Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Forest

This Bastionland Editorial was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site a week after its original publication.

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The Forest 

Roots deeper than soil, farther than sea
No passage is swift, no figments believed 



Travel

  • The forest knows what happens anywhere else in the forest.
  • All forests are connected.
  • Some of the most dangerous and feared individuals end up imprisoned or entombed here.

The Fearmonger in Wood
STR 17, DEX 16, CHA 12, 3hp
Encased in rune-carved wood (A2 against metal)
Crushing grasp (d10) or cloud of spores (everyone in blast loses their speech until they leave the forest) 

  • Wants to cultivate a healthy fear of the forest and have word spread beyond.
  • Takes any form they wish with elements of deer, owl, boar, and mouse.
  • Can call upon woodland creatures for aid and hurry along the seasons, but is outranked by the old trees.  

The Verdant Maze

Place
1: Entwined Wall of Trunks and Roots
2: Mossy Stone Pile
3: Descent into Damp Earth
4: Leafy Clearing
5: Tree Bridge
6: Trailway

Omen
1: Riders Approaching
2: Frantic Movement in the Branches
3: Twisting in the Roots
4: Fading Light
5: Rising Mist
6: Watching Eyes


Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Graphene

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I love rules-lite systems, but I'm recently moving toward rules that are light but strong

Rules like Graphene. 


Light systems are often praised for how they "get out of the way" once you hit the table. The players don't have to spend a lot of time and energy on the rules themselves, so they channel it into the other parts of the game instead: exploring the environment, making their characters memorable, and good old fashioned problem solving. 

This is something I've always strived for with my own games, but I've started to feel a dissatisfaction when the rules feel completely absent. 

It's a difficult balance to describe. I don't want the GM or players to have to think too much about the cogs and gears of the system, but I want those few mechanical parts to be a more solid presence on the game. 

Reaction and morale rolls in D&D are the classic example here. They don't really add much complexity that you need to hold in mind, but they have a major impact in the way your dungeon crawl plays. Now those Gnolls want to talk to you, and you've got to decide what to do when the Ghouls start to flee toward the dragon cave. Of course the GM could just make those things happen, but it feels different when it comes from a rule rather than a ruling. 

The best anti-example would be one of those systems where you have a dozen +1s and -1s to keep track of, but they usually balance out to some inconsequential modifier that doesn't even affect the majority of possible rolls. Similarly, there are those fiddly little rules that you sometimes forget to use in play... then realise that in forgetting them nothing was really lost. Those are always the most satisfying parts to chop out of a work-in-progress game.

But this desire for strong rules goes further than that. Maybe they're stronger even than the GM. Maybe Rule Zero is losing its shine for me. RULES NOT RULINGS!?

Well, no. I like games that empower the GM, but I want the game to have a power of its own. Just like how you obviously shouldn't fudge the dice, maybe the strength of the fiction and the agency of the players are both enhanced if the rules cannot be broken. 

I suppose this is all adjacent my thoughts on those 3 Tiers of Truth. I've had a lot of fun with loose games that hardly engage with the rules and are mostly improvised at the table, so perhaps I'm just craving something more solid as a contrast. The grounded, impartial, almost sim-like feel of a high-crunch game without the brain melting complexity. 

It might be a futile quest, but I'm going to keep searching for that Graphene. 

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

ITOR Last Call

Last Call for new Into the Odd Remastered pre-orders! Existing backers, this is also your last chance to modify your order.

At the end of Sunday 15th May the Pledge Manager will close and the final details go over to Fria Ligan.

You can pre-order here, where existing backers can also confirm their delivery details: https://bastionland.pledgemanager.com/projects/into-the-odd-remastered/participate

We're still on track for June delivery, and I'll keep the updates coming as we get closer.

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Problems

This Bastionland Editorial was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site a week after its original publication.

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I like encounters that are a problem with a problem throwing problems.

Wait! Hear me out.

Okay, let's assume we're talking about a classic monster encounter that at least has potential to be antagonistic, and think of it this way instead:

  • The encounter poses a defining problem to the players (the troll is blocking our route into the deeper caves)
  • The encounter has personal problems of its own (the neighbouring kobolds are making a racket, disturbing its hibernation)
  • Engaging with the encounter causes dynamic problems that need responding to (you cut off the the troll's head but it gradually begins to grow back. The tiny head starts barfing acidic bile around the room, what do you do?)

Defining Problems

This is the reason for tension in the encounter. Why is this thing a problem at all, rather than just something existing alongside you? Monsters blocking the way is obvious, but you might have encounters that are working against you in less obvious ways (this goblin is following us around but we don't know why). 

Personal Problems

This is the "why" of the encounter, flipped to their perspective. It can be blunt, like a Beholder that finds themselves disgusting at all other beings, or more complex, like a golem that's been bound into performing a likely impossible and very specifically worded task.

Dynamic Problems

These are the turn-by-turn problems that usually emerge if things turn to combat. It's a solid rule of thumb to have each round of combat feel different to the last somehow, and good encounters give you the tools you need to do this without too much forced-feeling improvisation. Remember, the point of these is to create interesting "what do you do?" moments for the players, so things like winding up for a huge attack are often more interesting than the attack itself. 

Standard Caveat

As with all of these guidelines, I wouldn't hold myself to following them to the letter 100% of the time. Maybe that Black Pudding doesn't need to have a personal problem... but at the very least it's useful to think about its wants and needs, however simple, and keep them in mind when running the encounter. Sometimes "hungry, drawn to warm flesh" is more than enough. 

 

Wednesday, 27 April 2022

Defence

This Bastionland Editorial was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site a week after its original publication.

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ITO and EB have three types of defence. Pretty bloated system, right?

I wanted to talk briefly about how to use them both alone and in combination with each other.

Hit Protection (HP)
A guaranteed buffer of "safe" damage that can be taken before getting wounded. Easy to recover once the fight is over. It's the most abstract of the defences, but usually represents a general sense of skill and stamina. 

Strength (STR)
Raw physical endurance. Both the mass to soak up hits and the vigour to keep on fighting when wounded. More debilitating and difficult to recover, losing STR is always painful in comparison to losing HP. 

Armour (A)
Anything that lessens the effect of an attack against you and give a chance to shrug it off altogether. 

Now things get more interesting when you use them together. What does that look like?

For these examples, assume that the defences not mentioned are unremarkable. 


High HP, High STR: If you want to make something tough, this is probably the safest way to go. They're going to stick around, but gradually get worn down. I'd use this for most typical scary monsters that you want to pose a real threat and not be easily taken down. 

High HP, High A: I've seen discussions around whether something fast and small should use Armour to represent their ability to dodge. In general, I'd save that sort of thing for another category, but I can see the temptation to put them here. Instead, I'd use this category for the skilled, armoured opponent that frustrates the characters until they can land one decisive blow on them.

High STR, High A: The classic big monster profile here. In general terms, before considering actual armour-like protection, I give +1 armour to big stuff, and +2 to REALLY BIG stuff (maintaining the maximum of 3). Just be aware that this profile is vulnerable to a lucky one-shot if the players roll high and you roll badly. 

High HP, Low STR: THIS is the fast, small monster profile. They can duck and dodge safely until you land that blow which will likely take them straight down to instant death at STR 0. 

Low HP, High STR: Just a dumb brute. Good for your orc-likes. 

Low HP, High A: I've used this for both untrained-armoured-grunts and automaton-like monsters. It's interesting in that it can feel a little more like the classic D&D combat with lots of swinging and missing, with one or two decisive blows. It has a use, but I wouldn't make this the standard. 

Low STR, High A: I like this for skeletons and the like. Fragile enemies that can be shattered with a good hit but are surprisingly difficult to land a good blow on.

High Everything: Use with caution! I mean, you can use it, but just make sure it's something that you're prepared to have stick around for a long time. In particular, make sure it has interesting things to do while it's out there surviving for so long. 

Thursday, 21 April 2022

Ten

This Bastionland Editorial was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site a week after its original publication.

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I was reminded that this coming Friday and Monday are Bank Holidays here in the UK, so I should take a few days off work.

Well I care deeply about the wellbeing of every member of the Bastionland Press corporate empire, so in addition to taking next week off work, I decided to give myself a free day to work on a project that probably wasn't going to go anywhere, and you know what that means...

The dreaded return of Project 10!

I've written about it before, but I'm very aware that it lies outside of the interests of many people that read this patreon/blog, so I've tried to keep it in the background. Well, today is the exception, so let's get on with what I've been doing with this little wargame.

The whole point of this game is that I wanted something I could use with big bases of small-scale miniatures. This week I painted a block of foot knights and a commander.

 

Bringing my 10mm collection to a still-tiny 4 (and a bit) units. 

Not quite the dozen units I'd need to actually test this game on the tabletop yet, not to mention my delayed aspirations to create a modular 1x1m battlefield. TTS is fine, but I want to get a proper feel for this. 

Who needs miniatures when you have blank cards?

 

Very much drawing on the aesthetic of 90s White Dwarf Battle Reports, which were a huge catalyst for this project. Note the very first example of artisan, homemade, oversized Combat Dice™

It's no substitute for seeing a miniature army laid out, but it works as a stopgap and might even spur me on to paint more quickly. 

Taking my luxurious variety of units for the Empire of Steel, Guild under the Mountain, Guardians of the Wood, Raiders of the Shadowrealm, Red Sun Horde, and the Army of the Dead, I had a morning of playtesting, an afternoon of making changes, then repeated it all again the next day. 

So what's changed and why?

Traits

Look... if you're actually following the progress of Project 10 then my biggest piece of advice is not to get attached to any of the traits. Treat them like a pet hamster. Enjoy the time you have with them, but know that they are unlikely to join you in your retirement. 

As these are the core of what makes units (and by extension, armies) interesting in this game, I'm always changing them and trying new versions, sometimes reverting to the original. I'm aware that any specific changes I talk about here are just as likely to change again before you read this, or snap back to a previous ruling, but I'll live dangerously and highlight a few. 

Missile: Previously this was split into Short and Long, with each having slightly different restrictions for when they can fire. Putting them together makes it easy, as units with this trait now just follow the standard rules for shooting. You can't shoot after your second pivot. Done. Artillery still has its "no moving and firing" restriction but it feels more intuitive there. Again I'm dipping into Neil Thomas' wisdom here, as he often gives an extended range to slings, javelins, and other short ranged weapons favoured by skirmishers, representing a more abstract sense of that unit's area of control, rather than a strict range based on their static position on the board. 

Tough: This trait has changed names a few times, but represents units that are better able to withstand damage throughout the battle, be it through armour, discipline, or physical resilience. Formerly reactive (essentially having Damage Reduction of 1 point), it always felt slightly at odds with the other traits, which largely occur on the unit's own turn. It also increased the instances of "I roll... nothing happens" which wasn't desirable. So instead it's now tied to Rallying, allowing a unit to more readily recover after taking damage. The idea that damage represents both casualties and failing morale is key to this, and I'll talk about it a little more further down. 

Loose: Look, I hate this Trait. I need it, as I want to allow for units that are primarily made of skirmishers or other loose form infantry, but it's probably changed more than any other rule. Dip into your wargame of choice and find the section on skirmishers. It's rarely a succinct little ruling, and commonly involves at least three special effects that apply to this unit. Maybe they can move and shoot, or move through rough terrain, or move through other units, or move after shooting, or move and shoot in any direction, oh and they should be weaker in melee, but harder to hit with missile fire, and less able to reform, and and... You get the idea. So currently I've got a ruling I don't really like, but I wanted to at least point it out and shame it in public. One day there will be a great rule here, but today is not that day. 

Terminology

Rolls of 1-3 are now called Hits, and 4-6 Misses. This might seem small but it's one of those many tiny things that makes other rules easier to understand, and gradually improves the quality of life factor of a game as you bash away at it. 

Terrain

I previously had a very clever set of terrain rules that involved a grid with two axis. One was "affects movement" and the other "affects shooting" and it resulted in 9 sub-categories of terrain that had examples and made me feel like I was doing great work.

Well, something I've learned is that if you look at a piece of your writing and think "oh yes, very clever" then maybe you should stop patting yourself on the back and look again with a more pragmatic set of eyes.

This very clever system was actually just a clunkier way of describing 5 common types of terrain (open, rough, blocks movement, blocks vision, blocks everything) and then 4 weird edge cases that didn't really need a common rule.

And for similar reasons to my changes to the Tough trait, I've taken a more hardline approach to cover. No more damage reduction for being around some bushes. Either get in the woods (blocks vision) or deal with getting shot at.

Flanking and Supporting

The rule that "flank and rear attacks roll double" felt like a core part of the game. Almost too core. Out of curiosity, I tried a version of the game with no bonus for hitting the flank or rear. 

I actually, mostly, preferred it. 

The previous bonus was so impactful that most games would come down to "who can flank most effectively" and while I knew this was going to be a "rank and flank" game, I didn't want it to be the only way. 

I'd previously tried a version of the game where flank and rear attacks got +1CD, instead of doubling the damage, but I landed somewhere slightly different (see the next section).

Supporting had always slightly annoyed me, as having these big block units in two ranks always looked a bit wrong, not to mention the strange situations that occur when you have a supported unit pivoting, or getting flanked and everything descending into a huge central scrum. So that's gone for now as well, and I've been enjoying battles that more readily use the width of the board. 

But you can't just remove the two most significant ways of causing big damage in the game! Surely everything just grinds to a halt and turns into the sort of attritional warfare I wanted to avoid, right?

So let's inject another one of those deliciously divisive chaotic elements. 

Shock

Gasp! A new rule! 

I didn't include separate morale rules in this game as (like in One Hour Wargames) I saw that all as being abstracted within the damaging and eventual breaking of the unit. Likewise, any attacking reluctance by a unit is modelled in the existence of the three "miss" results on the Combat Dice. But I wanted to try something out, so I first tested the idea that units would take 1CD of damage whenever they were charged on the flank/rear, when they became Shaken, or when an ally within 1 measure was Broken.

Well, the impact was huge! I rolled some unlikely results, but I saw a chain reaction rip through an army, with 4 units Breaking as a result of a single attack. The devil in me liked it, but really it just made me want to keep my units further apart from each other, which didn't feel right. 

So Shock now exists in a tempered form with just the first two triggers: Flank/Rear charge and becoming Shaken. It can cause small chain reactions, and lets me explore a new  design space with the Fearsome and Dauntless traits, but the jury isn't quite out on it yet.

Rallying

In reaction to a number of the changes above, Rallying is now slightly easier to do than before. You can basically do it in place of attacking, so a melee-based unit that's marching through fire is probably going to rally every turn. It's another Chaos element, so perhaps we're reaching critical mass, but I'd always rather test something that's about to explode rather than something that bores me to tears. 

So I'm granting myself a little more P10 testing this week before my break, then we'll return to the world of the primeval.

Thursday, 14 April 2022

Patching

This Bastionland Editorial was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site a week after its original publication.

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Calendars aren't my strong suit, but if this is Editorial #52 then I make that a (nearly) full year of doing these things (just conveniently ignoring those weeks that I skipped). I was initially hesitant about having my regular content on a delayed release for non-patrons, but it seems to have worked quite well. The only downside is that I change my mind so quickly that often the ideas I'm sharing are out of date by the time they hit the public blog. 

So let's see if I can make it to 100. 

Ben Milton's Glatisant Newsletter got me onto reading about Blorb Principles for running an RPG. Whether or not this particular style of play suits you, this principle-setting is a useful tool for focusing in on what elements you really want to keep in mind when running or playing a game. Better still, a shared set of principles for the table avoids those issues where the game drastically misses the expectations of one or more players. 

So, yes. Set principles. I think it's worth doing.

But what about this Blorb thing? I'm not going to repeat everything that's been written already, but it largely fits with my own style of play. In particular there's one section that nicely distills something I've never quite managed to put into words before. 

Quoted here (but you should absolutely go and read the full post): 

Three Tiers of Truth

The DM is asked a question like, for example: what’s in the office?

a. Look in the prep. Maybe this room is in there and the text says what is canonically in there, and you’re all set.

b. Otherwise, maybe you have a rule (“default offices have a stapler, a typewriter, a visitor’s chair” etc) or mechanic (such as a random room content table). Use that.

c. If you don’t have that either, make something up. Try to make it something that won’t help or harm the players too much. It can be evocative and build mood, but shouldn’t be 20 angry beholders (or 20 free healing potions). Don’t feel bad: allowing DMs to start small is how we get new DMs. But, patch the hole, or this category of holes, for future sessions. Then over time your DMing will get more and more solid.

Always work in that order, top to bottom, only falling to a lower tier of truth when you have to.

A campaign that’s built on all T2 and T3 truths isn’t as engaging as one that has some solid T1 framework in there (in a cloud, bones of steel), but as you patch holes (as T3 instructs you to) feel free to patch them with mechanics and general solutions (i.e. T2 truths). That’s you building a DM’s toolbox.

Yeah, of course I like the bit that essentially fits into a 3-bullet procedure. I've lingered around the idea of the "impartial GM" before, but never really committed too hard to it. This feels like a good, practical structure to put that idea into practice. 

But of course I need to make some initialism or acronym in order to wedge this into my brain, so I'm remembering the three tiers of truth as:

1: Prep
2: Procedure
3: Patch

The first two should be pretty self-explanatory. 

1: If it's written in your notes then don't change it because of stuff the players have done ahead of encountering it. This goes back to the quantum ogre and beyond, so not much for me to add here. 

2: If it's not in your notes and you have a rule or roll somewhere that's fit for purpose then use that to generate a new truth. All part of the appeal of encounter rolls, reaction rolls, morale checks. The stuff that makes the world feel dynamic and real even outside of the GM's notes. I'll stress here that there's a huge difference between "making a world feel real" and "making a realistic world" but that's one for another day. 

3: This is the one that I want to give more thought to. That essential GMing skill of making shit up when the players do something you weren't prepared for. I've joked before that this is the most important skill to cultivate, but here it's presented in a slightly more specific way.

You're patching a hole. You're here because you didn't prep for it and you don't have a procedure for it. Now that's not innately bad but on reflection I agree with the Blorb principles that if a game has too much of this I start to lose interest. The curtain starts to fall and the world feels a little less like a living place to explore.

The original principles suggest that you change up your prep to that next time a similar situation arises you can draw on one of the higher tiers of truth, but I'm more interested in the immediate patching that occurs in the gameplay.

In the same way that "describing failure" is trickier and more important than "describing success", I'm starting to think that I want to give more thought to the specifics of how I patch those holes that exist outside of the prep and the procedures. The original post has some good advice (don't invent anything too helpful or too harmful) but how about treating it as an opportunity. Just because you're avoiding being especially impactful to the characters doesn't mean you can't have an impact on the players.

Each time I have to patch a hole mid-game I'm going to make something up that checks at least one of the following:

  • Evoke the flavour of the world - the intent being to further solidify their sense of the greater world they're exploring
  • Indulge their senses - shameless attempts at immersion, putting the players right in the minds, ears, and noses of the characters
  • Reinforce something that they've already learned about this place - I'm not 100% sold on this one, as there's a degree of quantum ogre about it, but I also feel like you can never give players too many reminders

So using the original example of the players searching an office that you hadn't planned for, we could patch in three different ways if we were running a game in Bastion:

  • Evoke: The office is a mess. Under the piles of paperwork you can just make out dozens of stacked in-trays and out-trays. The desk is littered with dried up rubber stamps and empty pill bottles. 
  • Indulge: You're hit with the heady smell of correction-fluid, a large bottle of the white chemical spilt on the faded carpet and paperwork scattered throughout. 
  • Reinforce: The office looks abandoned, furnishings thrown to the ground and hastily searched. Presumably whoever looted the other rooms also had a good rummage through here. 

Sure you can shoot for all three at once, but we don't need to apply that level of pressure here. Remember, it's just patching the hole.