Friday, January 16, 2015

Story Seed - Darkest Night

Image source:

Night had fallen by the time I returned home. With the power out I was reminded how much street and porch lights drove back the darkness. A primal fear gripped me as I stepped out of the car, feet making crunching sounds on the gravel of the driveway. I chided myself for not having gotten it paved the summer before as I had said. Anything to try and keep my mind off the mounting terror of what lay in the darkness.

My home was a mile off the nearest secondary road, but I had had solar lamps put up every five hundred feet to light the long private road to my home. Whatever had happened to the power had not been limited to the grid, those lights had been out too, as was the solar on my home, and the other on the barn. Only the stars lit the sky, the moon was new, and unable to lend its silvery gleam to the world. I closed the car door, and stood alone in the silence.

Silence. The night should have been alive with the sounds of insects and animals, instead it was like the morning after a fresh snow, when the whole world is wrapped in a layer of soundproofing. I swallowed hard and moved toward the house, gripping my keys tightly; I did not want to drop them, not tonight.

The steps and porch groaned under me as I moved to the door, unnerving me further, and making my mind go to places best left alone. My key resisted the lock, making me push it harder; it let go and slipped in, causing me to bang my knuckles. The door squeaked open on its hinges; when had it started doing that? Inside there was barely any light, the stars lent far too little through the windows. I stumbled, and bumped may way to the mantle, looking for matches and a candle. The cough of sulfur created a tiny mote of light in the darkness. I breathed a sigh of relief as I searched in vain for a candle, finally cursing as it burnt my fingers and winked out plunging me into a renewed darkness that my eyes were no longer ready for.

It was too much. I reached up and pushed the VR rig aside, breathing heavily, feeling the artificial world slip away to be replaced by the real. The psychiatrist was jotting down notes. "You did very well," he said. I wanted to argue but I could only grab his trashcan and throw up into it.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Back Issues #14 - Everything on Sale, All Sales Final

Everybody loves bargain hunting. Yes, even rich people. Honestly; think about how much a rich person enjoys getting a painting for cheap and turning it around for a profit. Bargains are a good thing right? Anybody who's bought a house or a used car can tell you that a bargain just means that the seller knows something you don't know, or that you know something they don't. Either way the results can often be interesting...

Issue #14: Everything on Sale, All Sales Final

Some games are all about you stuff. Equipment, magic items, blaster pistols, armor, explosive, cybernetics, etc etc, ad nauseum. The classic fantasy RPG, D&D, seemed all but designed around the accumulation of wealth to facilitate gear, and gear to facilitate wealth. Adventure, get treasure, get better gear, wash rinse repeat. I'm sure that not every game and not every GM ran games like that but I have memories of just such a thing.

So the players find themselves in town with a bag full of gold and a burning desire to buy a sword in the next 20% bonus bracket. At the local magic shoppe they find, much to their shock, that everything is cheaper than expected. Not asking questions, they quickly buy up their new gear, and pocket the difference for another day. What they don't know, however, will probably bite them in the ass.

Let the buyer beware.

In last week's article I discussed any number of defects that you can apply to potions, enchanted items, scrolls, weapons, armor, etc. Hardware can have similar defect but then there are the more unique aspects of "discount gear". Curses laid upon an item either by intent or by circumstance like "the bearer of this blade will meet untimely death." Unusual weaknesses like armor that does not defend against attacks of a certain color (the Green Lantern effect), or weapons whose enchantments fail at inopportune times (the sword that doesn't work during tea time).

Of course there's also the possibility for more plot centric "defects", or at least side-plot centric ones. Perhaps the discount gear comes from the local thieves guild. The player unknowningly are buying from a fence or laundering operation and its only a matter of time before the previous owner will be coming for it.

Similarly grave robbers sell their goods, either through a willing fence or even an unknowing legitimate shop to make their ends meet. If the character's purchase the belongings of a fallen hero the PCs may unwittingly take on the task of dealing with angry spirits, cranky relatives, and even the town magistrate.

Has this ever happened to you? As a GM do you use this kind of activity to introduce side plots into your games?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Story Seed - Icarus 2.0

not sure where I found this ....

"You're mad Pemberton, that contraption will work no better than Daedalus' own invention did for his son."

Sir Alistair Pemberton chortled, "Don't fret old man, I won't damage your precious roses if I come plummeting out of the sky. And fear not for me, I am certain that the Aether Wings will work." Pemberton checked the straps once more, tightening them securely across his chest and hopping up and down to see how the wing pack settled to his shoulders. The harness wasn't perfect, and he could already tell some redesign would be needed to make it comfortable for long flights, but that was putting the cart before the proverbial steam powered horse; first he had to prove that his Aetheric panels could truly catch the substance of the heavens and carry him skyward.

Sir Horace Caulfield stamped his foot, "Now see here Alistair, I'm not worried about my roses, though you had best keep your word on that, but about your life and limb. I shall not be the one to tell that hellion of a wife of yours that you've broken your leg, or God forbid, gotten yourself killed."

"And you shall not have to. She will be arriving in due time with Lord Davenport. Should I fail my dear wife will be on hand to berate me to her own heart's content," Pemberton replies with a wry smile.

"Don't be so glib," Horace muttered back.

Pemberton tested the wings' controls and verified that his gauges were reading properly, "I say, don't get all mushy on me Caulfield, I'm a certain that this will work as I am the sun will rise. Why I tested the Aetheric panels with my own dog, and Mister Troggerdon returned just fine, though I do not think he enjoyed his flight. Relieved himself in my best slippers that night." A blast from a steam whistle drew his eyes up, "Huzzah, there they are!"

Samantha Pemberton and Lord Nigel Davenport III drive up in a new auto-carriage, black and white smoke trailing behind. Samantha tsked at her husband as she approached, "Don't you look the daring-doer? Aside from those awful goggles. Honestly, husband, why have you not replaced them with proper diamond glass?"

Pemberton flushed red. "Because these are lucky my dear," ground out before stepping forward and offering the Lord Davenport a stiff bow and his hand, "Sir, I am honored that you came for my test."

"Yes, well, the honor shall be mine if you succeed. Don't let me down, would you?" Davenport was a minor lord, but also the head of Her Majesty's Air Corps.  His presence was quite a coup for Pemberton, and would lend great credence to his offering at the Engineering Society's annual gather the following month.

"Yes, well, now that you are here I will begin. My Aetheric panels will enable this light wing-pack to carry me to the heavens as easily as if I were tethered to a fifty cubic foot helium reservoir." He made one final adjustment to his goggles and gloves, and then proceeded. "If you will all stand back, I shall ascend to the skies like a bird!"

Mrs. Pemberton, the Lord Davenport, and Caulfield all stepped away, leaving plenty of room as Pemberton unfolded the great wings. They looked much like those of a great bird, though the glint of brass beneath the pale white "feathers" hinted at their true origin. The feathers themselves were unique, thin strips of metal, hammered to the shape of a feather and traced with distilled Aether, they gleamed under the sun like something from a fairy tale.

The wings began to flap, and Pemberton took off at an awkward jog before leaping into the air. Astonishing to the three onlookers he the wings did indeed carry him aloft; each beat propelling Alistair further from the ground.  Pemberton twisted his body and swooped into a long and elegant turn, still gaining elevation with each beat. A glance at his altimeter told him that he had passed two hundred feet and was rising steadily.

Soon he was soaring through the open air, high enough that he could not see the amazed looks and gaping stares of the people below. Ever onward and ever upward he flew, eager to see the capability of his wings.

Down on the ground the three soon lost sight of Alistair Pemberton, and finally ceased to look up and instead looked to each other. Each was equally surprised by the success of the test. Samantha was the first to voice her feelings, "It would seem that dear Alistair has indeed proven the naysayers wrong. My Lord Davenport, I do hope that you can see that my husband is far more the genius than even he had thought, which is truly something to be said."

Davenport opened his mouth to reply when a silvery white feather of hammered metal floated down between the three of them, landing quietly on the ground.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Nuts & Bolts #13 - Of Dice and Cards

Dice are the quintessential randomizers for RPGs. They come in all kinds of shapes, they often look really awesome, and they have a satisfying tactile factor. Dice are pretty awesome, and given the business I saw vendors doing in dice at GenCon I doubt we have any fear that dice will go away.

But what about the stuff that dice doesn't do so well? Dice are (generally) rather small and limited to a simple letter, number, symbol, or maybe a single short word. The more faces the less usable the real estate on those faces as well, meaning that if you want to get complicated dice maybe aren't the best solution to the problem of randomly accessed game information.

Cards aren't new to RPGs by any stretch, but when you see them they generally take the form of play aids. Things like the Deck of Many Things, or creature and item decks from various games. Some game lines even produce decks of reference cards for player powers.

You don't see a lot of games using cards in place of dice though. There are some, just not many. The Deadlands RPG used them for great thematic effect when hucksters cast their magic, and the Savage Worlds version used a poker deck for initiative as well.  FATE has a deck that reproduces the results of Fate/Fudge dice in card form as another example.

An example worth discussing further. Dice follow a probability plot for their results over time. Roll a d6 enough times and you should get equal results for each face, roll 2d6 enough times and you should see a standard bell curve form, with 7s being at the center and 2s and 12s being on the wings. But when you slice probability into a randomly selected short duration observed window of results these probability distributions can break down; your dice run "hot" and you see a lot of high results, or maybe the run opposite and go "cold". That's just the nature of the beast, and to an extent that is part of what makes each roll so potentially exciting (unless you spend so much time rolling that even mundane tasks get a resolution roll, but that's another column).

What happens if you recreate that 2d6 roll as a deck of cards? You get 36 cards, running from 2 to 12 in value, with varying numbers of cards for each result. If you were to use this during a game you'd always see one result of 12 and one result of 2 in every 36 "rolls", you'd also see six instances of 7, and five each of 6 and 8. The curve of the results doesn't change,  but assuming you run fully through the deck before shuffling and starting fresh you will always see a "perfect" distribution of results.

Change the number of cards and you can change the distribution while keeping the same results. You could add an additional 2 and 12 result and see more extreme success and extreme (likely) failures in a given run through of the deck. Manipulation like this can create all kinds of distributions you cannot achieve with dice (at least not easily), like a saw tooth pattern where even results are more likely than odd on an otherwise flat curve; ex. one card each for odd values between 1 and 10 and two cards each for the even values, that's thirty cards ranging from 1 to 10 but with even results coming up twice as often as odd, and even values all having an (initially) equal chance of appearing.

That parenthetical is important too. If you are piling up discarded cards from prior "rolls" (draws or pulls commonly), your chances are starting to change. Like a card sharp reading a blackjack deck and counting cards to win the players could start to gauge the increasing or decreasing odds of given values or value ranges. If you have already seen two 10s, three jacks, all the queens, and a king and you need to draw at least a 10 to succeed you know that your pool of successful draws has dropped from sixteen cards at the start of the deck to only six cards left in the deck. Depending on how deep into the deck you are the actual odds may be better, or worse, for you to draw that needed 10+ result. That'll put a different spin on those late game "Hail Mary" moves, especially those do or die saves and defense (or attack) rolls.

Cards also have a lot of extra room on them (unless they are really small, but small cards are annoying), and you can add additional information to them if you like.  Much like a standard deck of cards has thirteen values, with each value appearing four times, in two different colors and four different suits. That standard deck can yield a surprising amount of information. You can pull 1:2 for color, 1:4 for suit, 4:52 for value, or even 1:52 for a specific card.

If your game used a standard 52 cards deck for task resolution and for it was established that attack rolls that pulls hearts were critical and did +2 damage even if the attack otherwise missed that changes the value of a quarter of the deck. You could do this for each suit, maybe a attack that pulls clubs is never better than a "winged em" result and does -1 damage, and spades gain some kind of side effect, like knocking the enemy down, or disarming the, while diamonds are very efficient shots, and cost the player fewer action points. This will allow the cards to generate four times as many results across the same range. Apply the same logic to a d20 and you need to add a separate die for the suit.

This concept can extend to player abilities. A warrior specialty might gain some additional effect from the card color, or even the value and color combination. Imagine pulling a card as you attack a powerful foe and you see you have drawn a black face card, you look at your sheet and see that your Reaper ability activates only for black face cards and confers the ability to make an immediate second attack. The healer finds that on a pull result of odd hearts he can heal double the amount, (or perhaps a bonus equal to the value of the card). The possibilities are vast...

...vast enough that custom decks enter the equation. A game that is based on the Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series could have cards aligned to each element and benders gain a bonus if they draw their element, but suffer a penalty on the opposing element. This could even go to a Chinese style 5 element cycle (water, wood, fire, metal, and air), or beyond (want to add spirit?, you can, and not disturb the probability state).

Cards could also contain similar information for other mechanics. Such decks could generate details of social interactions, health recovery, or even the length of time to complete a task. Maybe you pull a high result for a bartering session but the duration on the card tells you that it took an hour to get to that result. A card with a lesser effect might give you almost as good a barter but in only 10 minutes.

Of course this also allows for quicker math. If your dice mechanic is based on the cumulative result of 3d6 a card can tell remove the need to add the dice, while a simple graphic of the dice can show their values if there is need to know what each die "rolled".

Unlike dice, which a player can only be expected to normally have 1 or two of that she re-rolls as needed, the cards could be kept and collection of card sets or runs of results could trigger further effects. In a social situation if you can collect 3 of the same "suit" you can turn them in during your next draw to change the suit of that draw or to gain a bonus. Instead of the suit there could be a sort of puzzle piece icon, with the reward coming if you can collect the 3 icons (which could be distributed throughout the deck along a different method than suits) to complete the puzzle.

I think there are probably more than a few more ideas that could be worked into a simple draw deck to replace basic dice for an RPG. There certainly are board games where card and deck management systems could be integrated into an RPG for even more variation on the theme. The Middle Earth Quest board game uses the character's deck as both their abilities and powers and as their health, with cards being sent to a discard pile by damage and by use. Only through resting & recovery can the discard be shuffled back into the deck, and if the character's deck is depleted they are defeated and sent to the nearest haven. Taking damage can come from your hand - in which case you know what you are losing, but you also lose cards you can play - or from the deck, where they remain hidden, possibly stealing away a powerful ability that you had hoped to draw. Integrating similar mechanics into an RPG could be its own column entirely.

So, in closing, the use of cards and decks has the ability to replace dice and simultaneously increase information density and allow for additional effects and mechanics to be added to each "roll" without adding additional dice and potentially altering the desired probability distribution. This kind of change may not be desirable to all, but there is certainly compelling evidence that game play could be deepened without being made more complex as a result.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Story Seed - Pilgrimage

Image Source:

He could smell the next station before he could see it.  The pungent odor of incense scented the air that wafted down the seemingly endless stair. Darg adjusted his pack and kept climbing, his muscles burning from exhaustion. As he got closer he could hear the faint tinkling of chimes stirred by the ever present light breeze. The scents and sounds grew stronger as he pushed onward.

The Way of Ten Million Steps was not an easy pilgrimage, few ever completed it, and the Way was dotted with the communities that formed of those who simply could not continue. It was said that the way had a purpose, that those who completed it were remade. Darg was no more informed than any other pilgrim, and his thoughts on the Way were only informed by his prior experiences. He knew that the way had demanded that he be fit, both physically and mentally, that he be trained, in martial techniques and the ways of the world and the magics, and the way had required of him sacrifices, an eye, an arm, a portion of his soul. The eye he had replaced with a jewel enchanted to allow him sight beyond sight. The arm he had replaced with necromantic magics with the arm of a great beast, its muscles were stronger than iron, and its claws were sharper than the best blade.

His soul remained damaged however. A portion was cut away, locked into a glass ampule that he wore around his neck. The sacrifice seemed minor for the benefits gained; he never grew sick, never felt fear, and needed so much less sleep. Breaking his soul seemed the least sacrifice the Way had required. Darg paused, wondering why that thought had felt so strange to him.

He shook off the feeling and continued onward, pushing past dessicated corpses that were years dead, past overgrowth that told him that none has passed this point in decades. He summoned magic flame to burn the Way clear and trod on the smouldering ashes with no concern; ahead he would find the next Greater Test of the Way.

An hour passed and finally Darg rounded a corner, scrambling up broken stairs, and came to the location of the next Greater Test. A figure stood there, a sword raised up, next to a brazier from which the blue smoke of incense rose. The figure said nothing, it waited, still as a statue, for Darg to approach.

Darg took a moment. He ate a little, and drank a little, and ensured that his muscles and his magic were ready.  Finally he approached the man, wary, unsure. He stood before the figure, and saw that it was no man but a woman, scarred and changed by unknown forces. She watched him and waited for him to act. Darg stood and watched her and waited. The standoff stretched on for an hour and then she stepped aside, and began to ascend the stairs, continuing onward, moving further along her path of the Way. Darg took her place, waiting, tending the brazier, and trusting that he could endure this Test.