Sunday, December 1, 2013

Regarding hidden rolls

In spite of the infrequent publications, I actually do intend to keep this blog.

Last week, while browsing some OD&D/OSR rule sets, I was thinking about player rolls for skills whose outcome the players shouldn't know immediately -- hiding, moving silently, searching, sensing motive (if you buy into that sort of thing) and so on. The problem with having the DM roll for all these sorts of things is that, in my experience, players would rather be holding the dice. After all, it's their character who's attempting the check, so why should someone else be rolling? But, the DM says, you can't know the outcome, so I'm going to roll. Lame.

In D&D variants, rolls are binary checks for success/failure, with success happening in some range. (That is, either 1-3 on a D6, per OD&D skills, or, say, 12-20 on a D20 after all the modifiers are all thought out in 3.5/Pathfinder, etc.) How do we hide whether such a roll is a success? Shift the success range randomly.

Whenever the player attempts a roll whose results shouldn't be known immediately, the DM rolls an identical die/dice and adds the result to the success range's smallest number, spilling over to the lower end if necessary by subtracting the number of faces on the die. (This is just modular or clock arithmetic, if you like.) For example, in the 1-3 on a D6 example above, if the DM rolls a 2, the player's roll is a success on a (1+2) = 3 to a (3+2) = 5. If the DM instead rolls a 5, the roll is a success on a (1+5) = 6 to a (3 + 5) = 8 -> (8-6) = 2. Thus, the player's roll is successful if it comes up 1-2 or 6. The odds of success are always the same, and the player still rolls the die, but there's no way to tell what a roll means without knowing the result on the second die.

Alternately and equivalently, one add the DM's roll to the player's. again wrapping around when the result spills over the maximum die value. Using the above example again, if the player rolls a 2 on the D6 and the DM rolls a 3, the result is (2 + 3) = 5, outside the success range. On the other hand, if the player rolls a 5 and the DM rolls a 3, the result is (5 + 3) = (8 - 6) = 2, a success.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Modular Pathfinder classes 3: adventuring progressions overview

Continuing the recent thread, here are some initial thoughts on "adventuring" class progressions in an E6/M6 sandbox Pathfinder game.

To recap (and rephrase), the intent is to bring elements of "classic" fantasy gaming like exploration and downtime activities, into the limelight by expanding their role in character creation and advancement.

The mechanism I'm currently exploring for doing so is a deconstruction of the base classes into "progressions" -- a "primary" and "secondary" combat progression, an "adventuring" progression and a "downtime" progression -- which are selected at character creation in lieu of a class. The usual Pathfinder base classes are roughly recreated by certain selections, but there are more options available. Characters created in this manner will have more abilities than the base Pathfinder classes, but these abilities will be spread more evenly across the activities one might like to highlight in such a game.

The adventuring and downtime progressions are intended to replace the skill system with a richer set of systems for interacting with the world in a non-combat fashion. The abilities provided by the adventuring progressions are aimed at dealing with environmental challenges that arise during active game sessions, roughly split into overland navigation, immediate physical obstacles, and social interactions. This is where, for example, the Ranger's Favored Terrain and the Barbarian's Trap Sense abilities will end up, in some form. These challenges can often be dealt with by untrained individuals -- anyone can try to sneak by a guard in the dark or find their way through wooded hills using familiar landmarks -- but having someone in the party with a given adventuring progression will provide more options and allow for success in less favorable circumstances.

One aspect of these new systems I'd like to consider is the inclusion of the entire party in their mechanics. While it's nice to give each character a time to shine, if the trip to and from the adventure site consists of watching the player whose character has the Navigator adventuring progression roll a bunch of dice, the system will be even less enjoyable than the existing one.

My preliminary list of adventuring progressions and their areas of expertise is as follows:

  • Spelunker: subterranean navigation and movement
  • Prowler: stealth
  • Picklock: breaking and entering
  • Dungeoneer: architecture and mechanical security features
  • Hunter: tracking
  • Survivalist: meeting basic needs outside of civilization
  • Doctor: treating wounds and diseases
  • Navigator: finding outside places without roads
  • Diplomat: ettiquette and lying
  • Brute: intimidation
I'm sure I'll figure out that I've missed one or I've got some overlap here as I flesh them out.


Monday, September 2, 2013

Modular Pathfinder classes 2: disassembling base classes

Proceeding with the program outlined in my last post, an inspection of the classes in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook suggests to me that (at least the first six levels of) the base classes are loosely built from what I will call "primary" and "secondary" progressions, with some extra abilities and modifications thrown in on an individual basis. Roughly, the "primary" progression encodes the class's BAB, saves, and core combat ability. The "secondary" progression are complementary abilities that one can imagine swapping out to change the class -- think of these as "heavy duty archetypes".

There are three "basic" progressions, constructed from the Fighter, Wizard, and Sorcerer respectively. Here are the primary progressions for all three:

Prepared Caster
Spontaneous Caster
HD: d10;
Saves: High/Low/Low
BAB: Level
HD: d6;
Saves: Low/Low/High
BAB: Level/2
HD: d6;
Saves: Low/Low/High
BAB: Level/2
Level 1
Bonus Combat Feat
School; Spell Slots: 3/1
Spell Slots: */3; Spells Known: 4/2
Level 2
Bonus Combat Feat
Spell Slots: 4/2
Spell Slots: */4; Spells Known: 5/2
Level 3
Spell Slots: 4/2/1
Spell Slots: */5; Spells Known: 5/3
Level 4
Bonus Combat Feat
Spell Slots: 4/3/2
Spell Slots: */6/3; Spells Known: 6/3/1
Level 5
Spell Slots: 4/3/2/1
Spell Slots: */6/4; Spells Known: 6/4/2
Level 6
Bonus Combat Feat
Spell Slots: 4/3/3/2
Spell Slots: */6/5/2; Spells Known: 7/4/2/1

And here are the "secondary" progressions as they appear in the book:

Level 1
Arcane bond
Scribe Scroll
Eschew materials
Bloodline power
Level 2
Bravery +2
Level 3
Armor Training
Bloodline spell
Level 4
Level 5
Weapon Training
Bonus Feat
Bloodline power
Level 6

I don't think it would upset the utility and feel of the classes terribly much to make this a bit more uniform, by redistributing the abilities as so:

Arcane Scholar
Potent Blooded
Level 1
Bravery +2
Scribe Scroll
Eschew materials
Bloodline power
Level 2

Level 3
Armor Training
Arcane bond
Bloodline power/spell
Level 4
Level 5
Weapon Training
Bonus Arcane Feat
Bloodline spell
Level 6

OK, I can imagine Wizard players being a bit perturbed by not having a familiar at 1st level, but so far this is just speculative.

Now, suppose I really wanted to play a Barbarian. How do I fit that into this framework? Swap out the secondary progression, move some of the Barbarian's usual options into the world of feats and move the rest into those "adventuring" classes mentioned in the previous post.

Here's the relevant alternative secondary progression:

Agile Combatant
Level 1 Fast Move
Level 2
Level 3 Uncanny Dodge
Level 4
Level 5 Improved Uncanny Dodge
Level 6

These abilities function as noted under the Barbarian class.

Next, we introduce a new feat tree: Rage, which imparts the Barbarian's usual Rage ability, and various rage powers, encoded as feats. Since the Warrior primary progression provides a feat at the right levels in the standard Barbarian's progression, the player can select rage powers appropriately.

Trap sense ends up as part of a "Dungeoneer" adventuring class, which will impart abilities that are useful in exploring dungeons. (To be detailed in a later post.)

The resulting class isn't an exact match, but it's close enough that I think it would be hard to detect the difference in play. Probably the most obvious difference occurs in hit point progression, but the difference averages one point a level and so doesn't really matter in the E6 stretch.

Most of the other classes (except the Monk) are similarly easy to dissect. Here are my proposed secondary progressions:

Level 1
Bardic Music
Inspire Courage +1
Channel Energy 1d6
Wild Shape 1/day
Sneak Attack 1d6
Level 2

Level 3
Inspire Competence +2
Channel Energy 2d6
Wild Shape 2/day
Sneak Attack 2d6
Level 4
Level 5
Inspire Courage +2
Channel Energy 3d6
Wild Shape 3/day
Sneak Attack 3d6
Level 6

Martial Artist
Holy Warrior
Level 1
Flurry of Blows -1/-1
Smite (evil?) 1/day
1st Favored Enemy
Level 2

Level 3
Flurry of Blows +1/+1
Smite 2/day
2nd Favored Enemy
Level 4
Level 5
Flurry of Blows +3/+3
Smite 3/day
3rd Favored Enemy
Level 6

Other abilities either end up as feats (Slow Fall, Evasion, rogue talents) or as abilities of adventuring classes.

One thing I very much like about this approach is the ability to mix and match the usual base class abilities. For example, combining the Warrior primary progression and the Potent Blooded (aberrant) secondary progression to have a fighter who can shoot acid at people and eventually has crazy-long arms. (Of course, the bonus spells aren't useful except for the ability to use wands, but that's not the end of the world.)

Given the new flexibility, I'd probably disallow multiclassing in such a system. In a six-level progression, there's not much reason to do so anyway outside of blatant min-maxing.

I also believe I'd allow a character their choice of high save progression no matter which primary progression they choose, and possibly add a feat which allows a second high save progression for players who're interested.

To be continued!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Modular Pathfinder character classes

Here's some more deconstruction of the Pathfinder/D&D 3e game system. At this point, I suspect I'm in the process of skeletonizing Pathfinder with the intent of rebuilding it for a particular style of game I'm simultaneously discovering that I'd like to run. In particular, I'm going to approach things through the lens of running an E6 (or M6) game with a heavy exploration component.

I suppose my end goal is to remove from the system complexity that I feel gets in the way of gaming and add to it complexity that I feel introduces new opportunities for fun without making the system feel too difficult to understand. In some sense, the aesthetic is "several shallow one-function systems" instead of "one monolithic many-function system".

Full disclosure: I've been kicking these ideas around for a while now, but I was inspired to put them  in their current form after reading about a very cool alternative crafting system over at Harbinger of Doom, to which the following clearly owes a great deal.

In a "classic" fantasy RPG, the characters can be expected to engage in certain "up time" activities (combat, exploration and social interactions), and certain "down time" activities (making things, researching, running domains.) The earliest versions of D&D were extremely rules-light, so even though there were more rules for combat -- reasonable, given their ancestry -- than other activities, there didn't seem to be a substantial imbalance.

As the game has evolved into its modern versions, combat has taken a center stage and the rules for combat resolution have grown so large that, at least in my group, there's usually a reference to the books (or SRD) at least every couple of rounds. I honestly like this complexity, at least most of it. Lots of options make the game interesting.

On the other hand, rules for activities exploration and crafting have become more and more abstract, implying that they aren't meant to be a central part of the game. Most have become feats and simple skill checks. However, some of these activities still occur as active events at the table. (I'm looking at you, perception and survival checks.) So, abilities pertaining to them have been assigned piecemeal to the base classes, producing what I would describe as strange and artificial niches that essentially require certain classes to appear in many games -- the "someone has to be a cleric" disease.

So, here's my alternative: let's extract from the (Core Rulebook) base classes all class abilities that aren't combat related. I claim we should end up with the following "combat class" types:

Combat -- essentially exactly the fighter as written
Prepared caster -- essentially exactly the wizard as written
Spontaneous caster -- essentially exactly the sorcerer as written

If you want a mix of two base class ability sets, there's no penalty for multi-classing.

From there, apply something like Pathfinder's archetype system. The notion of swapping out basic class features to give characters more individuality while retaining a core set of abilities common across the class is an elegant solution to the desire to some players have to select from dozens of classes.

For example, to make a cleric, we apply an archetype that trades in the prepared caster's arcane bond for channel energy. Possibly we also introduce archetypes that modify the class spell list to look like the standard cleric lists and roll domains into the set of selections a wizard has for selecting a class.

Alternately, we just do away with spell lists and allow anyone to cast anything. If we want clerics to be the only people who heal, just move the restriction into the game rather than building it into the system explicitly. Perhaps only members of the clergy are legally allowed to cast healing spells, or teaching them to those outside the faith is a sin?

Similarly, for the rogue, we swap out the fighter's bonus feats for sneak attack damage, and weapon and armor training for talents. All the other snazzy rogue abilities like evasion can just be made into feats.

Want an animal companion? Trade some combat or magic ability.

And so on.

Next, we construct a collection of "adventuring classes", whose role is to support other "up-time" activities:

Dungeoneer -- trap finding, lock picking; the old "thief abilities".
Explorer -- survival, overland travel; druid and ranger things.
Envoy -- diplomacy, intimidation, investigation; bard things.

Characters also have some of these and can multi-class and so on. They could, for simplicity, progress in level with the base class, or they could have their own experience track. This second option seems saner to me, though one could claim it makes the system more complicated than is necessary for the stated goals.

Lastly, (as in the Harbinger of Doom system that inspired this one) add in "down-time classes" which provide each character with the ability to do something characters usually do off-screen. Examples here including crafting and enchanting items, animal husbandry and running organizations. Professional skills for time spent in civilized places, if you like.

I hope the result is a lot more flexible in terms of player options without losing the "Pathfinder feel" that I like so much.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Some potential Pathfinder house rules, part 2

Continuing last week's pondering of things I'm seeing in the AoW game, I'm often bothered by the "swigniness" of Pathfinder's systems. This has to do with the interplay between the random number generator (RNG) and the out-of-control bonuses/target numbers. The issue being that under the current system, after a early levels, characters are either unstoppable masters of an attack form or skill, or they're hopelessly incompetent and need to sit out entire combats as a result.

The use of the d20 as a RNG for most success/failure tests in Pathfinder is iconic to the system all the way back to its roots. There are merits to using a uniform distribution of random numbers for this sort of thing: simplicity and excitement -- any roll can come up a "1" or a "20". On the other hand, it makes predicting the outcome of a even a brief contest with well-defined parameters quite difficult -- an RNG with a tighter distribution about the mean might help with this, as noted in this post. Why not allow an option?

Choose Your Own RNG: Any time a 1d20 success/fail roll is called for by the system, a player or GM may choose to roll any of 1d20, 2d10 or 3d6. This represents the decision by the character to be more or less cautious in attempting the task at hand -- the more dice rolled, the more likely the result is to be "average" and less likely to be exceptionally good or bad. Thus, a skilled character can be relatively certain of success at tasks of average difficulty, while an unskilled one can still make a wild attempt to succeed beyond her usual range of ability. In each case, rolling the maximum or minimum value allowed on the die results in an automatic/critical success or failure.

The other issue with the RNGs in the game is that bonuses/targets quickly outstrip the range of the random numbers entirely, and everyone needs an ever-increasing mean to keep up with the average task faced by the party.  Essentially, if this process is balanced so that success and failure are still roughly as likely, at every level we're increasing the mean of numbers spit out by the RNG. Why? Some designer decided higher level characters deserve larger numbers to show how great they are at things. However, the result is only cosmetic -- the characters still hit the same amount, but now they need to be loaded down with gear and it's easy to make mistakes computing with so many bonuses. So, we've added cosmetic complexity to the system. Let's just renormalize to get rid of it.

No Automatic Bonus Progression: First things first, we'll have to get rid of BAB, base saving throw bonuses and skill points. Similarly with expected wealth by level, since that's essentially a way to ensure characters have sufficient stat bumps to be able to make target numbers in the first place -- so we should also kill off stat-bump items to remove the temptation. To compensate, we remove HD-dependent monster bonuses to AC, target numbers, saves and so on. Replace BAB requirements with level requirements for everything.

So, how is my 20th level fighter cooler than my 1st level fighter now? Two answers: feats and HP. The 20th level fighter can dish out more damage with every hit, his specialization feats will increase his probability of hitting and the damage caused when he does so. And he can take a pile of damage, so he's still an amazingly better fighter.

At a glance, the numbers might look like this:

  • 1st level fighter, 16 Str, 14 Con, Weapon Focus, long sword:
    +4 to hit, 1d8+3 damage (avg 5.5), ~10 HP
  • 10th level fighter, 18 Str, 14 Con, Greater Weapon Focus/Weapon Spec, +1 long sword
    +8 to hit, 1d8+6 daamge (avg 7), two attacks per round, ~120 HP
  • 10th level wizard: 10 Str, 12 Con, +1 dagger
    +1 to hit, 1d4+1 damage (avg 3.5), two attacks per round, ~40 HP
If armor classes are relatively flat, the 10th level fighter makes twice as many attacks as the 1st level fighter, is 20% more likely to connect with each, and adds twice as much damage per hit to each roll. 

Using a d20 as the RNG, making straight attacks and supposing an opponent with AC 15 (chain shirt, +1 dex) -- like the 1st level fighter, for example, the 1st level fighter averages 2.75 points of damage a round and the 10th level fighter averages 9.8 -- almost enough to kill the 1st level fighter. The wizard, even at 10th level, is a much inferior combatant to the fighter, and probably should just put the dagger away. Observe that (as an added bonus) under this system, regular chainmail is actually functional armor.

If we switch to the 3d6 RNG, we get a very different story. The 1st level fighter still hits 50% of the time and averages 2.75 points of damage a round, but the 10th level fighter is much more competent and hits around 91% of the time, so his expected damage is 12.7 points a round, and in addition carries a much lower variance -- about 2.4 points a round -- so the 10th level fighter can plan on dropping a 1st level fighter every round without much difficulty and can make sane tactical decisions about when to use other abilities.


Sunday, June 30, 2013

Some potential Pathfinder house rules

Based on recent experiences in my ongoing "Age of Worms" PF game, I'm pondering several house rules for next time I run a PF game. These, of course, are heavily influenced by things I've read around the internet, and though I'm probably stealing some ideas directly, I've thoroughly digested the ideas now and wouldn't know where to look. So, apologies to the original thinkers, unless these ideas are actually mine in some sense.

This set of house-rule notions is about skills. I'm not a big fan of the D&D 3+/PF skill system, which seems to be at odds in many places with the way we play and the overall design goals of the game.

Aid Another: I've noticed that my gaming group likes to use Aid Another for virtually every skill check. This seems OK to me for many things, but it occasionally leads to confusion about who's aiding and who's rolling an actual skill check. Simple fix: the last die rolled is the skill check. Everything else is an aid, so there are no questions about ownership. I'm also considering adding a "Rolling a 5 or less on an aid results in a -2 to the final check." rider, since incompetent help isn't any help at all -- and there should be some penalty for too many cooks in the kitchen.

Active Skill Use:  There's quite a bit of "I search the room for traps and secret doors." both in my current game and in previous ones. The OSR people believe that this replacement of player skill by die rolling is a move in the wrong direction, and I tend to agree. There's a class of skills I might call "Player Driven" skills that model activities the characters can undertake which should be handled by the players -- Perception, Diplomacy, Bluff and Intimidate, at least. I would prefer the "use" of such skills to involve an active description of what's going on, which often happens incidentally but should be mandatory. For example, "I walk along the slowly along the wall, knocking on it with my sword hilt high and low as I go, looking for hollow spots. (And thus I roll Perception to see if I find anything.)" Then, if it turns out that any secret doors or traps are on the wall and they could be detected in this way, a successful roll will turn them up. Perhaps a bonus is applied to the roll if the search technique is particularly well suited to finding the hidden object. On the other hand, if this activity can't possibly detect the secret door (which is concealed in the ceiling) then the roll will necessarily fail. Either way, finding a door and opening it are two different things.

Minimal Information For Blind Rolls: On the other side of this issue are things like the Dwarf racial "Stonecunning" ability, which gives them a chance to intuit secret doors when in stone tunnels. These abilities need to be met with a simple binary answer: "Something's not right with the way this room is shaped. You're sure there is a secret door somewhere here," and so on. I'd also consider allowing a player a Perception roll to search a room for secret doors "blindly" -- no description of what's going on -- at the cost of some large amount of time. Success would simply indicate the approximate location of the door, but the player would still be responsible for determining its precise nature and opening

Decoupled System for Knowledge/Investigation: Probably in any future "D&D-style" game I'll use something like the Lorefinder system for Knowledge-style skills and any non-time sensitive investigation activities. No "roll to see if you know", which seems to serve only to inhibit exposition and make players less able to interact with the world.

No Skill Points/Skill Levels: I also don't like the ever-upward moving DCs for higher level character skill checks. One idea I've tossed around quite a bit is removing "skill points" entirely -- no skill progression with level occurs (except particular skills for particular classes.) A character could be "untrained", "novice", "expert" or "master" in a skill, which provides a straight +0/2/4/6 bonus to rolls, and DCs for skill checks would never change. Learning a new level of a skill would then cost money and time, rather than being level-tied, or would be automatic every few levels like a feat or attribute point. (Making time a more central resource is going to go in a later possible house rule post.) In such a system, the "skill feats" would be completely removed -- let the feat system be combat-only like I suspect it was intended to be.

OK, that's enough for now. Other topics later. Comments, as always, welcome.

Another attempt at keeping a gaming blog

Back to this blog thing.

I appear to have failed at the "game session logging" part of this blog notion. I largely blame this on the bizarre and entirely arbitrary decision to write in present tense. Writing became problematic, and then a chore to be avoided. And, now the game has moved far enough along that it seems somewhat silly to go back and try to fill it in.

And, of course, once I began avoiding writing the session logs, I began avoiding writing anything on the blog because I didn't want to deal with the growing list of bullet-pointed sessions I "had" to write up, so the entire venture fell apart.

New plan: just record thoughts about games. Maybe come back to logging sessions next time I run a game and once I already have momentum on the whole blog thing. To expand:

I've been reading a large number of both new role playing systems and gaming blogs since moving to Nebraska, and I'm in the process of assimilating a lot of great ideas about role playing games into "what I want my gaming experiences to be." I don't think I'm going to settle on a single right way to game, but I am definitely leaning toward some changes in the way I tend to handle things as a DM.

In particular, I'd like to try actually playing variety of systems -- "rules light" and "narrative" based games in the Dungeon World style, as well as more "gamist" ones like OD&D and brand new, rules-heavy games like Fantasy Flight's new Star Wars game. Also, a variety of Cthulhu-systems, because I've always wanted to be part of a really good horror game, and maybe a dip back into Shadowrun because I'll always have a soft spot for that setting, if not necessarily the rules. Of course, I enjoy D20/Pathfinder systems  quite a bit, but by new I'm familiar enough with them to begin experimenting with intricate house rules to see if I can't get them to align more with my interests.

And as I do these things, I'm going to record them here so I can later be embarrassed about what I was thinking.

Also, I'd like to write about board games here.  I don't get a lot of opportunity to play them right now, but I tend to think a lot about the ideas anyway. And systems are systems -- good ideas should feed in every direction, right?