Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Roll to see if you can play the lute?

This posts is a follow on from what I said earlier about language / music / art / acting skills - skills the character has learnt how to do, and can perform to a consistent standard. This was occasioned by a character wanting to learn the lute, and I saw no sense in calculating a bonus to performance rolls. I wrote:
Character performs some skill they have learnt how to do, and can perform to a consistent standard. For example, language skills. People are usually “basic” (know a few words, basic concepts but lots of misunderstandings and lots of blank looks), “intermediate” (with effort can generally make oneself understood, can understand someone who is cooperative, lots of halting and repeating), “conversational” (can have conversations with people) or “fluent” (conversations are flowing, but accent and odd usage clear), or finally “native” (indistinguishable from native speaker). It makes little sense in an RPG world for someone to have expertise in excess of that. I’ll take this as a model for a wide swathe of skills: languages, music, acting. In these you generally do not roll dice – your skill level determines what you can do – and I won’t bother with rules for dice rolls until an issue demanding one comes up in play. Hence attributes (aptitude) should contribute mostly not to improve your chances of performing a task, but instead to make learning quicker.

What I'm looking for is how to make "attributes make learning quicker" sit naturally alongside the more standard skills (e.g. melee skills) where they improve your dice roll. To get a good fit, it is important to understand what +1 attribute bonus gives you in the standard system. How much is a +1 bonus worth?

The standard skills in Explore work as follows:
The skill is resolved by rolling 2d10 (open), plus your skill rank, plus the relevant attribute.Attributes have a bonus of between +3 and -3.
The total cost for skills at rank 1,2,3,4 etc. is 1,2,4,8 etc. (i.e. the cost for new ranks is 1,1,2,4 etc.).
10XP gives you 1 skill point to spend.

Note that in this dice system for every +3 the chance of failure is halved.

Initially it would seem that since +1 attribute is the same as +1 rank, and +1 rank costs twice as much, so +1 attribute should halve the cost.
However in combat several skills combine to improve your performance, by doubling the number of skill points spent you can afford to increase every skill by one level, which means you get a total of +3 distributed around the various rolls in combats (e.g. +1 to hit, +1 to parry) which in play combine to be as effective as if you got +3 on any individual one. From this perspective it would seem that +3 attribute should halve the cost.

Hence... we split the difference and say that +2 on an attribute will halve the cost.

So now the solution for these skills is a cost multiplier, which halves every +2:

Attribute Bonus
Cost Multiplier

The cost multiplier is made easy to apply in practice by grouping the skills under the appropriate attribute (memory or intuition) with the appropriate multiplier marked in for the whole section. You sum up the cost under each section and then apply the multiplier.

Note that standard skills already have a cost multiplier of 10, this is just a rephrasing of "10XP gives you 1 skill point to spend".

For an example of calculating costs, consider someone with -1 AG, +1 IN with skills Melee (AG) 3, Parry (REF) 2, Athletics (ST) 1, Lute (IN) 5 . Agility -1 gives them -1 on Melee, whereas Intuition +1 reduces the cost multiplier for artistic skills from 6 to 4. They've spent 4+2+1 = 7 points on standard skills, 16 points on artistic (?) ones, with cost multipliers of 10 and 4, for a total of 7*10 + 16*4 = 134 XP.

I have made these skills cheaper than the standard ones because most skills are very broad – athletics, acrobatics etc – whereas these skills are narrow. They are specific languages or specific musical instruments. Hence the cost *should* be lower.

In these skills there is a max level of 5 (as per the introductory quote above), so if you have +3 in the relevant ability you can be maxed out for 80XP - so you could have this when you start if you wished (as you start with 100XP). At the other end of the cost scale, maxing out in a spell list (10th level) is 10240XP, which is the cost of 128 different languages!

Importantly, this whole aspect can be freely ignored until the point where you have a player who wants to learn the lute!

Monday, 19 October 2015

To roll, or not to roll, that is the question: Part 3

Continued from Part 2.

An analysis of why I might be wanting to roll some dice...

11. Random effects
If you want a random side-effect for drinking a potion, using a wand, or perhaps spell-failure, then have fun creating a random table!

12. World Events
Anything from weather to an infestation of rats. Anything goes! Again, most systems are based on tables.

13. World Creation
Anything goes - random tables for populating rooms, geomorphs for dungeon layout, random characteristics for a demon. Use other people’s stuff for inspiration, and (this is important here) don't feel compelled to obey the dice here, this is only for inspiration.

14. Mass Battles
Two armies are battling, possibly the characters are involved, maybe one of the armies is controlled by the characters. Your players are typically roleplayers, not wargamers, so you want a lightweight system to resolve the battle. Importantly the resolution of the battle should be with rules compatible with the rules for your normal combats. Delta's Book of War is a good example for D&D.

15. Quick Resolution
For example, resolve a combat with only a few rolls, or a battle. Most widely useful for determining events that affect the players but the players aren't directly involved, such as a combat between two other parties without having to play out the whole scene. I should work on a system for this as the other day my players observed a battle between a Giant Spider and a bunch of Lizardmen which I didn't play out but just ruled that the spider won, but it was afterwards argued the Lizardmen would clearly have won if the battle had been played out, and I think they were right.

16. Character Creation
Traditionally character creation had random attributes, some systems added a larger random element (e.g. the entire character creation mini game for Traveller), and some drifted towards removing it entirely. The advantage of a random system is it avoids "cookie-cutter" characters. The possible disadvantages are that it *can* massively restrict your choices, and it *can* make very uneven parties of characters where one clearly outshines the others or falls behind the others. I tried to steer a path between the two extremes - a little randomness to add variety.

So in summary...
There are a *lot* more situations where you might want to roll dice than I thought initially; I wonder whether proponents of diceless systems eschew dice in *all* these situations. I had thought of restricting my attention to resolving tests of character skill, but I realised with listening at doors that I'd been lumping it in with character skill and I wanted to avoid any other miscategorising.

The outcome of this for me for Explore is:
- I've split skills into different categories depending upon how swingy I want the results to be. For example language skills have no roll associated with them, they just state how well you can speak that language.
- You don't roll for listening at doors, you roll to see what the monster's doing.
- Perception rolls have been relegated to a lesser role.
- Surprise is mostly determined by situation, not be a dice roll.

In particular, I'm surprised to conclude that for me systems *shouldn't* have a universal resolution mechanic, and that "let it roll" or "only roll when it's important" don't address the core issues.

If you're looking for random inspiration, how about The Dungeon Dozen, The Dungeon Alphabet, or the geomorphs at Dyson's Dodecahedron.

In future I'll give a resolution mechanic for skills like climbing, and a skill points system where attributes make it easier to learn rather than giving a bonus on rolls (e.g. for languages).

A Special Forces Zebra parachuting in behind the lines.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

To roll, or not to roll, that is the question: Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

An analysis of why I might be wanting to roll some dice...

6. Character is seeing how their body performs, without any external interference whatsoever.
Yes, #120 is me!
The canonical example is running – as a runner I know that all races are really against yourself, it is how you perform on the day. I also know that the variation between my time on a good day and on a bad day is very small in comparison to the overall time. A 5% slowdown is awful, and 10% would be an abysmal performance. There might be more variation in the distances and heights you can jump, but it is a similar situation, as is the amount of weight you can lift. These are all skills where your ability should be “you can run *this* fast, you can jump *this* far and *this* high, and lift *this* much”. For these skills as the Referee you should choose realistic values for obstacles in the game world, whilst incorporating an element of chance. For example you might note that to roll the boulder takes 100+d% lbs force (depending upon how smooth it is). When a character decides to push it, you roll and find it’s 183lbs, you can then see if the character can move it or not. By rolling for it when the situation arises, and not beforehand, you've introduced tension and uncertainty. Until the player decides to roll it, you don’t know any more than the players whether it’s possible. The cat remains both alive and dead until the box is opened.

7. Perception
Rolling dice should play a minor role for perception. Players should be able to find out most information by role-playing the interaction with their environment. You tell people the important things they notice, with enough information that they know what to ask about. For example, you might give them a brief description of the contents of a room, which contains several pieces of furniture including a bedside table; that's probably enough unless there's something that would stand out, like an Orc stood on the table! It is then up to them to ask about the table, in reply you say it’s got a vase on it, they ask about the vase and you say it's got runes on it. Don't bother overloading the players with too much info, let them discover it for themselves. This enables the investigation to be player lead, and less of a one-way Referee info dump on the players.

If they are about to leave the room you might mention there was a vase on the table (as in, you nearly missed that), but you wouldn't say that there was a liquid in the vase unless someone said they looked. As a shortcut they might simply say they search the room, which obviously would include looking at the vase and I'd ask who's examining the vase and tell them what they see.
If they have made efforts to search, and at the end there is something they missed, I’ll give them a perception roll to notice something. For example, a crack in the plaster, or a slight breeze from the west wall, or that they haven’t looked behind the tapestry. That is, I'll give them a clue to the presence of the secret door, not just tell them there is one. Since this is a pure-luck second chance for them to get information which they could have elicited themselves, I’ll make this perception check a saving throw against intuition.

This is where my pre-rolled cards for saving throws comes in handy  - draw a card for every room and they never know which times it was important, whether it was perception or a spell save or a save versus poison, all without adding any overhead to the game for those dummy checks.

In a dungeon crawl we assume that a party moving around the dungeon would be constantly vigilant; they would glance round corners before proceeding carefully. However, they are unlikely to be actively searching for secret doors, hence the perception roll also applies here - you would give them a saving throw to spot signs as they pass. Spotting a sign just when walking past should be harder, so I'd give +3 on any roll that's as a result of an actual search.

8. Surprise
More skeletons. I don't think Sam liked them as he pulled them apart when they died...
Surprise - we’re back to combat again!
Traditionally every encounter started with a roll for surprise, but this is a bit random (pun intended). You should only get a surprise round if you make an ambush. To make an ambush you must launch an attack before your opponents know you are there. For example, if you enter a room unannounced you should be able to surprise the inhabitants, but if they know you're there then instead they should get the advantage and win initiative. So the question becomes, how might you spot an ambush before it occurs, which sometimes might be a perception roll (to spot someone hiding behind that pillar).  It's often a bit arbitrary, so for the “bursting into a room unannounced” scenario I add some uncertainty by the players rolling a d6 to see how well they do, and if anyone can beat that roll then they simply lose initiative rather than getting no attack.

9. Character performs some skill they have learnt how to do, and can perform to a consistent standard.
I never said a high standard.
For example, language skills. People are usually “basic” (know a few words, basic concepts but lots of misunderstandings and lots of blank looks), “intermediate” (with effort can generally make oneself understood, can understand someone who is cooperative, lots of halting and repeating), “conversational” (can have conversations with people) or “fluent” (conversations are flowing, but accent and odd usage clear), or finally “native” (indistinguishable from native speaker). It makes little sense in an RPG world for someone to have expertise in excess of that. I’ll take this as a model for a wide swathe of skills: languages, music, acting. In these you generally do not roll dice – your skill level determines what you can do – and I won’t bother with rules for dice rolls until an issue demanding one comes up in play. Hence attributes (aptitude) should contribute mostly not to improve your chances of performing a task, but instead to make learning quicker. I’ll cover the solution for Explore in a separate post.

10. Games of chance
If there are dice being rolled or cards being drawn in the game, then play it out for real. If it’s supposed to be character not player skill, or an evening of gambling is incidental then the resolution method depends upon the skill versus luck nature of the game in question.

Conclusion in Part 3...

Thursday, 15 October 2015

To roll, or not to roll, that is the question

Spurred on by a recent thread on the subject I've been trying to decide how dice should be used in a couple of situations and to resolve this I decided to take a step back and consider all the situations where dice might be used, what I'm trying to achieve, and thus to decide what sort of dice rolls are appropriate. Putting this down has helped clarify things in my mind, and in the process my thoughts on this have evolved – any observations or disagreements are welcome.

1. Dynamic physical contests between opposing parties (hitting things!)
The skeleton archers were hiding behind the pillars...
This is the primary situation where dice are used. It provides tension & uncertainty but at the same time impartiality. What are the characteristics we require for the dice? Now combatants should never become completely flawless; it may become more and more tricky for someone to hit you with a sword, but it should never become impossible. Similarly, hitting progressively smaller and smaller targets with an arrow eventually becomes a purely random affair, but the chance of hitting the target never goes to zero. Hence although one party in a combat may be hopelessly outclassed, they should always have a chance of hitting (however small). In Explore I chose the open2d10 system, a wide open-ended bell curve with an exponential drop-off, so you can always succeed, but the chance falls away exponentially.

2. A disaster has befallen the character - do they survive by pure luck?
Here I'm lumping in the consequences of being hit with saving throws, I think both are similar situations. There may be mitigating factors, such as a strong constitution helps you survive a poisoning. The system used in Explore when you've hit someone is the same as that used to see if you hit, which is a wide open ended bell curve (to ensure that no-one is invulnerable). It seems reasonable to apply this same mechanism to *all* saving throws.

In the case of an attack, the attacker makes the roll, but for a save versus poison it is the subject of the poison who makes the roll. If rolling high is always good, then with a minimum roll of 2 we have to decide if 2 is always failure or not. For poisons is seems more plausible that you could be immune to an attack (this giant is immune to that poison), so I’ll not have 2 as an auto-failure. The bonus for a saving throw is a stat (e.g. CON) plus level. It seems fair to make saves versus spells to be the same system, i.e. the defender makes the roll.

3. Who strikes first? (Initiative)
I use initiative purely to mix things up a bit, and speed is of the essence in resolving combats, hence when resolving combat I split it into separate groups, resolve them one at a time, and use the quick and simple d6 for each combatant with no bonuses. See

4. Determining the behaviour of NPCs and monsters
Moving away from combat, the next situation where dice are appropriate is to make the game feel like a living breathing world. Here are several common situations, which are variations on a theme, all requiring ad-hoc solutions.
A. Wandering Monsters.
"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"
A dungeon or any other adventuring locale should feel like it has an existence separate from the characters. The inhabitants have lives of their own, and often move about. These movements are often time-critical and should be independent of the actions of the characters – the guard shouldn’t step out of the room the moment the players walk past the door purely because that’s what’s written down (though he may well do so in response to noise the characters are making). Since the behaviour in question is unpredictable, dice are a simple solution for determining this behaviour.
B. Listening at doors.
We’re not rolling to see if the character hears something, we’re rolling to see if there’s a noise to hear. If there’s a Giant’s banquet on the other side of the door, I think they’ll hear it just walking past! If it’s a guardroom, the guards may all be sat around looking bored, or in the middle of an argument. It’s more interesting for the Referee if he doesn’t know in advance how a situation will play out, it’s better if he knows they *may* be playing a game or they may not be. That’s what the roll’s for. If more than one player listens at the door, this doesn’t alter the outcome. What might matter is how attentive the character is at listening, and how much they can discern the difference between the noise behind *this* door compared to the row coming from the door opposite. In this case it would probably be sufficient to infer from the roll what perception check would be needed.
C. NPC and Monster Decisions (e.g. morale).Does the monster turn and flee? In many cases this should be obvious from the situation, but often it’s an arbitrary decision. The ref feels that it might flee- so he says “you’ve just killed their leader, on a roll of 1-3 they run away” and rolls the dice. Similarly, lots of times it might be clear which of their attackers a Monster or NPC targets “they attack you, because you wounded them” or “they attack the Elf as they hate Elves”, but if it’s an arbitrary decision, just roll. Dice here help the Referee make impartial decisions, especially when the Referee knows things the monster doesn’t.
D. NPC Knowledge.When they speak to the inn keeper, does he know anything useful? Anything specific about X? Anything rumoured to be going down? Some referees know beforehand what each person knows, some use a random result from a list of rumours.
5. Character attempting a complex multi-step task to solve a static multi-faceted problem.
After I took this photo, my Dad asked me if I thought I could climb it!
Examples of this are the character attempts to track something, climb something, or to pick a lock. You cannot role play through the resolution of this – sometimes the character will succeed, sometimes fail, depending upon the specific details of the task and the character’s strengths and weaknesses. If the task is simple compared to the character’s ability you would expect them to always succeed. Conversely, if the task is far beyond the character’s ability you would expect it to be impossible for them to succeed.

These two factors give some meaning, some sense of progress, to a character’s abilities; just like the warrior can now slay an Ogre, and the wizard can now cast that cool spell, there should be a feeling that you can now track the wolf when you previously couldn't. You want it not to be too narrow a gap between auto-success tasks and auto-fail tasks – if it is always “no roll” then everything is in effect predetermined by the referee. On the other hand, the random element should not be so large that novices regularly outperform experts. The random element here needs to be a reasonably narrow bell curve, and not open ended, so not the same resolution method used in combat. I’ll talk about the solution for Explore in an upcoming post.

Continued in Part 2.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Zebras & Ziggurats


Zebras & Ziggurats (Z&Z) is a new Fantasy Role Playing Game where you take on the role of a Long Necked Stripey Zebra in their attempt to explore strange pyramids and battle fearsome monsters, all the while attempting to be as Stripey as possible.
Zuggy, a fierce Zebra warrior wielding a light sabre.
Character Creation
Character creation is quite quick.
1. Select a Race. In the basic game the only player race is the Long Necked Stripey Zebra.
2. Choose Sex. It makes no difference to anything, but our female Zebra often wears a flower in her fur whilst she is battling monsters.
Zebbe feels that the flower enhances her Stripeyness.
3. Choose a Name. The only rule is it must start with a Z.
4. Roll your Stats. There is only one stat - Stripeyness. Roll 7d6, and add the total. Each dice can be rerolled any number of times until you like the number.
5. Choose skills to learn: There is Zonk (melee and hand-to-hand) Zap (skill with a gun), Zing (athletics/acrobatics etc). You get to be level 1 in one, level 2 in a second, and level 3 in the third, giving you +10%, +20% and +30%.
Zak chose to be level 3 in Zap.
6. You can choose any secondary skill you like, to add some depth to you character.
Ziggy plays guitar.
Task Resolution
All tasks (including combat) are resolved the same way. You roll d% and add your stripeyness, and need to beat 100. However, before you can do so you have to check how stripey your Zebra is feeling. You must roll under their stripeyness with a d%, else they are too busy being stripey, and do nothing. This is very important, and is core to the game. Typical Zebra behaviour when they are too busy being stripey is to start doing a funny dance, start counting their stripes, admiring themselves in a mirror, take a quick nap, or ask someone for a hug.

I would detail the game further, but so far all the Zebras have been too busy being stripey for us to achieve anything.

An aged Zebra passes on ancient knowledge to the young of the tribe.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Playtest Results - Secret Dice Rolls

Last Friday and Saturday we tried out my secret dice rolls idea, which worked very well. Leland made some comments on the original post, so I thought I'd address how it worked out in practice.

Each time I wanted a roll for all the players (or pretended I wanted one) I asked someone to draw a card and then compared it with my bonuses master card:

What I found is that every time I asked for a fake roll, there was zero overhead, so I asked for one far more often. About two-thirds of the rolls were fake. Hence we had 20 cards, and during a session we went through about 12 of them, but only 4 of them were actually used - the other 8 went back in the pack at the end of the session. At the start of the second session, I rubbed out the used cards, and we re-rolled them. This mix of "old and new" helped avoid Leland's concern:

"if you only have a few cards a player might know that (s)he's got a lot of high (or low) rolls coming up today."

He's right that you need a reasonable number of cards for the system to work well (else you know what's coming up) but you only have a real upfront cost the first session you use it. Leland also had an interesting suggestion:

"you could probably speed up that initial cost by just having players fill out entire cards instead of having to pass them all around."

My players took it in turns to fill out the whole pile and then pass it on, not passing it on one at a time, but this would still be quicker. The trade off between speed and knowing that players "physically rolled the dice that affect their character's fate..." is one that you'd find out in more prolonged play.

What was an issue was I was trying out a "best two out of three" mechanic at the same time, which meant three rolls per PC per card. This meant a lot of rolls, so I'm abandoning that particular idea for this situation!

The second issue was that it brought up the question of what we were rolling for. Since I had removed any overhead, the question of when is it "one roll for the party" versus "one roll for each PC" became very prominent. That's an issue I'm still mulling over.

Friday, 2 October 2015

A Method For Secret Dice Rolls

I’ve been busy for the last two weeks considering first how best to improve skill checks, and secondly how to handle secret dice rolls. Finally I have solutions for both of these, and I’ll lead with secret dice rolls.

Now it is mostly better to resolve issues with roleplaying, that is the players play the role of the character – the referee describes the environment and they describe how they interact with it. However in many cases it is still appropriate for a random roll to resolve a situation, and a random roll where the players do not know if the roll was good or not.

If the players roll themselves then they know whether they have rolled well or not, and this is metagame knowledge. If I roll for them then they’re removed from the action. I used to hold out a box for players to roll into so they couldn’t see what they had rolled, but if you’re asking everyone to roll then this takes too long. You could roll once for the group, but I can’t work out a simple system that copes with very different abilities that gives sensible results. I also don’t like rolling and then saving that result until a check is needed – the ref has to decide when a roll is needed, but in this case the ref knows the result beforehand.

My new system (to be play tested in tonight’s session) is as follows:

I cut a number of index cards in half, put the PC initials down the LHS of each one, and ask people before the session starts to roll for their PCs and fill in results on all the cards. I create a single master card with everyone’s relevant bonuses on (perception and saves). I then shuffle the cards. At the point a roll is needed, I fan out the pack and a player chooses a card at random. I match it up to the master card so I can quickly see what the totals are. I cross out any used results and discard the card. Whenever the pile is getting low, we reroll the crossed out results and add them back into the deck.

In particular:
- I can ask for dummy rolls without it taking any time at the table. And since they’re not used they’re not crossed out, so they don’t need rerolling. Hence zero overhead.
- I will be able to get all the players to roll without letting on I actually just need the results for one of them. And since only one result would be crossed out, only one result needs rerolling.
- I’m going to use perception as a substitute for rolling for surprise. Draw a card – too bad – critical failure – a skeleton archer hiding behind that pillar shoots you with +3 for a surprise attack…

I'll let you know how it goes...