Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Encounters in Third Edition Gamma World

This is probably the most important chapter in the book as far as game mastering is concerned. In practice, you can get away with allowing the players to declare victory and go home at any point and simply call that an adventure. You can fake the campaign‘s setting until you actually end up running several sessions. But you’re not having any sort of game at all if there are no encounters. And given that Gamma World® does not begin with a simplistic town and dungeon scenario, there’s a bit more of a challenge here for the novice.

There are four pages in the encounters chapter, each one detailing a significant aspect of what makes for a quintessential Gamma World® encounter:

  1. Encounters are primarily about weird creatures, cryptic alliances, and (more rarely) computers and robots. The game master is encouraged to make up new creatures and factions as much as possible– this is the only way to surprise players that are familiar with the game. Additionally, the game master is encouraged allow these creatures and factions to take on a life of their own and to have them respond and adapt to the players actions. An offhand remark indicates the default campaign of the designers: “The major driving force in the heroes’ life is to work with the Restorationists to recover artifacts of the Ancients and rebuild that lost society.” Note that this seems to contradict the information in the chapter on campaigns where it is implied that the characters will begin without any direct ties to the Cryptic Alliances but will then later (perhaps secretly from the other players) attempt to join one once they’ve gained a sufficient amount of status.
  2. The heart of the game is in the incredible amount of diversity in terrain. Each terrain type is coupled with a different ground cover to create a huge number of combinations. Together they yield an intensity level, a base damage amount, and one or two special effects. From these you can derive the base movement rate for that terrain, the chance of hazards and encounters there, and the chance of getting lost. This is the most critical part of the rules, but the chances of the average teenager ignoring this are high because it’s extremely complex while at the same time being spread across several different sections.
  3. From the players’ perspectives, rewards are the entire point of having encounters. The game master is encouraged to come up with appropriate rewards for each encounter– there are no “treasure tables” to provide a baseline, just a lot of advice. Information is actually highlighted as being the more important reward type. It is suggested that valuables taken from creatures defeated in combat be 10 gold per rank or hit die on average. Finally, equipment and artifacts that are found that aren’t being used by NPC’s that are trying to kill the players are liable to be broken or dangerous!
  4. Unlike magic items in D&D, Gamma World® artifacts are something the players have to figure out. There is an insanely complicated flow chart for this with countless modifiers. It’s awesomeness varies indirectly to its chance of actually being used in play. Similar to high level magic research in D&D, this same system can be used to create new equipment, functions, traps, and information. This is unlikely to happen unless the players understand what can be done here. To incorporate this into the game, I’d suggest coming up with mentors and patrons that can point the players in this direction.

By default, then, the game is primarily a bunch of wilderness encounters with weird made up creatures. If you kill them to take their stuff, you won’t necessarily know how to use what you get. Let’s look some some at the context in which all of this stuff takes place: the wilderness travel rules.

Compared to B/X D&D, the “hexcrawling” rules are incredibly refined. The day is broken down into six periods of four hours each. An encounter is checked for in each period, so a lot can happen in a single day. In the Isle of Dread, you checked for encounters once a day. That meant that the players could blow their spells in every single combat without much worry. You can’t pull similar tactics here.

As we said before, these checks are rolled against the terrain’s intensity score. When something occurs, you even pin down the exact hour within the period when it happens. Here are the possible results from the chart on page 11:

  • Red — Catastrophe
  • Orange — Bad Weather
  • Yellow — Suffer from Exposure
  • Green — Natural Obstacle/Hazard
  • Blue — Event/Encounter/Omen
  • Black — Trail is found

As you can see in high intensity terrain the random events are not only more frequent but they are also more interesting. (That’s “interesting” like in that Chinese proverb.) When you flesh out your wilderness areas on your campaign map… your prep should be geared towards aiding improvisations triggered by this chart. It is the most important, and most-used chart in the default game and yet it does not appear anywhere else.

Example weather and hazards are listed on the back of the Reference Book. The rules for these are on page 21 and are easy to miss because they’re called “dangers” there. The intensity determines which column the event is rolling against. Damage is usually half the intensity score, but “exposure” damage is only a quarter. The saving throws against the special effects get a lot of elaboration elsewhere, but here it simply says that “the GM may permit an appropriate ability score to modify the chance of the danger harming the characters.” This seems to imply some sort of column shift on the act chart… and it also seems to indicate that one player is rolling for the entire group. Still, it’s pretty crazy that something so crucial to the default adventuring model is not only spread around on a half dozen pages, but is also slapdash and unclear.

At first glance, the Random Events chart from the reference screen appears to be used for the Event/Encounter/Omen results, but the more I look at it the more I think it is an entirely different encounter system that predates the rainbow chart material. It is built on generic terrain rather than the combinations from the main rule book. Hazards are incorporated into the d20 roll here instead of resulting from the rainbow results chart described above. There are a lot of examples, but you are nearly on your own if you’re going use them. The weather and terrain hazards described on the chart are stat-free and so are either ad libbed or cribbed from the terrain’s intensity rather than coupled to the “dangers” rule. On the other hand, the creature motivations and omens charts are really great and are worth stealing for other games.

What’s needed is a comprehensive example that synthesizes the sort of material on the Random Events tables with the actual rules for hazards and dangers in the context of some playable campaign setting material. That doesn’t exist, but the use of all this stuff is actually illustrated in the example of play section. This confirms the implications from the rules that this is the default mode of play. The GM in the narrative dutifully rolls percentile dice on the rainbow chart for the basic encounter type… and seems to be rolling a D20 on the event-type chart from the reference screen when pinning down whether it’s a creature or an omen. The key thing about the GM’s actions here is that he makes a lot of judgement calls. Instead of rolling a random creature for an encounter, he chooses one from the map key because the players are near something he’d placed previously. When the creatures are encountered, he doesn’t use dice to determine their number, but just picks an amount that would make a good challenge for the player characters that happen to be in the game.

So… to run this system, you will refer to at least four pages in the rule book, the back page of the reference book, and the chart in the gm screen. Except… the chart in the gm screen does not quite match up to the main rule book. You will have to improvise what all of these random results means as you narrate the encounter to the players, you will have to make judgement calls about how exactly the unclear rules are applied, and you will adjust everything on the fly in order to make a satisfying experience for the players. You take a lot on yourself if you want to run this game. The more I try to read it, the less I understand. It’s as if the last 20% of the game design process has been left to the GM as an exercise.

This is really cool stuff and one of my favorite games… but nobody played this.

Giant Characters in Heroes & Other Worlds

I originally began working on this because my son wanted to play a giant character and he was overwhelmed by the huge number of options in GURPS and Heroes & Other Worlds. My plan was to use a Traveller style approach to turn it into more of a mini-game that had a fewer number of options at each step in order to counter his tendency towards analysis paralysis. In any event, my son began drawing maps for an imaginary world and working up characters on his own before I could complete this system. (It turned out that a  few sample characters was all he needed to get over that initial hump.) While I don’t actually need this system here to inspire him to play, it bugged me that I had unfinished work in a notebook. I’ve chosen to finish it merely as an exercise in design.

Step One: To determine your giant’s attributes, roll 2d6 four times on the table below.

2  11  8  8  8
3  12  8  8  8
4  13  8  8  8
5  14  8  8  9
6  15  9  8  9
7  15  9  9  9
8  16  9  9  10
9  16  10  9  10
10  17  10  10  10
11  17  11  10  11
12  18  12  11  11

Step Two: Check for literacy. Gain Literacy on 4D/IQ.

Step Three: Check for social savvy. Gain Charm on 9+ on 2d6.

Step Four: Generate career. If a character fails a survival roll, he may choose to dishonor himself by changing careers to Outcast. If he makes the roll to enlist, he completes his term as an Outcast. If he fails, then he dies a particularly shameful death.

Enlistment 6+ 8+ 10+ 8+
DM+1 if EN 10+ IN 9+ IQ 10+ Charm
DM+2 if ST 15+ ST 16+ Literate EN 10+
Draft 1-4  –  – 5-6
Survival 5+ 7+ 6+ 7+
DM +2 if EN 10+ ST 15+ DX 9+ DX 10+
Commission 9+ 7+ 8+
DM +1 if DEX 8+ Charm EN 10+
Promotion 10+ 8+ 9+
DM +1 if Charm Literate IQ 9+
Reenlist 5+ 6+ 7+ 4+

Default skill table. Roll once per term. Outcasts roll twice per term.

1  +1 ST Diplomacy  +1 IQ  Climbing
2  Ax/Mace/Club  Tactics Sorcerer’s Tongue  Detect Hidden/Hide
3  Pole Arms  +1 ST  Giant Lore Survival
4  Athletics  +1 EN  Astronomer  Thief
5  Animal Handler  Sword Staff  Throw
6  Craftsman  Shield  Dagger  Unarmed Combat

Alternate skill table. Minion, Boss, and Magi characters roll a on this table when they are commissioned and each time they are promoted. Outcasts with an IQ of 10+ may roll on this table instead of taking a roll on the default skill table.

1  +1 ST  Reveal Magic  Summon Wolf  Athletics
2  Pole Arms  Far Seeing  Lock/Knock  Detect/Tell Lies
3  Bows  Crossbow  Alchemy  Hunting/Trapping
4  +1 DX  Detect/Tell Lies  Naturalist  Sling
5  +1 EN  Recognize Value  Physicker  Stealth
6  Professional Skill  Two Weapon Combat  Any Spell  Track

Step Five: Muster out. Roll one time on the chart below for each two terms of service completed. Roll again for each level of rank (ie, once for being commissioned and again each time the character was promoted.) The character may add his rank to each die roll if he wishes. “Weapon” indicates a good quality weapon of a type the character is skilled in is received. Boss characters make take additional weapon results as magical bonuses for previously rolled weapons.

Each result of “special” confers an increasing level of special abilities: stone giant powers, ice giant powers, fire giant powers, and cloud giant powers. (To get fire giant powers, for example, you’d have to roll “special” three times.) The specifics of these abilities are left to the game master to work out. Additionally, the giant character is commissioned to establish a fortress in an exotic location that is consistent with the theme of their new powers.

1  +1 ST  +1 ST  +1 IQ  +1 DX
2  Weapon  Weapon  Weapon  Weapon
3  Jewelry worth 2d6 x 100 gold  Jewelry worth 3d6 x 100 gold  Jewelry worth 3d6 x 100 gold  2×6 x 10 gold pieces
4  +1 EN  +1 EN  +1 EN  Naturalist
5  Pole Arms  2 Henchmen  Any IQ-11 Spell  Alertness
6  Throw  + 1 ST  Any IQ-12 Spell  A cave in the wilderness
7  2 Henchmen  5 Henchmen  1 Disciple  –
8  Alertness  Any Spell rated up to the character’s IQ  Any Spell  –
9  Streetwise  +2 ST  Any Spell  –
10+  Merchant  Special  Any Spell  –

Step Six: Starting with the third term, the character must roll each of 3/ST, 3/DX, and 3/EN or else lose a point in the corresponding attribute. Starting with the fifth term, he must roll 4/ST, 4/DX, 4/IQ, and 4/EN.

Note: This is a first draft and will probably need to be tweaked in order to get the different outcomes in line with each other. I will keep this post updated as I come across things that need to be tuned up.

April 9, 1865: Lee Surrenders at Appomattox Court House

“When Robert E. Lee met with Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, on the momentous morning of April 9, 1865, the Union commander insisted on introducing his staff members to Lee individually. The Rebel leader, ever courteous, shook each man’s hand. Among the men in Grant’s entourage was Lieutenant Colonel Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian. Lee hesitated upon meeting the swarthy Parker, apparently mistaking him for a freedman or mulatto; however, he quickly realized his error, extending his hand to Parker with the gracious comment, ‘I am glad to see one real American here.’ Parker accepted the proffered handshake, responding, ‘We are all Americans.’” – Ely Parker: Iroquois Chief and Union Officer

“When news of the surrender first reached our lines our men commenced firing a salute of a hundred guns in honor of the victory. I at once sent word, however, to have it stopped. The Confederates were now our prisoners, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.” – The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant

A Swords & Wizardy Read-through

I picked over these rules last year, but never got around to posting this. In the mean time the guys at Rpg SnobDungeon Fantastic, and Gaming Ballistic all started playing, reading and discussing this thing. Also, Frog God Games upped the ante by making the full-featured PDF of these rules free free free! (Labyrinth Lord is available in no-art editions as far as the penny pinching crowd is concerned.) Anyway, here is a Moldvay fan’s take on these rules. (Not the “complete” or “white box” variants– this is on the standard Swords & Wizardry system.)

  • Only the Fighter gets the strength bonuses– even the one for opening doors. Also… just +2 to-hit on 17 and 18. Damage bonus start at 16+. Fighters also get to apply their Dex bonus to their melee to-hit rolls.
  • No spell for the cleric at first level unless the cleric has a Wisdom of 15+. (Not a bad compromise, but I’d rather see the first level party die at the strict Moldvay-approved rates.)
  • Only fighters can parry– which is to put a penalty on all attacks against them depending on high DX, but they have to give up all offensive ability to do it. [I've never seen a rule like this anywhere.]
  • The rules indicate that Magic Users can put scrolls into their spellbooks. (Moldvay is perhaps oversimplified in this area.) Unusual spells are exempt from the spell limits, but still require the change-to-know roll.
  • The rules for dual-classed humans are pretty much not explained. (The parry rules would have been as bad, but they included a clarifying example.)
  • Thieves! An optional class that correctly has d4 for hit dice. (You don’t want these guys choosing to fight as their first course of action.) First level thief will mostly just climb things and listen at doors.
  • The game is forcefully clear that adventuring demi-human rules cannot be used to dictate the implied setting of those races. The players are restricted by those rules, but not the setting.
  • Multi-classing… gack-urgh! Why…? And wow…  the hit dice rules for these when leveling up is downright freaky.
  • Single saving throw with a bonus depending on class and race. This is probably far more sensible than the Moldvay approach, but whatever.
  • I have no idea what the fuss about descending versus ascending armor class is in these games. I don’t want to know, either.
  • One page on encumbrance and movement rates– I guess it’s about as clear as I’ve seen it. The “Carry Modifier” is a nice touch.
  • The experience bonus system rewards players for having 13+ in Wisdom or Charisma. I kind of like that.
  • I prefer the non-bluebook method for the combat sequence of play. (I was a Moldvay Basic kid, after all.) I do like that spells have to be declared before initiative is rolled and also that they can be spoiled. (Like I’d ever use “readied spells.” Heh.)
  • Attack tables: there are no sequences of twenties to gum up the math.
  • Attacking from behind: I don’t think I’ve ever seen clear rules on this. Finally… a combat use of hide in shadows.
  • You are explicitly encouraged to avoid die rolls for negotiation and diplomacy. I agree. (In B/X, I only rolled on the reaction table if I wasn’t otherwise sure of what the monsters would do.)
  • I don’t see the Moldvay Fighting Retreat rule here.
  • I don’t know how I’ve gotten along so long without the spacing and second rank rules.
  • Terrain features are essential… but the referee will just make something up.
  • Two handed weapons and two weapon fighting: the rules make sense, except you’ve got to remember that two weapon fighting bonus only applies when you have initiative. (!!)
  • There’s a joke in there about tavern fights and chairs… but I actually searched for rules on chair combat.
  • Unconscious at zero, dead when negative hit points equals level.
  • The loss of Moldvay’s monster morale ratings is a deal breaker. I can’t live without those rules. I won’t! (Needless to say, I vehemently disagree with The Manor on this one.)
  • “Part of the game is to press beyond the rules, to explore the undiscovered country of the fantastic realms of imagination!” (page 44)
  • Nothing in the Sleep spell description indicates the shape or nature of the ray/effect/whatever.
  • The Charm Person spell is until dispelled– unless that is defined somewhere, I don’t see what’s preventing a Magic-User from obtaining a veritable army of flunkies.
  • “When you design wilderness areas, try to have some areas that are more dangerous and some that are less —and figure out a way to let the players know where these are.” — Usually the wilderness allows for just about anything to show up… and the players have to learn when to run and when to fight. But yeah, different encounter tables for different regions can lead to this I suppose.
  • The Challenge Level system: this is far more nuanced than the advice given in B/X.
  • Hmm… I think the “getting lost” rules here are superior to the ones in B/X.

Wm. John Wheeler and Steve Jackson on Adventure Design

The debate between proponents of “sandbox” and “railroad” design have long been a mainstay among gamers.  Of course, the argument is not nearly as cut and dried as we tend to make it. In a section on adventure design in FASA’s Doctor Who Role Playing Game, Wm. John Wheeler describes precisely how both linear and free form scenarios can be put together for a more entertaining and robust design:

The best published scenarios combine the two types, using some linear encounters and some free-form encounters. Linear encounters are used to introduce the scenario, drawing the players and the characters into the action, giving them a reason to enter the scenario environment and meet the scenario NPCs. After the ‘hook’, as the introductory encounter is sometimes called, the linear encounters lead the player characters into a situation that gives them free choice about where they will proceed. The actions in each of the free-form encounters affect the players in the short term. In the long term, another set of linear encounters lead the players into yet another area of free choice, perhaps the climax of the scenario. Linear encounters are often used to wrap up the scenario, bringing it to a satisfactory conclusion.

Using encounters of both types is like building a structure with tinker toys, with the sticks being linear encounters and the knobs being the free-form encounters. The linear encounters give some structure to the free-form encounters. The combination allows the scenario to have a well-defined story line– not as well-defined as purely linear scenarios, but much more defined than those that are purely free-form. The combination also allows players freedom to choose their action– not as much as in purely free-form scenarios, but far more than in those that are purely linear.

He follows this up with a breakdown of three campaign types:

  • Ones “where the players characters are all the same even though the scenarios do not have much to do with one another.”
  • Ones where “the scenarios all have to do with the same topic, perhaps approach it from different angles, possibly with different characters.”
  • Ones where “the same characters follow the same plot from adventure to adventure, solving puzzles along the way and discovering more and more about the plot as the adventure scenarios progress.”

Wm. John Wheeler’s remarks on adventure design are about as cogent as any that I’ve seen. What he is describing here is what I call situation oriented play. It’s a natural fit for creating adventure in the context of an otherwise infinite universe. A certain segment of players don’t want to be able to go anywhere and do anything– they want to, as the old Infocom ads put it, “get inside a story.” Indeed, you can see the tinker-toy structure quite clearly in many of their games. Planetfall, for instance, opens up with a linear sequence that leads in to a more free-form situation.

Wm. John Wheeler’s outline here is practically a template for how many of the adventures that were written for second edition GURPS. Given that his game was published a year beforehand it’s interesting to see how his views compare with those of Steve Jackson. It’s odd, but he spends more time in talking about the wrong way to do it than he does in spelling out actual techniques and design principles:

  • “In children’s fantasy games, every encounter may be rolled randomly!” He’s calling out the random dungeon generation sections of Advanced and Basic D&D here without any any recognition of how these sorts of techniques are essential to creating more sophisticated, free-form play in a notionally pure sandbox.
  • He makes snark at the “hack and slash” dungeon in which the rooms are stocked willy nilly with no thought given to why the monsters are there or what motivates them.
  • He sneers at the “plot of the story” of the typical dungeon adventure even though a session where only one player character makes it back can be quite engaging, generating narratives that are told and retold at conventions.
  • He hammers the point that earning character points for good role playing is far more sensible than XP for the “amount of wealth you drag home.”

Steve Jackson must have been traumatized by some pretty awful D&D sessions! A lot of digital ink has been spent since then explaining why his views here are wrongheaded. He just didn’t seem to “get” old school play… even though he was involved in the industry at the dawn of the hobby! He can perhaps be forgiven for this due to the fact that the case for why things were being done the way they were was never made plain in any of the rule books for the games that he was reacting against. In any case he certainly spoke for a lot of people that had a similar reaction and that wanted something more.

What was his ideal for good adventure design then? Given the thrust of GURPS design, it’s clear that he was really taken with making it easier to move characters between different game worlds and campaigns. He practically describes the structure of Infocom’s Deadline when he discusses more advanced adventure plots that have things going on apart from the player characters while they engage in the situation. His best advice centers on nailing down the climax of the adventure, but leaving the players to get to it whichever way they choose:

The players earlier actions affect the details of the finale, but its basic nature remains the same. If the players make “wrong” decisions along the way, it will take them longer to finish, and they should have a harder time dealing with the situation — but they should make it to the finale eventually. The exception might be a case where they have blundered so badly that the finale would certainly kill them all — in which case, the merciful GM will drop a hint that they are over their heads, and let them give up and run for home.

A more sophisticated adventure will have several possible finales, depending on decisions made by the players during the adventure. This sort of “branching path” adventure is harder to design, but sometimes easier for the GM to run — less improvisation is needed. Such an adventure can be played several times, making it especially suitable for “programmed” adventures.

Taken together, Wm. John Wheeler and Steve Jackson provide a comprehensive breakdown on how to craft an adventure plot that typifies the sort ideals that mid-eighties gamers were looking for. This type of game is very different from the older “sandbox” style of the seventies. While not necessarily better or more mature, it does acknowledge player autonomy while creating something much more recognizable as being a story. It accomplishes this without having the more blatantly obvious “rails” of something like Tracy Hickman’s infamous Dragonlance series.


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