Thursday, October 1, 2020

Random Events

A random event or “random” is an idea I’m borrowing from the MMORPG RuneScape, although it may exist in other contexts or games also. I thought I’d see what I can learn from the design of RuneScape generally, and this is where I’m starting.

What is a Random Event?

RuneScape is an MMO with heavy repetitive elements. Where there’s repetition, there’s the opportunity to automate, so pretty quickly it was overrun with bot accounts farming resources, getting in the way of other players, and distorting the economy. Random events were an early anti-bot measure: whenever you’re doing stuff, there’s a chance that something strange happens. For example, if you’re chopping down a tree, maybe that tree is actually an ent right now, and if you keep chopping it will break your axe.

Maybe you were just running around, and a talking cat (“Evil Bob”) imprisoned you and asked you to play a minigame for your freedom. Sometimes a drunk dwarf appears and wants to share his kebab with you, but if you ignore him too long he’ll start attacking. You might find when you’re burying bones, that you disturb some existing grave site, and a shade attacks you.

These events were removed from the game as more effective anti-bot strategies were devised. However, a fork of RuneScape (Old School RuneScape, or OSRS) only includes updates that are voted on by the community, and after some revision, random events are still a significant part of that game.

My working definition of a random event will be: “a specific, rare, and unforeseen event that has some chance of resulting from a routine activity, and which demands immediate attention.”

“A specific…”
Random events are pre-defined. This could be considered a limitation of a computer game because it’s common enough to improvise exact rare circumstances in tabletop games. But the limited stable of random events means they have a different feel.

“rare and unforeseen event…”
A random event has to be rare enough that you can’t “farm” it or plan around it. Sometimes you can get a message in a bottle while fishing, but you don’t go fishing for one. Explosive gas might damage your pickaxe, but not often enough to bring two pickaxes.

“…that has some chance…”
My intuition is that they should not be more common than critical hits/failures (5%), and should probably be less common.

“…of resulting from a routine activity…”
In their current state in OSRS, most random events are truly random. They just happen whenever or wherever you are. This is something that computers can do great, but in a tabletop game, it would be tedious to check every combat round (say), for a range of infinitesimal chances that something utterly unexpected might happen. So we will use the older model of random event that happens when you are doing some specific, usually repetitive task.

“…and which demands immediate attention.”
A rainbow is not a random event. If we are going to go through all the work of checking for randoms, we’re going to make them impactful. In RuneScape, this is either because the event will cause you harm, grant you a reward, or literally remove you from your previous situation.

Random Events in D&D

In many ways, random events already exist in D&D. Consider random encounters while travelling: they may not strictly meet the definition above, but they come close. Critical successes might also come close, especially with some sets of house rules, but again fall a little short.

I think the closest thing to them in D&D “canon” as I know it is probably the divine interventions in Deities & Demigods. If you’ve never had the pleasure, Deities & Demigods is a mess of a book. Its purpose is unclear, it has questionable ties to its source material, and the information in it isn’t organized in any meaningful or useful way. Maybe it says something though, that I got rid of my AD&D core books, but never parted with this one.

These are the most promising random events I could find in it:

Action Chance Result God (page)
A believer is reanimated. 2% per level of deceased Arawn appears and fights against the reanimation (75%) or offers a substitute dead person (25%). Arawn (p. 26)
An original composition is sung during battle.1 5% The singer is granted a bonus level for the duration of combat. Brigit (p. 27)
A believer flees from battle. 0.5% The deserter is struck dead. Morrigan (p. 29)
An original composition is performed/spread by others. 1%/5% Great wealth is given to the creator by the lord of the hold, in the form of gold. Oghma (p. 29)
An evil act affects more than 500 people. 0.05% The evildoer is given a disease-causing gift. Lu Yueh (p. 40)
Hastur’s name is spoken. 25% Hastur sends 1-4 byakhee to slay the speaker. Hastur (p. 45)
A tomb with Anubis’ image/consecration is robbed. 5%/10% Anubis appears to kill the robbers. Anubis (p. 50)
A cat is killed. 0.1% Bast either kills the slayer or demands half of their remaining life in devotion. Bast (p. 50)
A character takes a great risk. 5% The gambler is gifted a luck stone. Bes (p. 51)
A good person seeks righteous revenge. 5% All of the avenger’s ability scores are increased to 19 until the deed is done. Horus (p. 51-52)
Someone creates a new magic spell or item. 5% Isis gives the creator a charm to resist the effects of one spell. Isis (p. 52)
Someone/a worshipper/a cleric creates a device that is highly useful. 5%/10%/15% Ptah gives the creator a Thet, an amulet that either allows you to become ethereal once/week, or acts as a one-way anti-magic shell. Ptah (p. 53)
Dryads are in danger/Men are attacking the forest. 1%/5% Mielikki appears to aid her dryads/attack the woodcutters. Mielikki (p. 60)
A believer is reanimated. 1% Tuoni comes to reclaim the resurrected soul. Tuoni (p. 61)
Someone accomplishes a particularly difficult task. 5% Epimetheus gives the person a ball of magic clay that can form itself into any 4th-level creature. The creature then fights the person (60%) or serves loyally until death (40%). Epimetheus (p. 68)
Hermetic arbiters accept a bribe or graft. 15% Hermes punishes the corrupt arbiter. Hermes (p. 71)
A lawful-aligned person breaks an oath. 1% per level of oathbreaker Varuna causes them to be punished. Varuna (p. 79)
A being takes an unusual and great risk (in combat). 2% The gambler makes all their saves and attack rolls for the combat. Kishijoten (p. 82-83)
Beings that are neither lawful nor chaotic dig deeper than 100 ft. 5% Darnizhaan attacks the diggers. Darnizhaan (p. 88)

New Random Events

The interventions in Deities & Demigods are interesting, but mostly still fall short of our definition. For example, many of the activities are not “routine”, and many of the effects are still left up to the GM. So if we want to make our own randoms, let’s start with “routine” activities in D&D (assuming 5e). Skill checks come to mind first,2 so for each skill, we’ll define one event that could happen whenever that skill is tested.

Acrobatics
Now you’ve done it. Whether through quick motion or tense concentration, you’ve slipped into the plane of shadow. You can exit anywhere you like, but the further you go the less accurate your exit will be.

Animal Handling
The king of the cockroaches is impressed by your empathic abilities. Would you be so gracious as to carry him and his retinue back to the outdoors or into the nearest structure? For this noble service, the king will grant you a knighthood! Knighthoods from the king of the cockroaches are not worth much, but are technically valid. Should you kill the king of the cockroaches, insectoid assassins will be sent for 1d6 nights following, but the new king does not bear a grudge.

Arcana
That thing you never quite figured out, you know the one? It just clicked. If you can find writing tools and drop everything you’re doing for the next 10 minutes, you can create a spell scroll of a random spell.

Athletics
Koroibos appears in a flash of lightning! Nude, oiled, muscular, he challenges you to a footrace. If you accept he insists on racing right now on the nearest suitable course (a hallway, for example). He wins and loses graciously, but gives one who defeats him an olive branch. When broken, the branch summons him to assist in one task (during which he automatically succeeds on any Athletics checks). In any case, he leaves in a similar flash of lightning.

Deception
I knew it, and this confirms it! Thou art that same villain! I demand satisfaction immediately! Whatever deception was just practiced, the duelist now believes that the character is responsible for the death of one of his twins, and fights to the death.

History
Whatever knowledge you called forth was an affront to the dead. They demand you retract any statement made, or fight to the death (again). If beaten, the answer to one historical question can be extracted. Nobody else can see the shade in question.

Insight
You understand the true nature of all things, and it is as though space and time stand still. Except for you, and if this was an opposed roll, the opposition. You both have enough time to speak a few sentences or take some decisive action (one “combat” round) before the rest of the world catches up, and after, nobody else will know.

Intimidation
You’ve caught the eye of Maxavogg, a lesser devil. He thinks you’ve got potential, kid. But you gotta learn the basics, review the fundamentals. Tell you what, he’s got a free seminar on the subject, take this card and burn it if you want to try. The seminar is 24 hours, but you’ll come back proficient in Intimidation if you weren’t already, and you’ll be known to a handful of [falling] stars in the infernal org chart. He won’t leave until he’s shaken everyone’s hand. (Thanks, Ancalgon_TB.)

Investigation
You find a tiny blue cog. These things just turn up sometimes and nobody knows why. Still, rich people collect them.

Medicine
Look, Ariel the djinn really meant to study for their mortal anatomy class, but they just didn’t get to it. If you could answer a few questions for them, they could definitely do quick favor for you, say a quick spell or sow some confusion somewhere. The questions are bizarre, but simple enough to answer. If Ariel is ignored, they might steal something shiny before disappearing.

Nature
Isn’t there a children’s rhyme about that lichen over there? “Purple fur and orange leaves / Death the drinker’s soul recieves” Maybe that wasn’t it, but you certainly recognize it. Given 10 minutes’ uninterrupted work, you could probably get a useful dose of poison from it.

Perception
One of the fair folk is hiding a cache. If you stand perfectly still and silent for the next 10 minutes, they won’t notice you’ve seen them and you can retrieve it after they leave.

Performance
A talent agent was in the audience (in the shadows if necessary), and would like to offer you a considerable advance. If you accept, 1d4 fiendish lawyers attack the next time you perform the same song again.

Persuasion
An impressionable dandy is not only persuaded by your arguments, but by your very lifestyle! They loyally follow you around, loudly agreeing and generally being obnoxious. If any sort of combat breaks out they throw one attack at random before fleeing. Left outside of your powerful presence, they quickly grow bored and disappear.

Religion
Clarence, a neophyte angel, needs to help some more good people before he’s allowed into the choir. Will the characters swear they’re really very pure of heart? (Clarence trusts them if they do.) That’s just great, is there anything he can do for them that doesn’t involve direct or indirect harm? Oh, uh, maybe not that big. Huh. Maybe like, he can carry a message or something? When this negotiation is finished, Clarence carries out the task unfailingly, but if no task can be settled on, he’s quite huffy and the character takes disadvantage on their next roll.

Sleight of Hand
No trickery escapes the watchful eye of Constable Dogberry, and that certainly looked like trickery. If you agree to cooperate he’ll issue you a very official looking, if incomprehensible … ticket? Court summons? It’s hard to say. But he’ll be detaining you for the next 10 minutes at least while he writes it up. Put up a fight and well, … Dogberry will probably flee after any amount of damage is dealt.

Stealth
You’re so sneaky! You’re practically invisible! Recall though, that Invisibility has duration of 1 hour. Good luck!

Survival
The hunter has become the hunted! For the next 24 hours, King Herla will hunt the character (sans the entire wild hunt, this is his day off). He can be defeated in single combat, or dissuaded by a boring hunt, but if a quarry evades him for the duration, he gifts them an antler. When broken, the antler summons him to assist in one task (during which he automatically succeeds on any Survival or Nature checks).

Implementation

Tying randoms to skill checks has a lot of potential. Whenever a player goes to roll, they roll a d% alongside, and on a 000, the random event happens. Only rolling when there’s a risk of failure prevents “farming” the events, and rolling multiple dice adds excitement.

Special consideration should be given to group checks. As they exist in D&D now, each member makes the check. To keep randoms rare, they should only be checked on individual tests, or alternative rules for group checks should be used. Similarly, they shouldn’t occur on passive checks.3

Because these events are so rare, they must be applied consistently. Even if the athletics check happens in an anti-magic field, the laws of the universe governing Koroibos’ appearance allow him in and out regardless. Religion checks don’t involve any action on the character’s part, but they can still attract Clarence.

These definitely aren’t ready to use as-is. Adversaries need stats, chases need rules, quizzes need questions, and wishes need limits. In the spirit of the original random events, the difficulty of any challenge should probably be scaled to the character that caused it, so that the event is always “relevant”.

Benefits

The events I sketched out here would fit a high-magic gonzo setting, but I do think some version of the mechanic could be worked into other settings. Even though they occur rarely, they define a setting by the types of unexpected things that occur. And because they have a chance of occurring to anyone, you can lean on them elsewhere in the setting. The cockroach court can be involved in unrelated intrigues, and the impressionable dandy might show up later following some NPC.

Challenges

Random events speak to a kind of story-telling that is rarer in 5e, but more common in OSR games, where the story is largely emergent. Even given some larger plot, a random encounter or roll on a table can recontextualize elements of it unexpectedly. These “story wrenches” still appear in 5e, but the reaction to them is largely negative from what I can tell (consider the wild magic sorcerer, for example).

At the same time, tying them to skill checks is a type of rules maximalism that the OSR does not usually go for. It would be easy to forget to check for these events, especially if there are any quantity of these always-in-play-but-seldom-relevant rules. One possible “clean” solution might be to hook them into a VTT, owning the video-game roots of the idea.

Personally, I think these challenges will stop me from using the idea in its current form, but it was a fun thought experiment, and I think the seed of the idea could be useful.


1 As written, the player needs to sing an original composition for the whole of combat. Like I said, it’s a weird book.back

2 Cantrips come to mind second, which could be a different, but promising avenue to explore.back

3 I’d have to remember to use passive checks more often, to avoid perception having all the fun (or not).back

Monday, September 14, 2020

The Palace Semi-Infinite

The implicit setting of PALACE RUN. The palace is richly-appointed, labyrinthine, and endless. Some would say “infinite”, but it is surely partly bounded as it has relatively easy access to the outside. The format is from Jack Shear, although I’m sure I haven’t done it justice.

Aesthetics

  • Whole rooms of one color or material, tables set for hundreds, imperial staircases, gilt-framed family portraits, exotic tributes and gifts, the slow approach to the throne.
  • Scaffolding for renovation and construction; kitchens so large they have their own weather systems; secret doors, passageways, and whole hidden complexes for servants.
  • Vast unread libraries, dusty rooms of unknown purpose, sacred crypts and chapels, a lonely child exploring.

Themes

This is an RPG and not a fable. These are ideas to be interrogated, not morals to be enforced.

  • “The rich are different from you and me.”
  • Hierarchy scales poorly. Bureaucracy fills the gaps.
  • Systems are people. Ritual, habit, and operational discipline hold them together.

Adventures

The core of PALACE RUN does provide some rough motivations (“Enrich”, “Entertain”, “Escape”, “Ingratiate”, “Investigate”, and “Overthrow”), but these hooks have a little more meat and should work in a more traditional set-up.

  • The Duchess of the North Wing is to be wed this week, but the baker’s union is striking for better working conditions after a recent outbreak of “doughlung.” She will pay handsomely for a cake, but the provider risks being marked a scab.
  • The palace is of such scale that at any given time, some portion is on fire. The palace bucket brigade does what it can, but after the fire passes through, there’s always work to be done. An imperial magistrate had to abandon their staff of office while escaping, and will pay handsomely for its return. What else might be found if you can beat the recovery crews?
  • The youngest prince of the Southwest Expansion has gone missing! He’s only seven and he was last seen in the Bronze Armory, fiddling with a strange gauntlet.

Designer’s Notes

The first thoughts I had of the Palace Semi-Infinite were merely “what if the adventure site were so fabulously wealthy that it really stopped mattering?” But in the years that it’s stewed since, I think it’s gotten significantly weirder, and hopefully better.

Inspirations

Monday, August 31, 2020

Sherlockalikes

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective was released in 1982, apparently to great critical acclaim. I’ve been thinking about it recently because while I play it cooperatively, I think it would be a fine solo game, and solo gaming is having a bit of a moment. It’s also inspired many imitators.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (SHCD)

The game itself is very simple once you get the hang of it, and it only has a few components:

  1. A case book, which has the initial details of the case in read-aloud short story form. Then, it has details of what you find at every relevant address in the city, sorted by address (you aren’t meant to just read this part).
  2. A directory. Functionally, it’s like a phone book for addresses: you look up a name and find an “address” to follow-up in the case book. You can also look up businesses by type. (Because there are fewer locations than names and businesses, what is at a given address can change from case to case.) There are some Easter eggs in the names, so you can, for example, drop in on Charles Dodgson and see what he's up to.
  3. A newspaper “archive”. Largely for flavor, but the newspaper will give you some other leads to follow-up on or side-mysteries to solve. Older newspapers stay available and relevant as you go to later cases, so you can spot patterns in them.
  4. A list of “regulars”, addresses you can always try if you’re lost or stuck.
  5. A solution book. For each case, this booklet will have a “quiz” section, but you don’t know the questions until you think you’re ready to attempt it. There are some number of bonus questions in each case also, which can include unrelated mysteries, subtler details, or loose ends from previous cases. Finally, it will tell you how Sherlock solved the mystery in very few steps, typically by following huge unexpected leaps of logic like “obviously our killer was born, so we start at the registry of births and deaths…”).
  6. A map. Theoretically, every address can be found on the map, and travel times between them computed (to reconstruct the movements of a suspect, for example). However, this is not usually worthwhile.

Nominally there is some kind of scoring and a competitive element. None of this is necessary in practice because most of the fun is simply in interacting with the game.

The game spawned several expansions and many fan-made cases (largely in French and Italian). These used to be hard to track down, but Space Cowboys has been doing really nice slipcase collections of the original cases, the expansions, and some new cases (they’re all standalone, so you can start with any particular box). They have a free case available online, and the fan-made cases all seem to be available on BoardGameGeek. Some blessed obsessives have sorted all the cases they could find into a huge spreadsheet.

Gumshoe

The original authors of SCHD also made a noir game set in 1940’s San Francisco. I haven’t played this and it’s hard to find, but from what I can tell it adds some kind of fingerprinting mechanic and instead of a series of loosely linked cases it’s only one big case that takes multiple sessions to solve.

The Martian Investigations

A fan of the original SHCD wrote their own from scratch, in the form of a pair of investigations in a Martian mining colony. They’re a couple bucks as print-and-play and skillfully executed. We had fun with them.

Arkham Investigator/Mythos Tales

The obligatory Lovecraft adaptation, Arkham Investigator, was initially released as a pair of free print-and-play cases (the downloads don’t seem to work anymore). Later there was obviously a crowdfunding campaign to expand this to ~10 cases and the name changed to Mythos Tales. These are pretty fun though, and they introduce a few new mechanics:

  • Time tracking. Each clue you follow up on takes a chunk of time, and you can find different things at the same address depending on time of day. For example, you won’t find a vampire during the day. There’s also a time-limit before bad things happen.
  • Inventory. Some locations will give you an “item card”, and then later locations will rely on that item. This is a rudimentary way to ensure you don’t accidentally solve a mystery by going to the right location for the “wrong” reason.
  • Choose-your-own-adventure elements. Sometimes you will have to decide (for example) to pursue a suspect or not after you find them. On the one hand, this can yield further clues, but on the other hand, you can “lose” if you wander blindly into danger.

It’s fun to see variations on the form, but on the whole I think they feel like attempts to reign in the emergent chaos of the original SHCD and discourage exploration and hunches.

NCIS: The Board Game, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Game, T.I.M.E. Stories

People looking for similar games are often recommended these. I don’t think any of them plays exactly the same as SHCD, but they clearly all share a lot of DNA. T.I.M.E. Stories in particular is also from Space Cowboys.

Video Games

When playing any Sherlockalike, I am frequently impressed by how much it feels like playing an open-world video game, but a full decade before such a thing could even have been be attempted. It even has the same failure modes! In 1991, someone ported the game to a computer with live-action acting, and apparently this also has been well-received. Somewhat more mystifyingly, someone has ported Arkham Investigator to Tabletop Simulator (I guess so you can all see the same books?).

Writing

Many people have attempted to write their own mysteries in the same vein as SHCD, and it’s easy to see the appeal. How might we go about doing this?

First, we can see what people have done before. There is advice on the construction of a mystery from the writer of some official cases and also from the writer of a notable fan case.

The community around the game has collected some tools you can use to set your mystery in the London of SHCD, like a reverse-engineered directory. And while the domain has lapsed, the Internet Archive has captured the remains of a community collection of other settings and scenarios.

Finally, we can take tools from mystery writing in other contexts, especially RPGs, to be sure we cover every angle. Fate reminds us that every suspect should have both a motive and an alibi. And the three-clue rule is pretty good for free-form RPG investigations, but it’s perfect for building the more constrained scenario of a Sherlockalike.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Links, Aug 2020

 


Podcasts

On The Media

OTM recently “rebroadcast” a past favorite episode of mine about post-apocalyptic literature. Interviews are with Jeff Vandermeer, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Kim Stanley Robinson discussing the nature of horror.

Here Be Monsters

An endless source of mood pieces and ruminations, HBM is parting ways with KCRW and seeking alternative funding. While they acknowledge this could mean a Patreon, they’re trying to get listeners to sponsor the podcast first. So that’s a potential avenue for promotions, shout-outs, or stranger ideas if you’re interested.

The Dungeon Economic Model

I heavily favor shorter podcasts, and these 10-minute faux PSAs about dungeon ecology with inexplicable running gags are really working for me.

Dead Club Podcast

Tunng is a long-time favorite band of mine and they’re releasing a podcast to accompany their new album.

RPGs

Game Jams

Itch.io has a big problem with navigability. Some kind soul has made a dynamic page that lists all ongoing physical game jams. So if you’re in a slump, maybe try one of these.

Understanding Monsters

Dan at Throne of Salt, my unrequited blogging rival, has a really good post on monsters. It neatly articulated some ideas I hadn’t been able to pin down, and I know I’ll be referring back to it.

Drawing Maps

Anne at DIY & Dragons has done another comprehensive dive into a single game mechanic, this time examining map-drawing-for-advancement. It’s really good and thought provoking, and might give you ideas about “fixing” the ranger class or running more cut-throat rivals.

Sword Ferns & Salmon Flesh

Linden at Lapidary Ossuary reached out to me a while ago about hacking PALACE RUN for their own ends1, and now has a more finished game to show for it. I’ve really enjoyed seeing what elements they chose to keep and scrap, and what elements were added to the game (it has a lot more now). I’m eager to hear how it plays some time.

There is no logic to these images, the post just felt naked.

1 Please do! You don’t need my permission (writing on this blog is CC-BY-SA 4.0 and the 200 word RPG entries are all CC-BY 4.0), but you have it.back

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Automatic Tables

In 2012, I was (and still am) fascinated by the random table. A random table presents an exponential number of ideas in a linear space. Recombinant elements play in the gap between improv and rationalization, making each idea potentially unique and interesting. At the same time, raw probability can be leveraged against this massive scale to emphasize recurring themes or elements, building up a world solely through repeated use and implication.

So I took this fascination and built a bunch of tables that required rolling lots of dice to arrive at vaguely “fine?” results (if we’re feeling generous). Now I have the technology to easily automate these things, and I have done so. They might be more useful this way but mostly it was just fun to revisit them.

Snake Oil

“Doc, get me some more of that bottle…”

Sage Names

“All this we know from the writings of…”

Pulp Materials

“You’ll never stop it! It’s made of solid…”

Pub Names

“Not here! Meet me at…”

Holiday Crises

“I’ve called you all here because the holiday season is under threat!”

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