Thursday, 10 June 2021

Vanilla

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.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon.

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Anne and Richard have both written about the idea of French Vanilla and, this week especially, I've been feeling that appeal. Essentially the idea is that a setting can work really well if you accept some clichés, do them really well, and include just enough twists on that recipe to keep things interesting.

Electric Bastionland was written long before I'd heard this idea, but there's a lot of crossover with how I wanted to have relatable anchors to every bit of the world. Bastion feels like a city, ideally your city of familiarity, but weird. Same for Deep Country, and even the Underground has some familiar elements for anybody that's ridden the Tube or their subway of choice.

But I obviously leaned away from traditional D&D fantasy tropes, while keeping some of the structure. Yes, you hunt treasure and find magical items, but there aren't orcs to murder, dragons to flee from, or elves to buy bread from.

So perhaps it's all the time I've spent in that world that leaves me craving a little bit of that vanilla. I picked up the Young Adventurer's Guide after reading Sam's post about them, which sent me back to the D&D5e core books that I'd forgotten I still had. I've complained about how the game runs too slow for me, and I don't like some of the design of spells, class abilities, monsters, the adventures don't really appeal to me and... well, lots of things.

But I've sort of blocked those things out for this readthrough. I'm treating the three core books like an expanded version of those Young Adventurer Guides, which appealed to me through their utter removal of anything resembling game rules. So I'm reading through with an imaginary black marker in my hand, slapping mental REDACTED bars over anything that tries to introduce numbers or mechanics. Under that method, I actually quite enjoyed it!

I like the way planes are described in the DMG. It actually got me a bit excited to try and use them.

I like the way monster descriptions are broken down into little subheadings so that you can almost ignore the text underneath. Sahuagin get Devils of the Deep, Way of the Shark, and Elven Enmity? Okay, those three things give me something to work with.

I even like all that character fluff like traits, ideals and flaws if you remove the inspiration mechanic that's attached to them.

So what, I'm going to run some ultra-light FKR D&D?

Yeah. If I can flesh out this idea enough, I think I might just do that. Like a pallet-cleanser after so long away from the table.

French Vanilla Sorbet.

Monday, 7 June 2021

A Primordial System (and its Fighter)

Continuing on from this and the monsters I made here, I've given a bit more thought to this extremely stripped-back, qualitative system, drawing on a lot of FKR inspiration.

A key thing I want to emphasis here is that this text is not the game. These barest rules and guidance are just a tool to allow the game to happen. It isn't a game until you've got the actual moving pieces to bang against each other, typically some interesting characters in an exciting situation. 

So really, this is the easy part. Let's look at it.

PRIMORDIAL SYSTEM

Characters

Player Characters are defined by words, not numbers. Typically this consists of one or more of the following contained in a playbook, with blank spaces left for expansion:

  • Tags: Words or short phrases that help you to remember key qualities of your character. These may come and go as the game progresses, especially through injuries and other temporary conditions. 
  • Facts: Truths about the world that your character knows, and may be in a unique position to exploit. These can be techniques, contacts, maps, or really anything that can be written/drawn.
  • Gear: Important pieces of equipment, though your character can be assumed to carry other common items based on their Tags.

Action

If your action is Unchallenged, then there is no need to roll unless you are pushing for an extra benefit. 

When there is opposition or risk to your action, weigh up whether you have an Edge. Generally this means you have the upper hand through careful preparations, innate capabilities, or specialist tools. If the obstacles or opposition facing you outweighs these, then you do not have an Edge. 

Roll 2d12. Keep the High die if you have an Edge, and Low if you don’t. Consult the chart for an answer to the question “Do I get my desired outcome?”.

Whatever the outcome, things move forward.


Who has the Edge?


This is left down to the GM’s adjudication after discussion with the players. If it is unclear then consider the following rules of thumb:

  • Fear the Unknown - If the players are heading into an unknown situation or taking on an opponent they do not understand, it is difficult for them to have an Edge. 
  • Reward a Plan - If the players are carrying out a carefully prepared plan based on good information, favour them. 
  • Favour the Active - If all else appears even, give the edge to whichever side is currently taking action.


Failure


When you suffer harm you can Ask the Stars for the fallout or go with the narratively appropriate result. This is marked as a tag and affects your future actions. 


Typically when something goes wrong, the GM does one of the following:

  1. Threaten - Create a new problem

  2. Escalate - Amplify an existing problem

  3. Impact - Have a problem deliver on its threat


These do not need to be performed in order, but problems must be established as a Threat before they Escalate or Impact. 


Threaten - Create a new problem

At this stage the problem is really a threat. It’s something that will cause permanent fallout if left untended. 

The Troll pins your Ranger up against a wall.


Escalate - Amplify an existing problem

The stakes of a problem are raised, now posing a higher threat or making itself more difficult to address, but still not fully realised as a permanent consequence. 

The Troll squeezes the air out of the Ranger, they start to black out.


Impact - Have a problem deliver on its threat

An existing problem transforms into a permanent consequence. 

The Troll throws the seemingly lifeless Ranger down to the ground.



Success


When you succeed with an action you typically get the outcome that you were aiming for, but the actual level of impact should be considered.


Typically when the players succeed at an action intended to solve a problem, the GM does one of the following:

  1. Advance - Move in a favourable direction. 

  2. Disrupt - Lessen the threat of a problem.

  3. Resolve - Put the problem to rest. 


These do not need to be performed in order, but major problems may require an Advance or Disrupt action before they can be Resolved. 


Advance - Move in a Favourable Direction

Turn the situation in the players’ favour in a long or short-term way. 

The Troll is preoccupied with rummaging through the Ranger’s backpack, letting the Fighter move behind it undetected. 


Disrupt - Lessen the threat of the problem.

The stakes of a problem are lowered, now posing a weaker threat or making itself easier to address, but still not fully resolved. 

The fighter stabs the troll through the back, leaving a gushing wound. It  staggers back, lowering its guard.


Resolve - Put the problem to rest. 

The threat is removed, usually on a permanent basis. Characters may have one more chance to lessen the harm caused, but it cannot be nullified. The fighter plunges a lit torch into the Troll’s wound, causing it to scream and shrivel into a broken heap.




Playbook - Fighter


Calling - Choose 1:

  • Money - Start with a heavy purse of coins.

  • Duty - You always have one more breath of fight within you.

  • Bloodlust - You are unaffected by the horrors of battle,


Physique - Choose 1:

  • Strong - You can perform acts of prodigious strength. 

  • Swift - You always get to attack before your opponent. 

  • Scarred - You have a number of war stories to inspire or terrify. 



Weapons - Choose 3 that you are carrying: 

Shortsword: Built for quick, precise thrusts at close range. 

Longsword: A versatile weapon with no real weaknesses. 

Greatsword: Heavy and slow, but able to cause massive damage. 

Battleaxe: Can be wielded clumsily in one hand, or confidently in two. Best against slower, armoured enemies. 

Mace: Good balance of speed and armour-breaking impact. 

Flail: A heavy, clumsy weapon that is difficult to block with a shield or parry with a weapon. 

Warhammer: An impact weapon designed to break through even heavily armoured enemies. 

Spear: The king of weapons if you can keep your enemy at a safe distance or set against their charge. 

Halberd: Unwieldy, but ideal for keeping armoured enemies at bay and tackling larger foes. 

Shortbow: A quick and combat missile weapon.

Crossbow: Heavy but accurate, with an armour-piercing punch.



Armour - Start with a Shield and either Leather, Chain, or Splint Armour:

Shield: Good all-round protection, shattering under especially heavy blows. 

Leather: Light protection but high manoeuvrability.

Chain: Good protection against bladed attacks. 

Scale: Medium protection and good manoeuvrability, but still heavy over long distance. 

Splint: Heavy protection, but clumsy and heavy. 

Plate: The ultimate protection, and surprisingly good mobility, but loud, expensive and requires fitting. 



Manoeuvres

These are but a few manoeuvres that can be learned. Add those you learn to this list.


Bull Rush: If you can catch an opponent off-balance, or overpower them, you can push them backward or down onto their back. 

Cleave: When you kill with a decisive blow you can follow-through to immediately attack another nearby enemy. 

Deathblow: If you can wear down an opponent beforehand you can deliver a brutal killing blow.

Duel: You are in your element when you isolate an armed enemy and give them your full attention.  

Grapple: When you have at least one free hand you can grab an enemy, making yourself difficult to dislodge and potentially taking them to the ground. 

Second Wind: Once per fight you can take a moment to recompose yourself, returning to the fight with renewed vigour. 

Sword Spell: If you ever discover means of using spells you can channel their power into your weapons.



Formations

When fighting as a group of 3 or more, formations may grant an edge in certain situations.


Column: Allows swift and agile movement. 

Echelon: A recessed line that can drive the enemy toward the recessed side.

Lance: If you hit hard enough on the charge you break through the enemy formation, splitting them in two. 

Line: Allows you to fire as one in a volley, which can leave the targets shaken. 

Pincer: When you outnumber your enemies you can round their flanks, with devastating effect. 

Square: 1-in-5 of your formation can hold the centre of the square, protected from outside attack. 

Wall: If half or more of your formation have large shields then you gain an edge against charging opponents.

Friday, 4 June 2021

Expectations

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.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon.

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Expectations

Looking at Qualitative Design has got me thinking about Expectations that RPGs carry. Again, I'm throwing back to the manifesto, where I say:

When you learn about a new game your mind races with what could be possible. The reality is often a compromise. I want to remove everything that stands in the way between how you imagine a game could be and how it plays at the table.

My first exposure to tabletop games was through Warhammer Fantasy Battles, and I don't think I can overstate how little context I had for this new hobby that was unfolding in front of me at age 10. I didn't have any friends that already knew about it, there wasn't a handy website or video I could watch to explain it, and I wouldn't get an actual rulebook for months after buying my first few miniatures. 

So my monthly exploration was limited to what I could glean from White Dwarf. Battle Reports were a lifeline here, where I could pour over them and try to imagine how this thing would actually work on my own dining table. 

Years later I would go through a similar experience with D&D, when I picked up the 3rd Edition core books and mostly experienced them through reading about other people's games on forums, with the occasional dissatisfying facsimile of a game on pbp or irc. 

In a way, nothing can live up to those naïve imaginings. I never used to imagine hitting a rule that we don't understand, our game grinding to a halt. I never imagined being matched up in a game with that player who ruins it for everybody else. I didn't imagine having an idea for a daring gambit and being told that I should really just do the boring thing instead. 

I don't think this imagined perfect game is necessarily worth chasing in earnest, but that endless pursuit has been core to so much of what I try to do with my games. 

Did you have an expectation with games that never quite survived reality?

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Rules Heavy - Worlds and Classes

Lots of fantasy worlds rely on a sort of fairy-tale logic, often taking the form of absolute rules. Lots of these made the transition over to D&D.

  • Vampires cannot enter a home unless invited.
  • Minotaurs can never get lost.
  • Hags always gather as a coven of three. 
Except these two, apparently. Maybe the snake is a witch? See how rules provoke interesting solutions?

You might have heard some of these before you even played an RPG, just through old stories. Then you get weird D&D inventions that bring their own rules. Stuff you could only really know from playing or at least reading about this game.

  • Black Puddings split in two if hit with slashing weapons or lightning. 
  • Sleep spells don't work on Elves.
  • A Rust Monster's touch corrodes any ferrous, non-magical metal. 

I love these Absolutes in monster design, especially in comparison to more watered-down versions of these effects. In writing this post I was looking through the 5e Monster Manual and was shocked to see that sunlight merely causes a Vampire 20 damage (out of 144hp as standard) and disadvantage on some rolls. That's the same amount of damage it can regenerate each turn once it gets back into the shadows. I can feel the disappointment of luring the vampire into just the right spot before blowing a hole in their castle wall, letting the burning sunlight fill the room before... they are dropped to 124hp and run to the shade to recover. 

I'm not necessarily advocating for instant-dusting here, but this is a rule of the world that I'm trying to exploit here, and I want to feel like that was clever play! Maybe they get just one chance to escape or the sunlight pins them in place while they slowly sear. 

But I sort of want there to be a rule there. Not a mechanic like "take 20 damage and disadvantage", but a proper rule of this fantasy world. Vampires turn to dust in sunlight. 

See, I spend so much time talking about tearing rules off systems and throwing them into the bin, but I get the appeal of rules. There's a part of me that enjoys learning them, and I feel the satisfaction that comes with exploiting them to your advantage. But for me, the joy of using fictional rules to lure a Vampire into a track far outweighs that of finding two feats that synergise with each other to grant me higher damage output. 

It all fits into this Qualitative Design thing I've been going on about. I'm keen to try this out with an actual game now that I'm finally able to get some friends around a table, most likely something like this:

If your action is Unchallenged, then there is no need to roll unless you are pushing for an extra benefit. 

When there is opposition or risk to your action, weigh up whether you have an Edge. Generally this means you have the upper hand through careful preparations, innate capabilities, or specialist tools. If the obstacles or opposition facing you outweighs these, then you do not have an Edge. 

Roll 2d12. Keep the High die if you have an Edge, and Low if you don’t. Consult the chart for an answer to the question “Do I get my desired outcome?”.

Whatever the outcome, things move forward.

When you suffer harm you can Ask the Stars for the fallout or go with the narratively appropriate result. This is noted where appropriate and affects your future actions. 

Very FKR, I think. 

Talking about this is all well and good, but I wanted to put it into practice through character design, dipping into the idea of playbooks. Nothing new, of course, but I like the idea of giving each player a small, folded-A4 playbook that gives you rules of the world, rather than a new set of mechanics to learn. A wizard's should feels more like a spellbook than a rulebook. A fighter's might list the ins-and-outs of all those specialist weapons and manoeuvres that can be attempted. A rogue's might contain some actual exploits that your character knows about getting around the city, perhaps coming pre-loaded with contacts, secrets, and even tip-offs. 

And these are truths that might not be confined to your character. That same fighter can explain to the thief how a Warhammer is the perfect tool for the job in this situation, which might just give them the edge they need in the fight to come. Forget niche protection. Don't you want to share your cool stuff with your friends? 

There's some similarity with PBTA here, of course, but I think there's an important distinction here. PBTA moves exist in a weird limbo where some advice tells the players to never speak the name of the Move, but the name Moves lures you in like a big button you want to press. 

I want this book to almost exist diegetically (take a shot). This is stuff your character knows, or at least has written somewhere. 

So let's try this out with the Ranger.



Intro

A Ranger is a traveller charged with upholding the laws of the wild, but you know some tricks to exploiting them too.


The Laws of the Wild

  • You have sworn to uphold the Laws of Beasts, Day, and Night. 
  • These laws apply in any wilderness, even where it exists in small pockets. 
  • Any that swear to the life of a Ranger can use the exploits below for as long as they uphold their responsibilities.

Laws of Beasts

  • The territory of beasts must be respected - Studying a beast’s behaviour in secret reveals something about their surroundings. 

  • The wisdom of beasts must be respected - By consuming a small piece of their diet and making them comfortable you can hold simple conversations with an animal.

  • The strength of beasts must be respected - If you and an animal swear to protect each other, you begin to share each other’s senses and emotions.  This bond grows over time, with ranger and companion taking on traits of the other. 


Laws of Day

  • Safe passage must be granted to those that mean no harm - While travelling through the Wilderness you can never be surprised.

  • The land must provide for respectful travellers - While travelling through the wilderness you can always find a vantage point, hiding place, or food source.

  • The sun must be granted its followers - You can strip some wood from a tree without damaging it. If you do so, the wood whispers something to you about the history of this place.


Laws of Night

  • The night must remain dark - You can see in the dark in places rich with wildlife.

  • The night must remain calm - You can move silently under starlight. 

  • The night must be allowed to sing - You can mimic animal noises while under moonlight.


Necessary Slaying

Creatures that breach the laws of nature should rightfully be destroyed. There are numerous techniques to aid in this.


The Hunt

  • If you have a piece of a creature, or sample of their leavings, they are easier to track. 

  • If you witness a creature attacking another target, you are more adept at avoiding their attacks. 

  • When you witness a new behaviour in an unnatural creature you may ask the GM a yes/no question.


The Kill

  • If you have time to line up an attack from above your accuracy is near-absolute.

  • If you witness a creature suffering harm you get a clue to its weak point. 

  • If a creature begs you for mercy, you get a clue to the source of its unnatural evil. 


The Tribute

  • Spilling a slain creature’s blood returns a spoiled environment to its natural state. 

  • Preserving a slain creature’s heart grants a single instance of protection against its unnatural ability.

  • Working a slain creature’s bones into weaponry grants an edge against similar monstrosities, but makes the weapon fragile. 


Survival Gear

You know of the following, but there are more to be discovered. You start with two:

  • Wildrope: A strong rope that blends perfectly into its surroundings.

  • Signal Daggers: Small blades that can be easily concealed, thrown with great accuracy, and always catch the sunlight.

  • Wire Snare: A simple trap, strong enough to harmlessly entangle most mundane creatures.

Lots left open to interpretation, of course, but that's just sort of where I am right now. Perhaps my mood will change when I have to actually use these rules with other people at a table. 

I'd like to expand this with some extra sections with blanks left to be filled in. Perhaps the Ranger notes things they have learned from their travels in here. Maybe they even start the game with a scribbled map, encouraging them to fill the blanks as we go. 

There's nothing to stop other players from doing this, of course, but by putting those sections square in front of the Ranger player you're setting some expectations.