Thursday, 25 June 2015

Non-Combat XP

I award XP for monsters as described & discussed here -

In Classic and 5e D&D I also give XP for gold where the sum is 100gp+, but the amounts are usually lower than in standard D&D.
I give XP for exploration in the same frame as for monsters, but per PC. It's based on the amount explored, depth of dungeon etc. Exploring dungeon level 1 might give 100 XP each, reaching and exploring the 3rd dungeon level might give everyone 300 XP each.
I will also give XP generally for non-monetary goal achievement,in 5e I use the standard XP awards chart. In Classic it's typically on the exact same scale as monsters and exploration, but a major goal gives that amount of XP per PC. So a 3rd level goal - eg a quest achievement appropriate to level 3 PCs - gives 300 xp each.

State Monopoly on Violence & D&D

Historically a state monopoly on the use of force was very rare - in Europe you have the Roman Empire, then it's not seen again until the rise of the modern nation-state from the 16th century on. The feudal system for instance certainly does not depend upon a monopoly on the use of force, quite the reverse. Sometimes D&D mixes up modern and feudal elements, eg Gygaxian D&D seemed fond of mass armies of weak mooks. IRL mass armies were a feature of the modern state, they make no sense in most versions of D&D, where small forces of levelled characters are far more powerful. OTOH small forces of well equipped & levelled Fighters backed by Clerics & Wizards (depending on class frequency) makes good sense, at least in non-3e editions. A baron's entourage should essentially resemble a PC party; a king's entourage should resemble a high level PC party.

Adventurer parties can be readily incorporated into a feudal model; they may be 'questing knights' who swear allegiance and receive magical items, wealth etc in return for pledged service, or they may be independent mercenaries who also receive magic & wealth, but on a contract basis. In either case they are simply one power source among many in the feudal structure, not much different from another baron, a bishopric, a town, a guild etc. They don't need to be disarmed or destroyed if they are willing to work within the system.

A 15th century knight in plate armour vs a single unarmoured man with a melee weapon or bow (anything except a firearm) is pretty much just as safe as a D&D mid-level adventurer vs a 0-level schlub. In D&D, rulership will either be by small groups of tough characters, much like real world feudal system, or if mid-level power is rare but there are numbers of high-level supermen you might see a "Way of the Exploding Fist" structure where rulership is by lone super-powered heroes who can take on armies. A powerful leader may bring together numbers of these supermen for particular endeavours, which is rather what The Iliad looks like...

What if a dragon or other monster too powerful for the local ruler appears? It is a problem if you are thinking in terms of modern nation states who claim legitimacy via monopoly on the use of force, but not otherwise IMO. In a feudal system, if the dragon is active then the system will attempt to incorporate the dragon as another power node - send it tribute, grant it a title, etc. A hostile dragon will be destroyed if possible, if not then it will be ignored as far as possible, if neither is possible then other power nodes will ally against it, and offer rewards for its destruction - just as in a typical D&D adventure. The adventurer party who kills the dragon and gets the reward then becomes a recognised power node and part of the system. What if the dragon kills the local ruler? If it takes over it becomes part of the system. If it just kills & destroys without taking over, and cannot be stopped, then it's no different from a plague, earthquake or other natural disaster.

One reason I really like the Wilderlands of High Fantasy setting is that it has a power-node setup which perfectly accommodates powerful PC groups, monsters etc - it looks exactly like what you would expect when there are super-powered entities and no one can claim a force monopoly much further than their own reach. Conversely settings with modern-looking states plus super-powerful individuals break easily; 3e Greyhawk is a good example, as is any setting based on the world-building advice in the 3e DMG combined with characters created using the 3e PHB... Pathfinder/Golarion also has this problem, only slightly alleviated by a different level distribution than in 3e - more mid-level NPCs, very few level 15+ NPCs - and IME requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, where Wilderlands needs none.

D&D was originally written with the assumption the PCs likely would take over. The power curve reflects this. Wilderlands is a good setting written with this assumption. Published settings and campaigns that are not written to accommodate this (Golarion, and, weirdly, Greyhawk!) definitely have problems. Most Golarion-set Adventure Paths would better fit a shallow power curve system like Savage Worlds, not D&D/Pathfinder. Forgotten Realms is mostly closer to Wilderlands than to Golarion, but if a campaign like Princes of the Apocalypse is written with 3e/Paizo-style assumptions of PC passivity then it is going to be a problem. My suggestion is that as PCs rise in power, be sure to have them offerered positions within the existing power structure.

Think about your game's in-world society not as a Hobbesian state monopoly on violence, a pyramid structure with the Sovereign on top, but rather as a network of power nodes, a linked system, with many of those nodes potential independent sources of violence. If you do this then you can understand the place of PC groups much easier - and that place may well be on top of the system! But if the ruled don't accept your rule, you're not a ruler, you're just a monster. And even powerful monsters tend to get ganked eventually.

Uther: "To kill and be king? Is that all?"
Merlin: "Perhaps, not even that..."

Monday, 22 June 2015

The Wellsprings of Creativity

How to come up with ideas for a game? I'm not sure that's the best question. Don't prep plots, prep situations: I think the best advice is to create a sandboxy world that generates material, rather than have to create a fresh 'plot' every week. This will depend a bit on the game and genre - a Call of Cthulu game is likely to lean more to plot than sandbox; a military game is likely to be mission-centric. But even TV shows have leaned more to sandbox approach in recent years, with plot continuity and a big cast of motivated characters who can reliably throw up new events and characters. While fantasy is the traditional home of the sandbox, space opera and super hero genres are equally well suited - you need sketched locations, strongly motivated and active NPCs and factions, and preferably some procedural content generators - encounter tables, event tables - to kickstart your own creativity.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Derived Forms

 Uqbarian wrote: the issue of derived forms often adopting the trappings of their antecedents without recognising their structural functions.

That's definitely a huge issue with D&D. I often feel WoTC is cargo-culting elements from earlier iterations of D&D without understanding the point of them. I find the OSR has sometimes been useful in examining and explaining what is/was the point of hex-based mapping in early D&D. 5e in particular is often in a weird halfway house where it includes elements from various iterations in a mish-mash that doesn't work well together, and those elements only partially developed - 1e random encounter charts plus 3e/4e style challenge-based encounter-building, say, or random treasure table but no treasure-by-monster-type simulation. I find I have to pick & discard elements to get the game I want (a game I really like), whereas Moldvay-Cook Classic or 4e D&D both work as written and only break if you try to use them for something different (eg my initial attempt at a sandbox 4e game).

Friday, 19 June 2015

The Coming of the OSR

From early in the history of RPGs, people wanted "story" in their games. But in the 1990s they ended up with the pre-written story where their PCs no longer mattered at all - either they were replacable cyphers, or in the worst cases they were onlookers while NPCs did the cool stuff. This mode of play is still common today; most Paizo APs are structured as pre-written stories, and most seasons of WotC's Encounters program are literally scene-by-scene stories where the players just roll dice.

It's funny that the OSR never rebelled against what had been the dominant mode of play in the '90s - indeed 3e in 2000 was itself trying to move away from railroad/illusionist play with its "Back to the Dungeon!" mantra. Instead OSR was specifically a rebellion against the mechanics - "character building" and suchlike - of 3e, and 3e's general tone of 'Player Primacy, GM Subordination' in 3e - but that tone was itself a reaction against railroady '90s play where players felt helpless in the hands of the GM's plot. But the result was that the OSR in delving back into history discovered pre-2e (and especially pre-1983!) modes of play that had long been lost. I find it slightly amusing that the initial Reactionary sites like Dragonsfoot are centred on the module-based play of the '80s, and often don't get along well with OSR purists who are looking for the original pre-module modes of play that were really already dying out when the 1e AD&D DMG was published in 1979.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Plots & Complications

I find it's good to not prep plots, prep situations (I think Justin Alexander has a blog post called that) - and in fact I generally try to make the starting situations simple and easily comprehensible to the players, because they can only act on information they are aware of. A convoluted situation the players cannot understand is worthless to me, a random encounter generator would take less work and produce more fun results.

Starting with simple initial situation, I put events in motion as the PCs enter the milieu. With NPCs having conflicting goals, complications will rapidly emerge. Factions will clash; the players will have opportunities to get involved, or to choose not to get involved. Some conflicts may resolve off-screen; others may directly impinge on the PCs wherever they are.

In my recent campaigns I'm trying hard to avoid "this is the plot/you must do this" linearity, a good tactic is to always keep open the possibility the PCs walk away from the current situation (even if this is unlikely) and consider what will happen if they do, and what is going on elsewhere they may run into.

So, where added complications/complexity do arise, I like it to be organically, eg from the interaction of these particular antagonists either with the PCs, or with other factions. I try to avoid top-down plotting of the "hm, must insert a complication here" kind, that tends to feel artifical and forced. Whereas "Hmm, I wonder what X is doing while this is going on with Y...?" type thinking leads to complications that arise naturally in play.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

City Games

What to create for an RPG city - I generally find it works best for me to have an idea of the flavour of the city, and create a small number of interesting NPCs and locations. I don't try to map it like a dungeon; and generally it's the NPCs that are by far the most important element. I don't generally sandbox it, but an incredibly dangerous city like Khare, Port Blacksand, and maybe the City State of the Invincible Overlord could be sandboxed.

Something I've not done but would like to try would be to have a neighbourhood, small-scale sandbox - again the NPCs would be most important, but geography would become more significant. I think combat would need to be fairly rare even in a really violent city, though, outside of some kind of ruined/combat zone like The Big Rubble for Pavis. I was very disappointed that the 4e Neverwinter Campaign Setting made no effort at sandbox-type keying, but it might be a good place to set my own sandbox. A subsection of the CSIO would also have potential.