Friday, July 29, 2016

Review of Perdition

I received my copy of Perdition from Lulu a few days ago, and wanted to share a few thoughts. I don’t normally review things, so bear with me.

I like it. It smells good. I liked the PDF enough to whip up a character sheet:

I tend to do this for new systems/games frequently, since the Character Sheet is an important component of how the Player ends up experiencing the game. Even if a talented Game Master/Agonarch can reliably hijack the interceding nerve receptors for imaginary eyes/ears/tongues/noses during play, Character Sheets are still the silver cord that ties the player to the plane of play.

The catechistic act of creating a Character Sheet is also often the easiest way for me to develop a deeper understanding of the mechanics and system. This is especially useful for something that diverges quite a bit from traditional D&D ruleset like Perdition. Not too far mind you, just far enough that falling back to previous system experience could result in the reader failing to implement important and interesting bits.

Here are a few thoughts:

Setting as Mechanics is an ambitious goal, and this is one of the first attempts I’ve seen and more importantly enjoyed. I’ve personally grown quite weary of books bogged down with setting information that never seems to be truly player accessible. The alternative (“just rules”) is usually completely devoid of setting, and this genericism can leave one uninspired. Perdition isn’t strictly an attempt to compromise between these methods, nor is it a hybridization of both approaches, it’s a novel and artful mutation from standard presuppositions of what a role-playing game book should do.

In Perdition the pitch is short, to the point, and although the premise may not appeal to every table, it is expertly telegraphed through the choices players make as they generate their characters, the equipment list, and codified within how the rules are invoked.

The discovery of Perdition's setting is one that takes place incrementally throughout, for as one encounters new rules and mechanics these in turn perform a double duty by dovetailing directly into the world. A game that treats “Wickedness” as an Ability Score or features rules for adjudicating Infernal Contracts immediately intimates some stark setting implications.

This process of setting exploration as one reads through the rules was pleasurable to me. Perusing Perdition for setting acquaintanceship is akin to eating an artichoke. You start on the outside, pulling off petals and scraping the small pulpy portion between your teeth for a trifling taste of the heart here and there. With each ensuing bract, you’re getting more to ruminate.

This is not to say the setting is spoon-fed or parsimoniously trickled out, it’s simply persistently present within the very tools you will be using to play the game, as opposed to padding the page-count with prose. Setting investiture for players needs these sorts of short cuts. Handouts or homework seldom work for the majority of gaming groups. Perdition's lack of roadside attraction fluff-prose may be a bit jarring at first, but the sly marriage of mechanics and setting consecrated here is a very elegant way to arrive at the destination.

To reiterate: This isn't an "implied setting" in any sense, it percolates throughout, emulsified within the rules you use to explore the very world portrayed. It's nifty that way.

I also appreciate the candor of voice, and any reader of Courtney’s blog probably has at least a passing familiarity with his writing style. Perdition’s text is refreshingly frank and uncompromising, especially in terms of the tidbits of advice for the Agonarch incorporated throughout. There's even a bit of humor here and there.

It’s the primary tone of the text that could cause some to ruffle quills at a perceived didacticism creeping in intermittently, but I think it’s important to read on, and see that the motives behind the occasional sweeping intransigent statement are frequently succinctly provided. This is quite nice. Rather than simply admonishing the reader to “Do this” there are frequent explanations as to the “why it’s important.” I don’t find it condescending – it’s an improvement over the normal homebrew heartbreaker, which can sometimes err on the side of almost too chummy elbow-rib-jabbing. This in turn can result in something that may be easy to read, but is either honeycombed with lacuna or largely consists of prosaic and repetitive advice for its own sake.

I’d be remiss to fail to mention that there are also some contributions from the exceptional Arnold K. I could be mistaken, but his fingerprints seem to be all over the especially evocative Fiendish Patrons. The accompanying illustrations had a cockle-warming familiarity to them at first glance, and imagine my surprise to discover they were by none other than the marvelous Russ Nicholson. It's one of many examples of a lovely interblending of the new and old here.

I tend to find insight into the design process to be useful and fascinating, and would like to see more of it. Anyone familiar with some of the great things to come out of game development over the last several years with the Old School Renaissance will  see some things that hearken to it. I particularly liked the “Sombreros May Be Splintered” permutation. 

Even if the recommendations and rules are not all new and groundbreaking, they are still a bit like the joy of discovering a new pocket in an old overcoat. Perdition provides a splendid blend between the old, comfortable familiarity of this style of play alongside multiple neoteric and thought-provoking morsels.

I’m still digesting, but so far my gripes are surprisingly few and mostly on the side of nit-picky. I enjoy the implementation of Physical and Mental Hit Die, and Struggles may finally be the grappling/psionic rule solution I loot first.

The near-symmetry of some things system-wise may prove a minor bother though, as some may be spoiled by more unified mechanics. This came to light in the character sheet design, as I noticed that some components of the system clicked in ingeniously similar ways, but others still stood out, seemingly disconnected at first glance.

I understand why there are no Social Hit Dice, or a true Social Armor Class to compliment the Physical and Mental counterparts, but this may seem to some a little like a missed opportunity to streamline the ruleset a little further. Still, I do feel that the persistence of the 2D6 bell curve and Courtney’s excellent previous work mechanizing Social Interaction with the Reaction Roll and Social Encounters in On the Non-Player Character are important, and this lack of unification doesn’t come across as a tall poppy or proud nail. Most fans of the older games are not averse to the inclusion of subsystems, and like the wonderful dice-pool Magic System, it helps set these “attack types” apart. In a good way.

Could it be raided for new rules/ideas? Absolutely. Grab the PDF if you are curious and I think there are some Free Basic Rules in the works. There are several very interesting and different approaches within this book (I’m still wrapping my head around the way Initiative Dice are handled) and most will fit in fine with D&D of all flavors, streamlining where necessary and elsewhere plugging directly into the chassis where additional subsystems are wanted. Is it possible to reskin or extract all the underlying rules and run this game using a different setting? I don’t really think so. The truly intriguing thing about Perdition is how intrinsically symbiotic most of the the mechanics seem to be to the setting, and I fear that the painstaking process of extracting one from the other wouldn’t result in anything with near as much flavor and function. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Skill Systems: Tweaking "The Middle Road"

Inspired to stitch together this post out of my languishing House Rules document by this post over on Papers & Pencils.

I also like to use The Middle Road approach, with a few modifications:

Skill Rating
Skill Die/Dice

The Ratings are expanded a little bit, success is still on a 5 or more (making UNABLE impossible for the player without circumstantial modifiers...which are generally kept low/stingy). The bell-curve comes into play with MASTER which really increases the chance of success, but with a cost.

I don't tie skill improvement to level in any meaningful way most of the time. This is mostly to mitigate the “20 HD MASTER Blacksmith NPC” and “I gained a level and am suddenly an EXPERT at Tracking” issues, although Thief classes and formal training-as-cash/time-siphon can open up some additional improvement avenues during downtime with some good fictional explanations. Instead I like to tie Skill Rating improvement to actual play.

Any successful Skill Roll (5+) prompts for another skill roll immediately, and on a maximum die/dice result, the first letter of the next Rating is written down. Once you spell it out, you've achieved the next Rating (this is why all Ratings have 6 letters).

This has diminishing returns: It becomes more difficult to improve/master a skill as you get better as the chances of success increase, the chances of rolling the maximum also decrease. I also like that improvement is actually tied to Doing the thing, so players are encouraged to attempt it, even if the odds may not be great (Practice makes perfect!).

Skill Rating
Success Chance
Improve Chance

 If it's too harsh, you could also allow improvement on a “max roll” on the attempt itself, but this could possibly increase the speed of advancement a bit and homogenize expertise more quickly.
Thief types have some additional Rating advancement options to help protect their niche, and to ameliorate the malevolence of the fickle dice gods. Upon gaining a level, the Thief may choose one:
  •                 Immediately Roll on All Skills for a Letter
  •                 Three free letters to be distributed to any skill or skills the player chooses.

If they are part of a guild structure, they may also have easier access to Teacher/Mentor types for certain, non-competitive skills.

If you use class-based XP advancement (with faster advancing Thieves), another option is to allow Thief types the option of immediately spending 100 XP for an additional improvement roll on a Skill success. But my feeling is generally these Classes will likely be making the most Skill attempts anyway, their opportunities for improvement occur more often.

Another option for all classes is to seek out a Teacher/Mentor of a higher Skill Rating in the same skill that is amenable to training the character (often an adventure in itself once you’re seeking EXPERTs and above). After a week of downtime training, the Teacher rolls their Skill die/dice, and on a success the player is permitted to make a Skill roll.

If successful (over 5), they gain 1 letter, if unsuccessful they lose a letter as they have to shed or “unlearn” bad technique. If they roll the maximum (as for standard improvement), they gain 1 letter for each step in Rating difference (so a MASTER would grant the NOVICE three letters). This can be repeated (within reason, and time/resources permitting…training isn’t always cheap or free…I enjoy quest-dispensing Mentors), until the Teacher fails their Skill Roll, or the player reaches the Rating directly below the Teacher. At which point, the Teacher has no new wisdom to impart the student. I’d probably also prevent further training if a player is ever reduced to UNABLE in this way due to poor rolls. No risk, no reward.

Another option is to make the player hunt down a Teacher/Mentor with not only sufficient higher Rating in the Skill the player wishes to train, but also a TEACHER skill high enough to reduce the chances of failure. By using the TEACHER skill to transfer knowledge, instead of the skill itself the learning process becomes much more dicey. This makes finding a good Teacher almost as important as a proficient one. 

All starting characters receive 1 Skill at NOVICE based on Background, they can improve this skill to VERSED and/or take another at NOVICE by taking a voluntary UNABLE in a Skill (max 2 UNABLE skills). Anything else attempted is done at the ROOKIE rating. I’ve toyed with the idea of replacing/supplementing Ability Score modifiers with additional skills or letters (so someone with a -2 in Strength has to take two UNABLE skills involving Strength… or  someone with a +3 in Dexterity gets three free Ratings or letters to a skill or skills involving DEX). Thieves get more starting skill options, but I’ll probably need to cover that in a separate Class post.

I do still really like the idea of a Skill system emphasizing what the player's Can't Do rather than what they can (which I touched on here) prevent that character sheet paralysis that occurs with really granular skill systems and an invisible DC. When the odds of success are telegraphed to the player with everything they can attempt they may not even attempt the thing. Even though very little resolution is intended to be Player Facing in older versions of D&D (I touch on this problem in this ancient post), when improvement is tied to attempts, players may be more likely to try.

I briefly flirted with expanding Ratings a bit more, but I'm still not sure of the die/dice I would use:


As always, I’m open to thoughts/suggestions.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Spending, Clerics: Third Level Shrines

Third Level Shrines

o   Primary Benefit: Level 3 Cleric/Druid Spells
o   Activate: Turning Check vs Vampire
o   Area of Influence: 1 Hex

Level Three Shrines are generally impressive and elaborate structures, sometimes easily exceeding 50 square feet in area. Almost always featuring a building of some sort (get your Stronghold Building Rules handy) or simply massive in scale (think Stonehenge).

o   Level Three Shrine Components:

In addition to requiring an Altar valued at least 2,000 gold pieces (usually metal and etched/decorated, but expensive/imported stone is acceptable for Druids), and at least 5,000 gold pieces invested in statuary/stonework (as Level Two Shrines), they nearly always also include at least one or more of the following very expensive features:

Cost (in gold pieces)
Finely Carved Stone Columns,
religiously significant number
5,000 each
Stained Glass of breathtaking beauty:
2,500 per window
Bronze/Metal Statuary
triple price of the 2nd Level Shrine Prices
Brobdingnagian Statuary/Menhir/Dolmen
ten times the 2nd Level Shrine Prices
Cost (in gold pieces)
Apply gilding
+500 gold pieces per square foot of surface area
Inlay with Gems or Precious Stones:
+50 gold pieces each (does not include price of gemstones, which add value/count as money spent)
Attract Treant Attendant (can animate other trees in defense of the Shrine)  
+10,000 gold pieces and a major adventure
Embed sentient Undead (up to Vampire)
Go find one. Fee is negotiable and typically quite dear.

The exorbitant prices are intentional. The ramifications of “free” Cure Disease, Remove Curse, and Call Lightning Spells bear careful consideration. 

Level Three Shrines take at least a week to construct per 1,000 gold pieces used in their construction, and as with all Shrines must be thrice-Blessed Daily (only first and last Blessing need be provided by the Character). The extensive amount of time and manpower required to construct a Level Three shrine can create something akin to a tiny hamlet near the Site during construction, with all the associated and mouths to feed and inevitable threats to face down.
o   Third Level  Shrine Offerings:

In addition to the typical offerings above for Shrine Levels 1 and 2 (which are required to be worth at least 10 gold pieces and 20 gold pieces respectively, and are not optional), the following sample Offering types are appropriate for a Level Three Shrine:

Typical Level Three Offerings (value by type)
Silver, Gold or Electrum Religious Crafts (should be valued at least 30 gold pieces)
Livestock (at least 30 gold pieces in value, at least 3 HD worth)
Sacrifice/Bloodshed (1HD, or at least 3d6 HPs worth of self-inflicted bloodshed)

To Cast or Benefit from the Spell:  Make a Turning Check versus 8 HD (as Vampire) with a bonus of +1 per 30 gold pieces/3 HD/3d6 HP spent on Votive Offerings (they are burnt/destroyed/consumed in the process). If successful, the altar grants the prayer. This ability can be activated once per month period for every 1,000 gold pieces spent in the construction of the Shrine (minimum one, and 30,000+ gold pieces investment will make it a daily Shrine).
Optional Secondary Benefit: As long as the Cleric is within one hex of a given Shrine that they’ve created they also enjoy a +3 to Reaction Rolls (as long as Alignment is at least a single step away).

Optional Tertiary Benefit: In addition pick one of these options when the shrine is constructed (these benefits also only function within one hex of the Shrine, and only if an offering was made to the shrine within 24 hours):
  • All of Turning Checks versus Undead made by your faith are made with 2d12 instead of 2d6.
  • All “naturally occurring” and animated undead are turned as 3 category higher.
  • You are no longer subject to Surprise.

o   Third Level Shrine Influence:

Level Three Shrines of opposing faiths/pantheons cannot be constructed within one hex of each other. Any lower level Shrines of Opposing faiths within a hex cease to function as long as the value of their construction is exceeded by this one.

Shrines of this Level also begin passively attracting Pilgrims and Permanent Attendants and can even be used a source of income (Oh drat, more money to spend!) for the more unscrupulous types. Pilgrimage is another Player money-spending scheme I’ll try to cover in a future post, but until then:

Chance To Attract Pilgrims: cumulative 5% each time the shrine is activated, I’d just use Rules Cyclopedia Nomads (Page 193). This resets every season.

Chance to Attract an Attendant: cumulative 1% each time Shrine is activated. This resets if the attendant is driven off or slain. Typical Attendants are Clerics of the Shrine’s faith, of a minimal level of six.

This is also when Shrines typically start garnering attention from Petty Gods. Add one to the Random Encounter Table for this hex/area.

Third Level Shrines very often also become part of the Reliquary/Relic Circuit (to be covered in Pilgrimage).

Level Three Shrines with attendants that have attracted Pilgrims have a tendency to accumulate Treasure as Type U in the form of donations, melted slag metal from offerings, etc. Check once a month. This money is typically funneled back into offerings and upkeep for the Shrine, but many a spendthrift Cleric has had to raid their Shrine’s coffers in desperation.

Spending, Clerics: Second Level Shrines

Second Level Shrines

o   Primary Benefit: Level 2 Cleric/Druid Spells
o   Activate: Turning Check vs Mummy
o   Area of Influence: 1 Mile

At Each Level, Shrines generally become larger and more impressive than their lower level counterparts. Second Level Shrines generally consist of an area of at least ten feet square and sometimes even include a small building or other structure.
o   Second Level Shrine Components:

Shrines of this magnitude nearly always display something with more permanence than their First level counterparts. Altars for Level Two Shrines are generally larger (double price), and wood is unacceptable as a material for the altar itself.

Typically of some kind of statuary or stonework (be it a bust, mosaic, or bas-relief) or arboreal feature is incorporated into a Level Two Shrine, samples below:

Basic Components
Cost (in gold pieces)
Stone Bas-Relief, middling quality
Stone Bas-Relief, exceptional quality
Tri-Color Mosaic with unsophisticated subject matter
Impressively Intricate Mosaic, dozens of colors
Sculpted Bust, sparse detail
Sculpted Bust, lifelike in resemblance
Stone Font, Simple and Dry
Stone Font, Suitable for Holy Water Consecration, Dry
Scrying Pool, Dry
Simple Statue, single seated figure
Simple Statue, free-standing
free if planted (must be Blessed)
Cost (in gold pieces)
Connecting to a Spring or natural Water Source (if present):
Magical Water Source
Statuary Improvement:

Fair Quality
Unremarkable, but talentedly arranged
Exceptional Quality
Magic-Mouthing Benedictions/Maledictions
Grove Improvement:

Reagents for the Song of Rapid Growth           
+100 per foot of desired trunk diameter
Special Soils that cause fruit to act as Goodberry
+2,000 each plant
Axebane Enchantment (bark becomes as Iron)
+5,000 per tree
Firebane Enchantment
+2,500 per plant
Attract Centaur Tribe/Dryad Shrine Attendant(s)
+8,000 gold pieces and a minor quest/adventure

Embed non-sentient Undead (Skeletons/Zombies)
+500 per HD & Animate Dead Spell
Embed Ghouls
as above, plus source of Food (nearby graveyard)
Transport costs and even hiring caravans of wagons to move the construction material are almost certainly going to further increase costs.

o   Second Level Shrine Construction:

A Level Two Shrine takes at least 1 day per 500 gold pieces spent. It must still be Blessed thrice daily (although only the initial and final Blessing need be provided by the Character creating the Shrine) so this may also have associated costs with hiring/overseeing the process.

o   Second Level Shrine Benefits:

To cast or become the recipient of the spell, offerings are placed on the altar. In addition to one of the typical offerings of a Level One Shrine (which are required to be worth at least 10 gold pieces, and are not optional), the following sample Offering types are appropriate for a Level Two Shrine:

Typical Level Two Offerings (should be valued at least 20 gold pieces)
Waxen, Clay, or Wooden Religious Crafts
Grain or Trade Goods (Common Spices, Bolts of Fabric, Salt)
Holy Water

To Cast or Benefit from the Spell: Make a Turning Check versus 6 HD (as Mummy) with a bonus of +1 per 20 gold pieces spent on Votive Offerings (they are burnt/destroyed/consumed in the process). If successful, the altar grants the prayer. This ability can be activated once per week period for every 1,000 gold pieces spent in the construction of the Shrine (minimum one, and 7,000+ gold pieces investment will make it a daily Shrine).

Optional Secondary Benefit: 
As long as the Cleric is within one mile of a given Shrine that they’ve created they also enjoy a +2 to Reaction Rolls (as long as Alignment is at least a single step away).

Optional Tertiary Benefit: 
Pick one of these options when the shrine is constructed (these benefits also only function within 1 mile of the Shrine, and only if an offering was made to the shrine within 24 hours):
·        All of Turning Checks versus Undead made by your faith are made with 2d8 instead of 2d6.
·        All “naturally occurring” and animated undead are turned as 1 category higher.
·        Upon preparing to sleep, choose a specific entity. You will dream of, and be aware of their rough location within the current hex, or if they enter the hex within 24 hours.

o   Second Level Shrine Influence:

Level Two Shrines of opposing faiths/pantheons cannot be constructed within one mile of each other. Any Level One Shrines of Opposing faiths within a mile cease to function as long as the value of their construction is exceeded by this one.