Monday, January 30, 2017

On Sandboxing and Game Balance

I've been Gamemastering since 1978, and I've always run a "sandbox" (what I used to call "free flow") game.  The way I have done it all along is to create a framework in which the world's history, current events and Main Non-Player Characters (NPCs) exist independently from the Player Characters.  So the primary NPCs are busy going about their business in my world with our without the Players.  They have objectives and try to achieve them.  Some of them are good guys, some of them are bad guys.  Some are lawful, and some are chaotic, and most fall somewhere in between.

When the Player Characters enter the world, whose name is Elthos btw, they can, but do not necessary have to, cross paths with the major NPCs and/or their minions.  Sometimes the PCs may join forces with them, or wind up fighting against them, or sometimes just wave as they pass by.  Often times they wind up in opposition with the goals of the NPCs and so a conflict ensues.  These conflicts usually engage the minions who may be running missions in accordance with their leader's objectives.  The PCs will in these cases try to stop them.  Eventually, perhaps, word of these efforts reach the upper tiers and a Main Character NPC may become aware of the Player Characters, and begin to work against them actively.  Especially if they've been successful at thwarting their plans.

This all is as it should be and this style of play lends itself to being fun for both myself and the Players.  I never quite know how any given game is going to go, nor do I try to steer the Players toward any specific objective or goal as the GM.  That said, they may be in the service of a Main Character NPC who definitely will be trying to steer them toward a specific objective, but I take on that role of NPC as though I were playing the Character him or herself, so I don't consider it me as GM trying to steer the group toward an end goal for the game, and I certainly don't tell the Players which NPCs they should have an association with.  I leave all that decision making to them, and flow along with whatever they decide.

Sometimes this leads to difficult situations.  They may, for example, decide that some activity is so wrong and terrible that they must wage a campaign against it.  But the underlying story, the Main Character NPC, and the situation may cause them to engage with an opponent that is completely over their heads.  When the fighting starts, they may realize that they're totally outnumbered, or out classed by the forces they're opposing.

And this is where the problem of Sandbox and Game Balance come in.  Some GMs try to always establish a balance between the PC group and their opponents, in an effort to keep the game fair and avoid the twin problems of Too Hard and Too Easy.  While the goal is laudable, in some respects, it is also, I find, impractical to some degree.  The reasons why are as follows.

One, it is very difficult, depending on the RPG rules, to determine what the balance between two forces actually is, especially in cases where you have randomized initiative rolls to determine who strikes first.  I've surmised from my studies that getting an accurate calculation as to what percent chance either side has of winning would involve the use of binomial math, and after going back and forth on that for some time (I originally thought deriving a calculation would be relatively easy), I was informed by mathematicians far better than I that the only practical way to do it would be to run simulated combats between the two groups a hundred or so times and find out from that what percent of those runs results in one side winning over the other.  I'm pretty sure that most GMs don't do that.  And I'm pretty sure that most GMs actually just eyeball the thing and say something like "Yeah, 10 Orcs and an Orgre ... that shouldn't be too hard for these guys", and leave it at that.  The problem, as we all know, is that this is a hopelessly inaccurate process and the results vary considerably, especially if the forces arrayed have unusual powers at their disposal.

The second problem is that as GM of a sandbox world, I'm never quite sure I know who is going to actually be in a battle at any given encounter.  This is because the Players may split the party.  Yes, I know - everyone knows - you should never split the party.  But since I don't tell my Players what they should do, I simply go with whatever they decide to do, they wind up splitting the party (as often as not to their regret, but so be it).  So no matter how maticulously I might (and I don't) try to create "Balanced Encounters" there's really no way I will know if the encounter is harshly one sided or not until the moment the party encounters it.  After all Players may split the party exactly one moment before the actual encounter ("Ok, we'll bust the door down and charge into this room, but you guys go down the stairs and block any Orcs that may come up this way while we fight whatever's in there.")  This kind of thing has been known to happen.  So attempting to create Balanced Encounters as often as not simply doesn't work.  This is a result of allowing Players to do what they want, even if it is not necessarily the best idea in the world.  And yes, there's pros and cons to this approach.  Some GMs avoid it by running Railroad Campaigns.  And while some will argue that such a thing should never be, my own feeling about it is that it's ok, so long as the Players are ok with it and everyone has fun.  But I don't run Railroad Campaigns and I don't want to.  I like the free flow style, and I find it more exciting a way for me as GM to play the game.  After all, why should the Players be the only ones who get surprised?

So for me, I tend to sacrifice Balance for Freedom.  I let the Players do what they want to do, without much guidance (especially if they don't ask for it from any NPCs who might be able to offer advice).  But at the same time the Player Characters are at risk of encounters that can squish them like little bugs if they aren't careful.  Or be way too easy for them.  The way I handle that is by randomizing the encounters to a certain degree.  So while I know that a certain area of the scene (in this case the secret underground township of Whitewode) has a certain kind of opponent, I don't determine in advance exactly how many there are, or even what their exact composition will be.  I roll for it at the time.  To make this work for me, I usually generate the NPCs randomly in advance, but when the encounter happens I roll to see how many of those NPCs happen to be on the scene.  So what happens next is to some degree a matter of luck, but it also very much depends on how clever the Players are when they hit the encounter.  I have rules in my game (Elthos RPG) that allow for a variety of ways to attempt to cut and run in case the odds are overwhelming.  Sometimes they take advantage of that to escape before they get themselves killed.  Other times they plow in and hope for the best.  As it happens my Players are damn lucky die rollers for some reason, and most of the time they manage to get through and achieve their goals.  I've often been shocked by the incredibly good timing of their "Critical Hits".  But that's luck for ya.

At any rate, that's how I handle my Sandbox world in relation to Balanced Encounters.  I don't really try too hard to make the Balance, I just let things play out based on the luck of the rolls.  Sometimes it goes poorly for the PCs.  Sometimes it goes poorly for the NPCs.  But either way, the risk of calamity makes the game exciting, and when those incredibly lucky rolls do happen you can bet there are loud cries of delight and amazement around my table.  As there should be.  :)

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Notes on OD&D - Part 32

Ok moving on to the 3rd Level Clerical "Spells"...

Men & Magic
  • p32 - Explanation of Clerical Spells - 3rd Level
Remove Curse: This spell is the same as that for Magic-Users.

So I think what we should take way from this is that Clerics and Magic-Users really were more or less equivalents. There is little to distinguish the two by spells themselves, because the spells both work the same way mechanically, and there is significant overlap between the two classes. So what is the the difference then? As far as I can tell, the major difference is that Magic-Users were intended to be non-fighters, whereas Clerics were a combination of Fighter and Magic-User, with a focus on slightly different kinds of spells. As I've already covered the overlap, I will move on, but you can review the spell list distinctions in Notes on OD&D - Part 15.

I rate this spell 3 out of 5 Stars for usefulness. (I don't see it coming up that often, frankly)

Cure Disease: A spell which cures any form of disease. The spell is only method to rid a character of a disease from a curse, for example.

Um... uh... wait. This is a bit confusing. So a curse can cause a disease. But Remove Curse doesn't work on that. Only Cure Disease works on that, despite the fact that we have Remove Curse sitting right there above this spell. Um ... ok. Kind of squirrely. I would think it should be, in this case, that if someone is diseased by a curse that either Remove Curse OR Cure Disease would work to cure it. Meh. As a GM I would prefer a less convoluted arrangement. I suspect my players would feel the same. But ok. Its D&D v1, some bugs included.

I rate this spell 2.5 Stars out of 5 for usefulness (because it's confusing).

Locate Object: This spell is the same as that for Magic-Users, except that the base range is 9".

Ditto on my comment above.

I rate this spell 3 out of 5 Stars for usefulness.

Continuous Light: This spell is the same as that for Magic-Users, except that the light shed is equal to full daylight.

Ok, this suggests a superiority of Clerics in terms of dealing with those monsters which are destroyed by daylight. This includes:

Surprisingly, perhaps, trolls are not included in those creatures effected by full daylight. I'm a bit miffed at that. There may be other monsters that are affected by daylight as well, but conducting a few searches in google failed to produce a list of them, so I am thinking that the above list will do for now. If I find in Monsters & Treasure others that should be included (I'll be surprised if daylight has no bearing on Shades, and the like), I will add them.

I rate this spell 4 out of 5 Stars for usefulness (because full daylight is a good thing).

Ok that section was easy. Very few spells, most of them overlapping Magic-User spells which I already covered. So yah. Until next time, ciao.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

The Battle of Whitewode with TTS

Currently in the World of Elthos ...

Our heroes are still trapped in the cursed township of Whitewode as it comes under assault of the Pech Army. Praymar, the albino lizard-prince is rallying his Lizardmen forces behind the East gate. on the other side are Gnoll archers peppering the town with flaming arrows, and who have set the the main gate on fire.

Within the township Praymar has set his trap. He ignites the bonfire in front of him, and orders the Lizardmen to open the gates. He expects the Gnolls to charge in en mass, and be attacked on the flanks by his Lizardmen.

The two armies are equal in size, at 30 troops each. How will things turn out for Praymar? Stay tuned...

As for the layout here, I am using Tabletop Simulator to create the scenes.  It's a nice little piece of software from Berserk Games.  I am using it both in-house on one monitor that my group looks at, and also online with a friend who lives a few States down the East Coast, with whom we connect with via Hangouts.  I share the Tabletop Simulator via Hangouts, and have another computer with a webcam via which he can see all of us in the room, and we can see him.  It's a very functional setup, and works rather nicely to keep both Sam, and my group, engaged-as-hell in the game.  :)  If you don't mind paying about $20 bucks for Tabletop Simulator, and the associated learning curve to use it, then I do recommend giving it a try.  If you do, or are using it currently, please let me know what you think of it, and how you go about employing it for your games.  Curious to hear other people's experience with it.  Mine's been solid good thus far, despite the learning curve and relatively minor hiccups.