Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Communicate the Threat

Spurred by a long comment by one of my players on my first after-action report, I've come to realize that there are a few specific things I can do better both for my enjoyment and for the enjoyment of my players.

As I said before, I'm interested at least on some level in what I'll call "tactical play"; that is, in making combat and the exploration of the dungeon that interfaces with it into a realm of interesting, relevant choices.

There are a few prerequisites for this to work. The first is that communication of the tactical reality is clear. Decisions made without input aren't decisions; decisions made on faulty input aren't meaningful.

This is in fact one of the great boons to using monsters straight out of the monster manual, and also potentially one of the great sticking points for a conversion. It's obvious to anyone who has played D&D for more than one session that goblins are less dangerous than gnolls, and bugbears trump both. You don't mess with a dragon unless you brought serious firepower. Medusae are a sticky business. And so on. So, one of the goals of my conversion should be (and is, to a large extent) to preserve at least the relative threat-level these monsters present. When PCs meet an ogre, they should expect a tougher time than they had with the three kobolds in the last room. (Especially with large NPCs in GURPS, this is difficult but not impossible.)

Let's take an example where this broke down: the frogs outside the Moathouse.

Giant frogs aren't immediately evident as big nasty creatures. The mere fact that they're simply dire versions of animals tends to put them on a lower rung than, say, evil humanoids or the undead. Without other input, their threat assessment is inferior. However, that's clearly not the case. So, what could I have done, as a GM, to properly establish that this encounter was meant to be dangerous?

First, let's talk about what I did do. I made it very clear, several times before our first session, that without smart play this could very well turn out to be a high-mortality game. Also, I helped with character creation as much as I could in the communal format we used, and tried to make it clear that there was a vast difference in combat performance between roles specialized for it (like the Knight or Barbarian) and those not (like, say, the Scout).

...but that's it.

I gave them no useful information about this specific encounter, save that a) they're giant, dog-sized and larger frogs, and b) they're ravenous and will attack without quarter. (I believe I very clearly quoted from the book there, because it amused me.) So, quite naturally, my players assumed this might be a bit sticky, but that they would probably walk over it with only some little difficulty.

Those of you who know T1 know that's not true. The book is very clear - this is throwing the characters in at the deep end. So what could I have done, proactively, to make that clear, especially to players new to  tactical play?

First, there should have been more environmental clues. Bones near the pool, divots in the road, or generally something to indicate that they are now in dangerous territory.

Second, I can and should specifically call for rolls vs. the appropriate monster-recognition skills, Naturalist, in this case, and then given the PC(s) with those skills the rundown on these monsters. "Oh, these particular frogs have the dark-blue spotted backs of the Greater Voracious Lump-Backs - very dangerous, even to a patrol of armed men, especially in large numbers!" (Or whatever.)

Third, if in my judgment the encounter is liable to go completely foul without some crucial bit of knowledge, I should just straight-up give it to the players. "Guys, these frogs do 1d+1 cr with their tongues some can swallow SM+0 creatures. Also, there are six of them." Realism be damned if it leads to a bad night. (Note: I don't think we had a bad night. Actually, it seems like everyone had fun, even if the Scout's player is a little disappointed in his character's already-imminent death.)

None of this is the same as coddling the players or playing in easy-mode. In no case would I give away information that would reduce the necessity of my players to make decisions as to how to achieve their goals. Also, if surprise is an essential element of the encounter, so be it - you wouldn't know that bugbear is hiding in the rafters because you didn't look hard enough and he's sneaky, sorry. However, when that bugbear makes himself evident, unless bugbears are meant to be some strange exotic creature people have never heard of, the players should know - even if I have to straight-up tell them - that bugbears are almost as strong as ogres and are smart enough to use guerilla tactics.

Monday, February 25, 2013

In Which Hommlet is Left Surprisingly Intact: After play report 1

Calawas - Elf Thief (Katz)
Amalia - High Elf Cleric (Paraj)
Volbak - Dwarf Knight (Jim)
Lamaevhun - Wood Elf Scout (Tim)
Ilsildel - High Elf Wizard (Martin)
Chief - Wood Elf Barbarian (Catherine)

Our intrepid group of adventurers made it down the road from Verbobonc to see the little village on a hill with its strange new Church, bringing only some little gear and their travel-worn ponies. They came originally from a sylvan community on the shores of the Nyr Dyv, being a sort of extended family that was sent out "to make something of themselves" and, perhaps more importantly, to stop being near home. (The dwarf was adopted because his parents have strange ideas about the origins of the species; nobody's had the heart to tell him yet.)

They came with a decent amount of debt underwriting their expedition from the purser's Guild in Verbobonc, and so were quite interested in employment, and fast. (The pursers are known both for their usurious rates and for their legbreakers.)

Riding past the Church, their druid (not pictured above) spotted the standing stones of Jaroo's grove in the distance and set off in a beeline to, "Contemplate the inner mysteries of nature," over the wizard's objections that, "You can do that here, dude! I brought, like, fifty feet of rope!"

Instead of messing around in the town, they made a beeline for the Inn of the Welcome Wench, hoping to find lodging and, well, some wenches. What they found instead was more expenses, but Master Gundigroot was kind enough to put them up for the night with a basic meal in exchange for the party wizard making all of his lighting require no oil for the next week or so. During their copious conversation on the nature of the fare and serving staff, Lamaevhun and Isildel shared this gem:

"Dude, try the turnips, they have awesome turnips."
"I prefer the stuff I can kill myself."
"Dude, you can kill turnips! Can't you hear their screams when they bite into you?"

This went on for a bit, until the traders entered the establishment and managed to garner instant dislike from Calawas. Nevertheless, after a bit of verbal sparring, it was made clear to the greedy little bug- I mean, the party thief, that a chance for coin was afoot, so they repaired to the trading post for a bit of more private conversation.

It seems that Lareth is the leader of a band of ruffians that Gremag is convinced is harming business. After some wrangling the PCs secured the right to keep anything they find (of course!) and even a pouch of a hundred copper, which elicited quite the interest from Calawas when Rannos, the slow stupid one, went to open the safe. Also, they completely blew off the offer of a man-at-arms to go with them for only $15 a day.

After that, they decided to retire. Early and fresh next morning (at about ten o'clock, after getting rid of hangovers and having breakfast), they set off for the half-day's journey to the old moathouse everyone had been telling them about, passing by Burne's construction with only a few glances and leaving the druid behind to his contemplations.

It all went well and I read some box text (we're enjoying the box text), until they came upon a pool that the scout discovered was home to a colony of voracious monstrous frogs! He got off a shot, but then was quickly snared and swallowed, discovering that the larger ones had teeth. This caused Chief (an otherwise unassuming individual who has both Berserk and Sense of Duty (Fellow Adventurers)) to go a little crazy and start playing golf, smacking one of the dog-sized frogs straight into the side of the moathouse. The rest of the party dithered and got ready while the horses miraculously stayed their ground, sealing the scout's doom. (He was around seven hexes ahead, which was great for the rest of the party, but very bad for him when he missed his perception roll. Also, we discovered that our dwarven knight has a move of 2 with encumbrance. Whoops.)

  1. Three hours is enough time to do some roleplaying, but not enough for serious dungeon delving it seems. I should probably be prepared to stop in the middle of combat pretty much always.
  2. They didn't have a lot of interest in intrigue in Hommlet. I'm okay with this. They willfully stumbled into the one truly interesting thing going on, and none of the module requires that they care about Hommlet in the least.
  3. My players are prone to distraction. I knew this before; our last GM (the guy now playing the scout, poor man) basically had us run riot over his campaign with some nights where we didn't even play but fifteen minutes or so. Fortunately, they also respond well to direction. I don't want or need to be tyrannical, since half the joy of this group is getting together to talk about stuff, but they're attentive when I take the reins to get back to the game.
  4. I need to brush up on GURPS combat a little from a GM side. I know the rules, but it's been a while, so I have some trouble remembering to apply them all at times. There were definitely a couple moments where the frogs did some things they oughtn't be able to. Also, I need to firm up their stats a bit to deal with corner cases.
  5. I badly need to teach my players how to play, or they're all going to die. For example, our scout had a full second to himself to react to these frogs. He knows also that he's out in front, a goodly number of yards away from help. So what does he do? He shoots one frog once in the torso. With skill 16 and 5 yards away, without help coming, he should have at least gone for the vitals, or (if standing still instead of doing a Move and Attack to retreat) maybe use 1 FP to shoot the vitals twice (Heroic Archer makes that a 10 or less, or 11 if you don't want to defend - low, but when faced with a bunch of enemies without backup, quantity has a quality all its own). None of this occurred to the player, though, nor to anyone else at the table. However, my work is predicated on the idea that the players know their options.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Rumormongering in Hommlet and Nulb

Ah, rumours. That venerable conceit, that ingenious method of imparting information to the players. Rumours are true, rumours are false. Rumours come on tables and charts, they come in the form of maps, they come from the old man in the tavern and the city guardsman who used to be an adventurer, before he took an arrow to the knee.

One thing you should realize up front: I'd never heard about rumours and their mechanics before discovering the OSR.

Sure, I knew the old rag about the old man in the tavern. I even purposefully started a campaign that way once. But quests are different from rumours. Before I found the OSR, I had never even considered rumours as existing, much less the mechanisms of their dispersal or their uses and pitfalls.

I don't know how this happened. Certainly it has something to do with never playing a version of D&D before 3.5, though I'm kind of surprised I didn't pick it up in the AD&D books on my father's shelves that I spent hours with.

Okay, no, I'm not that surprised; I was mostly into them for their cool pictures, especially of monsters. I was so into the monsters I actually read their descriptions.

Anyhow, now I'm in the position where I want, nay, need to give rumours to my players. So what do I do?

Obviously, I construct a rumour chart and roll a d20 (or d30), and for getting fancy I allow carousing to increase the chance or number of rumours you get.

So let's talk about Hommlet. Hommlet is a small town that mostly wants to keep its head in the sand, with some bad elements mixed in trying to tear things apart. The townsfolk don't know much and they don't want to know much about the Temple; sure, there are some folks that do, but the PCs should be talking directly to them instead of just rolling on a chart if they want that information. Information that should come from specific sources shouldn't be part of a rumour mill.

What sorts of rumours can they pick up in Hommlet, then? The Moathouse is right down the way; most everybody knows about it and knows at least a little of its history. Those living on the southeast side of town might know a little about the comings and goings thereabouts, but not much. The villagers' information on the Temple of Elemental Evil is even more sketchy. Talking to Burne or Jaroo directly might yield fruit, but just drinking at the inn isn't going to get you much more than the hopeful talk of other adventurers.

If the PCs spend the week in Hommlet, they don't get a rumour for free. Carousing can get you one rumour, though.

Nulb, on the other hand, is a hotbed of activity. Seriously, just look at the banner; you've never seen a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. (Unless you're a Martial Artist who took the Wizard lens. Then, maybe.) PCs who stay in Nulb get one rumour for free. If they carouse, for each two points they succeed by, they get another, until the chart's dry for that week.

Simple. Easy. Another distinction between the two villages. I might even institute a Nulb-specific "if you fail at carousing, something bad happens" chart, though not as severe as that link, methinks.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Levels in the temple

One of the advised conceits in D&D is the correspondence of dungeon level with character level. If you're level one, you should stay on level one of the dungeon. If you're level two, venture down to level two, and so on.

This is violated quite a bit, especially later on, but it's still at least implicit in 1st edition. Needless to say it doesn't work in GURPS, since GURPS doesn't have levels.

It can be broadened out to say, "Further down means more dangerous," and fortunately this is the way the Temple operates; they expect you to be around level six or seven by the time you hit Temple level three. So how am I going to salvage this in GURPS? I don't quite know.

I've spoken before (as have many others) about the difference in the power curve between GURPS and D&D. In fact, it's more accurate to describe them completely separately. Nevertheless, I want to preserve the feel of the temple, transitioning down to tougher monsters as the party grows stronger, and having the party grow stronger, rather than presenting a roughly homogenous difficulty that only slowly grows.

The first part of this is figuring out the rate of advancement. For my game, I want the PCs to hit 250 points, the base point value for the DF templates, by the time they finish level 2 of the Temple. This strikes me as fairly fast advancement (though it remains to be seen if I'm mistaken about that), since the PCs are starting at 150 points. Nevertheless, I can tie point rewards to geographical features. For example, once the PCs discover the secret room on Level 1 (disclaimer: I'm not looking at the map at the moment; I don't know if one such exists) they get ten points. If they recover the treasure horde in room 136, it so happens that's enough to earn them 5 points when they go back to town, for paying off their debts. You get the idea. Extra rewards (for roleplay, awesomeness, or whatever) will be above and beyond, so that it's possible to advance faster if they play well, or slower if they play poorly. (One could argue that I should place more points, because the assumption is that the PCs won't find every treasure, but looking at

Every twenty-five points is a 'level', for purposes of building new characters. If your character dies, your new character gets his last point value that evenly divided by 25. (So, if your character had 186 points, your new one gets 175. Don't die.)

So much for characters. Unfortunately I doubt I'll be able to give too much in specifics on this blog, but one of the stats to write down for treasure hoards, secret rooms, and other desirable areas is character point value.

For monsters, the process is a little more difficult. I want to maintain roughly the same constitution in the temple; if AD&D players are fighting githyanki in the temple, GURPS Dungeon Fantasy players should also be fighting githyanki. However, numbers obviously need to change; HP does not an interesting encounter make. However, I discussed this in more detail in a recent post.

Still, I'm hoping that skill level may make a difference. I understand that 14 is the minimum level to challenge 250 point DF characters. Maybe 12 will work with less skilled PCs. Still. I understand there's a fairly hard lower level of skill that matters. Hmm.

Unfortunately, it looks like what I'll need to do is put together a skeleton crew ("This room has at least one ogre; this room has at least a roper and three trolls.") based around what the module says, then tweak it in play to actually fit. Unfortunately I don't have the experience to do otherwise. This is distasteful to me, but there it is. I suppose it's all right so long as I haven't given any hints of a contrary nature about what's to come if I bump the bugbear count from two to fourteen before the PCs hit the room.

I can at least map out relative difficulty levels in the module from room to room and use those to guide my placement, if nothing else.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Trolls on acid

Just a very quick one here: Andersonian trolls (and therefore D&D trolls) are vulnerable to fire and acid. Setting aside fire for a moment, what if being vulnerable to acid meant instead that they go berserk and lose their regeneration powers when dosed with an hallucinogen? Or, for a straight-up silly game, they transform?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Dashing hats

I have an affectation for hats. Yes, you read that right: an affectation, not an affection. I'm not really a clothes-horse; I just like to pretend to be on the internet.

There's something about hats as distinct from other articles of clothing. Sure, suits can be stylish, trousers can exhibit taste, shirts can be slick. Even socks can be suave. But a hat, well, the hat makes the man. Especially a hat like this:

And of course, some hats show your admirers and fellow adventurers just how clever you are:

Dashing hats as treasure:

Unless otherwise stated, any of these hats will give a +2 reaction bonus from townsfolk, neutral bystanders, and intelligent humanoids you find in the dungeon, who will say things like, "Nice hat; you've got style," and, "That, sir, is the right model of a gentleman's haberdashery. Bravo!" In addition, all of these hats provide DR 3/1* to the skull. (If it matters, the effects are magical. Unless you decide otherwise.)

Hat of Faultless Coiffure: This hat looks like a flamboyant cavalier hat made of deep purple, blue, or red felt with the feather of some flamboyant creature, and in most respects behaves like one. However, it provides DR 10 (rigid, instead of the DR noted above) to the skull (and, if using partial hit locations, on a 2/6 to the face), doubled vs. toxic or corrosion attacks. In addition, it always is in prime condition and never soiled. Even if you swim through a lake of blood, all you need to do with your hat is briskly brush it off.

Of course, as every real connoisseur knows, the truly valuable power of this hat is that it also keeps your hair in faultless condition as long as it is worn.

Hat of Irresistible Allure: This homburg of black felt takes the usual powers of dashing hats and amplifies them. It gives you a +6 (!) reaction bonus on any request that will allow the requestee to stay near you. Mostly this is helpful, though it may occasionally become a nuisance, since creatures will behave according to their disadvantages, so that Greedy folks will try to steal or con you out of the hat, Lecherous ones will...well, let's not go there. Specifically, people or intelligent humanoids with the Jealous disadvantage will instead react at -4, as they envy your fine hat.

Hearty Haberdash: This is a pork pie that has earned its name. Specifically, usually it's an understated piece of headgear, suitable for natty suits and walking about town. However, thrice per day on command (usually something suitable like "If the thief is honest I'll eat my hat!") it will turn into a meal's worth of fine victuals of the owner's preference. Furthermore, the meal is so refreshing it restores all lost FP and ER as well as 1 HP.

Cap of the Wilds: This hat can be any of a number of sorts, with popular options being a papakhi, a kolpik, or among the more quixotic a deerstalker. Instead of the usual reaction bonus, it incurs a -1 reaction modifer penalty with most intelligent humanoids. However, with wood elves and mountain elves as well as all faery creatures and wild animals, it confers a +3 reaction bonus. In addition, it grants a series of woodland skills, either giving them at Attribute+2 or conferring a +4 on those who already have the skills. Popular choices are Survival (Woodlands or Tundra), Tracking, Camouflage, Weather Sense, Naturalist, Animal Handling, and Fishing.
Mitre of Holy Might: Of-times a tiara despite the name, this highly-coveted headgear acts as a personal Mana Enhancer 1 for Sanctity to Good religions plus allows divine intervention once per day as per the Cleric power-up in Dungeon Fantasy 11. However, on sight it instantly enrages all demons and undead, who will attack the wearer ruthlessly and exclusively in an effort to destroy him and his fancy-schmancy hat. In addition, any time the wearer comes into proximity to an evil altar, roll 3d: a 6 or less indicates that he has drawn the personal ire of the deity to which the altar belongs, gaining that god/dess as a personal Enemy (Hunter, but with intervention usually restrained to high-powered minions and occasional bolts of unholy fire) with an appearance of 6 or less. Subsequent enemies can either be new deities or increase the frequency of appearance; GM's choice.

Friday, February 8, 2013

First session a week from Tuesday

Well, you know I'm excited. We wrapped up the other campaign (by throwing the GM for a loop and doing the sensible thing - calling the police) and we're set and ready to visit Hommlet. I have the Moathouse and the town ready for them to tear apart as they will, though I'm still fiddling a bit with Lareth's hoard.

Hommlet itself was especially easy, of course - if the PCs get into trouble, I can throw mook guards at them, and if they don't, then I don't need combat stats, and everything else is already in the module. Oh, except the relationship charts and the thinking-through how I want people to behave, which I've done in previous posts.

Whether or not the PCs experience any of that depends of course on what they do. It's quite a viable strategy for them to stroll into town, go to the barkeep and say, "Hi, we're adventurers; point us at the nearest dungeon!" or for them to get involved in the political intrigue below the surface. Who knows? I certainly don't.

Besides, they've decided they're all a bunch of pansy elves (and one adopted dwarf who doesn't know it - he just thinks he's a short and hairy throwback). All the villagers are too smelly and crude for them anyway, right?

We'll see. I look forward to having a real play report to put up here.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

One-use item: Cockatrice arrows

This is just a quick post to get this idea down before it flies out of my head. It isn't very original in conception, but hey, you do what you can.

Cockatrice Arrows

These arrows are fletched with cockatrice feathers. As such, they must be handled with gloves to avoid petrifaction. When shot at an enemy, they do normal damage, then provoke a HT-10 roll to avoid turning to stone, along with all carried and worn gear. The HT roll is at +1 per point of DR not penetrated, and is also given a modifier equal to SM (since it's harder to turn larger things to stone). Magic resistance does not add to the roll. The arrow is turned to stone as well, meaning each can only successfully be used once.

The arrows are otherwise normal, and can be enchanted normally. For obvious reasons, most arrows with cockatrice fletching bear bodkin points.

They are effectively priceless, as only a rare few enchanters know the trick of handling the feathers without being turned themselves and yet imbuing the effect on the arrow as a whole. If found on the open market, they might go for $10,000 per arrow.

Rumours persist of other similar arrows, made from the eggteeth of basilisks or like substances. Some even whisper of a bow whose string is made from the sinew of a medusa that confers this effect on all arrows fired from it.

This could also work as a sort of trap for greedy uncareful delvers, but I'd be very careful with this and make it clear that the feathers on those arrows inside that chest you just found are weird, and hey, are you sure you don't want to make a Hidden Lore (Magical Items) roll?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Dispel Magic Aura

One of the pieces of wisdom floating around about GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is that mages aren't responsible for the damage output like they are in D&D. Instead, that's the fighter-types. Sure, a Wizard might be able to kick off a 17d Stone Missile, but that's once, whereas the Knight is doing 3d+6 a turn.

Unfortunately, one of the pirmary ways to make a cool effect on a monster that is otherwise 'mundane' is to say that magic works weirdly on it, or it has strange immunities to magic.

This could have the unfortunate effect of further marginalizing mages as combatants. "Oh, great - not only do my spells do diddly-squat to the owlbear compared to an axe, but now I have to overcome Magic Resistance, too. Remind me why I volunteered to play the Wizard?" In fact, this can already be seen in some ways just with the standard monster tropes: the Body Control mage can't do much against a zombie or a golem, but the knight's sword works just fine. (Sure, the golem has DR 10. The knight doesn't care when his average damage is 16.5.)

One solution is just not to use those special properties, and it has its merits. If, instead of making your creature Immune to Mind Control you remove its vitals, it has a wider appeal. Unfortunately, this doesn't work well for monsters that are generally accepted to be humanoid. If your mind-flayer doesn't have a heart, fine. But if your orc doesn't have guts, it's a little weird, and if that holds true for not only orcs but goblins, gnolls, ogres, bugbears and giants, I'd cry foul.

So we're "stuck" with the idea that mundane monster special abilities need a magical basis, but not wanting to further marginalize mages who engage in combat. Where does that leave us?

To answer that question, I asked myself, "Where are wizards and their ilk useful in combat?" and the answer I got was twofold: they buff the damage dealers, and they remove obstacles to them dealing damage.

Enter the idea of a Dispel Magic aura as one answer. Think of it like a cross between an Affliction and a Mana Damper. (Technically, you could probably build it as an Affliction with Aura and Based on Different Attribute: Spell Level, with the effect of "Dispels temporary effects and suppresses permanent ones." Slap on an Area or Emanation enhancement if you want it to be activated by proximity instead of touch.)

The way I envision it is that anyone who touches or is touched by a creature with a dispel magic aura immediately loses all temporary spells placed on him, resisted by the highest (or lowest, or not at all, depending on how much of a pain it is) spell level he has on currently. That Knight was Great Hasted by the Wizard? Not anymore. Oh, also, whoops, but the Continual Light went out.

If the attacker doesn't have any temporary enchantments on, then hitting the creature with a magic weapon temporarily suppresses one level of enchantments on the weapon. (So, for example, if the weapon is a +3 Accuracy +4 Puissance Penetrating Weapon (2) Ghost Weapon Dancing Sword, after it hits it becomes a +2 Accuracy +3 Puissance weapon without any of that other stuff.) Conversely, if the creature hits an opponent, that opponent's armor (or other miscellaneous gear, GM's call) temporarily loses one level of enchanment.

In order to avoid this being a huge bummer, there are a few restrictions. First and foremost, loss of permanent enchantment is purely temporary. I'm leaning toward it being of 1 minute duration, as long enough to cover any but the longest fights, but short enough not to be a hassle out of combat timing. (Different hits stack effects but just reset the timer for easy book-keeping.) Secondly, this only affects spells on other people. Missile spells, area spells, and Regular spells cast on the creature itself act normally, meaning that magic users can still affect it.

Since I'm not trying to sell books, I'm not going to stat up this power according to the RAW. Instead, I'll just note it down like so:

Dispel Magic Aura: This aura suppresses magic. Anyone who touches or is touched by the creature with this power immediately loses all spells cast on himself or being concentrated on at the moment of contact, subject to the resistance of the highest spell level in effect. In addition, any strike on the creature suppresses on 'level' of enchantment on the striking object for one minute, with multiple strikes causing cumulative effect but not cumulative time. Any hit by the creature suppresses one 'level' of enchantment on the armor or miscellaneous gear of the person hit, in the same way.
I imagine gnolls in the world of the Temple will have this. After all, they're twisted magical amalgamations of hyena and man, created long ago by an evil archmage as shock-troops to use against his foes. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Piles of hitpoints in the Temple

One of the things that happens in the Temple of Elemental Evil is that, in order to ramp up the difficulty as you go down levels, the monsters get nastier. Instead of orcs you fight gnolls, instead of gnolls you fight ogres, and so on. The number of opponents stays the same or thereabouts. I imagine this works fairly well in D&D, but in GURPS it's a disaster. One of the first things you learn/are told as a GURPS GM is that piles of hitpoints do not long encounters make. That ogre might be intimidating to a level 1 party, but to a bunch of 100-pt characters it's a pushover.

Instead of a hitpoint economy, GURPS has what I'll call a maneuver economy. (I use that term to distinguish it from the action economy of 3.x edition D&D). What I mean by this is that combat is won by the side most able to do effective things each turn. At the same time, the ability to do effective things is fairly well constricted (with the exception of certain advantages or spells like Great Haste), so for non-exotic opponents it translates pretty well into 'number of combatants on your team'. There are exceptions, of course, which is why I put the emphasis on the maneuvers rather than the allies.

This is the case because, generally speaking, GURPS characters can't 'soak' attacks as well as high-level or high-hit-dice D&D tokens. in D&D you can win a war of attrition by having more to start with. In GURPS, not only is it a lot harder to have more to start with, but your combat effectiveness is tied on a turn-by-turn and overall basis to your damage taken.

Okay, so I haven't said anything new. Anyone who has GMed or even just played GURPS for more than a month or two understands the above, at least on an intuitive level. So, how to translate the D&D difficulty scale over to GURPS, especially when dealing with 250 point characters?

There's the simple answer, which I might go with: hire more NPCs. Instead of having two orcs, have five. Later on, instead of having two gnolls, have eight. The problem with this approach is that combat difficulty in GURPS is very difficult to judge, and it's a very fine line between outcomes, at least when judged by the numbers. (A smart party whose incentives are divorced from combat may very well find a way to avoid those eight hyena-men.)

The more complicated answer is to make your combat NPCs exotic; that is, give them traits that allow them to even the action economy out against multiple foes. (I mean traits like Extra Attack and Altered Time Rate, or even Compartmentalized Mind). The problem with this approach is that the opponents in the Temple are known (to me), and one of my goals is to hew fairly closely to the original, while still making it interesting to play.

I think what I'm going to do is, first, in the lower levels of the temple especially, pad out the numbers with less-nasty monsters. This works fairly well inside the world, too; it's quite believable that a small troop of bugbears has a posse of goblins at its disposal. (Plus, doing this might allow me to sneak in some more interesting fodder-type monsters, like gibberlings and xvarts (not to mention norkers). I don't have a feel for exactly how to do this yet, and I imagine each encounter will involve decision about how much to pad (and how to change room descriptions to account for the extras).

In addition, I like the idea that our well-known humanoids should still have some surprises in store (much like Peter D's hobgoblins, for which I sadly cannot find a more specific link). Therefore, I might decide all my githyanki are mana-dependent, or that kobolds are, due to their strange physiology (being the degenerate spawn of Elder Things) resistant to cutting damage, for two fictional examples.

Hopefully soon I can share more specifics. We game again tomorrow night, where we will hopefully finish up the currently running campaign, leaving the next-but-one Tuesday for the players to explore my version of Hommlet.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Striking the balance between preparation and improvisation

So, my dirty little secret is that I'm terrible at preparation beforehand for my sessions.

No, really, terrible. That's why I started this blog - in the hopes that it would force me to work on the Temple instead of procrastinating. (It's working, though the conversion is slow going what with my life up in the air. Still, I get a little done every night.) In fact, I'm so terrible at it that more often than not I find myself just completely winging sessions.

Fortunately, I'm good at improv. During the last WorldCon I ran for a table of players who ambushed me with a game. (They called me on my phone and asked me to come to the con suite. Once I was there, they wouldn't let me leave without running something. Crazy people.)

However, I don't feel comfortable relying on improvisation entirely when running a game I want to be consonant with the tenets of the OSR (so far as such a disparate hobbyist group has tenets, anyway). Why? Improvisation leads easily to things that look like illusionism, or, in long-running cases, to a world that is inconsistent. (You try remembering the intimate details of an NPC's temperment or the constitution of a town square from six months ago and see how well you do.) The crux of the matter is, giving power to the players relies on them standing on firm ground at least in some respects; they can't make meaningful decisions if any given previously-reliable piece of information turns out to be unreliable because you're not writing things down.

A little digression: I'm not talking about preparation like creating balanced encounters or plots. I don't play that way. I try my best to prep situations, not plots, and so I'm not getting bogged down in the details of how to predict player actions. Rather, I just have difficulty with my innate laziness.

Anyhow, the problem with improvisation is that it doesn't lead very well to a consistent world in which the PCs can move, and it's downright terrible at pro-active offering of options, which are the vital component of a game that purports to be player-driven. Unless the players can know something beforehand to guide their decisions, they aren't really making choices; they're just flipping coins.

That said, by no means do I intend to do away with improvisation. In fact, I cherish it; it breathes a life into the game that otherwise wouldn't exist. Reading the oracular dice (or my internal mercurial demon, which is frankly even more random than the bones) brings the world to life and provides entertainment for me and for the players. Furthermore, it is the other vital component to allowing player action to matter; if everything in your world is pre-scripted, then the players aren't agents, they're subjects.

How do I balance these competing forces, especially in the face of my natural bent to procrastinate and make it up around the gaming table? I'm still struggling with this question, but so far here are the rules of thumb I've come up with (and that I'm trying to implement):
  • Build important NPCs and decide why they're important. This means, most accurately, who they are in the situation (e.g., village elder, blacksmith, ogre on 3rd level) and with whom they have what relationships. This does not generally mean "why they are important to the PCs" - I figure the PCs themselves will decide that. If they're combat NPCs, stat up their combat-relevant abilities and tactical inclininations, as well as treasure.
  • Build important locations and sublocations, with at least a few hooks for the PCs. This changes a lot based on the nature of the location - if it's a dungeon, it must have rooms, and a story/rumours/inhabitants/surroundings for the PCs to know about. (There's a lot out there about how to make dungeons.) If it's a dungeon room, it has details on geography, current inhabitants and uses, traps, and treasure. (Bonus for history, but that can be made up on the spot if necessary.) If it's a village, it has relationships with surrounding areas, local geography, and starting attitudes of citizens, as well as at least a vague idea of the strength and focus of the economy.
  • Build tools for randomness. This means random encounter tables, reaction tables, and the like. Only focus on those things it wouldn't be fair for me to make up on the spot, or for things I'd be tempted to bias, or for things I honestly can't decide. For example, random encounters with monsters is good tool fodder. So are rumours, though somewhat less so. NPC reaction tables are good, but I've no need of NPC knowledge tables. I can decide fairly well what a local tanner knows about The Crypt of St. Genevieve.
  • Do other preparation if I want, but that's not necessary.
  • Once the session is over, write things down. I struggle with this at times.
I'm curious what others do. I'm aware that after-action reports are popular; do folks have other methods they employ in addition or as substitutes for this in order to track important information? What sort of pre-session preparation do you engage in, and how do you do it? Do you find that it helps?

P.S.: I hope to have more Temple-centric posts soon. I'm just trying to avoid giving away too much information to players who might read this.