Thursday, September 27, 2012

On the Spacing of Pitons

Someone on grognards.txt writes: "I've had a DM ask me how far apart I'm spacing my pitons before."

And yes, this is dumb and groggy and pixelbitching. But only because there are no mechanisms in the game to give piton spacing mechanical weight, nor to limit the use of pitons in order to make it an interesting choice.

If there were rules to govern how likely you are to fall off while climbing, with the chance increasing the further you space your pitons; and limitations on spending money and inventory space that made pitons a real resource; and restrictions on time that made it important to decide whether you're leaving your pitons in or removing them as you go...

Then, the spacing of pitons would be an interesting decision to make.

I'm not really talking about D&D here. Pitons are totally trivial in D&D because even a starting character can probably buy an arbitrary number of them, and the wealth is only going to go up from there. Furthermore, there isn't enough climbing in a standard D&D game for a piton-related rule to be worth bothering with.

What I'm really dreaming of is an entirely new game, although it could rely on a very stripped-down core of AD&D as its base, if only because that's what I and other nerds are familiar with. But in this new game, all the stupid timewasting, pixelbitching questions that shitty DMs ask of their players would be transformed into actually interesting dilemmas. You could call it a second-gen retroclone if you like, in that it's realising the unfulfilled promise of something in the original game. Lamentations of the Flame Princess realises the promise of horror; DCC, the promise of sword & sorcery; ACKS, the promise of detailed domain level play. This game will realise the promise that's implied by an equipment list containing pitons, torches, tinderboxes and rope by the foot: a game of resource management, of scraping by with what little you have, of trying to start a campfire in the rain.

Pitons are just the tip of the iceberg. Here are some other mechanics that might be interesting:

- Setting camp: Where are you camping? Do you want to light a fire? What if it attracts monsters? Can you survive the cold? Do you want to cook your food? Can you build a break to hide the firelight?
- Dungeon exploration: do you have enough torches?* How long have you been down here? Can you find your way back out? How will you cross underground rivers, climb down shafts, traverse narrow ledges?
- Eating: How much food do you have? How far to the next town, and how will you pay for meals there? Can you hunt?
- Weather: Is it going to rain, snow, shine? How will that affect your chances of survival? Did you pack  warm clothes?
- Inventory Management: If anything I would like to go out the far side of the spectrum and make the encumbrance system unrealistically punishing, so that you really have to consider what you want to take with you. Of course you can get porters, mules, etc. but they all come with their own set of challenges.
- Endurance: Walking, suffering cold or heat, eating, sleeping, warming yourself by the fire - all these things and more can affect your levels of energy. These energy levels are what replace your HP in standard D&D. If you're fit and well-rested, you have plenty of HP to spare when danger arises. If you're tired and bedraggled, you'll go down like a 1st-level wizard to a housecat.
- Injury: When danger does arise, and you don't have enough HP to evade danger, you are going to suffer serious and lasting injuries. A character who's been hurt previously may be a drain on the whole party's resources. Then the whispers begin: "We'd be better off without him..."

This game would be a challenge to design. On the one hand, it's intended that dealing with encumbrance limits and weather tables is now a key part of the game, not just stupid bullshit you have to deal with before diving into the dungeon. However, at the same time you want to streamline a lot of these mechanics so that the resource management section of the game is actually fun and dynamic. Striking a balance would be difficult.

Other things that would flow on into the rest of the game:
- Monsters, even low-level ones, are an extremely serious threat. If you picture the boss monster as D&D's "major threat" and the wandering mobs as "minor threats" - well in this game the environment itself is the "minor threat", and even a wandering monster is a "major threat". To reflect this, the setting would be much less monster-dense than regular D&D. Instead of table after table of wandering monsters, you could threaten the PCs with a wilderness area inhabited by nothing but wild animals and a single troll. Giants or dragons would be the upper limits of what PCs could hope to face, while things like demons and liches probably just don't exist.
in this game, lembas bread is OP as shit
- Because of this, you can play up the dangers of the environment much more. Death by falling from a cliff, starving, freezing, eating poison mushrooms, being dragged off by hungry wolves, etc. are all serious possibilities.
- All-new classes would be required. Can you imagine a Vancian Wizard in this game? Even if they weren't going to break the whole thing with their 2nd & 3rd level spells, it just doesn't fit the flavour. Magic-Users, such as they are, would be something more akin to druids or shamans, with low-key mystical knacks rather than flashy spells. Other classes might be: Fighter (remember, there's a lot less fighting going on than in a regular D&D game) Hunter/Ranger, Healer (non-magical), and perhaps some kind of 'foreman' to preside over issues of inventory and organisation? In fact, perhaps a freeform skill system would be better.
- Urban adventures wouldn't really work; it's got to be uncharted wilderness for the restrictions on resources to become meaningful. The implied setting for this game would be vast, wild and largely empty - the "howling emptiness of AD&D" turned up to eleven.
- Strangely, extraplanar adventures and other gonzo environments might actually work if you focused on the environment itself as the danger, while keeping the monsters to a reasonable level. How do you adventure on the Plane of Fire when it's not just handwaved with everyone getting a Ring of Fire Resistance?

*Apparently some people deal with this problem already in D&D, but I can't really see how it ever becomes relevant unless a) the players simply forget to pay a handful of silver pieces for a roll of torches or b) some sort of Grinding Gear scenario where you're stuck in the dungeon for an unreasonably long time.


  1. For some reason I think this would be great if it was either a post-apocalyptic survival setting or something like caveman/copper age days.

    Take a look at "Otzi the Iceman" and check out what he was carrying. It paints an interesting picture of ancient wilderness travel.

  2. And now we come back full circle to Wilderness Survival! :)

  3. How many pitons can you use before your hammer is worn down too far to work anymore?

  4. Now I'm reminded of an apocryphal mod for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. that was so realistic you had to trim your fingernails to stop them from jamming the trigger of your gun.