DMing


I recently posted some of my criticisms of the Genesys combat system to a forum for Genesys-related material, and received a surprising amount of resistance to the idea of making any changes to the rules. In amongst the resistance there were a large number of people telling me “you shouldn’t be doing that much combat anyway” and “if you like combat so much, just play D&D”. There was a strong theme of “people who play Genesys don’t like combat-heavy gaming” with the general assumption that combat-heavy gaming is somehow bad.

I have been GMing and playing RPGs for just over 30 years, and over that time I have repeatedly run into this idea that combat-heavy gaming is wrong, in various manifestations. You see adverts from gaming groups looking for members that say “we don’t focus on combat”, you meet GMs who tell you “yeah my campaigns tend to avoid combat”, and the ever-disdainful “yeah it’s not like D&D, it’s not all about combat.” Here is an example from the forum where I posted my suggested rules changes:

This entire post seems to me to be a misunderstanding of what Gensys is. If you want combat play 5e. If you want and narrative game that’s interactive between players and GM, then you’re on the right page.

This really pisses me off for a lot of reasons, and reflecting on it over the past week has triggered me to write this rant. To me, this “We don’t run games that are combat heavy” routine is like the idea that “you’re not like other girls“. Men pull this sometimes, and what they mean is they don’t respect basic aspects of modern femininity, which at the same time they really want their girl to have. It’s a shitty, self-deluding and mean-spirited approach, and most sensible girls list it as one of their basic red flags for exiting from a date. In the case of RPG talk, this “my games aren’t combat heavy” routine is bullshit for several reasons:

  • Every game group I’ve ever joined that has advertised itself this way has been just as combat-heavy as the ones that don’t
  • Combat is fun, and most people enjoy it, so when you set yourself apart from it like this you’re saying you’re a killjoy with a weird approach to gaming and probably a boring GM
  • It’s almost always based on separating yourself from D&D, just as “you’re not like other girls” is meant to separate the girl you’re talking to from a lumpen mass of boring, shallow selfie-taking girls who actually only exist as a stereotype in the speaker’s mind

In fact D&D isn’t any more combat-focused than any other system, and when people compare themselves with it they’re setting up a false equivalency which shows they either know nothing about the world of RPGs, or are an arsehole with too much brand loyalty to some other system. I want to attack each of these issues in turn.

Most groups have the same levels of combat

I’ve GMd and played in many groups in many systems over many years in several countries, in multiple cities, in two languages, and in my experience most gaming groups have about the same amount of combat. There is almost no such thing as a gaming group that doesn’t do much fighting. Regardless of the system and the setting, most campaigns involve a fair amount of good quality savagery. There will be sessions of investigation and negotiation, and sessions of shopping and planning, but these will inevitably lead up to combat or flow from combat, and players are always happy when the shit hits the fan and the dice come out.

I think there is a secondary reason for this besides that combat is fun, which is that the players often are working on limited information and don’t know the full story of the situations they’re dealing with, or what they need to do, and often they misunderstand or have forgotten key bits of information (which they invariably didn’t write down). But they can sail through these complexities because they know ultimately they can beat someone up and force the information out of them (or steal it) and if their primary pathway through the story gets lost the GM will save them by having their adversaries play their hand – usually with a weapon in it. Combat is very helpful for resolving story impasses, and GMs and players alike use it for that purpose.

It should also be noted that even though combat makes up a large chunk of time in a typical session, it isn’t actually that much of the story. Consider session 22 of my Genesys campaign, for example: The PCs visited a bar to get a job, sailed overnight on a ship where they did some planning and investigatory magic, walked for a day along a beach, checking carefully for signs of lurking dangers or evidence of wrecking, investigated a shipwreck by examining several bodies and finding and opening a chest, scouted a cliff face to find two men of dubious purpose, scouted a cave entrance looking for signs of fake signal lights, triggered a trap, and had a fight with some selkies. In actual game time the fight probably took as long as two or three of the other activities in the session, but it was only a tiny part of the total story. Combat takes up an out-sized part of the action and people’s perception of the balance of things in a game because rules are clunky and fights take a long time to resolve, not because they’re necessarily a large part of the activities of a typical adventure.

So frankly, I don’t believe people when they say they’re not really into combat in their games, because every time someone says that the empirical evidence shows the lie. Don’t get judgy with me about how you’re not that into it, and don’t pretend your level of combat in your games is special. It’s not, trust me. You’re not special.

Combat is fun

This is why every rule system has a section on fighting, and why popular gaming podcasts are called things like “I hit it with my axe” and not “I talk calmly with it to resolve the conflict.” There are several reasons for this, and they’re all perfectly good reasons:

  • It’s the time your PC faces the most risk and it’s also the time when things are least like the world you’re actually in
  • Most of the settings we play in are designed for conflict, because we want worlds where there are big evil and dangerous threats, and we especially like magic and demons and monsters, which inevitably bring violence
  • We spend most of our lives compromising with shitty people who have more power than us and negotiating and talking our way out of trouble, often with little success, and being able to smash your way out of problems – especially if the person you’re smashing is a bully or evil – is real escapism, and we don’t play these games to replicate the shitty interactions we have with shitty people in our shitty real world

If players didn’t enjoy fighting, and if people who wanted low-combat games were common, game designers would give combat the same amount of attention they currently give to social encounters or stronghold building: almost none. The reason it is a large part of gaming is that people enjoy it, which might also be the reason D&D 5e is so popular … except that D&D 5e isn’t an especially combat-heavy system.

D&D is not combat heavy

This idea that D&D is a combat-focused game is very old and very shitty. It wasn’t true 30 years ago and it’s not true now. First let’s consider some canonical examples of this idea, which I hear all the time. Consider for example this 9 year old post on stack overflow asking how to reduce combat in a D&D game, where respondents say things like this:

Well, for starters, I’d say don’t use D&D. It is a game tailored towards violent conflicts, which is exactly what you’re avoiding, it seems. Mind you, I said “violent conflicts”. No story, thus no game, can exist without any conflict whatsoever. I’m not also saying it’s completely undoable with D&D, just mainly… a waste of its design and practical goals.

I don’t know how to put this finely, so I’ll just say it: this is utter bullshit. D&D was never designed entirely towards violent conflicts, and this idea that it was is based on an unpleasant retrofitting of the nature of these games. Very early D&D lacked a skill system, so compared to games like Traveller and Warhammer that were around at the same time it looks like it was intended to be entirely combat focused, but it was never seen this way at the time. It was understood that the players and GM would resolve all non-combat stuff between themselves using negotiation and discussion and role-playing, and the rules were there to make fighting coherent – not that the game was only about fighting. You can see this in many of the classic early modules, which set out huge amounts of non-combat role playing in the social context of the game, without any particular mechanism for resolving those parts of the adventure. Later versions of the game introduced skills because of the popularity of skill systems and the recognition that without structured rules for non-combat encounters it became too much of a GM’s kimagure about how these matters would be resolved.

It should also be noted that compared to some other fantasy RPGs like Tunnels and Trolls, D&D led the way in finding ways to introduce non-combat themes. D&D invented the thief, a character class originally intended to be weak in combat but very useful outside of it, and also is responsible for the development (or at least popularization) of the much-maligned bard class, which is the Platonic ideal of non-combat role-playing. And what do we find in the 20 years since its inception? The bard is the routinely most-hated character class. Why would that be I wonder?

This idea about D&D being combat heavy is also empirically verifiably not true. Let us compare systems I have on hand! The D&D 5e rulebook has 200 pages of rules, excluding spells, of which 10 are devoted to combat, 2 are devoted to social interaction, 6 to skills, and 5 to weapons and armour. Among the spells 6/11 Bard cantrips are non-combat, 10/18 2nd level Druid spells are non-combat, and 7/15 7th level wizard spells are non-combat. (This is treating healing and restoration as combat-focused). So perhaps 10% of the rules and 50% of the spells are for combat. Compare with Genesys, our supposedly narrative/non-combat game, where in 136 pages of basic rules 7 are devoted to social encounters, 23 to combat and 3 to weapons and armour. Almost all of the spell section is devoted to combat spells, and no real guidance offered for non-combat spells, which are entirely up to the GM and players to figure out. Warhammer 2 has 140 pages of rules, of which 16 are devoted to combat, 6 to weapons and armour, and two of the PCs’ basic attributes are combat-only! (Weapon Skill and Ballistic Skill). In the spells, 5/8 of the lesser magic spells are non-combatant. The game Limnal, a modern fantasy based around things like Rivers of London and the Dresden Files, has 88 pages of rules among which 8 pages are for combat. So even definitively combat-light games like Limnal that are set in the modern mundane world where you can’t just shoot people still reserve nearly 10% of their rules for combat. D&D is far from special in this regard!

Not only do people enjoy combat, D&D isn’t especially combat heavy and it never was. I bet this pernicious lie was started by the Vampire the Masquerade poseurs, who needed an excuse for the fact that their much-loved and very popular game had shit combat rules and really boring magic. But games like Vampire, which explicitly tried to frame themselves as more social, had another problem that D&D and other “combat-heavy” games had less of: They were a target-rich environment for bullies and abusers.

Combat-free gaming and bullying GMs

I played a year-long World of Darkness game, followed up by a very short stint in the standard Vampire world, and I have never experienced so much bullying and abuse by a GM in my life. The setting is designed to make your GM a bully, and the lack of structured rules and the insane power differentials that make combat impossible also mean that almost everything becomes a case of begging your GM for a break. This old Reddit thread in response to someone asking whether to take up VTM is a good example of its kind, with comments like this:

VtM, in my opinion, tends to be bogged down by the lore, politics, and hierarchy of the system. Instead of doing cool vampire things, you mostly skulk around talking to other vampires who are all more powerful than you and will most likely execute you if you try to do anything interesting. Most of the time even having a character sheet was pointless because it seemed like using your powers in any way would get you on the Most Wanted list.

This was my experience exactly: having a character sheet was pointless because any conflict you entered (whether combat or social) was against people so powerful that your skills didn’t matter, or against mundane people who you could always beat. It was completely narrative, effectively, and the problem with narrative styles like this is that you end up entirely at the mercy of the GM, with no clear cues as to how to deal with his goals and desires, and no frame of reference to determine whether he is being unreasonable. In VTM, if a GM puts you into conflict with some god-awful ancient elder vampire, you won’t necessarily know what you’re up against and you won’t be able to resolve this situation unless you know what the GM wants to get out of the encounter; but you also won’t have any framework within which to argue your GM is being unreasonable, since the whole stupid game is designed this way. In contrast if your D&D GM throws your first level group against a lich you know there and then that you can just walk away because the GM is an arsehole and a bully.

VTM is basically high school cliques turned into an RPG, and it’s just as much fun: none. It’s also ripe ground for bullies precisely because systems without clear rules or guidelines for conflict, and without the option for you to hack and stab your way out of trouble, put too much power and privilege in the hands of the GM. It’s no surprise to me then that in amongst the last two years’ metoo reckoning within the gaming industry, a lot of the people being exposed turn out to have worked on VTM. It’s a game designed by bullies for bullies.

When you put a lot of power in the hands of one person, you need a strong and robust institutional structure to control that power. In the case of role-playing the institutional structure is the rules, and well designed rules not only provide the players with a good structure for how to handle any situation, but also provide a clear set of boundaries for the GM, so that everyone can tell when he or she is stepping out of line. This is another reason they’re combat heavy: because combat is naturally a time when everything is structured, and when everything is structured then everything is fair, and players want the game to be fair. There are a couple of clear red flags pointing to a bullying GM, and the clearest one is that he or she simply doesn’t bother to follow rules. If (as in my World of Darkness campaign), your GM doesn’t really care about character sheets and character development, ignores rules, arbitrarily forces you to change your PC, puts you into situations where using your powers or engaging in combat will inevitably be lethal, or repeatedly forces you to back down from your own plans by revealing highly powerful enemies, then you need to run. And chances are, if your GM prides themselves on not doing combat, they’re also doing one or all of those things.

Why any of this matters

I think a lot of people enter role-playing out of a genuine and deep interest in the idea, because role-playing is awesome, and I think a lot of them leave very quickly because of their experience of hard-core gaming nerds, who can be really unpleasant. If you want to grow the hobby it’s really important to recognize why people come to the game, what they really want from it, and what behavior and principles will destroy their fun and our hobby. It’s a cliche in this hobby that there’s no right way to do it, and that you should just have fun, but it’s also a truism that you never see people who enjoy combat-heavy games sneering at people who don’t, and you never hear people who enjoy D&D griping about how other games don’t have enough fighting. This sneering all goes one way, and I think there’s a reason for that: a small minority of people in our hobby want to set themselves up as special and rarified masters of the game, and in order to do that they need to disparage one of its most central, universal elements in favour of much vaguer, much less structured parts of the experience which people enjoy less and which make the game much more dependent on successfully negotiating real-world social interactions which are often, sadly, toxic. Don’t fall for it! And don’t become part of some weird system of cliques in which people who play a certain way are better than people who don’t. We’re not in high school anymore, and we don’t have to pretend to be cool. So kill as many orcs as you want, and steal their treasure from their still-warm bodies with joy in your heart and no guilt in your soul!

Some years ago now I played in a World of Darkness campaign set in a near-future world where McCain was president and a secret conspiracy was slowly pulling the world into an evil and hellish future. I played a washed-up communist called John Micksen, who served the Winter Queen and had found magic (he eventually tried to retire from service to the Winter Queen, but failed). We fought our way through many obstacles until eventually we reset the world and ended the evil god’s plan, although ultimately the ending of the campaign had a somewhat unsatisfactory “we woke up and it was all just a dream” feeling. We laughed at much of the world that we were adventuring in: the comic book proto-fascism of the McCain regime (complete with martial law and Starship Troopers style propaganda); the similarities to the Butcher books (which our GM swore were a coincidence); the vast and expansive nature of the plot and what we were up against (gods, angels, vampires; we had the helldog Cerberus as our guard dog by the end); the comical paedophilia and satanism of our enemies; the incredibly complex conspiracy theory we were unraveling. But in retrospect we were playing in a foreboding of the world to come. Not the real world, of course, but the strange fantasy world that so many QAnon lovers have fallen into over the past four years. But for all its awful real-world consequences, as a campaign world the fantastic visions of the QAnon conspiracists leave my World of Darkness campaign for dead. On the still slightly optimistic hope that by Wednesday their figurehead will be out of the white house, we can begin to shrug off Qanon as just a particularly weird and unpleasant cultural movement of these weird times, and then maybe we can begin to think about what an excellent gaming world their insane conspiracy theories have left us.

In the Qanon world a cabal of satanists have taken over the US government and are using their power to commit horrible deeds, including harvesting “adrenochrome” from tortured children, and attempting to make a world government where a small cabal of freaky people control every aspect of our lives. Almost every major institution in the US and much of the world is in on it, and only a small group of aware people are in a position to stop it. In this insane view of the world Trump is going to sweep the conspiracy away and save the universe, but the conspiracy itself goes all the way back to when Clinton was in the white house, with the tentacles of the evil organization involved slowly stretching out through all the organs of the state. This means that there are various stages of the Qanon world that could be used as a setting, probably starting with some period in the 1960s (QAnon believe the Kennedy conspiracy, and also seem to see a connection between MK Ultra and what they think is happening now). It blends Stranger Things, the X Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer seamlessly with every one of Dan Brown’s craziest stories to make an all-encompassing and absorbing world of evil to take on. Really, it’s an ideal campaign world. Let us consider some of its special features.

  • Demonology and magic: The whole thing is run by a cabal of very rich satanists, who could easily be into devil worship and black magic, or could be some kind of elite and ancient force of magic users, holdovers from the Knights Templar or some weird actual mediaeval cult (a lot of Qanon seem to think the Vatican is involved) or Vampires. Given the far right’s newfound interest in organic food, tarot and inspirational Instagram posts it’s also possible there could be forces of good aligned behind other forms of magic: religious and spiritual magic, norse witchcraft and religion, etc. The sky is the limit! There’s a lot of scope to merge the Qanon conspiracy with a Gaiman-esque American Gods scenario, in which the strings are being pulled by old gods and what is happening in the USA is actually a puppet play with the strings being pulled by fallen gods seeking temporal power. Why not chuck in the Annunaki? (The Facebook Annunaki History group has a thread with 156 comments discussing their link to Qanon!) Maybe John Dee was one of the original cabal? So much to play with!
  • Lots of guns: Most of the action takes place in America, where gun control is now a complete loss, and the PCs can walk around freely as heavily armed as they like. This is always a problem with modern-era games – how to enable the PCs to pack the kind of firepower they need to take down an Annunaki-worshipping paedophile deep state operative with an APC – but in Qanon world that’s no problem, open carry is completely cool and you’re always free to stand your ground where the paedophiles are concerned.
  • All the secret organizations scale: Because almost everyone and almost anyone can be part of the conspiracy, you can start at low level organizations – the paedophile scheme of your local pizza parlour, deep state connections in the local girl guides group, bizarre rituals under the primary school – and scale up to national or international super agencies. You can go from snooping on your pizza parlour to fully armed raids on the UNESCO HQ. The sky is the limit!
  • False flags everywhere: Almost any component of modern history can be turned into a Qanon conspiracy, which opens the potential for the PCs to be present at – or stop – any one of a range of horrible recent events. 9/11, Columbine, pretty much any war, Jonestown, the El Paso shootings, Fukushima, whatever – you can be there to stop it, to investigate who really did it and hold them to account, or to do it. And similar to the City of Mist RPG, if you do get caught in a firefight you know it won’t be news for what it actually was, but will be swung by the deep state media into another school shooting or drug bust, so your investigative and retributive activities don’t need the kind of scrupulous attention to detail that would be required in, say, a Rivers of London -based magic/reality campaign, where even the police don’t have guns.
  • Viral apocalpyse: The whole thing of course can come to a head in 2020, when the deep state unleashes a virus that will overwhelm the world unless Bill Gates gets to inject you with chips. The PCs can be working to stop this happening, or they can be working to prevent the vaccine from being deployed, or protecting an organization developing a real vaccine for true believers (maybe it’s magical – maybe it’s not!), or racing to find the origins of the virus before it mutates and turns even on its creators, or maybe the game starts as everything is really falling apart and they have to stop the apocalypse. What are Iran and North Korea doing anyway? There’s so much at stake!
  • Obvious character classes: The Hacker, the Veteran, the Survivalist, the Scientist, the Occultist, the Criminal, the Private Investigator, the Corporate Dropout, the Activist, the Politician, the Entertainer, the Lion Tamer, the Agent, the Podcaster … the profiles and rules just write themselves in this world, and the ideal party will be a mix of all of them, with their combat skills, science background, occult background and street contacts. We aren’t going to bust this conspiracy open and less we can cover all the bases!
  • Obvious enemies: Forget Blue Lives Matter, recent events have shown us that if you’re a Qultist you need to be flexible about how you deal with the legal representatives of the state, and the agents of the deep state are everywhere – they can be in congress (even the Republican party), on TV (suddenly even in Fox News), in the military (look at all those generals who refused to back the Qult!), and of course scattered all through the corporate world (don’t forget to turn off location services before you storm congress in the campaign finale!) And who doesn’t like raiding the homes, luxury yachts and secret underground paedophile bunkers of the super rich? There is a pantomime list of evil-doers to take on, and no need to feel bad about killing them – after all, they’re all paedophile satanists!

The QAnon conspiracy offers a rich and intense world of conspiracies and dangers that provides a GM a perfect balance of investigation, negotiation, fighting and stealth to keep players constantly entertained. Being set in the real world, maps and settings are easy to produce and use, and inspiration is all around you (just like the conspiracy!) You don’t even need to be balanced – no matter how outrageous and outlandish your story, it will still pale in comparison the fantasies that actual Qultists wallow in, just as X-Files looks lame compared to the QAnon story, and just as my World of Darkness campaign looked kind of tame when compared with what actually happened after 2016. You can go to town!

Of course there is one small problem with the QAnon conspiracy as a world setting: the good guys in this conspiracy are Nazis. That is a slightly unpleasant downside. But there are obvious simple solutions to this plan: you can move the setting back in time a little, to when conspiracy theories were the domain of a wide array of kooks and weirdos and hadn’t been cornered by gun-toting white supremacists. You could simply retrofit the setting so that the Nazis are the paedophile satanists (with conservatives every accusation is really a confession, after all) and keep the entire QAnon world with just the sides switched (there are so many false flags wrapped within schemes hidden inside disguises that who knows, anyway?) or you could play non-Americans who have to deal with the torrent of racism and fascism coming from their American comrades, with associated schisms and additional challenges to fighting through to the heart of the problem. Could it be that Q himself is a double agent, a double negative intended to discredit anyone acting against the conspiracy by wrapping it all up in Nazism, just as at some point in the decline of the X-Files we find out that all of Mulder’s conspiracies had been planted by the government to keep people distracted from the truth of Alien contact[1]?

If Trump manages to cling on past Wednesday, or there is another attempt at insurrection that is actually successful, we’ll be living in the QAnon world and there’ll be no point in playing make-believe games based on it. But hopefully on Wednesday this entire shitshow will fall apart and some degree of normality will return to US politics, after which we can begin to look on QAnon as a hilarious and awful moment of mass hysteria, that provided a rich and complete setting for a modern-era role-playing game with guns and magic. Let’s hope that it will all soon pass into the realms of fiction, so that we can turn it into the fodder of day dreams, and no longer have to give it sly side-eye while wondering if it will soon become the substance of our waking nightmares.

fn1: I could be misremembering this, but there were so many twists and turns in the dismal end of that story that who can say?

Yesterday I wrote a post about the ways in which online teaching and supervision can be superior to physical teaching and supervision, and today I want to follow up with a short post about what aspects of online gaming can be transferred to physical gaming. I finished my Coriolis campaign online, and we have started the Archipelago campaign online too. Gaming online at this time has been necessary to avoid a physical TPK[1], but it has had several advantages:

  • We were able to include a former Coriolis player who moved overseas in the final part of that campaign, which was a good way to end the campaign and reconnect with an old player
  • One of our players is managing a very young child and another is living a large part of their time outside of Tokyo, so we’ve been able to include them in sessions
  • We’ve been able to meet more regularly because we can set weekday evenings without having to worry about commuting or finding a convenient venue

In Tokyo there are lots of venues you can hire on weekday evenings for gaming, so we can find a mutually agreeable location, but the physical meetings are short and interrupted by eating, commuting and so on. When we game online during the week we can start later – 8pm to enable children to settle – and have already eaten and relaxed after the day. I also don’t have to lug my gaming material through the summer heat, and if we finish at 11 with a solid 3 hours’ gaming done, we can still be to bed early without worrying about commuting. We usually start an hour earlier for socialization, and people just join when they can.

For Coriolis we used roll20, and for the Archipelago campaign we are using a system called RPG Sessions for characters and dice, run partly through discord, and roll20 for mapping[2]. As the number of coronavirus cases stabilizes in Tokyo and maybe begins to curve down, we’re thinking about returning to physical gaming sometime in September, but I think we are going to continue with some online sessions permanently, because it’s difficult to gather the whole group regularly on weekends and easy to gather them on a weekday night. Also I think when we do game physically we will retain a few aspects of online gaming.

In particular I aim to keep using roll20 for mapping. There is this constant problem with maps and tabletop RPGs that they have to be put in the centre of the table, where there is usually a huge pile of snacks, and some people always have to stand to look at them, and then also the map is oriented towards half the group and upside down to the rest. I think we can get around this by having each person see the map on their own tablet, and also have it on a big screen at the end of the table (I have a tv in my kitchen that I can share with chromecast). Thus we will all be able to see the map but have a shared map at the same time. Players can move their own PCs on the map, and we can maintain the sense of physical space without having to invest in horrific things like miniatures and the like[3].

Using roll20 for mapping also avoids the annoying situation where players are supposed to navigate their way around a physical map based entirely on my descriptions, when I can just use the fog of war on a map software to immediately reveal the rooms they can see, and the monsters they can see, when they see them. This is a vast improvement over physical maps or – worst of all – the horrible 1980s tradition of having a “mapper” who mapped out the dungeon as you explored it and always got it wrong. Having virtual maps also enables us to flick between them quickly, to have pictures of enemies and so on. Why go back to printed stuff?!

I think we will also continue to use RPG sessions for character sheets. It is very nicely integrated with the Genesys system so that for example it even records criticals, which is great. Instead of having my PCs note down the name of the critical and its details they just hit a button and roll one up and it gets added directly to their character sheet. I am using onenote to track campaign sessions, so now we just put the date of the crit into the character sheet and we know exactly when to attempt crit recovery, etc. There is also no risk anyone will ever forget a character sheet, since there’s zero chance they’ll leave home without a phone.

I have recently subscribed to the new Twilight 2000 kickstarter (and I suggest you do too!) which funded in 7 minutes, and is now up to its 9 billionth stretch goal. One of those stretch goals was the development of virtual tabletop tools for all the major applications, so that when you receive the game it is ready out of the box to be played online. I hope all new RPGs will do this in future, so that we can have a fully integrated virtual mapping, gaming and dice rolling system all in one. Of course some players like to roll dice (even though they’re shit at it[5]), which they will still be able to do, but the availability of ubiquitous online gaming platforms also opens the possibility of arbitrarily complex dice systems, since there’s no reason to physically assemble them or calculate the results. Who needs ideal polygonal forms for your dice when you can just roll d73? We could have dice systems based entirely on prime numbers! Or just go straight to arbitrary probability distributions … why go back?

This pandemic has forced the world to deal with the fact that the internet is no longer an ersatz reality. It’s no longer the case that things done online are not relevant to or close to real life. We should accept this, and instead of seeing online experiences as inferior to physical experiences, things we were forced to compromise on for our health, we should see them as ways to improve our past physical experiences to make them better. Rather than going back to how things used to be, let’s use the improvisations we had to make during this time to improve our physical lives when we are able to reconnect. I am trying to do this with my teaching, and I aim to do it for my gaming too!


fn1: Touch wood none of our players have got coronavirus, though two have been through some health scares, but some of us are older and some of us overweight, so we’re in the risk group for getting it badly if it does happen, and a gaming group is a perfect scenario for a cluster

fn2: Roll20 supposedly has an api for genesys dice but it is completely broken so I had to give up on using it. This was frustrating!

fn3: I’ve never been a great fan of miniatures for gaming, because I can’t paint them and they’re an absolute bastard to lug around, and for the first 15 or so years of my gaming experience they were only available in lead[4], which was heavy and ugly

fn4: Yes in the 1980s parents willingly allowed their still-developing children to participate in a hobby that involved casting lead, and playing with things made of lead. WTF

fn5: Jesus christ people, have some dice discipline will you!

Who is Dr. Abad?

In the words of Banu Delecta, medic on the Beast of Burden:

  • Md. Jenin Abad was my senpai at medical school
  • Came from a poor Nomad Federation family
  • Big chip on his shoulder about class and the station/planetary divide
  • Soooo exhausting to deal with, constantly inserting politics into like everything
  • Ultimately became my classmate can you even believe it?
  • Because he took a year’s leave of absence to go do volunteer work in Odacon
  • To do this he spent 6 weeks picketing the School President’s office, and putting up fliers on the academy grounds, we were all like can you even believe what he’s doing?
  • Everyone thinks he only got into the school and got his leave of absence because we all know that Nomad Federation and Free Leaguer students get affirmative action
  • I mean It’s fair enough but like I had to study really hard and he was just doing zero-g acrobatics and working shipside and he just got into school just because of AA and then I bet he didn’t even have to pay the fees
  • Anyway diversity is good
  • So we studied together and I guess he was okay because even though he was always like complaining about my parents’ summer house on Kua not that I would have invited him I mean ewww he would help me with homework on the anatomy classes and he was really good in the clinic like I couldn’t understand what those kids from the cellars were even saying and even though his accent is pretty thick with Nomad federation slang he always managed to get through to them so I guess like his bedside manner was okay? I dunno if he should have passed but I guess the quality of healthcare out there in the Dark is so bad that it probably doesn’t matter but I hope he never works on Coriolis
  • Also he dated my friend Katmus and that didn’t go well and they had a big fight on her holiday yacht about like privilege and she dropped him off in Lubau lol and he had to get working passage back as a medic on a pox ship can you even?
  • Anyway from his work on Odacon I met Adam, so I guess that’s good right?

In Adam’s words

The picket didn’t work out for us and the Legion came in through number 1 and number 3 docks. I set up some of the renegades at the stairwell from 3 dock and we crashed a loader down the stairwell to 1 dock but it only slowed them down, and the retreat to 2 dock was vicious. We had to leave some of our wounded behind, I wanted to terminate them but the rebel leader said no not my choice to make, he’s a nice guy but it doesn’t surprise me he died a year later on Errai with attitudes like that. When you’re up against the Zenith you don’t have time to be sentimental do you? I don’t waste my time on that shit but I follow orders so I left each of them with the ammunition we could spare and we pulled back. The legion broke through to 2 dock as we were still trying to load the ship, because the leaders wouldn’t leave the wounded behind. Sheria was one of the leadership and she was gunned down pulling some wounded girl who was obviously useless, just going to bleed out on the ship if we even got away, but you have to be fair to Sheria and the other leaders, they didn’t hide on the ship when the bullets were firing. I’ll never forget Sheria, or the bravery of everyone else on that station. Foolish, pointless bravery, but better than I’ve ever seen from any professional soldier. I include myself in that because I don’t feel fear, and you can’t be brave if you aren’t scared, can you? Anyway I put a bullet in her head when she asked for it and dragged the wounded girl back, she died in my arms a few minutes later so that was a waste just like I expected. When the legion saw they couldn’t get the ship in time they fired some kind of bioweapon canister, we didn’t realize until we were in the Dark and the coughing started. But Ayman the political operative knew this doctor, Md. Jenin Abad, who he said might be able to help. For some reason I was immune but the rest of them progressed fast so we went to Abad, at a displaced person’s camp out in the edge of the system. He saved us all (except Ayman, whose gut wound was too serious for anyone to help). He’s a good man, Abad, a bit serious about politics but isn’t everyone in Odacon? Except me, I kill for money. When I got to Coriolis I was looking for a medic and I put a message through to Abad, who I knew was from the Academy. He recommended Banu, told me she’s a clueless princess but she’s good and under all the layers of lace and faux-naivete she cares. I don’t know about that, but she is good. So I owe Abad for that I guess. I don’t expect him to last with his attitude, idealists never do, but I hope he does a lot of good before he goes out.

Two good friends and I are doing occasional Sunday evening sessions of original Dungeons and Dragons (OD&D) over skype. I reported the first session here, and haven’t reported the subsequent four because … well, because there’s nothing to hang onto. Our second session ended with a TPK, but I think I didn’t report it, and since then we decided to move on to a different module, B1: In Search of the Unknown, which we have been slowly unpicking over three more sessions. We are following a pretty specific plan, which is to play the rules as they are written with no deviations. Basically, if it’s not in the Rules Cyclopaedia we don’t use it. So far we have tried two adventures, the one that came with the 1983 Mentzer Red Box, and B1. We have, to say the least, been underwhelmed, and at the end of the last session we stopped and had a solid discussion about what is wrong with the game and the system. Basically, we concluded that we’re really enjoying hanging out together (we live in different countries and regular skyping is fun) and the game is a good vehicle for that, and we’re having a lot of fun but mostly this fun has increasingly turned to taking the piss out of the game as we play it. This post is an attempt to summarize our complaints about Basic Dungeons and Dragons so far, and perhaps also a brief discussion of what it means that there is a whole movement (the OSR) that is evangelical about how good this stuff is.

So first, the problems we’ve encountered so far.

The PCs are all the same

Even with the Rules Cyclopaedia’s rudimentary skill rules, the PCs are all the same. If you’re not a Fighter, your attributes are basically only meaningful as an XP bonus – for example, intelligence doesn’t improve a wizard’s spellcasting at all, and dexterity makes no difference to a thief’s skills (which are, in any case, absolutely useless). So far our most entertaining characters have been the wizard with 1 hit point (because his death was so assured) and Lefto the Halfling, who managed to get enough hit points to survive a full power blow from a longsword (but still died because my wizard was conserving his sleep spell for when we really needed it). When you’re distinguishing PCs on the basis of their hit points you know you’re plumbing the bottom of the barrel. What reason do we have to keep any of these people alive? Why are they here? Why are we here? More diversity in PC choices and more effort in making them identifiably different at first level would make the game so much more interesting. I’ve heard the argument that in D&D you don’t invest your character with any special meaning at first level because you know it’s going to die, and you wait for its personality to emerge if it survives, but I don’t think the allegedly easy deaths are the reason (especially for fighters and dwarves, who don’t die); the reason is that the PCs simply have nothing to hook onto when you first make them.

The adventures are absolutely terrible

The two modules we have played so far have been, to put it frankly, terrible. The first, the adventure that comes with the Mentzer red box, is an absolute disaster that starts and ends with a TPK. The carrion crawler at the gates is such a stupid idea, it’s beyond ridiculous, but there is another TPK buried at the back of the first level of the dungeon, where your FIRST level characters can break into a room that holds two harpies. You get no warning about these beasts anywhere in the adventure, and for first level characters they are absolutely fatal. Even if your entire party doesn’t get caught by their siren song, their attack is way more than a first level party can handle. Now you could argue that this is just life as an adventurer, but this is meant to be the very first introductory adventure for people who have never played this game before and it is absolutely punishing. It is a prime example of what in Japan we call power harassment, in which the GM simply uses his power to bully the PCs brutally, and nothing they can do can escape it. I’m confident that a great many young people dropped out of this hobby after their first experience of it, simply because of this adventure.

In contrast, the next module we played, In Search of the Unknown, is tedious and stupid and not at all challenging. It famously comes unstocked, with a list of monsters and treasures that the GM is supposed to place at his or her whim throughout the dungeon, but the dungeon is huge and the treasures and monsters list small, so it ends up incredibly dry and boring – the classic endless series of dusty empty rooms. I bulked up the monster and treasure list and it’s still tedious. Furthermore, the dungeon setting is embarrassingly written in so many ways. The dungeon is the lair of two famous adventures, one of whom is called Zelligar the Unknown (even though we have all heard of him), and these two adventurers are incredibly arrogant and insecure – their rooms are full of murals of themselves, and statues to their own prowess, like cheap dictators. The rooms are terribly described, so that for example we learn in some rooms that the walls are carved in intricate detail, yet we are told nothing of what this detail is, while in another room we are given intricately detailed information about some random book (it was meant to be returned to the library!) or other object, ofttimes detail that is impossible for the adventurers to know. I’m told that the hand axe in room 34 has a split handle but I’m told the walls in room 33 have been carved in intricate detail that isn’t explained at all – this isn’t how GMing is supposed to work. This adventure is probably the first adventure that GMs will use to learn how to do this stuff, and it’s a contradictory mess of consistently bad lessons.

It’s boring for another reason too – D&D movement and combat is just not much fun.

The movement rules suck balls

Of course our fighters and clerics are wearing full plate – otherwise fighting would be randomly fatal rather than randomly easy, see below – so our whole party moves at 60′ per turn. That is, 60′ in 10 minutes. As I said, we’re following the rules, so we’re tracking oil flasks and movement and wandering monsters, which is relatively easy because we’re doing this over skype so we have a google doc. We don’t have a “caller” and a “mapper” because as soon as we saw that idea we laughed and decided to use roll20, so now we unveil sections of the map consistent with the lantern range, and avoid mapping. If we were mapping B1 we would be spending most of our sessions arguing about the mistakes in the map, because the dungeon is incredibly complex and hard to map based on a GM’s description, which is what we would be doing back in the 1980s when this game was released – another example of terrible module design, for the first independent module to be designed to be too hard for beginning (or even experienced!) players to map easily.

So we’re spending our time documenting these movements that take 10 minutes to move 60′, and trying to understand why. In a complex dungeon this means that you spend an hour retracing your tracks to explore a room that is literally just around the corner, and you have to go back to town because you’re out of oil. Of course this doesn’t really matter since this game is designed so that you go home as soon as your wizard has used his Sleep spell, but it hangs over us like this oppressive bit of pointless stupidity. Why did it take us 10 minutes to go around the corner, and why did we use an appreciable amount of oil exploring that room? This is even worse if you follow the original rules 100% precisely, which require one turn to explore a 10′ square. Module B1’s most famous room would take about 5 hours to explore, and would take two sessions since the PCs would have to return to town twice to get oil, if you followed those rules.

Speaking of which, Module B1’s most famous room – the one with the pools – is stupid. One of our players immediately thought of using the fish from the pond with fish to test all the other ponds, rendering all the stupid save-or-die traps immediately harmless, and turning the whole thing into an academic exercise.

Level-gaining is random and easy

If you read around the traps, you’ll find this general opinion presented that in original D&D you gained levels slowly after much struggle, and D&D is a low-experience, slow-reward game. Were this true it would be the textbook definition of bullying, since you have been given a completely cookie-cutter character with limited survival chance and been told that he has to go through a large number of near-death experiences at the hands of a save-or-die fickle GM in order to get that one more level that might possibly make him vaguely able to make it on his own efforts.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Because XP is gained from treasure and treasure generation is random, it’s actually really easy to gain a level by blind luck. We’re three four-hour sessions into B1 and we’ve hit second level, because we found a 1500 Gp dragon hide, a 1000Gp treasure horde, and a 5000 GP statue (actually the rules say at least 5000). And we were unlucky. We found a Green Slime, which has treasure type B – with a 25% chance of 1d6 items of jewellery, each of which has a 90% chance of being worth 2000Gp or more (incidentally, the Rules Cyclopaedia estimates of treasure average values are clearly wrong). This reliance on treasure for XP makes leveling up a completely arbitrary process, which either happens randomly and suddenly according to rolls on treasure tables, or is completely determined by GM caprice (but role-playing XP is a bad idea!)

Combat is boring and randomly fatal

Combat is heavily dependent on the position of the fighters when it starts and the initiative roll, which is completely random. If the party wins the initiative the fighters attack with a THAC0 of 15 (because of high strength and weapon mastery). If anything is left after they have done their job it attacks, usually with THAC0 19, unless it’s a TPK machine like a carrion crawler. Typically the enemy is AC 5-7 but we are AC 2-4, so the odds are stacked against the enemy. Occasionally an enemy gets a lucky hit and one of us dies, unless it’s Lefto the halfling who went through multiple attacks and who we left to die rather than waste our sleep spell because he was a henchman and we were going to get more xp if he died but if I cast sleep we would all go home with less.

This is not fun combat. Especially at early levels where everyone literally has one option – attack and roll damage – so combat is just a short series of hit/damage rolls with the outcome primarily determined by initiative. There is no choice of magic items or special abilities that would make your character have some unique contribution, nothing outside of the environment at all to distinguish between the vast majority of characters – at first level literally only wizards and elves have any unique abilities and they can’t use them more than once a day so they hold them back. And even then there is no wizard whose unique ability is ever anything except sleep (held in reserve for when a group of enemies appears) and no elf who hasn’t learnt charm person (because for some stupid incomprehensible reason they’re not allowed to learn sleep).

It’s also telling that the only time we bothered to not use combat as a solution to our problems was when we had an elf with charm person learned. There are no social skills, and all our enemies are evil, so why would we bother?

Important rules are completely missing

There are a lot of rules for basic things missing in D&D. The absence of these rules gives you pause to think, “Hmmm, we’ve learnt a lot in 30 years”. This absence of rules isn’t restricted to the rulebooks but also applies to the modules. For example, B1 is full of secret doors but doesn’t give any information about how they work or how PCs should find them or how GMs should manage them. Similarly, B1 has a couple of obvious huge treasure hauls but no information on how to treat them. The most egregious example is the dragonhide in room 26, which you are told is “immense” and has “brassy scales”. There are no brass dragons in Basic D&D, but the module gives you no information on what this hide might be worth. This same room contains a stuffed cockatrice and some dragon paws, but no idea of their value (consistent with my complaint above, other rooms give details about the monetary value of mouldy cloaks and component parts of beds). So I had to make this up (for those who googled “D&D value dragonhide” I went with 50Gp per hp of the original dragon multiplied by a third, and rolled hps for a large red dragon – the third represented the fact that the hide was incomplete). Why would you give the monetary value of a mouldy cloak but not a dragonhide? Ridiculous.

The most obvious example of this lack of rules is the problem of magic items. There are no rules on how to sell magic items, something that I have also seen presented as a plus about original D&D (who would sell a magic item!?) but this is something that makes no sense once you’ve played five minutes of the game. As soon as you get a magic item you don’t need that someone else obviously wants, you are going to want to sell it, but there is nothing about the obvious market that would result from adventurers surviving modules (except the introductory module, which is inevitably fatal because we want people to enjoy our game so we loaded it with TPKs as an advertising mechanism). Of course you could use the rules on the amount it costs to make magic items as a guide but – shock! – these rules are stupid. The amount of money required to make a magic item is completely out of context to its value. It’s as if there is no connection between the rules for magic items and how they are actually available and used in play.

Say it isn’t so.

Conclusion: This game is not an exemplar of its kind

I hate the Beatles, or rather, I hate the hype about the Beatles. This is the band that wrote Obladioblada, they aren’t good. But people mistake them for good because they were first. There is no song the Beatles ever made that compares with Stairway to Heaven or Child in Time (the video for which is a splendid piece of early musical beauty), and there is no sense in which the Beatles are as connected to the fundamental traditions of the English language as later metal bands are. But the Beatles get the attention because they were there first. I feel that Basic D&D has been treated the same, and just as there is a certain group of “connoisseurs” who have managed to convince themselves that bands like the Beatles were good, rather than just the first, there is a network of revivalists (the OSR) who have convinced themselves that D&D was somehow revolutionary for its content rather than for its timing, as the first. In reality subsequent generations of games are far, far better, and have added so much more to gaming than D&D. They have improved the rules (even AD&D did this) and added new elements of story, character development and GM skill and training to the gaming world. The truth is that gamers don’t want this mechanical dungeon crawl dice rolling stuff, they want story and character development and engrossing adventures with themes and purpose. That kind of stuff doesn’t emerge from crawling around empty, dusty chambers in the dark. It’s a purposive thing, that needs good rules and engaged GMing that is about more than setting up a bunch of rooms for hollow shell-people to die in.

I’ll keep doing my D&D skype thing with my friends, because they’re great and killing kobolds with them is fun. But exploring this game that was at the roots of our gaming experience has shown me that we have all grown since we started, as has the hobby, and we should respect original D&D for its originality and its explosive potential, at the same time as we should accept it for the stunted and narrow game that it was.

On Saturday I ran another session of The Spiral Confederacy campaign, culminating in a vicious battle in a floating forest built on the ruins of ancient spaceships (report to come). One player went down in the first round of the surprise attack and the entire battle (with three waves of attackers, approximately) was over in about 5 rounds – 30 seconds! This system is being run using Traveler rules, which are quite lightly described and incomplete in places. During the battle I discovered a few rules that are missing, and came up with a few new house rules to ease some benefits, and also to employ a wider range of skills and attributes in combat. These house rules are listed below.

No critical hits: The standard rulebook states that a roll of 6 or more above the target number is a “critical success”, but doesn’t actually define any special rule for a critical success in combat except that it definitely does at least one point of damage. I have decided not to fiddle with this, because vicious experience on Saturday confirmed for me that Traveler’s injury mechanism doesn’t really allow for it and is so brutal that there is no need for it; the effect alone is sufficiently powerful to make all the difference.

Stealth attacks: There are no rules for stealth attacks in the book. During the session I chose to add the effect of the stealth roll to the attack, and the target cannot dodge or parry. Reading the book I see a set of rules for carrying one skill’s effect over to another; basically success adds 1 to the next roll, while critical success adds 2. However I don’t like this – I like stealth attacks to be lethal, and with no critical hit system the only way to increase damage is to roll really well, so adding the full effect of the stealth roll onto the subsequent attack seems more realistic (and about the only way for an assassin with a normal blade to deliver serious damage against a heavily-armoured target). This means that a good stealth attack with a blade (with e.g. 2d6+2 damage) is likely to end up doing more like 2d6+6 or 2d6+8 damage on a stealth attack. This will do fatal damage against a lightly-armoured person, which is reasonable.

Using the tactics skill for cover: If a PC is not in cover at the beginning of combat, they need to make a tactics roll to get into cover.  The result of the roll will determine the cover level as follows:

  • 0-5: 1/4 cover (no benefit)
  • 6-8: 1/2 cover (-1 to hit)
  • 9-11: 3/4 cover (-2 to hit)
  • 12+: Full cover (-4 to hit)

This ensures that a person with no tactics skill and no intelligence bonus will need to roll better than an 8 on 2d6 to actually find effective cover, which seems really likely to me – if I got in a firefight I wouldn’t have a clue where to hide. It’s obviously only useful when your PCs are in battlefields with lots of boxes and junk etc; rather than describing it all in detail and asking the PC to make a choice, just roll it up and then tell them what they’re hiding behind. If there is lots of obvious cover (e.g. a tank!) then this rule needn’t be applied. This is one of several ways of enhancing the role of the tactics skill in combat.

This skill check can also be done by someone with leadership to direct someone else to cover; in this case both the leader and the person taking cover need to use a significant action in the same round.

Also, related to cover: shooting from behind cover requires a minor action to position oneself and then a significant action to fire. i.e. you only get the benefits of cover when attacking if you use all your actions in the round to attack.

Establishing aim is a significant action: All the PCs used their minor action to aim, giving them essentially an immediate +1 to hit. Boring! So I have decided in future that you can’t just aim and shoot; you need to first use a significant action to establish the process. After that aiming will give you the benefit as described in the book, i.e. +1 per minor action. This ensures that you need to take a full round to aim but it will typically mean that the aim leads to a +3 to hit, since it will usually occur in the following train of actions: significant action-minor action/minor action-shoot. This may not always occur (e.g. use a minor action to draw weapon-significant action to establish aim /shoot at +1-minor action to take cover).

Tactics to change initiative: A PC can change their own initiative using tactics, or change someone else’s using leadership. They must use a significant action to do this; then they make a roll with difficulty equal to current initiative; success increases initiative to the result of the new roll. Extreme failure drops the initiative of the affected person to last.

Gathering wind: if the PC has no use for their minor action they can use it to make an endurance check and if successful regain one point of endurance. This only works if endurance is not 0 and they are not seriously wounded (i.e. only Endurance has been hit). I have decided to include this in order to give everyone some minor chance at battlefield healing, and because minor actions don’t have much use once you’re in cover with your weapon out. It won’t make a big difference to their future if they get hit a second time, but it will at least allow them to take the odd breather. I envisage this being used a lot with the cover rules (e.g. you hit cover with a significant action; use a minor action to take a breather. In the second round you take a full action to go full auto on some poor minion; then the following round you stay behind cover, take another breather and reload your weapon).

In total these rules significantly enhance the role of people with leadership and tactics, and actually make a person with these skills but no particularly great direct combat skills useful, and worth taking out. With tactics and leadership, a PC can a) improve everyone’s initiative; b) get the weakest people into good cover; c) upgrade the initiative of the slowest PCs. While other PCs do the heavy work of shooting and stabbing, a leader-type character can act in a serious support role to help them get an advantage in the fight.

I am thinking about additional methods for using leadership – for example, helping people move to positions where they can get a shooting advantage, or using tactics to negate cover. Also the possibility of reducing initiative or forcing morale checks of some kind when a person with leadership dies.

A final note on Traveler combat: It’s very very dangerous, has a wicked death spiral, and is definitely not for the faint-hearted. I love the way the healing rules enable people to die slowly of their wounds if they don’t get medical care. I also really like the automatic fire rules – they’re simple and very very dangerous. Against an autorifle someone in combat armour will still need to be scared, and can still die in a single shot unless their combat armour is exceptionally high tech. This is a game where you definitely do not want to get caught in a fair fight.

For some time now I’ve been thinking about ways to simplify the Warhammer 3 (WFRP3) system to make it less cumbersome and more free-flowing, while retaining the basic structure of attributes and skills. I previously described dropping action cards and moving to a more skill-based system, and also simplified ways of calculating difficulty. This, combined with simple talent trees similar to the Star Wars system, makes for a much quicker, easier game system, which I have tried and enjoyed in a few brutal and enjoyable adventures.

I’ve also previously described some of the problems of dice pools, in particular the difficulty of establishing difficulties that are balanced to the dice pools, the challenge of large opposed dice pools in games like Shadowrun and World of Darkness, and the problem of combining skill and attribute for defense and attack in opposed skill checks. As an example, WFRP3 has managed to solve the problem of balancing difficulties through using multiple different kinds of dice, but doesn’t really incorporate skill training into defense at all, or at least not in the same way it does in attack.

I’m still not convinced that these general problems can be solved, but yesterday while thinking about a serious probability problem at work, I had a sudden idea for a way of constructing dice pools with WFRP3 fortune and misfortune dice, combined with a single normal polyhedral die, that gets around a lot of these problems and makes a simple alternative to all the complex dice pools of the common systems. Much of this idea is derived from the Degenesis system, which I’ve now had some experience playing (and which is pretty cool).

The WFRP3 fortune and misfortune dice

These dice are white (fortune) and black (misfortune) six sided dice with three faces blank and the remaining three faces divided between two symbols in unequal proportion. On the fortune dice there are two eagles and one hammer; on the misfortune dice there are two skulls and one crossed sword. In WFRP3 the hammer/crossed swords are a success/failure, and the eagle/skull are good/bad luck. These dice are added onto the pool to represent good or bad conditions, or specific talents. It’s quite easy to develop a dice pool with 6 or more of both (WFRP3 dice pools are generally epic). If converted to a standard d6, one could imagine that the eagle/skull are 4 and 5, and the hammer/crossed swords are 6. But why use normal dice? Skulls and eagles are way cooler.

I actually tried using these dice for Degenesis, since the probability structure matches, but 1s are also important in Degenesis for determining fumbles, so I gave up on that.

A challenged dice pool system with black and white dice

Suppose that we are using standard WFRP3 characters, so they will have attributes between 2 – 4, usually, and 0-2 levels of training. Adding these together we get a sum, usually, between 2 and 6. Players construct a dice pool with as many fortune dice as this total, and the GM provides them a number of misfortune dice determined by the same method for the enemy. The player rolls them all and removes all matching skull/eagles and hammer/swords. If the player has any eagles left over, the roll is considered a success. Any left over hammers do not count as successes, but instead increase the effect of the roll (we will refer to this increase as the effect).

For example, suppose a PC with attribute 3 and 1 training attacks an enemy with attribute 2 and no training. The player rolls 4 fortune dice and 2 misfortune dice. Suppose the player rolls two eagles and a hammer, and also one skull. Skull cancels eagle and this leaves behind one eagle (success) and one hammer (plus one damage). The player is attacking with a hand weapon (damage 5 + ST=8), so with the +1 for the hammer the total damage becomes 9.

Using a polyhedral die for fumbles and criticals

Now add a single polyhedral die to the roll. Suppose it is a d8. If this d8 comes up with an 8 the result becomes a critical success (if the player got at least one eagle) or a fumble (if the dice pool rolls up at least one skull). The size of the polyhedral die can be determined by GM fiat, or it could be set as e.g. the smallest dice size greater than equal to the dice pool, ensuring that as dice pools grow in size the probability of extreme successes declines. Obviously, the opposite could also be applied.

Enhancing the role of skills

In this system skill training will still tend to be less influential than attributes, since typically skill levels are lower than attributes. This can be slightly adjusted by adding two simple rules:

  • Hammers can only enhance the effect of an attack if the PC has training in the skill
  • Critical success is only possible if the attacker has training in the skill
  • Critical failure is only possible if the defender has training in the skill

In the above example, the target has no skill and so if the attacker rolls an 8 but somehow doesn’t get the necessary eagles to succeed, there is no critical failure; however, if the attacker rolls an 8 and does get the necessary eagles for success, that success will be critical. This still doesn’t quite balance the role of skill training in defense but it does allow it to be included to some extent.

Skill could be given even more salience by a rule that hammers/swords can only be counted if the person has training – so if you are defending without training, you cannot cancel out any effect that the attacker rolls.

Deciding penalties and bonuses

Penalties and bonuses can be assigned in three ways: Through automatic successes assigned by the GM, through extra dice assigned by the GM, or through extra effect. For example, a stealth attack might give the PC an automatic success, being in cover might give the defender extra dice, and attacking from a horse might give extra effect. The GM could also allow stunting to change the magnitude of the polyhedral critical die, to reflect increased or reduced risk. So swinging into battle on a chandelier might drop the critical die from a d8 to a d4, indicating that if you succeed in your attack you’ll be highly likely to really do a big smackdown, but if you fail you’re going to get badly hurt.

Carrying over effect

Similarly to Rolemaster and Degenesis, you can easily allow one roll to affect another, or one PC to help another, simply by allowing the effect of one roll to be carried to the next, if it is successful. So a successful stealth check will add its effect onto the damage of the backstab; a successful intimidate check would apply its effect to subsequent morale checks by underlings. If one PC opts to help another in e.g. brewing a potion, then the effect of that PC’s cooking skill check could be applied to the main PC’s craft item check. In some situations the GM could choose to treat this carry-over as extra dice or guaranteed successes (if, e.g. the stealthy player were also invisible).

Notes and justification

This dice pool system balances out success and effect, so that a person with a limited dice pool attempting to beat a person with a similar dice pool has a fair chance of success but is highly unlikely to really get a big outcome (as opposed to e.g. D&D where success and outcome are largely unrelated). It ensures that people with very widely differing dice pools are likely to have predictable outcomes, getting around one of the big problems of WFRP3, where the challenge dice can behave in radically unexpected ways, or D&D/Rolemaster/Cyberpunk where the uniform distribution makes failure too common for people with good skills. It allows skill to work in attack and defense, though not perfectly, and in a simpler way than the Star Wars system. It allows for critical success but ties it to skills, but without making it too easy to achieve with high training as happens in WFRP3. By using the fortune/misfortune dice it makes dice pools easy to read and calculate (you just take away all matching dice). It is also very flexible for applying situational modifiers, luck, magic and stunting in a wide variety of ways.

I think the main down side would be the very large dice pools for high level characters, the potential weak roll of skill for characters with high attributes, and the fiddliness of distinguishing between skulls and hammers (not a big deal for me but in large dice pools people often mistakenly match things). I think these aren’t insurmountable problems and with the standard WFRP3 character progression process, skills are much more likely to advance than attributes, so the importance of skills will grow over time. Overall I think it would be a simple and flexible alternative to WFRP3’s ridiculous dice pools, that would not require any change to the major elements of character creation and progression. This dice pool system, if combined with the dropping of action cards and simplification of character definitions, would make for a fast and flexible alternative to standard Warhammer – with all the fun of dice pools composed of skulls and eagles!

 

These guys should never win!

These guys should never win!

Today I’ve been thinking about ways to remodel Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2 (WFRP 2) to make it more user friendly and less punishing, and in the process of thinking through the system’s underlying probabilities I have run up against a problem with the reference frame for skill tests that I think is common for many systems. The problem is a simple one that afflicts opposed skill checks: depending on who is considered to be the active initiator of the skill check, the same skill check can give different probabilities of an outcome. This situation is particularly stark in WFRP 2, though I think it might afflict other systems too. Here is a brief explanation of the problem and how it can (and can’t be) solved. I wonder if this problem is part of the reason that people get so frustrated with the WFRP 2 system and always feel like they’re failing …

The WFRP 2 opposed skill system

WFRP 2 uses a stat-based skill system to resolve skill checks. Stats range from 0 to 100 and an unopposed skill check is resolved by rolling d100 and trying to get under your stat. So e.g. if your agility is 40 then you will succeed in a basic agility check 40% of the time. There are modifications of course (skill training, etc.) but this is the basic process. For an opposed skill check, each person involved in the skill check makes their roll, the person initiating the check starting and then their target rolling under the opposing skill. For example in combat the attacker rolls for Weapon Skill and then the defender rolls their Weapon Skill or Agility in order to parry or dodge. In an opposed skill check your chance of success is always lower than your base stat: it is stat * (1 – opposing stat). This creates a punishing probability curve, incidentally: a person with a stat of 50 up against a target with a stat of 50 has only a 25% chance of success, and perversely this is the best in the game. If you have stat 90 and you are up against someone with stat 90 your chance of success is 9%. But this is only part of the reason that WFRP 2 punishes players.

How reference frame affects outcome

Consider the following example. Bob the Hapless needs to sneak into a tavern to steal one last drink, so he first needs to get past the guard at the door. He has Agility 40 and the guard has Intelligence 40, so it’s an opposed skill check, Bob’s 40 vs. the guard’s 40. Bob rolls, the guard rolls, and fortunately Bob rolls a 01 and the guard a 41, so Bob gets through. His chance of success here was 40*60=24%, not so great; this means, note, that the guard’s chance of spotting him was 76%.

Now Bob the Hapless is near the bar, but he doesn’t realize that a skaven assassin is in the room, and is sneaking up on him. So now Bob the Hapless needs to do an observation check to notice the skaven assassin if he wants to avoid being ambushed. The assassin has a stealth of 40 and Bob has an intelligence of 40, so they roll. Now Bob’s chance of success is 40*60=24%; this means that the skaven had a 76% chance of sneaking up on him.

Unsurprisingly, Bob’s chance of continually beating 24% odds is not good, and he fails the second roll – he rolls a 39 but the skaven rolls a 7. Bob is ambushed and, as one might expect, soon becomes ratfood. This is because he got rat-fucked by the system. When he had to make a stealth check with agility 40 vs. intelligence 40, he had a 25% chance of success; but when the skaven had to make a stealth check with agility 40 vs. intelligence 40, it had a 76% chance of success. For the same check!

Why this happens

In WFRP 2 there is an initiator and a defender of any opposed skill check. The initiator needs a specific chain of outcomes: her own success and her opponent’s failure. But the defender doesn’t need a specific chain of outcomes: they only need either a failure or a success. Essentially once the initiator fails the defender doesn’t need to roll, but if the initiator succeeds the defender gets a second chance to dodge the outcome. Success for the initiator is a conditional probability (on the defender failing); whereas success for the defender is a marginal probability of either the defender succeeding or the initiator failing.

This might not be a problem except that GMs tend to try to make the player the active participant in a skill challenge: if the player is stalking, then the player makes a stealth check against which the GM defends; if the player is being stalked the player makes an observation check against which the GM defends. But this desire to make the player the active participant of their own adventure massively reduces their chance of success; and until they reach a stat of about 50 this effect is punishing – and becomes punishing again after stat 50!

Does this happen in other systems?

I think this doesn’t happen in systems with dice roll vs. DC systems, because usually if the skills/stats are balanced then they cancel each other out and only the probability distribution of a single die roll matters. Shadowrun has an opposed skill check system where each player rolls a dice pool, but in this case the outcome is determined slightly differently: the defender’s roll sets a target that the initiator has to beat, effectively ensuring that if the initiator rolls well above a threshold they’re likely to win (see below for how this can affect WFRP2). I remember playing Talislanta or Aria (not sure which) and finding the same problem, that you could never hit anyone in combat, and I think it had the same underlying mechanic. I think this mechanic is used in quite a few systems, though I haven’t played them all obviously. I don’t think WFRP 3 has it because the difficulty of skill checks is set by the opponent’s attribute and this is asymmetric: in the above example everyone would have the same dice pools in all situations.

I think this problem is merely particularly noticeable in WFRP 2 because all the PCs start off so terrible that you really feel the problem.

How to fix this problem

There are a couple of simple solutions to this problem. The first and most obvious is to design a better system. A partial solution would be to require the defending character to roll under the number obtained by the initiating character and under their own skill. So in the above example, when Bob rolled 01 for his stealth check there was no way the guard could see him; but when he rolled a 39 on the second check there was a big chance that the skaven could roll under his result (which it did). This only partially fixes the problem, since if the player rolls near their stat, the number the defender needs is effectively only constrained by the upper bound of their own attribute. It also doesn’t work when one player’s attribute is much lower than another’s. I think Dark Heresy (the Warhammer 40,000 game) has a modified version of the mechanic that uses a version of this system based on degrees of success that may partly solve the problem.

The best solution is to define active and passive skills, so that for example Observation is always a defender skill and stealth always an attacker skill. This solution has two problems though: attacker skills (like hitting people and sneaking past people) will always be much, much harder than defender skills, which will encourage people to develop characters and gameplay styles based around not doing these things; but more importantly, RPGs should put players at the heart of the action so that wherever possible they initiate skills rather than defending against them. Setting up a system of skills where some are always initiated and some are always defended will mean that some players will be very good at what they do, but will never be put in the active position in doing what they do. I think this doesn’t match the ethos of gaming that most players enjoy.

Basically, skill tests should always be resolved by a single, simple dice roll that is in the hands of the player as much as possible.

Can WFRP 2 be fixed?

I just completed a follow-up session to the Slaves of Destiny adventure I did a while back, again using WFRP 3. It was a lot of fun but this time around we had a large gang of skaven slavers to fight (report to come) and it was just impossible for me to properly follow the rules – or even anything like them – when GMing all those monsters. I didn’t even have table space for the cards! I like the system but in the absence of thoroughly stripping it down and making it much simpler, it’s a good way for PCs to operate but a terrible system for the GM. I would like to be able to use the WFRP 2 rules, because all the surrounding material is great and the game has such a strong feeling, but I just hate them. However, I think with a few tweaks to the central mechanic [well, a complete change] the stat blocks, career system and everything else could be retained in their entirety, and the game become an enjoyable and frustration-free romp through a really great world. In many ways WFRP 2 is an almost perfect combination of world-setting, atmosphere, writing, art and game system: except its fundamental mechanic is broken. I think that mechanic can be fixed by dividing all attributes by 10 and employing a 2d6, Traveler-like mechanic. I will come back to this soon I hope, to describe how to do it – and maybe also test it with some of my players.

If I could find a way to enjoy playing WFRP 2 I would be a very, very happy GM …

I have begun a campaign set in a post-scarcity science fiction setting, called the Spiral Confederacy. The setting is a sprawling corner of the galaxy that was once a sprawling human interstellar empire. This empire fell apart in some ancient catastrophe that separated all the planets, and over thousands of years they lost contact with each other. A new empire, the Spiral Confederacy, has arisen and is slowly recovering all the planets of this diaspora, expanding from a central core. The Spiral Confederacy is divided roughly into the core, consisting of planets that have been connected for thousands of years; the Rim, containing planets reconnected in the past couple of hundred years, still recovering from their isolation; and the Frontier, which contains unexplored planets and Remnant planets, civilizations of the Diaspora that have not yet been reconnected. Adventures will start in the Frontier.

The Spiral Confederacy is close to a post-scarcity society, with so much wealth and resources that there is no need for most people to work or indeed to do anything they don’t want to. A person can live their whole life without working or contributing to society in any way but still have a guaranteed home, food, education, leisure, planetary and interstellar travel, with no conditions. The only limitation on standard needs is the amount of time it takes to procure them. The society is not completely post-scarcity, so although it is based on the principles of Iain M Banks’s Culture, it’s not possible in this Confederacy for a person to simply request a spaceship for themselves and disappear on a galactic tour for a hundred years – that level of resource consumption is still restricted. There are also many legal limits, still, on what people can have – you can’t fly a plane without a license and training, for example. But you can get on a plane and travel anywhere you want, any time. As a result of these restrictions there is still inequality – to have homes on multiple planets, for example, or own a spaceship, one will have to work and contribute and build up the right to this greater level of resource use. It is to achieve these rights that most people begin adventuring.

The Spiral Confederacy has several important underlying principles, described below.

  • AIs are illegal: The Confederacy has a deep and powerful hatred of AIs, and does all it can to drive them out of economic and social life. As a consequence, AIs are commonly found as enemies of human civilization. They have followers amongst the human population, however, who call on their powers as if they were gods – players can play these PCs as a new Traveller career called Adherents. As a consequence of this attitude towards AIs, all computer systems are heavily secured and hacking is almost impossible; furthermore, the Confederacy has reached the limits of its technological advancement (in Traveller terms, TL17) because further advancement is beyond human computational capacity and requires an AI contribution to science
  • Psionics are the scientific frontier: With scientific research stalled, human effort has turned to the development of psionics and the human mind, in the hopes of using these mysterious and little understood powers to advance human civilization. Psions are an acceptable character career and there is no limit on psionics in society, though it is considered polite for a psion to identify themselves clearly
  • Remnant worlds have “magic”: Many remnant worlds have fallen back into ruin and barbarism, and an interesting consequence of this slide is the development of priests and “magic”, something only observed in these backward worlds. The generally accepted theory is that these primitive worlds conceive of psionic powers as divine intervention or magic, and channel their powers through this mechanism; but interestingly, their powers are different to the standard psionics available to people from Core worlds. Study of these Remnant Priests is an important part of the program to advance psionics, and Priests are a new career available to players.
  • Information cannot travel faster than light: The only way to carry information between star systems is on spaceships, which travel at high speeds through jump technology (the standard Traveller system of moving a certain number of parsecs in a week of jump travel). There is no “ansible” or other method for conveying information without sending it through jump; matter can travel faster than light, but light cannot. Thus information takes weeks to move between star systems, so systems without regular trade routes can be months behind the news, creating a sense of frontier or colonial life, like the 17th century on Earth.
  • Consciousness is required for jump: It is not possible to send automated systems through jump space – for some reason, a consciousness is required to enter and leave jump. Computers can program jump paths and enter jump but they always, without fail, misjump or are lost in jump space. This includes AIs, either because the consciousness must be organic or they are in some sense not genuinely conscious (the argument made by the leaders of the Confederacy). This prevents AIs from spreading their consciousness between planets and forces them to rely on Adherents for this task; it also prevents the Confederacy from sending news between planets without devoting piloted spacecraft to the task, and creates pockets of space where news is patchy and information is not regularly updated. Pirates and criminals thrive in these pockets.

Against this backdrop the Confederacy is slowly spreading and joining up the planets of the old Diaspora. It fights a low-level war against AIs on its fringes, and occasionally also against Remnant planets who refuse to accept its protection and wealth, or against rebellions from within. As it expands it stumbles upon mysteries from before the first fall, and catastrophes or strange enemies. Greedy for history, it is always looking for brave or stupid adventurers to help with its contacts and conflicts on the fringe of its space – and it is on that frontier that we will conduct our adventures.

A full description of the Confederacy, and guidelines for house rules, can be downloaded here.

 

A coward and a traitor!

A coward and a traitor!

On the weekend I ran a one-shot set in my Compromise and Conceit world, using my improvised high-speed Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3 (WFRP3) rules. This adventure was set in North America in 1865, in the Red Empire. This setting is 100 years after the death of George Washington at the hands of my London group, and the subsequent collapse of the British colonial effort in America. In the aftermath the British controlled a narrow line of territories on the East coast, and over the subsequent 100 years repeated attempts to regain colonial ground had come largely to nothing. In 1865 the great land mass of North America now consisted of a huge native American Empire covering the centre of the land, and smaller nations on the eastern and south-western corners. Our group consisted of a mixed band of native Americans from these disparate nations, all gathered on a mission of revenge in a remote northern area of the Red Empire, some days’ ride south of the border with New France (Canada). Our party consists of:

  • Wachiwi: a Sioux scout, blessed with special powers to dance in shadows and summon the aid of her tribe’s ancient spirits
  • Weayaya: a Sioux skinwalker, capable of taking the form of other humans and animals, but also quite a strong fighter with a spear
  • Atha’halwe: a Navajo wiseman from the Empire of the Sun, the large empire in the south-west that was founded by the Navajo; this wiseman called on powers of sun and moon, and fought with a semi-magical curved sword he obtained from a demon-faced warrior from beyond the seas
  • Wickaninnish: an Iroquois brave (fighter) bristling with strange spiritual artifacts, whose name means “No one sits before him in the canoe.” The group’s warrior but also able to call on healing and support powers from his tribe’s gods

For these characters I introduced some new ideas to make the system more redolent of the type of adventuring I am most fond of in wild west epics, which I always imagine as being based on the movie version of Last of the Mohicans. This type of adventuring requires individual bravery and recklessness, with feats of physical prowess that are obviously magically based, and leavened with a heavy dose of purposeful savagery. I also, of course, needed to infuse it with magic (since this is the fundamental basis of the Compromise and Conceit alternative history), and include some famous people. To achieve this style of adventuring, I made some small additions to the fortune point rules:

  • I changed their name to “coup points”, and made them more powerful: in my hyper-lite version of WFRP 3 coup points can be used to reroll all dice of one colour in a dice pool. They can also be used to add an expertise die to a dice pool – not just two fortune dice as in standard WFRP
  • Coup points are regained through scalping! Each PC has a form of “counting coup” that they can use on an enemy they have killed themselves. This enemy must be killed in melee, and a PC can only count coup on their own victim. Each PC establishes their own specific style of counting coup – it doesn’t have to be scalping, but it has to be something that humiliates a dying enemy. When the PC delivers the killing blow their player declares that they will spend the next round counting coup: this means they lose their action for a full round, and spend it doing something horrible to their victim. They make a fellowship check, and if successful they gain a coup point – plus they may also recover damage, fatigue or stress. This mechanism ensured that the players would privilege melee combat over missile and stealth, and would have a powerful reason based in the rules for engaging in the kind of savagery that every western movie about native Americans naturally makes a centerpiece of the narrative.

I am aware that scalping was probably imported by the white colonists, and that this depiction of the “noble savage” is extremely contentious amongst modern native American activists (though I get the impression that Last of the Mohicans was well-received, and included a major role for a major native American activist), but I wanted to make this campaign fit the dramatic style of movies like Last of the Mohicans. Also, the Compromise and Conceit world is all about myths and ideological caricatures from western literature made real – Catholics in this world are demon-summoning hypocrites and everything in Dr. Faustus came true. Compromise and Conceit also involves confronting the colonial powers with their own stereotypes and mythical notions about the “uncivilized” lands they are colonizing – but making these myths and stereotypes real, and seeing how the colonial powers handle their enemies if even half the things they said about them were actually true. As a result of this, for example, the British lost any chance at colonizing New Zealand, and are trapped on the fringes of a hostile and inhospitable Australia where the land itself rises up against them. It seems natural that when trying to colonize America they should meet magical larger-than-life versions of all the fears they have about native Americans!

I also introduced a system of totems. Totems are objects that the PCs carry that they can deploy for blessings in battle: only one per battle, and totems are largely the province of non-magical characters – they are charms carried into battle by those who lack magic. The party have to make a decision when they enter battle as to what they will deploy, and this is the only benefit they obtain through the whole battle. They cannot be deployed outside of battle, but everyone benefits from them. These totems are a unique magic item for native American characters – there is no equivalent thing for the British, for example.

On this basis we prepared a one-shot set in the Red Empire. Stay tuned for the record of battle …

Next Page »