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.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

5e - Alternatives to Darkvision

Darkvision is fairly common among the character races in D&D 5e.

Dwarves have it, elves have it, gnomes have it, half-elves and half-orcs have it, and so do tieflings. Only humans, halflings, and dragonborn don't, at least among the races in the Player's Handbook.

Open up Volo's Guide to Monsters, and you'll find darkvision among aasimar and tabaxi, among all the monstrous races available for player characters - bugbears, goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, orcs, and yuan-ti - along with a few more who don't, like goliaths and tritons.

Because almost every species has darkvision, it doesn't end up having much effect in play. Being able to see in the dark doesn't make you feel special, and can't become a key facet of your character's personality, if everyone else can do the same. Likewise, darvision never offers a character the chance to reveal hidden information none of their party members can discover if everyone knows that information by default.

So it would be more interesting, I think, from the standpoint of both characterization and information gathering, if different characters had a variety of different abilities, instead of all having the same one. It makes sense that Underdark natives - drow, duergar, svirfneblin - might have true darkvision, but this ability will feel more special if they're the only ones. I would also for sure let them see right through magical darkness.

I've made a list of some possible replacements. I've assigned them based on species, but you could also roll the dice, or just pick one you like. After the list, I have some thoughts about what it means for 5e to be designed so that so many player characters end up with darkvision. You could also add any of these abilities to a magic lantern or to a pair of glasses, like Luna Lovegood's spectra-specs. You can't really do that with darkvision, since every lantern already grants the ability to see in the dark. (Although I do deeply love The Manse's idea - orcs can see in the dark because their eyes glow red, and you can make a lantern by filling a glass jar with orc eyes.)

If you add to the list, make sure not to include things like "knows true north" or "can accurately guess distances" or "can count all the coins in a hoard on sight". Those might be superpowers in real life, but most GMs regularly assume that all player characters can do all of those things; it's ingrained in the way we share information with players. Offering those as special abilities is either going to be a cheat to those players when everyone else gets the same information anyway, or its going to impoverish your game by removing several common ways of communicating about the game world.

The senses listed below could be "always on" or they could require concentration to use. Some of these senses more-or-less replicate the effect of a spell. If that bothers you, you could make it take as long as a ritual to use effectively. You could also rule that some of these senses only work in total darkness, giving the players and incentive to douse the lights. If you don't like any of these options, you could also remove darkvision and replace it with a language, or with another proficiency.
image from Spelunky

Hill Dwarves - Gold Sense
Some hill dwarves possess a "gold scent" - they can literally smell the presence of gold, and the greater the concentration, the stronger the smell. They can tell when they're in the immediate presence of gold, and are drawn to the largest supply in the area - unless that's already on their person! (This one is adapted from DCC.)

Others possess a "gold sight" that lets them see gold glowing with a warm yellow light. A single gold coin gives off less light than a candle, but a small cache will shine like a torch, and a hoard like the noonday sun.

Mountain Dwarves - Trap Sense
Raised in labyrinthine halls amidst every available architectural trick and travail, mountain dwarves have an innate sense for building features intended to deceive or deal harm. In any built environment, they'll notice when they're in the presence of a "trick" or "trap" although they won't automatically be able to identify the nature of the hazard.
(Yes, "find traps" is a 2nd level spell. So is "darkvision".)

Duergar - See Invisible
The diabolical duergar have mastered the magical art of turning invisible at will. With proprietary alchemical paints, they've also filled their cities and lairs with invisible hazards to ensnare invaders. What is invisible to outside eyes is not simply visible to the duergar, it actually glows with ghostly white light to their eyes.
(This could be in addition to their darkvision, instead of replacing it.)

High Elf - Aura Sight
Millennia of schooling and study have trained high elves to recognize magic on sight. Every living spellcaster possesses a faint aura, as does every magic item, and every creature with a magical attack. Depending on the circumstances and the strength of the magic, these auras may be faint, sometimes almost invisible. Powerful auras glow like a bonfire of magical potency.

Wood Elf - Door Sight
In ages past, every forest was filled with hidden doorways that led directly to the Feywild. Today, nearly all of those doors are gone, but wood elves retain a special sense for noticing the presence of secret passages. Doors that are hidden or locked by magic appear as glowing rectangles. Other doors might not be visible, although the elves will know they're there. The means to open these doors will not usually be obvious.

Drow - Poison Scent
Surrounded by scorpions and spiders, successive generations of their leaders assassinated by tainted food, adulterated drink, and poisoned blades, the drow have evolved an infallible nose for toxins of all kinds. They know when rations are unsafe, when monsters are venomous, and when weapons have been coated with poison. Drow with particularly discriminating palates can even identify different types of poison by scent alone, although such sommeliers require additional training in alchemy or herbalism.
(This is in addition to darkvision, however, drow just get regular old darkvision, not the superior kind.)

Stout Halfling - Food Sense
These hereditary gourmets have a knack for finding edible morsels. When foraging or examining the corpse of a monster, they're able to the safest and tastiest portions. Except in unusual situations, poisonous  items that offer no nourishment will appear obviously inedible. Stout halflings can also "follow their noses" to locate kitchens, larders, pantries, feast-halls, and even occasionally guardposts where meals are taken or prepared.
(This replaces Halfling Nimbleness, which becomes a Lightfoot ability only.)

Forest Gnome - Hazard Sense
The untamed wilderness is full of natural perils, and territories controlled by other species are more dangerous still, littered with abandoned siege weapons, crumbling border fortifications, and half-forgotten anti-invasion ordinance. Forest gnomes, who claim no territory and wander freely across the frontier and the settled lands, have encountered all of them. From infancy they learn the tell-tale signs of danger, and as long as they're outside, they know when a trap or natural hazard is present, although its source might not be readily apparent.

Rock Gnome - Machine Canny
Even rock gnomes who don't build machines themselves understand how they work, an ability that appears near-miraculous to other species. To gnomish eyes, every machine is made of parts that operate by cause and effect. "Cause" one part to activate, and its "effect" becomes the cause for the next part, and so on until the machine completes its final effect. While they have no special talent for spotting mechanisms, a rock gnome who notices a machine part can intuit its "cause" and its "effect" and can guess what kind of part comes before it and after it. They can also tell if the part is broken, or if its link in the chain of cause and effect is broken.

Deep Gnome - Gem Sight
Although everyone perceives gemstones as lustrous, to deep gnome eyes they literally glow, the color of the light determine by the color of the gem. Raw and uncut stones give off a dim light that aids in mining, while finished jewels cast a brilliant sparkle. Though unlit to outside eyes, deep gnome cities and lairs appear filled with rainbows and kaleidoscopes to their builders, with strategically placed gems drenching every corner in colorful light.
(This could replace darkvision, leaving svirfneblin on equal footing with others outside their own territory.)

Half Elf - Fey Sense
The elfin blood in half-elves veins calls out to other fey, granting them a powerful intuition that is felt more than seen. Half elves can identify fey creatures, and can tell the difference between those native to the Feywild and those born into the material world. They can identify radiant magic and positive energy. They can identify fairy pranks, even before the prankster has been spotted. They can see the bond between warlocks and the Archfey and the Celestial; and they can tell when someone has been charmed, frightened, or possessed by a fairy or celestial.

Half Orc - Shadow Sight
Born between worlds, half-orcs can see just past the veil between worlds, into the Border Ethereal and the Shadowfell. They can perceive ghosts and fiends lurking invisible and incorporeal, whenever they are close enough to manifest. They can see the difference between dead bodies and the undead, between ordinary shadows and shadow-monsters. Half orcs can see the bond that connects warlocks to the Raven Queen or the Fiend; can perceive when someone has been charmed, frightened, or possessed by an undead creature or fiend; and can see necrotic magic and negative energy whenever they're used.

Tiefling - Mind Reading
If a tiefling can look directly at another being and concentrate, they can actually hear the other's thoughts, the voice in their head like a half-whispered, half-mumbled monologue. This only works if the tiefling can see the others' eyes, the windows to their soul. They hear surface thoughts only, and can't elicit or insert specific ideas, but their infernal ears are especially attuned to thoughts of temptation and desire.
(Like "darkvision" and "find traps", "detect thoughts" is also a 2nd level spell.)

Other Options
When designing a new 5e race that you're tempted to give darkvision, ask yourself if any other divination ability might be more thematically appropriate. Does your species have infravision, able to see heat signatures, but unable to detect oozes, constructs, undead, or even lizards, fish, or amphibians against the ambient air temperature? Can they dowse for water? Are they magnetically drawn to the presence of iron? Can they see emotions? Can they hear lies? Are they able to perceive cosmic alignment, or see the umbilical threads that bonds believers to their deities? Can they sometimes talk to insects or plants or rocks? Can they speak with the recently dead? Be creative, and your world, and your players' experiences, will be richer for it.

image from Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

So, maybe almost every species has darkvision. So what? Is that a problem? Well, maybe. I can think of two possible reasons for 5e to be designed this way, although of course I'm only speculating. The first possibility is that darkvision isn't really intended to be relevant in play very often or to have a frequent mechanical effect. Maybe it's mostly meant to be a nifty factoid about your character, something flavorful to distinguish the various demihumans from humanity, but ultimately no more important than green skin or pointed ears. (Although if so, it ultimately makes humans seem like the strange ones, cursed with a night-blindness that doesn't afflict anyone else. And at least "I have green skin" and "I have pointy ears" mark actual differences between half-orcs and half-elves!)

The second possibility is that WOTC is scared to death of resource management play, and doing everything in their power to prevent it. Maybe they think that only asshole GMs run resource management games, and want those assholes to stay away from their popular new edition. Maybe they're afraid that a novice GM will find an asshole OSR blog exhorting that "Gary wants you to count torches", will naively try to run a resource management game, and will end up driving themselves and their novice player friends right on back out of the hobby after a single bad session.

Whatever the reason, one thing is clear. Between the ubiquity of darkvision and making the "light" spell a cantrip with unlimited re-use, it's basically impossible to run a game where the player characters get trapped somewhere because they're unable to see.

Now, I've been very vocal in the past about not wanting to run a darkcrawl game, but I also don't really care for solutions like this. They feel dishonest. If you don't want to play a game where it's possible to get trapped in the dark, then don't, but don't pretend to offer it as a possibility with one hand, while using the other hand to smuggle it back off the table. Don't make a rule, then give every player permission to break it. Don't claim darkness is important, then fail to write any procedures that would actually support using it, then try to escape the contradiction you've set up by handing out "get out of dark free" cards.

Be honest. Tell potential GMs "The rules of this game assume that a low level of lighting is available at all time. Whether from moon and starlight outside, phosphorescent fungus growing in caverns and tombs, intelligent monsters lighting candles and braziers to illuminate dungeons for their own purposes, or from the player characters bearing torches and lanterns - it will never be truly dark. If your fictional solution involves the characters wielding light sources, these should never cost treasure to supply, never run out, and never count against the characters' encumbrance limits. Assume they are omnipresent, like the clothes on the characters' backs. This is not a game about counting torches or mapping caves in the dark." Then set the example and teach novice GMs how to do this by using the read-alouds and box-text in your sample adventures.

That would have pretty much the same effect as the current arrangement, but it would have the benefit of not pretending to do something you really don't, and it would allow GMs and players who want to engage in resource management play to do so without having to rewrite the spell list and nearly every species' racial traits. Ironically, under such an arrangement, the rules themselves would be more agnostic toward RM play than they are now, when they claim to take no official stand, but then saturate the game world with so much darkvision and magical light that RM play is rendered impossible in practice.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Dungeon Alphabet Dozen - B is also for BATTLE

B is also for BATTLE
Roll 1d12!

There are two ways to ways to use this table. The first is to set a flat 1-in-12 chance for each combat to be interrupted by a random event. The second is to automatically trigger a random event whenever combat "goes long." (I would recommend making that at the start of round 6, because let's be honest, no one ever makes it to round 12.)

Random Events Occurring During Combat 

1 Absolutely enormous parent monster shows up, scolds "children" for missing dinner, apparently-slain monsters revealed to be "playing dead," all enemies ushered out with warning from "Mother" not to play so rough next time. Initiating combat against unbelievably tough "Mother" is basically suicide.

2 Half a dozen referees in striped shirts appear, interposing themselves between combatants, hustling opponents apart, handing out yellow and red slips of paper to everyone in sight, all enemies have somehow been spirited away by the time the character make sense of things.

3 Lively music starts up, combat somehow morphs into dance-off. Judge is encouraged to adjudicate contest based on real-world dancing by players. If the characters win, the monsters voluntarily retreat, otherwise, characters are forced back into previous room and blocked from re-entry.

4 Power outage! Room goes completely dark for 1d6 more rounds before back-up generators kick in. Anyone who makes an attack must roll 1d6 instead of normal attack roll: 1 attack hits intended target, 2 attack hits a different random monster, 3-4 attack misses completely, 5 attack hits a random ally, 6 attacker only injures themselves. 50% chance all the monsters have gone missing when the lights come back on.

5 Maximum weight exceeded! The floor collapses, and everyone drops to the dungeon level below, taking 2d6 damage from the fall and debris. If there wasn't a dungeon level below this room before, there is now, but before you can see it, you'll have to escape from this room-sized pain-in-the-ass PIT.
6 End scene! Combat ended by thunderous applause from 12d12 human peasants. All monsters begin taking bows, dead monsters stand up to accept praise. Piles of flowers heaped into room. Meanwhile, 2d12 dark creeper and dark stalker "stage hands" are busy breaking down the set, rolling away dungeon walls, carrying off props, sweeping up the floor. By the time the curtain drops, the entire dungeon behind the heroes is reduced to a wall-less empty shell with theatrical supplies lining the back wall. There's a pretty nice reception on the other side of the curtain though, and the peasants would love to shake hands with a few of the "actors."

7 Groggy and disheveled random wandering monster appears in nearest doorway, rubbing eyes, wearing peaked nightcap, carrying candlestick. Spends a moment taking in the scene, then bellows at everyone to "BE QUIET!" because "PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO SLEEP!" Re-roll surprise and initiative. Anyone who's surprised can't act this round, and enemies who are surprised will act apologetic and slink away to the exits. The first person who makes any noise again is going to face the full wrath of the monster, but luckily for assassins, it's the victim of a sneak attack, and not the perpetrator, who generally makes a sound.

8 Rival ADVENTURING party parachutes in from overhead / repels down through previously unseen hole in ceiling. Re-roll surprise and initiative for all current combatants, reaction rolls to determine whose side the newcomers are on.

9 Army of murderous KOBOLDS (1d6 per person) literally breaks down one of the walls, streams into the room, and starts attacking everyone. Everyone who wants to live had better team up now, any survivors may not remember what original conflict was even about.

10 Whistle blows, combat stops while all monsters AND all retainers punch out on a time-clock and disappear out the back. They're all replaced by look-alikes with full hit points, different color-schemes, and (in the case of the retainers) different but rhyming names. Second whistle resumes the fight.

11 Bell dings, and the twin of every original monster (even those now defeated) tags in to join the fray. Original monsters somehow "forget" to tag out. New arrivals all armed with metal folding chairs.

12 Sound of clock striking midnight heralds in beginning of next real-world holiday. Monsters break out decorations, begin singing seasonally-appropriate tunes, no one (including player characters) can find the will to keep fighting. Everyone present feasts on available rations, exchanges gifts if the holiday permits.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Undersea Miscellany - Microscopic Fairies, Undersea Lilliputians, Delicate Invertebrates, Plates of Jellyfish

Under Victorian Microscopes, an Enchanted World
Olivia Campbell

"As they became more powerful and more affordable, microscopy became an increasingly popular hobby. Gazing through these “magic glasses” rendered previously unseen worlds, which teemed with tiny living creatures, newly visible. When it came time to describe what they were seeing, people frequently turned to the language of the fantastical."

"Naturalists and lay users readily used a vocabulary drawn from fairy literature to… convey the incomprehensible strangeness and minutiae of the microscopic world. Though the link may seem incongruous, a surprisingly substantial body of Victorian scientific literature and fairy stories connect microscopes to fairies."

Lilliput Under the Sea
Tim Flannery
New York Review of Books

"Varying from foot-long mollusks to speck-sized shrimps, invertebrates like those depicted are the largely silent majority of species on Earth. Yet by virtue of size, camouflage, or hard-to-access environments, they are all too often unobserved. To enter their world through this book is to dwell, albeit briefly, in a Lilliputian realm far more mysterious, breathtakingly beautiful, and mystifying than our own."
The Delicate Science-Art of the Blaschka Invertebrate Collection

"The nineteenth century saw an explosion of interest in the exploration of the natural world, resulting in growing numbers of zoological and natural history societies, which often established museums to garner more popular interest and support. Expeditions that investigated ‘new frontiers’ - rugged tropical rainforests, the fossil record, the ocean depths - proved particularly sensational, and the findings they gathered were often put on museum display."
A Plate of Jellyfish
Lucy Jakub
New York Review of Books

"Haeckel believed that evolution would unite science with art and philosophy under one discipline, through which humans could reach a greater understanding of their world. His intention was to make the natural forms of elusive organisms accessible to artists, and supply them with a new visual vocabulary of protists, mollusks, trilobites, siphonophores, fungi, and echinoderms. Opening Art Forms is like stepping into a cathedral, a place crafted by human hands that nonetheless inspires awe of the divine. Within are jellyfish that look like flowers, protists that resemble Fabergé eggs, presented like crown jewels on black velvet, the seeming cosmic vastness of the images belying their actual, microscopic size."