Tuesday 31 March 2020

Bastionland (Non-)Conversion Guide

One of the most frequently asked questions I see from people that are picking up Electric Bastionland is "how do I convert monsters from Basic/5e/Maze Rats to Electric Bastionland?"

With regards to 5e, I wrote about this almost six years ago, but that was intended to be much less prescriptive than it came out.

Really I feel much the same about conversion guides as I do to monster design itself. I could try and give you a formula that lets you pull a monster straight from the 5e Monster Manual and use it with Bastionland, but it doesn't really get to the heart of how I see the place of monsters in the game.

There are things that are important in monster design when you're playing a game focused around tactical combat, where characters are most defined by their mechanical tools for interacting with this system of attack rolls, status effects, and grid-positioning. Bastionland isn't that sort of game, so if you want to transplant the 5e Chain Devil into your game, simply applying a recommended fraction to each of the numbers isn't going to result in an especially exciting creature.

We can make a method out of this. It's not something you can plug into a spreadsheet, but if you do it a few times it'll feel so much like second nature that you can just convert things on the fly.

It looks complex, but remember the goal is to reach a point where you don't need the list.

Bastionland Monster Conversion Guide
  • Read over the information you have for the monster you'd like to convert. Get a real feel for the monster. Imagine what they're going to do in your game, where you might put them, what they might do to the players. Try to translate the numbers on the page into a living creature in your mind.
  • Is it particularly strong or weak? 
    • If not, leave STR at 10. You don't even need to write this down, as it's the default.
    • If particularly strong give it a STR around 14. If it's top-tier in this area then give it the full 18. 
    • If particularly weak, give it a STR around 6. If it's utterly deficient in this area then give it STR 3. 
  • Repeat the above for DEX and CHA.
  • How good is this thing at staying alive? This isn't so much raw physique as fighting spirit. 
    • If it's not all that fighty then give it d6hp or pick a number in that range.
    • If it's got some fight about it then give it 2d6hp or pick a number in that range.
    • If this is a serious, boss-style creature, give it 3d6hp or any number up to 18 if you want it to be a seriously tough opponent to take down. Be careful here, as HP sponges can be a bit of a drag in practice.
  • Does it have armour or other notable toughness?
    • If so, start with Armour 1.
    • Would you call it "heavily armoured?" If so, raise to Armour 2.
    • Is it basically made out of armour? Like a robot or living statue? Armour 3. 
  • Any special immunities? Just make them immune to that sort of damage. 
    • If you don't want to go for full immunity, have certain types of damage be Impaired against them, but I'd urge you to go big when it comes to monster design. 
  • What's its most obvious form of attack?
    • Pick a damage die between a sword (d6) and a naval cannon (d12). 
    • Can it reasonably target multiple targets? If so consider giving it two of these attacks.
    • Can it reasonably target a whole bunch of targets? Give it Blast damage.
    • Does it do something really nasty as a sort of "finishing move"? Have that effect occur when it causes Critical Damage.
  • Does it have any weird offensive abilities that don't feel right as Damage? 
    • Would it be terrible if it could make them happen without even using dice? Just put it in as one of the creature's three "moves". 
    • Do you want it to be more unreliable? Give the target a Save to avoid. 
  • Does it have another weird ability that isn't really an attack? Just let them do it. Put it in their "moves". 
    • If this feels like too much (again I'd urge you to try it) then give it a certain restriction in its use.

Let's do that example

Chain Devil
Ability Scores: I'd say this guy is pretty strong (15) and dexterous (15). His CHA isn't really a factor.
Fighting Spirit: He's pretty serious, but not really a boss. I'd put him at the higher end of 2d6 (9hp)
Armour: He's covered in chains, so definitely counts as Armoured (1). I wouldn't call him heavily armoured. 
Immunities: I know devils traditionally get a bunch of immunities, but without looking at the stat block there isn't anything that leaps out for this guy, so let's keep him as he is.
Attacks: He can throw his chains around. I wouldn't say he throws enough for a Blast, but definitely giving him two attacks. The chains feel like a step up from swords, so they can do d8 damage.
Finishing Move: Feels like there should be something here that we can tie into the traditional grapple effect of chains. On Critical Damage he starts to drain the target's soul, causing d12 CHA loss repeating each turn. When they reach CHA 0 their soul is utterly drained. 
Other Abilities: It can animate chains, attacking with them as if it were holding them. I'll limit this to two chains in addition to its own two chain attacks.
Weird Abilities: So apparently it can change its face to resemble a loved one or bitter enemy. Don't really need any mechanics here, this is just a nice bit of horrible flavour for the monster.

We're done! I'll just throw in one extra move to give it a bit of a weakness. 

Chain Devil
STR 15, DEX 15, 9hp, Armour 1. 
Two chains (d8 each. d12 CHA loss on Critical Damage and every round afterwards unless the victim is freed. Drains their soul at CHA 0)
  • Animates up to two chains (in addition to its own) that can lash out (d8)
  • Changes its face to resemble a departed loved one or bitter enemy
  • Withers to a husk if separated from its chains

Thursday 26 March 2020

Difficulty in Bastionland

Electric Bastionland doesn't have modifiers, difficulty classes, or many of the mechanics that other games use to differentiate between an easy task and a hard task.

There are other ways to make vaulting over a garden fence feel different to scaling a brick wall crowned with barbed wire. 

Difficult sleeping conditions

This ties in nicely to a little manifesto I've been working on. As discussed previously, I'm now working on Bastionland full-time, so I wanted to have a set of guidelines that I can use to focus my thinking. Something I can draw on if I'm ever stuck on a difficult decision.

That will be its own post further down the line, but one part feels relevant here:
Distillation Method
  • Replace multiple rolls with one roll
  • Replace rolls with interesting decisions
  • Replace modifiers with dice variation
  • Replace mechanical effects with diegetic effects

Like all methods, this isn't the answer to everything. You could boil everything down until there are no rolls, no mechanics, everything is diegetic, but that isn't the goal here. It's about carefully considering every new rule and roll that you include in the game and questioning whether it's justifying its own weight.

A Note on Diegesis
For the unfamiliar, diegetic content is something that exists within the fiction of the piece. Film music is the classic example. The radio playing in the background is diegetic, the orchestral film score that only the audience can hear is non-diegetic. Emmy talked about this over on her blog. Essentially I want the conversation at the table to be mostly about what's happening to our characters in their world, not the mechanics of the numbers on our sheets and rules in our books. As Emmy explained, it's not always a case that diegetic = good and non-diegetic = bad. I use non-diegetic elements in Bastionland (Ability Scores, HP, Damage) but I'd like to keep the focus elsewhere. 

Grappling a giant octopus is difficult because it has eight arms with vicious suckers, not because it has 5 HD, an innate +5 to grapple and the "multi-arm-combat" feat

It ties into another point in my manifesto. 
Rules are False Idols
Use dice mechanics and technical terminology as little as possible. Numbers are not the answer, and wherever possible plain speech is preferred. 
It's a bit overwrought but these are intended to keep me on track, so it pays to be a little heavy-handed when it comes to self-disciple. I find the temptation with game design is to add complexity to simple things and simplify complex things until you inevitably end up in the middle ground. I want to make a deliberate effort to make simple games with lots of flavour. That's my place on the spectrum, and I love it here. 

So onto the main point of this post.

Variable Difficulty in Electric Bastionland

Even without the traditional mechanical tricks, there are a number of ways to make certain tasks feel more difficult than others. 

What about adding in D&D 5e style Advantage/Disadvantage as a House Rule?

No! This is a good example of a rule that adds very little complexity, and might seem like an easy add-on, but really it goes against the spirit of the game. The exclusion of mechanical difficulty variation was a deliberate choice to move the game's focus away from chasing mechanical advantages, and more towards diegetic conversation as detailed above. I can't stop people adding this rule into their hacks of the game, but I'd strongly advise trying some other methods first.

Instead, if you think the players would be facing a significant advantage or disadvantage to their roll, consider the following. This advantage/disadvantage could come from the situation being especially favourable/unfavourable or from them making especially clever/foolish preparations.

No single one of these fits all situations, so think of them like options on your tool belt.


Free Entry
If the situation is safely in their favour, or the risk has been minimised, does this even need to be a roll? Reward them for their good planning and fortuitous circumstances and just let it happen. Using the brick wall example, if the players take time to pin footholds in place and support each other with rope then there's no need to call for a roll.

Enhanced Success
There's still a risk, so the roll remains, but if they can pull it off then the rewards will be much greater. Imagine the players are trying to get inside a family crime syndicate. They've spent a bunch of money on a charm offensive, trying to get in with the big boss at a fancy ball. On a fail he'll still see through your scheme, but if you pass then maybe you've gone beyond just making a contact. Maybe he's thinking of ushering you directly into the inner circle.

Lower Risk
As a flip-side to the above, some advantages act as a safety net. If the risk is completely removed then there's no need for a roll, but this assumes that there are still consequences for failure. If you've donned an appropriate disguise for your attempt to infiltrate a library then when you're caught by the night watchman you may be sent on your way as a wayward student, rather than than hauled into the cells for interrogation as a spy. 


Barrier to Entry
Sometimes the situation is so bad that you can tell the players "no, this won't work" and start to discuss alternatives. It may be that they need to find a new way to approach this obstacle or maybe abandon it entirely. If your rival has drenched the cliff-face you were hoping to scale with slippery oil then it may be completely inaccessible. Either find a way to disperse the oil or take another route entirely.

Mixed Success
On a good day a success may have meant you breeze past this obstacle, but here the situation is so bad that even at-best you're only going to get a mixed success. A farmhand from Deep Country on their first day in Bastion could be masquerading as a legal clerk, but they're never going to convince the judge that they're a fully qualified solicitor. They might just muddle by for long enough to get one piece of the information they need before being ushered away. 

Increased Risk
Again, the reverse of the above. Leaping over pits is a tired dungeon-crawling example, but I think it works here. Failing to leap over a ten-foot deep pit might cause d8 damage on a fall. Replace that with a thirty foot plummet into grinding machinery and I think it's a fair situation to bring out the fabled Save-or-Die. Note that I would only bring out instant death as a consequence when you've hammered the point home to the players that this is a Save or Die situation, and they're under no obligation to go through with the action. These are the sort of consequences I want players to choose to meddle with, not something I'd spring on them in the general course of play. 

But before you use any of these...

Don't underestimate how much can be covered by a regular old roll. If the situation warrants you calling for a Saving Throw then you don't need to over-complicate matters. Sometimes it's just a STR Save. Electric Bastionland is meant to play differently to a game where the GM sets target numbers and applies seven +2 and -2 modifiers to the roll. It's fast, it's simple, and remember that the tools above should only be used as a response to exceptionally good/bad planning from the players or beneficial/harmful factors coming from the world around them. They should only be used with the goal of creating interesting decisions or and encouraging clever play.

Let their decision to swim into the belly of the whale be the death of them, but have them blame themselves, not the whale.

Note on Transparency
I'd always advise being open with your players about the difficulty of the task. It can feel dissatisfying to think a situation is in your favour, ace the roll, and then face a mixed success as the result. One of the mantras in Bastionland is "If in doubt, give more information than you might think" and it's crucial to the methods discussed above.