Monday, August 3, 2020

Notes on Three Systems

I’ve had the pleasure to run three new systems in the last year or so, and I’ve collected some notes here.

Mothership


Mothership is a Science Fiction horror game in the vein of Alien or Event Horizon. The Player's Survival Guide is available from Tuesday Knight Games in print or from DriveThruRPG as a free PDF.

  • Character creation is as easy as the character sheet makes it look. It was great for new players and they picked up the percentile system quickly.
  • It is much harder to GM than it looks and I don’t think I did it justice. Coming from dungeon crawling games, I made a few mistakes:
    • You can’t foreshadow every encounter. Combat can start before players have a chance to run, without them necessarily doing anything “wrong”.
    • Remember to ask for saves. In a “normal” game, the players find a body and roll for loot. In Mothership they find a body and roll a save.
    • Familiarize yourself with the players’ tools or be ready to improvise. When players scan behind for signs of life, do undead show up? Do androids? Insects? Big insects? In D&D, I’m familiar enough to know what detect magic can and can’t do (or I can look it up for a whole page of detail depending on edition), but Mothership suffers doubly from being a genre I’m less familiar with and from still having such a brief rulebook.
    • The game has no “fallback” mechanic. If an action isn’t covered by stats, saves, or skills, then you have to come up with a consistent resolution on your own, and it’s just light enough that this is likely. If a character hides, you can have a negotiation about it or roll under the enemy’s instinct stat, but it would be nice if the game gave you some guidance.1
  • Make snacks. Figs can be quartered with a honey sauce to make xenomorph eggs, and green jalapeño jelly on chèvre looks “biological”. We had some more mundane snacks also, and for dessert, a chocolate olive oil cake with green matcha frosting.
  • Impromptu reviews of Oneohtrixpointnever included “I feel like the music is attacking me.” Ambient sounds were more constructive.

The players all said they had fun, so I’d try it again, but it definitely still feels like it’s in beta.

Troika!

Troika! is some weird shit. You can get it from a few places, and there is also a free "demo" PDF on itch.io (it does not include the sample adventure Blancmange & Thistle).

  • Character creation is quick, but some players were a little miffed at their backgrounds. (We had to really emphasize that gremlins are purely malicious.)
  • Free form skills are a lot of fun, because they encourage players to really try anything and not worry about what they’re “good” at. Skills learned in the first session included jar fighting and high-fiving.
  • Free form skills also distract from existing skills that players might not know about. For example, none of the players had etiquette already, so it didn’t occur to them that they could rely on the skill instead of their role-playing when they were stuck. A list of skills can equally serve as a generator for ideas and a limitation.
  • Blancmange & Thistle is a nice little adventure that showcases Troika! very well, but the direction is loose. My players ascended the hotel and heard some calls to adventure at the rooftop feast, but there’s not a lot of momentum towards any of them.
  • Troikan initiative is a lot of fun in practice. For playing online, there is Dave Schiuridan’s tool and a Discord bot, or you can list the initiative tokens in a numbered list and roll an arbitrary die (shrinking it by one side after every roll).

D&D 5e

Dungeons & Dragons is a BFD. The fifth edition has a few starting points, but weirdly, it doesn’t look like you can buy the Player’s Handbook as a PDF.

Fifth edition is the easiest game to get a group together for. Because of this exposure, I’m sure I won’t say anything groundbreaking here.

  • If you don’t limit character choices before players start making characters then they will use anything they can find, and they can find a lot. Our party has a warforged, a tabaxi, and an artificer, so I'm mostly just letting them tell me how their characters work. The artificer was difficult because it's not always clear to a new player when things you find online are homebrew.
  • I had been warned about the power level and amount of magic, and while these things are higher than previous editions, I don’t think they’re game-breaking. It just gives everyone lots of different tools to interact with the environment and stronger assurances that they probably won’t die.
  • Some things that make sense to me (coming from older editions), and look fine at first glance, do not make sense at all to new players:
    • The step-by-step “building a character” section only works for that character. For more complicated characters, you will need to do the steps out-of-order and jump back and forth and add steps. When you’re finished, only about half the character sheet has been filled-in.
    • A lot of terminology is not explained. An “ability modifier” does not modify your ability score, but a “racial modifier” does, and then can indirectly change your “ability modifier”. When I write sixth edition, I will call the modifier a “bonus”, and scrap the score altogether.
    • Similarly, levels and spell levels have always been confusing. It’s not helped by every class having its own casting rules. I will call them “spell circles” when I am benevolent dictator of the next edition, as in “magic missile is a first-circle spell”.
  • The index is awful. In the space that it takes for “temporary hit points” to direct me to “hit points, temporary”, it could have given me the page number. The whole thing is like someone copied the style of an index without understanding it.
  • I think the GM tools are probably lacking, but I borrow liberally from everywhere, so it’s hard for me to judge.

There’s a lot of fun to be had with 5e, but I’m never sure how much is just the inherent fun of RPGs. Still, I think it’s got an undeserved reputation in some places.


1 There is a Warden’s (GM’s) guide planned, in the future. I hold out hope that book does for the GM what the survival guide does for players, but I’m less sure given the Twitter thread. There was definitely room to own that some parts of the rules were just less finished than others, but also everyone says dumb stuff on Twitter.back

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Weird on the Waves (Review)

For a while now1, I’ve been dreaming of a maritime campaign, so I jumped on Weird on the Waves a year or so ago. It’s finally out, and it’s OK I guess.

Background

Weird on the Waves started taking pre-orders in 2017 as a LotFP-compatible product. It released in 2020 with generic D&D rules and notes for both “old school” and “new school” styles of play. It is available from Kiel Chenier’s itch.io page for $5.99 or from his other storefront (?) for $10.99. I don’t know what the difference is, but I got mine from itch.io if there is one.

The Elephant in the Room

Is Kiel Chenier cancelled? I don’t know man. If he’s a grifter, he seems benign. I did keep an eye out for any of the worst issues of Blood in the Chocolate and didn’t find them here.

Overview

The setting is the Caribbean in 1666, just before the “golden age of piracy”. But something is wrong: ships can travel to the Caribbean, but they can’t leave again. Instead, they find the islands surrounded by a sentient, hateful ocean full of strange and magical islands.

Chapter 1 - The Weird Waves

In addition to the setting pitch and the list of inspirational media, this chapter also explains basic D&D terminology in a way that’s not enough to be useful on its own, but enough that it might not match whichever system you are using. I would have preferred if it just owned OSR-style stats or 5e-compatibility, and didn’t feel the need to explain dice notation again.

This chapter also contains the part of the game that I’m most likely to borrow from: the basic “gameplay loop” of Weird on the Waves. That is the structure of finding a lead and following through and the procedures for sailing (like other games have procedures for exploring a dungeon or hexcrawling).

Chapter 2 - Character Creation and Play

This chapter also suffers from system indecision. It has rules for things that your base game should already have2, like swimming, drowning, encumbrance, experience, etc. It has some suggested backgrounds, but without the mechanical heft of full 5e backgrounds, which is probably fine. It does also have rules the base game is unlikely to have, like firearms and a general-purpose “maritime” skill.

Chapter 3 - The Mermaid

When characters die in Weird on the Waves, they can be brought back as a mermaid by the ocean, but without their memories. The mermaids here are suitably weird (we are treated to some of Kiel’s own art), and the bulk of the class is a d100 random-advancement table. It has details for “New School” and “Old School” games.

Chapter 4 - Goods and Equipment

Maybe someone likes this, but for the most part I don’t care what the cost of a cutlass is, or the range of a blunderbuss compared to a musket, meticulously-researched though I’m sure it is. I appreciate the miscellaneous bonuses that come from ship’s pets, and I like that all the currency conversion rates are as simple as possible.

Rules for disease also end up in this chapter, because medicine is here. Fair enough.

Chapter 5 - Ships and Sea Vessels

Like equipment tables for boats. I would be perfectly fine with four basic ships and then keep the section with perks and customizations, but I assume that some people get a lot out of this.

Chapter 6 - Sailing the Sea

Here is real meat. If Chapter 1 had procedures for “dungeon exploration”, Chapter 6 is the random encounter tables and rules for morale. (It is actually random encounter tables and rules for morale, so that wasn’t a great analogy.)

Chapter 7 - Ship Combat

I’ve read a bunch of ship combat rules, but I’ve never actually run any. This looks simpler than Pathfinder but more helpful than B/X, so that’s promising. Ocean hazards are also in this chapter, and I’m not sure why they’re not in the previous one instead.

Chapter 8 - Ending Combat, Days, and Voyages

Unlike the last section of Chapter 7 (“Ending Combat”), the title of this chapter refers to repairs after combat and also other parts of the sailing procedure that happen at the end of the day (e.g. morale checks) or the end of voyages (e.g. selling treasure).

Chapter 9 - Wave Master Rules

This chapter has a setting overview (“the ocean is magic and hates you”) and details (“the government of Cuba”) and GM advice (“historical accuracy is overrated”). There are also rules for “Wave”, “Weal”, and “Woe” dice, which represent the will of the malevolent sea. Wave dice get added to the GM-side of contested rolls, Weal dice are added to player rolls (like inspiration maybe), and Woe dice are rolled for prompts to make a situation worse whenever a player rolls a natural “1”.

This chapter also has all the random tables, and they seem all right.

Chapter 10 - Adversaries and Monsters

There are three kinds of monster in here: small or mundane animals, NPCs, and weird creatures. I could probably do without stats for “Cat” and “Dog”, especially because the important parts (bonuses for having a ship’s pet) are already elsewhere. I could also do without stats for “Sailor” and “Commoner”, because the base system should already have these, and I wouldn’t have to convert anything.

The weird creatures are one of the best parts of the book though, from a flavor standpoint. We’ve been told before that the sea hates humans and mocks them, but these creatures are actually showing that. The ocean learns that humans need vitamin C to survive, so it makes carnivorous citruses that suck vitamin C. Explorers start littering guns and ammunition, so the ocean induces crabs to become fortresses. It really captures the weirdness and hatred and confusion of the setting.

There are also some named NPCs (mostly historical figures) to serve as rivals, patrons, etc. These are fine and useful.

Chapter 11 - The Horrors of Pig Island

A short adventure, but probably solid. There are only so many ways to do a shipwreck adventure, but this one is cleaned up, with a little bit of Circe, and showcasing some of the atmosphere of the Weird on the Waves setting.

Chapter 12 - Race to Mondo Island

This adventure really showcases the sailing protocols, but doesn’t seem to add much. The PCs have a map, hire a crew, encounter some weird stuff, and hopefully return with the treasure. If nothing else, this is a useful illustration of how to use the tools in the book.

Impressions

  • The PDF is not accessible at all. This is, in my opinion, the strongest argument against this book. The text is not searchable, there are no bookmarks, and every page is a flat, lo-res, grayscale image. Ostensibly, this is to prevent piracy (irony noted), but I don’t understand quite how, because people pirate PDFs all the time. This is only slightly alleviated by the inclusion of a hi-res map booklet.
  • In what I assume is a result of this decision, the text of some tables is larger than the space allows, leading to crowded, hard-to-read entries like this:
  • The book is a one-person effort and the limits of that show. For example, it could really use an editing pass to catch all manner of little things (the wrong “its”, “Île/Isle” confusion, etc. In one place, the book refers to a “Weird” die, even though the new types of dice are “Wave”, “Weal”, and “Woe”.) It reminds me of Ynn in that respect: strong concept but lots of loose ends.
  • No rules are given for renown, although the text mentions it a few times. It’s not a big deal to improvise, but I remember one of the things I did like about the Pathfinder pirate rules was a subsystem for tracking “infamy”.
  • It doesn't need to be 224 pages. A lot of space could have been saved if a single system was picked, or some things were left assumed. But I wouldn’t mind the length so much if the PDF were searchable and indexed.
  • The art is a bit of a letdown. Kiel referred to the book as a “millstone around his neck” in the preface, and I’m glad for him that he finally got it finished (I know the feeling). But somewhere between concept and finished product Kiel’s own art was replaced with standard-issue public domain art3, and I find it uninspiring. To see what could have been, I have reproduced two pages from a 2019 sample document (left) next to their released counterparts (right).

Conclusion

Would you like me to review your product? Here’s how to make that happen:

  • Write a solid product that blows me away.
  • Write a product of any quality that happens to be on top of my pile when I’m in a writing mood.
  • Ask me? I don’t know if this will work, nobody’s ever tried.
  • Write a product that doesn’t exist, that I already really want to read and make it infuriatingly close to good.
I would say that I could definitely get some use out of this, except for the accessibility issues. If I can’t search it or navigate it, it’s going to be more hindrance than help at the table.

Islands!

Weird on the Waves has a weird island generator, so as is tradition, I gave it a half-dozen spins. It’s got occupants (1d12, 9 entries), shape (1d20), resources (1d8, 6 entries), buried or hidden treasure (1d6), and noteworthy features (1d100, ~30 entries).

Island 1

Occupants: Spanish colonists (60 commoners, 10 sailors, 1 noble)
Shape:
Resources: Coconuts (Provisions)
Buried Treasure: Buried trove (Ivory (0.1 tons, 12000 gp), Fresh water (1 ton, 100 gp))
Noteworthy Feature: The island is cursed, causing all who dwell upon it to slowly be turned into different kinds of fish people. The transformation is slow, causing anyone who stays there longer than a month to develop fishy traits.

Island 2

Occupants: Coconauts (110 coconauts)
Shape:
Resources: Coconuts (Provisions)
Buried Treasure: Sealed crate of textiles (175 gp)
Noteworthy Feature: Site of a cursed item. A random cursed item is hidden somewhere on the island. The item is a valuable treasure, but holds a terrible curse if used or possessed by a character. The exact nature of the cursed item is up to the Wave Master.

Island 3

Occupants: Uninhabited by humans
Shape:
Resources: Island cedar trees (Materials)
Buried Treasure: Buried Trove (Spanish wine (0.2 tons, 300 gp), Livestock (2.1 tons, 75 gp), Clothing (1 ton, 300 gp))
Noteworthy Feature: The island is cursed, causing all who dwell upon it to slowly be turned into different kinds of fish people. The transformation is slow, causing anyone who stays there longer than a month to develop fishy traits.

Island 4

Occupants: Dutch merchants (100 sailors, 2 captains)
Shape:
Resources: Island cedar trees (Materials)
Buried Treasure: Buried Trove (Dyes (0.2 tons, 500 gp), Textiles (0.3 tons, 525 gp), 14 Provisions (0.4 tons, 140 gp), Materials (1 ton, 100 gp), Narcotics (0.5 tons, 1000 gp), Rum (1 ton, 400 gp))
Noteworthy Feature: Within the island is a cave system with 17 chambers, forming a treasure-laden but heavily trapped dungeon.

Island 5

Occupants: Buccaneer camp (13 buccaneers, 1 captain)
Shape:
Resources: Island cedar trees (Materials)
Buried Treasure: Sealed crate of textiles (175 gp)
Noteworthy Feature: An abandoned settlement. Tobacco and sugarcane has been planted, houses and camps built and intact, but completely empty save for a few splashes of blood. Pirates didn’t kill these people, but something did. Setting up a camp here is easy, but encounters are doubled.

Island 6

Occupants: English colonists (50 commoners, 10 sailors, 1 captain)
Shape:
Resources: Sea cave (Hiding place)
Buried Treasure: Cache of Barbados rum (12 barrels, 480 gp)
Noteworthy Feature: An abandoned settlement. Tobacco and sugarcane has been planted, houses and camps built and intact, but completely empty save for a few splashes of blood. Pirates didn’t kill these people, but something did. Setting up a camp here is easy, but encounters are doubled.

Notes

These are pretty good, combining a lot of the best features of other tables I’ve liked. I like that most islands are inhabited, I like that every island has a secret treasure, and I like the little maps. The only thing that feels “off” is the specificity. When it lines up well, the specificity makes the whole thing come together beautifully (Why does Island 4 have two captains? Obviously there are North and South camps, and they are fighting over the extensive treasure caverns.) But then when it doesn’t line up obviously, it can be tough to make it fit (How is the livestock “hidden” on Island 3?). In other places, I wish there was a little more detail, like about the cursed item on Island 2. The "weighting" of some of the tabes feels off slightly, but I can't put my finger on it.

Are any of the islands giant turtles?

No turtles, but one possible island is a fossilized whale that begins to move again when the characters uncover its calcified heart. Same vibes.


1 I recently caught up with an old friend and we were talking about D&D. I told him about the nautical campaign I was dreaming and he said, “Ian, you need to do that already. You gave me the same pitch in High School.” Now I’m worried because I don't remember that at all.back

2 Or not, as you might know if you’d ever looked for LotFP’s drowning rules. This uncertainty goes some way to explaining, if not excusing the bulk.back

3 Which isn’t to say that this can’t be done well. I quite like the public-domain collages in Johnstone Metzger’s work, and I find that Emmy Allen’s work tends to recontextualize the images enough that they don’t bother me.back

Monday, July 27, 2020

House Rules in a Digital House

I've been running D&D 5e for a group of remote friends recently. These are the “house rules” that I've adopted to make things go smoother, or at least reassure myself. I'm sure I got most of these from other places, but I can only credit what I remember.

Absence

Characters of absent players will be ignored and their departure and return unremarked on. I will make no effort to explain this in the fiction, but in future sessions we can act as though they were there. So “remember that time we all burned down a fortress?” or “aren’t you those people who tried to murder my brother?” will still include characters of players who were absent at the time.

I don't plan to spend a lot of time balancing encounters, so I think “fading into the background” is a fine solution. I want to encourage roleplaying, but also a shared group identity, so this doesn't let anyone off the hook or force anyone to miss opportunities because of real-life concerns.

Experience

Experience will be awarded using the “Milestone” option. While we are in a dungeon, “clearing” a level will be worth one level of experience. Outside of a dungeon, other goals may be used. These are negotiable.

I started the game in a dungeon and expected the first level to be cleared fairly quickly (it was). So this gave us a quick level-up without math on my end, but still tied to a measurable achievement. For the first-time players in the group, the early level-up lets them engage with the rules differently and see possibilities for (mechanical) growth. Because I do not know what parts of the game this group will enjoy most, the “Milestone” option allows them to pivot away from the dungeon later.

Inspiration

Inspiration will be awarded at the end of each session by player vote for favorite moment.

This is something I borrowed from DIE TRYING, although I've seen similar things in other systems. The practical effect is a moment of reflection at the end of the session when players can say what they liked best and what they're looking forward to most. It also reminds me that inspiration exists.

Quorum

We will not play D&D with less than half the party. To keep the appointment, we can play other games with however many people we have.

It feels bad for the players who do show up when there aren't enough people to play, so I really wanted to get in the habit of playing even if we can't play the main game. Games under consideration for backup have to be lightweight. So far they include:

Timekeeping

Generally, I will assume an “exploration turn” of 10 minutes, which is enough time to fully explore a room and interact with all of its contents (excluding combat etc.). After 8 hours (48 turns) without rest, characters will take a level of exhaustion.

I didn't find timekeeping rules that I liked in 5e, and as long as we were in a dungeon I wanted to build expectations around that procedure. In practice, the biggest effect of this change is that ritual casting now carries some cost. It does seem like 48 turns is unlikely to be an actual concern.

Encumbrance

I haven't adopted these rules yet, but I'm considering something like Electric Bastionland (paraphrased):

Some items are [bulky]. You can carry two [bulky] items: one on your back and one in your hands.
The hope is that these rules are just enough to make looting things complicated, but not enough that I have to worry about weight or spreadsheets. The worry is that with six characters, this just still doesn't matter.

Hexcrawling

These are also rules still under consideration:

Travel 3 hexes (6 miles each) per day, walking 8 hours per day.
Roll a d6 2x every day of travel, once during the day and once during camp.
On a 1, an Encounter occurs (something interesting).
On a 2, an Omen occurs (signs of something interesting).
Difficult terrain (mountain, swamp) counts as 2 hexes.
Travel -1 hex to explore for hidden locations in one hex.
Travel -1 hex to forage, gaining 1d4-1 rations per forager.
Travel +1 hex on a road.
Travel +1 hex if everyone has fast mounts.
Travel +1 hex over another 4 hours but [take a level of] Exhaustion.
I didn't find any hexcrawl rules in 5e, so I stole these ones wholesale from Moonhop. Because we have new players, I'm trying to fit as many “modes” as I can into the game, to showcase it a bit. At the same time, I'd like to minimize the overhead of learning a hundred new subsystems and then abandoning them later. I might have to make it two levels of exhaustion though, in order for it to matter.

Other Notes

I've observed some other things about the group in particular and online play in general.

  • Playing on a weekday evening, and given the limits of engagement online, 3 hours is about as long as I can go.
  • Some players fare better than others with “theater of the mind”. There has been a request for a VTT system of some kind, which terrifies me, but I'm considering it. On the other hand, I'd like everyone to be on the same footing, so maybe I can strike a balance with a whiteboard of some kind or some more defined abstractions (“Zones” from Fate or “Abstract Distances” from The Black Hack).
  • None of the players has actually used their inspiration yet, so I'll have to be better about reminding them when they can. The post-game ritual seems to go over well though.
  • D&D is actually fun! This should be obvious, because why else would be be here? But it's always refreshing to play.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Chuckleheads and The ’Valizzi

Dan D. at Throne of Salt requests from the jackalope:

d6 Chuckleheads you have to deal with from the local wizard mafia

The Plan

This should be easy:

  1. Binge-listen to Crimetown.
  2. Define the Local Wizard Mafia.
  3. Write up some chuckleheads.


Wizard mobsters are probably like normal mobsters, but with funny hats. (Funny hats are by Lorc and Delapouite via game-icons.net, used under a CC-BY 3.0 license.)

The ’Valizzi

Description

The ’Valizzi is the local wizard mafia, an organized magical crime syndicate. Even when their ends are mundane, their means are supernatural. They run extraplanar smuggling rings, deal in apotropaic protection rackets, and arbitrate disputes between wizards and godlings. Where magic is illegal or disreputable, they have business with necromancy, fortune-telling, and the manufacture of consumables (potions, scrolls, drugs, and so on).

There is no requirement of blood relation to join the ’Valizzi, only magical ability. Because of their persecution, proper members of the ’Valizzi are magically bound to never verbally confirm if an individual is or is not a member of the ’Valizzi. This curse is taken voluntarily, and has never been known to be broken. Current members will also never knowingly risk letting an outsider know who is or isn't in the ’Valizzi through other means.

Motto

Anything in the world is ours to take, and in exchange we offer order.

Beliefs

  • Always repay debts.
  • All magic and all crime should be conducted under our auspices.

Goals

  • Enrich selves.
  • Control all forms of magic.

Hooks

  • The PCs need a divination, and the only purveyors in town are ’Valizzi.
  • Returning to town, the lone guard at the gate doesn't remember them at all. He is being memory-wiped with some regularity by potion smugglers.
  • The flood of magic items brought back to town by the PCs has upset a local wizard, who calls in a favor from the ’Valizzi to see about cutting off the supply.
  • The PCs perform some minor magical service in town, for example a healing or a detection spell. The ’Valizzi won't be happy to hear about upstarts cutting in on their turf.

The Chuckleheads

1. Father Corx

Overview: Father Corx is a dapper priest who goes way back with the ’Valizzi.

Appearance: He has neat salt-and-pepper hair and a low booming voice.

Abilities: He has the spellcasting ability of a low-level cleric.

Talents: He assuages people's guilt, including his own.

Mannerisms: He takes long pauses between sentences (or as dramatically appropriate).

Interactions: He is very understanding of others, to the point of condescension.

Knowledge: He always knows how to make things right and who to set up meetings with.

Ideals: A strong, if twisted, belief in hierarchy governs his actions.

Bond: He is childhood friends with the current leaders of the ’Valizzi, and sees no conflict between his religious teachings and their actions.

Secrets: He has covered for the ’Valizzi in several large court cases, using his station to sway the jury.

2. Jerry "the Ferret"

Overview: Jerry used to be a smuggler and a burglar with the ’Valizzi.

Appearance: Even bent over a cane, his wiry frame is still tall.

Abilities: He can open a door to any other door in the same building, one-way, provided they both have doorknobs.

Talents: He misdirects at every scale.

Mannerisms: His teeth whistle slightly, enough to stop him casting spells (part of the terms of his release).

Interactions: Jerry is faultlessly polite and fabulously generous, so long as he thinks he might learn something from you.

Knowledge: He can get into and out of any building, or at least knows how.

Ideals: Jerry is a self-made man and values that independence.

Bond: Jerry's only loyalty is to his immediate family, to the chagrin of his former compatriots and cell-mates.

Secrets: Jerry knows where the gold from his last big heist is buried, and intends it to be his son's inheritance.

3. Nicalos, Old Fredward's Boy

Overview: Nicalos is a goon and errand-runner employed by the ’Valizzi.

Appearance: His personal grooming is impeccable, but he wears outdated, fraying clothes.

Abilities: Nicalos is slightly un-magical, and if a spell can fail around him, it will tend to.

Talents: Nicalos has a real knack for hiding and sneaking.

Mannerisms: His speech is heavily-affected cartoonish mob-speak (Nyah, see?).

Interactions: He always seeks to make himself look good, and to win approval from others.

Knowledge: Whatever the characters' business with the ’Valizzi, Nicalos will have a better understanding of the implications and repercussions than they do.

Ideals: Nicalos has aspirations to run the show, and will take initiative given the opportunity.

Bond: Nicalos keeps his mother sheltered from his activities a ways outside town.

Secrets: Depending on the characters' goals, Nicalos' are either exactly the same or exactly opposite. He will not let on to this.

4. Barb, the Lightning Witch

Overview: Barb is an electric witch, an invaluable asset to the ’Valizzi.

Appearance: Short middle-aged woman, long blond hair always floating on end with static charge.

Abilities: Barb can unerringly send one-way messages to the deceased.

Talents: Barb has a flair for the theatrical, which serves her well in séances and rain-calling.

Mannerisms: Cackles.

Interactions: Barb's interactions with others are purely transactional, and she works to maintain her image at all times.

Knowledge: Barb has a finger on the pulse of all the metaphysical movers and shakers, like who is researching what spells, where Excalibur was last seen, which godlings haven't been properly appeased, etc.

Ideals: Barb delights in the exercise of power.

Bond: Everyone owes Barb something, and it makes them uncomfortable, and she knows it.

Secrets: She can no longer charge the batteries that power her magical equipment, and is currently running on fumes.

5. Buddy, the Actual Elected Mayor

Overview: Not a wizard, not a mobster, but in deep with the ’Valizzi regardless.

Appearance: A broad-shouldered, square-chinned, deep-voiced, white-toothed perfect politician.

Abilities: Buddy commands local law enforcement and municipal services.

Talents: People trust Buddy, unless they know him well.

Mannerisms: When he's thinking, Buddy fiddles with a fancy gold fountain pen, occasionally dropping it and surreptitiously retrieving it.

Interactions: Buddy will readily agree to any seemingly-fair deal, but won't do any work to uphold his end of a bargain.

Knowledge: Buddy knows just the right words to sway an audience, or the right gestures to get their attention.

Ideals: Buddy believes in the status quo and in his city. He believes that all of its faults are necessary, and that he can protect it.

Bond: Buddy knows who got him elected.

Secrets: Buddy knows where the bodies are buried.

6. Ruby

Overview: Ruby is a promising young wizard that the ’Valizzi is actively recruiting.

Appearance: She has ankle-length black hair and wears baggy clothing, but she's in there somewhere.

Abilities: Ruby knows a charm to silence her movement at will.

Talents: Ruby learns quick, be careful what spells you let her see.

Mannerisms: When she's not talking, Ruby stands unnervingly still.

Interactions: You can rely on Ruby if she says she'll do something, but she doesn't say much.

Knowledge: She has some idea what the magical abilities of everyone else in the wizard mafia are, and how they work.

Ideals: Ruby values novelty, and will want to try anything new that she hasn't seen before.

Bond: The ’Valizzi bankrolled her magical education, and she's working off that debt one job at a time.

Secrets: Ruby wants out, and will leave once her obligations are fulfilled.

Thoughts

I really like the 5e method of defining an organization, which I first saw used in Krevborna and Cinderheim, so it was a natural fit for defining the organization. Then I thought I'd try the 5e method for defining NPCs also, which ended up being a lot more work than I would normally put into a single NPC.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Things That are Getting Me Through

Everyone is experiencing these times differently. I'm fortunate enough to have a job that I can do remotely and to not be alone in my isolation. But here's some of what's been keeping me going, and I hope it can help.

Pets

I have a cat. I feed her every day. She sits on my lap and purrs and bites me.

We also caught a sourdough starter. I feed it every day. It has not yet bitten me.

Self Care

Because I now live what my father has generously called "the life of a scholar", I don't get a lot of sunlight. I find that vitamin D supplements help me sleep better.

I was never a gym person, but the total lack of activity has started to wear on me. I've taken up the seven-minute workout, which I like much better than I thought I would.

The first few weeks without shaving are all terrible scraggly neck beard for me. With nobody to see it, what better time to push through that period and find out what other terrible scraggly facial hair I can grow?

I miss math and I also miss programming. I've taken the opportunity to write a couple of janky scripts: one that generates thumbnails for video files, and one that removes cruft from CBZ and CBR files, shrinks them a little, and converts CBR to CBZ. Use at your own risk, but I am proud of them.

I brûléed a Cadbury creme egg. It's worth doing at least once.

Media

Before this, we sometimes saw a comedy show called Spoons & Toons & Booze. They've become Spoons & Toons & Booze & Zoom now, and they're raising money for the employees of the theaters where they used to perform.

On a smaller scale, we've hosted a few movie nights with distant friends on twoseven.xyz. It works about as well as any new tool, which is to say, plan at least an extra half-hour at the beginning for socializing and troubleshooting. Test what you're planning to do by yourself first.

On Netflix, after The Great British Bake-Off, Terrace House might be the most bizarre and calming show I've found. Six young Japanese adults live in a nice house and get nice cars. There don't seem to be any stakes or anything? They all keep going to their normal jobs and stuff. After each episode, a bunch of enthusiastic commentators remark on all the drama that may or may not have happened. It's pretty good.

Sylvan Esso released a new live album.

Podcasts

Lots of podcasts will keep you informed or expose you to new and complicated ideas. These are (mostly) not those.

Phoebe Reads a Mystery

Phoebe Judge, host of Criminal, reads a mystery novel one chapter at a time. She started with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, then The Hound of the Baskervilles, and currently The Moonstone.

St Elwick's Neighbourhood Association Newsletter Podcast

Recently launched by Mike Wozniak, frequent guest on The Beef and Dairy Network. The usual arc of an episode is roughly: bizarre to sad to cringe to absurd. It's pivoted into the current situation seamlessly by releasing shorter, more frequent episodes, and I think they're stronger for it.

The Tranquillusionist

Helen Zaltzman of The Allusionist (same feed) reads odd things in a calm voice, with musical accompaniment by her husband, Martin Austwick.

Make My Day

Josh Gondelman has a single guest on to play a made-up game show, where points are given to answers based on how much they cheer him up. Money is given to charity. Strange motivational speeches are delivered.

Seltzer Death Match

Self-explanatory, I think. They've been editing through a backlog recently, so there's a bunch of new ones.

372 Pages We'll Never Get Back

Two of the minds behind RiffTrax read through bad books. My cousin recommended this to me and in exchange I recommended

Bad Books for Bad People

Jack Shear and Tenebrous Kate read through books that they think the other will enjoy/hate.

Monster Man

James Holloway reads through old monster manuals, a couple entries at a time. I particularly enjoyed the episode about mind flayers, and why they are the perfect 70's Doctor Who villain. Nominally topical!

Others

Life is short. Also have these recommendations, with the understanding that I don't enjoy them any less for having lost the energy to describe them:

Games

When there was less on our minds, my wife and I would set aside days to solve mysteries, things like Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective or T.I.M.E. Stories. These days we play a lot of LEGO Batman 3, which is good because neither of us is any good at video games and it's fun regardless.

Quarantine has also gone on long enough that I found my old RuneScape account. While my old character is still sitting there in RS3, I've been playing Old School RuneScape, and it's really interesting to start again at the beginning.

I've started playing in a Lasers & Feelings game with a bunch of doctors and it's good fun and breezy. The same group is also getting ready for a more involved 5e game which should be interesting.

I've been playing in a West End Games/d6 Star Wars game and it's wild. The rules can be found online practically by accident, and they're worth a look.

Finally, it looks like I will be GMing again, likely 5e. I've never actually run 5e proper, but I'm hoping I pick it up easily enough.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

7d6, split between two attributes

On 20 Feb 2020, PlanetNiles (Ey/Em) NB on the workshop channel of the OSR Discord asked1:

7d6, split between two attributes

What values are even possible?

One way to think about this is not in terms of the values themselves, but in terms of the difference between the two paired attributes. The maximum difference is when all dice are allocated to one attribute, leaving the other empty. This is then equivalent to the sum of the dice.

The minimum difference between the two is a form of the well-studied partition problem: given a set of numbers, can it be split into two sub-sets with equal sums? A heuristic method that can usually2 find the smallest difference between our two subsets (and therefore if they can be equal or not) is called the Karmarkar-Karp method, which works as follows:

  1. Take the two largest numbers in the set. Assume that these will go in opposite partitions.
  2. Because they will go in opposite partitions, we subtract them from each other.
  3. Instead of now deciding which partitions they will go in, we return the difference between them to the set. This is effectively deferring that decision until later.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 until there are only two numbers left. The difference of these last two numbers is the smallest difference we can make with this set.
Note that we didn't actually find what the partitions are, only what the difference between them is here. I hope this is clear enough, but I'm also sure that clearer explanations can be found with minimal searching.

With some wrangling, we can produce this lovely chart, where a heavier hexagon is a more likely pairing.


Hexagons are elegant, as odd/even combinations that cannot occur are skipped naturally.

From this, it looks like the system gives a lot of flexibility in assigning scores to your attributes.

What Values are Likely?

I have a concern about this mechanic though: if you give someone a range of numbers, and tell them to pick one, they will tend to pick in the middle3. If a player is dead-set on being boring, how boring can they be?

It might not be exactly true, but we can show the distribution of all the high stats and all the low stats together, and then compare them to the distribution of 7d6 literally divided in half (which is approximately normal).

This doesn't look great, but PlanetNiles has actually already got us covered here:

Of course. I'd further consider including subsystems where the difference between attributes had some sort of effect. So favouring one over the other would prove beneficial in some way, or at least open up different options.
The strength of this mechanic then will rely on the strength of the system. Given the range of the first figure though, I have confidence that an interesting system could be built here.

What about other mechanics?

Suppose we were looking for a similar mechanic, except that it would force a difference between the attributes where possible. We might expect intuitively, that fewer dice and larger dice are harder to partition effectively. This table gives the probability of a forced difference (although does not consider the size of that difference).

From this table, I thought I would look at 3d20, because it forces a difference the most often. The figures below have the same interpretations as the similar ones above, but for 3d20 instead of 7d6.

Python

This was my first project using Python, and I think it's an all right language. It'll probably displace Octave in my repertoire, but I'm sure I'll be right back at Perl if I start doing string stuff again. The code's a bit janky, but you can take a look here.


1 “Asked” a little more directly this time, if only because I asked first.back

2 According to Wikipedia, this method is “bad for instances where the numbers are exponential in the size of the set,” so like, probably fine?back

3 I only know this anecdotally: if you tell a plant operator to keep some process temperature between a high limit and a low limit, without fail they will control it to the middle of the two. It makes sense to a person, but the optimal temperature is provably at one of the two extremes. Possibly, this is an extension of the anchoring effect.back

Friday, March 20, 2020

Game Jams and More to Fight Social Isolation Blues

I added art to my entry in the Troika! Tarot Jam (11 days left at time of writing), and I now consider it finished. For these I wanted to communicate a lot of flavor without the standard explanatory preamble, to help them fit in such a small space. I think a lot of the backgrounds would be better remixed, but can stand alone as-is. I only hope that the illustrations aren't so specific that they interfere with anyone's interpretations of their own characters.

I don't technically have more time during social isolation because of work. But I still need things to occupy my mind, so here are some RPG-related activities:

There are also lots of other things: Please, stay safe and support each other.