Category Archives: Single-Post Rules Discussions

The Boardgame/RPG Hybrid

I’ve never liked one-shots. You so rarely get anything like a satisfying experience when you’re only playing a single session, and the lack of any long-term goals or consequences makes what experience there is feel lifeless. To me, the long term results of my actions are essential to my investment. Ergo, I tend to play in lengthier campaigns, or not at all.

This is a big part of the reason I’ve never been interested in the convention scene. I’ve attended one convention in my whole life, and don’t feel any desire to seek out another anytime soon. Online conventions, like ConTessa, are cool in theory, but since it’s all one-shots, it just doesn’t appeal to me.

Sometimes, though, because I’m a Nice Guy ™, I’ll endure a one-shot if a friend needs players. It’s good to support your friends, and so I do that, because I’m a good person. And so, last year, when a friend invited me to both of the two Anti-GenCon games he was running, I agreed to play.  One was going to be straight up D&D, and the other was a homebrew system he’d worked out based on the old Doom games. I signed up for both, fully expecting to be bored.

The first game, the D&D one, wound up like every other one-shot I’ve played in. It was dull, and forgettable. That’s  not a condemnation of my friend, it’s just an inescapable reality of how I react to the format. The second game, the homebrew, was whole different animal. It was fun. More than fun, playing it was the highlight of my week.

We were barely a half hour into play, and I was already excitedly making notes about little ways the game could be improved. In the back of my mind, I was wondering if my friend would be okay with me stealing his idea to write a game of my own. After the session ended, he and I talked for quite a while about how it went, and what could be done with the system. Since then, we’ve been working together to turn his 6 pages of homebrew into a complete game.

Spoiler alert: this post ends with me shilling a product to you. But, before we get to the boring advertising bullshit that I will hate myself for writing, I want to discuss what I think makes the game work. The spark of fun that was there even when the game with just 6 pages long, and made me enjoy a form of play I’d never enjoyed before.

Dungeons & Dragons, and its many variants, are built around the idea of a campaign. There’s nothing stopping you from playing one-shots. One-shots are a time honored tradition, as ancient as the game itself, but all of the game’s incentives are focused on long term play.  Why plunder the dungeon for gold, if you’ll never get to spend it? Why gain experience if you’ll never level up? Why shouldn’t you play recklessly and get yourself killed? It’s not as though you’ll ever get to play this character again anyway.

Perhaps I’d enjoy one-shots and convention games more if my character was persistent between them. Sorta like  how Flailsnails works. But, that’s beside the point.

Bubblegum Berzerk, which is the name we’ve settled on for our game, is built around the one-shot. There’s nothing stopping you from playing an extended campaign, but all of the game’s incentives are based on short-term play. Much of the moment-to-moment fun results from players making diegetic jokes, which the game rewards them for.  Instead of overcoming complex challenges and being rewarded for success, the challenges themselves are a reward in the form of a fulfilled power fantasy. Through play, players earn points, and when the game ends, those points determine who is the winner.

That’s why, very early in the game’s development, I started pushing the idea of the RPG / Board Game hybrid. The PCs are not characters, so much as they are playing pieces. Something taken out and played with, then put back into the box until next time you want to play. And when you do, it doesn’t matter if you play the same character again, or a new one. There’s no difference between those two concepts.

To boil the game down to basics: the players are a team of disposable action heroes. They’re trained from birth / cybernetically enhanced / warped through gene therapy / whatever other explanation for superhuman badassitude you can think of. They run around a map, and roll a d10 anytime they want to do something. If they wanna do something “kickass,” they gotta roll high, if they wanna do anything else, they gotta roll low. How high and how low change over the course of the game, so that it generally gets easier to do badass stuff, but more difficult to do basic stuff.

Most of the game is spent in a cycle of Running Around the Map -> Fighting Assholes -> Opening up new options -> repeat. It’s a simple cycle, within which the players are encouraged to be creative with Alpha Points, the game’s “score.” While the player with the most Alpha Points technically “wins,” the points and the winning are explicitly dumb useless goals. The only value the points have is whatever value the players imbue them with.

Alpha Points are earned in various ways, but the most notable to me is that players can get them by saying killer one-liners, or performing some super badass action that impresses the referee. To paraphrase something Zak Smith once said: normally, being funny is risky, because maybe nobody will laugh and then you’ll feel bad. This game is fun because it takes that stress away. You can try to be funny all you want, and if anything you say doesn’t get a laugh, it’s okay, because you were just playing the game. Making the attempt was expected of you.

At the time, Zak was talking about Cards Against Humanity, which is kinda fitting. I think there’s a sort of bizarre overlap between that game and Bubblegum Berserk. Not really a mechanical one, but I think the fun of the game comes from a similar place.

If I had set out to come up with a cool idea for a new game, this never would have been it. But I didn’t set out to come up with this idea. Instead, I just had a really fun experience, then tried to preserve and communicate that experience, so it could be shared by other people. Which, in retrospect, may be why I actually enjoy playing the game a lot more than running it: because my goal the whole time was to recreate the fun I had while playing.

As of now, writing is done on the game, art and proofreading are progressing at a good pace, and layout hopefully shouldn’t take too much longer after those things are done. I’m sure that once it’s out, I’ll be posting all of the place about it, annoying people, and making myself sick at how much of a sell out I’ve become. Sorry in advance for that.

But when I do it, you should totally spend some of your monies on the game. I sincerely think you’ll have a real good time playing it.

How to Keep Your Friends Alive When Everything Seems to Want Them Dead

Combat healing is a bullshit mechanic. Honestly, any healing that takes place during a session seems a little bullshitty to me. I don’t like to think of hit points in D&D like life bars in video games, going up and down constantly. Rather, hit points are like a character’s ability to hold their breath while diving. When the players are in a dangerous situation, hit points measure how long they can last there before they need to come up for air. (By which I mean, return to town, and rest up for their next delve).

Being low on hit points and having to choose between walking away or pressing onwards is an important experience. On the one hand, you’ve made it through this many rooms already, and treasure may be just around the corner…but you might die. On the other, you could return home and come back later fully refreshed, but the rooms might be restocked.

And yes, it could be argued that this situation still occurs when midsession healing is allowed. You’ve just gotta wait for the cleric to run out of healing spells. But that seems like a pointless complication to me. All you’re doing is delaying something that would happen anyway, and in the process, you’re burdening the party with spells and items, which take up spell and encumbrance slots. Those slots could be filled with more interesting options if the opportunity to heal from injury wasn’t so useful as to invalidate other spell/equipment choices.

All of that in exchange for essentially giving the players a communal pool of extra hit points. If all you want is for the players to last longer, why not just give them more HP to start with?

All that being said, I’m not against the idea of mid-session healing in theory. It’s the practice that annoys me. Healing potions and Cure Light Wounds spells are too reliable. You can pretty much always get your hands on them, easily keep them with you, and using them is always an unambiguously good choice.

Below are a bunch of healing and healing-adjacent mechanics that I think would be interesting to see in a game. I’ve avoided pinning any of these down into any specific means of conveyance. They could be turned into spells, or class abilities, or items, or purchasable services. At this point, what I want to do is come up with some interesting ways to replace healing. The vectors by which that healing is delivered can be worked out later.

As a small aside, several of these have been shamelessly lifted from the video game Atlas Reactor, which is why I used screenshots from that game for this post. I realize game mechanics can’t be copyrighted, but it does seem only fair to acknowledge my source.

Magic Shields, which act as temporary hit points for the target. So if I’ve got a shield on me with a rating of 5, and someone deals 6 damage, then the shield absorbs 5 of those, becomes dispelled, and now I take 1 damage.

I imagine the shields having a short duration. Something on the order of a single combat round, so that whomever is doling them out will want to be careful when they use it. It’s not something you cast on the fighter at the start of combat because they’ll get hit eventually. It’s something you save, until the fighter is surrounded by 12 goblins, and needs a little extra survivability for the coming round.

Healing is based on location, so that players must reach a place in order to heal. The simplest way to do this might be to have pools of healing water which exist in some places. I feel like a lot of older video games did this, and I always thought of it as a very video-gamey solution to the problem. But, the more I think about it, the more I think it actually fits D&D better than D&D’s native method does.

I particularly like how it fits into the “I’m almost dead” decision. Do you return to town, where you can rest and heal up in safety? Or, do you open just one more door, and hope it’s one of the places you can heal in.

The danger here is that once the party finds one of these healing locations, they can always return to it. But that could be solved by saying each person can only use the location once. And, of course, the locations can be as common or uncommon as the referee desires, based on the style of game they want to run, or on the individual area. (Ancient temples may offer more healing locations than vampire castles do, for example).

You could also make the location something very simple, but restrict it in other ways. For example, “While standing under moonlight, Dave can heal up to 30hp each month.”

Create a lifelink bond to your ally, so that some percentage of damage done to them is instead transferred to you. Something nice and even, like 25, 50, or 75%. This could last a single round, or until the bond is broken somehow.

I like the percentage approach because no incoming damage is actually being invalidated, the players are just shuffling it around to suit their needs. A character who is safely hidden away from the bad guys may end up dying through this transfer, and the character actually getting hit isn’t exactly safe either. They’re still taking hits, just fewer.

The way I imagine it, this would be done by a willing party member, to assist another party member. But, it might also be possible to force unwilling people to become damage sponges. It might make the players too overpowered to allow something like that, but their obviously evil acts could have interesting consequences.

One player tags a target in some way, perhaps by throwing a special goo onto them, or casting a spell on them, or something. If the tagged target takes any damage, then whomever dealt that damage is healed. Not necessarily at a rate of 1:1, that’s a little much.

Perhaps the amount of healing could be determined by the tagging method. If you hit the target with a level 1 tag, each successful hit against them will grant 1 healing. Level 2 tags could grant 2 healing, etc.

This would have the interesting side effect of allowing the tagger to direct the focused fire of the party. “Hey everybody, attack this guy!”

An ally is tagged in some way, similar to the above. Any damage they take during some period of time is recorded. Lets call it the “recording period,” and it could last anywhere from one to three combat rounds, I think. When the recording period ends, the damage taken is totalled up, and the tagged player gains Fast Healing 1.

Every combat round, they regain 1 hit point, until they’ve regained an amount equal to the amount they lost during the recording period.

Essentially, any damage taken during the recording period will be returned to the tagged player. But, it’s returned at such a slow rate that they may not survive long enough to get it all back.

An area of effect damage spell, which also grants a small amount of healing to allies as a side effect. Much like a fireball would harm a group of cultists, but would heal the fire element they summoned.

Of course, part of the challenge of casting area of effect spells is damaging the most enemies you can, while not damaging any of your allies. This flips the problem a bit. You don’t want to cast it on a group of allies, because you’ll lose out on the damage (which is much more substantial than the healing). But, you also do want to get the benefit of the healing, so you specifically wait for a good mix of friend and foe.

Cause an instrument of violence to become incapable of causing harm. For example, a sword may be tweaked so that it cannot stab, or the ground may be adjusted such that if a person fell onto that bit of ground, they wouldn’t take any falling damage.

So lets say you’re fighting a goblin. One player does whatever they need to do to “break” the goblin’s spear. They’ll probably make a few attacks with that spear, and some of those attacks will hit. It might take two, three, or even more hits before the goblin realizes their weapon has been nerf’d, (almost literally in this case), after which they pull out their dagger, which probably deals less damage.

Healing potions exist, but they are incredibly rare. The players will be lucky to find a handful over the course of the whole campaign. This robs healing potions of their reliability. You can’t always get them, and so they’re something to be saved. There’s a worry that if you use a potion, then you may not have it sometime in the future when you really need it.

Healing potions exist, but they are incredibly large and heavy. Like, instead of something you drink, a healing potion is something you bathe in, and must be carried around in a huge barrel, just for one dose.

This exacerbates the problem of healing items taking up encumbrance that could be spent on something more interesting. However, this healing item takes up so much encumbrance that it stops being useful enough to invalidate other equipment choices. When a player asks themselves: “Do I bring a healing potion, or three iron spikes?” they’d be a fool not to bring the potion. But if they have to choose between bringing the potion or all the rest of their equipment, that decision isn’t so easy.

I think if I went this route, players would immediately start hiring people to carry their potions for them, which is fine! That presents an interesting set of problems all its own. What happens when these potion porters die? Do you leave the potion behind? What about when you’re in a dangerous situation (when you’ll need a potion the most), and all your porters flee? How many people will really be willing to do the job of hauling huge barrels of potion in the a dungeon? It sounds like an unpleasant and dangerous job with shitty pay.

Healing potions exist, but they’re poisonous. There’s no risk of death (or hey, maybe there is?), but there’s a lot of ways a potion could harm a character, while still increasing their hit points.

Maybe potions cause mutations? Maybe they artificially age the player? Maybe they cause a person to go blind for an hour after drinking them, or make a person incredibly flatulent such that they attract more monsters? The possibilities for side effects are pretty much infinite.

It’s also worth asking: are the side effects guaranteed, or are players allowed to make a saving throw?

Basic Game Structure, & Hacking as an Involved Deviation

Zero Cool / Crash Override / Hackers With SunglassesAs I’ve discussed before, and will no doubt discuss again, the core mechanic of D&D is the Three Step Conversation. It starts with the referee describing the environment, followed by the player  describing how they interact with that environment, followed by the referee describing how the environment changes. Rinse and repeat until fun is achieved.

The Three Step Conversation is a powerful, versatile tool for making the game happen. But, like any core mechanic, it can’t cover every situation that will come up during play. That’s why we have subsystems and dice; deviations from the core mechanic that help resolve situations where conversation is not the best tool. There are basically two types of deviations: quick, and involved.

Skill checks are an example of a Quick Deviation. They handle problems that can’t effectively be solved by conversation, and aren’t interesting enough in themselves to waste any time on. Nobody wants to play a “foraging for food” minigame, so resolution is distilled down to a single die roll.

Which isn’t to say that foraging for food can’t be interesting. It totally can be, but within the context of a D&D game, it’s enough to know whether the foraging was a success or a failure. Spending any more time on it would distract from game’s focus. Rolling a single die skips straight to the interesting bit (success/failure), and gets us right back to the Three Step Conversation.

Combat is an example of an Involved Deviation. It’s a whole minigame, with its own rules, and choices for the players to make. It presents the player with a set of risk/reward choices (If I attack I can do damage, but I’ll put myself in danger of taking damage myself), which are mostly resolved with die rolls. Hopefully, any involved deviation will have a few key elements:

  • It’s fun.
  • It’s dangerous.
  • It’s quick enough that it doesn’t dominate the game session.
  • It’s possible to completely trivialize it with adequate planning.

All of which brings me around to Hacking. In ORWA, hacking is a quick deviation, handled with a single die roll. But, as the game moves into more of a cyberpunk / science fiction territory, I am curious about the possibility of making it an involved deviation. I’ve also been playing Shadowrun lately, which has got me thinking about that game’s rules (which are interesting, but also terrible).

All of this started with a conversation I had with my friend Frotz, who already wrote up his own thoughts based on that conversation. His ideas focus on making the system work within the Shadowrun framework, while I’m more interested in creating something modular that could work well in a more D&D style ruleset.

 

Basic Computer Design

The referee will design computer systems (sometimes improvising them on the spot if need be), just as they would for a monster. Each computer has three basic pieces of information: Security Rating, Access, and Network.

A computer’s security rating is a number between 2 and 5. It’s a measure of how well protected the computer is, and will need to be overcome each time the hacker wants to do something. It functions a little bit like a monster’s armor rating this way.

Access is an explicit list of important information and systems which can be reached from a given terminal. This might be something like “Mr. Badguy’s Emails,” “Blackmail gifs,” or “Automated turret control.” The list does not need to be exhaustive, it should only mention the items the referee feels are most notable. If the players try to find something that isn’t explicitly listed, the referee can either say yes, say no, or determine the answer by rolling a die.

Network is optional, and can mostly be handled by common sense. It’s just a way of determining which computers are connected to one another. So if you go into the big bad guy’s fortress, all the computers there might be on the BBG network. Or, if the referee wants to be clever, there may be multiple networks in the fortress.

Hacking

Hacking is done with a pool of d6s, because this whole idea started off as a mod for Shadowrun before I decided to make it modular.

Untrained characters have a pool of 2d6, whilst trained characters begin with a pool of 3d6, which increases periodically. (Either when skill points are put into it, or when a hacker character levels up, depending on how you want to use the system).

A hacking attempt is a complete success if two or more of the dice roll equal to, or above, the system’s security rating.

A hacking attempt is a partial success if only one die is equal to or above the security rating. In this event, the character’s action succeeds, but the system’s Alarm goes up by 1.

A hacking attempt is a failure if all the dice roll below the security rating, The character’s action fails, and the system’s alarm goes up by 1.

Alarm

Hacking isn’t just about getting what you want from a computer. It’s about getting what you want, and not getting caught while you’re getting it.

Each computer’s alarm begins at 0, which means nobody knows nothin’, and there ain’t any evidence for them to find if they go looking for it. Each time the hacker messes up whilst hacking, the alarm increases by 1. The higher the alarm gets, the more trouble the hacker is in.

  • 1. A minor flag. There are tons of false positives at this level every day. It’s unlikely anyone will ever notice unless they have some other reason to investigate a possible hacking.
  • 2. Yellow flag. At some point within the next day or so, security is going to make a thorough examination of the system, and realize it was hacked.
  • 3. Red Flag. The sysadmin will receive a phone call at home, and is going to remotely check on the system. They will realize it is being hacked within a few minutes, to a few hours, depending on how urgently they treat the call.
  • 4. Black Flag. A trace is made. The authorities are automatically contacted.

Actions

Logging into most computers will require passing a security check, and is required in order to perform any of the actions listed below. Once you’re in, though, passively viewing the terminal’s unsecured information can be done without any further checks. That includes stuff like company memos, and possibly some security cameras.

Of course there will be protected information that will require security checks to see. Security checks are also required for changing or downloading anything on the computer, or uploading something to it.

So if the hacker wants to help their companions sneak past a security camera, they’ll have to make one security check to access the computer, another to record 10 seconds of security camera footage, and a third to set the camera to play that 10 seconds over and over again on an endless loop.

If the Alarm is getting too high, and the player wants to try and lower it, they can do so. However, this requires a check made against a Security Rating of +1.

If the hacker wishes to access another computer on the same network, they may attempt to do so. Treat the new computer just as you would any new computer. The only difference is that the hacker is not physically present. Hacking across a network uses the target computer’s security rating, +1.

If the hacker would like to gain Root Access over a system, they’ll need to make a security check with four successes, instead of the usual two. There is no partial success for gaining Root Access. Once the players have that, they no longer need to make a security check for most actions they take on this computer, with only two exceptions: root access does not affect the chance of reducing the alarm rating, nor does it allow you to access any other computers on the network.

Equipment

Deck – A set of portable tools, necessary if you want to try to hack without getting access to a terminal. With a deck, a hacker can break in to devices like ATMs directly, or splice into a network cable to create their own terminal in a secluded location. The downside, of course, is that most hacking attempts have a +1 to their difficulty when made without direct access to the machine. Decks are an encumbering item.

Script – Scripts are digital items that are both expensive, and consumable. They’re most useful when hacking with a deck, where they can be used without needing to upload them first (which, of course, requires a security check).

If a script is available, it can be used to reroll one die per action. If the rerolled die comes up a 1, then the computer’s auto-patching function has discovered the exploit your script was using, and closed it. The script is now useless.

My Players Captured Some Scientists

Donatello Does Machines, D&D ScientistsRecently, my players assaulted the stronghold of some high level dudes. These dudes were traitors to The Internet, which is a secret society of technowizards, who keep their knowledge of science and technology hidden from the masses. When these traitorous dudes left, they absconded with some technology, and so I figured it would make sense for them to also have absconded with some low level science guys.

As the players were hacking and slashing their way through this stronghold, they came across a number of these scientists, and decided to tie them up and leave them in the relative safety of an empty meeting room. Their intent was to drag these scientists back to their own stronghold, which has left me to wonder: what can players do with a cadre of scientists?

I imagine ORWA as the adult version of a saturday morning science fiction cartoon. So, what are scientists for in a saturday-morning context?

They exist to solve problems, usually by making cool stuff. Ergo, that’s what scientists in ORWA will do.

In order for scientists to function properly, they must have a fully outfitted lab to work in. A lab costs 2,000cc for each scientist it supports. So, if you have a 10,000cc lab, and you have 6 scientists, you can only gain the benefits of 5 of them. You’ll need to add on to the lab before that 6th scientist can contribute.

Once they’ve got a lab to work in, players may assign their scientists a project. They can work on any idea that seems to make sense, but the most attractive projects will probably involve inventing a new device, or improving upon an old device. In either case, the project should feel like a single step forward, and the referee is entitled to reject anything too ambitious. If the game is set in a world where the most advanced form of transport is the horse and buggy, scientists won’t be able to make an intergalactic space ship. But they may be able to develop a Model T.

After the players have decided what they want their scientists to work on, the referee must decide on a cost, and a difficulty.

Costs will vary, but should be pretty high. In fiction terms, science is expensive, with lots of custom, high-precision tools and materials involved. In game terms, the ability to advance the technology of the game world should be a strain on player resources. It’s something for high level players to pool their effort on.

Difficulty is based on how complex the referee thinks the problem will be to solve, and determines how long it will be before the project is completed. A good baseline for most projects would be a difficulty of 100. Particularly simple or complex projects may modify this up or down.

When the project is begun, the scientists will begin chipping away at the problem. Each haven turn, the difficulty number will be reduced by the number of scientists working on the project. So, if your difficulty is 100, and you’ve got 9 scientists, then after 1 haven turn the difficulty will be reduced to 91. After two haven turns, it’s down to 82, and so on, and so forth. Once the difficulty reaches 0, the project is done, and the results will be made available to the players.

The referee should assign it a price to any new technologies. The players get a free prototype for funding the project, but any extras they want will need to be purchased. As the game goes on, new technologies will probably begin to spread through the game world, unless the players make a specific effort to keep their inventions secret.

During the long game-months that the project is being worked on, the referee can figure out how the new technology will work. Basically, we’re talking about a Wish here. The players have free reign to ask for whatever they want, and it’s up for to the referee to interpret that in an interesting way.

However, contrary to my views on how a wish should be handled, I think referees should flex their “omnipotent dickhole” muscles here. Fuck with the players a bit by making their new technology work differently than they intended. That may sound hypocritical of me, but there are two major difference between scientists and wishes which make all the difference.

First, wishes are limited. Players are usually lucky to get just a few in their adventuring careers. It’s something special, and the referee shouldn’t take it away from them. Scientists, on the other hand, are an inexhaustible resource. As soon as they’re done with one technology, you can have them moving on to the next one.

Second, when players make a wish, it’s often about altering themselves in some way. If they wish for cool claw hands, and you give them crab claws that make them incapable of holding anything, then their character is basically ruined. With technology, if they ask for a death ray and you give them a weapon that kills whoever uses it, then they can just choose not use it. Or, they can try to find some way to make it useful. Or, if they really don’t like it, they can just set their scientists to the problem of fixing it, and eventually get what they want.

So every new technology will have some significant drawbacks to it. Limitations that make it less useful than the players were maybe hoping for, but still a good tool if they’re willing to get creative, or take some risks. If they try to make a teleporter, for example, don’t give them something that always teleports people into deep space. But maybe the teleporter is bad at reassembling faces, so every time you use it, you lose 1 charisma.

Then, if the players don’t like it, they can immediately hand the device right back to the scientists, and insist that whatever flaw upsets them be corrected. This, of course, will require a new cost, a new difficulty number, and a new countdown of haven turns before the device is ready.

In the end, my players decided to make an alliance with the big bad guys whose citadel they were invading. Part of the negotiations involved returning all the scientists they’d captured. Which is kind of a bummer, because I’d already come up with this whole subsystem that I was getting really excited about.

So now I’ve gotta stuff some scientists into the treasure chests of my next dungeon, or something.

Making Languages Relevant

Loading Ready Run ForeverDoes anybody actually use language mechanics? I suppose there must be some not-insignificant number of people who do. There wouldn’t be so many games that include languages if nobody was using them. But the people using them sure aren’t playing with me. I can’t recall the last time I encountered an NPC who only spoke some specific non-common language. Occasionally I’ve encountered non-common inscriptions or writings. Usually, though, those seem to be intended as set dressing, rather than as something meant to have an impact on the game. That’s a poor justification for having a language skill.

It makes sense. Both why we have languages in the game, and why nobody uses them. Language barriers are intrinsic to the sort of genre fiction a lot of us have in mind when we play D&D. But games and fiction are different things. In a game sense, language barriers don’t work out to be very fun for anybody.

For players, encountering a language you don’t know generally means you’re going to miss out on information that is helpful, but not strictly necessary to move forward. You could waste time finding a translator, or you could waste a spell slot carrying around “Comprehend Languages,” but usually there’s an easier way around the problem.

For the referee, why bother doing anything in any language other than common? If your players do speak Elvish, then the only benefits from adding anything Elvish to the game are:
1. Atmosphere, and
2. to validate the usefulness of speaking Elvish.
On the flip side of things, if none of your players speak Elvish, you’ve either got to put work into making something interesting that they’ll probably never see, or you’ve got to validate their apathy by making something trivial.

None of which is to say that languages can’t work in their current form. I realize that the above criticisms are an oversimplification. But I do think it’s a reasonable assessment of how languages work in practice. So instead of modifying the way we play to accommodate the rules system, I thought I’d take a shot at modifying the rules system to accommodate the way we (I?) play. I have two proposals.

The first is to divide languages into two groups. There are the languages of the common folk, and the languages of the uncommon folk.

Common folk are any species that has a widespread, peaceful presence in the game world. In a standard fantasy setting that’d be stuff like elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, humans, and so on. Every single member of all of these races speak Common. There will never be any language barrier to talking with them. However, everybody prefers to speak in their native languages when possible. If you meet a dwarf, and you speak to them in the dwarf tongue, it will be taken as a sign of respect. Speaking to a member of a common race that is not your own in their native tongue grants a +1 bonus on reaction rolls and social actions.

The uncommon folk are the sorts of things that aren’t part of normal society. The creatures your players don’t normally talk to. Oozes, Dragons, Beholders, Orcs, Goblins, etc. These creatures only speak their native tongues. So if you want to parley with them, you’ll need to speak it as well.

Using this system, knowing a commonplace language grants the player a significant, logical benefit, without requiring that the referee change the way they prepare their game in the slightest. Meanwhile, knowing an uncommon language ‘unlocks’ the ability to speak with a whole group of monsters. There’s no need to make an individual orc particularly interesting to make knowing Orcish worthwhile. The very fact that you can talk to any orc ever at all is the interesting thing.

Alternatively, language could be used as a kind of fence. A way to keep your players penned into an easy to manage area without being too heavy handed. After all, this is pretty much how language works in the real world.

Ya see, here they speak English. You can undersatand what everybody is saying. Because of that, you can function effectively in this part of the world. If you go too far to the east, then everybody will speak French. You don’t speak French, so you won’t be able to understand anybody in that area. You can go there if you want, but it’s unlikely anybody will want to hire you, and even if they do you’ll have a hard time understanding what they want. Probably easiest just to stay within these English-speaking hexes here.

If you were to use language this way you’d probably want to alter the language system to be more limited. I’d start players off speaking only their native language. They could spend X amount of time and gold to learn a new language, thus allowing them to go to a territory which speaks that language without difficulty. (Not to mention giving me some lead-time to prepare interesting stuff to go there).

Thoughts?

Facilitating a Jailbreak

This is one situations in which I wouldn't recommend the Socratic method. *Rimshot*
The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David

Over time, as an adventurer adventures, the probability that they will end up imprisoned for some reason approaches 1. For my newest group, their luck ran out in our last game, and they found themselves locked in a bland stone cell, without their equipment, in a part of the dungeon they had never explored before. Which was necessary, since there were actually no prisons in the dungeon before they managed to put themselves into a position where the bandits had significant motivation to lock them up.

Once I had my players under lock and key, I realized that I faced an interesting game mastering challenge. In most respects, being locked in a cell isn’t significantly different from any other problem PCs must deal with. Certainly the trappings of imprisonment are familiar: locked doors, hostile NPCs, and crazy plans. But there’s an important, and potentially game damaging difference: the players can’t give up. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter how hard a given obstacle or puzzle is, because the players can always walk away from it, and seek adventure elsewhere. But when the players imprisoned, walking away is the challenge. If it’s too difficult, the players may become frustrated.

There’s also danger in making escape too easy. After all, the players ought to believe that their prison would have been able to hold most people. Just not super awesome adventurers, like themselves. It would be agency destroying to simply allow the players to escape because keeping them locked up is boring. If the players feel as though their escape was handed to them, then they’ll justly begin to wonder whether they’re being railroaded through scripted events.

This didn’t turn out to be a problem in my specific case. The players relied on a few prison escape cliches (faking sickness? Rly?) but took some creative steps to make it convincing. They earned their way out the door, and have struggled tooth and nail through room after room, gathering a hodgepodge of equipment, and trying to find their way out. But had they been a little less creative, or given up a little sooner, being imprisoned could have turned into a problem. So as an exercise, I thought I’d work on a few different solutions that could be used to either believably aide the characters in an escape, or to outright release them, without letting them entirely off the hook.

They Were Unprepared It’s unlikely that most jailors would really know what to do with an adventurer. They may think they’re tossing a few troublemakers into the clink, never suspecting that their prisoners are a master lockpicker, or a cleric who can call upon the magics of their god. And even if the players demonstrate their abilities prior to their capture, it’s unlikely that a local sheriff is going to know what to do about it. It’s not as though they have antimagic cells handy on the edges of civilization!

It would be silly if every jailkeeper were unprepared, of course. More civilized areas will have more sophisticated holding facilities, and ought to be more difficult to break out of.

24 hours to catch the REAL killers For one reason or another, the players could be released from captivity on the condition that they complete a task for their captors. Most likely, there would be no reward for this task other than freedom, and possibly amnesty for whatever landed the players in prison in the first place. (Of course, it’s still possible they’ll be told not to return to town).  There are a number of ways you could do this. A just court could offer to let the players out on parole, on the condition that they take care of a local goblin problem–or better yet–pay a tax on any treasure they haul out of the local dungeon. If the players are held prisoner by an evil character, they might be commanded to perform an assassination or theft.

And, of course, there’s no reason the release needs to be officially sanctioned. If the guard who is protecting the players is in great need, he or she may be willing to release the players in exchange for a favor. It’s unlikely the guard would do this lightly (as they would no doubt lose their job, and possibly be imprisoned themselves) but if their spouse was captured by the devilbear, or their father murdered by Kranos The Red, then the guard may be willing to risk their freedom in exchange for a favor from some powerful adventurers.

The B Team If the players have hirelings who were not captured along with them, then the GM can allow the players to take control of those characters for the purposes of mounting a daring rescue operation. It may be difficult if the hirelings are significantly lower level than the PCs. But then again, escaping from a heavily guarded cell when you have no equipment or spellbooks severely hinders a character’s abilities. Fully equipped characters who are trying to get in rather than out may have better luck than their higher level counterparts.

Pulling a Skyrim Sometimes events completely unrelated to the player’s situation can work out to their advantage. It’s likely that anyone who is powerful enough to have a dungeon to keep people in, is disliked by some people. Maybe those people are, themselves, powerful. If a full scale battle breaks out while the players are imprisoned, it’s a good opportunity for them to slip out in the chaos. Maybe they can convince their captors–or their captor’s attackers–to let them out so they can help in the fight. All the while the GM can roll each turn to determine if a catapult or flicking dragon’s tail opens an escape-sized hole in the cell’s wall.

If all else fails, it’s unlikely that anyone will be paying too much attention during the battle. So the players can attempt the noisy stuff which would normally attract guards.

Skipping Out on the Long Walk I’m a little dubious about this last one. It has the potential to be exciting, but there’s also an implied threat here which the GM will be required to act on if the players don’t make good on their escape: execution. A public beheading, for example, puts the players in a do-or-die scenario where any plan is a good plan. And once they’re out of their cell, opportunities to escape will doubtless present themselves. If they’re marched out onto the streets, then if they get away, they can disappear into the sidestreets quickly. Or perhaps they’d prefer to go a more dramatic route and attempt to shoulder the executioner in the chest when he raises his axe to strike.

I’m curious to know if this is how other GMs approach imprisoned players, or if there’s a different approach entirely that I haven’t thought of.

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