24 June 2014

Explanation of NPCs: footnote

I do play GURPS, and I'm not going to take the time to convert characters to other systems ... especially since I really don't know other systems (other than Fantasy Trip, a long out-of-print system that doesn't precisely have more players than GURPS).

But you should have a handle on what some of the numbers mean, so you have a good idea what these NPCs can do and how well they can do it.

(Caveat: the explanations are my own perception, usually.  Not every GURPS GM shares my take.)

Stats:  Stats are Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity and Health.  There are also secondary stats such as Fatigue, Speed, Move, Perception, Will and Hit Points, which are all figured off of the main stats.

10 is the system default for "average" -- unless there's a racial modifier, every character starts with 10s in each of the main stats.  Improving stats is expensive in GURPS, so stat numbers that a D&D player might perceive as only decent are in this system quite good.  Almost all physical skills are bought off of DX, and almost all mental skills are bought off of IQ; in consequence, GURPS characters tend to be created with variations on 11-13-13-11 numbers, even after the major revision in 4th edition that jacked up the point cost on improving DX and IQ while leaving ST and HT alone.

7 is the lowest stat the system allows, and 8 is the lowest I allow: it's pretty much the lowest you can get and still be a viable adventurer.  Still, a stat of 8 sucks, and over the years a number of players who blow through my warnings have traded out characters once they realize exactly how much it does suck.

12 is, IMHO, a pretty decent stat.  13 is very good indeed, and it's about what I encourage PCs to use for their go-to stat -- "prime requisite" in D&D terms.  14 is outstanding, something that a beginning PC might have as a "prime requisite" stat with some sacrifice; looking over my records, people manage with a single stat less than half of the time.  More than that?  In the 29 years I've been GMing GURPS, only eight characters have had a stat of 15 or more.  All of them started before the 4th edition cost revision, and six of them played a race that gave a stat boost.  One intrepid dwarf had ST 15/DX 15, and was otherwise a blithering idiot with just a half-dozen skills.

Skills:  Basic premise -- in GURPS, beginning characters are competent.  This isn't D&D, where a character can only be reasonably expected to succeed at a skill half of the time.  A skill of 12 (which is okay at best for a PC) has a 74% chance of success.  A skill of 13 has 84%.  A skill of 15 has 95%.  Penalties apply -- if you're trying to shoot someone in the countryside at midnight, from 30 yards away, you had damn well better not count on hitting him with that 14 roll -- but even so.
A level of 8-9 is better than the default level for not knowing a skill at all, but it's not very good; a good example is that Broadsword-8 means you've just finished boot camp, and you were clumsy to begin with.  (The minimum DX you can have and have Broadsword-8 is 9.)

10-11 is okay.  It'll do for routine, non-emergency, non-combat uses.  Think of an apprentice in a craft, or someone of decent physical prowess just getting through basic weapon training.

12 is about the nominating level for "can make your living with this skill," and 13 is "... and you're actually good at it."  11-12 is where a newly-genned PC should have routine, secondary skills in the "It's Good To Have In The Party Someone Who Knows Something About History" camp.

14 is quite good, and 13-14 is about where a newly-genned PC should have important skills.

15 is where I place an expert, and a newbie with this for his or her go-to skill is doing okay.  A newbie swordsman with DX 12, for instance, is putting a significant number of points to get Rapier skill this high.

16-17 are quite expert, and these are levels that newly genned PCs will only reach with serious sacrifice, and that I'll allow a newbie to take only if I'm in a pretty good mood.

18 is my nominating level for master, and few PCs ever push numbers this high or above.

21 is my nominating level for "best in the region," and I won't let PCs reach this without long training, serious sacrifice and some excellent explanations.  (You don't get to be the best swordsman in the kingdom by going on adventures.  You get to be the best swordsman in the kingdom by working out four hours a day, every day, with weapon masters in the salle.)

25 is my nominating level for "one of the best in the world."  I've let exactly two PCs in my campaign's history reach this with a single skill apiece.  The first was the best healer in my campaign's history, and the second is not merely the most powerful wizard (and highest point total character) in my campaign's history, she's legitimately one of the world's most powerful wizards.

20 June 2014

NPC of the Day: Grogondo

I've mentioned my predilection for a "viewpoint" NPC a couple times before.  While Kardo, at eleven years straight and counting, is by far my longest standing VNPC, this was really my earliest: before this fellow, my players tended to have one or two key hirelings apiece who were, to a large extent, one-dimensional cyphers played by them as silent, almost faceless adjuncts.  This character, who made his debut in 1980, was a key step in my evolution as a GM.

In many a campaign, Grogondo would have never gotten off the ground: as you can see, he's an orc.

(That's actually what he looked like, too; it's part of the cover of my first published gaming book, and the artist, Denis Loubet, not only did a great job on the cover, but depicted four characters from my main group and more or less got them right.  I'm afraid that Denis and Hannah Shapiro spoiled me for collaboration with artists.  In any event, I digress.)

Obviously, in that first few years of the hobby, orcs were already staked out as the Klingons of RPGdom -- the evil, dishonorable, baby-munching enemy, to be whacked on sight.  But ... there was a difference.  Most of the players in my two groups, at the time, were friends I brought into the hobby.  They hadn't yet absorbed some of the prejudices that gamers had generally, and they didn't know that they were supposed to reflexively mistrust and hate this guy.

ST: 12     IQ: 10     DX: 13     HT: 13/16    Per: 12    Will: 12    Speed: 6.5     Move: 6  

Advantages:  Combat Reflexes; Contacts / Low-level criminals, 9-; Night Vision+3; Outdoorsman+1; Reputation / +2, as hardcore killer, among local lowlifes; Very Fit

Perks:  Improvised Weapons; Neck Control; Weapon Adaptation

Disadvantages: Bloodlust; Bully; Code of Honor (Stays Bought); Colorblindness; Odious Personal Habits+1 / "Broken" speech; Reputation-1 as uncouth & barbaric; Short Life Span; Social Stigma: Minority Group; Struggling; Ugly

Skills: Brawling-14; Climbing-15; First Aid-10; Hiking-14; L: Altanian (B/-); L: Avanari (N/-); L: Talendi (B/-); Packing-10; Riding-12; Seamanship-11; Shortsword-12; Singing-13; Spear-14; Staff-13; Stealth-14; Streetwise-10; Survival-14; Swimming-14; Tactics-10; Thrown Weapon: Spear-13; Tracking-15

Maneuvers: Feint-15

Quirks:  CB: Vandalism; Deliberately inarticulate; NOT intolerant of elves; Recreational drug user; Skirmisher mentality

Grogondo pretty much projects the stereotype of the second-tier mercenary thug.  He's not an experienced regimental soldier, he'll pretty much do what he's paid to do, and he throws his weight around as far as he can manage.  Local lowlifes know him, and fear him more than a little bit, although he's never really worked for criminals except as an occasional bodyguard.  He's inarticulate, and speaks with broken syntax -- "Ya, Grogondo do this thing.  Grogondo kill for you now?"  Stereotypical thug orc, in a land where orcs are second-class citizens at best and no one expects better.

This is somewhat deceptive.

First off, he's smarter than the average orc.  (Stronger, tougher, faster too, come to that.)  If you're loyal to him -- and to Grogondo, "loyal" pretty much means "Don't screw me and pay a fair share and on time" -- he's loyal to you.  While in some ways he's a typical orc, he deals well enough with elves (who don't often return the favor), and his inarticulacy is a posture: he speaks the local language perfectly well, but chooses not to so as to encourage others to underestimate him.  It works.  He speaks smatterings of two other languages, and is illiterate.

He's an excellent and veteran outdoorsman, and is known to be one, which has led to a number of his jobs ... he might not know how to get you to the ruins of Castle Alvang in the mountains, but he'll keep you alive in the howling wilderness if you know to get there.  He's also an experienced caravan guard, and can do teamster work.  (None of this is impaired by his casual hemp smoking habit; he likes to get mellow, not stoned, and he really can stop any time he wants or needs to do so.)

But don't expect him to stand stalwartly between you and harm in battle: that's not his style.  He's a circle-around-and-flank-the-unsuspecting-foe guy, although he doesn't lack courage -- he just figures that frontal assaults are stupid, and will avoid them if at all possible.  He's also a take-no-prisoners chap -- to Grogondo, the only good enemy is a dead enemy, and dead enemies can't get revenge on him.  Employers who waver on these important values lose his respect, fast.  You might want to play close attention to his facial expressions: if he winces or sneers off to the side, it means he thinks your plan is dumb.  He doesn't work long for employers who make dumb plans.

* * * * * * * * *

The party leader of the group for which Grogondo was the VNPC was elven blood, sure, but the player was pretty ruthlessly pragmatic, and thought that Grogondo was the greatest thing since sliced bread; the characters became allies and fast friends.  Grogondo was around for a few years, and became quite experienced.  I present him here as a beginning NPC (at 125 pts, which is below a starting PC in my campaign).

(For those of you unfamiliar with GURPS:  the split health is Health/Hit Points, the +3 HP being an orcish trait in my campaign.  Very Fit confers high resistance to disease, poisoning, staying conscious, you lose fatigue at half normal, and recover it at twice normal -- pretty much, you're a triathlon type; Improvised Weapons means you can fight perfectly well with broken bottles, flagons and table legs; Neck Control gives large resistance to being choked or strangled; Weapon Adaptation in his case gives him the ability to use staff techniques with a spear and spear techniques with a staff -- usually he carries a spear.  Struggling means he doesn't own much: his spear, some substandard leather armor, camping gear, and that's about it.  The italicized items are orcish racial traits not otherwise reflected in the stats.)

For a further explanation of system numbers, check this link.

13 June 2014

Adepts of the Doxology: Things You Can Use

“Are you alright, Sana?” I screamed, daring a glance back at the fallen wizard, that lizard of hers screaming like a tea kettle.  I didn’t hold out high hopes - that damn crossbow bolt was sticking IN her, and it sure didn’t look good.  For any of us - me, Dray, the four remaining sellswords, we were holding off Tellek’s band of renegades at the wall, and we’d done for a dozen of the bastards at least ... but there were a couple dozen more, and now they were pissed.

“Wolf Lord’s nut sack, here they come,” spat Dray.  I nodded and gripped my last two throwing knives, feeling in front of me to make sure the axe was there and ready.

S-S-S-S-S-S-SHING!  The front wave was flattened, knocked down as if by Upuaut’s own scythe.  S-S-S-S-S-S-SHING!  I stole another glance back, and there was Sana Avennia, staggering forward - that bolt still sticking out of her! - shaking her flail at the enemy line.  S-S-S-S-S-S-SHING!  The bronze links rang in the night, and damn me for a civvie if it wasn’t a sweeter sound than temple bells.

“Eyes forward, Gwythar,” she hissed, wiping the blood from her mouth with her free hand.  “We’re not done for yet, but neither are they.”  S-S-S-S-S-S-SHING!


(NB: This is one of the wizardly orders from my campaign, which some people have found interesting and poached for their own.  For those of you scoring at home, "Fristles" are cat people, "Khibils" are fox people, "San/Sana" is a term of respect applied to scholars in general and wizards in particular, and the system information below pertains to GURPS.  Adapt as you wish!)

The Adepts practice animation and body control magics.  While the Order does not discriminate racially – officially – a preponderance are Fristles and Khibils, both races native to the desert home of the Order.  Further, all mages of the Order carry bronze flails which they use as foci for their magics (and in place of enchanted Staves).  However, the Adepts can and do also use the flails as weapons, and are among the most skilled warriors among wizards.

Their schola is in a far-off western desert land, and most Adepts train there, making wizards of this otherwise useful and well-regarded order more uncommon the farther from there one gets.  At their schola Adepts are schooled in a demanding and punishing regimen which includes a degree of mysticism and ascetic practices unusual amongst magical orders.  Privation, starvation and mortification are known to be part of the training.  Self-flagellation is a notable part of their religious practices, commonly employed when Adepts believe they have failed or faltered in a task through carelessness, clumsiness or inattention on their own part.  Nothing beyond rumors exists of the god/s they worship or the private rituals they undergo, although it is believed that the “San Destinakon” of the Order’s title refers to the mystic who founded the Order and codified its practices rather than any focus of veneration in her own right.  “Listening to the Wind” is known to be an element of meditation, although what that means is unrevealed.

What is known is that the last stage of the Adept’s training involves the feared Desert of Blood, ringed with cruel mountains, where he must survive naked – with only the bronze flail for a tool – for one month.  There, in a haunted land where the flow of mana is slight, is where Adepts learn to cope with weak or erratic mana flows; this also stands them well in enchanting magical artifacts, something at which the Order excels.  Adepts who survive leave the Desert with a familiar, almost always a winged dragonet slightly smaller than a house cat, believed by observers to be sentient.

SYMBOL: A bronze flail.

GARB: Adepts wear robes in a diamond checkerboard pattern, usually in brownish and black colors: brown, bronze, umber, tan, brass and so on.  It is usual to wear a mantle which covers the shoulders.

TEMPLATE (28 points): College of Mages [16]; the Magical Perk Flagellant’s Blessing and any one of the following: Better Magic Items, Elixir Resistance, Far Casting, Improvised Items, Controlled Cantrip, Mystic Gesture Cantrip, Mana Compensation, Rule of 17, Quick and Focused, Staff Attunement, Willful Casting [2]; the Area Knowledge (Mycretia), First Aid and Theology skills at IQ [6], the Staff spell at minimum [1], the Flail skill at DX [4], Language (Hrestoli) at least at Accented written and spoken [4],  Ally/Familiar [at least 10]; Disciplines of Faith [-10], Vow: keep cult secrets [-5].

CONSONANT SPELL COLLEGES: Animation, Alteration, Body Control, Enchantment, Movement

RECOMMENDED SKILLS: Research, Occultism, Thaumatology, Meditation, Religious Ritual.  Many Adepts have High Pain Threshold and Rapid Healing.

06 June 2014

GMing and Compromise

How far do I go by way of compromise in what I run? Not very.

What I run is a Renaissance-tech fantasy world, very loosely based on Kenneth Bulmer's Scorpio series, using GURPS.  I specialize in urban adventures and run a lot of nautical stuff.  I don't do dungeons, and my plot arcs are a lot more about geopolitics than Good Kingdom vs. Evil Empire.  I'm a realism bug.  PvP is strictly forbidden in my campaign.

That's the deal.  If you want to play D&D or Pathfinder, I'm not your guy.  If you want lots of interparty conflict, I'm not your guy.  If you want to do SF, well, I do a few months worth of Firefly every several years, but that aside, no, I don't do that.  If you want high entropy dungeon fantasy where the PCs' goal is to be the lords of creation, no, I don't do that.  If you can't handle that a single veteran soldier might be able to slap you around and that thirty orcs with spears definitely will slap you around, no, I'm not catering to you.  If you don't like that we're a friendly lot who break for lunch and spend the first 15-20 minutes asking about everyone's fortnight, well, shucky darn.

I've been doing this for over three decades now, and I'm pretty set in my ways.  I GM two groups who like my way of doing things just fine, and those players who couldn't handle one or more of the above elements find other groups in which to play.  I've also long since made sure prospective new players know the score, in detail; sometimes they listen.

Sorry, but I’m not going to be one of those sadsack GMs who write to gaming forums complaining that they’ve been bullied into running a game system, a setting, a genre they didn’t like.  Life’s too short.