Wednesday, 14 March 2018

A partial comparison of Star Trek roleplaying systems

I got into Star Trek roleplaying unexpectedly in 2000, when a school friend called to say that, at a recent convention, he'd foolishly agreed to join some weird older fanboy stranger's campaign, and would I and our other friend Jamie like to take his place instead. Jamie and I went, Jamie quit pretty soon after, but I kept going back for more, for over a year. It was exactly what I wanted at the time. I was a new roleplayer, having started with AD&D in 1997, and I had grown pretty sick of the only two choices I knew at the time: AD&D dungeon crawls, or Vampire teen angst. I loved Star Trek, and I was glad for the chance to immerse myself in it, solving technical problems, rather than killing things or having compulsory emotions. I played our ship's chief engineer, so it fell on me, more often than not, to come up with practical solutions to the puzzles the GM liked to set us. In hindsight, there was probably more to it than that, but that's what I was focused on at the time.

A couple years later, I got a rulebook of my own, and decided to try running Star Trek roleplaying games myself. I didn't realise at the time that this would lead to much more varied experiences and plots, or that I'd always be the GM and never the player in any Star Trek game for over 15 years. For whatever reason, nobody else around here ever wants to run it.

Now we've started playing the latest incarnation of the game, Star Trek Adventures, and this has had me comparing all the different systems I've used over the years. I thought it might be useful to someone, somehow, to read my comparisons, so here they are, below. The two main aspects of each system I'd like to focus on are their crunch and fluff: How well their rules worked for my needs, and how well they managed to capture the feel of the series for me. My approach is subjective, but luckily, my subjective opinions are objectively the correct ones.

The rules systems are presented here in the order in which I first used them, rather than publication order, to show how my opinions were altered over time.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Roleplaying Game (Last Unicorn Games, first released 1998, first played 2000)
The "Icon" system. The core mechanism is to roll a variable number of d6's, and hope their total sums to greater than a target number the GM sets. It's simple and it works, but it doesn't do much more than that. When I first tried it, the first thing it reminded me of was the old West End Games Star Wars roleplaying game, which I had first used about a year or two earlier, but actually they're fairly different. The rules are well explained and logically laid out; a simple three-colour coding of the pages of each chapter worked surprisingly well. There are two other incarnations of these rules - the Star Trek Roleplaying Game (for TOS), and the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Roleplaying Game - but they function identically, and even though the TOS book rearranged the order of the chapters from the TNG book, they kept the same chapter colour-coding, so I still knew exactly where to look for whatever I needed.

Character creation used a lifepath system, which I tend to enjoy, though this one didn't feel that flexible or creative after I'd created a dozen or so characters with it (as GM, helping players get started), and it demanded a lot of fleshing out that it didn't help the player with very well. The experience system wasn't too smooth. I get the impression that the point-buy costs for character improvements were chosen on the basis of making a clean and simple looking table, rather than trusting strict mathematical guidance. Characters jumped from hopeless to superhuman (supersentient?) a little too easily. I remember longer-running player characters eventually becoming a little bit godlike, at least within their specific fields. In hindsight, this probably wasn't nearly as bad as the problems we later had with the Decipher rules producing actual, literal gods. But it was my first inkling that a Star Trek-like game doesn't really need or want traditional D&D-style levelling.

The starship rules were initially very flimsy and barely worth using, though I still knew them backwards, once upon a time. Large parts of them (like the tractor beam rules) never made complete sense. I guess they were pretty good for simulating onscreen TOS and early TNG levels of battle detail, and just barely alright for supporting more interesting science and engineering missions. Eventually, after Last Unicorn packed it in, some of their writers put out a whole series of big, fat PDF-only books, including Spacedock, which focused on a ridiculously over-complicated rebuild of the starship rules. This had waaaaaaay too much detail for a roleplaying group to use. We tried playing one session using the Spacedock rules, and we got almost nothing done, with so many new rolls to make. It was the worst kind of endless dice-rolling battle grind. But they hadn't merely made it into a set of wargamers' combat rules either; Spacedock includes insane levels of detail on things wargamers would never touch, like precise details of the life support system (clearly not an essential system...), the recreation facilities, the science labs, and engineering checks for installing incompatible alien devices on the ship.

Spacedock as a whole was unplayable... BUT! It wasn't bad as a behind-the-scenes GM's reference guide, to get a rough sense of what a given ship of a given size and type could feasibly contain or achieve, and what kind of dice rolls could simulate all that. For example, my current campaign, using the new Modiphius rules, has already borrowed from Spacedock to determine the departmental structure of the ship's crew. Nobody's (successfully) attempted to replace Spacedock for any of the newer rules systems, and it might just be a crazy idea to try it. But there's definitely a core of usefulness to it, considering how much time the player characters will spend with their main starship.

The core Last Unicorn books each inhabited their chosen series really well. The writing was generally clear and concise for rules, but also clearly emphasised the themes and tones of the series. Small vignettes at the start of each chapter showed how characters other than those seen on TV could fit into the same sort of roles (to help new roleplayers get away from coping the series too closely). Slightly mediocre art wasn't amazing (it occured around the same era that White Wolf was doing very elaborate stuff, and D&D had progressed beyond the simple doodles of the '80s to things like DiTerlizzi's Planescape art), but did make a good effort to complement the writing, showing Trek-like characters and places, while still drawing the reader's imagination away from the limited confines of mimicking the TV show directly.

The supplement books went further adrift, and I didn't enjoy them as much. They didn't add much to the rules, but they also went with a weird mashing of their own made up non-canon fluff, and bits of non-canon borrowed from other sources (like FASA). A lot of it was uninteresting, unhelpful lore that I imagine most GMs (certainly I) glossed over and replaced with something closer to either strict TV canon, or custom homebrew fanfic.

The main disappointment I had with these rules, though it took me a long time to notice it had been tricking me for years, was the relative emphasis the rules place on different kinds of activities. Combat rules mass over more than one whole chapter, while science and diplomacy are barely given rules at all, and are relegated to the darkest hidden corners of a chapter. This gives an uncomfortable disconnect between what the fluff is telling you Trek should feel like, and what the rules are spelling out that you ought to be focused on. As a result, for the first major campaign I ran with the Last Unicorn rules, I started out running a pure science and exploration campaign, but once I got more familiar with the rulebook, it suddenly transformed into a war campaign. My players enjoyed it less, I enjoyed it less, and the rules were less useful for that job anyway.

Star Trek Roleplaying Game (Decipher, first released 2002, first played 2002)
The "CODA" system. Basically, a cheap knock-off of the then-new d20 system, made to look a bit like the previous Icon system it replaced. I gather Decipher was a company staffed by quite a few former Last Unicorn employees, so they got away with a handful of blatant cut&paste duplications. But it's still surprising just how different they made a lot of things; maybe they thought it was a mistake to emulate a model that had just failed?

Anyway, the core mechanic is to roll an exploding 2d6, adding a skill+attribute modifier, and hope their total sums to greater than a target number the GM sets. This hemmed in the larger dice piles of Last Unicorn's rules. Instead of a lifepath method for character creation, you just pick a species (race) and profession (class), and select the traits (feats) to make you more developed. It took the structure of D&D 3rd Ed fairly blatantly. This was odd, considering Wizards had then instituted their Open Game Licence policy, so Decipher could have just used the actual d20 system; realising this, I and others later tried houseruling exactly that kind of game, which I'll describe later.

Either way, the CODA rules were functional, but a bit meh. They failed particularly badly at very low and very high experience levels, where characters were useless and ridiculously overpowered, respectively. Gail, one of my players, recently reminded me that I once asked her to roll 60-something to fly a runabout at full impulse (i.e. hypersonic) between the buildings of a narrow city street. Target of 60-something. On 2d6. And she made it. (And then another character made a similarly insane Engineering check to transport someone aboard during the split second they passed by that point.) The end of that campaign just got silly, as I found it increasingly close to impossible to challenge the players in any way. I tried reigning in the experience gains, a lot, but the damage was already stuck by then. This cemented the idea in my mind that Star Trek don't need no stinkin' XP rules.

Where I can't fault the rules is their organisation and layout. Mimmicking the D&D3e rules led them to also copy the D&D3e layout, and that was an expertly-developed foundation to start from. Decipher did go a little nuts on expansion books, and some were more worthwhile than others. But the two core books (their PHB and DMG analogues, further reflecting their D&D emulation) were a good starting structure that later rules expansions could plug into with relatively little hassle.

Decipher was not very Trekkie, in feel, which is odd, considering how many Last Unicorn staff had migrated across to it. It wasn't jarringly un-Trekkie, it didn't miss horribly, it just didn't work hard to represent the feel of Star Trek, so it ended up with a more neutral feel. In part, this was because of a greater emphasis in the writing on rules and crunch, rather than on tone, feel, themes, fluff, etc. But where they did put fluff into it, they didn't feel like they were trying very hard. Original art was replaced with screen captures from the series and movies, which in many cases actually managed to be less clear or evocative than the mediocre quality art of the Last Unicorn books. It didn't inspire you to go out and adventure, so much as it seemed to point at itself and say, "Hey! Hey! Remember this [insert your subculture] reference!? This was a thing, right?" That's not so bad if you're a more experienced Star Trek GM or player, and you already know how to ignore the rulebook and have your own fun. But I don't think it's the smartest way to hook new players' imaginations. It also just didn't look very nice aesthetically.

The terrible experience creep of this rules system also infected the subjective feel of it. We see Star Trek characters on screen acting competently and expertly in their fields, but they do have a capacity to fuck up, and that is a source of both drama and realism. Characters in this game who lose that capacity also lose part of their personality, their response to failure and tragedy, because nothing ever goes wrong for them. It gets kind of dull.

The Decipher books are even worse than the Last Unicorn books when it comes to relative emphasis on violence vs. anything else, with combat rules incorporated into nearly every chapter. Being overly trusting of the rules-as-written lured me very badly into a lot of time-wasting war stories that proved to be as boring as any campaign I have ever written or run. There's a similar pattern to how my Last Unicorn campaign went: Things started out as a political campaign (a Maquis campaign, just for something unusual), but as I got more and more accustomed to the combat rules, it turned more and more into a combat campaign, very quickly. It's not that I didn't want to write exploration and diplomacy adventures, but that I got into the habit of writing what the rules easily allowed me to write. And if you're not consciously aware of that trap, it's hard to keep yourself out of it.

Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game (FASA, first released 1982, first played 2004)
An early roleplaying game, and thus relatively simple by later standards, FASA's game was expanded greatly over the years. But it was also designed from the start to fit together with their ship battle game, which sways both its rules and fluff towards a more combat-driven feel, which is the same thing I've just noted in both the Last Unicorn and Decipher games.

I wouldn't say I know these rules well enough to comment on them a lot, but they've added something to my opinions, at least. I believe I only ever ran about 3 or 4 sessions using these rules, and they were fine. It uses a d100 roll based on a set of attributes and skills, which reminds me very much of the BASIC system (as used by Call of Cthulhu, which came out a year before FASA's Star Trek), though officially they're unrelated. And that's a fine system for all sorts of uses; they're lightweight, fun rules that get the job done. Every few years, it occurs to me that I could just homebrew a BASIC-based Star Trek adaptation, but I've never quite gotten around to it.

Note that FASA had its rough predecessor to Last Unicorn's later Spacedock expansion, in the form of the Ship Construction Manual, a much simpler book that really only deals with making custom combat stats for their ship battle subgame. But I will give them credit for at least pointing out that starships must have some sort of laundry aboard, even if they failed to provide extensive tables of laundry variants to pick between.

Space marines are dumb. And FASA bears a lot of responsibility for insinuating that dumb concept into the public perception of Star Trek, especially in gaming circles, where the shows never have. Similarly, FASA is responsible for promulgating a lot of the most clearly militaristic interpretations of how Starfleet and its vessels might operate. In the '80s, when hardly anything had ever been on screen, they sort of had the excuse that they needed to make shit up to fill the vast blanks in canon that existed before TNG came along. But of course, this still implies some very active rejection of the anti-war idealism that Roddenberry had already filled TOS with.

That said, it should be noted that the core roleplaying rulebooks FASA started with didn't go that way, and it was mainly later supplements and expansions (and other FASA games) that sought to militarise things. Either way, the damage is now done, and decades of roleplayers sharing FASA ships and fluff around (for use with whichever setting) has contaminated lots of useful sites with things that only ever existed in FASA, and which TNG and later series explicitly rejected.

I think it's relevant that FASA's internally developed version of the Star Trek universe had drifted so far during the '80s, that it wound up badly incompatible with what was eventually shown to be the nature of the Federation and Starfleet on TNG. You can't really blame them for making things up on their own, but I can't see what appeal it would have for anyone who had the glory of '90s Trek to enjoy.

My own d20 homebrew rules (played 2011)
While I never quite got around to making anything like decent BASIC rules for Star Trek, I did somehow make a few different iterations of homebrew rules using the d20 system as a foundation, borrowing bits over the years from SG-1, Spycraft, Star Wars, and Prime Directive. When D&D5e came out, I even started converting my earlier attemps into what became Star Trek Next. I am aware that there a few other homebrew d20 Trek systems floating around out there.

I won't waste your time spelling out all the rules adjustments I made, back and forth, and I believe we only ever actually ran 2 test adventures using any version of these rules. Mostly, it was fun for me to experiment with concepts, trying to learn how to make the experience I knew well from the screen fit with what the dice could represent. I also went through a (possibly unhealthy) phase of obsessing over starships and starship stats, and it was something that could definitely be gamified in a few different ways. I probably used the Spacedock rules more to explore these other systems, than I used it for Last Unicorn's own system.

Overall, I don't think any of this was a big success. D&D just isn't a good foundation for the kinds of stories Star Trek tells.

Since I was making it up myself, the feel was pretty much what I made it, which is I suppose what we should ideally always have in roleplaying games. Perhaps there's some lesson here about feeling a sense of ownership over the rules, in order to make them work for the game, instead of letting the game work to suit the rules, or something.

My own Star Trek Conception homebrew rules (played 2016)
My last attempt at a homebrew system adaptation borrows from Fiasco. I'm a big Fiasco fan, it's a surprisingly genius rules system, and so it feels a little surprising to say that I've still only ever played it once. Once I gave up on a reasonable d20 adaptation, I got it into my head that the story-driven rules of Fiasco would be an ideal basis for a much better, much Trekkier system. And I'm not awfully disappointed with what I put out, though I definitely have to admit that what I wrote leaves a huge amount vague and unspecified and up to the GM. I guess it's more like the skeleton of a system, than a full rules system.

As with my earlier homebrew stuff, this felt exactly like my own style of game, because that's very much all it was. It would have to be run by someone else to see if I infused it with any partlicular feeling to its fluff. I think I left it a bit barebones for that.

Star Trek Adventures (Modiphius, first released 2017, first played 2018, apparently no wikipedia page yet)
The core mechanism of the 2d20 system is simple and smart. You roll at least 2d20, aiming to roll below a number representing your skill at the task, and for each die that makes this, you score one success. The GM sets a target number of successes, and sufficient successes means you do the thing. That's not that tricky, and it conceals some pretty convoluted roll probabilities, allowing the GM to fine tune the challenge over a very wide range. It's excellent protection against the PCs becoming godlike, and it also encourages PC cooperation to make high target numbers surmountable.

There are a number of lesser rules to expand that, and mostly they're fine. But the core rulebook buries all of these in endless rambling prose, never concise and to the point. Reading one rule, it will end in an apparently simple statement. What you're expected to know is that this statement contains one or more crucial rules key words, adding further depth to the rule. Then you're expected to get lucky finding the place or places in the book that defines that key word. There, you'll face many paragraphs, perhaps many pages, of waffle about their proprietary key word, and you'll need to dig out the little bit of it that is relevant to the rule you were originally reading about.

The rules aren't the problem, they work well. The layout and writing style are the problem. I like to think that if rule A can't possibly be understood without rule B, then rules A and B should at the very least be on adjacent pages, under a shared heading, and definitely in the same damn chapter. The rules organisers at Modiphius and I disagree on this. They've also divided the book into a player front half and GM back half, though without a particularly clear boundary between the two, and I certainly wouldn't mind if some rules had to be split up to accommodate that player/GM division. But they mostly haven't sliced things up that way: The GM section is pretty full of unnecessary duplications of rules exactly cut&paste from the player section.

Once you've penetrated that, it's a good system. I find it easily supports my improvisations, and I like how much it rewards character roleplaying, rather than munchkin rollplaying. With no experience points to worry about, players can focus on who the character is, not what their stats are. I initially mistook their Milestone system for an experience point analogue, but it really isn't. It's more a mechanism for letting characters develop their personalities, and it ties together with just about everything else in the rules. It provides exactly the character/story-driven kind of game I was hoping a Fiasco adaptation could achieve, but by a mechanically very different route.

In short, Star Trek Adventures seems to address a lot of my past concerns about other Trek roleplaying games. I will definitely buy their second edition, if they hire someone to organise its contents more sensibly.

I am also very pleased with the tone Modiphius is striking so far. Their prose is rich and deep, compared with the relatively bland Decipher text, and it reflects the tone of '90s Trek (especially TNG) really well. And unlike FASA and Last Unicorn, they so far seem to be fairly cautious of trampling over canon, with their own little sandbox piece of the Galaxy set aside for messing around with their own ideas, away from the main canon.

Modiphius's rules are also the first I've seen to incorporate a serious, detailed science mechanism, based on the actual scientific method, and even if it isn't perfect, I deeply appreciate the attempt. At the same time, they don't go too deeply into combat rules, and even set them as equal to what they call their social conflict rules (for non-violent but not necessarily friendly character interaction). This balance is a huge step ahead of the previous official games. Their expansion books so far have pretty much upheld all of this.

The Modiphius books also earn points for some amazing art. Like the Last Unicorn book art, they give us glimpses at Starfleet officers and ships that we don't recognise from the series, doing all sorts of exciting things in exotic places that a '90s TV production (and most movies) could never incorporate. This really helps to fire the imagination for roleplaying purposes. And the quality of art is well above what Last Unicorn used.

What remains to be seen is how well they can grow Star Trek Adventures to incorporate ENT, DISCO, and perhaps even the Abramsverse. I'm not overly fond of most of ENT, but there's definitely some interesting stuff in it that better writers could explore in more interesting ways. I love DISCO, based on its first season, and it seems like its characters would snap perfectly into the Values rules mechanism. But Modiphius have so far avoided touching this still-in-progress production.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Clarifying Values, Directives and Milestones in Star Trek Adventures

We've been playing the new Star Trek Adventures roleplaying game, and it's off to a good start. The rules are becoming intuitive quickly enough. But we bumped into one particular barrier last session, with the rules about Milestones, which led me to research those rules more, and I found that a lot of people online have reported similar confusion about this. So, I thought it might be a useful public service to comment on what I've found so far.

Very broadly, this rules system makes some very different assumptions than traditional D&D-style roleplaying games (including some past iterations of Star Trek roleplaying rules). Everything in the rulebook ultimately links back to the characters' Values, the characters' deepest-held beliefs and opinions; this means that rules effects and storytelling are inextricably linked. I happen to think this is pretty brilliant, and perfect for a more intellectual and questioning setting like Star Trek (and I'd like to steal this for a Planescape campaign house rule too). Sadly, these rules aren't always laid out and explained as clearly as I'd like.

My first mistake was to compare milestones with experience points. That's a poor comparison. I saw that milestones lead to character stat changes, and jumped to the wrong conclusion about them.

Instead, think of milestones as game mechanisms for when a main (player) character's fundamental beliefs are altered. It's actually closer to a sanity point mechanism (such as those used in Call of Cthulhu, Warhammer, Unknown Armies, etc.), than to an experience point system. But unlike sanity checks, changing a character's Values in Star Trek isn't necessarily traumatic or involuntary. They're just learning from their qualitative personal life experiences, whatever those are, rather than piling up abstract, arbitrary, quantitative experience points.

And what changes about the character must also be related to what actually happened to them, not just bought off a general purpose menu. Because sometimes a change in attitude/perspective/priorities leads to changes in practical behaviour, the milestones allow for re-prioritising Attributes & Disciplines (and other character details) instead of taking on a whole new Value, either because you simply choose to start putting more effort into one area of work over another, or because an actual physiological change (like a major injury) forces the shift.

But it's usually going to be a sideways change, a mental mutation, and not a linear advancement up to a higher level. You also aren't always going to see these changes happening every single session, because real people and believable fictional characters don't flip their personalities that quickly. It's assumed in this system that Starfleet officers are already at the top of their game, the main characters are "born" high level, and so there's no real need for constant advancement all the time. You're not level 1 Bilbo leaving the Shire for the first time, you're Lieutenant Commander Gandalf, and it takes something pretty major and uncommon (like not letting the Balrog pass) to significantly alter you. And when you are altered, it's most likely an inner psychological/behavioural change.

Not all mental changes are the same. Some are fairly minor, resulting from lesser experiences. Some are transformative, resulting from huge epiphanies, discoveries or shocks. Below is my explanation of the sorts of things considered major enough to trigger a milestone:

Normal milestones
Gain one of these for any one of:
  • Challenging a Value/Directive: Outright rejecting one of the character's beliefs or orders, in practice, because it gets too awkward to stick to it in the face of an encounter where the character could solve a problem by doing the opposite of what their Value/Directive suggests they should do.
  • The positive & negative Value/Directive thing: [EDIT: It's just been pointed out to me that the player section of the book, pg.139, uses the word "or" for this rule, while the GM section, pg.293, uses "and". I have edited my explanation here to "either/or", pending official clarification from on high.] The part of the rule we weren't sure of last session. It requires one of two things to happen in an episode:
    EITHER The player must inform the GM (and the GM must be able to concur) that one of that player's character's Values/Directives is relevant to a test, so they get to spend a Determination point on it (the positive use),
    OR the GM must inform that player (and the player must be able to concur) that one of
    that player's character's Values/Directives will cause them to face a Complication in a scene (the negative use). If the player tries to dodge that negative Complication by abandoning their character's Value/Directive, then that triggers the Challenging a Value/Directive option instead.
  • Serious traumatic injury, of the sort that makes people reconsider their lives.
Spotlight milestones
Players gain these when they qualify for a normal milestone AND it's decided that their main character carried the episode far more than anyone else did. The rule book says players ought to vote on who this is. What I'm thinking of trying instead is to start writing occasional episodes (maybe even solo adventures, for those players who feel like a non-group session) that are custom built to focus on one main character at a time. The player can still cock it up by failing to participate well in their own episode, but I think this is fairer than arbitrary voting. (Though I think it's also fair to remain open to post hoc decisions that a character turned out to be the focus of an episode, even if this wasn't the GM's original plan.)

Arc milestones
Players gain these from collecting a series of spotlight milestones. They're meant to be a big deal, so it's a slow crawl to reach one.

One last thing to clarify: Directives. I've sort of informally been throwing these into my games, but not emphasizing them very much, and not really getting my players to treat them as rules mechanisms. Now that I've revised this section of the rules in more detail, I begin to see why it's better from a rules perspective to be more explicit about Directives.

Directives are short-term, shared Values that come from your mission orders. (I think the rule might have been clearer if they were named Mission Values or Context Values instead.) A Directive could apply to just one character, but usually they apply to the whole crew together, for some given period of time. And the rules purpose for this is that it allows the GM to run adventures that don't always have to be tuned exactly to their players' own personal Values, without cheating them of the potential benefits of getting to spend Determination points (or, for that matter, earning milestones). Players may as well simply add the currently active Directives to their characters' lists of Values, and treat them as the same thing, for rules purposes. The only difference is that Directives are changed from outside, from up the chain of command. If a character ever refuses to follow an order, that's basically Challenging a Directive.

GMs can encourage and reward players for paying attention to the mission at hand, like responsible Starfleet officers, by using the Directives for the mission as opportunities to get into character, and to gain rules benefits when attempting tasks. But, because of the Challenging a Directive option, it doesn't have to be boring railroading, and characters can stick to their own beliefs at the expense of the mission (or vice versa). It all helps to keep the story interesting, and the characters growing.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Dungeons & Dragons for Vegans

Before I spread any disinformation, let me clarify the title: Obviously no decent, neutral good vegan would go around killing and/or eating treants and myconids and other intelligent creatures, just because they happen to be more plant matter than animal. You simply don't eat anything with a mind. But it did strike me as funny that I, as a vegan, would happen to get a little obsessed with the vegetable portions of the Monster Manual, and the title came from that.

40 years of treants. Click to embiggen.

But this is an interest that predates my vegetarianism and later veganism by a couple of years. I had had been roleplaying as a player for years, when in 2002 I bought the Planescape setting, my first roleplaying book purchase other than core rules. I set about writing up my very first attempt at a serious campaign of my own, based out of Sigil. The campaign didn't last more than 2 or 3 sessions, and most of my prose-heavy, illustrated notes were never put to much use, directly. What's relevant to this post is that I'd borrowed someone's Monstrous Manual to help me plan my campaign, and it was the first time I'd ever sat down to read the whole book. And what grabbed my attention the most were the plant and fungus creatures.

Why had we never played with these before, I wondered. Why did we always fight the same orcs and goblins, when there were these crazy, weird, interesting things instead? They're all so different from each other, and from anything else, with the clever, detailed ecologies and cultures that 2nd Edition monsters were written with (and which, sadly, later editions tended to neglect). Better still, many of the plant and fungus creatures worked logically together as a whole symbiotic ecosystem of different things that could kill (or at least challenge) the player characters. I thought these fit in especially well with the natural weirdness of Planescape, so it was a perfect idea for me to start exploring, though I've since found that interesting plant creatures can work well in just about any sort of genre or setting. I'll occasionally steal one of these for non-D&D roleplaying, especially science fiction games, when I need something weird and surprising.

Perhaps what I liked most about the more humanoid plant/fungus creatures was that they often weren't automatically Evil combat monsters (which are always just a little boring to me), but could be interacted with more civilly - BUT it would necessarily be weird, alien interaction. I felt, and still feel, that this is a great way to make challenging NPCs for players to talk to, especially in tense, urgent situations. (When Rhys-Davies portrayed Treebeard on screen not long after I'd written that first campaign, it went some way to illustrating to me how effectively that sort of alien plant-mind storytelling could be done, so clearly I was far from being the first person to think of it.)

I had been thinking about all of this again recently, and somehow I got curious about how 5th Edition had affected my old favourites. That got me wondering how they compared across all other editions. And that, inevitably, led me to spend a week researching a spreadsheet of every plant, fungus or algae creature that's been officially published by TSR and Wizards of the Coast. I threw in Pathfinder too, partly because it's an unusually popular D&D variant, and partly because Paizo have made it so easy to find all their monster stats and descriptions online, so it was minimal extra effort for me. It turns out that some of Pathfinder's original additions to this collection are pretty nifty.

My rule of thumb for deciding what to include on my list was whether the real world equivalent of a creature would mindlessly stay fixed in place (plant-like), or whether it would intelligently wiggle itself around (animal-like), or perhaps neither. In short, I was playing animal-vegetable-mineral with the Monster Manuals. Anything explicitly described as a form of plant, fungus or algae, I included (and I'll collectively call those 'vegemonsters' here, for simplicity). Excluding anything from the animal kingdom was easy. I also excluded constructs, mineral-based creatures, energy beings, and entities of pure magic (including elementals). Slimes and oozes made me stop and think. The clearest descriptions of these all compare them with real world bacterial colonies, which might look vaguely plant-like at a macroscopic level, but are made up of wiggling things on the microscopic level, so I excluded them. The other notable anomaly is the dryad, which has been in the game since the very start, but which only 4th Edition describes as being an actual plant; all other editions call them plant-adjacent fey spirit things.

Myconids, in glorious 5th Ed quality illustration
Comparing the editions has been interesting. The main reason my spreadsheet has the 'Shape' column is that I was concerned that different editions were renaming practically the same species multiple times, with only small stat changes. Lumping them together by approximate body shape helped me to narrow that problem down, and highlight, for example, all of the tree-man things that seem a lot like treants, but which aren't named as treants. Creative GMs can decide for themselves what to do with this sort of duplication, but I can see why some were a little unnecessary and were eventually abandoned by TSR/WotC.

Treants were the first plant creatures in the game, originally named ents (until Tolkien sued) way back in the pre-D&D Chainmail rules (1971). Yellow mold joined treants in the earliest D&D core rules (1974). But it was the Greyhawk supplement (1975) that first pointed out creative ways to use all manner of plants as traps, though it offers basically no real rules or detailed explanations of these. The 1977 Basic D&D rules did very little with this idea, while the parallel 1977 Advanced D&D 1st Edition rules expanded on the early Greyhawk suggestions greatly. AD&D 1st Ed codified a number of plant and fungus creatures that could do what the earlier edition had hinted at, and more, especially in its Monster Manual 2.

AD&D 2nd Edition (1989) picked up everything from 1st edition, and then went nuts, pushing its total statted vegemonsters to over 100, many in the core Monstrous Manual (and its Monstrous Compendia predecessors), but also in the setting-specific expansions that followed over the course of the 1990s. I note that the Planescape setting (1994) that first nudged me into exploring this only added two new types of its own to the pile, though its razorvine is unusually distinctive and iconic to the setting. I'm not aware of any other setting that has its own defining species of plant like that, and it's not even an intelligent plant! The Dark Sun setting (1991) necessarily needed a variety of much more unusual desert plants, with more complicated justifications, to replace the default temperate species of traditional D&D settings. And the horror theme of the Ravenloft setting (1990) allowed for a few more dangerous and nasty vegemonsters.

3rd Edition (2000) trimmed back the vegemonsters a lot. Its first Monster Manual only had half a dozen different kinds, though the Monster Manual 2 caught up with quite a lot more. 3rd Ed is also notable as the first edition to officially drop the venerable yellow mold (which still hasn't returned in later editions), leaving the treant as the only one in my spreadsheet to be found in every single edition of D&D. The new Eberron setting (2004) added some nice new stuff to the game (no new vegemonsters, since they focused so much on constructs), but neglecting most other published settings in this and subsequent editions led to a much greater net loss of official content of all sorts.

4th Edition (2008) hated creative and interesting monsters in general, cutting back on all sorts of creatures, especially ones that didn't have obvious combat roles. Note that the 4th Ed Monster Manual had a lazy habit of giving a pair of alternate stat blocks for many monsters, with very little decent justification for why they would exist in different forms with different abilities. The bottom line is that the 4th Ed Monster Manual only really has around half as many different species as it pretends to, and this is reflected in my spreadsheet too. Though my spreadsheet counts each stat block separately, I only count 4 real distinct species of vegemonsters from that book, 5 if you count their peculiar (and possible mistaken) change to the dryad. This edition was clearly a regression, in several senses.

5th Edition (2014) is still relatively new, with only two main monster books out so far (including the very interesting Volo's Guide, which would make an excellent birthday present for me), but I'm pleased to see that there's been at least some recovery of previously abandoned vegemonsters, with especially detailed write-ups for the myconids and vegepygmies. I don't expect future expansions will include every single vegemonster from past editions, but I do hope they'll bring back some of the better ones, as well as introducing some creative original types. Even if they don't, I'm glad to see that they're at least getting comfortable with fluff and lore again.

Roleplaying isn't about rules and stats, those are just a handy framework. What first grabbed my attention about gas spores and shriekers and russet mold and obliviax, over 15 years ago, was not their number of hit dice nor their XP value. What made them interesting was the weirdness of plants with their own agency, and the deep and unusual descriptions that someone had written for each. And from that I, as a new GM, could begin to see how to use them in interesting, unexpected ways. Obviously I adapted them to suit my own needs, as a good GM should, because lore is not dogma. But I would always much rather start from a fully fleshed out and contextualised idea, than from a dry pile of stats and special abilities. Making up stats is the easy part; if I want to make up my own totally original creatures, the rules crunch is not what'll slow me down. But when I don't want to have to make up my own creatures from scratch (which is the point of having a Monster Manual), then I want them to be fully pre-cooked for me, not half-baked. 2nd Ed got this right, more often than not. 3rd and 4th didn't understand it. I hope that 5th and beyond will get it better and better.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The least worst thing about Trump

There are plenty of bad things to say about Trump, and he keeps working* hard to produce more. He may not end up being the worst US president of all time (Jackson set a very low bar, for one easy example), but he's easily got to be the least qualified, least suitable they've ever had. I want to be clear that I'm no Trump supporter, and that this post is not at all a defence of the man. There's just so much to hold against him; I won't bore you by listing it all here, when so many other sources have been doing that for years already. But there's one thing that (mainly American) commenters regularly bring up, when they want to illustrate how awful he is, which I have a little trouble with: Bone spurs.

It's a matter of public record that Trump evaded the US military's draft during the Vietnam War, first through educational deferments, and then through a medical deferment for bone spurs in his foot. That diagnosis doesn't seem like a very compelling excuse, and it's easy to use that to say that he's a coward. And he almost certainly is. I don't think that's bad. This isn't the neolithic, we don't need a big strong manly man to be village chief and protect us from fearsome monsters we don't understand. Today we understand there are no unknown monsters left in the wilderness, it's just us against ourselves now, and the remaining violent manly men are the monsters among us. In 2017, leaders who fear violence are the most sensible, sane, useful choice, provided they extend their caution over all of us, and not just selfishly over themselves. We want more of that sort in office, and pushing in the exact opposite direction seems like overkill.

So our instinct to mock and reject cowardice of violence is outdated, and can even be harmfully counterproductive.
Many people far better than Trump have proudly been cowards.

The issue is complicated, I'm aware, because Trump's draft dodge represents additional things, beyond simple, sensible aversion to violence. The fact that he got away with it, when thousands of others without his wealth couldn't, highlights the unfair class and race exploitation of the draft. Plenty of far more deeply convicted pacifists were forced into war (or jail) because they couldn't afford the legal and medical experts needed to fend off the system they lived in. And since then, Trump has shown that he's not at all opposed to other people having to live with violence and death, so long as it's far away from him. He may be a coward, but that doesn't make him a man of peace. He's clearly something of a hypocrite in this area.

What's maybe a little weirder is that the US right wing is nominally the pro-war side of US politics (though there are plenty of pro-war Democrats, to muddy that divide), and it ought to be incongruous that Republicans would select a draft dodger as their chief. Perhaps that's why critics keep throwing this criticism at him, hoping it'll turn his supporters against him? If so, it clearly hasn't worked, and instead it will almost certainly make life a little harder for genuinely anti-violence US politicians for years to come.

It's a weird situation. His draft dodge attempt may not be praiseworthy, as it was for most others. But it still doesn't seem entirely as awful as it's been portrayed over the last couple years. Would we really be happier if history had gone differently, and a young Trump had been handed a gun and told to shoot people? (Army duty certainly didn't make Hitler into a better person...)

I'm inclined to say this particular criticism works out somewhere close to neutral, in the end. I think it was a perfectly acceptable, rational personal choice at the time, but he's not used his privilege since then to pass that sane option on to others. I wouldn't say avoiding the draft necessarily makes him good, but I also can't easily say that it makes him awful. It's the 965 other far more valid criticisms of him that make him awful (including his subsequent hypocrisy), and this one specific bone spur criticism is kind of unnecessary. It's one of many things I will be glad to be rid of when he finally goes.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Teacher's Bits: RoboRally for teaching transformations

I've been thinking for a year or so that RoboRally ought to be an excellent tool for teaching the mathematics of transformations. I've already drawn a connection in class between the motion of computer animation (in games and movies) and the geometric transformations we've been learning, and many of my grade 9s get that link quite clear in their minds. But for other students, computer animation is a form of change they're not too used to, or haven't looked at closely enough.

RoboRally's step by step motion gives a good look at similar transformations, and at a slower, more deliberate pace. Players need to think through each move, one at a time. The direction a piece is facing is also relevant (which makes rotations important), which isn't so in many other boardgames. In chess, for example, non-pawn pieces seldom care what direction their previous move came from, they can just go off in whatever new direction they like, instantly changing facing. And pawns, at the other extreme, are too directionally limited, with no chance to rotate at all. But the robots in RoboRally must be intentionally rotated, if they want to change direction. There's also the hope that exploring transformations will help to solidify students' grasp of Cartesian planes in general.

And better still, RoboRally is fun. The time pressure, the competition, the risk of blowing up or crashing off the edge, the lasers (pew pew pew), all make the simple act of moving a lump of plastic from A to B more exciting and compelling.

To make it most useful for my grade 9 maths class, I modified the rules and made it a team exercise. I stripped out any optional extra rules, to keep it as simple as possible, and I also replaced all of the cards and tokens with pen & paper, to reduce the chances of my game components getting damaged or lost. But the biggest rule change was replacing the random draw of order cards, with a free choice of translations and rotations, so long as they are accurately written in the correct format, as used in normal exercises.

This retains the two major sources of conflict in the game: Unpredictable, unexpected clashes between different robots' preset plans, and accidental errors in one's own planning.

The first draft version of the rules summary and worksheet. (Click to embiggen)
I found time today for one test game, and while some of the kids were initially uncertain about a lot of it, one or two practice rounds cleared that up, to the point that they were almost all really into it by the end. The winning team were some of the kids who started the game complaining the loudest that they didn't get it. In the final round, they were laser-focused and knew exactly what they were doing. Some of the others, who were very confident early on, learned a series of lessons about how easy it is to accidentally write down the wrong sign when there's time pressure, and they rolled confidently off the edge of the map into the oblivion beyond.

I've seen plenty written about the gamification of learning, and I think a lot of it isn't really suited to older students (who are nominally my main focus), so I haven't explored that much. But as I seem to have a long future of teaching juniors ahead of me, I'm starting to think that I'll have to give gamification some more thought.