Thursday, May 26, 2016

fighting goons

This one time, during D&D, the players were trying to strategically retreat from the dungeon and they had to go through a series of rooms where gargoyles were guarding the passageway and preventing anything from moving through them. The gargoyles ambushed the characters and the lead fighter engaged them head-on. After about 3 rounds, I realized that the only way the gargoyles could hit the fighter was if they rolled a 20, which made the battle quite lopsided. Because we were playing 5th edition D&D, there were no specific rules for pulling unique tactics and the whole fight just turned into a slog. Featureless hallway, an enemy that refuses to retreat, players who insist on killing their adversaries however boring the process. A perfect cocktail for traipsing through a swamp of dice rolling. I figured out that it would take about 16 rounds, on average, for the fighter to work his way through the gargoyles and then just rolled 32d20 for the gargoyles to see if they would ever get a hit in. On average, they should score at least once, but they didn't roll a 20 at all and so I simply said "it takes you a few minutes, but eventually you defeat the gargoyles and continue onward."

This was the point where I felt that combat should be taking up less of the game, and XP should not be coming from combat at all.

I've run into this problem a few times in previous games as well. The players just get up to a certain level and low-level challenges become boring and tedious because the enemy simply cannot hurt the characters. There is always a way to make these fights interesting or challenging, but when you're running a module your available palette of colours is quite limited. For example, I could have replaced the gargoyles with something else, but the gargoyles were part of a faction and their existence was predetermined by certain story elements from the module I was running. Changing what the gargoyles were would have changed other elements from the module that I wasn't prepared for, and in the moment I found a different solution. In retrospect, I could have just moved the gargoyles to somewhere else in the dungeon that was more interesting, where the fighter wouldn't be able to box them in and their attacks could be more meaningful.

When faced with a truly one-sided battle with enemies who are not a serious threat I've tried to think of other ways I might dispense with drawn out fight scenes and try to sum up the challenge with a single roll, or a simpler solution. The word "goons" could really be defined by anything that the PCs encounter that they are also willing to kill: low-level bandits, gargoyles, orcs, kobolds, goblins, possessed children, city guards, tax collectors, etc.

Roll as normal vs the enemy's Armor Class
...if the PC hit then the goons are all killed and they never got a hit in
...if the PC misses by a margin of 5 points the goons got a hit in before they all got killed
...if the PC misses by a margin greater then 5 then the goons got a hit in and they aren't all killed

The goons hit one, some, or all of the PCs before they are defeated. Ask the player (or players) to decide one:
• some of the goons survived and ran away, but the characters are not inconvenienced by the fight
• none of the goons got away, but the characters have spent a lot of time here possibly wasting resources

Roll 1d20 and add your attack bonus. On 20+, choose 2. On 11-19, choose 1.
• you kill all of them
• you don't get hit
• you don't get slowed down by them
On a miss, you don't kill any of them, you get hit, and you are most definitely inconvenienced by them.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

bribery doesn't always work

Some rules allow you to attempt to bribe NPCs and one of the things I've always taken for granted with bribery is that it is not just a matter of how adroitly a character offers a bribe but also whether or not the NPC accepts the bribe. Trying to bribe a paladin to let your criminal character go loose when you're in the wilderness far from a civilized township might be difficult, but is still a lot easier there then bribing that same paladin when you're on a major street in the capital city of his Theological empire. Some people have principles, after all, and try to live by them even when they know they could break their own internal code.

In Andy Kaufman Revealed, Bob Zmuda tells a story of how a script doctor he worked for bribed the staff at a bakery to give him all of their clothes. Every employee, except for one, had stripped down to their underwear, and this script doctor kept offering more and more money for this older woman's clothes but she adamantly refused. He was offering her ten grand, and she kept shaking her head, tears streaming down her face, while her co-workers egged her on "Take the money Helen!" Some people have principle, and even if they want to take your bribe, they simply won't.

how much?
I dislike bribery in Apocalypse World because it's too easy. If you've got 1 Barter you simply offer to it an NPC for something and they do it, or they give you what you want. That's boring. Failure is always more interesting. Principles can take a back seat to greed, and with a system like Apocalypse World the barter involved is so loosely defined that it doesn't seem like it should always work. If the barter were clean water then maybe that would work all the time but if you've established in your game that barter is comprised of pristine dildos then offering one in exchange for everything makes little to no sense.

I've worked in a hotel as a night auditor for eight years now, and there's this thing that drunk people do where they're looking for food and I'm telling them what pizza places deliver to the hotel at 3 in the morning and they'll hand me the menu I've shown them and say "You order it for me." Imagine a drunk man, he's always white, pushing a menu at you and with an annoyed drawl bordering on belligerence commanding, not asking, you to "Order me a pizza." Fuck you drunky! Order it your goddamn self. I did this for a guest once, and it was such a convoluted game of getting information from the guest and the pizza employee, and relaying it to both of them back and forth that I will never do it ever again. Unless that drunky pays me first.

The size of the bribe is also important. Two gold might convince a guard to look the other way, but two copper is likely to make him clobber you upside the head before you have a chance to increase your offer. How much is a copper worth though? Because if it buys his food for the day, maybe its enough. Most people could probably be bought quite easily, these same people probably work jobs they don't really like in order to take money home to pay bills or buy things they want. Nobody ever really wants to be as a garbage collector, but garbage collectors can potentially make a lot of money and it unskilled labor. Garbage collectors in Long Island can make six figure salaries. I bet you're thinking about becoming a garbage collector now. Shit, I'd do it for less than that! But some people, you couldn't pay them a million dollars to pick up other peoples' trash.

the thin green line
There's a fine line between greed and principles. As a GM, you can ask yourself how much a particular NPC could be bought for, and ask yourself honestly: are they willing to accept the bribe offered? If you can't decide, that's what a roll is for. If the roll is purely one of character skill, apply it like a Charisma check. If the roll is a narrative choice, then success could give the PC a new NPC contact or open up a new story. But just throwing money at an NPC shouldn't get them to accept a bribe. Failure is a very real part of bribery that makes the whole exchange interesting.

I'm not a thief, but technically I have stolen from an employer by allowing a customer to steal. I worked at a shitty clothing store more than two decades ago and we kept tip jars next to our registers. Working for minimum wage was pretty bad and the tip jar usually paid for lunch, or sometimes a night out drinking. I had a couple come through my register and they were buying more than $100 worth of clothes and as the man pulled out his wallet, thumbing through his cash, I said "If you put a 20 in my tip jar I won't charge you for these two items" pointing at two things that were essentially half of what they were buying. They looked at one another, shrugged. There was a moment where he paused, like he was weighing his options. It occurred to me in that moment that he could just take the items and threaten to report me to my boss if I objected. Perhaps he was considering his own level of risk in simply taking the clothes without putting money into my tip jar. Then he put a 20 in my tip jar. A bribe. Or did I bribe them?


This is the part that I find most interesting. In Bob Zmuda's book, the woman can't be bribed into taking her clothes off, it doesn't matter how much money she's offered. When the drunk guys try to get me to order their pizza, I refuse citing my own personal liability for handling their credit card. If nobody were willing to be paid to pick up trash we would live in a very messy world. And if that man in the clothing store had simply taken the clothes what can of worms would have been opened? That last scenario could have played out in so many ways because we both essentially wanted something from the other person, free clothes versus 20 bucks. Have you noticed that the last scenario described is really the only one where the bribe worked?

Bribery is very close to begging, and begging doesn't always work, but we have systems for that too.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

I hate Rite Publishing

Every publisher on DriveThruRPG has an option where you can choose to follow them, which essentially just means you get blasted with advertisements from them about new products. I funded a few of dtRPG's charity driven bundles and I think doing that caused me to automatically follow any publisher who released product within the charity bundles, so I get a lot of email from publishers on dtRPG and I would estimate I delete about half of them without looking at them. But Rite Publishing always sends out these emails for inane products like 101 3rd-level spells and Monster Template: Headless Horseman... like, how the fuck is that a monster template? Isn't that just a ghost with no head? Why does somebody need to spend three dollars to read a 4-page pdf that probably is just summarized as "add a ghost template and then take away it's head"?
This publisher seems to be the acme of slapdash throwing shit together to make a quick buck. Some of the descriptions for these products seem as lazily written as the concepts themselves. I have a couple of their books, specifically 101 NPC Grudges and Wyrd of Questhaven, and if the names of those two books don't send a shiver down my collective readers' spines then you are reading the wrong gaming blog. 101 NPC Grudges does not even list potential grudges an NPC can have, and the number of NPC ideas it does give you is only 48, so right away with the title they're lying! The book is so sloppily put together that it's difficult to understand how anybody thought it would be a good idea to publish this trite piece of crap, and there were four people listed in the credits who all could have said "You know, I don't think this is that good of a product, maybe we should work on it a bit more" but instead it's a 17 page pdf, 5 pages of which are used for credits, ads, and the OGL so really its only 12 pages, listing 48 NPCs. The most detailed of whom seem to have very specific backgrounds and justifications for their existence within what is supposedly a generic RPG product (a city guard captain who is also a gargoyle, points for originality but this guy just screams I'M A GM WHO TROLLS MY PLAYERS WITH THINGS THEY DIDN'T EXPECT OR CAN'T ACCOUNT FOR).

This week I opened my email to see an ad from Rite Publishing for their new 10 Barbarian Magic Items pdf. A buck fifty for a list of items that you could probably write yourself since they list the items (without stats) in the product description, and I think I'm going to just show you the product description and write my own stats (spelling errors are not mine).

Adversity's Bulwark armor and shield special ability: Use your rage to overcome detrimental effects, so you can get on with the beat down you are giving.
Okay, a suit of armor that prevents an enemy's special attack or magic. When you successfully hit an opponent you can make another saving throw against any spell or magic affecting you that hasn't ended it's duration.

Felling Storm weapon special ability: If you hit an opponent while raging perform a bonus combat maneuver, because you want to do more than just exchange blows.
A warhammer that when you hit an opponent with it they must save vs spell or be knocked prone, if they're capable of being knocked prone.

Boots of the Wild Rust: Be the first to reach your opponents, charge through rough terrain, or even across vast chasms.
When you declare a charge as your first action in combat, your movement is increased by x4.

Bracers of Epic Deeds: Perform unique combat manevuers with great alacrity to astound friend and foe alike.
When you hit an opponent, all of your other opponents who see this must make a spell save of be dazed for 1 round.

Gauntlets of the Breaker: Hinder an opponents natural attacks, natural armor, and an opponents full plate, plus deal more damage to objects. Because sometimes its more fun to maim than to kill.
+3 AC vs attacks from natural weaponry, +3 to hit against enemies with natural armor or anyone wearing full plate mail, +3d6 damage when striking inanimate objects

Helm of the Nomad: Take a 10 or sometimes even a 20 on some of the barbarians most useful class skills, even in the most dire of circumstance it my just save your (or your allies) life.
You can always find 1 ration worth of food from hunting and can always build suitable shelter from the elements for 1 person with only 40 minutes of work, also you never get lost.

Ring of Spritual Spite: use your rage to protect you from magical damage, so you can show spellcasters the power of hate.
Every time you successfully hit, the amount of damage you deal out can be removed from the next magical attack that hits you - this resets with every successful hit.

Baldric of Restraint: Sacrifice your rage to heal your wounds, and live to hate another day.
A belt that heals you of 1d8 hit points whenever you take a completely defensive action during a fight, in other words declare that you are defending yourself and get 1d8 healing.

Mantle of Thorns: Do you like to grapple or are you tired of being grappled, swallowed or raked, then this garment is for you.
A cloak that makes you immune to being grappled. Simple.

“The Fell Hammer” Legacy Item: Let your magic item level up with you, and provide you with the ultimate tool of savagery!
Add your current level as a damage bonus to this weapon.

There. Save yourself a buck fifty and use those.
And if you're running 5th edition D&D just use "spend 1 use of Rage" instead of "hit an opponent" for any item that is described as "Use your rage"