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.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Oft Ignored Encumbrance

It's time for me to start paying better attention to encumbrance rules. Ever since the beginnings of my D&D play with the Basic Set, I've more often than not eyeballed or flat out ignored encumbrance rules.

Time for that to change. Yes, keeping track of the weight of every arrow carried is tedious. But there is a purpose.

Several sessions ago, the party discovered another magic shield. Now, in my TSR house rules, I have small and large shields (+1 and +2 to AC, respectively, and yes, if you don't remember I use ascending AC). The shield was in the Caves of Chaos, written with Basic D&D rules, where a shield is a shield is a shield. The players asked if it was large or small, and since the rules assumed a +1 shield bonus, I said a small one.

The players discussed. If a magical small shield +1 has the same mechanical benefit of a non-magical large shield, what's the point?

And at the time, I didn't think of the fact that magic armor is MUCH lighter. That allows you to move faster or carry more treasure. I really just remembered that rule this morning.

But the magic armor being lighter only makes a difference if the DM is enforcing movement rates based on encumbrance. Something I've NEVER been in the habit of doing. I've almost always gone with the simple abstraction presented in the Basic Book of basing it by the armor type worn. And I'm also not always the best at making sure the characters are hindered by carrying capacity limits.

It's one of those areas of the game which is "not fun" but the logistical challenges of extracting wealth from subterranean ruins is worth the hassle. In one play-by-post game I'm running, I do have the players worry about encumbrance and logistics, and it's worth the effort. Pool of Radiance is also forcing me to deal with encumbrance.

Time for me to step up my game.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Game Theory: Dice Complicate Things

This is a follow up post to this discussion of why some rolls should remain secret from the players, and this brief summary of information states in Game Theory.

Again, I'm far from an expert in Game Theory. If I make some mistakes, forgive me. The following is based on my understanding of the theory.

Game Theory uses mathematical models to explain, and hopefully predict, human decision making. It sets up scenarios and tries to use logic, modeling of all permutations, and probability to create these models, and many of the models show optimal game states called equilibria. A state of game equilibrium is the optimal moves for one or both players in the game.

As mentioned in the post on information in games, sometimes one or both players have imperfect or incomplete information about the game state, and so a Call to Nature (or assigning probabilities of any possible move happening) is made.

Now, Game Theory isn't designed to predict outcomes of things like common games. It's really about creating hypothetical situations to model real world decisions. So from what I've read, the Call to Nature is used as infrequently as possible. It's possible, though, if I keep studying GT, that more advanced models do include constant randomness in the game model. If so, I haven't gotten there yet.

Rolling dice is a Call to Nature. But in a GT model, it's a theoretical position discussing the possible outcomes or permutations of the model based on the probabilities assigned.

In an RPG, the dice are a Call to Nature, but they also are also an unknown. Until the dice are rolled, we can know the probability of a result, but no player or game master knows what the outcome will be until the dice are rolled.

In a pure diceless story-game, there are no Calls to Nature. Players can enjoy a state of perfect information. Every move made by every player is in the open.

In an RPG involving random number generation (by dice, card, or what have you), the game state may be perfect if the game master has no secret information that the players do not. Usually, though, the GM will know some things about the game state that the players don't, resulting in an Asymmetric state of information.

The dice, though, are the great equalizer. Players and GMs alike are in a state of Imperfect information. In a way, the dice could be thought of as a player in the game as well as the GM and players. And no one knows what moves the Call to Nature Player will make. You can't predict their strategy (unless you game with loaded dice). You can know the probability of any particular throw, but the result will always be a surprise.

How this affects things, and why keeping some of these throws secret will have to wait for another post, though. I'm out of time.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Not sure what to make of this

Sorry to get political on a gaming blog, but I need to address this.

Earlier in the year I put out the Chanbara Characters paper minis set on my DrivethruRPG store, Hidden Treasure Books. Now frequent blog readers will know that I'm terrible at self-promotion. It's my Midwesterner background, maybe, or my introversion. If people want what I'm offering, great! I'm happy to provide it. But I don't go posting about them all over the place, all the time here, or in barely semi-relevant comments on others' blogs or forums. If they become relevant, I might bring them up.

Needless to say, I don't check for feedback or reviews as often as I should. The paper minis line has only gotten one review anyway (positive), and all of the feedback about Chanbara was here, aside from one comment on Drivethru asking about the print version when only the PDF was available.

I did check the other day, and found that a guy named David B had posted this:

Customer avatar
David B June 10, 2019 12:33 am Asia/Tokyo
Why did you not give them Japanese skin tones or did you not want to lose the opportunity for some virtue signalling 
I posted a response there, but probably this David character will never check back to see it, since I missed his comment for five months. So David B, if you're reading this and would like to further explain yourself, please feel free to chime in in the comments. 

My response to this was to laugh, honestly. I was pretty up front about the creation process of the paper minis here on the blog. So I'm guessing this guy isn't a regular reader. I'm a pretty poor artist. I never really developed my talent in art. I don't try to create the art myself. I take public domain images and modify them using GIMP. Sometimes that's just cropping out all the background to leave the character. Sometimes, if it's a black and white original, I colorize it. Sometimes I modify them to add weapons/armor or modify the pose a bit. Mostly though, it's selecting the figure I want from the original and deleting the rest. 

Now, with my Basic Adventurers set (see how I did that! Product placement!), I did go to some effort to make sure there were equal male and female figures, and that there were a variety of skin tones depicted. Many years ago, a Filipino friend I was gaming with took a look at my minis and asked me, in all seriousness, "Why are they all white?" And my only answer was that, being white myself, and thinking of Medieval fantasy as typically European-coded, they were all white. Then I stared painting more variety on my minis.
It doesn't hurt me in any way to be more inclusive. And if customers appreciate having some choices for fantasy characters that look more like they do (or a chance to use a figure that very much does NOT look like they do), great! Win-win, right?

With the Chanbara set, though, I was collecting Japanese public domain art, and some vintage photographs (also public domain). I didn't need to colorize anything, as they were already in color. The vintage photos were already colorized. 

The range of skin tones found in the Chanbara Characters set are the range of skin colors depicted by actual Japanese artists of the 17th through 19th centuries. In other words, most of these figures are of Japanese subjects as painted by actual Japanese artists. The rest are photos of Japanese people (colorized by someone other than me).
And this David B person, since his location lists him as Asia/Tokyo and assuming that he really is posting from somewhere in Asia, should realize that East Asian peoples actually do have quite the range of skin tones. I have students here in Korea who are just as pasty white as my Celtic/Germanic-heritage white ass (one who's even paler!) and some who are so dark they could almost pass for African-heritage. And that's not counting the fake tan "ko-gyaru" in Japan. I'm talking about the soccer club boys or track girls who spent a lot of time out in the sun. 

So I'm stumped as to why David B, if he is actually in Asia and not just using a VPN to make it look that way, wouldn't know this.

I'm also wondering why he thinks I'm "virtue signalling" by this. Makes me think he's just another one of those incel alt-right asshats on the internet, pissed off that someone, somewhere, is doing things without the express purpose of pissing people off. Or even worse, that he's crypto-fascist and doing his own virtue-signalling to his Aryan brothers on one of the most obscure items for sale on DriveThru. Like I've literally sold 4 copies of this thing. That's all. 
Now that sounds pretty bad. And I don't like to make wild assumptions about people like this. So David B, if you are reading, please prove me wrong in the comments. I'd love to know what your motivation was for posting that comment. Were you actually offended in some way? Are you (needlessly) defending Asian people from some perceived slight? Are you virtue signalling to the Regressive Right? Or did you just feel ripped off because you're one of those 4 people who spent your buck-fifty on this thing and weren't satisfied with it?

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Information in Game Theory

This is the first post in a series responding to Alexis's comments on my Secret Roll post. I don't have time to write up a full reply today, so I'll just get this out there as a grounding for my thoughts.

Let me also preface this by saying I'm nowhere near an expert in Game Theory. I've done some light reading on the subject. My notes here come from reviewing Rosenthal's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Game Theory (2011).

There are four basic states of information in Game Theory: perfect, imperfect, incomplete, and asymmetric.

Perfect Information: all players are aware of all moves made by all other players up to that point of the game. For example, in chess, you can see the board, all the pieces, and every move you have made and every move the opponent has made is done openly.

Imperfect Information: One or more players know the possible moves that could be made, but don't know the exact move that has been made until after they make their move. Rock-Paper-Scissors is an example. You know what move you will make. You know possible moves your opponent may make. You won't know the outcome until the moves have been made already.

Incomplete Information: One or more players has imperfect information and also cannot be sure what sort of player they are up against, what strategies they favor, or the value the other player(s) place on outcomes. Poker is a good example of this, as a good poker player will try to hide their preferred strategies to more effectively bluff.

Asymmetric Information: One player has perfect information while the other player(s) has incomplete information. This sounds to me a lot like the typical DM/player distinction.

Rosenthal suggests that imperfect information games are the most interesting theoretically. "[T]he truly interesting games involving human interaction are games of imperfect information" (p. 84). However, game theorists can turn games of incomplete/asymmetric information into games of imperfect information by using a "call to Nature" or assigning a probability to each possible unknown move or unknown strategy choice in these situations.

It seems like Alexis is saying D&D works best when it's an imperfect information game. Players know the moves that they and the DM have made, but don't know the outcome until the dice are rolled. But once they are rolled, we're in a situation of perfect information until the dice need to be rolled again.

What I'm suggesting is that occasionally, incomplete or asymmetric information situations, where the player is forced to make a Call to Nature to determine the best strategy, can be a good thing.

More later.

Rosenthal, E.C. (2011). The complete idiot's guide to game theory: The fascinating math behind decision-making. New York: Alpha Books.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Secret Roll

I know there are a lot of bloggers and blog readers who favor rolling all the dice in the open. The original West Marches campaign, which I'm not faithful to 100%, also was for open rolls by the DM.

Now, I've come to believe that in combat, yes, the rolls should be open. Fair combat rolls, observed by everyone, lead to fewer complaints when things go pear-shaped.

But sometimes, rolling in secret as a DM for non-combat tasks is a good thing.

Searching for secret doors is a trade-off. There's not guaranteed to be a secret door where you're searching. And even if there is, you're not guaranteed to find it due to the roll. And each search takes a Turn, so the more searching done, the more chances of wandering monster encounters that suck up resources. In this case, if the roll is in the open and a result proves that there is no secret door (1-2 on a d6 for an Elf, 1 on d6 for anyone else, with no door found), the party knows to stop expending resources. But if the result is a mystery, they don't know if there is no door, or if the dice just weren't on their side (and chances are they weren't).

And now, they have to make a choice. Risk a wandering monster check to roll again? Or move on and potentially miss some treasure or a shortcut through the dungeon.

Now, I can understand the rationalization in the above situation that a successful roll where there is no door means the party gets definitive evidence that there is no door. So rolling in the open isn't so bad for that. But the suspense and measuring of odds of keeping that roll secret is more interesting to me.

Similarly, Thief skills are rolls that I, having learned from Mentzer's rules where he advises such, think the DM should roll in secret. Again, it adds to the suspense at the game table. And it's a situation where, as DM, if you were going to fudge the roll anyway, you might as well just tell the player straight up that conditions are such that they succeed automatically.

I mean, no one complains when a DM tells the Thief player, "Sorry, there just aren't any shadows to hide in here." Or if a door is barred rather than locked, so it can't be picked (although a clever Thief can work around a barred door too...). If the situation is such that failure is guaranteed, I don't see many players complaining. So if success is guaranteed, the DM should just tell the player that without bothering to make a roll. 

Just like players, the DM shouldn't have to roll unless the outcome is uncertain. And while certain rolls like monsters' attacks, damage, and saving throws most definitely should be rolled in the open, occasionally there are still times when it is better for the game experience for the DM to keep the roll secret from the players.

IMO, YMMV, all that jazz.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

A New Take on Demi-Human Level Limits

This is an idea I've had before, but a quick search of my blog makes me think I've never posted about it before.

So we all know that AD&D had some pretty severe level limits on demi-humans, which Unearthed Arcana and then 2E relaxed. Classic D&D is a bit more generous than AD&D 1E, but you're limited to the race-as-class system. 3E got rid of them altogether and they've remained gone through 5E.

You're probably thinking now, "Thank you Captain Obvious."

I still haven't reverted my Treasures, Serpents, and Ruins house rules to race-as-class (which I'm still considering, but less strongly right now). So my races have limited options for what class they can take, and level limits a la AD&D.

But there's this idea that keeps floating around in my head: What if the level limits only apply to multiclassed characters? 

So TSR classes go up to level 15. Humans have no limits in any classes. Demi-humans do. And unlike AD&D, the highest any demi-human is allowed to go (with the right race/class combination) is level 12. This is to honor the fact that the BX/BECMI Dwarf class maxes out at 12th level. AD&D, as you probably know, allowed most demi-humans unlimited advancement as Thieves.

Well, my idea above would be to allow single-classed demi-humans to reach pinnacles of  power just like a human. It's only when they multi-class that they need to worry about the level limits.

Of course, then some people will ask, why play a human then, if they can't multiclass, and you could get the demi-human abilities along with unlimited advancement as a single-class character?

Well, I do give humans two advantages: dual classing, and Survivability which allows them to roll for hit points with advantage (roll twice, take the higher number). So far, the hit point thing has been a key selling point for the race.

Anyway, it's just an idea that's been rolling around in my head. Not sure if I will implement it or not. We'll see.