Sunday, October 30, 2016

Filthy Lucre

Monsters Traps and Treasure, the three cornerstones of fantasy adventures.  Today I'm going to discuss the third: Treasure.

Treasure comes in all sorts of forms.  From simple coin to marvelous magical items. Traps and monsters present a difficulty to adventurers, so why not their treasure as well?  Some ideas for treasures to liven things ups a bit.

Wizards.  Magic users both good and evil are probably packing their A game on them.  Their home be it a hut or a tower probably has their half completed, discarded, and otherwise incomprehensible pursuit of knowledge and/or power.  So this is really a great time to go crazy with those random treasure charts.  From bizarre ingredients that probably don't interest anybody (except the magic user in the party!) to obscure items that made perfect sense to the old conjurer, but you'll never know because your rouge was just a bit too good at that sneak attack. 

Old coins: Piles of coins in forgotten tombs.  For simplicities sake, most games use a base 10 coin system with copper silver and gold.  When they find old treasure though, have it be in some ridiculous coinage that no one accepts any longer.  For simplicities sake you can say that X many coins = 1 gp of value.  While some parties will avoid taking piles of copper because it just isn't worth the weight value.  They will probably take unknown coins until they get back to town and find them having low value.  (of course you can just as easily flip this and have them be rare and valuable to some collector)  Either way though the coins just can't be "spent" without having to be sold, or melted down for their base metal value.

Sure it has a value, but you can always charge them for someone having to melt it down or exchange it etc.  This can also be a great (read:evil) way to manage some player wealth if they hall out a ton of coins to find them having almost no value.  You can also do this for foreign coins and so forth, you can easily justify skimming 10% off the value of any coins found as an usurer's fee. 

Foreign coins: Similar to the old coins, you can find coins from a foreign land that cannot be immediately spent.  The party will have to choose to hold onto the coins in the event they travel to that area, or will have to pay an usurer to convert the coinage to what they can spend locally. (10% is a good fee.)

Crystal, Porcelain and other fragile items.  You're party has found an exquisitely carved crystal statue easily worth a kings ransom half way though the dungeon.  Now they have to protect this super fragile object while they continue on- or have to turn around and return to town to ensure they can exit with their prize.  Of course this is a great thing to include after their entry route has been closed off or collapsed, so forward is the only way.

The baseball card.  In the movie Goonies the kids find the body of Chester Copperpot, while looking for the pirate treasure. In his wallet is a Lou Gehrig baseball card worth a small fortune in and of itself.  The don't realize the value and move on.  Include some item of great value placed innocuously in a dungeon, and the party should ignore it.  After they get to the next town etc. show them similar (or the same) item as being of immense value. 

Magical items:  Magical items can serve a wonderful duel purpose.  It can be treasure, but it can also be a trap.  After all, magical items are made by wizards whose purpose and rational are known only to them, and not everything need be as it seems.  A sword laying about may be the obvious +1.  While I'm sure no one would complain about it, what about a wizard who was experimenting on pacifism.  The sword still grants +1 to whomever uses it, but after a week of possession, the sword the user must make a save to initiate combat, give a -1 modifier to the save for every additional week.
The magical item might be part of a collection of items.  The magical item restores health, later the players can find the chambers that suck the life out of prisoners that fuel the magical item they have been using.   Let your imagination run wild.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Learning Chinese and sanity loss

Many moons ago I had the wonderful opportunity to take a crash course in Cantonese. Three months of full days of language training taking me from not knowing a single word, to... well... running out of time to learn more Chinese before I went to Hong Kong.  You see in those three months, my classmates and I did learn some Chinese.  Towards the end of the class I realized that we were in fact speaking a strange secret language unknown to the rest of the world.  No one else around us in the language training center could understand us (they weren't learning Cantonese!) but I was pretty sure that no one in Hong Kong would understand us either.  Our small group had become separated from everyone else because of the knowledge we held.

So what does this have to do with gaming?

In Call of Cthulhu and many other weird/horror games there is some sort of sanity mechanic.  How well can you hold it together when you have encountered the fantastic cosmic horror that doesn't care about you or your cat, Mittens.

Most of the time this loss of sanity is articulated with some mechanic to make the character "go crazy" and true to the writings of Lovecraft it should.  His protagonists are often on the verge of committing suicide, being unable to continue on with their newfound knowledge, with others committed to asylums for their discoveries.

Sanity loss needn't be relegated to developing restrictive dementias added to a character sheet.  Sanity loss can instead be a measure of how well the character can fit into society.  The act of simply knowing (the truth) can be enough to have them locked away in a nut house.   

After witnessing cultists, with the assistance of their otherworldly assistants, attempting to summon some eldritch evil, the investigators go to the local police to get help.

If the tell everything they have seen, at best they may be considered a nuisance, at worst they may be locked away as a danger to themselves and others because the claims in and of themselves are outlandish and ridiculous. 

A character who has read forbidden tomes and gained magical abilities would be mocked at best or condemned by a church at worst. 

So encountering weird and horrific things can be their own curse, but sanity mechanics can still come into play.

Sanity loss can measure how well the character can keep their mouth shut.  It is human nature to want to talk.  (Most of Lovecraft's writings are couched as some sort of confessional) The more sanity loss a character suffers, the more they feel a need to talk about what they have seen.  The therapy rules fit in nicely with this as the character is venting their experience and thus regain sanity points

Sanity loss as a partial breakdown.  You don't have to throw out the weird quirks and dementias completely.  You can provide legitimate information regarding the horrors the character has encountered.  If the character is told that the things can travel through shadows, the character will naturally be apprehensive around them, and may take actions to eliminate them whenever possible.  There is a rational reason for the character to perform the act, but to everyone else the actions are the fruit of an unstable mind.  Of course you can just as easily provide inaccurate information and let the character react to false information.

Sanity loss as a complete breakdown.  Of course the persons mind can just snap not being able to handle what they have seen.  Heart attacks from fear, or loss of hope, or ability to function  these can all occur as well. But much like character death, as a GM, I find these far more interesting to use as a threat rather than an actual event.

Sanity loss as a measurement of separation from the group is the same as learning Chinese slowly  separated my group from those around us until we reverted to the norm of speaking English.

Oh, and one of the high points for me was when I realized that the word "mogwai" from the movie Gremlins was the Cantonese word for demon and not just a made up name for the type of critter gizmo was. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Rules heavy or rules light?

I started playing Dungeons and Dragons back in 2nd Edition, but it isn't my favorite rule system (I mean really, does anyone love Thac0?).  3rd Edition (3.5 or Pathfinder if you prefer) was the high point for me, in the dungeons and dragons franchise, even though it has its own problems.  4th edition just didn't interest me at all and although I've heard good things about 5th ed I just haven't gotten around to playing it at all.

While I like a lot of different systems for a lot of different reasons, my two preferred systems for fantasy games are Hackmaster 5th Edition, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP).

Hackmaster 5th Edition.  Still in its relative infancy, the core books are all out, it was born from the previous edition that spoofed a lot of the classic TSR rules and modules (and is actually a pretty good set all on its own), and their original western game Aces and Eights.  What you get is a rule set that captures a lot of the feel of the original dungeons and dragons, but with lots of detail.  The game repeatedly makes the point that it is a game of tough choices.  You do have to choose between armor to protect yourself or the freedom of movement to not get hit.  While it is fairly rules and dice heavy, there are a lot of tools to keep things moving and everyone engaged during combat.  It provides a fine level of granularity to the game.  The gamemaster book has great advice on how to set up adventures and make them engaging and award players not just for combat but for clever thinking and story advancement.  The only downside of the game I would say is that I am too old.  I don't just feel like whipping up a new monster or converting stuff over to the rules from other systems. 

On the other end of the spectrum is LotFP.  It is an OSR clone that takes a very rules light approach to the game.  When I first introduced it to players some balked at it because the fighter class was the only class that advanced in combat abilities.  I saw this as a feature though, as in many other systems the magic user classes soon eclipse the non-magic classes in versatility and power.  In this way the fighter remains the king of combat.  The balance come in little things like there are no monsters with armor better than plate mail, so even a non-combat class has a chance to affect physical combat at any level.  Pretty much any adjustment I need to make on the fly during the game can be made with a +/- 1 or 2 to a roll and move on.  The adventures published by LotFP is where the game really shines.  Most of the adventures are system neutral and so can be easily ported to any game (I might even take the effort to port them to Hackmaster!) because they aren't filled with combat for combat's sake.  If a monster is present, there is generally only one and it is an important part of the story rather than just an encounter.  Like Call of Cthulhu though, the adventures are harsh and unforgiving. 
The downside is that I have had players quit because of these adventures.

There are plenty of other systems that I like for specific games too.  Usually because the rules provide incentive to, or not to do certain types of behavior in the game, or help establish the feel the game is going for.

I like Deadlands classic for this reason, it uses a poker decks and chips to assist in the game mechanics, which provide a unique system that helps with the whole wild west theme.  It is far more complex then the streamlined savage worlds rules, but I think it also provides a lot more depth.  One of my favorite bits is the use of "wind" and "wounds" which is much like non lethal vs. lethal damage, but also handles the wider range of terror, needing to catch your breath etc. compared to a broken leg or a shot up gut.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The four horsemen of the apocalypse

Plague, Famine, War, and Death

There are lots of mechanics in systems for dealing with these.  Saves vs. diseases, rules for starvation, mass combat rules, and of course how to deal with escrow when your character buys the farm.  These are all great, but can also be somewhat tedious as I’ve always liked these to be motivators for characters in stories rather than something players directly interface with because it seems kind of anti-climactic to have a character die of dysentery, the pox, a random bit of shrapnel.  So I humbly submit some ways to incorporate these horrors into a setting without squashing the players, or reducing these tragedy's to some dice rolls.

Plague.  Disease comes in a wide variety of vectors, fatality rates, and horrible symptoms.  My rule of thumb is give a 1 in 10 chance each time a player returns to an area/building where there is an NPC they would normally interact with (inn-keeper, shop-keeper, or named NPC), the NPC is unavailable due to the plague (sick, dead, or dealing with family in those states).  Mind you the black plague is given the variable of killing 30-60% of Europe.  Have the occasional NPC cough or express a minor symptom (feel free to fake some rolls here if you want to keep the players on edge).  Express the smell of sickness is in the air. 

     Quarantine:  An NPC expresses the plague symptoms in the building the characters are in and the building is quarantined until everyone with the symptoms dies. 
     Random encounters all have their initial reaction reduced one level due to fear that the PCs might be carrying the plague. 
     A character receives a message that a far off family member has contracted the plague

Symptom examples:
Light: Headache, light sensitivity, cough, congestion, light headedness, gas, indigestion
Moderate: Nausea, Constipation,  boils, oozing sores, breathing issues, fainting
Severe: Vomiting, Dysentery, bleeding sores, cough up blood, coma,

Famine.  The law of supply and demand.  Food is available, otherwise everyone would just die in a week.  The problem is there are too many people for the food available.  Food should be expensive.  Double or triple the price.  Paint the scene by expressing the lack of what is normally in the background.  Animals are scarce, dogs aren’t heard barking and cats aren’t meowing when characters approach.  When they see other people eat you can describe how portions are merger, or lacing in variety (only potatoes, or mushrooms).   When the players eat though, describe about how good the food tastes, and that they lick their plates and fingers clean savoring every morsel.  The meals may be bland but when the character is only eating once a day, they don’t have the luxury of complaining about meals without spices or only contain stringy meat.  Have people be less lively.  They aren’t eating and are tired so service is slow, people as to be excused for staying sitting.  Up the encumbrance penalty by a level for the players in their weakened state.  Save the starvation rules for when players are stuck away from civilization and rations have run out.  If the players have animals, have the townspeople stare at them hungrily. 

     Players witness a public execution for food theft or hoarding
     The constant crying of an infant because a woman who cannot feed her baby.  She isn’t eating enough to produce milk.
     A family stops feeding or exiles an elderly member because they would die soon anyway
Meat is temporarily available, but no one will talk about where it came from 

War.  Until modern times more people died from the first two during wartime than actual battle, and for good reason.  If disease caught hold of an army, you had a large group of people, with poor sanitation so it would spread rapidly.  These mobile armies needed a large amount of supplies to maintain and logistics were at best dodgy, so they were often supplemented by scavenging the surrounding area (a good reason to be fighting in someone else’s territory) so non-combatants would feel the effects of war, through rationing, pillaging by hostile and friendly forces, the drafting of fighting age men, and the disease that could be brought along with them.  All of this added to the disaster that would come if your town if it had any strategic importance and became a battleground itself.  Like famine increase prices, only affect all items on a random basis due to the fortunes of war. 1d4 1) +25% 2) +50% 3) +100% 4) +200%

     A recruiter is drumming up new enlistees (or draftees) for the war effort, the players look like healthy, strapping folks who are loyal to their king…
     A small group of Soldiers have been left behind in the town due to their wounds and left in care of the townsfolk
     While traveling through a recent battleground with carrion bird flying overhead, or feasting on the remains of the dead, discarded equipment by the fleeing forces.  A lady from the nearby town is stepping through the corpses and then kneels weeping over the body of her husband
Death.  All of the above can lead to a lot of dead bodies very quickly for a variety of reasons.  These can then in turn spur a vicious cycle of the others.  Enough dead farmers can lead to insufficient hand to bring in the crops that rot in the field and which leads to famine.  Improperly cared for bodies can lead to contamination that spreads disease.  Enough dead from any cause may lead to blaming leaders and a revolt and bloody battle to gain the necessary resources or change the status quo.   People will develop coping methods to deal with the death all around them.  Children play morbid games, and people develop a gallows humor.  In a metropolis high fashion grieving clothing is all the rage. 

     The town is rotting.  There aren’t enough living left to care for the dead.  A miasma of putrescence has settles on the town that spoils food and curdles milk pre-maturely.
     The treasure form an encounter is made up of precious metal fillings from teeth and wedding bands stolen from a mass grave
     A doom prophet warns that the end time has come
     A man is collecting the dead into a cart (this could be someone collecting specimens for medical research, or a necromancer, or something else).
     A snake oil salesman is selling a trinket that will ward off/ cure the cause of the death.

These events can be the fallout form the actions of a major villain, but also can be incorporated into the backdrop of an adventure.  The plague, famine or war is not a problem for the characters to solve.  It is not a "big bad" to defeat.  These events can be useful to reduce an excess of player resources, but hopefully these will serve to help the players feel that they are part of a bigger world with events going on that they are not directly involved in.