Thursday, June 13, 2019

Traps - a first review

Almost every OSR ruleset contains a skill related to traps. It might be Find and Remove Traps, or some generic Search + generic Tinkering or similar, dividing the actions of finding and disarming or removing the trap.

In fact, when it comes to traps, there are often these two controversial topics to address:
- Finding a trap: is it a roll? is it restricted to thieves? can it be done "in fiction" by just talking with the GM? does it require just asking for something odd or looking for specific clues?
- Disarming a trap: is it a roll? is it restricted to thieves? can it be done "in fiction" by just talking with the GM? does it require just some generic ideas or a precise understanding of the mechanism?

I think the above could be broken down into:

Finding a trap
1. Is it hidden? (totally hidden or it can be seen but just when paying attention?)
2. Is it partially visible? (perhaps there are more or less obvious clues, or at least something odd about it)
3. Is it plainly visible? (in this case the challenge becomes disarming it, or bypassing it in some way, or even deciding if to give up...)

Disarming a trap
1. Is it impossible to determine how it works? (totally hidden mechanism or too small or concealed for example behind a wall?)
2. Is it partially understandable? (some pieces of the mechanism may be visible, or it might be possible to try to disarm it or at least jam its mechanism?)
3. Is it clear how it works? (in this case the challenge might be that the mechanism requires something special to be disarmed, something huge or something very precise or someone with a very precise set of skills...)

How do you rule all of the above? Do you use a skill? (and is it restricted to a single class?)
Or do you use only the conversation between players and GM?
Or do you use both, with the conversation between players and GM taking precedence over the skill roll? (this seems to be somehow the best practice, nowadays, especially with visible traps)


A lot of the above topics are presented nicely also in the following post, which seems to favor a mixed approach: descriptive (and open to all classes) for visible/simpler traps, while rolling (skill roll and restricted to specialists/thieves) for small, delicate or complicate hidden traps.

[...] I come now to Find and Remove Traps, and find myself in a bit of a quandary.
In the first place, I really, really like the idea of player agency in finding traps. [...] It's much more interesting and provides greater immersion for the players to use the DM's descriptions to find traps. [...] Consider:
DM:  Just ahead, on the left side of the corridor a skeleton is slumped against the wall.
Thief:  I check for traps.
DM:  (rolling)  You don't find anything.
or 
DM:  Just ahead, on the left side of the corridor a skeleton is slumped against the wall. 
Thief:  Without getting too close, I look at the walls and ceiling in that section of the corridor.
DM:  You see a pattern of holes in the right wall, and a set of shallow gouges in the left wall that seem to match.  There's nothing unusual about the ceiling.
Thief:  I examine the floor, looking for a trip wire or pressure plate.
DM:  One of the floor blocks is very slightly elevated above the level of the rest of the floor.

In my opinion, the second scenario is far more fun and interesting.  The "problem," if it can be called such, is that it renders the thief's Find Traps and Remove Traps skills irrelevant (or at least less relevant,) because it relies entirely on player (and DM) skill. 
[...] 
What good, then, are the Find and Remove Traps abilities?  Should they be dropped entirely, or is there still a unique niche for the thief as trap finder?  I can see a strong argument in favor of keeping and using them in certain circumstances.
Dealing with traps as in the second example above requires that the DM be able to visualize the trap (else how could he describe it?) and have a basic understanding of its component parts and how it works.  It requires also that some aspects of the trap are visible to the player characters and discernible as something potentially hazardous.  Those conditions lend themselves best to area traps - those that affect a room or a stretch of corridor, for example - as opposed to item traps, such as a poison needle in the latch of a chest.  
[...] 
I, for one, am hard-pressed to describe just what the trigger for a poison needle or a gas trap protecting a treasure chest would look like.  Besides making it difficult to describe such a thing, that also makes me skeptical of the ability of a cautious but untrained person to notice it.[...] 
You can probably assume that the designer of the trap has taken great pains to make the external trigger of the trap both as small and as indistinguishable from the rest of the item as possible.  A specialist, someone who knows what he's looking for, has a chance to see it for what it is, but anyone else won't.  It's probably also a safe bet that most of the trap mechanism is housed within the chest, out of sight and out of reach, thus making disarming it difficult and delicate work. [...] 


If you want a little more about this approach, with a distinction between small traps and the rest, see also this post by Brendan.

Find Traps as Saving Throw
by Brendan
I was reading about traps over at The Dragon’s Flagon, and that got me to thinking about find traps as a saving throw, which is an idea I first came across over at Courtney’s blog (see his set of answers to the 20 quick rules questions). To quote:
Finding traps is a saving throw, and works as such.
Thus, anyone can interact with the fictional world and discover or avoid traps purely by investigation and reason. Note that this doesn’t necessarily require any particular mechanical knowledge on the part of the referee or players (though you can go there if you want), it just requires determining trigger mechanism, effect, and clues. Remember, traps don’t need to be mechanical, or even explainable. Traps can be driven by magic, ancient technology, or incomprehensible clockwork.
[...]
http://www.necropraxis.com/2012/04/15/find-traps-as-saving-throw/


In this third post, we see a more mechanical analysis, with some other useful inputs.
For example, when designing (and playing in-game) with traps, there is a clear distinction between trigger and effect.
Note also that sometimes searching for a trap might trigger it (or cause some other effect) and likewise, trying to disarm or avoid the trap might still result in some effect.

There's a thread on Dragonsfoot about using the old school approach to detecting and disabling traps; in other words, having players describe how they search for traps and what they do to disable or avoid triggering the trap. The person who started the thread wasn't sure how to handle this: what possible ways could a player use to search? How do you enable people with no special knowledge of traps in the real world to role-play a knowledgeable character in a fantasy world? What if the player just creates a huge list of actions to search for traps and says "I do all this" every time? [...]
The important things to remember are:
- A trap has two parts: the trigger and the result.
- Each part must be detected separately, and may require different search methods.
- Search order is important; one method may find a trigger, another method may trigger it.
[...] 
Results can be pretty varied, but they can all be simplified to an action delivered along a particular path, from Origin Point A to Target Point B. A character standing at the target point or along the path between the origin and the target is in danger of being caught in the trap. Examining Point A may locate a trap, but not its trigger; examining Point B may offer clues to what kind of result to expect (scorch marks on a wall are a clue to a flame thrower trap, debris on the floor may be a clue to a deadfall.) 
Some results, like releasing a gas, might not be obvious from any kind of clue.
When constructing a trap, you should consider both obvious actions (walking over a trapped floor, opening a trapped door) and search methods (touching or moving a trapped chest.) Sometimes, a particular search method will trigger the trap, which might not be a good idea based on whether you are standing in the path of the result or not.
[...] 


From the same author, let's look at some additional input about the first part of the topic: finding/detecting a trap.

[...] I don't like the idea of a simple skill roll to search for traps, but that doesn't mean I like or use the extreme pixel-bitching approach to traps, either. I'm probably just a little more detailed than Brendan describes for his own technique. If someone says "I search the room", I ask "how", but all I'm expecting is general details: Do you enter the room, or stay outside? If you enter the room, do you just blunder on in, walk normally, or creep along slowly? Are you just searching visually, or are you touching things (with or without a 10-foot pole?) And if you're touching things, are you actually tapping or knocking, or are you moving things around?
So, basically, it breaks down to speed and direction, stance, senses and tools used, and any changes to the environment made. I assume, unless told, that you do everything that could be included in the general description of what you tell me, without going too far. You stand in the doorway and do a visual search? Then anything that *could* be seen from where you are standing is seen, no roll necessary, and no weaseling out by saying "you didn't say you were also looking at the ceiling". I figure that these are the basic search procedures:
- Blundering In: You enter the room without searching. This always applies for those fleeing monsters, unless you say otherwise.
- Careful Entrance: You enter, but not necessarily quickly, and look at stuff as you enter. This action stops as soon as you spot anything out of the ordinary (no roll needed, as long as it's visible and not hidden.)
- Stop, Look and Listen: You don't enter the room, so no traps triggered by movement or pressure will go off. Anything visible or audible -- or smellable, or detectable by any other sense that works over distance -- is automatically detected.
- Cautious Test: You use a ten-foot pole or similar technique to test from a distance. Discovers a few things you'd miss by the previous techniques. If you also add tapping with the pole, you discover hollow spaces as well.
- Thorough Test: You touch what you're searching, everywhere. Discovers hidden catches, buttons, and the like.

All of these assume you are standing up, bending and crouching only as needed, and make no changes (nothing is moved or opened.) A careful entrance assumes you look under things, on top of anything you can see the top of, behind anything you can see behind, and around every corner you can look around. The first time you would notice something out of place or out of the ordinary, I describe that, and assume you stop until you tell me what you do next. If you have to move something or open something to continue a search, I ask if that's what you want to do. [...] 

Note that we can desume a method from the list above, which presents 5 different approaches from the characters to an environment/object:
- Careless: enter without searching, run through an area, open a door or chest
- Careful: enter and see the obvious, pass through an area, slowly open a door or chest (anything obvious and out of the ordinary should be revealed and stop the character before anything triggers; I would add also that something carefully hidden or concealed would instead trigger in this case)
- Very Careful: do not enter, do not pass, do not open, but check with your senses (reveal anything out of the ordinary even if not obvious, nothing triggers because nothing is touched; I would add that this takes time)
- Cautious: keep a distance and check with tools or skills (reveal anything even if out of sight but not really "secret"; I would add that this process though involves touching and prodding so something might trigger, although probably there is a certain safety in distance)
- Very Cautious: first keep a distance and if nothing happens, move closer and inspect more carefully so that everything is revealed, even secrets

The important thing, to me, seems to be the time that it takes to perform such actions. For example, if you are running you are always careless, but if you are not saying anything else, you are just careful (reveal anything which is in plain sight).
If the group wants to be very careful, I would say it takes less than a turn for a small area, but a turn for a large room or a long corridor (so, encounter check?).
If instead you go up to cautious it must take a turn (encounter check at the end), and I would say an additional turn for very cautious (it can be a second turn after a cautious approach - like saying "I search more carefully").
In other words, the more careful you are with your exploration (so more likely to detect and avoid traps, and discover secrets), the greater the chances for an encounter.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Encounters: overload your encounter dice

If the standard encounter occurs on a roll of 1 on a d6 by rolling every two turns, you might as well roll a d12 every turn (the encounter still happens on a roll of 1). I don't recall where I've read this first, but of course it's not my idea.
Rolling a d12 allows you to roll every turn, thus it becomes common practice to always roll, every turn, and we never forget (or question if we rolled in the last turn, or the one before).
Having a d12 and rolling every turn seems like a good option to me, also because it increases the range of available results if we want to use the encounter die also as something more.

This started - as far as I know - in the post below.
Originally it included only the concept of encounter and timer.

Overloading the encounter die
by Brendan
The nature of the random encounter check is that of a timer. While it is not a literal countdown (since random results are mathematically independent), it simulates one. It is the danger clock, always ticking [...]
Why not put all these things together systematically? Consider the following rule:
When the party moves into a new area or spends time on an exploration activity, roll the encounter die and interpret the results as follows.
1. Encounter
2. Percept (clue, spoor)
3. Locality (context-dependent timer)
4. Exhaustion (rest or take penalties)
5. Lantern
6. Torch
[...]
http://www.necropraxis.com/2014/02/03/overloading-the-encounter-die/

It seems (and it is! that's the beauty of it!) a simple rule, but it ties together several different themes: Encounters (the encounter itself on a one, the clues leading to it, the dangers or difficulties or peculiarities of the location), Exhaustion (need to rest or consume food), Light (duration).
Rolling for encounters is fun (or at least, thrilling   )


To me, the rule above is already a perfect balance of simplicity and inspiration, but you can take it and tune it and improve it as you wish.
Brendan of course tuned and refined this system, which became the Hazard System - really a thing of beauty. It's an ongoing project, so make sure to check sometimes for a new version.

In the one below (0.3 at the time of this writing) the system included:
- A unified system. with higher roll=better result
- 3 tables, for Haven, Wilderness and Dungeon
- A 4th table for Combat, if you wish to use it

Hazard System v0.3
by Brendan
The Hazard System is a gameplay engine for traditional roleplaying games designed to facilitate fictional consequences of player decision-making while minimizing bookkeeping. [...]
There is also a PDF version (see Downloads).
[...]
Hazard die results now follow higher = better principle
Generalized hazard die:
1 setback, 2 fatigue, 3 expiration, 4 locality, 5 percept, 6 advantage
[...]
Wilderness Turn Interpretation
D6 RESULT INTERPRETATION
1 Setback Encounter (use regional table) or road/bridge out
2 Fatigue Rest and consume rations (1/person) or suffer minor harm (1 HP)
3 Expiration Expire transient wilderness condition
4 Locality Shift weather (or other local change)
5 Percept Spoor or clue regarding next encounter
6 Advantage Free wilderness turn

Dungeon Turn Interpretation

D6 RESULT INTERPRETATION
1 Setback Encounter (use zone table)
2 Fatigue Rest and consume rations (1/party) or suffer minor harm (1 HP)
3 Expiration Expire transient dungeon conditions (light, spell, etc)
4 Locality Shift dungeon state (or other local change)
5 Percept Spoor or clue regarding next encounter
6 Advantage Free dungeon turn
[...]
Wilderness turns represent travel and making camp, approximately one day and night. Making a wilderness move requires consuming a ration or taking the exhausted condition in addition to rolling the hazard die. If already exhausted, at the start of a wilderness turn suffer minor harm (1 HP). Determine randomly whether setbacks occur during day or night.
Free wilderness moves: access known landmark in current area, survey adjacent areas
Full wilderness moves: travel to adjacent area, search, explore, hunt, track
Wilderness conditions: exhausted, lost
Lost: Travel is no longer an option. Use search to locate a landmark, removing the lost condition on success.
[...]
Dungeon turns represent exploration at architectural scale, approximately tens of minutes or a few hours, assuming careful advance into hostile places.
Free dungeon moves: look under a rug, open unstuck door, pull lever
Full dungeon moves: climb, force a door, move to adjacent area, pick a lock, search
Dungeon conditions: candlelight, torchlight, overburdened
[...]

Note that Fatigue now includes also rations, and light/duration becomes Expiration: Expire transient dungeon conditions (light, spell, etc). See how it includes now spells?
A single die and you no longer need to track time between rest, rations, lights, spells' duration, other effects... basically, time becomes a fluid entity, with a simple rule.
This is what makes it great.
A simple rule, a simple table (you could do with just one, but here there are more so that you have enough inspiration for different cases and environments), and there is no need to track time anymore and all resources using it.


This is the OSR, so you are supposed to change and tune the system as you wish. See in this article the simple approach by James, for dungeons...
But the article actually contains also an analysis on outdoor encounters and city encounters, and some useful tables and tips for using excel to automate the process of determining an ancounter.

Improving Your Encounter Tables With Gimmicks!
by James Young
[...] Dungeon Encounters
This is based on Brendan Necropraxis' Overloaded Encounter Die aka the Hazard System.
I assume you know how to stock a dungeon encounter table - just put whatever you'd find on this dungeon level in the table, plus maybe a homeless wandering beast or two and some scouts from the next level of the dungeon.
Roll the Encounter Die every 10 minute turn. In my game I track this fairly loosely. Down long hallways I might start eyeing up squares and movement rates, but this usually gets rolled any time the party stops to investigate a room, messes around with the scenery, or they Take a Break to eat and heal.
"Are you guys aware that this will take long enough to need an encounter roll?" is something I say whenever somebody wants to spend time poking around a room.
Anyway, the Encounter Die results are as follows:
1. Encounter
2. Encounter Clue
3. Dungeon-Specific Effect
4. Dungeon-Specific Effect
5. Torch Burnout
6. Torch and Lantern Burnout
[...]
3 & 4. Dungeon-Specific Effect
This is the big one. Effects are on a per-dungeon basis and supposed to give some unique character to the locale. A more dangerous area will have more directly dangerous results, while a safer area might simply be set dressing.
[...]
Light Source Burnout
Torches have two checkboxes. Lanterns have 4 checkboxes.
On a 5 or 6, tick off a torch checkbox. On a 6, tick off a lantern checkbox.
This means that, on average, torches last 6 turns (1 hour) and lanterns last 24 turns (4 hours). Just like they're meant to! Plus there's some variance in how long they last. How lovely. [...]


There is another overloaded encouter dice, this time by Angus, and again with the familiar events on a dungeon roll, but also with some examples for wilderness travel/hex travel and city encounters.
The thing is, as we've seen already, that the encounter dice can be tuned for diffents uses (dungeon vs outdoor vs city) and might be tied also to a specific location (a certain dungeon, a certain city, etc.).

[...] Dungeon Delving
Every three rooms, or when the PCs spend time putzing around doing things, roll 1d6:
1. Encounter
2. Glint
3. Terrain Effect
4. Hazard/Trap
5. Torch decreases (1/2)
6. Torch and lantern (1/3) decreases
[...]
Hexploring
Roll 1/day while on a road or in settled lands, 2/day off the beaten track, and 3/day in truly untamed wilds. Any more than that, and you are probably in an actual dungeon:
1. Encounter
2. Traces
3. Weather (I gave this a whirl and it was interesting, for me at least, and who says the DM can't have a little fun?)
4. Hazard
5. Fatigue (each point fills an Inventory Slot)
6. Hidden Feature

Foraging: At the end of the day, everyone rolls Wisdom (with disadvantage/at -4 if you were moving at Normal speed). If you succeed, you collected enough food along the way to not need a ration. If everyone failed the check, then everyone is out of water as well.
[...]
City Crawling
Roll once per day, and a second time if the party is "looking for trouble":
1Pointed Encounter
2Encounter Pointed at someone else/a crowd
3Recurring Character
4City Actions
5Faction Actions
6. Advantageous Situation
[...]


Well, before we close, let's look at something from Chris McDowall, the author of Into The Odd.
What I'd like you to focus on is the very last part (although the entire article, nicely brief and to the point like everything else in Into The Odd): making six great entries, rather than spending your whole prep time filling up a d20 table with just-okay entries.
Whether you're working on the overloaded encounter dice, or making a random table for encounters (or another random table), keep it short. And special.
Don't make a redundant d20 or d30 or d100 list... make it short, to the point, and special.

Keep encounter tables short and simple
by Chris McDowall
Sometimes you need to put something together for a game tonight and none of the modules on your shelf feel like the right fit. Throwing together a Route Map is relatively fast, but you're also going to want some random tables, most obviously some Encounters.
I've gone from using d20 to d6 and everything in between. My list of needs for a random encounter table is:
- Make an area feel alive and non-static.
- Project the character of an area.
- Have at least one really dangerous entry to encourage the players to keep moving. 
- Be better than something I can just make up on the fly.
[...]
Roll d6
1-3: Common. Three variations on a single encounter either carrying out different actions or varying slightly in composition.
4-5: Uncommon. Two variations of a more unusual encounter, again varying in behaviour or composition.
6: Rare. Something weird and likely dangerous. 
[...]
Now you can really dig down into making six great entries, rather than spending your whole prep time filling up a d20 table with just-okay entries. [...]


Design Notes:
- Instead of rolling a d6 for encounters every other turn, roll a d12 every turn (the encounter still occurs on a 1)
- The encounter roll may be transformed into a timer, a clock, and be tied to other concepts such as the expiration of lights or the need for rations or rest
- This becomes the well known Hazard System e Overloaded Encounter Die; it might include any sort of setback (from encounters to fatigue), timers (lights, spells duration), perception (sign of encouter), special events (something tied to the location), etc.
- Just make sure to balance out the odds when you replace a rule with the Hazard System (i.e. certain spells might last less, other more, or for example if rations are tied to fatigue, then you don't ask the characters to consume rations in other cases)
- The table might become a generic one, for diffent uses, using templates such as Setback, Fatigue, Expiration, Locality, Percept, Advantage
- Different tables may be used for Dungeons, Indoor or Outdoor exploration or hexcrawling, city crawling; and specific places may have their own very specific table
- A note inspired by Into The Odd author, Chris McDowall: keep encounter tables (and other random tables) short but meaningful. Write special, great, short tables, instead of boring long ones

Friday, May 17, 2019

Retirement and Funerals

The inspiration for this article came from Funerals for the Fallen by James Young.
It's just a simple, easy rule, with the potential for a tremendous impact on the game, in case of character's death.

Funerals for the Fallen
by James Young
In essence:
Take a dead character's remains to a safe place with a church (or cultural equivalent) and you can buy their experience points on a 1:1 silver-for-exp basis.
This represents money spent on funeral rites and memorials and bar tabs and other things purchased in their memory. The player spending the money does, of course, say what they're spending it on.
[...]
It encourages the retrieval of your buddy's corpse from whatever horrific death consumed them, accomplishing my favourite little trick of merging the intentions of player and character together.
[...]
On that note, higher level characters "deserve" more lavish send-offs than their lower level brethren. Nobody's going to do much for a level 2 Thief, but that seventh level Cleric is getting a whole damn church raised in his honour.
Getting a corpse back out of the dungeon is interesting logistically, especially if you didn't manage to kill the thing that killed them. I had players venture, against their better judgement, into a spider lair to retrieve a corpse. A corpse! Usually I only see rescue missions to retrieve still-living hostages!
[...]
https://tenfootpolemic.blogspot.com/2015/09/funerals-for-fallen.html

As you can see, a simple rule brings to the table a couple of very important topics:
- The challenge of bringing your friend's dead body back to civilization, with all that implies (managing resources and weight, deciding to go back instead of pushing forward)
- Expending a certain amount of money (a lot if possible), proportional to the level of the dead and, presumably, proportional to the strength of the friendship and bonds with the deceased

This is done by granting XP for gold spent on the funeral, but while the rule is clearly in the "gaming" space of the players' mind, it achieves something which has a powerful "story" impact: taking risks to bring back to civilization the dead body of a fallen comrade, and spending money to give it proper burial and a funeral service.
In other words, it reinforces a certain behavior by the characters, using XP as a leverage.
This approach is described already in the Gaining XP (number 1) post.


While death signifies the end of the game for a certain character, there is also the topic of Retirement mentioned in the title.
This is a slightly different topic, but it still means that the character is out of the game.

So let's see a traumatic option first: what happens when the character is forced to retire, not because it ended a successful career as tomb-robber, but when retirement is used as a replacement for death.
The first post makes use of a Death and Dismemberment table, as in the link below.

MY FAVORITE MONTH IS DISMEMBER
[...]
>CLICK HERE TO GET IT<
[...]
http://goblinpunch.blogspot.com/2016/01/my-favorite-month-is-dismember.html

This is instead the actual post; as you can see Arnold is using retirement as a substitution for death. Combat with the above rules is harder, nasty wounds may bring a character to retirement.
I find these rules a bit overcomplicated, but the main point is actually using retirement as a way to give characters a way out (a forced way out, in this case) which is not just get-rich-or-die.

Death, Trauma, and Retirement: I'm Gettin' Too Old For This Shit
by Arnold K.
[...] Trauma
PC retirement is a replacement for PC death, not an additional risk.  I'm making death less likely in order to make retirement more likely.  Retired characters are more interesting and more useful than dead ones.  (And a lot less demoralizing.)
For example, ". . . and then he bought a turnip farm and swore never to leave it" is more satisfying end to a character's story than ". . . and then he died in a filthy hole, and the rats nibbled his eyes until he was quite dead".
And of course, forcibly retiring a character still accomplishes the primary punitive aspect of dying: you lose the opportunity to play your character.
So here's my first draft:
Whenever you have a near-death experience (roll higher than a 10 on the Death and Dismemberment Table) and survive, you gain a point of Trauma and put a question mark next to it (if a question mark isn't there already).
Whenever you return to place where your character could conceivably retire, erase the question mark and roll a d20.  If you roll equal-or-less than your Trauma score, your character decides to retire.  You cannot stop them.
[...]
Retirement
[...] Retirement is just retirement from adventuring.  It can be literally anything they way, as long as it's not adventuring and they do not continue on as a player character.  They become a friendly NPC instead.  If they retire with enough loot, they can become a friendly and powerful NPC.  You can retire at any time, not just when Trauma forces them.
Inform the players about everything in the last paragraph.  This rule needs to be mostly transparent.
1. When a player retires, ask them what sort of retirement they intend, and how much wealth they are retiring with.
2. Multiply the wealth by the character's level, and look up the result on the table below.  Adjudicate the details of the new NPC using your vast prowess, using the numbers below as a guide.
Level x Wealth = Retirement Points (RP)
Less than 100 RP - Probably going to die in a nearby gutter.
100 RP - A chance at a normal life.  Apartment, job, loans, loyal dog, relationship problems, taxes.  Just a citizen. [...]
[...]
A Softer Death Table
[...] And anyway, I think the forced retirement thing (see below) will help drive them away from adventuring without gimping them towards the end.
Because one of the reasons why I liked the idea of players losing arms and legs, is because it would (a) motivate them to go find a cool new hand, or (b) encourage them to retire their character and roll up a new one.  In practice however, I find that players tend to just drive their characters until they fall apart like an unlubricated Corolla.
So why not create a mechanic that takes a straight path route to that goal, and forces characters to retire directly?
[...]
http://goblinpunch.blogspot.com/2017/04/death-trauma-and-retirement-im-gettin.html


Skerples does the same thing here, which is actually the original post which inspired Arnold.
Note that Skerples encourages even to re-roll and follow-up on the retired character(s) relevant or interesting, or when the players ask.

OSR: Death and Dismemberment Table + Early Retirement Tables
by Skerples
[...] At Level 5, and every time you level up past Level 5, you can retire your character to safety. This means I won't torment them anymore. If they can afford it, they can buy a or rent some land, set up a shop, teach at a wizard college, or beg in the gutter. They won't affect the plot anymore, but the plot won't specifically affect them. General disasters (fire, plagues, war, demonic invasions) will still affect their lives, but they are safe from almost anything else. Feel free to organize your character's retirement ahead of time. You can try and buy a castle, a tavern, or a political position.
[...]
Whenever it feels relevant or interesting, or when the PCs ask, I've been rolling on Tito's Retirement Table to see what Tito's got himself into now. Spoiler alert: it's not going well. 
[...]
Generic Farmer Retirement Table [...]
1. Prosperity. Extra food, good weather, or good luck.
2. Rumour. May have 1 interesting rumour for the PCs.
3-7. Stability. Just on the edge of starvation.
[...]
Generic Monastic Retirement Table [...]
1. Tranquility. The PCs hear a distant rumour of their former companion. They are doing well.
[...]
Generic Criminal Retirement Table [...]
1. Escape. Stole enough to start again. The ex-PC vanishes. One day, in a distant land, they might see their old companions and nod slyly.
2-6. Edge of Starvation. No change, but the outlook is bleak.
[...]
Generic Beggar Retirement Table [...]
1. Head Above Water. Food, a warm corner, a position in the local hierarchy of beggars, the favour of the local Church. Might even lead to some minor position out of the rain.
2. Minor Improvement. New pants, a hat, a few more coins than last week.
3-6. Edge of Starvation. No change.
[...]
https://coinsandscrolls.blogspot.com/2017/07/osr-death-and-dismemberment-table-early.html


Actually, retirement from adventuring is somehow the goal of the adventuring itself. It would be its most logical conclusion in OSR games, where also high-level characters might risk a sudden death in an unbalanced encounter, because of a deadly trap, a bad decision, or an unlucky turn of events.

A successful OSR character does not have to reach a very high level and keep risking its life...
A successful OSR character earned enough money to retire, in safety and wealth - adventuring is like accumulating your pension funds when you have no skills for a decent (safer) job.

So, what rules do you use for retirement? Do you have rules or a random table for characters making enough money or that are better off with a new, less risky life, which you want share?


Design notes:
- Bring the body of a fallen character back to civilization, earn XP for gold spent on the funeral rites
- It reinforces the fiction and risk taking (care for the fallen, effort to save the body, expenses on the funeral) with an XP reward
- About retirement: retirement from adventuring is somehow the goal of the adventuring itself
- Make enough money and retire from taking all these risks; retire in safety and wealth
- But another option is using retirement as a substitution for death; it gives shades of grey in the outcome of a character's life, it's not just rich or dead any more
- Mix nasty wounds, death and dismemberment tables and early retirement tables
- Perhaps allow subsequent re-rolls for retired characters when it feels necessary or when there is a request from players or circumstances change

Friday, May 10, 2019

How Abilities or Attributes define your character

As stated previously, the six core abilities are often one of the first elements in the game to be house-ruled somehow, whenever a GM feels like tinkering with the rules.
See this previous post - Ability Scores (3d6 in order) - for some alternatives to the classic 3d6-in-order method, and for some additional options, adding Luck, Talent and Saving Throws to the mix, from my own rules.

This time, though, we're looking at what's behind those abilities - as a concept, and as linked rules, and what they mean at the table at the moment of char-gen.


The first link is to a long post by Anne, with an interesting approach to reduce the number of abilities. The post is long but takes in consideration several games - not just OSR - to reach the interesting conclusion of reducing the number of Abilities to four: Strength, Agility, Intellect, and Will, which combine physical and mental in different ways, for attacks/defense and by force/by grace.

8 Abilities - 6, 3, or 4 Ability Scores?
by Anne
D&D-style games traditionally have 6 ability scores, but those 6 scores actually represent 8 different abilities. Those 8 abilities, in turn, are simply the combination of three different dichotomies - physical vs mental,  force vs grace, and attack vs defend. [...]
Recognizing the 8 underlying abilities does a couple things. First, it points to the direct parallels between D&D's mental and physical ability scores - Charisma, for example, is mental Strength; Intelligence is mental Dexterity. Second, seeing the underlying abilities gives us some insight into the ways the can be re-combined to make a smaller number of scores. (Jack argues, and I agree with him, that it's more interesting to have a smaller number of important scores than to have a larger number of unimportant scores - which is why I wouldn't suggest expanding out to 8 ability scores, although you certainly could if you want to.)
[...]
The Classic 6-Ability Division
D&D's 6 ability scores mostly take these abilities individually, but a couple of them double up. Strength represents physical force attack. Dexterity combines physical grace attack and physical grace defense. Constitution is the physical force defense. D&D's mental attributes are basically mirrors of the physical ones, but there's a slight asymmetry. Charisma combines both mental force attack and mental grace attack. Intelligence is mental grace defense. Wisdom is mental force defense. The broken symmetry, I think, is the result of the organic nature of the way D&D has grown over the years. Yes, in some moments it has been designed, but in-between those moments, it has simply grown by accretion.
[...]
Two Possible 3-Ability Divisions 
In the 3.0 ruleset, D&D introduced new Fortitude, Reflex, and Willpower saving throws, representing essentially the physical force defense, physical grace defense, and mental force defense. When other people have tried to simplify the D&D rules by reducing the number of ability scores, the most common reduction mirrors these saving throws.
[...]
Possible 4-Part Ability Scores ... and Beyond
Of the two possible 3-part ability scores, my own preference leans toward 2 physical, 1 mental - but if I were planning to write a set of rules with fewer ability scores, I think I might want 4. My current preference would be for a physical force ability (combining attack and defense), a physical grace ability (combining attack and defense), a mental attack ability (combining force and grace), and a mental defense ability (combining force and grace). [...]
https://diyanddragons.blogspot.com/2019/01/8-abilities-6-3-or-4-ability-scores.html


A good example of ability reduction is also found in Into The Odd, by Chris McDowall: Strength, Dexterity and Willpower.
In Into The Odd, abilities are used in the most simple way: roll a d20 under the score to succeed in your action. But abilities are also used as a measure of the damage you take. You have a few Hit Points but after you've run out, damage reduces your ability score.
Having a few abilities, there, is functional to fast character creation and having a buffer to absorb damage (with 6 or more abilities, you would have a buffer too large).
The character creation process in Into The Odd is as simple as rolling those score, the HP, and then getting a starter package of equipment which should inspire you to characterize your new character. It's dead simple, but effective.


This other post, by Marquis, again insists on four abilities/attributes, instead of the sacred six.
Note three important elements here: first is how attributes are simplified even further but tied closely to the rules in use (read the original article to see how for example Athletic and Savvy are used in different context). Second is that there is an attribute for body and one for mind or skills, and a third for everything weird, supernatural, magical, etc. Third, make a fourth ability which depends on the setting you want to run.
What I like about these points is that they stress several concepts which somehow are sometimes forgotten when house-ruling abilities:
- Don't just build your abilities to "simulate" a character, but build them with a specific usage in mind (rules tied to abilities)
- Supernatural or magical matters may have their own attribute
- Make sure the setting matters: make an ability or score tied to rule(s) specific to the setting

Exploring Characters pt. 3: Replacing Attributes and Rolling Under
by Mastered by Marquis
Attributes are a sacred cow, which means for me they're good beef to eat.
First off, I'm a big believer that only 4 attributes are needed for a character and that one of these four should always be setting dependent. This means I have a standard 3 + 1 special. I'm a bit afraid that this might make things seem super rules-lite or straight forward, but to be honest, 6 attributes causes confusion both from # and how much overlap they have amongst each other.
[...]
The three standard attributes are:
Athletic - This replaces strength, dexterity, and constitution. In a real world situation, most people who are strong are fit, and are usually good with their hands [...] Athletics governs three things: Encumbrance, To-Hit Accuracy, and Damage. [...]
Savvy - This replace Intellect, Wisdom, and Charisma. Essentially, the more savvy you are, the craftier and more skilled you are, both signs of intellect. [...] Savvy governs three things as well: Delicate Matters, Knowledge, and Languages. [...]
Weird - This doesn't replace anything specifically. This is what you use both for dealing with anything supernatural. [...] Weird covers a single thing: your knowledge of Esoteries. [...]

So then, on to the special 4th stat. Again, this depends on setting, but I'll give some archetypal ones.
Corruption/Taint/Radiance - Roll under this whenever you would suffer any of the above. On a success, you only suffer 1 point. On a fail, you suffer however many points are being given. If you have more points than your score, you lose your character or get a mutation or something.
Honor/Glory/Reputation - Roll under this whenever you enter into a scene with NPCs or monsters. On a success, they are awed or cowed by you without you having to do anything. The higher this is, the more well-known you are, the more doors open up for you in terms of exploring a world. Can be increased as rewards for clearing dungeons or helping kings or something.
Alignment [Ambition vs. Harmony/Chaos vs. Order/Light vs. Shadow] - Divide this attribute into 2, but choose one to be higher than the other (so a 12 in Alignment can be a 8 in Chaos and a 4 in order). Refer to this otherwise, though I might update this for the new method.
[...]
https://hmmmarquis.blogspot.com/2018/12/exploring-characters-pt-3-replacing.html

I don't find the Corruption/Taint/Radiance/Honor/Glory/Reputation/Alignment examples so compelling, but I guess they'll do for now, and possibly you already have your own ideas and inspiration about this.
But I would say that this is interesting especially if you think to change to attribute with regard to the adventure, or even the session's content... I don't know exactly how I would do it, but in a dark dungeon adventure a rule about remaining calm and in control while underground would be cool, while the same characters when facing an adventure in the city might enjoy forgetting that score, and having instead another for social connections and interactions and so on, depending on the content of the adventure.


This last link is a little different... enough with all the theory and reasoning about attributes and how to assign scores, house-rules, changes to the list of attributes... In the end, this is just a game.
Regardless of what you choose as attributes, 4 or 6 or 8 of them, Jeff came up with a simple but entertaining way to generate characters and have fun in the process.

D&D chargen as a party game
by Jeff Rients
Everyone writes down the usual six stats numbered 1 to 6, like so: 
1. Str
2. Dex
[...]
Or whatever order you normally use.  The numbers are the key part.  Next just one player rolls 3d6.  Everyone then cheers if it's a good number or boos if it's low.  Then all players (including the player who just threw 3d6) write that number down next to a randomly generated stat.  I.e. roll 1d6 to determine where to plug the number Bob just saddled you with.  Go around the table repeating the process until all stats are full.  [...] 
And more importantly, chargen now involves everyone paying attention to each other for a bit, instead of a room full of silent people rolling dice at the same time and staring down at their own charsheets. [...]
http://jrients.blogspot.com/2011/07/d-chargen-as-party-game.html

As Jeff points out in his blog post, this process gives the same numbers but on different attributes to every player (so no one has a "better" character) but more importantly, it makes the whole process a group activity, a table activity, instead of a lonely activity.
This is very important and helps create the right atmosphere at the table - we don't play just with rules, but we play with people.

If you want to connect the characters, and not just the players, look at Bonds (put characters together).


Design notes:
- Determine what each ability means and its usage
- Consider reducing the number of abilities, rather than increasing it; a simpler matrix is more effective than a complex one
- Consider how physical and mental are organized, what's used to attack and to defend, what's by force or by grace
- An example is to use just four: Strength, Agility, Intellect, and Will
- Into The Odd uses Strength, Dexterity and Willpower: roll a d20 under the score for actions, and use abilities also as a buffer for damage
- You may simplify even more with Athletic, Savvy and Weird
- Don't just build your abilities to "simulate" a character, but build them with a specific usage in mind (rules tied to abilities)
- Supernatural or magical matters may have their own attribute
- Make sure the setting matters: make an ability or score tied to rule(s) specific to the setting/adventure/session
- Consider how rolling attributes/abilities is the start of your game: make it a group activity and not a solitary procedure
- This can be done by sharing the same numbers for attributes, for example, but assigning them to different attributes randomly
- And/or you can use Bonds, to connect the characters together...
- In general, it's important to be paying attention to what other players are doing at char-gen

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Combat: bring the escalation die to the OSR

In the Combat rules of 13th Age there is a little neat paragraph called "Escalation Die".
The rule goes more or less like this:
- It starts at 0
- In round 2, put a d6 on the table showing 1
- Every round, increase its value, up to the maximum of 6

The value of the escalation die is added to the characters' to-hit roll, so as the fight advances, characters are more likely to hit.
Some monsters (bad monsters) might use this die as well, other monsters could reduce its value, and some powers might have a bonus related to the escalation die, or some other feats might be linked to it (i.e. certain attacks that can be performed when the Escalation Die is at 3 or more, etc...).

I loved this Escalation Die rule, when I first read quickly through the book. And even though I never played 13th Age (and it's probably too crunchy for my taste), I guess most players love this rule.
In 13th Age it does a few things:
- It gives characters the chance to build momentum round after round, making them more likely to hit their opponents
- It paces somehow the usage of certain feats or skills, which might be tied to the Escalation Die (even if you can use your special attack from the start, you're encouraged by the rules to wait a few rounds, so you can use the Escalation Die bonus and improve your chances)
- Some monsters use it too, which makes them tougher and nastier!

This is nice and good, but...
1- Round 1 equal Esc.Die 0, Round 2 equal Esc.Die 1... wouldn't it be easier to start at 1?
2- Only some monsters use it, why not all of them?
3- Some monsters reduce its value... ok, nice rule, but then there is a counter-effect against it? You make a nice new rule and then make exceptions to go back to default? (ignore nice new rule as a feature?)
4- It has no effect on damage


Now, I realize that this analysis is influenced by what I expect from my OSR games... In the spirit of 13th Age even the things which sound wrong to me, are probably good.
But if I were to use the inspiration of the Escalation Die, and bring it to the OSR, I would say:
1- Make it simple, round 1, equal Escalation Die 1, round 2 equal Esc.Die 2, etc...
2- Everyone uses it, players and GM, characters and monsters
3- No mitigation, no reducing the score, perhaps just reset to 1 after getting up to 6
4- It affects to-hit or damage (decide before rolling), or perhaps even both!

In fact, I see the Escalation Die as a way to make combat deadlier and faster.
Especially faster... By increasing the chance to hit and/or the damage, it should make things faster.


Actually, I guess the rule could be changed, and the value of the Escalation Die could be increased not only every round, but every time someone rolls to hit and misses.
(Yes, I hate it when it happens, see Combat: fight and die faster - where you'll find links about auto-hit, about always inflicting damage also on a miss, or the single roll-to-hit which includes the character's and the monster's attack, diminishing the chances of a miss.)

This is indeed what I did in the Black Dogs issue number 3, I took the escalation die and made something similar - but easier - for any OSR game:
- Put a d6 on the table, showing 1
- Every time someone misses an attack, increase the die value of one point
- When you reach 6, characters gets a certain bonus

In the Black Dogs (which uses a "zones" concept dividing the battlefield in Front, Body and Rear) there are different bonuses.
For a standard OSR game, I would say then the d6 gets to 6, every character and monster gets a d6. The d6 can be used at any time: roll it with the d20 for a bonus to-hit, or with the damage die of your weapon for an increased damage.


So the final house-rule, for generic OSR games, could be:
- Put a d6 on the table, showing 1
- Increase the die value of one point, when: A) Every round, or B) every time someone misses an attack (deadlier!)
- Reset to 1 when you get to 6 and have to increase it again

What to do with the number on the d6? You choose:
A) When you get to 6, everyone gets a d6 to roll together with their nex to-hit or damage roll
B) Everyone decides (on their turn) if to add the d6 number to their to-hit or damage roll (nasty, because things escalate fast!)

Let me know what you think and if you ever used an escalation die in an OSR game.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Combat: initiative in your inventory

When looking at alternatives and suggestions about initiative in OSR combat, I found an interesting article which suggested treating initiative as a "real" object - something to carry around, something that can even be stolen, or used as a threat ("I have the initiative, you better back down..."). In the same article, Patrick also suggested using questions as a tool for initiative - the more questions you ask, the more you know but at the price of potentially delayed action.
The article was called Physical Initiative and Query Initiative by Patrick Stuart.
You know how good is Patrick, and that post is good.

So I thought, why not to mix the two things, and simplify them into a single rule, using inventory as a tool for initiative?
This system assumes inventory in slots (like in LotFP) but counts pounds anymore, nowadays?
NOTE: this rule was not tested. It's just an idea...

The basic rule could be something like:
1- By default enemies have initiative 1 if slow, 4 if normal (humans/humanoids) and 8 if fast (animals and many monsters, own ground, advantage of surprise). Adjust a point or two as you see fit
2- Each character has an initiative score equal to the number of empty slots in their inventory. Zero empty slots is initiative 0 and each slot used above that (over encumbered) counts as going negative
3- Keep a piece of paper with the characters' initiative written on it, so you'll know which enemies act before, which in between characters, which after... Use this info also to tune the beginning of the encounter
4- At the beginning of the encounter, give information to players as their characters could perceive them
5- Each question asked, counts as using an empty slot, reducing initiative. If you want to act fast, you should declare it before others ask their questions
6- When an action is declared and performed (by characters or by enemies), the outcome of the action translates into "free" information


Some notes/examples:

1- Some examples of enemies with their initiative scores:
(one) 1: a status slowly animating, a large monster, monsters with very long limbs or long weapons which take an effort to swing, blobs, deformed creatures, most magical attacks which require a little formula or gesture to be cast...
(four) 4: this is the norm; a regular human or humanoid, a guard, a bandit, a soldier
(eight) 8: most animals, wilderness creatures and monsters. Try to picture them; if they have slender bodies, tendonds and muscles of predators, they have initiative 8. If they look like they might jump at you in an split second, before you could even raise your hands, initiative 8. If it looks like you won't even have the time to draw your sword, initiative 8.
Assign initiative 8 also to slower enemies when they have the advantage of being on their own ground, when they know the place better than the characters, when they are ready to engage, and if they are already at 8, raise it up to 10.
Same goes for enemies with the advantage of surprise (including raising initiative up to 10 if they are fast and have the advantage of surprise). Up to 12 for fast, and own ground, and surprise? I'd say yes.

2- The less you carry, the faster you are. If you are three slots over your quota, you are at initiative -3 (minus three).

3- Keep a piece of paper with the characters' initiative written on it, so you'll know which enemies act before, which in between characters, which after... Use this info also to tune the beginning of the encounter.
If they encounter a fast creature, the creature's attack might strike them before they can react (i.e. the creature has initiative 10 and the fastest character has initiative 7 - seven empty slots).
If they encounter something slower, you may say that they see an attack coming, with a little info. The more they ask questions (see the point below) before they declare their actions, the more there is a chance for the attack to land before they can make their own action or attack to stop it.

4- If the characters have enough time to size up their opponents, they might not need to ask questions. If they encounter a group of bandits in the wilderness, and have the time to spot them, they might already know a lot. How many are there, how tough they look, how are they armed.
But if the enemy has the advantage of surprise or they're just behind a corner and the two groups clash, you can give limited information. For example you could say things like "You stumble on a group of armed men behind the corner; there's a handful of them and you hear weapons and armors clanking", or even "Something nasty, fast and greenish slashes at your legs from the shadows behind you... you hear a slugghish noise and perceive a terrible smell".
The more the enemy has the advantage of surprise, the less information you give.

5- The less you think, the faster you are. Ask the players who wants to act right away, before knowing anything more than what you said at the beginning of the encounter. Those can act with their initiative with no penalties.
If players start to ask questions, each answer brings their initiative score down by one, as if they had a full slot in their inventory. Note that everyone listens to the answers, so everyone's score goes down.
If someone wants to avoid loosing any more points of initiative, they should declare their action.

6- When an enemy gets to act (high initiative score) or a player declares an action (usually an attack or counterattack), resolve it. The information which comes out of it, is for free. In other words, this is something that happens in combat, and those who act later will be able to see the outcome of this action as a sort of additional information.
A classic example could be: a monster with initiative 8, a character with 6, another with 5, another monster (same type but bigger, and slower) with initiative 3. The monster with initiative 8 attacks, and deals 2d8 damage bringing one character to almost 0 HP; it's fast, bloody, messy. The other character has a chance to act and you tell them.
It's their decision now; they may ask additional questions, but they can safely assume that the other monster is slower but even stronger... do they use their action to engage it? Or to run away? Do they ask questions looking for a vulnerable spot, at the risk of suffering the second monster's attack before they can do their own action?


An additional idea is to use the inventory slots to "carry" elements like those below. Each of those "things" will take away empty slots, thus making you to act after but in exchange for some different type of advantage:
- "quick draw" to ready your weapons fast
- "quick swap" to be able to swap weapons fast

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Combat: Initiative

Initiative in combat is quite a topic. It often makes the difference between life and death, especially at lower levels. If both the character(s) and the adversary can sustain one or two hits before going down, being the one with a chance to hit first is a big deal.
If you also implement auto-hits or max damage (or other house-rules to speed up combat, as in the previous article Combat: fight and die faster), then initiative becomes even more of a critical factor.

Traditionally, there are a few "common" methods for Initiative:
1- Everyone rolls for Initiative, including the monsters/adversaries (possibly with the DEX modifier)
2- Only the characters roll; "failure" (i.e. on a DEX check) means going after all the monsters/adversaries (which act as a group), "success" mean going before the monsters/adversaries
3- One roll per group (characters vs. monsters/adversaries); the group with the best score goes first

Also, some groups determine initiative only at the beginning of combat, others do it every round.

Each method has its own benefits and drawbacks:
1- Individual initiative provides the best granularity; faster characters/monsters will likely go first and each combatant has its own "moment"... but of course it requires more attention and more rolls. It gets even heavier if initiative changes every round
2- If the characters are the only ones to roll, there is a decent level of details but without the need to roll for every monster/adversary... with the only drawback that a specific monster's speed might be overlooked (unless you rule for example that monster X goes always before the characters, for example)
3- The roll per group is probably the fastest method, but provides the minimal ammount of details, and then the order of the various characters still needs to be determined within the group, with some method

Re-rolling initiative every round can become easily a mess, since the order will likely change every time, but it allows someone who is usually fast to regain its place in the initiative order, if they rolled badly at the start of the fight.


When looking for alternatives, I found several very interesting links with ideas going from useful to very original to very bizarre...
So let's start with bizarre... which is not bad at all, actually. The first idea by Patrick Stuart is "physical initiative"... something that can be recognized and which is a real, physical thing. I don't know if it will be possible to really use it in a long-term game, but it seems like a rule that could work in certain occasions, or for one-shots or a single specific adventure.

The second idea by Patrick Stuart makes more sense in a long-term game, and it is tied to questions. Players may ask questions about the opposition and each question brings them closer to loosing initiative - this makes a lot of sense because it means that a careful approach (more questions) might translate in a tactical advantage in exchange for giving up the first attack.
If one or more characters would like to act first, let them roll before other players ask more questions in exchange for acting later on (whatever comes up during those attacks, in terms of knowledge for other players, is fair game...). Also, I would suggest to make monsters act when their moment comes, in between questions (i.e. the characters ask the 3rd question and a monster has an initiative rating of 3; let it act and whatever the players learn by suffering the attack, they do not need to ask).

Physical Initiative and Query Initiative
by Patrick Stuart
[...] The first part is a silly list, the second part is less immediately useful but more conceptually interesting.
First idea is what if The Initiative is like a literal physical thing that you can find or recover in a game world, or just in one dungeon, city or area, and as long as you have it then you have the initiative. I.e, you fight first.
And everyone in this area knows what the initiative is, so if they see you with it, they will say 'oh shit, they have the initiative' and be afraid to attack, but if they can steal or grab it off you then *they* will have the initiative, and if they can break, kill, destroy or lose it then there is no initiative.
[...]
All of these must be held openly, visible, or held in one hand.
1. A small fragile bird like a starling, or a bat. Delicate bones, moves fast if it can get away. Very specific diet.
2. A big fat awkward robust bird like a Turkey. You have to cradle it under one arm. It becomes alarmed in violent situations, escapes and runs about. There can be no fighting in its presence till it is caught at which point whoever has it has the initiative. The bird is imperious.
3. A delicate glass flower, or a real one in a pot.
4. The Ark of Initiative. A huge heavy stone box that has to be carried about by at least two people.
[...]
Second idea is influenced somewhat by the description of fights in Amber Diceless. What if initiative was related to the number of questions a player or side could ask about the encounter before they lose initiative.
This is probably easier to conceptualise as a per-side thing. Enemy types would have an Initiative Value, with low being good. Something like this;
Ambush: D4 -1
Fast things: D4
People: D6
Bigger things: D8
Slllooow things: 2d6 (like Zombies)
You would begin with the most basic description possible;
"A shape attacks. Initiative begins."
Then the player side can ask precise questions about the specific physical qualities that they can sense. Like;
"What shape is it?"
"How many limbs?"
"Is it dressed?"
"Does it/they have a weapon?"
"How many of them?"
I'm not sure on the exact quality of the questions that can be asked. Yes/No seems a bit too tight but wider questions could get easy too quickly.
Then the Players get to ask questions about what their particular character can see or sense, and if they go over a creatures initiative number, then the monsters/opponents get to attack first. [...]

Thinking of these two together, and trying to merge them and simplify them...
What if initiative should be carried in the inventory like a real thing - translating it into questions/actions?
This will require some thoughts and possibly a post by itself, but I would say something like:
- Give each monster an initiative rating like 0 for slow, 4 for normal, 8 for fast, or something like that...
- Characters can "carry" initiative as a real thing: each inventory slot dedicated to initiative is a +1 so to act before normal (value 4) monsters, a character needs 5 inventory slots dedicated to initiative (they can carry less, because they need to act fast and pay attention and be ready to act)
- If you are over your limit, you have automatically initiative zero
- To avoid wasting time to rearrange the inventory (i.e. moving objects to change the value of initiative often), you could also say that the number of empty slots is automatically the value of initiative
- Inventory slots could be also pre-allocated with stuff like "quick draw" to ready your weapons fast, or "quick swap" to be able to swap weapons fast, or "question 1", "question 2" etc. so that you'll be able to ask questions beyond the basic initial description... each of those "things" will take away empty slots, thus making you to act after but in exchange for some different type of advantage
OK, this definitely requires some thoughts and some testing.


The next link uses something I really really love, the hazard system by Brendan (Necropraxis) (I will write about it in a different post) and brings it to combat.
The system allows some dynamic output without the need to roll for initiative (it has cases where characters go first as a group, cases where monsters go first, cases when you act based on encumbrance, and so on).
The system has a great potential, but I feel like the table provided in the article would need some tuning (or maybe a complete rewrite).

A HAZARD DIE FOR COMBAT: REPLACING INITIATIVE AND SPICING UP COMBAT
by Jacob Aphenaeus
At the beginning of each round of combat, roll the Combat Die. Unless stated otherwise PCs go first:
Combat Die: (1d6)
1. Player Characters go first!
2. "Slow" Creatures go second, Starting with normal PCs, then normal NPCs, then slow PCs, then slow NPCs. (Slow refers to anything wearing heavy armor, wielding large weapons, encumbered, or with reduced speed like dwarves or halflings)
3. Enemies gain a leg up! Enemy NPCs go first!
[...]
This would require the reworking of some mechanics but it does allow for some unpredictability in combat and some new design opportunities such as...
Boss Monsters can add effects to the Combat Die!
For instance, Saurfang the Dragon can whip his tail or try to hypnotize a PC off of his turn. Just upgrade the die to a d8 and add both options to the Combat Die chart. [...]


Actually, a cleaner version is available on the necropraxis blog. It gives fewer details but I think it has a better balance between the various options.

Tactical Hazard Die
by Brendan
The current unreleased working version of the Hazard System uses six potential outcomes which are then interpreted relative to the current turn type. The four turn types, from most abstract to least abstract, are Haven, Wilderness, Dungeon, and Combat. The six outcomes, mapped to the sides of the 1d6 Hazard Die, are 1) Setback, 2) Fatigue, 3) Expiration, 4) Locality, 5) Percept, and 6) Advantage. This unifies the set of potential outcomes so referees need learn fewer exceptions. Additionally, the order roughly ranks the outcomes from most negative (Setback) to most positive (Advantage) taking the perspective of player characters.
[...]
More concretely, my current play test interprets Combat Turn Hazard Die outcomes as:

1. Setback: opponents act first or reinforcements arrive

2. Fatigue: combatants engaged in melee suffer 1 point of damage

3. Expiration: some or all ongoing effects end (such as burning oil)

4. Locality: the battlefield changes in some way

5. Percept: players gain some clue to opponent strategy
6. Advantage: players choose extra action or forced morale check
http://www.necropraxis.com/2016/07/22/tactical-hazard-die/

I would probably just switch the order, keeping the low results as an advantage to the players, and the higher values in advantage of the adversaries. This way, if there is some special monster or NPC in the encounter, you can increase the die size to d8 (or even d10, or d12) and add those options at the top of the chart.


The next and last link is by the author of Troika!, Daniel Sell. The system is quite simple and plays heavily with randomization: enemies or characters might get the upper hand with a few lucky draws, and then the round may end abruptly, before the other side had a chance to react in a significant way.
This may frustrate some players (or GMs), so you may want to consider some mitigation effect for those characters or enemies that didn't have a chance to act when the round ends.

Troika! Initiative Rules
This initiative system can replace most I-go-you-go style initiative arrangements in role-playing games without much fuss. You need the following:
- Two identical cards for each player character
- One card that signifies the end of the turn
- An abundance of one card to signify henchmen
- An abundance of one more card to signify enemies 
When a fight breaks out you gather up the player cards, the end of round token, henchman tokens equal to the number of henchmen present, and a number of enemy tokens equal to the total initiative value of all enemies. Shuffle these.
Draw a card, the owner of the drawn card acts. If the end of round card is drawn you gather up all the tokens and start again. [...]
http://whatwouldconando.blogspot.com/2018/02/troika-initiative-rules.html

If you want to draw inspiration from this system, note that it does two things:
- Gives characters and opponents the chance to act more than once per round, if they draw their card more than once
- It makes the spells' and effects' duration somehow unpredictable

Even with the above caveats, I hope I will be able to give a test-drive to Troika! and see how the system works at the table.


Design notes:
- Having the chance to hit first is a big deal, especially at low levels
- Initiative becomes even more important with auto-hit or max damage or other similar house-rules
- There is a trade-off between granularity (i.e. each character and monster has its own roll) and speed at the table (i.e. roll only for characters, roll for groups)
- Also, repeating the roll every round requires more attention, but allows someone who rolled badly to "regain" its natural place in the initiative order
- Some ideas by Patrick Stuart: make initiative a real, physical thing... or connect initiative to questions asked by the players
- Inspired by the above, perhaps count initiative as the empty inventory slots? (if you use a slot system for the inventory, but who doesn't, nowadays?) You could also use the inventory for questions or things like "quick draw", "quick swap", "access to items", and so on
- Initiative using the hazard system (by necropraxis)
- Random initiative and random end-of-round with cards/tokens, as in Troika! (it may affect heavily how many times a character/opponent has a chance to act, and the duration of spells and various effects)