Aug 31, 2012

Actually Surveying Things: A Short Introduction

The production of maps by PCs in the fictional world is an under-used adventure goal despite its dramatic potential. "Surveyor" is actually one of my favourite PC occupations - I've played four in various eras and settings in my roleplaying career. Surveying is the oldest licensed profession in the world (the Romans issued licenses for it), found in almost all sedentary civilisations, and the basic techniques have been intact for thousands of years. Though aerial photography has allowed better information, a surprising number of the processes involved in field surveying are simply refined versions of ancient ones.

One reason for the under-use of surveying and mapmaking as adventure goals is that most people are not surveyors or cartographers and therefore know little about what goes into producing the information that creates an accurate map. This leaves the process abstracted and therefore uninteresting.

First, watch this video in three parts [1] [2] [3] by the United States Army about how maps are made (circa 1973). This explains the basics of triangulation, using plumb lines, theodoliteschains and tapes, plotting tables etc. There are some references to modern technology (an ancient surveyor would use a dioptra, not a theodolite; obviously planes with cameras don't exist in most fantasy settings) but ancient, medieval and early modern tools include the alidade, groma, astrolabe, clinometers (basically variations on astrolabes in their earliest versions), quadrantssextants, and of course compasses, rulers, telescopes and measuring rods which gathered similar information to the newer tools.

The basic technique in surveying is determining the distance between three points, known as triangulation. So long as one knows the length of one side of the triangle and the angle of the lines from two of the points to the third, one can calculate the length of the lines and therefore the position of the third point, as well as the area of the triangle, using trigonometry. Most of the tools mentioned above help perform one of the two functions. A chain or tape is used to fix the length of the known side, while tools like dioptras are used to measure the angle of the lines forming the triangle. Because this process relies on sighting the third point, various workarounds exist for where terrain prevent clear sighting (i.e. a forest, intervening mountain, etc.), like the construction of towers. All of this happens in three dimensions, not two, so there are additional calculations to determine the relative heights of the points and how that affects the calculated lengths of the lines.

 A web of interlocking notional triangles is created by surveyors hopping from point to point until the relevant area is covered. A single hexagon can be split into six equilateral triangles, for those hoping to use this with hex maps, though most map hexes are too large to be mapped that simply.

If you want to get an idea of the challenges that crop up while surveying, it's worth reading Mason and Dixon by Thomas Pynchon, which along with being a really great book goes into a lot of detail about how difficult a  surveying project can be logistically. PCs who want to execute surveys will have to frequently split up for extended periods of time with one party tromping around in the woods or up hills to place markers, while others go to set up the sighting equipment. You'll need teams of people to cut down intervening obstacles like trees, some way to signal between the parties so they know when the other team is in place or when the task is completed, maybe a building crew plus a stock of building materials to knock up sighting towers when you need them, someone to build and set markers on the points you locate, etc. Plus money for this crew, and guards to keep order, and handlers for all the baggage, etc. You might even need a mathematician. And don't forget the cartographer, the guy who makes the actual maps.

Part 2 of this will deal with cartography, which is the translation of the data gathered during surveying into maps and related representations.

Aug 28, 2012

Improving Teamwork Rules in Openquest

This post has been edited to incorporate Aash's suggestion in the comments.

Openquest is my favourite game system, but its teamwork rules are shit. All of the problems I laid out here with teamwork in adventure games hold true for it. This isn't its fault - it inherited and simplified a tradition passed down from the Runequest family of games, which all have complicated assistance rules that involve lots of addition and little choice. Openquest at least has the virtue of simplifying the addition.

Our constraints:

1) Openquest's Big Bonus Rule, that tells us bonuses and penalties have to come in blocks of +/- 25%

2) Assistance should not easily of boost the chance of success on tasks over 100%, while still being capable of doing so from time to time.

3) We want to provide lots of choice, rather than lots of math. This means that teamwork must allow different ways of contributing to any particular test, which must be able to be used simultaneously by different PCs based on their individual choices.

4) We want to avoid just having each PC roll their skill individually until one of them succeeds at the task, which makes success on tasks where only one PC succeeding almost certain to succeed, and ones where several PCs need to pass almost impossible to cleanly succeed on.

5) Characters should not need the same skill as the one being tested to assist. When I had a data analyst and a copywriter working with me IRL, both assisted my work (producing and mailing ask letters for a major charity) despite neither having the same skill set or team role as me. 

Proposed Rules:

1) In a teamwork situation, only one character rolls for any particular test ("the lead"). This should be either the person directing the others, or the person most directly responsible for the success or failure of the task for some other reason or the person with the highest skill.

2) Characters other than the lead may choose to assist, to cooperate, to collaborate with the lead, or to sit things out. Players should declare which one their character is doing in an orderly fashion (either by initiative, or progressing around the table or some other satisfactory means). One a player has chosen to assist, collaborate or cooperate, and with who, they must do as they chose until the lead has rolled. Characters sitting things out may not contribute to the teamwork test mechanically.

3) Assistance involves acting according to the direction of the lead, and adds +25% bonus to the skill of the lead. Assistants must have the same skill as the lead at 25% or better. Assistance bonuses are not cumulative, but may be redundant (viz. if two people are attempting to assist, and one is prevented from doing so for some reason, so long as one assistant persists the +25% bonus remains).

4) Collaboration involves one of the characters who is not the lead testing a relevant skill prior to or simultaneous to the lead's test. It is up to the collaborator to explain why the chosen skill is relevant, subject to referee approval. It does not need to be the same skill as the one the lead is testing (but may be). Each collaborator must test a different skill from any other collaborator, so only one may test the same skill as the lead.

A critical success by a collaborator provides a bonus of +50% to the lead's test, a regular success provides a bonus of +25%, a failure provides a penalty of -25%, and a critical failure provides a penalty of -50%. Collaborator bonuses and penalties are cumulative with one another.

5) Cooperation involves one of the characters who is not the lead simultaneously testing the same skill as the lead. Cooperators must have the same skill as the lead at 25% or better. If the lead succeeds, then the roll of whoever got the best result amongst the lead and any cooperators is used. If the lead fails, then the worst result amongst the lead and any cooperators is used.

6) Cooperators and collaborators may have assistants, with the same restrictions as if they were the lead.

7) Collaborators may assist cooperators and vice versa as if the other was a lead.

I think this system satisfies the constraints, and would appreciate feedback on it.

Aug 27, 2012

I'm on Google Plus

Lately I've been hearing that the OSR is moving away from blogs onto G+, so I thought I'd make sure that I was represented on there as well. I'm still figuring out the basics, like how to message people, share posts, and add people to circles, so bear with me. If you want to add me, search "John Bell". My Blogger picture is identical to my G+ picture. Or click my name at the bottom of these posts.

Aug 26, 2012

Tests of Skill and Tests of Chance

I propose that challenges where resolution is a matter of mere luck should feel different than challenges where resolution is a matter of characters' skills interacting.

By "feel" I mean that the actual steps players and referees go through to resolve the situation should differ. 

Specifically, for challenges where luck is the decisive factor in what the consequences are, player-character agency and control should be decreased, and either referee control or the random factor should increase. Whenever the PCs are not taking action or making choices that affect an outcome, resolution of that outcome must be quick, but I would propose that either a slight delay, or an initial concealment of the results followed by the revelation to the players helps build suspense and excitement. For example, when rolling saving throws in a D&D-like game for PCs or small groups of important NPCs, you ought to try to resolving them one at a time, starting from the person most likely to pass the saving throw and progressing in order of descending probability. I started doing this a year or so ago, and have stuck with it ever since for its suspense-building effect at the table.

Another option is for the DM to roll all the saving throws at once secretly and then announce the various characters' fates in order of severity of consequences, which has a similar effect of mounting tension. One good thing about this method is that players will quickly grasp this patterns, which exacerbates the tension even further - knowing that the further along it takes before their fate is announced, the worse it will be. Even better, once this pattern is known, you can occasionally invert it to preserve the element of surprise.

Tests of luck are about the panic of suddenly having your control of a situation reduced or taken away. Used too much, they discourage planning and engagement with the fictional reality, since doing so doesn't affect one's chances of failure or removal from play. This is one reason I encourage you not to use saving throws for resolving too many effects in D&D like games. It's also why I think that any means of resolving skill tests ought to allow PCs to seek out bonuses and avoid penalties.

Tests of skill need to emphasise at least character, and preferably player-character, competence and agency. They should involve meaningful choices not only prior to resolution (viz picking the relevant skill or action to attempt), but during as much of the process as possible. These choices could be things like position during an attack (for a miniatures-based combat system like d20 or 4e), types of attacks or effects applied to opponents (as in Mongoose Runequest 2 and Runequest 6's combat maneuvers), resources to be expended in accomplishing a goal (WFRP 2e's Fortune Points), applicable bonuses or penalties (Openquest and the 40K adventure games), etc. They may be formal and explicit within the rules, or they may be informal "bonus grubbing".

If they are informal, I recommend the referee spend some time prior to the test explaining what kinds of things they see as causing bonuses or penalties to be assigned to the roll. Openquest does a good job of this, by laying out three basic conditions that create bonuses or penalties (Planning and preparation or the lack thereof; strong roleplaying and engagement with concrete details; the intrinsic ease or difficulty of a task), while in my experience WFRP and the 40K games are awful for this, providing much clearer guidelines for penalties than bonuses, and thereby encouraging penalties to be assessed more frequently than bonuses except in the handful of specific cases where there are clear guidelines (mainly combat).

Tests of skill can be extended tests, where success accumulates bit by bit over time, often involving teamwork. Despite this, I often see means of resolving these kinds of tests that basically allow only one person to make a meaningful choice (i.e. WFRP, where all other PCs do is add a straight 10% bonus to the test if they have the relevant skill), or that frontload all meaningful decisions at the very start and then simply become tests measuring the duration of the work (almost all crafting rules I've ever seen do this).

As a contrast, I would point to the resolution system of a game like Diaspora, where other PCs tag tests with aspects to provide bonuses or penalties, but there are a set categories of types of aspects allowed (zone, personal, etc.) with a limited number of "slots" in each category (one, in most cases). To tag a test, they must also expend a valuable personal resource (fate points). On top of this, they also have the option of making a test themselves (one relevant in the imaginary world) and transferring their bonus success levels to the other test. An "extended" test is one where one is trying to build up a certain number of success levels, which can be spent, IIRC, to reduce the time taken, to improve the final result, etc. This is a structure rich with relevant, meaningful choice throughout it that emphasises player-character agency and skill, and many other games would benefit from adopting a set of principles about how assistance works that are like it, even if they didn't want to formalise it in the same way.

The results of tests of skill should also be relatively enduring, while tests of luck should be fleeting. While I don't uncritically accept the principle of "Let it Ride", where a skill is tested once per scene or situation and that result applied to all possible uses a character makes of that skill, I do think it's preferable to the "Make a Perception test. Now make another one. Now another. Again." school of thought. My main objection to the Let it Ride concept is its stasis across a scene. I think that the results of tests of skill should endure until circumstances change meaningfully. My criteria for meaningful change are not meant to be exhaustive or definitive, but include "a different bonus or penalty would apply than when the previous roll was made", "another character's actions have enabled or interfered with your ability to execute the skill", or "You need to expend a limited resource each time to make this roll"

I'm willing to allow that in combat and certain other rapidly developing situations with lots of PCs and NPCs making decisions that interact with one another in complex ways may make the timeframe for meaningful change into a few seconds long, while in other situations, it may be hours or days.

The important thing is to avoid multiple tests for closely related goals where the circumstances are stable. If you are looking for Bill and Joe in the crowd, then one test is sufficient, rather than two (if this is an opposed test, because Bill and Joe are both hiding, then they should each test against the same roll, rather than having two separate roll-offs between the PC and Bill or Joe).

As part of that endurance, tests of skill should also not be fragmented across multiple PCs unless absolutely necessary. If the entire party is looking for Bill and Joe in the crowd, then four to six Perception rolls (plus whatever Bill and Joe are rolling in opposition) is tedious, boring, and ensures that success is simply a matter of rolling and comparing dice results for ten minutes rather than making meaningful choices. It boggles my mind sometimes that RPGs take the activity of an isolated individual as the paradigm of action resolution, when the actual situation is almost always a group of PCs assisting one another. A simple kludge to cover this situation is to allow PCs to provide bonuses to one another for teamwork, though this only slightly ameliorates the fundamental problem.

Skill challenges in 4e were problematic for many reasons, but there is an interesting idea that I would preserve from them. The idea is that during a skill challenge (where each of the PCs goes in order rolling a skill trying to accumulate successes), the same skill cannot be used by two PCs who are adjacent to one another in turn order. While in a skill challenge this is an artificial constraint that serves to highlight the gameyness of the whole process, I think combining it with the simple bonus kludge would push PCs to take more agency.

The basic idea for something like trying to find Bill and Joe would be that the PCs are all going to work together. At any time, one of them can make a Perception check to look around, but only one PC can do this (perhaps the check happens each round and each time the identity of the PC making it can change). The other PCs will be assumed to be assisting when that happens, and will therefore add a small bonus. If they want to contribute a larger bonus, they must use different skills, powers or tactics to create bonus-worthy conditions for that single check. Similarly, if the Perception check does fail, it's up to the other PCs to use their skills to create a meaningful change in circumstances to allow another check to be made.

I don't claim to have the complete solution here, nor to have exhausted all possible options, but I encourage you to test these out and to develop new solutions based on the underlying principles laid out here.

Aug 20, 2012

Upcoming Game Pitches

These are for potential players in my fall games. There are several different groups I have active. Anyone who wants me to run a game, here's what I'm interested in doing. I only have room on my schedule for two, so get your votes in early.

1. A Traveller campaign based off the Anabasis of Xenophon. Misfortune strands you at the far end of known space, surrounded by strange and hostile cultures, and you must survive the long journey back to the core worlds. Think BSG, Voyager and Firefly with a dash of Transmetropolitan for transhumanism. Good if you like games with lots of stuff to do other than shoot people with laser guns (though there will be plenty of that).

System: Mongoose Traveller

2. A Dawnlands campaign based on classic epics like the Cattle Raid of Cooley, All Men are Brothers, the Iliad, and Beowulf as well as the Conan tales of Robert E. Howard. You are members of the Bareeve tribe of the southern Plains of Kadiz struggling for wealth, power and everlasting glory. The Dawnlands is my homebrewed non-Western mythic fantasy setting with a sword and sorcery feel. I've run a well-regarded game in it previously. This is the pitch I'm most excited to run.

System: Openquest with some RQ6 material

3. An Unknown Armies game mostly-hard science fiction game set in the late-21st century on Mars with cyberpunk, noir and gnostic themes - think Philip K. Dick, China Mieville, the Mutant Chronicles, Neuromancer and Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy with touches of Eclipse Phase. You will be members of the Martian underground and the associated criminal ecology, employed by hypercorporations to use your reality-bending, post-human talents in covert operations against their competitors.

System: Unknown Armies 2e

4. A Swords and Wizardry game set in a vast, sprawling city in the afterlife. Whoever were before you started, you're dead now, in the centre of a giant city that is half-metropolis, half-Hell. You can't die again, but fates far worse than death loom around you. Think Planescape: Torment, Spawn, and Dark Souls. Technology will be mid-17th century, so guns and cannons and bombs, but intermixed with swords and plate armour.

System: Swords and Wizardry

Votes can be sent to johnbell17 at

Aug 13, 2012

I Don't Own Stars Without Number Anymore

A friend of mine is going up north to teach English to ESL students in Kangirsuk [1], in Nunavik in northern Quebec. She sent out a call for people to donate small items like art supplies etc. that the students could use to learn English (most speak the Nunamvimmiutitut dialect of Inuktitut and/or French) and I decided to donate a roleplaying game (plus dice), since Malcolm Sheppard has been using them to teach literacy to young people and adults. The students are at about the age that many gamers enter the hobby (Grades 3 and 4 - I started playing when in Grade 3 when I was 8).

Finding a roleplaying game that I hope would appeal to young people from a non-Western background is harder than it sounds. The vast majority of fantasy games have Europe-like settings, feature art that is entirely white people, and don't provide a lot support for anything other than killing things and the accumulation of wealth and power. These games are more or less fine for an audience with a cultural background that prepares them for these things, but I suspect they're of much less interest to a non-Western audience (just as most of us are not watching Nollywood films). I wanted a game where there was at least the possibility of nonviolent objectives and goals, since the kids are young enough that their parents probably won't approve of imaginary murder. As well, I wanted a game that would teach kids how to roleplay, rather than assume they knew how to, and that would provide them with a ton of tools to do so.

I decided Stars Without Number would be the ideal game in my collection for a lot of reasons. The rediscovery of lost worlds and cultures in the default setting offers an overarching non-violent goal for PCs to pursue. The tools for building worlds, aliens, etc. were fantastic and simple, and should be easy for new gamers to learn. The actual rules are simple and sensible. But what really sold me was the inclusion of tables of non-Western names and the art featuring non-whites fairly frequently. Though the names don't include Inuit ones, they do include specific tables of Arabic, Japanese and Nigerian ones, which I hope will indicate to the Inuit kids that you don't have to be a white guy to be adventuring space heroes. The fact that it's one book was helpful too, since transportation space will be limited.

On the chance that the kids wouldn't like that particular game or she couldn't take the physical book, I loaded up an 8GB thumb drive with pdfs of other games (all freely and legally available), including the Swords and Wizardry core rules and the Quickstart, all the free mini-adventures available for Swords and Wizardry, the art-free version of Mutant Future, Dark Dungeons, the free pdf version of Stars Without Number, and Infinite Stars. I had the Eclipse Phase pdf on there at one point, but took it off because I figured it'd be too mechanically complex for young kids, but that left me with very few good, free, science fiction games. Openquest has a free pdf available, but the harpy monster in the back of the bestiary has exposed breasts. I also loaded up tons of OSR-related material, like free NPC generators, hex templates, etc. These will require the kids to have access to a printer to make full use of, but I figured I'd err on the side of more rather than less.

And that's why I don't own Stars Without Number anymore.

Aug 6, 2012

"What Love-Song Does the Wasp Sing to the Caterpillar?"

I've been busy with women and words and work, and my gaming's been reduced temporarily. I'm mostly playing Thousand Thrones at the moment, waiting to put together another group and maybe do some Dawnlands stuff. The title of this post is from a poem I wrote the other day, about parasites loving their hosts, so here's a bunch of links to other people's work.

A feel-good piece about how Dungeons and Dragons has been shown in one study to boost creativity compared to more linear computer RPGs.

Some drawings inspired by the Pokemon monster designs. A lot of these images would make great monsters.

Love is the Plan the Plan is Death and Painwise, two classic short stories by James Tiptree Jr., one of the best woman science fiction writers of the 20th century

Visual Understanding Environment, a piece of free open source concept mapping software. TheRPGsite has a thread explaining how a guy is using it for gaming.

Transcript from Tonight's Session of Thousand Thrones

"Listen man, I'm always right because I'm a fucking celestial wizard. Who fucking knows the future? Me. Why? That's what a fucking celestial wizard does. Reads the future and shit. Who knows who the bad guys are? Me. Why? Because I'm the fucking celestial wizard. Who saw this shit going down a mile away? Me, because I'm the fucking celestial wizard. My job is to know this shit. You know why? Because I'm the motherfucking celestial wizard and celestial wizards are the fuckers who know this shit. So let's kick the fuck out of these fuckers already and get this fucking kid back already from these assholes or whatever the fuck they're up to."

Karl got kidnapped tonight by Nurgle cultists, and I called it beforehand but didn't actually manage to prevent it. This monologue had the guy sitting next to me in stitches. Technically I'm only an apprentice celestial wizard (next session Waldemar will take his journeyman's test), but as the only wizard around most of the time, I stretch it pretty far.