Monday, 28 April 2014

Pathfinder NPC levelling

Abel Grimmer 002

For quite a few years now I’ve been dissatisfied with the NPC rules shared by D&D 3.5 and now Pathfinder. There are a few problems with these rules that grate on me and I was really hoping for an overhaul in Path; sadly not. Since I’m running Path at the moment I’m going to do some playing about with the rules in the hopes of getting something more satisfactory.

The main problems as I see them are as follows:

  • NPCs gain hit dice per level as the same way as PCs. These hit points model ability to survive accidents, illness, and attacks. PCs gain this survivability through repeated life-and-death struggles that hone their ability to survive, generally involving vicious battles. Many NPC classes involve few or no such incidents, and therefore there is no reason for them to be particularly tougher with increased level. An expert tailor is no better at surviving a wolf’s attack than an apprentice tailor.
  • NPCs gain increased attack bonus as they level. This has the same problem as the previous point; outside “adventuring”, very few professions require combat skill, nor are they likely to increase it. Those civilians that have militia training, bar brawls, pirate attacks or bandits to account for can easily do so by multiclassing into a warrior class, or allowing an NPC feat or ability that models this.
  • NPC levels make PC levels narratively wobbly. As usually modelled, most NPCs would be 1st level peasants or warriors, which gives them a maximum skill rank of 4 (including class skills) in two or three skills, and a single feat. This excludes them from most of the profession-appropriate skill feats, such as Sea Legs for a sailor (5 ranks in Profession [Sailor]). It also means they’re liable to fail the skill rolls used daily in their job, which often have DCs from 15-20 and disallow taking 10. To reliably climb and balance at sea without falling to his death, a sailor would need to be about level 4, even with Skill Focus and class skill bonuses.
  • NPCs gain XP in exactly the same way as PCs – occasionally by fulfilling specific missions, but the vast majority comes through combat. This means that the very best way for tailors to improve their tatting and hemming skills is by bludgeoning goblins over the head with a mace. It also makes it virtually impossible for NPCs to gain any levels at all, keeping their skills at very low levels, even if their entire life is devoted to using those specific skills to stay alive.
  • A merchant requires Appraise 20 to determine the value of a common item. Let’s ignore high-pressure sales techniques, auctions, busy markets and other common aspects of mercantile life, and allow her to take 10. She’s still going to fail half the time, and a quarter of the time will have a wildly inaccurate idea of appropriate prices. Skill Focus, class skill bonus and a high Intelligence will give her a +8 if she’s lucky, which means 10% of the time she doesn’t know the value of the goods she trades professionally. Just in order to be competent at selling household goods, she’ll need to be 3rd level. Anyone working in high-pressure environments or dealing more specialist merchandise needs to be several levels higher.
  • Unfortunately, because combat skills scale with level, a competent used-horse salesman can readily beat up a gang of bandits or low-level PCs.
  • If we stick to low-level NPCs in order to preserve the combat balance, then we quickly reach a ridiculous skill imbalance. A 10th-level fighter with an interest in religion (i.e. putting a point in every level) is more knowledgeable than the average professional priest. A skilled thief whose interest in engineering is limited to avoiding or breaking it can ace the entrance exam for any engineering school, advise on renovation projects, lecture on architecture and design siege weapons, any of which is beyond many full-time engineers. An adventuring wizard, whose experience is largely practical, is more adept at magical theory than stipendiary research wizards, and better at crafting magical items than someone who earns a living that way.
  • Hit Dice and skills vary wildly and sometimes bizarrely between skills. The Expert is marked out from the Commoner by a threefold increase in skill points, military-level competence with weapons and armour, a larger hit die, and a good saving throw; yet academics are not generally hardier than labourers, blacksmiths are not necessarily more mentally stable than fishermen, and hairdressers are not yet routinely trained in the use of tower shields.
  • And let us not forget - making NPCs is basically exactly as complicated as making PCs if you attempt to do it by the rules.

The solution staring me in the face seems very simple: NPC classes do not grant combat advancement. There’s really no reason why either base attack bonus or hit points should increase through training in most professions.

Revised NPC classes

My version of NPC classes would look something like this:


The commoner is an ordinary member of society, occupied in low-skilled work, subsistence farming, fishing or similar generalised livelihoods.

Alignment: any

Hit Points: no increase.

Class Skills: The commoner's class skills (and the key ability for each skill) are Craft (Int), Knowledge (Local), Perception (Wis), and Profession (Wis). They may choose two additional skills from the following list: Appraise (Int), Climb (Str), Handle Animal (Cha), Heal (Wis), Knowledge (Nature), Ride (Dex), Survival (Wis) and Swim (Str).

Skill ranks per level: 3 + Int modifier.

Saving throws: 1/3 level.

Base Attack Bonus: +0

Class Features:

The following are class features of the commoner NPC class.

Weapon and Armour Proficiency: The commoner is proficient with one simple weapon. He is not proficient with any other weapons, nor is he proficient with any type of armour or shield.

The commoner no longer has scaling hit points or base attack bonus. Farming, digging, carrying shopping and fishing do not help you survive swordfights or bolts of lightning. Their saving throws still scale, as general life experience should still improve their ability to predict danger, endure hardship or muster willpower.

I’ve given them a slightly more fluid selection of skills, because I’m unsatisfied with the standard ones. Knowledge (Local) is incredibly basic and I’m astonished that the designers didn’t include it. I was actually very tempted to make it scale with class level. Ride is actually fairly unlikely for commoners (they don’t tend to own horses), whereas appraising goods, handling illness (without paying for a doctor), understanding natural processes (for farming) and general survival skills are all very useful for the average peasant. It also allows this class to represent a broader selection of characters, including hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers as well as ‘generic mediaeval peasants’. Skilled hunters, however, I would give levels of expert or even ranger.

It’s perfectly possible to tweak these commoners to represent background; they have feats, after all. Typically I’d see these being used for skills, but there are alternatives, especially given a couple of levels. Toughness and Great Fortitude make a very hardy labourer. Lightning Reflexes and Dodge would suit a petty thief. Alertness and bow proficiency would cover basic hunting. For someone with militia training, a proficiency or two would make them more viable.

I’m not sure what to do about the favoured class benefits, as these give a way to increase hit points. It’s basically up to the DM at that point; I’d tend to use them for skills, but someone in a physical profession might gain hit points to make them hardier when dealing with nonlethal damage, and someone with a more dangerous job might justify a few extra hit points.

Note that these builds are not gaining hit dice at all. This means feats that depend on hit dice (such as Defensive Combat Training or Toughness) will not help. I can’t decide whether that matters or not. A DM could easily rule that they have a d0 and still gain the stated benefits.

A default commoner is simple to build: simply give them one point in Profession and Knowledge (Local) per level, plus one other skill appropriate to their lifestyle. A reasonable guideline would be one skill point in each per four years of age, including the +3 bonus for class skills. A 60-year-old herdsman has Profession (Herdsman) +15, Knowledge (Local) +15 and Handle Animal +15. His 12-year-old niece has three points in the same skills. For the most part feats can be totally ignored.

One more point: in mediaeval Britain, at least, commoners were famously required to train regularly with the longbow. Similar laws, with varying arms and armour, have applied in many regions at various times. As such, it’s entirely reasonable to argue that commoners should in fact be proficient with one martial weapon suitable to the setting. Between these kinds of laws, the threat of robbery and banditry, a taste for physical sports, and the prevalence of things like knife fighting, you could reasonably argue that in many settings, commoners’ skill with weapons would tend to exceed that of the middle and upper classes. This is quite the reverse of the normal arrangement.


The expert is an specialist, focusing on specific skills that require considerable training. Artisans, scholars, hunters, spies and pickpockets are all experts of one kind or another.

Alignment: any

Hit Points: no increase.

Class Skills: The expert can select any 10 skills to be class skills.

Skill ranks per level: 3 + Int modifier.

Saving throws: 1/3 level.

Base Attack Bonus: +0

Class Features:

The following are class features of the expert NPC class.

Weapon and Armor Proficiency: The expert is proficient with one simple weapon. She is not proficient with any other weapons, nor is she proficient with any type of armor or shield.

Saving Throws: The expert can select one saving throw from Fortitude, Reflex and Will, representing her specialism. This base saving throw progresses at 2 + 1/2 level, rather than 1/3 level.

This expert is considerably weaker than the standard one, which is exactly how it should be. An expert is a specialist in some area of craft, study or skill; they are neither warriors nor polymaths. They don’t need a large number of skills at a high level, except for sages, who should have high Intelligence in any case. The class skill bonus helps them maintain several extra skills at a respectable level without investing lots of skill points.

I have removed the armour and weapon proficiencies, on the grounds that there is no earthly reason for them to have any. Like anyone else, they can take feats or multiclassing to represent any special training, such as military service.

To give some more flexibility to the class, I’ve also allowed the good saving throw to be chosen. I suspect the original idea was that willpower is necessary to gain real expertise in a field; however, my build is intended to cover practical experts as well as academic ones, so that doesn’t necessarily apply.

A blacksmith expert could take Endurance, Skill Focus and Master Craftsman, allowing him to make and repair simple magical equipment. He might well take the bonus hit points from his favoured class to help withstand the heat, and would want a good Fortitude save. A spy might take Persuasive, Deceitful, then move into Deft Hands and other professional areas, depending what sort of agent she is; she’d want a good Reflex save. A professional hunter might take Nimble Moves, Acrobatic Steps and Alertness. A scholar would have a high Int to give plenty of skill points, and would probably tend towards with Skill Focus, perhaps multiclassing a level or two of wizard or cleric to represent particular specialities.


There is really no need for an aristocrat class. They are simply another kind of expert, in having specialist skills. The core rules differentiate the two through giving aristocrats set skills (unnecessary) and proficiencies as a fighter, which is entirely unjustified by their core competencies of “having rich parents” and, um... nothing. Any aristocrat who actually has combat training or military experience can use feats and multiclassing to reflect this - levels of fighter, or even warrior, would do the trick.

Essentially, the aristocrat feels like one of those classes that's over-specific. It seems to represent a vision of an aristocracy that's highly-educated, and has a lot of social graces, but also martial training that goes far beyond self-defence and duelling into the realms of the professional soldier. In practice, I don't think these ever really combined. Military aristocrats, those appointed for wartime exploits or used to the thick of combat, might have heavy armour training and be really good at killing, but are very unlikely to be cultured and erudite. Conversely, those who were highly-educated and versed in etiquette might sit on a horse giving orders, but were unlikely to know how to fight in armour. Regency aristocrats mixed smallsword and pistol training with polite society, running estates and amateur study, but wouldn't generally know how to handle actual warfare. The Renaissance scholar-types didn't fight. The aristocrat can be used to model any one of these types, but in my view gives too broad a set of competencies to all of them.

Warriors and Adepts

The warrior and adept are the most problematic of the classes.

The warrior, representing a professional soldier, can stay mostly unchanged. If we’re getting picky, I would personally remove Heavy Armour and Tower Shield proficiency, as these are specialist pieces of equipment, and have them bought with feats by any warriors who need them. I would probably also restrict their weapon proficiencies to Simple plus one Martial, again buying specialist equipment with feats. After all, what else do they need them for?

Adepts, though... it’s a very specific kind of class, and it’s doing several things. For one thing, it’s merging spell lists so that one class can cover ‘suitable’ spells from divine, primal and arcane magic. For another, it’s limiting spell progression so that you can have spellcasting NPCs that aren’t immensely powerful (though this can also be done by simply reducing their level). Finally, it strips out the complications and powerful secondary attributes of spellcasters: a druid’s companion, a cleric’s undead-turning and a wizard’s plethora of metamagic feats and spells.

Unfortunately, it has a couple of obvious drawbacks. One is that it’s aiming for a very specific hedge-witch niche that isn’t suitable for all settings or NPC roles. Another is that it has all the juicy BAB and hit points that come with levels, and this combines with the slow spellcasting progression to mean that any decently-skilled backwoods mystic can go toe-to-toe with a gang of bandits.

Adept options

The simplest solution is simply to strip out the BAB and hit point aspects of the class. This allows civilian communities to have cunning-men, wise-women and mystics without them becoming badass. They might be able to throw out a spell or two if bandits raid the village, but they’re not much of a threat.

What this doesn’t do is deal with the other types of civilian spellcaster. Not all wizards are going to explore dungeons or be sent to confront rebels, and not all clerics risk life and limb in the front lines. Any world with functioning magic is going to have spellcasters who just make things, who help build civic improvements, who wander in the woods communing with nature, who provide entertainment, and who generally focus on the everyday problems of the ordinary citizen rather than the desperate cases.

A fairly simple (but possibly heretical) solution would be to have either a Civilian template or parallel civilian spellcasting classes. They would have little or no hit point progression (favoured class points alone could represent the occasional dangers of their profession), and no BAB. This restriction applies to familiars and animal companions as well. The whole range of spells and spell levels would be open to them; however, most of their expertise would be spent on the theoretical or everyday spells that are not present in the rulebook, and thus their number of rulebook spells would be significantly restricted (probably to as little as one spell known per level they can cast). A tenth-level research wizard, as found in many large towns, is mostly occupied in highly technical divination spells with no combat application, and funds herself by crafting witchlights and enchanting farming implements. As a result, she only knows half a dozen spells that can be used to reproduce effects in the rulebook, and she’s probably not up to casting many of them in a day – too draining. This model allows you to have NPCs that can do just about anything necessary, without completely overshadowing the PCs. Sure, the town wizard can help track down the bandit lair, but she’s not going to hunt them down for you. The ancient hermit in the remote valley can tell you what’s spooking the wildlife and can calm the wolves, but he can’t have his pet bear eat the bullette, because he doesn’t have one.

I seriously considered disallowing most class features, to avoid some serious problems. A druid’s animal companion is extremely powerful at middle or higher levels, and a sorcerer’s bloodline abilities could give a high-level academic sorcerer abilities well out of sync with expectations. The abilities are too disparate to restrict in any straightforward way: a familiar or the sorcerer’s ray abilities aren’t particularly unbalancing, but an animal companion’s hit dice and BAB have the same problem as anything else, and the dragon sorcerer’s breath ability is dangerous in a way that other bloodline abilities aren’t. However, it’s not actually any more dangerous than equivalent-level spells and DMs ought to be making sensible decisions.

Also bear in mind that characteristic restrictions will severely limit the spellcasting capabilities of most NPCs. They tend to have lower stat arrays and are unlikely to reach much above 5th-level spells in the general way of things.

Are you experienced?

That seems to deal with the combat and skill aspects of the problem. A proficient NPC is now simply good at their job, without becoming a physical threat to the PCs, and can reasonably have high enough skills to overcome likely challenges. But how does an NPC gain these levels, if not through combat?

Well, the simplest option seems to be basing it on time. For simplicity, let’s call for a 100-year career. Obviously, most people won’t reach anything like that (at least most humans), which is just fine. However, someone who does is probably an expert in their job, whatever it may be. So we could simply say that after 100 years, the character is a 20th-level NPC. We can divide the necessary XP by 100, and say that earn that much every year by just plain doing their job. Unfortunately, the learning curve is far too curvy. An NPC would reach 8th level in their second year, 11th in the third year, then slow to an unbearable crawl. It would take seven years to reach 12th level, nine to reach 13th, twelve to reach 14th, twenty to reach 16th, fifty to reach 18th, and a hundred to reach 20th. This means that NPCs would be mostly clustered in mid-levels, but still far above many PCs. Not satisfactory.

Another option would be a bit more complicated. You could rule that NPCs each year gain experience equal to 10x their Intelligence. In the average progression, an average NPC would reach 2nd level after two years on the job, 5th level after fifteen years, and very few would survive to reach 10th level. Naturally, individual NPCs can have their experience adjusted however seems suitable; border-guarding warriors or particularly scheming aristocrats might gain experience at twice that rate. However, it’s functionally impossible to achieve anything above 13th level, even for dwarves and elves.

A third option is to work directly from age. Assume that achieving each level requires a number of years equal to that level. So a new recruit reaches 2nd level after two years, 3rd after five, and 4th after nine. Very few humans would reach 10th level, having to serve for 54 years and being about 70 years old at the time; however, it’s not beyond a dwarf or elf to reach 20th level.

A demographic option could also work here. A very simple rule, which models high mortality to some extent, is halving. About half the population are inexperienced young adults and children of 1st level. Half the remainder are 2nd level, and so on, rounding down each time, until you reach the maximum. This neatly limits level by community size, which is fairly likely if we assume that expertise tends to migrate to cities and that statistically you’re more likely to find an octogenarian in a city than in a hamlet. A small town of 1000 people would have a single 9th-level character, 62 of 4th level, and five hundred of 1st level. In contrast, a thorp of fifty wouldn’t exceed level six. You won’t find a twentieth-level character outside a city of half a million people, or at least a region with that many inhabitants. On this system, we could roughly assume that a world of fifty million people (given that much of it is wasteland and monsters) has about a hundred twentieth-level characters all told, many of whom are high-level peasants, politicians or merchants. This system is much more restrictive than the core rules, but I don’t know that that’s a problem. What this doesn’t do is specify the level of any specific individual.

The Third Way

The thing is, there is an alternative approach that bypasses most of these objections, which is not to faff about giving NPCs anything. It very rarely matters. NPCs without an adventuring or military background are not a physical threat, which is really where the complexity comes in. The important thing is that the average citizen, and even scholars, sages and civilian magic-users, have low HP and BAB. It doesn’t matter whether you assign a nominal 1st level or a nominal 10th level, and there’s no real reason to worry about it.

Thinking fairly logically, someone who devotes their attention entirely to natural history, magical theory, trading or farming is going to be decent at it. They are going to be much better than someone whose attention is split between that and mastering fifty different weapons, or learning ways to set people on fire, or studying the tenets of the gods. There really isn’t a huge problem if the village peasants have a +10 to their Knowledge (Local), or the wizard’s apprentice has 5 ranks in Spellcraft and your wizard only has one. That means they’ll pass slightly more skill checks than you. It’s not a big deal.

Now in some ways a weakness of D&D and its kin is that they don’t model past experience, which means a character whose background says they’ve been a mercenary for years doesn’t have any mechanical reflection of that. However, that’s just something we have to swallow, otherwise things will get massively overcomplicated or over-restrictive.

So my third way suggestion would be something like this. Note that these suggestions only cover generic characters. If you need a specific character with specific traits then just stat them out properly. This is for quick and dirty calculations; and remember, all we’re fundamentally doing is modifying a die roll slightly.

  • Where it actually matters, characters representing soldiers continue to take warrior levels.
  • The plebs have about a +10 total bonus (including ranks, stats and nominal feats) on skills to do with their role, and about a +2 on other things. On average they have about a +2 on saving throws, go down in a single hit (one way or another) and have a +1 attack bonus (including all modifiers).
  • Specialists have a higher bonus on relevant skills, varying with their alleged competence, and a higher appropriate saving throw. They won’t have a better BAB unless they use weapons, and they won’t have more hit points unless they need them. A really expert specialist with access to magic items might well have a +30 or +40 bonus in something, just like any high-level PC with magic items.
  • Spellcasters can cast a small number of spells appropriate to their interests, plus various nominal spells that don’t do anything mechanically. They have a higher Will save.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Close to Home: the problem of familiar surroundings

Another post based on an old YSDC post.

Although my examples are specifically about a school scenario, and based on Call of Cthulhu, I think they're generally applicable to any situation where the players are familiar with their surroundings and the NPCs. It might be a house, a small village, a ship or a military base. These situations seem to threaten a lot of problems for the GM in maintaining the mystery, in keeping investigative control with the players rather than doling out instructions a piece at a time, and in trying to maintain some realism.

At the time, I was working on a now-dormant Call of Cthulhu scenario set in a school. This quickly ran into the point that the characters are intimately familiar with the location and its inhabitants. Of course, there are some areas they don't visit, and any character can have secrets, but player characters and NPCs alike should realistically have a very good knowledge of things around them.

There must be existing scenarios where the action happens somewhere very familiar to the investigators, but I don't know them. Certainly most scenarios assume you aren't previously familiar with plot-relevant locations, but get called to visit them and discover their secrets. In many cases you move between several locations, so even if hooks appear somewhere you know, you'll be led elsewhere. Although investigators may know a certain city, or even a district, they don't tend to know the houses, graveyards, docks or occult bookshops where the plot unfolds. Information about these places is gradually discovered over the course of the scenario, almost always starting from zero.

There are three main consequences of a location being new to the PCs.

Firstly, once they find out it "exists" within the scenario, investigators are very likely to go there. There is a natural progression from total ignorance of the "geography" of the scenario, where the party find out about the places there are to visit and check them out. If you find a clue even hinting at a connection to another location that you've never heard of, you're very likely to go there. This is largely the tacit understanding that if information uncovered in a game (even an investigative game) isn't relevant, it wouldn't be there. It's not always true, or sometimes players and GMs ascribe different importance to a throwaway fact, but there's limited cost to going, so typically you might as well.

Secondly, information can be given out naturally without beating anyone with the Hint stick. Because the investigators are new to the place, they can be assumed to be paying some amount of attention. They don't know what a place is like, so everything they might see will get some attention even if they aren't actively looking for it. What kind of buildings are there? How many people? Is it in good repair? Details that you'd skim over in a familiar place need mentioning, and these may give clues or hint at dangers. You can also include things that seem strange or scary but habitual visitors would get used to, like odd architectural features, strange noises or unusual inhabitants.

Thirdly, characters will actively investigate it, either by research or in person. What's its history? Any new stories, rumours or legends? What does it look like? Who is there? Are there any interesting features? Any treasure? What kind of atmosphere does the place have? These questions are likely to come up naturally, and if the answers are interesting, it's reasonable that they go and investigate more closely.

Familiar locations

I think that a scenario set somewhere the investigators are already intimately familiar with doesn't work quite the same.

For a start, they should already know all the major locations that exist, so it doesn't make sense for them to discover them sequentially during the plot. They start off with a map or something and some blurb. This also means there is no particular incentive for them to go somewhere just because it is mentioned; their characters already know what that place is like, so it makes no sense in character to go and explore it. Lacking that sense of novelty, there's also less out-of-character motivation to do so.

Secondly, giving out meaningful information in a useful way becomes more difficult. Because the investigators aren't exploring the area from scratch, they don't get a little bit of information at once; they basically have to start off with a big pile of information about the area, of which some is plot-relevant and some isn't. Unless you include a huge amount of unnecessary detail (which is hard work and may be annoying), it will be fairly obvious which information is relevant and which isn't, so they will be looking out for links right from the start. This isn't necessarily a problem, but it depends what sort of game you're playing and what the group's tastes are. Many players don't like wading through large amounts of information, even things like general setting and history, so asking them to read up on a scenario location isn't likely to go down well.

If you don't give out an initial infodump, you have a different problem. The investigators are effectively rendered amnesiac, with little idea of what the world around them is like. They may end up wasting a lot of player time traipsing round looking at everything, and finding out about the local culture, rules, residents and so on. They don't know, until they ask, that there was a fire in the chemistry lab last term, which is an important clue to the plot. They don't know of the local tensions between the Baron and the Guild of Miners, which might be behind the crime wave. They have no ambient knowledge of the NPCs, either in terms of their social roles (is there a blacksmith? a forensic accountant? a Martian?) or their personalities. This means that whenever they find any information, you have to basically tell them the clue-value of that information.

Basically, either option means it's quite difficult to do subtlety.

Thirdly, it's less natural to actively investigate things. Why would you go prying around the dormitory you sleep in every night, or exploring the chapel you've been visiting for years? Why would you wonder what the inscription is under the paintings when you pass them every day on the way to lessons? If the Headmaster mentions the name of an old boy in his morning assembly, you've probably heard it at least once a term (few schools have many significant old boys) so why would you be curious about him? Because things are not new, they aren't intriguing. This is a real-life issue: I very rarely go to any tourist attractions where I live: I can go there any time, so I don't go at all, not even once. Since the PC don't want to investigate, it's hard for the players to justify it plausibly, and hard for the GM to provide information in small doses.

Another difficulty with this fixed, known setting is that very little can be hidden, and especially people. In an ordinary scenario, once a suspicious name crops up, that's not enough: you need to track down the person too. They might be hard to find, they might use a pseudonym, or they might run away if they suspect you're coming. However, when you're talking about a fellow pupil at the school, things are a bit different. If your suspicion lights on someone, it's fairly easy to find them, at which point things typically come down to deception or fighting. They can't really disappear without becoming incredibly suspicious, nor can they assume a false identity. You can easily find out where they sleep (or where a teacher's office is) and track their movements. Finding and searching their possessions is relatively simple (though not necessarily easy). This limits the investigative aspects of the game.

Dissonance of Salience

I think these are symptoms of a more general problem I'm going to call Dissonance of Salience (cf. cognitive dissonance). Information that is very salient to the player is not salient in-character, and so it becomes difficult to convey it in a way that's natural and doesn't undermine the game. This problem is most prevalent in terms of investigation, but can also crop up in terms of cultural and behavioural norms: what is a normal interaction between a dwarven cleric and an elven wizard, and how should any discrepancies be interpreted? Baring your teeth is aggressive to Plutonian lizard-people, and the Space Corps know that, but do you best convey to the players that smiling is bad in a way that leads to a better game experience, rather than effectively rendering the point moot ("okay, we don't smile then")? You don't want to dictate to players how they play their characters, but having interesting and consistent patterns of interaction and social relationships help make a setting feel alive. If dwarves and orks are supposed to hate each other, or people treat robots like treasured servants rather than slaves, then you want players to be aware of that, so any departures on their part are intentional and meaningful.

Things like social mores and superstitions are another good example. Major departures by NPCs would obviously attract PC attention (running around naked during a funeral, say), but more subtle breaches that might hint at oddness are harder to convey without beating anyone over the head with the Clue Bat. Again, if you want to aim for verisimilitude, then these kinds of details are important - especially in things like historical settings where there's an objective reality to compare against. A vagrant and a common soldier are not getting a private meeting with the Duchess of Avon and no servants present; they won't even get to leave her a note.

An example

So to stick with my school example: let's say there was a fire in the chemistry lab last term, something that would be known to the whole school.

If you mention this at the start, so that investigators have the appropriate background knowledge, it's obvious that this is linked to the scenario. If you don't mention it until players ask "was there a fire anywhere last term?", you're cheating them of information they would actually have, which makes it unlikely they'll deduce anything useful. If you give them this information when they find a clue, it's a massive nudge-wink; essentially you're handing out a chunk of plot, rather than a clue. This is a Sherlock Holmes technique, where there's no way for them to interpret any clues because you hold back crucial information until you want them to know the answer.

So let's say the investigators find a labcoat lying around, and examine it. "You find a box of matches." Two crucial bits of background knowledge apply: there was a fire in the chemistry lab last term, and pupils are not allowed matches. There isn't necessarily a connection between the two (maybe it's just an illicit smoker, a red herring) but it's a big clue. There are several ways to handle this:

  • You don't mention this background information at all, unless someone asks you. Result: it's very unlikely anyone works this out. Matches are fairly normal items, not intrinsically suspicious, and there's no particular reason to assume they're banned. There's also no particular reason to imagine there's been an arson attack. Players can perfectly well assume that this means "you don't find anything important".
  • You call for a roll. Result: this adds uncertainty in the wrong place, because the real question is whether they work out the connection. If they roll badly, they won't have the information needed to draw the conclusion, which they definitely ought to have. At the same time, you are flagging up that the matches are important clues.
  • You mention at the start of the game that matches are not allowed in school and there was a fire in the chemistry lab last term. Result: players keep a sharp eye out for matches, and for anything at all relating to the chemistry lab. As soon as they find the labcoat, they will assume it is important and draw the obvious conclusion.
  • When they find the matches, you also tell them: "Matches aren't allowed in school. You remember that there was a fire in the chemistry lab last term." Result: this is more than a clue, it's a chunk of plot that limits the players' involvement. If it's correct, they're basically not getting to do much investigating. If it's not, you're dropping massive red herrings.

If you give out only the relevant information at the start, you're highlighting the things they should look out for. If you give out a mixture of real info and red herrings, this might really annoy the players. If you give out a lot of general information and only a little is relevant, then for one thing it might be quite boring to wade through before the game starts, and for another, they might well ask at the end "wait, so after all that, the school pig was completely irrelevant?".

In a similar way, people become a problem. They will know most of the other people in the school, at least by sight. If twenty people pass you on the way to class, and the Keeper says "one of them is Jones", that's a fairly obvious hint that Jones is important. If the Keeper names all of them, that's boring. This makes it difficult to draw someone into the plot without making it obvious that they are a Named NPC.

Any solutions?

I'm not really sure what's the best way to tackle these problems, at least in a concrete way. It will depend on the scenario, and I suspect the timeframe is important. If you have a slow-burning plot, investigators can be gently led around the area and naturally encounter many of the locations. If you start in media res, things will be far more difficult.

My idea was to do an initial briefing with maps available, just so everyone's available of what exists within the school at all, and then to give more description when they were visited. It's going to be fairly obvious which areas get singled out and which are lumped into one shared description, but that's how it goes. I'd also suggest encouraging them to ask questions about the school and its history before the game starts, just to help fix things in people's minds, as well as to visit them during the early stages of the game, so they have a good idea of what the school is like.

People are a lot harder, because you just can't give people a useful sense of multiple characters the way you have in real life, without any actual interaction. The same applies to recent events, which are mostly irrelevant but might contain significant plot points. I'd suggest a similar tack, with an initial overview, and some handouts to help ease the pain. For other information, I'd try to call for Know and Idea rolls whenever it seems there might be a relevant link, and be fairly generous with those.

I'm not really sure what can be done about everyone being trapped. Basically, once you're under suspicion, there's not much you can do about things. This seems to call for a design-level solution, so that simply guessing who might be involved in a situation isn't enough to solve it, and won't put too much of a dent in the NPCs' plans.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Further thoughts on Numenera

Having now listened through some Numenera actual play, I noticed a couple of things that felt worth mentioning as an addendum.

The Roo Sack Gamers used an awful lot more Effort, Cyphers and other modifiers than we tended to, and this lead to a much more variable set of target numbers, as well as changing the balance of fights. While we were quite cagey about Effort, and used it about twice, they took it as a core mechanic pretty much straight away. In some cases this allowed them to crush enemies savagely, but in others it backfired due to poor rolls and/or overEfforting. If you’re expending Effort to adjust your success rate, both in combat and outside it, that effectively causes hit point loss, which means fights that might have been simple otherwise become a lot more challenging. I feel like that somewhat addresses Dan’s issue of the fixed target numbers making things bland, as well as our sense that combat wasn’t very difficult. It doesn't, however, address Arthur's concern that spending Effort always harms you while only occasionally helping.

Arthur also suggested Numenera feels like one of those games that can only really be run as intended by the designer, due to their very idiosyncratic setting. Certainly, I felt that Numenera didn't convey a single strong vision to me and give me a sense of what the world feels like. However, Roy seemed to have got a solid grasp on something, whether or not it was what Monte Cook had in mind, and I found the presentation as convincing as most other fantastical settings tend to be. He was fairly easily able to improvise largish chunks of content without me being able to tell what was planned and what was improvised - in fact, I assumed he might be running or adapting a published adventure, but having asked him, apparently not.

The assaxin problem remains, and the subtractive armour system looks like it is going to throw up occasional issues. In the RSG campaign, there was one fight where a character completely shrugged off all his hits because of heavy armour. Very bad defence rolls can still increase the damage to break through armour, and one option would certainly be for the GM to adapt by having intelligent enemies switch to other tactics when they realise armour’s too thick – trying to knock down or disarm a PC, for example, or grapple them and expose the PC’s weak points to another enemy. I suspect the main issue is going to be, as with the diablodon, when PCs find themselves unable to inflict damage on enemies. With light weapons doing only 2 damage, it’s relatively easy (as far as I can tell) for a non-Glaive PC to find themselves needing a 17+ to get bonus damage in order to inflict any injury at all. Again, perhaps at this point they need to start playing cunningly and finding other ways to defeat enemies, but it could easily get just plain annoying, at least if the combat is hard to avoid. There's only so many combats based around setting up indirect tactics you want at a time.

Monitors: traiting once more

Cf. this post and this earlier post it refers to. See also my recent change of heart on dicepools.

Attributes and Traits


Attributes represent very broad areas of competence, without any specific training for a task. Characters each have the following attributes:

  • Physical: how good the character is at doing things with their body.
  • Wits: how good the character is at doing things with their mind.
  • Social: how good the character is at interacting with other people.
  • Awareness: how much the character is aware of the world around them, and how much detail they notice.
  • Resilience: how strong, fit and healthy the character is.

Attributes are on a numeric scale that tends to be in the 2-5 range for Monitors and potentially anywhere for bizarre alien beasties with super-senses. Hostile NPCs will have attributes appropriate to their nature: low for petty criminals, moderate for guards and mercenaries, high for henchmen and major foes. Note that even civilians may have high specific attributes if it seems appropriate - a brawny lumberjack gym fanatic can reasonably have Physical 5.

I'm not yet sure about Resilience. I could use Physical to test endurance instead. I'm considering making it a more general resisty kind of attribute, including willpower and cool-headedness, but then you'd have one catch-all resistance attribute that it might be daft not to pump.


Characters also choose a number of traits. These include lineage traits, background traits, and professional traits that describe specific areas of training or study.

My feeling is that each of these are qualitatively different and could interestingly be modelled in different ways. Let's see if this can be done without over-complicating things.


As discussed last time, I think it's appropriate for training in a specific area to just grant one automatic success. This offers a way to ensure success at simple tasks, while maintaining a curve of difficulty without sharp jumps. It makes trained characters more likely to succeed on all relevant tasks, and also increases the upper limit of their capabilities, while making it hard to fail badly. In a game of competent characters, this feels about right to me.

I'm not sure if I want to define an exact list of training, or just offer suggestions to try and keep it roughly balanced. My instinct is that suitable skills might include: The Occult, Firearms, Finance/Accounting, Physics, Covert Ops, Nature, Crime*, Art, Medicine, Engineering, Archaeology, Martial Arts, Computing, Performing Arts, Fine Arts, and so on. Crime may need renaming - I don't want to give a bonus on everything that can be considered crime-like, but this skill might help you spot suspicious activity, recognise criminals, read a crime scene, talk to underworld characters, and have a bash at breaking and entering. Ideally, I'd like training to be applicable to all the attributes - another reason to question Resilience.


Backgrounds represent what you were doing before becoming a Monitor. You were definitely doing something, because this ain't the House of Commons - you won't get in unless you impress the agency with what you can do, and that means a bit of time in other jobs first.

A background can grant you a bonus die whenever it seems like knowledge, contacts or specialist experience earned from your time would come into play. Importantly, backgrounds do not overlap with training or with attributes. Your attributes are fixed and should be chosen to reflect your character - your ex-lumberjack doesn't grow extra muscles when you're dealing with lumberjack-related issues. Training overrides background, so if you reckon your time in the military gave you Firearms training, that's what that training means; you don't get two bonuses for it. Conversely, you aren't automatically better at the sort of activities you do in a given job, because professional skills should be modelled with training - you don't get a bonus to shoot people for having been in the military, you need to take the skill.

What background is supposed to do is make you better at handling the sort of situations and people your previous roles entailed, because you're more familiar with them. The professor knows how to deal with academics, can navigate universities and quickly riffle through academic paperwork. The ex-cop knows the codes and slang, talks the talk, knows what to talk about (and what not to talk about), gauges what rules can be bent in her favour, predicts procedures and knows who's who. The lawyer knows rules, has contacts everywhere from courthouse to solitary confinement, is good at navigating legal boundaries, sending official-looking letters, and wringing information out of other lawyers. The field researcher is used to wilderness travel, field repairs, spotting natural hazards and being chased up trees.

I'll probably offer a listed of suggested backgrounds, which might include: Law Enforcement, Academia, Armed Forces, Business, Medicine, Public Service, The Arts, Intelligence, Explorer/Field Researcher. Players are encouraged to be a bit more specific about the kind of things they've done to help flesh out the character. Do I want characters able to take more than one? Not sure yet. Background doesn't necessarily cover everything you did, just one significant aspect of your history that offers you useful insights.


I think at the moment species are perhaps too specifically defined. Instead, I might just suggest you pick one major and two minor lineage traits that are particularly important to your character, and these grant you benefits. Other traits aren’t necessarily absent, they just aren’t game-mechanically relevant. I do want to try and ensure that these traits feel significant.

Lineage traits may grant a special ability, or a bonus die when applicable. A neutral trait has drawbacks as well as benefits, and one neutral trait may be taken in addition to other traits.

Major Traits

  • Fast (+1 die)
  • Powerful (+1 die)
  • Ferocious (+1 die)
  • Carapace (Armour 5)
  • Bite Toxin (Slow 1d6)
  • Ballistic tongue (Close range, can pick up small objects, can inflict Pinning on enemies)
  • Sturdy (+1 Wound)

Minor Traits

  • Keen Scent (+1 die)
  • Chameleonic Skin (+1 die when skin visible)
  • Toe Pad Grip (+1 die to climbing and gripping when pads uncovered)
  • Shed Tail (escape a difficult situation by shedding tail; regenerates in 1 week with medical care or 1 month without; inflicts lingering injury)
  • Regeneration 1*
  • Heat Sensitive (at short range or closer, see temperatures like colours)
  • Secondary Eyelids (Visor 8)
  • Scaly Hide (Armour 8)
  • Powerful Leap (+1 die)
  • Water Running (run on liquid or fragile surfaces with Physical roll; weight limit; fall if stop running)

Neutral Traits

  • Toxic Hide (Blind 1d4 or Slow 1d4, contact)
  • Amphibious (breathe underwater and trained in Swimming; -1 die to resist dehydration or contact toxins due to permeable skin)

* Regeneration speeds up recovery from lingering injuries. It doesn't affect short-term injury.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Across Phrentis VI with Bike and Boltgun: 02

Chapter 2: Ulverthwaite East

After a night of anxiety, prayer and assiduous brushing-up of doctrine, Jettan had felt it necessary to say a few words to the troops. Rousing words were not really his field, which lay more in good sense and resourceful application of approved methods, but no commander wishes to be embarrassed in front of the incarnate death-angels of the Emperor. At this moment, he wished heartily that at least one of the Commissars had survived. He was pale and hollow-eyed, but since this had been his habitual guise for the past month, any slight difference in quality passed unnoticed by his equally haggard troops. Only a handful of guards remained at their posts; the rest were gathered in the common room.

"A few hours come, Ulverthwaite East will be blessed with the presence of five warriors of the Scarlet Hounds. I munnet hardly remind you what an occasion it is."

The crowd shifted with pent-up tension, like a crowd of sheep awaiting the shearing.

"Now, chance we're all fetching to make a good impression, but I know some of you" - with an approving glance at Mocks - " are more well-up on doctrine than how others are. So remember, the holy angels of the Emperor, bless His glorious mercy, aren't some plum-boys on an inspection tour. Certainly you mun be respectful. And if any of them is gracious enough to give you an order, you jump to it like a herd of darvaks was after you! But the point is, first and foremost, they're soldiers. They'll care a sight less for a lick of paint or a salute here and there, than a garrison as knows how to serve the Emperor."

He hoped, devoutly, that his understanding of Imperial protocol was accurate.

"So, we mun have every weapon fit to fire, supplies in good order, no mess to get in the way chance there's trouble. And to top all that, we mun all be on form. We may not have much to show off in Ulverthwaite East, but we've held this place for three months for all that. Let the holy Astartes see that orks or no orks, Phrentis folks know our duty."

There was a slightly awkward silence until the troops realised he'd finished, followed by a scattered chorus of "aye, sir". Astartes or no Astartes, there was simply no energy for great shows of enthusiasm; besides, it wasn't in the Phrentine character to cheer. The faces around the room looked faintly less resigned than had been their wont, but there were still less than a dozen who'd managed a good night's sleep. Much to her surprise, Lillit was one of the lucky ones. Somehow, the news of the Emperor's impending mercy had driven away the cloying weariness and dread of months, and left behind only honest exhaustion; she hadn't even stirred until the klaxon sounded.

They left the hall and bustled off to their various tasks. Mocks was buttonholed by the Lieutenant for a hasty conference on the facilities needed for their honoured guests. Even dehydrated pottage was rationed these days, and the prospect of offering such fare to the holy warriors had tormented Jettan since a doubt crept into his mind in the small hours. He nearly wept with relief on confirming that they were unlikely to expect slap-up meals.

As the sun drew near its peak, and the meagre shadows of early spring grew fat and shy, the inhabitants of Ulverthwaite East grew restless. Vital though their assignments to kitchen, watchtower or repair team might be, they found their attention patchy, their minds drifting from half-peeled swede or shell-mangled wall to the visitors they would shortly receive. Had a commissar been present, they might well have quailed at the sheer number of infractions in need of discipline; mercifully, none had survived the early battles. Lieutenant Jettan fought manfully to keep the troops' shoulders to their various wheels, but even he was somewhat distracted by how to receive such eminent visitors. A number of fresh facial nicks demonstrated the drawbacks of what was termed "field-barbery", the supply of decent razors having long since given out, but he was far from the only one to have made a valiant effort to smarten up. Even Ulverthwaite East itself seemed to have straightened its back. It might be a humble, even downright disreputable fortress, but rarely had its inhabitants looked more stalwart, its armaments better-maintained, or the piles of charred ork skeletons on the perimeter more heartening. Tattered uniforms were hastily patched and darned with whatever could be found, leaving several troopers sporting a daring mix of urban camo-chic and gingham pillowcase that would have had judges swooning in any uphive catwalk show.

Despite the obvious drawbacks, a few of the less exhausted militia couldn't help thinking that another orkish assault would be perfectly-timed. It would, after all, be highly gratifying to have the blessed Astartes descend wrathfully from the heavens to see them honourably fending off the hated xenos. Thankfully, the local orks refrained from any such activity. As it happens, they had been distracted from the invasion by a personal quarrel that could only be resolved through a reckless and violent race through the ruins of the town they were occupying, followed by a massive brawl over the disputed outcome; but the defenders of Ulverthwaite knew nothing of that.

Inch by tantalising inch, the sun crept unwillingly towards the summit of the sky. At last, Jettan had the klaxon sounded to muster the troops in the yard. Though he didn't think the Astartes would demand a grand welcome, it was obvious that anyone sent to their bunks or common room would only sulk and stare out of the windows. Apart from those left to man the artillery and watchtowers, they formed up and gazed towards the skies. For several minutes they shifted and muttered excitedly, Jettan making no attempt to maintain discipline, before the radio crackled into life. Silence fell as the troops all strained their ears to catch the message.

"Ineluctable hailing Ulverthwaite East. Launch successful, old chap. Expect impact in, oh, call it five minutes. Ave Imperator!"

The next five minutes were, despite strong contention from a recent ork assault and several spectacularly embarrassing personal memories, the longest in anyone's recollection. Suddenly, a black dot dropped into view over to the south, and then came a flare of light and a rumble. Every eye on the base turned to watch. The dot slowed discernably, but was still travelling at alarming speed when it vanished behind a hill. Drop pods could fail, couldn't they? A minute or two passed before anyone remembered to breathe.

"Should we... investigate, sir?"

"No, no," said Jettan, still riding the wave of optimism that had emerged last night. It was a little alarming, but the prospect of someone else taking responsibility for things had lifted a great weight from his shoulders, and he hadn't quite recovered from the shock. "The Astartes have obviously decided on a better landing-spot."

Moments later, there was the distant roar of engines. For a moment images of smoke-belching wartrucks flashed before their eyes, but this was not the unhealthy spluttering of ork technology; it was the hearty rumble of Imperial craftsmanship. Shapes appeared over the ridge of the hill, sillhouetted for just an instant, then vanished again. The roaring grew louder, the troops straightened themselves up in unconscious anticipation, and then a cluster of scarlet shapes burst from a copse and tore up the hillside towards Ulverthwaite East. Sadly, with the gates firmly shut, only the sentries on the wall - a group inexplicably more numerous today - could observe the masterful display of bikemanship and coordination put on by the Scarlet Hounds. Even with Imperial allies so close, they left nothing to chance; any hypothetical ork ambush would have met with instant retribution.

As they entered the final stretch, Hawksworth activated his comm-link.

"Scarlet Hounds to Ulverthwaite East, shake a leg and open those gates," he called. He watched approvingly as the gates began to swing open almost immediately - though barely wide enough to admit two bikes abreast. The planetary defence force were taking no chances, just as they shouldn't. Plenty of sentries on the wall too, and giving them a thorough inspection as they approached.

"I say, they seem like a keen bunch, what?" commented Ffaulkes. "Orks ain't precisely known for impersonation."

Barnabas raised an eyebrow. "And that, young Ffaulkes, is probably why Ulverthwaite East has been holding out behind enemy lines for the past few weeks."

Switching smoothly into single file, they swept through the gates of the base and drew to a halt in the courtyard, before the rapturous gaze of the garrison. Behind them, two loping mechanical hounds slowed and gazed around with gleaming eyes. Other than the rumble of engines, there was silence. The militia stared enthralled at the armoured giants who had appeared before them, resplendent in hunting-scarlet and cream. The avenging angels of the Emperor, in person; and moreover, the first friendly faces they had seen in months. Tarquin saw a few lips move as troopers made the sign of the Aquila. After a long pause - long enough to slightly diminish Hawksworth's earlier approval - the gates began to close behind them, as the ranking officer stepped forward. He gave a salute that echoed across the courtyard, and called "Ave Imperator! L-Lieutenant Jettan, acting commander Ulverthwaite East. You honour us with your presence, sirs."

The troopers behind him saluted likewise. The keen eyes of the Scarlet Hounds noted the weariness, the patched uniforms, the repaired weapons. On the whole, not a bad showing.

Hawksworth reached up and unclamped his helmet. The troopers made no effort to hide their stares. They saw an unexpectedly ordinary face: mildly cheerful, keen-eyed, reassuring. "Quite," he replied. "All right, you fellows. No need to stand on ceremony. Brother-Sergeant Hawksworth, Scarlet Hounds. Heard you were having a spot of trouble with some orks."

"Ah... yes, sir. Been cut off for weeks, sir."

"Well, we'll have to see what we can do about that. We have some gen from the Chapter, but I'd like to hear what you can tell us before we make too many plans. Mind if we take a look around the base first to get the lie of the land?"

It wasn't really a question, since there was roughly as much chance of Jettan refusing as there was of him sprouting wings, but Hawksworth projected an air of efficient politeness that made the lieutenant feel he was being treated as, if not anything like an equal, at least someone whose opinion was potentially relevant. Considering some of the superior officers he had experienced, not one of whom had been the sons of the Most Holy Emperor of Mankind, this condescension seemed frankly remarkable.

"Right away, sir." Recovering himself a little, Jettan gave the order to stand down. Reluctantly, the militia dispersed back to ordinary duties, although many of those duties happened to involve areas through which the Astartes would inevitably pass. The lieutenant, being no fool, had a pretty good idea this was happening, but frankly the troops had had vanishingly few pleasures in recent weeks, and he was no man to deny them the thrill of observing the Emperor's finest.

In the meantime, the other marines had also de-helmeted, taking the rare chance of fresh air with minimal risk. Before beginning their tour, they took a moment to spin their bikes to face the gate. A few precious seconds could make all the difference in case of a sudden ork raid.

"Fidelis, Valerian - guard," ordered Hawksworth. The hounds obediently assumed watching positions around the bikes, servos whirring as they scanned for signs of trouble. "Ah, Lieutenant, better warn your chaps not to get within ten yards or so."

With a glance at the razor jaws of the hounds, Jettan agreed.

"Now, let's take a stroll, eh?" said Jasper, always keen to be on the move. "Like what you've done with the skeletons, by the way. Put a bit of fear into the bally xenos, that's the way."

Ffaulkes raised an eyebrow. "Orks ain't precisely known for good sense, old chap."

"Well, it certainly can't hurt," judged Hawksworth. "They've no honour, as the doctrine says, so it won't fire them up. Besides, a bit of a tally is good for morale."

The base, as the marines judged it, was not a bad little place. It had held up surprisingly well to shelling and mass onslaughts, though the walls were crudely patched in several places, and in those they found small groups of troopers carefully checking and reinforcing their work. They paused and stood respectfully as the Hounds passed, answering a few questions with commendable promptness and excusable awe.

"I say, I like how they've rebuilt around that ork machine," enthused Tarquin. The ruined shell of a portly walker had been welded into the outer wall, its armoured frame filling the gap that had been torn by heavy cannon. Girders and rubble had been carefully added and infilled with rockcrete to seal the breach, giving rise to a sort of industrial tapestry effect.

"Machine?" prompted Barnabas.

The younger Hound flashed a smile. "Killa Kan, class twelve articulated light assault engine. Honestly, Barnabas, must you play the librarian?"

"Learning is good for the soul, young'un," said Ffaulkes. "Besides, a bit of specificity don't hurt. Good habit to get into."

"True enough," agreed Hawksworth. "When one’s pushing into hostile territory, there's a world of difference between four wartrukks, four killa kans and four zzap guns. But let's not tease the lad."

Most of the watchpoints were still intact, with crews ready to swing heavy mortars and autocannon into action at a moment's notice. Two had been reduced to useless rubble, and makeshift towers of girder and crate assembled to compensate. Elegance had very clearly not been the first thought in anyone's mind; they resembled something that a clumsy but enthusiastic child might construct on a rainy afternoon, but when Ffaulkes gave one a tentative shove it didn't budge. The weary crews turned to salute as the marines passed.

"Alright, eyes on the horizon, chaps," said Hawksworth quietly. They turned hastily back to their viewports. "All quiet?"

"Aye, sir! Nary a wink on 'em, sir."

"Glad to hear it." The group strode on. The bridging-Chimera was briefly inspected, and the lamentably-depleted armoury. Superhuman eyes noted approvingly that debris, corpses and ammo casings alike had been removed, leaving no obstacles upon which a hasty foot might slip. Even the shell-holes in the yards had been crudely patched to keep it level. Rubble from destroyed structures had been scavenged for barricades and bracing materials. Jettan, giddy with proximity to sacred power, waxed lyrical on the attacks they had repelled and the orders in place, and met with approval. Sharp ears and tactically-minded brains drank it in, missing nothing. A few minor improvements were recommended, and subordinates immediately dashed to and fro to obey. They paused to inspect a bayonet drill in the rear courtyard, and tactfully refrained from discussing the likely effectiveness of bayonets against a screaming horde of orks; all things considered, the troopers were really giving a thoroughly respectable performance, no doubt aided by the authentic orkish weaponry and clothing they had added to their training dummies.

Satisfied with their inspection of the defences, the Scarlet Hounds headed into the keep itself. It was a remarkable coincidence, observed Barnabas with an inward smile, that so many of the inhabitants had floors to sweep, messages to deliver, and other errands that brought them into the hallways at this time.

“The armoury is getting close to the bone, sir,” said Jettan, with the regretful note of a butler obliged to inform the household that supplies of canary are running low. “I reckon we can hold out another sennight or two on what’s here, if the greenskins don’t let up. It’s frags as are getting scarce, mostly.”

“Yes, they would be, with orks. I can see we shall have to buckle down to getting those supply routes restored, and the tooter the sweeter.” The amount of ammunition that had been expended was mute testament to the garrison’s tenacity. All in all, a pretty stalwart little band, thought Hawksworth. The marines followed Jettan into the briefing room to get the latest information and plan their operations.

Ulverthwaite East stood atop a rugged hill, looking out over the plains. A river curved round to the west, its foaming waters and steep banks guarding the base from that quarter. Several smaller hills nearby held the shattered remains of outposts and bunkers, broken by the relentless ork assaults. After the death of Captain Barnes, Jettan had pulled all the survivors back to the main base to concentrate their strength. Small groups of orks regularly prowled the ruins, spying on the base or seeking loot. Sallies kept their numbers down, but there was no way to retake the area.

Below the base, rolling fields spread out to the distant horizon, broken only by patches of woodland and occasional hills. Until the orks came, it had been a very picture of pastoral bliss: gene-spliced crops rippling in the breeze, vast agricultivators sputtering across the landscape, and the homely scent of promethium smoke from the processing plants drifting on the breeze. The sort of world the Imperial Guard dreamt of retiring to once their decades of service were over, to raise pigs and smoke pipes on a rocking-chair overlooking the fields. Now whole swathes of the crops were flattened by vehicles or shredded by shellfire, and fumes belched from ork camps in the ruins of agricultural buildings. It brought a tear to the Imperial eye, and a sense of nausea to the loyal stomach.

“Whereabouts are the orks concentrated, Jettan?” asked Hawksworth, casting a gimlet eye over the huge map spread over the briefing table. “As you’ve been running patrols, you must have a pretty good idea. Our briefing on the Ineluctable was short on detail.”

“Well, honoured sirs, seems as how there’s a few clusters. A fair number have been bivvying in yon generator station.” He tapped the map where an industrial-looking compound stood, a few miles distant. “Happen they’re looting the place. Over west they’re roving all about on vehicles, and we’ve not been able to get far enough to find the fuelling station. Most like it’s near Machine Tractor Station 366, or maybe Airfield Scarwick over yonder – there’s hangers and fuel tanks at the both of them.”

“You could get a good look from this peak, surely?” said Ffaulkes, pointing at a tall drumlin towards the two sites.

Jettan winced, but recovered quickly. “Aye, sir. We made a few ventures out that way, but it’s flat ground and sparse too. Swimming the tarn here cuts the distance, but it’s a deathtrap if owt gets a sight on you, and they race all over the plain most nights. Cut it which way you choose, the orks have all the cards.”

“No luck, then?”

“Lost thirty-four in three sallies, sir.” He looked grim. “But of course, sir, if you’d have us try again-“

“I see. No, the lives of the Emperor’s servants are not to be thrown away. We’ll think of something.”

Tarquin was bent over the map, reading the contours. Once a Scout, always a Scout.

“I say, brothers, what do you think of this?” His fingers traced a long, arcing route around through thickets, curving eventually back towards the hill. “Fifty miles. Too far for a foot patrol, but the bikes could do it in an hour or so, and plenty of cover on the way.”

“Promising,” declared Ffaulkes, flipping down his monocular to magnify the details.

Jasper twirled his moustache, thoughtfully. “Bally good thought. Mind, in that sort of turf there’s better than even odds of running slap into some greenskins, which ain’t precisely Codex.”

Barnabas nodded. “True, brother Jasper, but we have the advantage, do we not, of both speed and surprise? They will not be expecting the Astartes.”

“Besides, it’d be a damned shame for Erudition to stay clean all mission!” grinned Jasper.

“Know anything about this terrain, Lieutenant?” asked Hawksworth.

Jettan nodded politely. “Aye, sirs. Rough scrub for the most part, but nice firm ground. Farmers leave scrub round the fields so’s the nattergobs have somewhere to nest. They keep pests down and seed the crops nicely. Eh, but that’s by the by. Some of our troops were for trying that road, only there’s Howett Bluff right across, sithee.”

He placed a gaunt finger on the map where contour lines converged like riders closing on a fox, lazy slopes transforming into a sheer drop some hundred feet high. The cliff cut right across Tarquin’s route a little way from the goal, stretching well into the open plain to either side.

“With ropes a patrol might be down quite smartly, but by my reckoning it’d be nigh on two hours on the road back. With orks on their tails, most like, I didn’t think it work the risk. Besides, we’d be short-handed for four days or thereabouts, and no way to know if they’d be back at all.”

Hawksworth nodded. “I’m inclined to agree. However, the Scarlet Hounds and the Imperium’s finest power armour shouldn’t find it too challenging a climb, don’t you chaps think?”


“Scarcely worth troubling about.”

He nodded. “Very well. In that case, we’ll set out on a reconnaissance sortie at dusk, to limit the chance of long-range sightings. We’ll leave the bikes at, ah, Howett Bluff, with the hounds to guard them, and proceed on foot. Tarquin, plan the route and a couple of reserves in case of surprises – let’s see what they taught you in the Scouts. Ffaulkes, look over the sentry posts and batteries. Barnabas, I imagine you’ll be in the infirmary?”

The apothecary inclined his head. “A little outside my field, but tending the Emperor’s troops is a worthy duty.”

“Indeed, and good for morale. Jasper, close-quarters drill with me until None – these are orks, after all. Lieutenant, I suggest you get some rest. Consider yourself off-duty until we’re ready to depart. You look fit to drop. In fact, give a general order – anyone short on sleep is to retire immediately. Just keep the walls and artillery crewed. Ulverthwaite East is safe enough for now.”

They signed the Aquila and marched out, leaving the exhausted Jettan to relay their orders. Always mindful of responsibility, he ushered several dozen gratified troops into their barracks before returning to his own quarters, where he sat down to remove his boots and promptly sank into the heady, unshakable sleep of utter exhaustion. As the sun began its long, ponderous descent to the horizon, the soft murmur of lieutenantly snores rose from an open window and drifted away on the breeze.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Monitors: advancement

Something I don't think I've mentioned so far in Monitors is a character advancement scheme. This is for the very good reason that I wasn't at all sure I wanted one. I know it's traditional; at the same time, that tradition means including advancement in systems where honestly it doesn't necessarily make sense or add much.

For example, while I do enjoy getting (or, more often, listening to the YSDC lot getting) and rolling ticks in Call of Cthulhu, logically speaking it's often hard to explain why a character of 50+ has suddenly boosted the experiences of a lifetime by spending two days examining a haunted house. Hellcats and Hockeysticks includes an advancement mechanism that I like, but doesn't really need one at all - it seems very one-shot to me, and I'm also not sure what benefit to the game is supposed to accrue from advancement.

Games that benefit from advancement tend to be those featuring a clear progression, where you're fighting goblins with rusty knives at the start, and dragons at the end. The advancement creates a sense that you're moving from a puny weakling to a powerful warrior. Monitors is intended to be more of an iconic game, where you create a character more or less as you want them to be and they stay that way. In addition, I'm not particularly planning to have enormous disparities in the power of enemies. Oh, and the idea for equipment is that basically all weapons are more or less balanced against each other in various ways. So... traditional statline advancement isn't seeming like a great bet.

However! It occurred to me that, since this is very much an organisation-based game, it might be interesting to implement an organisational advancement system.

Climbing the Ladder

The idea I'm toying with is that you can (slowly) accumulate respect or prestige within the organisation itself. This might come in the form of promotion (which gives you additional authority), or a trusted reputation (which tends to get people onside). Reputation might spread outside, so that civilians or enemies who do some homework on you also know you're a force to be reckoned with.

What I'd probably do is simply have each point of, oh, Seniority and/or Reputation represent a die you can call in when you try to use those things in your favour. Each gets one use per mission, and they can only be used when it makes sense for those to provide an advantage. They might help you acquire resources, manipulate NPCs, get away with stuff or call in favours.

In theory, this would offer a way for characters to develop mechanically over time and produce a slight shift in the play experience, without having to buy into the idea that characters develop great expertise over the course of a short mission. It would avoid the PC/NPC discrepancies that can creep in with some advancement systems, where because PCs acquire new skills rapidly, they can end up better at everything than NPCs who've devoted decades to their profession.

It's also possible that these advances could create new complications for the PCs. Additional seniority gives you more strings to pull, but also gives you more responsibility; infractions of protocol are more serious, failures are more prominent, and you're more likely to be caught up in internal or external politics. A reputation might grease the wheels or give adversaries pause, but it might also inspire resentment, attract unwanted attention, or cause an enemy to throw the kitchen sink at you. This idea feels like something for a group to decide, rather than a hard mechanical system, and to be implemented with plot developments or NPC attitudes rather than numbers. That being said, I could possibly see the GM having a pool of dice equivalent to the party's rep/seniority that can be used (once apiece) whenever it might hinder them.


You'll notice this doesn't in any way offer the chance to improve skills. Indeed, no. However, it's not unreasonable for there to be some kind of skill variation between newbie Monitors and seasoned veterans.

It seems to me the best way to offer this, in a fairly simple system, would be to just offer three or four tiers of expertise, representing probably a decade of service apiece. When they feel it's time - or if they just want to run a game with more experienced characters - the group can agree to move to a new tier. Higher tiers would offer a slight increase in training, and additional extras like spells, enhancements or weird artifacts. At high tiers, and with increasing Seniority, characters might have a trainee in tow, or even be leading a group of Monitors each, rather than working together on a mission - although that would always be a possibility. Attributes would not change, and it could also be fun to offer some kind of battle-scars or mission history system, especially for people jumping into high tiers rather than working their way there. But that's some serious horse-carting there.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Special Collections: Bemerkungen über die (Un)Logische Grundlagen der Menschenphysik

I've just stuck up the second of this sporadic series on my YSDC blog, discussing some slightly unusual tomes. This one deals with manuscripts - drafts of books that may or may not have made it into print. You can read it here.

Friday, 4 April 2014


There are some pretty substantial differences between CRPG and PNP experiences, and because Shannon brought it up in passing, I wanted to have a quick think about them.

Time sinks

One pretty major discrepancy is how you spend time. The time taken for particular activities differs enormously because of differences in the media and their capabilities, most notably because one is a brilliant calculating engine and the other a brilliant language parser.

Here are some major contributors to time spent in CRPGs:

  • Revealing the map and establishing what exists
  • Walking from one place to another
  • Killing monsters
  • Looting
  • Transporting loot to shops
  • Finding a place where you are game-mechanically permitted to rest
  • Working out what you need to do to continue with the game

Here are some major contributors to time spent in PNP:

  • Searching rooms
  • Questioning NPCs
  • Arguing over tactics
  • Killing monsters
  • Checking rules queries
  • Finding a safe place to rest
  • Working out what you want to do

In a CRPG, you have to find out what's on the map by physically clicking around it, waiting for your character to move, looking at the things revealed, and deducing what you can about them. Interactible Object buttons may come into play. In a town, you frequently have to physically enter a building and talk to its inhabitants to find out anything about it. Because in CRPGs there's a general sense that whatever you encounter must be playable content of some kind, there's an urge to explore everything, go everywhere, and leave no stone unturned. You also can't entirely rely on the game being robust enough for you to continue if you've missed some content; journals are often inadequate, and there's very little way to get information about what you need to do to continue. Because all you can do is what the game permits, and progress is dependent on various flags being set by your actions, it's entirely possible to just get stuck. Games aren't yet clever enough to give hints, so if you missed one dialogue option with one NPC in a shack hidden under the trees a dozen areas ago, and as a result the rebel messenger isn't spawning to trigger the cutscene that begins the next phase of the game, there is no way for you to know. This encourages exhaustive searching. Also, of course, it's a pain to go back to an area you've visited already.

In a PNP game, none of this is a problem. The GM can sum up a town in a couple of sentences, taking seconds. You don't have to look the whole place over, but if you do, it takes very little time OOC. You can explain what you're interested in and just be told about the relevant stuff. You assume that most of a town is not relevant, just a bunch of houses, and there's no urge to wander into random homes. Because there's no reason to exhaustively search a town, and you're well aware that the GM is there to keep things ticking over, there's no concern about being unable to keep playing - the GM can drop hints, adjust NPC behaviour, change the adventure thread, and generally tinker about to ensure that the game isn't held up by a slight oversight on your part. They're also a better reminder system than a generic journal.

Assuming a D&D-like game, combat may take a similar amount of time in CRPG and PNP, although it depends rather on the edition used. However, the breakdown of that time differs enormously. In most CRPGs, the combat time is spend watching the results of battle against large numbers of monsters, while intervening to pick spells, heal, change targets and otherwise guide the battle - the actual resolution of actions is instant. In PNP, combats are generally against much smaller numbers of enemies for the same amount of adventure, and the bulk of the time is spent choosing and resolving actions. In a single area of Icewind Dale, you might easily battle twenty yeti and fifty shadows at 5th level; the PNP equivalent would be a mere handful. This is partly down to the computer's far greater calculating ability, but also because in PNP fighting the same enemies constantly gets boring very quickly and fighting is slow, so fights are occasional and different. In contrast, in CRPGs fights are pretty quick and they're the thing the game can do very well, whereas they're weak in other areas, so lots of fights are par for the course.

Travel in CRPGs breaks down into two types. There's movement around areas, which involves clicking where you want to go and then waiting until your character lumbers over there. Of course, if you haven't explored the area yet it's impossible, as you can only see about twenty yards in the typical game, even though real-life vision lets you see people moving about half a mile away, so you painstakingly move fraction by fraction. But in explored areas, you can usually just click, and then hope the pathfinding is halfway sensible. It's wise to keep an eye out, though, because a PC can easily stumble into a fight along the way and the party generally makes no attempt to stick together.

The other kind of CRPG travel is where you bampf instantaneously to another city, possibly with a random encounter along the way.

In PNP, all travel takes the same amount of time, which is however long the conversation takes. You can see as far as seems reasonable, and your pathfinding is entirely IC. If any trouble breaks out, there's zero risk of your PC being killed because you simply didn't notice (although traps, ambushes and so on are of course possible).

CRPG looting typically means individually selecting and clicking on enemies, manually choosing which items to transfer to inventories, juggling inventory space, and mousing over rooms to see what might be nickable. PNP looting typically means asking the GM what's valuable and then saying you take it, handling the whole looting phase as a single event. However, there's more scope than in CRPGs for actively searching rooms or taking unexpectedly useful mundane items.

Enough of that

I don't think there's much need to go over absolutely everything here... basically the point is that in a CRPG, you're reliant on going through the system provided by the programmers for accomplishing X, but that system calculates everything for you. In a PNP game, you can cut to the chase and specify to the GM exactly what you're after, ask direct questions, and handwave anything the group don't care about, but you have to do your own resolution.


The other major category of difference is how interaction works.

In a CRPG, all possible interaction must be programmed in by the designers. There are two main types, emergent interaction and unique interaction. For example, a programmer can set up rules for faction membership, alignment, attitude to PCs, courage and martial skill; these can then determine how all NPCs react in a variety of encounters with the PCs and with each other. This is emergent. NPCs may attack one another, raise prices for PCs they dislike, respond with hostility to aggressive behaviour, run away from armed enemies, and so on, without needing all this behaviour to be individually and specifically programmed. Of course, sometimes this results in nonsensical behaviour, but such is programming. Similarly, dropped items can be picked up and sold, doors can be opened, locks picked, and so on.

Although to be honest, in a lot of CRPGs the number of doors you can actually lockpick is so tiny as to make the skill pointless. It's plot doors all the way down. This is something else that's much harder to get away with as a GM, and rightfully so.

Unique interactions are specifically designed. That pile of rubble actually contains a buried chest. This candlestick can be moved. This NPC has a complex dialogue tree to negotiate. These open up all kinds of new possibilities, but require an awful lot of individual work and testing to ensure they work as intended. Often, they still don't. Plot flags are a regular sticking point here, since often you simply can't get the dialogue options you want, even though your character is well aware of a topic and the NPC's relevance, because the flag is tied to one line of dialogue with some other NPC, or to holding the right item in your inventory, or opening the right door, or whatever. This is down to complexity; the more natural you want the conversations (or the presence of interactible options) to appear, the more flags are needed to track what you've already done, which leads to exponential(ish?) increases in the number of different combinations that need programming. Bearing in mind that games are large and there are huge amounts of possible player actions, it's inevitable that there will be some situations where unexpected actions or events (like NPCs dying) lead to broken interactions. Unsellable plot items and immortal NPCs are one attempt to deal with this problem.

Because of the need for programming and testing, there's a fairly small cap on what unique interactions can be created. There are only so many combinations of dialogue you can write and test within budget. You don't want to program in the possibility of breaking through walls, mining under buildings, rigging up elaborate traps or luring out monsters by buying a dozen goats and letting them loose in the dungeon. You can't create complex dialogue trees for every single peasant in the game, in case the PCs want to interrogate them about events, try to recruit them or use them as spies. You want to paint in backgrounds without accounting for PC decisions to turn the curtains into disguises or use the furniture as firewood.

In PNP, there's virtually no limit to interaction except patience and the social contract. If you want to disassemble a temple brick by brick, you can (it'll be slow and boring, but possible). You can say absolutely anything to an NPC and expect an appropriate reaction. You can perform actions on objects and expect predictable reactions. There are no "background objects" that are simply immune to your touch.

Another difference is that multi-location interactions are far more annoying on CRPGs than on PNP. This is partly because of greater PC control, and partly because of travel, as discussed above. In PNP, you can have conversations with four people in three locations, nipping back and forth as needed, in about the same time as one conversation with one person. In a CRPG, traipsing across maps and areas to do fetch and negotiation quests for NPCs is generally a tiresome chore forced on low-level characters by the need to grind for XP and gold; it's tedious because instead of saying "okay, we go and talk to the blacksmith", you need to click through the dialogue choices to extricate yourself from the woodcutter, then exit the building, walk your party across the map for a couple of minutes, go into the smithy, and click on the blacksmith.

Where's the fun?

In CRPGs, because it's much harder to have genuinely interesting conversations or act in creative ways, a lot of the fun comes from a sense of exploration and progression. It's enjoyable finding cool stuff, defeating enemies with cunning and tactical brilliance (or by finding entertaining AI glitches to exploit...), seeing interesting stuff that's been programmed for you, and so on. A lot of the time, the pre-programmed mysteries and conversations are only adequate entertainment rather than great, and new locations are interesting but the shortage of interaction detracts from that. Levelling and looting are pretty core to enjoying the game, and so the mechanical balance is crucial.

In PNP, most of the entertainment comes from the interactions between you and other participants. Working together to find creative ways around an obstacle or setback. In-character banter. Teasing out descriptions from the GM, or trying out small things just to see what happens - throwing pebbles into wells, knocking on doors, eavesdropping. OOC chat about the situation can be just as big a proportion, and simply isn't there in many CRPG playthroughs that are aimed at single players. Because mechanical actions are time-consuming to resolve, having an endless stream of action is, for many players, less enjoyable than in an RPG that handles everything for you. Mechanics remain important, but because a large part of the enjoyment is based on interactions, and because of the greater scope for creativity, balance is somewhat less of an issue.

As usual, no conclusions, just some rambling analysis. To be clear, I'm not saying here that CRPGs are bad, even though a lot of the above comes across as negative. There are some very definite disadvantages to CRPGs and things that they can't do well, but they are really pretty good for combat-based adventures and as a single-player experience. However, they are really quite different to the tabletop PNP experience in many ways, and I think it's worth paying attention to that.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

One of our PCs is Missing: 20 reasons for absence

Daniel over at System Matters recently posted a list of 20 reasons why one of the PCs is missing. It's in German, but he generously agreed to let me post a translation here. Some are more flexible than others, some are more specific than others, but I think they're a pretty good starting point for handling this kind of situation if you don't just want to handwave it. You can either use them as a random explanation table, or just improvise around one of the suggestions below. Any credit is due to Daniel, any poor phrasing is undoubtedly my hurried translation.

Who doesn’t know the feeling: a game session with your mates and someone’s missing. Chiz chiz… what to do? Call it off? Pull out a board game? Play a one-shot? But what if you really want to charge ahead with your campaign, because everyone’s having a blast with it? How can I explain the PC’s absence? No problem, just roll on the table below for a quick and dirty explanation of why the character isn’t around today.

1. Note: Not guaranteed!

2. Note: You can find a discussion of this topic in Episode 6 of the podcast.

Also in German!

01 – The character has been kidnapped, and needs rescuing

02 – The character is hanging back as a rearguard, and if possible, has had a little adventure of their own that can be played through at the start of the next session.

03 – A personal commitment (audience with the king, a visit from the in-laws, an inheritance, accounting deadlines) has prevented them from participating.

04 – The classic: badly injured or knocked out, and left with no memory of what’s happened.

05 – The character wouldn’t be dragged into THIS adventure for ten thousand ducats… only to reappear during the next session, for after all, he can’t leave his friends in a scrape.

06 – A magical curse like Flesh to Stone or Imprisonment makes sure that the character’s out of the game for a spell.

07 – Just can’t shake this damned cough… and then the rheumatism too… it’s best that you go on without me for now… I’m sure to be back in form soon!

08 – The character knows someone in this adventure that he’d really rather not run into again: an old flame, an old enemy he couldn’t handle, an old friend he ended up hurting, etc.

09 – The character wanted to make the meeting, but something got in the way: the plane wouldn’t start, his horse threw a shoe, the caravan made slower progress than expected, the weather’s unfavourable…

10 – The other characters’ message didn’t reach its destination: the host of the “Prancing Pony” didn’t send on the letter, a messenger was shot, the letter went to the wrong address, etc.

11 – The character got the job of rustling up some important stuff. The potions of fire protection for the dragon-slaying, the excavation papers for the local authorities, the military support for a siege, etc.

12 – The character was badly wounded before the adventure, and during the adventure something can be found to heal him, such as the Grail, a hermit with magical powers, Athelas, etc.

13 – Wine, women and song have left their mark. The character has simply slept too late to make the meeting punctually. This also works if one forgets to dust the mantelpiece after an evening with a bunch of greedy dwarves (see 10)

14 – Professional obligations! The Professor has lectures booked, the Lord is required to sit in the Upper House, the soldier is needed in battle, the farmer has a field to prepare, etc.

15 – The character is a persona non grata in this district. He’s on a wanted list, hasn’t paid his debts or is considered a troublemaker.

16 – The character doesn’t want to be dragged into this matter. His situation or status forbids it. A priest in the Castle of Maidens! The heir to the throne in the City of Thieves! A Cambridge professor in the University of Oxford!*

17 – The character is scared of getting involved in the adventure, because of a prophecy predicting that it will be the death of him.

18 – A strange power has taken control of the character! A Stygian wizard with mind-controlling charms, an Insect from Shaggai, an elven sorcerer or the power of a god leads the character doing extraordinary things. Use with caution!

19 – A messenger appears and hands the character a message; he rushes off at once. Perfect for starting a new adventure next time, and seeing what sort of a mess the character’s got himself into.

20 – The character slips ahead to reconnoitre. He should have been back ages ago… what’s happened to him? Has he been discovered? Has he found a secret passage whose door closed behind him? Is he in the treasury, stuffing his pockets? Has he found a friend in an unexpected place? Or is he *gulp* dead?

*Note: this is, indeed, in the original German version.