Saturday, November 26, 2011

Top Secret And Old School Resolution

One of the insights of the OSR has been the relationship between player and character, specifically as it relates to "skills" and similar systems. The idea is that the player should be able to simply describe what the character is doing, and the Referee will adjudicate the outcome based on that description. So, where a modern player might roll a character's "search" skill, the old school player would describe how the character is searching and where. This is all fine until it comes to technical skills, especially modern ones such as piloting aircraft or computer programming, where the player will either might not have any particular skill in the field or else the Referee might lack any knowledge of how that skill is employed in reality.

Top Secret approaches this situation in three different, but related, ways. The first is the easiest, and is related to the rolled abilities of the character. Things like deactivating alarms and traps, fighting, or charming a contact are covered by these. The player still describes, at least in general (but specific details are helpful, too), how the character is going about it, but the resolution is heavily influenced by the abilities of the character. Next is also easy, and those are "Areas Of Knowledge", or "AOKs". These are the most like traditional gaming skills, and cover abilities like Accounting or Chemistry. They are rated in percentages (though they can go above 100), which can be rolled against directly, or a minimum level set for success.

So far, though, we haven't seen anything about flying aircraft or forging documents (those are not covered under AOKs). Thus, in Dragon magazine and later in the Top Secret Companion, a system of "College Courses" was set out, in which the character would spend a certain amount of money and time and gain a new ability. This was not perfectly integrated, as the legacy systems of such things as martial arts (defined in the original game by the level of "Military Science/Weaponry" or "Physical Education" AOKs) were joined by the College Course system (in which one could learn various martial arts by taking a course). The idea seems to have been that someone with a lower level of Military Science/Weaponry or Physical Education could still learn the particulars of fighting with Judo, Martial Arts, Boxing, or Wrestling. Oddly, Knife Fighting and Swordplay are treated differently in the College Course system, which is something I need to think about in writing the TS retroclone. In any case, the course would also give specific increases to various AOKs or even abilities, and a modest bonus of Experience Points (though members of the Technical Bureau got quite a bit more). Here's an example of a College Course:

Scuba Diving

Cost: $8000
Time: 4 weeks
Prerequisite: Physical Strength 50+, Willpower 75+.
Areas of Specialization: Closed circuit systems, Semi-closed-circuit demand-type scuba systems.
Ability Acquired: Using semi-closed or open-circuit scuba diving equipment, the agent can dive to a maximum depth equal to the next highest fitness rating. For example, a weakling could dive to 185 feet, an average agent could dive to 285 feet, and strong and super agents could dive to depths of 380 and 435 feet, respectively. An agent can swim a distance of 5001-6000 (5000 + (1-100)x(1-10)) feet safely 85% of the time, even at the maximum depth. An agent using a closed-circuit system may dive to a depth of only 30 feet or less for 30 minutes or less. An agent can hold his breath for a number of seconds equal to his Willpower value. Increase Physical Strength and Willpower each + (1-10).
Areas of Knowledge increase: Military Science and Physical Education each + (1-10).
Credit: 60 Experience Points.

Now, there are some things in there which were not well-defined in the original game, such as the note that the agent would be safe "85% of the time" (there's no indication of what happens if that chance is failed; my guess is that it was intended as a saving throw that would automatically prevent any complications that the Referee might have considered throwing the agent's way). There are some abilities gained through College Courses, though, which seem to imply that the ability can't be performed at all by someone who hasn't taken the Course, such as piloting a space shuttle. In addition, there are many College Courses implied which were not delineated in the original material.

This is similar to the skill systems of other games in many ways, but it assumes that the player can use his knowledge to perform various actions that would be covered by skills in some modern games. For instance, the searching example I discussed above. In addition, there's a saving throw against the player's mistakes in the character's abilities, so that, for instance, a player who didn't have the character look in the right place for a particular useful object could be given a roll against the Perception tertiary trait to find it anyway. Alternately, the Referee could simply set a minimum Perception to find the item, with that coming into play if the player failed to properly direct the character.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Solo Gaming And The Fantasy West

So, lately I haven't had a gaming group. There are a couple of ways I could alleviate that. One is Google+ and Constantcon. Another is to find a place and run a game myself. I do plan on doing both of those (I'll play in someone's Constantcon game sooner or later, and I will run a megadungeon-based game using Swords & Wizardry: Whitebox plus my own set of houserules). However, there's a third way, which is solo gaming.

Solo gaming has a long and glorious tradition. There are a few ways to go about it, from getting solo adventures (which are more or less like the old "Choose Your Own Adventure" books or adventure gaming books like Lone Wolf) to just making stuff up. Somewhere in between lie the concepts in Mythic Game Master Emulator, which I'll likely be using. Basically, MGME is a systematization of using random rolls to figure out what happens next. It acts like a dice oracle, where you ask a yes-or-no question, roll dice, and take the result as the answer. There are more complexities involved (such as "chaos factor" and "event meaning", plus a structured way of approaching the adventure and an admonition to use logic), and there are even more ways to use the material in the supplement, Mythic Variations, but that's the basic idea.

This, however, is not a review of that product, but is instead a discussion of what my ideal game (or one of them, anyway) would be. As a solo gamer, I get to do that, with no concessions to anyone else's vision. This is both good and bad. It is good in that I get to play in a situation that is exactly what I am looking for when I game. It is bad in that it lacks the wider context that comes when a group of people collaborate on the game. For every thing gained, there is something that must be lost.

So, what would my game be? First, the setting. I envision a sort of fantasy world subcreation that includes those things which are of particular interest to me. In this case, a lot of wilderness with scattered areas of settlement, some of which are larger than others. So far, a typical sword & sorcery RPG world. I'd like the magic to be more subtle than "pulp", with amulets, blessings, and curses rather than fireballs and glowing staves. And in the big change from traditional roleplaying fantasy, I'd like black powder, caplock revolvers and stagecoaches and pony express riders. Not science fantasy, not steampunk, not gonzo, and not historical Old West. More like Eyes of Fire, Pale RiderThe Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, and Ginger Snaps Back than The Wild Wild West or The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., but set in a fictional world that I can play around in and with. Sort of like the relationship between Middle-Earth and the historical Dark Ages.

There's even less literature to explain what I mean, but Louis L'Amour's The Haunted Mesa and The Californios come close to the tone I want to set. The story game Dogs in the Vineyard, which I love, is very much in line with the idea, but I want to play a roleplaying/adventure game, not a story game. If anyone knows of other books or movies that they think might fit the idea, let me know. Edit to add: Durr. Of course Stephen King's Dark Tower books are very much in line with the idea. A couple of others that I thought of later were the Jonah Hex comics and William S. Burroughs's The Place of Dead Roads, though neither really fits the idea well.

In addition to the "fantasy Old West" vibe, I want to include some other aspects. One of the lands will be, effectively, 17th century Scottish highlanders mixed with 14th century Irish with mid-19th century tech. Another will be an area where Chinese and Japanese analogues have colonized. Of course, the whole land will be one of colonization, and there will be some sorts of Native American/First Nations peoples. Perhaps I will make them the "humanoids", and work with the problems of racism that are implicit in fantasy at least since Tolkien. Furthermore, I want to have a Mormon-like enclave.

The magic will be like Appalachian/Ozark Power traditions, Pennsylvania Dutch Hex magic, Hoodoo, Native shamanism, Renaissance magic, and the like.

Anyway, with setting loosely defined, that leaves me to move on to system. Some game systems work better for some styles of play. Plus, since this will be something I am doing for myself, I don't have to worry too much about pacing and similar issues, so I can use a system that is as complex as I can stand (or as simple as I prefer). To that end, and because it already has an excellent magic system that fits my criteria, I am going to use GURPS, with a lot of the "realistic" and "gritty" options turned on. Magic will use the Path/Book magic system from GURPS Thaumatology. Martial arts will exist, but not the Trained by a Master advantage or cinematic skills.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

GURPS Greyhawk: Quivering Palm

Quivering Palm

Default: Pressure Secrets-10.
Prerequisite: Pressure Secrets; cannot exceed Pressure Secrets skill.

The most terrible technique gained by knowledge of Pressure Secrets is that fabled attack which allows the user to set up vibrations in the body of the victim, which ultimately will result in death. The attacker touches his victim (possibly requiring a roll against an unarmed combat skill if in combat, at -2 in addition to hit location modifiers as with other combat uses of Pressure Secrets) and rolls a success of his Quivering Palm technique to set up the deadly vibrations. If the technique is attempted, then the attack will not do normal damage. Any armor DR will protect against this technique entirely, though a strike through chinks in armor or to an otherwise unarmored location will allow the technique to work, and DR from tough skin has no effect. The touch can be attempted casually or in combat; a victim with the Trained by a Master advantage can attempt a roll against IQ-3 or Pressure Points skill to know that the vibrations have begun. Otherwise, no effects are apparent until the victim starts losing HP.

Beginning one hour after the vibrations have been set up a Quick Contest between the victim's HT and the attacker's Quivering Palm technique is rolled. If the victim fails, he loses 1 HP; critical failure makes the loss 3d HP. This continues every three hours until the victim manages to gain a critical success in the Contest or wins three Contests in a row (these results will end the effects of the vibrations) or until he dies. No medical skill other than Esoteric Medicine will alleviate this loss of HP, and only Esoteric Medicine will allow the reason for the loss to be diagnosed. Roll a Contest of Skills between the healer's Esoteric Medicine skill and the attacker's Quivering Palm technique; success alleviates the effects of the Quivering Palm for 24 hours. Three successful Contests in a row will end the vibrations. The person who inflicted the Quivering Palm can remove its effect by touching the target if he chooses (and the target allows himself to be touched). Magical healing or advantages which affect healing can restore lost HP as normal, but cannot end the vibrations.

(Largely, I am putting this here so that I don't need to keep my copy of GURPS Martial Arts 2nd Edition for 3E sitting in my stack of books to use.)

Removing this from the Greyhawk background, this could be renamed "Hand of Death", which was the original name of the ability when it was a skill in GURPS 3E. This version is a technique, obviously, and is appropriate to the martial arts of the Monks of Oerth. Like the Pressure Secrets skill itself, it should probably be treated as a Cinematic Technique.

This version of the technique is OGL. I think that it has been reworded enough to pass muster.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Design Notes: Character Improvement

One of the central aspects of roleplaying games is continuity and improvement of characters. Traditionally, this is accomplished by improving the character's abilities in some manner. The first RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, did this by increasing a single characteristic, the "level", in relation to victory points acquired by the character (called "experience points"). The "level" of the character determined how effective the character was at certain activities related to the character's general stereotypical category, or "class". Everything else was determined by an interaction between the player, describing what the character was attempting, and the Referee, adjudicating and describing the outcome of those actions. In a sense, experience points and level could be considered similar to the Polynesian concept of "mana" (as distinct from the later usage of that term to refer exclusively to magical power in games).

Those victory points, or experience points, were really the central feature of the character. They were originally gained by defeating monsters and other foes and by acquiring money and valuables. There was a long period of adjusting, in various editions, the ratio of experience from defeating foes and gaining treasure. In some editions, treasure outweighs confrontation by 3 to 1 or more, while in others treasure has been nearly completely devalued in favor of defeating foes.

After that, games developed three (or more, but this is what is coming to mind right now) different ways of regulating character improvement. First was the skill check system typified by RuneQuest, in which the use of particular abilities, or "skills", gave a chance of increasing that ability. Of course, there were other methods of improvement in RuneQuest, such as training, but those were artificially limited in order to encourage action. Next, there was the point system, developed by games like Superhero: 2044 and Champions. In this system, experience points were translated directly into character abilities, rather than being used to improve just one ability. In these systems, experience points were generally given in smaller amounts than those in D&D, and more importantly were given for story reasons other than the objective ones defined in early RPGs. This means that, rather than getting victory points for defeating foes or acquiring treasures, characters would gain them for subjective reasons like "achieving goals" or "good roleplaying". The third method was very rarely used, in fact I can only recall one game that used it. This was the method in Traveller, where skills were improved only by long-term training, but other character improvements were acquired by spending money on equipment. In a sense, this is similar to those editions of D&D in which treasure represents the majority of experience points, as money is used to pay for training and also for other improvements.

That last method seems like a good one to me (and to be fair, it is similar to the one in RuneQuest, which also used money to pay for training; the difference is that in Traveller's system, there is no direct improvement for simply acting and RuneQuest limited the benefits of training). It seems like it might be worthwhile, in a game, to expand on it. Consider the various things that we spend money and time on that improve our lives in one way or another. We might go out to a night club and carouse, with the potential of gaining friends and social skills. We might take continuing education courses or go to college. Even shopping for objects or property takes time as well as the money required for the items. And so on.

What a system like this would need is a robust contact system, a time use system taking at least calendar time into account, and a personal trade system that covers availability and time to acquire items or property. Perhaps I will use a system like this in the WRG RPG.

(This post was inspired by a post over on Dreams in the Lich House.)