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.

Breaking the Basics

Breaking the BasicsFor the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the most basic rules. The fundamental stuff, which forms the building blocks of most OSR games. How could they be changed to better serve the type of game I want to run? So I’ve been tinkering, and talking with folks on Google+, and I’ve got some ideas for what I’m going to do in my next campaign.

Or, put another way, I’ve decided that the OSR isn’t an obscure enough niche for me. I want to push myself further and further away from what anyone else is doing, until I’m the only one who likes anything that I do.

Saving Throws

Saving throws have two basic functions within the game. First, they serve as a kind of safety net. If the players make a mistake which should result in some dire consequence, a saving throw may allow them to get off easy. Second, saves are a good way to handle attacks which bypass armor or hit points. They’re a defense against the indefensible.

For both of these functions, the game works best when a saving throw is more likely to fail than to succeed. Players should be afraid of making mistakes, or of attacks which bypass their normal defenses. Yet by level 7, about half the saves in LotFP are in the single digits.

I don’t actually see why saves should improve at all as a character levels up. Why not give each class a set of saves, which just never change from what they are at 1st level?

Not only would this better maintain the sense of danger that should come with a saving throw, but it creates an interesting opportunity. Saving throws have always been a fairly static thing, tied strictly to a character’s class, and typically improving only as they level up. Because of this, the difference between them communicates a lot about what each class is.

For example, fighters traditionally have a very good poison save, and a very bad magic save. From that you can infer that fighters are hardy, but weak minded. And, if saving throws never improve from their level 1 values, then we don’t need to give them any room to grow, and we can make the differences between them more dramatic.

All of that being said, I could see myself allowing saving throws to improve once at level 10 or so. I think it could be fun to have something to look forward to that is so far down the line.

Battle CatArmor Rating

I’ve said it many times before: rolling dice is not inherently fun. We should roll dice only when all potential results of the roll will produce interesting gameplay.

The hit roll, in combat, is a good example of this. There are two results: a hit, or a miss. Hits are interesting because something gets closer to being dead. Misses are interesting because they create an opportunity for the tables to be turned. If two foes are racing to see who can deplete the other’s hit points the fastest, the winner will probably be whoever misses the least.

So the potential for any attack to miss is interesting…but it’s not that interesting. Slugging matches where two sides roll attacks back and forth are probably the most boring situation in D&D. So when both sides repeatedly miss over and over again? That’s just excruciatingly dull.

Worse yet, it’s actually pretty common. Most OSR D&D variants make it fairly easy to get a character’s armor rating up so high that only one or two results on an unmodified d20 roll will be a successful hit.

To fight this, I’ve dropped the base armor class in my game down from 12, to 8. This means the target number for a hit roll will be between 8-15, rather than the 12-19 it is in RAW.

Of all the changes I’ve been considering recently, this is the only one I’ve already implemented in my game. It would be cruel to ask my players to raise their saving throws back up, after they’ve worked so hard to get them down. This change, however, is just a flat 20% increase in the number of hits across the board. So far, everyone seems to like it.

I could even see myself pushing a little further, to a base armor rating of 6. For now, though, 8 is working out pretty well, so I’m going to stick with it.

Speaking of Armor Rating…

I have made one other modification to armor, shamelessly pilfered from a game I played with Brendan of Necropraxis.

Players may wear up to 3 pieces of armor. Each piece counts as a single encumbering item, and can be pretty much anything. A character wearing a cape, a helmet, and a codpiece would count as fully armored, even if they were otherwise naked. Of course, improvised armor (“I put the pot on my head !”) is going to come with complications. (“Okay, but you’ll need to use one hand to hold it up high enough that it doesn’t cover your eyes.”)

Armors available in the early part of the game all provide +1 to the wearer’s armor rating. This means the best  you can get for awhile is +3. +4 if you use a shield.

Eventually, players may be able to afford masterwork pieces of armor, or they may find them in dungeons. Each of these grants a +2 bonus. So, once you’ve got 3 of those, you’ll have a bonus to your armor rating of +6, which is equivalent to plate armor in LotFP.

Functionally, this isn’t all that different from the way the system works in RAW. Mostly I like it because it makes encumbrance easier, and encourages more whimsy in your character’s armor.

It does have the slight drawback of making it easier to be a caster in full armor. However, I’m not terribly worried about that, because I intend to make magic users more fragile in other ways.

 

Guy got deadHit points & Damage

Nobody loves random character generation more than I do. It’s a great way to give the player a set of tools, which they then have to learn how to use on the fly. But what if we did the opposite of that? What if hit points were not random at all?

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve rolled up my fair share of 1hp fighters, and I’ve liked it. But if you throw too many random numbers together, it starts to feel meaningless. If I roll 1d6 for my hit points, and you roll 1d6 for your damage, that’s just a straight-up 50/50 chance that I’ll live or die. A coin flip with extra steps.

What I’m thinking is that Fighters start at 8 hit points, and gain 3 each level. Specialists start at 6 hit points, and gain 2 per level. Magic Users start at 4 hit points, and gain 1 per level. And, lastly, all damage is rolled using a single d6.

Now, I’m a pretty dumb guy, but the math on this seems pretty interesting to me. In the first combat of the day, the fighter has literally 0 chance of being taken out by a single hit. They can afford to be a little bold. Specialists could be killed by a single hit, by the chance is low. So they can flirt with combat, but they shouldn’t over commit themselves. Magic users, with their measly 4 hit points, have that 50/50 chance of dying, and so will stay back out of the way.

The way hit points progress reinforces that first level experience. For every 2 levels the fighter gains, they can survive a single max damage hit. The specialist needs 3 levels to get the same. The magic user gets a little more survivability over time, but will always be in serious danger around combat. They need to get to level 4 before they can reliably survive even a single hit, and to level 10 before they could survive a second.

For the record, the cap on damage at 1d6 extends to spells as well. I had originally thought I might eliminate all damaging spells entirely from my next campaign, pushing the MU into a support role. However, I think it could be interesting to allow the MU to learn damage spells, so long as those spells obey the same damage limitation as everything else.

 

3d6Ability Scores

And now for the real blasphemy: no more ability scores.

I’ve been feeling for a long while that nobody really knows what they want to do with this hallowed old mechanic. Every system seems to run them slightly differently, but in the end it always boils down to the same basic thing. They add small bonuses and penalties to a variety of actions. The only difference is in what actions those bonuses and penalties are applied to, but whatever they are, it’s always underwhelming. Unworthy of the pride of place Ability Scores have in the character creation process.

I understand the appeal of keeping them. It’s the first step in creating any new character, and so ostensibly fundamental to the game that the first words in the LotFP core book are instructions for rolling Ability Scores. For many “roll 3d6 down the line” has become a sort of secret OSR handshake. It’s emblematic of the difference between modern and OSR D&D: no fluff, no hand holding, it just is what it is.

But despite all that emotional significance, I just don’t think they earn their keep. They take time and space which could be put to better use, either with a more interesting replacement, or simply by speeding the whole character creation process up by their absence.

Of course, if you use roll under checks, you’re probably thinking I’m fuggin crazy right now. Roll under checks _do_ make ability scores work. They are an elegant little mechanic with a lot of merit to them, but I don’t use them.

As to what I’ll replace ability scores with, I haven’t got it entirely worked out yet. My thought is to make a little table of bonuses the player can have to specific tasks. Basically doing the same thing ability scores did, but with more focus, and less unused fluff.

Blogs on Tape Update

I wasn’t sure if Blogs on Tape was going to resonate with people. Turns out, you all really like it! We’ve had a ton of vocal support from all over the OSR community. As a result, we will absolutely move forward with making new episodes.

The most common request I heard was that people wanted an RSS feed for the project. So, I’ve set up a site just for Blogs on Tape, which has its own RSS feed for your blog-listening convenience. The site itself is a little bare bones, but I hope to make it into a valuable resource over time. You may also notice there are two new episodes already available. I hope you enjoy them!

I’ve also managed to get Blogs on Tape set up on iTunes, which was a surprisingly nightmarish process. Hopefully it’s stable now, but if you encounter any issues let me know.

If you’re interested in contributing to the project, there are two things we need:

  1. Blogs that we have official permission to read from. If you have a blog, and you’re okay with us reading posts from it, please let us know.
  2. People who can do the readings and make the recordings. If you’ve got a halfway decent microphone, a quiet environment to use it in, and the ability to speak clearly, I’d love to have your help in getting these recordings made.

Future updates for this project will be mostly show up on the Blogs on Tape website, so I recommend everyone follow that if they’re interested.

Thanks for listening!

 

The Cozy Catacombs: A Demonstration of Flux Space

Paris CatacombsA few weeks back, I wrote up an idea that I called Flux Space, which is basically a method for randomizing segments of a dungeon. It helps dungeons to feel more like vast environments, and makes it a little easier to organize your notes.

In the thread about Flux Space on google+, Aaron Griffin asked me if I would post an example. So that’s what I’m doing. The Cozy Catacombs are a small example–just 3 locations and 3 fluxes arranged in a triangle. It’s pretty much the bare minimum size for something like this, but I think it gets across the idea pretty well, and there’s enough here for at least one or two game sessions if you want to try it out.

The Cozy Catacombs

Flux Space DiagramThe city of Sarip is old. Its been inhabited since pre-history, and through the millennia has always lent authority to whomever lived there. Empires, religions, and societies may pass, but Sarip remains. The Immortal City.

Beneath Sarip is a sprawling network of catacombs. Countless generations of bones are stacked along the walls so thick the stonework isn’t visible between them. The catacombs themselves have been out of use for hundreds of years now, at least officially. They’re a popular retreat for anyone not welcome in the city above, with plenty of space to live and work rent free, so long as you don’t get lost.

Area 1: Entrance

Flux Space One1. At the bottom of the stairs is a bronze plaque mounted on a plinth. It’s a recent addition, put up by city officials, warning people to stay out of the catacombs, lest they become lost.

The floor is littered with empty booze bottles and scraps of trash.

2. A small group of homeless folks have set up a camp here, around an old fountain they use as a urinal. One of them has scurvy, and will soon die from it.

3. A group of fresh corpses. They’ve been flayed, and their bones taken. From the scattered equipment, it looks like they weren’t homeless. Probably here hoping to plunder some treasure. Bloody, boney footprints trail off to the south, towards Flux B.

4. A larger group of homeless folks, cooking a stolen chicken on a spit. There are some children running around and playing loudly. Among the group is a well dressed young man, about 20 years of age. He seems to be having fun, slumming it down here, seeing how the other half live.

5. A group of 7 teenage girls. They’ve all got dirty faces, and kitchen knives. They’re arguing about how they should divide the 6 silver coins they found.

Area 2: Necrotic Praxeum

Flux Space Two1. Long benches are arranged next to one another in this room, with rows of zombies standing on either side, polishing old bones to a pristine white sheen. Other zombies with carts move up and down between the tables, handing out dirty bones, and taking the clean ones.

2. A few shelves, and a collection of tomes detailing the history and practice of necromancy. The librarian is a wizened old man named Bu’zaldu. It’s not clear whether he’s undead, or just very very old. He teases the students here with cryptic hints, and there’s a rumor that if you can prove which one he is, he’ll teach you a spell even the headmistress doesn’t know.

3. 12 beds, stacked 3 high, where students are allowed to rest between lessons. There’s very little downtime here, and even less privacy.

4. A well stocked alchemical laboratory, with jars all along the walls containing a variety of exotic items. In the middle of the room is a student who has fallen asleep in their chair, next to a solution that is slowly dribbling into a vial. It’s just about full now. If thrown, this concoction will explode, dealing 3d6 damage, and instantly transforming anyone killed by it into a zombie under the command of the thrower.

5. Most of the students are congregated here. There are piles of polished bones in front of each student, while the school’s headmistress walks around the room, describing the proper method of raising a skeleton from the dead. Students work in pairs to raise each one, which the Headmistress then comes over to inspect. If she approves of it, she’ll congratulate the students, give them some pointers on refining their technique, and give the skeleton some task to perform. If she does not approve, she’ll berate the students, and send their skeleton walking down the path of shame (into Flux C.

She only approves of roughly 1 in every 5 skeletons.

6. The office and living space of the head mistress. Skulls and gargoyles are everywhere you look. There’s a bed, a desk, and a rack for punishing students who perform poorly. On the desk is a stack of wax-sealed letters, tied with a ribbon, waiting to be delivered. If opened, they all contain a list of students who are doing poorly, as well as a brief description of each one’s qualities. The letters are addressed to various peoples: inquisitors, slavers, and a cyclops named “Gorkk Manmuncher.” The implication of each letter is clear: I don’t really want these kids anymore, so I’ll happily part with them for a good price.

Area 3: Skeleton Vanguard

Flux Space Three1. An old chapel, with a statue of St Stephen. The pews have been stacked into a circle, which serves as an impromptu fence for a group of skeletons. The skeletons wander around without any apparent purpose, bumping in to one another, falling down, and losing body parts. Whoever raised these obviously did a terrible job of it.

2. Havord, the leader of the skeleton vanguard, is conferring with five of his most intelligent comrades. They’re looking over crude maps they’ve been able to make of the dungeon, and arguing about where they should expand to.The two Flux spaces would be difficult to defend. But Area 1 would expose them to detection from the outside world, and Area 2 would cut off their supply of incoming skeletons. It’s a serious problem, and the argument is getting heated.

Havord himself has a skull 4 times larger than a normal human skull. He is otherwise a normal skeleton.

3. A classroom where a trio of intelligent skeletons try to teach some of the dumb reject skeletons how to think, and perform simple tasks. The program is effective, but frustrating. The curriculum is similar to what you might see in a kindergarden class, but with a lot more discussion of killing the living.

4. A storage room where the skeleton vanguard keeps their weapons, and a bunch of animated skeletons folded into boxes because there’s not enough room for them to move about more comfortably.

5. A 24 hour skeleton dance party. The best way to unwind for off duty skellos.

6. The floor of the room has been dug up in several places, and a frail weave of twigs placed across the opening to 15′ pits. The trap is painfully obvious to anyone with any intellect, but apparently it’s sufficient to trap dumb, wandering skeletons. Even now, scraping sounds carry from several of the pits, where dumb bags o’ bones are trying to claw their ways out.

Flux A.

Description: Small gargoyles and other statues punctuate the stonework. Every so often, when you look away, the bones here rearrange themselves.

Size: 3

1. 2d4 students from the Necrotic Praxeum. They’re either on their way to, or returning from, a supply run in the city above.

2. A door made of pink flesh. A supernatural darkness obscures the room beyond, refusing to allow any light to penetrate. The room beyond can only be navigated by touch. It is soft and fleshy, with a slimy mucus seeping in through the floor and walls. The room is deep, but does not seem to contain anything interesting. Each turn, there is a 1-in-4 chance that 2d20 goblins will come flooding out of this room, and out into the catacombs beyond. If the room is harmed, this flood may be prevented for a few days. If it is harmed severely, the room may be killed, and the goblins will cease to be born from it.

3. The Goblin Market, where all manner of oddities are for sale. There’s jars full of eyeballs, armors, buttplugs, and a whole shop dedicated to selling various styles of 10′ poles. (That last one is having a blowout sale. They’re overstocked). No violence is allowed at the Goblin Market.

4. 2d6 + 4 goblins, which have just finished killing a group of three human adventurers. The goblins are in the midst of organizing the adventurer’s equipment, and slicing off meat from the adventurer’s bodies.

5. A randomly determined member of the party trips. They flail their hands, and grab on to a leg bone that’s sticking out from the wall of the catacombs. Unexpectedly, it turns down, as though it were a lever, and a secret door swings open. Beyond is a room with a plinth in it, and a skeleton wearing golden armor.

The armor is incredibly valuable, but whomever takes it from this place is cursed. Any building they sleep in has a 1-in-6 chance of catching fire in the night.

6. A map to a Vampire’s lair is sketched onto the wall. Next to it are the words “PLEASE KILL ME.”

Flux B.

Description: A green ooze seeps from between the stacked bones, dribbling onto the floor and disappearing into the cracks. Many of the rooms contain abandoned camps. Apparently this area was once more heavily settled by homeless people, which have since left for whatever reason.

Size: 4

1. 2d6 + 5 highly capable troops of the Skeletal Vanguard. One of them is working on a map of the area, while the others are holding weapons at the ready to kill any meat-people they bump into.

2. A little shop, built into an alcove in the wall. It has a bar, some stools, and a sign which reads Durza’s Drugporium! Durza herself is a squat, fat old woman. She’s coy about how she survives down here, and she sells the best drugs you’re ever likely to get your hands on, at cut rate prices.

3. A fountain swarming with fairies, all of whom are men. They’ll offer to cure anyone who is injured, only revealing after the fact that they require blowjobs in return. And you’ve gotta swallow, ‘cuz that’s the part that will heal your wounds. To add insult to injury, their vaunted curative abilities amount to a single hit point of restoration.

4. A finely ornamented Victorian parlor, with all the fashionable amenities. There’s a fire going in the fireplace, fresh biscuits on a tray, and several comfortable looking lounge chairs arranged in a conversation circle.

The chairs are alive, and will attempt to eat anyone who sits in them.

5. 2d4 + 2 goblins fighting with 2d4 + 2 skeletons.

6. A very obvious lever, built into the floor. There’s writing on the handle which reads “Pull for treasure!” If pulled, nothing happens.

Flux C.

Description: Apparently there’s an underground river running nearby, because there are fountains everywhere, pumping cool clean water, despite the fact that none of this has been maintained in centuries.

Size: 3

1. 1d4 skeletons who are wandering away from the Necrotic Praxeum. They’re dumb, and clumsy, but do have basic life-destroying instincts, and will try to attack any living creatures they encounter.

2. 2d6 + 6 soldiers of the Skeleton Vanguard. One is mapping, while the rest seek out dumb skeletons to recruit, and fleshlings to kill.

3. If the players found and pulled the lever in Flux B.6, they will a door here, with a plaque on it that reads: “Congratulations, lever puller!” Within is a chest containing two bags, each olding 500 silver pieces each. If its been more than a day since the players pulled the lever, the chest may already have been looted. If the players haven’t pulled the lever at all, there won’t be any door. They’ll just have the vague sense that they’re missing out on something cool.

4. A forge, with a bellows and an anvil. The air his hot, and rings with the blows of hammer against metal. Weapons of war are being forged here by…snakes. Snakes, holding hammers in their mouths, and slithering around with buckets of water on their backs. Thousands of them are here, working together. If the players bother them, they will scatter into little holes in the wall, and wait for the players to leave.

5.Garrison Renuar, a 325 year old Vampire, sitting on the edge of his coffin with his head in his hands. Garrison wants to die. Life is dull, and he doesn’t really like killing people. However, the vampire which birthed him is still alive, and he is incapable of killing himself of his own free will without permission from his ‘parent.’ He will beg anyone who meets him to try and kill him, but is obligated to fight his best to stay alive.

6. A nearby fungus growing into the corpse of a wizard has been mutating out of control for awhile now. Recently (as in, last week), it began to produce a race of mushroom people: squat, 2′ high mushrooms with eyes, mouths, and feet. These new creatures don’t really know what to do with themselves. They haven’t developed a language or a society yet, though they are intelligent enough to do so. For now, they’re just following their fungus instincts, but those aren’t really taking advantage of their new mobility and intellect.

Blogs on Tape

Blogs on Tape OSR MixtapeAudiobooks are great. The ability to read while I’m driving, walking, exercising, cooking, or doing the dishes has allowed me to absorb so many books. Stuff that I probably wouldn’t have made time for otherwise. By now, I think I’ve actually listened to more books than I’ve read, and I’m extremely grateful that the option exists.  I’d have missed out on some of my favorite stories if it didn’t.

The biggest problem with audio books is that there aren’t enough of them. Too much great writing is trapped in squiggled symbols on a page or computer screen. If you can find the time, reading them is a joy. But, none of us has enough time to read everything we’d like. And a particular issue for me is that there are dozens or hundreds of OSR blogs, all of which have good stuff on them just waiting to be read.

TL;DR, does anybody else think it would be really cool to have a podcast where people read OSR blog posts aloud?

It’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for awhile. And, over the past two weeks, I’ve been getting in touch with people to start the ball rolling on what I’m calling a “pilot series” of episodes. Something to test the waters a bit before anybody decides to really commit themselves to doing this. And so, below are 10 blog posts, read aloud by myself, Sam Jack, and Gregory Blair. Please give them a listen.

The music used is a selection from “Journey of Solitude,” composed and performed by Russel Cox, distributed through OverClocked Remix.

Episode 1 – Structuring Encounter Tables, by Nick LS Whelan
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 2 – The Purpose of a Map, by Alex Schroeder
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 3 – Tangle Armor, by Brendan S.
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 4 – Tests of Skill and Tests of Chance, by John Bell
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 5 – An Orcish Prayer, by Arnold K.
(Read by Sam Jack, Original post here).

Episode 6 – Basic Wands, by Brendan S.
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 7 – Questgivers are Evil, by Nick LS Whelan
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 8 – God Hates Orcs, by Arnold K.
(Read by Sam Jack, Original post here).

Episode 9 – On Erecting a New Campaign, by Courtney Campbell
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 10 – Tiki & D: Gary’s Hawaiian Shirts, by Richard G
(Read by Gregory Blair, Original post here).

It was also suggested that we might do periodic “round table” episodes, where folks discuss some of the previous posts. I thought it was an interesting possibility, so I made one of those as well, with Sam Jack and Michael Raston joining me.

Roundtable 1 – Nick LS Whelan, Sam Jack, & Michael Raston

Alright, so, didja listen to those? Didja like them? Didja hate them? I know blog comments are kinda passe here in 2017, but I really want to know how people feel about this. If we go forward, it’s going to require a lot of time, and a lot of bandwdith to keep up with. I had a heckin’ good time with these first 10, but I have to admit the idea of committing myself to doing this long term is pretty daunting. So criticism, detailed ones, would be very welcome right now.

Hopefully, if the series does continue, we can make it into more of a community effort. Sam & Greg both helped the project along quite a bit by contributing episodes of their own. If that could eventually grow into five, ten, or more people all recording episodes, it would make managing the project much less daunting than it is.

So, what do you think?

8 Reasons Why D&D Is Better Than Video Games

Dont You Just Hate ThisDumb people think D&D is an outdated game. That it served us well as the midwife of video games. But, now that video games are here, it’s stupid to go back and play something so much less advanced.

Ironically, this view seems to be most common among people who actually play tabletop RPGs. Specifically, the folks who emphasize the thespian aspect of role playing, to the exclusion of all else. They seem to think anyone who didn’t get rejected from Shakespeare in the park is a pleb, who would be much happier playing video games, rather than sullying the good name of their noble and artistic hobby. 

My frustration with this pervasive idea led me to start collecting these reasons that it’s wrong. So if you’ve got any to add to my eight, I’d love to have a few more.

1. Tactical Infinity

In any given situation, there are only so many actions you can attempt in a video game. If it’s a game about punching, you’ll have a punch button, and most problems will be solvable by punching. There may be other options (kicks, jumps, headbutts), but the list is necessarily finite. This is not a bad thing. Video games work best when they focus on doing a small number of things really well.

Adventure games, like Zork, probably have the greatest number of possible actions you’ll ever find in a video game. But even still, the player is limited to whatever actions the game designer was able to predict they might attempt. If the player is clever enough to come up with something the designer never expected, rather than being rewarded for their cleverness, they’ll be slapped down with some variation of “You can’t do that.”

When you play D&D, the game designer is sitting right there with you, creating the game moment to moment as you play. So when you decide that the best way to defeat the Cult of Filth is to buy a pig and convince them it is the avatar of filth on earth, the game can accommodate that. Maybe you will fail spectacularly, but at least you were able to try.

Rube Goldberg2. Having a Real Impact on the Game World

The other side of tactical infinity. You could call it infinite reaction.

In a really good video game, the player will see the world change in big and small ways as a result of their successes and failures.  If you save the farmer’s son, then when you go to the farm she won’t be crying anymore. Instead, she’ll be happily going about her farming, with the help of her son. This is good. When the player sees the impact of their actions, it will make those actions (and by extension, the game world they happened in) feel true.

But the game’s reactions are limited. It’s not even proper to call them reactions in the first place, since they’re scripted in advance. It’s a Rube Goldberg machine. Complex enough that it’s fun to follow along from point A to B to C, but the end result is already there, waiting for you to reach it. Even if the player does make a choice, it’s always between two, or three, or ten different pre-scripted results. And, once you see them, the message is usually pretty clear: you’ve reached the end of this road. Go do something else.

3. Infinite Play

By now, a pattern is emerging that a lot of what is good about tabletop RPGs is the various ways in which they are infinite. This one, infinite play, is what prompted me to go from being casually interested in D&D, to being in love with the medium.

One of the worst things about falling in love with any fictional world is that someday, you’ll need to leave it. I can go back and play my favorite video games over and over again, but there will never be any new areas to explore, or enemies to defeat.

With tabletop games, all you need is one set of rules, and one set of dice, and you’re set to play for the rest of your life. You may choose to stop playing a specific campaign, move on to a different game system or a different group, but the possibility that you could go back for more will always exist.

4. Complex Lateral Thinking Puzzles

Some video games do a great job of creating good complex lateral thinking puzzles. But, because they lack tactical infinity, the solutions to those puzzles must always be intentional. The designer must go to great effort to carefully inform the players of the tools they have for solving the puzzle, and must ensure themselves that those tools are sufficient for solving it.

In a tabletop game, the referee is often not even aware that they’ve created a complex lateral thinking puzzle. But they put the locked treasure vault next to the anti-gravity room, which is itself only two stories down from where the troll is sleeping. And the players have a paperclip, a spool of dental floss, and an iguana in their inventory. And somehow, putting all those things together, they figure out how to get into the treasure vault without trekking across the world to find the key.

That’s beautiful to me.

Women playing D&D5. D&D is a Party

D&D is an inherently social activity. Sometimes this is is a boon, sometimes a bane, but one way or another it’s always going to be true.

“But wait” I write, anticipating a likely objection so I can preemptively respond to it. “Many video games are multiplayer, and ergo social activities. This is hardly unique to D&D.” And of course, that is true. I myself have spent an immense amount of time bonding with friends in World of Warcraft. D&D is just better at it.

Even in the most social of social video games, everyone is looking at the game. The focus of their discussion will usually be on overcoming the challenges created for them by a person they will never meet. In D&D, everyone is looking at each other, talking about their own ideas.

Maybe that seems like a trite, or shallow difference. But, to me, it is important.

6. Investing Your Character with True Personality

When you disagree with 95% of what a person says, it’s easy for that 5% of overlap between your views to get lost in the rhetoric. I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink explaining why I find a thespian approach to games boring. But my distaste for prewritten backstories, and anyone who uses the word “spotlight” doesn’t mean I hate role playing. I just view it as a nice sauce, rather than the whole meal.

Vidya attempts to approximate this in different ways. Sometimes the protagonist is silent, so players can project their own thoughts and emotions on to them. Other games create dialogue trees, and multiple paths which give the player some character-driven choice about how they approach a problem. But in the end, unless the player wants to skip out on game content, they’ve always gotta do what the game wants them to do.

In a tabletop game, I can make a firm decision about who my character is, and stick to it. If I decide to be a good guy, then the game can never force me into a situation where my only choice is to go against my character, or skip part of the game.

Character Death7. Failure is Actually Meaningful

When you lose at a video game, the only thing to do is go back and try again. You play through the same bits over and over until you succeed. Maybe the game is randomized so the bit you replay is never quite the same. Maybe there are failures states which allow the game to continue, such as losing a party member. But, one way or another, the ultimate failure state always requires you to play through some part of the game over again.

In tabletop RPGs, there’s no such thing as starting the same game over again. When you die, a new character comes into the world, and must deal with the consequences of the previous character’s actions. All their successes and failures.

8. Zero Barriers to Entry for Designing Games

Obviously, there will always be a difference between a good game designer and a bad one. (I’ll make no claims about which group I fall into). But all it takes to get started is to come up with an adventure, and run it at your table. Boom: you’re a game designer.

If you’ve got a cool idea for a video game, even if it’s something small, you need to develop skills with coding, and art, and music. If you don’t know how to do any of those things, you’ll need money to pay someone to do them for you, or you’ll need to find someone you’re comfortable sharing creative control with. You need all of those things before you can even begin to develop good game design skills.

The barrier for getting your stuff published is only slightly higher than the barrier for making it in the first place. So, of course, there’s a lot of childish garbage out there, but there’s also a lot of phenomenal stuff that may never have made it to production otherwise. Stuff like Stay Frosty, Crypts of Indormancy, Hex Kit, The Sleeping Place of Feathered Swine, or The Tower of the Weretoads. Just stay away from anything published by the Mongrel Banquet Club. They’re a disgusting little band of degenerate filthmongers.

Kids Playing Vidya

None of this is to say that video games are bad for their limitations. A book is not bad because it lacks a soundtrack. A painting is not bad because it lacks motion. Different mediums have different strengths, and that’s really what this is about.

Video games are not an improvement on RPGs. They are different beasts that share some DNA. It’s possible to compare and contrast them with each other, just like you can compare and contrast books and movies. But both are capable of doing things the other will never be able to achieve.

Thhhhbhbhbhbhhbhbht.

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Thoughts and theories on tabletop games.