Optimal strangeness

I remember reading somewhere that good speculative fiction (including horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc) takes a widely understood backdrop, whether that is modern day, Tolkien-style fantasy, or something else, and tweaks one, or at most a handful, of key factors, and then works out the consequences of the tweaks. I have forgotten the source, but the idea stuck with me.

Various traditions of vanilla fantasy serve as examples of potentially well-understood backdrops, depending on particular audience. The Tolkien-derivative or swords and sorcery in the Leiber/Howard style are two examples. There is something to the formula of a known baseline modified just enough to add interest without becoming overwhelming. Maybe unworthy of being considered an iron rule, but something.

This seems similar to the figure/ground distinction in Gestalt psychology. If everything is ground, nothing stands out, leading to boredom. If everything is figure, all is confusion and nothing makes sense. Also: to the neophyte, even vanilla fantasy can seem strange enough while the seasoned player may require excessive marginal weirdness to get a successful hit of strange. Of the people that play fantasy games at least partly for the pleasure of exploring an imaginary world, most seem to be between these extremes, wanting a bit more uniqueness than Tolkien sans serial numbers but a bit less than a setting which avoids all pop culture or mythological landmarks.

Rich descriptors

One of the more surprisingly effective character creation innovations I have come across during the last several years was when Ram decided to add a set of random appearance results automatically to the default output from his character generator. For example: Thief, Male, Child, in Uniform, Tall is so much more immediately intriguing than just Thief, especially along with STR 4 and WIS 5.

But there is nothing special about those particular appearance tables, and if anything they are somewhat mundane, apart from one third of characters being either children or decrepit, which is rare for starting player characters and so lends interest. Maze Rats characters have more unusual descriptions, but are still relatively literal and immediate: wiry, singed clothing, and so forth.

What if we tried for more suggestive descriptors, such as roles or life stages? In the following d66 table, I tried for a set of results that in a single word suggest gender and age, along with a dash of social status, without being quite as direct. And of course, one could interpret a role either more or less literally. Depending on campaign particulars, reynard could mean young adult trickster or it could mean that the character was an actual fox who somehow was transformed into a human. Or maybe it means halfling animal person foxling.

The entries perhaps still need some tuning, but the idea seems promising, especially if a few such rich tables could be constructed. I avoided more mundane pairs such as father/mother, husband/wife, king/queen, and so forth. I also tried to select pairs that were somewhat quirky without being ridiculously obscure and tried to avoid pairs that involved explicit hierarchy, though without complete success. Columns control implied gender, with odd male and even female. Rows control implied age, with higher number meaning older.

Though maybe unworthy at this point, here is a PDF of the table.


 d66 1 2 3 4 5 6
1 urchin waif prince princess naif ingenue
2 monk nun chad trixie reynard vixen
3 cicisbeo mistress satyr nymph gallant diva
4 swain wench dogsbody charwoman footman handmaiden
5 widower widow hermit hermitess courtier courtesan
6 alumnus alumna troglodyte hag codger crone

Table form inspired by Maze Rats.

Participants in a conversation on Google Plus suggested some of these entries (I generally post privately; you must be in my circles to see it).


Some other leftover pairs:

knight dame
patriarch matriarch
patron matron
hero heroine
pimp madam
father mother
boy girl
husband wife
magister magistra
seducer seductress
beau belle
??? vamp
adonis ???
popinjay ???
groom bride
actress actor

Hazard System v0.3

The Hazard System is a gameplay engine for traditional roleplaying games designed to facilitate fictional consequences of player decision-making while minimizing bookkeeping.

Find a full HTML version of v0.3 in this post below the divider.

There is also a PDF version.

Significant changes between v0.2 and v0.3:

  • Hazard die results now follow higher = better principle
  • Generalized hazard die:
    1 setback, 2 fatigue, 3 expiration, 4 locality, 5 percept, 6 advantage
  • Introduces free moves, full moves, and conditions terminology
  • Formatted PDF as two letter-sized pages for ease printing two-sided on one sheet
  • Included brief chronological further reading section for context
  • Included simple default subtables for several kinds of outcomes, such as haven shortages and disasters

The text below the divider is released under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Attribution: Necropraxis Productions Hazard System v0.3 (2017)
http://www.necropraxis.com/hazard-system/


Hazard System (v0.3)

The six-sided hazard die deploys threats, manages resources such as light, and keeps time. It is the engine that drives gameplay forward, ensuring that choices have consequences while minimizing bookkeeping. To take a turn, have a player roll the hazard die and have the referee interpret the results relative to the current turn type. During a turn, each player may take one full action. The general form of the hazard die is:

1 2 3 4 5 6
Setback Fatigue Expiration Locality Percept Advantage

Hazard Die Interpretations

Haven Turn Interpretation

d6 Result Interpretation
1 Setback Encounter (use regional table) or disaster (see below)
2 Fatigue Shortage (1 medicine, 2-3 drought, 4-5 famine, 6 trust)
3 Expiration Clear one or more haven conditions
4 Locality Advance season (or other local change)
5 Percept Foreshadow looming disaster
6 Advantage Full recovery

Wilderness Turn Interpretation

d6 Result Interpretation
1 Setback Encounter (use regional table) or road/bridge out
2 Fatigue Rest and consume rations (1/person) or suffer minor harm (1 HP)
3 Expiration Expire transient wilderness condition
4 Locality Shift weather (or other local change)
5 Percept Spoor or clue regarding next encounter
6 Advantage Free wilderness turn

Dungeon Turn Interpretation

d6 Result Interpretation
1 Setback Encounter (use zone table)
2 Fatigue Rest and consume rations (1/party) or suffer minor harm (1 HP)
3 Expiration Expire transient dungeon conditions (light, spell, etc)
4 Locality Shift dungeon state (or other local change)
5 Percept Spoor or clue regarding next encounter
6 Advantage Free dungeon turn

Combat Turn Interpretation

d6 Result Interpretation
1 Setback Opponents act first or additional encounter (use zone table)
2 Fatigue Suffer minor harm (1 HP) if engaged in melee
3 Expiration Expire transient combat conditions (light, burning, etc)
4 Locality Shift battlefield (or other local change)
5 Percept Spoor or clue regarding next encounter
6 Advantage Free combat turn
  • Some disasters (1d6):
    1 invasion, 2 insurrection, 3 fire, 4 earthquake, 5 flood, 6 falling star
  • Some dungeon localities (1d6):
    1 obstruction, 2-3 seal/open door, 4-5 divert water, 6 expose secret
  • Use common sense: ignore results that do not make fictional sense, but only the first time
  • Keep time abstract: quantifying the details precisely is rarely worth the hassle

Moves and Conditions

Moves represent actions relevant to the current fictional context, such as exploring a trackless stretch of swamp. Conditions represent persistence of a transient state, such as adventurer exhaustion. Conditions can apply to areas, parties, or individuals. Strictness tracking conditions is a matter of style. Tokens can help. The lists of moves and conditions below below are suggestive rather than complete. Improvise others as appropriate, according to referee ruling.

Haven turns represent several days or weeks of rest and recovery.

  • Free haven moves: advance/level up, prepare spells, recover, recruit, resupply
  • Full haven moves: craft gear, scribe scroll, conduct research
  • Haven conditions: curse, famine, pestilence, shortage, siege, winter

Wilderness turns represent travel and making camp, approximately one day and night. Making a wilderness move requires consuming a ration or taking the exhausted condition in addition to rolling the hazard die. If already exhausted, at the start of a wilderness turn suffer minor harm (1 HP). Determine randomly whether setbacks occur during day or night.

  • Free wilderness moves: access known landmark in current area, survey adjacent areas
  • Full wilderness moves: travel to adjacent area, search, explore, hunt, track
  • Wilderness conditions: exhausted, lost

Lost: Travel is no longer an option. Use search to locate a landmark, removing the lost condition on success.

Dungeon turns represent exploration at architectural scale, approximately tens of minutes or a few hours, assuming careful advance into hostile places.

  • Free dungeon moves: look under a rug, open unstuck door, pull lever
  • Full dungeon moves: climb, force a door, move to adjacent area, pick a lock, search
  • Dungeon conditions: candlelight, torchlight, overburdened

Combat turns represent tactical actions occuring over seconds or minutes.

  • Free combat moves: shout command, drop held item,
  • Full combat moves: shoot, spell, strike, throw, withdraw
  • Combat conditions: burning, defended, grappled, prone

Notes and Further Reading

  • Consider using a simple slot-based encumbrance system, such as one item per point of strength.
  • Locality results work best if you design areas with countdowns or aspects that can shift between states.
  • I replace traditional initiative with the combat hazard die.
2012-09-16 http://www.necropraxis.com/2012/09/16/abstracting-missiles/
2013-04-10 http://www.necropraxis.com/2013/04/10/solipsistic-hexes/
2014-02-03 http://www.necropraxis.com/2014/02/03/overloading-the-encounter-die/
2014-05-22 http://www.necropraxis.com/2014/05/22/proceduralism/
2014-12-23 http://www.necropraxis.com/2014/12/23/hazard-system-v0-2/
2015-02-09 http://dungeonofsigns.blogspot.com/2015/02/luceat-lux-vestra-making-light.html
2016-07-22 http://www.necropraxis.com/2016/07/22/tactical-hazard-die/
2016-09-19 http://www.necropraxis.com/2016/09/19/let-it-ride-or-push-your-luck/
2017-06-11 http://www.paperspencils.com/2017/06/11/the-haven-turn/

Released under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Typeset using Pandoc and LaTeX.

Attribution: Necropraxis Productions Hazard System v0.3 (2017)
<http://www.necropraxis.com/hazard-system/>

Bricks and hexes

Hexes have a cartographic advantage over grids in that the center of a hex is equidistant from the centers all six adjacent hexes. In contrast, on a standard graph paper grid diagonal movement is more efficient than moving in a cardinal direction, assuming a destination other than cardinal-adjacent (that is, other than due north, due south, due east, or due west).

Recently I noticed that squares in a brick configuration are topologically similar to hexes in terms of adjacency. Each brick is adjacent to six surrounding bricks.

Bricks, however, are much easier to sketch than hexes.
2017-01-09-19-59-29-bricks-as-hexes

To see another way how bricks are similar to hexes, consider the following image and imagine the orange brick overlay moving right until the center of the bricks is superimposed over the center of the hexes.

2017-01-09-20-32-47-bricks-as-hexes

(This post is groundwork for another idea. To be continued!)

The Book of Monsters

AD&D 2E campaign elevator pitch, inspired heavily by Monster Hunter, Shadow of the Colossus, and Kingdom Death.


AD&D 2E core trilogy, personal photo

The holy books are three: the Book of Monsters, the Book of Rites, and the Book of Heroes.

The Book of Monsters recounts the first aeon, when people were few, gods unknown, and monsters preeminent. Within are details about the greatest monsters and their demesnes, along with methods of avoidance and appropriate tribute.

The Book of Rites recounts the beginning of the second aeon, time of the city-builders, when people found gods. Within are details about gods, particular rituals, and powerful spells.

The Book of Heroes recounts the end of the second aeon, when gods and heroes, working together, destroyed or banished the greater monsters. By the close of the second aeon, many heroes had taken up rulership and founded dynasties.

So began the third aeon. However, many heroes were unsatisfied by earthly reign alone. Pridefully, these upstarts petitioned for godhood, but they were denied or ignored. Undeterred, many heroes continued to seek exaltation, forcing civil strife among mortals, dividing usurpers from loyalists.

During the following conflicts, the greater monsters slipped their shackles. Loyalists claim that usurpers sought to use the greater monsters against the gods but lost control. Usurpers claim that the gods released the monsters as punishment. Whatever the truth, greater monsters return, reclaiming their demesnes, and laying waste to mortal estate.


Rules are some portion of AD&D 2E, as written, interpreted amiably, along with hazard system rules for resource depletion, and simple strength-based encumbrance.

Experience points are rewarded for defeating greater monsters or recovering treasure. No XP for killing minions or minor enemies.

The haven turn events table is basically the encounter table of all revealed greater monsters. (That is, the ones that I have gotten around to finalizing stats for and situating.) All the godzillas are going to keep stepping on things until adventurers deal with them.

Greater monsters will be based on entries from the 2E Monstrous Manual with some degree of Necropraxis gloss.

There will be dungeons. Though some of them might be on the large size, the idea is to think about dungeons as big monster lairs more than anything else.

The Book of Monsters itself serves as an in-game quest board full of particular marks and where to find them.


Shout-outs to the LOZAS system, the Library of de la Torre campaign setting, and various Final Fantasy hunt systems, which provide some structural inspiration.

Kingdom Death Lion God, personal photo

Fight off, dodge, or block

Some Dark Souls dude

Some Dark Souls dude

The combat system for my Stonehell Dark Souls game has drifted steadily away from traditional monster attack rolls toward monological combat (in short, players always roll, similar to Apocalypse World and Numenera).

Brief recap. In the initial December formulation, players chose between blocking or dodging (resolved using ability checks but also risking running out of stamina) or having the ref make a traditional monster attack roll versus character armor class. The trade-off was between relying entirely on ability scores or pitting character armor class against a monster’s potentially high attack bonus.

Making rules stick. In the past, I have sometimes had trouble getting combat house rules to stick because it is so easy to fall back on a familiar procedure, even when new rules result in more engaging outcomes and are advantageous to players. However, from the start of experimenting with the Dark Souls inspired active defense options, and across several groups of players with varying levels of tabletop roleplaying game experience, the active defenses seemed to remain top of mind. During the most recent session, players only ever defended actively, never letting the monsters make attack rolls, even with the risk of running out of stamina, which is punishing. I draw several lessons from this experience.

Choice prompts. First, the explicit choice prompt is an effective and low-maintenance way of communicating formal rules without needing non-referee players to read any rules (“zero homework” requirement). This is huge. Making such prompts habitual . This does place some constraints on potential rules, since the procedure must be fluent enough to survive being deployed all the time. That opposes complexity bloat which is positive more often than not.

Active options. Second, active options, assuming equal player effort requirements, have an advantage over passive options (such as submitting to a monster attack roll). Risking overgeneralization, I suspect this is universally true because players prefer a sense of control keeping all other factors constant.

Proposal. What follows is the procedure I am now considering, with parts that have not been play-tested in bold. Previously, armor class was a traditional passive defense score, but the approach below requires damage-reducing armor.


Resolve Monster Actions

  1. Determine actions for each monster.
  2. Match groups of monsters with defenders.
  3. Resolve defenses.

Defenses

When monsters attack, to the defending player ask:

“Do you fight off the attack, dodge, block with a shield, or react in some other way?”

Resolve as specified below or by using the most relevant ability check.

Fight off. To defend using a melee weapon, roll the weapon’s damage and add the result to armor rating this turn, then suffer monster damage. In effect, this defends by comparing damage potential between player character and monster.

Shield block. To defend using a shield, make STR check (success → suffer no damage, failure → suffer ½ damage) and CON check (failure → out of stamina).

Dodge. To avoid monster attacks, make DEX check (success → suffer no damage, failure → suffer monster damage) and CON check (failure → out of stamina).


Suffer Damage

Add the damage from all monsters threatening a player character together, subtract armor rating from the total, and then suffer this amount of damage.


Notes

  • The fighting off procedure uses one roll per adventurer no matter the number of monsters. This means that the fight off option is more easily overwhelmed by multiple monsters, since the player character damage roll opposes multiple monster damage rolls added together.
  • Not needing to make tons of attack rolls for a host of enemies is a nice added bonus.
  • To simplify presentation for this post, I left out one small step, where player characters can intercede to block for an ally assuming the positioning makes sense fictionally. This can happen during the matching of monsters with defenders (step 2).
Playtest results

Playtest results

Ultimatum games and shared narrative control

Narrative control is the degree to which fictional authority is shared between referee and non-referee players in a tabletop roleplaying game. This is one of many properties useful for categorizing and understanding games. Traditionally, narrative control is centralized in the person of the referee but can also be shared either informally based on social norms or formally using game systems. For example, in the Fate engine players can spend fate points to establish facts in the fiction of the game world.

Spreading fictional authority over multiple people can lead to greater recombinant fictional potential. However, delegating authority also decreases puzzle complexity, challenge, and potential surprise (see Zak quote below for more on this dynamic). Spending a point abstractly to make a door be unlocked does not require any creativity or lateral thinking.

At one level, moving along the dimension of narrative control in game design caters to different player preferences. Some players are more interested in being challenged and solving problems while others are more interested in formally structured shared storytelling. Given a set of clear preferences, groups can tailor systems and practices. However, authority in games, just as in the broader social world, is continuously negotiated, even when formally addressed by laws or rules. That is, there are more settings or levers available for games regarding narrative control than simply picking a point on the spectrum.

Anecdotally, while I am generally more in the traditionalist camp of centralized referee narrative control, on reflection I have noticed that I often both explicitly and implicitly delegate fictional control to non-referee players. For example, see how ratlings became part of my Vaults of Pahvelorn. However, the way I find myself delegating fictional authority entails implicit veto power. Though all players, referee and otherwise, contribute to fictional game outcomes, the referee acts as steward. The responsibilities of stewardship in my games include balancing present play against future play and attending to the engagement of individual non-referee players. While this does not mean I adjust outcomes based on what I predict will give particular players more pleasure, it does control whether I linger on a particular fictional experience or work out fictional imperatives quickly.

Based on this understanding of stewardship, as referee I might ask a player what kind of farm a character grew up on or whether they might have relatives in the current town. It is not against the spirit of the game for a player to use this opportunity to gain some present problem solving advantage. However, the player has an incentive to restrain themselves. The more ambitious, far-reaching, or obviously self-interested the interpretation is, the more likely the contribution is to fall afoul of the referee’s steward responsibilities and be rejected. To clarify, this is not at all about protecting a static, perfect setting from the grubby hands of players or ensuring that a plot conforms to a desired narrative arc. Instead, the approach attempts to harness shared creativity while not sacrificing exploratory potential or challenge.

This process works like the ultimatum game in game theory. In the ultimatum game, two players divide some resources between themselves. Player A proposes how to split the resources. Player B decides whether to accept or reject the split. If B rejects the split, both get zero. Empirically, people in the player B responder role are more likely to reject inequitable splits even though such rejection entails personal monetary cost. After all, even one penny is greater than nothing. Because of this empirical fact, proposers have an incentive to not be perceived as too greedy, even though no proposal is formally defined by the rules as invalid.

Mapping this structure to gaming, non-referee players take the proposer role while referees take the responder role. Even this description oversimplifies, as in practice non-referee players may iterate proposals following referee rejection. That said, potential negotiation is limited in practice as groups will not tolerate perpetual renegotiation. Further, once new facts settle, offhand details may lead to surprising fictional consequences, potentially both advantageous and disadvantageous to player goals. This adds to the richness of the game as players incorporate the fictional logic of more inputs. Like butterfly wings shifting weather patterns.


Comment from Zak on the effect of narrative control locus on challenge:

the problem for me with a lot of player-created content ( as a GM ) is the fact that what I then give them then has less of a chance of being a surprise and less of the character of a puzzle. If what’s there has even a 25% chance of being what they decided would be there every time then that’s 25% less fear and dread and giddy anticipation.

The problem for me as a player is that I don’t get surprised, it’s less of a puzzle, it’s less challenging for me (the more info I have, the easier a challenge is), it bores me (I can create content whenever I want when I run a game, why should I do it when I’m playing?) and it robs me of the specific challenge of “If I want something to exist in the game I have to find a way to build it”.

When I’m asked “so, Zak’s PC, what’s over the ridge” my immediate response is “all the treasure int he world and the big bad’s head on a spike”–not because I don’t like making stuff up but because when playing I am conscious that I am trying to direct all my mental energy to exploiting every affordance to get specific goals done that could take years . Asking me to then turn to Author stance is just asking me to do a much easier job with much lower stakes that is consequently less fun.

(Click this link to return to pros and cons paragraph above.)

References

Forber, P., & Smead, R. (2014). The evolution of fairness through spite. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 281(1780), 20132439.

Jeff questions for Abelia Caliginous

I am considering running some basic-ass pickup D&D online from time to time and this happened. What can I say, I needed an unadorned setting.

Players of my Stonehell: Prepare to Die in-person game, don’t worry! I will keep running that campaign.

Go here for Jeff’s original quick questions prompts. Below, bolded terms are places with some degree of elaboration to which adventurers can travel.


What is the deal with my cleric’s religion?

There are no standard clerics but spirits and demons have shrines scattered around the world. Some folk worship these beings while magicians call on them for aid and knowledge or even summon them outright. (Think Final Fantasy summons.)

Where can we go to buy standard equipment?

In the Clovertown district of Abelia, adventurers can buy digging implements, brewing equipment, knives of all types, and various oddments. Journey to other places to find other goods.

Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended?

In Abelia, The lion tamers at the Eternal Carnival can hook you up but you need carnival tickets to get into the best events.

Who is the mightiest wizard in the land?

Unquestionably Prospero Imperatax, the Pope of Magic. He singlehandedly dissolved the Republic of Magicians and choked the ruined Republic Guildhall with the Forest of Thorns. He resides in the south.

Who is the greatest warrior in the land?

The Itinerant Queen and her retinue of Royal Hunters seek the missing prince. Since the prince disappeared, the King Primrose III cloistered himself and locked the doors of Castle Abelia. He has not been seen since and Knights Regent now rule the various districts of Abelia.

Who is the richest person in the land?

Other than the Cloistered King, who technically owns all of civilization, the treasure map seller in the Bookbinders District.

Where can we go to get some magical healing?

The bathtub chemists in Clovertown sell healing tinctures and other concoctions.

Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath?

Shivertown in the swamps to the east is home to many herbalists. Legend has it that adventurers can find spirits of the dead in the deep swamps which can then be coaxed back into corporeal shells with the help of a skilled medium.

Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?

Independent sorcerers can learn spells from spirits and demons or concoct their own.

The Republic of Magicians is now a secret society, the members of which are hunted by the agents of Prospero Imperatax. They may safeguard old secrets though the Pope Prospero claims copyright on all spells.

Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?

The Librarians of the Bookbinders District are a good place to start. A library card is a necessity for all well-heeled Abelians.

Where can I hire mercenaries?

The members of the Mudlarks Society in Clovertown specialize in dangerous low-skilled labor. The standard contract contains an anti-fighting clause but mudlarks have been known to overlook such details given generous tips.

Mercenaries can sometimes be found in Starfall Basement.

Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law?

Holding an unsheathed weapon in the sight of a Knight Regent is a capital offense and will invariably lead to a scene.

Which way to the nearest tavern?

In Clovertown, drinking establishments are known as basements. They are located, unsurprisingly, in basements. Pleasure houses can often be found in attics with particular delights advertised using colored chimney smoke.

What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous?

The dragon Sartar ventures regularly from Cinderpeak Mountain. The Knights Regent keep the peace in the districts of Abelia but can also be a royal pain in the ass.

While not exactly causing any trouble, bagging a thunder lizard from the Bonewaste Expanse to the west or a giant serpent from the eastern swamps will establish credentials as a big game hunter of consequence. Live capture is even more impressive, and the impresarios will pay well for caged beasts.

Are there any wars brewing I could go fight?

Officially, all civilization bends knee to the King of Abelia and eternal peace reigns.

How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?

The Tourney at the Eternal Carnival always needs fresh meat.

Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?

  • The Republic of Magicians persists despite the efforts of Prospero
  • Ghoul Loyalists work toward eventual ascension of the King in the Swamp
  • Prospero’s Papacy of Magic accepts pledges of unconditional loyalty

Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for?

???

Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure?

  • Sartar the Unquenchable, dragon of Cinderpeak Mountain

Maze Rats review

2017-01-01-22-05-19-maze-ratsBen Milton’s Maze Rats is a traditional fantasy RPG ruleset in 13 landscape-oriented A4 pages (the last of which is a pair of character record sheets for printing). There is no art. Ben also runs the Questing Beast Youtube channel, the most active (as far as I know) video DIY D&D RPG reviewer. Maze Rats started as a hack of Into the Odd (which I discuss here) and still occupies nearby design space, though there is less implied setting. Maze Rats relies only on six-sided dice. For best results, players should have dice with different colors for the 36 item tables described below.

System Basics

The player-facing system uses three stats (strength, dexterity, will) and resolves outcomes using 2d6 + stat with 10 or higher indicating success. There are a number of other ad-hoc systems, such as the familiar side-based d6 initiative, but the 2d6 ability check is the workhorse. The standout rule for me is the simple but flexible class-free advancement system. The random spell creation and atmospherically named character features (briarborn, fingersmith, etc) are runners-up. My least favorire rule is XP rewards for “overcoming challenges” (I prefer more impartial and concrete rules in this area). It is a minor point though and trivial to house-rule.

Random Generators

2017-01-01-22-05-49-maze-ratsApproximately eight of the twelve text pages are mostly consumed by 36-item lists used to jumpstart game content. For example, there are lists of clothing adjectives, mutations, monster traits, and so forth. Each list is essentially a two-dimensional (6×6=36) d6 random table where you roll one d6 for the first blob of six possibilities and another d6 for the particular possibility within. This is clever but I still wish there were numbers on the lists (the d66 notation some games use would work well). Many tables belong to sets that work together. For example, monster = animal base + feature + trait + ability + tactics + weakness.

Sample Generated Game Elements

Random adventurer. STR +1, DEX +0, WIL +2, health 4, roofrunner (advantage when climbing, leaping, balancing), athletic appearance, tattoos, background: headsman, perfumed clothing, personality: stubborn, mannerism: overly casual, blah blah choose some more gear (random rather than alphabetic arrangement of the item d66 table would allow items at least to be done with a single d6 throw). I think I randomly generated Vin Diesel, or maybe wannabe Vin Diesel (given the physical stats).

Random spell. Formula: physical effect + physical form, name: resurrecting sentinel (the first word came from the physical effect table, the second from the physical form table). I think this probably animates a receptacle using a piece of the sorcerer’s soul (temporary max health reduction) which will attempt to raise allies that have fallen to zero health (STR check). The resurrection check risks bad necromantic voodoo (WIL check).

Random monster. Aquatic, anglerfish, gills (no too boring, roll again: plumage), colossal, spell-casting, tactics: ambush, personality: mystical, weakness: moonlight. So the anglerfish lure is clearly a fully-sized humanoid and this cyclopean peacock fish is trying to gather an army of hypno-drones to somehow get rid of the moon or block its influence.

These were the first three elements I used the rules to create and all turned out interesting so I count that as a system success. There are more sets of tables for other game elements (cities, wilderness areas, dungeons, and so forth).

Magic

As written, players randomly generate new spells during each recovery, which must be interpreted and defined. It seems like this would create wonderful opportunities for player creativity. At some level, however, this also makes all magic-using characters functionally identical given that they are all rolling on the same tables. As a player who tends toward magic-using characters, I might want more individuation.

There are a number of easy ways to push this system into more adventurer-personalized territory without jettisoning the novelty benefits of regularly determining random spells. Possibility 1: characters can prepare current spells again if desired rather than randomly determining a new spell. Possibility 2: characters can choose specialization defined by fixing results for one or more of the tables used to generate spells. For example, one sorcerer may be able to choose physical form spells while another may be able to choose spells with deceiving ethereal effects. Possibility 3: characters can record particularly desirable spells in a library at some cost. This would allow each sorcerer to build a unique collection of spells. Cost could be monetary, specific sympathetic component (probably requiring adventuring), or both. I would find this last library option particularly satisfying as a player. Any or all of these approaches could be used together.

Principles

The referee advice (last two pages of text) is gold. The principles are basically distilled community practices for a game focusing on exploration, lateral thinking, creative problem solving, and so forth. The advice may not be unique to Maze Rats, but it is tightly written and clear. I know of few better sources for concisely explaining what to prioritize when running this sort of game.

Conclusion

As I began reading Maze Rats, I was expecting another set of old school house rules, some of which might be useful to me in my continuous project of rules experimentation. What I found was a tight, well-written system with strong identity. I am curious if the lightweight chassis can stand up to an extended campaign.

A minor issue: the layout makes it hard to copy chunks of text. (That’s probably easy to fix using some option to the PDF creator software.)

Currently, Maze Rats is pay what you want on RPGNow. It has a creative commons license so you can hack it and publish what you make.

Disclaimer: Ben reviewed my book Wonder & Wickedness positively and includes my name in the thanks section of Maze Rats.

 

Review of Klein’s The Ceremonies (spoiler-free)

2016-12-26-20-59-41-klein-the-ceremonies-coverSeveral years ago, I was looking for highly-regarded recent cosmic horror novels. I asked online and somebody recommended T. E. D. Klein’s novel The Ceremonies. I finally started reading it a few months ago, somewhat distracted by other books and priorities, but made my way through it slowly and finally finished in a few days ago.

One way of looking at The Ceremonies is as a 500-page callout to others in the know. The primary viewpoint character is a young, unaccomplished assistant professor of gothic literature, Jeremy Freire. Jeremy regularly discusses the various horror novels that he is reading to prepare a syllabus for a class he is planning to teach. This device allows Klein to drop literal references to the existing corpus of cosmic horror and its genre predecessors. Some key works within this literature even serve as diegetic plot elements, such as a short story by Arthur Machen. Because of this, The Ceremonies itself works as a syllabus of cosmic horror or strange tales.

Readers who enjoy this tradition of cosmic horror will recognize many formulaic elements. That may sound like a criticism, but the formulas are used skillfully and the writing act itself (on Klein’s part) almost seems ritualistic to me. Even the mostly-wooden characters are in keeping with Lovecraft. While I never really sympathized with any of them, they worked as archetypes with just enough individuation to keep my interest. Daniel Day Lewis would make a good Sarr, a farmer who is one of the main supporting characters.

The plot is slow and meandering. It is skillfully crafted enough that the events generally did not feel contrived to me in the moment, but when viewed from a high level the story does rely on several somewhat unsatisfying coincidences. The plot exists primarily to support a mood, however, and the mood is effective. At its best, The Ceremonies has some of the best horror writing I have come across, especially the way that Klein is not afraid to use classic elements where they serve his purposes, which I appreciate.

The parts of the story I enjoyed most were the evocations of mysticism and the carefully detailed monstrous elements. Klein never falls into the trap of Lovecraft-inspired cliches, there are no tentacles to be seen, and his horrors never seem taxonomic. Due to the almost inbred nature of the allusions and references, readers who are not members of the Lovecraft fanclub subculture may find the length trying. That said, my overall reaction is favorable.

The Ceremonies is Klein’s only novel, though he also has a collection of novellas (Dark Gods) that I am now interested in reading at some point. Supposedly, he has been working on another novel called Nighttown for 30 years and it may actually be published soon.