dragon to come off like a terrifying, unpredictable, anti-social creature, as a DM you already have the perfect model right in front of you: your PCs. If we assume that all dragons were in fact once adventurers, this makes even more sense. 

Take the worst, murderhobo-ey aspects of the PCs, the strange bizarre affect that comes from a character inhabiting a world that they know is fictitious and can actually have no lasting consequences on them, and multiply it ten-fold. Better yet, pick a specific PC in your group and do your best impression/caricature of them.

If you've got a multi-headed dragon, play the entire party. Fuck making them all different colours with different breath weapons: make one head a fighter, another a magic-user, a thief, a cleric, so on and give each head super-charged class powers.

Inspiration

Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter.” Political Theory, vol. 32, no. 3, 2004, pp. 347–372.

"Gold Fever" by Benton.

Beowulf












Sunday, 14 March 2021

Brief Brainworms: Megadungeon

 First of all, I think the prefix "mega" is unnecessary and has done harm to the artform of what I'll call instead a tentpole dungeon. It conjures images of 600 page tomes with long room keys that are off-putting to read and play. What we call megadungeons used to just simply be referred to as "dungeons", a setting for a campaign which, due to its ever-changing and expanding nature, holds capacity for infinite play. 

Making one of these is much easier than it sounds, and is not too distinct from the kind of worldbuilding most GMs do now. Instead of putting everything above ground, put it underground into a dungeon. If you have a city, make it take up 3 big dungeon rooms instead. Draw 5 rooms, give it a theme, and you've got a quarter of a level or a sublevel. Making and running a megadungeon is easy. 

I don't know where I read this but there's an observation that the term "Dungeon Master" exists because, in the early days of the hobby, it meant what it says on the tin: Gygax had Castle Gygax, Arneson had Blackmoor, every Dungeon Master had a unique, personal dungeon that was theirs, that they were master of. To be a Dungeon Master is to create your dungeon. 

This isn't much of a post by me about megadungeons, though, as it is a curation of my favourite OSR content that addresses megadungeons.

The first and most important is the first three pages of 0e vol 3 (the rest of vol 3 as well as the DM sections in B/X are also indispensable though).













I'm posting Ben Milton's review of Courtney Campbell's Megadungeon zines because I think they're a useful resource but can not personally endorse purchasing Courtney's works because of his views and associations. I also think the way Ben phrases some points here are also worthwhile, notably

Crawling through a megadungeon is like crawling through the Referee's mind.

Edit: I've decided to add the most relevant quote from Megadungeon here.
If you run a megadungeon campaign like an adventure path, then it immedi-
ately becomes a tedious slog of combat after combat. If you try to run it like a
sandbox, the structure of the megadungeon itself works against you. Not only
can you not see the other areas of the sandbox, most other actors within the
dungeon have plans who's scope likely excludes the characters. Who cares
what happens into the depths, when they are trapped in the mythic under-
world? Megadungeons are not designed to facilitate player driven goals that
are necessary for a sandbox to function.
There are elements of strong game structure in megadungeons, particularly
revolving around encumbrance, time and light, movement and vision. These
don't make any sense in adventure paths and are frequently less useful in
sandbox games. 
These are important because they provide weight to the idea of the Megadun-
geon as an inimical place. If you go 120' forward, You've caused a hazard die
roll and resources available have decreased. Every step has a cost, and trying
to get something—anything!— of value out this place is hard, because it pulls on
you, weighing you down, refusing to let you leave. 
It makes it mean something to the players. Territory explored is not only
revealing the map; it's gained knowledge, that allows you to descend deeper in
the depths of the mythic unknown. It is compiling this knowledge that empowers
the player to engage in every more risky challenges in the depths. 
MEGADUNGEON MEANING AND ROLL(E) 
Megadungeons are mostly empty, because they are a stage. 
And us, the players. 
It must serve three functions. It must obstruct and confuse characters in a way
that challenges the player, it must be mostly empty so it can hold the emergent
drama between players and dungeon actors while exploring, and it must
contain treasure at intervals to provoke a reward response in players. 
What happens is that while the players explore, they quickly become aware of
other groups of monsters or players that are moving through the same dungeon
area as they are. Most are not immediately hostile, but everyone in the
dungeon is an opportunist. Fights against equally powerful non-player charac-
ter parties are often fatal, but after they've fought a manticore, it might be a
different story. It's likely they think the same about you. These relationships and
rivalries persist from session to session. It is a sea filled with pirates and sharks.
And since the door only opens once each week, you're stuck dealing with who
you run into this session, while you're trying to accomplish your goal, meaning
things usually go one way. . . or the other. 
Sometimes, there are dragons. 
Have you ever been hunted as a mouse? If your character survives to tell the
tale, it will be memorable. If they could slay such a beast? Unforgettable.
So, no. Not like a sandbox or adventure path. Yes, more focused on some
unusual rules. More like an emergent adventure that challenges the player
themselves. A fun game to play with a rotating group of friends. Friendly rivalry.
Sort of like a party game with dares. You know—a Megadungeon!