Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Forgotten Land beyond the Iron Mountains

So far as I can tell, I am the first person to hike over the iron mountains since the event that created them some 800 years ago.  The whole region is considered cursed by every civilization I have found bordering it, so much so that they will not even drink water that flows from within.  Still, my curious nature, empty pockets, and stalking debtors drove me to make the journey with my 3 companions.

The region is essentially one mountain, towering over valleys sharply cut off by the recent appearance of the iron mountains.  Elves from the nearest village old enough to remember claim the iron mountains appeared all at once, with a cover of magic, so whatever lay behind them must surely be valuable.  With a doughnut-shaped set of valleys and one large mountain, it has taken weeks already and will take several weeks more to fully survey the area.  It may take a lifetime, however, to understand what has been seen thus far.

There is a people here, or perhaps they should be called persons.  So far as I can tell, they never group, they never talk, they never interact.  The wander and linger, far from each other, eating leaves from the trees, sleeping standing up, and never doing anything more than surviving and being.  They wear no clothing.  If you could imagine a zombie that was still alive, I dare say it would resemble these people.  Their existence is what I can best describe as a solitary living death.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Simulationist Pitfalls: The Mixed Fidelity Ruse

Articles like this "Clunky Mechanics in 5E", "Flank You Very Much: Tactical Play in D&D", and others, start to address tactical, aka simulationist concerns in the new D&D Next / D&D 5e ruleset.  One particular rule, flanking, has been a controversial subject since the beginning.  I'm going to pick on this particular example to explore an important aspect of simulation, namely fidelity.  Simulation is one of the few areas I would consider myself an expert in, so I think this discussion is warranted.

Simulation is the representation of a specific system using a series of mathematical relationships.  Simulation allows us to predict the outcome of the system without having to have a real system.  Fidelity is the level of detail that we include in a simulation.  Up to a point, fidelity can decrease the uncertainty in the prediction we make.  At some point, however, too much detail in a simulation simply clouds the uncertainty of the result with all of the uncertainty in the parameters used as inputs to the simulation.  Picking the right fidelity is usually key when putting together any kind of simulation so the right answer can be attained with the least amount of resources of computation.

Mixed fidelity is when we simulate certain aspects in great detail while we gloss over the details in other areas.  Mixed fidelity is a danger, because the low fidelity uncertainty can easily swamp out the detailed simulation, resulting in an imbalance of prediction.  The result is a simulation that may not predict anything realistic.

So let's jump back to our example.  Back in D&D 3.5 / Pathfinder we could get a +2 attack bonus for flanking.  However, in both D&D 5 and 3.5/Pathfinder, there is no facing. Without facing, we can now start to get unrealistic scenarios like the following:
Here we have four blue attackers all getting flanking bonus off a single partner, the blue guy in the center.  The reality of the situation is that the blue guy in the center is in serious trouble and not a really good flanking partner.  No worries -- he's also getting a flanking bonus for all 4 of the red guys that can attack him from his 4 blue attackers.  Without facing, it's easy to see that flanking bonus becomes unrealistic.  And why does this happen?  Because we have chosen to include one high fidelity component, i.e. flanking, when we didn't include another element of similar element of fidelity, i.e. facing.

Ultimately, this is what makes rule systems like D&D 5e better.  They have eliminated some of the fidelity that was both overwhelming and unmatched in the rule system.  The new streamlined rules allow for complete segments of rules to be swapped in and out, per the DMG, in order to change the fidelity, while trying to balance the overall fidelity in each approach.  I think GMs need to keep this in mind as they start tinkering with rule systems so they an understand the pitfalls of various changes they may make.  I also think looking at this example illustrated the elegance of D&D 5e and how it has fixed some of the mixed fidelity pitfalls of previous editions.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sand Sailers

When the wind hit the first unrolled sail there was a tug that judged the men; those that failed fell; those that were of these sands stayed at work, hoisting the rest of the sails to bear.  The shushing noise rose out of the background of the whip of the wind, as the glass slipper of the bottom of the Veriago made way.  I tugged the wheel to the right, driving skids against the sand just enough to miss the other sanddocks.

42 Aboard on the Veriago all pulled and pushed to get the full scale sails into the wind.  She was getting up to speed now and I pulled her right into the winds direction completely.  It wasn't completely ideal for the bearing, but it would still shave a days sand off our journey.

In my own mind I could imagine of what could be seen from the dock, the gold hull with gold skins reflecting gold light off of gold sand, the sails of multicolored dragon scale whipping forward, Sailors becoming smaller and smaller as the haze of the desert overtook the view.

Today was an important day for the Veriago.  We were taking to the old trade route to find out what we could of rumors of a new grathnium mine filled to the brim with the gold metal that made the ships slip so easily across the sand.  And, if the price is right, or the guards too few at the mine, we will return with a load of the stuff.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Player and Character Incentives and Disincentives

Part of being a good GM is providing incentives for good, fun things to happen as part of the whole gaming experience.  These incentives and disincentives can take two nonexclusive forms -- direct and cross-over.  Direct incentives work so that the actions result in rewards in the same space -- character rewards for character actions and player rewards for player actions.  Cross-over incentives mix the two realms, often resulting in mixed priorities that can sometimes cause problems.  In this article, we're going to discuss how incentives and disincentives for both players and character's can be used correctly and incorrectly.

Gold and treasure are a very straight forward incentive.  They reward characters for character actions.  This kind of non-crossover incentive works very well and is rarely changed.  Some GMs may be tempted to use treasure as a reward to players, but its a trap.  Giving the player influence the ability to influence treasure will only lead to players trying to get rewards out of game play that they haven't earned.

Character death is a cross-over disincentive for character actions that punishes both the character (who dies) and the player who loses her existing character that she has investment.  In addition, she now has to make a new character before reengaging in the game.  Some games offer an in-game cheat by the actions of their party to resurrect them.  This is primarily an action by the party characters to avoid player punishment, which is a mixed incentive that can lead to serious player conflict.  Death is often considered a required component of the game to guide character actions wisely.  The player punishment aspect, however, often leads some GMs into thinking that character death is an appropriate player punishment for player actions.  To avoid the crossover aspect of this disincentive and maintain its effectiveness as a character incentive, generally I make sure my players understand that character death will occur and that a backup character is required.  In addition, I often provide multiple options for resurrecting characters, some which do not require in-game party actions.  Though it is often emotional when a player loses a character to death, it is a part of the game, and is the ultimate in game disincentive for performing stupid character actions.

Experience points are a possible incentive often used in games.  Experience points are awarded for good things that happen in game and accumulate to allow the player to level up their character.  Experience points are a crossover incentive, in that they award a player for character actions.  This causes a conflict of interest between the player and the character.  The player may be pushed by a desire for XP to take the character into dangerous situations that they otherwise might avoid.  For this reason, I avoid XP and instead award levels by reaching story points.  This motivates the player to move the story along to gain character levels.

Hero points, which have a lot of different interpretations, are usually a player spent point to act as an in game cheat code.  These can be used to do cool things, get out of bad situations, or even obtain other in game favors (wealth).  Hero points can be awarded for character or player actions in game or player actions out of game.  I usually give these out to players for good player actions.  This can be bringing snacks, helping clean up, writing background, or even excellent roleplay.  In addition, these could be awarded by other players.  In any case, this incentive not only pushes the players without terribly disrupting the game balance, but also provides a cheat mechanic to dissuade players from cheating through other means.  Hero points are also an example of something that could be used as a non-party action to avoid character death.

Story-based incentives can be a reward to both players and characters, though sometimes the best character storylines put characters through the ringer.  Story-based incentive also make the game more entertaining and engaging by really pulling the character backgrounds into the spotlight of the story.  In general, storyline incentives should be balanced across characters to avoid a sense of favoritism within the group.

Mechanic-based incentives or disincentives are generally used for rewarding in-game actions and eliminating out-of-game distractions.  For example, a GM may reward incentive for good in-game roleplaying (D&D 5e).  A GM may engage in the action with an Intrusion to spice up a boring segment (Numenera).  A GM may skip a player who is absent from the table or who isn't paying attention.  All of these are effective, but should only be used to improve the game, not necessarily to punish players.  A player that is distracted can disrupt the game.  Avoiding this disruption improves the game.  As with most aspects of the game, establishing an up-front expectation for these types of elements is important for making them effective and fair.

The GM also has the responsibility, sometimes shared with the rest of the gaming group, to ensure that player and character actions do not impede the overall fun of the game.  This overriding principle also means that the group or GM may have to consider the disincentive of removing players from the group.  This disincentive often comes with a warning, usually from the GM, after a player engages in disruptive in-game or out-of-game actions.  The first line of defense in using this action is establishing clear expectations for in-game and out-of-game behavior.  A simple one to two page document to establish expectations is a good start, and should establish clear lines that should not be crossed, and the results to be expected if they are.  When a player does not heed an initial warning, it is often time to remove them from the group.  This disincentive should be used carefully.  Often GMs will mistake different thinking as disruptive game play and try to remove players because they have a different view of the game.  This can often be a trap, since new players with new ways of thinking can often bring a lot to the table to make the game interesting.  Before removing a player, make sure they are being removed for the right reasons.

It really is amazing the number of incentives and disincentives in the hands of the GM.  The best games happen when the GM establishes upfront how these will be used, and then uses them effectively.  In the end, the most important goal to incentify is Rule 0:  Everyone has fun.  Before you host your next game as a GM, take some time to think about how you use these types of things to make for a better game.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Multiple Aspects of Charisma

Charisma is a quality which allows the inspiration of devotion in other people.  In terms of game mechanics, charisma may drive the ability to influence others and may act as a source of power for magical abilities.  Charisma also influences how others may see us, such as through physical beauty or in terms of power of personality.  Because charisma has multiple aspects, role-playing a high or low charisma can take on a combination of options.  In this article, we're going to discuss those options and look at some examples.

There are several aspects of Charisma.  Physical beauty describe how the character looks.  Familiarity describes how well the character reflects the expectations of normalness.  Communication reflects how good a person is in portraying a positive light when speaking.  Stature describes the nonverbal communication that the character portrays through their body.    Combinations of these can result in a high, low, or average charisma.

Physical beauty is difficult to quantify.  It can be made up of combinations of facial structure, body structure, and even clothing.  However, physical beauty is one of the easiest to portray in game, by directly describing the character as beautiful.

Familiarity is context sensitive and will mean different things to different people.  A dwarf who is charismatic in his homeland may be homely in an elven village or to an orc chieftain.  Familiarity may also include dressing the same, using the same language, or even having the same ideas.  Those outside familiarity may be described as odd, weird, or creepy.

Communication is an ever important aspect of charisma.  Speaking well will bring others to your side.  Speaking poorly may upset or alienate people. 

Stature is a difficult power of Charisma to describe.  A model who knows just how to walk on the catwalk had good stature, as does the paladin who rides tall and straight on his mount into battle.  The small halfling who lays sprawled across a chair sideways or the old woman who carries her groceries hunched over are weak of stature.  Someone with good stature carries with them a force of presence that adds additional charismatic impact to anything he or she does.

For an example, I am going to use Crayla, my female elven archer.  Crayla has average charisma.  She has very good physical beauty, so much so that she may attract unwanted attentions.  However, she has very poor communication skills.  She is caustic and unsympathetic when she speaks, often putting people off.  She has slightly above average stature that she gains from her use of the longbow, but has slightly below average familiarity because of her elven background of living poorly on the edge of urban areas, rather than in elven villages.  When I roleplay Crayla I emphasize her stance as she draws her bow or prepares to do so.  When Crayla speaks she often comes across as gruff and says sometimes odd or upsetting things.  I often remind my GM of my character's beauty so he can have her beauty become a problem when appropriate.  When in higher society, I also make Crayla slightly awkward.

So that's our view of charisma in role-playing characters.  Take a little closer look at this next time you play and see what new aspects of Charisma toy can bring to your game.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Building a Dungeon is like Decorating a Christmas Tree

Happy Holidays to friends and readers!  Today I thought I would share a Christmas tree inspired method for building a dungeon.

When decorating a Christmas tree, one starts with a natural structure -- the tree.  The tree is grown (or made to resemble) a natural form.  Over top of the tree, we add lights as a structure to pull our view from the bottom to the top of the tree, highlighting all the character we will add in between.  Next we add garland to spread the lighting more diffusely and to add color.  Then we add ornaments that give us points of interest on the trees.  Some may be generically the same, while others are unique.  We add tinsel over the ornaments to increase the twinkle.  Finally the tree is topped with a special angel or star to finish the look.

In our dungeon, we also need to start with something natural.  What was this area originally?  Was it an underground mine?  Was it a prison?  Was it a series of smugglers caverns?  Whatever the original purpose of the area was, will give use the basic layout, size of rooms, and how they were originally used.  This is the tree part of our dungeon, that we would usually sketch out.

Like the lights on our tree, we need something for our dungeon to draw us into the dungeon, pull us through it, and help us cover the whole thing from edge to edge.  For this we need to build a bit of lore.  Why would anyone come to this dungeon now?  How would they enter or exit the dungeon?  What obstacles would cause the adventurers to search through the dungeon areas?  From this we start to add entrances, exits, obstacles, and some idea of a goal with perhaps subgoals for specific areas.

Garland is next as a way of diffusing the light throughout the tree.  By this, we mean to soften the edges of our previous step.  We ask other questions like who is using this dungeon now?  What are they using it for?  How would this have changed the original dungeon?  What would have been added, removed, or stolen?  How would time have changed things?  All of these details let us start to fill in interesting details that may either add to our original view of how the dungeon will be played or may further complicate how it might be played.  This step is often the most fun for players because it adds detail that isn't necessarily related to the main story arch.  This type of detail gives the dungeon a real feel because not everything defined is important.

Ornaments come next, and the ornaments of a dungeon are it's encounters.  Now we're breaking out our books of monsters, traps, treasures, and puzzles.  In some dungeons you may have repeated random encounters or encounters of the same type.  In others, the encounters may be all unique.  Keep in mind that encounters are a snapshot of the state of the dungeon that need to be connected to the dungeon's structure and story.  They should make sense.  The dungeon should have either symbiotic or predator-prey relationships between it's inhabitants.  These relationships can even be used to make more complex multi-faction encounters.

To add the final sense of realism to the dungeon, we add the tinsel, the little details for flavor.  The details should be things to make the dungeon memorable.  The should capture all of the senses.  Examples can be smells, textures, light levels, feel and temperature of the floor and walls, elevation changes, drafts and breezes.  Statues, books, furniture, and non-encounter creatures can also add to the full picture.

Finally, much like we top our tree with an angel or star, we need to top off our dungeon with a boss encounter.  The encounter ties back to the goals, structures, and other encounters to complete the picture.  The boss encounter should be a challenging fight and should reward the players with critical information, a critical plot piece, or some valuable treasure.

Tying all of these pieces and parts together, much like a Christmas tree, will bring a wonderful thing to life that will give your gaming group hours of joy.