Monday, June 30, 2014

Knowledge and Problem Solving (Cleric/Fighter/Magic-User) Ramble

meat fighter badass solves problems by looking tough, being tough and having a badass follower that looks like a hyena

In my head there is this Platonic ideal D&D wherein players control characters and the characters all go off and explore and have adventures in strange and dangerous places. There are obstacles and players use resources (what's on the character sheet) and skill (cleverness, co-ordination, knowledge of the game, etc) to overcome the obstacles. It is fun in the way that games that are about resolving challenges and exploration are fun. 

Character knowledge is one of those fun black boxes whereby player and referee get to peel back the protective flaps covering the games auditory pits and gently whisper questions into the game or at one another and then get something weird and interesting back. This character was a mucker of Nuln before donning the wizarding tunic they now wear. What might a mucker know about a particular sort of mud? The arid plains of Nuln are known for their mushrooms and nuts, does that mean the mucker knows a bit about what's good to eat in this forest?

The OD&D classes represent radically different approaches to character knowledge and problem solving. (this post here at 9 and 30 kingdoms is related to this)

Clerics, like Fighters, solve problems in a similar sort of sphere, both types of problems being of a decidedly fleshy nature. Magic-Users can, theoretically solve any type of problem at all but they can only solve so many in "an adventure" (which I take to mean in a single session, but later D&D refines to once-a-game-day-so-long-as-you're-getting-in-a-good-rest) and they have to figure out how to solve that problem in their weird wizardy way or they have to steal that knowledge from someone else.

Fighters exist as meat. Their plans are meaty, their actions take place in the usual meat space. They get ignored a lot when people talk about classes and games because they are generally so unproblematic/understandable. "Can my Fighter do this?" can nearly always be resolved with, "if you had the stats your Fighter has, do you think you could do it?"

Clerics are hopeful meat. They hope their god(s) pay attention and help out. It is generally a fun rule to treat the Cleric's spell list as mostly a description of the outer boundaries of what the god(s) are interested in doing for the Cleric this session. The Cleric prays over some of the Fighter's mangled meat body and hopes that things turn out well. Maybe the god is a Troll and the ruined limb heals itself over the next few minutes; maybe the god is an Ent and the replacement parts are some kind of muscle-wood hybrid because Ents don't totally "get" human parts; maybe the Cleric spent last night getting drunk (you know, carousing tables) and the Cleric's judgey white male god decides that while the Fighter is healed, the Fighter's wound is passive-aggressively transposed to the Cleric.

A Cleric doesn't necessarily know anything new or special about the game world unless it's revealed to them. It's like they have these giant monsters riding on their backs. The monsters help them sometimes and sometimes they don't and they impose rules on when they help and the general idea is that really, the real stuff is going on at monster-view level and the monsters are calling the shots and you're just a really advanced horse. 

The life of a Cleric is someone's nightmare about religion.

Magic-Users, on the other hand, know special stuff. Maybe what they know is monster-view stuff which is why it's always so non-linear and knowing it is a vertiginous experience and why Clerics and Magic-Users aren't supposed to get along. Rote Vance (and pretty much rote D&D) is super boring here in practice, but the fundamental theory is interesting. Magic-Users traditionally get their magic by (a) being a little magical themselves and (b) cramming magical, weird, non-linear magic (which might be a monster or something like an invisible monster, maybe made out of dark matter, maybe an angel or aether a la John Dee) into what is probably some special lobe of the brain. (b) nearly always involves reading and being able to cast a spell is usually stated as knowing the spell (and/or having it memorized with the distinction being: can you cast this spell at all [know]? versus can you cast this spell now? [memorized]) and, since the start of the hobby, Intelligence is the core stat for the Magic-User (in OD&D INT also influences how many languages a character may know and in Greyhawk, even the number of spells they may know). All of which is to say that Magic-Users are and always have been about having that certain special information that turns what was an obstacle into an obstacle no longer. (Note also that Clerics in Greyhawk don't get extra spells for high INT as, Gygax notes, clerical magic is "given).

The whole spell-hunt meta game for Magic-Users is similarly about seeking out the knowledge you might want in the future to solve some other kind of problem.

This is kind of related to other posts (esp stuff on Magic-Users and Clerics and Deities) but mostly to stuff I'm working on.

attribution: Pieter Hugo

Monday, June 16, 2014

Storing Information, Playing Information, Dungeons

Someone asked about nesting information.

Oh and this is mostly about older D&D.

Oh, this might be boring. I'm sorry if it is.
                                     Paul Caponigro

A/Facts, Possibilities
In short, maps and keys and everything else you determine ahead of time are things that are true about the game world. Possibilities, segregated into charts are things that could be true about the game world.

B/Maps, Keys, Worldbuilding and Good Facts
I once spent weeks drawing a world map (lovingly adapted from a map of South America, turned on its side), prepping details, fleshing out NPCs and the back histories of notable rulers for a game that lasted only a few sessions. The world, its details, its NPCs were boring for the players. They wanted to go into a dungeon and take stuff and fight monsters, not explore a far-future fantasy Brazil. I was fourteen and I had just learned that (a) the only good fact about a game world is the fact used at the table and (b) that I, as the GM, don't get to determine what constituted a good fact, I just get to think up what might be good facts.*

At its most basic, the facts of a world in older D&D are largely just the maps and the keys that describe it.** You don't need to describe agriculture or exports and you don't need to know who is sleeping with who. If the king of X is at war with the king of Y then you only need to know about it when it shows up in a key entry where one of the guards is a spy for Y and desperately wants out. You probably don't need to know anything about Y or the kings or anything else, even then:

The spy approaches the characters after they've been rebuffed from the gates and says, "look, I can get you into the castle if you can get me across the border to my sick mother, no questions asked" and that's all you need and that's older D&D and its beautiful to see and engage in.

C/Tables, Charts, Vornheim
But then the players decide they no longer trust the spy and threaten torture or to leave the spy bound and exposed on the plains, half way to "mom" until they get more info. So there is probably a chart for that: why X fights Y, why a spy serves a country.*** You can roll on Morale to determine when the spy breaks and use charisma checks to make “attacks” on the spy's Morale score. It's a do-able situation without a much work, but the tricky work of being a GM is figuring out how to react to that kind of stuff each time it happens not because it happens sometimes, but because tt happens, a lot (especially outside of dungeons, a point in the favor of dungeons) and no matter how creative you are, details start to repeat (which can be fun and a thing in and of itself).

So if maps and keys are facts about the game world, tables and charts describe either tenant/contingent, player-facing facts (facts about the physics of the game like, “what conditions, if any, do I have to satisfy to control/be a character of type x, of power level y with attending fact z?”) or possible facts. 

It's easier to talk about this with examples.

                                            Moldvay Basic (B8)

Tables organize information by giving it a set direction. All the values in a single column have the same relative weight and all the values across a single row have the same relative weight. Progression, if progression occurs, occurs in a set direction (in the caption from Basic, it occurs down and from left to right, though the latter progression feels less deliberate). (tables like this are usually fast per Zak's schema).

                                            Vornheim (48)

You can add sub-options within a table by adding (nesting) another table within the first, as in the above caption (Table Lvl 1: Describe what you see about the book from the most cursory glance (It's on Mathematics OR It's in a Foreign Language) -> Table Lvl 2: Describe what you see if you look in greater detail). For every additional table you nest, you add one more node/articulation point. I've never used a table with more than one level of nesting that was worth the work to try and use at the table.

Which is to say, nested tables work great when they're not meant to be all the information, at once. This usually means they're built around the way play works/the way players ask information:
Table lvl 1
I take a book off the shelf, what is it?(GM rolls)You don't know, it's in a foreign language.
Table lvl 2
What language?(GM rolls again)Goblin
recursive back to Table lvl 1
OK I hand it to my Goblin retainer and ask him what it's about.(GM rolls again)Mathematics

This result, for reasons having to do with surprise and the joy of watching something being created/discovered and of creating/discovering something together, is like exponentially better than a table with a, “Book on Mathematics, in Goblin” in it.

To put it more concretely: when you are rolling on a table like this, the player knows what you are doing; they are pushing a button in the game and you are turning the machine's crank and reading out the result. Which is to say, it is something they are doing and it feels like they're doing it and and it feels like they are doing it with you and it feels like the end result is something you worked together to create. If the end result happens to be bonkers or cool (and a good table helps encourage these kinds of results) then you've created something bonkers and cool that was not heretofore in existence which makes it even more funny or cool and, likely, memorable.

I do find nesting tables otherwise awkward in play (rolling, squinting at paper, finding the next die, rolling again, interpreting result, etc).***

                                       Vornheim (46, stolen from Brendan's blog)

Charts, on the other hand, describe a more complex relationship between data where data is not necessarily of the same relative weight and the information moves only in a suggested or implied direction (you could say that a chart is cyclical and/or undirected).

Charts are a way of providing possibly related information that doesn't need to be constrained by a direction. I'd suggest that when you are describing variable outcomes that don't have to do with the physics of the game and have various levels of useful information to return, a chart is always the way to go.

You can also break the direction of a table such that it feels like a chart. Here is one Gus made at the bottom if his post here.

Vornheim has really good charts and is easily found so I'm sticking with that for examples. If you look through Vornheim's Aristocrats chart you'll note, progressing from left to right the columns read):

i. Given name
ii. Family name
iii. A characteristic fact (something that sums the character up nicely)
iv. A social fact (what others might say about the character)
v. A psychical or behavioural fact (something the players will notice when interacting with them)
vi. A relationship (relates the NPC to some other NPC on the chart)

The information is in the order in which the GM needs it. Even the other facts narrow from what the players might hear about the NPC from anyone to what the players would know from seeing the NPC (or talking with someone who had).

Game, tell me about this aristocrat, what is it's name?LeopoldI need more.Von VorgWhat should I know about it to use it in play?It's secretly a lichWhat else? (the players are asking about them or racking their characters' brains to recall a useful detail)*Its a trade magnate, famous for partiesWhat else? (the players have tracked them down)It always wears furs, walks a displacer beast.What else? (the players are getting involved in their private lives)It's engaged to... (GM starts over again)
What else? Is a philanderer. What else? Has spent thousands on diamonds recently.

This is a whole game you can play with the players together. The designer has defined its outer limits, but you two are working things out together and neither of your know the outcome. With a nested table, at least, you can sort of see where things may head. With a chart, there is a much better chance of surprising the GM with fun, trivial info, which is a good thing.

If using your chart or table during play increases the experience of play simply by virtue of using it while you are playing then that is so good. Please, do that more, designers.

If the chart is more like procedural encounter or dungeon design or other things that computers do better than someone with dice and paper and pens, I can't think of the games in which that would be more work than it's worth (but I can totally think of at least one and it sounds awesome to me, in my head, when I tell me about it).

D/Dungeons, Agency
Dungeons are about exploring and interacting with facts. Sometimes possibilities work (like, say, what's in the Goblin's Pocket) because they're for describing parts of play that are about you and the player discovering things together. As a GM, I don't want to run the kind of dungeon we discover together, because of things like stakes, and fairness and me not being amazingly good. As a player, I really, really, don't want to explore a dungeon we discover together with the GM, for all those reasons and more.

Dungeons are dangerous or boring and hiding either of those things behind a die roll makes things a bit more complicated (forces the GM to stop and consider how to signal the presence of the danger) and/or more boring (adding rolls and lookups before something boring makes it more boring, adding it before something dangerous doesn't make it more exciting and probably less exciting because it lengthens the time between interactions).

I think you can probably make on-the-fly dungeons work by breaking the backbone of early D&D and making it about the characters and GM creating a place together by asking questions. I also think that you don't need a GM for that (no need for someone to mediate/referee between the game and the players )and I also think there are games that work like that, on the macro level (Microscope) and a plenty of games like that that work on the micro level - they just so happen to be video games. Or, at least, I can't figure out how to make it work or why I'd want to keep trying (but prove me wrong! I want to be wrong!)

*which is more fun, anyway. Also, I probably didn't take these lessons to heart for a while.

** And, even then, only if you've determined ahead of time that they must be there. B/X and OD&D suggests one or two dungeons to start (I think). You might have other maps that you'd like to use, but they don't exist until you need them. Or maybe they do. I tend to think they don't because I find that makes for a much better game, but that's me.

***I suspect that one of the reasons there are so many active blogs about older D&D is because of the need in older D&D for making table and charts and these kinds of details and the sort of joy and creativity involved in making them and the fact that they are awesome and the only people you know that isn't another GM with a blogger account who thinks they are awesome are the players – the one group to whom you probably can't and shouldn't show the tables.

****I also think there is an important performance element to consider: take Zak's example of a good slow table (rolling to hit, rolling damage – these are systems designed to draw out and make more exciting a process that happens in much less time in real life); what you're performing by rolling through a nested table at play that's meant to be run through all at once like, say, “what is in this room?” is that you don't know what's in the room. Which can be fine, but it can also be, and usually is, not fine. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Dark Souls, Monster Design

I promised I'd write this for Brendan. So, here you go. It's entirely possible that this is of interest only to Brendan.

If you could give a shit about monster and encounter design in Dark Souls (a video game), then you can skip to the B2 stuff.

Dark Souls, Monsters, Attack Routines
Basic monsters in Dark Souls are pretty dumb. Most ranged attackers have two states: passive or attacking; furthermore, ranged attackers wait for you to flank them, don't usually close to engage in melee when you get close and don't back away from incoming attackers to keep ranged. Melee attackers have the same two states, but when passive they just wait for you to walk into their aggro range (usually pretty small); when aggressive they just move to close range, don't use cover (except their shields, if they have them) and only the "intelligent" ones try to flank you. Melee attackers tend to have an attack routine composed of one-three different attacks, usually composed of attacks, layered one on top of the other, in combos.
Standard, Long Attack Routine
1st attack: weak front attack;
2nd attack: combo: weak front attack -> a weak sweep;
3rd attack: combo:  weak front attack -> a weak sweep -> a strong lunge attack;

Boss monsters often function similarly with the following exceptions: they deal considerably more damage than standard monsters, have much better damage mitigation than standard monsters, move and attack more quickly, and, most significantly, tend to have a flexible/contextually aware attack routine (if target mid-range, use attack x, if target far, use attack y).

Dark Souls, Rhythm of Play, Difficulty, Learning
Non-boss play in Dark Souls follows a pretty consistent rhythm established at the start of the game.

Rhythm of Play in Dark Souls
a. explore a relatively linear path -> b. encounter an enemy -> c. figure out its attack routine/behavioral limits -> d. kill it and continue exploring -> e. encounter more enemies like those encountered in b., often with variations or scripted actions/positioning that leverages the environment or the enemy's attack in its favor, or just novel orientations/positioning -> f. kill them and return to a.
Early in the game, c. is often the most challenging as the only way to discern an enemy's behavior is to engage the enemy in combat. This splits player attention between trying to read enemy behavior, keep their character alive and avoid any major blunder (falling off a cliff, accidentally pulling more enemies when evading the current enemy). 

The game maintains this difficulty by (a) keeping enemy damage output high, (b) introducing new enemies with new attack routines, (c) increasing larger or smaller enemies that force the player to adjust the way they handle character defense, (d) clever enemy positioning, (e) novel combinations of known enemies, (f) minor scripted variations in enemy behavior, and (g) leveraged map design in concert with enemy attack routines. Accordingly, successful play early in the game usually requires a conservative, deliberate play style.

Eventually, the player is sufficiently skilled in both reading enemies and defensive play that the initial difficulty called out in c. of the above breakdown of game rhythm is minimized (and on subsequent playthoughs may even feel trivial) and this totally re-orients the player's style of play: having "mastered" the game, the player is no longer wed to what has often felt like a frustratingly cautious and plodding play style. What inevitably happens is that the player, free to push their character to the limit of their ability, now creates or finds their own challenges. Later game play styles often revolve around hyper-efficiency/speed runs, character builds that maximize damage/killing speed and mobility at the cost of damage mitigation, or builds suited to a very particularly player taste.

As a representative sample of D&D I've taken B2, Keep on the Borderlands and Moldvay Basic as I want to give a concrete example of both monster and encounter design.

Basic D&D, Rhythm of Play
There are two rhythms established in Basic D&D: Exploration (B23) and Combat (B24). Both follow a basic question and response pattern: the GM asks what the players want to do, the players respond and either the GM narrates the events of the turn or announces a twist/wrinkle/etc. This simple back-and-forth feels similar to the back-and-forth between player and game in early game Dark Souls.

Basic D&D, Monster Design
--Moldvay Basic, B40

Basic, Encounter Design
"B. ORC LAIR: Upon entering, the party will see that the wall 30' to the north is decorated with heads and skulls (human, elven, dwarven) in various stages of decay. These cheerful greetings are placed in niches which checker about 100 square feet of the surface of the wall. Close inspection will show that one is orcish (see g. below). Sounds of activity can be heard from the west, but all is quiet to the east.
Area g: This narrowing area is a guard post, the watcher (Orc: AC 7 HD 1, hp 5 #AT 1, D 1-6, MV (40'), Save F1, ML 8) having a small, window-like opening from which he can observe the entrance to the lair. A piece of gray canvas gives the impression that the guard's head is another of the ghastly trophies which decorate the wall. If adventurers enter, he will quickly duck down, slipping a goblin head into the place his own was, and alert the Orcs at 7.
7. Guard Room: 4 Orcs: (AC 7, HD 1, hp 5 each, #AT 1, D 1-6, MV (40'), Save F1, ML 8). These guards are armed with spears. Each carries one for hurling and one to melee with. These have d8 electrum pieces each. When alerted, they will rush to engage intruders, raising the alarm when they see them. There is nothing of value in their chamber, there being only pallets and shabby clothing hanging on pegs.
8. The Watcher (g.) will alert the 4 guards here (exactly as in 7. above) who will rush west and then south to flank or surround intruders threatening area 7. or 9. or approaching their own quarters."
--Keep of the Borderlands, Gygax (page 15)
--Keep of the Borderlands, Gygax (map)

Basic/Monster Description
Beyond the basic stat block, we learn five things about how to "use" Orcs in actual play: that Orcs fight at a penalty in sunlight, have a special leader, are nocturnal, are human-like (which I take to mean, "are fairly intelligent"), and are afraid to fight anything larger than they are. The majority of the entry focuses on seeding Orcs in your game, not how to "run" Orcs in an actual dungeon. 

B2/Encounter Description & Map
Per Gygax, Orcs in this part of the Caves have an attack routine (throw one spear, attack with the other), tactical maneuvering and positioning (Orcs in 8 moving to flank or surround). 

Moldvay's monster description in Basic presents some mechanical/play considerations for use when actually running an encounter with Orcs in it but is preoccupied mostly with how Orcs fit into your game more broadly. What does their lair look like? What do they look like? Who do they work for and where might they be found?

Conversely, Gygax's encounter description in B2 is almost purely interested in presenting how the Orcs act and how they should be run in this particular part of the Caves.

That is: Gygax prioritizes attack routines, positioning and behavior while Moldvay prioritizes orienting the monster in the broader context of your game world. 

All of which makes perfect sense: Gygax is writing a narrow thing and Moldvay is writing something for anyone to use anywhere.

Maybe we should use the term, "monster design," when describing the broad monster manual-style description and employ, "encounter design," when describing what the monsters do in a dungeon?  Is that too fee a solution?

More Practical Examples.

Here is the Asylum Demon, AGAIN.

Asylum Demon Huge, Fat, Awkward Flying, Massive Reach Weapon, Immunities
HD 10, 43 hp, AC 5, 2 Attacks, slow, ML 10; skinnable, huge club
Attack priority & Weaknesses
a. sweep/2+ visible in melee b. smash/1 visible in melee
+10 to hit, d6 dam, front 180° smash for 2d6 dam
c. fly&flop/nothing in 
melee range
d. rampage
Uses whole turn to fly and flop onto largest cluster of targets for d6 dam (Save vs Breath to avoid) If everyone is dead and/or hiding/fled, will smash bodies, toss things around the room for d4 turns before napping
neck +2d6 dam (can't be reached from ground)
shank +d6 dam
Is studded with arrows, immune to mundane ranged

Will first engage without its club, using its fists, striking for d6 damage. When first damaged, will fly up to the platform at x to seize club, knocking loose a portion of the platform, which can now be scaled up to x and roaring, exposing the soft flesh of its neck. Next turn, will use fly&flop to return to the ground. Its fleshy, sagging shank is exposed for any behind it to see. 

(how this is supposed to work is: if the conditions for a. are met, the monster does a., if the conditions for a. aren't met, but the conditions for b. are met, then b. occurs, etc. [this is probably super obvious if you've ever taken a course in Logic or else done some programming])

More Orcs.
Here is the  Orc entry from Moldvay re-cast:

OrcAggressive, Intimidated by larger enemies, humanoid, chaotic, human-like, weak in the sun
HD 1+1, 5 hp, AC 7, ML 8, AL C; leather armor, weapons
*Prefer to live underground and -1 to hit in sunlight
*Orc leaders gain their positions by fighting and defeating (or killing) the others and have 8 hp and deal +1 dam, leader death reduces nearby Orc moral to 6.
*May work as low-cost soldiers, esp in Chaotic armies and seek out positions that let them kill and burn as much as they
*Tend to wield swords, spears, axes, and clubs and eschew mechanical weapons (such as catapults), as only their leaders understand how to operate them.
*Tribal, with tribes usually on bad terms, and 1 leader/trib. Each tribe has as many females as males, and 2 children
("whelps") for each 2 adults. Tribal leaders of is a chieftain with 15 hp, attacks as a 4 hit dice monster, and + 2 on dam.
*1 in 6 chance: 1 Ogre in tribe/20 Orcs in a tribe

Here it is again, recast in the encounter style:

OrcAggressive, Intimidated by larger enemies, humanoid, chaotic, human-like, weak in the sun
HD 1+1, 5 hp, AC 7, ML 8, AL C; leather armor, two spears
Attack priority & Weaknesses
a. throw spear/2 spears, target in range
d6 dam, rng 5-20/21-40/41-60
b. stab/target in meleec. flee/after half force lost or Leader dies
d6 damcheck: ML 8
-1 ATK in sunlight
-2 ML if nearby leader dies w/in sight

Wall opposite entrance decorated with niches of heads and skulls. The turn after it spots the party, the Orc at g will cover peephole niche with goblin head & will alert the 4 Orcs at 8, who will then move to block further ingress into the dungeon while the Orcs at 7 move in to flank the party.

Give monsters an attack or attack/move routine, with priorities as well as weaknesses and immunities. Conditions for each action in an attack routine should be simple and most, if not all, should be player-triggerable. Everything should be player-triggerable, like nearly always and forever in D&D.

I still don't love the idea of routines. Practically, it kind of solves the wall of text issues you find in encounters in most adventures written for 1e AD&D and beyond where the designer spends a ton of time telling you how an enemy will behave (it also solves it in a way very similar to 4e, without relying on the idea of discrete powers/abilities, but also has the same issue as in 4e where it makes the stat block feel a little unwieldy).

Consider the merits of including the routine, giving special consideration as to whether or not it really adds much of anything to the fight. The B2 Orc encounter I've recast above contains elements that feel preferable to the original but also other elements that feel much less desirable/not as good as the original. There's nothing really there that's player-triggerable in an interesting way (throws spears/closes to attack is interesting if its going to be a broader pattern established because then it can lead to the players coming up with interesting strategies for dealing with subsequent Orc encounters (tower/riot shields, having a back row throw the spears back, or passing them to the front row to set for the Orc charge?). This seems most closely aligned to what is most interesting about Dark Souls combat: employing the enemy's consistent attack patterns to "push back on" the game.

Crucial for this to work it all over the long term of the game is GM flexibility and awareness of the monsters and their overall intelligence and likely behavior. If the players are able to leverage a relatively intelligent monster's attack routine against them and at least one monster survives the route and informs their allies, it's not just understandable, but I think, necessary, that the monsters now drastically modify their attack plan. (This isn't shocking - it's certainly in keeping with Gygax's repeated insistence in B2 that surviving monsters will hunker down, re-enforce defenses, seek out allies and otherwise react to past failures).

A benefit, maybe, is that it can help make explicit to the GM where they're being boring/makes clear the merit of Zakum's Razor, "if someone else could do it, much less do it better, why include it?" 

Frankly, I think it boils down to the rhythm of play. If all eyes are going to be focused on just a few enemies, then I think the use of a routine makes sense and, frankly, is consonant with how those sorts of encounters are already written. If, on the other hand you're dealing with a bunch of enemies or even just a few enemies but each of different type, I can see routines feeling very unwieldy.

image attributions: Kouryakubo, Demons Souls
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