Thursday, June 16, 2022

Building Bhakashal - A Snapshot of Sandbox Faction Play

Bhakashal is a retroclone and a setting, and it is designed to allow you to easily run an open sandbox, player driven, faction influenced game. What I wasn’t sure about was how many new mechanics I had to introduce to sustain this system. D&D is notoriously social mechanics light, and faction play involves social mechanics otherwise it’s just fighting all the time.

Bhakashal has three mechanisms for determining social interactions:

  1. Encounter reaction rolls

  2. Randomization of decision outcomes

  3. Factional alignment

  1. Encounter reaction rolls are required whenever two parties come together and both can communicate with the other, as long as one side tries to parley, there must be an encounter reaction roll. 

  1. When an NPC has to make a decision between options, these options are randomized, usually weighted, but randomized. So say a wizard has the party at a disadvantage, rather than just have him kill them I would roll for the result. Slaying them, getting them to perform a service, ransoming them for gold, etc.

  1. Factional alignment comes into play when interpreting NPC weighted options. Alignment is not individual in Bhakashal, it is group or faction focused. Individual NPCs are part of different factions, but all have a “primary faction” that is most important to them. It could be a guild, a temple, a Noble House, etc. That faction will have an alignment. Lawful factions reward group effort, people who forge alliances and follow rules do well in lawful factions as most members of the faction behave lawfully and reward that behavior. In chaotic factions most participants reward individual initiative. In evil factions most members of the faction are willing to harm others to achieve goals. In neutral factions most members are reluctant to harm others but are also less likely to help. In good factions most of the members are altruistic as much as possible. These aren’t absolutes, but tendencies. For NPCs, this means that any decision spread is influenced by the alignment of the faction most important to the NPC. PCs can chose to follow the alignment of their faction or not.

Now take the case of the wizard who had the party at a disadvantage. There were three options on the table, factional alignment is a guide to how the NPC’s options will be weighted. Say the faction the wizard is associated with is chaotic evil (say they work for a warlock’s Circle, and in general the members of the circle reward individual initiative (chaotic) and are willing to harm others to achieve their goals (evil). I might set up that d6 roll for options as follows:

1:kill them 

2-3: get them to perform a service

4-6: capture them and ransom them for gold

The options that reward the individual the most are weighted the most heavily, slaying the party gets the wizard nothing other than loot, and some of that might get destroyed in the process, so it would not be heavily weighted in a factionalized environment, PCs are almost always worth more alive than dead. So getting a service or a reward are weighted more heavily. The option that is the most rewarding and least risky gets the highest weight, in this case that is ransoming the party. 

This combination of three pieces, encounter reactions, randomization of decision outcomes and factional alignment are the “three pillars” of social interaction in Bhakashal. Using just these three pieces, I have supported over 700 hours of role play over three years and dozens of players. The system is generative and sustainable, granular enough to allow for skill and influence of the mechanics with smart play, but difficult enough that it isn’t possible to talk your way out of EVERYTHING. The weighted randomization of multiple results means that everyone is surprised by what happens, as the ref can’t just pick their favorite result. 

This has all been abstract, let’s make it concrete.

The Tale of Sir Bluto Sans Pite

Today I’m going to recount an example from my Wednesday game. But first, an aside.

A few months ago the PCs in my Tuesday game, whose patron is Quin Faal the Iolite, were sent to retrieve the artifact Wave from White Plume Mountain, it belonged to Quin Faal and he wanted it back, it had been stolen by agents of Keraptis.

The Tuesday group, a ranger, three priests, an illusionist, a magic user and a fighter, along with 7 henchmen, entered the dungeon. They took heavy losses in the first few encounters, losing 4 henchmen and almost losing two party members. So they bailed, went back to Quin Faal, and said it was too much for them, but told him what they learned. 

They were given another task.

At that time my Wednesday group was just finishing a quest. They arrived at Quin Faal’s tower and he asked them if they wanted to complete the task at White Plume Mountain. He told them what he knew of the place, and they were off. My Wednesday group is a priest, a druid, a ranger, a fighter, a magic-user and an illusionist along with 7 henchmen. They encounter Sir Bluto in the kayak room, the module states that some of the party might recognize Sir Bluto, I rolled and the party ranger did. So he figured Sir Bluto probably doesn’t want to be here, slaying people for Keraptis in this horrible, infernally hot dungeon. So he tells Sir Bluto that he knows why the knight is here, and he could restore his honor and escape this place if he would help the party.

Now, the rules of 1e (and of Bhakashal!) are that parley requires an encounter reaction roll. I cook up some mods, Keraptis is very powerful so he won’t want to cross him, but Sir Bluto has been stuck hiding in White Plume for months, they never get to leave, and he is desperate to escape. The party has 5 spellcasters in it, so they look pretty formidable, and they have made it as far as Sir Bluto in good shape. So I decide I will give a small positive bonus to the roll, +5%, and the ranger’s charisma bonus is another +5%. 

I roll an 80 modified to 90. Sir Bluto decides that this is his chance. He tells the party about Snarla and Burkett, two others that are stuck here under Keraptis’ bondage, as possible allies.

Now, here is the important bit, and the key to how this works with minimal “social mechanics”. I don’t have rules to determine factions, or rules to determine how Sir Bluto and his men would relate to Snarla. However, I have a reaction roll that has to be interpreted. Rather than having extended social mechanics to deal with faction interaction, instead I have a base mechanic to determine broadly positive or negative reaction to negotiation, and I interpret that through a factionalized lens.

So in this case, once I determined that Sir Bluto had a strong positive reaction to the proposal, and he was the leader of the group (his men were very loyal), I had to determine how he would form an alliance, particularly when Keraptis is a threat. I also rolled, BTW, for whether or not Keraptis was “in house” when this was happening, powerful wizards come and go. He was “in house”, then I rolled to see what he was doing, and I got “magic research”, so he was in his lab poring over tomes and such. 

As the game moves forward, these encounter reaction rolls lead to actions, and these actions shape the direction of the adventure. 

Fast forward, after an almost lethal initial meeting, the party managed to win over Snarla and Burkett, and they agreed to help. They ended up having the party take out the giant crab and then they grabbed Wave, had everyone flee the dungeon, and the party fighter (who had not chosen a deity) converted on the spot to worship Poseidon so he could use the trident, then he burst the bubble, flooding the complex. He put up the cube of force and was blown out of the mountain ahead of a rush of water. He took some damage but escaped.

Now, what to do? Snarla and Sans Pite and their flunkies (Snarla had a pair of ogres as well) were all on foot, the party had mounts nearby. The party got mounted and Snarla and Sir Bluto and their men asked to ride with them. In Bhakashal the mounts are giant lizards, boars and cats, all of which can carry multiple riders. They could take everyone but the ogres on the mounts and the ogres could run along. But the party turned them down and fled, leaving them to Keraptis’ mercies.

Keraptis came out of his lab after the bubble was burst, this took some time obviously as the complex was flooded. The party fled for a short time then stopped to heal various members who had sustained damage in the dungeon, particularly the party ranger. They decided to follow the trail through the forest and marshes that got them here as they would travel faster. That decision was a mistake, as Snarla and Sir Bluto fled on foot but didn’t stop to heal, and I rolled to see what they would do. I rolled that they were going to set up an ambush by the trail. Since the party stopped they had a chance to get ahead. 

They rolled surprise, Snarla managed a Stinking Cloud, and Sir Bluto and his men got the drop on the party. 

Now, what to do? Slay everyone? When faced with choices like this I roll for it. I set up a list of options that make sense, and I roll between them. In this case, it looked like this:

1-2: Slay them all

3-4: Rob them and steal their mounts, go become pirates

5-6: Offer to take them on as their leader, go become pirates

I rolled a 3, so they took the party’s mounts and all their loot, leaving them with Wave (Sir Bluto wanted no part of that weapon as he knew Keraptis would want it back). Sir Bluto warned them not to follow, and he and Snarla and crew fled to the coast, stole a ship and became pirates. The party magic-user was able to cast an ESP spell on Sir Bluto before they left, and determined that this was their plan.

The party walked to the next fishing village and in exchange for helping them with the catch for a few days and a good reaction roll, they were given passage on their barge taking fish to the city. 

They gave Wave to Quin Faal, and he sent them on their next task after they gave him a debrief on what happened.

Now, at this point, they were paid for their services, several of the henchmen leveled up and they had to pay for that. They were given their next job, which was to investigate an island that “appeared” off the coast. They sailed there, explored Castanamir’s island, and sailed back after exploring about half of it. 

Now, in factionalized play I also decide on what their Patron is doing. They brought him back Wave, and he paid them out. This party has been adventuring for Quin Faal for 2 years now real time (160 hours of table time), so they are pretty tight. And they have been successful about 75% of the time.

So again, there are no rules or tables for everything a patron might do, but since the party has been successful, particularly in light of the other party not being successful, I decided that Quin Faal would put a bounty on Sans Pite’s head, that would either turn up Sans Pite, have him slain to restore the Party’s honor, or at least turn up information. The party went for three weeks to Castanamir’s island and back. I rolled to see what happened in those three weeks. Bounty hunters had spoken to informants and determined that Sir Bluto had taken over the Blue Sky, and had a suspected hideout on an island off the coast.

When the party returned from Castanamir’s island, they gave Quin Faal a Gignwatzim and an important tome, and in return he told them the suspected location of Sir Bluto’s hideout, and rather than pay them in gold, paid them by buying them ownership of a merchants ship, the Black Blade. They had sailed to Castanamir’s island on the Black Blade, Quin Faal frequently paid for passage on the ship to transport his agents, so the party knew the crew. Quin Faal bought the ship from the merchant that owned it and transferred the ownership to the party.

The party now had a potential location for Sir Bluto, and a ship to get to him. Now, here is where the sandbox/faction play aspect comes in again. They had cleared out part of Castanamir’s island, so I could send in one of my other groups to finish that off. Or Quin Faal could ask them to go back. Or, they could go after Sans Pite. Or he could send them elsewhere.

The point is that I don’t make the decision. I role play it out and the players decide. So I had Quin Faal put forward the options, and the party decided to go after Sans Pite. I can’t stress enough how important it is that I don’t make these decisions. They might have decided to let Sans Pite go and forget about him. He might turn up on a random encounter at some point while they were at sea, but that would be that. I find that what the players latch on to and what they ignore can’t be predicted. They had a skirmish with an illusionist and priest a while back, the pair were trying to get them to betray Quin Faal. The illusionist has been tracking them with a crystal ball for months, but so far they have decided to forget about the pair.

Not Sir Bluto, he’s in their bad books.

I blogged about what happened when they got to the island last session:

Essentially, they arrived at the island, built a fire, and it drew Snarla, who was sailing back with the Blue Sky after a raid, to them. The party decided that they would try to drive a wedge between Sir Bluto and Snarla, and ask for her help for revenge.

Trying to drive a wedge between NPCs is a baller move, in many cases NPCs act like automatons, I have played with refs who wouldn’t even consider the party talking NPCs into betrayal.

But the encounter reaction table can sort this out. As it happens, Snarla was never tight with Sans Pite, they just escaped together. He took command from the beginning, even though Snarla considers herself more formidable than him. Also when Sir Bluto took the Blue Sky he slayed a number of members of the crew before they swore loyalty to him. The ships warlock, Kanai Grith the Hessonite, agreed to join Sir Bluto when he took over, but he has no love for him, as he liked the former captain. 

So there are reasons why they might consider this. That makes the encounter reaction roll a perfect solution.

I came up with some modifiers, since neither of the two NPCs liked Sir Bluto very much, I gave Snarla a +5% modifier and Kanai a +10%, and added +5% for the ranger’s charisma bonus to both. I rolled and got moderately positive and strongly positive.

So now, as a referee, I have to interpret that result. I decided that Kanai has been waiting for an opportunity to slay Sir Bluto for killing his friend, and that both Snarla and Kanai are of the opinion that Sir Bluto wasn’t needed for piracy (and for the most part he wasn’t, hand to hand combat doesn’t matter as much for ship to ship combat). 

So they threw in with the party and started planning on how they would take out Sir Bluto. 

Sir Bluto, however, was currently across the island, there was a rakasta camp on the far side of the island, they too were hiding there from the authorities, and Sans Pite had made a pact with them, both groups would protect each other and keep an eye open for the authorities if they showed up. When the party showed up he saw their signal fire and approached, watching their interaction with Snarla, he then went back to the Rakasta camp, gathered together a group of them on their sabre-toothed tigers, and prepared for a fight.

Meanwhile, the party traveled to the pirate’s hideout and Snarla convinced them to throw in with her and the party against Sans Pite. Sans Pite arrived with his rakasta forces and confronted Snarla and the party. I rolled to see what he would do. He decided that a full on fight with Snarla and the party might be winnable, but only after losing many of his men. He proposed a compromise, they split the loot they have taken so far, she leaves the island with the party, he remains there with the pirates who wish to stay with him.

The party and Snarla went back and forth with Sans Pite, he’s not a stupid guy, the party has multiple spell casters and many pirates on their side, so he knew he wasn’t in a good place. Eventually the two sides agreed on Sans Pite and the rakastas, plus any sailors that wanted to throw in with him, leaving on the Blue Sky and the rakasta’s ship, the Crimson Claw. Snarla would get most of the crew and half the loot, as well as the island hideout.

When we finished up the party had just decided that perhaps they didn’t want this to end peacefully, and that they might try and take out Sir Bluto and his men before they leave. At the moment Sir Bluto’s 30 rakasta warriors all have crossbows trained on the ship, so if anyone tries to spell cast crossbow bolts will be flying. There are med range penalties and penalties as they are in the trees, but if even one crossbow bolt hits a spell caster while casting their spells are disrupted.

Next week we will see if they decide to attack or let Sir Bluto go. If they let him go they will have to figure out what to do about Snarla and her men, they will need a ship and the party has one. 

What fascinates me about all of this is that it was borne out of an encounter reaction roll in White Plume Mountain. If not for that the party would have been ambushed by Sir Bluto and his men and either survive or be slain. Instead we have a multi-session arc connected to the events of their meeting, and driven by individual rolls at different times to determine their reactions, shaped by factional concerns.

This is what I mean when I say, “the game runs itself”, because after a few sessions it does just that. I’ve seen the same pattern with all of my groups. And this is with a very simple and scaled back set of rules for “social mechanics” in the game. With just these rules and a sandbox approach to player agency, we have generated hours and hours of play without me having to prep enormous amounts or do any work to direct it. 

For those referees who feel sometimes overwhelmed by the need to plan plots and “dramatic” events, to map out a “story” and ensure that the players adhere to it, or those who feel the need for more sophisticated social mechanics in the game, I can assure you, a social mechanic light approach can still leave you with a rich, responsive gaming environment that drives engaging, immersive play.


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