Compromise and Conceit


This is a speculative post, since what I’m suggesting would require a lot of effort and probably be a huge waste of time. My experience so far (in 3 or 4 sessions) of Warhammer 3 suggests that the system is something I really like, and I’m interested in whether it could be converted to use in non-warhammer settings. The rules themselves are very simple and easy to understand; but there are huge elements of it that make it very specific to the setting, but these elements are kind of modular and can probably be used to make the flavour of a new setting quite easily. So I’m wondering if I could convert the system to suit my Compromise and Conceit campaign world (or any other!)

Why I like warhammer 3

There are several aspects of the warhammer 3 system that I really like. The dice and skill resolution system contain a lot of role-playing hooks that enable a GM to very easily create interesting outcomes for actions, including success-with-cost, failure-but-some-minor-benefit, extreme success and failure, and unusual outcomes. The combat system is fast and deadly, and the rules for Actions give non-magic users a lot of options for things to do, as well as applying costs to non-magical manoeuvres. The system for handling fatigue/stress and other side-effects of actions is quite straightforward, and the easy way that cool-down effects are worked into the system is very clever. I also like the method for having continuous access to spells – no 1-a-day magic-users here – but limiting the frequency of use by the simultaneous mechanism of rechargable power points and rechargable actions. None of this would be possible without the simple counter-based tracking systems, of course.

I think all of this is very innovative, and very suitable to the style of game that I like to run, which is roughly like this:

  • combat is realistic and deadly, but handled quickly and simply
  • death spirals make multiple combats risky
  • magic is powerful and almost unlimited, but magic-users don’t have many spells
  • i.e. essentially fighters’ or thieves’ actions, and magic-users spells, are broadly similar in number
  • spell-use and other special actions are limited by a cost
  • skill use applies to non-combat, non-mechanical actions and can be stunted to get benefits from role-playing or good planning
  • partial success is possible in skill use, and simple to manage
  • PCs are slightly more heroic than the average person, and become quite powerful with time, but are always vulnerable

Rolemaster had almost all of these components, but was hideous to run. The simple mechanisms of the Warhammer 3 system seem to balance the kind of details this type of system requires with the kind of playability that stops a single action from taking forever.

Basic adaptation of the Warhammer 3 system

Basically, to adapt the Warhammer 3 system to a new setting, you need to change the careers (and associated advancement system), and the actions and talents. I don’t think it would be necessary to change the skills even if you were switching to a completely different setting (such as cyberpunk or space opera) though a wider range of advanced skills might be necessary. So the key thing is the careers, actions and talents. Of course you would also need to adjust equipment.

Changing the careers and advancement system

In the current warhammer 3 setting, there are a (fairly) large number of careers, and PCs are expected to progress through several over a long adventuring career. Essentially you pick up a number of advances – like experience points – that you spend on acquiring new actions, improving ability scores, or gaining skill slots over one career. Once you’ve spent about 15 (I don’t know the exact number) you can advance to a new career, retaining (most) of what you collected in the old career. You can’t advance an ability score past 6, and typically when you’re in one career you can only pick up 3 new actions; and in one career you can only train any one skill once.

The obvious way to make a more heroic and classically fantasy-centred game is to reduce the number of basic careers, and increase the length you can be in them. By requiring, say, 30 advances rather than 15, and allowing PCs to increase ability scores up to, say, 8, (or, say, 5 for non-career scores) you would basically turn a career into a longer-lived, more heroic style of “character class.” You could then allow PCs to progress to a set of prestige classes with new and better abilities. So, I would probably consider restricting the initial careers to Fighter, Specialist, Wizard or Cleric. Then subsequent advanced careers might be things like Paladin, Guildmaster, Archmage, High Priest, Necromancer, etc. I would probably also produce a dabbler-type basic career which allows a mixture of thieving or fighting and magic, but with more restricted access to spells (only level 1, for instance).

Allowing ability scores to advance to 8 is particularly important for magic-using PCs, since it enables them to cast more spells before they have to draw more power, and reduces the risk of stress from carrying power above their usual limits. Because skill checks depend on abilities it also gives fighters solid combat powers to take on the types of monsters you don’t see in a standard warhammer campaign.

Changing actions and talents

I already have a set of spells for Compromise and Conceit, some of which I tried to represent as actions for a D&D-style game. It wouldn’t be difficult to rewrite these (and some new, demonically-influenced talents) as actions for warhammer 3. Most of the combat actions could stay as they are. There would be a new set of Infernal-style actions which would be semi-spell-like and available for all characters, wizard or not, but quite basic. There might also be some interesting technology-related ones, particularly to do with building stuff; for example a “grenade” action which requires that you previously spent some time in a lab creating grenades using your advanced tech skills.

Basically, however, the system would retain a bunch of core actions, and only the spells and infernal talents/actions would change.

The downside

The challenge of doing this is that it would be a huge amount of work, and a lot of the results would probably be unbalanced. The warhammer setting as it stands is almost translatable to Compromise and Conceit without much change, so it might not even be worth the effort. I’m also not sure if the warhammer system breaks at higher power levels or not. But it could be worth finding out…

In a recent skype conversation, one of my players from London accused my GMing style of being “very sandbox,” and even went so far as to imply that there is little difference between me and the OSR. This has me a little confused as to what sandboxing is, since I don’t do any of the following:

  • Random terrain generation
  • Random monster encounters
  • Random adventure generation
  • Morale checks, or any kind of non-deliberative decisions about monster behaviour

and, as far as I know, most of my campaigns have a strong plot element (though I tend to allow the players to decide what direction to go, including which side to pick).

So I’m wondering – if I don’t do any of these things, and I like “story,” is it possible to be a sandbox-GM? Jesus, these days I don’t really even make maps.

Here are a couple of examples of “actions” based on the skill-based d20 system I developed a while ago, combined with the Actions framework discussed yesterday. One is a spell, one a “supernatural ability” and one a “mundane” (and hideous) special ability. The Cost line in each description gives the attribute against which damage is done if the action fails. The cost is always 1 wound. In my conception of magic, arcane magic incurs a physical cost (it is exhausting) while divine magic incurs a mental cost (it drives you a little bit.. irrational and loopy). So failed arcane spells incur a wound against strength, while failed divine spells incur a wound against intelligence. In this system, a critical is achieved by a roll of a 20, at which point 2d10 are re-rolled and added to the previous roll to get a new total. On rolling a critical, all maximum effects (damage, rounds of duration of effect, etc.) are increased by some amount.

Grendel’s Demise

Type: Spell

Level: 7

Cost: Strength

Conditions: Must have one hand free and be unencumbered, not wearing metal armour. Target must be within sight, and have at least one arm or other limb.

Skill check: Intelligence (Offense) vs. Target Strength (Defense)

Critical: Yes (Double)

Effect: This spell attempts to tear off the target’s arm. It does maximum damage 7, and the target is stunned for one round plus one round per point of success (maximum 7, double on a critical). The target is also bleeding (1 wound/rd) until healing is administered. The target loses all use of one arm, either temporarily (due to massive injury) or permanently (due to amputation) at the GM’s discretion.

Hideous death

Type: attack, reaction

Level: 1

Cost: Charisma

Conditions: Attacker must be visible to the targets of the action, who must be allies of the target. Target must have been reduced to 0 hps in this round, by the PC or one of his/her allies.

Skill check: Charisma (Offense) vs. Charisma (Defense)

Effect: The character turns an opponent’s death into a lurid display of horror and gore. Any ally of the dying enemy who witnesses his/her/its death is shaken for 1 rd plus 1 rd/point of success. The target experiences a -2 penalty on all actions and will attempt to avoid combat with the character if possible. If the target is already shaken due to witnessing a hideous death in this engagement by this character, they move from shaken to terrified, and will immediately attempt to flee the battle.

If this action is being used on an enemy the character did not kill, apply a -2 penalty to the skill check.

The GM may choose to allow the player to describe the type of hideous death for an attempt at a bonus on the skill check. This is strongly advised! Note that failure to successfully terrify the target merely makes the PC look like a bloodthirsty maniac (charisma damage).

Infernal Essence

Type: Ability

Level: 1

Cost: None

Skill check: Wisdom (Use) vs. DC 20

Effect: The PC conjures an infernal essence to enhance their weapon or armour, giving a +1 to maximum damage or damage reduction for 1 min + 1 min/pt of success (maximum=character level). This is an infernal effect, so can be dispelled by demon-binding or abjuration effects, but not by magic-dispelling effects. It is usually visible as a faint glow and/or feeling of discomfort or unpleasantness surrounding the PC.

Higher-level versions of this effect are possible, and give an effect equal to the level of the action.

At the end of the campaign described here, the characters destroyed a sinister force known as The Iron House. However, a previous group (run in Australia) played in a campaign set in 1872 where they worked for an organization known as The Iron House, in the interests of the Queen. In an early session, they were dispatched to the 1872 Manchester Cornucopia of Arms and Armour, where the latest battlefield technology would be on display and one of the inventors was planning on defecting from Prussia to Great Britain. The characters’ task was to identify agents who might interfere with the defection, and if necessary kill them. This meant spending two days in the grounds of the Cornucopia posing as merchants, and so they were able to witness displays of a couple of the latest developments in infernal weaponry. Here are three examples of the kinds of things they saw.

The Steam Tank: In the age of the Essential Compromise, steam engines can be rendered very small through infernal summoning and materials, though the process is very expensive. A steam engine consists of two chambers separated by a turbine; in one chamber an imp boils water to impossibly high temperatures, which then passes through to a turbine before entering the second chamber, where it is condensed back to water and pressurized by a second imp. This imp forces it back through another turbine to the first imp. Thus a perpetual motion machine is produced based entirely on steam and the ceaseless labours of two very unhappy imps. The latest infernal materials prevent heat or cold leaking between the chambers or from the engine into its environment, so the small engine can be mounted in the middle of a small room or vehicle – though heaven help the occupants in the rare occasions that the engine bursts and the imps escape their confinement.

This engine has been put to its ultimate use in the development of the Steam Tank, a wheeled armoured vehicle crewed by two intrepid soldiers, one who directs its movement and one who fires a small cannon mounted atop the vehicle. In early models the cannon was a static mortar, and the vehicle little more than mobile artillery; but realizing the cost of the engine was such a great part of the whole, the Prussian Steamworks expanded its power and used it to drive a mobile turret, which now contains the latest in heavy infernal weaponry – an infernal cannon, or a nest of field rods of some kind. Rumour has it that a larger version is in development, that carries prisoners of war (or just prisoners) who feed an autonomous sentinel cannon from within cramped cells on one side of the vehicle, though the experimental version is said to have been simply a tumbrel dragged behind the tank itself.

This tank is being used only by the Prussian military but – perhaps as a political symbol of Prussia’s growing military might – one and one only has been sent to the Manchester Cornucopia for demonstration purposes[1]. Invulnerable to infantry weapons and too mobile for artillery, it forebodes a revolution in cavalry warfare.

The Reanimator Field Rod: The ultimate in infernal field rods, the Reanimator Field Rod carries this line of weapons to its ultimate conclusion. Usually carried into battle by a priest or wizard, the rod fires a cone-shaped blast of dimly visible grey-green light, which animates any fresh corpse in its area of effect. This corpse is then under the control of the Rod’s wielder, who must himself be attuned to the rod through a specialist ritual. The French army is said to have established a few squads of their infamous battle-priests armed exclusively with these rods, and will send them to the rear of the first wave of soldiers to enter the fray. Though these soldiers may be cut down or horribly decimated, their opponents will find themselves then facing the dread prospect of fighting again not only those they just killed, but those of their friends and allies who were also sacrificed in the melee. Every defeat of the enemy is redoubled by these priests, and every loss partially reversed. Who can doubt the terrible effect of this on the morale of those who fight, and on the judgment of those who lead[2]?

Persian Anti-personnel bombs: aka Turkish Delights, are a nasty little invention of the Ottoman Empire, which has been developing considerable skills in pacifying aggressive populations during the food riots of the past two years. These bombs are barely large enough to significantly injure an armoured man, being roughly marble sized. Presented by the handful in a special magical bag, they are completely inert in the bag, so a Turkish soldier has no risk of blowing his chest out when he dives for cover from an Anatolian death-archer. However, once out of the bag they are immediately primed, and explode after three sharp impacts, such as occur when they are thrown down steps into a basement, bounced along a corridor, or skipped across the surface of a fountain. The resulting explosion is concussive, but will easily kill or seriously injure an unarmoured rebel (or his family, if they are sheltering in the basement with him). Such devices have obvious uses in England, given the recent riots over corn laws and the other unrest being fomented by capricious foreign powers. They are also useful in ship-to-ship warfare.

fn1: During the adventure this tank was stolen by the defector’s Chinese lover, and they finished the adventure chasing it through the streets of Manchester while Prussian agents attacked them and tried to capture it and the defector it held. Much of central Manchester was laid waste in the process.

fn2: Not to mention the judgment that will be placed upon those who use such a weapon…

Fame & Fortune is running this month’s blog carnival on the theme of preparation, which has inspired me to do something I had been thinking about for a while but never got around to – posting up the contents of one of my session preparation documents, in order to show what I do to prepare for a session. Unfortunately most are too long or involve too much knowledge about prior events in the campaign, but I have managed to find one from late in the Compromise and Conceit campaign which provides a reasonable example. I may put up some other background material too, for the players of that campaign to see how I planned the final stages of the campaign, and also to share some ideas I had that I’m quite fond of.

My preparation typically consists of writing a single document that covers the main goals of the adventure, with an introduction linking it to any campaign arcs, and sometimes some material on key scenes I want to describe. I plan adventures from 3 main starting points:

  • A simple cog in a campaign that needs to be turned
  • A set of scenes that I’ve had in my mind and want to play out
  • An idea for an adventure setting that occurred to me and that I want to run

and usually a bit of all 3. The adventure given here is purely a cog in the campaign, but easily worked up into some quite frightening and ferocious scenes. Here is the essential background:

The setting is a magical colonial America, in about 1770. The characters have previously established that there is a sinister fourth force at work in America, and that it employs Irish mercenaries to help it fight. Following the trail of a dragon bone they stole from this group, they learnt from a Dragon in Greenland that the bone came from a Dragon in Ireland. Since dragon slayers tend to be unforgettable, they travelled to the Irish village to find out what people there knew of the dragon slayer, and discovered upon arrival that the village had been enslaved and all the men-folk turned into mercenaries; the womenfolk were trapped there and doomed never to die. This magic was invoked using a powerful ritual based on a dragon’s corpse, the dragon having been killed nearby and dragged to the town. The characters also happen to have a special summoning book that enables them to summon a powerful demon of Lore, and that Demon can tell them what to do to reverse the dragon ritual and free the Irish mercenaries. This will significantly weaken the mysterious fourth force, and they can then travel to its hideout and learn what its goals are. They know where its hideout is because they caught a wizard who works for this organisation, and it just so happens that a wizard “not yet in the fullest of his powers” is a good sacrifice for the Demon of Lore ritual. The players have decided that they’re going to go through with the ritual (and boy aren’t they well placed to do it!) so the adventure is about the ritual, its consequences, and their subsequent journey to Bodmin to infiltrate the fourth force (called The Iron House).

The preparation document follows, and constitutes the background material for the adventure written up here. I think some of the information had been shared over email ahead of time (my players could be a little bit dithery, so I got them to discuss some decisions in between sessions).

Introduction

In this adventure the characters enact a reversal of the ritual of the dragon, to free the men of Killarney from service to the Iron House; in order to do this they enact a ritual of Lore Demon Summoning, which will involve killing the mage they hold captive. First they may want to question him, to find out what he is doing. They will then travel to Bodmin to infiltrate the newly-weakened base of the Iron House and learn more about its purpose. By the time they arrive the land around Bodmin will be in uproar, as the newly-freed men of Killarney go crazy trying to find their way home. The characters can perhaps lead the way.

Summoning the Lore Demon

First the characters will have to summon their lore demon, using the book they obtained from the lich and the mage they captured. The Lore Demon will be able to tell them what to do to complete the ritual, and they can choose to use the existing magic circle (though they will need to refresh it). The characters can decide the content of the ritual, the key points being:

  • The mage must die, preferably horribly (Dave Black’s responsibility – base DC 22)
  • A priest must conduct the ritual

The base DC is 30, with every point above the target giving a +1 to the roll in the subsequent dragon ritual. Dave Black’s success grants a +1 on the priests’s roll for every point above the killing target (to a maximum equal to his level)

The Dragon ritual

For the dragon ritual:

  • A part of the dragon must be used (they need to remove a rib from Anna’s corset, -1 DR on her gear)
  • A priest and a mage need to conduct the ritual together (Anna and David – the better each of their DCs the more powerful the effect)
  • The circle needs to be imbued with infernal essence (Ganymede – base DC 17)
  • It is better if the ritual is conducted in a storm (+5); perhaps Brian can conjure this

Every point of success on Russell’s roll increases Cantrus’s roll by 1 (to a maximum equal to his level). The information gained from the lore demon gives a bonus to Anna’s roll (+1 per point of success, maximum equal to her level). Anna’s roll determines what proportion of the soldiery is affected; Cantrus’s roll determines the means by which they are freed and their degree of lucidity:

DC Anna’s effect Cantrus’s effect*
20 Failure Death
25 25% Frenzy: 2 days/pt below
30 50% Confusion/lethargy: 1 day/pt below
35 75% Suggestibility: 1 day / pt below (contest against Cantrus’ roll)
40 100% Clear

*Cantrus’s effect only applies if Anna is successful

The effects are cumulative, so after frenzy comes suggestibility, etc.

[editor’s note: I actually meant by this that the soldiers have to step their way through the success grades, so if Cantrus rolled a 36, they would be frenzied for a day, then confused for a day, then suggestible for 4 days, then clear. In the event I think that’s what happened. But Death doesn’t step through anything – the mercenaries just die – and “clear” doesn’t step through anything. So really the DC for this roll is 40, and lower results are partial success. Also, I think that Anna’s player wasn’t here this night, and whoever rolled for her rolled up a fumble. We – the players and I – consulted extensively about this and decided that since this was a really important roll for her and she wasn’t there, it was unreasonable to keep her roll. The campaign could go on without her success (this was just a side adventure to weaken the Iron House) but they thought it was a bit cruel for her PC to screw up so badly the one time she wasn’t there. So I called her (she was studying) and got her to reroll the result].

What the mage can tell them

The mage can tell them that he was asked to keep an eye out for people journeying to Killarney on suspicious grounds, and paid with a piece of dragon bone which he has fashioned into an amulet, which he will one day use to make a powerful magic item (when he has more power – this day, obviously, will never come!) The man who told him to do this was called William de Bouverie, 1st Earl of Radnor, the seat of Bodmin. He pays the mage an annual retainer for the service, which he is saving to help him go back into training.

Bodmin

Having conducted their two rituals, the characters can travel to Bodmin, Cornwall, to find the home of the earl of Radnor, a stately home called Lanhydrock. Here they can enter the building and hope to find the truth of the mission of the Iron House. It takes about 3 days to sail to Newquay, and then another day to travel overland to Bodmin by fast horse, through Bodmin moor. On the outskirts of Bodmin the characters will find evidence of the movements of the soldiers of Killarney, depending on the results of Cantrus’s spell.

Death: the soldiers will be scattered in the lands around lanhydrock, in concentric rings, dead but peaceful, and strangely untouched by animals.

Frenzy: the soldiers will be scattered about the land in small uncontrolled bands, looting and destroying anything they find, in battle with the local constabulary or other soldiers of the Iron House (who are better, but in the minority). Signs of this battle will be clearly visible on the horizon as smoke.

Confusion/lethargy: the characters will find groups of the soldiers wandering confused through the area around Lanhydrock or on the moors. They can be gathered together, fed and watered but will not be open to any kind of orders or commands.

Suggestibility: Similar to confusion/lethargy, but slightly more active and they can be directed to, for example, travel overland to the boat at Newquay. They can also be suggested into becoming troops for the PCs. Suggestion is a social attack at -1 per target, lasting initially for 1 day per point of success (or 1 week per point of success if done magically). Note that other people can do this and the characters may meet groups of soldiers subject to the same effect.

[editor’s note: I think Anna Labrousse used the suggestibility effect on the first 4 soldiers they met to enlist them as assistants in an assault on Lanhydrock].

Those soldiers from Killarney not affected by the spell will fight their affected friends. They will be distributed evenly between Bodmin and the Americas.

Once the characters reach Lanhydrock they can try and invade the house, since they will find it largely empty and/or partially burnt. They should still have to deal with roving bands of Iron House soldiers.

I am presenting a Special Lecture on Global Crime and Public Health this semester, which is really the culmination of my work on international drug cartels, prohibition and harm reduction. In preparation for the lecture on harm reduction, at the end of the lecture on sex work and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) I thought I should give an overview of the “changing” attitudes towards public health and sex work and STIs in the medical literature. I remembered a few years ago reading an archived letter to the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in which a doctor advocates not treating syphilis because syphilis serves as a moral warning to society of the dangers of promiscuous sex (this was before Tuskegee, by which time we were so enlightened that only black people got no treatment). The BMJ now has all its issues since 1840 online, so I went trawling through back issues looking for admonitions against sleeping with “loose women” and ways of preventing said women from returning to their “vicious life,” and although I didn’t find that original letter I found a lot of other fun stuff. However, in the process I stumbled upon a doozy of a letter from a certain Surgeon-Lieutenant-General E.M.Wrench, MVO, FRCSEng (and if ever anyone deserved a medal this man did!) describing his experiences as a military surgeon in the Crimean War. It was published in 1908, so by that time he must have been quite old, but it presents a crystal clear image of his experiences in the war. Reading this I was both impressed by how primitive British war-making was in the mid-19th century, and reminded of why I really enjoy working with medical  doctors. Their sense of humour, their writing style, and their earthy view of the world is truly a rewarding combination to work alongside.

I’ve put in a few bold elements to indicate the bits I find truly disturbing, and a series of footnotes (of course) with cynical/salutary (take your pick) lessons for the modern NHS. But please don’t let them distract you from the horror that is a Doctor’s cynical report on life in the Crimean war. Incidentally, this report was entitled “Lessons from the past.”

The surgeon begins with discussion of the nature of his arrival, but we’ll skip that…

I will not, however, talk of these generalities, but describe my experience when in charge of a ward of what might be called the base hospital at Balaclava in November, 1854, shortly after the battle of Inkerman, some of the wounded from which were under my care, together with cases of cholera, scorbutic dysentery, and fever. It was situated in what had been the military school of St.Nicholas, which contained several rooms about 30 feet square. There were no bedsteads or proper bedding; the patients lay in their clothes on the floor, which from the rain blown through the damaged windows and the traffic to and from the open-air latrines was as muddy as a country lane. There were no nurses, no washing conveniences, either personal or for clothing. Two old soldiers, called orderlies, did their ignorant best to attend to the wants of the patients, but were chiefly occupied in rude cooking and burying the dead. There was no bread, of course no milk, and if I remember rightly, no tea, only the famous green coffee. There was certainly no beef tea – Liebig’s extract and similar substitutes had not been invented, and tinned meats were almost unknown. About midday a large iron witch’s-cauldron was carried into the middle of the ward; the patients crowded round to dip in their tin canteens, those bedridden dependent on the generosity of their comrades for a share of the contents of the pot – a mixture of lean mutton and fat salt pork[1], floating in the weakest of oily broth. Notwithstanding the shortcomings of the commissariat each surgeon had to make out a daily diet role, showing what each patient should have – full, half, or spoon diet – to satisfy the red tape system and prevent the purveyor being surcharged for the cost of the scanty food he was able to supply. We were practically without medicines. The supply landed at the capture of Balaclava was exhausted, and the reserve gone to the bottom of the Black Sea with the winter clothing and several surgeons in the Prince-steamer, so that in November, 1854, the base hospital was without opium, quinine, and ammonia. Sanitary science was in its infancy, and sanitary precautions were not capable of being carried out when the living were so hard pressed to live and dead men were for days floating about amongst the ships in the harbour.

You will not be surprised to hear that many of our patients died, but, probably owing to our unglazed windows, we were free from what was then aptly called ” hospital gangrene,” which carried off, I believe, every one of the thirty wounded Russians in the Town Hall not many yards away[2]. The stench of that building I shall never forget. You may ask why, with so many ships in the harbour, we were not able to obtain bedding and medical comforts. The reply is: The medical department was, in those days, powerless to incur expense[4], and the purveyors’ department was likewise in such a subordinate condition that they were afraid of responsibility. It was to Miss Nightingale’s bravery in setting all red tape at defiance that the success in reforming the great hospital at Scutari was due, and if there is one lesson more than another to be learnt from the breakdown of the medical department in the Crimea, it is that if the department is to be held responsible for the cure of the sick and wounded, it must have the power not only to administer pills and potions, but to secure at all costs the quite as – nay, more – important food, shelter, and equipment of the hospitals. The initial breakdown in the Crimea was the result of the military – monopolizing all the transports, and hence the landing of the army devoid of hospital equipment and the absence of hospital ships, so that the only apology for bedding in a ship full of sick and wounded, of which my brother-in-law, Mr. Swinhoe, had charge from Balaclava to Scutari, were the mats previously provided in the ship when conveying horses to the seat of war[6].

The condition of the base hospital being such as I have described, that of the field hospital, seven miles away on an exposed plateau under canvas, was, if possible worse; hence it was the object of most regimental surgeons to send away their sick and wounded, as often as the French could lend their mule litters, for embarkation at Balaclava; though their chance of arriving alive at Scutari was not good, for 10 per cent during the winter were cast overboard as corpses during a voyage of 160 miles, none of the ships being fitted for the purpose, and some, as I have already described, intended for the conveyance of horses.

Much was said in days gone by of the advantages of the system of regimental surgeons, and as one who spent eight years in that capacity I can endorse it as very pleasant for the surgeon, and possibly, in those days of long service, of some advantage to the regiment, from the knowledge acquired of the history of the men, but in time of war no system could be worse. To give an example: During the month of June, 1855, my regiment, the 34th (now the Border[7]), in addition to their share of the fifty daily wounded[8] in the trenches suffered heavily at the assaults of the quarries on the 12th and 18th. On the latter date I marched down to the trenches with twelve officers, and back to camp with two, the other ten being killed or wounded. The men suffered nearly as heavily, and there being no division hospital we had to convert three regimental barrack huts into hospitals, and staff them with men from the ranks entirely ignorant of ambulance duties. Two of the three regimental assistant surgeons soon knocked up, and were temporarily invalided. The surgeon was very shaky; he died of delirium tremens shortly afterwards, and I had to work single handed. As a consequence some of the slightly wounded were not properly attended to for several days, the wounds became infected by maggots, and operations were performed under the greatest difficulties. I remember a case of amputation at the shoulder-joint, when I had to administer the chloroform, compress the subelavian and pick up the axillary artery, whilst the surgeon, with trembling hands, tied it; yet possibly in the same brigade there were several regimental surgeons almost unemployed.

Here I may allude to the dread of the use of chloroform (then recently invented) by the older surgeons, and to the famous memorandum issued by the Director-General condemning its too frequent use, and adding that the cries of the patient undergoing an operation were satisfactory to the surgeon as indicating the absence of syncope, and that pain was a stimulant that aided recovery. Surgery was then little advanced from classical times; antisepsis was unthought of, and the resection of a wounded joint so novel, that Fergusson invented the term “conservative surgery ” to describe it.

The duties, as well as the practice, of the regimental surgeon differed from those of the present day; one of his most unpleasant, was his enforced attendance alongside of the prisoner, at what was called “punishment parade,” when his duty was to watch the man being flogged lest he die under the lash of the cat-o’-nine-tails or faint from loss of blood, which usually flowed freely after the first few strokes. The parade over, the man was removed to the hospital for the surgeon to cure him and render him fit for duty as speedily as possible.

Wars always have been, and always will be, cruel. It is, however, the pride of our profession that, while sharing the fatigues and dangers of the campaign, our sole duty will be the protection of the soldiers from what, after all, is his most deadly enemy – disease[9] – and the alleviation of the sufferings of the wounded. The report of the Royal Commission on the Crimean War reported that the medical breakdown was the result of the system, and not of the surgeons – a lesson that I trust will not be forgotten by the nation. The medical department, unless made efficient and given proper authority[10] during peace, cannot be expected to do its duty satisfactorily during war.

Of course, in a Compromise and Conceit-style campaign, this would all be different, since there would be magical healing, the healer’s guild would have “a long, low-roofed white building” set up to receive the injured, and all would be peaceful sage candles and tender moments between red-headed chicks and their injured lovers. When, oh when will the NHS find faith healing?[11]

fn1: So, the hotel services in the NHS haven’t changed…

fn2: Hospital Acquired Infections were novel even then… and, the Daily Mail was right, it was all the foreigners’ fault[3]

fn3: You may laugh at this silly joke, but I have actually read newspapers in the UK trying to blame hospital infections on foreigners… more than once!

fn4: Whereas, under the current straitened conditions, the NHS is “quarantined” from cuts, and able to purchase such luxuries[5]

fn5: I have worked in an organisation subject to hiring freezes and budgetary constraints, so I understand exactly this man’s feelings

fn6: I think it’s worth noting that, while modern armies are well capable of providing hospital services, in certain recent wars their administrative organs certainly seemed to forget other aspects of planning for the post-invasion situation, with similar consequences (for the Iraqis, at least)

fn7: That’s right, the same regiment as George McDonald Fraser, of Flashman fame. Do they teach writing classes in that regiment, perchance?

fn8: It’s quite well-remarked (as we’ll see below) that compared to subsequent wars casualties in the Crimea were remarkably low, and in fact military engagements of the time were remarkable for their low casualty rates compared to modern wars between mechanized armies. The main killer in the Crimea was disease, which makes the war all the more tragically pointless.

fn9: In fact, the Crimean war had a role to play in the development of epidemiology, since the aforementioned “Miss Florence Nightingale” led a campaign to change conditions in military hospitals, and did so using some very cunning graphical devices, which presaged later methods for the comparison of disease. As I discovered in my trawling through the annals of Britain’s response to sexually transmitted infections, the military and their fighting fitness have played an important role in the development of modern public health practice, not just through direct intervention in their health problems, but through the peacetime health policy implemented in support of the health of soldiers.

fn10: And out of tragedy… a doctor demands more institutional authority!!! Who could have guessed it would end this way?

fn11: when some quack gets Prince Charles’s ear, obviously.

In this post I will use some basic probability theory to show that, in essence, the Warhammer 2nd edition combat system is not deadly, as I think is often claimed, but is actually really slow and boring, and inherently survivable.

This assumption of deadliness arises, I think, from the fact that PCs at low levels are poor at doing anything, and the assumption is that if you’re bad at stuff then you’ll die quickly doing that stuff if it’s also dangerous stuff. I think this assumption also lies beneath claims that early D&D was deadly, an assumption which I don’t test here (due to lack of familiarity with early D&D rules) but which is probably somewhat better placed than any assumptions about Warhammer’s relative riskiness.

I came to this comparison because on Friday and Sunday last week I role-played respectively in Pathfinder and Warhammer 2nd edition, and I was struck in both instances by the length and inevitable dreariness of the combat, and by the fact that both combats had to be ended by a non-combat act of the GM’s. This post, about the probability of survival in each of three systems, will serve to show how this comes about and also I think reveals some obvious conclusions about tactical combat rules in role-playing. I aim to expand on this post in future with a proper simulation and statistical analysis, complete with survival curves, but that will take a bit of time.

Introduction

The probability of surviving a single round, and the cumulative probability of surviving multiple rounds, are calculated here based on the underlying combat mechanic of three systems – Warhammer 2nd edition, D&D 3.5, and my own Compromise and Conceit modifications of the d20 system. All three are compared with a putative “control” system in which the mechanics are not specified, but are assumed to result in a 50% probability of a hit in any given round, and death after 3 successful hits. The chief conclusion for each system is the number of rounds required to fight before reaching a 50% chance of death, referred to hereafter as the “median survival time,” though strictly speaking this is not a median survival time. In practice of course time to death varies according to the good or bad luck of the player, and how much they lie about their rolls to the GM, so survival time should here be assumed to be roughly representative of a long-run probability. The methods presented here also use various simplifications and approximations, specifically ignoring the role of criticals, fate points, and the death spiral in the Compromise and Conceit system, which makes the order of hits important for survivability.

In all cases, the survival probability is calculated for a fighter-type PC attacking an NPC with exactly the same skills as themselves.

The fundamental mechanics assumed are set out below. The fundamental problem with Warhammer can be seen to derive from the number of defensive manoeuvres available to a fighter in a standard combat round. Once a successful hit has been scored, the defender can then roll a defensive roll using their own combat skill, and then (if a fighter-type character) can roll a damage reduction check against their constitution. For a typical fighter we will see that this reduces a fighter’s successful hit chance to just 15%, and in a series of binomial trials requiring 3 successes, this can significantly extend the run of rolls required.

Method

For each system, a typical build of first level fighter was generated, using average statistics that might be expected for such a system, and pitted against exactly the same fighter character. No special feats were assumed in D&D or Compromise and Conceit (C&C), and the special feat of “Damage Reduction” was assumed for the Warhammer fighter (though as we shall see, it is not an enormously important feat). Other assumptions are outlined in detail below.

The combat method for each of the systems was summarised as a single probability of successfully scoring damage against an opponent. Damage was assumed to be the average for the type of character, and the number of hits required to kill the PC for the given average damage was used as the number of hits required before the PC or their opponent was killed. In each round, the cumulative probability of death was calculated as the probability that the given number of hits occur by that round, which is practically given as 1-P(less than that number of hits occurred). Formally, given a requirement of x hits to achieve death, the probability that a character survived to round k is the probability that they have received at most x-1 hits in k trials. The adjusted probability is the probability that they have survived to round k, or that they killed their opponent in round k-1. This probability in turn is given as the probability that they survived to round k-1 and they delivered 3 or more hits by round k-1.

This problem reduces to a simple binomial distribution for a given probability of a hit. Note that inclusion of critical hits, special moves, fate points, or death spiral effects renders this calculation completely different, and will be handled subsequently in a simulation.

Assumptions for each system are set out below.

Warhammer

A fighter-type character (for example, mercenary or watchman) is assumed to have rolled an average attack and constitution value on 2d10, giving values of 30 in each. The character is further assumed to have added 5 to the attack score, giving a value of 35. The chance of a successful attack is thus 35%, the chance of a successful defence is also 35%, and the chance of a successful damage reduction is 30%. The character is assumed to absorb 3 points of damage (30/10), and does 1d10+3 damage, and so final average damage is the average damage on a d10, or 5.5. The character is assumed to have 13 hit points, and be wearing leather armour (AP 1), so overall average damage is 4.5. Probability of doing any damage in one round is given as the Probability of a successful attack AND a failed defense AND a failed damage reduction. Since the opponent is exactly the same, this gives us the following results vis a vis the PC:

  • Chance of being damaged by the opponent in one round=0.16
  • Number of hits required to die: 3

D&D3.5

The D&D fighter is assumed to have a +2 strength bonus, BAB of 1, and weapon focus, for a total attack bonus of 4. Armour is chain with a shield, +2 dexterity bonus, and +1 dodge bonus, for a total AC of 19. The fighter is assumed to have maximum hit points, the Toughness feat and a +1 constitution bonus, giving 14 HP. Damage is from a longsword with +2 strength bonus, giving average damage of 6.5, so 3 hits are assumed to be required to kill the fighter. No other feats are assumed. This means that the chance of a successful hit is 25%, because the PC needs to roll over 15 on a d20, giving a 25% chance of success. This gives the following results:

  • Chance of being damaged by the opponent in one round=0.25
  • Number of hits required to die: 3

Compromise and Conceit

The Compromise and Conceit (C&C) fighter is assumed to have 4 ranks in attack, with a +3 strength bonus, and 4 ranks in defense, with a +3 agility bonus. The fighter is assumed to be wearing armour with Damage Reduction 3, and to have a maximum damage of 5 wounds. The fighter is also assumed to have 4 ranks in fortitude, with a total of 7 wounds. When fighting against himself, this means the fighter would need to roll a 10 to hit, but a 14 to do damage. Calculating average damage is tricky because the probability distribution is truncated between 1 and 5 with uneven probabilities, so for now we assume it is weighted towards the lower boundary of the damage distribution (due to the nature of the 2d10 roll), so assign an average damage of 2. Recall that this system uses a 2d10 attack roll, so we have a final result of:

  • Probability of successfully doing damage = 0.34
  • 4 hits required to kill the PC

Control system

This system assumes a 50% chance of doing damage, and 3 hits required to kill.

With these results we construct the probability distributions.

Results

The median unadjusted survival time for each system is:

  • Warhammer: 17 rounds
  • D&D: 11 rounds
  • C&C: 11 rounds
  • Control: 5 rounds

Figure 1 shows the unadjusted survival times (D&D has been misnamed AD&D).

Figure 1: Unadjusted survival times

The adjusted times were:

  • Warhammer: 23 rounds
  • D&D: 15 rounds
  • C&C: 14 rounds
  • Control: 7 rounds

and the probability curves are plotted in figure 2.

Figure 2: Adjusted survival curves

Recall that these are not true survival curves, but simply cumulative probability distributions.

Conclusion

It actually takes a long time to die in Warhammer, with a concomitant number of die rolls. At the unadjusted median survival time, if the player wins, he or she will have rolled 17 attack rolls and 3 damage rolls (on average); he or she will also have suffered an average of 6 attacks that required defensive rolls, giving a total number of defensive rolls of between 6 and 12, for a total of 26 – 32 rolls. The D&D player will have rolled 11 attacks and 3 damage rolls, for a total of 14 rolls. The C&C player will have rolled just the 11 attack rolls, and the control player will have rolled 5 attacks and 3 damage rolls for a total of 8 rolls.

It’s worth noting that, fiddling with the underlying parameters of the game assumptions for warhammer shows that damage reduction is a significant factor in the slowness – losing this feat increases the base hit chance to 23%, similar to D&D. However, the relative ability scores of the enemy are not that important. If the enemy has only a defense score of 15, half that of the PC, hit probability increases to 20% and the survival time drops (for the person with the higher skills) to 13 rounds, only shaving off 4 rounds. Also, if both fighters have an attack ability of 55%, the overall chance to hit remains roughly similar, at 17%, so gaining levels doesn’t significantly speed up combat.

Even if we assume that the warhammer system represents reality in its long drawn-out slugfests, we have to ask if this is a system that we want to actually play – fights this long are very boring. Also we note that a player has fate points to spend, and that in the “low power” world of warhammer these are one of the player’s main advantages over NPCs. But the average player will have 3 fate points, which can be used to reroll a single roll. Given they have to roll 26 – 32 times to win, it seems that these fate points aren’t going to make a significant difference to the battle’s progress. Also, unlike in D&D and C&C, the absence of other powers and magic means that the player has little else to do in combat but roll to hit, making these 26 rolls considerably less interesting than in other systems.

We also can note that there is no particular reason for a given number of rolls to be made for one attack. Combat systems abstract combat, so we could in essence reduce combat for the Warhammer case to a single roll against a 15% hit chance, and have the same result as described here, at the cost of 6-12 rolls less. Players want a certain amount of argy-bargy in combat, but I think most people would argue (and I think certainly the people I’ve played Warhammer with have agreed) that a little less argy bargy and a bit more fun could be had from a different system.

In a subsequent post, I will consider a full simulation for a set of sample fights, include criticals and death spirals, and give a statistical analysis.

Over at tenletter, there are some example abilities for Fighters to take when they have leader training. This reminded me of some of the more fun feats that my players chose for their characters in the Compromise and Conceit campaign, and which I thought I would reproduce here. These feats are sometimes overpowered, either because they were given at first level or because I like people to have feats which add to the character, even if they’re nasty. Each feat described below also includes the name and “class” of the character who used it.

Powerful Voice (Anna Labrousse, enchantress)

Can be used 3 times / day, using a presence vs. will challenged skill check. The target suffers a suggestion-like effect for 1 round per point of failure (Max. duration=Anna’s level).

Infernal Tango (Lord Merton St. Helier, sybarite)

Lord Merton and Russell Ganymede, his batman, have an almost supernatural understanding of each others’ moves in combat. Whenever Merton is able to use his ranged weapon, he gains an attack of opportunity against a single target in melee combat with Russell Ganymede.

Infernal Synergy (Lord Merton St. Helier, sybarite; and Russell Ganymede, his faithful batman)

This feat must be taken by both Merton and Russell; it extends their innate understanding of each others’ combat style, and enables each of them to gain a +2 attack bonus when fighting attacking someone who is engaged in melee combat with their ally. This also applies to ranged attacks.

Horrid Death (Dave Black, King’s Torturer)

If Dave delivers a killing blow, he can choose to kill his opponent in such a horrid and gruesome fashion that all allies of the target who witness his/her/its death must immediately suffer a will vs. presence challenged skill attack. If they fail, they are shaken and suffer a -2 to all actions for 1 round per point of failure.

Torturer’s Tale (Dave Black, King’s Torturer)

Once per day, Dave can touch one target and, on a successful will vs. presence check, learn the truthful answer to 1 question.

Locking eyes with the Damned (Father David Cantrus, Jesuit)

Cantrus catches the eye of another spellcaster in order that both parties can appreciate the inevitable damnation of their souls, reflected in the eyes of another destined for the same flames. If Cantrus succeeds in a challenged will vs. will skill check, he and the target are unable to cast any magic until Cantrus deliberately breaks eye contact. The effect can work around corners/through walls if there is a mirror or other reflection by which they can be seen. The target takes 1 fatal wound every round that they fail a will vs. will challenged skill check, thus hastening their descent into hell. The target may yell for aid from fellows, but cannot cast spells or attack Cantrus, though they can attempt to move to escape Cantrus. Cantrus can move, but cannot attack or cast spells.

Because some of these feats were chosen at quite high level, I didn’t put any particular pre-requisites on them. Had I been writing them from the very first, I would obviously make some of them have attack bonus and feat pre-requisites. They were also intended, obviously, to personalise the PCs and make the player’s vision more personalised. In fact, some of these feats – particularly Locking Eyes with the Damned and Powerful Voice – were not used as much as expected. After Cantrus took Locking Eyes with the Damned, I chose battle with the final enemy to depend on it.
The remaining PC, Brian the Woodsman, didn’t have many specialist feats but he did have to regrow one of his arms, which was reformed in a dark ritual of faerie magic so that he had a massive, thick-thewed limb of wood and moss, wreathed in shadow. With this limb he could cast a spell, The Long Arm of the Lore, which I also describe here.

The Long Arm of the Lore

Range: Touch

DC: 25

Challenged: vs. Spellcraft

Effect: Brian’s shadow-wreathed arm grips the target and wraps them in a flickering halo of shadowy force drawn straight from the depths of the Faerie kingdom. For 1 rd + 1 rd per point of success, the targeted spell-user loses the ability to use their spellcraft skill in casting spells, but must instead rely on will.

As an example of this spell in action, Anna Labrousse finished the campaign with a spellcraft skill total of 21, and a will of 2. This significantly reduces her ability to successfully cast higher level spells. In future iterations of my system, it is likely that all secondary skills will be closer to primary skills, so an equivalent Anna Labrousse would have a will of about 10-12. This would still vastly reduce her power to cast more serious enchantments, like her infamous Grendel’s Demise. Sadly, the campaign finished before Brian got a good chance to use this spell.

Greg at Synapse RPG makes the claim that “we dont really have a good grasp of what goes on at other people’s tables and our community is not too great at sharing techniques or playstyles.” I don’t know if this is true or not, but it occurred to me that it would be fun anyway to try and describe the style by which I DM. So here goes…

Campaign style

Most of my campaigns are a kind of “story-based” campaign, in which I have a rough idea of a general goal I want the PCs to reach, a definite idea of a starting point and a few hooks in the middle to get them to the end; the rest I fill in as I go, and it can change a lot (including the final goal) depending on what happens in the campaign. The goal might be, for example, finding out who caused the apocalypse; but by the end of the campaign it may have morphed into a trip into hell to sacrifice a baby in order to stop a sinister Papist plot.

Often my campaign ideas will start as little more than an idea for a world, and a few vague visions of big scenes I want to enact, or a couple of key NPCs who appeal, and the rest I fill out as I go. But I always have something in mind when I start, and I usually look for a way to include the fun things I want to do no matter what direction the story takes. I also usually pursue a kind of three stage approach to the campaign development, which goes along the lines of: initial unconnected adventures to flesh out the world and get the players interested, during which I usually drop a few useful plot hooks and tricks for later; then an intensive stage of story development in the middle during which the PCs learn a bunch of stuff, identify key allies and enemies, and cause a shitload of trouble; then a kind of final confrontation and/or denouement, in which everything comes to a head. The middle part can be pretty free-flowing with a lot of different ways of getting to the end; and the end may not be fixed at this stage. For example, in the beginning of the middle stage of the most recent Compromise and Conceit campaign, I gave the players a choice of 3 or 4 sides to take: Colonials, Britain, Native Americans, or purely independent. Exactly what they did after that and where the campaign ended up would depend entirely on their choice and how they pursued it, though regardless of the side they took there were certain key facts about the world which I wanted them to discover.

Adventure development and presentation

At the beginning of the campaign I sometimes use published modules, but mostly I design everything from scratch. My style of campaigning means that adventures tend to be outdoor/city adventures, often involving small bases, houses, taverns or warehouses, and very rarely involving significant dungeoneering. I like dungeons and I appreciate their classical feeling, but I find they involve a lot of preparation, a lot of artistic skills I don’t have, and a lot of feeling of same-sameness that I like to avoid. For my players, dungeons are a treat and usually exceptionally dangerous.

I often design my adventures, like my campaigns, as a series of interconnected scenes or fragments of vision, often quite self-contained even though they’re part of the whole. Often an adventure springs purely from a vision of a single moment – for example, an adventure set on Lundy Isle in Devon arose from a vision of my PCs fighting a battle in rock pools, against superior forces, using the pools for cover. I designed the whole island for an anti-smuggler adventure, included this scene as key (the dragon skull they were seeking was hidden at this beach) and we ended up having 4 memorable scenes, only one of them planned. My adventure plans usually contain:

  • an outline of what needs to be achieved, what optional activities are obvious, and any pie-in-the-sky stuff I think might be possible
  • Description of key antagonists and places
  • Long-term consequences for the campaign and the PCs of different decisions
  • Spare monsters in case of likely side adventures or digressions
  • Key maps

I rely on my ability to improvise the details to run through anything that arises from left field.

I don’t write descriptions, but if there are key images I need in descriptions I put pointers to them in my text. I also put reminders about key things the PCs have to learn. Sometimes I forget these and have to tell the players afterwards about something they discovered that I didn’t tell them. A pointer to a description might be something like “Make sure the PCs are impressed by the scope of the castle and its impregnability, and arrange for them to arrive at moonlight so its mana-rock glistens for them” (I have never actually done this description, but you see the point).

Interactions and play style

Usually, we play in the evening after work, we order home-delivered pizza or curry, we have a 30 minute to 1 hour get-together first to debrief from our days and rant about life, and we start sober and end up (often very) drunk. Lots of gamers seem not to drink when they play – my groups usually haven’t been like that. On occasion in the past, some of my group have been stoners, and both of these behaviours have led me to develop a strong style for dealing with what some people euphemistically call “deliberation” but which I call faffing. I like my players to plan, and I enjoy that they are always trying to triple-guess me because I’m “a bastard,” but I don’t like deliberation to take up the whole night, so at some point I come (drunkenly) wading in with my combat boots on, forcing people to decide a plan.

Usually deliberation gets out of hand because a) one player (and only one) won’t let go of their own idea, or b) the players have missed an important point which will crystalise their planning, or c) all the plans are equally good. In this case when it’s gone on long enough, I either a) overrule the whinger, or b) point out to the players what should be perfectly obvious, or c) step in and give them a strict time limit on their planning before I decide their plan for them. I do this because we only usually play for 3-4 hours once a week, and I like us to spend that time playing, not planning, so I think it’s the job of the DM to keep that play happening. If any players really object to the intervention I do, of course, leave them to it.

Also, because I’m “a bastard,” I have been known on the odd occasion or fifty to throw in misleading or outright untruthful suggestions, or to confuse things deliberately. If the players, for example, all turn to me with a knowing suggestion that I would have loaded the warehouse with traps, I do my best to ensure that I confirm their fears. I occasionally lie about what the enemy is capable of or might be doing. Sometimes I do the opposite, to try and make them think barging in will be sufficient. This sort of misinformation ensures that they don’t get too cozy with their player knowledge of rules and monsters, and I find it helps to keep the feeling of the game “real” (as in, aware of the risks being taken) even once the PCs become deadly.

Because I see it as the DM’s responsibility to keep the group happy, I also step in to make sure people get equal say, that really suicidal ideas get killed off, or that an idea someone is really unhappy with (e.g. “let’s raid the village and take some women slaves”) get vetoed.

Also, when I’m DMing, I’m happy for my decisions to be disputed but if the same player is doing so over and over I will refuse further disputes, or just adjudicate secretly. Or give in and vindictively at a +2 to my rolls later, or somesuch.

Managing combat

My systems are usually death-spiral, simulationist (?) combat systems, which require description on my part, and I try to do this as much as possible[2]. I encourage players to describe their own actions, I try to describe monster’s actions as vividly as possible, and I also like to get players to describe their spells. I have a standing rule that summoned monsters take a form suited to the environment of the battle, and I or the player describe them. I try to keep combat fast-paced, particularly if it’s important for the adventure, so I sometimes do 5-4-3-2-1 countdowns to encourage rapid player decisions, and this occasionally does mean players miss a go. I fudge dice if it suits the mood/flow/intent of the battle, or if I want to spice up an encounter, or because I designed a monster too tough or too weak (I design most of my monsters myself). I allow rules about spells and effects to be broken occasionally if it suits the flow of the game, and I try as much as possible at all times to maintain a bubble of action in which the players feel they’re there – I use PC names as much as possible, I reiterate descriptive points, and I keep a fast narrative to maintain a sense of action. I also tell people if what they’re about to do is going to be really ineffective under the rules, or suicidal, unless I think they know it and are doing it anyway for some reason[1]; but sometimes I lie or dissemble to encourage a sense of fear, for example if everyone thinks that the wizard is resisting a powerful spell because he has a counter-spell, but actually it’s just from good rolls, I’ll give the impression that the players are right so that they desist from the powerful spell and waste time on breaking his non-existent defences. Also, even with monsters the players know well, I try to keep an air of mystery about them so the players don’t know for sure whether an action succeeded or failed on its own merits, or because this incarnation of this monster is special. Conversely, if their enemy has powerful save-or-die magic, I try to engineer it so they have a chance to stop the enemy using that magic first, or some kind of ability to take defensive steps. For example, ambushing a party of much-loved characters with a powerful wizard stocked up with save-or-die spells is just mean. It might be realistic in some sense, but what about the phrase “powerful wizard stocked up with save-or-die spells” invokes any sense of realism?

A few other points

I usually do dramatic scenes in the voices and manner of the NPCs, though I don’t expect players to do the same (some do, some don’t). I can get angry with players when they refuse to engage with the system and scheme of the world we’re in, since we’re there to role-play; though I don’t object at all to players going role-play light and waiting for the next battle/puzzle. I sometimes veto character development plans if I think they will unbalance one player or make them a super hero; I sometimes design monsters specifically to attack a PC (or party) weakness. At all times I try to maintain an atmosphere of immersive fun, and imminent danger.  And finally, I think I do expect my players to understand that the fun for me is not in adjudicating the rules, but feeling like I’ve created a rich and intense world that they are enjoying playing in. So I expect them to get in and have a go and take my efforts seriously, and in exchange I try to look out for dissatisfaction or boredom on their part, and change things accordingly.
At the very least, this is fun for me – for my players, too, I hope, and I hope it’s at least vaguely interesting to anyone reading it…

fn1 : punishing people for not bothering to learn the rules or not knowing them all properly is, in my opinion, really juvenile

fn2: I think I actually found in later years of Rolemaster, where all this stuff has been taken care of in critical tables, that the combat got same-same, because everyone had heard the major criticals and their effects before, and I prefer to leave the descriptions to me and/or the player. So now I envisage an improvement to RM (which I don’t play anymore) as being a critical table which lists the rules-mechanical effects but leaves the description to the DM.

No keel-hauling for these sea dogs...The only significant enhancement on the tall ship in 200 years, the Spindrift Clipper represents a considerable performance improvement over standard seaborne vessels for a limited additional cost. Behaving in every way like a normal vessel, the Spindrift Clipper has had low-power levitation magic added to its hull so that it can become airborne when needed. This has considerable advantages, enabling the ship to move much faster in fine weather and to avoid the risk of running aground or being damaged by reefs or wrecks. It also enables the ship to avoid being swamped in storms, though in instances it may be driven significantly off course. Many advanced Spindrift Clippers come with a special “storm anchor”, an emergency flight device which forces the ship to ride against strong winds, keeping it from being blown off course. Most Clipper pilots prefer to use their levitation to their advantage, rising from the water and riding ahead of stormclouds in the hope of regaining their course when the clouds have gone – better to survive at sea than to risk all for a few days lost journeying, after all. The Spindrift Clipper has made long-distance trading and exploration much easier and cheaper due to faster trips with lower risks of shipwreck or mutiny. Spindrift Clippers do not fly high, however, as their levitation magic is always weak and the ship is not designed to survive the stresses of such heights.

The characters themselves stole a small spindrift clipper, the Unfortunate Lapse of Discipline, from the Iron House, and renamed it the Inappropriate Response. It took them to Greenland and Ireland and back to America during the final stages of adventuring to date, and although it did not protect them from some of the less pleasant monsters of the Atlantic, it at least gave them some advantage in battle against the forces laying siege to New York. The Inappropriate Response relies for its levitation magic on a weak antipathic magic, cheap to install but requiring large bodies of water to move over. Later models of the Spindrift Clipper, particularly those designed for river travel, would have true levitation magic built in, so that they could act essentially as hovercraft or helicopters. These innovations would be another 100 years in development, however.

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