Keep on trying?

I am currently learning Coriolis and I came upon one thing that seemed really unfitting to the fiction of the game and frustratingly difficult to fix within the established mechanics of the system. Repairing a damaged component on a ship takes one skill roll, one unit of spare parts, and one space combat turn, which is in the range of a few minutes. If you succeed on the roll, the component is working again. Which seems okay in the middle of a fight, but after a battle is over with your ship shot to pieces just short of breaking down, getting it back to a pristine state in just an hour or two without need to get to a space dock is just wrong.

And it turns out to actually be wrong according to the rules, because I kept forgetting one very simple but really important rule of Coriolis. You only get to roll on skills once. The rules for making repairs on ships doesn’t have to state that again, because this is a fundamental thing that applies to the whole game. Yes, in theory it might be possible to repair a badly mangled ship to full working condition in two hours, but that’s only if the engineer succeeds on every single repair roll for every single repaired component. You can only try again if something has substentially changed about the situation. Which in this case would apply if you take the damaged ship into dock where you have proper repair facilities. (The game doesn’t say what happens if that roll also fails, but I like the idea of the component being beyond repair and having to be ripped out and replaced with a newly purchased one.)

I’ve read the rule that you can’t try again on skill checks right when I first started reading the book and had been thinking about it several times later while getting deeper into the mechanics of the game. But when it came to reading the ship repair rules, I had already completely forgotten about it. I started RPGs with D&D 3rd Edition where trying again as many times as you want is an explicit feature of the system. It even recommends skipping the dice rolling in situations where you have decided to keep trying as long as it takes and simply assume that you’ll roll a 20 after 20 rounds of trying. Since that’s the highest number the die can get, if a 20 isn’t enough, the task is simply impossible. The other game engine I am most familiar with is Apocalypse World and it’s many descendants. In these games, any failed attempt at something results in something bad happening. In theory, these games allow you to keep trying something for as many times as you want, but with each failed roll the situation of the characters is only going to get more chaotic until eventually the thing you were trying to accomplish is no longer relevant or possible.

The idea in Coriolis that you get one try only actually does feel really fresh and interesting to me. Though obviously this is a rule as trivial and obvious as it could possibly get. I’m sure there would have been plenty of games that done that over 40 years ago. But somehow I never actually encountered it before.


We are now resuming our irregular schedule.

I’ve never been friends with the idea of hexcrawling. Lots of people fill the term with all kinds of different meanings as long as there is at least one hex map involved somewhere, but to me it always carries the clear meaning of being the same concept as dungeoncrawling, translated from dungeon rooms to wilderness hexes. Which means the players are going from hex to hex, color in the new hex on their map as the terrain type they discover, and ask the GM if they see anything that they can check out. Like the player map for The Isle of Dread.

Some people will say that hexcrawling is much more than that, but there’s plenty of people around who strongly assert that every single hex should have something in it to discover, so the idea is there. That just doesn’t sound very fun to me, as it easily turns into wandering around aimlessly waiting for something to happen. I also think it breaks the believability of the world as a 24 square mile area is massive and you could spend month exploring just a single 6-mile hex without ever spotting a cave, statue, or tower that is somewhere between the hills and trees. As I outlined in a previous post, I think it is much more plausible for PCs to find new sites when they either have instructions for how to reach them, or they are visible from a road or river the party is travelling on. In many ways, this is simply a pointcrawl. But there are various things about the pointcrawl map as originally proposed that I find inconvenient for how I want to run my campaigns. Where do you put boxes for new sites that are added to the world as a consequence of players tracking randomly encountered creatures to their lair or base without messing up the map? What if players decide to take shortcuts through woodlands or swamps where there are no roads or rivers to follow? These issues can be quite easily fixed without really overturning the whole system, so consider this a tweak on pointcrawl maps.

First thing is to draw the map for the area in freehand with no grid. (Even the hexmaps I posted recently started that way before I added the hex grid.) Primarily coastlines, mountains, rivers, lakes, and swamps, and such things.

Second, add the major settlements, strongholds, and ruined cities to the map.

Third, draw the roads that people build to connected these settlements.

Now that we have the main rivers and major roads, as the fourth step, add any other sites that people in the area might have discovered already and could give the players instructions on how to find them.

Fifth, add the secondary paths that connect these sites to the main roads and rivers.

Now we know all the paths through the region that parties are likely to travel on. As the sixth step, add sites that could be spotted by simply traveling on one of the primary and secondary paths.

Seventh, mark paths that connect those tertiary sites to the road and river network. Since characters can see those sites from the road, they don’t need any kind of trail to follow. Just keep it in your sight and move towards it. Depending on the granularity you want with distances, these can even be marked as being right on the trail from which they can be spotted.

Only now comes the step to add a hex grid to the whole map. This hex grid is not to divide the wilderness into segments, but simply as a visual aid to easily estimate the length of swirling paths as they meander through the environment. If you’d want to, you could just note the distances between two points next to the path of the map and remove the grid again if you’re working with a digital map. Back in the day, the 2nd edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting box had a hex grid printed on a sheet of clear plastic at the same scale as the maps in the box for just that purpose. I think any print shop would still be able to make such a sheet for you if you have an apprpropriately scaled file of a hex grid on a USB stick.

The advantage of making a wilderness map like this is that I can easily add more dots and more lines to the map, and since the map is based on physical geography instead of a flow-chart abstraction, I can determine the length of any new path easily by counting the number of hexes it passes through. If the players say “You know what, we get off the trail here and just keep heading straight south until we reach the river and then follow it downstream to the town”, it’s trivial to figure out the length of the path, though it would be something you’d have to purely handwave on a default pointcrawl map.

Which might of course be a complete non-issue for many people. This is simply my method that I am using to get the mix of abstraction and precision that I find ideal for my campaigns.

Character motivation in a game with no goals

There have been two thing about campaigns that have been torturing me for many years and caused me endless frustration about never really getting to run the kind of game I really want to. The first of the two is how to make dungeons interesting places to explore, which I finally did discover eventually. (In short, it’s the tension of being careful but not lingering too long in dangerous places, and rewarding poking around in dark holes with treausre as the main XP source.) The other one is the question of what motivates characters in campaigns centered around rogues and scoundrels to go on dangerous adventures other than unashamed selfish greed. You don’t need any additional reason to fight evil snd save the innocents in campaigns in which the party consist of chivalrous heroes, but for many types of campaigns such characters really wouldn’t be fitting the basic premise.

I was recently thinking about how Kenshi could provide useful ideas for the B/X campaign I am working on. It is a videogame with no victory conditions, no quests, no plot, and no real dialogs, but the way the mechanics of the game are set up, it automatically creates the most fantastic stories full of tension and drama all the time. Amd that got me thinking about push and pull factors when it comes to motivating characters in any kind of story.

Typical stories of heroism are all about pull factors. The heroes see an evil, injustice, or threat against others, and being heroes feel compelled to get involved and do something about it. The fact that they choose to take action when everyone else didn’t care or didn’t dare, amd they themselves don’t really have to either, is what makes them heroic. Heroic characters are always popular and characters who are motivated by pull factors tend to charge towards the greatest danger, where all the cool action is. Which is why we see stories with pull incentives being so dominant in fiction. Pull factors also make things easy for GMs since you know what the PCs will be attempting to achieve and which possible paths can lead there even before the players have been introduced to the adventure. Adventures motivated by pull factors are very predictable.

Push factors work rather different. A push incentive is anything that makes it impossible for characters to remain in the situation they are in and force them to leave their default starting position. In most media, a simple push incentive can be that characters hate their current life and want to head out to head for excitement. This works very well in most narrative media where the writer is always in complete control of the whole story and nothing bad will happen to the characters unless the writer wants it to. Players in an RPG have no such control and there are real dangers for their characters that can cause severe damage up to death even when the players really don’t want that at that moment. Within the context of an RPG, players have a strong incentive to minimize the risks to their characters. At the same time, it’s a medium that’s at its strongest during scenes of external action, while being generally very weak at internal reflection. You can write inner monologs and characters struggling with their emotions, and there are many great techniques to communicate such things visually in film. This is something that just doesn’t translate to RPGs.

While internal push factors like unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and boredom don’t really work in RPGs, there are still external push factors. In Kenshi, there is a single external push factor, which is the need for food. All characters need food, and with Kenshi being a desert moon, there is ver little available. It is very easy for your characters to stay safe in a spot where they won’t be spotted by wirld predators or raiders. But there is no food in the barren desert and so you have no choice but to try getting some. You can try killing wild animals, stealing food from settlements, taking food from unconscious NPCs, or buying food from shops. The first three require skills and come with considerable risk. The last one only takes money, but to make money you also need skills and expose yourself to risk. You can try to reduce your risk by getting better weapons and armor, which again costs money, or you can try building a farm to produce your own food. But then your new farm will attract raiders like flies, so you need to build fortifications and get more characters to keep your food from getting stolen. And those new characters also need better equipment, which means finding ways to make money. And you can see how this snowballs very quickly until you might end up with dozens of characters, several strongholds, and multiple ore mines and workshops to equip your people with the best gear possible. All of this hinges on that little hunger bar on each character that is alwsys going down slowly.

For an RPG, the best push incentives can be the ones that continue pushing indefinitely. Something that just keeps forcing PCs to get up, move out, and do something. The other RPG thing I’ve been tinkering with on and off besides Planet Kaendor is a space campaign about a group of PCs with a small ship cruising around a frontier region of known space. The idea I have for the campaign is one with little room for idealistic charity workers with big guns, but I am also not really interested in making it a campaign about outright nasty criminals. Characters who are mostly just trying to get by but keep ending up in exciting situations is more what I have in mind. Such a premise really needs motivations in the form of push factors. A very convenient one in this case is spaceship maintenance costs. If at any point the players don’t really know what their characters would be motivated to at that moment, when they are set up nicely and life is good away from any immediate danger, simply advance the time a couple of month and deduct the maintenance cost for their ship from their money. Eventually money will start to run out and they have no other choice than start asking around for something that will pay.

Rangers were a mistake

Rangers were first introduced to Dungeons & Dragons in AD&D 1st edition. They’ve been in the four editions that followed, got a major overhaul in 3.5e and there is a revised ranger for 5th edition. They are a long established core element of D&D, just like dwarves, wizards, and beholders. You can’t really imagine a new edition of D&D without them.

But rangers should never have been introduced in the first place. Rangers were a mistake.

Rangers have always been a somewhat popular class, but I don’t recall ever hearing anyone say that they are happy with the abilities of the class. Many classes had disappointing versions in one edition or another, but rangers have been bad every time. (Though I hear it’s good at combat in 4th edition.) Rangers always being bad has a simple reason. The whole concept it bad. What role are rangers supposed to fill in a party?

Rangers as a class came into existence for a single reason. Someone wanted to play Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings. In D&D terms, Aragorn is a fighter, except that… Well  nothing except! He lives in the wilderness and is friends with elves? Fighters can do that. He has special herbalism skills? Well, that’s actually a race ability of Numenorians, not a class ability. From what I remember, the book doesn’t mention him doing any sneaky stuff. But of you want a fighter who also sneaks, that’s a multiclass fighter/thief. That’s been an option since first edition.

So Aragorn brings nothing to the table in regards to making a class. Already at that point, the idea of rangers as a class should have been discarded. But it wasn’t, and so generations of game designers tried coming up with things that can make rangers different from fighters. And that’s the problem. Generations of game designers have been trying to find something for rangers to do that doesn’t already fit other classes. So they’ve been throwing everything wilderness themed they could think of at it to see what sticks. Animals as henchmen. Following tracks. Maybe some druid spells. Attack bonus against certain monsters. Well, Drizzt was fighting with two swords… Now you’re no longer eve  trying.

The ranger is a bundle of abilities that a warrior living in the wilderness might have, but there is no underlying concept for what what role the class is to fulfill in a party. It’s a bunch of abilities that are all weak in their own right, to not step on the toes of fighters, rogues, and druids who all have their respective niches, but which don’t synergize together to create something more useful than the sum of their parts.

The ranger is a class in search for a justification for its own existence for 43 years. And there isn’t any.

Handling Random Encounters

I created a new tag for articles named “The Yora Rules” and pinned it to the top of the page. Over the years I developed a number of small mechanics and tweaks to the B/X rules and interpretations of rules that don’t clearly spell out a specific procedure. A big reason behind many of my procedure is to reduce the mental workload on my own brain in regard to how I am personally affected by ADHD. Some of my changes might seem superflous and no more easy or faster than the default rules, but they do work often a lot better with the way my brain works, resulting in a much faster and smoother game. I still think they are more elegant in some ways and could be very useful to anyone.

Some I’ve shared here before and have gotten a quite positive reception, so I thought it might be useful to have them all in one place. Frequently I lay out my entire thought process in excessive detail, which I think might be of interesting to some, but isn’t very useful to just looking up how I do certain things or to share it with other people. A year ago I wrote about how I handle random encounters, but that one’s just a wall of text, so here is the actual mechanics in one simple bit.

Step 1 (Preparation): Roll up groups of Creatures

Consider which areas of wilderness the party will likely travel through, how many random encounters are likely to happen on the way, and which dungeon levels they will be exploring in the next game. Use the respective Wandering Monster tables to roll up the creature type and creature number for as many encounters as you expect you will need and put them in short lists for each area.

Step 2 (Preparation): Roll Surprise for the Creatures

Roll 1d6 for each creature group on the list. On a 1 or 2, mark them as being surprised when the party encounters them.

Step 3: The Players roll for Wandering Monsters

In the Wilderness: Roll a die four times per day spend in the wilderness. One for morning, noon, evening, and night. Roll a d12 for most wilderness, or a d10 or d8 for particularly densely populated areas. If the party is in a dungeon at the time of an indicated random encounter, either ignore it or have the creatures run into the camp outside with the hirelings, mounts, and pack animals.

In a Dungeon: Roll a d12 at the start of every exploration turn. (The total number of encounters will be the same as rolling a d6 every two turns, but you don’t have to remember if you rolled last turn or not.)

Causing Attention: If the party does something to draw attention to them, like causing a big fire in the wilderness or making loud noise in a dungeon (such as fighting), make an extra wandering monster check right then and there. Any creatures allerted that way will arive in the next turn or later, in addition to the regular wandering monster check every turn in a dungeon.

Something always happens on a 1: When the die roll is a 1, a random encounter happens. Tell the players that a 1 means encounter before rolling the die in the open. Or better, let a player roll the die. Show the players plain to see that you didn’t make this encounter happen at a moment in the game that you thought would be fun. You’re not making things hard for them when they are weak, or delay challenges until they are ready for them.

Step 4: Referencing the Prepared Encounter List

I am putting this here as step 4, but actually you don’t need to look at the list at this point. Because you already prepared the list in advanced, you knew the kind of creatures and number of creatures in this encounter and whether they will be surprised or aware since the previous random encounter was completed. This is the reason why I prepare this list in advance. Any time the players are talking among themselves to decide on their next step, I can put some thought on how I would use this group of creature if it is encountered in one of the two or three rooms the players might choose to explore next. I do not have to make something up on the spot right as I roll the die on the wandering monster table, which usually ends up just being “there are X number of Y standing in the middle of the room”, which is boring. Having just a minute or half to think about it without all the players staring at you waiting in anticipation to hear what they just ran into can make a big difference.

Step 5: The Players roll for Surprise

One of the players rolls a d6. On a 1 or 2, the party is surprised. (For some creatures encountered, it’s on a 1 to 3.)

If the players are not surprised but the creatures are, the players have one round to act before the creatures spot them. They can use that round to quickly retreat back around the corner they just passed or move into a nearby suitable hiding spot. If they do, the creatures remain unaware of the party until the players do something to reveal their presence.

Step 6: Roll for Distance

In the Widerness: Creatures that are not surprised spot the other group from 4d6 x 30 feet away. If both groups are surprised, they spot each other at 2d6 x 30 feet.

In a Dungeon: Creatures that are not surprised spot the other group from 2d6 x 10 feet away. If both groups are surprised, they spot each other at 1d6 x 10 feet.

Step 7: The Players make a Raction Roll

If the creatures’ attitude towards the party is not obvious because of circumstances (like mindless undead or guards searching a castle on alert), have the players make a reaction roll.

If the party has been surprised but the creatures are not, roll 2d6 for the reaction roll. (No Charisma modifiers apply.)

If the party is not surprised, one character may greet the creatures. That character rolls 2d6 plus the Charisma bonus to reaction rolls.

2: The creatures start to attack immediately.

3-5: The creatures are hostile. They threaten the party with violence to hand over their treasure, be taken prisoner, or to immediately leave the area, depending on what seems appropriate in that situation.

6-8: The creatures are uncertain and observe what the party does next. After the party has reacted in some way, the character doing the talking makes another reaction roll with a bonus or penalty depending on what was said or done.

9-11: The creatures don’t want trouble. They might ignore the party of leave the area, depending on if they seem to be a threat or not. Intelligent creatures might be cordial but not interested in further interactions beyond common pleasantries.

12+: The creatures are friendly. They might invite the party to their camp or lair, offer useful information, or propose to join forces.

Step 8: Resolve the Encounter

The encounter either ends in a fight or a conversation. (Which might result in a fight later.)

Additional Note: Surprised Parties

There is one kind of encounter situation that the B/X procedure does not enable, and that is creatures spotting the party without being noticed and following them around for a while. When the players make the wandering monster check and it rolls a 1, they know something is there. You can’t tell them “you don’t notice anything”. Also, the players are supposed to roll the reaction roll themselves where they can see it. When that 1 is rolled for wandering monsters, the encounter has to happen now.

This is one of the main reasons I don’t roll up the creatures and their number in the middle of play after a wandering monster check and prepare them in advance instead. Same for rolling their surprise.

If I know I have a creature that would stay hidden if it catches the party by surprise, and that creature will not be surprised itself, then I can spend some thought on what it will do if the party fails their own surprise roll, depending on the reaction roll:

Immediate Attack: The creature has been stalking the party for a while and decides to jump them now, getting a free round to attack before the party can react.

Hostile: The creature decides this is a good moment to confront the party. It’s positioned in a way that is most advantageous to itself and no roll for encounter distance is necessary.

Uncertain: Keep rerolling until you get a different result. The creature has been observing what the players do while it was hiding.

Avoiding Trouble: This is inconvenient since the creature can just escape without the players ever knowing it was there. I guess the best option is to let one player catch a glimpse of it before it disappears, and if the party pursues they won’t find any trail to follow.

Friendly: The creature just comes out in the open to greet the party.

Only the first two really depend on the geometry of the area they are encountered in. If the players end up not being surprised for that encounter, they will run into the creature in the middle of doing whatever it is doing. So there are really just three possible things worth considering in light of the next environment the players decide to enter.

Improved Rules for Foraging and Hunting

A while back I wrote about a somewhat more detailed version of the rules for foraging and hunting from the Expert Set. Forget all of that. This is better.

Foraging: When a party is travelling through an area that has a decent amount of plants growing in it that humanoids can eat, there is a 1 in 6 chance that the PCs can collect 1d6 rations of food per day by simply picking up what they spot growing next to the trail they are travelling on. If the party includes characters with special wilderness skills, they have a 2 in 6 chance to find things they can eat.

Hunting: When a party is staying at one campsite for a whole day, they can send out hunters or hunting parties to hunt for food. At the end of the day, each hunting party returns with 1d6 rations of food (1d8 if the party includes a character with special wilderness skills). While the hunters are out hunting, a wandering monsters check is made for each hunting party and for the camp.

Water: Unless otherwise specified by the GM, the party comes across sufficient sources of drinkable water each day they travel through the wilderness. No rations of water have to be consumed at the end of the day. (Assume all characters refilled the water rations they consumed during the day when they had opportunities.) Characters spending most of the day inside dungeons do not have access to sources of water unless the GM specifies otherwise, and must consome a ration of water at the end of the day.

Lack of Food: Characters who do not eat one ration of food in a day, suffer 1 hit point of damage and can not heal damage naturally without magic.

Lack of Water: Characters who do not have one ration of water in a day, suffer 1d4 hit point of damage and can not heal damage naturally without magic. After 3 days + 1 day per CON bonus, the character dies.

The idea here is that in an average wilderness environment, parties will not have much trouble keeping themselves fed by hunting, but replenishing their supply of rations will either take a considerable amount of time or require splitting the hunters up into several smaller groups. Both options mean an increased number of wandering monster encounters before the party makes it back to a town or their base. It’s a very simple mechanic but gives the players a lot of variables they have to pick, like the amount of food supplies they keep, how they pack them among their PCs, hirelings, and pack animals, at what point low supplies might be a reason to turn back, how to split the party, deciding which hirelings to send into the woods to uncertain fates or who to leave behind to guard the camp, and when it might be worth it to keep pushing ahead while starving instead of stopping to hunt. I see a huge potential for amazing unscripted adventures simply because a randomly encountered wyvern made off with the mule carrying half of the party’s food.

Extensive playtesting will be needed to dial in on the best die to roll for the amount of rations provided by hunting so that it severely inconveniences the party without getting it completely stuck and unable to continue towards their destination. But otherwise I’m really excited to give this a test run.