Thursday 20 December 2012

On Ability Scores (2)

More stuff that everyone and their dog has written about before:

In the last post I said that most NPCs in D&D should not have ability scores. By this, I don't mean that we shouldn't bother writing them down, I mean that they should not have them at all. Ability scores in D&D are not the same as characteristics in RuneQuest (RQ). In RQ, every living thing is statted out just like a PC because in RQ characteristics are a measure of something ‘real’. A Dragon’s STR can be compared directly to that of a PC. In D&D monsters do not have ability scores. If a monster needs only a bare stat line, so does an NPC, though they might have rich, complex histories and personalities.

In most versions of D&D, education does not raise INT, weight training does not raise STR, an improved diet does not raise CON. One of the weaknesses of thinking about D&D ability scores as a measure of something ‘real’ in the game world is that if, for example, we rationalising low CON as being the result of a PC’s obesity, a PCs CON score should be pretty mutable, changing with diet and exercise. If we treat D&D ability scores as representations of a Platonic ideal of the PC, the CON score will remain the same for the entire life of the PC. We might change the PC’s ability score modifiers though...

Wednesday 19 December 2012

On Abillity Scores (1)

On the forums at Dragonsfoot I argued that a D&D character with an ability score of 3 was simply at the low end of ‘normal’. The corollary of this is that scores of 18 do not represent superhuman capabilities. Others took a much more stretched view of the 3d6 ability score curve, arguing, for example, that INT 3 represented an intellectual disability and INT 18 genius.

Scores of 3 and 18 turn up on 1 in every 216 rolls of 3d6. If everyone rolls 3d6 in order, that’s at least one genius in every village (and one villager that is superhumanly wise, superhumanly dextrous, etc.). So INT 18 is not the equivalent to Einstein, but to the guy with the [capacity to get a] first class degree in Physics.

But perhaps everyone in the village is not rolling 3d6 in order, and so 18s are not as common as 1 in 216 in the general population. In fact, I agree. We roll 3d6 to determine the ability scores of adventurers. In fact, I do not think most NPCs in D&D [should] have ability scores. If 3d6 is the way that we generate the ability scores of adventurers, an ability score of 3 is the ability score of a viable adventurer. An adventurer with a negative modifier when resolving actions related to that ability, but an adventurer all the same. But whatever a score of 3 represents, it does not represent a disability – ability score generation is not a roll on a critical hit chart; not even Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is that cruel and grim.     

Thursday 13 December 2012

Impressions: Tower of the Stargazer

Earlier this year I ran Tower of the Stargazer for a small group. Two of the group hadn’t played a role playing game before. I wanted something self-contained, short enough to run in a single, short session, ideally a good introductory adventure that was neither a railroad nor a hack-n-slash combat fest. I also wanted it quick. Tower of the Stargazer seemed well reviewed, and at just a couple of Euros for the .pdf, it was a relatively risk-free buy.

The adventure is a location (i.e. not a plot) and can be explored in a non-linear manner. In the case of this group, that mostly involved opening a door and saying ‘No. We don’t like the look of this. Not one bit. We’ll try somewhere else. We shut the door. Quickly’. But this was not bland, mechanical caution, a worry that their PCs would be overmatched by the Ogre hiding behind the curtain, but a growing sense of unease derived from the PCs interactions with the environment, even things that were absolutely harmless. Of course, this is an adventure by Jim Raggi, so there were lots of hazards even though there are few ‘monsters’. Given this, the Tower of the Stargazer encourages caution before the PCs even reach the door of the tower – if the PCs die, it isn’t likely to be a run of bad dice, or a monster that wasn’t ‘balanced’ against the PCs, but because the players made certain decisions as to what their PCs would do, making it an ideal tutorial for old school play.

All this reminded me of one of the better Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. There were few fights – the majority of the adventure is an exercise in player choice and, god forbid, player skill. There is lots of strange stuff for the players to have their PCs mess with, sometimes with catastrophic results. If the players do mess with the Stargazer’s stuff, they will find themselves ‘Testing Their Luck’ via a few ‘Save or X’ throws.

There is even the requirement for the GM to hold his finger in a page as his players decide to do something terribly stupid before the adventure has properly begun. Player choice driven TPK. ‘nuff said.

The adventure ran very well. The players enjoyed it, once we decided that we couldn’t let the session end quite that abruptly*. The one thing my players did not enjoy was the puzzle that protected the Stargazer’s treasure horde. My players could not crack it, and it seems that neither could Raggi’s playtest groups. If I do run the adventure again, I might well change that puzzle.

All in all, I really enjoyed Tower of the Stargazer. It is suitably strange, pretty lethal – though not necessarily so, as the lethality is so strongly tied to player choice – and could be a great beginning to a campaign, providing both a Big Bad and a number of ‘treasures’ that are bound to get the PCs into trouble with somebody or something.

*If this were a game in a proper campaign, you can be sure that there would be no ‘backsies’ – it is the persistence of the consequences of player choice that differentiates a tabletop roleplaying game from a CRPG

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Who Rolls The Dice?

There have been a few posts about the place recently [here are two: Tenkar's Tavern and Raven Crowking's Nest] that have discussed dice rolling and the temptation to 'fudge'. 

Tenkar writes: "By fudging the rolls, you are moving from RPG to Storytelling. [...] That to me is the issue - are you playing a game or a looking for a storytelling experience?" And I pretty much agree with this. As a GM, I have less fun - in retrospect at least - when I have succumbed to the temptation to fudge the dice and ensure that a particular outcome was arrived at. Even if the players do not know it, I have diminished the 'game' when I 'fudge'. 

To help me resist the temptation to 'fudge', like many I roll my GM dice in the open. Where possible, I tell the players what I am rolling for and what the different results will mean - so long as to do so would not reveal a 'secret'. But lately, I've been thinking of surrendering the dice. No, I'm not taking up a diceless system. But when a player can be given the full details of the roll without revealing any secrets, why not let the players do all the rolling? Let the players roll the dice for the monsters that are attacking their PCs, for instance. 

There are still a few people with a sense of humour in the Imperium

Why? On the most basic level, because people like rolling dice. More, it will defeat much of the remaining temptation to 'fudge'. And last, and most, it will diminish any sense that the GM-player relationship is adversarial - that I, as the GM, am rolling against them. My dice are rolled to administer the world. The players' hands and dice are responsible for adjudicating the outcomes of [almost] all the risks facing their characters.

Well, we will see next time we play. 

Saturday 1 December 2012

Jolly Pirates We!

So, back to ‘YOUR Adventure Ends Here’, my project to play each of the Fighting Fantasy books in order, by the rules and rolls, no fingers in pages, no backsies, nothing. Seas of Blood is in dock.

Seas of Blood was one of my favourites, back in the day. And it still is, kind of. Unlike some ‘quest’ orientated gamebooks, in which a map actually merely an illustration of the route upon which your character was taken by the writer/GM, in Seas of Blood there is the illusion (at least) that the map is a sandbox of choices. There YOU are, in the pirate port of Tak, dicing away the evening with rival Abdul the Butcher, when some drunk idiot comes up with the idea of fifty days of robbery to prove which of you is the greatest pirate of the Inland Sea.

The opening paragraph tells you some bare details about Lagash, the seas around Enraki, and the caravans of the Scythera Desert, and then asks; where do YOU want to go?

I choose to send my ship, the Banshee, to ‘the Scythera Desert to plunder the rich western caravans’. After camping out for several days in the burning sun, my crew are eventually able to ambush a caravan of LIZARD MEN. The cost in blood was not really worth the treasure; 60 gold pieces and one Lizard Man slave. Nevertheless, the idea that the ‘rich western caravans’ might include (traditionally) evil humanoids is, to my mind, one of the great things about Titan as a fantasy gaming world.

And then the Banshee is sunk. Sailing south, I fail as a captain and neglect several opportunities to flee! from a KISHIAN WARSHIP. We had her outmanned, I swear; a whole point of Crew Strike and three points of Crew Strength. The battle, and her booty, was mine, I gambled. But the dice fell against the odds, my crew fell, and I slipped beneath the waves. Glug. Glug.

Not much of an adventure, but enough to remind me of the illusion of an open world that I have always liked about Seas of Blood. Okay, so it is not as open as Fabled Lands, but in the context of the early(ish) Fighting Fantasy books, Seas of Blood suggested the freedom (as well as the adventure and aesthetics) of fantasy roleplaying games.

BONUS: Free RPG with a potential for piracy: Worlds Apart, a Traveller ‘powered’ fantasy seafaring game.