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Chris Crawford quote on the trap-laden dungeon

November 24, 2011 3 comments

Well, actually it’s about user interfaces, which are really the same thing when you think about it.

…one of the stupidest and most avoidable blunders in classic user interface design: darkness paralysis. Imagine it’s four in the morning and the dog is whining in the garage. You stumble out of bed and creep through the house, groping your way toward the door. You’re too sleepy to remember to turn on the light. The path you must take is direct and unobstructed, yet you move slowly and carefully, imagining at every moment a toe-stubbing chair or nose-crunching wall to be just in front of you. The absence of light dramatically changes a simple and obvious task into one that is difficult, confusing, and intimidating. Always keep this feeling in your mind, for although users operate the same program that designers create, the designers see the program in the light of complete knowledge, and the users navigate in total darkness. The designer cannot understand the user’s confusion; having laid out the room, examined it from a thousand different angles, gone over every square inch with a magnifying glass, the designer can walk across it with his eyes closed. He simply cannoy understand the user’s confusion.

Originally from Crawford’s The Art of User Interface Design. Via muffinlabs.

I don’t like 10′ poles – they’re unwieldy, ridiculous, combat-inappropriate and unheroic. But if pressure pads and spiked pits are the order of the game then they’re indispensable (only use a pike, please). So it’s really truer to say I don’t like a style of DMing that leads to 10′ poles – I just don’t want to play that darkness-paralyzed game – at least not every time.

The thing is, once you’ve fallen into that pit, there’s really no way to get the players to come back out of it, to pay attention to what the NPC is saying if they suspect she’s really just an illusory doppelganger lichwight trying to get them to enter the room so she can blast them, or to touch the engravings on the ceiling or drink from the fountain. Here’s the thing: it’s cool when Indy uses the tree branch to spring the poison dart because he’s in a small environment where you know there are special dangers. He doesn’t have to check for poison darts in the forest, Cairo or the sub pen. Because those places have different kinds of dangers. He knows it, we know it. But the megadungeon… isn’t it just exhausting, and kinda boring, to be waiting for the next scything head-chopper?

I’m wondering what to do about that. I’m hoping Talysman will talk about it. In the past I’ve gone and played other games, because for me D&D always was contaminated with pole-pushing thinking – CoC has its known dangers (you’re not going in the basement, right?), but the environment itself won’t always be creeping up on you – if it does, that’s because you’re making progress.

I’m thinking about the heist campaign, and how it runs on foreknowledge. Maybe I should give the players the journal of a previous party, that tells them about a set of traps but not where those are, so they know to watch out for particular bits of background. Or even some looted trap designs, so they recognise some features when they come up. Most of all, I’m leaning toward non-lethal “capture” traps – once a trap has been sprung the environment becomes a problem to be solved. Before it’s sprung, the nature of the problem is undeclared, so it’s impossible to face it as a challenge.

Finally, I just found this post Babbling Bane wrote back in March in response to something else I’d written. Sorry, WordPress doesn’t necessarily pingback Blogger citations (and probably vice-versa?). makes me wonder if I should tell people when I’m linking to them…

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In the Demiurge’s memory theatre

November 23, 2011 Leave a comment

What do you get if you mashup Zak’s Metamorphosis Amber and the 1e PHB cover?

…deep in the uncharted wilderness the players break through a cruft of goblin nests to discover an enormous, multi-layered gallery filled with tableaux – statues locked in epic combat; miniature cities under attack by squadrons of flying carpets; glittering rooms peopled with uniformed porcelain figures grasping alien devices; cathedral caverns filled with colossal stone elephants and whales. Everything pointing to everything else like some gigantic, ancient explanatorium. Some of the exhibits are made from plain stone or glass, others from huge blocks of malachite or chalcedony, some crafted from gold and gems.

Of course, this buried museum, or art-house, or whatever it is, isn’t uninhabited, it’s just incidentally inhabited with an awful lot of inanimate stuff. And you could prize the gems out and run away and make a fortune. But the real money would be in pulling out whole statues – and that would take manpower, effort, time. And if you did, then the real value would be lost – as some sage will eventually tell you – because it’s only by having all the figures in their original setting that you can read them for their deep, revelatory meanings. So then you should build a town at the entrance to this wonder, and guide sages through it so they can plumb its secrets. And you should replace what you looted, so they can read whatever you unwittingly destroyed.

But it’s only by having all the original parts in place that you can make the ritual work, to bring it all to life and opens a portal to the planes/save the world from boredom/remake the PCs as demigods/lift the curse of endless background.

…so the megadungeon campaign, if the players bite, eventually runs in reverse. First they loot it and sell the bits, then they try to make new bits to replace what they stole, and finally they have to run all over the world tracking down all that stuff they previously hoiked to put it back in its proper place – they become dungeon makers, rather than dungeon despoilers.

And that’s how you get them to go into the Castle of the Mad Archmage, which they otherwise would absolutely never do. To get that last wind-up box.

Adventure seed for CoC: Heidegger’s Necronomicon

November 22, 2011 3 comments

Fourteen deaths on campus and the semester hadn’t even started yet. The only thing that linked the victims was that they had all responded to the following post-doctoral grant proposal:

It has often been observed that the works of Martin Heidegger (most notably Being and Time) are absolutely incomprehensible, if not actually gibberish. Two hypotheses have been put forward to explain this observation: (1) that Heidegger was trying to express something for which common communication strategies are inadequate; (2) that Heidegger just wasn’t very good at communicating.

Further, it has come to the researchers’ attention that prolonged exposure to Heidegger’s works appears to significantly degrade the ability of his readers to communicate. Attempts to explain Heidegger – notably the famous works by Hubert Dreyfus and Wrathall & Critchley – all end up pretty much as incomprehensible as the original, while works that merely cite Heidegger are frequently less comprehensible around the locus of citation. Following this observation a third hypothesis is proposed: that some aspect of Heidegger’s works has an active effect on readers’ cognitive and communicative faculties.

The researchers propose to investigate this apparent phenomenon. One group of researchers will attempt an interpretation of Heidegger’s works similar to that used on the celebrated, and comparable, Voynich Manuscript, approaching his writings as artifacts of unknown meaning or purpose and undertaking a detailed textual and non-textual, symbolic analysis of them, in the hope of uncovering patterns. Simultaneously, a second group of researchers will observe the interpreting group closely for signs of degradation in their abilities to communicate, analyze or think rationally without, themselves, coming into contact with Heidegger’s works. Finally, both groups will be continuously monitored by video surveillance equipment and behaviour-analysis software, which will notify a third group in the event of a significant change in the behaviour patterns of either or both of the first two groups.

To avoid self-selection biases or contamination of the data or groups by previously-exposed scholars, the three groups will be drawn at random from incoming freshmen in the academic new year, who will have to demonstrate ignorance of Heidegger’s works in a double blind test.

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Trade again, hopefully clearer this time

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Reading over yesterday’s post about creating a system for intercity trade again a day later I see that I failed to state clearly what the point of the post was.

The point is, if you are bent on creating an economy for your gameworld, and if you want your PCs to be able to engage in traveling trade, the good news is you don’t have to make any more of a working economy than that bit the players are going to see and interact with. And making that bit of economy will help make your world more concrete, and can generate a nice little trading subgame and a ton of adventure hooks.

The approach taken by a hundred RPG trading tables and another hundred nice little trading computer games since Elite (and probably long before then, actually) has been to randomly generate a ton of trade ports and randomly generate the prices for various goods within them, with or without some fudge factors to allow players to improve their odds of making money on each voyage (eg. diamonds are uniformly more expensive than corn, but also vary in price far more, so they support “higher level” play. Slaves are illegal in the “core” and therefore expensive, but legal and cheap in the “periphery,” etc.). Telecanter suggests a fudge factor of distance: taking a commodity farther from its home increases the risk of mishap and therefore decreases the supply of that commodity at the destination.

This is fine as far as it goes, but it stops short of an essential principle of fictional world design: any feature you add should mirror and augment the players’ experience of the world. If it does, then it will make sense to them, and can help fill in details about the world the players didn’t know to ask about. They know dragons are rare, so dragons’ teeth should be expensive. But also they might consult the market price index and discover that pearls are wildly more expensive than diamonds. Why? That’s an adventure seed.

Yes, I know. We all love random tables. But they’re liable to abuse if you make their results persistent and exploitable. Why are socks three times more expensive in New York than in New Jersey? Because the table wasn’t carefully designed to avoid that kind of exploitable randomness, and now you’re playing Tristate Sock Trader, until somebody rebalances the tables. And before you scoff, designing around this sort of nonsense has been a major task for computer game developers.

So that’s why I say risk should be the sole determinant of trade profitability – because the players have to deal directly with it and because it makes every trade, in some sense, a zero-sum game: the players pay for every success by facing and overcoming hazards. Also, it encourages you, the DM, to assign a risk factor to every port – and allows you to place some assessment of that risk in the players’ hands, enabling them to make informed decisions about what kind of game they want – they can read the market price listings, or consult grizzled sea-captains in the dockside bars, to gauge how risky it is to get to those cities. Is the town under siege? What’s the risk of goods being stopped by the besieging force? That’s how much prices are inflated. Fancy a little blockade-running?

The point of fixing profit for normal, low-risk business at 5% is, it renders such normal businesses viable but unattractive to PCs. It invites the PCs to cheat somehow, by grabbing a monopoly in some resource or otherwise distorting the market. It encourages them to take extraordinary risks – to go on adventures and make trade itself an adventure, without giving them a crock to exploit or a crutch to lean on. And it gets you away from that end of Elite where you were interminably shuttling Bulk Machine Parts between Planet A and Planet B.

If you hanker for the old randomized price index, just use the equipment list as a dice-drop table: wherever the dice land, that commodity is unusually cheap or expensive – whichever seems more fun. You neither know nor care how much rope costs in Lankhmar, right? But if you’ve heard that there’s a massive rope shortage on Pan Tang because of all the heretics they’ve been hanging, then suddenly there just might be money in old rope. Predicated on the risk of getting strung up.

A little gameconomics

November 7, 2011 1 comment

Telecanter wants a simple system for abstracting sea trade.* Alas, I can’t do simple today. Much as I would love to answer this with a trading mishaps table, I think the way to get to a workable system is to start with the desired outcome and work back from there. I also can’t provide a system accurate to the silver piece straight off because I don’t know the particular rules of his game world. But if I were to build one, I would base it on these principles:

For trade to be worthwhile, you have to be able to hit a sweet spot where profit outweighs risk. High risk requires high profit. As risk goes down, so can profit, making more trades and types of goods feasible (and forecasting becomes more reliable, too, so you can choose to take smarter risks).

So your rate of risk pretty much tells you what the rate of profit should be – and it’s all expressed purely in terms of money potentially gained and lost. Why can we say that, and discount risks to persons, morals, societies and immortal souls? Because we assume going in that there is a class of traders willing to put those things on the line, and if we try to add those non-economic considerations to the economic model, we run the risk of someone (the PCs, obviously), privately discounting them and taking over the world (cf. the history of capitalist colonialism).

The really dangerous end of trade for your gameworld is the simplest one: intra-town or village-to-village peddling with no significant risks. You don’t want to put a crock in your game, where players can generate infinite money through grinding out some simple, low-risk trick. Here rate of profit must be fixed and low, and it’s all about scale: the amount one man can carry of basic goods (clothing, prepared foods, simple tools) should be enough to support him as a vagrant peddler/unskilled laborer, but not much more. A shopowner works at a bigger scale but the same rate of investment return, say 2-5% profit over total costs (goods + labor + building rent or whatever) per year.

Adding risk of any kind increases the allowable return proportionally. If there’s a 20% chance of being robbed by bandits then the profit rate has to jump up by 20% too – but it needn’t increase by more than that, because in general people are bad at calculating and respecting repetitive risk: they’ll be super happy about all the money they made by avoiding bandits twice (25% over base each trade!) and won’t think about the chances of avoiding them a third time.**

Sea trade has a massive extra risk safety valve built in: the capital cost of a ship. This adds a risk to every voyage that (historically) is often many times the cost of the goods carried. Just like that, allowable return jumps up (which is useful, because so does the scale of operation: a man might carry 100 lbs of goods on a handcart. A camel could carry half a ton. A big merchant ship might carry a thousand tons). If there’s a 10% chance of losing your ship and we maintain 5% overall “guaranteed” profit (ie if you kept playing this game with infinite ships over infinite time you’d make 5% a year) then that 10% of capital can be added to the profit potential of a single one-year voyage without breaking the economy. So if a new ship costs 10,000gp and the total cost of doing business (ie goods + crew wages + port fees + bribes) is 1000gp then the sale price of the goods should be 2100gp – over 100% “apparent” profit! That makes Sinbad type adventures highly attractive for individual, risk-seeking entrepreneurs while explaining why farmers don’t collectively abandon their crops for the high seas: if you bet the farm, you have to be ready for the possibility that you’ll lose it.

Also, the cost of ships adds a handy bar to participation in the profitable trades; what lords and kings can get away with matters less to your gameworld than what everyone could get away with: return from a warfleet can be basically uncontrolled, because the only people it really affects is a small class that’s eager to spend the profits on war.

The trick, then, is not to exempt the PCs from facing this bar: they have to be responsible for the economic risks they take and they have to inhabit the social rank their risk level demands (are your murderhobos sailing around in a king’s ransom? Then they can expect to face princely threats). There’s a hundred ways to do this, as long as you don’t forget them, from Jabba’s loan-sharking to law enforcement (in the case of those who steal their ships), to corrupt port officials to wars and unpredictably-changing trade agreements, before you even get to the more familiar fantasy seafaring threats of storms, gyres and krakens. Even if you’ve given your PCs a ship free and clear at the outset (because you weren’t thinking about the implications), if those PCs want to make more out of it than they would by just selling it, they’ll have to figure on replacing it one day. And they should consider the potentially devastating consequences of surviving the ship’s loss: was it rented/on loan? Then debt-slavery beckons. Did it have NPC crewmen? Those guys had families. What kind of reputation does a captain-for-hire get, from having his last gig literally sink? Don’t neglect non-capitalist arrangements – they almost always cost more overall, socially and communicably, than a simple cash-on-delivery deal. How do you face the chief who gifted you your knarr? Especially when you agreed to take his son on as water-carrier? Where were you when it all went wrong? The Cannibal Islands? The Cursed Latitudes? How will people react to you if you somehow make it back, in plump good health?

There are also possible outcomes other than success or catastrophe. Goods can spoil en route, be stolen or confiscated or jettisoned in a storm, eliminating profit but maintaining viability (or incurring debts). Historically, warehousing has been one of the decisive factors in the success of large-scale enterprises – if you can wait for the right market rate before you release your silks, nutmeg or wheat, you can dramatically change your profitability. The speed of trade is also critical – time is money: if you can make 5% a week, that’s wildly different from 5% a year. Sea trade adds unpredictability here too: Arab traders out of Cairo might see a roundtrip to Naples take 6 weeks or, rarely, up to a year, depending on weather and other conditions.

So what’s a good rate of risk for your game? Fundamentally that depends on how many trades you want the PCs to think about doing: are you playing Traveller, where it’s a way of life for millions of characters, or Jason and the Argonauts, where the potential profits are political or even metaphysical?***

The 50% or 66% or 84% chances of not coming back that Telecanter mentions are pretty rare historically – it’s the stuff of legendary quests like Magellan’s or Da Gama’s voyages, where a whole society makes a huge bet, hoping to make so much profit they can take over next door’s kingdom – or of massive desperation, like Somali piracy. Starting at that end of the curve sounds like complicated fun: there’s a good chance the PCs will retire after one job, so the job should be epic. And profits like that bring multiple risks, even after the voyage is over; everyone from cutpurses to bandits to state police want a slice: it takes strength to hang onto treasure (and might make for an interesting inverse campaign; you start with the goods and have to act smart to keep them).

On the other hand, if your PCs are tramp-trading around, waiting for a better job, a la Traveller, then something like a 10-20% chance of an adventure hook per voyage (you’re not going to sink them off-screen, right? When they could be forced into an unknown port or driven onto a mysterious island or made to make hard moral choices by pirates?) might make sense – then the trading is continuity, the returns are a sub-game, and you can keep ’em hungry by making ’em replace their ship bit by bit (broken masts or star-drives, drunk or fanatical mates), so they stay dreaming of retirement and that island in the sun, rather than playing Deckchairs & Cocktails.

I don’t have the time right now, alas, to write a nicely-balanced table that marries profit rates to all the hazards listed above, but I’d use that 5%-after-all-costs baseline to set market rates and assume that if a given commodity is available locally it will generally be cheaper to get it locally (with the proviso that 1 mile on roads might be equivalent to 100 miles by sea for some goods). Exceptions to the 5% rule apply where monopolies, rarity and other exotica come into play: i.e. when the PCs get involved. 😉 But then, trading in exotica should be a risky, tense, thoughtful, strategic enough game that the PCs won’t miss the dungeon. And if they can see past the economics of capital costs and risk analysis and refuse to stick their necks out for a piffling 5%, why there are plenty of ways they can voluntarily increase their risks in order to jack up their potential reward…

*I have to offer my profound apologies to the ACKS guys: I’ve just been too busy to keep up with their discussion, in order to make a meaningful contribution to what seems to me an extremely worthy product. Right now I can invest a couple of hours a week in this blog; anything more threatens my job hunting, work, sanity and marriage.
**Gold rushes and piracy invert the normal rationality of trade: there people bet on a eucatastrophe. The rate of profit is generally horribly negative (the average career of a “golden age” pirate captain was less than 4 years, from first running up the black flag to swinging at Tyburn), but there’s that tiny individual chance of never having to work again.
*** Historically accurate overall trade risks for, say, the medieval Mediterranean, are hard to calculate (and always were, even for merchants at the time) and of questionable value for your campaign, whatever it is. One day, I promise, I’ll crunch those numbers, and when I do it will be by looking at the rates of profit folks hoped to make from single voyages. Because they operated in competitive environments and we know that, with only a very few exceptions, any merchant family could be ruined by the loss of its ships and agents two years running.

Top five reasons for breaking open a grave

November 4, 2011 2 comments

Bones Don’t Lie has a serious and sensible list of the top 5 (most common?) reasons for disturbing a burial. It comes down to:

1. getting stuff out (grave goods, bits of bodies*, political capital)
2. keeping stuff in (bad luck, spirits, undead**)
3. investigating the past (includes archaeology)

And in another post, 4. honoring the dead (not desecration but reconsecration).

I’ve never seen (4) in a game. Aside from this list the only thing I think games commonly add is:
4(g): necromancy/raising armies

Surely we can do better than this? If you’re running a tombraiding game, what other reasons could there be for cracking open that pyramid?*** Here’s another 5, but consider this a challenge: there’s a world of possibilities out there. What would nobody else ever have thought of?

1. opening/closing a gateway to another realm (tomb as psychopomp, perhaps, or just wardrobe, or physical dungeon entrance, or hallucinatory dream quest).
2. signaling to some otherworldly entity (includes aliens, time-travelers, seraphim, possessors of the dead, E.A.Poe). Or demonstrating that they won’t be answering such a signal because (a) they don’t exist or (b) you’ve overmastered them (a common wartime propaganda move, BTW).
3. accident, natural disaster or hubristic/archaeologically ignorant building programs. This runs from misrecognition – you thought the tomb was a house or other common structure, up to digging railway tunnels through mass madhouse graves and plague pits.
4. you’re getting out. This needn’t be some lame 60’s mind-fuck trick ending – “oh look, you were dead all along – dead and asleep to your true potential!” Maybe you started somewhere else and the smugglers’ tunnels come out in a graveyard. Or maybe you are (un)dead, following your capture by the pixies/cultists, and now the game takes a strange turn.
5. to get rid of something. The classic version of this is return to the stones to the temple and lift the curse, but what if you really just want to put something beyond reach? What if there’s no Mount Doom to go with the One Ring? What are you going to do now? Maybe the Lich God makes a good guard dog after all?
Bonus 6: to make it your new home. Not necessarily because you’re undead; maybe you want to bathe in the energies of the Ancients, or you’re hiding from foes, or you know the ground better.

* she doesn’t mention the Tonton Macoute practice of taking kneecaps from graves as protection against shooting, which seems like it might cut across a few categories here.
** or less metaphorically/metaphysically, poison.
** check out this megadungeon onionskin: imagine these outlines are buildings actually nested inside each other, the levels increasing as you work toward the central nugget. Or turn the whole thing upside down: level 1 is under your point-of-light village; outer levels are more dangerous, and have doors back to the surface on lands or islands or undersea realms farther away from your home base.

Scales of splintering

November 3, 2011 1 comment

Of all of D&D’s mechanics, the one that sticks most in my craw is increasing PC hit points with level: I don’t like it on simulation and gameplay grounds.* I’ve long wondered about getting rid of it (which, yes, means rebalancing the whole damn game). It seems to me that the shield splintering rules and recent more radical proposals for “splintering” hirelings, magic items or anything that matters might in fact be a partial workaround, which could follow a similar curve to leveling up without breaking a whole bunch of systems and metaphors on which the game depends. If the point of high hp is heroic survivability then it could be modeled by gear instead of some intrinsic mechanical difference on the character sheet. Gear you have to deliberately sacrifice – which means you’re just as vulnerable to a surprise attack as you ever were, and the day you wake up naked in the dungeon you’re doubly vulnerable. And the reason you don’t abuse it is that to do so costs you hard-won game tokens. Or limbs (I strongly support this: the pirate captain shows his succession of narrow escapes on his body).

But I’m still not totally comfortable with the idea of adding extra lives with every magic item. Because (a) it’s the sort of gag that works well once and is laughable the second time, and (b) because it has knock on effects both for how long PCs keep items and for how many items should be in the world. And then I re-read Cugel’s Saga** and it occurred to me that a special class of save-vs-death chits – Scales of Splintering – might be the test case I wanted, and if they worked they might do away with the need for increasing hp altogether, and if they became a critical resource in the game world that just might be even better.*** So here’s my baby-steps version:

Little is known about these scales, how many there are or what might happen should they all be assembled. It is rumoured that the Archon of the Eternal City has seven in his treasury, and of course one or more about his person, but if he does then he keeps them concealed. It is said that, should a killing blow ever be leveled at the Archon then fate will place the scale in the way, to the frustration of the attack and destruction of the scale. It is also said that four such scales have already been sacrificed to the Archon’s welfare. Occasionally mountebanks claim to have found a new scale, brought to grass from the underworld, or even a stash or pool or seam of scales ripe for harvesting but most such claimants are quickly found out in their falsehoods, by an assassin’s dagger or hangman’s noose.

Finally, it is rumoured that alongside the true and dependable scales there are others, “pectorals,” that hunger for souls rather than saving them – at the moment of Fate they  draw their holders inl, body and soul, perhaps to spend eternity in company with all the pectoral’s previous victims.

* what does it simulate? Yes, the PCs are now “more heroic” and harder to kill, but giants are harder to kill just because they can take more kinetic energy, so it’s a mixed metaphor/incoherent. Also, you have to distort the rules like crazy to reintroduce the idea that a high level PC or monster might be killable by a single blow after all, just because you carelessly wrote that out with level-based hit dice. For a fuller discussion of this see my forthcoming monograph: Even Achilles had bad days: on the necessary vulnerability of heroes.
**I must respectfully disagree with noisms about Vance as a stylist. That said, I can now see as I did not before (a) why Cugel is such a spur to RPG world-building; (b) why indulging that urge is entirely missing the point of the book; and (c) why there are so many crazygonzo playhouse/torture dungeons out there, which reward both caution and brazenness with a more-or-less funny death. Here’s the thing: Cugel behaves at all times with punctilio, according to his context: he is brazen when the punishment is a beating and quick on his heels when it’s deadly. He is armed always and only with the tools Vance requires to keep him alive for the next adventure, and he uses them just clumsily enough that we forgive him his magical invulnerability. This is excellent for stories, but quicksand for game design.
*** alternative death-dodging mechanism for higher-level characters: your hit points stay the same as 1st level but you get some kind of save vs. death that’s level-dependent. Point is, if an assassin can negate your save then he can kill you, whatever your level, with the same dagger he would’ve used on your sorry level 1 back.