Wednesday, July 24, 2019

More noodling on Stonetop's gear & inventory system

We've now gone through about a dozen sessions with the current version of Stonetop's inventory system, and I'm... dissatisfied.

I'm leaning strongly towards something more like what I'm using in Homebrew World, something like this:

Some background... how'd we get here?

The gear lists (and how PCs acquire gear) have always been an important part of the game. The core conceit of Stonetop is that you're the heroes of a small, isolated, fantasy iron-age village. "Adventures" usually mean going out into the world to do something on the town's behalf. 

As such, I've always had three important goals for Stonetop's gear (and related systems):
  1. Tie the quality of the PC's gear to the prosperity and fortunes of their village. In other words: the PCs don't get better gear because they buy it with their ill-gained loot; they get better gear by building up their home town.
  2. Emphasize and establish the setting through the "material culture" of the town. Spears and shields should be the norm; steel is rare and valuable; candles and lanterns are luxuries for most folk; stuff is heavy; coin is uncommon and not how most trade gets done. 
  3. Include scarcity and meaningful resource-depletion, as a driver of player/character decisions. E.g. they might need to turn back from a mission because they get too beat up and/or run out of food, ammo, supplies, etc. 
To those ends, the village itself gets a playbook.  It has stats, mostly derived from the original Dungeon World steading rules. Like so:

There's an involved mini-game in how these stats all interact, but the relevant ones are:
  • Fortunes determines the general morale, luck, and mood of the town. It changes frequently, ranging from -3 to +3. 
  • Surplus represents the food in the granary, the water in the cistern, the extra wealth spread out throughout the town. It accumulates in Summer and Autumn, and gets taxed in Winter. It also gets used for civic projects, like building a palisade.
  • Prosperity represents the overall level of wealth, technology, and goods available in the town. It changes slowly, if at all. Higher Prosperity means that the PCs should have access to superior gear.
The original gear and inventory system was quite similar to standard Dungeon World, and it worked like this:
  • Each PC had a Max Load, determined by their class and STR (typical ranges: 8-12). 
  • Each item had a Weight, usually 0-2, rarely higher.
  • Each class had a starting set of items, usually 1 "good" item and ~3 standard items. Things like rations and adventuring gear weren't included, because...
  • When the PCs would Outfit for an expedition, they'd roll +Fortunes. On a 10+, they'd get 6 items; on a 7-9, they'd get 3; on a 6-, nothing. They could get +3 items by reducing the town's Fortunes by 1.
  • Items were split into lists, corresponding to the steading's current Prosperity. The items you got from Outfitting had to come from your current Prosperity List, but you could "trade down" 3:1. E.g. if the steading was currently Poor (-1) and you got a 7-9 to Outfit, you'd get 3 Poor items, or 2 Poor items and 3 Dirt item, or 1 Poor item and 6 Dirt items, etc. 
  • Most of the Dungeon World classics were there: adventuring gear, bandages, poultices, ammo, etc. Generally speaking: stuff on the higher Prosperity lists was lighter or just better. 
  • Weapons and armor, too, with crappy stone/copper stuff on the Dirt list, iron/bronze spears and arrows on the Poor list, and "serious" weapons on the Moderate list.  
Oh, here's an early draft if you're interested.

This system... worked.  But it had problems:
  • As in regular Dungeon World, players often wouldn't count their Weight vs. their Load. Counting 6-12 items, each with a different Weight value just doesn't work for people. They won't do it unless you force them to. 
  • The Outfitting procedure was painful.  
    • "Okay, so we'll be gone for 4 days and there are 5 of us... so we need 20 rations... that's... just over 3 picks of Porridge. Porridge is on the Dirt list, so that's just 1 of our picks. We've got 2 Poor items left... does anyone need a cloak? Or arrows?"  "I need adventuring gear." "Okay, that's a Dirt pick, so we've got 2 more Dirt items and a Poor item." 
    • Some players would inevitably glaze over. Others would knapsack-problem it. And then they'd figure out how to distribute the gear among PCs. It could easily take a party of 4 over half an hour to figure this crap out. 
  • There was no incentive for folks to "travel light." 
  • Rules were hidden in the gear descriptions. Bandages and poultice were the biggest problems here, but also whisky, probably some other stuff. If you didn't think to look for it, you'd miss it.
  • Adventuring gear somehow never got used up. Rope, I guess? But the different "levels" of adventuring gear rarely seemed to come into play.  When it did get used, it was often for things like "I'm out of bandages, but I've got adventuring gear. Can I use that?"

Consolidation and slots

I started tinkering with consolidation a while ago, looking for ways to consolidate the "expendable" gear: adventuring gear, rations, bandages, poultice, even ammo.

I also started to think about "inventory slots" instead of Weight vs. Load. Slots are a much better user interface: you can visually process how "full" your inventory is with slots much more quickly and easily than you can add up a series of numbers and compare it to another number.

Meanwhile, Blades in the Dark came out and blew my mind with the "loadout" thing. In BitD, you pick a Light, Medium, or Heavy load. That has fictional implications, but also gives you X items, which you can declare at any point during your job. It's great!  Gets you into the action with minimum fuss, but still provides grabby fiction and meaningful decisions.

Problem is... Blades is all about short-term jobs that (usually) take place in the city. Scarcity and resource depletion aren't really a factor. Dungeon World and Stonetop share a core conceit of "leaving civilization and traveling through/exploring dangerous places," and scarcity and resource depletion are an important part of that.

Combining all three ideas (consolidating expendables, slots instead of Weight vs. Load, and the Blades in the Dark "loadout") got me to the system I initially used in Homebrew World.

Homebrew World's original take on loadout (for the Fighter)

You've got slots, differences between "unencumbered" and "encumbered" (normal) and "clumsy".  You've got consolidated expendables with "Supplies" and "More supplies".  You've got gear lists specific to the playbooks, and quick methodology for deciding what and how much you have.  

It worked okay, but not perfectly. The Out of... mechanic was weird. When you needed to eat, or tend to wounds, or expend ammo, you could either expend 1 use of Supplies or mark "Out of __".  Likewise, you could produce small items by marking "Out of [that kind of item]."  This was obscure, not-very intuitive, and too forgiving.  

The other big problems with this approach is that slots don't work very well when they are pre-filled (or partially filled).

For example: in the image above, suppose that the player decides that, for their 2 choices, they want "More supplies" and "Healing potion".  Cool!  They haven't selected that slot with the "Shield... or crossbow", so it's technically available. They expend 1 use of Supplies to produce a rope. It goes in that last empty slot, under "More supplies." Later, they want to produce a pickaxe.  It could go in that unused slot with the shield/crossbow, but that slot doesn't look empty. They'd have to write over it, which is unintuitive and annoying.  

Another example: they use up "More supplies".  I just looted a jeweled skull, can I put it in that slot?  The slot is technically now empty, but the check-box is already ticked, so... can I put this skull in there?  (Yes. But, again, unclear and clunky.)

This would get exacerbated in Stonetop because the you're regularly re-Outfitting and the gear available would change over time, and (unlike Homebrew World which only expects to see the characters through only one adventure) the heroes of Stonetop would often accumulate stuff over time.   

Also: the consolidation of expendables goes against some of my design goals for Stonetop: emphasizing the material culture through specific gear, and having gear quality dictated by the town's Prosperity.  But I liked the slots (with differing levels of encumbrance) and I liked the define-your-gear-as-you-need-it aspect. And that got me to...  

Stonetop's current gear system

It's described in detail here, but in short, it looks like this:

When you Outfit, you... 

  • ...decide if you're bringing a Light Load (3 slots, quick & quiet), a Normal Load (6 slots), or a Heavy Load (9 slots, noisy, hot, slow, quick to tire).  
  • ...pre-populate as many of those slots as you want, either from the appropriate prosperity lists or your personal possessions. 
  • ...can choose to leave any (or all) of those slots as undefined ("?") for now, and fill them in during play (again, from the prosperity list or your personal possessions).

You can also use the Trade & Barter move (as you Outfit, or in the field as a flashback) to try and acquire better items (stuff off the higher Prosperity lists).

Note that you can produce small items more-or-less at will. There's no limit beyond "be reasonable" (and the Prosperity lists/personal possessions). Everyone can have a tinderbox, and some whisky, etc.

Part of this approach also meant tweaking with the gear lists themselves. In particular, things that were previously small items got grouped into "[]" items (things that take up a slot), but with more uses.

This system works pretty well. I think it'd work quite well for something with a less-defined gear list, like a modern-day game where everyone more-or-less knew the types of things you could produce, or a generic Ren Faire style fantasy game with anachronisms all about.

But for Stonetop, I continue to see problems with the Prosperity lists and the subtle differences between types of gear. For example, here are the 3 lowest (and most available) gear lists:

At the start of play, players can freely take things from the first two columns, and can Trade & Barter for things in the 3rd column. Plus, every player has a couple personal possessions from the inside of their playbook.

Notice all the subtle differences in similar gear:

  • Porridge (Dirt list) gives you 12 uses per slot but requires cooking (fire & water), vs. Provisions (Poor list) which gives you 6 uses per slot but is prep free.
  • Rotgut vs. Decent whisky are both good for burning, easy nerves, dulling pain, etc. (and thus a good resource to use when you Recover). The only real difference between them is how many times you can use them before they cause a debility. Oh, and fine whisky (Moderate list) has no such limitation and also can be used for advantage on a Parley.
  • How much does it matter that a wooden shield (from the Poor list) is crude, vs. a bronze/iron shield (from the Moderate list) that isn't?  (Answer: only as much as your GM pays attention to the quality of your shield. I.e. quite possibly not at all.)
  • Compare light sources:
    • Rushlights (6 uses, hand, crude, small) on the Dirt List 
    • Oil lamp (area, close, crude, requires oil, small) on the Poor List. "Oh, you have an oil lamp? It's small, but did you bring lamp oil?" 
    • Lamp oil (6 uses, [])  on the Poor List
    • Candles (6 uses, close, [])
    • Lantern (area, reach, requires oil)..."Hey, do you have oil?" "Crap."
  • Stone/copper spear (close, thrown, crude, []) on the Dirt list vs. Iron/copper spear (close, thrown, []) on the Poor list vs. Steel spear (close, thrown, 1 piercing, []) on the Moderate list.
  • Remedies (5 uses, slow, []) on the Poor list vs. Healer's kit (5 uses, slow, []) on the Moderate list. The healer's kit grants advantage and restores an extra 5 HP. 
  • A cloak (warm, []) vs. thick hides (1 armor, warm, crude, big [][]) on the Poor list, vs. a boiled leather cuirass (1 armor, []) on the Moderate list.  Sometimes (like in Winter) you want warm, sometimes (like in Summer) you don't.  Does the crude on the thick hides matter?  Remember, those hides are big [][], so they can't go in any of your first 3 slots.
  • Bow, short (near, 2h, []) on the Poor list vs. Bow, long (far, 2h, []) on the Moderate list, but don't forget to bring Arrows (3 ammo, []), of either stone/copper (crude, on the Dirt list), iron/bronze (Poor list), or steel (1 piercing, on the Moderate list). 
So when deciding on my gear, I need to:
  1. Know how many slots I have available
  2. Look at the lists of gear that I can choose from
  3. Find something that looks right
  4. "Are there better versions I could get? How are they better? Is it worth me Trading & Bartering to get that?"
  5. Are there any related things I should make sure I have? (i.e. you need arrows for your bow; you need oil for your lamp/lantern)  Do I have room for them?
  6. "Oh, it's big [][]? I guess I have to move some stuff around."
  7. "Oh, it's small, so that doesn't go into a slot?"
The fact that you can put off declaring the specific items until you actually need them is good, and helps, but come the moment where you Have What You Need, and suddenly you need to parse all of this and hope you don't make any mistakes.

Like, I think the system works, but it requires a lot of system mastery and attention to detail. In my home game, I'm finding that the same folks who would take point on the old Outfit procedure (X choices off of Y list, trade down at 3:1) are the same folks who grasp this new system and interact with it. Meanwhile, the folks who were overwhelmed by the old Outfit procedure are mostly still overwhelmed by this.  Which means that it's not working. 

Also of concern: in our home game (in which I'm a player, not the GM), we've recently reached Moderate prosperity.  And now that we're there, I'm seeing how much of a quadratic boost it is.  Everyone can produce spears and arrows that are 1 piercing; every time we Recover, we're using a healer's kit and getting back 10 HP instead of 5 HP, or rolling with advantage to treat an injury. 

And my favorite:  everyone can reasonably claim to be carrying a flask of fine whisky (it's on the Moderate list), but that means our party of ~12 (6 PCs + the Marshal's crew of 6 followers) can produce 12 small Moderate-value items that are well-established as trade goods with other settlements. 12 Moderate items is 6-12 handfuls of silver, which is 2-4 purses of silver. Basically at will! Compare that to just 2 sessions ago, where having 9 flasks of fine whisky was a Big Deal and let us make an important trade deal with Gordin's Delve.

(On the plus side: when everyone saw that the Moderate list included "Hound [alive]: A good dog" they all freaked out with joy.)

Meanwhile, in Homebrew World...

Further playtesting of Homebrew World, and reports from folks who had played it, led me to try something even closer to the Blades in the Dark approach.  After a couple iterations, we got this:

from Homebrew World's Thief playbook

No more slots. You mark up to a certain number of ◊ on either specific items or "Undefined." During play, you can move marks from Undefined to specific items or slots, and fill the slots with common, mundane items.  

Two of the ◊ items on every playbook are "Supplies" and "More Supplies" (each with 3 uses), which (per the original Homebrew World rules) consolidate most of the expendable stuff: rations, bandages, poultices, etc. They can also be spent to produce small items, but not full-sized items (those require using Undefined ◊).  

The specific items are tailored to each playbook. For example, only the Thief has "Throwing knives" and a "Disguise kit". The Thief doesn't have any "Serious weapons" or "Heavy armor" or a "Shield" but the Fighter and Paladin do. These customized pick lists allow me to suggest things about each class's capabilities and skills, and prod creativity. The player with the Thief might never have thought about impersonating the prince, but hey, they can have a Disguise Kit... let's try this!  

In play, I've found that this approach works really well. People quickly seem to grasp the Undefined aspect, and have fun using up Supplies to make small items (personal favorite so far: the young-and-eager Paladin producing a pamphlet, to give to the rather genial ghoul he'd been chatting up about natural philosophy).  

Another thing that I'm really happy with: look at how ammo is handled on the Bow & Arrows or the Throwing knives.  Instead of "(Ammo 2)" they've got "([] low ammo  []out of ammo)".  What Dungeon World GM hasn't had to explain that, no no, it's not 2 shots, it's 2 times that you can choose "Reduce your ammo by 1?"  (And it always felt a little off to me to have Volley depleting Supplies.)

Now, this approach does lose the UI benefit of "slots." But I'll say that counting a small number of filled-in ◊ is much simpler than adding together the Weight of a bunch of different items.  

Oh, and I originally started with something like "light load = up to ◊ x3" and "medium load = up to ◊ x6" and "heavy load = up to ◊ x9".  But in the end, I didn't think it was worth it for Homebrew World.  The character archetypes in Homebrew World are very specific, and we don't expect to see characters for more than one adventure, so it felt like unnecessary complexity. So, some playbooks get more ◊s than others, and a couple playbooks have options to increase their ◊, but that's it. You're under your max load, or you're encumbered. 

Where I think I'm going with Stonetop

Let's consider my goals for Stonetop's gear and inventory systems again:
  1. Tie the quality of the PC's gear to the prosperity and fortunes of their village. In other words: the PCs don't get better gear because they buy it with their ill-gained loot; they get better gear by building up their home town.
  2. Emphasize and establish the setting through the "material culture" of the town. Spears and shields should be the norm; steel is rare and valuable; candles and lanterns are luxuries for most folk; stuff is heavy; coin is uncommon and not how most trade gets done. 
  3. Include scarcity and meaningful resource-depletion, as a driver of player/character decisions. E.g. they might need to turn back from a mission because they get too beat up and/or run out of food, ammo, supplies, etc.

    Having playtested the game quite a bit, I think I need to add:

  4. Make it easy to use: limit the need for system mastery and cross-referencing; consolidate the information as much as possible; avoid traps and gotchas, get PCs out the door and into the field as quickly as possible.
  5. Don't break the economy: getting to Moderate prosperity shouldn't cause some sort of crazy ripple effect.  

To those ends, I'm considering something much, much closer to the current iteration of Homebrew World, something that looks like this:

New Stonetop inventory insert: working draft

Unlike Homebrew World, every class uses the same sheet (and it's a full 1/2-page insert, as opposed to the HBW sheets where it's a 1/4 page and embedded in the playbook). 

This consolidates ammo into the bow & arrow option; it consolidates oil into the lamp and lantern. Thus, avoiding "gotchas".

It consolidates expendables into Supplies, so there's no more "Porridge" vs. "Provisions" vs. "Remedies" vs. "Healer's Kit." Instead of limiting which of those items are available, the steading's Prosperity influences how many uses you can get out of each ◊ of Supplies, and how effective the Recover move is:

When you spend a few minutes to catch your breath and tend to what ails you, expend 1 use of Supplies; you or your patient recovers 5 + Prosperity HP. You (or your patient) can't benefit from this move again until you lose more HP. 
..<plus stuff about treating a debility or problematic wound>. 

Historically, the difference between Porridge and Provisions usually came down: Porridge gives you more uses, but requires fire & water & time.  Provisions are a good snack.  That's replaced by having this:

 ◊ *Mess kit (requires fire/water; use fewer Supplies to travel or Make Camp).

And something like this:

When you settle in to rest in a dangerous area, answer the GM's questions about your campsite. Each member of the party must consume 1 use of Supplies. If you use a ◊ mess kit (with fire and water), you only need to consume 1 use of Supplies for the whole party.  
...<stuff about recovering HP etc. after a eating your fill and getting a few hours sleep>

The beauty of this: the first time the PCs Make Camp, they'll encounter this rule and it'll prompt a discussion about "Does anyone have a mess kit? Do we start a fire?" etc.

Also, Supplies get used to produce small items (in addition to X + Prosperity "free" small items). That puts an actual limit on the number of small items a character can have.  (Though I'm not actually sure that this is necessary, and might drop it.)

Now, this approach will lose some of the "material culture" aspect of the previous gear systems, in that we no longer specifically track porridge vs. provisions and copper vs. iron vs. steel weapons. But... I'm okay with that.  It preserves (and arguably enhances) the material culture by giving players pick lists that establish technology levels and what goods are commons. This gear sheet tells us that, yeah, everyone in Stonetop can have have a spear and a shield, or another weapons that's also a practical thing like a hatchet or hammer or a mattock or a staff. A rope and a blanket and a pair of gloves? All legitimate things that you might have with you! A block & tackle? Maybe, if the steading's prosperity is good!

The steading's Prosperity continues to affect quality of gear in a couple different ways:

  • Prosperity adds uses to your Supplies, and the Recover move (which uses Supplies) is more effective. 
  • Spears, arrows, and mattocks get X piercing , where X = Prosperity.  This reflects improved materials and craftsmanship (and, hey, maybe more time to practice). Oh, and if Prosperity is Dirt (-1), then it means all the weapons you can pick are crude.  
  • Prosperity limits which things you can pick when you Outfit or Have What You Need.  You can't "just have" a mattock or a cloak if your town has descended to Dirt. You can't "just have" a leather cuirass until you get the town up Moderate. 

They'll can still produce common, mundane items that aren't on the list, but the most common things (rope, blanket, a shovel, etc.) are already there. Again, making things easier, and reinforcing the material culture.

A lot of the things that used to be on the Moderate or higher lists--like serious weapons (a longbow, a flail, a warhammer) or bendis root or fine whisky--will now be Special Items. Special Items will have a specific description, a typical cost, and availability. You can't produce those on the fly, you'll have to Trade & Barter for them. That should prevent PCs from producing infinite stuff that can be sold for valuable coins.

I did keep the "light load = up to  x3, normal load = up to  x6, and heavy load = up to ◊ x9."  I didn't like it for Homebrew World because that game's scope is much more narrow. I felt like it was important to keep that option of granularity in Stonetop. In play, the light/normal/heavy load has definitely come up a lot, and driven decisions.

This stuff isn't set in stone, and I'll likely continue tinkering with a bit. But it's the direction I'm definitely leaning. Some issues that still need to be worked out:
  • How many uses of Supplies is "right"? I defaulted to 3+Prosperity, but that seems maybe too low? But too much, and scarcity mechanics cease to apply.
  • Will people be able to easily track their  when there are so many items on the sheet?  It works well in Homebrew World because it takes up half as much space and there are a lot fewer specific  items.  I'm worried that it won't be as easy to tell what you've got with this.
  • Do I really need to limit the number of small items they can have? Does the limit on "*" and "**" items (by Prosperity), and the fact that you can't sell this stuff for anything more than coppers (see below) do the job well enough?
  • What exactly will the Special Items list look like? How will I set prices and availability?
  • How will the PC's starting possessions work with this? For example, how do communicate that the Lightbearer can start with a "** Lantern" as a personal possession, and thus Outfit or Have What You Need to produce it, even though the steading's Prosperity wouldn't allow it. 
  • How exactly will coin work with all of this? 
    • I'm thinking that you won't be able to sell the "standard" items for anything more than coppers. 
    • And I think I'll just say that coppers and silvers are on fundamentally different scales (i.e. it doesn't really matter how many handfuls of coppers you have, no one is going to sell you a sword for copper, or trade you silver or gold for it.)  
    • Silver and gold will become relevant with "Special Items" and work more on the level of steading Surplus.
  • Most importantly: will this still be fun?
So, more tinkering ahead!  If you're still reading, good on you.  I'd love to hear your thoughts and get your feedback.  

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Online Version of Homebrew World

I just finished creating an online character keeper for Homebrew World. Check it out!

Current online version

You'll need to save your own copy in order to use it. Instructions on the first tab (GM Stuff). 

The main action happens on the PCs tab: there are columns for each class playbook, with the intention that you'd collapse the unused classes and have everyone's character sheet visible on one widescreen monitor.  Or, close to everyone's sheets... if you're doing 3 PCs it'll probably work. 4+ and you'll have to do some horizontal scrolling. 

Lots of vertical scrolling will be involved no matter what. I have my doubts about how usable this would be for folks on a mobile device, but for a laptop or desktop with a widescreen monitor available, I think it'll be a pretty solid solution. 

I've tried to preserve most of the "functionality" of the printed playbooks, including pick-lists and the layout of the Gear sections. Aside from collapsing/expanding groups, I'd advise against making any changes that trigger the "You’re trying to edit part of this sheet that shouldn’t be changed accidentally" warning.  Don't insert rows or columns, don't copy/paste anything.  It's fairly brittle, unfortunately. 

If you use these, please drop a line in the comments and let me know how they work for you and your group!