Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Theater of the Mind in Practice

In my experience, there are two kinds of battles that are suitable for Theater of the Mind
(1) Fights with many combatants milling around one fixed point of reference. 
(2) Fights with one enemy combatant moving between several fixed points of reference. 

Fights with several enemy combatants moving between several fixed points of reference aren't really suitable for TotM.

If You Have One Fixed Point of Reference

If you’re running a fight around one fixed point, the main opportunity for environmental interaction obviously must come from that fixed point. A good example of this kind of fight is the DDN in-house playtest where the party and the orcs are fighting around a flamethrower contraption. From what I've seen, players find it satisfying to destroy or mangle the fixed point of reference; again, the playtest fight offers a great example of this. So it’s best to make that fixed point something that’s in effect a barrel of dynamite with multiple brightly colored fuses just waiting to be lit, or an extremely expensive and fragile vase that somebody doesn’t want to see broken.

If You Have One Enemy

If you’re running a fight with a single enemy (usually a boss type), then there are a couple different things to keep in mind. 

First, the single enemy can use terrain features like he would his minions. For example, he can use the terrain to as blockers: the archetype is probably the teleporting mage that moves from alcove to alcove in order to keep out of sword reach of the fighter. The enemy might use the terrain to heal himself somehow—I just played through kotr on my iPad, and the final battle is fresh in my mind. The enemy might use the terrain to inflict damage—I’m always reminded of the examples back in one of the 2E supplements where an enemy has about ten loaded heavy crossbows mounted in a line as the PCs charge in and he moves between them inflicting some pretty serious damage in the first couple rounds of combat. 

Second, if there is really only one enemy, it’s a safe bet that either he or the players will find themselves on the run at some point. So you will want to decide beforehand whether the fixed points of reference will aid or stymie escape, and also what avenues for escape are actually available.

The Sniper: Exploration with Combat Elements

There is another kind of TotM battle that probably has a fancy name of which I am unaware: I like to call it "exploration with combat elements". In this type of fight, there are enemies present either taking pot shots at the PCs, or threatening to. I don’t use strict timekeeping for this kind of fight; instead, I just ask everyone what they’re doing and update the NPC actions whenever it feels appropriate. 

Usually this kind of fight is actually a built-in clock against which the PCs must race while attempting to complete some other task. For example, if the players are attempting to fend off a pitchfork mob while working to free a prisoner from jail, they have to contend with the occasional stone or hunting arrow shot in their direction, but the real purpose is to remind the players that they have a finite amount of time to complete the exploration task before the mob loses its temper and decides to burn the jail down with them in it.

Final Thoughts

The last thing to keep in mind about TotM is that there’s no shame in deciding that this particular battle has gotten too complicated for TotM, and just throw together a sketch so everyone’s on the same page again. For that matter, there’s no shame in keeping a little sketch behind the screen for you keep tabs on who’s where doing what to whom, especially if there are things happening off camera that you need to keep track of.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Death by Exposure: Hypothermia

A lot of energy gets spent trying to suss out the best way to handle environmental damage in D&D. Here's my take, using hypothermia as an example. I'm kind of fond of this method: so much so that I've considered using the same process for disease and poison.

Anyway, here goes.


I track environmental damage using a made-up mechanic called "Exposure Levels". Every time your character gains an exposure level, I hand you a poker chip. When you get too many poker chips, you're dead.

Here's the key that makes this tense: you don't know how many poker chips you can take before the condition kills your character. Maybe two chips. Maybe five chips. Maybe thirteen chips. Who knows?

Before the game, I prepare a sheet like this. It tells me how many exposure levels you can take, and what kinds of bad things happen to you when I hand you a poker chip. It also tells me how these exposure levels can be removed. As you might have guessed, it's mostly just stuff copied off the internet.

Hypothermia in this example is a three-stage condition. When I give you one poker chip you're shivering and just can't get warm. When I give you a second poker chip, you're violently shivering and stumbling around like a drunkard. When I give you a third poker chip I'll probably roll to decide what other bad effects happen to you: maybe you'll feel warm and want to strip down for the beach, or maybe you'll go into a fetal position--who knows? And of course when I give you a fourth poker chip you're dead, although--fun fact!--your brain will live on a little bit longer due to decreased cellular blah blah blah.

Got it? Great! Now go out there and explore the great white north!

Who's influencing me at the moment: Wikipedia, Telecanter

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Mass Combat Rules, Take 1

I've been working on some mass combat rules over the last six months or so, with the general aim of having them as a resource in case I get the chance to run a Birthright style game sometime down the road. They might be of interest to other GMs.

Note "drawing for initiative" refers to my earlier posts about savaged initiative. The "Vis", "Unit Maintenance", and "Mustering Costs" refer to my as-yet-unfinished domain management rules.


The Rules

These rules assume that the PCs are commanders with authority over a large number of troops. 

Combat Units:  Combat units are defined by a battle die (ranging from 1d4 to 1d12), an Encounter Power, a movement speed (in 100' increments), and a pool of Morale Points (ranging from 1 to 3) to represent durability.   (Units also have muster and maintenance costs, but these do not affect mass combat.)  Units do not have their own initiative; instead, they act on the initiative of the PC or NPC who commands them. 

Initiative: Commander initiative is determined by base THAC0.  Commanders with THAC0s of 15 or greater draw two cards and take the worst; commanders with THAC0s between 14 and 10 draw a single card; and commanders with THAC0s of 9 or less draw two cards and take the best.  Certain backgrounds and items may improve this draw by up to one step.

The mass combat is played out on a hex grid.  Each hex is about 100' across.  Generally, terrain is divided into clear terrain (units may move full speed); moderate terrain (units move at half speed); difficult terrain (all units move one square per round); and impassible terrain.  Unit markers are longer than they are wide to represent column facing.

Mass combat occurs in one-minute combat rounds.  As with small-scale combat, commanders declare their actions before drawing initiative.   On their initiative counts, commanders may (1) issue movement orders, (2) order a unit to use an "on command" encounter power, (3) rally their troops , (4) cast spells, or (5) take some other player-defined action.  Commanders who draw the joker may take two actions in a mass combat round, but this does not confer upon any troops the ability to act twice.

  1. Command Units to Move:  The commander may issue a single command to any number of unengaged units on the field.  Only unengaged units may be designated (see below for engagement rules).  Every designated unit receives the same command, which it follows to the best of its ability.  Example  commands include "advance at your maximum speed", "wheel 90 degrees to the left", and "advance 100 feet".  If, during its movement, a unit becomes adjacent to an enemy unit, it immediately stops moving and becomes engaged (see below for engagement rules). Once a unit has been commanded, it cannot take any further actions in this combat round.

  1. Command troops to use an "On Command" encounter power:   Some Encounter Powers have the trigger “on command”.  A commander may order any number of units to use a single Encounter Power.  The commander may choose only one Encounter Power that is to be used.  Any number of units having an Encounter Power by that name may then use the power.  If the Encounter Power allows a choice in targets, the commander is free to designate each unit’s target. Once a unit has been commanded, it cannot take any further actions in this combat round.

  1. Rally Troops:  On their initiative count, commanders may attempt to rally their troops, causing them to regain the use of an expended Encounter Power.  Engaged units and units that have already been commanded this round may still be rallied.  To rally their troops, the commander simply makes a charisma check.  If the check is successful, make note of the amount by which the check was passed--this is the number of Morale Points worth of units that the commander may rally this round.  Rallying a unit does not take up its action for this round--it still may be commanded.

  1. Cast Spells:  The results of spell casting will be adjudicated on the fly, taking into account the effect the spell would have on a representative member of the target unit.   As a rule of thumb, the total area affected by a spell must be equal to at least 1/2 the size of the target unit  in order to have any appreciable effect on the mass combat.  Typical outcomes may be the loss or gain of morale points; restricted, impeded or enhanced movement; a bonus or penalty to the unit's battle die rolls; or the creation of new units on the field of battle. In addition, powerful spell casters may gain access to battle spells.  Battle spells cost vis and require access to a Battle Magic Supply Train.

  1. Player-Defined Action: Nothing prevents players from taking other actions not listed above.  Note that any commander in proximity to his own troops benefits both from concealment and good cover, as if he was hiding behind an arrow slit.

Engaged Units: If a unit enters a square adjacent to an enemy unit, both units stop moving and become engaged in combat.  Engaged units may not move until the enemy unit has been destroyed.  Apart from certain encounter powers, there is no option to disengage once a unit has been committed to combat.

Ending the Round: After the last commander has acted, engaged units roll their battle die to determine the result of their combat this round.  A unit deemed to have a minor disadvantage (such as fighting from lower ground) takes a -2 penalty to its roll.  A unit flanking another unit rolls two battle dice and takes the higher roll.

Compare the rolls of each opposed unit.  If any unit's roll exceeds that of its foe by 3 or more, the winning unit inflicts one point  of morale damage, plus one additional point for every additional +2 by which the winning roll exceeds the losing roll.  If a unit's morale point total drops to zero, it is routed from the field and removed from the mass combat.

Once all engaged units have rolled their battle dice, the combat round is complete, and play continues with commanders declaring actions and drawing initiative for a new combat round.

Sample Encounter Powers

Launch Volley: On command, inflict 1 morale damage on an unengaged unit within 10 squares.

Feast on the Weak: On engaged with a unit that has 2 or less morale, the opposing unit is destroyed.
Spirited Charge: On engaged, the opposing unit suffers 2 morale damage.
Receive Charge: On engaged with a unit of large creatures, the opposing unit suffers 3 morale damage.
Sow Confusion: On engaged, the opposing unit’s encounter power is expended with no effect.
Shatter Arms: On engaged, the opposing unit’s battle die is reduced by one step for the remainder of the encounter.
Raise Shield Wall: On command, all damage suffered this round is reduced by 1.
Cast Pilum: On engaged, the opposing unit’s speed is reduced by 2 for the remainder of the encounter.  Optionally, may also become disengaged and move backward 2 squares.
Gout of Flame: On command, all units within a forward-facing line 5 squares long take 4 damage.

What's influencing me right nowBirthrightA Song of Fire and IceXCOMArs Magica

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Pathfinder: Perceiving Without Perception(Wis)

A bit back I made a ranty post about how utterly boring I found exploring a large number of non-combat encounters in Pathfinder. Just on a lark, I thought I'd follow up by describing how I'd actually like these encounters to run.

Consider the tobacco room I used in my example.  How would I like it to go?  To start with, here's the full text from the Carrion Crown: Trial of the Beast.

g5. Smoking room

Two plush chairs sit around a small lit f ire in this cramped, tobacco-stained room. Numerous tobacco jars stand on a shelf next to a pipe rack f illed with strange pipes. A DC 30 Perception check f inds a secret door in the north wall.

Treasure: The tobacco jars are f illed with various exotic tobacco mixtures, worth 200 gp in total. Among the mundane pipes are a calabash set with six small jets (worth 75 gp), and a long churchwarden with a gold tooth-guard (worth 50 gp).

Here's how I'd key it before play.

G5 SMOKING ROOM Two plush chairs sitting around a small lit fireplace in this cramped, tobacco-stained room. --> A loose stone in the fireplace --> penalty 25% to find --> secret door in the north wall opens as the display case pivots inward.
  1. Numerous tobacco jars on a display case next to a pipe rack filled with strange pipes. --> thin, whitish scrapes make an arc on the wood floor extending from the right side of the case.
    1. tobacco jars, 17 in all, are filled with exotic tobacco mixtures --> worth 200 gp in total.
    1. a calabash pipe set with six small jets, and a long churchwarden with a gold tooth-guard --> worth 75 gp and 50 gp, respectively.

Note that I had to make a bunch of shit up about the secret door because 3rd edition treats all traps and secret doors as abstractions.

Right then. If all went well, the player's exploration of the room might go something like this:

Me: You see two plush chairs sitting around a small lit fireplace in this cramped, tobacco-stained room. There are numerous tobacco jars on a display case next to a pipe rack filled with strange pipes.

Player: I gingerly cross the room to the pipe rack and look at the pipes.

Me: There is quite a collection of pipes, made of all different kinds of materials: rosewood, dark wood  teak wood  brittle wood, softwood, stone pipes set with jet, and a long churchwarden with a gold toothguard.

Player: Gold, eh? I'll take that one.

Me: It is long but fits into your backpack.

Player: All right, I'll wander over and check the display case.

Me: Checking for what?

Player: I'm checking inside the tobacco jars. Looking at the case to see if there's anything unusual.

Me: Is your character familiar with tobacco?

Player: Uh, not really. Doesn't smoke, but had an uncle on his mom's side who was an enthusaist.

Me: Even to your untrained nose, it is apparent that the pots contain strong, exotic tobacco mixtures. There are 17 jars in all. Also, you note that thin, whitish scrapes make an arc on the wood floor extending from the right side of the case.

Player: Hm. I'm looking for a lever or device that might open a secret door here. I'm checking around everywhere.

Me: You're a thief, so I'm going to roll your find traps check even though you didn't really say where you were checking. [rolls] You find no levers or other secret devices.

Player: Okay, let me check the chairs--I'm pushing them around to see if they activate the door.

Me: The chairs are made of red leather fitted with brass. Scooting them across the floor has no effect.

Player: The fireplace--I'm checking the mantle, the hearth, everything.

Me: As you run your hand over the stones, you find one that seems to be a little loose.

Player: I--uh, I'm going to check for traps here.

Me: [Rolls dice.] You discover no traps.

Player: All right, I'm going to try to pull the stone loose.

Me: The stone swings outward a little bit. You here a loud *click* in the display case to your left.

Player: All right, going over to check the display case.  I'll check for traps and then pull the thing outward--I'm thinking it is a secret door that opens along the arc on the floor.

Me: [Rolls dice.] You discover no traps. Pulling on the case reveals a secret door that opens as the display case swings inward.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Using Vornheim Drop Charts w/ Dicenomicon

Here's a pic of Vornheim's drop chart set as a background for Dicenomicon on my iPad.  Works pretty great!

What's influencing me at the momentGnome StewDicenomiconVornheim

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Domain Management: What it Should Look Like (Part 1)

What's influencing me right now: Birthright, ACKSPaizo's Kingmaker Adventure Path, Betrayal at Krondor, A Song of Fire and Ice, XCOM, Ars Magica

I've always felt that D&D domain management--the gameplay that occurs once PCs reach name level and have fortresses and henchmen of their own--is full of untapped potential. Despite some really good ideas being put out there, I don't know of any system that works quite like I want it to.

Here's the kind of thing I want.

The Players

Archmage Firand - dwells in a newly-acquired tower perched over the wild Eastern Forest, where he busily gathers arcane power in anticipation of coming conflicts.

Lady Jezeel - administers a small barony near the border where she and her knights rule the people with an iron fist.

Guild Master Bulgus - head of the esteemed Silver Thread Coster, a merchant's guild boasting a small-but-growing fleet of caravans that supplies frontier outposts.

Example Play

DM: The harvests are all taken in, and the weather is rapidly growing colder. And with that, it's time to see what you all brought in last season.  Hmm... let's see here... Jezeel, your estates and taxes bring in 3 gold bars when all is said and done. Firand, you successfully gathered 2 vis from the lands around your tower. And Bulgus... yikes, you only get one gold bar this season after costs. Your right-hand man, Alladris, sadly explains that recent bandit activity along the King's Way has had a severe effect on the bottom line.

Bulgus: I eye him and tell him to redouble the guards. And keep me posted on developments.

DM: Alladris bows slightly and acquiesces.  [To all:] Okay, it's the first week in November. The next event we have going on here is your scouting party, Jezeel, which is scheduled to return in the next week or so. And then we have the harvest festival later this month.  Any actions people want to engage in during this time?

Firand: Yeah; with that Vis I should have enough to cast Eyes of the God-King at the center of the kingdom during the harvest festival. Do I need to do anything else to prepare for that?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Prepping for 2nd Edition-Style Play

What's influencing me right now: Hack & Slash Series on Set Design,

Courtney's blog series (linked above) is pretty excellent.  You should go read it before you read what I have to say.

Gone and read it?  Good.

A Slightly Different Playstyle

Our group plays on a virtual table top.  We use Skype voice for out-of-character talk, and we use text messaging for in-character talk.

So we're a little different than a true old school game at the DM's kitchen table. In particular, playing over text is a lot slower than playing in person.

To compensate, I key locations such that players can explore in as few steps as necessary. I'm shooting for a mid/late 2nd Edition-style game, completely in line with the example play found at the beginning of the 1995 Player's Handbook.

Microsoft OneNote

Another difference between traditional tabletop games and my own is notetaking applications.

Hopefully you're at least passingly familiar with EverNote or OneNote.  If not, then let me tell you: this shit is the bomb.  These programs keep high-word count notes ready to go at a moment's notice, available from any PC or other device connected to the internet. I can mark things up to my heart's content, then go back later and undo the markings. I can drop stuff in from the web and trust that it'll be easily available when the players go off in an unexpected direction and I've got to wing it.

Personally, I prefer OneNote over EverNote, but both applications get my hearty endorsement and recommendation.

An Example Location: Demonspore 

Awright, let's take one of Courtney's examples and see how it would look in my DM notebook.

Since brevity isn't really a virtue here, I write things clear enough that an idiot could look at my notes and know what's up. Ideally each bit of content is complete enough that I can copy & paste it while nursing a can of beer in my other paw.  I tend to use nominal phrases--ones that can easily be prepended with expressions like "you see" or "you hear".

So, after spending a few minutes on the Demonspore example from Courtney's blog, here's the fruit of my labors:

I use bold to indicate what's immediately obvious, yellow for monsters, and underlines for monster stats. Usually I include a good amount of information about how to role play the NPCs, but in this case I'm just going with what's in the module.  The arrows do double duty as break points in player exploration, and as dividers for DM-only content.

Example Play

The following example uses the same cast of characters (Helen, Roy, and Jenal) as my earlier post on initiative.

DM: You move quietly up the passageway.  Soon you see a massive portcullis of wooden beams, bolted together with iron, barring both the path and the river. The central part of the portcullis has longer bars than the rest of the gate, descending into the river itself.  Also, the air is filled with the unpleasant smell of rotten fish.

Helen: How far off is the gate?

DM: Not sure. Check the map. ... Okay, it looks like you're 60' away. It's at the edge of your infravision.

Jenal: Where's the smell coming from?

DM: Are you going to spend time looking for the source of the smell?  What's everyone else doing?

Jenal: I'm looking for the source of the smell. Quietly. Not moving any closer to the gate.

Helen: Are there any guards?

DM: You haven't spotted any.

Helen: I'm going to creep forward cautiously, looking for any kind of guards.

Jenal: There might be traps...

DM: Roy?

Roy: I'm... just watching the tunnel. Making sure nothing comes up behind us.

DM: [Rolls some dice. Jenal is pretty far away to get to see the buckets, so he gives the thief a Hear Nosie check to see if he traces it. The check fails.] Helen sees a bumpy, slouching figure just behind the gate, sitting on a stool with its back against the wall. Jenal, you can't see any obvious source of the smell from here. It seems to be coming from up the tunnel.

Jenal: You mean in the direction of the gate?

DM: Yes.

Helen: Just the one guard?

DM: It looks like there's another one behind the first.  They're about man-sized.  As you watch, a long tongue flicks out from one of their mouths, splashes into the water, and retracts with something wriggling and silver stuck to it.

Jenal: Are the guards close enough to the gate for me to stab them through it?

DM: One is, the other is not.

Jenal: Great, then I'm slowly moving up to the gate.

DM: All right. Everyone else?

Roy: I've got my bow out and I'm ready to attack as soon as Jenal does.

Helen: Same.

DM: Okay, then. [Rolls a Move Silently check for Jenal.] You creep up to the gate within 20' of the creature--it looks like a giant anthropomorphic toad, squatted back on a stool with its large eyes looking lazily at the ceiling.

Jenal: I slip my dagger into its throat, as quietly as possible.

DM: No attack roll is necessary.  Roll your damage.

Jenal: Got a 7...

DM: [Rolls to see which of the toad-men is affected.] Jenal, your dagger slips into the creature's throat membrane, and you manage to create a long running gash on its front side with your attack. The thing gargles and burbles, but isn't dead yet. The other creature behind it jumps up and grabs its spear. It is within 10 feet of the gate, just out of sword reach. [At this point the DM pauses and writes down the creatures' next actions.]

DM: Okay guys, we're going to rounds now.  Actions?