Thursday, 23 March 2017

Cold Iron: Forgery and Reality

European folklore often paints fey creatures as allergic to iron. This supports the idea that people with Bronze or Stone age technology, defeated by iron-using peoples, passed into the victors' mythology as faeries and other weird beings. The first and finest expression of this belief in gaming comes from Runequest, where technology is Bronze Age, meteorite iron is rare and near-magical, and elves and trolls can't stand it.

As with so many other issues, Runequest had the elegant solution and D&D ham-fisted it. In a medieval, iron-using society, there's nothing special about the metal itself. Thus the peculiarity, in the AD&D Monster Manual, of seeing iron as the bane of demons and other evil creatures. And the backpedaling, in a couple of entries, to insist that only "cold iron" bans a ghast or harms a quasit.

Adding injury to St. Dunstan's insult.
As I understood this back in the day, "iron" must mean something different from steel. Most likely, the carbon involved in forging weapons in the medieval-Renaissance world somehow disrupted the mojo of iron, so you would have to special-order a mace head of the same stuff as your cauldron or door handle. And, it would be reasonably balancing to say that non-carbon iron couldn't make up a useful blade, because it would be too soft or brittle.

"Cold iron" is near-meaningless, more a poetic epithet than a technical term. Iron can't be extracted from ore without heat, and "cold forging" is a modern industrial term which assumes you can die-stamp a sheet of rolled iron (which passed through heat in the smelting and rolling processes). One obvious way to get iron "cold" is to chip it off a meteorite, but with what tools exactly?

Over the years, the D&D rules got cleaned up to the point where only this "cold iron" can harm some immune monsters, and the 3rd edition SRD lists it as a special material: "This iron, mined deep underground, known for its effectiveness against fey creatures, is forged at a lower temperature to preserve its delicate properties ."

Well, but there's something too game-y balance-y about this solution, full of vague and passive rules-speak. "Stuff that harms the Weird is super expensive because it comes from a Place of Rareness." It makes sense but lacks resonance. The same goes for meteorite iron. I suppose if only dwarves or lost human races had the technology to whittle blades from meteorites that would sound a bit cooler. But ...

Why not have iron (as opposed to steel) just show up the ability of non-carbon-forged tools and household implements to resist the supernatural? After all, the silver that devils and werewolves fear is dirt-common in the D&D world. Silver pieces are crappy coins that make slightly more expensive sling bullets than lead. A party in my campaign once bought a silver teapot, filled it with sand, and swung it as a flail against the equivalent of wights. So why not have desperate halfling housewives fending off a quasit with a skillet? Or adventurers chucking their iron door spikes at ghasts? 

As a bonus, if elves can't stand iron spikes, it throws a little game balance into elven PC's who (at least in AD&D) are far superior to poor old humans.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Content, Advice, Procedures and a Rat Carpet

Chris McDowall on G+ asks:

GM Sections

Advice is better than Content
Procedures are better than Advice.

Where does this sit on the Truth to Horseshit Spectrum? 


I reply:

I just see a continuum of description from static to active. Pure content just describes what is there and lets you (GM) figure out what is going to happen. Add advice, and there are some suggestions as to likely things which will happen. Add procedures, and you have detailed mini-rules for some of these things. I don't think there is a law for balancing the three, but I do think that good game writing contains all three.


To elaborate:

Writing rules or scenario for a game that will be run by a Game Master is actually a very forgiving job. What you omit, the Game Master can just fill in using improvisation. What you overwrite, the GM can just ignore. Every GM wrestles somewhat with the texts they interpret. Some even enjoy wrestling -- as I enjoy filling in the details of the mainly bare-bones Castle of the Mad Archmage, as others enjoy using a stripped-down rule set and making with the rulings.

But there are also costs to each of these excesses. 

Working on-the-day to fill in gaps is necessarily going to be slapdash. Cliches will be reached for. Things won't connect. I take it as an article of faith that GMs have more trouble inflicting great ruin or reward on a party if those consequences are not written down. 

Overwriting descriptions and rules has three costs. First, the cost in time for you to think it through and write it. Second, the physical cost to print it - there is less adventure for the buck in a tome stuffed with page-long rooms. Third, the cost for the GM to locate what's important in a piece of writing.

How to get the balance right? In the megadungeon I'm writing these days, each room is described in 50 to 500 words. 

Content is the usual monster, treasure, and hazard description; beyond that, each description must pull its weight either as potential player interaction, as atmosphere, or as a "clue" that gives meaning to the larger structure of the dungeon.

Advice comes about when there is an obvious thing the player can do or the room can do. Advice should not try to out-think the players. There should be gaps for the players to surprise the GM. If this creates an advantage you didn't anticipate, you are allowed one cry of "My precious ENCOUNTER" and then just roll with it. They are sure enough to compensate with some incredible bonehead move somewhere else.

Procedures are needed when the action in the advice can lead either to gain or harm in a way not covered by the rules. Most rule sets will cover the basics of combat, some simple hazards like falling, and treasure gain. For anything else important it is better to rules-write than to hand-wave at the table. Most GMs have a soft spot and writing down the butcher's bill ahead of time is a way to keep yourself honest.

Rat king rug by Pupsam

Here's one room, inspired by Margaret St, Clair, with Content, Advice, Procedures in different colors.

===

56. MINOTAUR BARRACKS. Both doors to the room are closed. Above each door, in the lintel, is carved the head and arms of a minotaur with a two-headed axe. Opening them is difficult because the floor beyond is a living, chirping carpet of 100 pink-eyed albino rat swarms, stinking of urine and musk. A pulsing mauve light suffuses the room, from something blue glowing through the mass of bodies in the middle, piled up 2’. The room’s 50 bunk beds have been turned against the walls, so that the carpet is 14’ wide.

The rats will not leave the room and will not bite, but en masse they are psychically sensitive and very frail. In their midst the mind fills with their agitation, frustration and hatred. Being trod on or roughly handled kills d4 rats per 10’ trodden, broadcasting their death agonies to sentient minds within 10’, who must save (spell/Will/WIS) or take 1 damage per killed rat. If multiple groups are killed at the same time, the range of the death throes is increased by 2’ for every 10’ x 10’ area cleansed, and the base damage is 2d20 per 10’ x 10’ square.

The pile in the middle is a couple of fallen bunks stacked under the rat carpet, with a Lamp of the Azurite shining through, and silver coins worth 1200$ falling out of perforated, urine-soaked bags.

===

So, the Description gives the room meaning, both in-setting (it is part of a series of barracks for units named after mythical monsters; the bunks establish this) and out (the minotaur and axe pay homage to Sign of the Labrys and its carpet of white rats). It establishes atmosphere through light, sound, smell. It gives the "monster" (more of a trap really) and the treasure. Things, too, are described in the order players are likely to find them.

The Advice is short and covers the most likely actions: opening the door, going through the rats to investigate the light. "Psychically sensitive and very frail" plus the other descriptions help judge what might happen if players take creative action. The GM can decide whether, for example, scooping the rats with a shovel is also fatal to them, or how players might fare if they try to leap 7' onto the bunks on the side and make their way to the things in the middle.

The Procedures are necessary to regulate how the "trap" deals out damage. The mass-death effect is important to spell out because of the temptation of dealing with the mass using a fireball or flaming oil. Observing what happens when just a few rats are killed should be enough warning to avoid the disaster. A more merciful GM can alter the damage to stunning, but the level is swarming with very frequent wandering monsters, so this only gives the players a half-fighting chance.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Midkemia's Matrix: Rationality Unbound

The Black Tower (Guinasso & Abrams, 1981) is not to be confused with Dark Tower or any other low-albedo third-party edifice from the early days of D&D. It was a product of Midkemia Press, material from a campaign that inspired Raymond Feist's Magician series of novels, one of many gaming-fiction backcrossings to come. You can get a pdf of it here, although I'm pretty sure the typesetting is not the original.


We have here 100+ rooms of evil wizard's castle, with a number of fairly interesting tricks and characters, and a large cast of unique Midkemian monsters living in close tenancy -- screamers, hard luck "snagers" (indistinguishable from doors!), fuzzy pests, goldmoths (indistinguishable from gold pieces!), etc. All are statted out in conformity with THE TOME OF MIDKEMIA fantasy roleplaying game. This game, never published, works with "hits to kill", levels, d20 to hit rolls, damage done with various dice sizes, and spells of familiar stamp with flavor words tacked on like dishes from a gastropub menu (MATCHLESS SLEEP, UNALTERABLE QUEST, THROW LIGHTNING).

But the most interesting thing about TTOM is its attack matrix, reproduced in the module.
This matrix actually earns its pay - unlike the frankly boring matrices from (A)D&D, based on monotonic effects of attacker's level and defender's AC, with a few quirks that were not memorable or justifiable enough to survive being simplified into THAC0 and eventually done away with. Here, though, armor counts for markedly less the larger the attacker is, and is even a liability against huge creatures and undead. Why? Read on!

This simplifies the effects sought by a system like Runequest/BRP or GURPS, in which defensive skill reduces chances to hit while armor reduces damage directly. A similar effect might be had by having large creatures deal massive damage that armor does little to reduce, while the chances to hit are based on relative size, with smaller and more mobile creatures being stymied by strong armor but having the upper hand on both attack and defense.

Now, an advantage of Midkemia's matrix presentation, compared to those other rules possibilities, is that it makes choices transparent. Instead of fiddling with spreadsheets to try and figure out the optimal damage dealing and evasion per round, Midkemia's matrix shouts loud and clear that there is a role for your Frazetta-style fighter just as there is a role for your buttoned-up plate tank -- and the scarier the monster, the nakeder the hero!

Heartbreaker rules are the Burgess Shale of roleplaying -- collectively, a lode of stillborn ideas that might have been. The Midkemia matrix points a way, not taken, for the core mechanic of the game to escape the tedious bonus-and-target escalation spiral already visible in AD&D and reaching a peak in 3rd edition. Instead of high-level play just being a bigger-numbers version of low-level, fighting huge monsters is essentially different, shifting to a table that reverses the logic of armor and requires no further bonus pumping to make for interesting play.

The same impulse underlies more recent rules ideas that recognize, for example, that you can't kill a tyrannosaurus by whaling on its shins with a dagger, and that going toe-to-toe with a giant shark-elephant centaur is not just a matter of hit and miss. Instead of 5th edition's "bounded rationality" approach, which deals with the treadmill by cutting it short at the end, we can call these qualitative shifts in power level "unbounded rationality." They deal with the treadmill by making it a conveyor belt to somewhere new and strange.