Sunday, July 21, 2013

Why Do We Roll Dice?

I think sometimes we lose sight of why we roll dice. What exactly is it about combat and other tasks that make them random? It is not simply that you have a 40% chance of success and therefore will hit four times out of ten. It is instead, chaos theory. There are too many variables involved in a system such as combat for a game to take them all into effect. Since neither players nor game masters know everything about the terrain, the weather, the manufacture of the arms and armor, the health of the two combatants, etc., it would be impossible to know if a breeze knocked an arrow off its course or if a sword found a weak spot in the armor. All these variables are represented by the dice. Random factors affect the success or failure of the attack. Why does this matter? I think it matters because it establishes a premise: The player does not know all the factors that are controlling his success or failure. The use of dice establishes this. So why do game masters insist on explaining to players all the modifiers that factor into their success or failure? I do it myself, sometimes. We’re trying to quickly do the math on an attack success and we walk through the modifiers. What I think is necessary is for the GM to sometimes say - your chance is X%. Why? I’m not going to tell you! Of course this upsets most players, especially the rules lawyers, but it’s meant to. Role-playing games are intended to have some mystery to them - that’s why you have a GM who knows all and players who don’t. We (as GMs) need to flaunt that a little more. Besides, if you can get them familiar with the idea that they will not always know the modifiers, then when you do need to keep something secret, you can slip it in far more easily. As a player, I use this idea as well. Let’s say I get lucky and hit three times in a row on a 40-50% chance of success. Role-playing, I will thank my deity, because clearly, that shouldn’t have happened, so it must have been divine intervention. Sometime other characters get upset about stuff like that. They are assuming that their characters fully understand not just physics, but the specific physics of that situation. The idea is ... well ... I’ll use the phrase foolish, because the words I want to use are not publishable. Yes, luck in and of itself is a factor, but how was it lucky? Did the attacker hit a pot hole and stumble? Is it really humid out and someone’s grip on their weapon was a little off, not enough to drop it, but enough to lessen the impact of the hit. I’m not suggesting you determine why every hit or miss occurred, just that you accept that sometimes factors that no one sees or senses still have an impact, and it’s OK for them to be secret.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Empire of Orcs

I’m often preaching about looking at things differently, and here is one of my best examples: orcs. In some other games, orcs are creatures that can easily be killed by the least adventurer with one sword hit. In Legend Quest, starter orcs can be some of the most dangerous combatants around, easily competing with low to mid-range adventurers. Then they start to use magic too, and things can really get out of hand. Here’s what I did in Fletnern (our free world which is available here and has a relatively new wiki here): When I first started using Fletnern, the orcs were the allies of the city-state of Garnock. Two warrior cultures, though different warrior cultures. Allied, but not that friendly. That really didn’t get me where I wanted to go because the orcs remained a nation of brutish tribes. As I matured, so did my orcs. The Wembic Empire (the orcish nation) had a military coup, as one would expect. The Vile Ones tribe was overthrown by the Crooked Sword tribe, and the Crooked Swords put their chief on the throne. Emperor Baratock is a true emperor. He can be the savage warrior or the diplomat, whichever is necessary. He loves to play games with visiting dignitaries. He’ll have one of his aides instruct them to approach his throne and kiss his feet, only to rise from his throne and lash the diplomat for forcing “such a trusted ally” to debase themselves. Of course, he’s just testing the diplomat to see how far they’ll go, and how they’ll react to his theater. One of his other tricks is that during banquets, he eats off dragon bone plates and uses “primitive” looking utensils, while his guests eat off fine porcelain and use silver and gold utensils and crystal goblets. In his mind, he is communicating that he is a hearty warrior, use to life’s difficulties and they are weakened by their finery. You don’t have to buy into it, but it shows his style of thinking. Baratock has recently “threatened” the merchant powerhouse Brinston. He sent a proclamation to the various business schools letting them know that his city was the world’s largest, his empire was the world’s largest, and thus his people were the best opportunity customers for any merchants in the world. To ignore this base of buying would be to their disadvantage. Not too shocking, but the old school merchants considered it a joke of some kind. The Council of Barons and their merchants have taken the threat to heart and having been moving product to the Wembic Empire for a decade. So how are these orcs different? Well, there are many tribes that make up the Wembic Empire. This allows me to choose anything from scavengers to pig farmers to mounted raiders to skilled miners to dragon riding super warriors when I need to put in some orcs. The various tribes have varying loyalties to the Crooked Swords. Emperor Baratock is working to break down the tribal power by forming military units of mixed tribes, something unheard of before. He feels that if he can break the power of the individual chiefs, the warriors will be more loyal to the emperor. He also has the money and power to foster alchemy and some other magical research. He also has over a million test subjects to test alchemicals on, just to see if they work. One of the fun parts is that Baratock has a harem of ~300 wives. Most of these are chieftains’ daughters held as hostages, but Baratock has fathered over 500 children. Having him interrupt diplomatic negotiations with comments like, “Do you have any daughters?” and “Are they pretty or are they solid?”, is always fun. Again, he’s just enjoying throwing these diplomats and negotiators off their game. The Wembic Nation is busting at the seams. They cannot grow enough food to feed everyone, though Baratock tries to disburse the food fairly to keep folks alive. Because of this, the Wembic Empire has been annexing human villages along its eastern border. Typically these villages agree to become part of the empire in order to gain something they need, often either coal or protection. The empire gets farmland and, in some cases, coastal access. Of course, the humans not in those villages assume that the villages were pressured or forced to join the empire and they want to liberate them, though taking on the Wembic Empire is a rather suicidal endeavor. This is going on too long, and I don’t know if I’ve made my point, so let me try to bang it home: With rules that allow for NPCs that are not overly simplistic and some development of their culture, I was able to develop orcs that are now a force to be reckoned with. I came up with how the tribes work (amongst the other tribes), which allowed for conflict and important differences. (For good ideas on different tribes, check out A Baker’s Dozen Tribes.) I came up with a couple of ideas on how their culture worked (such as widows being taken into the harem of the chief) and then watched how they played out on a grander scale. I have given them organization, but not trust. (Doesn’t that other game call them lawful evil?) I haven’t truly changed their nature, in fact many tribes are exactly what they have always been considered, but some tribes are much more. And I’ve developed enough individuals and individual tribes that I can write my court intrigues. All that was left was to think about was how the rest of the world would try to deal with this young nation. Follow these same steps with any race or culture: A couple of cultural differences, how will those play out. A couple of NPCs, how will they act or react. Boom! Something interesting. One last point: If you determine that because of some cultural difference a race is going to die out - let it happen. Either they need to adapt and change, or let them die out. You need to have failed cultures and ruins scattered around too.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Economics of Adventuring

I’ve always been cheap, both in real life and in games. One of my big issues is before one of my characters takes a potion, I start thinking - am I going to make enough on this mission to pay for replacing the potion? I know that’s not what it’s supposed to be about, but that’s what runs through my head. It does make me think - Are adventurers just stupid? Do they spend huge sums of money just to risk their lives? The pay is never very good, though the looting typically is. It’s my training, but I think of nearly everything as a business transaction - How much does it cost to adventure vs. how much do we get paid? I know - It’s a game. Blah blah blah, but it has to make sense, doesn’t it? If it costs you six healing potions worth 500sc each to survive a mission and you only get paid 300sc for it, then this job sucks! OK, you probably get some loot that may help compensate the loss, but there are missions where you’d wind up worse off than where you started. So what to do? Well, the easiest thing to do is ignore it and just go on. Probably better is to see it as a perverse form of gambling - You put your life on the line, and sometimes you lose, but sometimes you win big. The big time would be that massive magical sword or staff. Even though I see it as all business, I get that if it gets too business-like it won’t be fun anymore. One way I sometimes try to explain away the business aspects is to let the employer cover all the logistics. The employer helps pay to get you to the job, they supply the support which may include healing potions, and they may even help you fence the goods afterwards. Then at least some of the business side is handled. This is a quickie way to explain away the business side of things while at the same time not making the game into homework. I’ll never suggest spending all your time counting the copper coins, but I do think it is important to come up with a reasonable explanation as to why they would keep doing it, because typically the money won’t really justify it.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Cliff Hangers

Catching up on my pay TV series. Am I the only one who thinks HBO and Showtime are just soft porn 24 hours a day? Anyway- I thought, Should I use cliff hangers? Most of my gaming sessions end something like this: OK, you killed the big, nasty, evil guy at the end, you discovered the treasure and you head back to town. See you all next week and we’ll split up the treasure and figure out your training/use of character points. (With our point based system, character points are like experience and allow for the learning of new or improved skills.) But what if I started using cliff hangers? I’ve used them, though never intentionally: You open the door and see sixteen alchemically enhanced orcs ready to kill you. This fight will take way too long, so let’s call it for the night. I think they’d be more annoying than helpful. I’ve never really had to motivate my players to come back to play, so I guess I’ve never really needed to bait them. Plus, with schedules, someone always misses a session or two, so they’d be pretty disappointed that they got the lead up but not the climax. However, there is a reason that the TV shows and movie serials all used them. Along these lines - If you have never read Tarzan, do! It was written as a magazine serial and the action holds you! So this is less of a blog post and more of a request for information. Take it as a possible suggestion (try using cliff hangers at the end of the night’s gaming) if you want, but share if you know how well (or poorly) they work.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Fantasy Super Hero Campaign

I’ve talked about jumping genres all the time, but I haven’t given a good example yet, so here goes: Imagine that there are two brothers: an alchemist and an enchanter. Now they’re greedy SOBs, and they are always trying to find a better, cheaper way to make their stuff. They need adventurers to collect ingredients. So they send the party out to collect some alligator or crocodile stuff. They need it for some strength potions. So they pay the party and everyone is happy. Not only that, but the party has a means to buy magic. The gator hunting thing isn’t that extravagant. Not even memorable. Then after a while, people start getting killed. Huge bounty gets put on the killer, because he’s clearly using supernatural strength. You see, this guy was looking for an edge in some sport or competition, so he started buying up the cheap gator strength potions. Problem is that when you use them as often as this guy was, they have a tendency to turn you into - well, let’s call it a were-gator. As time goes on, the two brothers and their experiments start causing more troubles. They are enhancing other adventurers or gladiators. Some they use alchemy to help; others they use weird enchantments. Maybe they’re sealing demons into armor in order to grant the users magical abilities. Maybe they’re hiding the essence of eagles in flying potions. These seem like perfectly normal magic items, but the brothers are so greedy, that the items are unsafe and effectively creating monsters - monsters that the party then gets paid to put down. The brothers aren’t evil, just greedy. But the results are causing all sorts of problems. If you’re not coming up with tons of ideas, either you have never read a comic book, or you’re just not thinking about it right. Think of most of the comic villains you know. Now change their backgrounds into something more fantasy based. The psycho fell into a vat of alchemicals, not chemicals, and turned into a clown criminal. Criminal gets a new set of wings and instead of using them to fight monsters, he becomes a cat burglar, well, bird burglar. They built him a staff of lightning bolts, but it exploded when he used it and now he is the lightning bolt thrower. Maybe the magical item that the enchanter built for the party is now being used by a gang of bad guys. Maybe the local crime boss wants magic for his enforcers, and starts protecting the brothers. Now the stuff is really going to hit the fan, because he is evil, not just greedy. Well, he’s both. Come on- you can fill in the rest. Doesn’t sound too different, does it? Party of adventurers hunting monsters, though a lot of them happen to be in town. The monsters are a little different - not just orcs and goblins. Maybe the party will wind up accidently getting in on the mess too and find themselves with super powers or magical stuff that represents super powers. How does this help? Well, every comic book or comic book movie you ever saw is now the plot line to an adventure. Every comic book villain is a special monster, one that isn’t in the rule book, and therefore cannot be pre-known by the players. It’s all about having enough ideas - Ideas that are not in the rule book and cannot be easily figured out by our players adding to the mystery of the game.