Saturday, March 22, 2014

Creating Random Characters In GURPS

I really don't want to have to carefully design all of the characters in the dynastic game, but GURPS has no random generation method. So, I have to come up with something myself. I'll start by noting that there is just no way to get away from design completely, but I can subsume that into roleplaying to some extent.

The first thing to do is to figure out stats. GURPS has a really narrow range, actually, even though nominally normal humans range from around 7 to about 20. In actuality, a 7 is very unlikely, representing just about the minimum that one can call "able-bodied" (below that represents various bodily deficiencies and handicaps), and a 20 represents just about the human maximum, showing up in perhaps one person, or at most a very few, in the world each generation. For my purposes, I'll figure that it is less than one in a million and leave it at that.

Since I want the stats to cluster very tightly around 10-11, I've decided to start by rolling 3 averaging dice. These are six-sided dice marked 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 5. Obviously, the average roll is much more likely with such dice, and the extremes are narrower than with regular six-sided dice marked 1 through 6. To shore up the low results and bring them closer to the range that is appropriate, I will halve the difference between 10 and the result if it is below 10. So, a roll of 6 becomes 8 (4 points lower than 10, halved, makes it 2 points lower than 10, or 8), a roll of 7 or 8 becomes 9, and a roll of 9 becomes 10. I will allow a result of 6 on the dice to explode downward, rolling a regular d6 and reducing the result by 1 on a roll of 6, then rolling again, stopping when the d6 reads 1-5. I will similarly allow a roll to explode upward on a result of 15, increasing it by 1 point on a roll of 6 on a d6 explosively. This makes a result of 20 occur less than once in 1.5 million.

For advantages and disadvantages, other than ones that are related to the character's social position (which are set by the scenario), I have come up with a program that goes through the list of possible advantages and disadvantages and checks the chance of any given member of the population possessing them. It then outputs the results to a file which I can incorporate into my character sheet. It's still a little buggy, but I should have it running smoothly soon. I do, however, reserve the right to reject any result and roll again, so that there will be no characters who have all of the advantages or all of the disadvantages, or whatever else doesn't fit the scenario in my opinion. I still need to work up a set of perks and quirks to randomly select, though perks are pretty closely tied to character concept and so not very easily left to random chance. I'll probably give 1 character in three 1 or 2 randomly chosen perks. I'm also considering rewriting the disadvantages portion to select mental disadvantages based on rolls from Gary Gygax's personality tables in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. I might also adapt the Hârnmaster "Medical" and "Psyche" charts to this program. Those would not be difficult, actually.

Once those are done, I will select a base template for each character, in order to quickly select some baseline skills. This is where I begin roleplaying the characters, choosing a template based on my assessment of what the character would want, what they are allowed to do given their social position, and so forth. I'll give them a number of skill points based on their age and personality (characters who have disadvantages that cause them to spend time doing other things lose out on skill points - though they might simply redirect some of the skill points instead, such as a lecherous character practicing Sex Appeal through self-study). To an extent, I will free-form this, though the guideline of 200 hours of instruction per 1 character point, doubling the time for self-study and halving it for intensive training, will apply (plus, one quarter of time spent at a job counts as study time for appropriate skills). Advantages appropriate to the template might also be acquired in the same way.

This does mean that I will still be spending a certain amount of time on each character, but at least it will be automated to some degree. I really wish that GURPS had chosen to work up a random character generation system, though. It would have saved me a lot of time and effort.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Top 10 Gaming Products

Over at Dyvers's blog, he's asking for lists of our Top 10 favorite gaming items of all time. To simplify things, I limited this to RPG items for my list. Anyway, here goes…

10) The Arcanum, Second Edition.

This is probably the best Old School set of published variant rules for D&D. It is well thought-out, addresses many of the problems perceived in D&D at the time, and keeps the things that make the game simple and quick, such as character classes and advancement through collecting treasure and defeating foes. It does include options for the more problematic things that would later get incorporated, such as experience bonuses for "role-playing" (without bothering to define that), but not many. Finally, it includes a simple skill system, armor that reduces damage, spells that aren't forgotten (but are limited in number of castings per magic user per day), and other simple, obvious fixes that would eventually become nearly standard in gaming. Ahead of its time, while still retaining the best of the origins, this remains one of the best rules systems in general.

9) This entry has been removed. I cannot continue to support the game that was listed.

8) Lords of Creation.

Tom Moldvay was given free rein when Avalon Hill was making a desperate attempt to remain relevant in a market increasingly moving toward roleplaying games, and he came up with this. In what may be the most gonzo setting ever, the whole of reality and alternate realities is opened up to play. The player-characters are given maximum freedom for advancement, hoping to eventually be able to achieve the status of Lord of Creation and create their own settings, alternate worlds, and so on. Along the way, they might learn magical powers, acquire cybernetic enhancements, fight dragons or robot soldiers, even travel into the poetry of William Blake. Seriously, one of the alternate world settings is derived from the poetry of William Blake. There is nothing cooler than that in gaming. Since the very next session could take players into the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology, an alternate world where Boudicca was not defeated by the Romans, or a crystal forest hiding crustaceous humanoids guarding a staff of power, the game was wide open for anything, and was able to handle it with cleverly designed (though, to be fair, occasionally difficult to understand) rules systems that still felt a lot like D&D.

7) Adventures Dark and Deep Bestiary.

There have been a lot of monster books over the years. None of them has been as good as this one, which includes every creature from the AD&D monster books (less, of course, the ones that WotC has reserved for itself as "product identity" - though those have been replaced by versions created to be effectively the same but with different names and physical descriptions, as many people have been doing). Mr. Bloch did not stop there, though, creating a whole batch of creatures of his own design to add in. Among them are the Faeries and their Sidhe Courts, which are some of the best things to come out of the OSR movement (which is not to take anything away from the many, many wonderful things which that movement has produced). I love this monster book more than most, and of course it is easily used with any compatible game.

6) World of Greyhawk Boxed Set.

What can I say about this that hasn't already been said? It is exactly what (A)D&D needed in a setting, with an interesting balance between the idea that would later become known as "Points of Light" and the clash of Kingdoms that drives medieval wargaming. As people have looked at this over the years, the cleverness built in has only become more apparent, adding pathos to the unfortunate direction taken by subsequent products in the line. Including everything from amazingly euphonious, yet still absurd and camp, names to interesting factions and organizations, there is more implied adventure in any one area of the setting map than some settings have in their entire worlds. Topped off by that amazing Darlene map and some really helpful random encounter tables, there is little else that a DM would need to run a wide-ranging campaign for years.

5) Pagan Shore.

I love Pendragon. It is among the best roleplaying games, and one that I wish I were able to play more often. I'm personally most fond of the Fourth Edition rules, but I'm not a fanatic about any of the editions. Whatever, though, the one book in that game line that rises above anything else is this one. Giving a description of a society that is as alien to most modern-day gamers as the Aztecs, but doing so by building the cultural differences into the rules, players will soon find themselves approaching the mindset of the Iron Age Irish. There are a few quibbles to be had, but almost all of those have been addressed by people online, such as a discussion of how to incorporate the actual legal systems of Iron Age Ireland into the game in a way that is neither intrusive nor overwhelming of the adventure parts. It really does work, too. It doesn't hurt that I have a deep and abiding love of the Irish culture and very often want to play a character from whatever the closest analog is in the game world.

4) Flashing Blades.

Despite being one of the most popular settings for adventure fiction throughout the years, the 17th century has seen remarkably little treatment in roleplaying games. One of the earlier (but not the earliest, by any means) games to address that period was Flashing Blades. Marrying a relatively simple game system to a detailed and deep social climbing system, the game calls forth the ambitious swashbucklers and supports that style of play with rules that encourage such behavior without privileging "story" over game play. I'm fairly certain that the only reason this didn't do better than it did is that it didn't have a magic system. Of course, there is little way to include such a thing into a game of this subject, so that is not surprising at all. That said, it might have done it well if the next product on my list had come out a little earlier.

3) GURPS Voodoo: The Shadow War.

This was a game I didn't know I needed until after I got it. At the time, I was simply addicted to GURPS, so I was picking up just about everything that came out. When I got a look at the magic system, though… Look, up until I saw this, I was of the opinion that the RuneQuest magic system was the best one around - and don't get me wrong, it is excellent in many ways that have still not been matched by most games - and the one in Fantasy Wargaming was a glance at what might have been possible had it undergone more development. This one, though, hit every button of what I wanted in a magic system. Mages are not walking artillery pieces, they are subtle (except for the ones who aren't). Magic isn't just wave-wave-BOOM, but a process of conjuring spirits in smoky temples that are kept in the back rooms of Curandera shops and sending them out to do one's bidding. Yet, it still makes this all a part of an adventure game. Some magicians are Spirit Warriors, letting themselves be ridden by powerful Lwa who can do so much more than mere human beings can. The setting was, at the time, very nearly the only one on the market which dealt with race in the Americas in a relatively mature fashion, and was a surprise in that most, or even all, of the players' characters would be black.

2) AD&D 1E Dungeon Masters Guide.

Obviously this was going on my list somewhere. It has been, and rightly, lionized over and again, so I don't really feel the need to add to that general acclaim. Suffice it to say that there are few books out there which include as much useful advice, and none which include the density of advice and actually useful charts per page. Admittedly, one must get used to the writing style, which has been described as "High Gygaxian", but for myself I grew up on it and miss that idiosyncratic voice in gaming. Even if D&D isn't your game, you will almost surely find something of value in here, even if it's just to learn that there is a difference between jasper and onyx or discovering a passel of different terms for "prostitute". This is one of the most recommended books in gaming history, and it is for good reason.

and coming to the pinnacle, what could be better than the DMG?

1) MegaTraveller Boxed Set.

OK, I know that it is rife with typographical errors, mistakes, and other problems that gave this game the nickname "MegaErrata". Still, the first game I chose myself was Traveller, seeing that little black box in the bookstore that served as my first dealer of gaming products, and finding out that it had a book all about starships. Now, all these years later, having played or learned seven (or more, depending on how one counts it) different editions, I have come to the conclusion that this is the edition that did everything closest to right. It retains the flavor of the original game, while still fixing the problems inherent in the original design. It is compatible enough to use the supplementary material for the classic game, but can also make use of a great deal of the material written for T4 or T5 with only minimal conversion, and material for TNE with a little (a lot, actually) more work. Outside of the errata problem, the only disappointment about this game is that it was cut short before being finished, due largely to whatever happened with Digest Group - for example, only two of the alien races (plus two extra human cultures beyond the default one) of the default setting were ever converted to its specifications. The only edition which came as close as this one to perfection has been the Mongoose edition, but I have my own problems with that one.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Process

In order to develop the background for my solo game, I have decided to reach back to my roots. One of the games that I love the most is the second one I ever owned: Traveller. In that game, character creation was procedural. That is, it used charts and tables and a series of dice rolls to generate the history (in sketchy form) of the character. Since then, procedural generation in RPGs has advanced considerably, and people have found ways to apply the same principle to all aspects of a game. There are procedural charts for developing an area, for generating the history of a group of people, and so on.

For my purposes, that sort of procedural generation is going to be especially helpful. It will allow me to generate situations that I might not have thought of on my own, allowing me the added pleasure of discovery (even if most of that discovery will occur during this phase of generating and developing the background).

Another set of elements that I intend to use are those that build background from character decisions. Specifically, there are articles related to GURPS (but not tied to that system) which describe how many farmers are necessary to maintain a particular income level. Since I will be deciding income levels for the noble families based on setting considerations, that will simplify designing the nations by simply stipulating the numbers of peasant farmers and such.

The author of those articles on farming income also wrote a random table for events related to a group, so that histories could be generated by dice roll. Of course I will be using that. In addition, after some internet research to get rough estimates and probabilities, I have revised this article (free article with GURPS stats, though for 3rd edition) about pregnancy and childbirth to reflect more reasonable probabilities (in the article, a pregnancy will result an average of one time in four, where in reality it is almost a tenth of that chance) and reduce the number of dice rolls. Where the original article required a roll for each act of congress, I have taken results from the Kinsey website to limit it to one check per month. That said, adultery can also result in pregnancy, so I've worked out the appropriate modifiers to also check in each instance, if necessary. Further, I've cleared away some of the extraneous bits to simplify things a bit more as well. Finally, I've incorporated ideas from the Reproductive Medicine section of the first GURPS Low-Tech Companion, though I decided that their method as written wasn't interesting enough for a game focused on dynasties.

The reason for doing all of that work is that it then becomes a part of the procedural generation. I can work out, for any given couple, when in their lives they became pregnant and what the consequences of that are, with just a few dice rolls. From there, the children of the nobility are a snap.

Well, sort of. One of the biggest weaknesses of GURPS is the requirement for point-building characters, with no random creation option available. As a result, I've come up with some ideas for generating basic stats (using averaging dice that explode upward by 1 point with each additional roll of 6 on 1d6 after a total result of 15, and halving the difference of results below 10 - that is to say, a roll of 6 or 7 becomes a stat of 8, and a roll of 8 or 9 becomes a stat of 9). Then, I spent a day writing a computer program that randomly determines advantages and disadvantages (other than social or wealth-related ones, which are determined by the setting). It's not perfect, and sometimes results in far more advantages and disadvantages than I want to see, so I reserve the right to simply re-run the program to get new results if I don't like the ones I get.

After all of that, then I will do my first roleplaying of the game, and decide for each character, based on their personality and such, what route in life they will take. That gives me a template to use to base their skills and such on (though I won't be constrained by the templates). So, not entirely random generation, but semi-random. I've been considering the idea of also incorporating the Pendragon personality traits and passions system, which would allow me to more completely generate the characters' personalities randomly. Another option would be to work with the tables in the Gygax Dungeon Master's Guide for NPC personalities. If I do either of those (and I very well might), then my computer program will be nearly useless, too, but I can live with that.

So, the plan is to start with two couples, the earliest rivals in the kingdom that matter. I will work through four generations, year by year (and checking for pregnancy month by month for those couples who are in proximity, plus including the possibilities of adulterous bastards based on each character's personality), including random events in the kingdom. This will require some light roleplaying, as I figure out what each character is doing, and whether or not they are in a situation that might result in pregnancy. (Yes, this means that, in the nerdiest manner possible, I will be rolling to see if they get some. If it weren't just me playing, I could revert that to roleplaying, but since I am all of the characters, I'll leave it mainly up to the dice.) In the process, I'll also be rolling as the characters age, figuring out how many character points they get each year, and so on. Some of that requires me to figure out some other systems, but I have guidance in the GURPS rules that will help.

For those who know GURPS, here are some of the rules that I am going to use (my thinking is evolving on this, so this may change more as time goes on): Path/Book Magic using the Effect Shaping system, Limited Non-Mage Ceremonies, Magery Adds to Rituals, Instant Karma Backlash, Sensing Ritual Attacks, Conditional Rituals, and Cancelling and Dispelling, along with expanded Spirits inspired by GURPS Voodoo, explicitly including Spirit Allies, Spirit Manifestation ranks (Minor, Moderate, and Major), and Spirit Warriors; some rare characters (around one in a thousand or less) will have Precognition, Psychometry, or basic Racial Memory, and I'll be using the duelling Precogs and related rules from GURPS Supers, should that come up; some rare characters with Empathy will also have Vague Telesend; it is possible, but difficult, for a character to gain Trained by a Master, Heroic Archer, or Weapon Master, but no one will be born with those advantages; most of the "Harsh Realism" rules will be in effect; the general TL will be 2, but farming will be at 3; Physician skill is unavailable, so Surgeons need to use the special rules in GURPS Low-Tech; doctors in the setting will have Esoteric Medicine to represent magical methods of healing (Magery will add) and/or Pharmacy (Herbal), but I am undecided as yet on Herb Lore (I do like the idea of magic potions, but I do also want to downplay the power of magic in the setting - Alchemy is right out).

The reason that I've chosen four generations is that, in the old Irish legal system, a family (fine) was defined as all descendants of a man to four generations. This was especially important for determining who was eligible to be elected (!) king of the tuath, or tribe (which incorporated all of the people who lived in a particular area). The Anglo-Saxons had a different method of determining kingship, but this one opens the setting out to more social politicking, as opposed to pure power politicking, which I like and which lets me make more use of GURPS Social Engineering.

I don't know if any of this will be of any use to you, but it helps me to organize my thoughts.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Trying To Break The Habit Of Silence, Or, How To (Re-)Learn A Game System

Yes, I've gotten into the habit of not posting. That's not a good thing, so I am going to try to force myself back into the habit of posting. The biggest obstacle is that I still don't have a game to play in, nowhere to run one here, and an aversion to online gaming (at least with my current equipment). So, what to do?

I've dug up my previous plan to run a solo game for myself, and added the idea of posting play reports here. To do this, I had to decide what sort of game and setting to work with. Since I've been re-enjoying Game of Thrones and the Song of Ice and Fire series, Tanith Lee's Flat Earth books, Dune, and the Godfather movies, I thought that I'd want to play a game of dynasties. The thing is, though, that to do that, I have to do some of the worldbuilding in advance, as the interplay of dynastic politics requires knowing at least some of the people who will be involved in it. That is alright by me, since I have come to realize that I am addicted to worldbuilding.

Anyway, I got to thinking about what sort of setting I'd want to use. I decided against the Sixguns & Sorcery setting and also against the settings I've worked out so far (Terra Ultima, Hearth, the Paynim Empire, and the like) in favor of an entirely new one that is better suited to the style I am looking for. That style is one that I've been characterizing to myself as "Gritty but not Grim" - that is, I want to emphasize the physical unpleasantness of the setting, but I do want a fairly optimistic outlook about human behavior. I want combat to be a dangerous, messy affair that is a risk to engage in, but I don't want a world peopled entirely by rapists and thieves (not that there won't be any, I just want to explore the idea that people in the setting are basically decent, if not always perfectly so). In that way, if I have something horrible happen, it contrasts more fully with the normal attitudes of the people in the setting. Think of it as perhaps a little more like Dune than A Game of Thrones.

To that end, I decided that the setting should be one similar to the Dark Ages in England. Technology will be at an early Medieval or late Iron Age level. Kingdoms will be small and fragmented, and the Kings will mainly exert their power close to their home castles. The society will be somewhere between Anglo-Saxon and Irish or Welsh, probably tending slightly toward the Irish simply because I know them best.

I've been thinking about the fundamental setting assumptions, starting with the rules to use. Since it will allow me to do a lot of things that I want to do, and also can be teased into allowing the dice to make many decisions, I'm going to use GURPS, with a lot of the gritty switches turned on. I'll be using Mythic Game Master Emulator for those times when I need something besides my own choices (and to add some variety so that it's not entirely predictable to me). I want there to be magic, but I want it to be soft and subtle, so I'll be using the "Path/Book Magic" (I hate that name, but the rules are excellent) system that GURPS has. That will require a small amount of design to make it really useful, but much of that can even be done in play. I'll also be adding some of the concepts from GURPS Voodoo (which was the origin of that magic system anyway) such as Minor, Moderate, and Major Manifestations of the "deity" type spirits, the Spirit Warrior concept, and so on.

Some of the specific gritty rules switches I want to turn on include "The Last Gasp" alternate fatigue rules (one change is to alleviate the Long-Term Fatigue recovery a little - it's just too punishing as written! - and make Mild Fatigue recover at 120/starting FP minutes, Severe Fatigue at 20/starting FP hours, and Deep Fatigue at 80/starting FP hours), the "realistic" damage for bows in "The Deadly Spring", the alternate grappling rules in Technical Grappling, and perhaps a few other things. Most of the "Harsh Reality for…" rules will probably also be turned on, too.

For a lot of the interpersonal interactions, I plan to use Social Engineering, as that, particularly, will let me turn much of the character decisions over to the dice. I'll still be picking general strategies, but this allows me to simply and quickly judge whether one character can convince another or whatever.

Since it will be a dynastic game, children will be important. That means that, to a certain extent, I need to invent a random character creation system. I've been playing with some ideas for that. I've also come up with a system for randomly figuring out who gets pregnant and what happens during the pregnancy, based on material in the Low Tech Companions and an old Pyramid article titled "Blessed Events". Neither of those were very good on their own, but with a little research on the Kinsey site and such, I made them work out much better.

Anyway, I am not very good with GURPS anymore, so this will let me get back into the swing of it without thoroughly boring a group of players while I look something up and re-read a rule or whatever. I can just work out what happens, write it up as a play report, and post it here. Once I get going, of course, as I need to at least work up the important members of the dynasty first. After a while, hopefully I'll be in working order to run it, too, as one of my friends has expressed interest in playing a GURPS game (he's the guy who got me into the system twenty-five years ago or so).