Thursday 28 January 2016

How I Learned to Embrace Encumbrance

Encumbrance is a tricky issue – it promises realism / believability but tends to feel like an accounting exercise whose only effect is to give a penalty to players – and who wants to keep on calculating a penalty?

I place a lot of store in the realism camp – and if I'm going to have it for the sake of realism then I want some attempt at realistic results, not arbitrary penalties. This helps get over the first negative aspect of encumbrance – at least when you've calculated it you feel like that the penalty is deserved.

The next aspect is the ease of tracking the total weight characters are carrying – I've found that by splitting equipment into carried / with your horse / at home, and then further dividing each section into major / minor items (not tracking the weight of minor items unless you’re going over the top with them), and with a column in the list for weight then there’s only a small amount of adding to do, it’s easy to do when neatly arranged, and (importantly) I've found that players change what major items they’re carrying quite rarely in practice.

Next up is the feeling of being penalised, with no way round it except to leave stuff behind. By basing encumbrance on the amount you can lift, then you get a choice when you improve athletics (which you will do as that improves your damage bonus) - you can either improve your raw speed, or you can improve your power and thus reduce the encumbrance penalty on your speed.

Encumbrance In Practice
In the last session the players encountered a 5’ wide chasm across the corridor; all except the Dwarf could jump it, whereas he had to take off his armour and throw it across first. The jump distances and the effect of encumbrance all felt right, and the lack of rolling to see how far the PCs could jump felt right – it all made sense in the fiction of the game. Flairin did offer to jump across holding Kazem's armour but the Dwarf likes to be self-sufficient. He could even have jumped a 4’ chasm giving Kazem a piggy back – but if that had been sufficient somehow I think the offer would not have been accepted!

The Rule
Given the weight carried and the character’s Lift, look up the penalty on the table below.
 This is then applied to move/jump (see this post) - table reproduced below:
For example suppose you have STR +3, AG +2, Rank 4 athletics (Power 2, Speed 2) – so one rank short of Gold Medal Olympian ability – which gives you Lift 5 (600 lb), Run 5 (110 ft/rnd, max 10 mins) as per the char sheet calculations below.

Suppose you want to run carrying 110lb: 

The enc penalty is from the 100lb row and the Lift:5 column to get a penalty of -4, so you are reduced to Run 1, which is 72 ft/rnd.

This is tracked / calculated together with the Athletics skill on the character sheet as below – the encumbrance is just the extra column at the end. If there’s no penalty then just leave that section blank:
In practice it is very quick to update this when necessary, or look up a result for an ad-hoc situation such as "Can I jump the chasm holding that sack?". In total Athletics and Encumbrance take up one twelfth of the character sheet, which is a reasonable amount.

Originally this table was a single column and each +1/-1 lift moved you one row up/down. In play however this became another rule you had to remember, and it’s clearer as this table. For example, if you have a -12 penalty, then +1 lift makes it -8 (one row up) NOT -11, but it’s easy to forget that.

Speed or Power – which is best?
Players have a choice of where to put their points – into Speed or Power. In the example above, the athletics of 4 was split into Power 2, Speed 2 – what if it was a different split?

If instead you had Power 3, Speed 1 you’d get Lift 6, Run 4, Enc -3, so Run 1 again which is 72 ft/rnd.

However with Power 1, Speed 3 you’d get Lift 4, Run 6, Enc -6, so Run 0 which is only 64 ft/rnd.

So for any given weight there’s a sweet spot for power versus speed, and the heavier the weight the more it leans in favour of power.

If you ever have an encumbrance penalty of -6 or more then you improve your speed more by improving your power. That’s why I’ve shaded those cells in the table – that’s where a lack of power hampers you.

How does this measure up to real life?
I want a baseline of what effect carrying large weights has on people’s speed. Fortunately some nutters in Gawthorpe having been conducting experiments!

Every year (since 1964) they hold “The World Coal Carrying Championships”
The event consists of Men’s, Women’s and Children’s races that take place on Easter Monday. Men carry 50kg of coal and women 20kg in weight.
Adult races start from the Royal Oak public house, Owl Lane, Ossett and continue for a distance of 1012 metres to the finish line at the Maypole Green in Gawthorpe village.
(Please note your time will be recorded when your sack of coal hits the green).
So that’s a weight of 110 pounds carried for 3320 feet. How fast can they do it?

David Jones holds the record – he did it in an impressive 4:06 in 1991 and 1995, so that’s 3320/41 = 81 ft/rnd. 4 minutes is between a run (10 min) and a sprint (1 min) in my system, so I extrapolate that the record for 10 mins would be 72 ft/rnd, which is Run 1.

Astonishingly this is the same answer as my example above (almost as if I engineered it that way).

What is the formula behind the table?
The penalty is logarithmic, doubling every other row. The weight on the other hand doubles every four rows. That means the penalty is proportional to the Weight/Lift squared – which was the initial version of the rule. You could have a formula instead of a table - everyone would have a Carry value (approx. 1/10th the weight) and the penalty would be Weight/Carry squared. This would give a more fine grained result, but…

Why have a table instead of using the formula?
When you use the formula do this some values round up, some round down, and the effect of +1 speed or +1 power varies slightly. For example sometimes +1/+2/+3/+4 sometimes gives you a progression -8/-6/-4/-3 and sometimes -8/-5/-4/-3 and sometimes -8/-7/-4/-3. I like the outcomes of player choices to be clear, and the regularity of the table gives a clarity with observations such as “if your encumbrance penalty is -6 or worse then power is better than speed” is lost.

So in the end I opted for the table – you only have to look it up when the amount you’re carrying changes significantly, and you only fill in the values when you need them. The athletics and encumbrance tables fit onto one sheet of paper, and these are the only tables you need when updating your character sheet.

Why this formula?
The old version (the flawed one I referred to in the last post) was linear, not squared. That was simpler, and doesn't need a table, but the predictions it gives don't match with expectations. 

When I go for a run (or a walk) I can carry quite a bit before it starts to slow me down. Carrying more weight has a little more effect, and a little more, until it suddenly starts too feels too much, and then you find that it’s a real struggle. The straw that broke the camel's back?

The simplest way to model that is a squared rule, and it seems to give reasonable answers.

Monday 25 January 2016

Simplifying for the Common Case

I omitted Encumbrance from my post on Athletics abilities in November because my old system had some flaws in it, so I’ve been working on a revised system (and playtesting it).

To recap, the rule for Athletics was that you put points into either Speed OR Power, these were adjusted by appropriate attributes and SIZE and HEIGHT, resulting in a bonus which you look up on a table to get a lift / run / jump capabilities.

Each +1 gives a percentage improvement, and it was scaled to give Olympian capabilities at +8.

In playtesting of the new encumbrance rules I discovered that athletics could be greatly simplified by a simple change in how the character sheet is laid out, so I’ll talk about that today and leave the Encumbrance rules until next time.

It's an application of a good general principle: things should be simplest for the most common case.

With athletics you get SIZE as a bonus on Lift, Survival and Kill, and HEIGHT-SIZE on Run and Jump. This means you end up with lots of boxes on the character sheet which are all zeros for humans!

Dwarves are also more complex than necessary - Dwarves are SIZE -2, HEIGHT -4, which would give them -2 in all categories. Except that in addition Dwarves get modifiers of +1 lift, +2 survival and kill, and -1 on Jump. So Dwarves have modifiers of -2 AND a +2 which cancel each other out. That's a lot of numbers for no gain.

Hence halfway through copying out character sheets to the new template I revised the template and started again!

Now I have a table (below) for races showing what the overall bonus is. There is no box on the character sheet for these bonuses, you just annotate the appropriate part of the character sheet with a bonus (just as you would for any other miscellaneous bonus). The top line (in italics) is the default, which gives you a starting point before any racial specific alterations. I've included 12' tall Giants as an example for a typical large humanoid monster, not because I've got Giant PCs (though there's no reason why you couldn't have a Giant campaign). You can see I'm being quite generous to Dwarves and Halflings.






So Humans don’t put anything at all onto their character sheet, and Dwarves simply put -1, -2, and -3 in the appropriate places. As with all simple things like this I wondered why I hadn't seen that in the first place!

Wednesday 20 January 2016

A Glimpse Of The Past

Apologies that my post on encumbrance is long delayed - Christmas was great but I've been rather busy which stopped me blogging though not playing – the party has now ended up 188 years back in the past attempting to avert a catastrophe they had inadvertently unleashed. Well I say inadvertent – what did they expect when they opened a magically sealed door in a complex full of dead bodies?.

But fiction often mirrors reality  - I've also been busy organizing my backups after I nearly lost some data when my laptop died, and it was in going through this stuff that I stumbled across a document from September 1998 called simply "RPG_IDEAS.doc". I knew Explore is based on ideas I had whilst walking in the Cairngorms in September 1998, but had forgotten that I’d written them down (as it was followed by a 10 year hiatus from playing). So as I step back 18 years into the past, what ideas from the “Me” of yesteryear made it into Explore, and what hasn't?

Some bits made it in almost intact, for example, this description of stats from 1998 is pretty close to what I've got now.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS: People have stats like Strength that are actual physical representations of them but this is classed with height weight  etc (which are done as in "Slightly overweight").MENTAL CHARACTERISTICS: Mostly intelligence and problem solving ability should be based on the person playing the character
This 1998 document also talks about the removal of randomness from climbing checks, simplification of weapon types, and wounds (minor/major/severe) instead of hitpoints, all of which appear in Explore today. Back then it was for adventuring in Middle Earth, so these notes state combat is lethal and rare and character advancement is capped. There's some standard stuff about hit locations (which I abandoned), and some notes on how to incorporate interesting wilderness challenges (such as crossing rivers) which have prompted me to think.

The section that surprised me is the ideas about character traits, which I have zero recollection of:
TRAITS Characters are susceptible to things like corruption and are often ruled by their temperament.
If a character wants to improve at a skill, they need PERSEVERENCE or else they get bored.
Technical knowledge of how to do something is very important and can be got by upbringing, teaching, experimentation(harder).
PREDISPOSITION: Someone may be predisposed to be better at certain skills.  Races give predisposition, Cultures give technical knowledge.
EXTROVERT/INTROVERT: Extroverts would be showy in front of people
OVERESTIMATING ABILITY: If you overestimate how good you are at something you might come a cropper eg. swimming and climbing
LOYALTY: Why are you doing something? If it's for your own life then you'll fight till you die but for the King? for your friends?
I wouldn't put this sort of thing into the game mechanics nowadays – I'd say just play the character how you envisage it – but what was it that made me want to put in “Fear of heights”, “Introvert” “Over confident” or “Disloyal”? Was this a good idea for the game, or just a sign of my state of mind as I was in the final stages of completing my PhD?

So I'm drawn to the conclusion that what you put into a game (and what you leave out) probably reveals something about your subconscious state of mind...

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Natural 20

I used very little of the content of D3 - there's a large proportion of it being endless stats for the estates of the Drow families, and the Fane of Lolth is pointless as Lolth had nothing to do with the Giant attacks. Unlike the previous modules (which were great) Gygax never ran D3, and it really shows. My players were on the heels of Eclavdra, and tracked her down to the Eilservs estate. A bit of scouting revealed there was a human sacrifice to the Elder Elemental God planned for that very night and they followed the procession from the compound to the secret underground temple. I made this a copy of the one from G3 (where they had wisely not touched anything). They watched as the ceremony got underway:

For effect I had changed the ritual slightly so the drums were beaten and the chimes rung and the triangle struck to start the ritual, it then became translucent and the players had 3 rounds to save the sacrifice. Foddy ended up fighting Eclavdra next to the altar at the point the eye appeared and the tentacle grabbed the nearest living creature - which happened to be Eclavdra. As she was grabbed she attempted to grab hold of Foddy to save herself and I ruled that on a roll of 20 she'd grab hold of him.

Natural 20.

Foddy is drawn into the altar along with Eclavdra. Silence at the table.

I left it for about 30 seconds before one of them remembered they had a ring of three wishes (from G3) with one wish left...