Friday, October 16, 2015

Calling in Dead

My brain is leaking out of my nose so no new post today.

Maybe go check out ... this instead?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Nuts & Bolts #52 - Hench 4 Life

Henchmen ... the underrated enablers of action fiction. Henchmen on both sides of a conflict provide a sense of context to the situation. They can die to illustrate the danger of the situation without depriving the story of a main or secondary character. The rank and file Stormtrooper, JOEs, Cobra members, even Starfleet Red Shirts. They serve by dying, enabling the story to impose an element of danger that wouldn't be there otherwise without compromising your core cast.

Henchmen also serve to highlight the capable. The named heroes, and villains, look more competent by comparison to the henchmen. They allow a hero to punch out a dozen men on his way to rescue the girl and look awesome doing it. They make the villain seem positively impressive compared to their lesser servants.

They also help to facilitate pacing. Imagine how quickly many stories would end if there was no barrier between the protagonist and the antagonist. Without goons the Batman would get up in Joker's grill with far less effort, and the JOEs would probably have arrested Cobra Commander and his lackies. Henchmen allow for one or more pacing scenes where the heroes whittle away at the villainous support, often without making meaningful headway on the villain themselves, or even while the villain is able to continue his plans (recall how the Avengers were largely tied up dealing with the Chitauri instead of dealing with Loki for much of the final act of the Avengers).

Not all henchmen are nameless and faceless. One could argue that Vader is the henchman of Palpatine and "from a certain point of view" they'd be right. However I'm concerning myself only with the nameless rank and file here. Maybe I'll do another column on those folks later.

I also want to say something right now, not all henchmen are useless saps who can't harm the hero and simply bumble their way through a scene until they meet their demise. I think this is probably the one true fault of Star Wars that the series has never managed to shake off. The Stormtroopers look badass precisely one time on film, the first scene of the first movie. After that they look like buffoons at worst, and simply not very capable at best. Henchmen should be capable and need to be able to pose a genuine threat. If they cannot do that they serve literally no purpose to the story.

But what about henchmen in RPGs? Well in RPGs they can function the same way, perhaps most importantly serving to show the capability of the heroes PCs (since RPGs tend to be PC centric). Why is it then than so many systems eschew the use of mooks, henchmen, goons, or extras as they are variably called?

Well, if my own experiences with them are any indication it could be because a lot of people don't really get the use of henchmen. It may also be that they aren't really all that well designed for some systems and that others would actually fare poorly for their use. Let's take a closer look.

As I stated before, cinematically henchmen, mooks, goons, and the like serve a variety of purposes ranging from elevating the named characters to establishing the stakes of a conflict. Often henchmen are characters who are metaphorically or literally faceless. They either never get a close up, or they have their face/head covered. Stormtroopers are a good example of the latter situation, while any number of comic book goons serve well the former. How they look isn't strictly relevant but it's good to consider the forms that henchmen can take.
At this point I'm going to start referring to henchmen as "extras" because I am lazy and there are fewer letters to type that way ...
Obviously low level humanoids make for good extra, but consider that a necromancer's lesser undead, a druid's beast friends, and and elementalist's summons could all fulfill the mechanical needs of an extra for a given villain. The key take away here should be that extras are a "non-unique" enemy that is less capable than the heroes and far less capable than the big bad; what they look like does not matter.

Extras Need Not Apply

Knowing when not to use extras is often as important as knowing when to use them. Certain genres just don't mix well with extras. Horror games are a great example of this. The antagonists in horror need to feel capable and powerful, that is part in parcel with establishing the mood needed for the players to feel the dread at is part of a horror game. Since extras shouldn't be as capable as the heroes, and should be plentiful they really go against horror conventions. Horror games generally rely on the characters feeling outmatched and fighting against forces greater than themselves, and extras, which stem from pulp and comic mediums, achieve the opposite effect.

So when should you use extras? Well pulp and comics/superheroes games are ideal places for extras as they birthed the concept. These are hardly the only genres that can benefit though. High fantasy generally assumes a certain degree of capability to be invested in the heroes, and through the use of extras this can be highlighted easily. Likewise science fiction, depending on its flavor can make good use of extras as a way to show the power of the high tech weaponry, and consequently the high tech armor or defenses of the main villain.

Glass Jaws

When it comes to the execution of extras in RPGs I have seen plenty of variations, but generally they rely on a unifying factor across any system: the have glass jaws. Different systems accomplish this in different ways. Games that use hit points simply give these extras a bare minimum; if you average sword does 2d6 damage any enemy with 7 or less hit points is going to fall in one hit more than 50% of the time.

That one hit factor is key. Mutants & Masterminds (a favorite supers RPG of mine) uses a damage resistance system instead of hit points. You make a save based on your "toughness" (a bonus) against a target DC set by the damage of the attack. For heroes failure incurs various penalty conditions; for extras failure means being taken out. Again a simple one hit rule.

Some game systems go farther and actually codify extras as being "1 hit" extras, you don't even need to roll damage, if you hit them once they fall. Sometimes you'll even see "2 hit" or "3 hit" extras in these systems to dial in difficulty even farther. And that is a useful way to look at extras; how many hits should this guy take before he falls? This has its ups and downs of course. If you have a character built to deal out lots of damage he'll still need to hit twice to down a "2 hit" extra. This might be a negative game experience for some players who feel cheated that their bruiser isn't hyper capable, so consider the damage mechanism of your game before implementing something as simple as "x hit" extras.

Going back to the original example though. If the average character is going to deal 2d6 damage and some will deal more if built to do so you can take that average value, 7 hit points, as "1 hit" and then scale. A "2 hit" extra in such systems would have 14 hit points, and a "1.5 hit" extra would have 10 (round down), enough that they gain a degree of resilience against the average attack, but would still fall to more powerful single attacks or critical hits.

Less Capable Does Not Mean Incapable

Extras shouldn't be as powerful as the PCs. I stand by this as a simple statement of base logic; glass cannons make poor enemies. That said, extras shouldn't be incapable either. If they aren't able to threaten the PCs with harm they lose whatever purpose they had. That harm need not come in the form of damage of course; a gibbering tide of tiny homunculi may not be able to injure the heroes, but they can impair their movements, carry off items that the PCs seek, and/or threaten innocents.

Some extras will be able to harm the PCs in combat though. That's where some games fall flat; they link health to combat capability. A high fantasy game with "1 hit" type goblins is great for the heroes to feel powerful as they delve a dungeon to find the evil within, but the goblins need to have attack bonuses and strength to hurt the PCs. They make up for their fragility via numbers though so those bonuses need not be as high as a comparable non-extra since more dice will roll.

A single PC leveled threat (which we'll assume here has roughly 20 hits worth of hit points, e.g. 140 health) with an attack skill of X (where X gives them a 50/50 hit chance) and dealing Y damage could be replaced by 20 "1 hit" extras with an attack skill of X/2 (giving them a 25% chance to hit) and dealing Y/2 damage. These extras will initially hit harder than the monster; with their numbers offsetting their lowered odds to hit, and then some, they stand a good chance of doing some decent damage in the first couple of rounds. But a funny thing happens as the PCs get their hits in, the extras begin to dwindle and their combat effectivity decreases accordingly, and rapidly.

Unlike the single creature with a flat damage output over time (Y damage per round if it is expected to hit most of the time) the group of extras will start strong (probably doing five hits for a total of 2.5Y damage) and decline, giving the PCs some early threat before being mopped up like the extras that they are a few rounds later as the 4-5 PCs take out probably 3-4 per round. After 1 round there will be 16 extras dealing, 4 hits, for 2Y damage; then 12 extras hitting 3 times for 1.5Y, and so on. This means that the extras will probably do more damage to the PCs (a good thing, because it makes the threat feel real) looking more threatening up front (also a good thing), BUT they will fall easily and quickly, making the PCs feel powerful (objectively a good thing, and the reason to use extras in the first place).

You can of course tweak the numbers. Reduce the damage output to Y/3 or Y/4 and the group will be only about as effective as the single monster, while still being easy for the PCs to mop up. You can leave their attack skill at X and have them do Y/10 damage, they'll hit often and deal a lot of annoying "ping" attacks. Just keep in mind that the dice aren't always 100% on the ball with probability and so you probably want to avoid skewing attack skill too low, and damage too high. Better to have a lot of reliable "ping" hits than to have a streak of good rolls that wipe out the party in what was intended as a speed bump encounter.

One could argue that you could model the group as a single entity, a swarm if you will, but then you need to deal with either multiple creature attacks (and that would either be flat damage over time or require a scaling factor based on current hit points), or deal with area of effect or multi-hit attacks, which again stay flat unless you tack more on. It can work, but it can also be more mechanical work depending on the system you use.

A good reason to stay away from swarms is also play character area of effect (AoE) attacks. Magic types often have access to fireballs and other attacks that deal damage (either scaling or evenly) over areas. Explosions, beams, cones, and the like. These attack abilities are often weaker in damage output compared to single target spells because they can hit multiple enemies. Having a group of 20 extras will allow those spells to shine... just don't clump your extras too tightly! In the prior example, the judicious use of AoE attacks might increase the kill count from 3-4 per round to 6-7 per round, this'll scale the damage output of the extras accordingly and help balance their power.

As you can see here, extras are as much about understanding how to engineer an encounter and build enemies as they are a mechanic of their own.

Non-Combat Extras

Extras are not just useful as combat mechanics, but as discussed before they can provide mechanical threats in other ways, provide the antagonist with a way to be in two places at once, or even act as an information delivery system.  A good way to have the PCs learn about the antagonists can be through defeated extras. This can be done by capturing one alive and interrogating it, or by examining the remains of a dead extra. Extras can serve to help move the plot along, and because they can be dealt with quickly, they don't need to halt the flow of the game to do so.

The PCs Should Shine

Now, look, the whole point here is to make the PCs look awesome and to keep the game moving along without getting bogged down. Narratively speaking plenty of RPGs already manage this without extras as I have described them here. I wouldn't ever really feel the need for extras in a Cypher System game unless I was using the Cypher System to run Superheroes (more on that in a future column). Meanwhile I have found that the AGE system used by Dragon AGE and Fantasy AGE really needs a way to speed combat up some because even with GM and players being capable with the system combat could become a grind. Outside of combat the use of extras can help to facilitate the flow of the game by providing clues or acting as non-combat obstacles or threats.


Lastly, I will leave you with this, because it highlights an interesting question in media: where do the villains find these chumps anyway?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Year of the Demon Lord - The Road to Blackstone Ford (Part 2)

A month ago I kicked off my "Year of the Shadow Lord" campaign with about half of Survival of the Fittest; if you want you can read my recap here. A few days ago we got to meet and finish what I was calling "The Road to Blackstone Ford" though we were short one PC. I think myself and the group are getting a better handle on the mechanics and even if I can't keep the terminology straight I can at least keep things moving without too much idleness while we cross-reference the book (I should note it helps that the PCs are all GMs as well and more willing to jump in a look something up while I keep the game running).


Our Cast:
  • Reudan the Human - played by +Troy Pichelman; Reudan is an orphan and a friar who got abducted by elves due to his better than average good looks, and has now become a priest of the New God....
  • Runt the Orc - played by +Sean Anderson; Runt is (for an orc anyways) a runt, who has lived a hard life and even tried his hand as a town guard. He is now a warrior and a tracker, and perhaps the gruff leader of the group....
  • Holgar Flakkison the dwarf - played by +Brian Ries; Holgar was a warrior and a torturer until he found himself an unlikely convert to the Cult of the New God, within which he is now a priest...
  • Sage the Changeling - played by +Dave Hanlon; Sage looks like an older human woman, but she's really only just into her 20s, Sage may well become the witch that she impersonates, a fact that seems all the more certain now that she has become a magician and necromancer....
  • Fox the Clockwork - played by +Andrew Cady; Fox's sad tale involves a lonely farmer who built a clockwork to deal with vermin but ended up with a surrogate son, unfortunately things don't work out and Fox was the victim of a poorly timed wind-down while trying to rescue his "father" from their burning home. Fox's built-in guile has lead him down the path of a rogue ...

After banishing the phantasm that had badly injured Ruedan the group we thankful to have no other troubles in the night. Morning finally greeted the group with one fewer member however and Fox was quick to explain that Buckets had left because he had "business to attend to."
Buckets' player wasn't able to make it so I tapped Fox's player to come up with a reason why the goblin was absent in the morning.
Sitting outside the ruined tower they took stock of themselves over breakfast while gathered around the dying embers of last night's fire. Ruedan explained that while he had been unconscious he had received a vision from Astrid herself and believed that he was now blessed by the holy prophet. After the harrowing events of the day before the group all felt a little more capable of handling themselves; after all they say nothing is quite like a trial by fire.

Unfortunately, the smoke from their fire had been seen in the night and early morning and before the group could even finish their breakfast a group of five bandits was upon them. The bandits attacked with limited surprise however, catching only Sage and Runt off guard.
I wanted the bandits to be more than just a force that figured in the first session by way of the ambush, and it seemed reasonable to me that they could locate the group by the smoke their fire gave off. After a Perception Challenge for surprise the bandits only managed to get the drop on two of the group. 
Holgar immediately invoked a blessing on himself and his comrades to aid them during what would be their moments of need. Ruedan, emboldened by his visions during the night called forth divine fire into a beam of celestial light. Unfortunately all he really managed to do was warm one of the archers' codpiece. Fox wasn't close enough for an attack so he attempted to hide, but the mechanical boy picked an odd way to do so, by simply standing still instead. A flurry of arrows followed, wounding Ruedan, before three of the bandits charged the group wielding stout clubs.

Holgar, already showing his prior life's combat experience in his quick reactions denounced one of the bandits. His holy wrath was enough to send the poor bandit to the ground, cowering in abject terror.
Brian scored a 20+ on his Denouncement spell check imposing the Frightened condition and making the target fall prone. There was also a faint smell of urine...
Having recovered from their initial shock Sage and Runt quickly jumped into the action. The old woman called forth a spectral attack of necromantic energies one of the bandits, wounding him. Runt followed up with a brutal attack that eviscerated the man, spilling loops of his guts to the ground and giving Fox an opening.

One of the bandits had taken advantage of the small clockwork's motionlessness to clang an attack off the boy's head. Now Fox returned the favor by using the death of the man's comrade to gain an advantage. The boy clockwork got the bandit to turn and then with the kind of mechanical force expected from a larger construct Fox crushed the man's head with a single well placed and powerful blow. Such was the attack that the man's brains were forced from his eyes, nose, and mouth, a horrifying sight that Holgar would surely remember for some time.

With two bandits down, and both dead by horrific wounds, the previously terrified bandit decided that perhaps this battle was already lost and as soon as he was able to he scrambled to his feet and fled.
I decided that Fox's one hit kill of the bandit warranted a grisly death, and the bandits skull was caved in with such force that the contents burst out through the man's face. Everybody who saw that (the party and the frightened bandit) were called to make a Will Challenge against insanity. Holgar and the Bandit failed. Rather than make Holgar frightened I went directly to an insanity point to emphasize the horror and the novice experience level of the PCs.
The bandit who failed had already been terrified, and so on his turn fled. Holgar's attack of opportunity failed and the man sped off into the forest in a random direct as fast as his feet could carry him.
Now down to just the two archers the group had the clear advantage and pressed the attack as best they could. The first archer was felled under the combined efforts of Sage and Ruedan while Runt chased down the last and beheaded the man with a quick two weapon strike.

The group couldn't see or hear the bandit who had fled and decided he was not worth the effort given the man's state. Instead they set about stripping the bodies of loot as best they could. They managed to salvage three sets of armor and a handful of weapons and some coin. All of which was split up as best as possible between the group, based on their ability to use it.

Such camaraderie would not last however as Sage picked one of the corpses, that of the first to fall bandit who had been eviscerated, and uttered a profane ritual over the man's corpse, finally raising it into her service as an undead minion. Holgar and Ruedan were offended by the idea that the man's soul would be held in the corpse. An argument about the nature of undead servitors ensued as Sage did her best to placate the devotees of the New God by explaining that the undead was just a vessel, and had neither soul nor even true autonomy.
It's nice to have good role players. This whole scene was entirely player driven, and I just sat back and chuckled at how quickly teamwork devolved into antagonism drive largely by Ruedan's zealous nature.
Runt couldn't have cared less and instead set about finding a tree to climb and locate the direction of the road relative to their camp. Clearly the most decisive of the group in matters not related to the New God, Runt lead them to the road and then cautiously toward Blackstone Ford. They were wary of further bandit attacks, but they also knew that their was by far the fastest way to reach the safety of their destination.

After several hours the group was ready to stop for a quick rest and some provisions. At the same time Fox located a small side path that led off into the woods. It did not seem to be one heavily used, but while the others ate the little clockwork snuck off to see what lay down that path. About three quarters of a mile off the road Fox found a small home of rough wood and sod roof. Inside he spied an old woman bustling about a kitchen full of herbs. The clockwork then jumped to conclusions and rushed back along the path.

The clockwork's absence had been noticed and he ran into Runt and the others on the path. He claimed to have found an old hag working magic.  Runt wasn't buying what the clockwork was selling however, and distrusted the accuracy of Fox's news. The group decided to check out this old woman and see what was truly what.
Again, a large chunk of this was PC drive RP that I only needed to carefully intercede in with regards to attempts to lie and discern truth. It's nice to have quality players. 
At the home Sage quickly decided the best course of action was to simply knock and introduce themselves to the old woman. Rena, as they would come to know the woman, was a holistic healer and more than happy to help some down on their luck travelers. While Fox skulked about pilfering innocuous items Rena mixed up a poultice from eleven natural herbs and spices that healed the organic members of the party fully.
Jokes were made (you can see one of them below) about the healing poultice. I decided that even though clockworks are "living" that certain kinds of treatment wouldn't be able to help them, and so Rena was unable to help Fox. It's not that I wanted to punish Andrew, I just like the idea that clockwork are functionally "robots" and feel that what works for them may not work for more traditional living targets, and vice versa. For his part Fox decided to help himself, and stole a pair of crystals. 
When pressed what they could possibly do to repay the woman's kindness Rena finally relented and asked them to deliver a hot pot of medicine to the innkeeper at the Blackstone Ford Inn. She also implied that the cure may be for a condition not entirely without some awkward social impact. Finally the group bade farewell to Rena and made their way to Blackstone Ford at last...
We were at just past 11 pm so I wrapped it there. I asked what the characters would want to do next, and if wiping out the bandits and ghouls from the forest was something that I should prepare for the next session. While the characters were interested, the players felt that doing so might be a bit mundane and so we agreed that when the next session kicks off a month will have passed and the characters will have dealt with those issues during that time...

Sage learned another power of the magic bone dagger she took possession of (in red) ...

 Crimson Bone Dagger 
  • Necromancy implement (can be used to discover the tradition)
  • Grants a +1 to all spell checks for Necromancy spells
  • Lifestealer - Your recovery rate is reduced by 1. So long as the dagger has "fed" on at least one recovery its blade is preternaturally sharp and deals 1d6 damage instead of the usual 1d3 damage. This lasts until after a rest. 
  • ?? 
  • ??

Notes to self:

As only the second session of play I was still unsure of how combat would pace out. Since the character had camped in a ruined tower and made a fire I decided to start the session off with an ambush during breakfast since the PCs' fire would have alerted the bandits to their location.

I continued to lean heavily on the gore, and the impact of horrific sights, I'll do less of that as the campaign advances but there are new characters and seeing skulls explode should still affect the PCs IMO.

I also realized that I need to keep my adventures snappy. With sessions lasting 2.5-3 hours tops I cannot rely of getting more than perhaps 3 scenes and a combat.

  • Keep leaning on the horror aspect in even mundane combat for novice PCs
  • Keep combat as snappy as possible. Use RP to allow for enemy morale and such to impact play.
  • Keep the adventure moving, leverage the players to cross check rules.
  • Know your players and your adventure and plan only the most needed of scenes, other scenes will come from your players natural role-play.

Memorable Quotes (as recorded by the players)

Holy crap he just tore that guy in half! --- CRACK! - Fox using trickery to gain the upper hand on a bandit before bashing their brains out, literally

"I expect Buckets to pop out like a Pinyata." - Runt after eviscerating a bandit

"Have we found Sage's mom's house?" - Ruedan upon seeing the "rustic" home of Rena the healer

"I assure you, woman, these men cannot fly," Fox says.
"Oh, you funny mechanical boy." 
- Fox making a joke after Rena dismisses Runt as being too "flighty" to learn her healing arts

"Who should we say this package is from?" Sage asks.
"My name is Renna."
"I would have guessed Sandra"
- Troy, making a deep cut Col. Sanders joke based on the 11 herbs and spices Rena used to make her healing poultices...

"We've got some very important genital warts creme to deliver now..." - Runt didn't seem to think much of the favor the old woman Rena asked in return for the gifts of her healing arts

Monday, October 12, 2015

Story Seed - Confidence

Image Source:

The man in red stared up at the massive door. He grappled with the fear within. It was cold and windy here in this broken mountainside. The way was rocky, uneven, tricky. None would fault him for skipping this place, for not going the final steps to that door and doing what he must do.

He gripped his staff in both hands, drawing heat from its enchanted wood to warm his numb fingers as he stared up at that great door. He wasn't sure what lay beyond, but he knew what his duty required of him. His stomach tumbled, his knees wavered, and he leaned heavily on that staff of his as he sought to control the shivering that had become trembling.

The man in red thought back to his training, thought back to his prior efforts. He told himself that he could do this, that what lay behind that door was only his fear, and that he had the power to make his fear rule him, or to rule his fear. He stood upright, grasping whisper-thin strands of confidence and bundling them together. He wove those strands into a great hawser and used it to bind his fear.

The man in red approached the door, his cloak whipping about him as he knocked on the great door. The stone portal opened revealing a massive looming shape in the darkness beyond. Large eyes peered down at the man from an unseen visage. The being's voice boomed out, deep and rasping, like stone sliding on stone, "Who comes to my door?"

"Hello and good day, have you heard the word of the Great Lord?..."