Sunday 19 September 2021

Memory Problems


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.


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.