Monday, April 20, 2009

HelgaCon OD&D Postmortem

The last event at HelgaCon last weekend was my OD&D game (Original Edition Delta house rules), and I thought was a whole lot of fun to play through (the scenario is posted a few entries below). We played for 4 hours, and played through 7 encounters in that time (including PC generation, 1 TPK, a second round of PC generation, scenario reset, and a short lunch break). One thing I was really looking forward to is having a group of really sharp, deeply knowledgable gamers bang on my Original Edition Delta, and see what came out of it for gameplay implications. I'll have a post for detailed rules tweaks later on, for now here's the most major points.

What Went Right

1. Not Having Clerics. I love, love, love not having to deal with clerics in my game anymore. In some sense D&D finally feels "true" to me in a way that it never did before. I don't have to worry about gods, I don't have to worry about church hierarchies, I don't have to worry about Bible-themed spell lists distracting from the pulp-like fantasy, I don't have to watch auto-magical full healing over every day's rest. I had one player ask "What gods are there in this game?" and I was pleasantly surprised at what tumbled out of my mouth: "You don't know; it's a mystery." When was the last time you could say that in a game of D&D? And isn't that what magic, fantasy, and the occult are all really supposed to be about - a sense of wonder and mystery?

2. Combat Sequence. In OED I've got a fairly ironed-out combat sequence, in which everyone moves and attacks in order around the table. No attack-of-opportunity "interrupts", no add-on threats on spellcasting, no special charge mechanics, no individual initiative, etc. Importantly, the first round is no-movement, but any other attacks are permitted, which results in an initial phase of missile-fire and spellcasting, before the hand-to-hand fighters crash into melee. (Or occasionally melee is immediate, as we discovered, if attackers pop up right next to you.) This is unique and a bit surprising to players, but it was quickly processed, and again it feels "right" in the way I'd always imagined D&D, without ever seeing it happen in play before.

3. Weapon Rules. I've got a very short, lightweight set of modifiers for each class of weapons in OED (inspired, but massively pruned, from what appears in the Greyhawk supplement). I feel like it did exactly the job I wanted; it provided a morsel for thought for each weapon choice, quickly digested, and satisfying for all involved. It also gave rise to some "emergent behavior" with the following addition: The week before the game, I thought to establish that readying any new weapon takes a full round, with the exception of blades in a scabbard (dagger, sword, two-handed-sword), which can be drawn and used to attack in the same round.

Now, one of my superior players put this together with the no-move-in-1st-round rule (see above) and realized that it would be beneficial to carry a sheathed sword and dagger, and be able to draw-and-throw the dagger in the first round of each combat for free. Now, obviously, the dagger has minimal damage and a short range, and I don't think he ever actually scored a hit with it. But when I think about all the gymnastics that, say, 3E had to go through in an attempt to make knife-throwing viable (feat trees, prestige classes, etc.), this unexpected product of a few simple weapons rules made me very happy indeed.

What Went Wrong

1. Mutually-Assured-Sleep. Okay, so now you've got the sleep spell. When running OD&D I give everything a saving throw, which I thought would fix a lot of problems (see here, item #4; the no-save language didn't appear until Supplement I). The scenario I was running was for 3rd-level PCs, and the master villains were a cabal of 3rd-level witches (magic-users). Thus, almost everybody involved took sleep, which I didn't think would be that much of a problem, since it only affects 1d6 3rd-level figures, and it's also getting a saving throw.

But, to a large degree this turned into an exercise in sleep-fighting. Whoever got initiative (which was the witches, each time) would throw out a sleep spell. And every time I rolled the d6 for number affected (out of the 6 PCs in the game), it came up a "6" (afterwards I tested the die I was using, and it did pass the fairness test stipulated here). The saves are pretty tough at this level, too - while something like "death ray or poison" is given an easier saving throw, sleep just counts as regular "staves or spells" (about 25% success at this level); the first time this happened, the whole party failed their saves. Result: Instant TPK. (On top of all that, sleep also has a pretty long range of effect, as was noted by the later party trying to figure out some defense against it.)

Now, to a certain extent this was a perfect storm of unfortunate dice rolls for the party. In a second encounter, they were able to recover even when the sleep spell took down all but one of them (thanks to some fairly liberal waking-up rulings). But nontheless, it's pretty doubtful that a spell that everyone has to use (at this level, at least) is reasonably balanced.

So, what to do? Part of me wonders if I should instead use PCs of level 4+ for more "heroic" convention play (a lot like the classic tournament module range; and a lot like Arneson's very first campaign using Chainmail rules for "Heroes" as a basis). Perhaps I should rule that sleep uses the easier saves for "stone" or "polymorph/ paralyzation", since the effect largely resembles those (and that may be the easiest preliminary fix). The least desirable option would be to change the spell effect (level?) from the OD&D original source. Or, I could just decide not to worry about it and look at this particular game as a result of extreme dice rolls against the party. This one I truly don't know about.

Friday, April 17, 2009

HelgaCon Classic D&D Postmortem

The first weekend of April, I ran two events at HelgaCon: an OD&D game (Cave of the Unknown, by me), and an AD&D game (Tomb of Horrors, by Gygax). There's quite a bit of overlap in the experiences; here I'll recap the common features in Game Developer "Postmortem" format (not restricting myself to the 5/5 structure). One thing I've come around to is paying minute attention to the things that are even the smallest bit aggravating during play, and trying to make notes right afterwards as to what could be improved (which I also do when teaching college classes these days). And so:

What Went Right

1. Gridless Battlemap. Man, I love playing on a gridless battlemap. I got myself some big sheets of white vinyl at a fabric store, dirt cheap (actually my girlfriend did; thanks, hon). I made a plexiglass ruler with 10-ft marks so I can quickly draw out rooms as needed. This feels a lot more free-form and open, and stops players from counting squares for all their moves, as if it were a game of chess. At least one player comments that they liked seeing the free-hand cave drawings.

2. Shortcut Thief & Save Mechanics. In my OD&D house rules, I've got it documented that these mechanics all turn into the "Target 20" system: roll d20 + level + modifiers (Dex bonus for Thief skills; or special bonus by save type), 20 or more to succeed. No table lookups required. Allegedly I was trying to use standard AD&D rules for that stuff in the Tomb of Horrors game, but when the action started I just couldn't bear to look the stuff up, and so I reverted to this rule for the AD&D game, too, without planning to do so in advance. (As an aside, I'm supposed to assess some penalties for Thief/Wizard saves, but in the heat of the moment I totally forgot about those -- maybe that's a sign that they need to be snipped out entirely.)

3. Using Callers. This looks very archaic, and I got in some critical theoretical discussions about it beforehand, but it seems to work great in all my games. The short story is that there's a "leader" elected beforehand who calls direction when in exploratory mode (no 6-person debates at every intersection). When in encounter mode, then we go around the table in order for each person's actions (after the leader rolls group initiative). I really wouldn't want to do it otherwise.

What Went Wrong

1. Classic Modules Are Way Too Long for Conventions. This one aggravates me about how completely kuckleheaded I can be. It's been a few years now that I'd trot out a classic module at a one-time convention-style event, to share my love for the old stuff with newer players. Problem is, the classic modules are way, way too long to run in a 4-hour session or so. Even if they originated in tournament events in the 1970's, they were massively bulked up for publication, and intended for home campaign play over many weeks or months. It's kind of butt-stupid that I didn't react to the obvious problem with this until now (it's frustrating and unfulfilling for the players). In the future if I use classic modules at a convention I've got to prune them down to 7 to 9 key encounters (taking module A1, Slave Pits of the Undercity, as a canonical example). Furthermore, it would be nice if there were an identifiable "win" situation, to give closure to the adventure (and the antithesis of ongoing sandbox campaign play). I've already done this to module G1 as an exercise and I'm pretty happy with the result.

2. Need to Simplify Magic Item Generation. First of all, in my games we all make PCs from scratch as the game starts (no pregens), using DMG Appendix P (for both games). One problem I ran into is that the Appendix P magic item tables are a bit too complex for my taste; I had to be bent over a laptop and be crunching a whole slew of numbers in my head for about half an hour. In the future, I need to drop back to a simpler MM-p. 66 style method (straight 10%/level per category; level% for a +2 or more item, plus amount over 100%; pick any type you want).

3. Remember to Reveal Traps/Secrets Through Descriptive Play. I feel like I might need to be more liberal about giving bonuses or advantages to players searching for particular traps/ secrets in just the right place or way. When the action starts, I tend to forget about that, and slide back to just straight d6 rolls for everything. There's also this weird language in the DMG, distinguishing between "tapping for hollow spaces" versus "searching for an opening mechanism", and I'm not sure if that means the former is supposed to be automatic success all the time. (The example of play seems to contradict itself in different places.)

4. Put a Compass on the Damn Map. I feel like I obviously know the cardinal directions (NSEW), but as soon as the action starts and I'm narrating directions from a map, all of a sudden I'm uncertain about whether I'm describing East vs. West properly. I need to put a compass rose on all my dungeon maps in advance, for immediate visual reference.

5. Do 5-Counts for Actions. One way that I'm considered a "hard ass" is that when a player's turn comes up, they need to quickly call out a specific action for their PC (possibly with one single question about the situation around them; rules questions are frowned upon). If they don't, then I start giving them a count-down before moving on to the next player. This is ridiculously hair-splitting, but with 3E I got in the habit of using a 6-count (because rounds were 6 seconds). Now it just occurred to me that it would be easier to do a 5-count (say, 2 seconds each in my/Holmes OD&D), and display it on the fingers of one upheld hand. Ridiculously minor, but yes, I do think about these things.

Monday, April 13, 2009

On Avoiding Death

Death sucks. I think we've all seen players get bummed out when they lose a PC. Among other things, they have to sit out the game from that point (unless NPCs are available to run, or a new PC is rolled, etc.)

Most modern games include some kind of add-on mechanic to cushion the PCs from death that would naturally happen by the core mechanical rules. Maybe it's "action points" (see below) that make a killing shot simply not happen. Or maybe it's some kind of "death track" system where instead of being killed outright, you accrue disability points, or wounds that degrade your performance, or you're unconscious and bleeding, or you're incapacitated and making death saves, etc.

From the last several games that I've played in, I don't like these mechanics, and here's why: In short, they extend the pain and suffering instead of just getting it over with. As an associated example, let's take the hold person spell from D&D. In classic D&D, you'd get one saving throw to avoid the spell, otherwise you were paralyzed for several rounds (and subject to being automatically dispatched). With 3.5 D&D, this was changed to an every-round saving throw. The theory is that it's "no fun" to be paralyzed, and the save gives the player something to do each round.

Is it fun to just be forced to make a saving throw each round to avoid death? I'd say "hell no". Look, if I was just dead outright, then at least I could politely get up from the table and go do something else -- get some pizza, make coffee, watch another game in progress, make a new character, prep a different game, etc. The death/incapacitation would sting a bit, but I could immediately start getting over it. With all these games that have a "death track" or "action point" mechanic, I find myself getting on the short end of a fight (overpowered or crippled), and being kept chained to the unpleasant situation, having to roll my "death save" (or whatever) round after round after round, without having anything useful to add to the game. The dragged-out death cycle is a lot more painful than just being dead, period, and out of the game.

Let me again quote how Sid Meier phrased the essential nature of our hobby: "A good game is a series of interesting choices." (See here.) Now, is paying an action point to avoid a killing blow an "interesting choice"? Is a forced saving throw against death (while unconscious, paralyzed, bleeding, unable to act) any kind of choice at all? I'd definitely say "no". As soon as you get into a situation where the player has no practical choice to make about the character, they are as good as "dead" in the gameplay sense, and it would be most efficient to recognize that fact, get them out of the game, and on to something else with their time. (At least that's how I felt the last several times it happened to me. I almost wanted to say "no, I don't spend the action point, I just take the death", but felt that would be inconsiderate and come off as passive-aggressive).

Let me contrast this with the OD&D game I ran a week ago (more on that later). Party goes into a dungeon, deals with one trap, fights a bunch of monsters, then runs into a witch with a sleep spell. Everyone fails their saving throws, Bam, total party kill (TPK). Okay, so we all laugh at that and roll up new characters to send in after the first ones. Now, (a) we have a dramatic, pointed story to tell about the first band of adventurers who lost their lives in the deadly caves, and (b) no one spent time being incapacitated for an hour or two without being able to affect the action (under a misguided attempt to cushion the PCs from hideous death), and (c) we had enough time to make new characters, get a bite for lunch, and game out a second, entirely distinct story about the more successful adventurers that came later on.

Not surprisingly, the first place I ever saw a comment about how PCs might avoid death like this was in Gygax's AD&D DMG (p. 110): "You can rule that the player, instead of dying, is knocked unconscious, loses a limb, is blinded in one eye or invoke any reasonably severe penalty that still takes into account what the monster has done. It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for-player character when they have played well..." But how much fun is it really to play an unconscious or blinded PC? I would say not much at all (particularly in short games of the convention or tournament variety); perhaps even less fun (i.e., more frustrating) than a PC who is just plain... dead.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Action Point Checklist

Dear Madam or Sir:

Your role-playing game design features a mechanic for "Action Points" (otherwise known as Fate-, Fortune-, Hero-, Benefit-, Luck-, Karma-, Drama-, etc. Points). In your game, this is detrimental for all of the reasons that I've circled below.
  1. Your Action Points are purely abstract, and have no in-game reality to them; they require out-of-character thinking to use them.
  2. Your Action Points have a very long list of possible effects, that are difficult to remember in play.
  3. Your Action Points are advertised as "encouraging dramatic stunts", but are really better used defensively, to avoid villain success or being embarassed at simple tasks.
  4. Your Action Points require the players to anticipate where the "climax" of the story is.
  5. Your Action Points are being used to patch over otherwise unbalanced core game mechanics.
  6. Your Action Points for heroes are offset by the villains also having Action Points, and will be used to simply cancel each other out.
  7. Your Action Points are being used to enforce a pre-determined story, which is antithetical to the actual play of your game.
  8. Your Action Points have a mechanical complexity which is not worth the benefit they have on your game.
  9. Your Action Points require retroactive continuity (retcons; temporal backtracking) to adjudicate.
  10. Your Action Points can be spent and still fail at the action that is being attempted.
  11. Your Action Points are awarded by the GM for subjective things like humor or bravery, causing some players to feel that the game has become competitive or unfair.
  12. Your Action Points require additional die-rolls that break the pacing of the game.
Best regards,
Delta's D&D Hotspot

On Action Points

At HelgaCon last weekend, probably everyone got sick (or at least bemused) by my grousing about "Action Points" (a.ka. Fate, Fortune, Hero, or Benefit points, et. al.) by the end of the weekend. The first time I saw a mechanic like this was in the 1980's with TSR's Top Secret game (in the form of "Luck Points"); I knew calamity was near when they slid into 3E D&D's Unearthed Arcana product.

One problem with Action Points is that they're a purely abstract game mechanic, disconnected from any specific in-game activity, and that always rubs me the wrong way. When a player says "I spend an Action Point", it's an intrinsically out-of-character statement (again, there's no specific, concrete reality that the PC is manipulating with that choice). When you tell the story afterwards, what can you say about the use of an Action Point? There's simply no in-game reality attached to it. They are an attempt (see below) at a narrative story-telling device, not really a game-playing device (and longer than these games have existed, I've been in the philosophical camp that stories and games are opposite activities). Paradoxically, the story-telling device becomes invisible in the story that you try to tell later on.

Related to this is that Action Points always have a sizable list of effects that you can trigger with them. Partly because they are purely abstract, the list is hard to remember, and completely opaque to a new player. It causes a lot of book-referencing to recall what abstract effects Action Points can have. This abstraction requires players to memorize complicated, legalistic formulae to make use of them. For example, you can't just say "I attack twice" in d20; you have to say "I use Extra Effort; Category Surge: Extra Standard Action; and use an Action Point to offset the resulting Fatigue". (Ick.) Similarly, we had a game this weekend where, despite everyone's best attempts, we simply couldn't track down the correct ruling for death-avoiding point-usage until days after the game.

But more important than any of that is that Action Points don't meet the goal that they're intended to. The sales-pitch for Action Points is always "Action Points provide extra effort to allow truly heroic, breathtaking derring-do in the climax to a story". Well, first of all, as a player, I can never tell exactly where the climax is while I'm playing (again, that's a story-thing, not a game-thing; it's only recognizable afterwards, once the game is finished). Secondly, that's not how I ever witness action points being used -- rather, they're always used as a defensive risk-limitation device. They don't turn average results into great ones; they're really used to turn dramatic failures into regular-plain-average-results, either in the form of (a) avoiding a killing shot by a villain, or (b) avoiding an embarassing failed skill roll for something that should be simple. In actual play, a huge failure is more painful than any great result is helpful, and therefore, Action Points become a normalizing device that irons out dramatic moments into more plain-average moments. There's actually fewer points of intense interest to tell about a game with Action Points than without them (primarily, fewer dramatic setbacks for the players, and fewer amazing feats by the villains).

Let me say this: I'm pretty fond of the 1980's Marvel Super Heroes game by TSR, and it had a vaguely similar mechanic called "Karma Points" that never bothered me so much. Let's see if I can explain why: First, you had a pool of dozens or hundreds of points. Second, use of Karma for an action had to be declared before any dice were rolled for the action (unlike modern games). Third, the use of Karma made for an automatic success; you just had to spend as many points as required to make up the difference for success (subject to running out of points). Fourth, the mechanic for using them defensively was so massively sub-optimal that you'd never see it in play (again, unlike modern games). So the end result is that they would in fact get used proactively for big stunts that you really did have to succeed at in advance. (And they didn't requre temporal retconning a la you miss/now you hit, nor could you spend a point and still fail anyway). That said, I still wouldn't want the mechanic in my pulpy fantasy adventures.

There's some other problems with Action Points, that observant friends pointed out this weekend, that I wouldn't have identified. One would be using Action Points as a cushioning device for otherwise lazy, unbalanced game mechanics. A second would be the ridiculous back-and-forth when players can spend Action Points, and villains can cancel them with their own Action Points, to absolutely no consequence on the game itself (but plenty of out-of-character mechanical thrashing along the way). Those are all good points. But Action Points are most decidely not.

The Cave Of The Unknown

Here's the scenario that I ran this past weekend at HelgaCon for OD&D (Original Edition Delta). I plan on having posts in the future on some specific action, and comments on how well the rules worked (in general, I was extremely pleased). Nontheless, I wanted to post this today. Some readers may recognize the map being used...

Friday, April 3, 2009

Off to HelgaCon

I'm off on the NYC to Boston journey, for the annual weekend gaming event known as "HelgaCon". OD&D and AD&D (S1) will be run by yours truly. Will be back next week, have fun all.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

In The Gaps

Let's talk about what's not in my Original Edition Delta rules. Many of these items are likewise absent from OD&D, some I yanked due to personal preference. In the interest of brevity, I didn't address them one way or the other in the written document (below). However, the resulting gaps (compared to more recent versions of D&D) have significant and very deliberate effects on how the game runs.

1. No endless healing from clerics. Natural healing over time will be more prominent (and in accordance with pulp literary traditions). Magic potions should be conserved and kept unused when not immediately in danger. Poison, disease, and curses are still the primary dangers to epic heroes from myth and fable. (In addition, there is no absolute requirement to establish gods, mythologies, or particular religious institutions solely to support the cleric class.)

2. No special searching ability for thieves. (Exactly the same as the original Supplement I: Greyhawk.) This provides a balance of reasons for any PC to take the "point" searching position. Maybe the thief because he or she might remove certain obstacles; maybe the wizard for high Intelligence; maybe the fighter with high defense and hit points. (Also, there's no restriction on thieves' alignments, just to have one fewer unique thing to write down.)

3. No special risks to wizards casting spells in combat. Again, that's something lacking in the OD&D rules (and not seen until AD&D). Two points: (1) I think those rules are a great complication, and combat is enormously more elegant without the added regulations. (2) I want wizards to be significant, dangerous opponents, even within melee range. (Fighters should think twice before engaging them.) Granted their low defense and hit points, allowing them to cast spells freely even in melee seems like the minimum amount of balance required.

4. No magic resistance or spells without saving throws. Note that in the original white box there is no language about any spells avoiding saving throws (this only started to appear in Supplement I). Likewise, there is no mechanic for magic resistance (which appeared only for demons in Supplement III, presumably in response to the various non-save spells). I'll try to be witty here and point out that there's also no feat to reduce target magic resistance (which appeared in 3E as a further extension of the yes save - no save - yes save - no save arms race). At any rate, I apply a very simple adjudication for attack spells; they all get saves, including the old chestnuts sleep, magic missile, and the like. No need for added rule complications, no need for magic resistance, no intrinsic problem with completely unavoidable spells like sleep.

5. No bonus languages from race or Intelligence. This is something that, while present in all versions of D&D, I've never seen used by any of my players even once. It's been ever-present, unused clutter on all their character sheets, it slows down PC generation if assessed, and I think it's best to just avoid the whole issue. (Also, the Intelligence statistic is a fixed resource number, oddly dissimilar from all the other OD&D ability modifiers, which almost always affect some active die roll.) If one of my players ever wants to learn a new language, I'll just require some months with a native speaker, and then a 2-in-6 success roll (add Int bonus).

6. No prohibition against dwarf or halfling wizards. This last one is a work-in-progress, and I'm not sure where I'll take it or what the ramifications are, but it seems like another asymmetric restriction that I'd just rather not spend print space on. (Shh, don't tell my players yet.) I'm thinking I wouldn't mind Nordic-style dwarven runesmith-wizards, maybe with a unique list of starting spells. Or perhaps there's a cultural prohibition why they're not permitted to go freely adventuring.