Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Neo-classical Gaming Revisited

It’s been a while since I’ve discussed neo-classical gaming.  The basic idea is made up of two components:

  1. -        The core activity of playing games is making decisions, primarily about how you’re going to use your limited resources to achieve victory (however that’s defined).
  2. -       Thus, when you’re rolling dice, you’re not playing the game; you’ve paused the game while you wait for random chance to tell you what the new situation is going to be.

So while lots of RPG design theory says, “If your game is about exploration and danger, you should have an Exploration and Danger stat,” neo-classical gaming is more about building mechanics around exploration and danger so the players are making decisions that lead to exploration and danger.  (To see a good modern example of a neo-classical game built around exploration, check out Numenera.) 


What’s brought this to mind recently is discussion around WotC new upcoming book, Strixhaven.  The book is odd, to say the least.  Strixhaven is a wizard’s school, and the adventures revolve around the PCs being students.  There are no villains, but your characters might find an NPC classmate is a “frenemie.” 


It’s a far cry from crossing wits with Count Strahd or banishing kaiju-sized demon-princes back to the Abyss.  Even Hogwarts had its Voldemort.  Still, I think the idea is that you’ll drop Strixhaven into existing campaign worlds that already have their own epic villains.  The ad copy certainly implies that one suggested use of Strixhaven is as a level 1-to-10 prequel to a full-blown campaign. 


But what would a darker, more adventurous version of Strixhaven look like?  I ran a campaign using 2e D&D where all magic-users got their powers from pacts with demons and devils, and the school where these pacts were made was a recurring element.  Starting from that, what would a neo-classical game about such a place look like?


The classic tropes of the pact-with-a-devil genre, from Dr. Faustus to Elric of Melnibon√©, include the tug of temptation to give more and more to the devil and the dangers associated with that.  Slippery slopes and dangerous assumptions abound, as well as pitcher-plant style traps that are pleasing to fall into but difficult to escape from.  (Now that I think on it, these stories have a lot in common with the American gangster genre.)


So what springs to mind is something akin to Numenera’s mechanics, which use a death-spiral to push the characters to use their Cyphers.  But instead of Cyphers, the students of the Shadow University would instead be tempted by sweet-but-poisoned deals. 


Our stats are going to be the sort that define college students: Athleticism (to cover everything from physical combat to how much you can drink without passing out), Wits (native intelligence, book-learning, and cleverness), Intuition (seeing beyond the surface of things and ferreting out lies and half-truths), and Charisma (charm and deception).  There will also be a class-ranking number which measures both your academic standing versus your classmates and social position in campus culture. 


The bulk of the game would be opportunities to raise your Ranking or threats to it.  If it ever falls too low, you’ll likely end up being sacrificed by one of your classmates to a devil.

The Eyes of Satan are Upon You...


The stats are represented with a die; d6 is average, d8 is noteworthy while d12 is exceptional.  (We’re skipping the d10 here.)  There’s one lower, the d4, which represents an impaired stat.  When you try to use one of your stats to overcome a challenge, you roll you die and try to beat a target number:


2+ : a routine challenge; you’ll succeed unless luck, exhaustion, or some other outside influence trips you up.


4+ : an educational challenge; this one might stretch you a bit.  It’s akin to a pop-quiz in a class or a game versus an equally-skilled opponent.


6+ : a daunting challenge; for most, it’s possible to succeed, but only with a lot of hard work and maybe a little luck.  This is the final exam from that prof who brags about how many students fail his class every year. 


8+ : crushing!  Native talent is unlikely to be enough, and you’ll have to exert yourself to even have a chance at success.


10+ : harrowing!  Only the most gifted or foolish will tackle this challenge with out prep and support. 


The higher the challenge, the better the chance that success will move your Ranking. 


If you roll and fail, your character can exert themselves to put in extra effort.  This causes your stat to reduce to the next smaller die, but you get to add the max roll possible on that smaller die to what you rolled.  So if your character’s Athleticism is d6, and you roll a 5, your character can exert themselves, lowering their Athleticism to a d4, but also automatically adding +4 to the 5 for a final score of 9. 


If your stat is down to d4 already, your character is too spent in that area to exert themselves effectively. 


Replenishing your stats involves wallowing in vice.  Wrath might involve smashing something expensive or useful, Pride might require you to abuse a hireling or sacrifice a relationship, etc. 


And thus our death-spiral trap makes you exert your character’s stats to keep from falling in the Rankings, and then engage in self-destructive behavior to replenish those exerted stats. 


Or you can make a pact and sell your soul for power. 


And just to twist the knife, the longer you can go without making a deal, the better a deal you can make.  It’s push-your-luck all across the board.


Then we just sprinkle the calendar with all those school-fun events, from freshman initiation streaking to midterms to dances.  And all will be twisted to either challenge the PCs or give them chances to indulge their vices. 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

D&D 6e Predictions

Ok, it’s really too early to be talking about this.  Barring a precipitous drop in sales, 6e is probably still at least two years away.  At least.  And the cultural landscape around D&D will likely change between now and then. 


However, there’s been a lot of chatter about what people want to see in 6e over in the AV end of the D&D blog-o-sphere.  And of course I have thoughts.


However, these are not the things I want to see.  These are the things I expect to see.  Keeping in mind that “harebrained speculation” is not a synonym for “data,” let’s dive in to the nightmare-fueled world that is Trollsmyth’s predictions for 6e!


The Low-hanging Fruit

First, the easy stuff.  The word “race” is replaced with something like “ancestry”.  Frankly, I’d fall on the ground and nearly die from fits of laughter if they use “folk” instead.  But I wouldn’t be terribly surprised, either.


Alignment is seriously nerfed.  The nine-fold is gone.  It might just be reduced to the old Order-Neutrality-Chaos spectrum.  It might go completely, but I doubt it.


The GURPS-ification of D&D

There’s going to be a lot more build-your-own in 6e, along the lines of the race-building stuff in Tasha’s.  This may (and likely will) extend to classes, looking a bit like 4e’s trees of abilities stuff for both race and class. 


Remember, Mearls is out.  His mantra of simplification has probably gone with him.  The new crew will likely feel that 5e was too simple.  They’ll try to make the game more robust.  That means more than two pages on multiclassing and a LOT more options for character customization.  Don’t be surprised if the levels listed in the PHB go up to 36 or so now.


The Digital-ification of D&D

Mearls was replaced by Ray Winninger.  Winninger has a long and storied history in the gaming industry.  He’s best known to me for being the executive producer of Golem Arcana, a tabletop minis game that came with a digital app to manage the rules for you.


This might be how they counter charges of making the game more complicated.  Yes, it is, but now you have a digital app to help you manage your character.  The bare-bones will be free, but we will likely see the return of the subscription service to D&D here.  There probably won’t be a brand-new virtual tabletop, but there probably will be direct integration with Roll20, and possibly other virtual tabletops.


The Critical Role-ification of D&D

Of course, about the time it launches, the biggest live-play troupes will be paid to run at least some sessions, if not an entire campaign, with 6e.  And there will almost certainly be features included to make that sort of thing easier.  I’m expecting a full-on stunt system in 6e, akin Green Ronin’s AGE system, but probably a lot more flexible.  We’ll likely also see 5e’s action economy replaced with something more flexible, like Pathfinder 2e’s three generic actions.


I’m also expecting pets to be a fully integrated part of the game for nearly all classes.  Expect a full-court press on these things, with adorable plushies and Drizzt’s Guenhwyvar everywhere.  (Frankly, this more than anything will be what tempts me to play 6e.) 


The Return of the Splatbook Flood  

WotC’s model still revolves around selling books.  There will be strong pressure on WotC to create the sort of sales numbers 5e had with 6e.  The smart money says it won’t (much of 5e’s success can be laid at the feet of Mearl’s being willing to break with conventional wisdom as well as the surprise popularity of Critical Role).   


So I doubt the subscription service alone will reach those numbers. Whether WotC thinks it’s a bad idea or not, we will, sooner or later, see a flood of splatbooks for 6e.  This will lead to power-creep.  Smart money says 6e doesn’t last much longer than four years. 

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Using the Real World to Create Post-apocalyptic Maps


1. Pick a city with a cool downtown, museum district, or shopping mall.

2. Print out a Google Map of the area.  You don't need (or want) the whole town, just the place with the coolest buildings.

3. Decide who the local power factions are and how they've split up the buildings.  Who is where, what do they have, and what do they want?  Double-plus good if some of those wants are mutually exclusive and are causing a low level of conflict.  (See Bartertown from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome for inspiration.)

4. With colored pencils, draw in fortifications.  Maybe the whole area is inside a wall, or maybe the different factions hate each other so much that they have individual fortifications for each area.

5. Go to the web pages for the cool buildings and see if they have maps of the interiors.  (This is almost a certainty for museums and shopping malls, though you'll have to go to city records or just make it up for behind-the-scenes areas.)  Outline how these buildings have been repurposed by the current residents.

6. Draw out a shanty town and farms to supply your post-apocalyptic city-state around the fortified areas.  

7. Mark down important resources the players will want to take advantage of in town: shops, skilled artisans, inns and taverns, etc.

8. Go back to Google maps and find some other cool areas that you can turn into encounter sites/dungeons.  Find out what treasures and dangers are there.  Write up a list of rumors that folks in your city might know about these places, and who might pay your PCs to go there and do things.

9. Profit!

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Does it Feel Like the Walls are Closing in to You?

Over on the Book of Faces, someone asked about adding a sort of madness mechanic to an OSR game like B/X D&D that would give you the sorts of character attributes that you see in Darkest Dungeons, like becoming selfish, irrational, or hopeless.  And of course I thunked some thoughts on this.

I'd make it a resource like hit points.  Give bonuses to it based on Wisdom and maybe also Constitution.  Like hit points, you roll for them and what you roll is based on your class.  Spell-slingers like magic-users, clerics, and elves roll the lowest dice, and expert/rogues and halflings roll the highest dice.

I'd rename it Reason.  Taking damage, witnessing horific events (like things happening to your companions), etc. lowers it, just like attacks and traps lower your hit points.  If Reason reaches zero, you roll on a table of afflictions like those in Darkest Dungeons, but you'd absolutely use this part to flavor to your group's taste.  I'd make the list have the least affecting afflictions on the low end and the most impactful at the high end.  Then, every time you roll again on the table, you add another +1, or maybe you roll more dice, starting with a single d4 or d6, but adding another d4 every time you roll.  Once you'd acquired an affliction in a session (or possibly location), you couldn't acquire another one until next session (or after you'd left the location for more than a day).  

I'd give spell-slingers a bonus on the power of their spells based on how low their Reason is.  The lower the better for those who seek to warp reality with eldritch sorceries!

You could have a lot of fun with how Reason is replenished.  Rest, sure, but the quality of that rest should be taken into account.  Sleeping in the dungeon in your armour?  Maybe a point if that much.  Sleeping in a ditch?  Maybe 2 points.  But if you've got a nice cozy room at an inn and had a good hot meal, you get lots of points back.  Halflings might replenish just from eating.  

Maybe you can replenish reason by telling in-game jokes, listening to music, attending religious ceremonies dedicated to gods of goodness, or carousing.  Sex and intimacy might be healing along these lines.  Having a deep emotional bond with someone might have a protective effect, but if something happens to your special someone, it might hit you just as hard as it hits them.  There are all sorts of neat directions you can take this.  

Friday, June 04, 2021

Trash Witches

The Trash Witches dwell in the refuse pits beyond the city walls. They are immune to fires and poison, and can eat damn near anything; however, clean water and soap burns them. 

They know all the secrets of the city, but they trade only in objects that hold sentimental value; nothing else is of value to them. Those who mock or cheat a Trash Witch will constantly be losing items that are important to them.

In combat, they take half damage from any attack that doesn't involve something the attacker has loved or does love. Every time you attack a Trash Witch, there's a 5% chance you'll lose your weapon in the grand pile of objects Trash Witches wear on their backs like hermit crabs wear their shells.

Art by the incomparable Brian Froud.