AD&D: I am PUMPED

So, the most recent Roll20 session ended with the player characters in, not to put too fine a point on it, dire straits. A brace of lucky rolls on my part let a goblin patrol get a bunch of hits on the PCs; had we gone with rules as written, two PCs would be dead, but instead I went with these rather fun critical hit rules and the shit has consequently hit the fan in a somewhat more interesting way. Shim’s character now has a cool new scar, and Dan’s character has a broken left arm and a severed right arm.

This is possibly the nastiest thing to happen to the PCs in a tabetop session I’ve ever presided over (with the honourable exception of Paranoia) in terms of rendering PCs close to death or unplayability. Obviously in horror games there have been dire threats and direr consequences, but that’s a somewhat different thing from breaking a player’s character and having them roll up a new one.

This outcome was not planned; it stemmed from a combination of the players being steered into an area where the goblins would be patrolling by their guide, me making a roll to determine that the patrol would run into them, and a series of bad luck following on from that. The players were consciously taking a risk by a) pushing deeper into the dungeon and b) launching into combat when their magic-user was out of gas, but even so I don’t think they were expecting the trouble they got (and if they’d been a little unluckier this could well have turned into a TPK).

This outcome has me really excited as a referee.

Continue reading “AD&D: I am PUMPED”

AD&D: A Useful Cliche

One of the features of my Dungeons & Dragons campaign is that there is a major dungeon conveniently located directly beneath the main city. This is, of course, a well-worn cliche – see Waterdeep and Undermountain, for instance, and the dungeons underneath Blackmoor and Castle Greyhawk respectively were within a convenient distance of a nearby town.

However, as I recently discovered it’s a cliche which can help out a lot. Two players couldn’t make it to our most recent session, but as Dan pointed out there are advantages to pushing on and playing anyway under such circumstances – most notably, it means people don’t feel obliged to turn up to any session. (That sounds like a bad thing until you realise that making a game feel like an obligation is the first step to it feeling like a chore – plus if you do feel that obligation, missing a session feels like a disaster and so when you inevitably do miss a session you can end up feeling less invested in the game as a result.)

That said, I’m not usually up as a GM for having absent players’ characters present in a session, even as mute cardboard cutouts who stand at the back, for several reasons:

  • I don’t like the split in IC/OOC knowledge it makes; it’s enough of a job holding back stuff you know OOC but not IC, but if you end up knowing stuff IC you didn’t actually experience OOC that is just a headache.
  • I’d feel bad as a GM if something happened in such a session and a player was like “oh, man, my character would have had a major response to that, it’s a shame I wasn’t there” – for the same reason I dislike it when that happens when I was a player. (Worst case ever: coming back after a break of a few sessions where I couldn’t make it to discover that my character now had a magical hand due to various stuff he did under the GM’s control.) Better to have them saying “It’s a shame my character missed that” than “It’s a shame that my character was there but didn’t react in the way I would have wanted to because I wasn’t there”.
  • I just don’t like risking people’s PCs in their absence, but I don’t want to give them mysterious temporary plot immunity, so keeping them offstage is easier.

This policy meant that the party was two characters down, which meant that the party’s skills set and numbers were at a point where exploring the main dungeon would have been very unwise. So, I put an offer on the table: either we postpone, or I run a brief one-session side quest for the remaining players based around one of their characters’ interests. (As it happened, I was able to weave in links between the side quest and the party’s main investigation, so that helps.)

Here’s where having the dungeon conveniently close to a major population centre: cities are excellent sources of side quests and adventure hooks. You can have pretty much any sort of institution there and it’s expected that there’ll always be something to do. Small rural hamlets are expected to have quiet days where there just isn’t much going on of note, but cities never sleep, it’s kind of a celebrated feature of theirs. Having one of the city’s institutions send an urgent request to the PCs is a side quest possibility that will never get old thanks to the sheer number of institutions that could possibly exist in a city. In addition, the large marketplaces mean that players can believably kit up for a side adventure before heading out.

As fun as your Village of Hommlet may be, sooner or later it’s got to either dry up as an adventure source or start feeling unusually and especially unlucky when it comes to crises which farmers are willing to pay gold to solve. Not so your city! I begin to suspect that Gygax’s placing of the City of Greyhawk right next to his megadungeon was no mere exercise in Fritz Leiber appreciation (though that would be reasonable enough in itself), and was more than a mere concession to IC convenience when it came to travel time and finding somewhere to spend all those copper pieces dredged up from the depths: it was actually a conscious and deliberate placement of one bustling and inexhaustible adventure location next to another.

AD&D: What Roll20 Lacks

Had another Dungeons & Dragons session over Roll20 which went fairly well; we tried our hand at running an abstract combat without the use of maps or tokens to see how that worked and it seemed to be quite viable, and the party got a chance to talk to some NPCs and plan their next move. However, something did occur to me in the course of play which seems to be a major disadvantage of the Roll20 setup.

We don’t use webcams in our game; Vent, so far as I know, doesn’t support them, and using the built-in chat software provided in Roll20 (which does have webcam support) proved unstable. As far as I can tell, everyone prefers it this way anyway. However, that does mean I lack an important bit of feedback – body language. When, as a GM, I’m talking a lot – as happened this session – and the players are listening silently that usually means one of two things: either everyone is really into the game and hanging on my every word, or they’re bored out of their tiny skulls (usually the latter, because I’ve never known players who were excited and engaged with a game to stay silent for very long). I have no idea which (if either) of these is the case in the most recent session. Usually, you can tell from people’s body language, but of course that isn’t the case here.

It was pointed out that a disadvantage of push-to-talk is that you don’t get so much in the way of acknowledgement noises like “uh-huh” and “hmmm” and so on from the other people in the conversation, which is another important feedback route we are missing. That said, push-to-talk has proved so useful in minimising people talking over each other (and in generally not hearing people breathe or eat) that I’m loathe to dispense with it.

I would like to find a solution to this so I guess I have to look carefully at the Roll20 format and see where real-time feedback can occur instead (obviously post-session feedback does help, but it doesn’t help during the session itself). We’ve not been using Roll20’s integrated chat features very much except for rolling dice; perhaps I should suggest that the players use it to make any little comments or asides they want to make but which they don’t consider significant enough to merit going out over Vent?

Traveller: Action-Packed Amnesia

So, first Traveller session was yesterday, and it seemed to be reasonably successful. A lot of it consisted of the initial logistical arrangements of the party’s trading enterprise, but I decided to spice up the process by throwing in a little bit of chaos.

One of the players is – provided their OOC plans go as expected – not necessarily going to be in London for very long, so I knew that any mysteries or plot hooks in their background would need to be addressed quickly – preferably in this first block of sessions – because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to tackle them with that player present, which would be disappointing for everyone. The biggest mystery in his background consists of the last four years of his service in the Scouts, in which we’d determined in character generation that there was a certain amount of missing time. So, I decided to make the PC’s amnesia crisis a little more immediate: the PC in question woke up at the start of the session with no memory of the past four years or so, and voices in their head to boot. By the end of the session the mystery was resolved: the PC in question had been replaced by an android with false memories, as part of a convoluted assassination attempt, and the session closed with the android being destroyed and the real PC waking up.

It’s always risky messing with player free will like this, but in this case I think it worked reasonably well. It helped that we’d established that this character did have a fat chunk of amnesia in the character gen session last week, so we all knew a certain amount of mindfuckery might be on the cards. I also think it helped that it was only for one session and I wasn’t expecting the player to run the mind-controlled android for the long haul – it also helped that the android’s actions would, by definition, not reflect that much on the real PC. It also means the next session is going to put the real PC at centre stage, which I think is both fair compensation and a good opportunity to get at least one session in focused on this specific character before the player departs, and nicely it means that the amnesia issue can be resolved nice and quickly. (Basically, the “amnesia” consists of those sections of the PC’s memories the bad guys weren’t able to copy-paste into the android, so next session the player’s going to get a revised personal history with the real story.) There’s going to be sufficient knock-on effects from what’s happened here to make sure that the plotline in question isn’t just rushed through and then forgotten, but at the same time the first block of sessions should hopefully sufficiently self contained that if and when the player in question becomes available they can feel that they’ve still been able to play through the interesting part of their character’s story. (Of course, I wouldn’t try this sort of trick with every group; however, in the previous block of sessions we’d been playing through the opening movements of Tatters of the King, so I was able to guage the group’s tolerance for note-passing and general weirdness affecting PCs there.)

Lessons learned:

  • You can get away with borrowing player control of their PC, provided you make it obvious that it’s a temporary situation only.
  • It’s even easier to get away with it if it’s less a matter of you taking control of their PC and more a matter of allowing them to control a non-player character who happens to be borrowing the PC’s memories.
  • Ships need cats; must generate ship’s cat for next session.

AD&D: Vent Validated

We had the second session of our Roll20 AD&D game yesterday, this time turning off voice broadcasting in Roll20 and using Vent instead. After a false start in order to sort out technical issues (apparently you need to specifically tell Vent servers to be nice to Macs, which seems mildly faffy to me), I actually found it worked much more smoothly than Tokbox. Although some people did suffer crashes, on the whole it was still vastly more stable than Tokbox ever was, which allowed for play to continue mostly interrupted through the session. In addition, we were talking over each other somewhat less this time, which was perhaps just a side effect of the group being more used to each other but I think was also helped by the way Vent works – the little speaker icon by your name goes green when you hit your push-to-talk key, so you have a visual indication of when someone’s speaking.

We also were able to tackle another issue we had last time, where people were sometimes moving their tokens to indicate that their character had moved and sometimes moved them to show where they intend to move, which led to some ambiguity and people triggering combat when they perhaps hadn’t meant to. The solution we hit on entailed using Roll20’s ping function to indicate where characters intend to move, and then move the token only when they actually move, so the fighters get a chance to suggest they go ahead when the mage seems to be trying to take point. This is something which won’t necessarily come up all the time in the campaign, but I’m still glad we’re working these things out now – I’m running a map-and-counters dungeon adventure first primarily to give us this sort of test run of Roll20’s features.

As far as the actual session went, it consisted mostly of exploration with an outburst of combat at the end. I’m doing an experiment here where I’m presenting an old school dungeon (in that there are a lot of rooms which are just kind of abandoned) but trying to avoid letting it get too tedious by running what is essentially a chase through it – the characters are in pursuit of a gang of kobolds and are following their trail through the dungeon, so they usually know which way they need to go. That said, the different sectors of the dungeon level do have histories beyond being a backdrop for a chase, which adds flavour to spice up the process of exploration.

One thing I did notice about the game is how even mostly-empty dungeons can create tension – to the point where passing down a narrow corridor proved worrisome for the players because it looked like an ambush site. Likewise, despite the fact that the players had successfully stopped any of the kobolds they’d encountered so far from escaping, some of the kobolds’ traps weren’t activated, but they still managed to cause the players concern.

Next time, the players should – provided there’s no mishaps – be in a position to bring the chase to a close, at which point depending on how it resolves they’ll have several options for taking things further.

Traveller: Galactic Empires

So, having populated the map of Fringe Sector 13 with star systems and gone through the process of generating worlds, I’ve been working on setting up some interstellar states. The way I see it, if you want a world to become the hub of an interstellar government in Traveller you need to be bringing several important ingredients to the table.

  • Your world needs to have at least Tech Level 10 so you can build Jump drives. You can’t really be a colonial superpower if you’re relying on someone else to build your warships. Yes, according to the rules as written the elite of a world can get access to somewhat higher Tech Levels than the local average, but you can’t rule a galactic empire if your fleet only consists of a few cutting-edge prototypes: you need to be able to crank out starships reliably and regularly. The higher the Tech Level beyond 10, of course, the further you can Jump, so the larger your potential sphere of influence can be.
  • Once you know how to make starships you need the infrastructure to do so. This means you need to have a type A or B starport, because only those have the facilities to craft interstellar ships from scratch. The way I see it, the type A and B starports of a galactic empire are its hubs; prudent empires will not attempt to expand more than 1 Jump away from one of their A/B starports because let’s face it, that 1 week per Jump thing already puts a huge cramp on people’s style when it comes to interstellar communication and responding to emergencies because you essentially can’t send a punitive Naval force anywhere until at least 2 weeks after shit has kicked off because it’ll take at least 1 Jump for the news to get to you and 1 Jump for your vengeance to make its way back to the crisis zone. Trying to rule a planet 2 jumps away from your nearest major starport means that your Naval forces (who tend to be concentrated around such starports) may end up taking a month to respond to an emergency, which is pushing things out of the realm of viability.
  • You need to have an economic reason to go out and secure other people’s raw materials. This means, based on the trade system, you need to have at least one of the High Technology, High Population, Rich or Industrial traits. Some of these are mutually exclusive and others always appear together (you can’t be a Coruscant-style Industrial planet unless you have High Population, for instance), so the possible combinations are High-Tech/Industrial/High Population, High Tech/Rich, High Tech/High Population, High Population/Industrial, Rich, High Population, High Tech. Obviously, the more of these traits you have the greedier you are for raw materials and the better basis for massive expansion you have; a High-Tech, High Population Industrial planet has cool toys, the industrial capacity to make heaps of them, and plenty of people to draft into the Space Navy. Conversely, worlds with only one of these traits will expand more slowly – and indeed High-Tech worlds with Low Population, or a population too small to support an industrial base, may find that they are quite limited in their opportunities for expansion because you can only delegate so much to robots.
  • You need to have a single world government – balkanised worlds are too busy with their internal bickering to colonise the stars most of the time, and even if they make the attempt an individual country from a balkanised world isn’t going to be able to stand up to a galactic empire ruled by a world which can throw its entire economic weight behind its colonisation process.

So, having identified worlds with these traits and working out which worlds would expand quickly and which slowly, I started on the process of plotting out their spheres of influence. First I looked at the worlds within 1 Jump of their capitals, then worlds within 1 Jump of any type A/B starports captured during the first stage of the process, and so on.

In determining which worlds have been taken in by a star empire, I compared their governmental types. Worlds with the same governmental type as the empire’s capital, or which have the Captive Government governmental type, are under direct rule – their affairs are administered directly by the central government. (The big difference is that worlds under Captive Government have no real representation in the central government, whereas other worlds under direct rule are able to send representatives to the central government, whether this takes the form of elected members of a galactic assembly or fresh recruits for the military junta.)

Worlds with a government type which is different from the capital world (say, a Participatory Democracy being scouted out for recruitment by a Representative Democracy) but vaguely compatible have a 2 in 3 chance of being taken in under home rule – they get to keep their original form of government but let the galactic empire handle interstellar diplomacy and warfare. Worlds with an incompatible government type have a 1 in 3 chance of being inducted anyway under a home rule basis; likewise, in the case of balkanised worlds, there’s a 1 in 3 chance that one of the nation-states on the planet is backed by the galactic empire, or indeed represents a colonial force sent by the galactic empire. (Note that the way I did the system, worlds within 1 Jump of two different type A/B starports ruled by a galactic empire might end up having two rolls to see if they’re in the empire. This I consider a feature, not a bug: if the empire’s navy can double-team you from two different directions, that’s a good sign you might want to reconsider your earlier rejection.) Worlds with no government type are not part of any galactic empire – because if they were, they’d have a government, right?

Because I don’t want to have a dozen galactic empires with more or less the same governmental type, when two galactic empires of exactly the same government type ended up within 1 Jump of each other I merged ’em. The end result was a few large superpowers, a handful of smaller states, and some wild, unclaimed areas of the map to boot. (I’ve also designated some worlds with no governmental type to be Kzinti-colonised worlds, since I’ve decided that a) the Kzinti governmental type I’ve made up doesn’t really slot into any of the standard Traveller government types and b) the Kzinti wouldn’t accept entrance into any galactic empire and nobody considers poking that sort of hornet’s nest to be worth their while).

Once I’d done that, I was ready to flesh the various stellar empires out. Here are the interstellar states that call Fringe Sector 13 home…

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Traveller: Aliens and Non-Humans

Intelligent aliens in SF RPGs – the sort who can talk and build things and sell you stuff and offer you jobs and conspire to rule the galaxy, as opposed to the sort who are basically monsters – come in two different varieties, broadly corresponding to the two different flavours of intelligent aliens offered by SF as a whole. You have your humans in rubber suits, who are no different from ordinary humans in terms of the way they think or behave 99% of the time (or take one particular aspect of the human experience and crank it up to 11), or you have aliens whose designers intend them to be properly alien, and so often have decidedly unusual psychologies which don’t necessarily seem very functional.

Traditionally, Traveller has been hyped by the fans as offering excellent examples of the latter sort. Certainly, in the default Third Imperium setting the designers made a concerted effort to try and make sure this was the case: in general, the “humans in funny suits” niche was taken by actual human cultures – descendants of peoples kidnapped from Earth back in caveman times by the Ancients and transplanted to other parts of the galaxy following a certain amount of tampering – whilst the more exotic aliens like the K’kree or the Hivers had entire supplements devoted to understanding their psychological makeup and societies.

This is cool if you appreciate Traveller as an exercise in worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding. I think it’s markedly less useful in the context of actually playing the game. If, as a GM, I were seriously trying to roleplay your alien characters according to the writeups in the alien modules then I suspect one of two things would happen: either I would be so hesitant in thinking through how the aliens are going to behave that it would slow the game down or I would end up failing to distinguish the individuals as individuals, due to being so taken up with portraying their psychology as a species I won’t have time to make them distinct characters in their own right.

The Mongoose edition of Traveller includes basic stats for the more prominent aliens in the official Traveller universe. Whilst I am not using that galaxy I have no qualms about pinching ideas from it and mangling them to fit my own plans – and, in particular, to make my portrayal of said aliens easier. (For the moment I don’t want to include any alien PCs in the game, because I like the assumption of an all-human party in Classic Traveller and I think scarcity of aliens and the specialness of meeting them is mildly undermined if there’s an alien on your crew.

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