10 April 2022

Hex Crawl pt.2

 In Hex Crawl pt. 1, I discussed the results of testing three different methods for determining the wilderness exploration experience for the hex crawl game I will be running. 

Aside from the method used to determine random encounters, I also want to have things like weather, adverse/beneficial events, site discovery, and foraging occur as well, all without the necessity of making several dice rolls and consulting an ever-increasing number of tables. 

The wilderness rules from Halberts & Helmets (hereafter referred to as "H&H") are simple and easy to use, but they don't help me with any of the exploration aspects I want to incorporate. The 17% chance of encountering anything (good or bad) limits their exclusive use as that would translate into days and days of travel with nothing happening unless I dictated (and I don't like doing that).

Moldvay/Cook B/X (hereafter referred to as "B/X") has more depth to the variety of encounters, but as presented they are "monster" encounters and so don't help with the exploration aspects, as well as proving to make travelling in the wilderness a near-certain death march for low-level characters.

I think the Traveller 5 flux mechanic can form the basis of the system I need. It can handle both beneficial and adverse results, and (good for me) serve as more of a narrative guide for a day's activity while exploring, all while making exceptional events less frequent (thus more memorable and potentially easier for my 1st level characters to deal with).

Using Flux

Rambling background

Before I outline the way I see flux working for me, I would like to explain a particular hang-up I have as a referee. I don't like dictating story beats, or guiding the narrative, or otherwise directing players. This has been my biggest hang-up when trying to run a game system like Numenera or other Cypher system games. I don't like the "GM intrusion" mechanic - it degrades the experience of what I would otherwise consider a great modern rules-light d20 system. I like to participate, as a player (of a different sort), rather than dictate. I prefer improvising when rolling randomly to determine an adverse or beneficial effect or situation, rather than trying to force a story beat or situation on players. I know, it doesn't really make sense in playing a game where I make stuff up for people. YMMV.

To use flux for my wilderness mechanic, I need to step away from details a bit and think more of the experience of a given day, as a whole. I have to direct things a bit more than I would normally prefer, but conversely I can tailor the individual day to exactly what the players are up to.

For example, presume the players have elected to spend a day foraging rather than travelling. In our game we've decided that players can forgo movement for a day, so that everyone can focus on gathering food or water or whatever. They have a base chance of 1 in 6 to gather 1D6 units of supplies), unless they are playing a thief in which case they have a 2 in 6 chance of gathering 1D6 units of supplies. The players can elect to do one roll for the entire group (using the highest skill), or break into smaller groups (each group using the highest skill), or even do it individually; it's all up to them to decide.

First, I have the players roll 1D6 - this is the "light" die in flux parlance. I likewise roll 1D6 (the "dark" die), and we determine flux. 

Example 1: Flux -1

(-1 to skill checks)

The players know today may not be a good day for this - maybe the weather is terrible, maybe someone is having digestive issues, or maybe their hearts are just not into it. Regardless of why, they know that their chances of success today are reduced. Only skilled characters (thieves) even have a chance.

Example 2: Flux +2

(+2 to skill checks)

Today is gorgeous - the weather is beautiful, everyone feels great, plants and animals are in abundance, even the water looks clearer. This is a great day to gather the supplies. 

Example 3: Flux -4

The players have had a restless night. There's been a lot of movement of some kind of creature or creatures in the area and maybe it's best to get out while they can, like all of the local wildlife (roll an appropriate encounter for the terrain). Or, someone is really sick from something they ate, and can't move. Or scavengers or vermin have eaten some of the party's supplies.

Example 4: Flux +5

Finding food or supplies presents no difficulty. Everyone can find whatever they need without making a check. In addition, one of the players has discovered a cave that holds the remnants of a couple of structures. They are solid enough that they can be treated as a safe area in the future. Investigating them might even yield some tools or artifacts from the ancient builders.

Example 5: Flux 0

Today is just a normal day for procuring food or supplies. No bonus or penalty applied. 

Summary

So, using flux in this way is less procedural than I would normally prefer, but I find myself excited by the potential of this during game play. I can apply the effects of a flux roll based on what the players decide to do, and they know up front what sort of day it looks to be. I can still use random tables to determine things like ruins or encounters, but I also have some flexibility in what to apply. We'll see how it goes!

Hexcrawl pt.1

 In a couple of weeks, if things go well, I will be running a hex crawl in a shared world with two other referees (Alex and Peter) who run dungeoncrawls.

Since we've already got two dungeon games, my wilderness game is not an intermission between travelling to new dungeons, it's about exploration. The starting area is largely unexplored - there is next to nothing known about the surrounding areas (I believe we're kind-of/sort-of using the Wilderlands of High Fantasy as a reference point, but we're located below map 18 so it is definitely a make it up as you go situation).

Background

Our shared game world is using a mix of Alex's Halberds and Helmets (hereafter referred to as "H&H", player rules(english and german) and referee rules) and original Moldvay/Cook B/X ("B/X"). I originally intended to run the hex crawl straight out of B/X, but I've had some difficulty reconciling that system with the style of game I will be running.

Our sessions are short - we have a two-hour time limit - and with three of us alternating on the same day of the week, we try to keep things simple enough so that people can jump right back in without a lot of recap or discussion.

Everyone picks a randomly generated character and hirelings from a list pre-generated list, and they all start at level 1

Alex has his own hex crawl rules in H&H, but they're a bit too "rules-light" for my needs; conversely, the B/X rules have some depth but are not overwhelming, but are either potentially amazingly deadly or a bit of a grind for higher-level characters. In addition, for either system I would need a separate method of determining whether players discover something - our world is being generated as it's explored, and I want to minimize the amount of content I hand-place on the map.

As all of the characters are level 1, I started thinking about how encounters would play out, so I simulated 14 day/night rolls using the H&H method, the B/X method, and using the Flux mechanic from Traveller 5. 

To make things even more challenging, there is no healing while travelling. Players can only recover hit points while in a settlement or other safe area. There are no clerics in H&H (they're just magic-users with a religious devotion), and no one is making or selling healing potions or concoctions.

I tested results by generating 14 day/night rolls and comparing the results from the H&H and B/X mechanics. For flux, the daylight roll was the light result, and the nighttime roll was the dark result. I did this test using the actual dice I will play with, not with a PRNG. I could've used the 2d6-7 method, which would've generated the same result.

Results

Halberts and Helmets

H&H uses one roll during the day and another during the night, with a table that varies by region. Using a clever mechanic, it can generate day or night encounters from the same table. The chance for encounters is a flat 1 in 6 for either time.

H&H generated 4 encounters across 14 days and nights. 

Moldvay/Cook B/X

B/X uses one check per day, unless the referee decides to do more. The chance for an encounter is determined by the local terrain, and there are tables and nested tables to determine the specifics of an encounter. I opted for a single check during daylight, and another for night.

B/X generated 5 encounters for the clear/grassland terrain (which in this game is not really present except around settlements); it generated 10 encounters for woods, river, desert, ocean, hills, or barren, and 14 (!) encounters for swamp, mountains, and jungle. Most of the terrain in the area fluctuates between woods/river and swamp, so that is a problematic result for a party of 1st level characters and their retainers, not to mention a *really* slow exploration game where the sessions are limited to two hours at a time.

T5 Flux

Flux is a simple mechanic - roll two differently-colored dice and subtract the darker color from the lighter. Alternatively, one may roll 2d6 and subtract 7. The result will be a number somewhere between -5 and +5, with a tendency for results to cluster near 0.

Flux generated 6 negative results (-1, -2, -2, -3, -3, -4),  6 positive results (1, 1, 1, 3, 3, 3), and 2 zero results.

Summary

To put it in game terms, using the H&H rules, and encounter would occur on the night of the 6th day, during the day on day 7, during the day on day 8, and on the night of the 13th day.

With the B/X rules and presuming the players stay away from swampy areas, they would have random encounters on the night of day 2, the night of day 4, the day of day 6, the day of day 10, the night of day 10, the day of day 11, the day of day 12, the night of day 12, and the day of day 13. Swampy areas would've been worse, with multiple day/night/day encounters.

That's just too many encounters for a game that takes place in 2-hour sessions, much less for a group of level 1 characters.

I think Flux will be a good fit for me and the game I want to run, but I'll have to explain why and how in the next post.


continue on to part 2

12 March 2022

Helmbarten und Halberts

 Alex Schroeder created a rules-light RPG loosely based on the principles of "classic" Traveller, the science fiction game - more specifically, the 1977 or 1981 versions of the so-called "little black books" with some inspired parts from the latest edition of Traveller. 

The German version of the game is called Helmbarten, and Peter Frölich and I helped translate that into the English version called Halberts. Four of us - Alex as referee, Peter, PresGas, and I - have been playtesting the included setting and the rules. Notes on our sessions and characters can be found here.

Unlike Paul Elliot's Mercator or Doc Grognard's Adventurer, Helmbarten is not a straight historical or fantasy adaptation of the original Traveller rules, and doesn't require having access to any of the Traveller books. Instead, it draws inspiration from what sets Traveller apart from other RPGs with origins from the same time - simple task resolution, easy character generation, and (perhaps the biggest difference of all) entirely front-loaded character advancement. 

It doesn't focus on, or even have rules for, gaining experience or item acquisition to increase character power during play - as a player you determine how much risk you want the character to undergo to continue to advance at the time of creation, and then you play that character.

To explain a bit: 

A character in Helmbarten doesn't advance in the fashion of D&D and the other RPGs inspired or derived from it. A Helmbarten character develops in 4-year blocks at the time of creation. At the end of each 4-year stint, the player determines if misfortune strikes the character, and (presuming the character hasn't died) determines if they want to continue in the same career for another 4 years, take a year off to attempt to switch careers, or simply begin adventuring at their current state of advancement. Increasing age and increasing likelihood of a stroke of misfortune are weighed against gaining new skills or increasing those the character already has, as well as the final material or social benefits the character will have once they start adventuring.

The lack of resource acquisition and management during play really makes Helmbarten play differently - you're not out to gain money or experience to improve your character's hit point total or gain the next feat, or learn new spells, and there's no tree of magic items to "climb" to ensure you have the proper power level or build. Your character's survivability (their three physical stats, combined) represent all of the "hit points" your character will ever have.

The default setting is a fantasy Alpine region with a Merovingian feel, but the framework for populating the game world and fleshing it out make it really easy to develop different settings. I myself am working on putting together a few "supplements" that are based around the Sea Peoples of the Mediterranean, an Avestan setting, and an ancient-era Fertile Crescent inspired setting.

As I mentioned earlier, the four of us have been playtesting.  I've become quite immersed in the setting, and I have particularly enjoyed the way the process of character creation generates a character and then gets out of the way of gameplay. No messing around with experience points or gold or consumable resource management - you just "run what you brung".

Our game sessions are short by modern conventions (roughly two hours every two weeks), and our "backstory" is comprised mainly of what we generated through random rolls on the career tables as we generated our characters, mixed with emergent backstory developing through our interactions with Alex's NPCs. It plays like it reads on paper -  a rules-light game system for a short series of adventures that everyone just has a lot of fun with. For me it's also been really immersive in ways I didn't expect.

Maybe it's related to the way that the character advancement is out of the picture once you've created a character. It could also be that I am playing with great players (Peter and PresGas), or that Alex is a fantastic referee, or that because our sessions are short we really focus on playing. It might be that this game really strikes on the key points of what I've always wanted from an RPG. I suspect it's all of that combined that has made this one of the most enjoyable games I've ever played in.

07 October 2021

Dilemma

I have a lot of posts on a variety topics in various stages of completion, but for the past several weeks I've been in the grip of a dilemma. I'm not sure I like this hobby any more.

This is a hard realization for me to come to. RPGs have been a hobby of mine, off and on, since 1981. 40 years of wasted time and effort, if this feeling is true for me. That is a lot of wasted time and effort - so much so that I don't even know how to count the cost. I'm in my early fifties - I don't think that I would have another 40 years to spend on anything, which makes the prospect of so much time and effort spent such an existential problem.

The root of my dissatisfaction comes from what I feel are the implicit acceptance of concepts that I abhor. It seems kind of silly, but I think that like many prevailing attitudes that are harmful to the development of our societies are so ingrained as to be invisible without a lot of introspection, games also have these harmful prevailing concepts or assumptions. Libertarianism, racial and gender-based stereotyping, cultural appropriation or stereotyping, the propensity of might-makes-right as the go-to or sometimes only solution to conflicts, and the list goes on and on. This hobby carries a lot of baggage, and while I've done my best (not always successfully) to try to keep that shit out of my games, I'm tired of it.

My partner, who is much smarter than I am, thought I should try to put what I want into words, and see if there are others who might feel the same way about some or all of what I'm thinking. It's a great idea, but the more I think on the subject, the less I feel that a) I can really put my dissatisfaction into words that would make sense to anyone else, and b) that there are likely many people who feel the same way as I do.

I suppose, to give my partner's idea a chance, I'd welcome the opportunity to discuss this with anyone else who also finds these sorts of things problematic.

09 June 2021

Worldbuilding in My Own Way

 This post will be a rambling thing, like my thinking. If you're happy with how you develop the history of the world in which your games are run, feel free to skip.

When I think of worldbuilding, I don't think of it in the way it is generally used now, with multi-page design documents that detail the history or even pre-history of a world, the great wars between spiritual planes, the rise of individual peoples, and so forth. What I think of the term is somewhat different, and of course to make my definition sensible, I have to provide some rambling, seemingly off-top thoughts.

Most game worlds now for virtually any tabletop engine are a libertarian's wet dream, in my opinion. Roads, food, money, items, rest and recuperation, etc. are all just present for whomever can afford them. They have sprung from nothing, whole-cloth, to be taken or used by whomever is best equipped to do so. No one made a magic item that is discovered - it has no secret or old purpose. It is just a magic item to fill out a loot table.

But these sorts of goods and services don't just exist. Someone had to make them, and there was a reason they came to be. Thinking of why these goods and services came to be, and the consequence of their existence, is what I mean about worldbuilding.

I don't want to even get started on the topic of money (for this post at least). 

Let's talk roads instead. Even in a civilization with modern heavy equipment, roads require an amazing expenditure of resources in many forms to bring into existence, and in pre-modern times the investment in labor would be even larger. 

For the idea of a road to come to mind, there has to be a need that will be addressed by the road's construction that isn't satisfied currently. A person or group with sufficient influence determines the need, and then sets in motion the process of procuring the resources and deploying them to build the road. 

There have to be resources available (foremost labor) to make the road, and of course there are resources associated with labor that also need to be addressed.

The road, in turn, makes civilization of the the areas near the road more likely, even if resources aren't optimal, as it makes travel over it just that much easier, thus making resources used for exploration or travel go a little further.

So, for an example of my thought processes, I will provide this hypothetical example of a multi-hex road network in an area of moderate population, with at least one ruin.

I'll use Caius Trismegistus (C3, as they refer to themselves), a historical magic-user of no modern note, as the prime mover. They are a three-souled revenant ruler of a frontier hex they've subjugated. A complex of ancient ruins was the main feature of the hex, and after C3 and their hirelings dealt with the inhabitants in the ruin and beat down the local wildlife, C3 has decided to use the location as the starting point of their own demesne.

C3 would like to:

  • a) convert the ruin they're currently using as their fortress into a stronghold proper, to serve as their residence and base of operations, 
  • b) establish a population to convert the resources of the area they control into goods or materials that other people might want, so they can 
  • c) accumulate goods, material, and people to protect the borders of their conquered territory and to purchase the necessary rare elements they need to continue their all-consuming magical research. Attracting a population will make it easier to gain more resources, and will also facilitate running the whole operation without needing to micro-manage the day-to-day affairs of their territory.
In order to facilitate the construction of their stronghold as well as bring in residents to convert the untapped resources of the hex they've conquered into usable goods and services, C3 knows they need to make travel and transport as reliable, safe, and expeditious as possible. To that end, a network of roads would seem to be the first order of business:
    • a road to the nearest trade port (Port Mud) two hexes away, where goods and people can be gathered or recruited to be brought along to the stronghold,
    • a road or roads to the nearest convenient (within 1 hex) locations for construction materials and resources to be used for payment or trade, and
    • a road to one or more areas (also within 1 hex) where food production in some form can be undertaken for the (hopefully) swelling population of the territory, and
    • other roads to other resources, as they are identified and as capital and labor permit.
C3 knows that any workers they recruit will want to be compensated for their labor. They have sufficient gems, precious metals, and other items from their decades of adventuring to bootstrap the project, but they know magical research requires the expenditure of tremendous resources and so acquisition of trade materials should actually be a high priority on the list. Otherwise, they'll have to spend decades more adventuring, thus delaying their magical research or perhaps even dying, thus setting the research back even longer.
C3 expends some resources to hire labor from Port Mud to hack a rudimentary road from Port Mud to the ruin, along with guards to keep the laborers safe, and provisions for both groups. Meanwhile, C3 also hires a prospector, who identifies an area that would be a great local source of limestone, and identifies a location for an opal mine. As the labor to establish a road goes on, month after month, C3 have been taking great care to be sure the remains of those killed in the process (as the area between their pacified hex and the port is still wild and dangerous) are "treated with the greatest respect", compensation is offered to the families, and proper local religious services observed. In fact, C3 have been collecting the remains to use as an additional labor team of restless dead (the creation of which is a spell they have mastered), though not within sight of any of their living hired hands. They use these tireless laborers to establish, if not roads, at least tracks to the quarry and the mine to ease the construction of more improved roads at a later time.

Years pass. The road network has been established, the Main Road (as it becomes known) to Port Mud has been improved with rest stops and watch stations, the stronghold constructed, and additional mines for gems and a massive petrified forest are established. The roads see use not just by C3 and their forces, but by explorers and traders in their own right, along with others who have brokered agreements with C3's agents for exploiting the mines and quarry themselves. A local population center never really takes off as locally-sourced food supplies never truly thrive, but C3 accumulates enough remains to create and maintain a massive restless dead labor force. Discrete inquiries find suitable individuals willing to oversee and control the local 'population' in the quarry and mines, and C3 can finally get down to the real work of research.

We don't know what became of C3's research - the passage of many generations has worn away the historical details as it has some of the constructions and improvements. All that is remembered in the port (now a city) of Mud is that the ruins further inland have been shunned for generations as a region where unholy (in the terms of the ascendant local religion) practices took place. Some limestone is still pulled from the quarry, and there are tales of opals and other treasure to be pulled from the ground. Still, the region is, while not a frontier, not heavily settled, and it can be dangerous. Trade roads to settlements beyond the immediate region still use some of the bones of C3's original road network; the old Main Road in particular has held up well over its long history.

Information on the past doings of C3 might be found as ledger entries for labor or sale of opals or petrified wood in a buried cache of fired tablets used for recordkeeping in C3's time, or the surveyor's report may survive forgotten in the ancestral shrine of one of his descendants, or in the records of the religion predominant at the time in the form of sacrifices made for the dead. And of course, there are still the ruins of a road network buried among roads leading to their settlements, leading to quarries, mines, and the ruin of a stronghold built among even older ruins of which literally nothing is known. In this more modern age where a hypothetical game would take place, perhaps there are even penny-dreadful stories about the Necromancer of the Badlands, inspired by bits and pieces of Caius Trismegistus' history that have survived as folklore.

I just wrote all of this as I went along, in a sort of stream of consciousness as I was thinking about this hypothetical location. One could write it up in more detail about the origins of the city of Mud or which civilization built the original ruins, what happened to those inhabitants, and so on, but I don't know that those details really add anything to the above. I feel there should be some things in a game that are just not discoverable. 

I think some local rumors of the sort dungeon-delving folks and gossips would be interested in, why there might be legions of restless dead milling around an old opal or petrified forest mine, why the region is shunned now, etc. are enough to get started. Details on the local geological strata, the population of the entire geographic region, or the history of the currently ruling Hegemon can wait for when those things become pertinent.

Another person might want to think of the research of Caius Trismegistus and the products (so many failed products, and some successful ones), or maybe another group has stumbled on the ruins (from another polity that came about as a result of a successful network of roads), and is even now making use of some of those products. 

I wouldn't want to add too much detail, though - information systems through history have been unreliable (as generous a term as I could apply) up until very recently. Specific, factual knowledge was not the priority of historians of the pre-modern eras - their work was aimed to either rehabilitate or slander historic personages, or to put forth concepts that were either in fashion, or that the writer wanted to be in fashion. Facts seem to be limited to financial transactions or religious observances, and were generally ignored outside of those spheres. While we're not playing a recreation of the Ancient Near East (I'm not but I would be interested - ping me), we're also not playing a recreation of modern society, and easy access to truthful information is as anachronistic as cars, electronic computation, or a fully developed global economy would be.

At the end of all of this, does it really make a difference how I came at it? I don't know, truth be told. I do find I am more satisfied with my own work if it is internally consistent and logical (for a value of logic that is applicable to a game with magic spells and creatures from other realities), and for me that means I start small and in the past, and work my way up and out. I try to think on how interpretations distort based on the political and religious climates in between, and how rare it is for true information to survive intact. I try to keep anachronisms out of my games where they don't fit, and this sort of process helps me with that.