Drowning Can Be Fun and Other Observations

Our Legendary Lives game continues: we’re up to 12 sessions.

Session 8 turned out to be the climax of the first arc of the story. To recap the events leading up to it: the Bowmen of Balgravia had managed to set fire to a number of buildings in the city, in an attempt to draw out and then attack the occupying Elfish forces. Their plan was thwarted by Fieldmouse using their secret code against them, causing them to retreat rather than press the attack. However, the fires were still set, and in the area around the wharfs, had grown especially bad, which led to a docked ship catching on fire — and THAT fire was in danger of spreading to all the other ships in port.

This situation gave Meyouran a chance to take center stage: Mark’s characterization of Meyouran has been very enjoyable, with a couple of key features drawn out of the backstory generated by the character creation process (not only the lifepaths but also his family background, traits, and idols). Meyouran’s family background is that of derelict, and his type is Scholar. He also has the “mental illness” lifepath of “compulsive liar”. Part of the way Mark has conceived this is that Meyouran is ashamed of his past, so has created an entire backstory about how his parents were actually famous scholars and he is just trying to follow in their footsteps. Fittingly, he is very skilled in cunning and lying outright, and terrible when it comes to sincerity. That being Sincere, trying to Lie, or using Cunning are all different skills, with different requirements for what triggers them, and different potential consequences for both success or failure, has been an important feature of our game in determining the different ways NPCs react and interact with the characters. It also forces tough choices on the players: Meyouran just isn’t that effective interpersonally if he tells the truth, but, in most circumstances, failing at telling the truth is a lot less dangerous than being caught in a lie.

However, Meyouran, along with being an excellent BS-artist, also has a lot of practical, hands-on skills — which he often tries to hide due to his pretence of being raised by scholars. Mechanical is among his highest Base Skills and he has Boating at full value. Deciding this was his chance to do something heroic (although not completely altruistic, as he was counting on getting passage on one of the ships in danger of being burnt up), he jumped onto the burning ship, and, assisted by Fieldmouse and Daphne (an Elfish warrior whom Meyouran had given first aid to after she had been struck by a flaming arrow during the previous session), started to pilot it out to sea, away from the other ships.

That part worked – the docked ships were saved! But the result was only Passable. I decided, to add a complication: the ship was clear, but, in the process, Daphne had been struck unconscious by a falling beam. Next, trapped on a burning ship, they had to try to jump clear of the fire and swim back in, with Daphne in tow. We had established that the wind had been picking up (which played a part in increasing the danger of the fire spreading) and so we figured it meant that the water was getting rougher as well.

For the next part, I first had them make a Strength roll to see if they could deal with Daphne. They failed this, losing their grip on her, which I ruled (rather harshly) meant that she was lost at sea, which left them in the position of having to make Swimming rolls to get themselves back to shore safely.

Legendary Lives’ rules for drowning are found in the description for the Swimming skill. Drowning rules have historically been an object of fun (if not outright ridicule) in RPG discussions, but the drowning rules in Legendary Lives are extremely functional and very fun. Failing a swimming roll isn’t especially lethal, but it can lead to significant complications. In this case, Fieldmouse succeeded on the swimming roll and was able to go straight back into shore, despite the weather. Meyouran failed his swimming roll, washed up on shore some distance away from where he was heading, though he managed to resist taking any actual drowning damage. What this meant though was that Fieldmouse was hailed as a savior of all the ships, and by the time Meyouran got back to the wharf, Fieldmouse had stolen most of his glory — and Fieldmouse’s attempts to give Meyouran credit was taken by the crowd as a sign of Fieldmouse’s humility, due to a failed Sincerity roll on Fieldmouse’s part.

This wrapped up the action in Balgravia, and the next session marked the beginning of Chapter 2: with the group setting off on a “round the inner sea” voyage, with the eventual destination of Qes, due to Meyouran’s wish to go to the Temple of Knowledge and Fieldmouse’s growing sense that he has a great destiny in front of him. This session didn’t have much in the way of conflict, but featured the characters interacting with NPCs on the ship. This was a very fun and enjoyable session, even though not much happened. (We did still make a bunch of rolls, mostly to sort out the different kinds of reactions the NPCs would have towards the players). (Tangentially: reflecting on some of Ron’s advice to me about the Champions Now game I am running, it strikes me that we have not had a similar kind of low key, cool, just-interacting-with-NPCs sessions in that game).

Since then we’ve had three sessions dealing with their adventures in Tourmaline, the capital of the Elven Empire. My prep for these sessions had focused on bringing some of the material from Meyouran’s background into play, while also developing some of the Unseelie vs Seelie elements from Chapter 1. I won’t go into all the ins and outs at this point, but I wanted to bring up an issue that came up (more an issue for me than for the game in general) about how we handled the Intuition skill.

Here’s what the text tells us about the Intuition skill:

Intuition gives characters a keen insight for no logical reason at all.  A successful Intuition roll allows a character to sense the “rightness” or “wrongness” of a situation. Intuition allows the referee to provide a player with information and guidance that might otherwise be unavailable. Unlike most other skills, a player does not ask to use Intuition. Instead, the referee asks the player to make an Intuition roll when the situation calls for it. There are many cases when Intuition could come into play. The referee may ask a player to make an Intuition roll when he thinks something the character is about to do is extremely foolish or dangerous. He could call for an intuition roll to determine whether a character can sense he is being watched (the hair stands up on the back of his neck). It also can be used to ascertain whether or not a character realizes when he is about to enter a dangerous situation. If the players are badly frustrated and don’t know what to do, ask them to make Intuition rolls. On a high roll, he could give them a hint that will get the adventure moving.

Frankly, apart from the use of this skill to sense if they are being watched, this does not really fit in with the way we are playing the game. That is, calling for Intuition rolls so that I can point them in “the right direction” doesn’t make sense, because there isn’t a “right direction”. However, Levspira’s player asked if he could have Levspira make an Intuition roll based on Levspira’s suspicion that the Unseelie court was still up to something. We looked over the skill, and I said, “okay”, in part because I wanted to try to find SOME use for the skill — although I wasn’t, in that moment, thinking things through perhaps as carefully as I should have, i.e., I didn’t really have a good sense of what success or failure might look like prior to the roll.

Levspira succeeded – and, the thing is, based on my prep, there definitely was an Unseelie plot afoot — but there was no obvious way to present that information to the players based on what had been established by the that point. I.e., they hadn’t actually seen/heard any of the things that might have triggered suspicion, there weren’t “clues” that they had missed. So, instead, I went back to what the text says, and said that, yes, Levspira, for no logical reason at all, you have the sense that the Unseelie court is up to something.

This ended up leading to the kind of “button pushing” behavior we’ve talked about occurring in certain D&D-type games: without more context, they didn’t know what to do, but I was unable to come up with a way to provide more context without them taking more action: a Catch-22 of my own making.

Things recovered pretty quickly, because the players are so proactive and almost any kind of action in Legendary Lives means things are going to happen and the situation will change. And, soon enough, there was more context to guide meaningful decisions. (I also had a number of NPCs at the ready to act on their own interests). But the brief period (about half of a session) of wheel spinning made me feel like we were trapped back in a stereotypically bad investigative scenario.

As a point of comparison, we haven’t had any kind of trouble along those lines with using Guidance miracles (which came up a bunch during the first Chapter). Superficially, that may appear to be similar to using Intuition, but with the Guidance miracle, the guidance provided is explicitly coming from the given god (i.e., an NPC with its own interests, motives, psychology) and so doesn’t have the same “rescue the GM’s plot” function that the authors seem to want Intuition to have. I don’t want to junk Intuition entirely (as the PCs all are pretty strong in it), but I think I do want to keep it as something that only triggers in terms of immediate danger — like a Spider sense.

A final topic for discussion: 12 sessions in, I don’t feel its my role as the Referee to give advice about what actions to take — but it does seem that Levspira’s player has forgotten that she has the Divination skill. In the latest session, there were a number of opportunities where it seems like it could have been useful – namely, attempting to track down an artifact stolen from the Museum of Contraptions. They aren’t struggling with what to do — they aren’t “stuck” — but it seems like based on what they want, Divination would be a good way to go about it. What stopped me from bringing it up myself, even just as a reminder, is a fear that it makes it look like I am pushing them in a given direction. However, just writing this out, makes me think that if I suggest it, that doesn’t mean it will work, and as long as we play fair with the results it wouldn’t be a major problem. But I’m interested in opening that up to discussion: when is GM advice about “what to do” legitimate and when is it a case of putting your thumb on the scale?


15 responses to “Drowning Can Be Fun and Other Observations”

  1. Why, look at what I was just thinking about for no reason

    We ran full-on into that very issue in our game, since Robbie played a character well-endowed with a religion based on a neutral, personality-lacking, "neutral balance of Nature" principle, and then also skilled up in Divination. Poor Ross, the GM, was positively barraged with "so, what does she accidentally sense or intuit or meditate upon which tells her … uh … anything important?"

    I've been thinking about it a lot since so many of these games are riddled with "roll to peek into the GM's notes" mechanics, when "notes" often includes some nonsense about where they're "supposed to go" or similar directive or manipulative stuff. The Monday Lab: Roll to Know addressed this topic, if you haven't seen that.

    Your account gave me an idea, though. I'm thinking about the kind of fantasy-adventure comics which started in the 1990s, e.g. Thieves & Kings, and have become quite common since. They might well feature a few panels in which … OK, just imagining here, a ship entering a harbor associated with a sprawling fantasy city, the kind with fairy lights and cool mansions. There's a teenage girl near the front of the ship, leaning on one of the gunwhales in anticipation, but of course she's also a bit serious and thoughtful considering all the mysteries and travails so far.

    "What do you think awaits us there?" she asks her pet-and-companion dragonet/cat/other. Then we get her thought balloon, or I suppose caption because that's how you do thought balloons now, and it says, "I wonder whether the Unseelie Court are up to no good? I remember they were always scary in the old stories."

    And that's it. There's no in-fiction reason for her to have brought them up; she didn't sense anything or get any information from anyone. But when you think about how the author could have had her think about anything else, then you realize that this is simply and straightforwardly a signal to the reader that cool stuff about the Unseelie Court is coming up sooner or later.

    I think that's how I'll be playing these rules, which are particularly prevalent in Legendary Lives, from now on.

    • It’s great to see Legendary

      It's great to see Legendary Lives get some more play. It's a game I'd love to return to in the near future.

      A note on your point about player's forgetting spells, skills or mechanics: It can be awkward and forced to bring up reminders mid-session, but I've sometimes made a note to bring up this type of issue at the start of the next session before we launch into the play. In the case of Legendary Lives, there is so much to think about on the character sheet that  taking a brief moment for everyone at the table to consider one or two skills/spells at the start of each session would be useful. If I had a new group, I'd especially remind them of those Miracles which are quite powerful in their flexibility. 

      That Intuition skill is a curious one. I actually think that your initial reaction–that the skill doesn't really fit into the way your are playing the game–is totally legitimate. Some referee styles might lend themselves to the need for intuition roles, but the way the skill is described, it seems the game designers are thinking of the move as a "last resort" mechanic which could be avoided. For example, if characters are entering a dangerous situation, I, as a referee, would almost certainly want to give them some clues of that fact in advance. If the players choose to ignore the clues and blunder forward, then I'm not sure I should "save" them with an intuition roll. 

      There are also other skills which could be used in place of Intuition. In the case of a character being watched (which is raised in the rulebook under Intuition), the Alertness skill (which allows you to notice things) could serve the purpose. And in the case of your player wondering abut the Unseelie Court, there might be other avenues–using other skills or something like Guidance–to assess that situation. 

      The  fun (or infuriating), swingy nature of the resolution system and the "Interpreting the Result" section of the rules (pp. 154-55) make the use of Intuition a more fraught skill than it appears at first glance–and this could make the skill the opposite of a failsafe. For example, say the referree wants to give a player a chance to intuit that a dangerous enemy is stalking them and asks for an intuition roll. If the roll comes up Catastrophic, Pathetic, or even Feeble, then the outcome is going to be even worse for the character.

  2. Failing an Intuition roll?

    The potential for failing an Intuition roll seems to raise issues similar to those that crop up with Perception/Spot Hidden/etc rolls.

    The GM has just told player that there is something that could be Intuited(?), but not what it is.

    In this case, a failure is merely a less useful success.

    Presumably a "critical failure" could result in inaccurate information being passed on.

    • Yes, here the problem is that

      Yes, here the problem is that no information is still useful information. We discussed this a bit in the lab Ron mentioned above and elsewhere. 

      I think Intuition could be a really interesting and useful skill if it produced information rather than reveal it. For all other purposes of the in-fiction manifestation of what it means to be an "intuitive" person (at least in the notion suggested by the text) you can find a lot of mechanical solutions that I think work perfectly fine: from a bonus to initiative, to a bonus to other skills (being intuitive improves my odds of doing… well, pretty much anything, no?), to an extra reroll (I figure out something at the last moment!).

      There's a lot of not-particularly-interesting but not problematic stuff you can do with it, without stepping into "and now the DM has to poke you in the right direction". If it has to be about information, I think the idea process would be making so that this is new information for everybody. How to implement that is the difficult part.


    • I’d like to get past the

      I'd like to get past the superficial issue about "oh no, if the GM calls for the roll, then the player will know there's something to roll about." At the creative or cognitive level, I don't think this is a big deal, or that if it is, we're talking about a broken system.

      But there's a real big deal that gets triggered by this question of perception/insight rolling, and sometimes I think that people focus on the enjoyable rabbit hole of the fake big deal in order to avoid it. This real big deal concerns a toxic battle for control.

      Think of a given fictional moment. For simplicity's sake, let's consider it the moment that a particularly vicious, significantly dangerous creature attacks your character for the first time, and for further simplicity, let's say the game system uses a standard individual attack roll as codified early in the hobby's history.

      Now let's dial back real time, at the table, by a small amount. What permits this monster to attack, and how well? Several things: (1) this is its turn, (2) its intrinsic attack capability, (3) the opposing or target value. The moment we've moved back to is when these things are determined.

      That's easy, right? Just look up a few numbers? But wait. In many games, these things are highly circumstantial. For #1, we need to know whether its turn is embedded in whatever ordering system we're using for this game, as opposed to being a "free" turn of some kind. For #2, we need to know if its attack capability is increased for some reason. For #3, we need to know whether the character's elective defenses, e.g., shield use, are counted.

      In the games I'm talking about (whose procedure was established via multi-title crossover at play tables), all of these are formalized by some kind of check for surprise. The penalties for being taken by surprise are horrific: the monster attacks "for free" in terms of time and it has a greatly increased chance to hit. Every single "good" you have to protect your character's tender flesh is ignored. You are, effectively, being told not to play.

      What this has created is a culture of paranoia regarding presumed trickery on the GM's part. Never mind that it's nonsensical considering that we came here to fight monsters and sometimes be surprised by them; the penalties outweigh and negate any such interest in the fiction. And once culturally embedded, the penalties or at least the sense of being hosed remain as presumed, no matter what the system does.

      What is the only solution from that point of view? To dial back the moment of real-time play further back a little, and to try to control any and all details which would lead to the determinations that the monster has an advantage. Since IIEE is typically unknown/absent in this moment, you can say what you like, do what you like, and get what you want as long as you say it. Ah ha! Here's where you "take back the power" and call for perception rolls constantly, or use rolls which peek into the GM's notes, and you just do it and do it, without cease.

      I suggest that all of this is unnecessary nonsense, an artifact best recognized as such and abandoned as a bad job. Our real discussion should concern what remains and what can be done for a genuine fictional outcome concerning (again, taking the simplest example) ambush and surprise, without either blithering about "player knowledge" or whining about "fairness."

    • This is a big one. It’s a

      This is a big one. It's a deceptive issue, full of traps. It may seem a minor thing – it's a small moment, confined to combat situations. It's also something that absolutely needs to be there, no? It's smart, it's strategic, it's atmospheric, it rewards intelligence (both on the offending and receiving end)… anyone slightly familiar with the so-called OSR scene will have at some point met someone arguing that any combat should begin with an ambush or you're playing it wrong. If there's not a smart, winning-before-initiative decision you're doing it wrong.

      And this of course devolves into that battle for control you describe that quickly becomes exausting. A whole lot of "you should have" and "but I said that" and all that.

      So, a tempting solution would be that of saying "this is irredeemable, throw it away, nothing good can come of it". But for this specific type of game, where an ordering system exist and is important, and where the in-fiction notion of ambush and surprise is a desired feature for whatever reason it's extremely hard to just prune away the feature. Let's just look at the giant volume of player facing options: the sneaky rogue, the hyper-aware ranger, the sixth-sense-powered monk, on top of the various Alarm spells, summoned guardians, invisible butlers, exploding runes, extradimentional retreats you can summon at whim. All this stuff speaks of setting up (and avoiding) ambush.
      Then we look at the monsters and we have once again an incredibly vast range of invisible creatures, cubes of transparent acid goo, darkmantles, fake-rocks of all kinds, will-they-animate-or-not mushrooms, bulettes and whatnot.

      I can only offer as a possible answer that tries to save this "thing" while making it playable and avoiding the general strife that comes with it what I have done after having struggled a lot with issue, which is turning the surprise/ambush dynamics into a reaction roll. The big bad jumps out of the shadows, you react to it. You fail the roll, there's consequences – but these are immediately solved, appropriate, with no "you sit this one out" dynamics. If your character is naturally attentive, you spent some budget in being good at noticing stuff, or well pretty much anything plays into this you may get a good result out of it, and the big bad werewolf jumping at you from the bushes may find out you're quick enough to plant a crossbow bolt in its open mouth. 
      Creatures that are expecially good at hiding or use surprise as an attack strategy (like, say, the bulette or the gelatinous cube) will obviously have some way of making your life harder. 

      The point, for me, is that this is something that needs to be in the rules and needs to drag the handling of these situations as far away from it being something the characters suffer passively. I have found that you can drop players in the worst situations and they will enjoy it as long as they get to play them. There's a reason if seeing our loincloth-wearing hero being grabbed by a monster's tentacle and lifted into the air is exciting when watching a movie or reading a book, while it rarely is in play, and I think it's because in play more often than not this results in the character being removed from the action until saved or killed, or in broader terms, in his options being reduced ("make a roll to see if you get free and can act next turn"). Whereas what we want to see is "What happens now? How is he going to get out of this one?".

      This of course will not appease those who think that preventing being surprised should be an active decision or initiative from the players and consider that element of negotiation positive, of course.

    • I really like how Champions

      I really like how Champions Now differentiates Perception rolls (which every character with an Intelligence score has access to) from Awareness Powers or Detective skills (which must be chosen, and increase the scope of a character's innate Perception).

      Characters with Awareness have the ability to be proactive. They can intuit their enemies' plans before they go into effect and (if the dice favor them and they use their Awareness to its fullest potential) can prepare for, prevent and even subvert them. Their opponents have to respond to their actions, rather than the other way around.

      Characters without Awareness aren't dumb or flat-footed. Given the right circumstances, a billionaire playboy might realize that a mysterious conglomerate is buying up advanced weapons researchers. But without the right Awareness Powers and/or Detective Skills, they're going to be reacting to the mysterious conglomerate's plans, rather than forcefully shaping them through their own decisions.

      I think Hellboy and Bruce Banner as portrayed in the Immortal Hulk run are nice examples of two characters with somewhat similar blow-by-blow fighting styles who nevertheless are worlds apart, because of their different 'perception' abilities. 

      Hellboy has a high Intelligence. He's seen a lot, and often has a few tricks up his sleeve when fighting baddies. But he doesn't have Awareness. He's pretty much always reacting to his enemies' actions as they're taken, and hardly ever has a clue about what he's going to face before entering conflict. A good Hellboy narrative is about seeing him get in way over his head, then overcoming through sheer force of will.

      Al Ewing's Bruce Banner, on the other hand, often gets to choose his battles. Sure, there are moments where his enemies spring traps or strike first, but mostly these traps are created in response to Banner's moves. And if his battles are won through improvisation and hard-won experience (like Hellboy's), they're significant because he knows where to hit his enemies where it hurts. Banner has the "narrative initiative."

      (Light spoiler alert for Immortal Hulk: It's also become clear in the latter half of the run that Banner is unkowingly entangled in The Leader/The One Below's eon-spanning plot. This might possibly be a case of Banner's Regional (North American) Awareness coming up against his ultimate adversary's Cosmic-level Awareness).

      Champions Now has the benefit of a rich social context for conflict, though. I imagine this approach to perception and knowledge checks could work well for any game that takes foregrounds its characters' social, economic and cultural context (Runequest comes to mind).

      This issue seems thornier to me with games whose procedures don't foreground this social surround. Is there a way, for instance, to preserve random encounters in an OSR game while letting certain Intelligence rolls grant the "narrative initiative" a la Champions Now?

    • Oh, and to connect this with

      Oh, and to connect this with the observations above regarding combat initiative, surprise, and GM trickery: In the comics mentioned and in Champions Now, having or not having Awareness never takes away a character's agency (it's actually quite difficult to render a Champions Now hero helpless or abject). It just shapes how that agency is expressed.

      Can having your character rendered helpless/abject be a fun/impactful/'valuable' experience in a different system, like an OSR game?

  3. Thumb on the Scale

    "when is GM advice about 'what to do' legitimate and when is it a case of putting your thumb on the scale?"

    Doesn't this basically hinge on the players' familiarity with the rules?

    If the players know it's an option but forego it, either deliberately or by accident, I think it's not the GM's place to nudge anyone.  They're at least nominally aware of the costs of screwing up / doing it sub-optimally.

    But if the player(s) don't know the rules very well, I think it's fair to check in, and ask, "Just to be clear, you know about these rules over here, right?"  assuming that you haven't already established a norm that players are expected to play sharply.  

    If the players know that the game is going to be fairly cutthroat, then look, doofus player, you should know the damn rules that apply to your guy and if you're screwing around in a sub-optimal way, that's on you.  

    But in my experience, that's not the usual social expectation.  Typically I'm playing a game I may have read through once.  I understand most of the rules but certainly not the subtle points.  It likely took some effort just to make it to the game table in the first place, so I'm probably not going to have a grandmaster's knowledge of the rules.  If the GM (or another player) wants to give me a nudge and say, "Hey, remember this thing?" I normally don't mind.

    It can be extremely fun to play with a grandmastery expectation, but I'm not sure how realistic it is, particularly if the game is extremely complex.  

    • Upon reading this, my

      Upon reading this, my response was "No" … but (as I see it) you're not wrong, either.

      I think the core issue is which of these two things a person is present, at the table, playing for:

      • To get into it
      • To get out of it

      Where "it" is not an aesthetic experience or creative goal; those are another issue. I'm talking about "it" in terms of pure consequential danger. What is at risk may be as brutally simple as the character's life, or more conceptual as with some ideal, or more abstract such as his or her stability or admirable qualities at the outset of play. But the point is that in a lot of role-playing games, it is at risk, and that valuing the thing that's in danger is some part of the reason that the real-person player is playing this character.

      Here's a general point for either way: that this creator-character relationship is subtle. It's not as simple as "I identify with this character, I want the best outcome for them, I want them to be OK." If that were all there was to it, the only possible action is to refuse to play this character, just as with a fictional protagonist in a story. If the author really felt that way (or rather, felt only that way), then the story would have to be about someone else. I won't go any deeper into the horrors of "why do we create what we create," specifically because I am not provided with an office, tenure, an easy teaching schedule, a book contract, and frequent forays into celebrity-intellectual gratifications.

      Let's stay ordinary and simple – in most role-playing, the character you play is definitely going to be in this kind of "it." There's a risk and it feels important.

      Getting into it means not only addressing the risk, but actively seeking (as a creator) whatever changes to the character that confrontation may bring. Getting out of it means addressing the risk in some way to keep those changes to a minimum, or perhaps accepting some but definitely not others.

      Stay with me, please. I think that both of these are perfectly viable things to do or want or to "play for." I think it's OK to design or play a game in which this choice is left open, whether to individual characters or to groups, and it's also OK to design or play a game in which one of them is the stated and expected way to go. This isn't about good or bad, or right or wrong ways. Also, let's not get distracted by combinations, or demands for examples, or the typical bullshit and objections.

      This is what I want to talk about instead: that the trouble arises (1) if one or the other is embedded in play, i.e., play is not left open for one way or the other, and (2) if one or more people at the table either fail to understand that or refuse to accept it.

      So where does your system-competence (nothing so grand as "mastery") come in? I think that if no such problem exists, then knowing and using a good system enhances the fun, provokes more fun, and engages more ways for the fun to be fun (this last part is due to more than one person being involved). Also, if enough people at the table are system-savvy, then the one who isn't will be OK because they're still oriented toward the in-or-out direction that everyone else has (presuming for simplicity that for this game it's one or the other).

      That's why I'm saying you're not wrong, because the system-competence is a great thing. But I'm saying "No" overall, because if the 1&2 problem that I described above is in place, then no amount of system knowledge or skill is going to solve it. It may even exacerbate it because the "in through the out door" person, or vice versa, often tries to lawyer or weasel mechanics, adding unconstructive legalism to the already-nonviable situation.

    • James – I think your point

      James – I think your point about expectations is important for this kind of issue in general. Combined with the variable Robbie brings up above — i.e., how much "Stuff" is there on the character that the player needs to keep track of — gives a reasonable rule of thumb for how to handle these situations. In this specific case, we had gone into the game with the understanding that I would not be the sole "rules nanny" for the group, and, specifically, we established that it was up to each player to have a good grasp on how their special powers worked (mainly magic, but I also said that if they wanted to make use of the fairly extensive rules about plants — which takes up more pages in the book than are devoted to magic skills/spells). Still, being explicit about something prior to play doesn't necessarily trump other concerns (especially in terms of how complicated the stuff to keep track of become during the course of play), and I think we've ended up with a good compromise of making general reminders between sessions to take a look at all available special powers/skills/etc. so that we're not losing track of potentially useful/interesting options.

    • Those 1990s games are super

      Those 1990s games are super hung up about plants. A bunch of the fantasy heartbreakers and several of the more well-known games just went berserk on distributing them across various ecologies, knowing them, finding them, harvesting and preserving them, and using them in a wide variety of brews and other effects. Special rules for "hedge magic" kicked in hard right then, as an associated feature. I haven't put any effort to tracking down a source game or supplement which must have resonated throughout the hobby, but I bet there was one. Maybe the AD&D Wilderness Survival Guide? The first text I know that went into this was Cults of Prax (RuneQuest), but that was earlier and I doubt it had the kind of impact I'm talking about, whereby a whole generation of game designers "just knew" that you "had" to have rules for this.

    • (On the subject of where the

      (On the subject of where the medicinal plant fixation comes from, I point a suggestive finger at Middle Earth Role Playing and Rolemaster's Campaign Law book, both from Iron Crown Enterprises. Both had a chart of many healing and poisonous herbs, with a fussy little code of three digits and/or letters indicating climate, habitat and rarity for each.)

  4. More musings on battles

    The recent seminar on battles and then Ross's follow-up comment about how he handled a larger scale fight in his Legendary Lives game reminded me we had something like that in our game. I debated whether or not to nest this comment in one of those threads, but decided it would fit better here, because to set the context, I need to go into more detail on how I approach playing NPCs in Legendary Lives.

    In Legendary Lives, the rules regarding NPC vs. NPC conflicts — or Foe vs. Foe to use the game's own terms — are as follows:

    Sometimes, foes fight between themselves. If the players are not involved, the referee controls the fight completely. She decides how badly the combatants are wounded, who wins, how long it takes, and so on, according to logic and the dramatic necessities of the adventure.

    Ignore the specific language about "necessities of the adventure", or, rather, translate it into something more conducive to our way of playing (i.e., there are no necessities of the adventure, but there are shared aesthetic expecations and standards that we are trying to meet), and what this means to me is that if players want something to happen, if they want something from a Foe, if they want to do something to a Foe, if they want to stop something from happening to a Foe, then they have to take action themselves: they can't rely on the Foes taking care of themselves or taking care of each other.

    This is especially interesting because Foes-as-allies have turned out to be immensely important in the game, mainly in terms of offering access to resources — both physical and social. For example, befriending the Constable in Balgravia turned out to be very important in letting the characters have some free rein in terms of how they dealt with the aftermath of the attack on Levspira's brother; their relationships with Foes led them to be offered free travel by ship to their ultimate destination; etc.

    These relationships are important, but they are fragile, especially in terms of any possible Foe vs. Foe conflict. They are always, potenitally at risk.

    I've also been looking at these issues very much through the lens of Trollbabe's "stakes" concept: that is, I have a sense of what the Foes will get up to, left to their own devices, what is specifically at stake in the situation, and I move towards the resolution of those stakes (in terms of my prep and how I play the Foes), with changes in how the Foes are acting/reacting only coming about through player action.

    (And remember that because the sucess/failure of actions in Legendary Lives is so swingy that taking action always comes with a significant risk.)

    All of these things were in my mind when it came to handling the battle between the Bowmen (Forester rebels) and the Blue Sparrows (elite Elvish Empire soldiers).

    I should mention that I had forgotten that there were rules to handle large combats in the game. I think we would have rediscovered them had any of the players got into a position to take leadership of one of the factions. Fieldmouse actually had earlier made a play to win the hearts of the Bowmen over to him, but had failed utterly. Because he failed, I decided that meant that the Bowmen would continue with their plan, but now because they realized Fieldmouse knew about it and could cause them trouble, they would speed up the timeline. Otherwise, though, I kept to their plan as I had prepped it prior to the session: the Bowmen were going to set fire to various strategic locations around the city, mainly in order to draw the Blue Sparrows out of the fort they were using as HQ, and then ambush the Blue Sparrows.

    The players had the opportunity to do a number of things at this point, but they did not at first take any decisive action. They tried to get the Constable to look into things at first, but the rolls weren't very successful (though they weren't catastrophic), so I took that to mean they spun their wheels and wasted time without having much to show for it. Then they decided to take action themselves, and interrogated a captured Bowman to find out more about the plot. That WAS successful, and so it gave them the secret passwords that would enable them to call off the Bowmen's raid. But — and here's where the consequences of their earlier faield roll with the Constable came in — I decided that instead of being able to be very proactive with their information about how to defuse the situation, the Bowmen's plan had progressed to the point where the attack was actually starting. Instead of preventing the attack, the players were now in a position that all they could hope to do was cut it short.

    I saw the battle at this point as the context for what the players wanted to do next, and not as a conflict that I was running on its own. My guiding principle was that absent action from the players, the attack would play out in a specific way: the Bowmen would cause a lot of damage and some casualities to the Blue Sparrows, but once the Sparrows recovered from the surprise and got their act together, they would be able to effectively, violently put down the rebellion. That was what was at stake, in Trollbabe terms, for the entire scenario: an extremely violent response by the Blue Sparrows would lead to an increasing cycle of violence.

    However, since Fieldmouse was able to cut the attack short, the opportunity opened up to have a less destructive overall outcome.

    To connect this back to the seminar on battles, I think this falls in the category of using the battle as a background hazard for the players' actions, which they can interact with and possibly change the course of, but only by putting themselves at risk. (There may be other subtleties that I'm missing or not doing justice to in this post.)

    I liked the way this was handled. I didn't feel that I needed to add an extra layer of resolution in to "see how the battle turned out" independent of what we were already rolling for based on player actions, but that is probably because I had my prep regarding the stakes of the battle to guide me. I can see how turning to using a Fate roll in a situation where there wasn't that kind of guiding prep in place would be preferable to having the Referee just deciding what happened.


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