Friday, August 28, 2015

Surprise! There is no surprise.

Back before the poker craze of the mid-2000's, when most players were terrible (and few games were legal), I steadily earned some extra cash playing low-limit hold'em at the nearest riverboat. Movies and television convey the impression that poker is a game of bluffing; but in weak games, against players who are always trying to spot a bluff, usually the best strategy was to play in a completely straightforward manner. If you have a weak hand, get out. If you have a winning hand, play it strong.

Today, I was thinking about building RPG adventures, and all the ways I could avoid the stereotypical, "find the artifact," "save the maiden," and "kill the boss" story lines. Some twists might include:
  • The boss isn't who you expected -- perhaps a puppet of someone the PC's once thought was friendly.
  • In recovering an artifact, the PC's have accidentally hastened a villain's evil plan.
  • The damsel in distress was killed long before the PC's arrived; and her captor, anticipating their arrival, has laid a trap.
Sometimes, it is important to keep things fresh and avoid the same old tropes. This might especially be true with groups comprised of veteran players. But for every plot that you feel needs twisting, there are twists that themselves are old news.

Here's the thing: I got into D&D when I was ten years old because I wanted to delve through winding tunnels, face deadly traps, and eventually rescue the princess. That's the initial appeal -- living vicariously through your pen-and-paper heroes. I didn't care to be misdirected or surprised; I craved the moment when my party would open that last door to find the big boss, laughing his evil laugh and daring us to vanquish him.

Throughout the 90's and 2000's, movies were all about the twist ending. TV shows would capture viewers by dropping enticing bombshells during the final moments of every episode -- particularly season finales. Now it seems that in telling a story, surprise is mandatory.

But not so. I was very disappointed at the ending of Saw, because the final twist ending seemed entirely unnecessary. We already were given a satisfying build and climax; it could have ended a few minutes early and been much better for it. Remember The Forgotten? It begins as what seems like a psychological thriller, but unfortunately shifts gears near the end, when suddenly it's about aliens. Let the Right One In, on the other hand, told a straightforward story with no shockers or surprise revelations, and it did not suffer in quality as a result. This is because there is more to a story than "the big reveal." There is pacing, mood, tension, and character development. Why do so many horror movies play well with audiences? Because in a horror film, a character suspects danger, deliberately walks right into it, and finds exactly what they feared they would.

Next time you build an adventure, try sticking with a completely predictable story, with no twists. You don't need a gimmick to keep players engaged. Instead, consider these devices:
  • Create a mood. If your adventure takes place in a crypt, make it spooky. Describe the gnarled, dead tree branches outside, and how the wind chills their bones. Don't just tell them they see the corpse of a previous adventurer laying near the open sarcophagus; tell them how it reeks so badly it puts a lump in their throats, and how the skin pulses with maggots. In the case of horror, the mood is fear. When it works, players will be on their guard. In another case, the mood might be heroism; the players will feel gung-ho. In another case, the mood might be suspicion; the players will lack trust of others. When the objective of the adventure is attained, the mood breaks, and all tension with it.
  • Make them hate the bad guy. I mean, really really hate him. What is it about Joffrey Baratheon that had fans sending hate mail to the actor who portrayed him? We have grown so accustomed to the sympathetic villain -- Once Upon a Time's Rumplestiltskin, Batman's The Joker, and so on, that we overlook the entertainment value of a purely unredeemable bad guy, the sort of character who never fails to impress you with how low they sink to achieve their ends (or maybe even for no purpose but sheer sadism) -- the characters you do not suddenly feel bad for when they are humbled or punished, because you know they still haven't learned a thing. These characters inspire fear and respect, because there is no way they survived as they are without power. They earn PCs' contempt by demonstrating a lack for respect of life, taking advantage of the poor and young, and placing others in danger to protect themselves. And the closer your party gets to a confrontation on the foe's home turf, the more adrenalin-soaked the final encounter.
  • Use the theme of an adventure to spook the party. If the final objective is to kill a vampire, have bats periodically rustle the air overhead. Place "decoy" sarcophagi in the crypt near the vampire's hidden coffin. Let them hear a wolf howl outside the window. In their early encounters, pit the characters against foes who might be the final boss at first glance: a pale-faced human familiar, a shadow, or a giant raven. "Things that go bump in the night" are a time-honored way of creating the impression that the villain can always be around the next corner.
In all the above cases, there need not be twist endings or surprise revelations. A simple plot in which PC's have a clear objective and there are no surprises on the way can still be interesting, as long as the journey is entertaining. For some modern gaming groups, the lack of a twist might itself be the twist. And if everyone has fun, who cares? As the GM, you're not there to impress people with your scheming; you're there to ensure the game runs smoothly, fairly, and in a manner that doesn't generally suck for anyone involved.

Dragon Magazine #10: Dark, Black, and Oriental?

Building Realistic Dungeons

Dragon issue 10 continues with an article by Richard Gilbert titled, "Let There Be a Method to Your Madness," which discusses logical dungeon design. Here are a couple of key statements from the article:
"To the peoples of your world, digging a dungeon out of solid rock is a tremendous task, one not to be undertaken lightly."
I have often thought this. If you're going to place a handful of kobolds into a finely carved network of tunnels, those tunnels better have been there long before they settled in, otherwise there should be hundreds of kobolds living there, with leaders, wives, shamans, children, etc. Your first question to ask is, "Who built this place, and how and why?" Gilbert reinforces this: "You, as the designer, must think like the builders when you design a dungeon...".
"Before you do anything with a dungeon, you should have specified where it will be located, what the surface area looks like, and what, in capsule form, its history is."
There are GM"s that don't do this? This is a no-brainer. Have in mind the origin of the structure, and a tasty description of the approach for your players.

Gilbert continues by leading us through the creation of a sample dungeon, remembering of course to include a paragraph on "love nests." Overall, his approach is recommendable: Imagine the original purpose of the structure, its history, and how it came into its current state.

One point at which I diverge is on the use of trap and maze rooms. In a quasi-medieval economy, who can afford to dedicate an entire section of their stronghold to frustrating intruders? Plus, I can't imagine wanting to live in a place where my own ability to move around is hindered by a giant puzzle. Here's my guideline when it comes to these matters:
If a temple, keep, or some other structure that guards valuable treasure contains life-threatening traps, the inhabitants of that structure must have had an easy way to bypass them.
Failure to provide a means for regular inhabitants to go to the bathroom or visit the kitchen to make a sandwich without threat of being sliced in half by a giant axe-headed pendulum is what I call the Tomb Raider Effect: the problem of a dungeon that is built only to kill visitors, but not shelter tenants.

Building Realistic Character Bodies?

If there's one thing I can say about First Edition AD&D, it's that its creators (and house-rulers) were obsessive about having a table for damn near everything. P.M. Crabaugh lives up to the statement with his contribution, "Weights & Measures, Physical Appearance and Why Males are Stronger than Females; in D&D." Here, he takes vital statistics, the part of character creation where we spend the least amount of time and effort, and combines it with encumbrance, the part of character creation which we loath dealing with the most. Riveting!

In a nutshell, Crabaugh provides tables for the generation of height and weight, based on species and gender. Tables like this are useful if you insist on randomizing the process. Personally, I don't see how picking your own stats could break the game. No GM has asked how tall my character was, or how heavy. Nor has hair and eye color come into play beyond the first introductions in session one of a campaign. You want a randomized system? Here, I'll make one up right now: Google average height and weight for your gender. Flip a coin: heads, you add, tails you subtract. Add or subtract 1d8 inches from height, 1d20 pounds from weight. 

Crabaugh makes all this data somewhat relevant by applying hit die and CON bonuses based on body mass, and then gets into carrying capacity. I know we can be tempted to make our games more realistic, since RPG's are, after all, simulations of reality; but such meticulous attention given to demographic and encumbrance stats seems unnecessary for anyone but the most annoyingly detail-oriented rules nerd.

Crabaugh closes the article with, you guessed it, more tables; although they do call attention to things I haven't thought much about, and might try to more often: voice pitch, handedness, "habitual expression," and complexion, which he unfortunately limits to (default-white?), dark, black, and oriental.

Gaining a New Experience Level

Tom Holsinger writes,
"Existing rules for D&D/EPT are very unclear concerning the mechanics of how a character gains the new abilities, hit points and whatnot upon reaching a new experience level. “At the end of an adventure” is about all they say."
 Okay, I'm with you so far. RP'ing level advancement is something we could do more of.
"What is needed is some sort of definite ritual that characters may undergo at any time once their total experience points qualify them for a higher experience level."
Well, "needed" is a strong word. Not a bad suggestion for some characters at some levels, though.

Holsinger then presents an elaborate ritual for gaining the favor of the gods, which grants the PC's their new level bonuses. As I said, handling level advancement in-game is an appealing idea. But here are two major problems I find in Holsinger's approach:

First, it requires gratuitous effort. By the rule of, erm, the rules, if a character has gained enough experience to level up, he has already earned the new bonuses. Spell casters should still observe whatever rules exist on purchasing or copying spells; but things like hit points and attack bonuses are automatic. Why subject the player to a session dedicated to activities that will only result in something that's already guaranteed?

Second, and more importantly, it's very meta. How does the PC know it's time to "level up?" After about the 7th or 8th iteration, wouldn't the routine seem suspiciously redundant? How does it affect society in the game setting? Knowing how often PC's and NPC's alike will be visiting "leveling" shrines, would local townspeople dress them up and turn them into tourist attractions? Might they start charging fees for access and booking months in advance?

I think a well-designed rules system already lays out the process for leveling up. Usually, it's automatic bonuses, except for new spells, which have to be learned or copied, often for a fee. Thieves' skills might involve some process. I prefer to keep it simple. I assume that most players, after leveling up a character, are too eager to get back into the fray to go on some mini-quest (with guaranteed success) to earn what they already earned.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Dragon Magazine #10: Random Monsters, Treasure XP, and...Orgies?

The Dragon issue #10 is one of the most useful and interesting ones I have encountered so far in the series. Because of the amount of content in the issue, this review is going to be a two-parter. I'll take the articles in order:

D&D Option: Orgies, Inc.

This article addresses the problem of PC's having accumulated too much loot. This may have been a concern in games where XP is awarded for treasure. The author, John Pickens, proposes a novel solution: award XP not for money earned, but for money spent.

I suppose this might be helpful if a DM truly wishes to encourage players to siphon off money, but I don't see "too much wealth" as a problem. If they have trouble carrying it, provide a bank or let them take it home and lock it up. If you don't like how quickly they're leveling up because of the size of the hoards they recover, then scale the treasure hoards down.

Pickens gives us five expenditure types that would qualify for XP awards: sacrifices, philanthropy, research, clan hoards, and yes, orgies. I was instantly reminded of the anti-D&D propaganda during the Satanic Panic of the 80's, in which claims were made that characters were rewarded for brutality, rape, and an assortment of other vile deeds. At the time, I thought such claims were baseless. But this article only serves to fan the flames. There's even a 1/3 page, full-color illustration of a goblin orgy! Even if a DM wishes to implement this system of XP rewards, the fifth option is purely gratuitous.

Designing for Unique Wilderness Encounters

Yet another random terrain generator. I don't see much value in tools like this. A DM with any amount of imagination should be able to create a logically consistent terrain map on the fly. But in case you don't wish to spend the mental effort, this system seems decent.

Random Monsters

Now here is an interesting concept. The article isn't about random encounters, but random monsters, as in monsters whose features are unique and randomly generated. The idea is reasonable at first glance; player knowledge can render many encounters mundane if you only stick to "normal" monsters. Why not throw them for a loop from time to time?

But I personally won't be using this system. While I believe a new creature can be useful when it fits the theme of the adventure, arbitrary use of a new creature seems illogical. I assume the monsters featured in whatever guide your system uses represent the gamut of your world's ecosystem. Anything new or unique should have a cause -- a mutation, an enchantment, etc.

Next time, I'll complete the overview of Dragon #10 with a look at dungeon design, encumbrance, and level advancement. In the meantime, you can find Dragon #10 on Ebay or purchase a collection of back issues on disk at Amazon.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Gumshoes s01e03, "Unchained" part 3

The first story arc in our fantasy detective campaign continues. Here's the summary of last night's session:
Day 2 of the Investigation.
Raenion returned to the group after being introduced to pickpocket turned informant, "Slide" Wells. 
Chief Goodchild introduced the team to a newly promoted detective named Walder James, then led a briefing and strategy session. They planned to visit the East Egaria Arcane Society, and pass a description of the victim and beast to Slide.
At the EEAS, the party met with Forwin Helbrand, a middle-aged man who holds a position of some authority there. Forwin recognized the sketch of the deceased as a former colleague, Emil Thornton, who left the society due to professional differences, likely pertaining to his penchant for animal mutation.
The team found Emil's address at the City Registrar and entered his home, only to find the usual amenities of a lone tenant, until Franky discovered a hidden passage to a cellar under the fireplace tool rack. Beneath, they located an office containing invoices, and beyond, a small menagerie of foul but mostly harmless beasts, including a (hardly) talking two foot-long salamander, a bird with a reptilian tail that breathes fire, and a cat.
The next session should be interesting. As events unfolded in the game, I realized there are some holes in my story. I need to tighten up a few details, and perhaps re-write the timeline to make it more climactic; and I have a week.

A Two-Handed Sword Does 5.5 Points of Damage

Two things -- a recent event in my family Labyrinth Lord game, and a train of thought that crossed my mind during this morning's breakfast -- led me to a realization about weapon damage.

I began running a Labyrinth Lord campaign with my son and wife as players, each controlling two characters. I'm aware it's generally a no-no to double up on characters, but it's working for us in our situation. Anyway, after two of the 1st-level PC's perished, the remaining two found themselves at the top of a deep cistern with a black pudding climbing after them. To my surprise, they had dispatched it in only a couple rounds by firing arrows at it, then hacking at it when it reached the top. Of course I profusely congratulated them on such a fortuitous success (my 7-year old echoed my excitement for the rest of the day), but something didn't seem right. Checking my sloppy handwritten session notes later, I realized that I accidentally was subtracting HP from another monster with half the hit dice.

I suppressed the urge to find a way to bring the balance of the universe back into order (Reduced XP for the remainder of the adventure? Send another one after them?). I knew one of the golden rules of gaming is, "The DM's ruling is final, even when it's a mistake." The pudding was declared dead, and that's that. So then I tried to imagine how I might justify the error: The HP was at least within the range of possibility; I could assume I had rolled five 1's and five 2's when generating the creature, however improbable. I could figure that, since the description of the monster differed a bit from the version in the rulebook, it was a some kind of weakened variant. Perhaps puddings get weak in their old age? Was it poisoned by sewage? One possibility, that had I more forethought I could have scaled its HP downward intentionally to balance the encounter, only briefly crossed my mind before I dismissed it as too "fudgey."

This morning, I was eating cereal at our kitchen table. My son's dice were resting on the table in front of me, and in boredom I began fiddling with them. As I slid a d10 next to a d4 I imagined explaining their purpose to a non-gamer:
"These represent the damage ranges of different weapons. For example, a dagger would inflict 1-4 points of damage. A halberd or something would naturally have the potential to inflict up to ten points."
"But they both do a mimimim of one?"
I am a big fan of the bell curve in die rolls. My Castles and Crusades campaign uses 3d6 instead of 1d20 for attacks and attribute checks, because the best and worst possible results shouldn't be as likely as results that are in-between. Likewise, why do we use single dice when figuring damage? Under the current system, a pole arm is 30% likely to deal less damage than a dagger's maximum. But if we used, say, 2d4 instead of 1d10, the probability of dealing 3 or fewer damage points lowers from 30% to 12%, while keeping the mean at 5. If you want to raise the maximum back to 10, make it 2d4+2. Now the mean rises to 7, which I'm sure most fighters would appreciate!

When I'm shopping for weapons and I see damage stats, my tendency is to be optimistic; and I'm guessing this is true for many players. We see "1d10" and our inner voices say "up to 10," instead of "average of 5.5".

In a single-die system, remember that you'll see as many minimums as you will maximums and averages. In fact, let's make it an eponymous aphorism:
Raymond's Law of Damage Dice: You are just as likely to roll a 1 as you are an average result, and it will never happen at a convenient time. 
 The reason you're attacking something is that it's trying to hurt you. There is never a good time to roll a one. But it will happen. And even if you wield a 1d10 weapon, you will roll that one 10% of the time.

How does this tie in with the Black Pudding anecdote? It has to do with scaling adventures. When stocking dungeons, why must a GM roll random HP for its inhabitants? Take advantage of the weakness in damage rules by manipulating monster HP to suit a party's strength at their worst. 

If a party carries no weapons with magical bonuses and an average strength mod of zero, lower monster HP toward its statistical minimum. The stronger the party, the more range you can allow in monster HP. This makes the most sense in low-level adventures, where a difference of one or two on a damage roll can mean life or death of a PC in one round. I generally don't advocate fudging results during combat, but at least you can level the playing field by ensuring that one-shot kills are equally likely for both PC's and their enemies. As PC levels increase, the variance in percentage of total HP lost in a single shot grows smaller.

And if you're a player, remember to guard yourself with a knowledge that you will roll 1's more often than you instinctively suspect.