Saturday, 13 October 2018

Careers: a replacement to LOTFP-style Skills

To begin with, my Yoon-Suin campaign was essentially LOTFP played straight with a few pickings from tenfootpolemic. Inevitably I've houseruled to an absurd degree. I even dropped Wisdom and Constitution because I didn't like how they did basically nothing, but that's a topic for another day.

One thing which bothered me was how Skills were being used in my game or, chiefly, the fact that they weren't.

Just for any non-LOTFP-savvy readers - in Lamentations of the Flame Princess you have a dozen "Skills" representing things like Climbing, Bushcraft, Sneaking and the like. Each had a score out of six. You rolled a d6 when you invoked that skill and if you rolled equal to or under your score you succeeded.

My Specialist (renamed Adventurer) had put points into Architecture and kept using it to find out neat, irrelevant information about buildings. "Oh yeah it's a classic example of French Gothic". Neither of us could really fathom what its true purpose was, even after reading the advice online. As for the rest of the skills - they hardly ever got used. I mean how often do your players climb walls? Perhaps more than mine, to be fair.

I wanted Skills to become a bit less niche and more useful to me in a pinch. I practice an OSR-style philosophy of not hiding information behind perception or knowledge checks - if it made sense that the PC would know/see something, they saw/knew it. But sometimes it wasn't apparent, and in those moments a simple dice throw can be useful.

I found inspiration in an old favourite of mine - Barbarians of Lemuria. Barbarians is a very odd little game - I wouldn't know where to put it on the OSR-to-Storygame spectrum. It's served me well for one-shots and is very easy to run. I highly recommend picking over it if anyone's interested. For what it's worth, the more expensive, newer Mythic version is actually less good than the original.

In BoL character creation is simple - you have four Stats, four Careers, and four Combat Abilities. When you did something you rolled 2d6 and added your relevant Stat (you always added the Stat) and, if it was a combat situation, your relevant Combat Ability too. You beat a modifier and succeeded or failed. However if you were in a non-combat situation then instead of your Ability you would add your Career.

Careers were chosen by the players. Y'see, BoL was trying to represent the wild, wandering résumés of old Pulp Adventure characters like Conan or Fafhrd or Khlit the Cossack. You picked from a list of 20-something examples (e.g. Thief, Slave, Wench, Noble, Priest) and plotted a four-part 'story' of how your character got to where he is. So Conan would be something like "Barbarian - Slave - Gladiator - Thief" or whatever.

So in any non-combat situation you would inevitably have to justify how you could add one of your careers to the roll. So you could add Barbarian whilst out hunting because, of course, that's what you did as a child back in your days on the steppe - or maybe Thief 'cus it represented how good you were at sneaking through the undergrowth after your prey. Perhaps you could add Pirate to a haggling scenario if you argued that there is inevitably some element of mercantilism in fencing stolen plunder. You wouldn't be able to invoke Barbarian in a poetry competition unless you had an exceptionally good reason and a lenient GM.

I created the following replacement for Skills, called Careers:

Animal Handler

They function identical to Skills - PCs put one or two points into skills most relevant to their backstory at character creation. Adventurers/Specialists can add to them every level. The mechanic is the same - a d6. 

(With my players we inverted the numbers because they kept getting excited when they rolled a 6/6 and disappointed when they remembered that was the worst roll, so I flipped the math and everyone's happy. But you don't have to do that and it's not part of the house rule.)

Each of these careers is invoked when the players perform some task where the skills associated with that career come into play. So if someone wants to tame a wild, bucking bronco they roll Animal Handler. If they want to vanish into the woods for an afternoon and come back with a bunch of skinned rabbits and fresh trout, they roll Hunter. If they want to identify or produce anything herby, potion-y, poison-y they can roll Alchemist. 

But isn't Scholar just a roundabout Knowledge Check? I thought you didn't do them
Yes and no. Merely by having any points in a skill - indicating your character isn't a complete fuckwit in that regard - justifies giving out information as per my policy. However Scholar can be used in situations where it's unlikely the characters would really know anything - it gives the smart-alec bookworm types a chance to go "well it just so happens I spent one summer reading everything there is to know about tropical marine botany...". Just like how I don't make players roll Polyglot (1:1 LOTFP's Languages skill) to speak Common, I don't make them roll to know general things. But just like how rolling Polyglot can reveal a PC speaks Hobgoblin for some insane reason which might prompt a bit of improvised backstory-creating, so too can Scholar create a situation where this one character has a funny story for why they know so much about paranumismatics. 

What do Arcanist and Medic do?
In addition to providing magical theory and medical knowledge as per Scholar, Arcanist allows practicing wizards/magicians to foreshorten the length of time it takes to research/create spells and Medic allows for non-HP related medical emergencies to be resolved e.g. stemming bleeding, setting a broken ankle. 

What about Sherpa?
You could rename that for a less Nepal-centric game (I'm playing Yoon-Suin in the very-much-Himalayan Oligarchies) to something like Scout or Ranger or whatever. It's basically orienteering, mountaineering, local folklore, bushcraft all that stuff.

Doesn't Hunter cover that?
Yes! That's partly the point. Just like in BoL, there are some activities only a one career can do - but there are plenty of activities many careers can do. If you wanted to abseil off a ledge you could probably invoke Sherpa, Burglar, or Assassin (gotta get into top-floor apartments somehow). If you wanted to identify animal tracks, Animal Handler, Sherpa, Hunter, Scholar and maaaaybe even Alchemist if you argue your Alchemist career represents your character spending so much time picking herbs in the forest. Merchant and Thief can both appraise the value of things, Alchemist and Assassin both bond over their love of poisoning people. 

By breaking out these skills into various careers but still keeping each career distinct and favourful, players can use the Careers/Skill stat as another way to amplify their backstory and justify so many basic actions. Of course Hunters would know their way around the woods just as well as a Sherpa. But they might be clueless when it comes to travelling over vast distances or fording a river with a wagon of pack-mules. It is not a hard and fast list of what they can and can't do - it's what feels right and can be justified by the PC's life story and aptitude. This is not a rule for min-maxers. 

Another bonus to this system is suddenly Specialists/Adventurers start to build these wild and incredibly interesting backstories as they level up. By level 3 my Adventurer has 2 in Burglar, 2 in Engineer, 3 in Merchant, 2 in Polyglot, 2 in Scholar - all of these things hinting at a life-well-lived full of mishaps and adventurers - hence the rename. Just as LOTFP intended, a fighter hits harder, a priest and magic-user cast most powerful spells, and the Specialist-come-Adventurer will smile wistfully and say "this reminds me of that time I spent three months in the jungle with the Bokoko people of Nam-Boo-Lahr. They had a fantastic remedy for snake bites using gunpowder and shoe polish..." 

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Considering Mountains

My current campaign which I am GMing is set in David McGrogan's excellent Yoon-Suin.

In particular, my game is set in the Oligarchies in the Mountains of the Moon. In real terms, this is a fantasy counterpart of Nepal, with several powerful city-states ruled by immensely wealthy elite with a very casual view to the lives and sufferings of their less-wealthy peons. Yetis and yaks abound.

My players have so far traveled between two major cities, passing from one major river valley into another over a well-traveled trail through an otherwise-intimidating and labyrinthine mountain range.

My players like calling sessions "episodes"
 As I've grappled with various shades of travel rules, balancing descriptive flow with time-saving brevity and mechanical satisfaction, I've been thinking a lot about mountainous travel in RPGs.

The following is an unscientific thinking-aloud about mountains and their nature.

If you look at Nepal or any other mountainous country, there are, unsurprisingly, lots of mountains. Correspondingly there are valleys. Shocking, I know. If you look at a map which shows mountains in any detail - the kind with lots of lines representing 10s or 100s of meters in altitude - you see that mountains, valleys, and their interrelation are chaotic and fascinating.

All folds and bumps like a crumpled piece of paper
We see that valleys are gutters - rivers flow where they flow because they follow the grooves left between ranges and ridges of mountains. Mountains as we know them - Ben Nevis, Mt. Everest, etc. - are just nodules, snarls, bumps and knots along larger ridges. Valleys are the absences between these squiggly walls of rock. All mountains are longer than they are wide; properly conceptualised they are vast chains of rock stretching from horizon to horizon. Think of the Beacons of Gondor scene in The Return of the King.

Most ridges end one of two ways:

(1) they taper to a nub, getting narrower and shorter, becoming the vertical line of a capital T to the horizontal bar of another valley - intersecting with a nudge that makes rivers do their squiggly U-bends.

(2) they don't actually end, they just curve around, capping off the valley and coming back down the other side as the valley's opposite perimeter.

The ends of mountain ridges are like proud ramparts slipping sadly into the sea

So really when you think about it, valleys only end one of one ways - this end of the valley is just the middle

When you look on those maps I mentioned earlier, you realise that this is how all ridges work - they form loops that run up against each other, a fractal of larger and larger valleys.

The general pattern is - the higher up the chain of larger loops (or "horseshoes" if you want to be more accurate) the larger the ridge and the higher the mountain. Almost like each smaller valley contributes its mass to a larger whole.

All of the largest mountains in this picture are obscured but they're on the border beneath the Orange and Light Blue lines - you can see some of them on the Pink/Orange/Light Blue junction and another on the Orange/Light Blue/Yellow junction.
I am now approaching making some sort of point

The valleys in my game must therefore exist within such fractals. Although my players crossed from the Valley of the Hand to the Valley of the Warrior, in actuality those 'valleys' are comprised of a main river valley bristling with adjacent sub-valleys, each with its own tributary rivulet, each contributing the the ridge-horseshoe fractal building up into larger mountain ridges.

Consider this picture of the Budhi Gandaki River Valley in Nepal, which maps eerily well to what my players know already around the city of Bhudinanda in my game.

My players came into the Ginseng Valley from the south, crossed the river to its eastern bank, followed the trail, stopped off at Joshipur (and stole a holy relic), skipped Paluth, crossed BACK over the river, stayed in Bhudinanda, then rapidly ascended into the mountains to the west, where they met some stone giants.
 This is why I've been thinking about all of this lately

The Oligarchies are not flat. When my players have been following the trails from A to B to C, I have described as best I can the mountainous terrain and such. But actually I think this is something that could do with more proactive scrutiny.

If my game was set in generic fantasyland - a sort of pastoral English Midlands - it wouldn't really matter how fastidious one tracked location and terrain features, describing with pinpoint accuracy and respect to the canon of established descriptive precedent. You could describe a hill or forest or Stonehenge just for the sheer sake of having something interesting to put in the horizon, to paint the mental picture, and if the players decided they wanted to check it out, that they wanted to make concrete its existence in their story, bam, surreptitiously add it to the map, make a note. It changes nothing. It doesn't "break" the map. The rivers and roads are not irrevocably fucked because you added and extra grassy bump.

But in a landscape like Nepal roads and rivers go certain ways for very specific reasons. The road goes over the mountains at this point because there is a pass. There is a pass because that is the lowest, easiest-to-get-to point through this ridge. You can't just decide to skip the pass and cross the ridge a mile up ahead - certainly not with wagons and animals. That turns from "travelling" to "willful mountaineering", which when I word it like that sounds like a misdemeanor.

A big part of verisimilitude is consistency

If I just describe "walking through a valley" or "climbing over a pass" or "in the shadow of a great big mountain" just for the sake of saying fancy words, I have created irrefutable, immovable implications about a great deal of the local landscape that "hill" and "forest" in Englandia simply does not.

Saying there is a pass at point A means that everything either side of it is going to be a mountain ridge, probably with high points that would be known to the locals as named mountains. The land either side of this pass/ridge will be two valleys, each with a stream in them at least.

In mountainous land, all these systems - mountains, ridges, valleys, rivers, passes - are HIGHLY concentrated over small spaces and HIGHLY interconnected. If I said "oh, you pass a river heading south" - boom - now west and east are ridges, north is too and probably a great big mountain is up there also. If my players decided to get in a boat and follow this casually-invented river south, I've got to figure out where it goes, because wherever I put the course of this river, everything in a couple-mile radius around it will be obliterated and replaced with the corresponding ridges, cwms, scree hills, peaks and glaciers that come with the bargain.

And that's not even getting into how the hell you make traversing this environment exciting and flavourful for the players...

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Identifying the Point of 'Identify'

Following on from Scrap Princess' Google+ discussion about first level spells, I've been thinking about Identify.

The problem - Identify identifies the properties of magical items. Therefore the implication is that you don't know what magic items will do unless you (A) randomly and dangerously activate them or (B) cast this particular spell that has no other function.

If the GM is giving players magic items, or providing a space/setting that allows for the random acquisition of magic items, the implication is that the GM thinks it would be jolly good fun if the players had magic items. So why, then, the barrier to using them? Players either

(A) waste one of the wizard's otherwise-useful slots with this otherwise-useless spell and then just carry on as if they knew the item's properties from the outset (and if the day consists of "ok we do nothing today except let the wizard identify the item so we're not going sperlunking with one less spell slot" then in real-time about 10 seconds passes so it's almost as if you just told them outright anyway)

(B) don't touch the scary object because they're afraid what in reality is a "boring ring of boringness" could be Satan's Personal Fuck-You Ring, so there was never a point to giving them it

(C) fire it off randomly, and surely there are more interesting ways to fuck with your players and their characters' wellbeing than just giving them magic items whose only purpose is to hurt the players.

(D) take it to an NPC identifier because they have no wizard, at which point we're just pussyfooting around just telling the players, but now you've put that info behind some weird EA Games paywall microtransactions bullshit.

The Solution - get rid of Identify altogether?

But just letting the players magically know what the items does is also a bit lame. There are millions of non-magic items I come across in my real-life life that I haven't a clue what their application is, so random omniscience is dumb too. Plus, identifying is just one of those things that makes the nerdy, 4HP wizard feel very smug that all the big beefy fighters are watching with philistine awe as they do their very smart stuff to figure out what the helmet does.

Pictured: Magic-users
So let's keep the idea of identification, let's even keep it a spell - Identify - but scrap how it works. We could scrap the name too, but now I'm interested by the name as just a hint of what the spell does. Forget everything you know about "Identify" - just go on assumptions about what the name suggests. It identifies things, right?

Things. Not specifically magic items.

A green player without any D&D knowledge who hasn't read the spell descriptions might naively declare "I cast identify on the strange murals in the tomb!". No, pet, that's not how that works.

But maybe it should be?

To be honest this right here is where the post sort of ends for you, the reader, since what I'm about to suggest is heavy with a lot of implied worldbuilding unique to my table. The general advice of "ditch Identify and rework the spell from the title outwards" is my conclusion.

What I'M personally doing is this:

I feel wizardry ought to come with a heavy dose of "meddling with forces beyond yer ken", and so pacts with devils, demons, and genies seem like a staple of why some people can summon armies and other people don't know how to write their names in sparkles. A bit of it is academic opportunity, a bit of it is basic literacy and discipline, but a part of it also comes from making really dodgy deals with extradimensional demigods.

So Identify is a 1st level spell. I feel it is a very opportune place to insert the beginnings of a wizard's descent into devil-deals. One summons a being (a genie, in my campaign set in Yoon-Suin) whom the wizard beseeches to Identify something beyond the temporal knowledge of the mortal party. Maybe the murals on the tomb walls, maybe the provenance and capabilities of an ancient magical item, or maybe the identity of a corpse. In exchange the wizard offers some payment - at this very low-level, easy-peasy request from the genie, it's probably not going to be his soul. Maybe 100 of your local currency. It's really down to the given entity and magic-user to hash out an agreement, although again because this is such a low-effort dime-a-dozen deal request, the entity won't waste time if the magician gets super haggle-happy. "Dude it's literally the difference of ten silver. Fuck this, you can go read about this fortress' history in a book anyway, I'm out, Peace".

The limitations on what the entity is happy to identify will also teach the party about how genies (again, devils in your campaign, or whatever) work. There's a code of conduct. They won't identify anything that could affect another living person in the world - at that point you're hiring the genie for a much more involved process - espionage, assassination, etc. - and that requires a much more specific ritual that costs more and comes with more stipulations, and genies hate being pulled into the world for one kind of deal and then being talked to about a different kind (much like how people hate a 5 minute itinerary meeting evolving into a monolithic 2 hour expounding of everything the office is up to)  - so you can't Identify "the person who killed my father" or "the best way into the Doge's palace" or "the antidote for the poison I just drank". Identify should literally be a Google for publicly-accessible information that the party just doesn't have on-hand. History, art, and magic items, sure.

But if you've been teleported by a spiteful mage to the middle of an unknown forest in the middle of the night in another hemisphere, then sure a genie will be like "ok gimme that necklace and fifty gold and I'll show you which of these stars points south"

I feel like (again, personal to my world) becoming a more powerful wizard is a process of becoming less like your fellow mortals and more like a genie. Super-high-level wizards are floating immortal transdimensional wanderers for whom sleep, food, latitude and longitude are hazy suggestions rather than confines. So at a much higher level I would introduce another spell - named something other than Identify - which allows a wizard to personally tap into the Vortex and identify items and histories personally.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Yoon-Suin Setting & House Rules

The campaign is set in a western region of the Oligarchies of the Purple Land, a sprawling subcontinent vaguely Indian and South-East Asian domains. The Oligarchies are  each ruled by an Oligarch from a patriarchal House. Our down-and-out heroes have just gathered in Ma-Ma's Tea House, a small mountain pass bothy, located in the south Oolong Mountains between the river-valleys of the Mukkimono and the Mulligatawny - a wild and woolly borderlands region of independent-minded yak-herders and petty feudal micro-fiefs.

As the saffron sun rises, the twin valleys teeter on the brink of chaos. It is a land so very different from our own. The immortal, internecine wars between the Oligarchies threaten to boil over once more, between which and other sundry calamities have fractured the already fragile and decentralized realm. The Oligarchs' authority is now mostly nominal beyond the walls of their city-states.

House Rules
We're running LOTFP (Lamentations of the Flame Princess) with (most of) the house rules of Ten Foot Polemic