Friday, September 18, 2020

Angel Investors Want A Stake In Your Soul

They may appear as a new-in-town merchant with a slight golden glow over his head, or a very prim and proper older noblewoman with an unnatural glow in her eyes.  Or a wheel within a wheel within a wheel, carrying a rather nice attache case.  

But businesslike.  Always, unmistakably, very businesslike.  

They have a proposition for you.  An arrangement of mutual benefit.  A chance to change the world and disrupt the adventuring business.  A bold new free-market solution to an ever-changing spiritual landscape.

They would like to buy a piece of your soul.  Just a minority stake, mind you.  Your soul would still be yours, or at least you'd be in charge of it.  

They can offer you power, both mundane and divine.  All they want in return is for you to do good– and let them have a piece of the action.  

They will give you experience points– as many as you would need to get from your current level to the next one if you had just reached your current level.  So if you're level 2, which took 2000 xp, and level 3 is 4000 xp, then they'll invest 2000 xp in you, even if you're currently at 3000.

They'll also grant you one divine blessing– they'll offer you one of their choice.

Blessings of the Angel Investors

1- You can turn spiritual enemies as a cleric

2- Your tears are holy water

3- You can never get sick

4- Once a day, you can turn a single ration into enough fish and bread to feed CHA people

5- All of your attacks count as magical and holy

6- Lay on hands as a paladin

7- Sense evil as a paladin

8- Roll a random cleric spell, you can cast it once a day

9- You carry a vague aura of holiness about you; +2 on reaction rolls with the good and devout.  Not all priests are good or devout.

10- Re-roll your first failed save each day

In return, the angel investor takes 20% of all XP you earn.  You also earn XP differently– you no longer get any XP for evil acts, including fighting good enemies (or neutral ones if you picked the fight unnecessarily), or looting treasure from those same enemies.  XP for combat against evil enemies is 10x higher, and you may get XP for other good deeds.  XP for morally neutral acts, including fighting in self-defense, exploration, or non-evil looting, is unaffected.

You may be able to bargain for a bigger XP investment, or a different blessing, if you can convincingly argue that your soul is undervalued.  In extreme cases you may even be able to get two blessings.

But you can never bargain down the investor's price.  It is what it is.  Heaven needs to make a return on its investment, after all.

Yes, the rules about what constitute good and evil XP sources are a little vague.  But you can trust an angel to deal fairly with you.  They certainly have no intention of changing the rules– or the blessing– later on.

In any case, you can buy the investor out any time you you gain a new level– just sacrifice the amount of XP it took to reach that level from the last level (so if level 3 is 4000 and level 4 is 8000, then sacrifice 4000 xp when you reach level 4), stay at your current level a while longer, and your soul is yours again, free and clear.  That does of course mean you lose the angel's blessing.

Rumors of demon investors, who provide infernal blessings and incentivize evil acts, are heresy.  There are no demon investors.  There are certainly no demon investors masquerading as angel investors.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Money and Prices in Post-Apocalyptic Settings

 I've been puzzling over this one for a while.  The standard D&D money system with set price lists really doesn't feel right for a post-apocalyptic setting.  A good post-apocalyptic money (or barter or whatever) system should have two qualities:

First, there should be no set price list, because prices are going to vary dramatically in a world where trade isn't safe or regular, and shortages are frequent.  Also, I'm constantly going to be introducing new things for sale and I'd rather not obsess over finding the "right" price for it.

Second, whatever people use as money needs to have clear practical value as something other than money.  No fiat currency, obviously, but also no shell money.  Ain't no patience for fancy money in the wasteland!

So that leaves three options that I can see, and I'll show you what I settled on in the end, including how I set prices.  


Barter seems thematic for the fucked-up remnants of a fallen civilization on a blasted planet.  Trade animal pelts for lodging, a gun for some gasoline, some doodads from a ruined city for bullets.

The only problem is it gets incredibly tedious.  And imprecise.  And makes it hard to accumulate and store wealth.  Okay, barter sucks, which is why money is one of the first things humans invented.

Commodity Money

By commodity money, I mean the common expendable items everyone needs are now money.  Something like:

Cup of water– copper piece

Bullet- silver piece

Ration– gold piece

Can of gasoline– Platinum piece

This makes a lot more thematic sense.  Using bullets as money is metal as fuck.  It has a few problems though.

First, it strains realism, if you care about that.  Gasoline actually only keeps a few months.  Bullets might keep for years if they're well-made and stored properly, which they probably wouldn't be.

Second, what if the value of these commodities changes?  That's always true for money of course, but seems a more likely issue when the money is perishable.

Third, and most importantly in my mind, it negates one of the main challenge vectors of an OSR game: managing resource depletion.  As an expedition goes on, you should run low on food, ammo, torches/batteries and the like, while accumulating treasure.  At some point you have to make the hard decision to head back to town for rest and supplies.

So if the treasure you gain largely consists of the same resources you deplete during an adventure, much of the resource management aspect of the game is lost.

Alright, So Actual Money Then

But like I said before: no set prices that are consistent from village to village– or even month to month.  And the money has to be useful stuff, which after all money originally was.  Here are the coins I'll use in my campaign:

Copper penny– used for wiring, cookware, cups and plates, making bronze and brass

Scrap (or titanium– decent-quality pre-apocalypse alloys anyway) dime– used as a structural material for things that need to be tough like weapons, armor, and certain parts of vehicles and buildings.

Silver dollar– used for mirrors, jewelry, batteries, electrical contacts, weapons for use against supernatural threats, dental fillings, certain medicines, etc.

Gold pound– used for electronics, dental fillings, jewelry, or electroplated over other things to rust-proof it.  So-called because it's usually worth about a pound of scrap metal.

Platinum crown– used for catalytic converters in vehicles, high-temperature applications, certain electrical parts, and certain medicines.  And extremely fancy jewelry. So-called because you're rich if you have a few platinum coins.  

Like most games, each coin is worth ten of the next cheapest one, so a crown is worth 100 dollars, or 10,000 pennies.  

Items cost d4 coins by default.  What kind of coins?  Depends on the item.

Basic consumables like food, water, lodging, bullets and torches cost copper pennies.

Basic low-tech gear, minor luxuries like wine, and low-tech weapons and armor cost scrap.  By low-tech, I mean anything a pre-industrial culture could make, not withstanding that more advanced alloys may be used since there's pre-tech scrap metal lying around.

More specialized gear, small animals like cats, dogs and chickens, low-tech vehicles like bicycles, rowboats or wagons, and modern tech weapons and armor cost silver.

Land (in town– land in the middle of nowhere is free to whoever can hold it), cobbled-together modern tech vehicles (motorcycles and small buggies), and small futuristic tech devices, weapons and armor cost gold, as do really fancy luxuries

Magic items and small futuristic vehicles cost platinum

Move up a coin size if it’s particularly fancy, i.e. fine food rather than cheap food, a private room in the inn rather than the common room, a custom car rather than a beater, a decent sword rather than a spear or dagger, chainmail rather than padded.  Move up two coin types if it’s really fancy, i.e. plate armor, a rare vintage of wine, or a bazooka.  

Move up a coin type for every order of magnitude of size above personal items– car, house, ship, fortress, etc.    

Move down a coin size if it's a piece of shit– a care that might break down any time now, spoiled food, a rusty weapon, etc.  

Items cost d4 coins.  If size is relevant like with armor or meals, d4+1 if sized for someone big, d3 if sized for someone small.  Double, triple or quadruple the price if there’s a shortage.  

If there's a glut of an item, you might get a small discount on one, but you can get much bigger discounts for buying in bulk.  In other words, if there's a surplus of something it's meant for export to other towns.


Plate armor: low-tech armor is scrap, but custom-made plate armor is extremely fancy and expensive, so that's gold.  If you can't afford that, mass-produced 3/4 plate is silver. 

A modern sniper rifle– modern weapons are silver, but sniper rifles are kinda fancy, so gold.  If you can't afford that, a lower-quality bolt-action hunting rifle could be silver.  

A crappy modern-tech motorcycle would cost gold.  A big all-terrain van that can hold the whole party plus hirelings, gear and loot would cost platinum, as would a really good motorcycle.  A really good big ATV would cost tens of platinum!  On the other hand, if you really want a ride for the whole party at cut-rate prices, you can get a sketchy battle van for gold.  Your funeral.

Whatever price you roll, that's the price in that town for the near future.  Yes, the same item might cost 4x as much in the next town over.  If so, there's a reason why prices haven't equalized, like bandits preventing regular trade between the two towns, or the towns just don't get along.  Figure out what the reason is, and turn it into an adventure seed.   

Thursday, August 27, 2020

A Simple Metric of Player Agency

Most elements of the OSR playstyle– sandbox campaign design, player skill, exploration focus– are centered around maximizing player agency.  In general, the more agency the players have, the better your campaign will be.  

Player agency is generally a rather nebulous concept, more of a feeling than something that can be clearly defined and measured.  Until now, that is.  I've come up with a (rough but serviceable) measurement for it.

I call it TFMC: Time to First Meaningful Choice.  

In short: how long into a session is it before the party gets their first opportunity to make a meaningful choice?

"Do we explore the megadungeon some more or go track down the fugitive for the bounty" is a meaningful choice.  "Do we hire some retainers before we go back into the dungeon" is a meaningful choice.

"What games do we play and what food do we eat at the harvest festival" is probably not a meaningful choice, nor is "what route do we take to the adventure the DM has decided we're going on."  Choices will real consequences that have to be made completely blind also aren't meaningful, like if one of those two routes is safer but the more dangerous one offers a side quest, but you have no way of knowing that before you pick your route– not a meaningful choice.

In other words, a meaningful choice is a) consequential, and b) made with enough information (or the opportunity to gather information, even if you failed to do so) that the party can actually make an informed choice.  

A few clarifications: purely out of character stuff like recapping the last session or helping people create characters doesn't count towards session time for this purpose.  Introducing new characters does count, as does narrating any in-universe events that happen between sessions, like if you have a random events table you're rolling on.  In other words, only time spent actually playing counts.

Measure this TFMC every session.  After ten sessions or so, take an average for your campaign.  

I've been in 5E games where the TFMC was two hours or more.  A couple sessions lasted 4+ hours and had literally no meaningful choices.  That's not a game; that's an extended cutscene.  

A good OSR campaign should almost always have a TFMC of under 5 minutes, and pretty much never over 15 minutes.  The average should be under 10 minutes.  

Even that five minute target is only due to the aforementioned qualifiers– sessions may begin with in-character character intros and the referee narrating an event that happened.  Or you may enjoy starting sessions with a few minutes of in-character shooting the shit that doesn't affect the plot; nothing wrong with that if the whole group's into it.

One obvious objection to this metric is that you could have one meaningful choice early in a session, and every few thereafter.  Which, sure– it's a simplified metric.  In practice though, railroad-y campaigns generally have sessions structured so that the pre-plotted stuff is first and the part where the players make meaningful decisions is in the later part of the session.

You can probably see why– if this were reversed, with the meaningful choices first and the railroad stuff second, the choices made by the party could derail the session.  Or to avoid that, the DM would have to negate the player's choices in ways that would be unsatisfying even by the standards of people who otherwise like pre-plotted campaigns. 

I've had maybe two or three sessions like that, ever.  And also maybe three or four sessions that were the reverse, with high player agency but the first meaningful choice was over 15 minutes in.  

So in practice, I find this TFMC metric tracks very closely with the overall sandbox-y-ness and player freedom of a campaign.  

And just as important, as an OSR player I find it tracks very closely with how much I personally enjoy a campaign; when I do play non-OSR games, I find this metric more than anything else tells me early on whether I'm going to enjoy the campaign, or should make an excuse to gracefully drop out of it.