Monday, March 20, 2017

RPGs with Kids: The Birthday Party

I ran an birthday party-adventure with a group of 9 kids of mixed ages and various levels of experience with RPGs.
The Party Favors 
An adorable monster notebook to keep track of things, and a set of polyhedrals.

The rules were mostly Sword & Backpack/Fluid Fundamentals. That is, pretty much just "roll a d20 and hope it's high." I used the Fluid Fundamentals idea of Room DCs, which made keeping track of everything very easy (which proved vital, as the chaos around the table was high, and I'd have lost half the party if I'd ever stopped to look anything up).

There were lots of scrolls lying around, and the spells were Maze Rats. It was fun watching kids figure out spells from names like "ectoplasmic form" and "enveloping insect."

And I looked for lots of opportunities to make kids roll the different types of dice, so they could try out their whole set.

There were no attributes or classes (although several kids insisted that their characters were elvish ranger-paladins and what-not).

They picked or rolled on a table of fantasy home-realms and occupations. No mechanical implications here, just a smidge of specificity to get the imagination rolling. I also had a long list of names prepared, but I don't think anyone used it.

Then, I asked each one what their character was best at, and told them that they had a +2 bonus at that. This information went into their adorable monster-books.

The Adventure
The party woke up, unequipped, in a cage in a giant's pantry. They escaped and armed themselves as best the could with what they found: rolling pins, pot lids, Purple Sturgleblossom (the world's stinkiest cheese), vengeful ghost-pepper powder, giant beetle eggs, etc.

They busted out into a kitchen full of kobold chefs preparing sea serpent chowder. The fight that resulted was as much against each other as the kobolds, as the players vied to be arm themselves with the limited supply knives.

They also found a giant barrel of Elvish Moonwine—a healing potion that tastes differently every time you drink it. The found four empty bottles, and once they filled them, I brought out four bottles of fruit juices, and explained that this was their supply of moonwine, and when they drank it all, their character's would be out of healing. Result: kids willingly rationing a sugar source at a party. You don't see that often.

Every time someone drank, they rolled to see what flavor it was:

Blood of
Bat Wing
Aged 200 Years
Drainage of
Black Pudding
And Mint
Effluvium of
Fire Beetle Guts
Elixir of
From Concentrate
Juice of
In a Decorative Mug
Liquor of
Pixie Dust
On the Rocks
Oil of
Served in a Boot
Sap of
Rot Grub Castings
Shaken, Not Stirred
Secretion of
Sea Serpent Eyeball
Suspended in Aspic
Tea of
Shoggoth Gland
Swirled with Snotberries
Tears of
Topped with Beard Shavings
Water of
Unicorn Spleen
With Goat Milk

Equipped with knives and potions, they proceeded to get lost in some mouse tunnels they found behind a barrel of minotaur butter. Eventually, they bribed a giant mouse with the beetle eggs. Having an encounter not immediately descend into bloodshed was, perhaps, the greatest achievement of the game.

They snuck past a sleeping Cerberus, and found two treasure chests.
The other was labeled: BOTH OF THESE LABELS ARE LYING.
Clever sprats worked this out in a few seconds, opened the right chest, and found some nice upgrades to armor and weapons.

Then they stumbled into a giant griddle-room. Goblins skated across the griddle-floor on thick slabs of fat tied to their feet, tending to massive strips of mastodon bacon, roc eggs, and pancakes. The pancake dough was ladled by a mechanical crane, which, of course, could target the characters. And there was a cage with one of the character's family in it, about to be grilled.

Things broke down at this point. The party ran in different directions, they accidentally woke up the Cerberus, they left a comrade sizzling like a sausage, and the family went un-rescued.

And that was time! Three hours had passed, and the kids clearly needed to run around, so the game was abandoned in favor of a snowball fight.

The Carnage
I had about seven more rooms prepared, and many families to rescue, but that was clearly overkill.

1. This was the cheapest and easiest birthday party we've ever thrown. Highly recommended.
2. Holy Dang, guys! You really don't need much in the way of mechanics at all to start playing! I mean, I knew that, but I needed to be reminded. Resolved: to never let rules-explanation to slow down starting a game.
3. Kids get RPGs. The only ones who needed anything explained to them were the ones who were expecting 5e. Kids, after all, invented "let's play make-believe."

I baked a citrus pound cake in a dragon-mold. I used too much butter, which gave the cake really nice, crisp definition in the details of the mold, but resulted in a texture more like a fried doughnut that a birthday cake.

Also, right before the party, the kid made labels for all the snacks. Corn chips became "Gorgon's Toenails," grapes were "Ogre's Eyeballs," carrots were "Magic Missiles," etc. Wish I'd thought of that.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Maze Rats by Post

In my previous post, I reviewed a bunch of my favorite rulesets for optimization for Play-by-Post. It occurred to me almost immediately that I hadn't really thought about Maze Rats enough.

In fact, I'd mis-remembered and mischaracterized it. Upon reflection, one of the mechanics I took issue with is actually a big strength. Re-reading the rules, it seems like just a few very simple hacks could make it a highly-optimized PbP game.

As follows:
Danger Rolls are rolled by the GM.

Danger rolls usually fail, so it is in the player’s interest to describe their actions plausibly and mitigate as many risks as they can, in the hopes that they don’t trigger a danger roll.

2d6 + ability bonus ≥ 10

If you have taken enough precautions to have a distinct advantage in an action, but not enough to have eliminated the distinct possibility of danger, the GM will give you a roll with advantage.

3d6 keep 2 + ability bonus ≥ 10

Because each character only has 3 ability scores (STR, DEX, WIL), it should be pretty easy for the GM to set up 3 macros for each character. 4, if the character has a skill path (which gives them advantage on related danger rolls).

Forget initiative. Combat is simultaneous. Player actions are taken in the order they are posted. Players who have not posted in time may have default actions assigned to them by the GM.

Surprise: If one group ambushes another, this triggers a danger roll (WIL) for the leader of the surprised group. If this roll is unsuccessful, the surprised group misses one round of action.

Combat: Whenever a player posts an action that is intended to wreck damage on another character, they should include an attack roll.

2d6 + Attack Bonus

When all actions for a given round are posted, the GM will compare the results to the defender’s AC, and post any overage as damage inflicted. The GM will roll attacks directed at the PCs, and then stitch all the results together as a narrative.

Danish Fairy Tales, Sven Grundtvig, 1914
Magic: At the beginning of each game-day, all spell-casting characters get new spells.
This is tricky, because it’s fun, but it also requires negotiation, which can stretch out over days.

1. The GM will generate the names of the new spells and posts them along with any other information about the beginning of the new day.
2. The player should, in their very next post, include a brief description of what they think that spell does.
3. The GM responds with the final description of the spell, if necessary.
4. The player may attempt to use the spell for purposes outside of the final description, but the GM is the final arbiter of how the spell manifests.
5. Once the spell is cast, it is gone for good.

Don’t nail down all the details of a given spell, just get the general function and flavor.

If, however, the player doesn’t respond with a description, the GM can provide a description and should make it a very boring utility spell.

If the GM has a bunch of spells to crank out, there are some great generators, such as Adventuresmith (which seems to get better and better every time I open it up).

There are ways to streamline the spell creation process (like, say, just have the GM generate and describe the spells), but they're more work and less fun. I'd like to play-test version listed, and see how it goes.

Overview: GUYS! Maze Rats is really good. And I think the above would make for snappy PbP game. It also delivers a ton of actionable flavor in a very small package. I kinda want to convert my Into the Odd game over, but I think I'll just adopt the GM-rolls-for-danger rule.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Reviewing Rules for Play-by-Post Optimization

I’ve played a lot of PbP games: all your favorite flavors of OD&D, AD&D, and their retroclones, Call of Cthulhu, Marvel Superheroes, Traveller, Dungeon World, etc. ad nauseam.

In almost every instance, I forgot what ruleset we were using at some point. Which is a good thing. Once chargen is over, you spend a lot more time describing your characters actions and poring over the GM’s descriptions than you spend interacting with rules. When you do roll, it’s usually a combat to-hit roll, which you’ve probably programmed into the online dice-roller as a macro. Pretty much any game will work for PbP.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t points of possible optimization.

Point 1: Resolution. Anything that can keep the action moving is a boon to PbP. A game that requires a back-and-forth exchange of information to resolve an action is going to progress very slowly. A good rule of thumb is that it’ll take 2 or 3 days to get a response from any given player. At that pace, an exchange that would take seconds at the table can become a week or more on the boards.

Point 2: Facility. It is not easy to learn a new game (one that operates in a fundamentally different way) over PbP. The drawn-out nature of communication spreads out the points of engagement with the novel system too much. It’s like trying to learn tennis when you only get one swing of the racquet a week. And each time you have to ask a clarification question, you’ve bogged the game down again.

Point 3: Accessibility. You can’t pass a copy of the rulebook around the table when you’re playing PbP. And not everyone is going to want to plonk down cash for a game they haven’t played. So it’s helpful when there are legal ways to digitally share the rules with the players.

A good PbP ruleset, then, would be optimized in the following ways:
1. As much as possible can be resolved in a single turn. It could be one roll or multiple rolls, but you can do them all in one go without having to compare or respond to other rolls, or having to negotiate the interpretation of the results.
2. Anyone who has to resolve anything via game mechanics understands them well enough to apply them without prompting.
3. Having the at least the player-facing rules available either online or as a pdf.

So, let’s examine some rulesets.

OD&D, B/X, AD&D, the retroclones, and D&D-alikes
Resolution: This is the baseline from which we hope to improve. Many actions require rolls from both player and GM. Hopefully a player knows to roll damage at the same time they roll to-hit, or else that doubles the length of the exchange.

Facility: Hard to be much more familiar than D&D.

Accessibility: Most retroclones have free versions, and most people interested in OSR games will have copies of at least a few editions around.

Into The Odd
This is the ruleset I’m currently using for my GARGANTUA game.

Resolution: You’re never more than one die roll away from knowing how things went. Combat is just a straight damage roll. When fighting breaks out, everyone says what they’re going to do, and appends a damage roll to their post. I collect all the rolls, and reveal the rolls of the monsters, and stitch a narrative together to explain them. It’s very fast, very deadly, and we’re off to the next round.

Facility: A little tricky. ItO is so pared down that it takes some real thought when and how to apply some of its mechanics. And it’s so minimal that I’m making up mini-game mechanics on a fairly regular basis. Which is good fun, but not facile for the players.

Accessibility: There’s a free player-facing pdf.

Sword & Backpack
Resolution: The irreducible minimum of rpg mechanics. Say what you’re going to do and roll a d20, and let the GM interpret the results. That’s pretty straight forward. However, this strikes me as such a simple system that either the players have to be on board for arbitrary rulings, or the GM will have to build their own rubrics or something to ensure any degree of consistency. And, sadly, you’d have to jettison the magic system, which is performative (the player has to recite a few lines and act out a hand gesture, and the GM penalizes you for any stumbles).

Facility: Couldn’t be easier. Player’s simply add a d20 roll whenever an outcome is in any doubt.

Accessibility: Freely available, and easily summarized in about three words.

Resolution: Whitehack involves a lot of negotiation between the GM and the players to resolve actions, determine the cost and effect of magic, and to build the world as you play. Players would very rarely be able to determine the mechanical effects of their actions independently.

Facility: Whitehack’s classes are beautifully abstracted in a way that really opens up the creative possibilities of chargen. But it also takes a bit of work to wrap your head around. Chargen being mostly a one-time affair, this isn’t too much a problem. But Whitehack also uses contested rolls, including a blackjack-style bidding contested roll that must be tremendous fun in person, but would be a grinding eternity in PbP.

Accessibility: Whitehack is only available as a physical book.

Whitehack is a brilliant game, and you should check it out, but it is very much not optimized for PbP. It's on this list to provide contrast.

The Black Hack
Resolution: All the rolls are put in the player’s hands. You roll to hit in combat, and you roll to not get hit. Most other rolls are simple roll-under stat checks, which are very easy for a player to roll proactively based on their description.

Facility: The Black Hack incorporates a number of houserules that have been floating around for a few years, but some of them may be novel to your players. But they’re very consistent. If the GM made a concerted effort to establish the combat mechanics and usage dice early on, TBH should allow proactive mechanical resolution from the players.

Accessibility: There is an SRD available, and TBH is open game content, so you don’t have to feel bad copy-pasting into your forum’s rules thread.

Maze Rats
Resolution: Like its inspiration, Into the Odd, Maze Rats puts all the mechanics in the players hands and keep resolutions one-roll simple. But a big part of the game is negotiating with the GM to try to avoid having to make a stat check, because you are likely to fail. I think this could work very well once the players understand that their job was to describe their actions so plausibly that it didn’t trigger a roll, and then the GM made the roll in reaction to insufficient description.

Facility: Maze Rats uses a 2d6 mechanic that is consistent and very easily digested.

Accessibility: The pdf is pay-what-you-will, and the mechanics are so simple that you could summarize them in a couple sentences.

Spaces of the Unknown
Thank to the encyclopedic +Sophia Brandt for bringing this ruleset to my attention. It specifically designed for PbP.

Resolution: Spaces streamlines play by giving all the rolls to the GM. This could be controversial. Most players that I have encountered really want to be the one to trigger the randomization of their outcomes. There’s a powerful connection to that split second of uncertainty after you roll the dice (or click on a “roll the dice” button) that is hard to give up. That said, I’m in a B/X game right now where the GM is making all the rolls, and I’m really enjoying it. I find myself investing more effort in describing my character’s actions to guide the GM’s evaluation, rather than just hitting my melee attack macro. Which is exactly the effect that +Brent Newhall predicts for his ruleset.

Facility: In this case, facility refers less to the player’s ability to absorb the rules than to the GM’s ability to keep track of all the variables. I haven’t played Spaces, yet, but it looks to me like it is simple enough to track. Character’s look an awful like OD&D one-line monster stats, and pretty much everything is 1d20+Level vs. a target (opponent’s AC for combat; your AC for physical stunts; 15 for saving throws). Level is the only variable to track, and the party levels up together, so that boils down to one macro. Nice.

Accessibility: Free cheat sheets are available.

A note on magic: Both Into the Odd and Spaces of the Unknown achieve their simplicity by doing away with spell-casting. In both, you play an all-purpose adventurer who can find power-granting artifacts. Since magic is about allowing the rules of the game to be broken, it inherently complicates things.

The Black Hack relies on a spell list derived from the old school classics, and asks for a single stat check to see how it goes. I expect that this would work pretty well. Old school automatic-success-but-saving-throw spells work well, too.

Maze Rats and Whitehack both require negotiation on a spell-by-spell basis, which is not optimal.

Looking over this, it strikes me that there are two broad categories: 
1. Basically D&D games that are workable but not optimized for PbP
2. Really minimal games that are pretty optimized, but maybe too spare, especially in character choice.

The system that seems to inhabit the space between them is The Black Hack. Its mechanics tend to be pretty optimized, but you can play a Conjurer with a full spell list (to say nothing of the one million home-brew classes floating around out there).

I think a good future project would be to write a version of the Black Hack specifically tailored to PbP. Maybe call it The Post Hack.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Play-by-Post: Advice on Characters, plus Recipe

I love play-by-post. It accounts for the vast majority of my actual game-playing. The glacial pace is not for everyone, but it’s easy to fit into a busy schedule. And what you lose in the spontaneity and flow of spoken conversation, you gain in the richness of written language.

Given the depth and granularity of rpg creativity, I’m surprised how little is written to address PbP specifically. Shouldn’t we have rule-hacks that are optimized for PbP? Guides for how to GM effectively in this environment?

Well, I can at least offer some thoughts on how to play well in a PbP game.

The Faerie Queene, Volume I by Edmund Spenser. Pictured and decorated by L. Fairfax-Muckley.

Present yourself simply.
Don’t bother with elaborate backstories or text descriptions of your character. They won’t get read, and are very unlikely to contribute meaningfully to the game—even less so than in-person. Go for evocative fragments:

A moist and simpering scrap of humanity.
A pissy young satyr in threadbare brocade.
Brother Tom thinks he’s a cleric, but his god doesn't.
A gibbering mouther in a sweater vest and bowtie.

If you want more than that, google up an image file and pop it in.

Only hang bangles on your character that will come out in play. Show, don’t tell. And how do you show? Through voice and motivation.

Character voice. 
One of my favorite things about PbP is that you can second-draft the language that comes out of your character’s mouth before hitting “enter.” This gives you a level of expression that most of us can’t muster at the table.

My go-to player voices are the salty dog and the flaky erudite. It’s fun when Clerics use the fire-and-brimstone language of Jonathan Edwards. There’s the insecure young man, and the hard-bitten veteran, and the raving visionary.

Because you can write in drafts, you can be more ambitious than you might at the table. You can write songs, or riddles, or dig up perfectly apt quotes for your character to spout.

Character Voice can be a mini-game. I have a character with an INT of 5, which I attribute to a severe axe-blow to the head. He can make perfectly fine decisions, but can’t process language very well. I only let this character use one-syllable words in sentences of 5 words or less. This makes any sort of nuance or complexity a frustrating/interesting challenge.

Don’t over-do it. A little mannerism goes a long way.

Oh, and it’s okay to grow into a character’s voice. Don’t feel like you have to have it down pat before the first post.

Character motivation. 
PbP bogs down easily when the players are indecisive—or, worse, prudent. A character needs a reason to actively pursue a course of action that will inevitably lead to madness and death.  Their motivation doesn’t have to be logical or subtle, but it’s good if it's consistent.

Common motivations are greed, relentless curiosity, or attachment to some quest or another. A personal favorite, which makes no sense whatsoever but is a lot of fun to play, is a character who just wants to eat monsters. New and different monsters. It gives them a reason to charge into the next room, and describing the preparations of the bodies is always fun.

Lurker ceviche

  • Remove the remains of any fellow adventurers killed by the lurker’s ambush.
  • Using a heavy knife, thinly slice the tough lurker meat. Areas targeted by crushing damage will already be tenderized.
  • Slice onions, garlic, and any flavorful weeds you may have foraged.
  • Place ingredients in a small sack, and cover with vinegar or very sour wine.
  • Tie the sack tightly, and let macerate until you next make camp.
  • Save vs. Poison.

Surprisingly, this has never led to a character'd death. But then, I’ve yet to try a Figgy Black Pudding.

Character Interaction. 
Be giving in your interactions with the other characters. Notice what they’re doing and comment on it. Appreciate when they do something cool. Ask them questions. Give them nicknames. Contribute actively.

Play-by-post has a tendency to become a group of people parallel-playing one-on-one with the GM. You wait for a GM-prompt, say what your character is going to do, and them wait for the next prompt. This gets boring and dispiriting in a hurry. But a really rollickin’ game can carry on for awhile without GM input.

On the flip-side: keep planning simple. Lots of players get frustrated if planning takes more than a post or two. And yet it can take awhile to formulate a good plan. My recommendation: Let your character state their plan, once, succinctly. If you as the player, have a separate plan, state it plainly, out-of-character. If other options are on the table, don’t debate it in-character. Try an an OOC poll, and then follow its results without grumbling.

Everything else is basic social stuff—don't be a jerk, don't make it all about you, don't play "beer-loving dwarf" or "surprisingly aggressive halfling" and expect anyone to congratulate you on your originality. You know all that.

Let me know if you have anything to add!