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Saturday, April 14, 2018

Clarifying Classifying CLEF and Other Games

Saw some discussion elsewhere about the RPG classification post and thought I’d clear up some things.

First: There’s a difference in intent between that post and the Whatchamacallit Games post. In the latter, I’m mostly mocking Robin Laws for creating a somewhat useless name for D&D-esque games. In the former, though, I’m making my own useless names, but for a good cause.

Second: That "cause " is “thinking about what the major differences in RPG tastes are”. It’s not about “the fine points of classification”, as Robert Conley put it, but the opposite: figuring out which distinctions can be ignored. In my experience, most people have preference for this mechanic or that bit of fluff and color, but aside from a minority of hyper-focused individuals, they will play anything that fits within a broad category of taste.

Distinctions between OD&D, Holmes Basic, B/X, BECM, AD&D 1e, and AD&D 2e, as well as various retroclones, are unnecessarily specific. Sure, we all have our favorites: In terms of fantasy adventure, I won’t run anything other than OD&D + house rules anymore, and won’t stray far from TSR-era D&D as a player, but practically, there’s no real difference between the CLEF games I will run and the CLEF games I won’t run, or the CLEAF games I will play and those I won’t.

Third: It’s not so much the classification system that matters as how we arrive at it. Thinking about the different kinds of focus in the previous post lead me to realize how few game focuses there really are. Almost all RPGs are Action, Exploration, or Investigation in focus, with a few being hybrids of two of those. Story Games are almost all Other, and I’d argue that what makes them feel like not-RPGs is that focus on the meta level instead of the immersion level.

I expect as many personal realizations from thinking about Structure and Setting as I did from Focus. There doesn’t seem to be more than two or three of either. And, although I suggested Normal, Speculative and Fantasy as broad settings based on actual divisions between people blogging or posting about RPGs, I’m thinking that those three have nothing really to do with realism, but something else I haven’t quite put into words yet.

And, besides those three points, I’m thinking about some sci-fi games I once mentioned I wanted to create, so some of this might help shape my ideas on those.

So expect to see some more useless ramblings on this in the future. It may actually lead somewhere.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Structure, Focus, Setting: Classifying Game Types

I am shocked I never expanded on my game classification system here.

I was reminded of my old definition of CLEF games (Class and Level Exploration Fantasy,) first hinted at in my criticism of Robin Laws in the Whatchamacallit Games post. (I’m sorry CLEF never caught on, but ecstatic that Robin Laws’s “F20” suggestion didn’t, either.)

Apparently, all my later references to CLEF games were buried in comments on forums. But I did expand on a classification built around three broad parts to any RPG:

  1. Structure: How PCs are defined, particularly in terms of how issues are resolved. For example, “Class and Level”.
  2. Focus: What the PCs do, and how they advance. For example, “Exploration”.
  3. Setting: Where the PCs do it. Genre defined as broad types of location. For example, “Fantasy (Worlds)”.

You’ll notice I focus on broad features, rather than details like dice mechanics or power level, and avoid potentially subjective judgments like tone or feel.

So far, I’ve really only settled on two types of structure: Class and Level vs. Skill and Talent. I’m less sure about setting types, but feel they should be as broad as possible: Normal, Speculative, and Fantasy, for example. These might be the subject of future discussions.

But I’ve narrowed the focus down to four, possibly five, types:

  1. Action (focus on individual tasks, especially combat)
  2. Exploration (focus on experiencing the world)
  3. Investigation (focus on revealing plot elements)
  4. Other (focus on player rather than character)
  5. Undefined (no focus, or focus on system rather than setting)

Action is the simplest. You get rewarded (advance) based on direct challenges. You see this a lot in borderline wargame/RPGs, like Steve Jackson’s Man to Man or the Melee/Wizard microgames. You fight in arenas, or in battles, and any roleplaying along the way is incidental. The resolution system is more likely to contain facing rules or track movement in individual steps.

Exploration was the most common, at one point. Action is still possible, but the focus is broader, on experiencing the world as the character. In OD&D, you get more experience points for treasure rather than combat, and earning money doesn’t count as treasure… you are lured into finding and exploring dungeons in order to advance.

Investigation is fairly common. Call of Cthulhu is probably the best known example. You are given a mystery, and success or failure depends on finding the clues or triggering various scenes written into the plot. You could also consider Intrigue to be a variation of this kind of play: each NPC in an intrigue scenario has a “mystery” of “what would influence this NPC to do what I want?”

These three (A/E/I) all deal with rewarding what the character does. The focus of Other is about what the player does while acting in character. You see this in rudimentary form as rewards for good role-playing, but the first pure game with this kind of reward system, as far as I know, was Toon. You get plot points any time you make people laugh.

The Other focus is still just as much about what happens in the game world as it is about what the players do. If what happens in the game world doesn’t matter at all, the focus is Undefined. The reward here would be for system mastery, rather than anything done in character or through the character. This is the fifth kind of focus, which I’m unsure actually exists as a game design or not, although you might be able to argue that some universal systems like GURPS have an undefined focus… but in practice, most GURPS players drift towards either A or I as a focus.

My gut feeling is that, when there appears to be more than one focus, the focus that comes first alphabetically is overwhelmed by the focus that comes later. Once Exploration matters for advancement, Action becomes incidental, something that happens while exploring. Once Investigation matters, Exploration and Action become only a means to find clues and solve mysteries. For games or gaming groups that try really hard to focus on two of the A/E/I goals, you might wind up with a “diphthong” of EA, IA, or IE, for a few extra playstyles. If O becomes the focus, it truly does dominate the feel of the game, and U, by definition, can’t have another focus.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Thief Skills As Surprise -- Leftovers

The last in the Thief Skills As Surprise series (list of links below) deals with the remaining thief skills, trying to judge which ones qualify as a surprise situation and which do not.

Strike Silently from Behind is an obvious choice for a surprise-based ability. The original rules handle this as a damage multiplier. I prefer to add the surprise roll result, plus the thief’s level, to the standard damage roll. This makes the damage higher than usual for 1st level thieves and keeps the minimum and average damage high as the character’s level advances, but reduces the max damage.

Level Greyhawk damage My damage rules
1 2-12 (7 average) 7-13 (10 avg)
5 3-18 (11 average) 11-17 (14 avg)
9 4-24 (14 average) 15-21 (18 avg)
13 5-30 (18 average) 19-25 (22 avg)

Climb Walls may seem less obvious, until you consider what is going on. Anyone can climb a ladder, a tree, or a rope. They can’t climb a sheer wall without either (a) throwing a grappling hook over the top of the wall, or (b) hammering iron spikes into the wall. Both of these make noise, negating surprise. A thief, in contrast, climbs walls without equipment. It is, basically, Climb Silently. One could argue that we should just dispense with the table of percentages for Climbing and just note that thieves can climb without equipment and use their Move Silently ability while climbing.

The other two thief abilities, reading treasure maps and magical inscriptions, are obviously not related to surprise. They are just extras thieves pick up to make their tasks easier.

Thief Skills As Surprise Series:

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Thief Skills As Surprise -- Locks and Traps

Next in the Thief Skills As Surprise series (list of links below) is something that at first thought seems to have nothing to do with surprise: manipulating small mechanical devices like locks and traps. But if you think about it, one of the goals of picking a lock is to open a door without having to break it down, alerting everyone to your presence. It’s basically an attempt to preserve the element of surprise. And traps, in essence, surprise their victims. Avoiding a trap is a matter of reaction time: the faster you can pull your hand away, the less likely you are to be jabbed by a poison needle.

So, even if it may seem a stretch in some cases, treating Open Locks and Remove Traps as surprise rolls isn’t too bad a choice.

Both are technical skills. The average person cannot pick a lock or remove a trap without training. They can try brute force, smashing a lock or an apparent trap on a chest, but this negates surprise and makes the device unusable.

A person trained in the appropriate skill (lockpicking or trap tinkering) can open or disable mundane locks and traps, as long as they have the appropriate skills. The character is effectively Level 0. Most locks and devices are Level 1, although a simple latch on the other side of a door might be effectively Level 0. Unique traps and locks in a dungeon have the same level as the dungeon level they are found on. You can either use the Surprise Table or apply a penalty to the roll equal to half the level of the lock or trap.

A thief, of course, is better at both lockpicking and trap removal. In addition, thieves can open magical locks. The rules never say how this is done, which may explain why many GMs and players forget about this ability. I’m thinking: thieves are a superstitious lot, and have lots of little cantrips, gestures, and signs they use, hoping to gain some luck… and sometimes, somehow, some of them work. They can get through a Wizard Lock, with luck, although they have to match levels against the spell’s level. They can’t get through a Hold Portal spell, because that doesn’t affect the lock. It’s the magical equivalent of someone pushing against the other side of the door.

A thief can also attempt to pick a lock or remove a trap using makeshift tools. When not using actual lock picks and tweezers, a thief is effectively Level 0, but even that is better than a trained mundane locksmith, who can’t open locks without their tools.

Thief Skills As Surprise Series:

Monday, April 2, 2018

Thief Skills As Surprise -- Hearing Things

The Thief Skills As Surprise series (list of links below) has, up to now, dealt with surprising others, but not with avoiding surprise. This is, basically what the Hear Noise ability does: it gives a chance to find out if something is behind that door before opening it.

If there is no other proof that the skills of the Thief class are meant to be extraordinary versions of abilities any ordinary character should be able to do, “Hear Noise” should be the clincher. Anyone can listen at a door. If the noise is obvious to anyone who listens, no roll is needed. If it’s a slight noise, most characters make a standard surprise roll, but humans have a penalty on that roll:

  • if using the “surprise on 5+ (1d6)” rule, humans are at -1
  • if using the by-the-book “surprise on 1-2 in 6” rule, humans surprise only on a 1
  • Delving Deeper expresses this as half normal surprise chances

Success on this roll means that the listener is warned. The GM should tell the player what kind of noise it is, possibly identifying the monster or device making the noise if the character has any knowledge of that monster or device. Even when unidentified, the player now knows something is behind the door and cannot normally be surprised. The Hear Noise roll is, effectively, a second roll to avoid surprise.

This assumes that nothing changes in between the character hearing the noise and opening the door or entering the room. A creature could, if alerted to a player’s presence, still attempt to surprise. For example, a band of thieves in the room could hear a character outside the door and choose to hide in shadows, negating the character’s advantage.

A thief has a better chance of hearing a noise. Add a bonus equal to half the thief’s level, rounding up, either directly to the roll or to the target number, whichever is appropriate for the system used. If using the alternate Surprise Table, don’t use either the opponent’s level or the dungeon level as the difficulty, in most cases. Instead, rate the door’s level:

  • No Door: Level 0
  • Standard Door: Level 1
  • Thick Barrier: Level 4
  • Soundproof: Level 8

If a monster is known for being exceptionally or even magically silent, use the monster’s dice or level if it is higher than the barrier’s level.

If you want to give thieves a Detect Traps ability, as some versions of D&D do, it would basically work the same way. Use the dungeon level as the trap’s level. Similarly, these rules could be adapted to other senses, such as a scent-tracking ability for werewolves. Just remember that the level of the opponent being tracked or detected never matters unless the opponent is actively attempting to prevent detection.

Thief Skills As Surprise Series:

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Training and Backgrounds

In the comments on one of the Thief skills, Scott Anderson and I talked a little bit about training to get additional abilities not covered by your class. It’s worth addressing in its own post.

As I said in the comments, I allow characters to pick up additional abilities in two way… except really, it’s three ways. OK, maybe two and a half.

  1. At Character Generation, by purchasing a tool needed for that ability. Thus, a character who begins the game with a set of thief tools can have mundane lockpicking ability. This does not apply to supernatural abilities, and it can’t be used after character creation. This is really shorthand for…
  2. Through Backgrounds. This is nothing like the 5e backgrounds, but is an adaptation of the AD&D Secondary Skills system that I’ve written about before. At character creation, or after years of downtime and training, a character can be assigned one or more mundane professions, like blacksmith, baker, or sailor. This does not give any bonus, but it removes any penalty for being untrained. Further, if any skill requires a minimum ability score, the number of years of experience in a background can be used as a substitute.
  3. Through Research and Training. I adapt the magical research rules to calculate training costs and time, which I’ve described in a couple places, including this post: Bribe, Craft, Train. Short version: learning a spell costs the same as researching a new spell, with the same chance of success. Mundane skills cost one-tenth that, and are usually treated as 1st level spells, although the level can be adjusted.

After acquiring a new ability through training and research, a character essentially has a background with 0 years of experience. The ability can only be improved through time, as for other backgrounds. So, a character that trains as a blacksmith knows the basics, but may still have a chance of botching smithing jobs until they’ve worked as a smith for a year or two.

I try not to set too many minimum training time requirements, other than on-the-fly assignment of levels. Most simple mundane tasks can be trained as if they were 1st level spells. Heavy physical skills might be set as 4th level, so that they require a minimum of one month of training.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Thief Skills As Surprise -- Theft

Continuing to think about Thief Skills As Surprise, this time about picking pockets, swiping stray items, or otherwise taking something without being noticed.

Any adventurer can try to take something when no one is looking as long it is not literally in someone else’s possession. For example, taking fruit from a merchant’s basket while the merchant is shouting at another customer. This is a standard surprise roll.

  • Apply a -1 penalty (or shift down 1 row on the Surprise Table) if there are a lot of witnesses.
  • Apply a penalty or shift down a row if the owner or a witness is exceptionally vigilant. This is cumulative with the previous penalty.

Taking an item that is being held or stowed away in someone’s pockets, or any other situation where the victim must be touched or moved, is impossible for the untrained adventurer, although potentially doable with magical aide (Sleep spell.) A trained pickpocket who is not a member of the Thief class can attempt it, but never at better than standard surprise chances.

An actual thief can pick pockets with better odds. Either add half the difference between the thief’s level and the victim’s level, rounding up, or use the Surprise Table to find the die roll.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Thief Skills As Surprise -- Stealth, Part 2

In the first part of Thief Skills As Surprise, I forgot to mention an option to scale difficulties when attempting to move silently or hide in shadows. Instead of adding a level-based bonus, change the surprise chance based on opponent’s level.

When hiding from a monster, compare the thief’s level to the level or hit dice of the monster and consult this table:

Thief vs. Monster Surprise Roll
Thief 4+ levels higher 3+ on 1d6
Thief +/-3 levels 4+ on 1d6
Thief 4-6 levels lower 5+ on 1d6
Thief 7-8 level lower 6+ on 1d6
Thief 9+ levels lower fail to surprise

The last two rows are optional, but make it easier to adapt monsters that are harder to surprise.

  • If a monster lists a lowered surprise chance (“Surprise only on 1 in 6”,) shift the chance down one row on the table.
  • If a monster can’t be surprised normally, but you believe high-level thieves should still get a chance, shift the chance down two rows.

If you feel especially generous, thieves 9+ levels higher than the opponent will automatically succeed.

When using this table, the only modifier to the row is for cover or noise-reduction measures. Even this can be done away with, though: shift up one row for partial cover or any padding/muffling, or up two rows for total cover. I actually prefer this approach to using a level-based bonus.

Note on Surprising Machines: If a thief is trying to hide from a device or anything else that does not have a level or hit dice rating, use the dungeon level as the rating. So, a sound-activated trap on the 5th level can be bypassed a third of the time by even a beginning thief, two-thirds of the time by a 9th-level thief.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Thief Skills As Surprise: Stealth

Beginning a long time ago, I decided to treat all (or almost all) thief abilities as being based on surprise. Here's an elaboration on that for two skills: hide in shadows and move silently.

If an ordinary adventurer wants to hide, they must make that decision before a surprise roll is made. For example, if they know that a guard will be walking down a corridor at some point, they can hide around a corner. There must be some kind of cover. There's no "hide skill", but the cover used may give +1 (partial cover) or +2 (full cover) to the surprise roll. Similarly, if an adventurer takes steps to reduce noise, they can move quietly, getting +1 to surprise, or +2 for extreme measures. These modifiers do not stack.

(I use "surprise on 5+ on 1d6", which makes adding bonuses directly to the roll easy. If using the more standard "surprise on 1-2 on 1d6" mechanic, add the bonus to the target, making it "surprise on 1-3" or "surprise on 1-4".)

Cleverness may matter. If it seems reasonable that the adventurer may leave subtle clues to their presence, even when not visible or trying to be quiet, the adventurer only gets the bonus if either their Int or Wis is higher than the target's Int or Wis.

Speed may matter. If there's a chance that the adventurer could notice the opponent first, they can dart for cover if their Move is higher than the opponent's Int or Wis, whichever is better. This only works if the adventurer is not surprised, of course.

A thief does not need cover, only shadow, nor do thieves need special equipment to reduce noise, other than avoiding metal armor. The thief adds half their level (round up) to surprise when hiding in shadows or moving silently, plus any bonus for cover or sound dampening, if they chose to do so. If the thief decides to hide in shadows on the spur of the moment, they only need to dart for shadow, not for full cover, and they can do so if either their Dex or their level is higher than the opponent's Int or Wis.