Saturday, March 17, 2018

What's the Point?

This is, ultimately, the question I've been wrestling with for the last year or so.  Why play D&D?  Especially OSR/TSR D&D, with encumbrance, logistics, prime requisites, and PC death.

This is an attempt at an answer.  It's only about half-coherent, and I can't tell whether it's obvious or just obviously wrong.  I don't love it, and I don't expect you to, but I figured I'd get a rough draft out.  I guess my new bar for 2018 is a post a month; maintenance doses.

D&D is an artifice for character-building for the participants (traditionally, poorly-socialized young men).  Success in OSR D&D requires a number of properties which are useful in real life, which may be worth taking the time and energy to develop (and to encourage one's acquaintances to develop) in low-risk environments.

What are the lessons that various antiquated features of OSR D&D are aimed at teaching?

  • Stats in order - Play the hand you're dealt.  As Hamming said, "I will do the best I can with what I got."  
  • Prime reqs - In terms of class selection, you can fight your rolled "nature", but you'll get a lot further faster if you play to your high stats.  Different classes demand different virtues of their players; thieves need risk-tolerance and faith in the rest of the party to come rescue them, wizards need patience, caution, and careful spell-timing, fighters need courage, persistence, and willingness to sacrifice themselves, and clerics need humility, the ability to accept that sometimes you're not the star of the show.  Prime reqs push you towards classes that you don't usually play, and situations that test virtues you might not be so good at.
  • Mixed-level parties, characters with very different stat distributions - Life isn't fair.  If you're on the weak end, resenting the strong won't get you very far; work with them for mutual gain.  If you're on the strong end, treat those weaker than you well, because you might have a reversal of fortune at any time and end up back at the bottom of the heap.
  • Monoclassing, minimal build - You are not special by default; you are Joe Fighter by default.  If you want to be somebody that people will tell stories about years later, it's on you to do something notable.
  • Mapping, encumbrance, rations, Vancian magic - Come prepared, plan ahead, pay attention to the details.  Neglecting them can get you killed.
  • PC death - Memento mori.  Some day, you will die.  Yes you, dear reader.  You can run from it, or you can accept it, figure out what you want, and go get it or die trying.  It's important, I think, that unlike eg Call of Cthulhu or Paranoia, death is not short-term inevitable in OSR D&D.  You need players to get attached to their characters, and that doesn't happen when death is too frequent.
  • TPK / Near-TPK situations - How panic-prone are you?  If other players are panicking, do you keep your head, or do you catch the panic?  Can you calm others?  Watching panic spread through a group of players is really remarkable.  When you get crushed, do you ragequit, or reflect calmly on your mistakes and try again?  The reason PCs don't make morale rolls is that their players are dealing with their own, very real, morale.
  • Levels / fully-quantitative and exponentially-scaling advancement - If you want to get ahead, you have to be willing to take some risks.  After the first couple levels, it doesn't just happen anymore with any sort of regularity.  You need to say "I want to level", to choose it.  And then you need to put in the work, take the risks, and probably get a little lucky.  And that's true of life too.  I'm hitting this point with my career, where I've done well but the organization I'm at is just small.  I find myself with a choice between slow, pretty-safe advancement over the course of years, or choosing to prioritize advancement and doing the work to make that happen, either somewhere else or via personal projects in my free time.  Since I'm here writing blog posts, you can guess how well that's going.
  • Tiers of play (dungeon / wilderness / domain) - Advancement has side effects, most of which involve new challenges, more responsibility, more patience, and more paperwork.  This is what happens to conventionally-successful people.  You can't have your cake and eat it too; you can stay in the dungeon forever, but you're not going to get over 6th level if you do.
  • Old-School Wish - Be careful what you wish for.  Someone was once very surprised when I mentioned that I gave out wishes in my games; she said "But wishes destroy campaigns!"  And I laughed.  No, wishes are temptation.
  • Rulings, not rules - Negotiate for things that you want.  Don't appeal to authority; convince me.  Whine, bullshit, do math, resort to bribery, whatever, these are valid approaches and you should learn them all.
In conclusion: I really do think OSR D&D presents its players with challenges which are well-suited to the development of mindset / personality traits which are adaptive, and rewards them for performing those virtues, not merely playing someone with those virtues.  Other games foster different virtues; 3.x rewards you for reading rulebooks, finding loopholes, and doing math, which are very useful skills.  Traveller...  rewards you for automating the trade system, which is something, I guess.

What place does Fun have in this conception of D&D?  I agree with Tao that Fun Is Not The Point.  Fun is, however, a necessity.  If your game is not fun, your players will leave before learning the lessons the game is intended to teach them.  So strive to make your games Fun Enough (probably Type 2 Fun); there's a balance.  Unfortunately there may be a race to the bottom with fun; games which are more-fun tend to outcompete games with are less-fun in the marketplace for players.  These games which are more-fun also tend to lack the features which promote controlled but real adversity, and consequently growth.  I do not know how to resolve this problem yet.

What place does Narrative have in this conception of D&D?  Likewise, narrative is a device.  Humans like it, and therefore you can exploit their preference for it to make your game more appealing, and consequently more effective at cultivating virtue.  I have been wrong about narrative.  There might even be some aspirational "play the sort of person you'd like to be" upside to dealing with characters and stories, but that's not something I would know anything about.  Classes are a very Jungian structure to begin with...

What place does Simulation have in this conception of D&D?  If you seek to prepare your players for Real Life, making your game reasonably realistic (at least to the level of "actions have consequences, which you can predict by analogy with real life, except when noted by the rulebook") is sensible.  Simulated details provide a hook for Attention to Detail, and can also factor into Convince Me.  But I have probably over-invested in simulation in the past (but it's fun for me, so not a total waste I guess).

What place does Game have in this conception of D&D?  The game element, of luck and challenge and risk and reward, is pretty central.  But I suspect one of the lessons to be learned from OSR D&D is that yes, you can play the game well, and you can win it, but it's sort of hollow and the reward of power is tempered with paperwork, as opposed to setting out to do your own thing and winning on your own terms.

What is the role of the DM in this conception of D&D?  Courtney hit the nail on the head with "shaman leading the group's collective vision-quest."  You are here to help them become what they could be; to point out their flaws, to put them under eustress, and to congratulate them when they grow.  And in this light, the ritual character of the D&D game which I found so disturbing seems perfectly natural.

I apologize, DMs, for adding "spiritual guidance" to your prep burdens (using a loose, materialist definition of "spiritual", as in "of or related to the human spirit; ie, morale, emotion, and character").  I certainly do not consider myself qualified in that department.

All this still doesn't answer the essential question of "is it worth it?"  If you're spending 12 hours a week on prep+game for four people, you're looking at effectively three hours each of time investment per week, for a very ill-defined return.  Could you do better by just...  unstructured socializing with these people for the same amount of time, and talking about their problems?  I think maybe no - the game and the ritual provide a context where failure and self-examination is tolerable, where we can get at hard truths precisely because we're all lying.

The ultimate measure of the game, from this perspective, might be "do people outgrow your games, and go on to live happy lives?"  I spoke with one of my old players recently, and he mentioned that he has come to see RPGs / storygames as a form of "group therapy."  I don't know that I'd go that far, but I think it aligns with my meaning.


I don't mean to say that TSR D&D was intentionally designed as a training program.  I think training is a welcome, desirable side effect which can justify the activity.  Norbert Wiener, in The Human Use of Human Beings (one of the seminal texts of cybernetics), discusses the function of play, and argues that generally, play is training in vertebrate species, who come into the world with much more plasticity than eg invertebrates; you will never see an ant play.  We humans play as well, and for the same reasons: training and pack-bonding, in preparation for the struggles of life.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Scarcity, Traveller, and Starcraft

Several things happened recently which reminded me of Traveller.

My father flies cargo around the Pacific, and it came up in conversation with him that much of what he carries is hazardous or generally "does not play well with other cargoes".  Oxidizers, corrosives, fertilizer, livestock...  and when you put these on a big container ship, there are more things for them to interact violently with if something goes wrong.  So instead they travel alone in a cargo plane.  Seems to me that this provides a potential out for one of the core problems of Traveller economics - why is anyone hiring this tramp freighter to move their goods when there are enormous shipping lines who have economies of scale?  Because there are some things that are more hassle than they're worth to the big players.  This is already supported, technically, but it's a shift from "hazardous cargoes exist" to "hazardous cargoes are the default."  This also adds an extra layer of potential excitement to cargo operations, especially since cargo is on the table of "things that can be hit in space combat."

I also tested for a ham radio license, and all the finicky details of talking to satellites got me thinking about how we abstracted away communications (between, say, ship and ground) completely.  Even outside of dealing with doppler shift and the ship only being in line of sight a fraction of the time, ground-to-ground communication might be complicated by alien atmospheres (in this case, it looks like Mars' ionosphere is sufficiently lower and thinner than Earth's that practical range for single-bounce ground-to-ground RF comms is about 600 miles instead of 2500+ miles you can get on Earth).  This seems like the sort of thing the old Traveller nerds, with their planet-to-planet time tables based off of acceleration, would've enjoyed thinking about.

Finally, I read this post of Charles Stross'.  His bit about economics got me thinking about post-scarcity, and I came to the conclusion that I'm extremely critical of the notion.  Hanson articulates a reasonable critique here.  So I was reminded of Niven and Traveller's belters (grungy, working-class subsistence futures) and also generally that populations expand to fill their carrying capacities - biological replicators.

Between radios, future-scarcity, jobs, and replicators, I got to thinking about Starcraft, in its grungy, space-Australia-western-full-of-ugly-assholes-but-oh-god-what-are-these-bugs-aiiieeee flavor that I enjoyed at the beginning of the first campaign (it is, of course, hardly great science fiction, but so be it).  I realized that I had never actually caught up on the plot of Starcraft II, so I set about fixing that.  In so doing, I found this little gem (just the next ~30s after the linked time).  A hell of a Traveller campaign that would make: a posse of destitute space hicks - miners, drone operators, mechanics, welders, hydroponic farmers, meth cooks...  probably two or three terms, one or two military or criminal and one civilian - living dirtside and working day jobs to afford ammunition, stimulants, and explosives to go zerg hunting in the desert on the weekends, and selling the body parts for mad science...  or barbeque ("Infestation?  Naw son, you just gotta cook it real good.").  It's just another bug hunt until you wake up something you shouldn't've...  and then the fun really starts ("Worlds will burn.").

This also starts to get into some more typical OSR territory; it could turn into a rather dungeon-crawly (tunnels), resource-managementy (cash and consumables), and probably high-body-count way to play (might want to find a way to accelerate character generation...).  Taken from that perspective, starship deckplans start to look rather dungeonesque too, after you have some transport, vacc suits, and a reputation as crazy bastards who will go into infested holes for fun and money (enjoy your zero-G melee...).  Maybe Stars Without Number would do it better, since it supports mechanical advancement and building capital ships as a PC activity.

NPC palette:

  • Patrons:
    • Scientist wants samples (or to radio-tag some live specimens, or to test some attractant / repellent, or...)
    • Tourist on zerg-hunting safari seeks guides
    • Company-town mine foreman needs a mine cleared of bugs, willing to look the other way if you use weapons normally forbidden by town charter as long as you don't do too much collateral damage
    • Crashlanded bush pilot or starship crew in infested zone needs rescued (practically traditional at this point)
    • Crime boss needs something retrieved from infested zone or something transported through it, can hook you up with good (illegal) gear
    • Prospectors / colonists seek protection and guides while looking for site to mine or settle
    • Separatists looking for a few good men to help liberate the armory of the local military base
  • Rivals:
    • Other posses of zerg-hunting rurals
    • Confederate marshal concerned about heavily-armed civilians
    • Confederate troops using hunting area as a training ground
  • Enemies:
    • The bugs
    • Old buddy that you left behind back in your criminal days

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

No Clerics, D&D as Wargame

Delta wrote a post recently about the early history of removing clerics from D&D, which has some interesting discussion in the comments.  Since I can't get commenting to work (probably related to PrivacyBadger), I guess I'm responding here.
I do also think that they can be interesting as sort of combat medics, acting as a tougher support class to the front line fighters. Essentially second line "shaft of the spear" battle logistics. But maybe that's more apropos to a wargame than rpg/dungeon exploration.
That right there is the crux of the issue for me.  As far as I'm concerned, D&D is a wargame (I refer to [TO]SR D&D here and following).  Storygamers sometimes say that derisively, but over the last couple of years I've come to terms with owning it.

And clerics are a damn handy unit.

Among wargames, D&D has some interesting properties.  D&D is refereed; this is true of some (Stargrunt and Dirtside, for example, recommend a ref), but not most wargames.  D&D is highly asymmetric, in terms of information asymmetry between referee forces and PC forces, force composition / capabilities (classed and leveled characters versus monster HD and special abilities, often numerical asymmetries), and structure of play (PCs typically proactive, on offense, and logistically-bound).  D&D is typically played cooperatively, with a group of players and a referee, extending that asymmetry into the processing-power domain (one DM cannot out-think four typical players) but adding a group dynamic which must be carefully managed for optimal play (at the party-scale).  Finally and obviously, D&D is campaign-focused to an extraordinary degree; the campaign rules, for adding units to your party and for units gaining new abilities, probably outweigh the combat rules (not that this stops anyone from running one-off battles / "one-shots").

The only wargame-qua-wargame that I know of with similar properties is Charlie Company, which I have not acquired.  Space Hulk hits some of those properties (highly asymmetric, similar indoor environments, often played many-versus-one and in campaigns) but is pretty much never refereed, and their campaigns lack the continuity and advancement of D&D campaigns (due in part to tremendous casualty rates / poor human win ratio).

A couple of questions naturally follow.  What are the consequences of viewing D&D as a wargame?  Is D&D a good wargame?  How do I run a sensible science-fiction campaign wargame along similar lines?  I have partial answers to consequences, probably in a future post.  I'm not sure what makes a good wargame, particularly for such a weird combination of attributes.  And I really haven't thought about the third question yet.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

ACKS: Orc Chieftain Abilities

As I've mentioned before, Shadow of Mordor is kind of a terrible game.  But one thing it does do well is that its orcish captains have character and variety.  So let's steal the good parts, shall we?

Orcish subchieftains get two rolls on abilities and one on weaknesses; orcish chieftains get three abilities and one weakness.  You could give champions one ability, but there are too many champions.  A warband's champions will usually be equipped in the same way as their subchieftain and are often assembled as a bodyguard (to match PC action economy).

Orcish abilities:
  1. Mad Dog: Berserkergang, Fighting Style (Two-Handed), two-handed weapon
  2. Impaler: x2 damage on charge, Fighting Style (Polearm), polearm
  3. Whirlwind: Fighting Style (Two Weapons), Running, Swift Sword 1/day, two weapons
  4. Ironhide: +2 AC, -1 damage per die from nonmagical weapons
  5. Scarred: +2 AC, Savage Resilience
  6. Strong: +2 to hit and melee damage
  7. Ogreborn: Giant Strength 1/day
  8. Trollkin: Regenerate 1HP/round, can only be killed with fire or acid
  9. Deadeye: Precise Shooting x3, arbalest
  10. Warpig: Dire boar mount, Riding, lance
  11. Duelist: +1 to hit, damage, and AC, Combat Trickery (Disarm), Combat Reflexes, challenges PCs to single combat
  12. Crustacean: Plate, shield, Fighting Style (Shield)
  13. Packmaster: Beast Friendship, 2d4 wolves
  14. Firebrand: 6 flasks military oil, torch, Fighting Style (Missile), Resistance to Fire continual effect
  15. Chosen: Divine Blessing, Protection from Good, Prayer 1/day
  16. Evil Eye: Bestow Curse 3/day
  17. Howler: Fear 1/day (deaf targets unaffected)
  18. Ambusher: Ambushing, Naturally Stealthy (-1 to opponent surprise rolls), Sniping, arbalest
  19. Rhymer: Inspire Courage, Military Strategy, Leadership, might even be literate
  20. Second Sight: See Invisible constant effect, Alertness, Combat Reflexes
  21. Pestilence: Divine Health, unarmed melee attacks do 1d4 damage and save vs death or contract disease (as reversed Cure Disease)
  22. Leaper: Acrobatics, Jump constant effect, Skirmishing
  23. Arrow-Catcher: Protection from Normal Missiles when not flat-footed / surprised / unconscious
  24. Manhunter: Tracking, Land Surveying, Endurance
  25. Elf-Eater: Arcane Dabbling, Sensing Power, Elven Bloodline
  26. Leech-Keeper: Healing 3, healing herbs
  27. Nightstalker: +30' infravision, Silent Step constant effect, Ambushing, attacks at night when possible
  28. Poisoner: Alchemy 2, Naturalism, 3 doses of hellebore poison
  29. Treacherous: Always behaves as if friendly, regardless of reaction roll, until opportunity arises.  Ambushing.
  30. Cannibal: Black Lore, ghoul claw/claw/bite and paralysis, slain opponents rise as ghouls
Looking at that list, I figure most of those average to about half a * each for XP purposes.  There are some that are closer to a *, and some that are much weaker, and I'm OK with that.

Weaknesses:  Come in sort of three flavors - exploitable personality flaws, old injuries, and phobias.  Injuries work just like permanent wounds from the mortal wounds table, and have a 75% chance of having been inflicted by some other (still living) orc subchieftain or chieftain in the region, who the injured orc holds a grudge against.  Phobias cause an immediate morale roll at -2 when the orc is exposed to them.
  1. One-eye: Missing eye (-2 to missile attack throws), may have grudge
  2. One-ear: Severed ear (-1 to hear noise and surprise throws), may have grudge
  3. Mute: Severed tongue (cannot speak, -4 to reaction rolls; if was Rhymer, becomes Howler), may hold grudge
  4. Limper: Lamed leg (-30' speed; if was Leaper, becomes Warpig), may hold grudge
  5. Meathook: Severed hand, replaced with hook, may hold grudge
  6. Fear of fire: checks morale at -2 when takes fire damage
  7. Fear of spiders: checks morale at -2 when confronted with giant spiders
  8. Fear of eagles: checks morale at -2 when confronted with giant birds
  9. Fear of elves: checks morale at -2 when confronted with elves
  10. Fear of magic: checks morale at -2 when is the target of a spell
  11. Fear of undead: checks morale at -2 when confronted with undead
  12. Fear of riders: checks morale at -2 when confronted with cavalry
  13. Contemptuous: never takes or interrogates prisoners, just leaves enemy wounded on field of battle
  14. Sadistic: after battle, sets up camp and spends one day per wounded prisoner torturing (max 1 week) rather than pursuing
  15. Vengeful: always pursues retreating parties when possible
  16. Greedy: all PCs may use Bribery against this orc, who may be tempted to do stupid things by promise of wealth
  17. Simple: not very smart, even for an orc; -2 Strategic Ability, tends to take others at their word
  18. Old: -1 to hit and damage, +1 Strategic Ability, easy to convince other orcs to challenge for dominance
  19. Sot: always up for a drink; often hungover, easy to poison.
  20. Addict: has a craving for that dank halfling pipeweed, will go to great lengths to get it.

So what does this look like in practice?

Let's take two camps each of 5 warbands and see what we get.

Village 1:
Chieftain: Gorgum Nightstalker - Strong, Nightstalker, Leech, Vengeful
  • Naftar the Tongueless - Howler, Second Sight, Mute, not inflicted by an orc in this region
  • Urmok Trollkin - Trollkin, Poisoner, Fear of Undead
  • Kragog the Old - Trollkin, Ironhide, Old
  • Snagog One-Eye - Arrow-Catcher, Evil Eye, One-Eye, inflicted by another orc in the region
  • Mugrik the Tower - Crustacean, Arrow-Catcher, Fear of Fire
Village 2:
Chieftain: Drugak the Dog - Packmaster, Pestilence, Ogreborn, Simple
  • Lamush the Loud - Howler, Scarred, Sot
  • Mugrish the Mighty - Strong, Ogreborn, One-Ear, inflicted by another orc in the region
  • Lagrat the Limper - Impaler, Rhymer, Limper, inflicted by another orc in the region
  • Gnarosh the Foul - Pestilence, Whirlwind, Fear of Magic
  • Chugash the Chosen - Chosen, Scarred, Contemptuous
  • Enok Elf-Eater - Elf-Eater, Arrow-Catcher, Meathook (inflicted by elves, of course)
Rolling some d12s, we find that Snagog One-Eye lost his eye to Mugrish the Mighty, who in turn lost his ear to Kragog the Old, sowing the seeds of some good inter-village enmity.  Lagrat the Limper, however, had his injury inflicted by Enok Elf-Eater, of his own village - wonderfully exploitable by PCs.  Another thing, looking at those villages, is that Drugak and Mugrish are both Ogreborn and might be related; likewise Urmok and Kragog with Trollkin.  I am a little sad that I didn't roll any Mad Dog, Firebrand, or Warpig; oh well.

Guess I really ought to write a name-generation table too; wouldn't be too bad, you basically have a list of valid first syllables and a list of valid second syllables.

One possible issue with this approach is that orc subchieftains rapidly stop being serious individual threats by like 4th level; I feel like giving them another hit die or two (4HD is a hero, after all) and expanding their threat range into the midlevels would keep all this work rolling abilities relevant for longer.  On the upside, there are some abilities that stay relevant into mass combat (like Howler and Prayer) even if the subchieftains themselves are pretty weak.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Dwarf Fortress a la ACKS

"Study your successes, not your failures.  If you study your successes, you learn how to succeed.  If your study your failures, you learn how to fail." - Richard Hamming, You and Your Research.

I'm not actually proposing to run another ACKS campaign.  This is more like a thought-experiment derived from the previous (relative) success of the Bjornaborg campaign, after which my players remarked positively on their relative ownership of the world and their dwarven engineers.

Part of the issue with ACKS is that I never want to map a dungeon ever again so long as I live.  So the question - can I get players to do it for me?  The answer, I suspect, is yes.  Previously I've had several players take great pleasure in designing and mapping their castles in ACKS.  "Reverse dungeon" is already a thing, with the players running defense.  This would look a lot like that, but with some base-building aspects on top of it.  Coming at it from the ACKS side, it's extremely granular but benefits from single-domain-for-entire-party, which should be good for cohesion (if you can get buy-in on the idea at all).  This is like, domains for third-level characters.

You get a population of dwarves.  Cut it up into pools of anonymous Laborers, Craftsdwarves, and Soldiery, with a small number of named NPCs (eg, veterans / heroes, master craftsdwarves, sages).  Each laborer can produce 10gp/mo of food (provided space to grow it), construction, or mining.  Craftsdwarves can supervise construction as engineers, produce goods for export or use, or build traps and siege weapons at about 20gp/mo.  Soldiers, of course, train, patrol, and fight (or labor).

Let's do some math.  We're going to assume Absolutist Survivalist Autarchy Juche Dworth Korea economics with no useless children as our baseline, from each according to their ability, to each according to the whims of the player characters.  I'm also going to take a few gross liberties with ACKS' math.

Farming - one laborer produces 10gp/mo (9 really, per the Labor proficiency, but 10 for ease of use).  Per Campaigns, supply costs for infantry are 0.5gp/wk/individual, so one farmer supports himself plus four others.  Great.  The really interesting question is "how much land do you need to do that?"  This is something that Dwarf Fortress is really bad about; farmland is rarely a problem except in the early game in certain embarks (glacier, salt water, &c), because productivity per unit of farmland is very high.  I'm sure ACKS has the answer to this question, and that answer is almost certainly "even with mushroom crops, there's no way in hell you're going to manually dig a farm large enough to support anybody".  So you're probably left with surface farming or cavern farming, and those are both areas you're going to need to secure by force and fortification.  Looking at the Axioms Peasant Economics issue (goddamnit) they have 30 acres of land producing ~160gp/year of food (but with more labor), so ~5gp/acre/year, so if you're producing 10gp/mo you're looking at like 22 acres.  An acre is ~44000 square feet, or a 210' x 210' area.  So...  yeah, if you want to farm underground, you're going to need to do a lot of digging.  You could probably get into some decent surface-world Civ-type gaming if you had the right hexmap scale; a half-mile hex contains 24 farms, a quarter-mile hex contains 6, so somewhere in that range is probably about right.  A nice feature of operating at this scale is that rapid response is possible; if goblins are burning the outlying farms a mile from the fortress, it takes news 10 minutes to arrive at a run, a few minutes to reach the PCs in the fortress, and then 10 minutes at a run to get to the action...  which means some peasants might still be alive.  That is, if you have roads and bridges, of course.  Maybe faster if you have lookout towers and soldiers on duty; because hey, you can see smoke from a long way away!  So the PC choice structure / play loop here looks like "choose which hexes to farm, where to build logistics and fortifications so we can defend them, defending them when they get attacked, tracking the attackers back to their lair, and clearing it."  Depending on how complicated you want to get, you could also get into like, building huts for your peasants and clearing woods for raw materials.  Might also make sense to have no surface farm production during winter, so you want to shift mining labor to farming in the summer / fall, stock up food, and then shift farming labor to mining in the winter.

Right, the other option is farming caverns.  I'm going to assume comparable land productivity between surface and caverns for ease of us (actually a terrible assumption, because power per square foot on the surface is way higher due to sunlight, which is why there isn't a whole lot of biomass density in caverns IRL).  Unlike the surface, caverns are mostly closed, so instead of a hex map it might make sense to just use a graph of connected nodes, each of which has some size in arable land, and each edge of which has some distance for travel purposes.  In the spirit of jayquaying, throw in a smattering of surface-cavern links; very reasonable places to build fortifications.  Could also very easily do multiple layers / depths of caverns, underground rivers, &c.  PCs explore caverns, locate monster lairs and desirable special features, choose which caverns to clear and secure via fortifications, and play reactive defense.

Mining - Mostly we're interested in mining for space, although mining for raw resources is also worth thinking about.  ACKS has somewhat conflicting numbers for mining for space; in Core, a 10x10x10 section of dungeon hallway costs 500gp, which is 50 dwarf-months of labor.  Ouch.  In DaW: Campaigns, though, the cost of siege-mining is 1gp per 20 cubic feet, or 50gp for the same volume, a mere 5 dwarf-months.  I guess the important difference here is the flagstone floor you get in the dungeon hallway.  Let's go with the 50gp/cube estimate.  So if you have, say, 25 laborers, you can allocate 5 to farming a quarter-mile hex (producing 50gp/mo of food, which supports 25 dwarves) and the other 20 to mining, and dig four 10x10x10 cubes in your fortress per month.  If you happen to have an ore vein, this can also produce raw materials of value (would probably steal a note from How to Host a Dungeon here, and figure out ore vein locations by dropping dice on graph paper).  Given that it takes about 5 dwarves to dig a cube, and about 5 dwarves to farm a quarter-mile hex, five dwarves producing 50gp/mo might just be the right size to track labor in.

Labor is probably going to be a limiting factor of construction, generally.  Given the presence of surface-cavern links, it might make sense to secure that initial cavern and fortify all the links out, even if those fortifications are just wooden palisades, because then you don't need to dig out living space (huts-in-a-cavern are cheaper, but less defensible, than excavation).

Craftsdwarves - assuming a mix of apprentices and journeymen, I'm willing to call it 20gp/mo of production per craftsdwarf for ease of use.  That production can be finished goods for export (cut gems, enameled beer steins, whatever), weapons and armor, siege weapons and ammunition, traps (per Player's Companion...  though traps are crazy-expensive), or "Specialist" support for military, which is a cost of about 1gp/soldier/month.  Craftsdwarves are scarcer than laborers and more productive, so you probably want to house them in or near the fortress.  They may or may not need workshops and tools, depending on the detail you want.  Again, very nice to manage in groups of 5, for 100gp/mo production.

TODO seasonal or annual check to see if a craftsdwarf turns into a named master craftsdwarf.  Might involve Fell Mood, PC quest for unusual materials.  Not that it would be worth the hassle, because master craftsdwarves don't improve production that much...  unless you make them grandmasters from the Heroic book and let them start making masterwork / semi-magic items.  That it might be worth worrying about.

Soldiers - this is kinda the easy one, since there's so much material already in Domains at War about them.  Comes in two flavors, heavy infantry and crossbow (and maybe furies).  Need both food / supply from labor and specialist upkeep from craftsdwarves.  Station them in fortifications or watchtowers, send them on a regular patrol route through certain hexes, keep them close at hand so they can support PC actions, whatever.  Probably can't have more than a third of the militia or so on watch / available at the drop of a hat, but should be able to bring the whole force to bear with a day's notice.  Nice to group into 6-dwarf squads (for fighting in 10x10 squares) or 30-dwarf platoons.  Combat against beastmen (goblins and orcs) is probably going to be on warband / platoon or even squad scale.

TODO occasional check to see if a soldier turns into a named / classed hero, subsequently available for henching; might only happen through combat.  Heroes can train laborers to be soldiers, per Campaigns (and then you use craftsdwarf labor to equip them).

TODO priests?  Sacrificing food and goods for blessings.  Prevent disease and undead?  Praise be unto Armok!

TODO morale, consuming excess production for a morale bonus.  In the case of excess food, this is a festival; in case of excess crafts, it's gift-giving and private property.

Caravans - every season except winter, a caravan arrives and you can trade them stuff; useless tchotchkes, excess food, goblin prisoners, smoked chimera meat, whatever, and purchase weapons or food, or hire labor from them, in return.  Since we don't pay anyone wages, arguably the "fair" / ACKSonomically sound thing to do would be to convert excess production into migrants at slave-labor rates, of 33 times their monthly wage.  Since we have to produce the goods we're using to pay that price, we can take three months of production and use that to pay for a migrant, so for every 11 dwarves allocated just to exports for an entire season we could get a new dwarf.  That's kinda harsh; I expect casualties would outpace population growth.  Another option is that you export some goods and then the amount you export earns you a certain number of rolls on the Migrant Table...  as well as on the Monsters Table, with results including goblins and dragons, of course.  Fame for production is a double-edged sword.

So that's all pretty straightforward.  The real remaining trouble is PCs.  What do they do?  How do they earn XP?  Why do they care about this hole in the ground full of dwarves?  We've broken the core adventuring heist "get the money and get out" gameplay loop of ACKS by making the game largely defensive.  Could award XP for fortress / domain production, consumption, or exportation, plus cash earned from fighting and killing monsters I guess.  In terms of class mix, Vaultguard, Fury, Craftpriest, and Delver are all very reasonable classes.  A dwarf surface-explorer counterpart to the Delver's underground exploration might be reasonable.  A dwarf ceremonialist from the Heroic book might be reasonable too, to get some effects that you can't with divine magic.  Human bards, mercenaries, scholars, and monster hunters are not unusual long-term guests, and there's even precedent for elves leading dwarf fortresses.  So maybe party composition is not that big a deal.

In terms of adventuring activities, there's actually a mix of reactive and proactive possibilities.  Reactive adventures include stopping monsters from killing all your peasants and seeking out rare materials for fell moods.  Proactive adventures include cavern exploration, treasure maps?, and clearing out monster lairs that have raided you previously.  Probably a reasonable place for clocks - if you defeat a raid, it's only a matter of time until there's a stronger follow-up.  Likewise, over time Monster Table results build up, and those lairs may merge.  So a proactive policy of taking care of threats before they get worse is probably wise...

Oh yeah, and the endgame - fortress falls to darkness, and a new party gets to explore / loot it.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

ACKS: Beot

I haven't actually read the current / near-finished (?) ACKS Heroic Companion draft yet, but one thing we really enjoyed from a previous draft many moons ago was the Warrior Code rule.  Warrior Code provided a bonus to XP earned for obeying certain virtuous restrictions, modeled after the old pagan virtues (things like bravery, hospitality, and loyalty...  not so much mercy).  This was a great rule (though the honesty condition did have the awkward effect of making some henchman the Party Liar, so that everyone else could avoid the stain on their honor and the loss of their precious XP).  In a similar vein, of "turning old-school pagan-appropriate behavior into XP bonuses", I think a rule for beot could be a lot of fun.  Make a boast of a suitable Mighty Deed you will personally accomplish this adventure; if you succeed, +10% XP for the adventure!  If you fail, -10% XP for the adventure.  Maybe just -5%, to encourage people to actually use the option.  Bonus points for multiple party members with the same boast who have to compete for it.

Friday, December 22, 2017


In the ACKS repo, I'm working on a branch to change the way downtime works.  One of my issues with ACKS is that it doesn't really support open-table play well outside of low levels.  Domain XP slows down (or stops) level convergence within the party, and characters with domains tend to monopolize out-of-adventuring time and DM attention.  My intentions with these changes include:

  • Give everyone across the level range useful things to do during downtime.
  • Reduce overhead / level of detail / granularity in tracking downtime (two-week "downtime turns")
  • Create a structure / cycle of play around downtime, such that it happens in regular, predictable chunks alternating with adventures rather than "OK, Mr. Mage needs three months to make his item and we dare not go adventuring without him, so we're all gonna sit on our butts for three months."
    • As a side effect, reduce the variance of magic research by cutting it into multiple downtime actions and allowing partial progress
      • TODO: standardize monetary outlay between spell research and magic item creation
  • Add some mechanics which accelerate the convergence of low-level characters to the party mean (mentorship bonus)
  • Throw some bones to players who miss sessions (extra downtime actions)
  • Mix up the general proficiencies metagame.  Currently, a handful of general proficiencies (Healing, Alchemy, Bargaining, and Diplomacy/Intimidation initially, then Navigation and Riding in wilderness, then Military Strategy and Leadership when mass combat starts happening) typically dominate discourse and use in play in my groups.  Unsurprisingly, these are the general proficiencies that actually do useful things.  The trick, then, is adding really utile uses to some of the job-type general proficiencies.  So far, this has mostly been by increasing effective market class for goods related to the proficiency practiced, or by adding ability to find henchmen of certain classes (and possibly outside the typical henchman recruiting level range).
    • Relatedly, reduce the pain of operating in small markets and deprecate/distribute the Venturer / Varangian's core ability.
    • TODO Art - ???
    • TODO Labor, especially Mining - bonus to detect traps underground (probably only +2, smaller than dwarf bonus or Alertness), high-risk-high-reward downtime activity, ability to recruit dwarf henchmen.
    • TODO Profession, especially Lawyer - bonus to rolls on sentencing table
  • TODO: make sufficient quantities of carousing a downtime action, make the carousing table canon (that table was a regular source of fun in the first campaign)
  • TODO: rework mercenary hiring, rather like this.  Mercenary wages, henchman wages, and cost of living need some thought in open-table mode.
  • TODO: integration with Apocalypse World-style clock system, for easy running of living worlds.  I don't need to know a whole lot of details, just that this disgruntled NPC is going to try to come after the PCs in N sessions.  I'll fill in the rest when things get closer.
  • TODO: fix / redesign hijinks to provide adventure hooks and intel on running clocks.  Spying actually makes sense when people worth spying on are doing secret things in the background.
  • TODO: simplify domains.  Starting for now by taking this and working it into the Campaigns chapter, and by removing domain XP (mass combat XP can stay - that's combat.  XP from sacking domains can stay - that's treasure earned adventuring).  I have some vague notions for some Lords of Waterdeep-style mechanics, where domains and guilds provide you with anonymous, disposable "adventurer" resources that you can send on quests to delay clocks, but I'm not sure how to make it mesh with ACKS-as-it-is, nor how I really want it to look at the end of the day, so I'm going to put that one off.