Friday, January 27, 2017

Quantum Difficulty in the Sandbox

I continue to be impressed by the open world nature of Skyrim (a popular console video game); there are 350 or so discoverable locations in the wilds, and 150 hand crafted dungeons waiting to be explored.  Because it's an open world, the designers can't control the order in which you encounter the content; you could find a nearby dungeon early on, when you're low level, or keep missing it until you're powerful and skilled.  If they lock in the content to a certain level, they risk boring players of powerful characters when they waltz through an early dungeon that was discovered later than expected.  And they certainly don't want to block off certain dungeons by putting a sign out front, "low level monsters inside, wussy characters only..." or vice versa.  The designers need to ensure players get their money's worth and have a chance to encounter all of the setting content in a player-determined order.  Enter a concept I'm calling 'Quantum Difficulty'.  The difficulty level of a certain dungeon isn't fully "locked in" until it's observed by a player that discovers the dungeon and enters it.  Until that point, the dungeon exists in a realm of possibility, fluctuating through various potentialities until fixed in place by direct observation.  This is a technique we can borrow for our table top games.

First let's loop back to an earlier concept I called "the sandbox triangle".  I've done a lot of project management in my career, and traditional project management texts use a term called 'the iron triangle' - on a project, you can't adjust time, scope, or quality, without making changes to the other points of the triangle.  You can't build a bigger house without increasing the duration and cost, for instance.  It's similar to an axiom in product development - the product can be good, fast, or cheap, pick two.  It can be applied to RPG sandbox creation, the sandbox triangle.  You can make a very detailed sandbox right from the start (high quality, with a big investment of time).  Or you can do something sketched out at a high level, with a fraction of the time invested.  But the relationship between the points is inexorable.  You can't have high quality or high detail or give the players total freedom, without investment of a lot of time.

Many referees do "just in time" development.  They figure out where the players want to go next week at the end of the current session, and use the time in between game sessions to prepare "just in time".  Overall scope is kept down, and time invested up front is also kept down.  It's a pay as you go mentality; you can't cheat the triangle, but you can manage it.  The alternative is to invest a lot of time developing detailed locations, and then pushing the players to encounter the content so the time isn't wasted.

Quantum Difficulty provides a way to develop more content up front than pure "just in time" development, without falling into the trap of having to throw stuff out later that no longer fits the character levels.  It means planning in advance how you might scale a location to be an appropriate challenge for higher level characters.  It could be as simple as scaling the number of opponents, or use a more 'video game style' where the actual monsters change based on a hierarchy.  For instance, Skyrim has weapon-wielding Norse zombies called draugr; as you become more powerful, you'll run into restless draugr, then draugr wights, and finally draugr deathlords.  It's a bit corny, but works.  4E had shades of this style of monster scaling, whereas 5E's bounded accuracy makes it easier to just add on numbers to the encounter and scale horizontally instead of vertically.  5E clearly has quantum difficulty in the foreground - I've picked up a few 'Adventurer's League' adventures recently, and they provides explicit guides on scaling each encounter based on numbers and levels of the participants.  The adventurer's league provides guidelines on scaling the adventure within a narrow range of levels - scaling from a party of 2nd level characters to 4th level characters, for instance.  Quantum difficulty anticipates scaling across much greater ranges.

There are some important caveats to ensure this new power of "quantum difficulty" is used wisely.  First, it can't violate game knowledge or established facts.  There should be places established in the game world that are dangerous and deadly right from the start, and if low level characters choose to go there, they'll get squashed.  The vampire's tower, the demon-haunted ruins, and the dragon's lair, should still be fatal to low level characters.  Choices have consequences and quantum difficulty won't save the players from themselves. The key to having an engaging sandbox is sharing information so the players make informed decisions about where to go and what to do.  Quantum difficulty can't undermine this core principle.

Quantum difficulty shouldn't scale everything, either.  Bandits are still bandits, and the players need to be able to smash weak opponents and feel a sense of real progress as they level up in the world.  "Bosses" and key encounters can get scaled to provide appropriate challenges, but mooks are still mooks.  Games where 15th level characters run into 15th level town guards drive me nuts.

However, the pros outweigh the cons.  You should populate the typical sandbox with 30-40 or so points of interest, and can pre-build maps and adventure sites, confident that you have a method for adjusting the difficulty when the players decide to visit the locale, without violating any principles of fair play.  It also lets you put more locations right on the initial map for the players to consider, and that's a powerful draw for me.  Particularly with more casual gamers, I like providing a detailed wilderness map with points of interest right on the map; using game time to make the players draw a map is one of my least favorite activities, since it's a 1 to 1 discussion between ref and mapper, and gives other players a reason to drift or get sucked into side conversations.  I try to limit it to dungeon exploration only.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Matters of System

I've got a few games running right now, using published settings, but the real thing I'm looking forward to doing this year is campaign development - picking an idea and getting back into the world of homebrew campaigns, either starting something new, or picking up an older idea again.  However, I like a bunch of different rules sets and frequently switch between campaigns.  How many of you guys have run the same rules for multiple years, versus switching rules when you start the next campaign?

Rules sets can be adjusted to favor the style of play you prefer, but I still get inspired by the differences inherent in the rules; mechanics help underline the focus of the game and what's important.  Just like picking the right tool for a job around the house, the right set of rules makes the referee's job easier, too.  Here are the rule sets I'm considering when pondering the upcoming campaign.

ACKS (Adventurer Conqueror King System)

ACKS is a retro clone built on the OGL as a spiritual successor to BECMI (the basic, expert, companion, master, and immortal rules published for Basic D&D in the 80's and early 90's).  BECMI envisioned a rich campaign world beyond the dungeon, and included rules for dominions, wars, and rulership, as well as expanding basic D&D to include advanced facets of play like planar travel and artifacts.  ACKS assumes that exploring dungeons and lairs will always be a part of play, but provides procedures for creating lair-filled hex crawls, populating a campaign world, and very detailed guidelines for players on crafting items and creating spells, build domains, establish guilds, and raise armies.  ACKS expands the game from just controlling a character in a dungeon, to include a character shaping the course of the world.

Of course, the referee needs to have a specific campaign vision in mind to put in the overhead to build a campaign setting that will eventually support intrigue and conquest; it has to be something the players want to do as well.  ACKS is almost a throw-back to the Chainmail days and the earliest campaigns, as it anticipated characters will recover tons of wealth from their dungeoneering, and invest piles of gold into building castles and armies.

LOTFP (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)

Anyone paying attention to the OSR is familiar with Jim LOTFP's penchant for pushing the envelope with his Heavy Metal magazine style of art and promotion.  Because why not, right?  The inmates rule the OSR asylum, and it's fantastic.  But beneath LOFTP's occasional boob and dismembered corpse is a streamlined and trim interpretation of the old BX rules chassis for Moldvay's 1980's D&D and redbox.  LOTFP has laser-focused niche protection for the main character classes (fighter, cleric, magic user, and specialist), a form of 'bounded accuracy' since no one beyond the fighter improves at fighting ability.  It also has my favorite d6-based skill system for D&D.  (Jeff Rients recently covered a comparison of Moldvay and LOTFP in articles called LOTFP vs BX; sadly they're not labeled for easy linking).  The implied setting of LOTFP is the early modern period in a milieu based on historical Europe, featuring elements of weird fiction and horror.

A 'feature' of LOTFP is that it doesn't include a bestiary; monsters are expected to be unique and terrifying, for the most part.  Jim has threatened to release an updated Ref Book for the past few years that includes more guidelines on weird monsters and running campaigns.

5E (Good Old Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition style)

Wizards of the Coast made an effort to reached out to old school players during their playtest of 5e, and delivered a version of the game that featured smaller stat blocks, 'theater of the mind' old school combat, and a play experience built on combat, exploration, and dungeoneering.  5E continues to sell very well, and appears to be growing the table top hobby in new ways with live streaming of games and celebrity games.  5E is also the game new players encounter in hobby and book stores; the brand appears strong and going well.

As an old school player, there are some issues that leave me cold.  Characters are really powerful, even from level 1, and the game implies a high fantasy, high powered world where magic is ubiquitous - at least among player characters.  5E really only emulates one type of setting well - a high powered D&D setting!  It's built on 40 years of self-referential lore and development, and has pretty much become it's own genre of fantasy.  No wonder the Forgotten Realms is the default.

However, players seem to love the system.  Going from 'zero to hero' in the old school style is an acquired taste for players, especially kids, and 5E's high powered laser clerics and zappy wizards are more in line with modern video games.  Not every player likes having disposable first level characters that can be killed by a house cat and some good dice rolls.  5E character development includes the creation of personality facets like ideals, bonds, and flaws; old school characters get developed through play, and not conceived all at the beginning.  I've noticed that younger players enjoy imagining that stuff right out of the gate, and it's improved their ability to roleplay their characters at the table.  I need to get some Curse of Strahd game reports going - 5E has a lot going for it from the player's perspective.

Unfortunately, I really don't like the Forgotten Realms - a little too bog standard fantasy.  A personal challenge is whether I could I structure a satisfying campaign setting using 5E when I'm done running Curse of Strahd.  Maybe an older idea like Taenarum, my megadungeon featuring the Greek Underworld, would work as a high magic, high powered setting?  Either way, the setting needs to be purpose built for zap zap pew pew style D&D.

Regardless of which system I land on, I'm sure it will involve a healthy amount of hex crawling and wandering the wilds; both LOTFP or 5E would need to borrow from other systems to accomplish that, as neither mechanically supports it today (either through lack of bestiary or lack of procedures).  I'm still loving the Skyrim experience of free-range discovery of ruins, caves, and enemy holds, and want to see that expressed in a table top game!  The campaign will feature a large-ish megadungeon as well.  I'll reflect in the near future and decide if I should revive an older idea (Taenarum, the Black City, or Harrow Home) or start something fresh and new.

Is this common - do you switch rules per campaign, go for a best fit for mechanics, or use the same core for each game and just make it work? 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Tabletop Ideas from Skyrim

It only took five years for my kids to convince me to start playing Skyrim.

Since I spent the past year and a half sequestered as an academic, lots of family stuff and hobbies fell by the wayside - limited vacations, no GenCon attendance, things like that.  Each kid extracted a solemn promise to do something cool over the holidays; my daughter wanted to spend an afternoon at Barnes and Noble, hanging out at Starbucks and talking about life; my youngest wanted me to learn Madden '17 and try to challenge his crown; the oldest has been obsessed with getting me to finally play Skyrim and 'get it'.  With the master's degree safely behind me, I took the plunge over the holidays and got the Skyrim special edition version for Xbox One.  I've been enjoying the "open world" nature of the game, and it’s hard not to reflect on how we can adapt some techniques to enhance our table top games.

If you're reading this post based on the title, there's a good chance you know what Skyrim is already (or played one of the earlier incarnations).  If your luddite tendencies have kept you cloistered from modern video games - and who can blame you, really? - this brief video review provides a decent summary of the game and game world:  The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Legendary Edition Overview - Newegg TV

Now that I've seen enough to become a 23rd level high elf destruction mage, arch mage of the college of Winterhold, and member of the Stormcloak rebellion, here are various sandbox techniques that I plan on borrowing next time I do a homebrew sandbox game:

Through Line Quests
Regardless of what minor quest or story line the player is pursuing, there are some overarching "big threats" in the campaign setting that create verisimilitude as the player traverses the sandbox.  Examples in Skyrim include a rebellion between the Stormcloaks (rebel Nords) and the Imperials from the south; a plague of vampires and the presence of the Dawnguard, fanatic vampire hunters; the return of the dragons and the threat of a powerful, apocalyptic dragon lord.  Regardless of what you're doing, you might encounter patrols of Imperials and offers to join the Legion; voracious vampires and vampire thralls attack the towns at night; dragons wheel in the distant skies.

Thanes, Lordships, and Property
There are a half dozen major towns across Skyrim; each one is led by a Jarl, and there's a path to become a thane or lord in the Jarl's hall through service.  This opens up the opportunity to gain a follower, buy a house, or develop a homestead land out in the wilds and build your own fortified manor and hall.  After all, you need a nice wall to hang all those trophies!

Guild Memberships
There are a handful of major organizations where the player can climb the ranks - think of it like the thieve's guild, but covering other classes  - so far I've encountered the mages, the assassins, and the companions (the companions are Norse mercenaries that can turn into werewolves).

Discovered Backstory
NPCs disburse elements of the history and setting through brief one sentence blurbs, like tweets, limiting the narrative dumps.  Books are a much richer source of backstory - you're constantly finding books and notes in ruins and tombs; they tell history, and provide hints and clues on negotiating the current dungeon, too.  You can ignore them if reading is tedious.  Dwimmermount used this technique to great effect, and Jim LOTFP pioneered it way back in Hammers of the God, where the secret shame of the dwarves could only be discovered if you worked through the library of books.

Each town has a distinct character, lots of little subplots and stories, and a number of common services;  an inn, a merchant or armorer, and an apothecary or alchemist.  Plus the local lord and guard.  There's a lot of value in putting more effort into the towns in your game.

Quest Overload and Organization
Skyrim overloads you with things to do, forcing you to prioritize your own story arc.  However, all of the quest ideas and rumors are conveniently organized in a journal.  As a busy adult who only plays once a week, it's really helpful to return to a game log and see my current options as a memory refresher.

In my Dwimmermount game, I made some play aids to help the players keep track of quests and lost knowledge.  I can see myself generalizing it further to include all sorts of quests and rumors that get picked up.  As old school DM's we sometimes view 'note taking' and memory as skill testers, which runs counter to casual, beer and pretzel D&D playing; if the setting is going to deluge the players with options and things to do, help them keep track of the options with a journal of some sorts.  When you show up to game at the end of a bruising 40 hour week, the last thing you want is to have to recall obscure parts of The Silmarillion in order to play.  (Or Forgotten Realms lore).

Level Scaling the Extreme Sandbox
This one is a bit controversial, but Skyrim uses what I'm calling "quantum difficulty" - the levels of ruins and dungeons get established when you enter them the first time.  It's not 100% level scaling, or else you wouldn't feel like you're making any progress.  For instance, a wolf that used to be a dangerous fight can now be dispatched with a single blow.  But a newly discovered barrow, which might have contained Norse undead (draugr) when the character was low level, will feature more dangerous draugr variants if you first discover it as a higher level character.

I'm getting more pragmatic as I get older.  If you're going to present a plethora of choices right up front, there might be an opportunity cost to choosing one thing, and ignoring something else.  But if the dungeons aren't going away, the players may loop back to an earlier rumor and pick it up when they're more powerful.  For instance, the early game has the players hearing about a group of "vicious bandits" that have made travel north in High Saddle Pass difficult.  The players travel in the opposite direction and have a series of engaging adventures somewhere else.  When they return to the north and go after the bandits now, assuming the problem persists, maybe that group of zero level men and humans they might have encountered as level 1 characters is actually a mixed band of humanoids and ogres that can challenge a higher level party.  Is that palette shifting, or just-in-time development, because the nature of the bandits was never fully established in prior sessions?  I'm choosing the latter.

However, there are a couple of things I haven't been happy with in Skyrim, but these are issues you can address on the tabletop:

Suspended Quests
You can be engaging with an apparently time sensitive quest (example:  go ambush the evil guys when they cross the bridge near the town) but there's nothing stopping you from sleeping for the night, selling some gear, and heading out to the bridge a few days later.  Whenever you pick up the quest, now is the time the bad guys happen to be  crossing the bridge.  Ouch.

The game is full of shrines to the gods (Divines) and the demons of Skyrim (Daedra).  There's nothing stopping you from swearing allegiance to a Divine for one quest, and then doing something terrible to win a Daedric artifact the next quest.  For that matter, NPCs and characters don't pay that much attention, either; you can swear yourself to Meridia, the goddess/daedra of Light, and wield her holy sword, Dawnbreaker, but a priest isn't likely to know the difference, and there's no problem joining a quest on behalf of Meridia's arch enemy next game session (thanks for the fact check on Mara vs Meridia, +Grey Knight).  Just about the only thing that gets you in any trouble is performing a public crime, especially with guards around.

I understand that in the video game context, all of these quest lines are just "content", and the designers want to maximize your ability to experience all of the content without having to create a new character.  It's a bad video game experience to make choices that completely close other quests. However, in the table top, we don't have the same considerations and can handle both suspended quests and natural consequences in a way that reinforces the setting.

Overall though, I've gotten a lot of good tabletop ideas by playing and observing Skyrim - even if it is 5-6 years later than the rest of you.  Adventurer Conqueror King would make a fine campaign system for a Skyrim style sandbox, since it envisions crafting, homesteading, economics, demographics, rulership and guild establishment - lots of world-building stuff that enhance the campaign side of play in addition to exploration and combat.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Mr Strahd goes to Innistrad

Death comes on blood-stained wings… that's a theme from last summer's Magic card game setting, Shadows Over Innistrad, as the angelic protectors of the plane succumb to madness, stoking the fires of inquisition and oppression.  I knew when Wizards created a guide for placing your Curse of Strahd campaign in Innistrad, this is something I would make happen in 2017.  Curse of Strahd is far and away the best thing for 5E, a sprawling horror-themed sandbox - highly recommend checking it out, if you haven't.

Here’s why ditching Barovia is a good idea.  First, it lets me place the campaign in a setting built around Gothic horror tropes without needing to shoehorn Forgotten Realmsians (ie, Ren-Fest escapees) through The Mists.  A regular Strahd campaign would have the players making setting-appropriate characters for Ren-Fair-Land, backgrounds and ties to various Realmsian organizations like the Emerald Tree Huggers and Gauntlet Knights and Gangster Zhents, just to shunt them off to Dracula-land where all that background becomes immediately irrelevant.  It sounds like I'm hating on the Realms; they're actually just fine for a High Fantasy game, and the 5E version does its job as a default setting.  I don't need 'em for my vampire-bashing game.

Wizards provided a handy guide for putting your 5E game in Innistrad:  Planeshift Innistrad.  There are no demi-humans; it's a human-centric setting with characters from the different provinces getting background abilities in lieu of demi-human abilities.  There are probably 1,000 cool pieces of artwork for Innistrad from years of Magic sets; a fair number have been collected into The Art of Innistrad, which also provides a guide to the plane (and takes the place of a gazetteer or campaign guide).  I've really enjoyed the art book.

On the plane of Innistrad, horrors stalk the shadows and scratch at doors in the night. Humanity is beset on all sides: vampires thirst for human blood, werewolves live for the thrill of the hunt, the restless spirits of the dead haunt the living, and no corpse is safe from reanimation at the hands of cruel necromancers or cunning scientists

Unfortunately, Wizards of the Coast doesn't make maps for their Magic planes.  I went ahead and created my own version of Innistrad, posted above.

We kicked off the campaign last week, so I'll portray the setting as the campaign moves along.  The valley of Barovia becomes the Outland Vales of Stensia, in the far upper left of the map, with Barovia and Vallaki (two villages in Curse of Strahd) becoming Shadowgrange and Lammas, beneath the shadow of Castle Maurer (instead of Castle Ravenloft).