Monthly Archives: May 2013

Affordances and Aesthetics

Odilon Redon - The Black Torches

Odilon Redon, The Black Torches

Assume for a moment that you have a game artifact. This is a thing, to be “used” with your games in some way. Maybe it’s a setting write-up, or a module, or a bestiary. Maybe you wrote it, maybe someone else wrote it. First: it’s important to note that these things are all the same sort of thing at some level, and thus this is not just a discussion about modules, but of any product useful for gaming. But what does “use” actually mean? Consider the idea of affordances from ecology.

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, but the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.

That’s by Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, chapter eight: The Theory of Affordances (bold items were italicized in the original, but my theme blockquote style loses that).

Okay, that’s a lot of words; how about an example? From the same chapter:

The human species in some cultures has the habit of sitting as distinguished from kneeling or squatting. If a suface of support with the four properties is also knee-high above the ground, it affords sitting on. We call it a seat in general, or a stool, bench, chair, and so on, in particular. It may be natural like a ledge or artificial like a couch. It may have various shapes, as long as its functional layout is that of a seat. The color and texture of the surface are irrelevant. Knee-high for a child is not the same as knee-high for an adult, so the affordance is relative to the size of the individual. But if a suface is horizontal, flat, extended, rigid, and knee-high relative to the perceiver, it can in fact be sat upon. If it can be discriminated as having just these properties, it should look sit-on-able. If it does, the affordance is perceived visually. If the surface properties are seen relative to the body surfaces, the self, they constitute a seat and have meaning.

What are the affordances of a game-thing? I’m not talking about the physical object, but rather the affordances of the virtual objects that arise in the shared game space that players conjure together that derive directly from the game-thing. This is the use of the game-thing. Examples. A stat block (or perhaps HD + AC) affords fighting. If a thing has hit dice, it is fightable and killable. An exact site map affords constrained exploration and movement. A more abstract map (graph-style, perhaps) affords a different kind of movement and interaction (where relationships are more important than distances; see page 5 of this, by Patrick of False Machine). A treasure (in GP = XP games), or more generally a rewarded goal, affords character advancement.

Numbers and game mechanics are not the only (or even most important) affordances, however. Because as Roger put it, fluff is crunch. Thus, the adjective “covetous” attached to an NPC may afford more game utility than 100 stat blocks. If that is true though, what isn’t an affordance? Why are so many game-things so hard to use, so badly designed, and so padded with useless information? Some of it is just redundancy (text spent explaining that there are trees in the forest, or fish in the fish market, to borrow an anti-example from Vornheim). Some of it is prolixity (writing in full sentences what might better be apprehended as a list of keywords; there is a reason why referee notes are so often in this form, and it’s not because they are “unpolished”). And some of it is just bad organization (putting things that are likely to be needed together in separate places, thus requiring page flipping or even context switching between different books). That is, there are good forms of redundancy too. So, all those things are non-affordances that take up space in modules, and are all pretty much unarguably bad design.

Even factoring out those mistakes though, game-things are more than just affordances. That paragraph of imaginary history, or an evocative description which you won’t have time to read during a session but which might help communicate a mood. Like psychological priming, and memories, game-things have a lingering (and useful) influence on the consciousness of the referee. On that subject, a while ago on G+, I wrote (in retrospect, incorrectly):

In an adventure all of that backstory is useless unless it impacts the character’s adventures.

And James Raggi responded:

It colors the Ref’s attitude towards the material which should directly impact the way the adventure is run.

He’s right, and such details are often valuable, and can even be independently works of art in their own right, but such details do not afford game play. Further, unless such exposition is organized exceptionally well, this mood-filler detracts from the other useful ideas contained within the product, and may even render them inoperable. Then you get the dreaded wall of text experience where you can’t find the relevant details when you need them in play (and this can be critical to the functioning of the game-thing, such as clues for an upcoming trap, rumors about a nearby area, prophesies of a future doom, or weaknesses of a specific enemy).

The degree to which a game-thing, as game-thing, is game-functional is the number of affordances from the game-thing that are enabled to arise in actual play, and the degree to which the non-affordance aspects of the game-thing get out of the way. This is, I suspect, why so many game products work so poorly at the game table, despite being creative and enjoyable to read.

Barbarians of the Ruined Colonies

Hercules (source)

Image by John Singer Sargent (source)

Castle Pahvelorn was once the mightiest stronghold on the edge of the western colonial frontier. Before the giants were driven back and Pahvelorn was built, the old kingdoms settled colonies on the coast of the Mirnilask Gulf, which lies to the east of Zorfath and Shem Nabar. Several generations ago, those colonies were overrun by savage warriors that swept down from the southeastern hills. The warriors fought fearlessly, and drove of interlopers from their colonies back to the sea, plundering the wealth of the colonies before retreating to the hills from which they came.

Some of their warriors still venture forth from their clans in the hills. Here is a class for their raiders. Hit dice, saving throws, attack, XP progression, and weapons as fighter. See below regarding armor.

When making a death saving throw in response to being reduced to 0 HP from combat, barbarians roll two dice and take the highest result.

A barbarian gains a rage point when the character:

  • Scores a hit on an enemy in combat
  • Takes damage during combat
  • Rolls a natural 20 on an attack roll
  • Slays an enemy in combat

These conditions are cumulative, so slaying an enemy with a natural attack roll of 20 gains 3 rage points.

Rage points may be spent to:

  • Add +1 to an attack roll
  • Add +1 to a damage roll
  • Add +1 to a saving throw
  • Improve AC by 1 (no better than 2 [17])
  • Improve a nearby companion’s AC by 1 (no better than 2 [17])
  • Save to shrug off damage from a mundane missile
  • Decrease damage taken by 1

Points must be spent for bonuses before dice are rolled. At the end of combat, all rage points are lost. AC improvements last until the end of combat. Companion AC improvements are only active when the barbarian is nearby. No more than six rage points can be spent at once on any given type of bonus.

Barbarians must make a successful saving throw (use most favorable number) to disengage from combat (this save is penalized by the current number of rage points).

Barbarians are deeply suspicious of the dark arts, and gain no rage points if in possession of enchanted objects that are not fetishes from their own homeland. This suspicion is connected to ideas of personal, spiritual purity and does not extend to travelling companions (though barbarians may be contemptuous of the unclean and strange habits of the civilized).

Additionally, no rage points are gained if the barbarian is wearing any armor (though shields are allowed). If not wearing armor, barbarians gain a bonus to AC equal to their HD (for these purposes, treat 1+1 as 2). For example, an unarmored barbarian with 3 HD has an AC of 6 [13].

Barbarians also often have misunderstandings with civilized people, and thus take a -2 reaction penalty. This includes loyalty and morale checks for civilized retainers (though close associates will come to understand and trust the barbarian over the course of successful adventures). Thanks to those that participated on Google Plus in the discussion about this aspect of the barbarian class.

Monstrous Armor

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Wyvern-scale armor. Heavy armor, AC 3 [16]. When properly worked by a knowledgable armorer, wyvern-scale armor is amazingly light. So light, in fact, that it both floats and does not add to encumbrance. Maintaining the armor in fighting condition requires careful and continuous oiling and care, though no special or expensive oils are required. If wyvern-scale armor is not oiled for more than a week, it becomes brittle and begins to fall apart (this process cannot be halted or reversed; the armor is ruined). It is assumed that knowledgeable PCs will maintain their wyvern-scale armor adequately, and this downside will only manifest if the armor is lost or the PC is trapped away from maintenance materials for an extended period of time. When freshly made, wyvern-scale also has a very distinct aroma, undetectable by most humans, but clear to many animals and beasts, making achieving surprise more difficult in some circumstances (the scent may be perceived as either terrifying or aggressive, depending on the creature in question). After proper aging, the scent is said to dissipate, but experts estimate that such an aging processes requires the better part of 1000 years. Crafting cost & time: 1000 GP and 1d6 weeks, assuming access to a knowledgable craftsperson. One wyvern yields the materials for 1-2 suits.

Purple worm leather. Light armor, AC 7 [12]. One part of the dermis of the giant violet worm can be made into effective, flexible, and durable light armor. The armor, if properly made, remains partially alive (though its method of sustenance is unknown), and it slowly leeches alchemical compounds into the wearers body, granting a +2 bonus to saving throws versus poison after the armor has been worn regularly for at least one week. The wearer’s eyes and tongue also slowly take on a purple hue at this time. The armor feels slightly warm to the touch. The worm skin is too bulky to combine effectively with other forms of armor (such as plate + worm skin) but can be worked into heavy rain-capes or coats for those that seek only the poison resistance and cosmetic effects. The poison resistance does not persist when the armor is removed (sages suggest that the skin must release some further compound in response to poison). Most skins result in a vaguely tigerlike pattern of alternating brown and vibrant purple, and the color does not dull with age. Purple worm leather can be killed. Assume the armor needs to make a save versus death if the wearer is reduced to 0 HP by trauma (use the wearer’s save number). It will also mend itself naturally. Crafting cost & time: 100 GP and 1 week. One worm provides materials for a number of garments equal to its hit dice.

Purple Acid Blast

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Spell, Magic-User 2

Open an extradimensional rift to the acid seas of Erankzix. This causes a blast of violet, sparkling acid. If targetting a single creature directly, this does 3d6 damage, save for half. The 3 dice may also be distributed between several clustered targets (for example, two dice to one target, one die to another). Will weaken most physical objects if cast on them directly, providing a bonus to open doors or similar checks. The acid itself phases slowly back to Erankzix within one exploration turn, leaving a worthless residue of purple dust laced with mica. The acid is resisted by glass, rock, and organic bone.


Lucicrucilest (illustration by Gus L.)

Lucicrucilest (illustration by Gus L.)

Fragment of a dispatch from the Sage Strodastin of Zorfath to High Merchant Thracle.

Also know as chiastons by western mercenaries, crucilests are seemingly magical weapons used by the invaders known as tangles†. The weapon name comes from a heavy crossbar which always occurs near the business end of the weapon, giving an appearance something like a crossbow without string or lever. Speculation: the similarity between the symbol of the Old Empire and this weapon can’t possibly be a coincidence. In some instances, the crossbar curves forward, like horns.

Crucilests discovered so far include:

  • Electrocrucilest: a stocked weapon of approximately the bulk of a heavy crossbow. So named because it seems to discharge a ray of lightning.
    [Range as crossbow, to-hit as normal, 4d6 damage, save for half, may ignite flammables.]
  • Lucicrucilest: similar to the electrocrucilest in appearance, this weapon emits a beam of light as thick around as a clenched fist. The colors and strengths of lucicrucilest emissions seem to vary, and some devices have been seen with complicated crystal arrays at their tips. These crystals are of no mineral that I have so far encountered.
    [Range as crossbow, auto-hit, save versus death ray or die.]
  • Cumulocrucilest: similar in size to the electrocrucilest, this device emits a wide fan of malefic discharge, melting and burning all in its path.
    [Area of effect 45 degree fan, 60′ radius, Xd6 damage, save versus breath weapon for half.]
  • Tridoform Crucilest: a melee weapon, often with three prongs, used to deliver a powerful blast of corruption.
    [Melee range, to-hit as normal, 1d6 damage and save versus death ray or die.]

Forgive the impertinence, Lord, but I have named the devices myself for ease of reference. If you believe that other names might be more appropriate commercially, especially for sale in the north, please let me know your preferences at your earliest convenience.

The ammunition used by these weapons is unknown, and the tinkers we have hired to examine (and disassemble, in one case, with disastrous consequences) have not been able to make heads or tails of their workings. Crystals embedded in the device seem to reflect the shots remaining.

My Lord will be pleased to note that the few examples of these foreign artifacts that have come into stock at the Zorfath branch of the Grand Emporium have generated princely profits.

† The etymology of this word is unclear, but I have reason to believe that it originated with the soldiers of fortune known as The Company of Gavin, previously based here in Zorfath, but now in unknown locations. One of my apprentices, however, believes the term is derogatory, and derived from mercenaries operating in the service of Efulziton Necromanticus in the west.

Note to Pahvelorn players: the tangle weapons you have found so far are a lucicrucilest and tridoform crucilest (these were the first found early on in the Vaults) and a 4d6 cumulocrucilest (which devastated the party in the northwestern cliff barrows).

Wardrobe Malfunction

At the tail end of this encumbrance system, Logan Knight included this bonus optional rule, called wardrobe malfunction:

If you are hit in combat you can choose to sacrifice a Significant Item or other piece of equipment before damage is rolled. If you can explain how the attack removed or destroyed that item instead of injuring you, it happened.

As he writes, it’s like shields will be splintered, but for everyone. Personally, I don’t care for shields will be splintered (for a number of reasons that are not relevant to the purpose of this post), but this did give me an idea for a variant wardrobe malfunction rule.

In my game, there are no negative HP. Rather, when reduced to zero HP, a saving throw is required, with failure indicating death and success indicating unconsciousness. Rather than make unconsciousness always the cost of success, there could be a chance of an item taking the brunt of the almost fatal blow, allowing the character to remain conscious at 1 HP. This chance could be 50/50 (potentially requiring another die roll) or maybe occur on a natural saving throw roll of something like 19 or 20 (10% chance seems about right for this).

This does add a little bit of complication to a rule that I value primarily for its lethal simplicity. And such complications pave the way to death and dismemberment charts (which, to be clear, I also enjoy using sometimes). That said, the variation added by this additional potential outcome (lose a randomly determined item but stay conscious) might be worth a slight increase in complexity.

Another Stunt System

Jeremy D. recently posted this simple and elegant stunt system based on the DCC deed die but intended for use with traditional rules. The basic idea is that attack rolls are made with d16 + class hit die (assuming B/X style variable hit dice), and a pre-declared stunt is successful if the hit die comes up 4 or greater and the attack roll is high enough to hit. This gives fighters (d8 hit die) roughly a 62% (4 or higher on a d8) chance of pulling off a stunt, given a high enough modified attack roll. Magic-users (d4 hit die) have a 25% chance (4 or higher on a d4). What’s the trade-off? If the stunt fails, the attack misses, even if the number would have been high enough to hit had a stunt not been attempted.

The system is clean, but does require Zocchi dice, which is a downside. However, thinking about the trade-off gave me an idea for another system based on a similar principle. The basic idea is to gamble on two independent dice both coming up high. So why not make stunts require success on two attack roles rather than one? This would still represent a single action, but would be similar to roll twice, take the lowest (since both need to hit). The essential dynamic of fighters being most able to benefit from stunts would be preserved, because (assuming the same level) fighters will have the best chance of hitting. This also seems like it would be easy to communicate to players: just make two attack rolls; no new mechanics would need to be introduced.

S Series Handouts

Image from

Image from

Wizards of the Coast has just made the illustration booklets from the S series of modules available freely for download. The S series was just recently rereleased. The only flaw of this book was the lack of an easy way to use the handouts. These PDF downloads remedy that flaw.

While on the subject of the S series, don’t miss the recent cartoon walkthroughs either:

Session Record Sheet

Session Record Sheet

Session Record Sheet (click for PDF)

Behold, my new session record sheet. Now with marching order roles included. I added some silhouettes from Telecanter’s public domain collection to spruce it up. This was created with Mac Pages. Click the image to get the PDF.

My previous version of this (discussed here) has pre-generated turns (with random encounters indicated) and pre-generated HP totals to use for monsters. These allow me to easily check off turns as they progress, and mark off NPC hit points without needing to rewrite totals. I still use both of those tools, but have moved them each to their own sheet, so that I don’t need to edit newly generated turns and HP into the sheet before each session. I use a simple Ruby script to generate the turns and HP.

Pre-generating HP totals for NPC hit dice would obviously not be practical for games with higher HP totals, but it works great for OD&D where the numbers stay relatively low, even for the most powerful monsters.

Marching Order and Roles

Chaos party with marching order roles

Chaos party with marching order roles

Establishing a marching order in a videoconference game is a hassle. It always seems to take longer than it should, and then PCs in the middle or back are doing things which should often disturb the previous marching order, but practically speaking it’s just difficult to keep everything in mind along with everything else going on, such as describing the area, mapping on Twiddla, or checking off the passage of time.

Dungeon World has a formalized system for wilderness exploration which requires characters to take on different roles, the Undertake a Perilous Journey move. Specifically, characters can take on the trailblazer, scout, and quartermaster roles, which, respectively, improve speed, decrease the chance of being surprised, and decrease the number of rations consumed during the journey. Each PC that takes on one of those jobs makes the equivalent of a wisdom check (roll +WIS in DW parlance), and the result of that roll contributes to their given job.

A similar system could perhaps be used for abstracting marching order. Rather than worrying about exact order, just assign the key positions. Roles that I can think of are:

  • Scout: Assumed to travel beyond the light source, and report back periodically. Using a scout guarantees that the party will not be surprised from the front by visible dangers, though the scout risks being surprised.
  • Vanguard: protects the center of the group from melee. Up to two may take the vanguard role given 10′ hallways.
  • Second rank: may attack with reach weapons if the vanguard is in melee.
  • Torchbearer: you might want to double up on this role, as the light source is an obvious target for the minions of darkness.
  • Rearguard: function like the vanguard if the group is approached from behind.

So, rather than “give me a marching order,” instead: “who is scouting? who is vanguard?” And so forth. The actual order is not so important as long as the roles are filled. These roles can also carry some weight in more open spaces. For example, the vanguard could be assumed to intercept incoming melee combatants first, followed by the second rank, etc. PCs could of course override these default positions at any point, but I think a shared understanding about these roles might make abstract combat flow more smoothly, especially in games played over Google hangouts or similar technology.

I am also planning on including fields for these roles on my session record sheet. Such spaces could also double as session attendance (useful for things like handling treasure awards later).