Jan 8, 2018

The Disruptors' Plans

One of the great mysteries left to referees to decide on in Luther Arkwright campaigns is what the larger master plan of the Disruptors is. This is partly because the source material doesn't specify it, and partly so you can make it whatever you want it to be in your own campaigns. I did some thinking about it based on playing a bunch of Luther Arkwright and planning a bunch of one-shots, and wanted to lay out what I decided what I think makes sense in the sort of games I'm interested in running. The idea of all of the following is to give one ideas for Luther Arkwright plots that Valhalla agents can stop, in case that isn't apparent.

In broad strokes, I see the Disruptors are trying to collapse all of the infinite possibilities of the multiverse into one parallel, one where they are utterly triumphant and all-powerful. Once they have discovered this parallel, they will destroy all other parallels and become gods in the remaining universe.

To do this, they undertake several kinds of large-scale missions and campaigns.

1) Destroy parallels with a low-probability of becoming the "right" one, ideally after first harvesting all useful resources from them. This releases the psionic energy bound up in the parallel and distributes it back across the multiverse. These sorts of parallels are also probably the ones where they're doing their most strenuous and large-scale experimentation, like running genocidal eugenics programs on entire worlds to see if they can improve the rate at which psychics are born, or

2) Testing different historical developments to see which increases the probability of a parallel becoming their ideal-universe. This means both encouraging convergent developments that they know increase their possibility of success, while experimenting with new developments and new parallels to ensure they are not stuck in a local pseudo-stable maxima (that is, a course of development that seems to be progressing in the right direction but which ultimately turns out to plateau before success is reached).

3) Experimenting with the occasional high-risk, high-reward, parallel in case doing so pays off (parallels where aliens powerful to challenge them exist, parallels with lots of psionically-aware people, technologically advanced parallels sufficient to compete with them scientifically and militarily, etc.).

4) Infiltrating parallels where their enemies, potential competitors, or serious resistance to them is available, undermining the capacity of these forces to fight them by destabilising these parallels politically or otherwise, and eventually either destroying or isolating them from the multiverse.

To break these down further:

Destroying low-probability parallels

These operations first require an assessment of the situation culminating in an analysis of its probability of Disruptor success. After that, the Disruptors will attempt to strip the parallel of any useful resources, and neutralise or avoid any major threats to doing so. After that, the Disruptors must destroy the parallel, which means somehow causing the psionic energy that maintains its existence to disperse.

Dispersing the psionic energy can be done in a variety of ways. The first is to find some highly psionically active and powerful entity or object, perhaps a multiversal constant or a powerful spirit, and cause a psionic energy feedback loop that "explodes" the parallel. This might involve importing additional psionic energy from another parallel, or concentrating much of the psionic energy of a given parallel into a small area. The second option is to construct some device, or bring in some psionic entity, that will drain the parallel's psionic energy back into the multiverse. The device might operate according to impossible physical laws that the host parallel can't accommodate, or it might link two parallels and transfer the energy from one to the other. A third would be simply to kill every psionically active entity (every living thing) in a given parallel, and then simply wait for it to dissolve.

Utilising these parallels for the Disruptors probably falls into a couple of main methods. The first is grabbing or using any unique features of the parallel. Are there connections to more valuable parallels that can only be reached via this one? Technology from long-dead aliens? The second is running damaging and awful experiments. These are the sorts of parallels that are candidates for the Disruptors to use as vast eugenics farms to experiment with the birth rate of psionically active people, to test their most horrific and devastating weapons and tools on, and to examine the most dangerous unknown artifacts that they've recovered from the rest of the multiverse. The third is just straightforward economic exploitation - the enslavement of entire worlds to turn out the weapons of war for dominating the rest.

Valhalla is no doubt very interested in preserving these parallels, since they offer the least gain to the Disruptors' plans. Without the active interference of the Disruptors in exploiting and destroying them, these parallels get along just fine.

Converging and collapsing history

Boosting any given parallels chances of becoming the ideal-universe for the Disruptors probably take several forms. The first step is establishing whether the parallel is a good candidate for the ideal-universe. We know the Disruptors like powerful, hierarchical governments, preferably as few as possible, that they can take control of secretly. They also seem to prefer parallels where technological and scientific development can be made beholden to Disruptor influence. Worlds teeming with people, who produce a lot of psionic energy the Disruptors can utilise, are also ideal. The second is changing the world to better suit their needs. This means introducing various multiversal constants if they don't already exist, or aligning them with the ideal-form of each constant if they're slight deviations. It also means taking over the governments of the world. Chances are, the Disruptors also look for worlds with lots of psionic connections to other parallels that they can send psionic influence through. I figure there are probably "anchor" parallels that serve as the local node through which a series of parallels with minor deviations are connected (e.g. a bunch of worlds that are almost identical except for small quantum variations).

Once they have them under their control, the Disruptors are probably seeking to prevent them from deviating from developing into the ideal-universe. My basic assumption is that the Disruptors can't reliably see the future (except insofar as psionics allowed very limited precognition). So they don't know which one will pan out as the ideal, and have to constantly adjust and readjust their development in line with what they predict, but can't know, is the ideal course. Some will fail, of course - Valhalla or others will free them and drive the Disruptors out, asteroids will destroy others, and others will turn out to be pseudo-stable local maxima that will plateau rather than continue to develop into the ideal-universe.

I expect that ODIN, Valhalla's supercomputer, is pretty savvy to what these parallels look like, and can even guess how far along the Disruptors' plan is based on an in-depth study of its history. While these are the toughest nuts to crack, Valhalla gets the most gain when it manages to flip one of these from a high-probability parallel to a low-probability one, either by eliminating the Disruptors' control, or undermining their development and forcing them into pseudo-stable local maxima.

Experimenting with high-risk, high-reward parallels

These are parallels that are so unique or unusual that the chances of them becoming the ideal-universe are extremely low, but that can't be written off for all that. Worlds where the entire population is psionic, or powerful aliens friendly to the Disruptor cause are willing to trade unusual technology, or where technology is 10,000 years more advanced than our own world, or where some species other than humanity has dominated the planet. Depending on the multiversal savvy of the entities running these parallels and the resources they command, the Disruptors are probably more or less aggressive. Attacking an enemy who can chase you through the parallels with glowing clouds of mind force is stupid - trade or wary observation are more likely. On the other hand, even a galactic federation of energy beings can be conquered if you can simply retreat to another parallel and regroup safely whenever they start to make gains. Some worlds are also weird enough that the Disruptors probably have a small monitoring presence to continuously evaluate and nudge their development towards the ideal-universe, but little more.

This class also includes parallels like the one that Firefrost was found on, where the main interest is in some one thing that's super-powerful and is way more interesting and important than the rest of the parallel would be in its own right. In these cases, the Disruptors would only bother to get enough control to find and control that one thing, extract it to their home base, and then send a clean-up team to eliminate the parallel like any other low-probability parallel.

Some of these worlds will also be ones where a small group of Disruptors with a heterodox vision of the ideal-universe might be operating. You might have a small clique of knights and bishops who've taken control of a parallel (or at least a large part of it) and are using it to prove the superiority of their ideas versus the mainline Disruptor vision of development. If this parallel does well (by Disruptor standards) they'll be vindicated and rewarded, while if it deviates into a low-probability parallel or plateaus, they're liable to be punished for their heresy.

These are also the sorts of worlds that Valhalla is likely to send agents to for other reasons - trading with the aliens or super-intelligent chimpanzee empire, or whatever - who then stumble across Disruptor schemes. Or Valhalla agents might go on a variety of missions to deny the Disruptors whatever key resource they're drawing from this world.

Undermining the opposition

Parallels where the opposition to the Disruptors is organised and effective are no doubt their worst nightmare, with the absolute nadir for them being a parallel where the original aliens opposing them way back when succeeded without perishing. You probably see an escalation here, as the Disruptors go from identifying and analysing the opposition to adopting a plan to destroy them, and if that fails, seeking to destroy or isolate the parallel itself. 00-00-00, Valhalla's home parallel, is the most well-known of these in the Luther Arkwright universe, but we can assume there are others (heck, there's probably at least one more Valhalla out there).

Interestingly, it seems like a lot of parallels with alien contact and/or powerful psionics probably fall into this category. Disruptor control is probably highly contested, though they may have footprints in governments or other power centres that allow them to strike out at the opposition. In some of these worlds, the Disruptors will be trying to "flip" their enemies into allies, or at least neutralising them, perhaps by offering them resources they otherwise lack. In others, they may be trying to destabilise the mundane governments and institutions of the world to gin up chaos and destroy the support system that their opposition relies on to be effective.

Valhalla agents are no doubt assigned to get out there and form alliances with these groups, as well as to study their technologies and methods that make them so dangerous to the Disruptors. Once they are identified and alliances made, agents will no doubt have to occasionally go and help their allies fight off Disruptor plots to undermine or destroy their parallels.

Mixing and matching ideas from the above categories can help you put together a consistent and interesting set of Disruptor operations that either span several parallels or deeply engage with a single one.

Jan 4, 2018

2018 Plans for Improvement

I find people often discuss campaigns they want to run, or games they want to play when they talk about their gaming plans for an upcoming year, so I thought I'd take a bit of a different tack. This is because in 2018 I want to be a player in more games, and run fewer - hopefully just one one-shot this summer, and one campaign sometime later this year, both using Mythras, a system I know well.

I think it's useful to take stock of one's skill at adventure games every so often. I'm a strong and adaptable player who is in high demand for games both online and off, but I've identified a few areas for improvement in my skills as a referee, and I wanted to take a year or so to focus on improving them. As part of that, I'm reducing my anticipated commitments as a referee, sticking to settings and systems I know well, reading about how to do what I want to do better, and thinking through how and what to improve.

Some areas of improvement I've noticed:

1) I'm bad at maps (specifically, indoor maps of things like dungeons and small-scale maps like battlemats - I'm actually quite decent at overland maps). I need to think through my production process for them, develop expertise in the tools I use to produce them, clarify my presentation and deployment of them in play, and determine what I'm hoping to do by using them. I got a drawing tablet for Christmas that I think will help, and I'm going to practice my whiteboard mapping on grids, as specific activities. I specifically need to improve my ability to do so using electronic tools, since much of my existing skill is using offline tools.

2) I have an easier time describing very weird things than I do mundane things, especially a bunch of mundane things in sequence. This is true even when the mundane things are important and interesting (e.g. the mechanism of a trap, the layout of a room, or what a sword looks like). I need to reinscribe a lot of vocabulary I haven't used in a while into my working memory, and I need to figure out how to take better notes that aren't overwhelming or disorganised that allow me to reference them fluidly and quickly. I need to construct busier, more sensuous scenes for players to engage with and practice structuring the flow of information to them about these scenes.

3) I need to work on developing more compelling NPCs with longer arcs. Some of the people I plan to play with in the upcoming year enjoy strongly narrative games, something I haven't run in a few years, and I need to make sure my skills here haven't become rusty. This is particularly true of twists, surprises, and other unexpected developments, which I need to practice. I'm often able to cover for this via good world-building and interesting character quirks, but I've been moving in an anti-dramatic direction for some time, and I'd like to have the flexibility to shift between the two modes rather than getting locked into only one style.

4) My campaign management skills are OK, but could be better. I have a tendency to prep a lot at the start of a campaign and then fail to keep up, using improvisation to cover the holes. This is partly because a lot of the things I've run in the past five years have been "filler" campaigns for other people taking breaks from their own campaigns that tend to be extended unexpectedly. I've picked up some books on campaign management that I hope will help, and need to commit myself to using the planning tools that I know work for me but that I often slack on actually executing.

I do think overall that I'm a fairly solid referee who runs games that the players enjoy thoroughly, but I think resting on my laurels or becoming self-satisfied is liable to lead to decline rather than improvement. Despite my preference for being a player, I would rather be an excellent referee than merely a solid one.

Beyond improving my skills as a referee, I'd like to make progress on the following projects:

1) I've submitted a draft article to Courtney for his Megadungeon zine, and have a solid idea for at least one more article on a related topic that I'd like to publish this year in an upcoming issue.
2) I'd like to revise Into the Depths based on my experience playtesting it over the course of this past year, including providing more guidance around magic, refining the experience system, incorporating the gear listings, and possibly creating a small monster listing for it. Once that's done, I'd like to upload it to Drivethrurpg and make it available to a wider audience.
3) I'd like to finish my revision of the Openquest SRD, including completing the basic redesign required to run a science fiction game using it and write-up a campaign setting to go with that.
4) I'd like to make substantive progress on finishing the Dawnlands campaign setting for Mythras.

So those are my plans for 2018. I'll check back in at the end of the year to see how they've gone.

Dec 8, 2017

Reusing and Recursing Random Tables

I'm surprised people don't simply roll on random tables multiple times and then combine all of the results together when they're planning out dungeons or other adventure sites. Or maybe they do and simply don't talk about it much. As a low-prep referee who's often short on time, I do this pretty frequently and I find that it's actually more useful than just rolling once. The main thing to doing it successfully and in a way that actually eases the amount of work you have to do is to figure out the relations between the different results. Fortunately, we have the ubiquitous reaction roll table to assist in this.

For example, say you're repopulating a dungeon using a random encounter table. You're rolling to find out what monsters have moved into the depopulated area, and you're rolling a couple of times for each room for whatever reason (possibly because I suggested doing so in the linked post). You end up with 1d4 orcs and 2d8 slimes or something. Want to get an idea of why they're both in the room? Make a reaction roll. If the result is hostile then they're fighting, if it's friendly then they're allied (perhaps the orcs have tamed the slimes), etc. If you use the kind of random encounter table that I do, where you end up with a bunch of non-monster results most of the time, you can still use the reaction roll to figure things out.

e.g. Say you roll up a room with orc spoor and slime traces, and a reaction roll of hostility. Clearly, the orcs and slimes fought in this room, with one or more dead, slime-covered orcs in the corner. Neutral reaction? Clearly the orcs and slimes are not running into one another all that often - perhaps the slimes are active in the day, while the orcs come out at night? Or perhaps the slimes are eating the spoor the orcs leave behind - a half-dissolved boot or a leg of chicken stripped bare covered in goo would be a neat piece of garbage to find (it certainly beats the usual "wooden flinders").

This generates not only the encounters, but some of the dungeon trappings too (the truly lazy referee will of course, pull out the AD&D 1e and randomly generate the traces and spoor etc. that any given monster leaves behind by rolling on the bric-a-brac and weird smells tables).

If you recursively iterate a simple process like this often enough and record the results, the results eventually resemble a complex and dense set of relations between all the various pieces, even though chance is doing most of the work for you. Usually, you only have to do 2-4 recursions before it gets more complicated than most people can easily hold in their heads, which is also about the point that it starts to seem like a "world in motion".

I think many players of older adventure games or retroclones of them are probably familiar with the idea of doing something similar to this for treasure, where you calculate the total value of a treasure hoard and then roll for the percentage chance of magic items and other special treasures for various subdivisions (i.e. "5% chance of a magic sword for every 1,000 gp in the treasure hoard's total value"). But that's just a simple iteration of a process without recursion, and the relationships between the various treasure items is straightforward ( simple addition of the items to the hoard, or the replacement of a subdivision of the treasure by the special item), rather than recursive. The recursion comes about through generating and defining the relationships between the results.

If you're looking for a random table of possible relationships, especially if you are as lazy-busy as I am and wish to automate even this process, here's a random table of possible recursive relationships between multiple results on random tables:

1d4 Ontological Relationships between Randomly Generated Entries for Lazy DMs
1) Palimpsestic - The previous result is effaced except for a few traces (the slimes have eaten the orcs, only orc bones and treasure remain)
2) Additive - The previous result remains and the new result is simply added onto it (the slimes and the orcs are hanging out)
3) Combined - The new result and the previous result are combined into a single entity (the slimes are orc-shaped, or the orcs are covered in intelligent slimes)
4) Conditional - One or more of the results must be brought into the shared fiction via some trigger (the slimes are in jars, and if you're sloppy when you fight the orcs you will break them and release them)

You can apply recursion in all sorts of situations, not just encounter tables. Location generation is another good place to use it, with each result working as an archaeological layer of the building. Roll 1d4 for the number of archaeological layers in each sub-area, and then 1d4 for the number of significant digits separating each layer (i.e. a result of 4 is thousands of years between one use and another). This should also give you an idea of the relative time of construction.

Anyhow, as I said, I'm sure people are already doing things like this, I just thought I'd lay it out for anyone who hadn't thought of it, and to solicit suggestions from people who have even better versions of this sort of process that they're using.

Nov 29, 2017

Character Creation and Skills Extension in Openquest

I'm working on an extensive redo of Openquest based on the SRD / Developer's Kit. The final version will incorporate all of my house rules and preferences within the system. I'm going to present a few pieces of it in this post.

The first thing is a simple rationalisation of Openquest's skill selection system, which currently involves numerous sub-pools of points split across skill categories. Similarly to my Mythras Without Tears post, the alternative is to simply spend 250 points with one point = 1% of skill rating, with no more than 40 points allocated to a single skill. This is 25 more points than stock Openquest characters get, but the lack of sub-pools makes it simpler to distribute them. It also lets you spend an extra ten points per skill compared to stock Openquest.

The second thing is an expansion and revision of the skill list. I think there should be a few more social skills, and a few more skills covering outdoorsmanship. There are also a few skills that should be beefed up, clarified, or added to cover gaps. I'm also changing the base attributes of many skills.

Anything bolded on the list below is a new skill, anything italicised has changes in what it covers.

New Skill List

Athletics (DEX+CON)
Animal Handling (CHA+POW)
Close Combat (DEX+STR)
Craft (Job) (CON+INT)
Culture (Other) (INT)
Culture (Own) (INT+40)
Deception (DEX+INT)
Dodge (DEX+DEX)
Driving (DEX+INT)
Engineering (INT)
Healing (INT+POW)
Influence (CHA+CHA)
Insight (POW+POW)
Language (Other) (INT)
Language (Own) (INT+40)
Locale (Region) (INT)
Lore (Type) (INT)
Mechanisms (DEX+INT)
Might (SIZ+STR)
Natural Lore (INT+POW)
Oratory (CHA+POW)
Perception (INT+POW)
Performance (Type) (CHA)
Persistence (POW+POW)
Ranged Combat (DEX+INT)
Religion (Other) (INT)
Religion (Own) (INT+40)
Resilience (CON+SIZ)
Riding (DEX+POW)
Sailing (DEX+INT)
Sorcery Casting (INT)
Streetwise (CHA+POW)
Survival (CON+INT)
Track (INT+POW)

Trade (CHA+INT)
Unarmed Combat (DEX+STR)

On the new and changed skills:

Athletics now covers anything that is a sustained action - aerobic activity. Running, swimming, climbing, digging, marching, carrying heavy things, it covers anything where your progress is primarily dependent on your muscular endurance. Brute force now becomes the core of the Might skill. This is so you can have characters who are good runners, climbers, etc. but who aren't powerlifter types and vice versa.

Animal Handling is for dealing with animals, especially animals you don't ride, and is part of a larger break-up of Natural Lore, which in base Openquest is too broad a skill, and therefore almost always a must-have. It swaps in for Influence and Healing when you're doing those things to animals, and also is the skill that lets you train / tame animals.

Craft (Job) is probably the smallest change, simply making the varieties more apparent in the skill name (a constant source of confusion for new players in my experience). Its baseline uses CON as well as INT to represent patience and determination, which are more important to completing crafting tasks than a particularly deft hand or keen eye.

Culture (Other), Language (Other), Locale (Region), Lore (Type), and Religion (Other) all work using variations on the house rules I have for Mythras. So for every 20% rating (rounded up), you have in the skill, you get another speciality that your skill applies to.

Engineering, the skill Newt has threatened to remove from OQ at least once for lack of anyone taking it, gets a bit of a do-over in my version. Now, it applies to building or repairing any complex structure or device larger than a person (so fixing your wagon is Engineering). It also serves as the "dungeoneering" skill that lets you determine slopes and directions in enclosed spaces, provides an alternate way to detect secret doors and compartments (beyond Perception) and allows you to measure or estimate distances accurately. It also covers surveying the outdoors.

Influence now deals with social situations where the number of people involved is small enough you can have a conversation or discussion, with Oratory dealing with larger groups.

Insight is the skill for reading emotions, sussing out hidden motives and desires, determining if someone is lying, figuring out likes and dislikes of someone, seeing through disguises, and the like. You can also use it to investigate bureaucracies or hierarchies to find out who is responsible for what. You can also use it to oppose Influence or Oratory tests, representing seeing through the other person's motivations instead of just stubbornly resisting them with Persistence. This is another gap in the base version of Openquest.

Language (Other) requires one change from stock Openquest. In the original version, where there were multiple language skills, you became literate in a language when your skill rating exceeded 80%. One quirk of this system was that starting characters were never literate in more than one language. Obviously, that won't work in a system using specialities. Instead, I would recommend treating the written and spoken versions of a language as different specialities. I think this gets across the quirks of language acquisition in real life more accurately anyhow - one might read a language fluently but have only a rough idea of how to pronounce the words or carry on a conversation (the difference in being able to read Chinese characters versus being able to speak Mandarin or Cantonese is illustrative of this).

Locale (Region) covers your knowledge of places, including geography, landmarks, climate, foreign affairs, broad history, and important individuals. Lore (History) would get you a deep dive into say, the role of salt in the evolution of trade networks, Locale (Region) lets you know that the city you're outside of is a famous salt market, the name of the river it runs past, and who's in charge of that market and river. This is another gap that's sort-of capable of being filled using existing Lores, but not well and not easily.

Might covers sudden bursts of power, throwing things, and breaking stuff. Any task prioritising muscular power over endurance will probably fall under Might instead of Athletics.

Natural Lore is broken up with Track, Survival, and Animal Handling becoming separate skills. Natural Lore is an amazing skill in stock Openquest because it's got so many disparate uses. Now, it covers plant identification and herbalism; mineral identification and spotting avalanches, fault lines, quicksand, and other dangerous terrains; predicting the weather and navigating overland. I think it's still a bit of a grab bag and a very good skill, but less obviously a "must-have".

Oratory is another social skill, covering addressing large groups of individuals - basically, any group where it's too large for a conversation. Oratory also differs from Influence in that it can get individuals to act against their own instinct for self-preservation - people can get swept up in the "madness of crowds".

Performance (Type) is another minor change similar to Craft (Job). The original skill's wording makes it unclear if you become skilled in all arts or just one. This makes it clear that you learn one.

Streetwise almost goes through the reverse of what happened with breaking up Natural Lore. It still covers finding fences and other criminal contacts, but this is expanded to finding any sort of contact or service in cities, legitimate or not. It also becomes the urban equivalent of the Survival and Track skills, and it covers information gathering, gossiping and rumour-mongering to those ends.

Survival is the survival function of Natural Lore hived off into its own skill. It covers finding food, water, protection from the elements, and related tasks (e.g. identifying if water is safe to drink) while in the wilderness. Even on its own, it's a pretty great skill.

Track covers tracking and pursuing people based on physical traces, primarily in wilderness settings. It's another very useful subcomponent of Natural Lore that's broken off into its own skill.

On changes to the attributes used to calculate the base of skills:

I broke skills up into three groups for this purpose. There are three "cultural familiarity" skills that are INT +40 - average starting characters will have a base of about 53% in these skills before spending points. There are also a bunch of practical skills that are based off the sum of two attributes. Average starting characters will have baselines of between 21% and 23% in these skills. Most of the skills with specialities and a few other skills that I thought were similar enough to them start off with just INT (or, in a lone case off just CHA) as their basis, giving an average starting character a rating of about 13% before points are spent on improvements.

One of my main goals was to get rid of the STAT+10 skill baselines since I've always had trouble remembering which ones are STAT+10 and which are just STAT. Numerically, the option I've outlined will be almost identical to them for characters with average starting stats. Another important goal was to bring a couple of attributes that otherwise aren't represented in the skill system very well into it. CON, POW and SIZ in particular crop up more frequently - POW in nine skills (mostly representing perceptiveness, intuition, or personal presence), CON in four skills, and SIZ in two.

On potential expansions yet:

I'm debating expanding the skill list to a full 40 skills. The main candidates are to split navigation off as a separate skill from Natural Lore; to split stealth off as a separate skill from Deception; to create a separate acrobatics skill from Athletics covering balance, poise, tumbling and other aspects of trained kinesthetic skill and agility; and to create a skill specifically covering lies and social deception that's distinct from either Influence or Deception (which is more sleight of hand and larceny and the like). It's the last one I'm not decided on, and I'd be open to other suggestions.

Nov 14, 2017

Abolishing Arguments

I like to play crunchy systems: Mythras, later D&D editions, Shadowrun, etc. I often play in groups where there are widely different levels of familarity and skill at using these systems. I also play in groups where individuals have widely different levels of trust and standards of politeness. Such is life as an adult roleplayer in high demand.

One of the things I try to avoid in games I run are rules arguments. One of the things I try to contain are rules disputes. A dispute is a polite, though perhaps passionate, disagreement over some factual or interpretive matter that strives for consensus or persuasion. "I thought this rule means...?" is the kind of statement you find in disputes. Arguments are the other sort of disagreement, the one where positions rapidly become intractable, where accusations fly between people, where sophistry doesn't so much creep in as kick down the door screaming, and where people are striving to explain why they are right and the other person is wrong and should be ashamed of ever having believed differently.

The lines between the two can be unclear at times, but a clear sign that one is in an argument instead of a dispute is that no one is asking questions that aren't rhetorical or sophistic. Another clear sign is the "gotcha" where the fact that someone is changing their position is treated as an indication of weakness rather than the goal of the interaction in the first place. These aren't exhaustive signs, there are a myriad of ways of indicating that you're acting in bad faith towards someone else (constant repetition of the same points but louder each time is another).

I'm sure we all try to avoid these and conduct ourselves as respectable adults fulfilling our ethical and epistemic obligations to others, but that doesn't actually mean they don't occur from time to time. Rules in particular can provoke these since they exist as an intersubjective reference that defines how things work in the shared narrative of the game, and losing a rules argument can feel like one has lost agency and some level of control over one's (fictional) life. I am certainly not a pedestal here, if anything I am particularly temperamentally prone to disputes and arguments and thus am particularly concerned with how to proactively manage and control them from dominating situations.

In games that I run, I often appoint a "rules coordinator" whose job is to resolve simple rules questions. I usually pick the player who has the most expertise with the rules, rather than simply the loudest opinion on what they should be. In games with individual experience, this person gains bonus XP whenever they resolve a rules question that another PC has. If no rule exists, I make one up, take the time to write it down on a sheet of paper we can all review, and then go forward using that, with any further review or revision taking place in between sessions based on conversations with players. These methods help nip most arguments and disputes in the bud. But not all of them, of course.

For disputes, I think the important thing is to contain the dispute and resolve it fairly and quickly, ideally with as little intervention or attention paid to it as possible. Voting by the players sometimes works, but can actually drag things out more as many people will want to share their opinion and position, or express support for someone else before you can actually tabulate the votes. As well, it can sometimes turn a dispute into an argument if one player believes everyone else is mistaken and picking on them. So a simple incentive I use instead is to hand out bonus XP to to whoever proposes a mutually agreeable solution, and if no one can, to whoever concedes first. Not a lot of bonus XP, but just enough to mollify the conceding side. In fact, I'll often start at a low number and bid it up slightly over time if both sides are being intractable. This method should not be kept secret from the players, and frequent reminders may be necessary during the early phases of implementation.

Arguments are a little trickier. If someone is a vexatious and repeated arguer, the easiest answer may be to boot them, but I find the severity and difficulty of this (as well as the frequent presence of interpersonal complications) actually produce a perverse incentive, where no specific incident can be pointed to as sufficiently severe on its own, and so actually booting the person never happens. I hear lots of people saying that they would do it, but little evidence that people actually do it all that often. So less severe, easier-to-implement, and hopefully more effective? methods seem like a good idea as a first step. I also tend to prefer giving people a chance to correct their behaviour, tho' that's a personal tendency that I don't claim anyone else need to value as much as I do.

Therefore, what I will do in a group which has one or more individuals prone to argument, is to simply offer bonus XP for each session in which no one argues. This starts as a low amount, and if people argue, it increases next session, until it reaches a level where no one argues or I dissolve the group in frustration. If anyone gets into an argument with anyone else, everyone forfeits the bonus XP. People don't have to avoid voicing their opinions or disagreeing with one another respectfully (that makes it a dispute, subject to the above resolution methods), but if the exchange is in bad faith, that XP is gone for everyone. I'll often give someone a reminder or warning if it looks like they're about to veer into an argument in these situations.

This introduces a certain shame factor into their conduct for the arguer, without operating directly through the very points and positions being debated in the argument. It won't stop people all the time, but it does provide a mild incentive that can be invoked, and that doesn't require them to "lose face" (it instead positions them as magnanimously setting aside their righteous blah blah for the good of everyone).

I mention rules arguments here because they're something that specifically comes to mind, but the same techniques are broadly applicable to disputes and arguments over the progression of the shared fiction itself outside of the rules, with perhaps a few others that are unique to the kinds of problems that occur there. Anyhow, if one has a particularly argumentative group for whatever reason, I suggest experimenting with these methods to see if they work for you.

Nov 5, 2017

Some 3.5 Diviner Spell Ideas

A friend of mine is starting up an offline campaign using D&D 3.5, a system I haven't used for anything in nearly five years, but that I played from 2003-2009 pretty regularly, and only stopped playing completely in mid-2012. I'm going to be playing a diviner. If you've played much D&D 3.5 as a spellcaster (especially an arcane one), you probably know that divination is the smallest school with the biggest gaps in its capabilities, which means any smart diviner player should spend a bit of time in character on spell research. I can't find my old 3.5 notes (long since thrown out, I suspect), so here are some ideas I've had for spells over the years that I still remember. Some of them are slightly better than similar spells in the PHB II in particular (which had a bunch of really terrible divination spells in it) though nothing's a straight copy of anything I've seen anywhere else. A bunch of them are more useful for social stuff and roleplaying than for dungeon exploration per se. This list goes up to 5th level here, I'm still doing some thinking around higher-level divinations.

Cantrips (0th level):

Count - Medium range, 1 standard action, instant, V, S. Caster receives a count of all objects of a specified type within range. Does not reveal location or distance, only presence

The Time - Self range, 1 standard action, instant, V. The caster knows what time it is, using whatever measurement method is most meaningful to them.

Weatherman - Special, 1 standard action, instant, V, S. Caster knows what the natural weather will be like within a cylinder 1 mile in radius / level and centred on them, up to a number of days in the future equal to their level.

1st Level:

Calculate - Touch range, 1 standard action, instant, V, S. The caster touches a proposition or equation previously written down in a formal notation, and the correct answer or derivation appears below or beside it. The spell does not supply more information than was initially given - undefined variables remain variables, while supplying actual values produces an answer with the same.

Collapsing Favour - Medium range, 1 standard action, # of rounds = level, V, S, M. Designate a target (save allowed). Every missed attack on that target by the caster or their allies after the spell is cast grants a cumulative +1 insight bonus to hit and damage to all further attacks against it until it's hit by an attack. (e.g. one attack missed means +1, two missed attacks means +2, etc.) The material component is an albatross feather

Detect Life - Close range, 1 standard action, 1 round / level V, S, M.The caster can detect lifeforms of Tiny-size or larger within a 90-degree cone up to the range of the spell. By concentrating for one round, the caster can determine either number or the types, and may spend a second round to determine the other.

Flash of Insight - Self range, 1 standard action, instant, V. +10 insight bonus on one Knowledge check (even if not trained in it) or one Sense Motive check.

2nd Level:

Greatest Fear - Close range, 1 standard action, concentration, V, S. Spend 1 round to discover the greatest fear or concern a sentient creature has (save allowed). Can shift to a new creature each round, max # of creatures scanned = level.

Heart's Desire - Close range, 1 standard action, concentration V, S. Spend 1 round to discover the thing a sentient creature wants most (save allowed). Can shift to a new creature each round, max # of creatures scanned = level.

Liar's Tremble - Close range, 1 standard action, 1 turn per level, V, S, M. The caster asks the target one question (it may save) in a language it understands. It must either answer the question truthfully and correctly, or be dazed until the end of the spell. The question does not need to be one it can reasonably be expected to know the answer to. The material component is a

3rd Level:

Greater Flash of Insight - Self range, 1 standard action, instant, V. +20 insight bonus on any one Knowledge check (even if not trained in it) or one Sense Motive check.

Penetrating Vision - Close range, 1 standard action, concentration. The caster can see through inanimate objects within a 45-degree cone (magical objects may save). If more than one intervening barrier or object is within the area of effect, the caster may choose to "tune" the spell each round to only render some transparent, allowing them to read the pages of a closed book, examine the contents of a sealed chest, or book. Creatures may save to avoid having their personal equipment penetrated. Caster has line of sight but not necessarily line of effect to any creatures revealed, and the area revealed is not lit by the spell.

4th Level:

Darkvision, Mass - Touch, 1 standard action, 1 hour / level. The caster and up to 1 ally / per level that they touch when casting the spell has darkvision to 60' until the spell ends.

Decrypt - Touch, 1 full-round action, 1 page or inscription / level. The caster touches a piece of coded writing, and the text appears in their mind decoded. This spell does not translate the writing.

Retrocognition - Close range, 1 full-round action, concentration. [Scrying] The caster names a time in the past and receives a vision of what happened at their present location from that point forward, for as long as they concentrate, in real time. i.e. Concentrating for one round shows one round, concentrating for one turn shows one turn. Every minute watched requires a concentration check, starting at DC 10 and adding +5 for each additional minute that has passed. The vision includes auditory, olfactory, and visual components.

Psychometry - Touch, 1 full-round action, 1 question / level. The caster handles an inanimate object and is able to derive insight into its past. They may ask one question per caster level about the object's history (i.e. its place of creation, its age, or prior shapes it may have had), about the object's owners (i.e. how many it has had, who its last owner was, etc.) or about events it was directly involved in (i.e. a dagger about a murder it was used it). The answer to any given questions is either a short single sentence or a brief dreamy vision (DM's choice).

5th Level:

Analyse Material - Close range, 1 standard action, instant. The caster knows the composition and properties of the substance of any one object within range. This information is as detailed as the technical knowledge of the caster allows. A caster with knowledge of the periodic table would receive a molecular breakdown as part of their knowledge, while one with an Empedoclean conception of physics would understand it in those terms. The caster also learns whether the substance is poisonous, alive, magical (but not the details of the enchantment), radioactive, etc.

Architect's Bane - Long range, 1 full-round action, instant. The caster points at one building and receives a vision of its layout accurate enough to draw maps from. Only permanent physical features of the building (its walls, roof, fountains, etc.) are shown, not furniture or inhabitants. This knowledge includes secret doors and compartments. It will not show an area warded against divination, encased in 1" or more of lead, or any area containing an anti-magic shell.

Oct 12, 2017

Considerations from Playtesting Feuerberg

I've been running a Feuerberg game since this summer (June or July, I can't remember) using Into the Depths, basically playtesting pieces of it and generating material as I go. It's a fun campaign and the players are great. That's also why I haven't been posting a ton about it, since I don't want to "spoil" anything before my PCs get to it. Playtesting always makes such an important difference to a final product when done properly, and I love doing it for my own games and for others'.

What's been discovered after four months of play

Here are some insights I've had about the Feuerberg setting while playtesting it. None of this will affect my current campaign, it'll come into play with the next iteration.

One Mountain, Not Two

Feuerberg really needs to be compressed down into one mountain instead of two, though with a number of sub-peaks and ridges on that mountain. I originally split it up into two mountains (the titular Feuerberg and its smaller cousin Himmelberg) so as to space out the content and emphasise the feeling of wandering around a wilderness as they travelled the mountain, but I think this detracts from the megadungeon feel and makes it more of a constrained overland sandbox. A good megadungeon needs its spaces and subsections to relate and interact with one another. The two mountains break that up and create two separate zones without clear relations.

Here's a crude sketch of what I think the new, consolidated, Feuerberg will look like:

Definitely not giving up my day job to become an artist

More generally, I need to consolidate locations across the playspace. No need for two weird forests when one forest with the interesting elements of both would do. I'm still thinking through the details of how to do this, but one idea is to curve the mountain and its sub-peaks slightly so that it has one large valley in front of it that includes the areas PCs start in, and two smaller valleys behind it, each of which can have a distinct theme and feel.

Make Overland Travel Harder / Make Dungeon Travel More Attractive

Ultimately, I want PCs to go into the dungeon underneath Feuerberg and use it to move around as much as they clamber over the surface. But I've set it up so that it's relatively easy to traverse the mountains (except for the death zones near the top) with lots of interesting sites to visit there, whereas the dungeons underneath the mountain are relatively unexplored and unknown. There are multiple things that I need to do differently, but one is to make overland travel a smaller and more challenging part of the game, to encourage the PCs to use the dungeon to move around.

Part of the dynamic of play should involve the ability to see interesting locations aboveground, but to require at least some underground exploration to get to them. This means more sheer, difficult to climb cliffs with interesting things at the top of them. Currently, such barriers do exist at some points, but I mainly left them higher up the mountain so as to funnel PCs towards certain areas of interest in the end-game. These should be closer to the bottom.

Make it Easier to Access the Most Interesting Locations

Feuerberg has a bunch of really interesting locations that I, as a world-builder, think are visually compelling and have set up as sub-zones with extensive exploration opportunities. I realise now tho', that I've stuck them somewhat out of the way. I was hoping to lure exploration towards them, giving PCs a reason to cross more of the overland wilderness, but I think it will actually work better to push at least a few of them closer to the PCs' home base. It'll clarify major entrances to the megadungeon and give clear options for progress.

To do this, as well as in light of the reduction to a single mountain, I'm going to move the location of the town of Hoch, which serves as the base town for the PCs, so that the PCs don't have to march across most of the map to reach the areas that I'm most interested in them exploring. I'm also going to match up a few initial quests to each of these sub-zones more clearly to provide reasons for PCs to go immediately towards them.

Other Changes

I think I'm going to tie some of the factions a little more cleanly into the history of Feuerberg, but I can't go into the details right now both because I'm still figuring it out, and because I don't want to spoil anything for my PCs. I think I'm also going to push some factions deeper into the dungeon, and pull some slightly more towards the surface or closer to the starting area so that the PCs can encounter them more easily. I'm sure as I playtest things further more improvements will be discovered.