Sunday, February 19, 2017

Dark Souls and Dungeon Design

Instead of doing anything productive this weekend, so far I've mostly been watching Joseph Anderson's youtube channel of videogame criticism.  I found his videos on the Dark Souls series quite interesting.  Figured I might as well extend my procrastination by blogging about it.

Caveat 1: I have never played any of the Dark Souls games, and it seems unlikely that I will any time soon.  Everything I know about Dark Souls has come second-hand from Anderson.  This is both good and bad.

Caveat 2: Given that it is hardly new, other OSR bloggers have probably already beaten it to death.  It sounds like something The Delvers might've talked about.  But, I do not care.

Here are some things that stuck out to me from Anderson's videos:

  • Jayquaying - The sections of Dark Souls 1 that Anderson praises heavily are mostly thoroughly-jayquayed environments.  He rags on DS2 for switching to largely linear levels, and then has mixed praise for DS3 in this regard.  He notes that DS1 was jayquayed on two scales - both in local environments (eg, multiple paths and routes through a town), and in connections between environments (with links between, say, town and a valley full of dragons by way of both an aboveground road and a magma-filled cave below the mountains).  DS3 did a good job of jayquaying on the small scale, but not at the large scale.  Varying the level of jayquaying in megadungeon zones is an interesting possibility of looking at things this way - the megadungeon can have a nonlinear, loopful superstructure, with zones varying in their degree of nonlinearity.  It also expresses one of the problems I had with Rathell - the zone itself had an extremely nonlinear / loop-heavy microstructure, but the overstructure of the dungeon it was supposed to be a part of didn't (at all).
  • Resource model - DS1 provided the player with pretty limited healing resources that could be restored by resting at selected "bonfire" locations, which also respawned all of the enemies in the level.  This leads to an expeditionary playstyle that sounds very similar to what we expect to see in the OSR, but with a focus on making it to a boss - you explore a level and get to know its monsters, gradually getting good enough at traversing the area that you can make it to the boss with enough healing remaining to win that fight.  DS2 added inexpensive healing-over-time items to allow players to fight larger groups of enemies, while DS3 just provided much larger pools of healing than DS1.  Similar changes to resource management have taken place over the editions in D&D.
  • Investment - Anderson praises Dark Souls 1's system of investing limited resources in particular bonfires, which allows them to restore additional healing resources.  This is useful when there's a boss you're having trouble with; you invest in a nearby bonfire and can bring more healing resources to bear in traversing that zone and defeating that boss.  This is something that it seems like low/mid-level ACKS should be able to do a lot better than it does, with PCs investing in towns as bases of operation and receiving tangible, dungeon-relevant benefits for doing so.  Currently town-buyable, dungeon-relevant resources in ACKS fall into three categories: gear, personnel, and reserve XP.  None of these are really tied to the town itself; they're all pretty movable.  A decent approach might be to take commissioning equipment one step further and allow a lump sum to be spent to increase availability of certain types of goods permanently in that market (eg, acquire a little land, build a building, hire a guy, and establish Doctor Comfrey's Nursery and Garden Center to increase available quantities of healing herbs forever).  Have half the money spent count towards urban investment, and you add another link between the mid- and late-games.
  • Predictable, Preventable, Decisive Damage - Anderson claims that damage in Dark Souls is largely avoidable, because enemies telegraph their moves, which allows the player to dodge / block / parry, but that when hits land, they hurt a lot (~3 hits to a player kill, usually).  This ties into the healing resource management game, where you only have to spend resources when you've made a mistake, and part of mastering a level to make it to the boss is learning the attack patterns of the enemies on that level.  Decisive damage is one of the things I like about OSR D&D (on a good day), but it does less well at predictable (ergo preventable).  Bad Trap Syndrome describes this issue in the context of traps, but combat damage is sort of unpredictable too - if you engage in combat without a win-button like sleep, turning, or surprise, damage is a predictable outcome, but the details are left to chance.  In a sense damage predictability is more nuanced in D&D than in Dark Souls - rather than making a mistake, you're taking a risk, and instead of a binary outcome you get a distribution.
  • Training Wheels - Part of the reason that Anderson claims that Dark Souls is a mostly-fair game is that things are almost always introduced in a relatively safe way before being introduced in a dangerous way.  When you meet a new type of enemy, you probably only meet one of them; deeper in the area where they appear, you start meeting multiple.  When you enter the trap zone, you're alerted that it's a trap zone by a low-damage arrow trap triggered by a pressure plate, and then the traps escalate from there.  This process of gradual escalation that helps make damage predictable.  It is also something that I, as a table-driven DM, have not been doing well.
  • Shortcuts - Another part of mastering a level in Dark Souls is finding and opening shortcuts - changing the environment open shorter routes to the boss.  Keys to locked doors, lowerable drawbridges, levers that move terrain, that sort of thing (one neat example was destroying structures that were shielding monsters along a route, thereby making it effectively shorter for resource conservation purposes).  This is something that makes sense in jayquayed dungeons, but usually rather than opening new routes from the other side they're used to gate entirely new areas.  In practice the closest my players ever came to developing a shortcut was clearing (or befriending) monsters on preliminary expeditions in order to open a route that was safe to move quickly on.  The trouble with building shortcut opportunities into an OSR-style megadungeon is that what counts as a shortcut depends on where you're trying to go, and player objectives usually vary per session, so what is a critical shortcut one day is irrelevant the next.  Dark Souls overcomes this with the focus on getting to the boss.  But...
  • Boss Monsters - Bosses are something I always hate in videogames, but in tabletop games they can actually be kind of fun.  They're pretty well-supported by ACKS' worldbuilding guidelines (where every tribe has a chieftain and every warband of barbarians is led by a 9th-level fighter), and would work pretty well with megadungeon factions - kill the boss and the faction disintegrates, opening up space for others or allowing players recruit the survivors.  We saw the beginnings of this emerge in Rathell, where the Marrowgnawer (5HD nonmagic-weapon-immune giant rat) served as a "boss" of sorts of a ratman tribe.  As usual for D&D "bosses", Marrowgnawer died like a chump to a 3rd-level party, due in large part to...
  • Action Economy - Curiously, this has been a persistent issue for the Dark Souls series too.  Anderson notes that in DS1, the best fights are one-vs-one duels, while any fight of multiple nontrivial enemies versus the solo player was usually quite difficult, and led to players using dirty tricks to isolate enemies, while in DS2 additional healing was made available to make these fights workable, and in DS3 healing was mostly-reverted but other changes to the combat system were made for this reason.  In D&D the same problem rears its head on the DM-side.  No bosses without bodyguards (and not chump 1HP 4e minions, either...), and also no bosses that don't one-shot henchman or two-shot PC frontliners.
  • Gauntlets - In addition to nonlinear exploration zones and straight-line combat slogs, Anderson notes another sort of zone / level in the Dark Souls series, characterized by testing the player's ability to deal with some sort of complication that forces the player to reconsider and adapt their tactics.  Examples that he cites include a level that is heavy on harassment by ranged attackers, a level with darkness (which requires the player to use a torch instead of his shield), and a level with environmental damage-over-time.  Designing megadungeon zones based not merely around cosmetics/theme but also with a particular kind of tactical challenge in mind seems like a really good idea to me, especially because the shield-phalanx has come to dominate our games (of course, precisely because the shield phalanx has come to dominate our games, players are now reluctant to enter areas that require a change in tactics).
  • "Explore cautiously, fight bravely" - I'm not going to go watch all the videos again to find the section where Anderson talks about this, but he claims that Dark Souls rewards players for exploring cautiously, taking it slow and not biting off bigger encounters than they can chew, but also for playing aggressively once combat is engaged, getting inside the reach of larger enemies, rolling behind them, and backstabbing.  I like this philosophy, even if I'm not sure how to produce combats that encourage it in ACKS.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Microsandboxing

Someone asked a question about sandboxing on /r/rpg recently, and now I have the wilderness on the brain again.  I have some complaints about existing mapping doctrine.  In the standard ACKS doctrine, civilization is basically required to be mapped (for the domain game if nothing else), which is an awful lot of work for very little payoff because you're not adventuring there.  Really all you need is populations/market classes and travel times between points of interest in civilization, because the travel itself is minimally dangerous; random encounters are likely to be civilized folks, and there are roads and signs and farmers that you can ask for directions.  There aren't really any strategic choices to be made in civilized travel that benefit from the degree of detail that hexes bring.  Consequently, hexmapping civilization is a tremendous waste of time for the mid-levels, and frankly you could run a reasonable (simplified, population- rather than land-focused) domain game without it too.

In the West Marches approach, by contrast, civilization is left unmapped (which is great), but there is an onus to have functionally-infinite wilderness.  This likewise is neither efficient nor realistic.  It isn't efficient because anything that you build that the players never reach in the course of a campaign is probably wasted (sure, you can reuse it later maybe, but how many of us actually do that consistently?).  It also isn't realistic because civilization expands to fill the area that can support it.  The wilderness may be big, but there's always some civilization on the other side if you're willing to travel far enough (or lower your standards for civilization a little).

Ultimately I think the "non-state spaces" notion present in James C. Scott's writing (Seeing Like a State, The Art of Not Being Governed) presents a promising opportunity.  Non-state space enclaves within a state are (relatively) tiny, self-contained wilderness sandboxes that are easily reached from civilization.  I've talked about Mount Rainier before, and it's a good example - one could easily take a couple of hundred square miles around a large mountain, map it in detail, fill it with hill tribes and yetis and a dragon or two, and have a small, self-contained sandbox.  There's civilization on both sides of the Cascade Range (well, if you count Eastern Washington...  I kid), but there's still wilderness in the mountains.  In the historical D&D context, Dearthwood from the City-State of the Invincible Overlord springs to mind.  It's a forest practically up against the City-State's gates, and it's full of orcs.  This is a classic non-state space, and would make a perfect tiny wilderness sandbox conveniently close to a large market.  That was probably the whole point of Dearthwood, from the very beginning (with the trolls of the Mermist Marshes, a little further away, comprising a higher-level microsandbox).  The Isle of Dread is another good example; it's big enough to play for a couple of sessions, like a good-sized dungeon, but it's bounded and therefore manageable.

Obviously the non-state enclave isn't the only type of wilderness.  Borderlands between civilized areas can be bigger, and then there are places like the Russian steppe and the American Old West that are just huge.  But these are unmanageably big, both to DMs who would use them and to players who would traverse them.  If I have learned two things from running the Megadungeon Full of Rats, it is that tightly theming can stimulate DM creativity but bore players, and that tightly-scoping is really important.  My initial intent with the Dungeon Dimensions was not a full-page dungeon of rats; it was many small dungeons, each tightly-themed and linked.  In retrospect, that might have gone better, but I got carried away with the first level.  I think loosely-themed, tightly-scoped, small-scale wildernesses offer a lot of opportunity in this regard.  Having two or three such microsandboxes available offers choices and ability to alleviate boredom with a particular theme by handwaved safe travel through civilization.

So what are some decent ideas for wilderness microsandboxes?  Big enough to take some time to explore, small enough to be manageable to DM and to be easily reached from civilization, and evocative?
  • The Lonely Mountain
  • Mirkwood
  • Swamp of the frogmen
  • Tropical island chain with walled port-city and cannibal natives in the uplands
  • Wasteland
Such wee sandboxes are also relatively easy to drop into an existing campaign.

Of course, there is the distinct possibility that this is what the actual practice of sandbox wilderness play has been all along, everyone knows it but doesn't talk about it much (because talking about the West Marches is much sexier), and I'm a little slow on the uptake where grand ambitions and practical limits are concerned.  Much as I learned in a recent Autarch thread on having players draw their own maps (or not, as it turns out...).  In which case, this is a perfectly useful post for the "OSR Lessons Learned" file [1][2][3].  In the same way that the typical, practical OSR dungeon is not Dwimmermount or Stonehell, the typical, practical OSR wilderness is not the Wilderlands of High Fantasy.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

THAC0 11+: Pretty Reasonable Actually

A complaint I have heard before from new players, particularly martial artists, fencers, and SCA types, is that it's too damn hard to hit in D&D (especially at low levels).  You only get one attack every six seconds, and you have a 50% chance to hit an unarmored person?  What the hell?  Watch this! *bap bap bap bap bap bap bap*  The crowd that plays D&D to emulate myth and media runs much the same objection - heroes in their source material are deadly-accurate.

But I think it's actually pretty reasonable.  Like the Original Megadungeon, I think military culture and fighting experience informed the design decision to have most combatants in D&D be quite incompetent.

Consider the Marshall Study.  SLA Marshall in World War II documented that 75% of US servicemen were unwilling or unable to fire to kill on the enemy in combat.  While Marshall's work is controversial, it led to changes in training for American infantry that boosted their "attacking percentage" up closer to 90% in Vietnam.  This is, coincidentally, the correct timeframe for the Ur-Gamers to have heard about Marshall's research, and to have modeled the poor THAC0 progression off of it.

Another source which supports Marshall's claims is Collins' Violence: A Microsociological Theory.  This is a very long and exceedingly bleak book, and I have not gotten very far into it, but Collins' method is the analysis of footage of fights, played in very slow motion, so that fighting can be observed in detail as it truly is, rather than as it is recounted.  It turns out that people lie about fighting bravely, and Collins' analyses of combat footage largely agree with Marshall - there is a particularly damning still, where a group of armed men is under fire, and seven seek cover behind each other while only one returns fire.  Most people shy away from inflicting effective violence when they can see the face of their target, unless they have a bunch of other people backing them up and cheering them on, and this is true across a number of observed cultures (not just modern westerners).  Most effective violence is inflicted with four-against-one or greater disparities of force, or against fleeing foes.  This is, incidentally, why the pursuit of a routed army was where most combat casualties occurred in Classical campaigns.

So yeah - your average 1st level henchmen would be lucky to make a credible attack every six seconds.  He's going to spend a lot of time hemming and hawing and evading, and his opponents are doing likewise, because neither wants to kill or to die, and neither has had the sort of conditioning employed by modern militaries to make it easier.  Psychologically, fighting hand-to-hand with real weapons for life-or-death stakes against a hostile opponent is incomparable with fencing in a controlled environment, and it introduces a whole new layer of stress and adrenaline and clumsiness (another of Collins' findings - people fall over, hit the wrong targets, and generally fumble and flail an awful lot in real fights.  It has me reconsidering my stance on fumbles on natural 1s on attack throws).  That is the nature of the beast called man.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

ACKS and the Art of Not Being Governed

I have been reading The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia recently.  I'm pretty sure Noisms mentioned it at one point, but I can't find it if he did.  In any case, it's a bit rambling, but there are some excellent quotes which suggest new, exciting(?), and adequately-cynical ways to run the ACKS domain game.

Unfortunately I've done a poor job of logging interesting quotes as I read, so I'm going to go with bullet-point paraphrases and subsummaries.
  • Intensive wet-rice agriculture, dense populations, and population centers pre-date monarchial states, which were introduced by "political entrepreneurs" who captured rice production areas. 
  • Intensive agriculture is important to the formation of powerful states, both because it can support very high population densities (important for warfare, large-scale irrigation projects, and monument construction) and because it is relatively easy to tax (record, track, and steal) synchronized monocrop grain harvests.
  • Southeast Asia is (historically) not very densely populated, with lots of empty land to which peasants can escape from tyrannical kings.  While policies were often enacted to lure population to the early states, net migration was often negative, with peasants escaping out in to the wilderness.
  • The administrative reach of the court center was bounded logistically, by the ability to supply the army.  As an ox eats its own load in a matter of days, campaigns could be conducted only near navigable waterways, or in areas where provisions were readily appropriable (which is to say, where intensive grain agriculture was already under way).  Kingdoms often nominally extended about a hundred and fifty mile radius from the population-dense capital region, but in practice exerted direct rule over closer to a seventy-five mile radius.  Forests, hills, and swamps all imposed logistical barriers to military campaigns, and as a result became de facto state-free areas.  Their inhabitants might pay tribute to the state, but were rarely directly under its thumb politically. 
  • Early states also suffered from untrustworthy administrators and inaccurate population counts; one example is given of district administrators understating the population of their district by 40%, in order to keep the difference in taxes for themselves.
  • The monsoon season effectively limited the reach of the state to zero while it lasted, and often entailed expeditions to "show the flag" when the dry season began.
  • Because kings needed peasants and peasants did not much like being ruled and taxed, there was an ongoing war of sedentarization and slave-raiding against the hill populations, when possible.  Some Thai and Burman kings went so far as to forcibly relocate and tattoo their subjects.  States competed to amass subjects, both by force and by diplomacy (with eg hill tribes, offering special dispensations and status if they settled within the kingdom).
  • The primary focus of warfare between agricultural states was not taking and holding land, but capturing prisoners.  An example is given of a state taking 6000 prisoners and resettling them in the fields around the capital.  Prisoner-taking was not restricted to peasants, but also included military specialists and court poets.  A case is mentioned where a Burmese kingdom captured the entire court of a Thai kingdom (or the other way around, I forget) and brought them back to its own court, ushering in a temporary renaissance of Thai-Burmese fusion culture.
  • Meanwhile, in the hills, tribal / kinship organizations prevailed.  Agriculture was practiced, but it was nomadic slash-and-burn agriculture, supporting a maximum population density of 20-30 per square kilometer.  Hill tribes self-divided into predators and prey as far as the slave trade was concerned.  They also raided grain states when the situation permitted, occasionally knocking over a failing dynasty and setting up their own.
  • Hill tribes and grain-states traded extensively.  In addition to slaves, hill tribes sold a wide variety of raw materials to the agricultural states, including elephants, ivory, precious metals, medicinal plants, honey, opium, lumber, feathers, gems, fruit, livestock, and spices.  From the states they bought sea-products (salt, dried fish) and manufactured goods, including metal tools and weapons, pottery, cloth, and ritual/status items, like bronze gongs, crowns, and capes, which provide legitimacy to a chieftain.
  • Hill tribes often had their pick of trade partners, because it was relatively easy to relocate to a different watershed, which drained into the territory of a different grain-state (compared to moving a state and its attendant population and fortifications overland to a different river system).
  • In addition to hill tribes and grain-states, a few other types of states appeared.
    • Maritime states were confederations of port-cities, and gathered wealth by taxing or monopolizing trade between the up-river and the down-river / ocean.  Maritime states tended to lose wars against grain states, because they lacked manpower.
    • A similar sort of "trade state" was occasionally found in the hills, sitting at a major crossroads or mountain pass and gathering wealth by taxing trade.  These tended to be unstable, as trade shifts.
    • In the hills, there were often small pockets of land which were irrigable and hence usable for intensive rice production.  Small towns grew in these pockets, and sometimes formed defensive alliances with nearby hill tribes and other hill-towns against the slave-raiding predations of lowcountry grain states.  Terrain and logistics typically prevented unification of these hill confederacies into centralized states.
  • Religion is tightly-tied to mode of production / agriculture.  Highland tribes tended to be animist, while lowland states in the region were typically Buddhist or Hindu (and the maritime states were mostly Islamic).  There was an interesting note that when a particular group of highlanders tried to start growing lowland rice, they found that its successful cultivation required the execution of lowlander religious rituals, and the adoption of the lowlanders' calendar (hence cosmology).
This leads to a number of thoughts for ACKS.
  • The mentioned population support limits of slash-and-burn agriculture (20-30 people per sq km) translate to 310-466 families per six-mile hex, well within the "civilized" band for population density, despite the nomadic hill-people very much operating as borderlanders politically.
    • Might a tropical thing, though
  • Decreased focus on territory suggests an alterate approach to Simple Domains - only track population, not territory.
    • Clear an initial area for a settlement, then replace further hex-clearing operations with "domain random encounters" that occur over time rather than over space.
    • Assume sufficient irrigable land that the limits of supportable population density will never be reached in PCs' lifetime.
    • Also make population change somewhat interesting / actionable
      • Rebellion and exodus
      • Famine
      • Plague
      • Wars of capture
      • Hired slaving expeditions (insert cash, roll on "slave raiding outcomes" table...)
      • Diplomacy to get hill tribes to settle on your land
    • This approach might be viable in other low-population-density areas, like the Baltic
  • Frankly I could see doing away with Civilized / Borderland / Wilderness classification by population density, and replacing it with a domain type mechanism.
    • Nomadic / Tribal - Can't really be taxed / yields low profit to its nominal ruler outside of warfare, experiences natural population growth, provides troops, can relocate domain.
    • Settled Agricultural - Most like a standard ACKS domain.  Taxable (oh so taxable), requires a stronghold, experiences natural population decline.
    • Settled Maritime - Not very taxable agriculture, increased trade range?  Really needs some domain-level trade mechanics to work.
      • Provide some domain income based on number, types, and sizes of trade partners?
      • States of trade between domains connected by water:
        • No trade - sanctions or at war
        • Natural trade - some trade, but no particular protection under the law for traders from the other domain
        • Favored trade - traders from other domain are protected under the law, may be granted monopolies, possibly in exchange for exclusive trade (ie, a grain state offers a hill tribe favored trade status in exchange for that hill tribe cutting off trade with another nearby grain state).
      • This is probably too complicated already
  • Converting between domain types is roughly as bad for morale as New Religion Introduced, since that's basically what happens.
Whether any of this will ever see play is another question, of course.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Space is a Desert

I've had Homeworld on the brain recently.  There was something remarkable about the atmosphere of Homeworld, and I've been struggling to put my finger on it.

For all that space resembles an ocean, and is full of cruisers and such, in Homeworld space is also a desert.  The backgrounds are often bright nebulae, red and orange and purple, rather than the starry blackness one associates with space games, and visibility is sometimes restricted in a way that resembles dust more than anything nautical.  Names like Seljuk and Sojent-Ra, peoples organized not in states but tribes (eg Kith Somtaaw).  The combat music is drums and pipes and horns, not at all space-age.  The storyline of Homeworld 1 is accurately summarized as "Exodus on a spaceship", and the Garden of Kadesh is full of religious fanatics.  The juxtaposition of the ancient and the futuristic is powerful; technology may change, but people don't.

There is a certain  desolateness and desperateness about the whole affair.  A whole lot of empty, and of salvaging.  There's a bit of post-apocalypse in it as well; your small craft can run out of fuel and be stranded, and the ruins of the ship graveyard tell of fallen empires of immense power (those are capital ships he's panning around).

And it makes sense.  The universe is a desert.  Space is big, and empty, and inimical to mankind.  It is very hot and very cold.  There is nothing to drink, nothing to eat, nothing to breathe.  Beautiful in its starkness and vastness.

So the question on my mind is, how do I bring that feeling to Traveller?  I mentioned Classic Trav to the group the other day, and ultimately realized that there's a bit of confusion about what you're supposed to do in Traveller.  Part of this is that the source fiction is not stuff familiar to us (Space Viking?  The hell is Space Viking?).  It's from a completely different era of science fiction than we are.  It's pre-transhumanist, pre-Singularitarian, pre-cyberpunk, practically pre-Star Wars (I recall seeing stats for "Luke Starkiller" in the Classic Traveller book of NPCs, but he's a farmboy pilot with no psionic powers, from when Star Wars was the name of a single movie rather than a franchise).  Probably the closest things I've read were Dune and Foundation, and neither of those 1) seem like particularly plausible futures to us, or 2) are particularly gameable.

Another part of the problem is that Traveller does not have the clear progression you see in D&D, from low to high levels, or adventurer to king.  There are lots of little subsystems that let you do all kinds of different things but it's not clear what you should do.  So I think, if I were to run Traveller, that some sort of objective function would be a welcome addition.  Absolute freedom paralyzes absolutely.

But anyway, some thoughts for "Space is a Desert":

Rare Oases: Gas giants 1/3 as common as usual, jump uses 1/3 as much fuel as usual.

Despoiled Gardens: Most planets were never going to support human life.  The ones that were, humanity did to as humanity does, and now they barely support human life either.

Babylon: An empire collapsed or collapsing as a result of its hubris, decadent sin, and barbarians at the outer reaches.

Your money is useless here: If the universe is shattered into little isolated autonomous clans, and there is no faith in the Imperial Fiat Currency, suddenly Traveller's trading minigame actually matters, because you have to carry your wealth in goods that you can trade when you arrive.  Pretty good bets: spare parts, food and hydroponics, chemical air filters, maybe weapons.

The Ruins of Empire: Sometimes spacers run out of fuel, orbital stations suffer a life support failure, and colonies die out due to plague, inbreeding, wildlife, civil war, environmental catastrophe, or whatever.  Loot, ho!

Life Support: There's actually a rule about shipboard life support, and we have traditionally ignored it.  Wastewater is easy to purify given fusion-heat and CO2's pretty easy to scrub chemically, but the complex organic foodmolecules required to sustain human life are much less common in the cosmos than the hydrogen required to power the reactor.

Light Cavalry: Emphasis on high-speed light units; in the space context, fightercraft.  Maybe not sensible, but traditional.  Paint some heraldry on that fuselage and make ready your particle-lance.

Swords: Nothing says Ancient Future like some bloke trying to cut your vacc suit open with a scimitar.  If the orbital habitats aren't as sturdily-constructed as is typical in Traveller, firing a gun indoors may be a one-way ticket out the airlock by civil convention, and melee combat the norm aboard ships.

Hokey Religions to go along with your Ancient Weapons: When the situation gets grim, people go crazy and start hearing gods.  Always have, always will.

No Pirates: There will always be those who seek to use force to take things of value, but "pirate" is too naval a term.  Brigand or bandit might serve.  Homeworld used "Turanic Raiders", and I could see using barbarians. Unfortunately no really evocative word that means quite what I want is springing to mind.

If I were to steal a little more from Homeworld, rather than just thematically, I might throw in:

Back into Space: The players' home planet has been cut off for a long time, and recently re-discovered jump drive.  The PCs are the first out to do reconnaissance, and are Astronaut Material (former test pilots with two PhDs, you know the type), which might have some effects on chargen...  and then there's an exploration game, where scientists are useful for eg looking at exoplanet spectra for atmospheric composition to see if there's a gas giant in-system before jumping in.

Fleet Command: The trouble with using Starmada in Traveller typically is that it's too deadly, but if you have multiple ships, that problem diminishes.  And Stars Without Number has such tempting rules for building battleships as a PC activity...  There's a lot of other good stuff in SWN that I should steal, particularly on the worldbuilding front.

To the Stars: Having been stuck on a desert hole of a world, some folks on the PCs' homeworld are going to want to move to space if opportunities arise.  Ties nicely to the exploration game (finding habitable worlds) and the fleet command game (keeping them safe).

Relatedly, if I were to steal a couple of things from ACKS, they would be henchmen/hirelings (should be simpler than ACKS' henchmen, and you need crew for your ships...), reaction and morale (which Traveller already sort of has), maybe mortal wounds (or something like them, as an excuse for cybernetics), and, uh...  not much else.  Oh, and ACKS' initiative system, actually - it could make autofire initiative penalties and leadership/tactics initiative bonuses interesting for once.

If I were to steal just a few things from Classic Traveller, I'd strongly consider weapon-vs-armor tables and the increased encumbrance limits.  Weapon-vs-armor tables do a marvelous job resolving the Armor Problem we've had with Traveller in the past, that anything that can hurt the guy in combat armor will instantly pulp anyone else.  With weapon-vs-armor tables, an anti-armor weapon (say a high-velocity rifle) can hurt the guy in heavy armor, but won't instagib everyone else.  For simplicity's sake you could even do something like just having two main types of armor (hard and soft) for attack DM modifiers, and then some small DR values and weights differentiate within those types.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Simple Sample Borderlands Domains

Following my simplifying assumption for wilderness, I find myself generating a big old hexmap with a lot of empty space and some scattered domains here and there.  Some of them are semi-barbarian domains, and they don't fit well into the civilized simple domains that I worked up previously.

So here are some statblocks for borderlands domains under the same set of assumptions as last time (maximally centralized, no vassals under counts, land value 6, fixed population density which is not 200 rural families per hex instead of 450, no population growth over time, simplified pillaging).  I'm pulling these results from a spreadsheet I haven't touched in four months, so some of them may be incorrect (and they certainly haven't been updated for the revised domain system).  Should be fun.

Independent Barony

  • Size: 1 6-mile hex
  • Population: 200 rural families, 20 urban families
  • Net domain income: 1.2kgp/mo
  • Market: Class VI hamlet at stronghold
  • Gives liege lord: the finger
  • Ruler max level from domain income: 6th
  • Stronghold value: 22.5kgp, small round stone tower with an earthen rampart, palisade wall, unfilled moat, and drawbridge
  • Garrison: 0.6kgp/mo, 1 platoon heavy infantry and half a platoon of bowmen
  • Field army: 2 platoons light infantry, 1 platoon bowmen, 2 platoons heavy infantry
  • Tribute if vassalized: 0.5 kgp/mo
  • Pillaging:
    • Requires 600 troops and 1 day
    • Yields 2.3 kgp in gold, 6.1 kgp in supplies, 4.8 kgp in prisoners
    • A pillaged borderlands barony has its net domain income reduced to 0 (29.7 gp/mo, to be precise, but practically 0), and its garrison requirement reduced to 0.2 kgp/mo
    • It costs 31.8 kgp to unpillage an independent barony
  • Razing:
    • Requires 600 troops and 4 days
    • Liberates 4.4 kgp in gold, 11 kgp in supplies, and 8.8 kgp in prisoners
    • Domain is destroyed
    • Stronghold is somewhat damaged
Independent March
  • Size: 4 6-mile hexes
  • Population: 800 rural families, 80 urban families
  • Net domain income: 4.7 kgp/mo
  • Market: Class VI small village
  • Ruler max level from domain income: 8th
  • Stronghold value: 90kgp, square keep with earthen rampart, palisade, and wooden drawbridge
  • Garrison: 2.6 kgp/mo, 1 company heavy infantry and 2 platoons bowmen
  • Field army: 2 companies light infantry, 2 companies bowmen, 1 company heavy infantry
  • Tribute if vassalized: 2kgp/mo
  • Pillaging:
    • Requires 2400 troops and takes 1d3 days
    • Yields 9.2 kgp in gold, 24.2 kgp in supplies, and 19.4 kgp in prisoners
    • A pillaged borderlands march has its net domain income reduced to 0.1 kgp/mo and its garrison requirement reduced to 0.8 kgp/mo.  Its market is reduced to a hamlet, but remains a class VI.
    • It costs 127.2 kgp to unpillage a borderlands march
  • Razing:
    • Requires 2400 troops and 4d3 days
    • Yields 17.6 kgp in gold, 44 kgp in supplies, and 35.2 kgp in prisoners
    • Domain is destroyed, stronghold is damaged
Independent County
  • Size: 16 6-mile hexes
  • Population: 3200 rural families, 320 urban families
  • Net domain income: 18.8 kgp/mo
  • Market: Class V large village
  • Ruler max level from domain income: 11th (most will be 10th)
  • Stronghold value: 360kgp, square keep with 30' high stone curtain walls, barbican, and large round towers at its corners, filled moat, the works.
  • Garrison: 10.2 kgp/mo, 2 companies bowmen, 1 company heavy infantry, 2 companies light cavalry
  • Field army: 5 companies light infantry, 4 companies bowmen, 4 companies heavy infantry, 4 companies light cavalry
  • Tribute if vassalized: 7.9 kgp/mo
  • Pillaging:
    • Requires 7200 troops and 1d4 days
    • Yields 37 kgp in gold, 96.8 kgp in supplies, and 77.4 kgp in prisoners
    • A pillaged borderlands county has its net domain income reduced to 0.5 kgp/mo and its garrison requirement reduced to 3.2 kgp/mo.  Its market is reduced to a village, but remains class V
    • It costs 509 kgp to unpillage a borderlands county
  • Razing:
    • Requires 7200 troops and 4d4 days
    • Yields 70.4 kgp in gold, 176 kgp in supplies, and 140.8 kgp in prisoners
    • Domain is destroyed, stronghold is damaged
Above counties, you start getting large towns for your market, which project a ring of civilized around themselves and the whole exercise breaks down.

If you want to throw borderlands domains a bone, consider: as a result of typical borderlands extracurricular activities like raiding and counter-raiding, conscripts raised from borderlands domains arrive fully trained and armed in proportions based on culture (eg, a Scottish-English borderlands province might raise something like 2 platoons of light cavalry, 1 platoon of heavy infantry, 1 platoon of bowmen, and 1 platoon of light infantry per 120 men, while Norse conscripts might be 2 platoons of heavy infantry, 1 platoon bowmen, and 1 platoon light infantry per 120 men), and their militia units arrive trained and equipped as light infantry.  This armed citizenry, of course, makes the threat of rebellion accordingly greater.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Simple Domain Morale

The existing domain morale rules are complicated, and unsuitable for use with high-abstraction simple domains.

The existing morale rules have nine morale states, ranging from -4 to +4, with effects for each.  I'm given to understand that this system is designed so that rebellion is rare and morale does not move very quickly, but I don't care all that much about stability and nine is a few too many for me.  I'd rather have five results, like every other Charisma-driven 2d6 roll.  If you really want to maintain that slow-movement property, just limit it so that it can only change by 1 degree per season in any direction (this is equivalent to moving it by 2 on a 9-point scale).

So we get a table like this:

2-: Rebellious
3-5: Disgruntled
6-8: Resigned
9-11: Content
12+: Loyal

I'm cynical about the maximum degree of loyalty you should expect to get from your peasants - does anyone really enjoy paying their taxes?  Enough to pay extra taxes?  It's also important to remember that a peasant rebellion is potentially-exciting, or at least interesting, while a happy, peaceful realm is boring.

A Rebellious domain's peasants take up arms against their erstwhile master.  If no rebellion has been crushed by force within the last year, the peasants stand up one company of militia per 120 families, and a village hero (4th-7th level fighter) appears to lead them.  Naturally, they stop paying their taxes until the rebellion is put down and their heroic leader disposed of.  If the ruler happens to be in the field with militia units from the domain when the rebellion springs up, they may betray him (to the extent that militia units can) if the opportunity arises, and suffer -2 to morale even if it doesn't.  Even when the rebellion is crushed (or if no forces were mustered because of a crushing in recent memory), the domain suffers the effects of disgruntlement (below), and takes a -3 penalty to its next morale roll.

A Disgruntled domain's peasants are unhappy with their ruler.  They drag their feet and do their best to evade his taxes, reducing his domain income by 1gp/mo per family.  Additionally, militia units from this domain suffer a -1 penalty to morale.  Should a particularly good opportunity to replace the ruler appear, the peasants may rebel.  Disgruntled peasants may aid or abet hijinks targeted against the ruler and his armies, associates, holdings &c, providing a +2 bonus where appropriate.  The domain suffers a -1 penalty to its next morale roll.

A Resigned domain's peasants have had worse rulers.  This one seems to mostly-uphold the social contract; they pay their taxes and he leaves them be.

A Content domain's peasants think this ruler is somewhat above average, and that replacing him would be bad.  They inflict a -2 penalty to hijinks targeted against the ruler and his interests, and their militia gains +1 morale when fighting in defense of the realm or against pretenders to the throne.  A content domain gains a +1 bonus to its next morale roll.

A Loyal peasantry likes their ruler personally.  They inflict a -4 penalty to hijinks targeted against the ruler and his interests, and their militia units gain a +1 bonus to morale.  A loyal domain gains a +3 bonus to its next morale roll.

As far as modifiers go...

  • Ruler is of significantly different religion, race, or culture from domain: -2 (the heathen barbarian penalty.  To hell with alignment)
  • Taxes above normal last season: -1/gp/family/month
  • Generous ruler: +1/2gp/family/month given as alms, feasts, extra festivals, etc (marginal utility - if you're a peasant family, paying an extra gp/mo in taxes means you might starve this winter, while being taxed one less gp/mo doesn't have the same magnitude of effect)
  • Publicly-known minor misconduct or alleged but uncertain major misconduct: -2.  Examples, certainly none of which have ever happened in my campaigns:
    • Domain raided by monsters or bandits this season, and domain ruler failed to bring them to justice
    • Domain ruler pardoned too many thieves, alleged to be corrupt
    • Domain ruler behaved in a consistently cruel or cowardly fashion
    • Domain ruler did something to earn the church's serious disapproval
      • Urinated on the altar while inebriated, say
    • Domain ruler negotiated with terrorists had dealings with beastmen, rumored to be in league with dark powers
  • Publicly-know major misconduct: -4.  Examples:
    • Domain was pillaged this season
    • Domain ruler killed a kinsman
    • Domain ruler replaced the church and has begun conducting blood sacrifice in public


When a realm rebels, there is sometimes a peaceable solution possible.  If they're mad about taxes, they can be mollified by the promise of lower taxes (breaking this promise results in immediate re-rebellion).  If they're mad about miscarriage of justice, punishing the guilty will satisfy them.  If they're mad because you're a heathen, they might demand that you convert.  If they're mad because you insulted the church, go on a long pilgrimage (read: adventure).  If you just rolled really poorly and/or have crap charisma, probably one of your henchmen or other important subordinates turned out to have certain unspeakable appetites, and now you need to either execute them or send them away to a foreign court or monastery until this all blows over.  Or maybe you've been framed by a powerful rival who's trying to destabilize your realm, and now you get to go on an investigative adventure that maybe ends with killing something and taking its treasure.  I find it improbable that your PC hasn't done something in the last season that could be retroactively justifiable as public minor misconduct, anyway.

In any case, addressing the rebellion's demands allows you to reroll morale, hopefully with fewer penalties.  If you roll rebellion again, they probably demand abdication or beheading.  Notably, resolving a rebellion peacefully does not count as having crushed it for the purposes of preventing future uprisings.