Thursday, May 9, 2013

Melee Academy: Tactical Positioning via Waits and Retreats

+Douglas Cole has a Melee Academy article up on Gaming Ballistic about Combat Grappling and Waits. A lot of what he writes is interesting and useful, but there's some advice that's a bit sub-optimal. There are good ways and bad ways to use the Wait maneuver in GURPS to allow a grappler to attempt an attack on a foe, and people should be aware of the good ways.

This article uses some mechanics from GURPS Martial Arts. It's an excellent book and an excellent set of additional rules for melee combats.

Closing the Distance (The Less Optimal Way)

Doug describes a simple Wait system for grapplers: Wait until the foe moves 1 hex away, and then step into close combat and attempt a grapple. As Doug himself notes, this isn't a very good system: the grappler's foe can attempt to Dodge and Retreat, at a minimum, and depending on his weapon, may be able to Retreat and Parry. And no matter what the grappler's foe does, he'll be able to use his shield DB to defend himself since the grappler attacked from the front.

Assuming two foes with roughly equal skills in the 14-18 range, and the attempted grapple victim carrying a DB2 medium shield, the system method succeeds about 1 time in 5. While this isn't any worse than other comparable combat actions, it could be a lot better.

Closing the Distance (The Better Way)

This is a more complicated system, but it works better.
  1. Grappler declares a Wait and attack, triggered when the foe moves to Reach 1.
  2. The foe starts more than a hex away and steps up to the grappler to attack. Both grappler and foe are facing each other at Reach 1.
  3. During the foe's action, the grappler triggers the Wait and converts it to a Step and Attack maneuver. He then steps forward and to the side, moving toward the foe's weapon side. For his Attack, he uses the Feint attack option.
  4. The grappler's foe makes his attack. He can't respond to grappler's movement because he already made his step.
  5. Assuming the attack hits, the grappler Parries and sidesteps, moving to the foe's weapon-side flank.
  6. On the grappler's next turn, he steps into close combat with the foe and attempts an Arm Lock. At a minimum, he is attacking from the off-shield flank, depriving the foe of shield DB and imposing another -2 on Parry and Dodge attempts for people without Peripheral Vision. People with Tunnel Vision (because they're wearing fully enclosed helmets or the like) can't even defend, since the attack was launched by an attacker they could not see when the attack started. The grappler's foe's defenses may be further compromised by a successful feint, and the foe has to retreat away from the grappler in order to get any bonuses - which may force him to open his back or flank to the grappler's allies.
An important point here is that in Step #3, when the grappler feint's, the foe cannot attempt a Retreat or other action to reposition himself. It's also important that the grappler's allies do not attack the foe between the grappler's sidestep and the grappler's attack, since in doing so they would give him the opportunity to Retreat and probably move to a less disadvantaged position.

Responding to an Attack and Fly Out

The grappler's foe doesn't have to Step into the grappler's Wait and get surrounded and flanked. He could try some other tricks, like making a Committed Attack to Step two hexes, advancing toward the grappler and then stepping away while turning to face the grappler square on. Doing this keeps the distance open at the cost of the foe's Parry and ability to retreat, as well as a -2 on all defenses. From the grappler's perspective, it's nearly as good as getting to the foe's flank. On his turn, the grappler can make his own Committed Attack, taking two steps to move into the foe's hex.

Sidesteps Are Not Just for Grapplers

This nasty little trick is not just for grapplers. Anyone with either a good Dodge, an excellent Active Defense from skill or shields, or a fencing Parry can attempt it with a reasonable degree of success. Characters with a low Block and Parry, a low Dodge, and a non-fencing weapon probably want to preserve their Retreat to back away at +3 to Dodge or +1 to Block or Parry.

The biggest problem with the Wait and Sidestep combination is that if the grappler's foe has allies, the grappler has generally moved away from his own allies and closer to his enemy's allies. The grappler has to be careful about not opening his own flank or rear to his foe's allies. If the grappler and his allies outnumber their foes, this can be an excellent trick for establishing a grapple or other damaging attack on an unwary and unfortunate enemy.

More Melee Academy Links

Other contributions in this week's Melee Academy series on Waits and Timing can be found at:

Dungeon Fantastic+Peter V. Dell'Orto writes about Stop Hit
Orbs and Balrogs+Christian Blouin writes about creating and holding combat initiative
RPG Snob+Jason Packer throws down about combat pacing
Gaming Ballistic+Douglas Cole starts a conversation about Wait tactics and Grappling

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Skirmish Archer Tactics

Heroic Archers and Imbued Archers 

In GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, there are two main roads to dominance as an archer: Scouts take the Heroic Archer advantage, and Mystic Knights learn the Guided Weapon, Arching Shot, Multishot, Scattershot, and Shockwave Imbuements. Both are viable methods, and can even be combined, but they require slightly different tactics.

Scouts operate in either of two modes. They can be mobile archers moving around the battlefield to kite the enemy and make flank and rear shots, or they can be static archers making one or more high accuracy shots every second. Firing from a fixed position, they're especially useful for disrupting enemy Concentrate actions, such as spell-casting.

Mystic Knights tend to be more static, and usually have a lower rate of fire, but they still have multiple options. They can used Guided Weapon to make highly accurate single shots at range, possibly combined with other Imbuements. They can also use Multishot to launch many arrows at a foe, overwhelming the foe's defenses with a barrage.

Basic Battle Line Tactics and the Archer 

Some people think that an archer is only useful when the enemy is at distance, and as soon as the enemy closes to melee range, the archer should discard his bow, draw a melee weapon, and join the fray. This is probably realistic for historical battles, but in Dungeon Fantasy style skirmishes, an archer who drops his bow just because the enemy is close by is seriously underestimating his own abilities.

Ideally, the archer's allies (Knights, Barbarians, Clerics, Swashbucklers, and other melee oriented types) should all be standing in a line between the archer (and any other ranged combatants such as artillery focused wizards) and the enemy. The line of allies should be facing the foe and at a right angle to the imaginary line between the archer and the enemy. As the foe closes, the archer shoots over the shoulder of his allies, or possibly in between gaps in the line. After the enemy closes to melee range, the archer should continuing firing. As long as the two sides aren't in close combat, there's no real danger for shooting into a melee. Allies may be cover, and the archer shouldn't shoot through them (the danger of missing and hitting an ally instead is fairly harsh), but as long as the archer can get an open shot on the enemy, he should take it.

Imbued Archers 

Imbued Archers have a simple solution to the battle line: Arching Shot. Arching Shot ignores all cover that isn't overhead cover, such as the bodies of the archer's allies between him and the target. Arching Shot combines well with other Imbuements, including Multi-Shot, Scattershot, Shockwave, and Scattershot.

Imbued Archers can also use Shockwave and Scattershot to deal damage to multiple foes clustered together. Forcing the enemy to break up, dodge and drop, and otherwise scatter is a useful battlefield control tactic. GURPS tends to favor the side with the most combatants in melee, and there is a meaningful difference between ten orcs attacking a pair of Knights all in mass, and the same ten orcs straggling up to the Knights in pairs over 10 or 15 seconds.

Heroic Archers

Heroic Archers can Move and Attack with bulky bows at no penalty. One tactic is to move to side of battle line, just outside the reach of any enemy, and shoot from there. A better option is to move past the battle line and start shooting into the back or flank of the foes. If the enemy decides to chase after the archer, assuming the archer has a better Move, the archer should welcome the chase. Every enemy who is chasing after the archer without catching up is another enemy out of the general melee, and the archer can continue to make Move and Attack maneuvers to shoot people who are looking the wrong way. The archer can draw off some foes from his allies, continue to use his arrows to shoot into the backs and flanks of enemies fighting his allies, and then kite his pursuers back into his allies after they've defeated the main body of the enemy in melee.

Heroic Archers also interact in interesting ways with the rules for Pop-Up Attacks and Opportunity Fire (B390). Since pop-up attacks are Attacks, Heroic Archers can get their normal Acc bonuses when making them. Similarly, when performing Opportunity Fire, the Wait maneuver converts into an Attack maneuver, and they get their Acc bonus. As such, when dealing with wizards, Heroic Archers should use Opportunity Fire or Wait maneuvers and attack only after the wizard has started Concentrating. Normally, a spell with a casting time of 1 second can only be interrupted by a Wait action, and the lack of Accuracy makes it hard for ranged attackers to hit a wizard. Heroic Archers get the same attack bonuses whether they shoot on their turn or make a Wait attack, and merely forcing an enemy wizard to Dodge while Concentrating is sufficient to force a Will -3 roll to avoid spoiling the spell.

Advantages, Techniques, and Equipment

An effective archer is effective because of good tactics, but good tactics can be influenced by the character design and equipment.

Heroic Archers

Strongbow is a mandatory Perk, and the Elf-only talent of Wilderness Guardian is pure cheese, but desirable. The usual way to get Wilderness Guardian is to start out as a Wood Elf (who gets 2 levels for a racial cost of 20 points), but Wood Elves also have the crippling Sense of Duty: Nature. Half-Elves can be a better choice, with the same DX bonus, same cost, but no inherent Wilderness Guardian and no Sense of Duty.

Weapon Master (Bow) is a difficult choice. At 20 points, it reduces the penalty for rapid-shooting to -1 and generally adds +2 damage, which can be helpful. However, the Quick-Shot advantage from Power-Ups reduces the penalty to 0 and only costs 5 points, and +2 damage on all bows and every other weapon in the game is affordable with Striking Strength 4. I generally feel that Weapon Master is a useful addition to an advanced archer, but a normal archer can get buy with Heroic Archer and Quick-Shot.

Dual-Weapon Attack is another nearly mandatory trick for Heroic Archers. Two shots at the same target means that they can't easily block both, so the otherwise dreaded "jerk with a large shield" becomes "guy who is carrying too much to dodge easily." The Double-Shot technique from Power-Ups is valuable here. Targeted Attack (Bow/Vitals) coupled with a bodkin arrow is a surefire way to dispose of most mortal enemies. The combination of Quick-Shot, Double-Shot, and Targeted Attack allows for two bodkin arrows puncturing breastplates per round, and that generally clears the room quickly.

Heroic Archers want the most accurate bow they can find that does the most damage. Usually, that's a Balanced Longbow, but rich archers use Balanced Composite Bows and insanely rich archers can use Balanced Elven Composite Bows and draw Balanced, Fire, Silvered Arrows from their Cornucopia Quivers.

Even at the start, though, Heroic Archers want 3 Cornucopia Quivers, with normal (impaling), bodkin (armor-piercing piercing), and willowleaf (cutting) damage. Homogeneous targets become much less threatening when attacked by arrows that do cutting damage, as opposed to nigh-worthless piercing or impaling. A few meteoric iron arrows, preferably fine, balanced, and silver-coated, should be carried to take out opposing mages protected by Deflect Missile, Reverse Missile, and other defensive spells.

Imbued Archers

Imbued Archers need to focus on a couple of things: a high skill with the bow, a high skill with their imbuements, and a high damage. Weapon accuracy is less important, since most shots are going to be unaimed, using Guided Weapon to ignore range penalties. The fatigue cost of Imbuments is per shot, so the double-shot rapid fire attacks of the heroic archers is less desirable than a single arrow that penetrates armor, explodes, and sends shrapnel (Guided Penetrating Shattershot Shockwave Shot).

Strongbow is still a mandatory perk, and Weapon Master is more desirable but not mandatory. Arm Strength and Striking Strength should be bought up until the archer's effective ST is 19, when Weapon Master (Bow) gives a +4 bonus for 20 points. Wilderness Guardian is still a useful talent.

Targeted Attack is still a good choice, but Imbued Archers should consider targeting the skull or eye. Guided Weapon makes those shots relatively easy to make at any distance, and Penetrating Strike can help reduce the annoying tendency of skulls to be well-armored. The typical attack sequence is Fast-Draw and nock an arrow on one round, and then fire off a single unaimed shot (possibly at a high value target like the skull) that penetrates armor, explodes or sends out shrapnel. Alternately, the single shot may be turned into a barrage of missiles using Multishot, especially at short range.

Imbued Archers should skip straight to Composite Bows for the damage, and upgrade to Elven Composite Bows as soon as they can. A single Cornucopia Quiver is helpful, especially for ammunition that needs to explode (Shattershot), but carrying around a number of Fine Arrows for the damage bonus is a good idea. Meteoric Iron Arrows, while still useful for shooting enemy mages, are less useful since they can't be imbued by magic - though Imbued Archers with Chi or Psionic limitations should go crazy with them. Transformation Imbuements are useful to turn generic impaling arrows into cutting, crushing, or burning arrows as the situation demands.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Effectiveness of Martial Artists in Dungeon Fantasy

Martial Artist is the DF template that covers the classic D&D monk: a vaguely Asian inspired unarmed fighter with innate supernatural abilities. It can also cover any armed, lightly armored combatant that focuses on mobility with some supernatural abilities. The first design is noticeably less effective than the second.

The Basic Chassis

Martial Artists have great DX, and mediocre to low attributes for everything else. They are handicapped in the scouting role by a miserably low Perception and a surprising low ST of 11 limits their effectiveness in combat. They can have some tricks to make up for that.

Their primary skill set includes unarmed and possibly armed combat. They are the only DF template to start with access to Judo and Karate, though the base template isn't very good at either. They have the option of either taking solid (skill-16) levels with two weapons, or increasing their unarmed skills to non-suicidal levels. Their high base DX means they're reasonably good at any DX skill, such as Climbing and Stealth.

Martial Arts also get 7 special, chi-based supernatural skills, including favorites like Parry Missile Weapons, Power Blow, Kiai, and Blind Fighting. Obviously, they're better at the DX based ones, but they have enough of a Talent bonus to make even the IQ based skills semi-viable. Throwing Art is an obvious choice, giving the Martial Artist some minimal ranged capability with slightly better damage. Getting it up to DX+2 (either through investing points from Quirks or by getting more Chi Talent) increases the damage bonus to +2 per die, and a Martial Artist who throws hatchets for 2d+4 cu damage is viable, even on 250 points.

Advantages and Disadvantages

All Martial Artists have two levels of a Chi Talent, a 15 point talent that usefully effects both IQ and DX based skills, as well as Trained by a Master. Trained by a Master (TBaM) is often seen as the red-headed step child of Weapon Master, in that it is an expensive Unusual Background for accessing Chi skills and improved Rapid Strikes, but doesn't provide any weapon damage bonus. I find TBaM to be a decent advantage, especially if the concept is more "multi-weapon samurai with spear, sword, bow, and fists" and less "Bruce Lee".

Martial Artists get 20 points in discretionary supernatural abilities. Highlights include Damage Resistance 2, Fast Regeneration, Extra Attack 2, Striking Strength 2, and Super Jump 2. The big problem is deciding what to start with out of several good choices, coupled with the realization that there aren't enough points to go around. All templates get better with an extra 50 points, but Martial Artists really don't start to come into their own until 300 or so points (as opposed to say, Knights or Swashbucklers, who were already solidly into their roles at 250 points and are just compounding the nastiness at 300 points).

Martial Artists get another 20 points in general advantages and attribute improvement. There's nothing too surprising here: Combat Reflexes, Enhanced Dodge, Fit, and Weapon Bond all point toward a combat oriented template. Combat Reflexes or another level of Chi Talent are obvious winners.

On the Disadvantage side, Martial Artists have to take Disciplines of Faith: Chi Rituals, and choose from another 40 points with choices that are either Asian Themed (Code of Honor: Bushido) or play up the ascetic disciple concept. There's nothing particularly objectionable. One difficulty is that Vow: Only Fight Unarmed is only worth -15 points, but it's a crippling disadvantage in a world of Acid Monsters and Floating Electric Jellies.

Martial Artist!

Martial Artist! is one of the most focused Wildcard skills, covered only unarmed combat, Okinawan and pseudo-Okinawan weapons, and stealth and movement skills in combat. That's not awful, but the Martial Artist ends up spending only 12-24 points on it, meaning they get Martial Artist!-1 or Martial Artist!+0. Wildcards are generally a trade-off between breadth and depth, but it helps to end up skilled enough to do stuff. Weapon using Martial Artists who can scrounge enough points to get Martial Artist!+0 or better should probably take advantage of it; unarmed Martial Artists probably shouldn't bother.

Martial Artists and Race

Martial Artists generally can't afford to be any race other than human, since they only have 20 discretionary advantage points anyway. Desirable and affordable choices include Corpse-Eater, Half-Ogre, Hobgoblin, and Orc (mostly focusing on the more physical aspects of the Chi skills than the straight IQ ones), while Faun isn't terribly efficient but does allow for a high-kicking, head-butting unarmed Martial Artist who can notice things around him. At higher point levels, Minotaurs and Lizard Men bring DR2 to the table and a formidable set of strikers, making unarmed and unarmored Martial Artists somewhat viable. With a lot of available points, Coleopteran and Infernal Martial Artists are options. Coleopteran Martial Artists can have DR 8 without wearing any armor and make excellent grapplers with 4 arms, especially if they also have Gigantism to make it easy to get the grab in the first place.

Equipping Martial Artists

As secondary combatants with low strength, Martial Artists want armor, but it needs to be light armor. Choosing the DR advantage from their optional choices helps some here - starting out with effective DR5 (from Medium Leather, a cheap Fortify spell, and tough skin) is not too shabby.

Many Martial Artist weapons are inexpensive, and a lot do crushing damage, so there's no particular value to making them Fine. As such, a Martial Artist should spend the money on Dwarven or Balanced upgrades, helping to offset his relatively low skill.

For ranged weapons, Martial Artists with Throwing Art can pick up whatever random thing they like and throw it, though arrows and shuriken are popular and cheap. Another option is to throw potions and grenades like Alchemists' Fire. A Martial Artist with Throwing Art-18 can nail people with a bottle of Alchemists' Fire for thr+3 damage from a fair distance away, and then set them on fire. It's an expensive trick, but quite amusing. Flash Nageteppos (DF1 p25) are another interesting choice, though not as effective as one would hope. Too many monsters have HT12, and it's embarrassing to miscalculate the distance and blind your allies when Team Monster can still see.

Martial Artists in Play

Martial Artists have a lot of neat abilities, only some of which they can use out of the gate. While the idea of using Striking Strength, Power Blow, and Breaking Blow to hit someone with a kusari for 5d+3 (5) cr damage is amusing, it never happens in practice: neither Team Monster or your own allies are going to stick around long enough for you to spend the 8-16 seconds Concentrating necessary to pull of that trick. Pressure Points has a similar problem, in that the -2 attack penalty minimizes hits, and a Contest of Skills between the Martial Artist's Pressure Points-11 and a typical monster's HT 12 is a losing proposition for the Martial Artist. Parry Missile Weapons, Throwing Art, Breath Control, Kiai, and Light Walk are all more reliable at start. Blind Fighting is a toss-up, being very undependable due to low skill but valuable enough for what it does (you can defend against attacks from behind!) that it's probably worth taking.

In combat, Martial Artists should take advantage of their TBaM ability to make Flurry of Blows cheaply, either to overwhelm the foe's defense or to at least open him up for heavier hitter such as Knight or Barbarian. Unarmed Martial Artists should probably focus on throws and locks, as their most likely damage from karate is a punch doing 1d cr, and no one cares about that. A monster in an arm lock is a monster in trouble, though. Either way, Martial Artists are a light combatant with minimal armor who depend on Retreats and Dodges for defense, so Committed and All-Out Attacks are generally a very bad idea.

Judo tricks bring their own problems. First off, they don't work very well: it's hard to get in a Parry against a monster, have the monster survive for another round, and move into a position in Close Combat the nullifies the monster's shield or other defensive tricks in order to reliably establish a grapple or force a throw. Second, they involve touching the monster with the Martial Artist's bare (or gloved) hands, which opens the Martial Artist to all kinds of nasty auras. It can be frustrating to realize that not only is your character's shtick not very good, it's downright suicidal to even attempt against a Flame Lord (2d bu aura against anyone who touches the Flame Lord in Close Combat). Finally, unarmed attacks can be parried by weapons for damage, and there isn't anything much worse than trying to Arm Lock a Stone Golem and having your hand cut off when he parries with his axe.

Outside of combat, Martial Artists don't do much. They can scout, though not very well, and they're only slightly better in combat than a Thief. Teaming a Thief and Martial Artist up and having them sneak ahead of the party is a bit cruel, but the two of them have a better chance of surviving if the monsters notice them. Martial Artists are also useful for overcoming physical challenges such as chasms in No-Mana zones, which is a rather specialized talent. They're not much worse than anyone else at Meditating, though as usual the Wizard steals a potential niche here, and Meditating for clues is a marginal solution.

In Summary

Martial Artists are really something of an ineffectual class. They can sneak around reasonably well, but with low Perception, they're not good scouts. They have no wilderness lore or monster identification skills. They potentially have some neat combat tricks, but most of them are very slow, very risky, or situational. Armed Martial Artists are less of a danger to themselves, but fare poorly in combination to Knights. All in all, Martial Artists aren't a core member of the delving band, but a 6th or 7th member who might be useful.

One interesting trick is Knight-Martial Artist, either straight or as a samurai build. Knights already have access to lots of weapons, and TBaM works fine for them as less expensive and slightly less effective alternate to Weapon Master. Martial Artist doesn't expand the Knight's out of combat role that much, but every little bit helps.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Actual Play: Apocalypse World The Cirque Comes to the Depot

As my face to face group's unhappy encounter with Dungeon World, we bounced around some ideas for what to try next. We eventually decided to try Apocalypse World (AW). There are some good ideas in Dungeon World (DW), but they seem to be shackled somewhat by the constraints of the designer's view of dungeon fantasy. We were hoping that playing the parent system in the setting it was designed, unencumbered by those restraints, would be a less frustrating experience.

Character Creation

We started the traditional way, by tossing printouts of all the character templates on the table and having a rambling discussion of what they were. On the first pass, no one had a strong preference for any of them, though Will (the GM) did note that the Chopper (biker gang leader) could have a gang that wasn't a bunch of crazy savages, and that led to a riff on the "Shaolin Biker Gang" who used Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a holy book. There was more hesitation, with everyone expressing a range of preferences but no solid choice.

Finally, Rachel committed to a Driver (wheel-man or Mad Max kind of character) based loosely on Jason Stratham in the Transporter movies. Since she was effectively including vehicles, I decided to go ahead and grab the Chopper and put the Shaolin biker gang into action. Ted looked at the Brain (mad psychic) and discarded it as too weird, preferring the psi-scientist of the SavvyHead instead. Derick committed to the Brain, and Joel decided to be the cult leader Hocus template. We made our choices off the templates, established our history with each other, and started discussing our settlement.

The Depot, the Dome, and the Stand

We all need a fortified town to live in, along with some themes. Two things had definitely come out of character creation: many of the characters were technology dependent, and many of the characters were crazy. So we created the settlement with that in mind.

We started with something that could provide mechanical services, like a municipal bus depot. With many of the vehicles gone, survivors could have repurposed the office space as living quarters, so that made sense to everyone. Will wanted a reason for all the psychic powers, and originally proposed the Dome as a buried hospital with a geodesic dome on top, but while we kept the mysterious buried dome, we named the hospital the Stand (from "St. Andrews") and noted that it once had an extensive psychiatric research wing. At Derick's suggested, the leaders of the settlement were a pair of dissimilar twins ("like Danny Devito and Arnold in Twins") collectively known as the Dispatchers, while law enforcement was provided by Chaplain Doom.

With the bones of the settlement established, we sat down to play.

Play of the Game

We started off slow, doing our own random things.The biker gang was cruising around time "in a high speed meditation exercise", Rachel's driver was working with Ted's mechanic to repair the 8-Track player in her van, and Derick's and Joel's characters were spying on people. None of this was particularly conducive to stuff happening.

 The first challenge that developed was a rogue Hocus type who trying to take control of Joel's cult. Since Ted and Derick were members of the cult, the three of them went off to deal with him. That turned out to be pretty inconclusive, with no one willing to escalate to violence or the threat of violence (in all fairness, only my character is particularly good at violence)  Their attempts at persuasion failed, and they eventually wandered off to regroup and plan.

In the meantime, the biker gang came back to the Depot with the report of vehicles on the horizon. After some discussion, everyone met up and headed out to meet the new and interesting thing. The vehicles turned out to be an armed tractor-trailer rig, carrying the "Cirque". There was a meet and greet, and the Cirque leaders convinced everyone to let them into town. We did figure out that they were a bunch of wandering thieves, and were going to try to rob the town blind. Since we lacked proof of any kind (beyond weird psychic impressions), we couldn't figure a reason to stop them and didn't particularly want to risk violence.

Back in town, Joel's cult had been acting up while unsupervised. Everyone interacted for a bit, and my character managed to convince Chaplain Doom to make him responsible for Joel's cult. (My intent had been to forcibly impress two of the cultists into the gang, but that I rolled a little too well.) About this time, Ted started his own thread, trying to find out more about the Cirque. I tuned out, but I understand it went well: Ted's character found out some stuff, got an evening with a prostitute, and learned they had some kind of creepy plan for him.

Meanwhile, Rachel planned to head out to the nearby hermitage to do some trading. I decided to go with her, and made Joel and his cultists jog the way over there in order to exhaust them and diminish the chances for mischief. There were some shenanigans on the way, but when we got there, the little settlement had been raided by cannibals. We did some more wacky stuff, including summoning Ted's character through the psychic maelstrom, and made a plan to track the raiders back to their base on the ridgeline. That's where we ended.

So How Does It Work?

Everyone enjoyed AW a lot more than DW. I think that AW is mechanically tighter than DW, with 5 more or less useful stats instead of the slightly flabby 6 stats of DW. It's a small thing, but it made a difference. In DW, needing to make Dex a dump stat (because you have to have a dump stat) was very painful, since you roll Dex a lot to avoid taking damage - but every other choice was worse. In AW, my dump stat was Weird, the stat for dealing with the psychic maelstrom. Having a low Weird cut off some of my options, but it wasn't mandatory stuff like avoiding damage. It was optional stuff like gaining special insight. Derick, Joel, and Ted had that stuff covered in spades.

The flow of AW was easier. DW is about dungeon crawls, and we all had certain expectations of what was going on. In AW, we were expecting combat to dangerous, and we basically didn't get involved in combat at all. Well, my character did, on one or two occasions, but I also had the backing of a 15 strong gang of armored bikers.

One other difference between DW and AW is experience. In DW, you get experience every time you fail a roll. In AW, you get experience every time you roll for something attached to either of two of your attributes. Since you get some choice of the attributes you get experience for, you tend to pick stuff that you're going to roll a lot. It changed the dynamic, since there wasn't a need to roll for stuff that was likely to fail in order to maybe get experience. There were a couple of times when I said, "hey, I could roll for that, but the issue is mostly settled and I wouldn't get experience for it," so I didn't go anything. It meant I was a little more detached from the game, but it also meant that play went faster.

What Next?

Since everyone had fun, we agreed to play again. We may not play for another two weeks because of Mother's Day, but we'll definitely play AW again.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Reading Rappan Athuk: Introduction and Wilderness

As part of my project to maybe write a mega-dungeon, I've decided to read through some of the published mega-dungeons for inspiration. Unfortunately, most published mega-dungeons are generally known to be awful. So I'm going to have to rant about them.

I'm starting with a fairly famous one, "Rappan Athuk (Reloaded)", which you can get from the finely crafted link there.

About Rappan Athuk

Rappan Athuk, per its introduction chapter, is "nothing more and nothing less than a good, old-fashioned, First Edition dungeon crawl updated for Revised Third Edition play." (All editions referenced here are D&D, not GURPS or Shadowrun or anything like that.) It was released by Necromancer Games in 2000 with some supplements and web material coming out in 2001, and re-released in 2006 in an expanded (Reloaded) edition for D&D3.5 that included all the previously published materials and some additional levels.

Rappan Athuk Reloaded consists 3 books. The first details the namesake dungeon, all 31 levels and sublevels, and the surrounding wilderness. The second book contains the monster and NPC statistics. The last book has the relevant maps.

The concept of Rappan Athuk is simple: two centuries or more ago, a group of refugee priests of Orcus carved an underground complex beneath a hill and eventually made a mausoleum and graveyard above it. For a hundred years, curious and crazy delving bands have been exploring the complex and mostly dying horribly. Still, rumors abound of great riches somewhere in the complex, so delvers keep venturing out.

The Introduction

The first chapter explains what Rappan Athuk is and lays out the conventions for numbering rooms, statting out monsters, and describing the standard characteristics of a given floor (in terms of suggested PC level, corridor and room height, normal light sources, etc). This is pretty standard stuff, though I do appreciate that they had a standard format for describing basic information about each level and used it consistently in the following chapters.

The Introduction chapter also includes a table of 60 rumors - 44 are mostly true, and 16 are generally false. There's a weird rules quirk in that most PCs have a chance of knowing 2 rumors, but wizards, clerics, and bards have a chance of knowing a third. Druids and sorcerers don't get that chance, and there's no provision for PCs to go seek out more rumors by making Gather Information checks. (As an aside, the conversion of this adventure to the D&D3 ruleset is often a bit weak, but since I'd have to convert it by ear to GURPS if I were going to use it, I don't really care beyond some minimal snarking.)

The rumors are generally useless. Most of them are so vague as to be meaningless: "Giant scorpions guard the way to the tomb of a fell king" provides what information, exactly? If the rumor specified a level, or mentioned some kind of weakness of these particular scorpions, that'd be something, but as it is, there's nothing for the PCs to do with it.

Another problem with the rumors is that they don't cover things that you'd expect them to. The mausoleum has a very lethal, nearly unavoidable instant death trap unless the delvers use a specific magic key that can be found nearby. This is the kind of thing that you'd hope previous explorers of the damned dungeon would relate, not "A great city of Goblins lies deep in the complex, and they are followers of Orcus."

Wilderness Areas: Dying Outside the Dungeon

That's the actual name of the second chapter. It's actually a reasonable wilderness area: a coastal region, with some lowlands lying between the sea and a forest, with a semi-patrolled trade road providing access to Rappan Athak and points beyond. Each of the major terrains in the area have their own write-up, including random encounter tables with encounter write-ups and a few monster lairs. The encounter tables have a nice trick where the base roll (usually a 1d10) is modified by location and day or night, so it's possible to sometimes encounter foot patrols of the local governments in the swamp, but only in daylight and within a few miles of the trade road. Conversely, will-o-wisps only show up at night and deep in the swamp. It's very elegant.

As nice as that is, there are the bandit groups. I quote from the text:
This encounter can be used when the party first exits the dungeon with a load of treasure. The purpose (other than a lot of fun for the DM) is to teach them a lesson about over-extending themselves.
That's the introduction for an encounter with an ogre and 112(!) kobolds. So after a potentially difficult delve that results in recovering pocket change, the delvers get ambushed by an insurmountable number of kobolds and robbed of their weapons and new found loot. That's to teach them to not overextend themselves, supposedly. Looking at that from the perspective of a player, it teaches me not to play with this GM ever again. How is that encounter supposed to be fun?

Opinions So Far

I'm only two chapters in, and already the sadistic GM tone of the writing is getting to me. It'll only get worse as I read more.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

My character died, so I created a new one

I took a gamble and it didn't pay off, so now I have to try something else.

The Experiment

My character in Nate's online game, Brother Michel, was always something of an experiment. When our group got together and starting making characters, we have various innovative concepts but no wizard and only one Holy Warrior. I firmly believe that all delving bands need at least two people with healing capability and at least one wizard for utility spells (Shape Earth, Analyze Magic) and to kill diffuse enemies with area effect attacks. So the experiment was, can a single character do both roles well?

In practice, the answer was pretty much "no". Although wizards and clerics have a lot of synergy, having to buy Magery twice (once for Power Investiture and once straight) was crippling expensive. It wasn't cost-efficient to buy high levels of Cleric! or Wizard!, since more IQ raised both of them and all my spells. I couldn't really afford Energy Reserve for both power sources, and it wasn't obvious which one I should favor. Although I had a lot of utility, I burnt through paut potions like nobodies' business and still had to spend a lot of time resting.

(As an aside, I think I screwed up in the design. As a cleric, there's a temptation to be a decent second-line warrior, so I picked up a glaive and dumped a lot of points in it so I could get the Grip and Reach Mastery perks. I think I would have been much better off being a non-combatant with a staff, which would have freed up a lot of points. I almost never contributed anything to combat by direct damage).

The Gamble

All that said, I think Michel was a decent enough member of the group and was certainly capable of contributing, both in and out of combat. So while I would have preferred to have a dedicated wizard and a dedicated cleric, the combo of the two covered the bases. That wasn't the gamble.

The gamble was not upgrading my el-cheapo armor and hoping to find some magical full plate. I knew that we were playing a Pathfinder adventure, and I hoped we'd find some good armor at some point. I bought the best armor I could afford out of the gate, but since we were on fixed budgets and using the Low-Tech armor rules (with no cheap magic!), that meant a cheap Plate and Mail breastplate with a cheap light mail backside. Combined with my half-dwarven  tough skin, I had a reasonable DR5 from the front and DR3 against most attacks in the back. Don't get stabbed in the back, that was the plan.

Of course, we started fighting ninja. In the original adventure, I think the ninja would be dangerous but not too awful - they'd get a lot of sneak attacks for minor extra damage, but they wouldn't have insanely high hit chances. In GURPS, the ninja were murder, popping up behind our characters and making all-out attacks into our vitals. Michel had gone down from vital hits on two previous occasions, so I guess it was just a matter of time.

In this case, Michel got stabbed from behind. His weak armor failed to significantly absorb the damage, and he failed his first death check and was mortally wounded. While Brother Cadmus can heal injury, he's not a surgeon, so there was no one to fix the problem. (Kevin offered to have his character default Surgery off First Aid and use her shortsword as an improvised tool, but I declined.)

So now Brother Michel is dead. It's a little ironic, since I based him on Brother Anheuser, a half-dwarf wizard/cleric in Michael Walewski's D&D game way back in 1991, and Brother Anheuser is the only other character of mine that I can remember dying in play.

The Problem of Roles

So I need a new character for Nate's game. But the delving band still needs a utility wizard and a cleric. I noodled over this a bit last night, and came to some conclusions:

  • Demonologists and necromancers are in no way utility wizards, and I don't want to play one anyway.
  • Elementalists are just pared down wizards without the utility of Knowledge spells.
  • Shamans suck, and while my revised shamans are better, they still lack some of the useful Knowledge spells.
    • I should fix that.
  • There's no point in playing a wizard-cleric again.
  • Since I'm the main person paying attention to tactics in the group, I want to play someone with some legitimate tactical skill.

Someone suggested Mystic Knight, but Mystic Knights are blasters and warriors, not utility wizards. On the other hand, a lot of utility spells are cast out of combat, and Nate's houserules on magic make it somewhat viable to cast non-combat spells with low skill levels. I mulled this over a bit more, and decided that a Mystic Knight/Wizard would make a reasonable out-of-combat utility wizard, while still having a lot of front line combat ability, tactical leadership, and diffuse-foe blasting ability.

I played around with the idea and whipped up something. His current background is a bit vague, deliberately so. I'm going with the idea that the character was a Tianese bushi, serving the Amatatsu family in Minkai way back in the backstory of the adventure, decades ago. He was sent ahead when the Amatatsu family fled through Kalsgard, captured by ninja, and placed in suspended animation. His memories have faded over the decades, and now he really remembers very little of just about anything. This is a convenient dodge so that Nate doesn't have to spoil a bunch of the backstory that we'd otherwise learn through future adventures.

Here's the character write-up I sent to Nate, modulo some tweaks in the quirks I made this morning. I still need to clean up the equipment list a bit, and there may be some more tweaks based on some questions I have for Nate, but this is where I'm starting.

Shiba Ujimitsu, The Failed Student

310 points
ST 14 [40]; DX 14 [80]; IQ 11* [20]; HT 14 [40].
Damage 1d/2d; BL 39 lb; HP 14 [0]; Will 11 [0]; Per 11 [0]; FP 14 [0].
Basic Speed 7.00 [0]; Basic Move 7 [0]; Dodge 10.
5'6"; 160 lbs.

Social Background

TL: 3 [0]. Languages: Taldan (Accented/None) [0]; Tianese (Native) [0]; Trade Tongue (Broken/None) [0].


Destiny (Minor) [5]; Extra Arms 1 (Force Extension; Magic; Weapon Mount) [6]; Imbue 3 (Magical) [36]; Magery 0 [5]; Magery 3 [30].
Perks: Grip Mastery (Broadsword; _Free); Quick-Sheathe (Sword; _Free); Sacrificial Parry (Broadsword; _Free); Shield-Wall Training (_Free); Strongbow (_Free); Style Familiarity (Knightly Mounted Combat - Early Medieval; _Free); Style Familiarity (Kyujutsu; _Free). [7]


Chummy [-5]; Code of Honor (Xia) [-10]; Disciplines of Faith (Arcane Rituals) [-10]; Sense of Duty (Adventuring companions) [-5]; Sense of Duty (Current Client) [-2].
Quirks: Distinctive Feature: Eyes glow and emit glowing smoke when exciting; Distinctive Feature: His words appear as Tianese glyphs as he speaks; Social drinker; _Unused Quirk 4; _Unused Quirk 5. [-5]


Alchemy/TL3 (VH) IQ-2 [2]-9; Annihilating Weapon (Broadsword) (VH) DX [1]-14†; Armoury/TL3 (Body Armor) (A) IQ+2 [0]-13; Armoury/TL3 (Melee Weapons) (A) IQ+2 [0]-13; Blinding Defense (Shield) (VH) DX [1]-14†; Bow (A) DX+1 [4]-15; Boxing (A) DX+2 [0]-16; Broadsword (A) DX+2 [0]-16; Carousing (E) HT [1]-14; Climbing (A) DX-1 [1]-13; Fast-Draw (Arrow) (E) DX [1]-14; Fast-Draw (Sword) (E) DX [1]-14; Guided Weapon (Bow) (VH) DX [1]-14†; Intimidation (A) Will+2 [0]-13; Knight! (WC) DX+2 [48]-16; Leadership (A) IQ+2 [0]-13; Conic Blast (Bow) (VH) DX [1]-14†; Occultism (A) IQ-1 [1]-10; Penetrating Strike (Bow) (VH) DX [1]-14†; Penetrating Strike (Broadsword) (VH) DX [1]-14†; Project Blow (Broadsword) (VH) DX [1]-14†; Savoir-Faire (High Society) (E) IQ [1]-11; Shattershot (Bow) (VH) DX [1]-14†; Shield (Shield) (E) DX+2 [0]-16; Stealth (A) DX-1 [1]-13; Tactics (H) IQ+2 [0]-13; Telescoping Weapon (Broadsword) (VH) DX [1]-14†; Thaumatology (VH) IQ+1 [2]-12†; Vampiric Weapon (Broadsword) (VH) DX [1]-14†; Wrestling (A) DX+2 [0]-16.


Analyze Magic (H) IQ+1 [1]-12†; Apportation (H) IQ+1 [1]-12†; Continual Light (H) IQ+1 [1]-12†; Create Air (H) IQ+1 [1]-12†; Detect Magic (H) IQ+1 [1]-12†; Grease (H) IQ+1 [1]-12†; Haste (H) IQ+1 [1]-12†; Identify Spell (H) IQ+1 [1]-12†; Light (H) IQ+1 [1]-12†; Purify Air (H) IQ+1 [1]-12†; Shape Air (H) IQ+1 [1]-12†; Walk on Air (H) IQ+1 [1]-12†.


* Conditional -1 from 'Chummy' when alone.
† Includes +3 from 'Magery'.


1× Dai-Kyu (ST 16; $900; 4 lb);
1× Katana (Balanced; $3250; 5 lb);
1× Kite Shield (Balanced; Fine; $1680; 13.5 lb);
1× White Harness consisting of
  • 1× Light Plate Armor Components (Forearms, Feet, Hands, Shins, Back Thighs, Back Torso; Advanced; ~Fortify (All) (+1); ~Lighten (All) (x3/4); $3500; 10.05 lb);
  • 1× Medium Plate Armor Components (Shoulders, Upper Arms, Neck, Front Knees, Front Thighs, Front Torso; Advanced; ~Fortify (All) (+1); ~Lighten (All) (x3/4); $5150; 15 lb);
  • 1× Medium Plate Helm (Head; Advanced; ~Fortify (All) (+1); ~Lighten (All) (x3/4); $1650; 4.5 lb);
  • 2× Medium Plate Vitals Reinforcement (Front Vitals and Back Vitals; Advanced; ~Lighten (All) (x3/4); $700; 1.5 lb);
1× Potion Belt ($60; 1 lb).


None: Basic Lift 39 lb. Ground Move 7 yd; Water Move 1 yd. Dodge 10.
[Light]: Basic Lift 78 lb. Ground Move 5 yd; Water Move 1 yd. Dodge 9.


Parry: 11 (Knight!). Block: 11 (Shield (Shield)). Dodge: 9/10.
Armor: Eyes: DR 7; HP 2. Neck: DR 7. Skull: DR 9. Face: DR 7. Torso: DR 7 (13 vitals). Groin: DR 7. Arms: DR 7 (4 forearms); HP 8. Hands: DR 4; HP 5. Legs: DR 4 (7 front thighs); HP 8. Feet: DR 4; HP 5.

Weapons Attacks

Katana • 1H Swing (17): 2d+1 cut. Reach 1, 2 or 1H Thrust (17): 1d+1 imp. Reach 1.
Kite Shield • Bash (17): 1d cr. Reach 1 or Rush (17): slam+3 cr. Reach 1.
Dai-Kyu ST 16 (15): 1d+4 imp. Acc 3. Range 320 yd / 400 yd. RoF 1. Shots 1(2).

Comments on the Design

One problem in GURPS is that people with shields generally can't use bows, because it takes too long to drop a bow and ready a shield. Shiba here gets around that problem by having a magical third arm to hold his shield. Ideally, in a ranged combat, he'll snipe a bit (using Guided Weapon (Bow), Shattershot (Bow), Conic Attack (Bow)) while covering the Scout with his shield. He's also fairly effective at killing diffuse opponents, because Conic Attack (Bow) lets him make area effect impaling attacks. Diffuse opponents generally don't have much armor, and 1d+4 imp averages 15 injury. He can also throw in a Shattershot to add some shrapnel to the effect (arguably; I need a ruling from Nate).

As a melee fighter, he's limited by so-so skill for a front-line fighter, but Projected Penetrating strikes give him a nice opening attack (2d+1 (2) cu damage at up to 10 yards...) I also need a ruling from Nate as to whether I can treat Projected Strikes as a ranged attack for ranged imbuements, in which case I'll start cutting people up with Projected Conic Blasts from my sword.

The equipment is nothing too special, except for the use of Pectorals to give me DR13 for the vitals. Nate has OK'd doing this, though it's unclear if it's book legal. You can't normally layer non-flexible armor but I guess we could make it Heavy Mail at the loss of 1 DR if someone wanted to argue the point.

I made sure he had plenty of Destiny points - 1 general purpose and 4 from Knight!. No more backstabs, thank you very much, and it's not like they'd be all that effective.

Obvious improvements over time: more Magery, Energy Reserve, the Recover Energy spell, possibly a gizmo so he always has at least 1 Paut bottle/session, Combat Reflexes, more imbuements, more DX, more ST, possibly more Will and/or Perception. We'll see how it goes.

I'll certainly have experience when I get around to writing "The Effectiveness of Mystic Knights" in Dungeon Fantasy, though it's helpful to see how two or three different people play a character before writing one of those articles.