Sunday, November 29, 2020

A Simple d6 System for Stat or Skill Checks

By Stephen Fabian

Jorune: Evolutions uses a stat and skill check system that is different than the mechanics used in combat. Since Jorune: Evolutions is OD&D inspired, the unified mechanic employs the 1dd6 that OD&D uses for most things.  Why did I come up with a new system that unifies skills and stat checks? 

  1. Skills just "feel right" with a science fiction roleplaying game. So I need skill checks.
  2. I thought a unified mechanic would be a good fit for a rules-lite game. Simple where possible is better here.
  3. I don't like very well the Hill Cantons stat checks that I'd been using in my games heretofore for math reasons I'll explain.
  4. The 1d6 system is a good fit mathematically with the constrained stat bonuses of OD&D prior to the unconscionably profligate stat bonuses of the Supplement I (Greyhawk). 
  5. 1d6 gets used for a lot of things in OD&D like hit dice and weapon damage, but also skill and stat check adjacent activities, such as accidentally triggering traps, searching for secret doors, opening stuck dungeon doors, and so on.  

General Philosophy of Stat and Skill Checks


In Jorune: Evolutions, stat and skill checks are informed gambles that players can take in high-stakes situations. 

  • They are only made where the result is in question, and where success or failure matters.
  • They are never made for trivial things, or where success (or failure) is a foregone conclusion, or is uninteresting. 
  • As an informed gamble, the player is always informed, in advance of the decision to roll, of the difficulty of the roll. 
  • As an informed gambel, the player is informed to the extent possible, of the results of a success and failure. Sometimes a failed check just means that one way forward is closed. But sometimes a failed check brings with it further danger or a worsening of the situation. 
  • Sometimes the Sholari (DM) will simply say, "Your character can't do this. It's not possible."
  • Stat and skill checks are not the motor of the game. You can easily go a session without a single stat or skill check.
  • It is often smarter to avoid a stat or skill check through roleplaying ("fictional positioning"). If you can get something free, there is no need to gamble for it.
  • There is no separate perception stat, because stat rolls are not the normal way that information becomes available to players. Players normally learn about the environment through the Sholari's descriptions and by asking the Sholari questions.   

There are two kinds of stat and skill checks in Jorune Evolutions. A roll can be opposed or unopposed. The Sholari will tell you which of these types the roll is, and what modifiers will apply, before you decide to roll the dice. 

  • Unopposed checks are tests against your PC’s skills or stats where what sets the level of difficulty are the circumstances of action, inanimate objects, or natural forces.
  • Opposed checks are tests against your PC's skills or stats where what sets the level of difficulty is the skill or stat of the sentient being you oppose.


Stat and Skill Modifiers


Stat and skill modifiers represent how good you are at the relevant task. For more on this check out my rules for character generation here and my skill rules here. For a reminder, stat modifiers work like this:

-1 Subpar
+0 Average
+1 Excellent
+2 Supreme (You can only reach these heights through big ticket sandbox advancement)

Skill modifiers work like this:

-1 Untrained
+0 Trained
+1 Skilled
+2 Master (You can only reach this extreme level of skill by training with a master in downtime)

Difficulty 


Generally speaking, the difficulty of the check tells you the number you must roll to succeed using 1d6 + your stat or skill modifier. 










      Unopposed Checks




To set the difficulty level for an opposed check, the Sholari looks at the circumstances of action and what is being attempted by the player, and assigns a difficulty level to it. The player then rolls 1d6 + skill or stat modifier, and must roll equal to or over the number set by that level of difficulty. 

Here is some guidance for the Sholari in assigning difficulty levels, which is more an art than a science. 

Easy: An average person can do something easy reliably. Even someone untrained or subpar can do easy things more often than not. 

Normal: An average person can do something of normal difficulty more often than not. For someone untrained or subpar, a task of normal difficulty is a toss-up. 

Challenging: For an average person, something is challenging is a toss-up. Someone untrained or subpar will fail at a task that is challenging more often than not.

Hard: An average person will tend to fail at a hard task more often than not. For someone skilled or excellent, a hard task is a toss-up.

Severe: Someone skilled or excellent will fail at a severely difficult task more than they will succeed. For a master or supremely talented person a severely difficult task is a toss-up. 

HeroicSomething is heroic if the average person can't do it at all. You have to be skilled or excellent even to have a prayer. Even masters or supremely talented people fail more often than not at heroic tasks. 
 
Epic: Something is epic if even a skilled or talented person can't do it at all. Only a master or legendarily talented person even has a prayer. This is the most difficult check possible.

If it helps to visualize it, here are the probabilities for someone with each stat or skill modifier to succeed at each category of difficulty:












Opposed Checks



When you are doing an opposed check, only the player character rolls. Jorune: Evolutions is a cooperative game so players do not normally oppose one another. However, in the rare event that two player characters are involved in an opposed check, the underdog makes the roll. 

The difficulty of the check is set by the stat or skill of the opponent. Consult this table to set the level of difficulty for the roll. Note that the numbers go above +2 because there are certain kinds of checks where modifiers from different stats or skills are added. The higher ranks can also represent super human levels of skill or power associated with alien beings or mechanical monstrosities. 













Optional Mixed Results Protocol


Except for the reaction roll, OD&D does not produce tension and drama through "mixed results" or "partial successes". Mostly this works fine, but there is something lost by being forced into a binary. 

Without modifying this system at all, the Sholari can sometimes build in "mixed results", by substituting a mixed result for a failure. For example, the Sholari might inform the player that a failed roll will involve success at the task but with a complication, e.g., "On a failure, you'll get the door off the hinges, but you won't do it quickly enough to avoid your pursuers." 

But here's a way to tweak the system to include fully mixed results mechanically in the system. 

Mixed Result Protocol: When you just hit the target number you need, the result is mixed or partial success. For example, if you are making a roll of challenging difficulty, you will get a partial success if your roll, after applying modifiers, is exactly 4. A 5+ counts as a full success. 

Remember, if you are employing mixed results, the Sholari should tell the player what effect a failure, success, and mixed result will produce before the decision to roll is made. 

________________________________________________

In the remainder of this post, I want to compare this method of stat and skill checks to some other popular methods you might be familiar with. Because this comparison is just math, it's going to be very dry. If that sounds terrible to you, stop reading now. 


Mathematical Comparison with the Hill Cantons Method


Hey, wait a minute, Jorune has these guys too

I have been using the Hill Cantons method of rolling stat checks for years. This involves rolling equal to or under your stat with a different number of d6 dice depending on difficulty. Normally the range is from 3d6 to 6d6. But to capture the same number of categories, you could theoretically extended it down to 2d6 and up to 8d6. The comparison of difficulty levels with Jorune: Evolutions would then look like this:
















I want to compare do a selective comparison with Jorune: Evolutions. In these comparisons, the stat listed is first the Hill Cantons numerical value and then the corresponding Jorune: Evolutions modifier. I've included a stat of 20 to capture the possibility of getting a +2 modifier in Jorune: Evolutions through big ticket advancement or downtime actions. I'll just compare the probability of making unopposed checks of normal to hard difficulty levels. 

Normal Difficulty (HC 3d6 vs. J:E 3+)

Challenging Difficulty (HC 4d6 vs. J:E 4+)


Hard (HC 5d6 vs. J:E 5+)



Severe (HC 6d6 vs. J:E 6+)
         



What this comparison show is that your ability score is incredibly important on the Hill Cantons ways of doing it. Someone with a stat of 3 will make the a normal level of check less than 1% of the time (!), whereas someone with a 18 will make it 100% of the time. That's basically a full 100% spread. Again for a challenging roll (4d6) the bottom is 0% and the top is 97%. This is a steep curve where your initial stat rolls are overwhelmingly important. (It flattens a bit when you get up to a severe challenge (6d6), where the spread drops to 45%.) 

The spread for Jorune: Evolutions is half that for the normal-hard range of difficulty, staying at a steady 50%. (If you drop the +2, the starting spread is only 33%.) Someone who rolls a 3 on their starting stat still has a 33% of doing something challenging and a 17% chance of doing something hard in Jorune: Evolutions. In keeping with OD&D de-emphasizing of the significance of starting stats, the Jorune: Evolutions way of doing is a much flatter curve, with a smaller spread between the top and the bottom

In an OD&D inspired game where I don't really want your stats to define you so strongly, I find this a better approach to stat and skill checks. The Hill Cantons method also disincentivizes savvy players with low stats from ever trying anything that uses that stat. This seems counter to the spirit of retro-game play. 

Mathematical Comparison with 5E




5E is harder to compare, because, like Mothership, it stacks skill and attribute modifiers, furthermore it does so in a way that's sensitive to level. It also tracks not only difficulty but situational advantage or disadvantage. But I'm going to try to compare anyway: keep in mind that the comparison has limited utility given how different the underlying systems are. 

I'll ignore advantage and disadvantage and put in parentheses the higher value for skill modifiers for characters 1-4. In 5E people's stats climb higher, and the greater difficulty levels are pegged to checks for dragons and demigods. So I'm going to handle this by equating the 5E difficulty categories in this way 5E "easy"= J:E "normal". Here as in the comparison with Hill Cantons, I'll just focus on the four difficulty categories of Normal, Challenging, Hard, and Severe.

Normal (5E DC 5 vs. J:E 3+)


Challenging (5E DC 10 vs. J:E 4+)














Hard (5E DC 15 vs. J:E 5+)


Severe (5E DC20 vs. J:E 6+)




The 5E checks are linear, but Jorune: Evolutions are chunkier. But there's almost the same spread between top and bottom in the lower difficulty levels, with 40% in 5E, and 50% for J:E. If you eliminate the big bump for +2 in J:E the two are almost the same. My hunch is that on balance 5E is probably not that different from Jorune:Evolutions, except there's a LOT more to track. Probably the biggest difference in play, besides the fiddly 5E book-keeping, is that in Jorune: Evolutions the Sholari will need to fold situational advantage into the initial difficulty modifier, whereas 5E has a separate mechanic for advantage and disadvantage. 

Another thing to note is that when we get into higher difficulty levels than I compared, 5E starts to get weird in the beginning stat range. That's because 5E has to make room for high-level characters with high proficiency bonuses and jacked out stats, and even worse, strength checks by ancient red dragons and intelligence checks by archdevils. So the upper levels of difficulty are out of reach for starting players. In Jorune: Evolutions, things are built on a more human scale.

Some Take Aways

One take away from these comparisons is that Jorune: Evolutions de-emphasizes the importance of starting stats. I like this because it fits the OD&D vibe, and also because it encourages all players to take chances, i.e. not to think, "My guy can't do that." Another take away is that looking at the comparison with 5E where I included a +2 modifier, we can see how powerful a +2 for a stat or skill will be in Jorune: Evolutions. At the hardest level of difficulty (Epic), someone who has mastered a skill or who has a superior stat will have a whopping 17% chance of success. This just shows that those should be very hard modifiers to attain in the game. Design your sandboxes and downtime rules accordingly! And as a DM be very careful about ever allowing modifiers to stack past +2: this can easily break the game. 







Sunday, November 22, 2020

Sandbox Advancement


After four years of playing with the XP for GP rule, I have a hankering to try something different. The genre expectations and mode of play that go with that style of play don't seem like a great fit for a psychdelic, spiritual journey, sword & planet game that I'm planning as my next campaign titled Jorune: Evolution.  

In fact, for my Jorune: Evolutions campaign I've decided to do something pretty drastic given it's OD&D-inspired chassis: to run it as a game without experience points or levels. The question this post deals with is then how to handle advancement. 

As I discussed here, one thing I like about XP for GP is that it sets up open-ended objective challenges for players to solve. I also like that it incentivizes exploration in a sandbox without forcing the exploration to head in any particular story direction. Another nice benefit is that it does this by tying advancement to retrieving something that can be used in open-ended ways to further player involvement in the setting. 

In that earlier post, I canvassed some alternatives to XP for GP, and many people pointed to still further alternatives. Here are the alternatives I've pulled together that will perform the same functions as the gold-XP nexus and the incentive of gaining levels in Jorune: Evolutions. I plan to distribute the functions played by XP for GP advancement to a variety of mechanics. We might call this "advancement decentralization". Here are a few decentralized options. 

Downtime 


I'm going to handle development of skills, institutions, relationships, knowledge, weapon proficiencies, and the rest, directly through my system of downtime activities. This system puts incremental advancement in an economy of activities through which players develop their characters and leave a mark on the world. So that does a fair bit of the work that XP for GP does. 

Social Advancement


In Jorune, the default premise for the game is that the characters are "tauther" undergoing the citizenship ("drennship") application process called "tothis". This process involves a time of service to the realm, during which one must win the support of a variety of drenn patrons by accomplishing things that align with their goals. This means that in order to advance socially towards the social status of citizenship, one must navigate a social space in which one win over patrons with differing (and possibly opposing) schemes and interests. 



Small Ticket Sandbox Advancement


Sandbox advancement is something I touched on in this post on experience points, but I wanted to spin it out a bit more here. The idea is that one advances by doing certain things in the sandbox. As I noted there, one sees something like this in Carcosa where one advances as a sorcerer by uncovering rituals, cthonic entities, and sorcerous materials at set locations in the sandbox. (It's as though the magic-user's spell list is distributed in space throughout the hexes of the sandbox, which is pretty cool.)

I definitely will be using this in Jorune: Evolutions. Some of the "evolutions" mentioned in the title will be things that can be undergone only in certain locations of the hexmap. These could involve evolutions in terms of Isho (psychic power) or in terms of Earth-Tec or other unknown dimensions of evolution. Similarly there will be a whole minigame about unlocking visions and powers by doing limilates (drugs). Naturally, the rare and wonderful drugs will be sprinkled (planted) throughout the sandbox. 




Big Ticket Sandbox Advancement


But this incremental development of skills and powers leaves out what we might call "big-ticket" advancement. Going up a level in D&D is a sudden big advancement. There's a certain thrill of crossing a threshold. It's also an abstract way of measuring how much of a badass your character is. And it comes with big mechanical gains that you can't get any other way: most importantly more hit dice, but also combat bonuses, better saves, more spells, improved class powers, and the like. To keep some of the flavor of OD&D, I want to discuss one way of handling "big ticket" advancement in a system without XP or levels. 

My idea is to tie big ticket advancement to a bucket list of signature Jorune achievements. These should be achievements that adventurous youths of Jorune dream about doing, the kind of thing that tells you straight away that the person who did them is at least on the way to being a badass. It is important that the achievements be objective in the sense that they are not primarily plot goals, and that players can pick them up or put them down as they like, or ignore them altogether, without in any way derailing or detracting from the game. This is what makes them sandbox friendly. They also should be known objective challenges that are hard to complete. 

This idea is clearly related to "milestone experience" from 5E, where the DM awards XP using campaign "milestones". Someone might say that a bucket list of big accomplishments is just a series of milestones. There's truth to this, but I want to start by saying that "milestones" is not the metaphor I would choose insofar as it suggests that the party is on a road to a determinate destination, i.e. it's a metaphor that pushes against open-world sandbox play towards the railroad and the adventure path. This resonance is heightened by the all too brief discussion in the 5E DMG, where we are told three things a milestone might be. 

  1. "Accomplish one in a series of goals necessary to complete an adventure". This is not a sandbox friendly formulation, insofar as it presupposes that there is "an adventure" and that it has a series of "goals" that you have to accomplish to complete the adventure.
  2. "Discover a hidden location or secret relevant to the adventure." This is better, but it still has that pesky idea of "the adventure", relevance to which makes uncovering secrets a milestone. 
  3. "Reaching an important destination". This at least has the form of a sandbox achievement in the sense I am working with. There's some place on the map. It's important and hard to reach. If you get there, then you get a big ticket advancement. Like visiting the city of Carcosa in Carcosa.

In any case, unhappy metaphors and assumed play-styles apart, I am happy to say that "Sandbox Advancement" is an experience point free variant of "Milestones".   

This raises the question what the signature accomplishments might be and what big-ticket rewards they bring with them. On Jorune a partial list might look like this (I want to expand this to 10 things for 10 possible advancements): 

  1. Exploring a skyrealm, one of the mysterious flying islands of Jorune.
  2. Exploring Shanthic ruins, the mysterious hidden ancient underground cities of a strange psychic race.
  3. Discovering a cache of Earth-Tec, the ancient technology of the travelers.
  4. Killing a Dhar Corundron, the apex predator of Jorune. (Think of it as a sword and planet version of killing a dragon.)
  5. Mapping something, sailing some river, Laying eyes on the Trinnu Gulf, AKA the Amoeba Sea 
  6. Somehow getting up into outer space, or exploring the moons of Jorune, etc.
  7. Finding The Ship (or if there were more than one, a ship) of the travelers.

When you accomplish one of these signature goals, each player in the group chooses 1 of these options to improve their character:

  • Raise HD by 1 (You can do this 3 times max)
  • Raise 1 stat modifier by 1 (You can do this 1 time only for each stat)

You make only raise your HD 3 times, and you may raise each attribute modifier only once. So you may advance in this way a total of 10 times before you are a truly legendary adventurer. Raising an HD is a big deal in this system. 

Stat modifiers are also a big deal, since in my current version of the rules, few people will start with them, and they shift the probability on 2d6-based stat, skill, and downtime checks a lot. While they matter less in d20 combat, it's hard to come by bonuses of any kind in this system, since there is no attack bonus beyond what different weapon types give you, and armor options are likely to be limited. So I imagine it will be worth it to chase whatever edge you can get.  

Next time I'll talk about the skill system. 






Sunday, November 15, 2020

Insectiary (Zine Review)


 The Insectiary is a zine written mainly by Andre Navoa, with smaller written contributions by Andre Tavares, artwork by Pipo Kimkiduk, and layout by Lina and Nando. It was produced as part of Zinequest II, where I heard about it. The system neutral zine presents 16 nasty bugs to include in your ttrpg game.  

The Good

The first, and most important, thing to say about the zine is that it is a beautiful object. It has unusual dimensions, being A6 rather than A5, and small and tall. It has a heavy cardstock cover and is printed on bright yellow paper in red ink, except for a single red page with yellow ink. Starting with the cover, there is a stretched out feeling to the font use. It mixes different fonts, for a page by page, boutique feel, similar to the intentionally over-designed Mörk Borg aesthetic. Despite this, things are laid out clearly and with a consistent aesthetic and use of space. The layout looks good. Very good. Lina and Nando should be proud. 

Let me mention a couple of neat layout tricks and information design that zinesters would do well to note. 



(1) The full-page illustrations of the insects come with a little magnifying glass that has a plus or minus in it, along with a percentage number. So -60% would mean that the bug is 60% smaller than the illustration, and +25% would mean that the bug is 25% bigger than the illustration depicted. This is a handy tool that immediately helps you to visualize the size. Obviously, this trick will only work for things that are consistently pretty small in size so that they bear an intuitive relation to the size of the illustration on the page, but HATS OFF in this context it works perfectly. (I could imagine it working for a bestiary of fairies or mushrooms, or butterflies, or whatever.)

(2) Interestingly, there are no descriptions for the bugs, since the zine offloads that to Kimkiduk's glorious illustrations of each insect, using supplemental random tables to provide colors and sounds. Each entry tells you the natural habitat and size of the insect (this is actually unnecessary given the magnifying glass), and focuses almost entirely on the bite effect. It also includes a humorous or horrible quote at the bottom that paints a little vignette for you. Again, designers should do well to note this trick of really leaning into the visual presentation to do work that text could do. If you are working with an amazing artist, why not consider letting the picture do the talking for you? This allows you to focus your energies elsewhere.

It is worth pausing here to emphasize how horribly delicious the illustrations of the bugs are. They remind me somehow of the best fiend folio illustrations. That they are produced in yellow on red somehow only adds to the awful beauty of the drawings. Kimkiduk has done a wonderful job. 



The Mainly Good

I have two minor gripes with the layout and information design, which I feel almost bad mentioning because the total package is so good aesthetically speaking and innovative with its information design. The first is that they chose to do a really great two-page spread illustration of insectoid horror on the interior of the cover. But the cover is stapled (attached) to the interior, which means you can't see the spread properly. As far as I can tell, the only two places where you can have a single unbroken illustration across two pages in a zine is either on the exterior of the front cover or on the center page of the zine. Or, if you have a detached cover, you can put it on the interior of the cover, as I do with my maps. 

The second minor gripe is that the entries for the bugs do not tell you what color the bug is or what noise it makes. Instead you are sent to roll on three utilitarian but fairly insubstantial tables at the front. This works against the wonderful design aesthetic of the zine to have everything about a bug on the same two-page spread and adds nothing, since what's at stake is just describing aesthetics trivia of the bug ("wait a minute, flip, clatter, clatter, it's green with mottled fuchsia spots") and the tables are very short anyway. I think it would have been better information design if this was simply included in the description. The take-way for me with this is that you should think about whether having a random table adds something or just throws up a procedural obstacle to smooth play. Again not a big deal and the main thing to say is that this zine has brilliant information design. 




The Definitely Could Have Been Better

But there is, from my point of view, a big problem with the zine. It comes out in the following text at the beginning, where Navoa writes:

"Insects are nasty little buggers that attack you during. your sleep or when you expect it the least. Or whenever the referee wants them to attack, just because you are being very annoying at the gaming table. 

The Rules: Whenever the referee sees fit, they may ask one or more of their players to make an appropriate ability check or saving throw (whatever makes the most sense according tot eh rules system you are using) on behalf of their characters. In case of failure, the character is either stung or bitten_depending upon the insect type_and must endure the effects as detailed in the description of the insect. It is that simple."

Perhaps this is meant tongue in cheek, but it relates to a real problem with using the zine. In the real world, one is usually stung by an insect before one ever realizes it's there. And this seems to be part of what horrifies Navoa about insects. 



The problem is that, at least in retro-game play, it's not fun to have things happen to your character by DM fiat without any warning. It's all well and good to hazard dangers knowingly and have the worst happen, it's another entirely to have something come from nowhere and harm your character. The classic example would be a trap that was potential lethal (save or die!) but had no external warning signs. That's bad adventure design. Instead the players should either be given signs that there is a trap there, or the context should be such that they know that the place they're walking into is chock full of traps, and they better go cautiously.

Some of the bugs are utterly lethal: they paralyze you and eat your eyeballs, or kill you from sepsis, or deliver an electrical shock like a sword blow, or compel you to kill your next sexual partner (!), and so on. Others produce mainly humorous effects like smelling bad or itching. It's obviously worse if it's lethal, but it might understandably rub a player the wrong way to just have even the less bad things happen to their character out of the blue. 

The advice about when to inflict this sudden penalty on players, which is probably intended as a joke, is also bad. The DM should never do things to players because they annoy them. That sounds like a dysfunctional power trip to me, and also pushes against the model that I enjoy most in retro-gaming play, where the DM is a fair arbitrator, who is certainly rooting for the players, but without allowing that to influence the challenge based fair play that is scrupulously established and builds trust between player and DM. 

Since the text of the zine focuses almost entirely on the bad thing that happens to you when the bug bites you, and since these are presented in the main just as bad things that happen out of the blue when something tiny without stats or even a description suddenly assaults you, it's not very usable at the table. As it turns out, the zine mainly consists of a series of gorgeous insect illustrations in a jaw-dropping layout that could be repurposed for other ends, perhaps with a bit of inspiration drawn from some of the bite effects. In other words, it's stellar design principles aside, it's not very useful at the table.

How Would I Use This Zine


Although I would mainly use this zine by repurposing the illustrations for other ends, nonetheless, I think there are some fun things that could be done with the zine as written. One way you could use the bugs is to turn them into known hazards of travel. "My God, no one goes into the Desert of Scorching. It's crawling with eyeball guzzlers that paralyze you with their sting, and pestilential fleas that give you uncontrollable itches!" Then the PCs can at least take precautions, and if something happens it will fall more into the daring known hazards category. 

Other bugs could be use as the centerpiece obstacle of an adventuring locale, as for example the moths that shock could be fluttering around an orchard with a magical pear tree with the smell of ozone in the air. The players would see the moths in huge numbers with the warning smell. So they would be primed to be careful and if someone got a painful shock it would be an acceptable cost to learn about the obstacle they had to face. 

Another idea I had was to introduce an NPC assassin who was a bug collector, and used insects to do their dirty work, almost like a ridiculous gimmicky James Bond style assassin. I think that kind of an enemy NPC could be a lot of fun. I could also imagine a murder mystery adventure where everyone died by a different kind of bug bite, and some kind of evil druid or insect collecting magic user was the culprit. In other words, I would use the zine pretty much as written as the equipment list of some bug-themed villain.


In Sum


It's OK: ***/*****

Buy this zine in print and PDF here or in PDF alone here if you want to have something beautiful or to learn from its graphic design or to repurpose its wonderful illustrations. Give it a pass if you're looking for something substantial that you can use at the table in retro-game play, unless one of my proffered ideas has grabbed you.


Sunday, November 8, 2020

Downtime Activities at Underworld Adventurer: Carousing and Finding the Right Buyer


At the blog Underworld Adventurer, Nick K. has been doing some really interesting things using my framework of downtime activities. I wanted to highlight two of their posts and take it as an opportunity to talk about designing downtime activities.


Finding the Right Buyer


The way Nick handles treasure is that the more obviously liquid items like jewelry or gold bars can simply be converted to their GP value upon returning to town. But what about those valuable but more speciality items, like a gorgeously carved chair, or alchemical gear like alembics and retorts? Nick decided to create a downtime action to handle this, which you can read here

Here's how it works. The character spends a downtime action to look for a buyer and the player rolls 2d6. On a 6- they roll on a table of complications, which has entries like selling the item for less than it's worth, or attracting the attention of the thieves guild. On a 7-9 the sale goes through and the player receives the GP value. On a 10+ the player rolls on a "Noteworthy Success" table with results like selling it for more than it's worth, or finding an abiding patron. 

Nick's rationale for having a 6- be the complication was that to have a 6- be a failure to find a buyer would disincentivize the use of this downtime action, which essentially attaches a downtime cost to what in many games would be handled with a wave of the hand. In cases like this, I think Nick handles this the right way, replacing failure with an automatic success plus a complication. Keep in mind that you're pretty likely to get a complication (~40%) and pretty unlikely to get a noteworthy success (~10%). This represents the riskiness of trying to set up possible illicit sales of looted goods.

The two separate tables is also simple and direct. I would use this downtime action pretty much as written, maybe expanding the tables a bit to build in some more emerging adventure possibilities. 

Carousing at Underworld Adventurer



Carousing rules are a staple of retro-game downtime play. In fact they're the one part of downtime that has gotten sustained and broad attention. On the standard-average model proposed originally here, the player spends 1d6x100gp (or more in a big city) on a wild binge, drinking away their fortune like Conan would, and gets that many experience points. The player makes a saving throw against poison. If they fail they have to roll on a big chart of mishaps, with results like a wicked hangover, venereal disease, or ending up hitched to someone you don't remember marrying. 

There are more complicated variants out there, like Gus' pleasing approach that gives you a bonus to the roll on the consequences chart if you roll well on your save, with positive consequences at the high end like winning at gambling or becoming famous as the life of the party.  

I've been pondering how to incorporate carousing with my system of downtime actions. Well, Nick went and put together a splendid version for elves or "hobs" who can carouse in the "Twilight Shores", a sort of Lyonesse-inspired elfin hinterland. It's flavor is delicious. 

Mechanically, the way Nick made it work is this. The player rolls 1d4 and spends the result x 100 GP on the carouse, getting that much XP. They make a poison save as usual. If they pass then they add the first roll (the 1d4 roll) to their consequences roll, and if they fail they subtract the first roll. The idea, I guess, is that if you spend big that could go either really well or really badly. 

The consequences roll is the typical 2d6 downtime roll with the chart extended to 16 at the top (good results) and -2 on the bottom (bad results), sometimes with results differentiated by whether they passed or failed the save. The chart has glorious results: at the low end you can end up with an asses head, or an appointment to duel by riddle with an elf lord, and at the high end you can receive favors from elfin potentates or benefit from various temporary glamours. I like this a lot. 

But it's a little fiddly in terms of how many rolls and modifiers there are, and also breaks with system by using the 2d6 roll for the table of random results. For my own version, I'd like to keep parity with the rest of my system by whittling it down to a single 2d6 roll with bad/mixed/good results, and a single followup roll on a table. I'm interested in trying out the model Nick used for finding the right buyer here too. Here's what I came up with.


Carousing in Mazirian's Garden



Carousing is a downtime action. You go on a wild bender and spend 1d6 x 100 gp (or as much of that as you have). The character receives as many xp as gp spent for the use of the downtime action and rolls 2d6. On a 6- the player rolls on the carousing mishaps table. On a 7-9 they have a swell bender with no ill effects. On a 10+ they roll on the carousing boons table. Once again, this gives you a fairly high chance (40%) of having a mishap--a fair risk for a hefty XP reward. But there is also a small chance (10%) that something good will have come of your intemperance.

In the version for Zyan, I'd certainly follow Chris Kutalik's lead for Fever Dreaming Marlinko and have a different table of mishaps and boons for each different neighborhood. (This is another way to give a local feel and texture to the place, allowing characters to build attachments to particular parts of the city.) But for starters, here's are some tables written with Rastingdrung in mind, a city whose sole recognized religion is the Temple of Ulim, a pleasure cult dedicated to plumbing the depth of hedonism. I've drawn freely on the carousing posts I linked to earlier for inspiration, but I've tried to expand the tables in directions that will generate interesting adventure hooks or complications. 

Carousing Mishap 1d20

  1. Hangover – A soft, nauseous stomach, painful pressure behind the eyes, you’re hung over and roll at -1 on all physical actions next session.
  2. You got caught up in a tavern brawl, start the next session 1d4 HP down (min. 1) with a huge black eye or other visible wound. 
  3. You make a fool of yourself in public: you decide how. You have gained reputation as a lout. -1 on all reaction rolls and attempts to cultivate relationships in the city until you can improve your reputation somehow.
  4. You promised you'd do something for someone that you really wish you hadn't promised. Decide what it is: the promise should either be humiliating or a pain to fulfill.
  5. You vandalized property of a rival if you have one, or someone your character would disapprove of if you don't. It dawns on you that the victim will likely find out its you if they just ask around.
  6. Eating street food from that filthy cart seemed like a good idea at the end of a long night. Roll a save vs. poison to avoid having acquired a parasite. 
  7. In the euphoria of the evening, you let slip something crucial you shouldn’t have, like the location of a dungeon, or your possession of a magical weapon. This will come back to haunt you. 
  8. You lost something. Dice randomly to see which item from your character sheet you lost. 
  9. You have gotten yourself in an awkward romantic situation. You either have led on someone of consequence (a hireling, a rival, a potentate) whose feelings you do not reciprocate, or you have find yourself in an unpleasant romantic triangle. If your character would not romance, then it's the same thing but with someone who thinks they're your new best friend.
  10. While under the influence, you insulted someone  inadvertently acquiring a rival or perhaps a new frenemy. 
  11. That divine concoction, you simply must have more! You’ve matured, and you deserve the best! You have acquired expensive tastes. Your high end tastes now require double investment on your future carousing rolls. The effect of carousing is unchanged, and the extra money wasted.
  12. The Scarlet Censors raided an establishment while you were present and you were fined an additional 1d6X50 gp. If you cannot pay, you are in debtors prison in the White Halls until someone can bail you out or you can arrange an escape.
  13. You have acquired an addiction to one of the many rare substances available for consumption at the Temple of Ulim: 1d4: 1. Black Lotus 2. Opium 3. Virdian Powder 4. Hashish. Anytime you return to town you must acquire and indulge in your vice (spending 50 GP x Level) on intoxicants.  The inability to obtain sufficient intoxicants results in a -2 on all rolls during the next session.
  14. It all came down to that last roll of the dice, or that last hand of cards, and you failed, busted, rolled out, got cheated.  Either way you lose your level x 1d4 x 50 additional GP. If you cannot pay, you now have a debt to organized crime.
  15. You went on a drunken spending spree and bought something expensive that you really don't need or want 1d4 x 100 gp. (Decide what it is.) If you cannot pay, you stole the thing or promised to pay for it later.
  16. You invited someone on the next adventure who the party has reason not to want to come along, like a rash noble boy whose parents will be furious if he is harmed, or a rival, or someone who is obviously a shady character.  
  17. You did something you profoundly regret, offending a friend (lose one tick on a relationship clock). If you do not have any ticks on a relationship clock, then you spoil another party members relationship to someone (they lose a tick on the relationship clock). If no one in your party has any relationship clocks, then you ended up the night drinking alone and start the session feeling bleak (-4 on saving throws for the session). 
  18. You behaved in a contemptuous way, or otherwise caused offense, to a hireling. (Decide how.) You now have a bad reputation among the pool of available hirelings, who will only serve for double fees until you somehow make it right, say by saving the life of a hireling or displaying real generosity.
  19. You have commit a blasphemy against the Temple of Ulim that has attracted the attention of the Scarlet Censors. There is a warrant for your arrest and you will likely be subject to unpleasant consequences in the White Halls if captured. 
  20. You have no memory of the bender, but you have a feeling that something went very wrong. Likely you committed some crime, or saw something you really shouldn't have seen. You may be in trouble with criminal enterprises or the law. The DM will consult with you to see what things are not comfortable with your character having done, but otherwise will decide what you did and keep it a secret until it comes up in game.


Carousing Boon 1d20

  1. After a magical night, you feel like you're still walking on water. Take +4 on saving throws for the next session.
  2. Some substance you consumed (intentionally or unintentionally) last night has you pumped with a first time high you'll never recapture. For this session, you have 1d4 extra hp. These are not permanent, but when they fade they will leave you with a minimum of 1 hp.
  3. This one's on the house! The drinks were freeing flowing over the course of the night, and many of your expenses were covered by a drinking companion, whether a dissolute noble or the owner of a drinking establishment. Retain half the gp you spent on carousing, but take the full xp reward.
  4. The night was extraordinary and you will never forget it. If you want to you can share with the group one memory or image or scene from the evening that you will carry with you forever. Acquire an additional 50% experience from your carousing expenditure.
  5. You shared some special times with an old friend or made a new one. Increase your relationship tracker by one step with this person. You pick the NPC, or if it's a new friend make a proposal to the DM. 
  6. You begin an exciting new romantic relationship. Propose a known NPC or make one up. If you character would not engage in romance, then treat this as the prior result.
  7. You befriended an animal during the night--a playful monkey, a hungry dog with soulful eyes, a devious parrot--you decide. The animal will stay with you if you let it, and can be trained to do useful tricks.
  8. You did something to improve your relationship with hirelings, perhaps standing up for a hireling or drinking with guild members. You decide. You now have a good reputation among the pool of available hirelings, who will work for you (alone) for 50% the normal cost. 
  9. During your revels, you find yourself with a unique opportunity to set back the interests of a rival. Collaborate with the DM to decide what this means. If you have no rival, you acquire a piece of information that gives you leverage on some NPC.
  10. While under the influence, someone else lets slip a secret of some significance. The DM should say who spilled the beans, and provide you with real actionable intelligence or, at the least something very amusing (and potentially compromising) about a known NPC.
  11. It was legendary night and you did something amazing: ate a dozen ghost peppers, pulled down the pants of the hated executioner and got away with it, outdrank a minotaur--you decide. What you did is now the talk of the town: receive +1 on all reaction rolls in the city until your reputation changes.
  12. At some drinking establishment you found something valuable, a purse of coins, a ring, a scroll case, a treasure map, a weapon. The DM will roll on a treasure table to see what you found. It may present adventuring opportunities, and it is always possible that the person who has lost the item will come looking for it.
  13. It all came down to that last roll of the dice, or that last hand of cards, and it was your night to win! You receive Level x 1d4 x 50 gp.
  14. Over the course of the bender, someone offered to sell you something you desire for a greatly reduced price. Decide what the object of your desire is. The DM will price it and then cut that cost in half. 
  15. During the night, a unique business opportunity presents itself in the form of an offer from one of your co-revelers. In the cold light of day, it all checks out. Collaborate with the DM to decide what the opportunity is. You may invest up to 250 gp and roll 2d6 at the next downtime when the investment matures: 6- you made 50% on your investment 7-9 double your investment 10+ triple it.  
  16. During your debauch you met someone--perhaps a retired adventurer with grizzled beard and pain behind his eyes, or the garrulous apprentice of a great sorcerer--and learn from them about a lucrative adventuring opportunity. The DM will tell you what it is; it may or may not be time sensitive. 
  17. During your revels you party at some out of the way spots and end up discovering a new secret location, a secret drinking club, an illegal gaming house, perhaps even the locations of the thieves guild.
  18. As a result of your hedonistic experiments in drug use, your body's capacity to contain and tolerate toxic substances evolves. Lower your poison save by 1 permanently.   
  19. Your revels were watched closely by a Voluptuary in disguise, who travels amongst the people to look for those touched by the spirit of Ulim. Your excesses that night received favor with him or her, and the Temple wishes to reward you for your holy profligacy. Decide what you did to attract this religious admiration. Whatever it was, the result is that you get a rare invitation to one of the "Gaming chambers", the secret subterranean pleasure dens of the Temple of Ulim. On another downtime, you may throw a party there with access to all the pleasure enhancing equipment of the temple. Everyone who attends gets double XP for the money they spend on carousing. 
  20. As you penetrate deeper into the revels, you realize that something profound is happening: a hedonistic spiritual awakening, a vision quest, an enlightenment through excess. Decide what the spiritual journey you have embarked on is, creating a tracker for a new spiritual exercise in collaboration with the DM. Mark off one tick on the tracker for the progress. Who knows what enlightenment lies at the end of this journey? Perhaps a permanent increase in your wisdom score, or a vision that will reveal something of great value to the party, or the single use of a spell you otherwise wouldn't be able to cast. (Remember that the more potent the result, the longer the tracker should be.) If this is only the first of many spiritual exercises, perhaps you are on your way to becoming an Ulimite saint!