Saturday, December 14, 2019

A Tale of Three Bulgasari

So I spent a bit of time refreshing myself on Korean mythical creatures. Most are pretty much the same as Chinese/Japanese ones, just with different names.

One that came up today (I went looking for it, actually, and learned something new) is the Bulgasari (also spelled Pulgasari depending on your Romanization system).

Now, in modern Korean, bulgasari 불가사리 means starfish. Just the aquatic animal.

But there was also a North Korean giant monster movie commissioned by Kim Jong-il in 1985 called Pulgasari (same spelling in Hangeul as the starfish). I was thinking I'd read up on the NorKo kaiju to include it in my game.

But then I discovered there is a mythical creature called the bulgasari 불가살이. Same pronunciation, but different spelling (and different Chinese characters if you look them up). This one means undying beast.

I found this wonderful little blog that stopped updating after only a few months. It tells of the mythical creature. It looks like the baku or shirokinukatsukami -- a bear's body covered in scales, an elephant-like head, a cow's tail, and tiger paws. It was immortal and ate metal.

Well, immortal is no fun for D&D, but eating metal? Guess how I'm reskinning the rust monster for TSR-East!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

What does a GM Guide Need?

I've completed my "players book" for Treasures, Serpents, and Ruins - East (and I really need a new name, unless I want to release regular TSR which is just another vanilla D&D retroclone which no one wants or needs...or just call this TSR when I release it). It's 32 pages with absolutely no fluff. I figure with fluff (class descriptions, descriptions of how to make a character, examples of play) it will be in the 42 to 48 page range. For my current purposes, this is enough.

Now I'm putting together a monster book. I've got my monsters from BECMI (minus some that don't seem to fit, modified others - chimera and griffons are part tiger instead of part lion, for example). I've got monsters from Chanbara. I've got monsters from Flying Swordsmen. I've got monsters from OA (minus the overlap among these three sources). I've got monsters that I wanted to add to Chanbara but didn't for space concerns. Not sure how many of this last group I'll actually add, because it's already an awful lot of monsters! BECMI has the Gargantua template, but I'll probably at least want to add a Kaiju template as well. And for eventual release, I'll want to add some introductory text to explain the entries, hit bonuses, calculating XP awards for modified monsters, saving throws, etc.

While I edit together the monster book I'm thinking of what goes in the GM's Guide.

And I had the realization today that I'm a lot like Gygax back at the beginning of the hobby. OD&D didn't have a lot of explanations or contextualization of the rules, because Gygax knew his audience. They were tabletop wargamers like him. They could contextualize just fine. It was only once D&D started to spread out beyond the wargamer market that things like the Basic Sets and AD&D became necessary to spell all this stuff out.

And I'm in a similar situation. I doubt anyone who's purchased Chanbara wasn't already an experienced gamer. Likewise, anyone who would purchase TSR-East from me is also likely to be an experienced gamer. They've got the context. Do I really need to spell it all out for them?

Sure, it can give some insight into how I run my games, and how I expect the moving parts to work together. But if I released a bare-bones GM's Guide, would it be a problem? Do I need to tell you how to create a dungeon or a wilderness? How to prepare interesting NPCs for encounters? Or do I just need to give you the systems, algorithms, and processes you need to run the game all on your own?

Bare Bones: 
Running the Game:
Exploration Turns
  • movement
  • searching/detection
  • adjudicating traps/hazards
  • encounters
  • reaction table
  • morale
  • interactions
  • chases/evasions
  • adjudicating special abilities/spells/etc.
  • combat round sequence
  • initiative
  • morale checks
  • adjudicating special attacks/spells/etc.
  • death and dying
  • healing
Wandering Monster Tables (dungeon/wilderness)
Hirelings and Specialists
Strongholds for High Level Characters
  • coins
  • gems/jewelry/special
  • magic items 
That's about all that's really needed, right? I could add more, of course, but that's IMO the bare minimum needed. Anything I'm forgetting that's absolutely vital? Anything above you think I could safely leave out and assume the players will just import systems/procedures from D&D?

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Beyond the Secret Door - Rolling Protocols

So I've been in a drawn out conversation with Alexis of The Tao about whether or not all DM rolls should be in the open or not. The most recent exchange in the comments of my previous post.

One of the original examples I gave of why sometimes it's better for the game to keep some rolls secret is in the case of secret doors in an old school game.

The way I see it, there's a better choice analysis/trade off in old school D&D. Searching takes time, 1 Turn per 10' searched. And every Turn (or two Turns, depending on the rules used) the DM makes a wandering monster check. So every time players make a choice to search an area for secret doors is them gambling on facing the next low payoff random encounter.

Random encounters provide some monster XP, but rarely have any treasure worth scooping up. And they risk losing hit points, spells, flasks of oil, potions, magic item charges, etc. to deal with.

So that's the situation. Players suspect an area might (or even must) have a secret door. Do they want to spend time searching for it, possibly failing, and risk more wandering monsters? Or do they want to just move on to the next area? If they can see the results of the search roll (d20+ style player Perception skill rolls, or old school style DM rolls made in the open) they have less uncertainty. If they roll well but find nothing, the question is answered. If they roll poorly, they are in the dark. By keeping the roll secret, the players are always in the dark if no door is found, and the choice remains on the table.

Alexis pointed out that the DM rolling in secret was functionally identical to the DM rolling in advance to see if the secret door would even be found. And if so, why wouldn't the DM save themselves some effort and roll in advance, and if negative, not even draw/stock/create the contents beyond the door?

Now, I have been formulating ideas in my head for the greater question - should some rolls be kept secret from the players? But Alexis wanted this specific question addressed. And when he repeated the question in the comments yesterday, he actually gave me the answer I was looking for.

He further specified a situation in which a dungeon would be visited once and then forgotten (like in a lot of modern adventure path gaming). And I have to say, in that specific situation, he's not wrong.

For example, back in October/November of 2007 (or maybe it was 2006, after I got married but before my first son was born and we were still living in Japan, pretty sure it was 2007 though), I intended to run Ravenloft as a one-shot. It turned into a 3 or 4 shot. Before running it, to speed things along, I made a time chart and rolled all the random encounters and their reaction rolls in advance. Partly this was because according to the module, at certain times, Strahd will be aware of the PCs and attack or send minions to attack. But I also wanted to just save a bit of time in the session.

This resulted in a few interesting encounters. For one, I'd rolled spectres, but friendly reactions! And when that encounter came up, the party were resting for the night in the chapel (which they incorrectly thought was still hallowed ground and safe). Thinking on the spot, it's the chapel, the middle of the night, spectres, but not hostile. It was a ghostly Black Mass being celebrated. Creeped the players out, built up the proper Gothic mood, but also allowed them to avoid what could have been an adventure ending encounter if it had devolved into combat.

I mention that to point out that I'm not against the idea of the DM making some rolls in advance. There's a time and place for that.

But back to the secret door thing. In my answer to Alexis, I pointed out to him that in my current West Marches campaign (actually also true for my play-by-post megadungeon game on RPOL), players often decide to return to partially explored dungeons. And as players come and go, and characters die and get replaced, it's not always the same party exploring.

In a game like mine, players knowing there definitely ISN'T a secret door at a certain location becomes a form of metagaming. But if the players themselves aren't sure, then their characters are also unsure. And they remain with the trade-off of searching for the secret door and risking wandering monsters, or not.

Now, it should go without saying that whatever is behind the door shouldn't be vital to the success or failure of the adventure. If the only way to get to the BBEG or rescue the prisoners or escape the fiendish Bond villain deathtrap is to find the secret door, don't roll. If the players search, they find it.

But if the secret door is just a shortcut from A to B, or has some extra loot or nonessential but helpful clues or strangeness that would just make for a cool moment, whether they find the door or not is irrelevant. It's an Easter Egg. In that case, why should the roll be in the open? Perceived fairness of the DM is the only reason why someone would argue that it should.

I'd argue that DM fairness will be known by other things than by whether the results of some rolls are kept secret or not.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Skill Resolution

End of semester grading and some personal stuff have taken up a lot of my time. So not much blogging lately. And no real time to put together my final response to Alexis on why it's good to have some results of rolls secret from the players. It'll come eventually.

In the meantime, Jeremy was wanting to try a different game tonight -- Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells, but everyone was busy or not enthused. No offense intended to the game designer, who is a cool dude. I, at least, am feeling mentally drained from wading through the research papers of ESL learners and didn't feel like trying to learn a new system tonight.

Jeremy shared a Questing Beast video review of SS&SS, and he mentioned that there is a "background" option to let you flesh out the three character classes more. Of course 5E also has that. And maybe some other game Jeremy was pushing recently (or he just bolted that on from SS&SS into something else maybe).

It got me thinking about how skills have been handled over the years. OD&D through the RC has set abilities for some classes (dwarf detection, elf secret door finding, halfling hiding) that is usually X on d6, where the default is either "can't do it" or 1 in 6 chance of success. Then there are Thieves with their % skill system completely unlike any other. And later, other things not covered by the rules were usually suggested to be done by a roll under an appropriate ability score (on a d20, 2d8, 3d6, 2d12, or whatever). With the exception of Thief skills that improved every level, these skills also didn't change over time (unless you found some way to raise/lower ability scores).

Of course, the ideal of unified mechanics (a bad idea for many games IMO) in 3E meant that skills needed to be handled with the same swinginess of combat, that flat d20 distribution plus modifiers. This was, IMO, a bad move. Unless you really focused your character build (ability score boosts, feats, magic items), your skill use was really unreliable. Especially since the DCs for skill checks tended to go up along with your skill levels.

But all this thinking (on my bus ride home this evening) reminded me of something I've been wanting to dust off and implement for TSR and TSR-East. AD&D's Secondary Skills table.
It seems, from the Questing Beast video review, that SS&SS does something similar to this, although a bit more free-form. You get to pick a background and whatever it is, if you're trying something related to that background, you succeed (or get a good chance to succeed on a roll).

When I was a kid, looking at AD&D for the first time, I thought this Secondary Skills system was too generic. I wanted discrete skills that could be applied, with defined mechanics for how to use them. After all, BECMI demi-humans and Thieves had that, in different ways.

But these days, I think the freedom to just negotiate what your character can do with the DM based on a descriptor like this is a good way to handle these things. We kind of did that when we were kids anyway without having a chart to roll on. It was often impromptu, and something that we just made up about our characters on the spot if it ever came up.

I had a Fighter named Falcon, and somewhere along the way his father's profession became important. I said he was a blacksmith. No reason, I just thought it sounded cool to have a blacksmith for a dad. From that point forward, Falcon was assumed to know a thing or two about smithing, including weapon/armor repair.

I really like that, and I think it's a much simpler way to add some flavor to the characters in an RPG than having to pour over skill lists and micromanage skill points or whatever. Complete 180 from when I was young.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Next Year's Project

My West Marches game is going well. I plan to continue it. And I've hinted a few times before about an "East Marches" game. I'm going to try and get this out sometime next year.

I've got the map. I've got an outline structure for writing up the campaign in a way that should be intelligible to anyone other than me (my West Marches notes are pretty sparse, because I only need enough written down to jog my memory of what the encounter, mysterious location, or lair is supposed to be about).

Of course, the map has 748 hexes (with six basic terrain types), and I've got 120 "locations" (in five types) marked on it. And there are eight zones of progressing difficulty.

So to make this happen, I need to have four to six wandering monster tables for each difficulty zone (one for each terrain type in that zone). I need to detail 120 locations that can be discovered/visited. I need to come up with hooks and rumors that will drive exploration. I need more monsters.

I plan to make this fairly generic "old school" but primarily for Chanbara. So I'll use Chanbara monsters, and Flying Swordsmen monsters (that aren't already in Chanbara), and probably 1E OA monsters that aren't in either of those games. And some monsters from BX/BECMI (lots of normal and giant animals, giant insects, and general monsters that might as well be in an Asian fantasy setting as a European one). I'll probably need to include  full stats for the monsters for DM convenience.

Oh yeah, and I'll need to write up the "home base" including several Lieges for Chanbara (or just as patron NPCs for other system games). 

So this will be a pretty big book, actually. I figure the difficulty zones should allow for some overlap, and take characters up to at least "name level" if not higher.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Role Playing, Metagaming, and Differing Opinions

Interesting video on metagaming. I recommend that you skip the first 45 seconds of cheesy acting and just get to the topic.
First up, Luke gives his definition of role playing. It seems to me that he puts a lot of emphasis on the amateur thespian aspect of role playing. That's fine. Good to know where he's coming from. I tend to disagree. That is one way of role playing. But besides getting into the head of a fictional personage, role playing can also simply be acting out the assigned functional role within the adventuring party (by race/class chosen). He mentions the stereotypes (barbarians smash, rogues stab...shouldn't this be sneak?, wizards cast fireball), but to me his tone seems a bit dismissive of this functional level of role playing.

Anyway, then we get his definition of metagaming. Using any knowledge the player has instead of knowledge that the character has available.

I have no quibbles with this definition. However, it makes metagaming impossible to avoid. Unless the DM and players have sat down and discussed for hours in minute detail every experience the character has had, every story they've ever heard, etc. how can we really know what the character knows aside from the limited information given by the DM when setting scenes?

Yes, there are ways to roll the dice to see what a character knows. But is the player or the DM tracking the results of each of these rolls? Some may. Most don't, in my experience. So it will be inevitable that a player will need to use some knowledge that they possess that their character doesn't from time to time.

Around the 3:19 mark, he starts talking about Perception checks to find a secret door. If the player rolls it, and rolls low, the player knows there could still be a secret door there. Asking another character to check is a form of metagaming, because if you had rolled high and failed, you'd be confident that you don't need another PC to check as well. [Relevant to the yet unfinished discussion on secret or open die rolls.]

At 6:40, he begins his discussion of whether metagaming is good or bad. First he gives the extreme views: any metagaming at all completely ruins the game, or meh, metagame away.

After saying metagaming everything is fine if the DM/group is good with that, it violates the concept of role playing. Here, I'll disagree. From what I've read, Gygax and Arneson didn't really care one way or the other how "in character" the players were in their original Blackmoor and Greyhawk campaigns. And clever thinking by the player was something to be rewarded. I could be interpreting what I read wrong, but the amateur thespianism that Luke seems to believe is the heart and soul of role playing was not part of the hobby in the beginning. So when he claims that metagaming is not the way the game was intended to be played, I think he's off. A certain level of metagaming is expected.

Now, Luke goes on to say that he does think some metagaming is acceptable (around the 8:45 mark). And funnily enough, I think he's got it backwards here, too. He says that players knowing that encounters are balanced for them is a good thing, because otherwise they'll run in fear of unknowns. My West Marches group has been a lot more cautious since they met a wight that killed one PC and drained another before they took it down. And in my opinion, this has enhanced the game for them. They need to approach encounters carefully, see what they can learn, and flee if necessary. And they're not completely afraid of everything. Recently, groups have charged in to an intellect devourer lair in one session, and stuck around to defeat an aboleth after they learned it wasn't just a trio of nixies in the river. It hasn't made them afraid, it's made them cautious, which is a good thing.

At 9:25 we get his next acceptable form of metagaming, which is letting PCs adventure together when they probably shouldn't. Like the paladin and assassin in the same group. Now, AD&D didn't allow this to happen. By the book, the paladin would refuse to join the group unless the assassin was left behind. Modern games ease up on the restrictions, meaning this form of metagaming is only necessary in these editions. I'll actually agree with Luke on this point, though. I never did like the overly restrictive AD&D alignment interaction rules. If an assassin's talents are useful, and a paladin's talents are useful, why not have them team up? Their interactions about how to approach the adventure will hopefully liven things up rather than be a drag.

Next point -- why not form a large party? Why not hire hirelings and retainers to help increase the party size? And all I think is, that's smart play, and not at all metagaming. The fact that there is strength in numbers is something any character in any sort of world should realize. And in old school play, it's just what's expected.

From around the 10:50 point, he gives his solution to the metagaming problem. First, pick your battles. Solid advice. Even if we disagree about what is good metagaming and what is bad metagaming, knowing when to stop it and when to let it slide is good advice. Because, as I said above, it's nearly impossible to avoid metagaming by the strictest definition because it's impossible for us to know everything that our character knows.

We also agree that we need to remember that this is a game. And while he thinks "having fun" is paramount, I think a big part of the fun of D&D is figuring out a challenge presented in an encounter. And often that involves a clever idea which is a form of metagaming. This could be assessing a tactical situation in combat, or finding a non-standard use of a spell or magic item, or whatever. It's highly likely that the player is considering the situation as a whole in these instances, not through the lens of their character's in-game knowledge and intelligence.

Finally, I like his proposed solution to the metagaming problem. No matter where you fall on the "metagaming is bad" spectrum, having a conversation with the players and letting them try to justify the metagaming is a good idea. And since it's just a game, letting the player have the final decision about whether to metagame or not is probably a good thing, too.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Gaming the System and New Editions

I read this article today. It starts out with a dude gaming the system in Jeopardy, and moves on to the general implications of gaming systems. It was nothing really new, but interesting nonetheless. Especially how it matches up with D&D in particular but RPGs in general, and the desire to push out new editions every few years to "clean up the system" (and make more money).

Spells in D&D are a prime example of this, as they're one of the easiest ways for players to think up creative uses to solve problems laterally. OD&D spells were so vaguely defined that DMs and players had a lot of latitude. And players would discover that certain spells allowed "exploits" in encounters. Some exploits later became codified in the rules. Casting light or darkness at a creature's eyes blinds them being explicitly allowed in BECMI, is an example of this in practice.

Others were seen as a problem and got nerfed. Haste originally only sped up movement rates (apparently) but then in later editions also gave more attacks. But since this was seen as too powerful, in AD&D it caused a penalty every time it was cast (aging the recipients). Although later, in 3E, the penalty was removed. In 5E, a weaker penalty (exhaustion) was put into it.

Sleep is another example. In OD&D/Classic, it affects a certain number of hit dice of creatures, no saving throw. In AD&D, if affects a variable number of creatures by their hit dice (on average less than in OD&D/Classic), but still no saving throw. 3E returns it to a set roll for hit dice affected, but lowers the roll (from 2d8 to 2d4) AND it gives them a saving throw when they're first affected. In 5E, the spell affects a certain number of hit points of creatures (and with the inflation of hit points in this edition, this severely reduces the number of creatures affected), and gives them a saving throw each round! Sleep is the go-to spell in Classic D&D. It's the "get out of this encounter free" spell. In 5E, they made the spell so weak it's not even worth considering. Might as well just crank out another damage dealing cantrip...

I digress with this discussion of spells, though. They make a good example of how the people in charge of shaping each edition try to use it to eliminate the "loopholes" and "exploits" that, like the linked article above talks about, are technically allowed by the rules, but seem to be "unfair" to players when they see them used.

But players trying to exploit the system, in some senses, is actually a form of good play. Sure, the CoDzilla and Pun-Pun of 3E were examples of bad exploitation. I'm sure 5E has its own (although they explicitly took steps to try and limit this). Not all exploits are created equal, though. I think what determines the perception of the exploit is heavily dependent on what's seen as the goal of play.

If exploration is viewed as the main purpose of the game, and treasure acquired is the measure of success (old school style), then any exploit that is used to avoid a risky combat (a sleep spell, grabbing treasure then teleporting away, a save-or-die spell that takes out the dragon in one round) is a good thing! It's only when combat is prioritized, and "fair" combat is considered to be the hit point slog-fest (like 5E does) that these exploits are seen as unfair.

One last point: companies putting out new editions of their games every however many years is also a sort of exploit. They claim to be fixing the system to remove these loopholes and end the unfair exploits. But there are always loopholes and unfair exploits. They type just changes. The companies are exploiting our desires for "shiny and new" and our fears of being left out of the group to keep their profits rolling in. Not blaming them. They need to keep making money if they want to stay in business. Just something we should keep reminding ourselves of when the splatbooks hit the fan.