Friday, January 26, 2018

Things To Consider When Constructing Wandering Monster Tables

The point of a monster encounter is twofold. Mechanically as resource depletion and meta-narratively as emergent world building.

Every 3 turns there is a 1 in 6 chance of the characters within a dungeon meeting a wandering monster who roams the ruined halls of a dungeon. This possibility is the central framework within which the time vs resource betting of the players occurs. Successful dungeon-crawling is based on players successfully gambling that they have more resources then the problem they encounter will drain them of. Encountering an ogre and betting that they have the HP or spells enough to overcome it. Encountering a locked door and betting that they have enough skill chance to pick it without failing and needing to spend extra turns which would spawn monsters. Encountering a dark corridor and betting that they have enough torch time to complete the excursion.

The main resources managed by players are: Hit-Points, Spells, Expendable Items, and Time. Hit-Points are a measure of continued ability to both exist within the game and to survive damage from a monster combat. Spells are a measure of wide-scope obstacle side-stepping or one of the other three resources. Expendable Items are a measure of narrow-scope obstacle side-stepping. Time is especially important for its dualistic nature: it emerges as a sum of total torch light and each diminishment causes a potential wandering monster encounter which will take away all four types of resources. The OSR game is players betting that they have enough Hit-Points, Spells, Expendable Items, and Time to excavate the treasure found within an emerge. This treasure is then converted to XP and in turn grants them more of the initial 4 resources with which to bet on further excavations of treasure until they gamble unsuccessfully and lose all four of the resources.

Every monster encounter is also a gamble. There is a 1/6th chance of it even occurring. A 36% chance of a negative reaction roll and a 1/6th chance of monsters getting a surprise round in combat and causing resource drain which cannot be countered well. Each time a wandering monster encounter occurs it is a successful gambling attempt by the dungeon that more of its denizens will spawn to reduce the resources of the characters enough that they will either depart or be deceased. The design of the array of monsters to be encountered, in terms of just mechanics, is then a measure of the lethality or antagonism of the dungeon. While planned encounters have a understood lethality associated with them, wandering encounters are an unknown quantity.

Just as in firearms safety where on does not point a weapon at someone that they do not intend to shoot and kill, one does not design dungeons that they do not intend to slay. In terms of dungeon design no obstacle is to be intended to be overcome by the characters. Not only does this account for player ineptitude but for player agency. If the player could walk into a falling axe with no fear of death then why have it in the first place.

There is an old saying in RPG DMing advice that until I started OSR I did not properly understand. "Only have meaningful combat encounters" originally I thought this statement to mean don't have wandering monster encounters for their own sake and have each monster combat to lead into the narrative. I now understand that each monster encounter must have threat of character death and can tie into the narrative by emergent elements. Now that we have established the type of relationship between the players to the monsters, we can look at the different parts of a monster.

Each monster has the following. HD, an attack value, an armor value, a movement method and value, damage dealt by an attack, saves, and a morale score. Monsters further may be encountered in groups and possess special abilities. A monster's HD is shorthand for how many hp it has and in several systems will also code for it's attack value and saves acting as a fighter of equivalent level. Assigning a monster more or less HD results in two important differences. First, it allows the monster to last longer in combat and second, it make the monster be treated differently by spells. Most spells target HD of creatures so a creature with more HD may be able to escape certain spells by simply possessing more HD than a spell is capable of affecting. A monster's attack value reflects how easily it may deal damage to characters but disproportionately effects characters of low armor. A monster with an attack value of 1 is likely not be able to hit a character in plate but may hit a character in leather. A monster with an attack value of 5 may hit a character in plate but will almost always hit a character in leather. Similarly monster's have defense values which reflect how easily a character may deal damage to them. A monster's movement score is fundamentally a measure of how difficult it would be for a party to escape from the monster if they decide to flee. The damage dealt by a monster functions closely to their HD or def value. Rather than lasting longer than a player they simply increase the speed of player death. Saves vary by system and as such are difficult to write about. Morale is a unique measure as it is checked for whole groups of monsters and may side-step a fight outright. The higher the morale the more likely the monster will fight to it's last hp.

By varying these values you can create combats which each move at different tempos. Let's look at three OSR monsters to see how they cause different tempos: A knight in armor, a coward barbarian, and an undead. The knight in armor has medium HD and high Defense, few attacks will deal damage so characters will be forced to make the attacks that do count. The coward barbarian has high damage but low morale, the fight will revolve in either striking before he does or surviving long enough to scare him off. The undead has a high morale score but low movement which necessitates that it will fight even it has a single point of hp and even if run from will slowly chase the characters.

Differing monster amounts results in a different action economy and are ultimately important in how many characters are in a party. A party of seven level 1 characters is likely to take down a HD 4 enemy just because they get 7 attacks to the enemies 1 attack. Similarly 15 HD 1 enemies may take down 3 Level 3 character because they have a 5:1 action economy bonus. Wise players will use choke points for this very  reason. By increasing the number of enemies you not only increase the functional HD of the encounter you also grant the enemies more actions. I treat 3 HD 1 enemies equivalent to a HD 3 enemy for this purpose, this math eventually breaks down linearly but the relationship is still important to consider.

Special abilities of monsters are so varied that it's difficult to consider them singularly like the action economy of multiple actors. These are often the most exciting aspects of a monster and so I would simply add them when I'm adding the thematic and world-building elements of the monsters.

Taking the considerations of those 9 monster elements you can create different and variable monster to fill your personal dungeons.

I make my wandering monster tables with an uneven distributions. For an example see the wandering monster table for a small abandoned ruin:

1-4: Bandits
5-7: Mummified Cultists
8-9: Animate Stone Statue
10: Mummified High Priest (has magic)

The majority (40%) of the encounters will be with relatively weak enemies. The next segment (30%) will be with a simple but more difficult enemy. The next segment after that one (20%) will be with a difficult enemy. The last segment which is rare to find will be with a complex and dangerous enemy. The variation of enemies encountered will cause the combats to be varied but the majority will be against regular bandits.

Following our example table, we can look at the possible mechanical differences in the entities and figure out how they would cause different interactions with the players. The bandits are likely to have ranged weapons but low morale resulting in skirmishes rather than protracted combats. The mummified cultists will have low defense but high morale, as such they are likely to swarm and have swaths of them be cut down. The animate stone statues have high defense but low speed so likely than fighting them characters may simply run away form them and lock a door. The last entry will be unique in that the special abilities of the mummified high priest will cause novel effects that the characters must overcome.

Now that we have covered the mechanical aspects of encounter tables we can look at the meta-narrative elements. From the encounter table it is likely that you the reader have constructed a view of a dungeon. The encounter table is a way to telegraph the dungeon itself and should inspire a view of a dungeon by simply reading it as the bandit base on top of a ancient temple does here.

Similarly the encounter table builds the world through emergent elements. The bandits are likely to have on their bodies other treasures from the temple which inform about it. They may even have a map! The mummified cultists inform that not all of the corpses in the dungeon are dead and may arise again. The stone statues by their design may also inform about the nature of the temple. Statues of demons and statues of heroes creating vastly different themes. The last entry is likely to have unique loot on their person or even secret rooms that are filled by their possessions. The mummified priest served a religion and his artifacts will inform of it. All of these elements readily emerge and that's not even counting a positive reaction from a wandering monster.

In conclusion, the mechanics of monsters dictate how the players face them and their aesthetics dictate that the players learn of the world. The encounter table should telegraph the dungeon and inspire it just by reading it. What roams the halls of a dungeon is what the players will directly deal with.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Lungfungus's Appendix N: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

Preface: This post is 3000+ words and around 12 minutes of reading time

In 2006, I was around 12 years old and looking through a PC magazine that I had bought in an airport book shop when me and my mother were traveling to Peru. I remember this incident because at the time my favorite videogame was Heroes of Might and Magic IV and there was an advertisement for the sequel. I would spend most days after school playing Heroes and I was incredibly excited for a newer version. Before that advertisement I saw an article about a horror game made by a Ukrainian game company and remember thinking that the monsters were looked intense. I barely skimmed it, but I knew it mentioned the Chernobyl disaster and intelligent AI.

The summer of 2011, I had just returned from backpacking in New Mexico for two weeks and I had two months before I started my senior year of high school. I was first starting to lift weights and I spent my summers either in the gym or in front of my computer playing video-games. I remember talking with some of my old acquaintances in Ukraine, the same ones that gave me my first Magic the Gathering cards and urged me to become a DM, and they told me about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl. At the time I was playing Mount and Blade Warband with a Chinese WWII mod and was beginning to enjoy FPS's so when Vladik described a survival horror open-world FPS with all the characters speaking in Russian and Ukrainian, I was super intrigued.

To this day, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series is in my opinion the objectively best video-game I have ever played. It's mechanics evoke a very specific game-play which in my opinion is the platonic OSR player experience with two exceptions. First, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series is a single player experience and while you may a squad of 4 other people with you, the majority of the game is just the player experiencing the horror and lost majesty of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Second, the weapons used by the characters are guns which while not directly being non-OSR are not the same as swords. That being said this post is an essay on by how playing the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series a Dungeon Master or Referee would be better served by experiencing the Platonic OSR Player Experience which they could then recreate.

Aesthetics of Ruin

If you haven't read this post about the OSR Aesthetics of Ruin by Against the Wicked City, please do so as these next paragraphs discuss the points raised within also its a great post.

In real life this is what happened during the disaster in 1986. The event occurred during a late-night safety test which simulated a station blackout power-failure and in which safety systems were deliberately turned off. Water flashed into steam generating a destructive steam explosion and a subsequent open-air graphite fire. The estimated radioactive inventory that was released during this very hot fire phase would then go on to fall-out/precipitate onto much of the surface of the western USSR and Europe. Following the incident the remains of the No.4 reactor building were enclosed in a large cover which was named the "Object Shelter". It is often known as the sarcophagus, with the purpose of reducing the spread of the remaining radioactive dust and debris from the wreckage and the protection of the wreckage from further weathering. The No.3 reactor continued to produce electricity into 2000. After the disaster, four square kilometers of pine forest directly downwind of the reactor turned reddish-brown and died, earning the name of the "Red Forest" further a robot sent into the reactor itself has returned with samples of black, melanin-rich radiotrophic fungi that are growing on the reactor's walls.An area originally extending 30 kilometers (19 mi) in all directions from the plant is officially called the "zone of alienation". It is largely uninhabited and has largely reverted to forest, and has been overrun by wildlife because of a lack of competition with humans for space and resources. Even today, radiation levels are so high that the workers responsible for rebuilding the sarcophagus are only allowed to work five hours a day for one month before taking 15 days of rest. Ukrainian officials estimated the area would not be safe for human life again for another 20,000 years.

In OSR Aesthetics of Ruin Joseph Manola writes that OSR content creators

"cast PCs as tiny figures wandering a world of dead and dying titans, stumbling amidst the wreckage of mighty forces they do not understand."

in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, you are likewise cast as a lone wanderer in a land ravaged by radiation and the actions of a secret cabal. In the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, the Chernobyl Power-plant has a much different role. Between 1996 and 2006, a secret lab was built inside the derelict Sarcophagus in order to host the Common Consciousness project. This project was an attempt at altering the "psychic collective unconscious mentality of humanity" to be more positive. However twenty years after the Chernobyl Power-plant incident the Common Consciousness project created a rift in the "psychic collective unconscious mentality of humanity" which caused anomalies (dangerous magical/psychic traps) to spread all over the Zone of Alienation. Individuals would then travel into the Zone of Alienation to prospect for magical artifacts also created by the 2006 incident. The Chernobyl Power-plant is a place of myth and is believed to be the very heart of the Zone. The most well known tale of the zone is that of the Wish Granter, a monolithic crystal of unknown origin that makes one's wishes come true, rumored to be hidden inside the destroyed reactor No. 4.  So now we have what is essentially a magical wilderness filled with numerous dungeons into which individuals enter for wealth or magical ability. If that's not an amazing OSR prompt then I don't know what is.

Joseph Manola further writes that

"OSR game styles tend to be very open, giving PCs as much liberty as possible to run around an environment and explore it in whatever wildly self-destructive ways they can dream up; but that openness requires and implies a certain set of absences. If PCs can run around the inside of a giant machine pulling levers to see what happens - and they should be able to, because that stuff is classic - then that implies that whoever first built this amazing machine, with all the technological and organisational prowess which its size and complexity implies, is no longer around to stop them. If they can rove from place to place, butchering or befriending the occupants of each area as the whim takes them, then that implies the absence of any kind of overarching authority able to control the movements of this gang of freakish desperadoes."

The title refers to the name of the illegal prospectors into the Zone of Alienation, Stalkers. These are individuals who "run around an environment and explore it in whatever wildly self-destructive ways they can dream up" and "rove from place to place, butchering or befriending the occupants of each area as the whim takes them". This leads us to the next point of Stalkers as Dungeon Crawlers

A Stalker is A Dungeon-Crawler

The term stalker as well as the abbreviated title of the series refer to the fact that those entering the Zone of Alienation are Scavengers, Trespassers, Adventurers, Loners, Killers, Explorers, and Robbers. Outside of loner, I would say these are all great descriptions of OSR characters, and even in the case of loner it could be said that due to the a typical nature of an OSR character they are a loner. The player of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. trespasses into dangerous places full of monsters and magic in order to obtain wealth, with the most tense moments of the game is spent penetrating deep into abandoned laboratories  and other ruins to obtain occult treasures. I don't think it's possible to describe the purpose of OSR characters with any greater accuracy. Playing the series you must manage your encumbrance, must plan for your expeditions into danger, and play cautiously. What I loved most when playing is that reckless play results in the game almost always beating you bad, but if you played cautiously you were almost certainly guaranteed victory. This means that there is a rare chance of you going guns blazing balls to the wall and emerging victorious. This innate unfairness necessitating caution and occasional victory despite overwhelming odds has been the greatest source of joy for me as a player in OSR. The mentality that arises as one plays the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series is the same that emerges in veterans of OSR play, so by playing the game a referee may understand how their players will approach their games as they understand the methodology of OSR. The following four sections detail the shared methodology of OSR and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series that are player facing.

Journey of Safety to Wilderness to Dungeon

The majority game-play within the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series is the process of leaving a shelter, traveling through wilderness, and entering a laboratory to steal it's occult treasures. As players travel from safety to the underground structure, they may encounter random events like psychic blow outs, bandit ambushes, or even mutated monsters. I hope readers at this point have grasped that the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series is essentially a post-apocalypse hex-crawl where several dungeons are located.

As a referee I have found that the majority of OSR follows the pattern of Safety to Wilderness to Dungeon and most of the systems I write on this blog have that in mind. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series emphasizes this model as your character leave a singular safe location travel through the irradiated wilderness and then enter a laboratory. Characters have to plan how many munitions, how much food, and etc to take with them and similarly there are three stages of play. In the Safety Stage characters obtain information about their destination and prepare for the journey. In the Wilderness Stage characters seek to prevent encounters with wandering monsters and search for possible stashes of valuables set as intermediate way-points by other stalkers. In the Dungeon Stage characters manage locked doors, secret passageways, traps, and horrible inhabitants. The longer one plays the more competent they become at all three and honestly they would be well prepared for playing a an OSR game.

One notable thing the game emphasizes is picking your fights wisely. While one could choose to engage with every enemy entity they see, they would waste resources and possibly die. A great deal of the game is figuring out how to sidestep combat. Management of resources and risk assessment are vital player skills and in the game lore veteran stalkers possess these skills, similar to how veteran OSR players should as well.

Anomalies, Ten-Foot Poles, and Movement at Mapping Speed

One thing that confused me originally was the concept of mapping speed, until I though about it in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. terms. Through out the wilderness and within the majority of the laboratories are multiple areas of psychic anomalies which can kill you. Stalkers toss bolts every few meters to determine the area of danger of the anomalies so that they don't perish. Rather than sprinting towards cover you painstakingly throw bolts every meter and where they cause a great gout of flame to appear you don't step there.

OSR characters within dungeons move at a fraction of their combat speed so that they can avoid making any great deal of noise, map out their environment, and reduce their risk of traps. In OSR games the ten-foot pole is used to trigger traps as a character would but instead of having a person filled by spears, an empty space is. Having moved at this slow speed as a player in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series I understand both how and why characters within a dungeon would move so slow as well.

Those who have played Shadow of Chernobyl know why this image was used

Scary Dungeons

So one thing that struck me was how tense each of the underground laboratories and passages ways were. They were dark, sounds echoed, they were winding and disorienting, and full of horrible things. I dreaded going into them because they were hard to leave when things inevitably went wrong and because I had no idea what was behind each door. As a referee these dungeons are my litmus test of how oppressive a dungeon should feel. An ethos espoused in OSR is that rather than Referee vs players it is Dungeon vs players and the feeling is very present in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. I can't do the laboratories in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. justice but just play them and think about how you felt. That feeling is that one that should be felt by players.

Dungeons are the concentrated wilderness but without the benefit of escape by open space. All of the horribleness of the wandering monsters are concentrated in spaces which limit your movement and turn what may have been once simply sight-seeing and fleeing into a gauntlet of the horrible. The horror of the dungeon doesn't come from the scary sights and sounds but from the anxiety arise from the lack of safety and escape.

Characters are Limited by Their Resources

In S.T.A.L.K.E.R your character does not gain abilities and retains the same physical capabilities they did at the start of the game to the very end. Their ability to function is limited by their resources and equipment. I find this to be very similar to the design principles of OSR games. Characters progress in levels but the majority of what they obtain is further resources not necessarily new abilities. In the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series you are limited in what you can do by what you have on your character sheet and this greatly encourages lateral thinking. You have to track your inventory as your opportunities to resupply are severely limited and you need to prepare before hand.

OSR characters are similarly powered. While a level 10 character will have more capabilities than a level 1 character they are fundamentally limited by their resources. You only have so many torches, only so many spells, only so much HP. You are forced to constantly assess resource expenditure before you engage in further plundering of ancient tombs.

AI Wilderness and Random Encounters

What always blew me away is the level of AI wilderness that runs within the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.engine. up to 1000 individual actors are passively run through out the whole world so while your character maybe in the starting area, NPC actors are battling horrible mutants within the final and most deadly area. No matter what you do, the world continues to act. Rather than waiting for the player to do something, the NPC continue to work. While this can occasionally render quests impossible to complete due to NPC death to random enemy, it makes the world feel alive.

The most frustrating and often Kafkaesque hilarious moments in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series would be when dangerously low on health and ammo I would reemerge from a laboratory only to have a military squadron descend on that location. It greatly emphasized the importance of meaningful time into the world. While games like Pokemon have random encounters for the player in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series these are quite literally wandering monsters. They spawn in uninhabited areas and then travel throughout the world occasionally meeting players or NPC actors. Rather than walking through tall grass and suddenly meeting a Ratata, I could see bandits squatting in a camp over a kilometer away and then could later return an hour later to find them all dismembered by mutated boars.

I had to be cognizant that time wasted on circumventing threats could lead me to have to deal with wandering monsters and I believe there is nothing more OSR than that.

BONUS! Bandits are my Favorite Wandering Monster

Around 30% of the enemies you face are members of the bandit faction. The video below is a series of bandit quotes in English. You should listen to at least 3 minutes of the video.

*I played the games in the original languages, but these quotes aren't that far off

So while you are wandering through a ruined irradiated hellscape you have these chuckle-fucks running around trying to extort people while screaming:

"You gotta help us bro! These uptight faggots are dipping us in some stinky shit" 

Its a very refreshing form of relatable humanity. They are also literal murder-hobos and are strangely similar to every group of players I have ever played with.

I love them as a wandering monster for my OSR groups because I can run some many different options depending on their reaction roll. Will they be friendly? Will they want to rob the characters? Will they just want to hustle them?  While encountering a magic-user or a fighter there is a clear mechanism of how those enemies would overpower the characters on a poor reaction roll but bandits are 1 HD low armor low defense enemies. They have to use lateral thinking and strategy to overcome obstacles. In essence they are low-level characters who survive in the world just as your party would. Every convoluted scheme you could come up with, they will do as well. Best of all their goal is not kill the characters but just to rob them and leave and in my experience as a Referee there is nothing worse for a player than an entity which takes their stuff and leaves. Bandits in my games have caused more character motivated vendettas and plots than any possibly evil overlord or dragon.

BONUS! Hex Density

For the first game int the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series the world is essentially composed of 18 areas connected by gates. While to OSR readers this may sound like a point-crawl in playing it it becomes a hex crawl. One such area, Dark Valley, is shown below.

Here we have 5 major points of interest alongside terrain and scenery. We have a bandit lair in the north. Directly east of the bandit layer is a ruined gas station where someone has hidden a cache of resources. South of the gas station is a lab facility which is essentially a three floored dungeon. Going further south we have a bridge over a swamp, the bridge itself is irradiated while the swamp is full of monsters, forcing the players to decide which risk they can better manage. Lastly there is a pig farm at the south of the map where a trio of stalkers will attempt to hustle you with the promise of a rare gun. Each area is so filled that rather than just going to the Borov Bandit Base, you are instead going to a site filled with possibility.

This is slightly more dense than one of my hexes, but it illustrates how to fill a singular area with several intractable elements. Rather than simply saying there is a single tower in the six mile hex you can say there are several sites you could see, playing the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series this becomes much more apparent. Players wander the ruined landscape and see structures from afar and as there are so many that each may hold the promise of prosperous find or doom.

Lastly in writing this article ,I decided to add the possibility of caches and stashes to my wilderness hex filling procedure. This would give each abandoned ruin a further purpose besides shelter from weather and a possible site for camping at night. It would also give characters a reason to engage with each structural site and would likely increase the number of dungeon entrances found.