Friday, July 21, 2017

Game Mechanics: Dice, Doors, and Decimal Points

So I have a skill system hack I am working on and I want to share it with you.

Start with Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the rules set I am using for my Megadungeon Madness game. It's basically B/X but with some tweaks (ascending values of armor class, a silver piece standard, and no codified bestiary, for starters).  One of the nice things about it is that skills are based on d6 rolls. Virtually everything is a 1-in-6 chance, and specialists (read: thieves, but a less pigeonholed concept) get to invest points into expanding these skills. E.g., put two points in Sleight of Hand and your chance to execute such a task goes from 1-in-6 to 3-in-6.

I am hacking that d6 system a bit. Mostly because I love dice pools, but there is also a logic behind it.

First off, rather than expanding the range of success, I expand the number of dice you roll, while keeping 6 the target number. Note that statistically this is more difficult. For example, it is harder to roll three dice and get a 6 than to get a 4, 5, or 6 on a single die (the 3-in-6 case):

(A) Dice pool: 3-dice probablility = 1-(5/6)^3 = 42.13%
(B) One-die probability = (3/6) = 50%

A solution to the increased difficulty is that the GM should be more generous with the bonus dice. We already add dice based on invested Specialist skill points, but let's also add Ability Score bonuses. A +1 to Strength is easily added to your pool if you want to Open Doors, for example. Have a crowbar? Add another die. And so on. This borrows heavily (if it isn't identical) from the "negotiated skill system" that I heard used on the Dwimmermars game of +Adam Muszkiewicz (of such notable endeavors as Drink Spin Run, Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad, and whose name I can apparently spell without having to Google it now).

Another nice feature is that the bonuses can easily go to six or higher. Whereas a 6-in-6 chance of the basic one-die system is a guaranteed success, a pool of 6 dice is only going to yield a 6 at a rate of 66.51%. So don't be afraid to be liberal with your bonuses.

The problem that we have already come across thus far in my Megadungon game is that opening doors is still fairly likely to result in failure. Even with crowbars, people helping, and strength bonuses, you are pretty likely to not open the door.

This is where I got the idea to go straight into story game territory and offer the players a narrative choice. In the first option, the players could choose to let the door be. The door is swollen shut, just like St. Gary said it probably would be. The other option is to note your margin of failure. (E.g., was your highest result a 4? Then your margin of failure is 6-4 = 2.)  I'll let your character(s) persist at opening the door until they succeed, but I get to roll the margin of failure in Wandering Monster checks. (A dice pool of 2 in this example.) Again, each of these is a simple 1-in-6 chance.  The logical basis is that the worse your initial check result, the more noisy your success is going to be and the more likely you are to attract attention to yourself.

I think this is a pretty elegant mechanic for doors if you're going to go Full Dungeon Crawl. I'd like to think that my game ups the tension by emphasizing slow, careful mapping, and keeping track of resources, etc. Wandering monsters (or more accurately, random encounters) are another high-stakes element, and it's nice to put the devil's bargain in the players' court.  The alternative would be to have the players reroll the check while I check for the random encounter with each failure. This has the potential to be tediously drawn out, especially if the player has a small dice pool.

I've already used this mechanical tweak in one full game session, and the resulting random encounter was deadly. But more importantly, the decision of whether to push forward at the door had a lot of gravitas behind it. In all, it's an idea I'm quite proud of, given that I'm only starting to break out of the habit of sticking to rules as written. I'd probably have broken out of that habit ages ago, but it really requires sitting down to run some real games.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Start of the Megadungeons Campaign

Believe it or not, I have finally gotten around once again to running an online game. My last effort was a few years ago, and was a Traveller campaign that crashed and burned after about two or three sessions. That was just on the cusp of my diving headfirst into Old School territory. I haven't been completely out of practice, becoming a somewhat decent Judge for the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, although I have run games almost exclusively at conventions. A campaign is another thing entirely.

I got the itch to run a campaign after generating a fair amount of local interest in a regular game after demonstrating DCC at Free RPG Day. However, the two main people who showed an interest had different nights of the week that they'd prefer, and I have a job that involves a random travel schedule. So I could see the campaign falling apart in my mind's eye before it even took shape.

I started to wallow in a sense of futility the way one does. After all, even all the DCC modules I have is but a small fraction of the RPG literature that adorns my shelves. I have all these books and no means to use them without a regular game going on. I could probably make a sizeable list of megadungeons alone, each one allegedly crafted to be a campaign in and of itself. It started looking highly likely that each would never see the light of day. (Which is an ironic statement since they're dungeons after all.)

That's when the idea for Megadungeon Monday hit me. I'd recently hammered it into my head that, in Megadungeon campaigns, camping overnight in the dungeon should be highly discouraged. A death sentence, even. So, if characters end up back at the same overworld location, what's to say that they have to go back to the same dungeon the next time?

It wasn't long before I came up with what I thought was a cool idea: the characters are actually trapped in Purgatory, eternally waiting for judgement. Some souls have been trapped so long that they have organized themselves into an organization that seeks escape. They are exploring a number of megadungeons simultaneously in an effort to find a way out. And of course, the player characters are enlisted to assist in that effort. All they need is a portal that will take them to a random dungeon, and we have a nice little campaign that not only utilizes all the megadungeons I have on my shelf, but also ties them together in a loose fiction.

Because the dungeon crawl is more about resource management and mapping, I am stealing Dwimmermount's premise that maps of rooms are worth money. The PCs' employers reward them cash for mapped rooms, which then translates to XP once it gets spent.

The only thing that was left was playing the game itself. I had a feeling that sticking with local players was going to be a headache, so I expanded my pool by posting online. I generally have better success playing on weeknights as opposed to weekends, so I picked Monday, as it is least likely to see me in the middle of a business trip.  Of course that didn't work for anyone else, so leave it to my friend Sean to introduce me to the term "West Marches."

Now, I had heard of the "West Marches" term before, and I had always dismissed it. The reason being, I had assumed it was somebody else's Gandalf-ass boring shit setting, like Forgotten Realms or Mystara or something. As it turns out, it was actually a gaming style that someone who was running into all the same problems came up with. ( They just couldn't be bothered to call it anything else, I guess.

Essentially, the idea is that in terms of the game itself, the players are supposed to be the ones taking charge. Game night and even the game group is irregular. There are always more potential players than show up to any one session. Once someone can gather a group to play, they inform the DM and then (pending the DM's availability) the session is on. The only thing is, the session wraps up in a "home base" of the starting town.

So of course I changed things up that this is now how I'm running my group. It's met with some success as I've already run two sessions. However, they've been with the nearly the same players. They're certainly enthusiastic, although I'm hoping to drum up some excitement so that I can run some sessions with other players as well. My friend Sean is probably the next most enthusiastic, but he lives in Japan, so the time zone difference is a major setback.

Another great side effect is how I want to keep this blog updated by posting about all the stuff I'm using to run the game. Maybe I'll get someone to post some comments and get some good ideas about even more tools I can use to make these megadungeon delves even more exciting.