Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Sneaking Around In Tabletop RPGs

Stealth checks are a mess. I have yet to meet or hear of a GM that actually uses stealth checks in any deterministic way when it involves more than a single "sneaker." Party stealth is the most common kind of stealth check made, and as far as I have experienced, the party just needs to roll a rough average above the difficulty to avoid detection. Like a skill challenge a la 4E. How else could you actually do it?

From OOTS #90
If you determine stealth individually, then certain party members (read: cleric, fighter, etc.) will fail virtually every check, because the game assumes they are in super noisy scale or plate armor. This means that even if half of the party moved into position undetected, the enemy is no longer caught unaware, even if they are still surprised or sneak-attacked by the rogue and ranger, for instance. The game tries to go easy on the sneakier classes by still giving them damage bonuses for being stealthy, but the mechanics have made a completely reasonable tactic (stealth) entirely devoid of utility except for those who specialize in it.

This bears mentioning, because we have all snuck up on our parent, sibling, friend, etc. in real life, and scared the ba-jeezus out of them. Sneaking up on someone who is not paying attention to their surroundings is actually pretty easy. Even cats and dogs, with their superior animal senses, can be scared out of their furry wits by a sudden jump from around the corner.

So why does the game assume you will alert your enemies to your presence most of the time, if you let the fighter or cleric anywhere in their earshot? Surprising the enemy shouldn't be so much about silence as about timing.

Take the Siege of Osgiliath, for example. Regardless of how the build-up was shot (which I feel left a lot of tension to be desired), the great thing about this scene is that the Gondorian soldiers still manage to get the jump on the orcs by hiding just inside the entrance, despite half of them having plate armor. They get a surprise round, even though the orcs know full well that there are enemies inside the walls. In fact, a lot of the stuff about this scene that bugs people actually would make for great rules-of-thumb around the table.

Yes, plate mail rings like a bag of tin cans and wind-chimes when you fight in it.

But, there is always some kind of white noise going on that will lessen the odds that someone who isn't actively listening for sounds notices a person in plate mail walking carefully.

Yes, soldiers run across the orcs' line of sight like, a dozen times just before the boats dock.

But it is dark and misty and foggy and the GM has to be honest: the orc saw a shadowy figure dart across the entrance. They know that Osgiliath is occupied, but they haven't heard any war horns. Does that really give them enough information to avoid the ambush? I don't think so.

It is a strange vestige of incorporating perception and stealth checks into the game that many GMs and players operate under two very unrealistic and paradoxical assumptions:

1) That nearly every non-living, physical detail about the world is shrouded in some kind of impenetrable fog or obscurity until such time as a good perception check is rolled.

2) That nearly everyone is fully aware of each living creature within eyesight and earshot until such time as a good stealth check is rolled against them.

Those assumptions lead to this being part of every D&D session ever:

(GM) "You guys begin trekking through the woods"
(Players) "We all go stealthily" *rollrollrollroll*
(DM) "Uh...yeah, okay you go pretty quietly on your way"

How is this even a thing? You roll one stealth check each for a whole day of travel, when earlier that day the rogue had to roll a whole stealth check just to take two steps behind an orc without it noticing? That's like saying the fighter can get through a whole day of random encounters with one attack roll, but has to roll for every attack when he encounters a pre-planned fight.

Are your characters seriously checking behind every tree and around every hill and padding every footstep to avoid contact with sentient beings? Or are you just keeping your voices low and going slow? Cuz you shouldn't need to roll for going slow, bro. Slowing down and shutting up is easy.

Are your characters trying to move fast, but not alert anyone? Tough shit. You get one or the other, unless you have some bombdotcom spell you wanna blow for super quick silent movement, or you are a high level ranger with some class feature that gives you crazy stealth stride. It is a basic fact of life, and one that needs to be preserved to have an interesting and problem-solving oriented adventure game: the faster you go, the louder you are and the more likely someone will notice you. The slower you go, the easier it is to move about without drawing attention to yourself.

Stealth is probably one of the wonkiest mechanics simply because it exists as the veil between the free-range character action outside of combat, and the turn-based character action inside of an encounter. Some might think of initiative when I say that, but initiative is "Step One" of combat, not the connecty bit. If you fail your stealth check, typically, combat begins. Maybe the target starts running away, maybe they pull out an axe and start swinging, who knows. Either way, it's now a two-player contest, and turns start being taken. If you succeed on Stealth, you remain the only "turn-taker" in the game, which means it isn't even a contest yet. No combat. Yet.

What would happen if we relaxed the combat structure of hard turns in a specific order, and instead made use of stealth merely as a means of getting the element of surprise on your side? In movies, for instance, when the action hero gets the drop on the guard guy, the hero snaps his neck or muffles him and slips a blade betwixt his ribs and that's all she wrote. In D&D, anyone but the rogue has almost no chance of taking the unsuspecting guard out in one-shot, because once combat rules kick in, damage is supposed to happen in little chunks over a long period of time. I don't see why the fighter couldn't shove his longsword through a dude's back and take him out (perhaps not dead, but certainly down), regardless of his HP. But again, if your combat is very rigidly segregated from your "non-combat" play, then it will be hard to justify anyone but the rogue being capable of shanking a dude.

And so stealth also brings up trouble with regard to how hit points work. One of the primary benefits of sneaking up on an enemy combatant is the opportunity to quickly and quietly dispose of them. However, most enemies in D&D type games have more HP than a fighter can deal in damage in one round. This winds up being "role protectionism," for the rogue. Even if the monk, or ranger, or fighter, or paladin, etc. snuck up on the enemy, they would not be able to kill them quietly, or quickly, thus giving their little stealth operation a close to 0% chance of success (where success is taking the enemy dude out without alerting the other enemies).

But enough about the problems with stealth. How do we fix it?

Well, there are a number of things:

  1. Stop screwing characters in heavy armor. Seriously. Give them penalties to swimming, give them a hard time when they try to run more than 50 yards, but stop forcing them to auto-fail stealth checks with your gratuitous penalties. Armor is heavy, armor is expensive, and those two things together are more than enough to counterbalance the bonus to a character's defense. In reality, D&D-type games have been biased toward not wearing much armor for a long time. If you are regularly in hand-to-hand combat, wearing no armor is suicidal. All those leather-pants-wearing thieves out there who have complained enough to be allowed into front-line fighting are messing things up for their armor-bearing allies. Reality checks should be used very sparingly when it comes to fantasy games, but this is a spot where one is sorely needed.
  2. There are two types of "sneak attacks." Ones where you plan to eliminate your target, and ones where you plan to get in a solid first strike against a big evil guy like a dragon. Take that into consideration when you are stating up your NPCs and monsters. If the standard ol' city guards have 5d8+12 HP each, then only the rogue can ever hope to take them out with a surprise attack. Don't do that to your players. Let your player characters outrun the rest of humanity in terms of HP and bonuses and such as they level-up. That way, a normal city guardsman always has roughly 1-8 HP, and even the bard could kill him silently with a good stab in the back. If you were hoping for the city guard to put up a good fight against your magically equipped and time-tested PCs, you are designing your encounters wrong. Simple as that.
  3. If a PC critically fails a stealth check, they should be seen, no question. However, a regular fail on a stealth check should be interpreted more loosely as "a complication is added to the scenario." The castle guards stop to chat, and the careful timing you did of their rounds is now totally useless. A new NPC shows up to speak to the guard, or give him some food, or something else. A third party, like a wild animal or a beggar or something, shows up and draws attention in a direction you didn't want it drawn. The dog smells you and starts to bark from his cage, but the guards are just telling it to shut-up for now. This way, when the party rolls stealth all together, there are three possible outcomes: everyone succeeds and no complications arise, some people fail and complications arise, everyone fails (or at least one critically fails) and the PCs are discovered before their plan can occur. Now, the fighter and cleric can come along just like everyone else, but each additional person is another chance for a crit-fail to show up. Bigger party = harder to go unnoticed = perfectly reasonable to me.
  4. Be real about how aware the enemy really is. A small camp of orcs that is feasting and wrestling are essentially unaware of their surroundings unless they have posted a lookout (which should not always be the case, unless its wartime or something). Assuming there is no lookout, the PCs should be able to sneak around their camp (in the trees) without rolling anything. If they want to foot-pad into the camp, enter tents, steal food or gold, etc., then stealth checks are needed to see how well that goes, since a stray orc could easily befall them as they reach into the chests of treasure in the middle of the camp.
  5. Allow the players to solve the problem without rolling. If a rock thrown in the opposite direction of the entrance can draw the lookout away from his position long enough for the party to slip inside, then the party shouldn't need to roll stealth at all so long as they figured that out and did it. An invisibility spell + slow walking should allow a character to move through an open doorway without a problem, even with a guard a few feet away. Maybe a dexterity check might be needed if someone was to almost bump into them, but you get the drift.

Those are my best pieces of advice. If you have any other tips, or you've got the ultra-genius way of resolving stealth that I could never have conceived in a million years, please leave them in the comments. Pretty please?

Monday, May 16, 2016

Review of Open Legend: An Open Source RPG

Open Legend RPG is an open-source, classless, genre-flexible tabletop RPG with a universal list of combat options and a Cocktail Weenie approach to special abilities (called feats). The system was designed for maximum character creation flexibility, and also features a universal role mechanic that involves a d20 as well as additional polyhedrons that explode (are rolled again for an even higher result if they rolled their maximum result initially). It is free, and the rules are most easily accessed on their website.

First of all, the website is gorgeous. It is far better organized and easier to read than essentially all major RPG SRDs. I'm big on layout, so OLRPG gets an A+ on that front. The homepage does a nice job of introducing the concepts, and there really aren't that many pages. Everything is organized intuitively, and if you know how to do Crtl or Command + F on your computer, then finding the boon or bane or feat you're looking for is trivially easy.

There is also just a sense of invested effort that you get while reading these rules. This was an honest design project that was held to the highest standards by the people at Seventh Sphere Publishing. As someone who has poured over rulesets and RPG books, I can tell when I am reading a rule that was rewritten fifty times until it was exactly the way it should be. I get that a lot from OLRPG. A+.

Before I continue, I want to get a few things straight. If I had to choose between my ruleset and OLRPG, I would choose my ruleset. But not because either or is objectively better. Rather, the RPG I like best is the one that is well designed, with my preferred type of game in mind. My favorite kind of game is a cinematic sword-and-sorcery dungeon crawl. OLRPG as a system best supports a story-driven heroic high-fantasy (as far as I can tell). That doesn't mean I can't appreciate a great game system outside my comfort zone, though.

OLRPG is as successful at its goal of being flexible and story-strategy balanced as any RPG I have come across. It's focused, and the designers eschew all those fiddly bits and accessory rules that are so tempting to include when making one of these pen-and-paper games. I can't tell you how many rulesets out there include a core mechanic that sticks out like a sore thumb, clearly included on a whim because it was "cool." Cool doesn't cut it when it comes to accessible game rules. Sure, reading through OLRPG, you may find yourself lacking inspirational fluff text...

"But that flavorless shapeshift feat sounds so boring compared to my D&D druid's Wildsphape power" you might say.

Well, tough nuts. You're (probably) an adult. Add some fluff text yourself. Describe how your character's power is unique in-game. Don't count on the game rules to make things fun in spite of you. You are more than half of the creative force in the whole affair. Grab your RPG by the horns and run with it, don't expect it to carry you.

This is all to say, I respect OLRPG for sticking to its guns and letting the rules speak for themselves, rather than injecting fluff for readers to geek-out over. I also respect it for taking a stand of how to roll, when to roll, how to interpret rolls, and how to move your game along (more on this later). Just because it is open-source doesn't mean it has to be wishy-washy, and it is not. Kudos on that.

So, if you are just reading this review to get the gist of the game and then read the rules yourself, I can confidently say that OLRPG is worth a look, and a one-shot if you have time. And since it is open-source, it may just be the platform you need to make some cool RPG content, if that is one of your goals.

Now, if you want some discussion of the crunchy bits (this is a design blog after all), well, buckle up.

Everything is a point system: Attributes, feats, and so on. You allot points to a category and then can do the special stuff associated with that level in that category. This allows your character to sit anywhere on a spectrum of hyper-specialized to jack-of-all-trades. This changes magic-user functionality from your classic D&D: in OLRPG it is more difficult to have a pyro-specialist that can also consistently open magically-locked doors, a la the D&D evoker with knock prepared. Everything is a roll, so even if the pyro-wizard has a couple points in the right areas for unlocking a door or magically cleaning some clothes, there is a chance that even those simple tasks would fail to some degree, when they would normally go off without a hitch is your standard D&D spell system. Not a flaw, but a change in gameplay that might rub some players the wrong way.

The d20 + additional exploding dice math is weird: Why no 1d12? Obviously I am biased when it comes to my blog's namesake die, but I also think this design choice deserves discussion. Clearly, the larger the die number, the less chance that it explodes. A 1 in an attribute, which gives 1d20 + 1d4, will explode once every four rolls. Meanwhile, someone with an attribute of 4 will roll 1d20 + 1d10, which explodes once every ten rolls. Less than half as much. So from attribute levels 1-4, improvement means less "spikes" of talent, but more consistently high performance. Then suddenly, a score of 5 yields the greatest chance of exploding dice (1/6 + 1/6) for an exploding die roughly once every three rolls, as well as the most consistent high rolls, given the unique bellcurve of results. This by no means breaks the system, but it will create strange patterns where a little bit of talent in an area yields randomly huge rewards, but a lot of talent in the same area can't (mathematically) reach the same heights nearly as often. Weaker characters will surprise you more than stronger ones. Weird.

When everything is based off of points, some things get complicated: The hit point equation is pretty gnarly, even for a tabletop RPG, but that always seems unavoidable with these points-in-areas systems. Also, there is a large potential range of HP here, depending on how many points someone puts in those three categories. You could start with 10 HP, or 34 HP, depending on your character build. That's nearly as extreme as the 1d4 sorcerers vs. 1d12 barbarians in D&D 3.5, which has been largely abandoned by later games inspired by 3.5 (such as Pathfinder and D&D 5e) for being too large of a gap. However, HP is not linked to level in OLRPG, like it is in many RPGs, so maybe this is a non-issue. In that case, scaling challenge with non-scaling HP will be an interesting hurdle for new game masters.

Feats: for an open source game, this approach is a dream come true because it means you can easily and quickly design a new character concept or power or skill or whatever and share it with other people and know that it meshes perfectly with the system they use. Definitely the right choice.

Races: Any rule that tries to get players away from humans and half-elves is a good rule in my book. I can't tell you how many RPGs I've seen played where race wasn't roleplayed at all....

The Character "Secret": I love this idea. I think it goes a long way toward establishing that flavor of fantasy adventure. Secrets are the butter to my monsters-and-magic bread, and it is general enough for any character concept. Good stuff. Might steal it for my games.

Rules for when and how to roll, and failing forward: super like. We roll too much in most modern RPGs. Rolling over and over for the same thing, taking 10s and 20s like we have to describe everything in terms of a roll of the dice, and failing trivial tasks like opening a door. Much better to take the stance that Open Legend does and have rolls be random results for specific types of challenges or drama, not just anything that happens. As with my remarks on spellcasters above, you may even want to broaden this rule to include certain magical things that should be trivial.

Wealth score: I've seen this used before, and have tinkered with such abstract wealth systems myself. At the end of the day, I think the simplest system is just to use gold pieces and assign a rough gold value to everything. Silver-lining: taking this rule out and using a gold-piece system is trivially easy, so no harm done even if you aren't planning to use this rule.

Combat: Rolling an attack is pretty complex. Weapons are properties and ranges for the attack, rather than entities that determine damage. Coming from a standard d20 style background, anything beyond 1) roll to hit number 2) if hit roll damage, makes me a little weary. I imagine that the process of swinging a sword at something would be slightly more laborious at the table than I find ideal. Similar to systems where you "build your spell as you cast." Which I think you do in OLRPG, too. However, I am very intrigued by the boon/bane system and how it redefines and broadens what a typical d20 game lets you attempt in combat within the rules. Sure, you could knock someone prone in D&D 3.5, but it was a pain in the ass to look up the extremely unique rule for doing so. Open Legend has a streamlined way of attempting nearly any self/ally-benefitting or enemy-sabotaging action that scales with how complex/useful the boon or bane is. I myself think that just an attack roll or ability roll is abstractly enough rule to cover anything a player might do, but that means my players have to take it on faith that I will be fair with what they can do and what their enemies can do. OLRPG takes a little bit of that judge-jury-executioner responsibility that old-school game GMs have and puts a more robust actions-and-consequences skeleton into play. I can always respect a little modern-game sensibility, even if I don't feel I need it.

Monsters: Where are they? Do I make them myself? I may have missed this, and I haven't even begun to delve into the OLRPG Blog so that could be my fault. But I am certainly interested in how a game without scaling HP can survive the difference between the PCs fighting a group of goblins, and the PCs fighting a group of dragons....

And that's all I've got. Make sure you go check out Open Legend and follow them of their social media.