Friday, December 27, 2019

Searching Amid Abundance

The classic dungeon exploration scenario involves searching amid scarcity.

The classic dungeon was once rich, but was also abandoned long ago. Since then, most of what was valuable has already been stolen by the looters and tomb-robbers of an earlier generation. What hasn't been taken away has mostly rotted or crumbled to dust. Invaders have moved in and trashed the place further.

There are treasures here, but they're all trapped, guarded by monsters, or hidden. Sometimes you get lucky, and there's a magic sword sitting on a plinth, just waiting for you to claim it.

All the rest of the time, there's a treasure chest in the middle of a room, but you just know that it's not what it looks like. It's empty, or there's a poison needle waiting to stab you when you try to open the lock, or there's a trap door right in front of it waiting to drop you into an alligator pit when you walk up, or else it's not really a treasure chest, it's just a monster that looks like one.

Or you see the monsters first, and you can only find their treasure after you kill them and start going through their stuff.

Or you're in a room that looks like it's empty, and you have to like, find the paving stone that sticks up slightly above the level of the rest of the floor because there's something under it. Or search all the furniture looking for false bottoms. Or tap all along the walls trying to find hollow spots that might indicate there's a secret door. Or break the furniture just in case, because maybe the jerk author who wrote your asshole GM's dungeon key said the treasure is hidden inside a hollowed-out table leg. Or maybe you're wasting your time because only 1-in-6 empty rooms have unguarded hidden treasure anyway.

Or finally you hit the jackpot and you're in the evil wizard's combination laboratory-library. This terror of the countryside, who amassed untold wealth from pillaging the countryside and demanding tribute owns ... one spellbook, a couple potions, a few scrolls. Maybe a talisman or a single magic ring.

And your characters, who are dirt poor, take everything they can find. They want everything that's not nailed down, then they want to pry up the nails and keep those too, because you never know when you might want to nail a door shut. (You never will. Those nails will still be on your character sheet, unused, at the end of the campaign, just like all the rubber bands your grandmother saved in a kitchen drawer - "just in case" - off every newspaper she ever received, and then never had any further use for, because growing up during the Great Depression convinced her that this was a wise and prudent use of space.)

Everything in the dungeon that can be taken is written down, and because it's too much of a pain to write very much of that sort of thing, there's not that much written, and so the dungeon is mostly empty.

But what if it was different?

What if, instead of poverty, there was plenty? What if instead of scarcity, there was abundance? What if your characters weren't poor, they were rich, and instead of taking everything, they only wanted to take the best things? What if the interior of the dungeon didn't resemble an empty cave or an abandoned warehouse, what if it was opulent, palatial? What if it wasn't abandoned, but living, and what if the people who lived their were your people, or at least were people whose good opinion you craved and respected?

What if, instead of playing a meth addict ripping the copper wires out of the walls of an abandoned trailerpark doublewide, you played a gentleman thief, plucking only the very finest, very choicest items from out of the museums and display halls of the inordinately wealthy and the exceptionally rich?

Or, I don't know, what if you were still poor, but that wizard you just killed had an actual library full of books, and only one of them was the spellbook? What if you're poor, but the world around you isn't, so if you bring an entire backpack full of books back to town, but none of them is the spellbook, then you'll end the adventure worse off than you started it, because books are cheap but an indoor place to sleep at night is not?

What if the problem wasn't finding anything in a place that, at first glance, appears to contain nothing, but rather finding the right thing in a place that appears to contain everything?

This is a follow-up, of sorts, to my thoughts about searching for treasure in dungeons where things might be landmark, hidden, or secret. It's a follow-up because I asked myself the question "what if everything was a landmark? what if the treasure was hidden-in-plain-sight? what if the treasure wasn't secret because you couldn't see it, but because you couldn't recognize it even though you were looking right at it?"

Running an abundant dungeon probably requires additional rethinking of the way the game designer writes up the dungeon, the way the gamemaster describes it, and the way the player approach it. But let's set all that aside for right now. For right now, let's focus on the question of how to mechanically adjudicate these searches.

When I talk about abundant dungeon spaces, I'm imagining rooms that are stuffed with objects. I guess this could just mean really well-appointed living spaces, but what I'm imagining are more like storage spaces that are filled with objects that look very similar but have very different monetary values. Imagine wading through a hallway filled with chairs. Imagining entering a bedroom where the floor around the bed is completely covered by teacups and saucers. Imagine finding a dressing room filled with masquerade costumes. Imagining opening a drawer stuffed with silverware or a cabinet overflowing with China. What happens if the players pick up the first one they find? What happens if they want to look close and pick out the best ones?

Landmark - In a room that's literally filled with treasure, let the players collect their treasure!

This advice contradicts what you might see in some other old-school sources, which I'll talk about in another post. OSR authors generally encourage you to make most of the apparent treasure in these places worthless. Find a library? All the books are moldy, rotten, and illegible. Find an armory? All the weapons are rusted and unusable. Etc.

I disagree! Let the players take home their treasure, and make it worth something!

Obviously, just picking up the first objects you find isn't the most effective way to find the most expensive treasure, but that doesn't mean what they find should actually be worthless. I would assign a nominal monetary value to each item, and let the accumulated value add up. Silverware is probably worth a coin each, collecting a drawer full is like finding a strongbox of silver pieces. Other objects might be more difficult because they're heavy or bulky or fragile or some combination of the above. Anything like that is probably worth 2, 5, or at most 10 coins.

Just picking up whatever you can find is a beginner's strategy, and players will learn to be more discerning once they realize there are ways to earn far more cash for their efforts. But un-directed accumulation can also be a stepping-stone to connoisseurship, by allowing characters to begin accidentally collecting matched sets.

Whenever the characters bring their treasure back to their hideout, you can check whether any of the individual items of the same type are part of a matched set. (Looking at the birthday paradox suggests that the chances of having at least 2 items in the same set should increase very rapidly the more you find, but that math seems really complicated to simulate at the table, so let's ignore it.)

Roll d20, and try to get lower than the number in your collection. Yes, that does mean if you have 20 or more items of the same type, then at least 2 are guaranteed to be part of the same matched set. Roll a dice determined by the set type, and that will tell you how many items are part of the same matching set. So for example, if you were collecting silverware, you would roll d4+1 to see how many pieces are part of the same matching place-setting. Other kinds of sets might require you to roll d6+1, d8+1, etc. Subtract that number out of your total collection, and roll the d20 again. You might have multiple different matched sets, so keep this up until you roll too high.

Items that belong to a matched set are much more valuable than unmatched items. So if a single piece of silverware is worth 1 sp, a set of two is worth 3 sp (2! = 1 + 2), a set of three is worth 6 sp (3! = 1 + 2 + 3), etc. If that scale-up somehow doesn't impress you, then try making each additional piece even more valuable, so two pieces are worth 4 sp (1! + 2! = 1 + 1 + 2), three pieces are worth 10 sp (1! + 2! + 3! = 1 + 1 + 2 + 1 + 2 + 3), etc. Either way, the point is that each additional matching piece substantially increases the value of the whole collection.

You now have the choice to sell your incomplete set for a decent price, or you can try finding more pieces to make even more bank. Just like that, your players have a sandbox-like goal! This can help direct their exploration within the dungeon, and might even give them a reason to return to the room where they found the first part of their collection.

The next time you gather items of an existing type, roll under d20 for the new items to see if any belong to your current sets. If you get a match, roll d4-1 (or whichever dice is appropriate) to see how many are duplicates of existing pieces. If you get a 0, it's a new piece that fits into an existing collection. Congratulations! Roll again to see how many duplicates you found at the same time. After you've finished checking for matches to your existing sets, check again for your entire collection, which might now contain some new partial matching sets thanks to the additional pieces. (If your GM is feeling really generous, you can also see if any of your mini-sets belong to an even larger mega-set. Just check them in the same way, but treat each little set as an individual "piece" of the larger set. Perhaps some of your complete place-settings have the same pattern and belong to the same table-service, for example.)

Silverware is admittedly an unexciting type of item to collect, but you could apply this same logic to pieces of clothing making up uniforms or suits, chess or mahjong pieces, idols of gods in the same pantheon, china pieces in the same tea-set, or especially books in the same multi-volume series. Not every possible item needs the opportunity to be part of a matched set, but for key items you want your players to collect, this is a simple way to segue from simple smash-and-grab dungeoneering to goal-directed reconnaissance and investigation.

This idea is currently untested, but I think it should work in a gaming environment. From knowing a friend who collects rare books, I know that filling out a partial collection is massively more difficult than I've made it seem here. (It's the birthday paradox again. For the same reason it's easier than you'd expect to find the first match, it's harder than you'd expect to find the last unique element.) But I feel like performing virtually any task in a game ought to be easier and more fun than doing it in real life, particularly if that task is one the game itself is encouraging you to perform. We don't need an accurate simulation of real-world probability, we need a mechanic that allows us to adjudicate complex actions in a simple way.

Hidden - What if you're not just looking for any items, you're looking for items of particular value? In that case, you're not spending time picking up everything you can carry, you're spending time looking at what's available and picking out individual items somewhat selectively.

Foraging in the woods should probably work like this, for example. In a damp forest, you absolutely will find mushrooms or firewood or water if you spend a little time looking for it. In a library or bookstore, you will find interesting books. In a pantry storing tea or coffee or spices, you will find valuable varietals if you stroll about instead of swiping armfuls directly into your backpack.

The idea here is that in spaces of abundance, most of the items are relatively low-value, but higher-value items can be found if the characters spend time looking for them. Matching sets are a way to boost the sale-price of low-value items, but looking for hidden gems are worth finding all on their own. I would say that in the dungeon is your only chance to find a hidden gem. They will never turn up as part of a smash-and-grab operation.

Think of collecting wine bottles out of a wine cellar, for example. Most bottles will be worth whatever's the normal amount for wine in your game, although you can increase the value by collecting a complete case of matching vintages. However, a few bottles would be more expensive if sold, or might provide minor medicinal benefits to a character who drinks it as a ration.

Or think again of gathering books in a library. Most volumes are probably parts of some sort of series - maybe the complete works of some minor author, maybe encyclopedias, or textbooks organized by grade level, or annual reports from colleges or companies or churches, maybe historical chronicles, or all the editions of a particular magazine or newspaper bound together by year, maybe really boring stuff like a social register, or a listing of military members, or shipping manifests, or business ledgers. They might have research value or look good on your shelf, but they're only particularly valuable in a series. But there are also interesting individual books, which could have all kinds of game benefits. (I could write a whole blog post, and probably should, about all the ways you could use books in your game.)

The items you find this way should have an increased value, say 10 or 25 times the usual price of un-matched items of the same type. They should also, I think, have minor beneficial abilities. These should either be less impressive than full-on magical powers, or they should be the weakest magic available in your game.

Spending the time to find hidden gems is also a way to improve your existing collections. If you look carefully, you will find items that belong with one of your matched sets. You'll still need to roll to see if there's a unique piece or only duplicates, but you can skip the initial d20 roll for the match.

Secret - Finding something really valuable amid an ocean of near identicals requires a discerning eye, cultured taste, a shrewd sense for appraisal, and perhaps a bit of luck. There's always a chance of failure, but if you succeed, you'll have found something unique.

I mentioned before that I think the purpose of game mechanics is not to simulate reality but to allow us to make complex determinations quickly enough to use these decisions at the game table, and frankly, to put a thumb on the scale in favor of fun and interesting outcomes. So look, yes, in reality, the determining factor in these kinds of searches is whether or not a really valuable thing is actually there. Not every rummage sale has an original Shakespeare folio, not every thrift store has an undiscovered Picasso, no matter how hard you look. And if there is such a treasure present, then it shouldn't matter if you find it there in the store, or if you buy up the entire inventory in order to sift through it at home.

But since this is a game, and since the point of dungeoneering is that dungeons are storehouses of riches uncountable, let's sort of assume that there is a real treasure present in every abundant dungeon room, but you can only find it if you make an appropriate skill check and succeed your roll. (Look! I finally found a use for the appraisal skill besides pretending you don't know how to look up prices in the equipment section of your game rules!) You'll never find this treasure if you spend time but don't pass the skill test. You'll never find it if you grab up everything and take it back home. I would however stipulate that if you have some sort of procedure for conducting research, either by studying appropriate reference books, or collecting enough mundane examples, or both, you can also find these treasures by making sufficient research progress, rather than risking a skill check.

I would say that these treasured items should be worth 100 or 250 or 500 or 1000 times as much as their mundane counterparts. I would also say that they ought to be full-on magic items with powerful effects. This is the good stuff. It's not enough to grab the first thing you see, not enough to just spend time looking for it. If you manage to find one of these treasures, it had damn well better be worth it.

If you use your search for secrets to find an item for an existing collection, you will find a unique item that fits into an existing collection, in addition to the usual number of duplicates. (If your GM is really playing hardball, then this might be the ONLY way to find the last item that finishes off and fully completes a matched set. If so, just make sure that the choice to finish a collection has roughly the same financial pay-off as finding a unique treasure.)

So, now you have a plan for running an abundant dungeon, a plan that doesn't involve just giving the appearance of treasure while actually declaring almost everything worthless. And, you have a mini-game for your players to try collecting matching sets for extra cash, or to especially seek out the b-sides and rarities amid the masses.

My only final word on this is that even in a dungeon that includes abundance, not everything needs to be abundant. It's probably more interesting for your plays (and much easier for you!) if pick a few categories of treasures that feel thematically appropriate, and allow them to exist in abundance. You will need to do some extra preparation so you can describe the appearance of the things they're finding, give a formal or informal name to the matching sets, and assign special properties to the hidden or secret items.

I promised at least two follow-up posts in the process of writing this, one to look at other OSR authors's advice for managing abundance, and one to think about how to write abundance without having to enumerate your own private Doomsday Book in the process.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Knitted Miscellany - Felted Food, Crochet Coral Reef, Mathekniticians, Programmable Yarn

How to Crochet a Coral Reef - and Why
Sarah Derouin
Scientific American

"The crocheted corals display hyperbolic geometry, a type of geometry that is neither planar nor spherical; Picture hyperbolic geometry as a sort of saddle shape with curves and dips. Nature loves hyperbolic geometry and you can see examples of it in the sea (sea slugs and corals) or in your salad bowl (curly kale leaves). As it turns out, crochet is a perfect medium for creating rippled, ruffled edges seen in corals."


This Los Angeles Grocery Store Has 31000 Items - and You Can't Eat Any of Them
Carlye Wisel

"The potato chips, Butterfinger bars and ramen packets inside Sparrow Mart may look real, but they’re all handmade from felt. The combination art exhibit and supermarket, is stocked with an array of 31,000 produce, liquor, frozen and fresh food items, all of which are for sale. The entirety of Sparrow Mart’s functional equipment - grocery case, deep freezers, even the ATM - are covered in felt too; add branded shopping carts and grocery baskets to the mix and it’s the full experience."

See the Adorable New Grocery Store in Rockefeller Center Where Everything is Art
Sarah Cascone
Artnet News

"Delicatessen on 6th specializes in fresh produce, with organic kale, ripe avocados, and tidy bunches of spring onions displayed in rustic wooden crates. The deli counter with its cold cuts and sliced cheese is out, replaced by a butcher station featuring freshly ground beef and premium cuts of meat. All in felt. You’ll also find all manner of soft-sculpture seafood, including ruby red lobsters, shiny sardines, and oysters that you can actually shuck, removing the smiling bivalves from the shells. For the first time, Sparrow has created a cheese counter, a bakery, and a patisserie, recreating every aspect of a fancy food emporium."

Meet the Mathekniticians - and Their Amazing Woolly Maths Creations
Alex Bellos

"Not only are the images in the afghans mathematical, but the way they are made also involves mathematical thinking. 'We enjoy the challenge of seeing an idea then working out how it can be made into an afghan in a way that would be easy enough for anyone else to recreate. It is like trying to solve a puzzle and refining it to give the best possible solution.' "

'Knitting is Coding' and Yarn is Programmable in this Physics Lab
Siobhan Roberts
New York Times

 "The investigation is informed by the mathematical tradition of knot theory. A knot is a tangled circle - a circle embedded with crossings that cannot be untangled. (A circle with no crossings is an 'unknot.') The knitted stitch is a whole series of slipknots, one after the other. Rows and columns of slipknots form a lattice pattern so regular that it is analogous to crystal structure and crystalline materials."

"Knitted fabric is a metamaterial. A length of yarn is all but inelastic, but when configured in slipknots - in patterns of knits and purls - varying degrees of elasticity emerge. Just based on these two stitches, these two fundamental units, we can make a whole series of fabrics, and each of these fabrics has remarkably different elastic properties."


Monday, December 9, 2019

Roguelike Advice for Tabletop Games from @Play and Golden Krone Hotel

John Harris of the @Play blog and @Play column writes about "rougelike" videogames. Since I am somewhat interested in procedural generation in tabletop gaming, there are a few of his columns that I particularly like. There are also a couple contrarian pieces from Jeremiah Reed of Golden Krone Hotel, and some ASCII art I like from Uncaring Cosmos and Imminent Demon Engine, and some links at the end for resources for making ASCII and pixel art.

image by Uncaring Cosmos

image by Uncaring Cosmos

Purposes for Randomness in Game Design is about reasons to use procedural generation instead of "set" content in a videogame.

- to make multiple playthroughs of the same game interesting
- to offer a game some resistance against "spoilers"
- to challenge players' skills by asking them to deduce things about the gameworld
- to create emergent narratives that wouldn't arise any other way
- and to create emergent complexity by randomly combining basic elements

In tabletop gaming, I would add the reason that it allows the gamemaster to discover the world at the same time as the players. I would also add that one of the challenges of procedural generation at the tabletop is that proc gen makes it harder to offer players a meaningful, clue-filled environment where they can successfully deduce what's around each corner - so it's quite interesting to me that he lists that as a strength.

Eight Rules of Roguelike Design is kind of a manifesto for rougelike gaming. Most of these seem like good advice for any dungeon, and a few at the end are especially relevant for resource-management, exploration-style gaming. It's worth remembering that if you want your players to interact with the mysteries of the dungeon, they'll be more inclined to do so if those mysteries aren't usually harmful, and if even the harmful ones aren't instantly lethal.

Some of the advice about unidentified items initially struck me as being kind of narrow and genre-specific, until I remembered that item identification is a kind of mini-game inside Numenera and Mutant Crawl Classics, among others.

- no player character should be immediately killed by a single monster attack
- no player character should be immediately killed by testing an unidentified item
- magic items should require testing to identify, even for players with a lot of system knowledge
- each magic item type should have enough potential effects that testing it during combat is potentially beneficial but also potentially harmful
- magic items should have both benefits and penalties (or at least limitations) so that they present interesting choices
- because magic items have both upsides and downsides, no item should ever be completely useless
- exploring the dungeon should use up a resource so that players aren't able to explore indefinitely
- as you explore deeper into the dungeon, monsters should become more dangerous a little faster than player characters become stronger (so that magic items become more important over time)

Towards Building a Better Dungeon is all about the things tabletop games still do better than computer games. There are a number of experiences and mechanics that I've noticed work better for single players than they do for groups, or that work better when a computer is handling the numbers than when humans are, so it's nice to see someone from the other side praising what works better in our world.

It's also interesting to see which aspects of of D&D he admires. It's many of the same things you see praised on OSR blogs, for example. Although the staircase thing seems like it's an artifact of the way rougelike games randomly generate their maps - it seems so common-sensical to me that I struggled to even write the one sentence summary, but apparently it's an issue for them. There are other elements of old-school D&D that would be difficult to replicate, such as factions of monsters that want to recruit you into their internecine conflicts, but what he focuses on are mostly the elements that would enrich solo play.

- D&D has varied, interesting that are placed deliberately rather than randomly
- monsters in D&D come in different sizes, from small to large
- old-school D&D requires narrative searching to find secret doors
- on multi-level D&D maps, staircases are placed consistently in relation to one another
- despite its difficulty magic item identification is actually easier than in Gygaxian D&D (I suspect roguelike games also don't contain Gygax's, uh, rogue's gallery of look-alike monsters that exist solely to punish his players for adopting the very same playstyle he pushed on them. Also wait, someone is envious of this?!)
- you can't play roguelike games with your friends the way you can with D&D

Meanwhile over at Golden Krone Hotel, we get Things I Hate Sbout Rougelikes: Bog Standard Dungeons, which is, at least kind of, an argument against continuing to imitate D&D and Lord of the Rings in new games. My reading of this isn't that he's criticizing vanilla fantasy per say, but rather, that he's calling for more new games to employ a strong consistent theme that's not the same vanilla fantasy you see everywhere else. Of course, new games like Torchbearer, Dungeon World, and Forbidden Lands all developed large followings by selling "vanilla fantasy but with different rules" - so what's good artistic advice and what's sound marketing strategy might differ here.

There are three parts to his complaint:
- high fantasy is vanilla, and more importantly, it's overdone
- kitchen-sink bestiaries end up full of monsters that feel inappropriate or out of place
- a few "goofy" elements will quickly make an entire setting feel goofy (Which might be an argument in favor of going full-on gonzo. One joke monster just spoils the mood, dozens of joke monsters actually become the mood.)

I actually kept thinking about Jack Guignol's In Defense of Vanilla Fantasy while I was reading this. Because they initially seem like they're going to be in disagreement, but in some ways, I feel like they're two sides of the same argument. After all, when Jack says "they make vanilla so we don't have to", the argument here seems to be "they already HAVE made vanilla, so why do we keep making it too?" James David Nicoll has an ironic version of this plea, when he begs his readers to please, please "give the Tékumel and Gormenghast costumes a rest." Of course, Jack has a rejoinder to that, "vanilla might just be what people actually want" - like I said, there might be sound business reasons why so many game-makers keep making new vanilla games.

Even the Old School Renaissance has only one really weird megadungeon in its top five - Anomalous Subsurface Environment. Three of the others are high fantasy - Stonehell, Dwimmermount, and Castle of the Mad Archmage - and they all start out vanilla at the top and really only end up getting strange near their final levels. Barrowmaze is built out of basically vanilla components, but it has a narrow, consistent theme, and fills up its space by offering variations on that theme rather than a funhouse of new ideas. The biggest change as you go deeper is the slow shift from undead to demons.

Settings with a lot of novelty can run into the problem that "when everything is weird, nothing is weird." But the call here isn't for random weirdness, it's for a consistent theme that's simply a different theme than vanilla high fantasy. If it feels like you have a "kitchen-sink" full of monsters, if a handful of your monsters feel inappropriately "goofy," then the problem isn't that you have too much weirdness, it's that you don't have a consistently applied theme. Real weirdness is weird precisely because it stands out against its background - whatever that background happens to be. You can still have real weirdness even in a setting where everything is (initially) strange, but it will require using only a few stand-out elements (not a sinkful) and making them at least somewhat unique, not "goofy" and not just imported from another well-known genre.

So what games does he like? Unreal World, Cogmind, Hieroglyphika, Sproggiwood, Haque, Sil, Binding of Isaac, Nuclear Throne, Spelunky, and Caves of Qud. And presumably he likes his own game, Golden Krone Hotel.
image by Imminent Demon Engine
image by Imminent Demon Engine

In Item Design: Potions and Scrolls, we return to @Play to look at good design for these single-use items. Remember, half the criteria for good rougelike gaming are based on good magic items. He argues that magic items are so important for roguelike gaming because exploring the dungeons and fighting the monsters are not, by themselves, enjoyable enough to sustain interest in the game, only the items can do that over the long term.

In both rougelikes and old-school D&D, your character is adventuring for basically the same reason you're playing the game - for enjoyment. Your character explores dungeons and fights monsters to find money and cool stuff. Money (via XP) unlocks cool level-up abilities. Money lets you buy more cool stuff. Cool abilities and cool stuff in turn let you ... uh ... explore more dungeons and fight more monsters. So these things had better be enjoyable, because enjoying using them pretty much IS the entire purpose of the game - and if your game doesn't include any level-up abilities, then the cool stuff had better be especially cool!

He feels pretty strongly that single-use items should be unidentified until they're used, and even then, only if their effect is something that the characters could notice. So if you drank a potion of monster detection for example, and there were no monsters around to detect, the potion would seem to have no effect. There are also potions and scrolls that really do have no effect, just to keep you on your toes! While apparently one of the key pleasures of solo roguelike computer gaming, I think this kind of thing probably gets tedious very quickly in a tabletop game. (Apparently the only way to get Gygax to volunteer what your magic item did was to let a Rust Monster or Disenchanter destroy it. He was happy to tell you what you just lost! Otherwise you had to go into town, hope you could find a sage with the right expertise, and then hope the sage made their skill check. Tedious!)

There are a couple elements of roguelike potions and scrolls that don't show up much in D&D, and might be interesting to try including. The first is alchemy rules that reward you for mixing potions. Unless I'm misremembering, the "potion miscibility table" in D&D basically just says, "don't mix potions, or one of these twenty bad things will ruin your day!" The second element is scrolls that let you enchant your own weapons and armor. I've never heard of someone's campaign where players routinely turn their own mundane equipment into homemade magic items. It might happen occasionally, but it sounds like a common occurrence in roguelike games.

There is one element of D&D that he points out never makes it into the roguelikes - cursed items that are look-alikes for specific magic items. In a rougelike game, you're never going to successfully identify a Bowl of Commanding Water Elementals only to try using it and discover it was actually a Bowl of Watery Death, whereas basically all of D&D's cursed items function like that.

In Objects of Collection, he lays out a whole taxonomy of items that characters can find in the dungeon:

- basic one-use item, such as food rations
- one-use unidentified magic items, such as potions and scrolls
- wearable, always-on unidentified magic items, such as rings and amulets
- multi-use unidentified magic items, such as wands
- basic equipment, such as weapons and armor
- unidentified magic equipment

He notes a few other details about each type that are interesting to me, again primarily because they're a bit different from D&D. One-use unidentified items can also include special food rations that bestow some kind of benefit in addition to fending off hunger.

Wearable unidentified items typically have a very minor effect to compensate for the fact that they're always turned on - without the computer there to remember for you, these sound tailor-made to be forgotten about during play. They can also impose an additional cost in exhaustion and food consumption. A minor increase is too finicky to consider, but I wonder if needing to eat double or triple rations would be a meaningful cost in a resource-management game?

"Basic" equipment has a random component, too. Every sword or piece of armor you can find in a rougelike game will have a secret bonus, just like the simplest magic swords in D&D, which makes deducing each item's bonus another tedious fun mini-game within roguelike play, but again, I wonder how well this would transfer to in-person play.

One thing I think is kind of neat is that unidentified magic equipment always has a predictable mundane use as well. So no matter which random magic power your magic snow boots have, they also always help walk through snow.

His final article in this series Rouge's Item ID In Too Much Yet Not Enough Detail isn't just a description of how magic item identification works in roguelike games, it's also a defense of the gameplay value of having unidentified magic items in the game to begin with. One really important thing to note, in case I haven't been clear enough about it yet, is that these unidentified items all come from a larger list, and you can find multiple copies of the same item during your game. So once you can identify an item, you don't just know "what was that thing I just used?" you also know "what will these other identical things do in the future?" The value he sees in having unidentified magic items would be considerably diminished in a game like Numenera, where theoretically every item is unique, rather than something you expect to find multiples of.

I get the sense that John Harris and other roguelike computer gamers would get along well with some portions of the OSR. He has a deep admiration for Gary Gygax and the original AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, and he praises a number of design decisions in 5e.

So what does he thinks makes identifying unknown magic items a good part of roguelike play?
- it should be possible to use the item without identifying it first
- there should be some bad items so that using unknown items is a little risky
- sages and spells that identify an item without needing to use it should be rare
- the game needs to be difficult enough that players have to risk using unidentified items. they can't afford to wait until they achieve perfect safety to start unknown items out.
- items shouldn't be automatically identified when you use the. you only find out for sure what it is if it does something unambiguous under the present conditions.
- some item effects should be contingent on the character's status at the time of use
- bad items should have some positive use, even if it's just throwing them at monsters
- it should be possible to deduce what some items do without using them
- there should be more items in the game than can be found in one playthrough

For a contrary view, we once again return to Golden Crone Hotel for Things I Hate About Roguelikes: Identification, where Jeremiah Reed proposes a solution that's oddly reminiscent of his last one - to solve the problem by reducing its complexity. Previously, he argued we could "fix" funhouse dungeons by applying a theme to limit what kinds of monsters can appear. Here, he suggests that we can fix magic item identification by reducing the number of possible types that any particular unidentified item could be. I'll come back to that in a second.

His critique of roguelike identification is probably not that hard to guess, but let's look at it briefly anyway. He starts with a series of examples showing the many ways a player can die while using an unidentified magic item, either because the item was directly harmful, or because it provided no help in a dangerous situation.

- Outcomes like that are especially punishing on novice players. Experienced players should be rewarded for their accumulated system-knowledge, but it shouldn't be impossible for someone without that knowledge to play the game.

- It encourages item-hoarding (more on THIS in a second, too) which both makes the game more boring and makes it harder to survive.

- It makes using unidentified items feel like a trap, even though it's not supposed to be. (There's a similar problem in negadungeons, although there it feels like everything's deadly because truly everything IS deadly and will kill you if you interact with it.)

- And for all that, there are enough meta-game tricks that sufficiently system-knowledgeable players can accurately guess what most items are with in-game identifying them. Which seemingly defeats the purpose of making them unidentified in the first place.

So as a solution, he proposes that unidentified potions come in groups of three - each potion is recognizable enough that it could be one of three different things. As an example, he shows a character considering drinking a potion that might be a ration of honey, an antidote to poison, or teleportation in a bottle. The idea here is to encourage players to take more risks with their characters by limiting the scope of their choices. You still don't know exactly which effect you'll get, but it won't just be a dice roll on a d100 table - it'll be one of three things, and importantly, you'll know the worst thing that could happen when you make your choice.

I genuinely like this idea, and I feel like it could have other applications. You see a monster at the end of the hallway. It's a skeleton, and your cleric is certain its one of three possible undead creatures. Or you find a scroll in an unknown language. Even before you translate, your wizard thinks it could have one of three possible effects. Or you enter a room know that you've just stepped on a pressure plate. Before you lift your foot, your rogue tells you the three possible traps you might just have triggered. I particularly like the thought of applying this approach to Zonal anomalies.

There are only two difficulties with putting this idea into action in D&D. The first is that it would take a bit of preparation to add in this extra potential information into an adventure that didn't already include it. The second difficulty is that without a computer to do the hard work for you, it would really take some preparation to re-randomize these associations after each playthrough. Having DM aids that are essentially worksheets you fill out in advance (like the ones Signs in the Wilderness makes) would certainly help.

Finally, all this talk about single-use items got me thinking about Razbuten's video Consumable Items (And Why I Barely Use Them). After all this talk about identifying items, it's worth thinking about what makes you want to use them. The "barely use them" problem is definitely me walking around with a full complement of missiles that I never fire in Super Metroid, or accumulating dozens of Mushrooms and Tanuki Leaves in Mario 3. Razbuten divides single-use items into two categories - "reactive" items that restore hit points or eliminate status injuries (like poison or blindness), and "active" items that proactively affect the world. He argues that most players will use "reactive" items whenever they need to, but end up saving (and forgetting!) their "active" items.

One reason he thinks this happens is that players can often pretty easily win fights and beat the game without using any items. He notes that he uses more items on harder difficulty settings, where the extra boost is the only way he's able to win fights that he can simply hack and slash through at normal difficulty. I think this goes to @Play's earlier point that roguelike games ought to get harder faster than the hero character gets stronger, which will make equipment more important over the course of the game. Having a few monsters that are much stronger than the others can encourage you to use your items to win those fights in particular - although possibly at a cost of wanting to "save up" for those fights.

Making ALL equipment temporary might also encourage players to use single-use items more freely. Instead of using a permanent item to preserve your single-use items, you might be tempted to use up a single-use item to prolong the lifespan of some of your other equipment. Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild does this, as does the old SNES game Brandish. This could be a little hard to track in a game where a computer isn't counting your sword-strokes, but of course you can make the attack roll do the work for you. If even the best items break on a natural 1 (and less durable items break on a wider range) then nothing is permanent, and you need to keep finding new weapons and new armor throughout the game. (That one might be a hard sell for your players though. A bronze age or stone age setting could make it more palatable.)

Making new items easy to find is another suggestion for getting people to use them instead of hoarding them. There's no reason to try to save up your items if you can be pretty sure you'll keep finding more. Perhaps you could combine that with an encumbrance system that does't LET you build up a large supply, which is more or less what Numenera does - its single use items are plentiful and most characters can only carry 3 at a time early in the game, so you have a strong incentive to use them, and little reason to save them, even though each one is unique. You might also just have to accept that most players WON'T use "special" items under "ordinary" circumstances. The key to encouraging their use, then, would be to increase the number of "extraordinary" situations where item use becomes more likely.

Having non-combat puzzles to solve can encourage experimentation, which is a point that Joseph Manola has made before. It's also consistent with my own behavior in using the slightly-harder-to-replenish "boss power" weapons in Mega Man X. When faced with a problem that has no really obvious straightforward solution, I'm more likely to start experimenting with my equipment. Probably this is true of other players as well. Breath of the Wild includes areas that you can only reach by drinking certain potions to increase your abilities, and of course Super Metroid has its various lock-and-key puzzles where specific equipment items open up whole new areas on the map that are otherwise inaccessible. Puzzles and hard monsters, then, present a pair of difficult situations where players will "dig deep" to stay alive and overcome the challenge, and so they're both perfect times to use special items.
FINALLY finally, if looking at the ASCII and pixel art from earlier got you interested in making your own, here are a few links to free tools. When I posted about ASCII art once before, several people suggested resources to me, and I wanted to share them now. Each of these was recommended by at least one person who seemed to be in a position to know.

advASCIIdraw is a free program for drawing your own ASCII dungeon maps (and presumably anything else you'd like to draw using ASCII characters?)

Oryx Design Lab is not free, but they do sell packages of pixel-art images that you can use in your own games, including ones you plan to sell. Their prices are $25-$35 for an entire collection, and one of their collections is a rougelike tileset, which I believe is what Uncaring Cosmos used for their graphics.

Open Game Art is a repository for free, open-source, and Creative Commons pixel art. All of the art is free to download and free to use, although some artists may have licenses that only allow their art to be used in free products, while others will also allow their art to be re-used in something you're selling.

Lospec has a number of resources for making pixel art. They have a nifty list of artist-submitted color palettes, sorted by popularity, and with a number of search options. They have a free in-browser pixel art program, and a whole list of resources for for making pixel art, finding software, or locating communities of other pixel artists.

Playscii is another free program for making ASCII art. This one can make still images, animation, and can be used to make playable games.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Choose Your Own Miscellany - History, Reading, Maps

A Brief History of  'Choose Your Own Adventure'
Jake Rossen
Mental Floss

"A lawyer named Edward Packard had hit upon an idea. He often told his kids bedtime stories, and whenever he couldn’t figure out how to resolve a story, he asked them to weigh in with options. He soon realized that they enjoyed the stories more when they helped choose the endings."

"This interactivity was a valuable storytelling device - it both harnessed the kids’ attention and took advantage of their innate creativity - and Packard wondered whether there was a clever way to package it in book form."
One Book, Many Readings
Christian Swineheart
Samizdat Drafting Co

"At its atomic level, a CYOA book is a collection of numbered pages of a few different types. Most pages tell a portion of the story, then finish by telling you to jump to another page. A smaller number of pages tell a conclusion to the story and represent an endpoint with no further jumps. We can subdivide these 'narrative' and 'endings' groups further based on the number of choices offered or the goodness of the ending. To visualize this, imagine color-coding every page in the book and then laying the pages out next to each other."

These Maps Reveal the Hidden Structure of 'Choose Your Own Adventure' Books
Sarah Laskow
Atlas Obscura

"For years, fans have been creating visualizations of the forking structures of 'Choose Your Own Adventure' books. Often, they’re interested in the types of outcomes at the end of each path. One map labels each ending as 'new life, return home, or death,' and another separates them into 'cliffhanger, solution, or death.' Christian Swinehart's extensive graphical analysis of the books labels the endings as 'great, favorable, mediocre, disappointing, or catastrophic.' "

"On the official maps, however, the endings aren't coded in any way that reveals their nature. Instead, they operate according to a simple key: each arrow represents a page, each circle a choice, and each square an ending. Dotted lines show where branches link to one another."

Friday, November 22, 2019

Dungeon Alphabet Dozen - A is also also for ADMIXTURE

A is also also for ADMIXTURE
Roll 1d12!

Probably each hex on the map contains one unique MATERIAL COMPONENT that can be found only there. When any two such components are mixed together, there is a 1-in-12 chance that a useful potion is reliably produced by the admixture. Once such a formula has been discovered, adding a third ingredient has a 1-in-6 chance to add a second useful effect to the resulting potion.

Admixtures are often extremely specific in their results. For example, if an admixture is the antidote to a specific poison, it will work to cure the first poison the player characters use it on, but thereafter it will only work to cure the effects of the same poison.

Random Admixtures of the Underworld Alchemists

1 Antidote for one specific POISON.

2 Cure for one specific DISEASE.

3 Healing poultice cures 1d12 damage and negates the effect of one CRITICAL HIT per dose when applied to the wound and bandaged for at least a day.

4 Pungent incense eliminates the effect of one specific CURSE or negative enchantment when its smoke is inhaled.

5 Heady intoxicant acts like liquid courage. One dose makes it user immune to fear and loss of morale for the rest of the day, and is guaranteed to send them into a battle frenzy the next time they enter combat.

6 Arcane mutagen causes specific beneficial mutation to manifest for 1 day. Cumulative 1-in-12 chance with each use that it becomes permanent.

7 Delicious sauce makes any food taste incredible. One dose will flavor 1d6 rations, and anyone who can afford it would be happy to pay 10x the normal ration price for the chance to eat it.

8 Combustible fuel additive can be mixed into 1d6 jars of lamp oil or coated onto 1d12 torches. Light sources burn twice as long, and won't go out when dropped or in a heavy wind.

9 Unique pheromone causes its wearer to register as a non-entity to one specific monster who smells it for one day per dose.

10 Mystical elixir acts like a substitute for holy water, deals 1d12 damage to one specific hard-to-hurt supernatural creature.

11 Nourishing plant food turns one specific monstrous plant into willing servant of anyone who gives it a dose for 1 hour before it lapses into a digestive fugue state.

12 Powerful anti-biotic / anti-fungal agent cures the effects of contact with one specific OOZE or FUNGUS, and deals 1d12 damage per dose to that specific ooze or fungus.

Monday, November 18, 2019

I Shall Destroy all the Civilized Stretch Goals!

I previously mentioned that I will maybe be writing a DCC patron, depending on the result of a crowdfunding campaign.

The campaign is Joshua LH Burnett and Leighton Connor's adaptation of Fletcher Hanks' golden-age comics into a DCC setting with multiple adventures, titled for the villains of one of Hanks' strips, The Leopard Women of Venus.

At the time I'm writing this, the campaign has about three days left. It'll end early morning on Thursday, November 21st. The campaign has received enough pledges to fund, and barring a catastrophe, in the next 72 hours it will receive enough pledges to commission Stephen Poag, who's art has become almost synonymous with DCC and the OSR more generally.
Josh and Leighton also hired TSR luminary Erol Otus!
Josh recently ran one of these adventures at Acadecon in Ohio, and he published a summary on his own blog. I'm reprinting it here, along with a photo of his judge's map.

"The adventure started with the gathered zeds receiving their mission from Forecastle J. MacBeth, leader of the Humanoid Coalition and my favorite NPC. The party needed to cross through the dangerous jungle to a crater where an alien spaceship had crashed 72 hours previous. They were to salvage what they could from the saucer and find out what had happened to the previous retrieval team."

"The trek across the jungle was treated like a dungeon, with paths connecting to various clearings. No need to overwhelm new players with wilderness-crawl rules right out the gate, I figure. The party encountered a shrine to Fantomah, got the jump on some Martian scouts, fought a deranged Flying Saurian, and avoided the deadly Venusian Bees. Little-to-no casualties at this point, thanks to luck and sound tactics."

"When the party arrived at Gorgon’s Gorge, things started to turn. Three giant flaming claws smashed, squeezed, and burned several members of the party before they were destroyed."

"Eventually the party found the wrecked saucer and set to exploring it. The radium miner’s geiger counter let them avoid the ruptured core at the center of the craft. The Martian cafeteria seemed promising until mutated slime puddings dropped from the ceiling killed several of their number. The sadistic surgical robot the oversaw the bio-lab also managed kill some of the players before getting scrapped. The Martian barracks were the most deadly of course, as a cadre of Martian pikemen and gunners winnowed down the PC party. When they party eventually decided to examine the saucer’s power core, the co-mingled monstrosity that was once two members of the original team killed several more PCs (It had three attacks!). At long last, the PCs managed to rescue the two survivors from the original expedition and were able to call in MacBeth for an extraction. Of the 18 level-zeroes that started the adventure, only seven made it out alive. That’s what I call a good funnel adventure!"
A view from the judge's vantage point.
There's another stretch goal still waiting to be funded, and that's the one that determines whether or not I'll be hired on to the project. I remain optimistic, but I thought I could improve my chances by talking about what you'll get if I get involved.

My potential contribution is a patron that plays an important role in the Venus of LWOV, but who could also fit in to a campaign for Mutant Crawl Classics or Crawling Under a Broken Moon. If hired, I'll be writing a patron to act as the leader and benefactor of the Science Robots.
Science Robots by Diogo Nogueira

The obvious starting point is going to be Fletcher Hanks' own comics. I was able to read the first collection, I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets, through my public library system. Unfortunately, all the Space Smith comics are in the second compilation, You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation, so I'll need to ILL a copy straight away. I'll also want to see what Josh and Leighton have written about the Science Robots.

But I do a few ideas of my own already. I know that for some people, the idea of robot immediately conjures up images of Forbidden Planet or Lost in Space or Robot Monster, but personally, I'm much more inspired by Stanislaw Lem and Star Trek ... and by the delightful Futurama homages to them both.

Stanislaw Lem's Star Diaries are among his funniest short stories. They're the voyages of his naif spaceman Ijon Tichy, as he blunders from one situation he's too foolish to understand to another. In "The Seventh Voyage" for example, he basically re-enacts the plot to Timecrimes, minus the horror and the sexual violence, simply because he's too arrogant and too dumb to get out of his own way.

In "The Eleventh Voyage" an Earth government sends Ijon to spy on a robot planet. He wears a suit of armor that disguises him, and consults an instruction manual on robot society to help fit in. In the end, he discovers that all the actual robots rusted away long ago. The entire robot society is made up of spies in costumes, all of whom are too frightened of being caught out as imposters to notice that their neighbors are just playacting too. It's a really powerful condemnation of the Soviet government, and a veiled call for citizens to realize that they're not alone, and to democratically overthrow the one-party government. Aaand, it's a great inspiration for what the Science Robots might be like!

Futurama actually got a couple episodes out of "The Eleventh Voyage" - both Fear of a Bot Planet, where they travel to a robot planet where the incompetent government of robot elders has all the robots spend all day ritually hating humans as a distraction from their crippling lugnut shortage, and Insane in the Mainframe, where a human is misdiagnosed by a robot psychiatrist as being a malfunctioning robot, and eventually comes to believe it.

Meanwhile, you can't have a society of robots without a giant supercomputer to rule over them. I mean, okay, you caaan, but why would you want to? One of my favorite things about Star Trek is that Captain Kirk has basically two go-to moves to solve any problem. The first is to seduce an attractive woman, and the second is to make a computer go crazy. And in one notable instance, the woman is a robot, and when he seduces her, that makes her computer brain go crazy. Maximum Derek Kirk! In case I thought I was alone in noticing this, nope, other fans have dubbed this the "induced self destruction" phenomenon. Kirk's third go-to move, incidentally, is the double axe handle punch that apparently his stunt coordinators thought was the most futuristic looking fight move possible.

My favorite giant computer episode of Star Trek was the one that for some reason needed to remove Spock's brain from his body to act as a processor. That one was called, um, checks notes, "Spock's Brain". Futurama has their own giant computer episode, "Amazon Women in the Mood", where it turns out that the giant computer is actually just a robot hiding behind a giant facade, and the robot herself is at least as fallible as the people she governs.

The point being that I imagine the Science Robots are directed by a giant supercomputer, that may or may not be what it appears. It's certainly vainglorious, hypocritical, and despite a possible vulnerability to children's logic puzzles, a deeply illogical entity. The Science Robots themselves probably have profoundly inaccurate misconceptions about humans, and might have a few armor-wearing humans living as members of the Robot caste of their society.

Now, you might say "but Anne, what if the Science Robots are ruled by a GOOD computer?" Let me remind you that the Robots keep humans as chattel, and routinely uplift selected humans to act as military units by injecting them with irradiated cat blood and giving them flamethrowers to wear as hats. While the entity who makes this decision MIGHT have good intentions, and be better than its deeply horrible neighbors, it is certainly NOT a paragon of military strategy or any other virtue.

So those are my personal touchpoints, beyond the works of Fletcher Hanks and the previous writing by Josh and Leighton. If you back the Kickstarter and my stretch goal gets funded, this is the sort of thing you can look forward to from me. You can also look forward to 175-page comic-book sized campaign setting with two other patrons, two introductory adventures, and a plethora of art by OSR luminaries for all your classic dungeon-crawling enjoyment!

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Recent-ish Resource Management Links - Late 2018

Around this time last year, I started collecting links when people posted about resource management on their own blogs. Aaaaand, then I kind of forgot to post any of them. Aaand then there were kind of too many to fit into a single post. So here's the first post of what will become an irregular series, resource management links from the roleplaying blogs I read.

Ten Foot Polemic - Three Ways to Solve Resource Tracking

This is the one that got me collecting links, because James Young referenced something I wrote at the beginning of his post. Anyway, James makes an interesting distinction between what he calls "drain" and what he calls "use". These are two ways that resources get depleted. "Drain is when they tick down over time. Use is when you make an active decision to use them up." In James's view, and I agree, use is usually going to be more interesting than drain. Drain is something being taken away from you, use is voluntarily giving something up ... to get something else you want even more.

He looks into three resources he wants to manage in his game - food, ammo, and light. For food, he decides on a use mechanic. He makes rations the primary source of healing, and adds a special new cooking rule as an extra incentive. For ammunition, he decides to ignore it. For his game, he decides that tracking ammo uses up too much mental bandwidth for too little payoff to be worth it. For light, he decides on drain. With two of his three resources NOT being drained, he feels able to treat one that way, and uses the overloaded encounter dice mechanic to simplify the rate of torch consumption as much as possible.

In addition to appreciating the drain / use distinction, I also like James's point that you can use different mechanics to deal with different resources. You're not required to treat them all the same way. Also, choosing to ignore one resource might free up the time, attention, and mental energy you need to be able to track another one that you care about more.

Goblin Punch - Triple X Depletion: A Unified Depletion System

Arnold K actually does recommend using the same mechanic for tracking all your resources, but the one he suggests is pretty simple. And you still could, like James does above, adopt the triple X mechanic for just one resource in your game.

In this system, when you initially buy a resource, you get a bundle with 3 check-boxes worth. Each time you use the resource, mark off one of the boxes with an X to indicate that it's partially depleted. When you mark three Xs, the resource is gone. You can also replenish a partially used resource. I'm not totally clear on the costs of replenishment vs buying another resource, but replenishment has the benefit of not adding another line to your inventory.

Magic items can't be replenished, but they get six Xs instead of three (or they get three, but accumulate them a half-X at a time). Using an item for a special purpose means using it up completely.

While the mechanic for tracking resource consumption is the same for every resource, the specific condition that triggers drawing that X varies, which gives each one its own specific feeling. Food and drink deplete twice a day during rests, torches and lamps deplete based on the encounter dice, ammunition has a 50% chance of depleting after every combat where you fire it.

Arnold also recommends having weapons and armor deplete exactly the same way. Armor gets an X when you roll a critical fumble on a defense roll (equivalent to a monster rolling a critical hit in other rules) and weapons can get Xs from critical fumbles on attack rolls. There are a few other complications to both of those, but that's the basic system.

The triple X system seems like it might be a a nice middle ground between each item taking up its own inventory slot and carrying bundles of 10 or 20 that basically never run out. These bundles are just small enough to make depletion meaningful, they're also small enough to remember. "Three strikes and you're out (of the thing you were using)" is an intuitively simple rule, and three items in each bundle probably allows the bundles to fit neatly inside your working memory.

The Manse - Stow & Load Encumbrance System

Cacklecharm is just looking at encumbrance here, but he does a couple things that are interesting. The first is to make a distinction between the total load a character is carrying, and the items they can stow within easy reach.

You can stow 4 + Dex modifier items where you can reach them immediately during combat. Anything not on that list takes multiple combat rounds to reach. Stars Without Number has a similar detail in its encumbrance system. Troika! adds the interesting touch of numbering your items in order, then needing to roll higher than an item's number to get it out during combat.

You can also load up 8 + Str modifier items for each level of encumbrance, of which there are four. My initial thought is that this feels like a lot of items, with the average character able to carry 36 before running out of room.

However, Cacklecharm also adds the detail that many items take up extra slots based on their weight and size. If I understand correctly, small items like daggers take up 1 spot, medium items take up 2 spots, and large items take up 3. So this system is still more generous than most, but the average character can only carry 18 average items, or 12 heavy ones.

There's another detail that encumbrance interacts with Cacklecharm's encounter system. Becoming encumbered reduces your stealth and adds an extra 1-in-6 chance of an encounter every time you roll. Carry enough weight, and you're guaranteed an encounter every time. Worse, once you slip into the "heavily encumbered" range, you can't act during the first round of combat. So while you can carry a lot of items in this system, there are some serious incentives not to. The increased encounter chance also kind of mimics the effect of finding more wandering monsters while moving slowly, while bypassing Gygax's (tedious) ever-changing movement speeds, which is a nice trick!

Pfaff - Encumbrance in OD&D: The Isle of Ys Campaign

Michael Pfaff has also written an encumbrance system. Characters get between 3 and 7 slots to fill based on their Strength score. The average character gets 5. Adding additional slot's worth of equipment drops you down one movement rate each, so 3 extra slots over your initial limit leaves you crawling along at 30'.

Slots are pretty abstract though, and don't directly correspond to the number of items carried. Armor is heavy, and weighs between 1-3 slots depending on type. You can carry a "short" weapon for free; "long" weapons take up more room, but you can carry a couple weapons for only 1 slot.

Every character also has a pack that holds their other equipment. A pouch holding 1 item is free, a rucksack that holds 9 items takes up 3 slots. This all sounds a little complex to explain, but he makes it sound not too difficult. This is also more or less how Torchbearer handles packs. You can spend 1 or 2 body slots to wear a pack, if you do, you get an additional 3 or 6 pack slots to fill.

It seems possible that you could get the same effect he achieves here by increasing the "slot" limit and allowing "slots" to represent items in a more direct and less abstract way, although the trade-off would be slightly more difficult math. The benefit of Michael Pfaff's system, I think, is that you're dealing entirely with single digit numbers. If you did away with the slot-item distinction, I think you' be left with something closer to what Cacklecharm wrote.

Roll 1d100 - The Sunfall Cycle Playtesting Rules: Equipment and Encumbrance

The first thing to know about Steven Lumpkin's encumbrance system is that it only applies to things you're carrying but not using. The armor you're wearing, along with any magic clothing, is separate from this encumbrance system. So is anything in your hands, such as a weapon, a lantern, or your shield. This feels a bit the "stow" space from earlier, except that instead of quantifying it, Steven chooses to ignore it.

Beyond what you're immediately using, you have 3 regular encumbrance slots, 1 "belt slot" that can only hold a small item, and 1 "class slot" that can only hold a class-specific item (such as a bard's musical instrument or a cleric's holy symbol), and a "back slot" which can either hold one item strapped to your back or a backpack with slots of its own, a bit like the Pfaff packs. A backpack holds 2-6 items, depending on your Strength modifier.

Most items are going to take up one slot. Smaller items are three-to-a-slot, however, for consumable resources like torches or arrows, Steven has a different rule that involves rolling dice after each use. If you roll too low, the item only has one use left, after which it will run out. If you fill two slots with the same consumable, however, you no longer need to make these tests. (Which will almost certainly encourage each character in a party to specialize in a single type of consumable equipment.)

Equipment kits work a lot like consumables. Each kit has a list of possible items. Each time you use the kit, you can pull out any item from that list, then roll to determine if the kit is down to only one use left. You can also pay extra for expensive kits that have more uses.

Sheep and Sorcery - Supply Die:  An Alternative to Counting Pennies

Michael Kennedy adopts the Usage Dice from The Black Hack and Macchiato Monsters as a kind of catch-all supply. What he's describing here actually reminds me most of The Scones Alone's expedition resources. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this one, although it is a slightly more abstract version of a mechanic I already like, so it has that working in its favor.

Anyway, the Sheep and Sorcery supply dice is a catch-all for rations, torches, ropes, and ammunition. Each time you pull supplies from your pack, roll the dice, and if you roll a 1 or 2, it shrinks from d10 to d8 to d6 to d4 to gone. If every character in the party gives up one inventory slot for supplies, the party gets a d6 supply dice; if everyone gives up two slots, they get a d10 dice. The daily meal for the entire party takes a roll. A roll also produces one rope, or 1d4+1 torches. The idea is to make using any supply a little risky, and presumably to run out of all vital dungeoneering supplies simultaneously.

Buildings are People - Conditions

What Valzi offers us here is not so much an inventory system as it is an option rule that could be added on to any encumbrance system that uses slots.

Valzi suggests that whenever you character has a "condition", that takes up 1 inventory slot, in addition to any other effects it has. He lists additional option effects for fatigue, hunger, thirst, being wet, being cold, and being too hot. Having each condition take up a slot is a simple model for the wearing down of an injured character, it gives you a definite place to write any current conditions on your character sheet (is there another place you're supposed to write them? it's weird that there's not, right?), and it adds a benefit besides hit point healing to taking a good long rest.

You could very easily add poison and disease to this list, and the injuries that characters get from monsters scoring critical hits are another possibility. I think this one's a winner, and I know I've seen one or two people using it in the wild already.

Lithyscaphe - Dungeon Logistics & Supply Bundles

David Perry also uses Usage Dice, but in a markedly less abstract way than we've seen before. To start off with, every item in a character's inventory is labeled as "combat", "pack", or "travel".

"Combat" items are things the character ALWAYS has on their person, even while exploring and during combat. Every single combat item beyond your weapons, armor, and shields imposes an across-the-board penalty to all your combat stats!

"Pack" items then are all the things the character carries with them in the dungeon, but these "packs" are just sacks, just bags with no straps, closures, or handles. The assumption is that you're leaving these in a pile while you explore (with only your "combat" items on-hand), and then making multiple trips back and forth to build a new pile once you've secured a route through some part of the dungeon.

He doesn't go into specifics, but he says that this assumption of backtracking to retrieve your stuff helps explain why characters with more items move slower. I'm assuming that the slower movement rates are an abstraction which lets him track time the way he wants to without forcing his players to actually describe making several back-and-forth trips every time they advance, but I can't say that for certain. He does mention that there's a risk of becoming separated from your packs, which could only happen if there's a problem on the first trip out away from the pile, or if you consciously decide to forgo moving the pile along with you.

I'm also not certain how much you can carry in a pack, or how many packs you can carry. David says that each sack can hold "9 to 30 'faces' in any combination" but I'm not familiar with that terminology. Whatever doesn't get counted as a "pack" item goes into the final category. "Travel" items are left with the horses and carts outside the dungeon. They're available during overland travel, but not while you're inside. It's not clear to me how much characters can bring in with them, and ho much they need to leave outside, but it is an idea that lets you not carry something right now without having to erase it off your character sheet for good.

Now, what's going into those over-the-shoulder sacks are "supply bundles" each of which gets its own Usage Dice. (And, presumably, normal non-consumable equipment.) David makes each dice represent a different supply, in contrast to Michael Kennedy's unified supply dice. So at a minimum, the party needs to carry rations, fuel for their lights, and ammunition. Medicine and nick-knacks get their own dice as well, if you want them. Instead of each character setting aside space for an equal share of generic equipment, the players get to decide how many supply bundles to bring, and how to divvy up the dice across their packs.

This is a full system with a couple different interlocking parts, and you could probably adopt part of it without taking on the other. With his insistence on assigning a physical location to each object, this is one of the most concrete treatments of equipment, and denying his medieval player characters modern backpacks probably also makes this the most "realistic" ... but at the same time, he still uses an abstraction rather than raw counts to handle the supply of consumable items.

David Perry also includes an interesting link to David Black's post The Usage Die and Why it isn't That Great. David Black makes the point that the Usage Dice is most interesting when it's used for a specific purpose in tracking the supply of consumable resources, and that its effectiveness is diluted if it starts being applied to other situations. I've thought before about the fact that you could use the Usage Dice to determine if tools break when you try to use them. But I think that you'd need to make a decision to either have the Usage Dice track the supply of consumables or have it track the condition of breakables, but not both in the same game. David Perry also includes several links to my blog, which I promise is not a criteria for showing up on one of these lists.

Final Thoughts
Looking through these, I think my personal inclination is that, as much as possible, one "slot" should correspond to one item. Some items will be too small to bother with, some will come in (hopefully predictably-sized) bundles, and some will be large enough to need two (or more) spaces, but "one item, one slot" seems like an ideal I would prefer to strive toward. Admittedly, this prevents the kind of "spend a slot to add a storage space with several slots" solutions that Torchbearer and Pfaff blog and Roll 1d100 all use.

I very much like the idea that wounds and injuries take up encumbrance slots, and I would be very tempted to expand this to allow mental scars to take up "mind slots" if I could figure out a good way to make skills and class abilities and weapon proficiencies and spells all interchangeable.

I also kind of like the technology of modifying encumbrance using the Strength BONUS, rather than pegging it directly to the Strength score itself. I've said before that I don't think character's encumbrance slots should vary from 3 to 18. Varying from 7 to 13 seems like a compromise that's easier to live with. The first place I remember seeing this idea was on Roles Rules and Rolls, although there's every reason to think that Cacklecharm and Michael Pfaff both re-discovered the technology independently of Roger G-S, and of each other.

Finally, in any encumbrance system, complexity adds up fast. If you do plan to use different systems for different resources (the way I praised Ten Foot Polemic for doing) you want to make sure that each system is as simple as it can be. If you want different kinds of items to take up different numbers of "slots" then you also want to limit the number of possibilities and to apply them as clearly and consistently as possible. Each feature you add, however elegant in its own right, adds to the complexity of the whole.

I dunno, looking at all these has got me thinking that to evaluate an encumbrance system, you might need to take a step back and ask a more basic question about what design goal the rule is intended to accomplish? It's hard to judge how well a thing is fulfilling its function if you don't know for sure what that function is intended to be. Like, the "spend a slot to add a storage space" thing strikes me as being a roundabout way of increasing the number of slots, it's not a tradeoff if you would never not choose it, and I can't see that that extra complexity serves any purpose. But maybe I just don't what that purpose is supposed to be?

My FINAL final thought is that "encumbrance" and "slots" are both terrible words that feel uncomfortable to say. I don't know if there's a solution to this problem since they are both clearly THE terms of art but I would love it if some other words could catch on.