Jul 5, 2015

[Review] Amber Diceless

I bought a physical copy of the Amber Diceless RPG while in Scotland last week, and read it cover to cover. I've heard people talk about it for years, but diceless roleplaying games tend not to be my preference. My main complaint is that most of the ones I've seen (Nobilis 2e, most notably) confuse avoiding a physical randomiser (dice, cards, etc.) to resolve disputes with having underdeveloped procedures of play and mechanics.

Amber isn't really an exception to this, though it's the beginning of this paradigm rather than a latter development within it. It's a bit frustrating still, because the game clearly does care about using procedures to depict specific themes and create certain emotional experiences, but doesn't carry this through consistently. The attribute auction that begins a new campaign is reasonably well-known, and creates a very specific experience (player competition) that is intended to play itself out in the rest of the game. More procedures like this would have been great, and there are a few others, but the game emphasises that its goal is ultimately to have you progress to freeform play.

I know the formlessness of freeform roleplay was lauded during the late 1980s and early 90s, with the idea that rules served as barriers to the imagination being its guiding aesthetic principle, but that underlying principle wasn't true then, and it isn't true now. Rules and procedures and mechanics are affordances, and using them well is about choosing the specific kinds of behaviour, themes and affects one wants to be able to produce. Freeform roleplaying strips away those affordances (this is different than minimalism about rules) with the hope that unconstrained imagination will somehow pick up the slack.

So I find it weird that Amber lauds this kind of playstyle, while it's at its best when it's furthest away from it.

As it is, we get extensive, very well-done, samples of play that seem capable of development, but stop short of being true procedures, because they don't provide clear decision points or criteria by which to select from different choices. In particular, advice on how to adjudicate characters choosing and/or switching which stat or attribute is being compared could be more extensive and standardised. If one is relying on referee judgment as the main means of resolution, then it's important to train that judgment with not just examples, but also maxims and guidelines.

One example of this stopping short is the text mentioning briefly how stats can be weakened or damaged, but never actually clarifying how or why they might be (at least that I could find). Another is the discussion about Endurance (an attribute) being used to adjudicate contests that continue on long enough, without "long enough" being clearly explained. There is a bit of information on whether a contest is swiftly resolved or not, but this is presented unlinked to the prior statements the game made about endurance. The worst of the sting of this is taken out by the examples, but I would have preferred more clarity and definition overall. On the other hand, the various powers are well-articulated, with numerous examples of specific abilities and problems that come along with using them, and truly seem like a useful prosthesis for imagining the world and characters' capabilities within it..

I'm not too enthused about the Amber setting itself, but I thought the book did a pretty decent job making it seem interesting and exciting, and the default set-up does do a great job explaining how the party knows one another, why they associate with one another, and what their relations to the broader world and the important NPCs within it are. The discussion of "sockets" and "plugs" by which PCs fit into adventures must've been pretty innovative when first presented, and I think it's something any referee could benefit from reading. The use of text from the Zelazny series is evocative, and I think you emerge from reading the Amber RPG with a fairly clear idea of the kinds of adventures you could run.

I'm sure this review comes across fairly negative, but I did like the book for the most part. I thought the referee advice was strong and useful, and the game was innovative as heck for its time, and still has a lot to teach any referee about how to handle a table well. Like most innovative and experimental work, it's incomplete and not fully worked out, because it's busy creating a style that other games (Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, Lords of Olympus, etc.) would pick up on and develop further.

Jul 4, 2015

Layers of the Sandbox

This post ties in with yesterday's Traveller post, but also with something I'm working on for Necrocarcerus 1.3.

Sandbox settings typically have two different scopes of play during a session, and moving between them well is critical to pulling a sandbox. I'm going to call these two scopes the "strategic" and the "tactical" scopes for clarity.

The strategic scope is the scope where the player characters consider the list of options for missions, tasks and goals. In play, this scope often involves consulting maps and lists, but it doesn't exclude roleplaying. PCs may consult their patrons, discuss their options in character, check in with sources and contacts, etc. This often even includes the actual travelling portion of game-play. The important thing is that they are not necessarily committed to any particular course of action. Deciding whether to smuggle xenopornography to the dolphinoid revanchist militias of an interdicted waterworld (a real example from a Traveller game I ran) is the kind of decision you make at this scope.

I occasionally see this section written off as "prep" with the suggestion that it should be elided or compressed, but I think this does a disservice to the possibilities of play it generates. A common referee mistake here is to undersupply the PCs with information they need to evaluate or predict possible consequences of their actions. While one doesn't need to simply hand them everything they want to know without effort or cost, it's useful to explicitly ask them the critical factors they need to decide between courses of action, and then detail how they can obtain this information.

The strategic scope helps fix the details that feed into the tactical scope. It determines time pressures, goals, resources, allies and enemies - basically it generates the framework of the individual adventures.

The tactical scope really begins when the PCs make a decision that can't be undone without abandoning the goal. So, when they dock at the space station to investigate the SOS signal, or when they make the first move to steal the nuke snuffer from their rival, or whatever. Here we enter the traditional scope of play - usually involving a specific location or small set of locations, where the PCs describe their actions individually and shoot their lasers at enemies, etc. The tactical scope is where adventures happen.

In Traveller, much of the procedural generation material exists to support the strategic scope of play, rather than the tactical scope. I believe this is true of most sandbox games I'm familiar with. This doesn't mean the tactical scope is unimportant, but strong support for the strategic scope is a feature that we use to declare a game is a "sandbox" instead of some other type of play structure.

The part I want to back up to for a moment is that transition between the two, since I think this is the part that trips people up the most. It involves shifting gears between two different styles of play. Some examples of games that have both of these scopes in them and clearly demarcate them are Burning Empires, and Stars Without Number (especially the Darkness Visible supplement). I recommend checking either game out for more information, but I'm going to just mention them here rather than go into great detail about either one.

The demarcation point between strategic and tactical scopes of play is the choice that cannot be undone. This line of demarcation is taken from dramatic writing (a choice that cannot be undone is the transition point between acts of the story in film and plays, specifically). "Undone" doesn't mean the PCs can't leave the dungeon, fly away from the asteroid, whatever, but that they can't do so without some cost or risk that would not occur had they not engaged with it in the first place.

You can move as freely as one likes between the two scopes in actual play, so long as this line of distinction is maintained. If it isn't, you'll find people start getting confused about their options. It helps to call this out a bit in play, often by citing the obstacles to disengagement before the PCs fully commit. "Once you dock with the space station, it'll take a half-hour to disengage and break contact if there are any problems" or "If you go and talk to Murderous Marco and he offers you a job, you'll either have to take it or there will be trouble, regardless of how bad the terms he offers are."

This also helps in defining the scope of adventures. Knowing that the adventure proper must begin with a choice that cannot be undone, you can design your adventures to clearly begin with them, instead of just kind of drifting into suddenly having an adventure, which is a common mistake referees make as they try to manage the two scopes.

Jul 3, 2015

Running a Traveller Session

Natalie B. of How to Start a Revolution in 21 Days asked on G+:

"Who's run Traveller? Has anyone ever written about the procedures involved in running Traveller, a la what Sham's Grog n' Blog did for megadungeon play?

I have a pretty good handle on how to prep Traveller (I think) but a much less solid idea of what a typical Traveller session looks like, and what the engine of play is."

I think this is a great question, and while I gave her a very preliminary answer on G+, I thought I'd expand on it here. I'll be talking mainly about Mongoose Traveller, which is the version I'm most familiar with, and I'm going to stick to talking primarily about the corebook rather than all the supplements.

The core of Traveller is a resource management game, much like D&D. Money. time and opportunity are the player character's resources. The purpose of the ship mortgage and any other debt they acquire is to put a compelling time pressure on them and force them to prioritise, choose and pursue opportunities, which in turn get them the money they need to reset the timer. This is the core engine of play, and all the worldbuilding procedural stuff exists to flesh out these things in play.

To make this engine work, time needs to be tracked closely. Jumps take a week each, with a week of refueling between them in most cases. This means that in most cases, PCs have at most two weeks in a given system to make good on every opportunity available - less if they have to jump more than once or if they have to travel between the capital planet and the jump horizon. Depending on the referee, you may enforce that the PCs can only make payments on their ship in systems that have the complex credit arrangements necessary, meaning they have to spend time going back to these systems, intensifying the pressure on them.

Travelling itself imposes costs. There's fuel, crew costs, maintenance, and then any additional costs for dealing with danger, like buying weapons, repairing damage, etc. There's the costs of picking up trade goods if you're trading, there's port fees, there's taxes, etc. These costs should be concrete whenever possible. You want the PCs to see their bank accounts constantly ticking down, with occasional top-ups when they accomplish something. Usually, you want them to begrudge paying these, since it will drive further opportunities - smuggling; handovers in shifty, isolated locales far from local governments; taking occasionally foolish risks to squeeze out those last few credits or avoid handing them over to someone else.

The last piece is to generate more opportunities than the PCs can possibly ever accomplish, and then to make them either time-limited, or randomly occurring. This forces prioritisation. The most boring Traveller games are the ones where there's only one thing to be doing at any given moment. Opportunities should take different forms - mercenary tickets, booming markets, patrons with urgent requests, secret tip-offs and treasure maps, disasters, the locations of lost systems, illegal ancient alien technology, gold rushes, etc.

By altering variables of opportunities, the referee can influence PC behaviour quite strongly - if all roads lead to system X, then chances are the PCs are going to system X, whereas if everything goes in different, incompatible directions, the PCs are probably to pick either the safest or best paying option.

The last thing to bear in mind with this engine is determining how it faces the players. What information can they obtain before making decisions, and what's a gamble? How do PCs get this information? My experience personally is that the more information the better. The more factors the PCs have to account for, the more agonising any decision is. If you're going to leave a gap in their knowledge, then aim to either have it be to leave out a piece of information that will settle the decision either way for them, or that will drive them to want to acquire the answer.

Jun 18, 2015

Fast Crit Resolution in BRP

Calculating whether a particular roll is a critical success in Basic Roleplaying and its derivatives (Runequest, Openquest, etc.) is probably the most time consuming part of resolving a roll. Depending on the version, one needs to figure out what 10%, or sometimes 20%, of one's skill score is and then whether the roll comes under that number. While one can precalculate the number, the actual skill score frequently changes due to bonuses and penalties, which also change one's critical threshold.

I propose that adapting the method of resolving critical successes from the Harn system would allow one to resolve these rolls more rapidly. I'm surprised this hasn't become a core part of the BRP system's resolution. Harn's system is also percentile based, and you achieve critical successes 20% of the time, but the system can be easily adapted to the 10% threshold I prefer.

The rule:

If a roll succeeds, and the ones digit on the roll is a "5", the roll is a critical success.

This speeds things up by removing a process of calculation and replacing it with simple recognition. Choosing the "5" digit has the same effect as the already existing rounding rules for critical thresholds.

For a 20% critical success threshold, the two digits should be "5" and "0".

Jun 6, 2015

[Review] River of Heaven

The short version: Good system, badly edited, blah setting (mainly due to presentation). Mainly worth picking up if you're looking for the tools to run your own BRP or Openquest space setting.

River of Heaven is a frustrating book. The Basic Roleplaying lineage has a real shortage of solid science fiction implementations, especially if you're only counting ones in print or that aren't just Call of Cthulhu with spacesuit rules. So River of Heaven is really welcome for that reason. It uses the Openquest variant of BRP (one of my favourite versions of Basic Roleplaying), adapting a lot of the rules for firearms combat from the earlier Openquest setting-supplement The Company and adding spaceships / vehicles, bodily augmentation and a variety of biological types (genetically augmented humans, space-born humans, androids, etc.). Like all Openquest books, it's standalone, so you don't need a copy of the Openquest core rules to run River of Heaven games.

Though it has a particular setting associated with it (mostly detailed in the back of the book), you could easily adapt the system to your own science fiction campaign setting. In fact, my recommendation is to do so. If you wanted to pull out your old Mutant Chronicles books, this would be a good system to run games in that setting with.

The default setting is not terrible, but you get a lot of weirdly unplayable information about it, at the expense of interesting things to do. In general, the presentation veers towards physical details about the planets and stars, at the expense of the social geography, which is described only briefly for each one in longform text. I would rather know the capitals of the planet's polities than the metallicity of the star it orbits around, especially since the latter information is available on Wikipedia. The beginning of the major interstellar conflict that will eventually plunge humankind into a new dark age is briefly outlined in a planetary description that doesn't mark it out as particularly important or interesting (you will only realise it's the beginning of this conflict if you read two other parts of the book). This is not the only example of something being buried in a way that makes it hard to piece together.

The overall presentation of information leaves you grasping to pull it all together and make sense of the bigger picture or to get a clear idea of what your PCs could do that's particularly interesting.

The setting also has something that is purely a personal issue, and which may not bother you: A religion whose only religious doctrine appears to be "AI is bad" (the "Renouncers"). It's clearly a nod to Dune, one of the main influences on this game, along with Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space series. But it's a terrible science fictional trope, because it's unclear why anyone belongs to the religion. Why do they think AI is bad? Why are they a religion and not a political group? The Renouncers are set up to be major players in the setting, but we get only a few scraps of information. The cool alien villains that nearly wiped out humanity and that everyone is terrified by and the AI uplifters are also underdescribed, though at least one gets stats for two kinds of machine avatars.

The overall effect of the choices made about how to present this setting left me feeling unenthused about it. I don't think it's bad or stupid, it's just got an extremely weird focus about what information it wants to tell you about itself, and that focus doesn't sell it very well.

Production-wise, the book is both very pretty, and very, very badly edited, though there is at least one incomprehensible design choice. It's printed in full colour bleed, and the colour choices are well-made to improve readability (black text on a grey background). D101 books are almost always badly edited, but this is the worst one yet. Text is repeated both in headers, and most obviously, in the double-listing of PDAs in the equipment section. Some sentences, luckily mostly descriptive text rather than rules, are simply gibberish that look like half-finished rewrites. Tables have inconsistent spacing from the text around them. And in the combat section, several rules are just wrong or missing - the rules for double-tapping refer to hit locations (a thing the Openquest variant of BRP does not have) and there is no actual rule for determining how many shots in a burst hit the target despite the text telling you to roll to determine this. As well, it has the usual Openquest ambiguity about whether characters can dodge ranged attacks, with the dodging rules saying "No" unless they're hand-thrown, while various other spot rules mention doing so.

The incomprehensible design choice is to have five different sidebars on five different pages of the equipment section contain various sections of rambling in-character essay about tea (with a "Cont on pg. XX" at the end of each one). It looks like it was filler for various pages that had large tables on them and that couldn't fit a second table, but I'd rather just have had blank space, or at least a listing for tea in the "Food and Accommodation" table.

Like I said, it's a frustrating book. I do think there's a solid core here, especially with regard to the system, though the lack of editing gets in the way of it at times. It's worth picking up if you're looking for a BRP science fiction game and are willing to basically tear the system out and use it as a toolkit to run your own space adventures.

May 20, 2015

Class Remakes (Version 3)

I've continued to work on this project. Here's the most recent version.



Necrocarcerus rules that would be useful to know to interpret this document:

1) Swords and Wizardry Complete

2) My skill system is built off of Skills: The Middle Road, so PCs need to roll 5+ on a die type that escalates in size as their skill level does. Rolling the maximum result possible on the die not only succeeds, but accomplishes the task in the next smallest increment of time (weeks become days, days become hours, hours become turns, turns become rounds, etc.).

3) My grappling rules involve the opponents rolling and comparing their hit dice, with the higher winning.

4) Feats of Strength allows brief but superhuman feats of strength (jumping, lifting, throwing, etc.) if you roll high on a d6 (the die type does not escalate). The abilities listed in tables for the thief, ranger and monk use the same mechanic.

5) I flipped the numbers around to make rolling high always good.

6) I have a perception system where passive perception is equal to the # of party members, and active checks involve rolling a d6 and adding that to the passive perception score.

7) There are only two alignments in Necrocarcerus - Lawful and Chaotic.

8) When you drop to 0 HP, you begin rolling on a critical table. Only some of the results are likely to kill you, but your chance of getting one increases as you continue to take hits.

May 18, 2015

Class Remakes (Second Version)

Original class remakes post

The new version

After thinking it over, I decided to pare down the number of classes in Necrocarcerus 1.3, mostly by eliminating choices that no one has ever taken that come from external supplements, but also by eliminating the assassins. This means no more bards, no more dandies, no more spiritualists, and no more walking ghosts. I rewrote the barbarian class from Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque Compendium to be a berserker class similar to the fighter but with rage. I'll be keeping the four spellcasting classes - Elementalist, Necromancer, Vivimancer and Weirdomancer, from Theorems and Thaumaturgy.

In the new version, I've updated the ranger and monk classes based on feedback, removed the assassin class, redone the fighter, cleric and thief, and added the berserker class. In later versions of this, I'll add the magic user, paladin and druid (more or less unchanged, though reworded from the original rules to be more concise). The psionicist is basically done, but will be issued once I'm finally done my psionics supplement. In the meantime, I'm going to continue to use Courtney's Psionics supplement.

My goal here, once all the class rewrites / remakes are done, is to incorporate this into Necrocarcerus 1.3 to reduce the number of external supplements referenced and the number of conversions required from other systems, and to consolidate the various house rules applying to each class directly into its entry, rather than requiring PCs to jump between multiple documents.

As always, comments and feedback are welcome. These are still works in progress.