Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Social Actions (Warhammer Cards I Forgot to Blog, Part 1)

I made these cards for my Warhammer Campaign (that wrapped up two months ago). I apparently forgot to post them to the web at all. Oops.

I thought about them today because of a thread over in the Fantasy Flight Forums about how to encourage players to actually invest in Social Actions.

So, here's a number of new Social Actions for Warhammer 3rd Edition. Feel free to use these in your game. None of them have been tested much at all, because these were made available very late in the campaign, at a point where the PCs had become very accustomed to solving things violently. I think I'll just post them here alphabetically:

"A Second Of Doubt" is a Social Action in name only. Really, it's just a way to penalize one NPC's initiative roll, and/or buy your whole party a moment to get into position. There's nothing here that stops you from using it in physical combat, though green side is just a little better in Social encounters than either side is in an actual fight.

"Evil Eye" lies somewhere between Social Action and Hedge Magic. It's a quick way to bury someone in Stress and Shame. It inflicts the Ill-Fortune Condition, which if memory serves correctly can be very potent should the social conflict later devolve into actual physical battle. The double-chaos-star line is rather disastrous, so you need to be very pick about choosing targets with a low Willpower. The action itself uses Willpower, so it may be appealing to characters other than those typically making the social checks in your group.

"Hidden Mean Streak" relies on a variety of Condition cards to do its dirty work. It's for characters that are normally very Charming and noble, but who can unleash unexpected temper when pushed too far. The Reckless and Conservative sides of the card play very differently.

"Holier Than Thou", like "Evil Eye", lets you influence the target with your Willpower, and the Thunderstruck condition softens them up should the situation later devolve into combat. It doesn't deliver quite the beating that "Evil Eye" does, but the downsides of a bad roll aren't nearly as dangerous, either.

"Muse" is unlikely to see much use by PCs, but it was kind of a fun idea to try to model in-game. You'd need a pretty unusual campaign for it to be worth the XP. It's stronger when being used on an NPC, since rarely do you want to Influence a fellow PC. The bonus dice are fairly low, but most of the time you'll also be able to add 1 or 2 Fortune dice for the "Assist" manoeuvre, and they'd certainly stack with this.

"Shift The Blame" lets you redirect trouble so that your rivals go down in your sinking ship. It's actually pretty potent, but requires just the right situation to use. If the social encounter has some mook support for the villain, this is a good way to break them up. And since it's a reaction, it doesn't stop you from engaging in more shenanigans in your own turn as well.

"This Could Get Ugly" is a Strength-based Intimidation check that drains A/C/E from NPCs and breaks up Henchman groups on a good roll. I made it specifically to address the way that the existing Intimidation actions (like "Fear Me") were unlikely to actually reduce the effectiveness of packs of mooks. The majority of the power lies in the comet effects, to make it worth spending your XP on yellow dice in Intimidate.

"Unwanted Attention" is an aggressive use of Charm to "out" someone that's up to no good. It's meant to be a way to apply pressure to suspected villains. It's a contested check against their Skullduggery, so experienced criminals will resist it better than common street thugs or misbehaving noblemen.

The Reaction cards above are just guesses at an appropriate power level, because there's few Social reactions to use as a template or guide.

The normal Social Actions in the above are pretty well balanced against existing Social actions like "Flirt" (not "Inspiring Words" which is arguably over-powered with it's area-effects and low difficulty).  I did this big number crunching about the relative value of various effects at a variety of different triggering (1 boon, 2 boons, 1 comet, etc) levels. I wanted cards that were good, but not out of line with most of the official Social actions.

The red sides of the cards are (more often than not) a little "better on paper" than the green sides to compensate for the green dice generating better boon/bane results than the red dice do.

I had a few more Social Action ideas I'd sketched out but didn't make cards for. I just glanced over the text file where I did all the math on trying to balance them, but I don't feel the others were close enough to done to be worth sharing here.  At the time I'd planned to come back to them later, but today my math notes like daunting and I'm not even GMing the game any more. So, "don't hold your breath" is what I'm saying.

But this did remind me of a whole lot more cards I made (not just for Social Encounters, but mostly NPC-only cards), that I've never posted here. If I find time in the near future, I'll stick them up on the blog.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Better Bunker Bureau

Cortex Command is a computer game I've enjoyed in spurts off and on over the past 5 or 6 years. It's been in beta that entire time, and is far from complete or bug free, but it's pretty amusing. Link to publisher.

In a nutshell, in Cortex Command you control a brain in a jar (or sometimes in a robot body) that in turn controls mobs of stupid little soldiers. You build bases and blow people up. The terrain is very destructible, with huge fortresses being demolished appallingly quickly, as every gunshot knocks stray pistols off of the landscape. There's a short campaign game, that can be pretty arbitrary and punishing, and it also comes packaged with a number of little one-shot scenarios. Delightful mayhem in a cartoony 8-bit retro aesthetic. It is stupid fun. 

However, I feel like the base-building part of the core game is poorly balanced. It's a huge part of the metagame, and completely out of whack. Tiny little blocks of concrete cost as much as large pre-fabricated bunkers of concrete and steel. Whenever I play it, I feel compelled to spend time designing unique bases, but doing so involves a lot of frustration over the in-game economics. There have been a few mods that addressed it (and I took a stab at it myself back in 2009), but they were all for previous versions of the game, back when it was a pain in the butt to install mods. Nowadays, the game is available via Steam, and mods published via Steam Workshop are easy to install.

As much fun as it is to complain about things on the internet, sometimes I actually feel compelled to do a little work to improve the things that bother me. So, this week I uploaded a mod, the "Better Bunker Bureau", to Steam. Download Link

It's pretty straight-forward. For starters, I took the existing elements from the base game, and re-organized them so they'd be easier to find the things you wanted during the campaign (stairs and ladders together, tunnels organized by size and shape, etc). I adjusted the in-game prices on all the terrain pieces, so if one wall was clearly superior to another their prices would reflect it. (Though this does break down a little amongst the cheapest items.) I also tweaked the materials files so the pre-fab bunker sections now have rubberized floors that better survive the normal wear and tear of heavy robots tromping around (and falling from the rooftops) all day.

While I was at it, I added a few new terrain elements and pre-fabricated construction modules for base building. Some of these were obvious holes the game was lacking, such as making mirrored and rotated versions of existing bits so you didn't have to orient your fortress in a particular direction. Other new bits were a little goofier, like wooden walls and platforms, and piles of old tires, mostly included to provide a bit of set dressing and variety. (Seriously, if concrete and metal get nibbled away with every bullet, wood walls vanish in the blink of an eye.) If it's not obvious by now, my goal was to make the game more playable, not necessarily more winnable.

Most of the work was stuff I did back in 2009, with a bit more in 2012, and some finishing touches this week (2015). Just like playing Cortex Command, this mod is something I've toyed with from time to time over past several years.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Fully Cooperative

My wife and I played 5 games of Shadows of Brimstone in this past week. Three 2-player games, and two games with other couples. While I’ve only recently been keeping track on the exact count, I’d guess that I played the game at least 20 times before this week.  I haven't paid much attention to the clock, but my instinct is that they've probably averaged around 3 to 4 hours a piece.  So I’ve got at least 100 hours of play under my belt, plus an unhealthy amount of time thinking about it and a day or two spent assembling minis. So I clearly like it a lot, is what I'm saying.

For the two most recent sessions, we tried out making the game _fully_and_actually_ cooperative (as opposed to _just_fully_cooperative_, as the game is written). Meaning that we divvied up the XP and $ rewards of the mines evenly. Artifacts and Darkstone, too, though that sometimes required some negotiating. For the main part, we handled it like an old D&D party, giving everyone fair, if not exactly equal loot. (You know how it works. If your party only has 1 fighter, but the only two magic items found were a bastard sword and platemail, you give those to the fighter and reduce his share of the gold somewhat to compensate.) 

I was amazed how much more satisfying an experience this was. I've really enjoyed Brimstone, but there's always this little bit of either envy or guilt tainting the experience every time we play. If I personally had a bad game, I was envious of the XP or Wealth that others were getting instead of me. Conversely, if my dice were hot while someone else was struggling with bad luck, I always felt really guilty about it. It’s because I’d look ahead at the big picture and the long campaign.

This dissatisfaction was basically unique to Shadows of Brimstone amongst all the cooperative games we own. Other co-op games don't trigger this emotion in me.
  • If we're playing Pandemic, and I’m the Researcher while the other two players are the Dispatcher and the Medic, I don’t feel any envy. Those two characters acting in combo is brokenly good, but having it at the table makes the win more likely for everyone. Go team! 
  • In Space Hulk: Death Angel, I’m naturally a tiny bit more protective of my own fireteams than others', but if something bad happens to my guys I don’t take it personally, and I often sacrifice my marines for the sake of the mission (or to save someone else's character whose special power I feel is vital to our success). 
  • Even in other Flying Frog Productions games, there was rarely a sense of envy or guilt. If you have terrible luck when drawing cards in A Touch Of Evil you might end up with only hardship instead of building up stats and equipment, but even with the worst possible draws you at least know that the next time you break out the game it will all reset to a level playing field. You might feel a little bad that you’re not carrying your weight in the cooperative game, but if someone else is having a good run of luck you can still be excited for them (and hope they’ll do well enough to carry you to a victory). 
In any of those other cooperative games, I've never or rarely felt a need to be competitive.

Brimstone is different, because XP is awarded individually per attack roll or skill check. Each session in which you underperform makes it more likely you’ll have subsequent bad sessions (or at least relatively bad when compared to the other characters) in the future. Someone scoring a little more XP or cash than another in one session is no big deal, but if it enables them to level up sooner and buy more potent equipment it could compound and lead to an ever-increasing power gap between the Heroes.

Because it's in my nature to look at the big picture and evolving patterns, I rarely felt completely happy with the way Brimstone played out. Fear that the XP disparity would eventually get out of hand was sometimes distracting me from enjoying the game. Not enough to ruin it, but enough to undermine the fun just a little every single session. Splitting up the rewards equally fixed that entirely. We played two games yesterday with the new reward system, and even though my Bandido flopped horribly and got KO’d in the second game, I still had fun cheering on the other player as she fought valiantly over my not-dead-yet body. A good game, now made better.

We tracked XP with poker chips, and divided them out evenly at the end of each fight, during the Catch Your Breath phase of each turn. Cash went into a common pool, and was split up right before the Traveling step at the end of the Adventure. Dark Stone gained during the adventure was counted as $75 towards your share of the cash. Realistically, it sells for about $90 on average at the Frontier Outpost, but it comes with extra risks (Corruption check, Town Events, etc) that caused us to settle on a figure that compensates you a little for those dangers. Gear and Artifacts found were also counted against cash share. It worked well. We did all the splitting up before heading to town, and didn't split up rewards (or consequences) from Traveling or Town Events. While this did leave some room for variation that could theoretically matter in the longest of runs, it was a small variance and a lot less work than trying to divvy up again every day in Town.

Chasing Brimstone

Over at Board Game Geek, someone was asking for ideas for Shadows of Brimstone scenarios that wouldn't just play out as the same "stumbling about in search of clue tokens" feel that is the default experience for most of the published missions.

Here's the rough idea I threw at him. I figure I might as well cross-post it here, since I haven't blogged much lately.

I propose a mission that is a chase through a tunnel, where you place ~4 tiles in a row at the start. Place the Corrupt Sheriff token (or an unused red mini) at the far end from where the Heroes start. Players are trying to catch up with him.

How far he moves each turn depends on the Hold Back The Darkness rolls / Depth Track, or a custom chart. Some rolls trigger him to jump ahead to the start of the next tile, and other rolls just send him a number of spaces forward.

You could avoid Exploration Tokens entirely, so no clues at all. Maybe the only Encounter cards drawn are ones that correspond to the "Advanced" block at the bottom of room tiles. Threats are produced by the same chart that governs the Corrupt Sheriff's movement. Instead of being Threats determined by your Posse level, it'd be only Low Threats entering via side doors, and the frequency (instead of Threat Card color) is determined by your posse level.

They want to bring the Corrupt Sheriff back to justice, which requires getting adjacent to him and making a 6+ Strength check to wrestle him down. Once he's down, no more monsters spawn, and the players win if he's down and they've killed all the monsters that had appeared during the chase.

Stopping to fight the monsters while the sheriff is still on the loose is counter-productive. There'd be a rapid pace forced on the players, with optimal play being about punching a hole through the monster formation, not fighting everything to death (which would only allow the Corrupt Sheriff more time to run away).

Catching Your Breath wouldn't be triggered by eliminating all the monsters, as there's never a moment without at least that one Enemy (the Corrupt Sheriff) in play. So instead Catching Your Breath comes from some entry on the Sheriff's movement chart, which also provides the Loot rewards, and can happen even if there are monsters still in play.

The Corrupt Sheriff is himself carrying a Lantern, so if a Hero is faster than the rest of their posse, they could risk running ahead and try to use the villain's light instead.

The idea would be to reward characters with Move bonuses, since they'd be able to catch up with him fairly quickly. In one of the posses I play with, there's a character with +3 movement, that's pretty much always wasted as she can't safely move ahead of us slow-pokes. In this scenario, she'd excel, provided she can slip around the Low Threats as they come up.

It would also make "discard and redraw the map tile" powers somewhat better than they are in most missions. You'd use them to redraw large rooms (since the Corrupt Sheriff can sometimes jump the whole length of a room in a single turn) in favor of short passages and small rooms.

Building the chart and getting the timing right on the Sheriff's movement and monster spawns would take a lot of playtesting and number-crunching, but it's a starting point.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Wasting Away Again In Chaosville

Here's some cards I adapted from a campaign module I recently ran for Warhammer 3rd Edition. Spoiler Alert for The Enemy Within.

 This is a brief summary of the rules for the Chaos Wastes on page 161 of The Enemy Within. It's a simplified version just to help the GM remember that there's a lot of modifiers going on.

 Since everything else in the game is on cards at your fingertips, that big chunk of rules on page 161 really should have been on cards, too. So I took care of that.

No challenge intended to copyright. The wording of the summary is mine, but the concepts are straight out of the Campaign module. Used withOUT permission. It would be very difficult to use these cards without purchase of both Warhammer 3rd and The Enemy Within.

Effectively these are Location cards that affect the players for the entire time they are in the Chaos Wastes.

Next, we have a series of cards to hand out to players as they discover how magic works in the Chaos Wastes, again derived from page 161 of The Enemy Within.
House-Rule Alert:
I've taken some liberties with the text of these two cards. Officially, casting in Conservative stance or praying in Reckless stance requires a die roll, not simply paying some Stress. Casters are already making two rolls per turn (one to cast, the other to power it) and I didn't want to slow the game down further by making them roll a third time. Charging a third Stress (the official die roll was unlikely to trigger that much) is a bit harsh, but I deemed it less dangerous than having your spell card flip sides after you've committed to casting it. Most casters can afford to take 3 stress (for the right spell at a critical moment) about once per encounter.

Officially, there's no mention of Rune Magic in The Enemy Within, but it seemed like there ought to be some modifier for using magic items in the Chaos Wastes. For some reason, the Campaign as written really avoids devoting any time or energy on Dwarves (like when Book Three arbitrarily changes canon to remove the Dwarf community from Middenheim). So I made this up: 

It was interesting, as we had a few cases come up where two or more different rune items where modifying the roll and the black and white dice started piling up. Putting equal amounts on a roll just makes the most rare and extreme outcomes come up more often. The rate of single-success hits goes down but the odds of getting three or more successes on the roll shoots up to compensate. You also end up with more boons and banes on average than you would without it.  Effectively it makes everything just a tiny bit more epic, and is slightly better (for the PCs) when applied to their offense rather than defense. (PCs are usually happy to dish out 3-success hits, but for some not so happy about it when low-level daemonic henchemen manage to return the favor.) Which is great, since this is the climax of the adventure and we want everything to feel a little over-the-top and important.

SPOILERS:  A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

These last two cards are powers that PCs can (L)earn while in the Castle of Tzeentch, one in the Heraldric Gallery, the other in the Library. The text is straight out of The Enemy Within. I put the text from the adventure onto cards because, well, because it's Warhammer 3rd. In other games, you'd just write it down on your character sheet, but that's not really something you do in this Edition.

Both cards are permanent abilities that don't really have a place in the normal Advancement scheme and ability types for 3rd Ed. Their existence is one of the reasons that I kind of suspect the last chapter of this adventure was actually written for 2nd Edition, then later pulled off the shelf and rewritten for third. (That's a pet theory that I won't ever be able to prove. My evidence is circumstantial at best.)  Swap out colorful squares for +5% and +10%, and these sorts of powers would be right at home in 2nd Ed.

I made the abilities talent-sized, but they don't use up Talent slots. They don't cost XP. They're just your reward for taking the fight to chaos.

Basically they're bonuses for academic investigators that came after the adventure is mostly over.  They may prove critical at the end of Book Four if your PCs don't have very good Intelligence scores and are having trouble figuring out what's really going on. Otherwise, they're more useful if you intend to extend the campaign beyond the end of the published scenario with the same PCs.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Swift Change

In the core set for Warhammer 3rd, Giant Wolves have an ability called Swift. It made them just a little faster than humans with equivalent stats.

However, when Giant Wolves were reprinted in the compilation book Creature Guide and card product the Creature Vault a few years later, Swift was swapped out for Fast. No creatures in the Guide or Vault have Swift, but several new creatures in those products had the newer Fast ability. It's like they decided to eliminate Swift from the rules.

Then, four months after the Creature Guide and Vault were published, FFG released another book for Warhammer 3rd called Omens of War, which included stats for Riding Horses. Those stats gave the Horses the Swift ability. So, apparently, they decided Swift was okay after all. Or at least the right hand didn't know what the left hand had rewritten.

Personally, I'd rather use Swift than Fast, because it's so much more elegant. Let's contrast them. Fast is more complex and situational, but Swift is more reliable and easy to use.  Swift is more universally applicable, being better for short sprints (out to Medium range in one turn) as well as longer jogs (i.e.: running for multiple turns), but can't quite match the raw single-turn speed of Fast when chasing down a distant target.

Fast reduces the cost of moving between certain range bands (whereas the original Swift just gives you a single extra manoeuvre each turn).

I just realized yesterday (while typing up that Stuffed Crocodile card) that Fast functions differently depending on whether you're rushing to a target, or trying to escape from one. What frame of reference you're using completely changes the ability, and I'd never noticed that before.

If you're closing a gap, and you measure from the target, then Fast will help you right away. It saves you 1 manoeuvre when you start your movement by moving from Extreme to Long distance, and saves you a second manoeuvre when you close from Long to Medium. If you're trying to escape, and thus must measure from the starting point of your movement, then Fast doesn't help you until you've already made it to Medium range and are now expanding your lead out to Long range. If you go the entire distance (from Close to Extreme, or vice versa) it functions the same regardless of how you measure it. 

Here's a second example: if you're only willing to take a single fatigue for extra movement in a turn (which is fairly common, especially for non-Nemesis monsters), Fast helps immensely (effectively doubling your speed) if you measure from the end goal or target, but does absolutely nothing if you measure from your starting point.

That weird "depends on what you measure from" aspect of Fast is likely to cause confusion at the table, and won't necessarily play the same from one situation to the next. Normally, it's easier (and more logical) to measure from your starting position, but if you don't plan to cover it the whole distance in one turn, you'll need to measure from the target that you're not quite getting to, to see if your ranged attacks are possible. It's oddly gimmicky, and open to abuse (or at least debate), but measuring from the other side is actually a legitimate thing you sometimes have to do in the game.

What's more, I have no idea how Fast would interact with any of the chases or races that utilize a Progress Tracker in the various GM's books and adventures, and I ran two such encounters in my recent Warhammer campaign. Not that it'd be a hard thing to house-rule on the fly as needed, but it's a little annoying.

It'd also be tricky if you had a 3-party chase where the prey started Close range from one group but Medium range from their more distant allies. The runner takes 3 manoeuvres to move 5 units further away from one group but only 4 units further away from the other. Did the distance between the two groups of pursuers somehow magically expand? It needlessly complicates an already somewhat goofy abstract-movement system.

Swift's much simpler ability to always grant 1 extra manoeuvre per turn is much cleaner, and easier to apply to all situations (including most Progress Trackers). You don't have to double-count the range, and it's easy to adjudicate 3 party chases (I'm one extra unit further from everyone per turn, as intended).

Swift is very straight-forward, and I see no good reason to add extra complexity and fiddliness to chase scenes and fights if it's not a major improvement in some way.

I guess maybe FFG was trying to close a possible loophole where Swift technically allows you any manoeuvre, so being Swift would allow you to draw a weapon, reload a gun, or unlock a door, instead of just running. In most cases that's not going to be a problem, as wolves and horses rarely load guns or carry keys. The only place where it could get out of hand is if a large number of Swift NPCs used their extra manoeuvre to assist each other's actions. A few bonus white dice from an assist doesn't really bother me if it's modeling how their speed enables wolves to hunt as a pack more effectively, but I suppose it could get kinda crazy if you had an unusually large pack of non-henchmen Wolves.

Even if we assume the Swift loophole was a problem that needed fixing, I'd have preferred it if they'd just issued errata that Swift only creates movement manoeuvres. That would have been a really easy fix.

The other possible reason would have been if Swift is too powerful and needed to be better balanced, but I don't that's the case at all. Certainly not from the perspective of realism. If anything, it's way too easy for a human to outrun a horse in this system, regardless of whether that horse is Fast or Swift. Because Fatigue thresholds are Toughness based, Dwarves are actually the fastest PC race in the game. Fast (for the record) doesn't fix that, either. I ran a Wolf encounter with Fast in my recent campaign, and couldn't engineer a situation where Fast helped them at all. The fight started at Long and Medium range so it was no better than Swift, and when the wounded wolves tried to escape they couldn't spare the Fatigue to move enough to trigger it. Swift is just better in every way that matters.

Okay, enough aimless grousing about Fast and Swift, it's time to do something constructive about them:
There's a replacement in the form of a little Talent-sized card called Speedy. It can be used to simplify Fast creatures, and plug the loophole left open on Swift creatures.  Unfortunately, it's also a lot of text for such a simple little power.  GMs tend to have a ton of cards behind their screens in this game, and more text just means more precious seconds lost reconsidering your options in the middle of a fight. Probably, I'll just print and use the Swift card myself since it's less wordy, and I can trust myself not to gang up with dozens of wolves all at once for unfair advantage.

I mean, in the game. I go hunting with the pack all the time in real life, and that's just how me and my wolf-brothers roll. Grrr. Howl.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Stuffed Crocodile Stats

Stats for a necromantically-animated stuffed crocodile for Warhammer 3rd:

Minor Spoilers: As mentioned in my previous post, about half of the needed stats and rules for this monster appear in The Enemy Within, where it's part of an optional encounter. I took the stats they provided there, and extrapolated further, filling in the holes by comparing it to existing Beast and Undead monster stats.  Here's a summary of my thought process:

  • I gave it Fear, Dead Earnest and the immunity to crits because Skeletons have all those things. I figured being made of stuffed lizard-leather was close enough to being all bones.
  • I went with Fear 2 (instead of the Skeleton's awkward Fear rating that changes based on the situation) because it was just more elegant, and because I liked the math of "Undead + Gator = Extra Scary". Note that Fear 2 is not particularly worrisome that deep into The Enemy Within.
  • Night Vision is common to both Beasts and Undead. Nearly every official monster of either category has it.
  • Instinctive is on most Beasts, but it was a last-minute inclusion right before I clicked "save", and may be unnecessary or illogical for an Undead Beast. If it bugs you, just ignore it.
  • I gave it Swift because I thought that keyworded ability was same as the movement ability granted to this monster in the published Campaign. However, my reminder text on Swift is actually inaccurate. I realize now you could technically use Swift to load a gun or do something other than move. Tomorrow I will blog a bit about Swift and Fast and how they differ, and a simple house-rule that will fix both of them.
  • The card presented above is rather more dangerous than a Skeleton, Zombie, Crypt Ghoul, or Giant Wolf, a little tougher than a Boar, and about on par with a Tomb Banshee or a Cairn Wraith. Those comparisons are how I settled on the Threat rating of 4 (which is the level of the Boar, Banshee, and Wraith, if I recall correctly). 
  • I gave it one bonus melee attack action, because not all of the basic attacks for Beasts or Undead fit the notion of a crocodile.
  • I was originally thinking brainless Undead shouldn't have Cunning, but there's actually several examples in the game that do, so I grudgingly added it.

Those are almost exactly the stats I used when running the adventure. My original draft (just drawn up on a post-it note an hour before the session when I realized the stat-block was incomplete) was missing Instinctive and had no Cunning, but those changes make almost zero difference in the context of the original encounter (where the players are unlikely to hide from it).  Other than those minor tweaks, it's been tested in actual play and worked pretty well. IIRC, the bonus Melee action I used was one normally associated with Crypt Ghouls.

Update: Here's some possible card backs for it, depending on whether you want to focus on the creepy dead eyes and gaping mouth, or show your players how it's hanging from the ceiling in the adventure in question.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

We Don't Need No Social Actions In Middenheim... Nor Monster Stats In Chaos

On Sunday, my RPG group completed The Enemy Within, a lengthy campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition. Now finally free to talk about the plotline without ruining things for my players, I started a lengthy blog post about the things I liked and disliked, and the things that needed reworking in The Enemy Within. Yesterday I posted about 3000 words on things I'd do differently if I ran it again, and today I'll blather on for about that long again.

***SPOILER WARNING: the following contains MAJOR SPOILERS for The Enemy Within (for 3rd Edition WFRP)***  


 As a reminder for those who missed yesterday's post, The Enemy Within is divided into Four Books, each of which takes place in a different geographic region. Book One is in Averheim, Book Two is Middenheim, Book Three is Altdorf, and Book Four takes place in the Chaos Wastes (essentially hell itself).

We Don't Need No Social Actions In Middenheim

Book Two is kind of a problem, and definitely the weakest chapter of the scenario. It's not nearly as sandbox or detailed as Book One. It's not nearly as tight and structured as Book Three. It's just underdeveloped. The players come to Middenhiem with three quests, but they can safely ignore all but the most annoying of them.

I've discussed previously how the NPCs in Book Two are under-developed and have no stats. I provided home-brewed stat-cards for them here. That was months ago, so now I'd like to talk about other elements of Book Two that drove me up the wall.

The main quest (of the three quests in Book Two) has to do with the Corrupted Bell Clapper. This is vital to the plot, and must be accomplished... but it's also a big deceptive hose job. As written there's 100% chance the players will actually fail in their mission, and a 95% chance they'll think they succeeded. At the time, it probably seems to the players as an innocuous side-plot and a nice change of pace. It's only much later in the campaign that the players will realize it was a terrible bit of railroading. That they were being manipulated by the Devil himself (Tzeentch) is epic and very true to the setting, but it's also kinda awful the way this situation has zero chance of success. PC actions can alter all sorts of little details along the way and make the tasks and consequences more or less arduous, but no matter what they do the players are actually going to lose here, and they won't know it. While that's great drama, it sort loses sight of the fact that RPGs are not Movies/Plays/TV.

The quest also takes several days to complete, and more-or-less runs on frustration and stonewalling, with several unsympathetic NPC gatekeepers. This is another section of the module that probably runs better as a biting satire or over-the-top farce than as grimdark realism. That works in Paranoia, with all it's commie-mutant-traitor nonsense to have you laughing at the fubar bureaucratic nightmare, but the mutant-traitors in Warhammer don't wear fuzzy red ushankas. As I said yesterday, if only the tonal advice on page 147 had been on page 5 (or even page 87) you'd get a more consistent and rewarding experience for the players. The PCs should feel frustrated, but you really don't want the _Players_ to experience that particular emotional state too deeply.

The one part of the quest that's really cool is the ritual itself. I really admire the way it's broken up in to turns with an interesting action and die roll for each PC during each step. It's frustrating that even if every single PC succeeds at every single die roll the ritual just doesn't work, but again, it'd be an awesome plot for a TV series where the audience can see how they're being manipulated as it's happening. For the interactive collaborative storytelling of an RPG it's kind of a let down, since you generally want PCs (and players) to have some impact in whether they win or fail. It reads fine on the page, but in actual play it felt cheap and hollow to me. I think the players enjoyed it, but they don't know how badly they were being shafted.

There's two other quests running concurrently with that one, both of which involve the crazed Witch-hunter who is secretly a Slaanesh cultist. Both of these quests have a lot more agency for the players in that they can more directly influence how things play out and have much better odds of success. Unfortunately, many play groups are likely to feel they get a satisfactory resolution of those quests from a single scene. I mean, you don't really want to spend any more time than you have to around the Witch-hunter, and the person she's put on trial is a stranger to the PCs and business rival to their employer. You could sit back and avoid the plot, and everything would end up mostly okay.

The saving grace is that there's a whole other subplot about cultists that's only tangentially linked to main plots. If the players seem bored, or are willing to let the witchhunter do her thing off camera while the clock advances on the bell clapper plotline, the GM has a number of hooks for introducing some excitement (and chaos) to the adventure. If handled correctly, it can lead to an actual victory against the forces of darkness. My PCs wiped out every mutant or cultist in Middenheim, so that makes up a bit for being shafted by the main plot.

All of main quests could have been structured to make heavy use of social encounter rules, but for inexplicable reasons they were specifically written to avoid those mechanics. This is just a Shame (pun/mechanical-reference intended). Instead of solid social encounters with progress trackers and NPCs who can "fight" back in the conversational arena, we're given a series of single die-roll scenes that the GM can't afford to let the PCs fail.

Let's look at the main bell-clapper plot. Each day you meet a priest, and you get a single roll to influence him. Then he sends you away and tells you to return tomorrow. If you succeeded, when you return he passes you to the next priest up the line. Do that twice and you meet the head priest. If you influence him too, you gain access to the ritual and the holy flame. Each failed die roll adds at least a day of delay, but other than that there's no real challenge on those daily rolls. It's the entire Party ganging up on one NPC, plus a huge laundry list of positive and negative dice modifiers. As long as at least one PC has Fellowship 4+ and Charm or Guile trained, success is eventually guaranteed. If none of the PCs have those stats, the entire campaign will stall out until the GM decides to just hand-waive them through the last obstacles to save the campaign. So even if your party does have a smooth-talking character who ought to thrive in the spotlight of a social scene, they don't really get anything out of it. It's still 3 days, and 3 rolls, and any XP they spent on Social Actions are completely beside the point.

The Witch-hunter's trial is even less engaging and more of a stonewall. It doesn't matter how amazing the PCs oratory and social or legal skills, they can't convince her of the victim's innocence. This could have been an awesome full-on Social Encounter with progress trackers for her madness and the evidence or oratory.  Something more like this:

Yep, that would have done the job.

Instead, as written, the PCs will probably just flail about until the actual badguys screw up and provide a lead. Again, it's like we're watching a TV series. I love good TV shows, and this would be a great one, but when playing an RPG I'd rather empower the players a good bit more than this.

If the PCs do keep poking at witch-hunter, as written they'll eventually they'll activate one of her murder-triggers and she'll try a bone-headed assassination attempt to get rid of them. I say bone-headed because she lacks the necessary action cards (or stats) to have a chance of taking on three or more PCs, and her plan is basically just "wait outside their hotel room until I can shoot them". It's stupid, especially given her position and the resources at her disposal. She could have used her legal powers to condemn the PCs. She could have used her cult connections to curse or corrupt them. Instead, she chooses suicide-by-PC.

So I raided my old first and second edition books (and the seedier corners of my own imagination) to come up with a solid Slaaneshi plot for her to embroil the PCs in. She racked up a bunch of corruption, unleashed some perverted demons at the PCs expense, and escaped with her life and reputation intact. It was pretty twisted, and a little racy, so I'm not gonna go into details here. It's not the sort of thing you'd want to just spring on your play group unless you had a really good idea of where people's boundaries were.

Returning to my previous theme, if I'd realized then that the adventure is meant to be a dark comedy, then in that context it would have been fine for her to make an inept suicidal attack. I would have just brainstormed something slapstick to have punch up the goofiness in the middle of the fight, and a ridiculous monologue to hang a lampshade on it.

A Thousand Dwarves Cried Out, and Were Suddenly Silenced

One last minor gripe about Book Two: the Middenhiem description and map is really vague and minimal. So I broke out Ashes of Middenheim from 2nd Ed. It's set roughly 6 months to a year AFTER the timeline of 3rd Ed's The Enemy Within. It is shocking how much 3rd Ed left out. My favorite example is about Dwarves. In 2nd Ed, Middenhiem has a thriving Dwarven community that's been there for generations and has several prominent institutions and guilds that interact with the humans. In 3rd Ed, there's "almost no permanent dwarf presence in Middenhiem".  I corrected that bizarre oversight, worked in a subplot about Dwarven Hospitality, and added several other bits of flavor from Ashes of Middenhiem to help fill out the Book Two slump.

With that, let's meander over towards Book Four

Expressionist Chaos

The four Books that comprise The Enemy Within for 3rd Ed are all over the map in terms of plot and tone.

Book One is wonderful mystery opener, and does an amazing job of establishing a sense of place and community. The fun scenes happen on a timeline that's about realism, not traditional narrative tropes. It can be a little disorienting, and have a minor hiccup or two, but it's great. You can't solve the mystery here, but it'll set up the groundwork to revive the cold case in a later book.

Book Two is rather a mess, as mentioned previously. There's some interesting religion vs chaos themes being explored, but it suffers from the fault of not giving player agency and decisions much weight.

Book Three is tight and taut. The plot barrels along, and there's rarely time to think. It's not only cinematic, but also honestly hilarious. There's some great comedic material there, followed by a gripping, all-or-nothing, climactic battle.

Book Four is another beast entirely. The plot is very linear, but simultaneously incomprehensible. That's actually fitting, as the entire plot takes place in Warhammer's equivalent of Hell. It's an optional epilogue, where the PCs know exactly what they want to accomplish, but not how to do it or what to expect when they get there.

The plot focuses on rarely seen places and themes of the setting. Lesser-known aspects of the Ruinous Powers come to the forefront.
  • Tzeentch is best known as the God of Trickery and Witchcraft... but the adventure also explores his role as the God of Ambition and Schemes.
  • Slaanesh is best known as the God of Debauchery and Perversion... but the adventure also explores his role as the God of Dance and Physical Perfection... and God of Gluttony.
  • Nurgle is best known the God of Disease and Filth... but the adventure also explores his role as the God of Despair and Sloth.
  • Only the depiction of Khorne remains true to his simplest and most famous attributes. Blood for the Blood God! Skulls for the Skull Throne! Rage for the sake of bloody-minded rage.
Giving "screen time" to these lesser-known aspects of the Chaos Gods is pretty darned cool. Unfortunately, that screen time for both Slaanesh and Nurgle risks getting lost in the wash if the PCs are wary or in a hurry. Tzeentch as Ambition-Dealer is covered repeatedly in the adventure, and works well. Slaanesh as Lord of Dance gets a quick spotlight that most likely devolves into combat instead of exploring the theme more thoroughly. Slaanesh as Gluttony didn't even happen with my group, because the players were in such a hurry to escape they never got near the banquet. I was able to cram in Nurgle as Despair though, despite the PCs being in a hurry, and I was pleased with that. Plus, we had a memorable discussion with a Great Unclean One about just how generous and charitable Nurgle was. Nurgle gives, my friends. He gives and he gives, from the bottom of his gut.

Impressionist Chaos

Book Four is either a triumph of dreamy world-building, or a garbled mess as incomplete as Book Two, depending on how you look at it. The laws of physics change around the players, and nothing is what it seems. It's a fun place for the GM to improvise. Think of it as a big tone-poem, or a dream sequence with consequences. There is a small problem with Form following Function following Form eating it's own tail. Like Book Two, parts of Book Four are a little underdeveloped, though given the setting of Book Four you can almost forgive it.

To some extent this is understandable, as well, for monetary reasons. It's the optional Epic-level Epilogue at the end of a very long campaign. While the first three Books have crazy tonal variations, that at least all take place on the same planet. Raids into Hell and back may "not feel like WFRP" to some groups, and you need very powerful characters to have a chance of survival. So only a very small number of players will ever face this chapter. As a result, FFG seems to have tried to save a little money here by cutting corners.

The adventure doesn't come with nearly enough stand-ups for the numerous daemons of every variety, and it only has four Location cards for the whole chapter. To put that in context, I could easily make a case for needing no less than 13 Location cards for Book Four, with 6 of them being inside the huge constantly changing Castle of Tzeentch. There are individual fights with 20+ non-henchmen demons of the same type, and it's hard to represent that on tabletop when a complete set of everything they've ever printed only includes 2 tokens of nearly every daemon type.

The encounters have clearly had little to no playtesting for balance. So while I was constantly upgrading the quality and number of opponents that my large and combat-focused party faced in the first 3/4 of the campaign, once I got to Chaos I repeatedly cut down on the numbers of the monsters. I still killed one PC and got close a few times on the others. If I'd been inclined to end the whole thing in anticlimactic failure just inside the gates of hell, it would have been trivially easy to do so.

The trick is that there's a war of attrition going on, and if the players aren't cautious they'll find themselves nibbled to death. Healing methods in the game are usually limited to once per target per day, but the otherworldly skies in Book Four have no sun at all and the adventures don't have time to dawdle. You'll get one first aid check after each fight, but other than that you run out of healing options very quickly. My group stocked up on Healing Draughts and Medicines before entering the rift, but after the first fight with Khorne's hounds,  all the remaining bottles were just excess weight with no purpose. Since First Aid is limited by your Toughness, any would past the 4th or 5th taken in a battle cannot be repaired. There's potentially as many as 14 battles in this book, if the PCs don't actively try to avoid fights. Some of those conflicts are against foes of immense power, or huge hordes of lesser demons. The math of it all will wear down the toughest PCs.

Just as the PCs are almost certainly unprepared for the scope of what they'll be facing, the GM is under-equipped for running it all. I don't just mean stand-up tokens and location cards. I'm talking monster stats that are missing entirely. Some examples of incomplete combat stats that you don't want to discover at the table:
  • This is almost a direct quote for the stats on the ghostly librarian: "If you have access to the creature vault, use the stats from monster A, but with the following bonuses. If you _don't_ have the creature guide, use the stats from monster B from the core-set instead, but with a different set of stat bonuses and this extra power that, by the way, is also from the creature guide. Don't worry, we'll also hide it in a sidebar on a different page of this book that you may have already skipped past without noticing. Good freakin' luck."
  • There's an animated stuffed crocodile (it's in the room with a ton of subtle Disney film references) that as Strength 5, DR 5, Toughness 5 and Wounds 15. It gets two manoeuvres per turn. No other stats are provided. So I guess that means Defense 0? That's pretty rare that a monster would have neither Defense nor Armor ratings. With neither those nor an A/C/E budget, it's not likely to survive past the first attack. Does it have the special abilities of a beast, an undead, or both?  And what happens if the PCs try an Action against it that's opposed by the target's Willpower? They only gave us 1/3 of what you need to run a monster in this system. The GM will need to make something up there.
  • There's two different encounters where the monsters get random reinforcements each turn, from a pool of 6 different monster types (and zero overlap between these two encounters), some of which come from other random supplements you may or may not have. Anyone who's GM'd this game knows that it's really hard to run more than 2 monster types in one fight. Each monster type basically has its own deck of cards, and three piles of tokens. If the fight runs to a third round with those sorts of reinforcements coming in to play you've run out of table space.
So, GMs, if you're gonna run Book Four, you'll need to do more prep work than it took for the other parts. I suggest try running a dry run of each fight for yourself. Run one round of each battle in advance all by yourself so you can catch all the subtle hidden problems before they bite you during actual play.

My First Job Was Programming Binary Load Lifters

One of the best elements of the 3rd Ed WFRP system is the non-binary dice system, where every action has at least 4 possible results, and most have around 64 different meaningful result variations. There's the pass/fail axis, plus the boon/bane axis, either of which can have many degrees of variation, plus the possibilities of comets, chaos stars, delays and exertion.

That's the core of this system...and yet Book Four is packed full of Binary rolls. A check to see if you fall for an illusion or mind control should NEVER be binary pass-fail in this system. Those sorts of effects scream out for bane and chaos star results. If you pass with banes you should retain your free will but still suffer penalties on certain action types because your senses or emotions are conflicted.

That, plus all the random charts for resolving Castle Tzeentch feels like Book Four may have been originally written for a different system -- probably 2nd Edition -- and given a hasty conversion to 3rd Ed.

The Return Of The King

Have you ever seen The Return of the King? Remember how it fades to black like 50 freaking times as the last hour of the movie teases you with the promise of actually ending? Hope you didn't get a big soda with your movie ticket. Book Four does the same thing.

The PCs think they've escaped, but it's all an illusion created by Tzeentch. If they fall for it, there's plenty of opportunity for their ambition to enslave or corrupt them. If they figure it out and resist, they can break free of that world, only to end up in an illusion created by Slaanesh. Then you break free of that, and end up in an illusion created by Nurgle. You break free again, and you're finally home, but then Khornate daemons attack. If you survive that fight, you get the real epilogue.

Trying to time your last session is really hard. If you reach the Tzeentch illusion late in the session, the players will assume the campaign is over, and be more inclined to except little discrepancies because they're trying to rap up all the plot-threads in a narrative hand wave. So they fail and lose their souls because they were trying to help you "stick the ending" of the campaign. Oops. If you stop just before the illusion, you'll raise suspicions and that's almost as bad. No one wants an entire session of tidying-up, "so why don't we just play an extra 15 minutes tonight to wrap up the whole campaign?" is what they'll ask you. Basically, the campaign is 2 to 6 hours longer than the players think it is, and you'll "ruin the surprise" / "give them an unearned victory" if you let on about it. That's fine if you game on a Friday or Saturday and no one minds running past time, not so great if you game on a weeknight and some of your players rely on catching the bus.

My advice:
Leave off with the players passing through a door in Castle Tzeentch. Don't tell them what's in the room they arrive at, leave that for next week. Then start the final session in the Torture Room. Keep it brief, and make it seem like monstrous reinforcements are on their way. With any luck, the PCs will activate the gem and bail as fast as they can... leaving you several hours left in your normally scheduled session to run what should normally be less than an hour of wrap-up and epilogue. Then proximity to the end of the session won't make them ignore clues, and proximity to the start of the session won't make them doubt it, because they didn't know prior to the session that it was going to be the final chapter. Ideally, you'd end the session just after the PCs figure out that it's a Tzeentch illusion, but before they've escaped it. They'll have a week to brainstorm and worry about escape routes. At the start of the next session, give them a good chase scene or fight as the illusion crumbles around them, and ideally dump them in the Slaanesh world after roughly an hour of adventure so again you're not too close to the start nor end of the night. They'll take less time getting out of Slaanesh land, and hardly any time with Nurgle, and then can either can wrap up there, or leave off with them assuming this must be a Khorne illusion when it isn't (so you'd end up with one more session that would actually be shorter than normal).

That's _not_ what I did, but I foolishly thought I could cram through all 3 illusions in one session. Instead, it was an unintentionally double-length session and everyone left really late. Depending on your group, that might not be so good.

Well, that got a lot of the rant out of my system. I may revisit the topic if I dream up some better solutions to any problems I glossed over here, but for the most part I've unleashed my own personal Enemy Within and am ready to move on.

Again, I liked the campaign enough to run 50+ sessions, despite all the flaws. Overall, there's more good than bad there.

Monday, December 22, 2014

All of our wars have now been thoroughly hammered

Late last night, my play group completed the last session of our Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (3rd Edition) campaign. It was an epic session, of nearly double our normal length, but the thrills and reveals were so engaging none of us realized how late it had gotten until we were already 3 hours past our usual quitting time.

Of the four PCs in the campaign, one died and another contracted Nurgle's Rot, two became mutants, and two gained permanent insanities. No one escaped completely unscathed, but the party Wizard avoided all the worst of the consequences that befell her comrades. At great personal cost the group accomplished all their goals, however, saving the Empire from existential calamity (and preserving the personal fortune and family name of the PC whose father was secretly the big bad).

I was running The Enemy Within for 3rd Edition, expanded a little with some content from the 2nd Edition books for certain cities, and further enriched by some great sub-plot material the players brought to the game with their engaging character backgrounds. We played this campaign for over 50 sessions, lasting nearly two years (minus a few short breaks here and there for vacations and/or medical reasons).

I would now like to share a few thoughts, observations, and GM-ing advice specific to this campaign. I've had a love-hate relationship with this game and this campaign for a while now. There's tons of stuff I admire and enjoy in both, but some rough edges and pot holes that have been driving me crazy for months now.

***SPOILER WARNING: the following contains MAJOR SPOILERS for The Enemy Within (for 3rd Edition WFRP)***    

 If you are playing in The Enemy Within currently, or think there's any reasonable chance you'll be a player in it in the future, you should turn back now. The SPOILERS that follow will ruin major plot points and mysteries.

Playing for Laughs

The adventure is split into four "books" that each deal with a separate region, and all the many plots and mysteries that the players get tangled up in while on a mission in that region. You start in Averheim, then travel to Middenheim and Altdorf, and then, if you use the optional fourth book, the plot takes you to the Chaos Wastes and back again. It's a 200 page book, the last 1/4 of it is an optional epilogue, and it's all very compartmentalized and broken up geographically. So I imagine quite a few GMs start prepping for the campaign by thoroughly reading the first book, while only giving the last three books a light skim for major plot points.

Here's the most important thing that you might miss if, as GM, you focus mostly on that first book initially:  this adventure is a comedy.

In book three, that comedic nature becomes very obvious. The book has a subsection called "A Farce In The Fog", which offers GMing advice on how to catch the correct tone. Specifically, a light-hearted, satirical, comedy of errors.

At a casual read, it's easy to assume this advice, buried so deep in the book, is meant only for that one day of the character's lives, a few frantic scenes of comic relief right before the big climax of the non-optional storylines.

In hindsight, that really should be the tone of the campaign overall. The advice should not come on page 147, it should be on page 5. There are numerous points in the campaign where the plot hinges on some NPC making a poor decision. Nobles being impractical, out-of-touch, ambitious and callous. City watch being ineffective or outright corrupt. Great scholars failing to note fatal flaws in their application of metaphysical theory. Witch-hunters running kangaroo courts to satisfy their own personal passions. GMs might assume they are meant to play this straight-faced, grim and gritty. Doing so will seem satisfying at first, but result in a weird disconnect where a veneer of cynical realism sits atop a core of gross incompetence. From the start of the campaign, the only people making smart decisions are the big-bad and maybe the PCs. Regardless of their actual success rate, the players will eventually feel that they and the Black Cowl (the villain) are the only competent characters in the entire setting. PCs as "big damn hero" empowered protagonists is refreshingly better than some GM's-Pet-NPC-Ex-Machina, it will at times strain ones disbelief and make the players feel contempt for everyone (except perhaps the villain). That's less than ideal for a serious work of gritty realism, but perfect for a Shakespearean Comedy or a black satire.

If I had to do it all over again, I would note all the little moments of ridiculous incompetence or jaded cynicism in the plotline, and dial them up to 11. If you hit those hard (and early on) I think you can improve the experience for the players.

Let's look at book one. When Clothilda Von Alptraum hatches a ridiculous scheme to needlessly imperil herself and her diamonds for the outside chance that the PCs will capture a highwayman, that should feel like a punchline, not a plot hole.

A few pages later the PCs are hired as security for a big celebration that is almost certainly going to be marred by at least one murder and a theft even if the PCs do everything perfectly. Yet the later plot hinges on the person who hired them as security deciding to employ them again on a vital long-distance mission with zero supervision. That works in a comedy of errors, but not so much in a realistic drama. Any sensible employer in the real world would fire them and recruit some other band of mercenaries. Killers, thugs, and messengers are a dime a dozen in the Old World.

For the most part, my GMing instincts kicked in in the heat of the moment to save scenes that would have otherwise imploded. Mostly, I played up the right bits for humor once I noticed that my players were starting to get contemptuous or incredulous at the NPCs and situations in any given scene. Then having patched over the immediate problem with a good joke or bit of exaggerated characterization, I would generally return to trying to portray the setting as grim, serious and realistic. If only that tonal advice on page 147 were earlier and more prominent, I would have had a more consistently-flavored campaign.

Don't get me wrong, Book One (and the campaign as a whole) is for the most part brilliant. There's some really clever plot developments, and memorable scenes and situations. It just could have been better if there'd been more overt advice up front about playing things up for satirical yucks. Like I said, page 5 (and in bold) not page 147.

The campaign (like the main boxed set and core-rules) assumes your party is three characters with random starting careers and thus unlikely to be very proficient in combat. It's not impossible that your party could consist of a dockhand, a courtier and a rat-catcher.

Instead, my group had a trollslayer, a fire mage, a knight, and a priest of the God of Thieves. Three of the characters were die-hard bad-asses, and the two very mathematically-inclined players had a bit of a rivalry about how much damage they could dish out.

So every time a fight scene came up, I upgraded the bad guys to give my players a meaningful challenge and keep the setting dark and perilous. It seemed necessary, as my players had probably 250% of the firepower the module assumed. I don't regret that decision, despite the time and effort it took (both in pre-game prep-time and in longer battles at the table). Them being so potent is largely my fault. I let them choose their starting careers (instead of using the recommended random draw) and I knew that I was inviting the sort of players to the game that would quickly master the system and figure out how to get the most out of their XP. My friends are really smart, and they like to win. That's cool.

I had another option, though, and the thing is, I didn't even realize it. Because it is a comedy of errors, there was no need for the fights to be challenging. They could have been speed-bumps and slapstick cakewalks. Heck, thanks to the ridiculousness of the chaos-star lines on some terrain cards, there were occasional slapstick moments in battle. One PC fell into the river like three times. In another fight much later, the knight fell off his horse in two consecutive turns. If I'd embraced the craziness of those mechanics and played the campaign as a comedy, those moments would been hilarious. Instead, because most of the game was so serious, that those failures felt jarringly awkward. I made house-rules and decisions to prevent them from recurring, but in the process I really toned down the mechanics that make 3rd Ed's funky dice so interesting.

If I'd embraced the comedic nature of the game and not dialed up the fights, I bet the campaign would have been done in 20 sessions, not 50. We spent a lot of time resolving combats, and the PCs felt so imperiled that they frequently slowed down their investigation to proceed with caution. While that's perfectly fitting for Warhammer, it's not necessarily what the authors of The Enemy Within had in mind.

Man, that's a lot of words for a single complaint that's not really a complaint. Like I said, I don't regret the campaign, I just wish I'd realized earlier that there was another option. Had I internalized page 147 a year earlier than I did, the campaign would have felt a lot more cohesive and even, and I would have saved myself a lot of work. It might have been a much better game, or maybe just different as opposed to better. I don't know.

Background Cards

The Enemy Within introduced a new mechanic called Background Cards that is probably one of the main reasons why GMs read the first chapter and fall in love with the campaign.

Each player gets one of these 6 cards, which provides you with plot-hooks for your new character. There's a series of questions on the cards that the player gets to answer. These will color and inform the setting, and connect that PC to various NPCs and subplots in Book One. As a reward for answering those questions, the PC gets a small stat boost, and a very potent once-per-session special power derived to which of the 6 broad character concepts they chose.  I rewrote parts of the adventure based on the player's answers, even changing the main mystery so that the Big Bad was now the abusive father from one of the PC's background.

These Background Cards are so cool! I will almost certainly steal the concept for use in other games and campaigns in the future. The cards united the PCs right out of the gates, and established setting and characterization details before we'd played a single session. Amazing.

That said, I later realized these cards don't go far enough. They're a great start, but there's a couple places where they fall short.

For starters, they only tie you in to Book One. Every PC starts out well-connected in Averhiem, having answered multiple questions about local NPCs. But then later the plot of Book Two takes you to Middenheim. Just 1 of the 6 Background cards includes a direct link to an NPC in Middenheim. Just one. And none of the Backgrounds tie in to characters introduced in Book Three at all (though to be fair, 4 of the NPCs from Book One do show up again in Book Three). So you've done all this cool world-building that anchors your characters to Averhiem, and then you abandon all that collaborative world-building for 1/3 to 1/2 of the adventure.

Even in Book One, there's a missed opportunity with the NPCs Curd Weiss and Graf Von Kaufman. Von Kaufman is the guy who wants to hire the PCs for security at the party, and to escort Clothilda and her diamonds, and to run another big errand that is the majority of the plot of Book Two. It's vital that the PCs end up working for this guy. Per the scenario notes eventually Von Kaufman sends his agent Curd Weiss to find the PCs and offer them a job. Several of the Background Cards have subtle links to Von Kaufman, via his business the Red Arrow Coaching Inn, or the academic group The Sun Society which meets at one of his Inns. So once these NPCs contact the PCs, it's likely that's enough of a background connection for the PCs to accept the job offer (especially since there's a cash reward). The problem is there's only the most tenuous implication in the cards or the scenario notes for how and why these NPCs ever hear about the PCs. Not a problem if the PCs are high-profile doing heroic things around town... but that's not guaranteed.

The plot needs Curd Weiss to seek out the PCs on the third day of the campaign. If the PCs spent the first two days quietly gathering clues or attending to personal subplots (as my players did) then there's no explicit reason for Weiss or Von Kaufman to even know they exist. So when Curd Weiss shows up with a job proposal, it comes across as very arbitrary and a little suspicious. This could have been solved easily by mentioning Weiss by name on a couple of the Background Cards and asking the PC what sort of unusual problem-solving they'd done for him previously.

The last place where the Background Cards fail is in the event of needing replacement characters later in the campaign. All 6 cards tie you in to Book One, but what if a PC dies and needs replacing in Middenheim or Altdorf? I realize there's printer costs and page count limits on what was already a large and expensive campaign, but it sure would have been smart for the module to include a couple of mid-campaign replacement Background cards that linked the new PC to the group but gave some inkling of why this old friend was so far from Averhiem. Sure, you could use one of the existing cards at this point, but the questions would no longer be as relevant and you'd be limited in how you could answer them now that the setting's been known and explored for several sessions.

As it turned out, our only PC death was late enough in our campaign that it didn't matter. We were two sessions from completion when he went down and basically journeying through Hell, so the "dead" character could just stand back up and help his friends escape the underworld. He himself was doomed to keel over again when they left, but he was only out of the action for a short time. He got three death scenes in total, and still played to the very end.

Intuition Checks and The Black Cowl

This is a small quibble about the scenario, but it's a critical one.

The adventure has the PCs trying to figure out the identity of The Black Cowl, an Averhiem-based criminal mastermind who later in the story tries to take over (or destroy) the Empire.  To keep the big mystery from being spoiled on the internet, the adventure provides three best options for who The Black Cowl is, and lets the GM choose between them, or even provides a few paragraphs on adapting the adventure to making just about any other NPC be the secret Big Bad. It's pretty cool.

It's a largely cerebral mystery adventure, with a lot of interviews/talking and a bit of investigative legwork.

Many of the "scheduled" conversations with NPCs in the campaign include bullet points or boxed dialog coaching the GM on what those NPCs should say. Many of these sample dialog responses include statements to use if the PCs ask any given NPC about The Black Cowl.  So far, so good.

The weird thing is that quite a few of the NPCs have officially never heard of the Black Cowl prior to the PCs asking about him. This includes most of the likely candidates for the Black Cowl's secret identity.

This wouldn't be a problem except that the game has built-in lie-detector mechanics. The "Intuition" skill can be used, per the rules, to suss out whether or not someone is lying. So if the PCs ask their suspects "what do you know about The Black Cowl?" and the answer they get is "I've never heard of him" they can make a simple die roll to see if that's BS.  Nearly every NPC in the adventure will answer that way, the few who don't are really clearly not suspects (as they're usually his victims). These are opposed checks vs the stats of the NPC being interviewed. The innocent NPCs have no reason to lie, and as written know nothing about the villain. They also typically have low enough Fellowship scores to set the difficulty at around 80% success if even one PC has a strong Intelligence rating and asks that simple question.

The villain himself won't fall to this, as he can avoid lying by sharing things about his own reputation, and he or she gets a big upgrade to their own mental stats. So you won't pinpoint in-character who the villain is this way. But you will handily eliminate the vast majority of suspects, and know that only one major NPC had ever even heard of the bad guy. That's not really "admissible in court" but when has that ever stopped Player Characters?

Even worse, they'll know out-of-character that the difficulty for lie detecting nearly everyone was 1 to 2 purple dice and maybe 1 to 2 black dice. Except the one guy that did know a little about The Black Cowl. When we tried an Intuition check on him (on some statement that seemed mildly suspicious, but isn't as conclusive as "I know nothing about the criminal or his crimes"), the difficulty shot up to 4 or 5 purple and 2 to 3 black dice (or more if they spend A/C/E). The best player in the world would have a hard time not being influenced by the information in those dice pools.

Easiest solution here is to override the boxed text. Decide that all the major suspects have heard at least rumors about The Black Cowl, and/or pick one to be a minor accomplice or a blackmail victim who has something to hide. Then you can have multiple characters be evasive when questioned, and spend A/C/E on those rolls to cloak the dice disparity.

Alternately, you could secretly roll the difficulty dice, apply hidden modifiers, or engage in other mechanical shenanigans to obfuscate the player's ability to know their characters success rates. I discussed a related topic in depth a year ago, in Brainstorming About Observation Checks.  Given how many resources established PCs have to modify their own rolls (Fortune Points, Human once-per-session boost, rerolls from blessings/spells/runes/gambler-ability/etc, bonuses from Assist Another, etc) it strikes me as a little unfair to hide difficulty unless it's really necessary (which it kind of is at one point in Book Four, but we'll get to that). If the player knew the actual difficulty, they'd throw more dice at it. That's some murky grey area, though, and I'd avoid it whenever possible.

Same Hammer-Time, Same Hammer-Channel

This post is getting a little long, and I'm only about half way done with my rant. I'm going to stop here for today, and tomorrow blog a few thousand more words about other parts of The Enemy Within that I feel could use some polishing or revision.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Custom HTHAD monster groups and events

I'm posting a few alternate chart entries and monster groups to the How To Host A Dungeon wiki, so I thought I'd cross-post them to my blog as well. Some, but not all, of these have been tested in my recent playthroughs of HTHAD.

New Monster Groups:

Delving Groups:

  1. Deep Dwarves: Whenever Deep Dwarves patrol, they do not go in a random direction. They head straight towards the nearest ore source they have not claimed, digging a new tunnel if necessary. If there is no ore left on the map, they advance (digging if necessary) towards the bottom of the map.
  2. Infernal Automatons: Infernal Automatons ignore (and are ignored by) the Bound Demons of Infernal Engines or the Soul Mill. They gain +1 on Encounter checks if they have any Infernal Engines or Soul Mills in their Zone of Control.

Breeding Groups:

  1. Changelings: Start with 2● and 0○. Whenever the Changelings win an Encounter check, both they and the Monster Group they just encountered gain 1●.
  2. Kender: Whenever Kender encounter another Monster Group, they first automatically steal 1○ from that group. Then they roll for the encounter as normal, but with -1 on the Kender's roll.
  3. Goblin Herders: At the end of their Season, if they are supported, add a Feral Squig ● anywhere in their ZOC. The Feral Squig ● is a wandering monster that ignores (and is ignored by) Goblins.

Alpha Predators:

  1. Vampire: Whenever a Vampire would be killed, it actually escapes by turning into a rodent or mist, or by melding with the earth. In any such event, it drops all its loot on the spot, and sinks through the ground to the next open room or corridor below it. If there is no such place within a finger's distance, create a new Tomb one finger below it to be the alpha's new lair. (Mark that Tomb with an X to remember it.) The vampire is only truly slain if it sinks through the ground into magma, the running water of the underground river, or off the bottom of the map.
  2. Titan: The act of breaking free from Tartarus unleashes epic devastation. When you place the Titan on the map, roll on the Great Disaster table. The Disaster should run through or be centered on the titan's lair. The titan is not harmed in any way by this Disaster. If magma floods the lair during this disaster, that means this titan is immune to fire.

Wandering Monsters:

  1. Rust Monster: Rust monsters destroy any unclaimed ○ they wander over. If they encounter any other Monster Groups, they destroy one ○ (instead of ●). Then, if the Monster Group still has at least one ● and at least one ○ left, the Rust Monster itself is destroyed. Otherwise it is unharmed.
  2. Gargantuan: Use a larger-than-normal ● to represent the Gargantuan. The Gargantuan cannot enter any room or tunnel smaller than it's ● in size, including most one-bead standard rooms (like dwarven barracks). During encounters, the Gargantuans kill 2● instead of 1●.
  3. Dwarven Trollslayer: The Trollslayer ignores Dwarf, Druegar, Darrow and even Gnome groups, and will move past their entire ZOC in one turn of wandering. If the Trollslayer meets a worthy death while there are any of those groups on the map, the richest one will immediately build a Tomb for the Trollslayer in their territory. Mark it with an X.
Kender are from Dragonlance. Trollslayers and Squigs are from Warhammer Fantasy. Rust Monsters are from D&D, and the Vampire's escape methods are adapted from D&D. All appear here without permission. No challenge intended to copyright, etc. I'm just a fan.

New Special Features

  1. Surface War: An army of humans or humanoids, ●●●○ in number, starts at one edge of the map, and marches across the surface until they have an Encounter (which will usually be an Encounter with the Surface Kingdoms). If they find any tunnels, they briefly divert to explore them one finger deep. During their travels, they fight like a wandering monster and loot any unguarded treasure. After resolving their first Encounter, if any of the invading army survives, they build a border Fort. Draw the Fort, up to 3 beads in size as needed, near where the encounter happened. Each turn, if there are one or more Farms within one Finger from the Fort, roll a d6 for each. On a 5+, that farm is raided by the invaders, killing 1 ● Peasant. The Fort ignores other Surface Kingdom buildings, and takes no other actions. Excursions, Adventuring Parties, and Monster Groups treat the Fort as if it were the lair of a group of Chaotic monsters. 
  2. Minor Discovery: The group with the most ● discovers or creates a new feature. Roll on the Minor Features chart, and Draw the result on the map somewhere in their Zone of Control. If the Feature you rolled seems beneficial and appropriate, add either  ● or ○ there. 
  3. Cave-in: The room or corridor closest to where the die lands becomes clogged with debris and is rendered impassable. Erase it or cross it out. If there were any creatures there, they lose one ●. If this breaks a Chaotic or Hungry groups' Zone of Control into two non-contiguous parts, the group splits into two groups each with half the ● and ○ of the original.
  4. Militarization: A random Delver or Breeder monster group starts producing weapons and training for war. Draw a Forge, Barracks or Training Grounds in their Zone of Control. They get a permanent +1 bonus on all Encounter rolls as long as that room is in their ZoC.