Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Happy Holidays!

For this week, I have decided to show off a great piece of art by Ivan Dixon created for Shadow of the Demon Lord.  The scene takes place in the heights of the Shield Mountains and features a couple of characters making their last stand against the orcs hunting them.

With the holidays being bullies and sucking all the air out of the room, this will be my final blog post for the year. I'll be back in January to show off more of the game, including a look at how magic works, sample creatures, example paths, more art, treasures, and more. Thanks for reading and thanks even more for your continued support! Spring is just around the corner and with it comes the Demon Lord.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Demon Lord: Stunts and Maneuvers

New players of fantasy roleplaying games rarely have a sense of scope about what their characters can do. How many times have you heard, “I stab him in the eye” or “I want to kick the wolfman in the nards?” No matter how robust the set of rules, such enthusiasm places the GM in a tough spot. Permit the action and cross your fingers in the hope that the enthusiasm doesn’t escalate or deny the action and create a “feel-bad” moment for the player in the name of making sure you’re playing the game properly. Granted, once players learn how to play, they also learn the parameters in which they can act. They engage the game in the manner the designer(s) hope, by using the rules as written.
     I kind of hate that.
     I feel the rules should facilitate play, should spark creativity and encourage players to look for solutions outside the character sheet. In the past, I have been a victim of the need to “play the game the right way,” and rarely does this create a memorable play experience. I suspect my inclinations to play by the book stem from tendency for RPGs to define every possible activity one might think to do. While my background in design lends itself to these sorts of games, I wanted Shadow of the Demon Lord to be as permissive as possible.
     Rather than hard code various tasks into the game’s rules or create lists of mechanical widgets you must have to do a particular thing, the game leans on assets and complications to deliver the kinds of cool maneuvers that many players crave. Allow me to unpack this a bit.

Three Kinds of d20 Rolls
To resolve any task and the task’s outcome is not certain—you don’t have a lot of time, you’re under pressure, you are impaired, poisoned, fatigued, or something else—you roll a d20.
     An active task that does not involve harming or forcing another to do something calls for an action roll. The target number for an action roll is always 10. You make action rolls when you would pick a lock on a door, climb up a wall with plenty of handholds, inch across a narrow surface, dredging your brain for a useful piece of information, and so on.
     When you would react to something that would harm you, you make a reaction roll. Again, the target number is always 10. You might make a reaction roll to avoid falling into a pit, to resist a snake’s venom, to keep your wits when you would beguiled by faerie lights, or to stave off gaining insanity from seeing something unspeakable.
     Finally, when you would harm a creature or object with a weapon—a sword, your fist, a bullet fired from a pistol—or a spell that specifically targets a creature or object, you make an attack roll. The target number is either the attribute score you are attacking or the target’s Armor Rating, when you attack with a weapon.

The game includes many examples of when to and when not to roll. Generally, the game wants success to happen and happen often, and so GMs are encouraged to just let things happen in the game. Johnny wants to climb the wall and he has plenty of time? OK. Sue wants to kick down the door and she’s plenty strong? The door falls inward. It’s only when the circumstances are tough that a roll is necessary.
     Players can choose to make circumstances tougher by trying to perfect exceptional activities or stunts. Swinging from chandeliers, sliding down banisters, diving through windows without getting cut up by the glass, and other cases might demand rolls since they are often things not everyone can do. Rather than change the target number, the GM can just call for a roll with one or more complications. The harder the activity, the more complications added to the roll. Similarly, the easier the activity, the more assets are added to the roll. Adding one complication means the task is challenging, two hard, and three very hard. Adding one asset means the task is easy, two very easy, and three so damned easy you probably shouldn’t have called for the roll in the first place. You don’t have to sweat about how many complications or assets. You just use what feels right.
     The benefit of this system is that characters can generate assets on their own from their talents. Rogues, for example, have an asset for one action roll, attack roll, or reaction roll each round. This means that the rogue, assuming he knows how to pick locks, is probably going to pick that lock thanks to the asset. The rogue is also the one most likely to succeed at “crazy” stunts and maneuvers in the game too. And this makes sense, right? We want the rogue to be able to balance on a tightrope, to scamper up a wall, to swing from chandeliers.

Combat Maneuvers
Just as you use assets and complications for asset rolls, you should also use them with attack rolls. Whenever a player would make an attack roll and wants to do something more than just deal damage on a success, you can make the activity possible by adding a complication on the roll. The rules chapter offers a selection of options for melee attacks, but you can easily adapt these options for other kinds of attacks at your discretion.
     Here are some examples. In each case, the character attempting the “maneuver” has one complication for the roll. You can’t do them all at once; just one per attack you make.

     Charge: Choose a creature or object that is more than 2 yards from you but within a number of yards equal to your Speed. Move up to your Speed toward the target and then make the attack against your target.
     Guard: Make the attack roll. On a success and in addition to the attack’s other effects, the next creature to attack you before the end of the round has a complication for its roll.
     Lunge: You increase your reach for your attack by 1 yard.
     Pin: Make the attack roll. On a success and in addition to the attack’s other effects, the target’s Speed becomes 0 until the end of the round.
     Smite: Make the attack roll. On a success, the target takes 1d6 extra damage.
     Unbalance: Make the attack roll, on a success and in addition to the attack’s other effects, you force the target to make an Agility reaction roll provided the target is your Size or smaller. On a failure, the target is knocked prone.

     Remember how I said characters generate assets on their own? Warriors, starting at level 1, have an asset for all attack rolls using weapons. This means that warriors can use combat maneuvers better than anyone else. A magician that tries to “smite” with a staff attack is going to have a complication for the roll and will likely get a failure as a result. A warrior, on the other, that tries to “smite” with a warhammer loses the asset but also doesn’t have the complication either. Warriors are, simply, the best at using combat maneuvers and they should be!
     Furthermore, as warriors gain levels, they can make attacks using simple actions rather than complex actions. This lets warriors do two maneuvers during a slow turn. A warrior, taking a slow turn, might use a simple action to charge with a melee attack and then guard with her next melee attack. Or, she might charge and then charge again. Or she might charge and then smite the bad guy. Any combination works. And it’s fun.
     While the above list is small, it really is just a starting point and the options serve as examples for the kinds of things a player might pair with an attack roll. Using the list, the GM can gauge what’s possible and what’s not, and leave it to the player’s imagination to describe how the maneuvers might work, all without having to reference or choose widgets to permit the desired outcome.

     All this said, it’s important to remember that these options are not things a player has to remember or even engage. Players who don’t want the complexity don’t have to use these maneuvers at all and aren’t punished for not using them since having an asset for an attack roll is always a good thing. But, as the player’s familiarity with the game grows, she may find herself using these options more and more often and sometimes to great effect.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Demon Lord Action Economy

Last week, I showed off the anatomy of the round and how turn order works. This week, I’m going to talk about what you can do when you take a turn.
     “Action Economy” describes what you can do on your turn. Older RPGs were a bit fuzzy about the action economy, and the games often relied on the Game Master’s discretion about how long a described activity might take. For example, one player might describe his character drawing a sword, opening a door, running 20 yards across a room, attacking two orcs, and then scrambling up the dais to take a defensive position. Without clear limits on what a character can do, the GM is left to interpret how much of the description can occur in one time increment—round, turns, or whatever.
     Drawing a sword doesn’t take much time and neither does opening the door, assuming the door is unlocked and not stuck. Running across the room, especially at that distance, takes time as does making attacks, and taking the defensive position. A GM might allow everything the player describes to happen during a turn, while a stingier GM might limit the activity to drawing the sword and opening the door. It all depends on style, temperament, and interpretation.
     As with other RPGs, combat (and other instances where precise time-keeping is needed) in Shadow of the Demon Lord unfolds over a series of 10-second rounds. Rather than assign a quantity of seconds to a selection of tasks, the game abstracts the concept of time and effort into a form of currency called actions. When you would do something, you use (spend) the action to do so.
     The number of actions you can spend during a round depends on when you choose to take your turn. If you would go first by taking a fast turn, the game assumes you spend extra effort to act before you opponents, so you can only use just one action. If you give your opponents the chance to go first by taking a slow turn, you can convert that extra effort into an additional action, letting you use up to two actions instead of one.
     Not all actions are equal when it comes to effort. Opening a door takes a little, while attacking an enemy with a sword takes a lot. To control the number of high-effort actions in the game, actions come in three broad types: Complex, Simple, and Extra.

Complex Actions
Activities that require a great deal of focus and effort use a complex action. You can only use one complex action per round. If you take a fast turn, the one action you use can be a complex action. If you take a slow turn, only one of the two actions you may use can be a complex action.
     Some example activities you use a complex action to perform include attacking with a weapon, casting a spell, concentrate on an ongoing magical effect, or run a great distance. Many complex actions require a roll of a d20 to determine if the activity happens or not.

Simple Actions
Activities that do not require much time or much effort use a simple action. Unlike complex actions, you can use as many simple actions as you like based on when you take your turn. Taking a fast turn lets you use just one action, either a complex or simple action. On a slow turn, one or both of the actions you use can be simple.
     You might use a simple action to advance on an enemy combatant, retrieve something from your backpack, drink a healing potion, cast a spell with a simple action casting time, reload a crossbow or pistol, stand up from prone, mount or dismount a steed, and so on. Where complex actions often require rolls, simple actions usually do not.
     Talents awarded to characters in higher-level groups allow certain activities that once used a complex action to be performed using a simple action. For instance, at level 5, all warriors can make attacks with weapons using a simple action. This lets a warrior attack twice during a slow turn.

Extra Actions
You may only use complex and simple actions when you take your turn. Sometimes, you may be able to act outside your turn and when you do you use an extra action. Any activity that uses an extra action has a trigger, an event that specifies when you can use the extra action. For example, when a creature moves beyond your character’s reach, you may use an extra action to make a free attack against that creature using a melee weapon you are wielding. Alternatively, when it is your turn, you may use an extra action to perform a minor activity such as drawing a weapon, opening a door, standing up from prone, and so on. Spells and talents expand your options for using extra actions. Regardless of how many opportunities you have for using extra actions, you may only use one extra action per round.

Actions in Action
Here’s an example of how a round of combat might unfold. Dan’s the Game Master and the 2nd-level group consists of characters played by Joe, Bobby, Mindy, and Stacee. Joe plays an orc warrior, Bobby an elf magician, Mindy a human rogue, and Stacee a human priest. The characters have been tracking a band of cultists across the countryside and finally corner them in a burned out shell of a tower. The group rushes inside to fight them.

Dan (the GM): One cultist stands behind a bloody altar made from bones. Three more stand with swords drawn, faces inscrutable behind masks made to look like baby faces. What do you do?

Since no one was surprised, the first round begins with fast turns. Any players that want to may take fast turns. They resolve their turns in any order and may use one action (either complex or simple) on their turns.

     Joe (Orc Warrior): Death to my enemies! I charge the closest enemy.

Joe opts to take a fast turn. He wants to attack one of the enemy soldiers, so he uses a complex action to attack with a melee weapon. Since he’s moving as part of the attack (using the charge option, more on this next time, he gets to move up to his Speed before he makes the attack roll), he has a complication for his attack roll. But Joe’s playing a warrior, so he has an asset for all attack rolls made using weapons. The asset from his path cancels out the complication from the charge.

     Joe: (Joe rolls a d20). I got a 12 on the die and I have a +3 bonus from my Strength. That’s a 15.
     GM: Success! Damage?

A battle axe normally deals 1d6 + 2 damage. Warriors at level 2 deal 1d6 extra damage with their weapon attacks, so Joe’s successful attack deals 2d6 + 2 damage.

     Joe: 12 damage!
     GM: Good hit. He’s injured but still standing. Anyone else want to go?
     Bobby (Elf Magician): Yessir. I cast mystic darts. I’m going to send two darts at the cultist Joe attacked and the last one at the guy behind the altar. (Bobby rolls damage for each dart.) I rolled a 4 and a 6 for the first guy and just 2 for the other. So, 10 damage to Joe’s target and 2 to the other.

Mystic darts, a Wizardry spell, has a complex action casting time. It creates three magical darts that automatically strike their targets. Each missile deals 1d6 damage.

     GM: The two darts blow apart Joe’s target. The cultist drops dead to the ground and promptly voids his bowels. The last dart just clips the cultist. Mindy? Stacee?
     Mindy (Human Rogue): I’m taking a slow turn.
     Stacee (Human Priest): Me too.
     GM: OK. It’s my turn. The cultist behind the altar will be taking a slow turn. The other two cultists charge Joe and attack with their swords. One gets a failure and the other gets a success. Joe, the cultist stabs you in the arm. Take 5 damage.
     Joe: Grrr.
     GM: That’s it for me.
     Stacee: I’ll go. First, I’m going to cast prayer to help Mindy and then I’ll charge the cultist that attacked Joe.

As a priest, Stacee has the prayer spell. She can cast it using a simple action and chooses one creature within short range (20 yards). The target has an asset for the next roll it makes before the end of the round. Stacee then uses a complex action to attack one of the cultists. She gets there by using the charge option, which lets her move up to her Speed before making the attack.

     GM: Sounds good to me. Roll to attack, please.

Stacee makes an attack roll against the target’s Armor Rating with her mace. She has a complication for her roll because she charged.

     Stacee: Damn. I rolled a 5 and my complication dropped it by another 3.
     GM: Ouch. Definitely a failure. Mindy?
     Mindy: I’m going to move around the edge of the room and stick that cultist behind the altar with my short sword.

Mindy uses a simple action to advance on the cultist and uses a complex action to attack it.

     GM: OK. You move around the fighting and close on the last cultist. Roll, but don’t forget the asset from Stacee’s prayer spell.
     Mindy: Right. I’m also using my Trickery talent to get the extra asset too. I got an 18. Did I hit?

Mindy rolls a d20 to attack with her weapon. She has two assets for her attack roll, one from Stacee’s prayer spell and the other from her own Trickery talent, which gives her an asset to any one action roll, attack roll, or reaction roll (all rolls of a d20) each round. She will add only the highest number from all the assets she rolls. Mindy rolls a 9 on the die, a 6 and a 2 on her assets, and adds +3 from her Agility. The total of her roll is 18 (9 + 6 + 3).

     GM: Yes ma’am.
     Mindy: Crap. Just 2 damage.
     GM: Check. OK. The last cultist takes his turn. He withdraws from you and casts fire blast. Flames rush out from his hands, filling a 3-yard long, cone-shaped area. Everything in the area takes 11 damage from the fire. Mindy, roll Agility to try to halve this damage.

The last cultist takes a slow turn. He uses a simple action to withdraw, which lets him move 1 yard without triggering free attacks. The fire blast spell has a casting time of complex action and deals 3d6 damage to everything in the area. Any creature in the area may make an Agility reaction roll. On a success, the creature takes half the damage instead. The number one needs to equal or beat on an action roll or reaction roll is always 10.

     Mindy: Ouch! I rolled and got a 13, so I take half damage. That’s good news since I still have damage from that fight with the ogre.
     GM: We’re at the end of the round. Nothing special happens here this time. OK. Who wants to take a turn?

After the end of the round, the next round begins starting with fast turns.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Demon Lord: Who Goes When?

For many players, combat is the best part of the game. It is a chance to test his or her character’s capabilities against worthy foes, to take risks and, hopefully, gain great rewards. The tension combat creates—the risk of injury, unconsciousness, or even death—builds excitement at the table and shifts focus, if only for a few moments, from the story to dealing with immediate danger. As great as combat and other conflicts can be for the game, they also place the greatest demands on the game system. To ensure each player has a chance to contribute in a meaningful way throughout the combat, to ensure that the challenge is appropriate for the characters, and to make certain that the combat or conflict poses some risk, often considerable failure, requires a rigorous set of rules. And, as a result of those rules, combat becomes a game within the larger game.
     I have lots to say about combat, too much for one post in fact. Rather than drown you with words, we’ll take a bird’s eye look at how combat works and the reasons for the approach Shadow of the Demon Lord takes. Specifically, we're going to look at how the game system determines who goes first.

Combat (and any other scene that requires precise timekeeping) unfolds over a series of rounds. Each round lasts about 10 seconds, so there are 6 rounds per minute. During a round everyone present in the scene has an opportunity to do so something. A round has three parts: Fast Turns, Slow Turns, and the End of the Round. During a round, play proceeds through each part one at a time and with the players usually going first.

Fast Turns
First up is the Fast Turn. Any player that wants to can take a fast turn. Players may take their turns in any order they wish. On a fast turn, a player can use one action. Upon resolving that action, the player’s turn is done for the round. Once all the players that want to take a fast turn and have done so, any creatures under the GMs control may take fast turns and use one action on their turns. Again, once a creature resolves its fast turn, it’s done for the round.

Slow Turns
Slow Turns come next. Any player that did not take a fast turn may take a slow turn. Players resolve slow turns in any order they choose, though a player must resolve the entire turn before another player can act. On a slow turn, a player can use two actions. Once all the players have taken their turns, the GM has any of her remaining creatures take their turns, each creature using two actions, and in any order the GM chooses.

End of the Round
The game uses the End of the Round to mark the transition from one round to the next. The End of the Round is when the game resolves any ongoing effects, keep track of durations, and anything else that happens at this part of the round. For example, say a powerful spellcaster creates a cloud of poison gas. Any creature in the area of the poison gas would have to deal with the poison once the gas appears. However, since the gas lingers, any creature in the poison gas would have to deal with the poison again at the end of each round until the gas is dispersed.  
     Other events may also take place during the end of the round. A potion consumed takes effect at the end of the round. Incapacitated characters roll a d6 to see what happens to them at the end of the round.  Some creatures may adjust their positions, make extra attacks, or blight enemies with their vile presence at this part of the round too.
     Finally, a discrete end of the round phase reminds everyone that is tracking durations to mark off the round that has passed (for 1 minute durations, you can use a d6 to track the rounds, which is part of the reason I use 10 second rounds).

So, No Initiative Rolls?
That’s right. I tried out the game using several different initiative/turn order determination systems and they all felt bad. I find initiative to be boring. It’s a procedure everyone at the table has to undergo in order to play. It’s like having to eat your meat before you get to eat your pudding. It’s only necessary because the game says it is.
     If determining initiative produces a continuous turn order for the combat—you are locked into the same point in the round for the duration of the scene, initiative only becomes important during the first round of the combat. The whole point to initiative is to determine if the PCs can chip away at their opponents before their opponents get to do the same to them. After the first round, the back and forth exchange of attacks renders the initiative result meaningless.
     If the game requires initiative determination round-by-round, then the procedure just becomes more evident and intrusive into the flow and excitement of the battle. Plus, you have to track all those result each round.
     I thought about individual initiative systems, wherein each combatant rolls and uses that result, but this just increases the complexity. Not only do you have to track those results, but you also have to introduce rules to let combatants change those results once they determine—by delaying for example. Also, most games that use individual initiative allow the GM to roll initiative for groups of like opponents, which, while easier, completely undermines the whole point of rolling individual initiative in the first place, which, presumably, is to determine each individual combatant's turn order.
     For all the reasons and others as well, I threw initiative out of the game. The game lets players go first. The players are free to discuss tactics and plans, and then act in whatever order they want. If they choose to take fast turns, and thus act before their opponents, then they can only do one thing. If they wait until after their opponents go, they get to do two things instead but risk taking a hit from their opponents.

Liberating combat from variable turn orders accomplishes several things. It eliminates a procedure for play and thus the transition from story to combat is smooth. Allowing players to choose when they go encourages teamwork. The players can quickly discuss what they do and adopt tactics that complement each other’s actions. Finally, it focuses attention on what’s happening. Players tend to not “zone out” while waiting for their turn since they can act whenever they want.
     To help you visualize how a fight works, here’s an example. Nat, Molly, and Chris play agents working for the Inquisition, a faction of the New God cult committed to rooting out slaves of the Demon Lord and destroying them. Their investigation draws them into a burned out church on the edge of town. Inside the church, their characters encounter a band of ghouls, accursed cannibalistic humans.
     GM: What do you do?
     <Fast Turns start>
     Chris: I charge the @#$%ers!
     Molly: Wait! Let me throw my fireball spell.
     Chris: Fine.
     (Molly casts a fireball spell into the midst of the ghouls. She rolls 10d6 damage. Adding up the dice, the ghouls will take 35 damage. The ghouls get to roll Agility to halve the damage. Two fail and are incinerated.)
     Molly: Now, go and clean up the mess.
     Chris: I charge!
     (Chris’s character moves up to his Speed and uses his extra action to attack a ghoul as the rules for charging specify. Since he charged, he has a complication for his roll. He gets a success on his roll and the ghoul takes 6 damage, which is enough to take it out).
     GM: Nat? Want to do anything?
     Nat: No. Not yet. There may be others in the shadows.
     GM: OK. Well, you’re right. First up, Chris, a ghoul leaps at you and tries to rip you apart with its claws and teeth. (The GM rolls, but gets a failure.) You catch the monster on your shield. In the shadows, you see a couple more ghouls waiting to attack.
     <Slow Turns start>
     GM: Alright, Nat, back to you.
     Nat: I shoot my pistol at one of the ghouls.
     GM: They are partially obscured from you, so roll to attack with one complication.
     Nat: OK. (He rolls and gets a failure.) Crap! I drop the pistol and I'll use my remaining action move up next to Chris. I’ll draw my sword as I do so.
     GM: OK. The remaining ghouls come out from the shadows and attack Chris. (Some rolls, some damage, and Chris’s damage total equals his Health. He falls prone, disabled.)

     It’s the end of the round. Chris, you are disabled. Roll a d6 to see what happens to you…