Monday, 24 December 2012

Trappery, part nine: unintended traps

Way back in my first Trappery post, I briefly mentioned the idea of accidental traps: things that aren't supposed to be traps, but nevertheless present a danger to PCs that corresponds very closely to traditional traps. I've got a few free minutes and don't feel like writing anything too brain-intensive right now, so I thought I might muse on that for a while. I'm going to start by looking at entirely unintentional traps. These are things that not only aren't designed as traps, but aren't even perceived as hazards. I suggested "showers designed for acid-based beings that find any world with liquid water uncomfortably chilly" and "persistent spells for healing treants that have disastrous effects on human anatomy" before, and that seems like a good place to start. In-game, you're probably going to be looking at non-human things that threaten humans, but I think it might be easier to spot potential hazards by flipping it. What ordinary, everyday, harmless features of human life would be perceived as deadly hazards by hypothetical alien PCs?

You approach the structure cautiously; some kind of crystalline shell around a stiff skeleton. There's no sign of life, but the doors slide open as you reach them. As you step inside, there's a sudden roar, and a wave of searing heat blasts down from overhead. You stumble, but thanks to the warning noise, you roll aside to safety with only minor blisters. Glancing up, you see a tell-tale grille above the door.

Recovering from your initial shock, you look around cautiously. Still no life. Angular machinery hangs on the walls; some kind of monitor, or another weapon, it's hard to tell. You start to move down a narrow hallway, and must've triggered another alarm, because your biosensors go into overdrive. There's a strange stuttering noise above, and your sensors flare with radiation warnings: get out of here NOW!

There's a door nearby, and you fumble with the controls until it finally swings open. It's deafeningly loud, and brutally hot, but the door seems thick enough to keep out the deadly rays. By the door you see some kind of control, but a quick glance shows a cable linking it to another of the ray-tubes overhead. Rather than take a chance, you fire a pellet at it, shattering the tube. Safe. A tall, cuboid object nearby is the source of both heat and noise, and you huddle away from it while you slap on some radsalve. Immediate injury dealt with, you spot a cable hidden behind the box, linking it to a wall-socket, and deduce that it's either a power source or a data line. Worth a try. You tug out the cable, and the hum dies away. Prying open the box, a wave of blessed coolness pours out. Some kind of chemical cabinet? A row of containers holds an opaque fluid with a harshly acrid stench. Several waxy blocks are wrapped in preservative foil. Examining the box itself, your hearts stop for a moment as you spot the device wired into the door. If you hadn't cut the power, it would have triggered right in your face.

Exploring the rest of the building is slow progress. The builders were desperately paranoid. You try cutting the power, but that sets off a secondary defence that bathes the whole place in radiation. A few minutes of that and you'd be a goner. Finally, you give up and resort to drastic methods, entering each room with great caution and shattering the tubes from the doorway. In a hallway you find a humming box with an intriguing array of buttons, presumably a public datacore. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes apparent they've warded that too. Trying a couple of buttons, you hear a shattering growl, and leap back out of range. Just where you'd had a hand ready for the interface, a stream of fluid sprays out, so hot it's just a glowing line on your HUD. Hot enough to maim you for life, and most likely leave you half-dead with shock. These people mean business. You're not ready for this. Time to leave.

That probably wasn't very subtle, but here's a quick rundown of the hazards our heroine faced:

    Heizstrahler für Wickeltisch
  • An over-door heater triggered by either the door opening, or motion
  • Isfahan 1220504 nevit
  • Fluorescent lights in the foyer, triggered by motion.
  • Another one linked to the kitchen light switch.
  • Marli Natur 1l
  • Some deadly, acidic orange juice, alongside milk and butter in the kitchen fridge.
  • Lednička Zanussi ZRA 319 SW, vnitřní osvětlení
  • The fiendish internal fridge light, triggered by opening the door, thankfully disabled.
  • Emergency light new
  • Emergency lighting, triggered by tripping the power switch.
  • Fluchtwegbeschilderung als Scheibenleuchte, Inotec, LED, rechts
  • And finally, the terrifying hallway coffee machine.
  • Vending machine coffee.

If you happen to be a species that's vulnerable to high-intensity radiation in the human-visible spectrum, that has a preferred temperature significantly below our own, or a substantially different skin pH, then perfectly simple things like heating, lighting, food and drink can make just wandering around my workplace an expedition fraught with unintended danger.

Similarly, apparently innocuous substances might be disastrous to different metabolisms. A pine-scented air freshener, perhaps. Chocolate, onions or grapes mixed in with a ration pack. Salt. Alcohol hand gel in a dispenser by the door. Even traces of cleaning substances - perhaps an unexpected plausible source for our good old friend the Doorknob Smeared with Contact Poison?

A spell designed to keep a building's occupants nice and cool might freeze the wrong species to death. A personal gravity system might crush them. A spell that keeps humans cheerful might drive Martians insane. A household spell to politely remove your hat and coat might tear chunks off the wrong species, while one to dry visitors off might dessicate them. I already mentioned that an ambient spell to speed healing might be disastrous, forcing metabolism to unsuitable speeds or affecting organ function.

A last few oddball suggestions...

  • Timer alarms or ringtones set to a resonant frequency that harms crystalline beings?
  • Surfactants that disastrously disrupt protoplasmic creatures?
  • Dangerous magnetic fields from a pocket compass?
  • Sudden radiation bursts from a phone or similar gadget?

So maybe that might suggest some origins for anti-human traps, which helps to work out how they actually function, how they relate to other parts of the environment, and how PCs might deal with them.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Meta: Christmas rush?

I got a faint shock today when I opened Blogger.

Got to say, I'm mildly curious about the sudden rush of visitors (hey, in my world 30+ pageviews is a rush). I'm guessing some are Yoggies lured here by my tome-based posts, but then those don't seem especially inundated with pageviews. I'm be interested to know, if anyone cares to comment.

Tomefoolery, part three: books that read back

Commentarii linguae graecae, 1548

Part of a continuing series of uncertain length on Tomes of Unspeakable Evil and the PCs who love them. So far I've blathered about how people get their hands on such books in the first place, and the effects of their dreadful contents on tiny human minds. But sometimes it's not about what you do to evil books, but about what the evil books do to you.


This was the stage where I got drawn into AncientHistory's thread that started all this waffling. They suggested that an evil book would need arcane abilities, so it wasn't merely a lump of paper vulnerable to all the usual things. The one that really struck me was the idea of a vampiric book that feeds on the reader. Cool. The book would draw power from its readers to fuel whatever abilities it had. AH didn't flesh out the mechanics much, but you could model this either as being solely reliant on readers to be anything more than a bundle of paper, or as providing extra power for the nastiest of its abilities while still being a dangerous occult entity at all times. I'll get into that later.

Call of Cthulhu

As we were talking Call of Cthulhu, there seemed to be several types of vampirism available. Each will play out in a different way during games, and they'll work differently depending on whether the book's intended for PC or NPC use, and what sort of timescale you expect it to operate on.

AH's suggestion was POW drain, which is immediately nasty: POW is a crucial resource for, primarily, not going mad, but also for resisting spells (or even casting them). A character drained of POW will get progressively more suggestible, more vulnerable to insanity, and eventually become a puppet of the book, I imagine. You could model POW drain either as an ongoing thing, with an absolute cap, or with a limited rate of drain. For long-term use, a cap would allow the book to be used by Investigators throughout a campaign without crippling them; on the other hand, the crippling bargain they strike with the tome could be a key aspect of the campaign. For a shorter plot, or if it's mostly used by NPCs, the book might drain POW more rapidly and quickly turn readers into mindless drones.

A character losing POW to a book is going to feel its effects immediately, and depending on the loss, it may be obvious to others as well. In metagame terms, it's also likely to alert the players that they're messing with something very nasty, for two reasons. One is simply that books don't usually cost POW, and you can't really reduce their stats without telling them (it's practically difficult even if they'd be okay with it).

I put forward two other options: Magic Point drain and SAN drain.

Magic Point drain

MPs are a very different kettle of fish, because you regenerate MP. MP drain is an insidious threat. It would depend on the rate of drain, but it's likely to manifest as unusual tiredness, with a risk of passing out during intensive reading. The reason it's more insidious is that it's a small and even negligible up-front cost, with little immediate impact on the reader's abilities. This means that in metagame terms, it's tempting to keep reading, to go and consult the evil tome just one more time because it'll make this investigation so much easier... a slow-drip bargain that allows the book to gradually build up considerable power, while each "transaction" doesn't feel like much of a price. It's also less obvious to players that something dangerous is happening, whereas having POW drained is the sort of thing that gets people's attention; and it's a marker of very sinister activities. It would be entirely feasible to keep the players ignorant of exactly what's happening, track the MP accumulation yourself, and just report any exhaustion or fainting to the players.

In character, the effects of the drain are much less obvious than POW, so even if players are aware, the characters could plausibly ignore what's going on until the book starts actually doing something with its accumulated power. It can prey on the same people for a long time, getting them used to 'bargaining' with it and feeding off their power to gradually achieve some plot or other, especially if you have a nice long campaign planned. Again, the seeming innocuousness of the drain could persuade characters to keep using the book even if they're aware of what's going on, because it doesn't necessarily feel like anything that bad is happening. Only when the book's accumulated a lot of power do they start to realise what a bad idea it's been.

Bizarrely, I'm inspired in this by Pontius Glaw from Warhammer 40,000 - a mad Chaos-worshipper whose imprisoned soul the protagonists become reliant on as a source of information, and by bargaining for each titbit, it gradually builds up enough resources to escape.


Feeding a book from the SAN cost it causes is more actively malevolent - the book feeds on the madness it creates, effectively. Though there are some similarities to POWvory, SANivory isn't likely to directly turn the readers into its servants, but simply drives them insane. It wants a constant source of new readers to torment, but once it's fed on them they're safe from further predations, at least in the normal rules. You could accept the initial 'price' but then the book would be effectively unable to feed on you any longer, and can be kept prisoner for consultation at your leisure. For a tome of immense power, that doesn't seem quite appropriate to me.

In this case, you might want to change the normal tome-reading rules. Perhaps it's so malevolent that each consultation costs a point of SAN even after the initial reading, just from forcing yourself to deny common sense and morality by reading the accursed thing. With this model, there's the slow drip-drip of power gained as in the MP approach, while players pay a cost that might seem low in the first place, but gradually builds up; and as their SAN drops they probably fall further under the book's influence. That doesn't necessarily mean becoming its servants, but it'd be natural for any insanities they accumulate to be vaguely aligned with the book's goals or contents.

You could also change the book's approach. Maybe it uses its power to ensure it passes from hand to hand, spreading madness and gaining power. This might be through mental manipulation, by creating cults that read it, or more directly by moving from library to library, either by physical movement or by 'possessing' other books. Again, I'll think about that later.

Other feeding

Of course, there's no reason a book needs to restrict itself to mental predations. Characters have a whole array of delicious stats to devour! A book might be able to feed on a range of them, perhaps for different purposes. If we're assigning the book some special abilities, rather than generic malevolence, then it might even gain stats by stealing them from others. These wouldn't tie into magic abilities in the way POW or MP might, but they're still fun.

An ancient tome might easily feast on the INT or EDU of readers to gain knowledge of the era around it. As readers find it increasingly difficult to reason and become forgetful, the book can exploit its new-found intellect to weave elaborate schemes. For an artful touch, perhaps the book actually gains new content as it feeds: previously-blank pages are gradually filled with shaky handwriting, or the book simply becomes fatter...

There's also the familiar idea of the occult scholar, pale and gaunt and over-aged from years of esoteric studies. Perhaps there's a more sinister reason for that physical condition than simple overwork and lack of sunlight. A book might feed, not only on mental energies, but on the very life of its readers.

If it drains CON from a victim, a book could become more resilient to all manner of damage (treating it as armour), or repair itself (think of The Mummy). Stolen STR might not be used in the same way as an animal would use it, but could allow it to exert physical force on the world - moving itself around, breaking out of locked cabinets, or used as part of a spell to attack, such as with telekinetic powers. DEX would help it to react quickly, and perhaps govern the manoeuvrability or speed of a flying book. APP is a natural way of making a book persuasive and domineering, increasing its influence over the weak-minded, and perhaps affecting the tone of its contents to be more appealing to readers.

Spell theft

Another arcane option would be for the Mythosier sort of TOUE to borrow, learn or even steal spells from a reader. In Cthulhu spells are a double-edged sword anyway, so working out how punishing those options are is going to depend on the situation and the spells in question. 'Borrowing' is probably more suitable to other systems, but a Cthulhu tome could easily acquire new spells from the brain of a reader. 'Learning' would mean simply gaining access to the spell, and perhaps adding it to its own contents. 'Stealing' would mean leaching it from the reader's brain entirely. Actually, this mechanism might be useful for non-TOUE artefacts, and could even be included as a fairly benevolent ability that helps protect people by trapping Mythos knowledge and cleansing minds of Mythos horror.

For any of these, the TOUE could simply gain the spell (or a random spell, or even all spells) automatically, or it could have to make its own spell-learning roll in the same was as Investigators do. There could also be an opposed roll to prevent the book from accessing the Investigator's arcane knowledge.

Other systems

Outside Call of Cthulhu, similar policies would apply, tweaked for the stats in use.

D20 systems

D20 games are familiar with the idea of ability loss, though in D&D at least it's typically fairly easy to restore even 'permanent' drain with 4th-level spells. This makes the cost of consulting TOUE pretty negligible. As such, you might have to model this in a different way, perhaps having an opposed caster level check to overcome the book's baleful influence before the spells work.

Most of the stats in question would work the same way as in Cthulhu, though mental stats could pose extra complications because of their importance in spellcasting. This could make psychic vampirism a no-go because spellcasters would quickly lose access to higher-level spells.

One possible option would be to vary the book's effects based on the reader: a magically-inclined reader might learn valuable secrets from the mystical contents of the book, but find it physically draining; a warrior or rogue might find it mentally exhausting to read. You could also use the fatigue and exhaustion rules, though these are also easily negated, and some characters are immune anyway.

The D&D supplements Heroes of Horror and Ravenloft introduce some handy rules for Corruption (physical perversion), Depravity (mental perversion) and Madness (mental breakdown). Some combination of these could be used as an alternative way to model the effects of TOUE and similar influences in D20 systems, if you don't mind imposing some significant changes on the party. They could be reversible, if you're feeling kind. In the right game, certainly, players could have fun trying to conceal their claw-like hands, red eyes or twisted bones from NPCs. Or reigning in their behavioural issues.

These effects might be a long-term, slow-building consequence of constant exposure to the book, perhaps voluntary, and calling for significant roleplaying. Alternatively, they could be a fairly short-lived and pulpy issue if the book is more of a short-term plot element and you don't want to dwell too much on the Price of Power and all that jazz.

Skill points could also be at risk of vampirism. Maybe the book's own skills depend largely on its readers, and it can steal a point from a random skill each time it's read, adding it to its own skill. However, this kind of vampirism may be harder to explain and justify in-game ("I just... forgot how to pick locks?"), whereas sapping life force is pretty straightforward.

Spell vampirism I've touched on already. In systems with Vancian spellcasting, it'd be fairly simple to implement 'spell borrowing', where a book gains a single use of a spell from the reader. This might be a straight gain, or it might take that use from the reader, as though they'd cast it themselves. Spell learning is also pretty simple here, but spell theft would be trickier, especially for classes like sorcerers who can't freely learn new spells.

A similar process could be applied to more esoteric special abilities. Imagine that the book's simply absorbing knowledge and experience from its reader. Bard? Hey, it gained fascinate. Rogue? Oops, now you've got a malevolent book with +3d6 backstab damage. If you're feeling cruel, the book could steal an ability from each reader, and retain it until it's destroyed.

General options

In a combat-oriented game where balance and stats are vital, and given the ease of overcoming most penalties, it might be easier not to apply the same kind of vampirism. Perhaps you simply add to a notional 'mana pool' whenever the book has the chance to affect someone.

In a similar way, you could tap other replenishable resources than Magic Points. These could include Hit Points - perhaps building up the book's own pool of health - as well as luck in games where it's a separate resource. But vampirism doesn't need to directly relate reader stats to book stats. A TOUE could perfectly well drain life energy and gain magic points, or turn any drained stat into a boost to any of its own stats.

Depending on the genre, the tone you're going for and the intended length of the TOUE plotline, you may want to have resistance rolls of some kind. If PCs have to regularly consult the book, and you're using a per-consultation drain, or if they slowly suffer effects as long as the book's in their possession, you could wear them out quickly. Also, it may be more interesting if some PCs are more vulnerable to the effects than others. On the other hand, if you're using one-off drains, this probably isn't necessary. For a short, snappy campaign, a heavier drain but with resistance rolls may be more appropriate to give it a dramatic edge.

Another possibility, slightly more arcane, is having the book exert a general 'baleful influence' that effectively produces bad luck. In some systems, there are actual Luck or Fate mechanics you could use: Cthulhu characters could suffer penalties to their Luck, Savage Worlds characters could lose bennies or have penalties to benny-based rolls, D&D has luck modifiers to die rolls. Rerolls might be limited or disallowed, or challenge thresholds increased. Die pools could be reduced whenever it seems appropriate.

Generally, I'd suggest that vampirism relate to the importance of the TOUE in the campaign, and potentially to the value of the book. It's going to depend on what sort of plot you're looking at, though. If the whole basis of the campaign is the existence of a dangerous vampiric tome, then it doesn't need to have much long-term benefit to readers, especially if it's in the hands of NPCs rather than PCs. Such a tome can simply be a baleful presence that saps the life and minds of those foolish enough to read it. On the other hand, if it's intended as a two-edged resource the PCs can use at a price, then there needs to be at least a belief on their part that it's worth keeping and reading.

Narrative vampirism

So what do the effects of vampirism look like? This is important, particularly if players won't necessarily be aware of what's happening on a metagame level.

Again, how things get described will depend on what you're doing. If the book's nature is a mystery plot point, then you may not want to make the link between reading (or being near the book) and feeling strange very obvious. However, if it's supposed to be obvious, or the players are making costly trade-offs, then emphasising their condition is more important.

Various types of drain might end up displaying some of these effects:

  • Feeling tired and short of breath
  • Aching muscles, as though you've been doing physical labour
  • Trembling hands, legs or eyelids
  • Pins and needles, or numbness
  • Headrush, dizziness or a sense of being off-balance
  • Nausea, or gnawing hunger
  • A heavy, leaden feeling to your movements, or clumsiness
  • Weakness, or discomfort when doing physically-demanding things
  • Loss of coordination, tendency to drop things, spill drinks
  • Slow reactions, spacing out ('brown study')
  • Headrush, dizziness or a sense of being off-balance
  • Blurry vision, difficulty focusing
  • Slow reactions
  • Dry or flaking skin
  • Paleness
  • Low temperature
  • High temperature
  • Distractedness, sense of unease, lose train of thought
  • Sensitivity to light or noise
  • Regular 'tip-of-the-tongue' feeling when trying to think
  • Indecisiveness, impulsiveness
  • Feeling low, dull, uninspired or stupid
  • Nervousness, loss of confidence, stumbling speech, embarrassment, self-consciousness
  • Insensitivity, obliviousness

Luck is a bit more subtle and would need to be genre- and context-appropriate: in terms of descriptive effect, it could include finding hairs in your food, bumping into people while tracking a suspect, finding the lights always against you, pens running out or leaking, never having the right change, struggling to get a taxi or a room, or equipment malfunctioning.

Monday, 17 December 2012

#7 #6RPGs

Arthur has just drawn my attention to the 7rpgs and #7rpgsrun thing, which seems mildly interesting.

Sadly, my own lists don't even hit seven in total.

Most Played:
1) Neverwinter Nights as a DM'd system for D&D 3.5
=2) Call of Cthulhu, Deathwatch
=4) After Sundown, Monstertown, Dying Earth

Most Run:
1) D&D 4E
2) Call of Cthulhu
3) D&D 3.5 / Pathfinder
4) Hellcats & Hockeysticks

It's worth noting that's a lot less gaming than it may look like. Neverwinter Nights has probably had, oh, thirty sessions over the last couple of years. The joint second Most Played tabletop games reach, I think, five sessions apiece. The others got a single session of play. For what it's worth, After Sundown was a playtest with some mates, and Monstertown was an ad-hoc test of a work-in-progress. So I can't really count any of those as games I've really got the measure of; in fact it seems a bit cheeky including them at all.

Meanwhile, I've run not quite an entire 4E D&D module, three Call of Cthulhu scenarios and two in PF/3.5, and playtested H&H once. So it's not like I stick rigidly to a couple of old favourites, I just haven't actually done much gaming.

The dearth of games isn't for want of interest, as the fact that I have two gaming blogs might suggest. A mixture of major scheduling problems, extreme busyness, players moving away and health problems has ended both the D&D campaigns, and put two ongoing Cthulhu games on indefinite hiatus. Deathwatch is technically still underway, though. Thankfully, NWN has provided a reasonably steady dose of gaming, with a nice mix of modules, though it's not quite the same as tabletop.

I'm hoping that next year things will even out, though as I'm likely to be looking for a new job, it may be a forlorn hope. I'm still quite invested in the Cthulhu campaign I'd started, I want to see how Dan's Cthulhu game ends up, there's a lot of orks in need of the Emperor's wrath, and there's so much stuff out there I haven't even tried...

I might have to see if we can get something cheerful and light-hearted going. Between Cthulhu, Deathwatch and some slightly downbeat Pathfinder it's been a little bit grim in tone. Lots of comedy moments along the way, of course, but something deliberately optimistic and brightly coloured might be fun, if I can think of anything...

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Inspirations: the Sands of Time, part one

I’ve recently been playing Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time. While I had a distinctly mixed reaction to it, I enjoyed the ambience and style of the game, and I thought it had a very intriguing main gimmick. With that in mind, I started wondering if you could introduce something similar in an RPG context, and how. Obviously, such a project should be attempted in public, for maximum potential humiliating failure.

This idea is, of course, completely unoriginal: it’s inspired by both Shannon’s Game Translation series, which discusses ways to bring narrative and stylistic elements of computer games to your tabletop, and Dan’s Reimaginings series, which is also inspired by Shannon but takes a more mechanical approach. I really enjoy both of these and am a shameless copycat. This project will probably end up falling somewhere in the middle: apart from anything else, I don’t have Dan’s knowledge of game mechanics, nor Shannon’s experience of GMing. At the same time, I’m not strictly trying to create POPSOT The RPG, I’m just seeing if there’s something fun I could hack out from the ideas and feel of that game.

A brief summary of POPSOT for those who haven't played it (oh, and spoiler warning for ten-year-old game). The eponymous prince's father's army invades an Indian city with the help of a treacherous vizier, promising to give him his pick of the treasure within. The prince runs off alone to loot the vaults, seeking glory. He loots the fabled Dagger of Time and finds a magical hourglass alongside it. The company return to camp, where the prince is praised and the vizier immediately cheated, denied both the Dagger and the Hourglass despite the earlier promise. They journey to Azad in Persia to show off their loot to the king's old friend, and cunningly get the vizier to demonstrate the power of the Sands of Time. Astonishingly, he betrays them and transforms the palace into a broken, twisted mockery, while all its inhabitants are mutated into bizarre sand-monsters. The prince, a captured Indian princess and the vizier alone are spared, each protected by an artefact: the Dagger, an amulet and a staff respectively. The prince flees without giving up the dagger, fighting through a horde of sand-monsters, while the vizier has the hourglass transported to a preposterously high sinister tower. For the rest of the game, the prince and the princess make their way through the palace ruins and environs with a mixture of acrobatics, puzzle-solving and combat. The Dagger of Time has the power to finish off wounded enemies by draining the sand from them, and can use the captured energy to rewind time briefly, to freeze enemies in time, or to slow time. Eventually he reclaims the hourglass, and travels back in time to prevent the whole business.

It looks like this:

Let's have a quick look at some major elements of POPSOT, which I think can be broken down into gameplay:

  • Climbing, swinging, jumping and running on things
  • Defeating waves of enemies through tactical combat
  • Rewinding time to negate setbacks
  • Highly discrete chunks of gameplay
  • Quantitiative health tracking

and stylistic elements:

  • Prodigious (but not superhuman) athletic, martial and acrobatic feats
  • Interpreting your environment as a series of challenges
  • A linear narrative that links puzzles
  • Heroic struggles against sinister forces

In the game itself, these fit together to produce a cinematic puzzle-platformer. Limiting you to human athletic potential, or introducing exhaustion, or specific injuries, or long-lasting injury, would just get in the way, and so you’re a tireless acrobat who’s fully refreshed by a long drink. The combat is really another obstacle to be overcome, and needs to be flashy and stylish to fit the exaggerated style of the game. Checkpointing makes sense (to some extent, at least) because each section is a discrete puzzle with absolutely no relation to the next, and having you fully healed means you’re starting each puzzle from scratch.

General issues

Handily, some of these are easily adapted into RPGs. Hit Point-style health mechanics are widespread, poetic licence for physical feats is common, and pretty much everything has time-travel nowadays.

Wait, that's not right.

Okay, so the time-travel bit is going to require some work. I'd also say the checkpointing isn't really an issue here, since tabletop RPGs don't do saving. The platform-heavy feel of the game is a gameplay style issue rather than a mechanical one. Another point is that we're probably not looking at a strict puzzle-solving exercise, since that sounds fairly boring to me, to be honest.

A faithful replication would also involve over-long, repetitive brawls against groups of the same four enemy types, relying on timely deployment of specific instakill attacks against each enemy type. I'd rather not have any boring elements. Matching attacks against appropriate opponents might be an interesting mechanic, but grinding has to go. I'll also say no to enemies spawning behind you from thin air, and to unlimited perfect teleportation for all enemies; neither felt remotely justified, both were irritating, and both restricted your options for interesting play by making movement and terrain irrelevant.

There are some other issues in terms of turning the existing story into an RPG session. As it stands, it would have to be extremely railroady, because I really can't see the players - knowing full-well it's an RPG, and being familiar with widespread tropes - agreeing to take instructions from a totally trustworthy vizier who betrayed his sworn liege to you for the sake of getting a powerful magic artefact that you're now refusing to hand over on the grounds that you nicked it first. In any case, it would be quite easy to derail the storyline purely by accident because the players did something unexpected. For example, they could end up without the Dagger of Time to protect them from the Sands of Time, bringing the whole thing to an unfortunate and early conclusion. So a new storyline background and plot hooks would be needed to set up the premise.

There's also the complication of adapting the story for multiple players. In the original, the prince can fight back because he's the one who picked up the Dagger, but you'd need to somehow equip your whole party with the means to survive and use the Sands of Time, preferably without seeming so contrived that the players actually revolt. Now that's not necessarily a problem, but it might mean changing the way the story develops. Another option would be to steal the basic ideas of the game but swap in a different plot entirely, so long as it gives some basis for the PCs and nobody else to have Time-Faffing powers.

Tabletop conversion

So, how to model the important aspects in an RPG? From a gameplay perspective, I think the time travel is a bit secondary. It needs careful consideration, sure, but it's something to implement rather than a key feature, if I'm interested in a game that feels a bit like POPSOT. The most important aspect is the tone and feel of the game, which basically boils down to "heroic badassery". Okay, from a strictly accurate point of view, the Prince of Persia in the game could be rather more heroic with less of the unprovoked invasion, pillaging and kidnapping. But you're setting out mostly alone against a numberless horde of sand-monsters, a vast array of traps and a massively dangerous landscape, in order to prevent the evil plans of an evil wizard, so it still counts. To retain that feel, the protagonists need to be basically in the right, and any moral quandaries or grey areas that arise need to not interfere with the main "good vs. evil" dichotomy.

In badassery terms, the prince doesn't have any kind of levelling curve to worry about, or slowly rise from being a weakling with a rusty dagger to being a terrifying avatar of death. Pretty much the first thing you do in game is wipe the floor with a group of four armed warriors, with a shiny array of parries, thrusts, reposites and dodges that involves attacking in several directions at once, rebounding from walls, and running right up people before vaulting over their heads and running them through. On the other hand, it doesn't really get any better from there, until the actual finale where you simply obliterate enemies with a new magic sword. In a straight replication of the game, we'd be looking at a non-progressive system, or at least a system where no meaningful progression took place over the course of the adventure. I think this fundamentally boils down to "don't start at 1st level". In a system without meaningful levels, like BRP, this won't be an issue, but if I wanted to try this as a Pathfinder game, we'd need to be talking about picking PC and enemy levels where PCs can regularly take on multiple opponents at once.

The other major aspect of the game is its narrative and atmosphere. There's a fairly strong Persianesque aesthetic to the game, and a rigidly linear plotline that serves to lead you from one puzzle to the next. However, neither of these is necessary for tabletop play.

There's also a mystical tone to the setting, with magical relics, fabulous technology, and the vizier having limited magical powers; but there's no actual spellcasting and magic plays no direct part in the game at all.

So roughly what we're looking for in Time Faffers is:

  • A heroic, cinematic feel
  • Protagonists that start out already awesome, with little levelling
  • Navigation and pathfinding as a significant part of the game's challenge, including some puzzle elements
  • Time-faffing abilities

Another practical issue is the game setting. While it's not essential to retain the Persian setting, I think we probably do want Time Faffers to be quite a lot like the setting of Sands of Time, for a few reasons. One is that modern technology would offer new transport options that overcome navigation puzzles: if you can get to a vehicle or call a helicopter, things look a lot easier. Communications technology allows you to call for help, or for enemies to monitor you and keep in contact.

Also, firearms complicate matters in dealing with sand-monsters. For one thing, if you can fight effectively at range, you just hunker down and blast away, or pick them off at long range. I'd be happy with that as an occasional option, but I don't want it to be the main playstyle, because it sounds boring. It also makes it more difficult to implement sand-gathering, which in POPSOT involves downing an enemy and then draining the magic out of them with your knife; you can't do that at long range. Obviously, though, the mechanic could be changed. Or players could take down enemies with suppressing fire, then rush in to drain them, I suppose?

To me, though, keeping it as a mostly melee-based game just feels more appropriate to the heroic, athletic style. It also handily means not worrying about ammunition, firearms in melee, reloading or firing into combat. At the same time, it means PCs won't face enemies with firearms either, so it's only people who can reach them they need to worry about. This should allow a fairly loose playstyle, where it's not that important how long activities take, or whether you'd technically be visible to some distant guards, and where athletic PCs can readily evade lumbering monsters simply by getting out of reach. Finally, it should mean I can do some interesting things with time-faffing in combat, which is easier to justify if you can physically reach enemies to affect them.

If we're looking for an athletic sort of game, there's a potential pitfall in creating physical challenges for them. How much planning is needed to create the appropriate level of detail, where they'll face problems in negotiating the terrain and seek solutions to them? In the game itself, you're frequently looking at quite complex puzzles, involving Wall-of-Deathing along some wall before pushing off it into empty space to grab a swinging rope to reach a beam you can walk along to rebound your way up a stone chimney. For tabletop, I'll need to think about the appropriate level of abstraction. This could effect the choice of game system, as well as being a headache for GMing.

Next time I'll start looking at implementation.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Tomefoolery, part two: the price of knowledge

Commentarii linguae graecae, 1548

In which I continue to plagiarise be inspired by AncientHistory at YSDC to discuss Tomes of Unspeakable Evil.

The Price of Knowledge

So, you've got your evil tome. You may or may not be aware of its true diabolical nature, or even the occult secrets it contains. Maybe you just think it's a weird old book. Maybe you think it's a valuable anthropological artefact. Maybe you think it's a useful piece of evidence against the murderous cult you broke up.

Regardless, at some point, someone is going to read it. Inevitably in fiction, more or less inevitably in gaming. Assuming anyone has the slightest inkling that there's something remotely interesting about it, they'll probably want to read it. Admittedly, if they have a reasonably accurate inkling, they might prefer to burn it before anyone so much as glances at the contents, but that's a different issue.

Knowledge typically has a price, and in the case of TOUEs, the price may be a bit more drastic than usual. There are two issues here. One is the actual content of the book, which may be soul-rending in and of itself. The other is the sentient malevolence of the tome. Today I'll look at the first one.

Mankind Was Not Meant To Know

In a lot of cases, a TOUE's contents are unspeakably horrific. There's plenty of scope for variation in the details, though, and they don't necessarily have to be innately supernatural. They might simply be too advanced for a sane human mind of our era to comprehend, so gruesome that they drive the reader insane, or reveal secrets that drive the reader insane with megalomania. Some possibilities include:

  • The true origin of humanity as an accident / foodstuff / joke
  • History is wildly different from what we believed, and far more terrible
  • Knowledge of the dreadful omnipotent beings that control reality and consider humanity as nothing but fodder, slaves, a mild irritation or a source of entertainment
  • Dreadful supernatural or alien beings lurk amongst us, preying on humans or using them as tools and pawns in some secret scheme
  • What we call "reality" is nothing but a delusion disguising the unspeakable truth
  • Prophecy of the ultimate end of history
  • Prophecy of the reader's own fate, undoubtedly awful
  • The horrific diaries of a mass-murderer
  • Spells that grant immense power... at a terrible price
  • Spells that are innately evil, but offer tempting power
  • Rituals to appease, petition or release some hideous monstrosity
  • Scientific knowledge so advanced that the human mind cannot accept it
  • Mathematical or psychological insights that offer near-supernatural power

In any case, it's useful to have a mechanism for handling the effects of this reading. Call of Cthulhu is the archetype here, and its Sanity mechanics offer a straightforward method for handling tomes. Any book of Mythos secrets (true revelations, as opposed to the merely occult) will impose a SAN cost on the reader, which cannot usually spark any specific insanities, but does whittle down their mental stability. In some cases, a Keeper (GM) might want to create a special case for TOUEs if they're deemed to have specific effects on the reader.

What sort of effects might a TOUE have on the reader? Well, depending on their contents and the nature of the tome, they might trigger nightmares, compulsive reading, phobias, nervous tics, or obsessions. A tome that indicates vampires secretly control society could have someone constantly looking for possible vampires. They might conceive a hatred for mobile phones, if a tome claims they're part of an alien plot.

But things don't have to be nearly so dramatic. Again, it's a genre issue. The book might be disturbing or sickening, rather than mind-blasting. The reader might be horrified by the revelations of some supernatural or alien plot, but rise to the challenge rather than cracking under the strain. The more seductive sort of TOUE might inspire vague, enticing dreams over a long period, instead of nightmares. Sometimes it's entirely appropriate for readers not to believe what they're reading, in which case they're not going to flip out immediately; instead, they're gradually shaken as the truth of the book becomes apparent. Even a spellbook - perhaps especially a spellbook - might arouse reluctant curiosity rather than anything more extreme.

Leaving BRP behind, D20 gaming has plenty of options here. For a start, there's the Call of Cthulhu D20 system. There is also a Sanity system presented in Unearthed Arcana, the basics of which which can be found at the SRD - it may well be the same, I don't have D20CoC. The D&D supplement Heroes of Horror offers Depravity rules, while the Ravenloft campaign setting has Madness.

In World of Darkness games, there's existing mechanisms that could be roped in: Morality, Clarity and so on, though some may work better than others, and they're weighty enough that they should be used with caution. There's also actual Derangement mechanics. I'm largely ignorant about the system, though, so I'm going to stop right there before I say something clueless.

Basically, most systems where you might want to involve a TOUE will probably have some mechanic you can use for to indicate that characters' tiny minds have been wracked. There are subtler options too. For mild disturbance or distractedness, there might be a small penalty to appropriate skills. Characters might find it hard to sleep properly, and not always receive the full benefits.


Obviously, if you're reading all this stuff, you should learn something from it. Whether you wanted to is another matter. Again, Cthulhu has this down with its built-in reading mechanics; readers of tomes gain skill points in Cthulhu Mythos, and sometimes other things. There are also sometimes specific things to learn, most often in the shape of spells, though perfect learning isn't guaranteed.

Other systems don't necessarily have anything so specific to dark knowledge by default. D20 TOUE could offer bonuses to relevant skills, though the level-based nature of the game can make one-off permanent bonuses inconvenient to handle. They can generally handle spell-learning, though, and even a non-caster could learn a spell from such a book, if you choose. Whether they can use it themselves is another matter, but knowing a spell you can't physically cast offers some interesting possibilities. Storyteller systems could offer bonus dots. If long-term balance might be a problem, these bonuses could be tracked and later revoked if the book is destroyed - its evil knowledge seeping away from the reader's mind, thankfully lost.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Indie Press Revolution

I just wanted to quickly share a shopping story. It's okay, shopping is unlikely to become a major feature of this blog.

I went to Indie Press Revolution to pick up a couple of game PDFs. Specifically Maid and Dinosaurs in Spaaace!, as I've been looking for potential light relief games to run, something maybe easier to get going than the Cthulhu and Pathfinder stuff that's recently ground to a halt. I heard reasonable things about both games, and while I've got some reservations about Maid, it sounds to me like I could probably at least hack up something from the system, even if we don't want to play it RAW.

Trying to set up an account with IPR, I spotted a problem: there's a glitch with their address data, so it includes some UK counties that no longer exist, and is missing a few extant ones. At it happens, I wasn't able to give my address correctly, so I dropped them a line mentioning the issue; I didn't like to set up an inaccurate address, as I've no idea what the legal issues might be for them or me. Overnight, an email came back from the general manager, no less. I won't quote it as I haven't asked permission, but I'll paraphrase.

Don't worry about the website; what can I do for you? He attached a spreadsheet of the current catalogue, in case I was having trouble using the website.

I told him what I was looking for, and that I was quite happy to set up an account if that was okay by him.

No problem, it'll cost this much; you can pay by PayPal or card and I'll set up a Dropbox link.

I agreed.

Here's a link to the files. Here's another link to pay by PayPal.

Everything went smoothly, and I got my games. I was particularly pleased by his sending the file link at the same time as PayPal, which showed a lot of good faith. Okay, it wasn't much money to risk and it'd be a bit of a rubbish scam, but still, nice gesture and it sped up matters for me too. Given that companies (in general) can be a bit inclined to treat customers with suspicion, I appreciate that.

So sure, there was a slight problem with their website, but I'm well impressed with their customer service.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Tomefoolery, part one: acquisition

Commentarii linguae graecae, 1548

AncientHistory over at YSDC has just started a thread about evil books, and I feel vaguely inspired.

Evil books are a pretty cool idea. The lure of lost mysteries or forbidden lore, the power they might contain... they can seem entirely harmless, their danger overstated or simply rumour. People can assume they're simply a collection of mad ramblings, or stories, or folklore. Like the classic cursed ruby, surely all those violent deaths are just a consequence of their value to thieves and would-be inheritors. Some people will seek them out in the full knowledge of their power, sure they can master the tome, and wrong. Others have a vague idea of what they hold, and hope to learn something vital, but don't realise the danger they're in. A few are willing to pay the price for knowledge they think they want, but haven't understood the insidious nature and malevolence of the books, or the true horror of the secrets they contain.


The first step with evil toming is to get your filthy hands on one. Like buses, once you've got a tome to hand, further works of despicable malice will flock to you. But how do you track down that first precious grimoire?

This sort of thing will vary a great deal by genre.

  • Inherit it. Your benefactor might be the elusive, enigmatic figure you never really knew. They might be the cheerful, wholesome person you though you knew. Or they might be a total mystery to you, a long-lost uncle or long-dead grandmother amongst whose possessions the tome comes to light.
  • Have it pressed upon you by someone. Typically, this is a wise mentor anticipating their murder, or a stranger (or better yet, a close friend) fleeing some unexplained and unimaginable horror that's hot on their heels. Sometimes they are already dying, and have no time for anything but to whisper to you the secret of the book's location, or thrust the rough-bound parcel desperately into your hands with an expression of hopeless pleading.
  • Discover it in a place of power: an ancient crypt, a madman's study, or the long-buried subterranean temple of a secret and vanished cult. Children often find artefacts in their explorations, archaeologists notoriously "stumble upon" them. Perhaps you're doing some building work on a house, and uncover an antediluvian shrine beneath the kitchen. Perhaps you're off potholing, chased into the sewers by a gang, or lost in the woods, when the floor gives way beneath you. Most likely you'll discover its power by accident by carelessly reading something out loud (as we all do, so often) and bringing about some terrible calamity (also known as a 'plot hook').
  • Unearth it in a peculiar bookshop, full of odd staircases and windows that don't seem to align inside and out. The proprietor may have no inkling of the tome's true nature; they may giggle cryptically as they accept a token price for it; they may even suggest it to you, sensing your lust for strange mysteries. Some booksellers are agents of sinister powers, others dangerously dismissive, and a few entirely ignorant of what they do.
  • Steal it. Perhaps you're a servant curious about the mistress' library, trapped behind the curtains when she strides in, and you see her open the secret panel and chant words of power from an ancient book. Perhaps you're a thief who finds a gem-studded book on a lectern, and hurries away with it. Perhaps you're a police officer who interrupts a sinister cult ritual, and confiscates the dark book they're reading. Perhaps you're even an innocent traveller who takes the wrong briefcase on the train.
  • Be led to it. Something - heredity, a brush with the occult, finding a scrap between the pages of an ordinary diary - creates a connection between you and the tome, and it begins to call to you. You hear it in your dreams, perhaps, and walk in your sleep. Maybe a series of peculiar coincidences leads you to it - the cancelled train, the mistaken taxi-driver, the sudden shower of rain outside the narrow bookshop. Maybe you're simply doing some occult reading, and are seized with the desire to track down a reference, then another, each step taking you closer to the dreadful source.
  • Seek it out. Dabblers in the occult may be slowly drawn into ever-deeper secrets, and drawn to search for legendary tomes. Some are honest scholars and collectors, with a purely academic interest in these cultural curiosities or the historical knowledge they contain. Some are sceptics curious to see what nonsense lies within. Some are seekers after understanding, hoping that one day they will find some answers to the questions of existence. Some are convinced of the book's authenticity, and hope it will aid them in some endeavour, not comprehending its true nature. And a few are well aware of just what it is they seek, fools or madmen either willing to pay the price for the power the tome will bring them, or rashly believing they are strong enough to control it.

For some reason, I can't think of or easily find examples of all these, though I'm pretty sure I've seen them all before. Maybe they didn't all relate to books then? Anyway, I'll let it rest for now.

Acquisition in games

In a game, a relatively realistic system like Call of Cthulhu might simply start off with you obtaining what turns out to be a sinister tome, typically by one of the passive methods. After all, you can't guarantee the players taking whatever action you intended, and trying to make the book interesting enough to definitely take may undermine any ideas you had about subtlety.

More fantastical or magic-heavy games might expect PCs to seek out artefacts of their own accord, whether or not they know what they're dealing with. In D&D, the book might just seem like an ordinary magic book to begin with, a perfectly useful item to have around, and they only slowly discover its true nature. Ravenloft seems like a natural fit here; the PCs will perhaps be more suspicious of everything being potentially evil, but the idea of damned bargains and moral trade-offs is right there.

Any game with amoral, mercenary or evil PCs is also a reasonable starting point, as they may be inclined to seek out or use books with a sinister reputation. On the other hand, though, the book might seem harmless or even benevolent to begin with (hey, it worked in Harry Potter) and PCs may not appreciate its malevolent plans.

Pulpier games might have a more direct method of acquisition. Tough detectives could unearth the book amongst the possessions of a gang boss. Vigilantes might retrieve it from a cult headquarters after breaking up a ritual. A merry band of heroes could find it locked away in the castle where the pirate sorcerers were lurking, and accept it as general loot.

The 'led to it mysteriously' technique is a bit fiddlier, as you need to have the players more or less onboard for what you're doing. It's going to emphasise the book's significance more than just about any other option, though it doesn't necessarily explain what that significance is. This might work well for a plotline that's about dealing with a known threat from a sinister book, as well as for one where it initially seems useful.

To some extent it's also going to depend on what you're planning. If the book is part of a specific plot, then you may want to establish its place by delivering the book through Plot. Especially for a one-shot. If it's a wild-card element of a campaign that might be turned into a major plotline, then letting it drift in gently may keep more options open, depending on what the players do later. There's some risk that if you Plot-drop the book on them with something like the Dead Mentor Gambit, as a tool for solving a mystery or overcoming an obstacle early on, then later revealing it as a malevolent force insinuating itself into their lives may not play well. Obviously, that's going to depend on the setting, the type of game you run and the characters, as well as the players. A game with a lot of twists and schemes might support this better than a straightforward one where stuff is either bad or good, and players don't want to bother about moral judgements or treachery.

There are usually ways to make things acceptable, though. For example, a noble, wise mentor probably wouldn't deliberately give them a tome of evil - but the PCs might misunderstand their last words and assume they're supposed to use it, rather than destroy it.


So far I've only talked about things from the PC angle, but in fact grimoires in fiction are often in the hands of NPC-equivalents. That puts the acquisition a step away from the PCs, and means you don't need to worry about railroading them into obtaining it so the plotline will work out. Instead, you let them become aware of either the book or the NPC's activities, and see what unfolds. It might lead to the PCs acquiring the book; to a confrontation with NPCs that sees the book destroyed or buried; or even to a direct conflict with a powerful sentient tome. In this situation, the acquisition is background information that might enlighten the PCs or help them deal with the problem, but doesn't need to be handled onstage.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Killing Me Softly, part 4

So. I've been wrestling with soft attacks every so often, trying to get somewhere useful, and to be honest I think the most useful thing at this point is a quick summary and to move on. There are so many different things to consider, all of which play into other aspects of the game, that I can't usefully do much specific without actually creating a game from whole cloth. And that's more Dan's thing.

So here's the main conclusions I've reached.


The main thing, the biggie: how much granularity does the status system provide? It's not really about the attack, or the resilience, or the recovery; it's about whether you can be "blind" vs. "not blind", or whether you measure 10 different degrees of blindness.

Higher granularity means low swinginess, high scalability and a high tracking burden. Low granularity means high swinginess, low scalability and a low tracking burden. Anyone picking a system for soft attacks needs to decide which of those is the priority. The details of the system involved are really a secondary matter.

For a game without much in the way of levelling - the sort of thing where a new character is about as effective as a veteran - scalability is not an issue. In those cases, the decision might come down to other elements of the game. If it's supposed to be highly realistic, the cost of tracking might be acceptable - particularly as in such a game, quite a lot of tracking is probably already necessary: if you have to track damage to a number of specific locations, ammunition, energy expended, morale, fatigue and thirst, adding in blindness, sleepiness and stunnedness might seem perfectly reasonable. On the other hand, if it's a fast-paced game featuring "alive", "wounded" or "dead" statuses and very little else, nobody wants detailed tracking of blindness.

If the game has strong levelling, then scalability is important. Having low-level soft weapons that cripple high-level targets creates loopholes, cheap tactics and can undermine the setting. On the other hand, having high-level soft attacks that are often ineffective makes makes it not worth using them. There are ways around this other than granularity, though. If the attack rolls necessary scale with level, and the status effect isn't too severe, then a binary system may be acceptable.

Example: Scaly Monitors

In a new build of Monitors, skill is modelled by simple skill pluses linked to level. A modified roll of 11+ on a d20 is a success. Roj, a 5th-level iguana xenologist, has +5 Pistol and carries a tranq pistol to capture interesting fauna on the ice-world of Kraant, as well as a standard-issue blaster for self-defence. When his research group are confronted by a 5th-level cryoboar with +5 Stamina (which subtracts from his roll) he has to roll an 11 or better to successfully stun it, halving its action rate, which will make it easier to capture, kill or escape from. On the other hand, he could turn to the trusty blaster, which should kill the boar in five or six shots.

A little later, Roj runs into a cryophant. Oops. With a Stamina of 10, he needs a 16 or better to stun it. A lucky shot would make life substantially easier, but attempting to beat the critter would still be very risky. Once aggro'd, the cryophant's hit points mean it'll survive to reach combat sooner or later, at which point Roj may be wishing he'd gone straight for the blaster rather than waste turns trying to drug it, since he'd have to endure fewer rounds of punishing combat.

D&D seems to aim for this with its scaling attack rolls, defensive stats and DCs. However, the major status effects in D&D (stun, blind, slow and paralyse) are very powerful, and this means makes it viable to focus on stun-locking, or to spam soft attacks at a boss until once gets through, followed by unloading the party's most damaging attacks while it's vulnerable. While those are perfectly valid ways of playing, it can become repetitive and feel cheesy - and designers and DMs alike tend to compensate with immunities and very high defences.


Swinginess is amplified against small numbers of relatively powerful targets, since these are typically highly resistant to compensate for their numbers. With only "success" or "failure" results, a single soft attack can make the difference between a difficult battle and a cakewalk (depending, of course, how powerful the status effect is).

Penalties can vary in severity, in duration or both. The most and least severe penalties inflicted by a soft attack are a significant factor. Soft attacks with a weak maximum penalty can be allowed a high success rate without risking 'ruining' boss fights. Soft attacks with a strong maximum penalty need to rarely impose that penalty on powerful enemies, otherwise they become disparately useful. The duration complicates matters further: a minor penalty that lasts for a long time has limited effect, but may be a pain to remember, depending how the system models it. A severe penalty that also lasts a long time is more swingy as an individual attack, since a single good result can cripple the target for the duration of a fight; however, a severe penalty that's short-lived can be very powerful if it comes at just the right time, and otherwise has limited effect, so it's also swingy. There's probably not much to choose between 'em, to be honest.

Soft attacks should never be crippling, either by themselves or through synergystic effects. This, as Dan mentioned, basically allows them to circumvent the standard combat system. The only situation where I might be inclined to favour this would be niche games, where hard-attack combat isn't what you're supposed to be doing.

Example: All's Fair

For example, I can visualise a game about fey interlopers. You have a variety of supernatural abilities that allow you to beguile, bemuse, bewilder and bewitch NPCs that come between you and your goals. Striking people blind, sending them to sleep or rooting them to the spot fit perfectly well with fey folklore, rather better than hacking your way through hordes of guards. The smooth way to play the game is to slip gently through the NPCs you encounter, eliminating them with tactically-applied magic. Actual combat is a fall-back if you mess up, and something to be avoided. The tactical challenge isn't whittling down individual opponents, it's dealing with the situation as a whole, picking the right spells to use in a situation, and avoiding drawing down a whole crowd of enemies on your head at once. The only point where drawn-out combat occurs might be dealing with other magic-using entities, where arcane duels might take place.

Final Thoughts

For a lot of games, a highly granular soft attack system is not going to be appropriate, despite its advantages.

  • As we agreed before, a game with highly abstracted combat doesn't want very granular soft attacks, because it contradicts other aspects of the combat system.
  • For games that try to minimise the tracking burden, perhaps to create a streamlined and accessible system or to speed up play, granular soft attacks are also inappropriate.
  • For games that aren't especially concerned about "realism" or "fairness", the granularity may simply not be a priority. If the setting is full of randomness and arbitrariness, with luck and the whims of the powerful playing a significant part, then it doesn't necessarily matter whether blind spells are swingy, since just about everything else is too. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you die.

For most games, though, I'm inclined to feel that at least a three-way distinction is useful, with "semi-successful" sitting between "effective" and "entirely ineffective". This would reduce swinginess by allowing soft attacks to have limited effects on powerful creatures, without either rendering them useless or allowing them to stun-lock the big bads. Exactly how the result would be established would depend on the system as a whole.

The other thing is that any soft attack system depends on the frequency of soft attacks in the game. If only rare equipment can blind, stun or paralyse creatures, a relatively high-maintenance resolution system isn't too problematic if it gives pleasing results. If they're going to come up in every fight, though, the smoothness of play is more important.

And that's probably it from me, to be honest. I had thought of scribbling a bit more about recovery systems, but I'm not sure there's much point. So a rather desultory end to a rather confused project.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Trappery, part eight: magic

The next logical Trappery would be a fantasy setting example, but here we start running into complications.

What I've been doing so far could mostly be summed up as "de-abstracting" traps into something that has a bigger presence in the game than a couple of rolls. Once you're looking at fantastical settings, though, some new factors and assumptions come into play. These are:

  • Magic
  • Sufficiently advanced technology
  • "It's not magic, it's INSERT-THINLY-DISGUISED-WORD-FOR-'MAGIC'."
For simplicity's sake I'll generally refer to all these as "magic".

What does magic mean for traps?

Both magic and hypertech (and potentially some high-end current tech) introduce new possibilities into the game. Ultimately, they're quite likely to lead to having more traps, and more powerful traps, than are plausible in a real-world setting. The exact details will depend on how the game treats magic.

I don't know who you are or and what you do or and where you go when you're not around...

Forget fireballs and summoning demons for a minute. The first and probably most important possibility magic presents is discrimination. Magic can not only function as a trigger for traps, but identify all kinds of information about an intruder. Things like weight, height, species, alignment, religion, membership of an organisation, general intentions, blood type, complete genetic makeup or simply "identity" are grist to magic's mill. This means a trapper can create traps that are far, far more discriminating about triggering, and massively reduce the chance of a false positive.

As I've mentioned before, false positives are one of the major checks on the lethality or general unpleasantness of traps, and on their placement. People are very unhappy about working near dangerous traps, or even very painful but non-damaging ones. There's also the simple inconvenience of getting trapped for a few hours or having work come to a halt while some trap is cleaned up and reset. With near-zero false positives, though, these checks are removed.

Practically speaking, this will result in more traps because they can now be placed in high-traffic locations, in the Dark Lord's bedroom, and other sensitive places without much downside - and since traps have a lot of advantages as protection, it's a natural thing to do. It will also result in more powerful traps because the trapper isn't concerned about becoming a trappee, or about catching a loved one or sue-happy visitor by mistake.

'til the end of time

Another significant feature of magic is its longevity. Legend and fantasy fiction alike often present magic as everlasting, lingering even while creators and physical surroundings fall to dust. If this is the case in your setting, then magical traps will remain a threat longer than just about anything else. The clockwork guards and scything blades may be rusted to nothing, the crossbows' bowstings may have rotted long ago, the lake of mercury have evaporated and the poisons have turned into harmless dirt, but the curses and glyphs of day-ruining will still be around to make Nebraskie's life thoroughly miserable. From a GM's point of view, this offers a way for abandoned places to still have defences and present dangerous problems. It also, of course, allows magic-specialists to use some of their skills during an exploration.

Everything louder than everything else

The third change magic introduces is just how bloody weird your traps can get. There are, fundamentally, limits to what mechanical traps can achieve. Magic, on the other hand, can turn someone into a squirrel, detect their romantic preferences, conjure up another squirrel to meet those preferences, compel them to fall in love, teleport them to the Plane of Nuts and Birdfeeders, trap them both in a bubble of accelerated time while they raise an extended squirrel family, record the whole process on a crystal ball protected by impregnable wards, teleport them back, transform them back into their original form, and then threaten to send the recording to their parents, spouse and selected national media organisations.

Magic allows you to influence intruders' behaviour through enchantment or mind-altering substances. It allows you to use living creatures without worrying about keeping them alive in the meantime. It allows you to teleport intruders elsewhere - like right out of the tomb and into a nearby volcano, or a city gaol. It allows you to turn them to stone until the next patrol visits, or forever. It allows you to wipe their memories, or implant new ones. To induce horrific hallucinations, or send messages. To blind, deafen or paralyse. It can summon guards, and even teleport them in.

I can't think of a suitable Meat Loaf quote

Finally, magic is - at least potentially - invisible. It's just there. Unlike a trick flagstone, tripwire or big pit full of spikes, there's not necessarily anything to show that there's a spell waiting for intruders. This point needs careful consideration, because it risks leaving traps as the arbitrary die-rolling exercises that caused all this writing in the first place. A related point is that magical traps could end up as a problem exclusively for wizards - which isn't necessarily an improvement on being a problem exclusively for thieves.

Magical mechanics

When using traps in a magical game, it's a good idea to consider how you actually want magic to work. This will relate to how it works elsewhere in the game, so some of your work may be already done. Broadly speaking, I think there are two poles to the approaches, which I'll call esoteric and mechanistic.

Esoteric mechanics

Esoteric magic is not readily analysable. Spells are discrete and somewhat arbitrary things, entities in their own right. You can't probe the composition of a spell or expect it to combine with others in systematic ways. This is likely to work better in systems with limited magic and a fairly broad-brush, narrative approach to what it does. In this approach, a magical trap is likely to be a single spell that exists for that purpose. It will have one or more set countermeasures, so overcoming the trap is a matter of knowing those countermeasures, which may be entirely arbitrary, intuitive, or involve a terrible pun.

Example: Surloc's Bonecage

The Wizard of Saffron Waldren, fed up of apple-scrumpers, turns to his arcane talents. Drawing runes left-handed with powdered amber, incanting the names of the Nine Winds in reverse alphabetical order, and ritually burning a pillow and two Granny Smiths picked before dawn on a Tuesday, he invokes the dread power of Surloc's Bonecage to protect his orchard. The children of the neighbourhood are flummoxed. However, old Nanny Quiggin (who used to do part-time witching in Douglas) happens to know that you can break the spell by spilling the blood of a penguin not more than three foot tall over the runes, then walking backwards through the warded area wearing shoes on your hands and singing "One Man Went To Mow" until you lose your voice. As it happens, you can also break it rather faster by casting Tarah's Hungry Hound.

Mechanistic magic is basically something you can break down and analyse in a semi-logical and semi-consistent way. This is probably going to work better in a system with a fair amount of magic and reasonably detailed explanations of what it does. In this approach, a magical trap would be either a) a single spell that's designed for exactly that purpose; or b) a number of spells (and possibly mechanical components) combined into something that works as a trap. So a trap might involve a spell that detects intruders, a spell that sends water pouring across the floor, and a spell that sends 100,000 volts through said water a few seconds later. I would expect the latter to be relatively more common, and increasingly so as a system becomes more mechanistic in its approach (for example, a game where magic consists not of specific spells but of pools of abilities, and the important factor is the caster's mastery of each pool).

The mechanistic approach would tend to treat wizards like hackers or mechanics. They can analyse a spell into its component parts, and work out ways to take out part of the system, rendering it ineffective. They might even be able to take control of a trap, or change its parameters to trap someone else. This approach will treat magic-hacking a bit like combat: it will involve several rolls that go towards the goal.

Example: The Honey Trap

Lady Windemere, irritated by the plebs who keep wandering through her estate, decides to set a trap near the gates. Her Head Witch needs to combine several spells into a workable trap. A watchful eye detects trespassers, and can recognise members of the household to let them past. Once a trespasser has been found, instant excavator digs a large pit under them, while sweet summoning covers them with a lavish helping of honey. Finally, a simple attract insects draws the attention of twenty nearby beehives.

Anyone wishing to avoid the trap can target any or all of these spells. Removing the excavator would make it much easier to escape the bees, while cancelling the attract would leave them simply sticky rather than stung. They could remove summoning, which reduces the bees' incentive but still leaves them hanging around. Of course, the eye is the best target, but it may be harder to dispel. A blind spell would take care of the eye, a repel insects would counter the attract, a fill pit or raise hummock would counter the excavator, but there's no specific counter for sweet summoning. Of course, they could also turn invisible, impersonate Lady Windermere, or simply put up an umbrella to avoid the honey and then scramble out of the pit ASAP.

Of course, many traps are not purely magical, but include physical components as well. These allow much more scope for non-casters to use their skills.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Trappery, part seven: royal tomb example

This episode of Trappery brings you the second in a set of exploratory examples, working out the role (or lack of role) of traps in particular situations, and what those traps are likely to look like.

It's probably something like this.

Tomb of the Moon-King

For our next example, I thought I'd take a more trap-friendly setting. I'm still avoiding magic or fantastical tech and looking at relatively plausible options in a realistic setting, because it's much easier to build from realism to fantasy than vice versa. Our setting here is more brutal and less forgiving, but still officially a real-world possibility.

The Vizier is in charge of planning for the tomb of the late Moon-King. The tomb must stand for a hundred thousand years, as the Moon-King decreed. Given the King’s legendary wealth and power, there will undoubtedly be fools eager to loot his tomb in the centuries to come. While this isn’t a major problem if we view it with cold logic – nobody dies, nobody’s hurt, and some wealth gets recirculated into the spend-happy tomb-robber economy – for the Vizier it’s an unthinkable crime that must be punished with the utmost severity. The Moon-King's body and grave-goods must not be defiled, lest his spirit turn from benevolent watch over the land to wrathful vengeance. Running strongly against type, the Vizier is a reliable professional with a personal fondness for the late Moon-King (not to mention an interest in avoiding any future wrath) and will do his best to fulfil the Moon-King's wishes.

The Vizier’s security concerns are:

  1. Some thieving scav will nick the Moon-King’s stuff;
  2. Some thieving scav will breach the sanctity of the Moon-King’s tomb and escape unpunished.

Both of these are very real threats – there’s a huge timescale for them to happen in, a huge amount of valuables to attract robbers (who, after a certain period, may not even consider themselves robbers) and widespread knowledge of said valuables. It’s also going to be more or less impossible to build a suitably impressive tomb and simultaneously maintain absolute secrecy about its location, even if the Vizier adopts the scorched-earth policies so beloved of tomb-builders – and in any case, in time, someone would be bound to discover it by accident.

Once the tomb is sealed, only guardian spirits will remain, in the form of clay statues made with the ashes of sacrificed wild beasts. While the Vizier is properly convinced of their power, he knows guardian spirits are not mechanically minded, so there'll be nobody around to respond sensibly to alarms, take prisoners or restock traps. That means traps need to be reliable at stopping intruders, which basically means ‘lethal’. The Vizier will also consider options that render further progress impossible by blocking entire sections of tunnel, collapsing rooms into the earth’s core and so on, although he’d rather minimise damage to the tomb. On the plus side, there are absolutely no bystanders, innocent or otherwise, so collateral damage is a matter of the tomb and its contents, rather than living beings. Not that a few accidental deaths would be of much weight compared to the sanctity of the Moon-King's body.

The Vizier has full access to the Moon-Kingdom’s treasuries, knowledge and skill. Any trap they can devise, he can build into the tomb. It probably falls somewhere between ‘official’ and ‘military’ in terms of approach – they’re not expecting to fend off invading armies, but they have access to the same resources. The targets of these traps are “anything remotely human-sized that gets into the tomb”. Technology is somewhere between mediaeval and Renaissance.

We can tell what the Vizier is likely to implement. Sudden, brutal death. Oh, the tomb should certainly have cryptic messages warning of the horrible death awaiting any intruders, and some vicious-looking obstacles to put off the easily-scared, but for dealing with determined tomb-robbers there’s no substitute for killing. With the tomb long lost and forgotten in four or five centuries, they’ll have all the time in the world to puzzle out intricate riddles, prod stones with 10’ poles, climb back out of pits and otherwise overcome any obstacle that isn’t lethal. So there's really no room for mercy: we’re talking about fiendishly cunning and refined instruments of murder. They should give no hint of their presence right up until someone’s head is rolling along the floor without the company of their body. In corridors and so on, anything that doesn’t cause mass devastation is probably fine; in more delicate rooms with destructible contents, we want traps that are inimical to life but will leave ornate carvings and precious sarcophagi untouched.

Tomb-Building for Fun and Profit

Accurate as the earlier summary was, we need some more specific security points for the Vizier to focus on so he can work out countermeasures.

Anyone breaking into the tomb at all is the most fundamental part of the problem. There’s very little he can do to prevent it entirely, but significant effort should be devoted to making it very difficult to physically enter the tomb at all. This is mostly a matter of location and building. Putting the tomb somewhere inaccessible will make it harder for aspiring robbers or pillaging armies to get there, and so reduce the number of people who try their luck. Making the tomb solid and well-sealed will also make a big difference: it takes a lot of determination – or time – to break through solid stone walls fifteen foot thick. Basically these measures ensure that for many potential intruders, it’s just too much effort to defile the tomb. It’s analogous to the ID checks and barred windows in the last post; none of them stop determined professionals, but they take out the low-hanging fruit of opportunistic crime and amateurs.

If they make it through the walls, our putative tomb-robbers (let’s call them Laura and Nebraskie) are probably pretty committed to the job and have some idea what they’re doing. They might have exploited an earthquake-induced breach or simply found a hole someone else made, but that’s their problem. At this point some active countermeasures are needed.

As any fule no, given a limited supply of countermeasures and an unlimited pool of potential tomb-robbers, the best defence is one that isn’t used up. At this point, Laura and Nebraskie still haven’t done any actual defiling – it’s even possible they’re idiots or foreigners, and therefore don’t know what they’re dealing with here. The sensible thing to do here is to place prominent warnings to would-be robbers at key locations. This means any likely entrance points (such as the entrances used in building, even though later blocked) and perhaps in the outer ring of the tomb complex, in case someone tunnels in from an unexpected direction. The warnings explain the history of the place and the majesty of the Moon-King, detail the horrible wrath certain to fall on anyone foolish enough to disturb his spirit, and allude vaguely to more specific and immediate wraths that will strike down anyone who doesn’t turn back now. They will also appeal to national conscience and legend by reminding intruders that the Moon-Kingdom will be in danger if the spirit is roused to anger. With any luck, these warnings will get rid of Laura and Nebraskie without a single spring-loaded spear being discharged. This isn’t a matter of mercy – 99.9% of possible intruders are entirely deserving of slow and horrible death, to the Vizier’s mind – but one of pragmatic use of limited resources.

A second point to bear in mind is that intruders have all the time in the world to penetrate the tomb’s defences, and perhaps successive waves will learn from each others’ mistakes. Therefore, it’s essential to keep things innovative and surprising. The first collapsible floor over a pit of acid will get results, but by the third Laura and Nebraskie will be pretty blasé about the whole business. Once they’ve seen a couple of skeletons impaled on spears bursting from the ceiling, or found a trigger-stone that sets a corridor collapsing, they’ll know to look out for those things. The Vizier will try to make sure each trap is fresh and unexpected, keeping thieves nervous and eking the maximum killy death out of every spiky thing.

For the most part, the Vizier will plan increasingly serious measures as we get closer to the actual burial chamber. Intrusion into the outer corridors is worthy of sudden and ignominious death, but if someone’s made it all the way to the antechamber, it’s really time to consider Plan B. At that stage, damage to the tomb is less of a concern than stopping the thieves from disturbing the Moon-King, and even killing them is a secondary problem. The innermost ring of security is likely to feature heavyweight traps that will affect the tomb complex itself, blocking corridors or burying rooms under tons of rock to make sure nobody gets away. Spreading out a bit, key rooms will feature their own dangers – the shrine room, the armoury and the treasury are all likely to have special appeal for robbers and therefore need special protection. Traditionally dramatic irony is called for in the construction of such traps, but the Vizier isn’t hidebound.

Trap Psychology

The Vizier is intelligent enough to know that boredom, wasted effort and uncertainty are great assets in his deterrent strategy.

Tomb robbers are, for the most part, hoping to acquire great riches for limited effort. They may be willing to take risks towards that end, but there's only so much work they want to put in. Fabulous wealth is an attractive proposition, but at a certain point, the cost of wasted time, resources and risk outweighs the limited rewards that seem to be actually achievable. If they spend days chipping through stone blocks, only to find a completely empty room, their enthusiasm for tomb-robbing will diminish appreciably.

So the Vizier will not only make the tomb itself difficult to access, as mentioned earlier, but hinder progress within in. There will be many doors, all of them heavy and sealed. Access between the major chambers will be particularly limited, forcing intruders to retrace their footsteps and making it hard work to get any treasure out of the tomb.

Boredom is a good start, but not enough. Nor are simple arrays of traps the most effective option. If intruders can work out that there's one trap in each corridor and one on every chest, their work becomes predictable and even reassuring. Similarly, a tomb where every single flagstone is trapped and spikes bristle from every wall is very intimidating, but after a while intruders will settle into a kind of routine apprehension. They know what they're dealing with, and can tell when it's disarmed. It's performance anxiety, a matter of whether they're good enough to deal with it.

That's not what the Vizier wants. He wants constant, heart-stopping dread. The perpetual fear that the next flagstone is the deadly one, that any moment now horrible death will descend from somewhere, but nobody can tell where. He wants intruders constantly on edge, worried that they're becoming complacent, wondering whether their failure to find a trap on the chest means there actually isn't one, or they just haven't found it yet. Wondering whether the trap they found was a decoy. Wondering whether the other trap they found, concealed by the decoy, is also a decoy. Polishing the fruit at the bottom of the bowl. Uncertainty is one of the most stressful things around, and uncertainty about serious danger just about tops the list.

At the same time, sporadic danger and unpredictable rewards make extreme measures inefficient. If every inch of the place was full of traps, it's tempting to start thinking about drastic steps like slowly demolishing it, brick by brick, with long-handled tools, while wearing heavy armour, until you find a cache of gold. Apart from anything else, there must be a stupendous heap of treasure buried here to justify such heavy-handed protection. But when you know most of it isn't trapped, it's more difficult to mentally justify the huge effort involved.

Rewards are the other side of this dilemma. If a long corridor full of traps ends predictably in a roomful of treasure, tomb robbers will patiently work their way through until they can loot the place. But if rewards are unpredictable, decision-making once again gets thrown off balance. Is it really worth going through this deadly-seeming corridor? Will there actually be anything there?

So the Vizier doesn't lay out traps with perfect tactical precision. That sort of thing is sensible enough when the intruders know the exact layout of a complex and the location of all the key features, but that's not the case here. Tomb robbers are likely to be fumbling their way around with only limited ideas of where they're headed, and if traps indicate the likely location of valuables, that's only going to help them. Moreover, he's trying to avoid doing anything predictable, to mess with intruders' heads as much as possible (metaphorically and sometimes literally). The more intruders can be persuaded to just get the hell out of there, the fewer have a chance of actually looting the place. In practical terms, that means eccentricity. Sometimes there will be a long, elaborate corridor consisting largely of traps, which ends in a door painted on solid rock. Sometimes there will be a trap in the middle of a boring room, just to catch intruders unawares. Sometimes, as I mentioned earlier, there will be multi-layer traps.

Imperfect Trapping

Of course, there's always tradeoffs to make. Leaving aside the Vizier's mind games, there are practical limits on trap placement. Cost will eventually become a factor even for the Moon-Kingdom; you can't make a tomb infinitely large and deadly. Space is obviously another one: there's a limit on how big the tomb can be, and another on how many traps can be physically fitted in, particularly bearing in mind the need for actual architecture and tomb goods, and the likelihood of traps interfering with each other if overcrowded. Thirdly, traps are a vital feature of this tomb, but its ultimate point is to be the eternal resting place of the spirit of the Moon-King, and those objectives conflict at times.

A GM intervenes

It's always tempting to create the perfect defence, a tomb that is - to all intents and purposes - impregnable. It's not necessarily all that difficult either, depending on what system you're using. Fundamentally, though, if you're using a tomb in a game, pregning it is almost certainly the point.

So a sensible way to justify imperfection - aside from human fallibility, the effects of time, failings of old technology and so on - is to let the Moon-King's sensibilities take priority. Technically speaking there's no particular reason why a small granite box in a small granite chamber in the centre of a cubic mile of traps can't keep the Moon-King happy forever contemplating the grandeur of the universe, or something; but having his spirit demand a grand palace to wander around is an ideal excuse for having architectural and cosmetic considerations override tactical ones. And while his spirit isn't going to set off any traps, it won't be too happy if its grand chambers are full of ugly spiky machinery, or liable to be destroyed by collapsing tunnels. Or indeed, full of dead commoners.

This is a fairly understandable, and true-to-life, basis for disregarding the logical security step of having the entire tomb completely filled with close-fitted stone blocks impregnated with chemical poisons, and preferably radioactive.

Sample traps

Okay, I still haven't offered up any actual traps, and I should really do that. Before I start, there's a bit of a decision to be made. How much of a showman is the Vizier?

Trapping Style

This is really a GMing decision that will affect the feel of the dungeon - and this is fundamentally going to be a dungeon adventure. The Vizier could favour ironic justice, where traps reflect the room they're in and the actions of intruders. He could have a sense of drama that calls for showy traps tied in to major features of the tomb. Or he could be ruthlessly pragmatic, and tend towards innocent flagstones that bring sudden ignominious death. Each of these options will produce a particular effect.

The Ironically Retributive tendency would probably look an awful lot like this one. The intruders wind up the machinery that brings their own death. Here's another example:

A great chest, studded with precious stones, stands open in the centre of the dias. It is flanked by guardian statues, arranged so that anyone going for the chest must clamber awkwardly over outstretched weapons or tails. The statues look fearsome, but are entirely harmless; the chest is another matter. It is built on the bear-trap principle, with a heap of treasure inside weighing down the trigger just enough to keep it poised. As soon as Laura lifts out a handful of gold, the trigger is released and the chest's lid snaps shut on her outstretched arms, trapping her (and probably breaking an arm in the process). A chain stretching from the chest's lid yanks a stopper from the ceiling above, and coins begin to pour from a conical chamber above, burying her forever...

The Dramatic Vizier favours something a little more showy...

In the Forge Chamber, the dragon statues all have eyes of solid gold. They are also full of pressurised air and iron powder, pumped up and quickly patched when built. When Nebraskie pries out an eye, the seal is broken and the explosive mixture bursts out over them and their pleasantly flammable light source (at least in the Vizier's time). The result is a sudden explosion that should deal with the insolent thief, while leaving little evidence of what killed them to warn future intruders.

The Pragmatic Vizier is much more straightforward. He builds a random area of corridor over thin struts that will collapse under human weight. He attaches the inside of a door to a spring-release spear. He places razor-sharp wires around neck height on a steeply-sloping corridor, to catch intruders slithering down - and others at ankle height nearby to catch anyone who spots the first lot. He is, in many ways, the exact person to build our classic "corridor tax" traps, which burst on you for no apparent reason.

Wrapping Up

As before, the article's long enough that I won't fully detail the traps and their countermeasures here unless anyone asks. Next time, I might have a look at magical traps and traplike spells...