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Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Very Viking Zombie Apocalypse

Our buddy, a draugr from Skyrim. Based on Norse mythology.
For your Halloween delight, here is a famous ghost story from Grettir's Saga:



32. There was a man named Thorhall living in Thorhallsstad in Forsaeludal, up from Vatnsdal. He was the son of Grim, the son of Thorhall, the son of Fridmund, who was the first settler in Forsaeludal. Thorhall's wife was named Gudrun; they had a son named Grim and a daughter named Thurid who were just grown up. Thorhall was fairly wealthy, especially in live-stock. His property in cattle exceeded that of any other man. He was not a chief, but an honest bondi nevertheless. He had great difficulty in getting a shepherd to suit him because the place was haunted. He consulted many men of experience as to what he should do, but nobody gave him any advice which was of any use. Thorhall had good horses, and went every summer to the Thing. On one occasion at the All-Thing he went to the booth of the Lawman Skapti the son of Thorodd, who was a man of great knowledge and gave good counsel to those who consulted him. There was a great difference between Thorodd the father and Skapti the son in one respect. Thorodd possessed second sight, but was thought by some not to be straight, whereas Skapti gave to every man the advice which he thought would avail him, if he followed it exactly, and so earned the name of Father-betterer.


So Thorhall went to Skapti's booth, where Skapti, knowing that he was a man of wealth, received him graciously, and asked what the news was.


"I want some good counsel from you," said Thorhall.


"I am little fit to give you counsel," he replied; "but what is it that you need?"


"It is this: I have great difficulty in keeping my shepherds. Some get injured and others cannot finish their work. No one will come to me if he knows what he has to expect."


Skapti answered: "There must be some evil spirit abroad if men are less willing to tend your flocks than those of other men. Now since you have come to me for counsel, I will get you a shepherd. His name is Glam, and he came from Sylgsdale in Sweden last summer. He is a big strong man, but not to everybody's mind."


Thorhall said that did not matter so long as he looked after the sheep properly. Skapti said there was not much chance of getting another if this man with all his strength and boldness should fail. Then Thorhall departed. This happened towards the end of the Thing.


Two of Thorhall's horses were missing, and he went himself to look for them, which made people think he was not much of a man. He went up under Sledaass and south along the hill called Armannsfell. Then he saw a man coming down from Godaskog bringing some brushwood with a horse. They met and Thorhall asked him his name. He said it was Glam. He was a big man with an extraordinary expression of countenance, large grey eyes and wolfgrey hair. Thorhall was a little startled when he saw him, but soon found out that this was the man who had been sent to him.


"What work can you do best?" he asked.


Glam said it would suit him very well to mind sheep in the winter.


"Will you mind my sheep?" Thorhall asked. "Skapti has given you over to me."


"My service will only be of use to you if I am free to do as I please," he said. "I am rather crossgrained when I am not well pleased."


"That will not hurt me," said Thorhall. "I shall be glad if you will come to me."


"I can do so," he said. "Are there any special difficulties?"


"The place seems to be haunted."


"I am not afraid of ghosts. It will be the less dull."


"You will have to risk it," said Thorhall. "It will be best to meet it with a bold face."


Terms were arranged and Glam was to come in the autumn. Then they parted. Thorhall found his horses in the very place where he had just been looking for them. He rode home and thanked Skapti for his service.


The summer passed. Thorhall heard nothing of his shepherd and no one knew anything about him, but at the appointed time he appeared at Thorhallsstad. Thorhall treated him kindly, but all the rest of the household disliked him, especially the mistress. He commenced his work as shepherd, which gave him little trouble.


He had a loud hoarse voice. The beasts all flocked together whenever he shouted at them. There was a church in the place, but Glam never went to it. He abstained from mass, had no religion, and was stubborn and surly. Every one hated him.


So the time passed till the eve of Yule-tide. Glam rose early and called for his meal. The mistress said: "It is not proper for Christian men to eat on this day, because to-morrow is the first day of Yule and it is our duty to fast to-day."


"You have many superstitions," he said; "but I do not see that much comes of them. I do not know that men are any better off than when there was nothing of that kind. The ways of men seemed to me better when they were called heathen. I want my food and no foolery."


"I am certain," she said, "that it will fare ill with you to-day if you commit this sin."


Glam told her that she should bring his food, or that it would be the worse for her. She did not dare to do otherwise than as he bade her. When he had eaten he went out, his breath smelling abominably. It was very dark; there was driving snow, the wind was howling and it became worse as the day advanced. The shepherd's voice was heard in the early part of the day, but less later on. Blizzards set in and a terrific storm in the evening. People went to mass and so the time passed. In the evening Glam did not return. They talked about going out to look for him, but the storm was so violent and the night so dark that no one went. The night passed and still he had not returned; they waited till the time for mass came. When it was full day some of the men set forth to search. They found the animals scattered everywhere in the snow and injured by the weather; some had strayed into the mountains. Then they came upon some well-marked tracks up above in the valley. The stones and earth were torn up all about as if there had been a violent tussle. On searching further they came upon Glam lying on the ground a short distance off. He was dead; his body was as black as Hel and swollen to the size of an ox. They were overcome with horror and their hearts shuddered within them. Nevertheless they tried to carry him to the church, but could not get him any further than the edge of a gully a short way off. So they left him there and went home to report to the bondi what had happened. He asked what could have caused Glam's death. They said they had tracked him to a big place like a hole made by the bottom of a cask thrown down and dragged along up below the mountains which were at the top of the valley, and all along the track were great drops of blood. They concluded that the evil spirit which had been about before must have killed Glam, but that he had inflicted wounds upon it which were enough, for that spook was never heard of again. On the second day of the festival they went out again to bring in Glam's body to the church. They yoked oxen to him, but directly the downward incline ceased and they came to level ground, they could not move him; so they went home again and left him. On the third day they took a priest with them, but after searching the whole day they failed to find him. The priest refused to go again, and when he was not with them they found Glam. So they gave up the attempt to bring him to the church and buried him where he was under a cairn of stones.


It was not long before men became aware that Glam was not easy in his grave. Many men suffered severe injuries; some who saw him were struck senseless and some lost their wits. Soon after the festival was over, men began to think they saw him about their houses. The panic was great and many left the neighbourhood. Next he began to ride on the house-tops by night, and nearly broke them to pieces. Almost night and day he walked, and people would scarcely venture up the valley, however pressing their business. The district was in a grievous condition.





33. In the spring Thorhall procured servants and built a house on his lands. As the days lengthened out the apparitions became less, until at midsummer a ship sailed up the Hunavatn in which was a man named Thorgaut. He was a foreigner, very tall and powerful; he had the strength of two men. He was travelling on his own account, unattached, and being without money was looking out for employment. Thorhall rode to the ship, saw him and asked if he would take service with him. Thorgaut said he would indeed, and that there would be no difficulties.


"You must be prepared," said Thorhall, "for work which would not be fitting for a weak-minded person, because of the apparitions which have been there lately. I will not deceive you about it."


"I shall not give myself up as lost for the ghostlings," he said.


"Before I am scared some others will not be easy. I shall not change my quarters on that account."


The terms were easily arranged and Thorgaut was engaged for the sheep during the winter. When the summer had passed away he took over charge of them, and was on good terms with everybody. Glam continued his rides on the roofs. Thorgaut thought it very amusing and said the thrall must come nearer if he wished to frighten him. Thorhall advised him not to say too much, and said it would be better if they did not come into conflict.


Thorgaut said: "Surely all the spirit has gone out of you. I shall not fall dead in the twilight for stories of that sort."


Yule was approaching. On the eve the shepherd went out with his sheep. The mistress said: "Now I hope that our former experiences will not be repeated."


"Have no fear for that, mistress," he said. "There will be something worth telling of if I come not back."


Then he went out to his sheep. The weather was rather cold and there was a heavy snowstorm. Thorgaut usually returned when it was getting dark, but this time he did not come. The people went to church as usual, but they thought matters looked very much as they did on the last occasion. The bondi wanted them to go out and search for the shepherd, but the churchgoers cried off, and said they were not going to trust themselves into the power of trolls in the night; the bondi would not venture out and there was no search. On Yule day after their meal they went out to look for the shepherd, and first went to Glam's cairn, feeling sure that the shepherd's disappearance must be due to him. On approaching the cairn they saw an awful sight; there was the shepherd, his neck broken, and every bone in his body torn from its place. They carried him to the church and no one was molested by Thorgaut.


Glam became more rampageous than ever. He was so riotous that at last everybody fled from Thorhallsstad, excepting the bondi and his wife.


Thorhall's cowherd had been a long time in his service and he had become attached to him; for this reason and because he was a careful herdsman he did not want to part with him. The man was very old and thought it would be very troublesome to have to leave; he saw, too, that everything the bondi possessed would be ruined if he did not stay to look after them. One morning after midwinter the mistress went to the cow-house to milk the cows as usual. It was then full day, for no one would venture out of doors till then, except the cowherd, who went directly it was light. She heard a great crash in the cow-house and tremendous bellowing. She rushed in, shouting that something awful, she knew not what, was going on in the cow-house. The bondi went out and found the cattle all goring each other. It seemed not canny there, so he went into the shed and there saw the cowherd lying on his back with his head in one stall and his feet in the other.


He went up and felt him, but saw at once that he was dead with his back broken. It had been broken over the flat stone which separated the two stalls. Evidently it was not safe to remain any longer on his estate, so he fled with everything that he could carry away. All the live-stock which he left behind was killed by Glam. After that Glam went right up the valley and raided every farm as far as Tunga, while Thorhall stayed with his friends during the rest of the winter. No one could venture up the valley with a horse or a dog, for it was killed at once. As the spring went on and the sun rose higher in the sky the spook diminished somewhat, and Thorhall wanted to return to his land, but found it not easy to get servants. Nevertheless, he went and took up his abode at Thorhallsstad. Directly the autumn set in, everything began again, and the disturbances increased. The person most attacked was the bondi's daughter, who at last died of it. Many things were tried but without success. It seemed likely that the whole of Vatnsdal would be devastated unless help could be found.





34. We have now to return to Grettir, who was at home in Bjarg during the autumn which followed his meeting with Warrior-Bardi at Thoreyjargnup. When the winter was approaching, he rode North across the neck to Vididal and stayed at Audunarstad. He and Audun made friends again; Grettir gave him a valuable battle-axe and they agreed to hold together in friendship. Audun had long lived there, and had many connections. He had a son named Egill, who married Ulfheid the daughter of Eyjolf, the son of Gudmund; their son Eyjolf, who was killed at the All-Thing, was the father of Orin the chaplain of Bishop Thorlak.


Grettir rode to the North to Vatnsdal and went on a visit to Tunga, where dwelt his mother's brother, Jokull the son of Bard, a big strong man and exceedingly haughty. He was a mariner, very cantankerous, but a person of much consideration. He welcomed Grettir, who stayed three nights with him. Nothing was talked about but Glam's walking, and Grettir inquired minutely about all the particulars. Jokull told him that no more was said than had really happened.


"Why, do you want to go there?" he asked.


Grettir said that it was so. Jokull told him not to do it.


"It would be a most hazardous undertaking," he said. "Your kinsmen incur a great risk with you as you are. There does not seem to be one of the younger men who is your equal. It is ill dealing with such a one as Glam. Much better fight with human men than with goblins of that sort."


Grettir said he had a mind to go to Thorhallsstad and see how things were. Jokull said: "I see there is no use in dissuading you. The saying is true that Luck is one thing, brave deeds another."


"Woe stands before the door of one but enters that of another," answered Grettir. "I am thinking how it may fare with you yourself before all is done."


"It may be," said Jokull, "that we both see what is before us, and yet we may not alter it."


Then they parted, neither of them well pleased with the other's prophetic saying.





35. Grettir rode to Thorhallsstad where he was welcomed by the bondi.


He asked Grettir whither he was bound, and Grettir said he wished to spend the night there if the bondi permitted. Thorhall said he would indeed be thankful to him for staying there.


"Few," he said, "think it a gain to stay here for any time. You must have heard tell of the trouble that is here, and I do not want you to be inconvenienced on my account. Even if you escape unhurt yourself, I know for certain that you will lose your horse, for no one can keep his beast in safety who comes here."


Grettir said there were plenty more horses to be had if anything happened to this one.


Thorhall was delighted at Grettir's wishing to remain, and received him with both hands. Grettir's horse was placed securely under lock and key and they both went to bed. The night passed without Glam showing himself.


"Your being here has already done some good," said Thorhall. "Glam has always been in the habit of riding on the roof or breaking open the doors every night, as you can see from the marks."


"Then," Grettir said, "either he will not keep quiet much longer, or he will remain so more than one night. I will stay another night and see what happens."


Then they went to Grettir's horse and found it had not been touched. The bondi thought that all pointed to the same thing. Grettir stayed a second night and again the thrall did not appear. The bondi became hopeful and went to see the horse. There he found the stable broken open, the horse dragged outside and every bone in his body broken. Thorhall told Grettir what had occurred and advised him to look to himself, for he was a dead man if he waited for Glam.


Grettir answered: "I must not have less for my horse than a sight of the thrall."


The bondi said there was no pleasure to be had from seeing him: "He is not like any man. I count every hour a gain that you are here."


The day passed, and when the hour came for going to bed Grettir said he would not take off his clothes, and lay down on a seat opposite to Thorkell's sleeping apartment. He had a shaggy cloak covering him with one end of it fastened under his feet and the other drawn over his head so that he could see through the neck-hole. He set his feet against a strong bench which was in front of him. The frame-work of the outer door had been all broken away and some bits of wood had been rigged up roughly in its place. The partition which had once divided the hall from the entrance passage was all broken, both above the cross-beam and below, and all the bedding had been upset. The place looked rather desolate. There was a light burning in the hall by night.


When about a third part of the night had passed Grettir heard a loud noise. Something was going up on to the building, riding above the hall and kicking with its heels until the timbers cracked again. This went on for some time, and then it came down towards the door. The door opened and Grettir saw the thrall stretching in an enormously big and ugly head. Glam moved slowly in, and on passing the door stood upright, reaching to the roof. He turned to the hall, resting his arms on the cross-beam and peering along the hall. The bondi uttered no sound, having heard quite enough of what had gone on outside. Grettir lay quite still and did not move. Glam saw a heap of something in the seat, came farther into the hall and seized the cloak tightly with his hand. Grettir pressed his foot against the plank and the cloak held firm. Glam tugged at it again still more violently, but it did not give way. A third time be pulled, this time with both hands and with such force that he pulled Grettir up out of the seat, and between them the cloak was torn in two. Glam looked at the bit which he held in his hand and wondered much who could pull like that against him. Suddenly Grettir sprang under his arms, seized him round the waist and squeezed his back with all his might, intending in that way to bring him down, but the thrall wrenched his arms till he staggered from the violence. Then Grettir fell back to another bench. The benches flew about and everything was shattered around them. Glam wanted to get out, but Grettir tried to prevent him by stemming his foot against anything he could find. Nevertheless Glam succeeded in getting him outside the hall. Then a terrific struggle began, the thrall trying to drag him out of the house, and Grettir saw that however hard he was to deal with in the house, he would be worse outside, so he strove with all his might to keep him from getting out. Then Glam made a desperate effort and gripped Grettir tightly towards him, forcing him to the porch. Grettir saw that he could not put up any resistance, and with a sudden movement he dashed into the thrall's arms and set both his feet against a stone which was fastened in the ground at the door. For that Glam was not prepared, since he had been tugging to drag Grettir towards him; he reeled backwards and tumbled hind-foremost out of the door, tearing away the lintel with his shoulder and shattering the roof, the rafters and the frozen thatch. Head over heels he fell out of the house and Grettir fell on top of him. The moon was shining very brightly outside, with light clouds passing over it and hiding it now and again. At the moment when Glam fell the moon shone forth, and Glam turned his eyes up towards it. Grettir himself has related that that sight was the only one which ever made him tremble. What with fatigue and all else that he had endured, when he saw the horrible rolling of Glam's eyes his heart sank so utterly that he had not strength to draw his sword, but lay there well-nigh betwixt life and death. Glam possessed more malignant power than most fiends, for he now spoke in this wise:


"You have expended much energy, Grettir, in your search for me. Nor is that to be wondered at, if you should have little joy thereof. And now I tell you that you shall possess only half the strength and firmness of heart that were decreed to you if you had not striven with me. The might which was yours till now I am not able to take away, but it is in my power to ordain that never shall you grow stronger than you are now. Nevertheless your might is sufficient, as many shall find to their cost. Hitherto you have earned fame through your deeds, but henceforward there shall fall upon you exile and battle; your deeds shall turn to evil and your guardian-spirit shall forsake you. You will be outlawed and your lot shall be to dwell ever alone. And this I lay upon you, that these eyes of mine shall be ever before your vision. You will find it hard to live alone, and at last it shall drag you to death."


When the thrall had spoken the faintness which had come over Grettir left him. He drew his short sword, cut off Glam's head and laid it between his thighs. Then the bondi came out, having put on his clothes while Glam was speaking, but he did not venture to come near until he was dead. Thorhall praised God and thanked Grettir warmly for having laid this unclean spirit. Then they set to work and burned Glam to cold cinders, bound the ashes in a skin and buried them in a place far away from the haunts of man or beast. Then they went home, the day having nearly broken.


Grettir was very stiff and lay down to rest. Thorhall sent for some men from the next farms and let them know how things had fared. They all realised the importance of Grettir's deed when they heard of it; all agreed that in the whole country side for strength and courage and enterprise there was not the equal of Grettir the son of Asmund.


Thorhall bade a kindly farewell to Grettir and dismissed him with a present of a fine horse and proper clothes, for all that he had been wearing were torn to pieces. They parted in friendship. Grettir rode to Ass in Vatnsdal and was welcomed by Thorvald, who asked him all about his encounter with Glam. Grettir told him everything and said that never had his strength been put to trial as it had been in their long struggle. Thorvald told him to conduct himself discreetly; if he did so he might prosper, but otherwise he would surely come to disaster. Grettir said that his temper had not improved, that he had even less discretion than before, and was more impatient of being crossed. In one thing a great change had come over him; he had become so frightened of the dark that he dared not go anywhere alone at night. Apparitions of every kind came before him. It has since passed into an expression, and men speak of "Glam's eyes" or "Glam visions" when things appear otherwise than as they are.


Having accomplished his undertaking Grettir rode back to Bjarg and spent the winter at home.







 (1914, English v.2, transl. G. H. Hight, from the original 'Grettis saga'.  http://sagadb.org/grettis_saga.en2)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Notes sur le FOW Napolienne

Damn historical accuracy!  I will play Flames of War!
So over on Facebook this morning, someone posted a picture asking if anyone would play "Flames of War: The Napoleonic Wars."

The consensus of the group seemed to be "no," and I made the point that Flames of War simulates modern combat with tanks, machine-guns, and so forth, and doesn't translate well to other types of warfare. You'd have to change the core system so much, it wouldn't really be FoW any more.

Then I got to thinking, okay, it's silly, but how would I adapt Flames of War for Napoleonics anyway?

So, it's a crazy idea.  Let's do it anyway!

1) First we'd have to change how the representational scale of the game.  Flames of War uses a 1:1 WYSIWYG representation of figures.  As several people pointed out, this would not work for Napoleonics.  I suggest having each figure represent more than one soldier, and each stand represent a larger unit than a fireteam.  FoW currently uses 6-15 infantry stands in a typical game unit, representing a Platoon.  If you made each stand represent 10 soldiers, 10 stands would be a company (roughly), and the game overall would be battalion scale.   If you made each stand represent 50 soldiers, then 6 stands would be a battalion (roughly), and the game would be played at regimental size.  Etc.  In my experiments scaling FoW up and down, I've found the actual size of the base and the figure on it matter a lot less than you might imagine, so this is very workable.  Except maybe for painting 15mm Napoleonic color schemes.

2) Most stands would need to be in a formation of some sort: a line, a square, a column, etc.  We'd need to write rules for how these are represented on the table top, but I'd suggest that the bases need to be touching in particular shapes, and that casualty removal be changed so that as stands are lost, the formation retains its shape.  Not particularly hard to do.  Changing from formation to formation should probably occur in the Movement step, and require a Skill roll.  Pinned units should be unable to change. The different formations should get different advantages: squares would get a bonus against cavalry (I suggest cavalry charges would fail on a 2+), columns would get a moving bonus, etc.

3) In normal FoW, we assume that better skilled troops are using maneuver and terrain to prevent themselves from being hit by enemy fire.  Aside from some skirmishers, this doesn't seem like a good representation of Napoleonic tactics.  I'd suggest that instead, the success of shooting depend on the firing unit's skill.  In most accounts of Napoleonic war I've read, better trained troops could put out a higher rate of fire.  We could screw with the RoF rules in FoW, but I think it'd be easier to use the existing skill ratings.  Obviously, most infantry would be unable to Go to Ground or Dig In.

4) Artillery could be handled with FoW gun rules or artillery rules.  You could treat guns as direct-fire guns with an RoF, or you could use the template, depending. The template would represent an area being targeted with fire, and has the advantage of punishing troops that are bunched up in a square.

5) Pinning in Flames of War represents the reactions of soldiers to modern rapid firing weapons.  It's not a great representation of how people in Napoleonic times would react to musket or cannon fire.  but I think we could shoe-horn it to fit.  Assume that instead of being "Pinned," affected infantry are "Disrupted" or "Shaken," and need a turn or two to recover.  Then we can use Defensive Fire and Pinning normally, according to FoW rules, to see whether that bayonet charge falters.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Thoughts on the Direction of 40k

A post I made over at www.bolterandchainsword.com. I thought it might also be of interest here:


I think it's clear something fundamental has changed about 40k in the last few years.  I see several developments coming together, many of them driven (I think) by new publishing and manufacturing technology:

1) There are now really big impressive plastic kits.  This puts larger (and maybe goofier) models on the table in large numbers.  Old Heavy Support options are now outclassed by Knights, Lord of War and so forth.  The scale feels even more like a short-ranged cage match.

2) There are now a zillion books, which GW can publish at will.  I think this is a consequence of electronic publishing and print on demand.  But now every release gets a Codex, a Supplement, and some Data Sheets.  We are seeing Campaig Supplements in large numbers.

3) The publishing scale is now so fast, and the prices so high, that I am now only buying books for the factions that really interest me.  I've had to give up on owning and reading everything.

4) The structure of armies is now very open.  Between multiple FoC variants and Formations and Unbound, people can take pretty
much anything they want in any combination.

4) As a consequence, the game is no longer a (relatively) limited set of rules and codices, in which it is possible or desirable to try to push the system for maximum competitiveness.  I don't know if it ever was, actually, but as codices and models proliferate, top-end competitive army become ever more gimmicky and ridiculous.


Now whether these developments are good or bad depends I guess on your perspective.  But I have found that my enjoyment of the game greatly increased once i just stopped worrying about trying to make a single list, suitable for all opponents, that I could play upon walking into a store.  I now play more or less what I want, and in our league, I try to find games that are not crazy-competitive.  If I do happen to pair up with someone who has a super-nasty army, I just let them crush me, and aim for some smaller goal.  (" I will kill your Knight/Daemon Prince/Character before I die.")  Then I try to find someone else to play. If they are obnoxious I think nasty thoughts at them.  I would never go to a tournament now.  I do not invest any ego in winning or losing.

So I still enjoy playing, but it's a different sort of game, environment, and goal for me now.  The new environment has some cool looking stuff in it, like Knights.  i love the world and background.  I enjoy painting.  Most games are quite fun.  But I've given up any pretense of 40k being a controlled competitive environment, rather than a casual game which I play largely for aesthetic reasons.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Percentile Dice and the Psychology of Sucess

10-sided dice
What are the implications of percentile dice for game design?

Percentile dice were really popular in the 80s and early 90s.  Call of Cthulhu, Palladium Games, and many others used percentile dice for their skill systems.  More recently, the Warhammer games have been revamped, including their percentile-based resolution, in Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and so forth.

The main advantage of percentile dice derives from their transparency.  We are used to calculating odds in percentages anyway, so when a player intuitively understands them.  I may not know in my head how likely I am to roll over thirteen on 3D6, but I do know what 20% or 57% means.

The disadvantages of percentile dice are more subtle:  it is very difficult to design a system that uses them, in which there is an interesting variety of rolls and modifiers, AND in which player results will occupy a desirable central range of probability.

Other common types of die rolls (for example, 3D6) result in a curve.  The central numbers of the range are more likely to occur than numbers near the edge.  On a 3D6, not only is the average (mean) roll likely to be 10, but 10 is also the most common result (mode).  The graph of a percentile roll is flat, not curved.  You are just as likely to roll a 02 as a 50 or a 98 or any other number.  This is part of its nature. 

As a game designer, I find a dice that produce a bell curve much more useful than dice whose results are flat.  From the perspective of interesting game play, I want players to be rolling results that range from fairly likely to fairly unlikely, say from around 40% to around 80%, most of the time.  Basically, players are most engaged when they have a pretty good change of succeeding, without it being a certainty.

For example, in a rolep-laying combat system, the round usually goes around the table.  In my typical group, I get to take an action about every 10 minutes of game play.  I want it to be good one.  (I want to hit the monster.)  But I want the thrill of knowing I might fail.  Always hitting it, or never hitting it, or nearly enough, is just boring.

A curved dice result naturally fits these criteria, with the dice themselves pulling the result towards the middle of the range, while allowing the diminished possibility of extreme success or failure.  Percentile dice do not.

Now, a game designer could create a similar situation using percentile dice: just make sure the modified odds are between 40% and 80%, or whatever is the desired target range.  But here we run into the second problem -- differentiation. 

Players also like to have meaningful differences in their rolls and in the game statistics used to represent them.  They like to have characters with strong skills, weak skills, and medium skills.  In a wargame we want to have super tanks, mediocre tanks, and shitty tanks.  We also (usually) want to have modifiers, for easier or harder situations. 

Here again, I find a curved result more useful in design than a flat one.  3D6 - 3 or 3D6 +5 will have higher and lower average (mean) results, with the mode shifted to one side or another.  Large modifiers to flat percentage rolls will quickly knock the (mean) result out of the sweet spot altogether.  The target number is usually too low, or too high, or appropriate differentiation is just boringly small.  ("Oh, boy, my Firearms skill went from 66% to 68%! I'm the MAN!") *

So, that's why I don't like percentile based skill or combat systems.  Sorry, Call of Cthulhu, you are one of the great games of all time, but your skill system is terrible.

What, then, are percentile dice good for? 

I don't like them as a core mechanic, but I do like them for being able to set rough odds, and then immediately test them.  ("How likely is it for that Ogre to be at home when the players arrive at the cave.  It's dusk, so... 40% chance?  Roll it.")  Other than that, they are not my favorite instrument.

(In case you're wondering, I don't have the same problems with a D20 as I do with a D100.  A D20 is more roughly granular than a D100, having a smaller range of results, and, if you are adding whole numbers to it, modifiers seem psychologically significant while not breaking the scale easily.)

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Open Hand (Part I)


All arts have length and measure.

-- Johannes Liechtenauer

I'm considering how to make a melee combat system for roleplaying games that better simulates historical fencing.


For a few years, I've had a casual interest in the late medieval/renaissance fechtbucher and schools of combat.  These manuals describe the techniques used in civilian combat and duels: typically unarmored, with a one or two-handed sword, buckler or dagger.  Later books in the same genre describe fighting with early rapiers, again paired with an open hand or a secondary weapon.  Various modern teachers and organizations have reconstructed these techniques for sport and practice.   (If you're in Richmond, Salle Green offers a variety of courses.)

I have found the experience to be very different from the manner in which most roleplaying games depict these weapons and the experience of using them.

In games such as Dungeons and Dragons, or online games such as the Elder Scrolls, the various combatants are represented as having a measure of health.  Weapons are represented as having a range of damage.  The fighters proceed to whack at each other.  If hits are successful, "damage" is subtracted from "health" until one combatant is dead.  Winning a bout usually takes multiple blows on a foe, and no one seems to take significant impairing injury until they fall over dead.  Overall, the effect is like seeing two mounds of spam whittle away at each other with cheese graters.

Instead, I'd like to offer the following basic assumptions for a combat system:
  • Any weapon, with a proper strike, is potentially deadly. I'm tired of seeing roleplaying games in which weapons are rated entirely based on how big they are when clobbering someone.  Knives (typically the most pathetic weapon in an fantasy roleplaying game) are a dangerous weapon in real life.  Doubt me?  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDGHKyB3T_U)
  • A single, well-executed strike can potentially kill or incapacitate any opponent. Whether you are Andr'e the Giant or Steve Buschimi, a rapier-strike in the torso is deadly.  No matter how big and tough a person your may be, your liver is not especially better at repelling 6 inches of steel.So big tough strong characters should better resist minor injuries, but not so much lethal strikes.
  • The combat is a contest of skill (and luck),  positioning and reaction. Fencing is about timing and distance, attack and parry, and the geometry of the interaction of blades. 

Furthermore, I'd like my system to incorporate some general observations on Renaissance weaponry and the interactions between main-hand weapons and use of the off-hand, either open or with a dagger or buckler.

  • In most combat systems, a one-handed sword forms the basic teaching weapon.  In medieval systems, this was an arming sword which could either cut or thrust.  As we move into rapier combat, it becomes more and more a thrusting weapon, with an increasingly vestigial cutting capacity.  Much of the footwork remains similar, and less rigidly linear than modern fencing, as fencing would be in the round rather than on a piste.
Rapier. 17th century.  Wikipedia.

  • The off-hand was always an important element of combat, regardless of whether it was holding anything, and indeed, open or equipped it was put to similar uses.  Even an open hand can push a blade aside, grapple an opponent, or deliver a punch. Indeed, some techniques involve dropping a weapon at close range in order to better grapple. Many things were held in the off hand: daggers, bucklers, secondary swords, even lanterns or capes.  But their roles were all fundamentally similar. 
  • Grappling and throws.  Wikipedia

  • Most roleplaying games assume that the purpose of a secondary weapon is to make a second attack, and fighters with a sword and dagger are portrayed as super-chopping death-Cuisinarts (usually with a decreased chance of self defense). I' don't think this would be the case.  A fighter armed with a secondary dagger might stab with it, if he got in close, but he would be more likely to use the dagger to parry, and to control his foe in order to strike with his main weapon.  Indeed, the dagger's main use as a weapon (rather than a parry stick) would be inside the reach of a sword, in the same sort of way as a fighter with an empty hand might punch or grapple or strike with the pommel.
  • Sword and Buckler (late 13th century).  Wikipedia.
  • Likewise, most roleplaying games give a hefty defensive bonus to a shield.  This might be so with a large shield, but these were not often used in civilian combat of the period.  Instead, the more common implement would be a buckler, a shield about the size of large dinner-plate or a platter (for the big ones).  A buckler cannot protect one's entire side, but used actively it parries well.  Up close, it can be used to impede the opponent's blade movement, or you can punch them with it. 
    The two-handed longsword in different positions.  Wikipedia.
  • Two-handed swords(like a two-handed sword or a bastard sword) are fast, versatile weapons.  A typical Renaissance two-handed blade is about a foot longer than a one-handed sword, with maybe another half a foot more handle. The main hand holds the handle near the hilt and acts as a pivot, with the off-hand on the lower handle or pommel.  (Much like holding a baseball bat.)   This is one of the most satisfying of weapons to swing around, and it's one that I think most roleplaying games get completely wrong: most games give the weapon a bonus to damage, but lower defense or speed.  However, in my experience these swords are not especially heavy (only about 3 pounds max).  The may indeed strike with more force than a shorter weapon, but as I said above, I'm not sure how significant this would be, since even a smaller weapon is capable of a lethal blow.  Neither are two-handed swords slow or awkward -- they are quite capable of parrying, having an extra foot or 18" of steel with which to do so.   This compensates for not having a buckler or parrying dagger, and up close the pommel can deliver blows like the butt of a staff.  The greatest advantage of a two-handed sword is, in fact, one one that few rpgs address adequately -- range.  A two-handed sword can strike an opponent a pace or so farther away than a normal sword, meaning an opponent must enter its range before being able to make an attack of their own.  Incidentally, there is an even bigger two-handed sword, used to attack pike squares that's even bigger.  Such huge weapons are a bit awkward and might justify the rpg stereotype. 
Hitting someone in the face with the pommel of a 2-handed sword.  WIkipedia.

Next time: I will try my hand at modeling these assumptions in an rpg combat system.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Publishing Speed

Games Workshop released the Grey Knight Codex this week, only a month after the Space Wolf Codex and a Space Wolf supplement.  They are also pumping out the Sanctus Reach Campaign volumes.

These are all color hardback volumes, of a more or less standard size.

Overall, Games Workshop has been releasing books at an amazing rate for over a year now.  I'm assuming it is made possible by new digital publishing technologies. 

As readers will know, I think game companies should move to online rule and army books, but GW seems to be pursuing a vigorous strategy of many books, released frequently.  They are pretty expensive too, at 50$ each.

What does it mean for a game when even seriously devoted players cannot afford all the supplements, and thus cannot view the entire game environment?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Designing the Brutes

In Sabre and Raygun, the Brutes  desert nomads, gathered into varied tribes of different species and cultures.  The Brutes will be a horde army with weak shooting and strong melee.  I want players to build armies of Brutes from many different model ranges, with different sizes and designs of figures.  My test models have four arms and green skin, but this is by no means mandatory.

The Brute Force Book will introduce different Sizes of Brutes. The player will pick a Size category representing the majority species in their Force.  Their Core units will consist mostly of models of this Size. 

  • Small Brutes will be roughly human sized, and have no extra Toughness.
  • Brutes will be a bit larger than humans, and have Toughness 2. 
  • Large Brutes will be a lot larger than humans (think Ogre-sized) and have Toughness 3.

There may be other models mixed in here and there, representing other species in the tribe.  Support Units may be of any Size, representing allies.

The previous two force books featured Quality rankings for troops.  In the Colonies and Free Cities, units share a standard organization, but vary in their level of Skill and Leadership.  So Infantry or Cavalry may be untrained militia or elite veterans, based on the same list entry. 

The Brutes will use Quality differently than the Colonies or the Free Cities.  For the Brutes, Quality will largely be determined by the role troops play in the tribe.  Most tribes spend the majority of their time foraging or hunting.  They may have a retinue around their leader, but have no other standing army.  Most Brute combatants can be characterized as:

  • Unbloodied: The Unbloodied are young Brutes who have not yet tasted battle.  They will have Skill 1 and Leadership 4+.
  • Warrior:  Warriors are ordinary adult tribe members.  They will have Skill 2 and Leadership 3+.
  • Kinguard:  The Kinguard are a dedicated retinue of full-time fighters and nobles who accompany the leader and provide a core of leadership and striking power.  They will have Skill 3 and Leadership 3+.

Brute Units will typically have a fixed Quality rating, but a variable Size rating.  Most units will be rated as Warriors, and only a few will have the option of upgrading to Kinguard or downgrading to Unbloodied.

A typical Brute has a RoF 1/1/.5 rifle and a RoA of 3.  This means they are much deadlier in hand to hand than in shooting, and suffer little penalty for moving.  With a high average Leadership, they will be difficult to Suppress and will rally quickly.

As a Horde army, most Brute Units will be large, with a base size of 15 or 20 models, and the option to upgrade even larger, or to add Brutes of different sizes to the unit.