Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Game Findings: Mage (First Level)

The gang got together to make characters for the new Mage campaign starting up. We've not played yet, but we've got our group together. There was a lot of confusion and vagarity in discussing magick, which is to be expected when you've got a bunch of folks who have never played the game before. It's not mechanically difficult, but the broad philosophy of designing your own paradigm of reality is something of a mind bender when you try it the first time.

Sans actual play though, I'm not going to discuss any of that. Instead, I'm going to focus on the one thing that everyone seemed to agree on, even if they didn't use my exact words: first level sucks.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Game Findings: Bad Attitudes

These are sad times for our gaming group. We're losing a core member to corporate relocation, and while we're all glad for him that he gets to move to a city he's always dreamed of living in and gets his moving costs covered, the table will just not be the same without him.

The show will go on, and the next campaign is already in the planning stages (run by someone else other than yours truly; I needed a little time off to deal with other things), but we collectively decided that it would be best not to start until our departing member actually finished packing and left the state. So in the meantime, I've been running some lighthearted, simple stuff. Extreme Vengeance, which I talked about earlier, was one of these forays. Last game, we tested out a different action movie system: Bad Attitudes.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What We Play

As you may have guessed from all the writing I do about the games I've run and the games I seek to create, I'm ever on the quest for a better game experience for myself and my players. Now my players are a lot that are largely happy to show up and game, but I'm the sort who sees the "just show up and play" as settling for mediocrity. I want to run the kind of game that has people thinking about it in the time between sessions, that has them showing up early and rearing to go, that truly captivates them. This isn't an ego thing. I'm convinced that when you've got a player base that invested in the game, you're going to get better play, and from that you get a better game experience for everyone.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

HeroScape, bitches. Simple fun for jaded dice monkeys.

C'mon, you're intrigued!
Hi, I'm not Cliff.

I don't write simple, yet, inclusive out-of-the-box rules systems. I don't really run games. I don't strike stoic poses. I do, however, inspire insipid bullshit (A River Runs Through Hell!, Fly Fishing in a Post-Apocalyptic Nightmare) that gets run through the author of this blog to turn out far more palpable things like Another Day...although I assure you, I will author a splat book detailing proper fly usage after nuclear armageddon).

I also play his games, and I fuck them up. I take pride in fucking his shit up. The most amazing thing is he keeps asking me back. I don't know why. I also don't know why he asked me to do this, although I suspect it was because he usurped my GammaWorld 3E game so we could get back to his shit. This is the price I pay for loving the man.

No homo.

So, what this nonsense all about? I'm here to treat you to an overlooked nugget of Hasbro fun,  HeroScape. What's HeroScape, I hear you gnarled indie gamers ask... Its stupid fun, and as per most things touched by the hand of WoTC, its been cancelled. Well, ish. Cancelled-ish. But, we'll come back to that. First, let's make with the magic...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Game Findings: Extreme Vengeance

Anyone who plays my games for any length of time comes to know that I'm a fan of pathos in my fiction. I love to heap pain on my characters and force them into agonizing situations with an eye toward seeing how they grow to overcome their adversity.

The answer, by the way, is to become cold and murderous. No, I'm only kidding. Well, I'm painting with an overly broad brush anyway. I mean, there were only a few executions and torture sessions and...


Fully realizing that I was doing the same thing over and over and might not only be stuck in a dramatic rut, but also frustrating the hell out of my players in doing so, I decided to try something wholly different in not only mechanics, but tone too. So I got my mits on a game I'd only heard about in passing: Extreme Vengeace, a game of action movie mayhem.

This is the game to play if you're looking to reproduce the stories and style of anything you've seen on the big screen starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stalone, Jean Cleade van Damme, Dolf Lundgren, etc. Light on the story, lighter still on the logic, and big on the explosions and ass kicking. It's a game where you take it easy on the players and let them badass their way around the set for a while before pulling out the stops with the final heavy, who everyone knows is going to get his ass beat something fierce. It's the exact opposite of how my games typically go, so I figured it would be a good stretch for me and a fun change of pace for them.

Now, while you play a character in the world of an action movie, like Jack Slater in Last Action Hero, I decided to change it up just a little bit and put the focus on the cinematics of the game. So instead, I had the players play actors who were playing parts in an action movie. This way, when they invoked their powers, I had an easier time asking them to narrate flashback sequences and camera angles.

How'd it play?

Conceptually, the game is great. And while it wasn't intentional, the way character creation is done makes the transition from character to actor a snap. See, characters consist of two aspects: your description and your type. Descriptions are things like athletic (Jackie Chan) or pumped up (Schwarzenegger), while types are things like soldier, fighter, and agent. In a standard game, you pick one of each, add together the stats and powers, and BAM! Your character is done.

All I did was make the description into something called typecast and applied it to the actor. That was the base character. Thus, every role that actor Glitterpony Sweetcream (yes, an actual character from my game) ever played would be played smooth. Smooth was his typecast, but his role might change from film to film. One film he might be playing a smooth cop (though knowing Glitterpony, he'd refuse that role), in another he'd be playing a smooth soldier (though again, not really his thing). If he plays a hitman, he'd be a smooth killer. Same with a ganger. I've belabored this example enough.

Mechanics were pretty simple: you've got two stats. When you want to take an action, you say what you want to do and allocate dice to it. Roll those dice and look to beat a target number or the opposed roll. One neat thing about this is that your description can modify your pool.

Oh yeah. This was my favorite part of the game. See, the GM plays the audience watching the film, and audience reaction to what's going on affects the die pool. "I shoot the helicopter," gets snores from the audience and thus takes a penalty. "I race my motorcycle up the stairwell, blow open the door to the roof and jump the bike off the edge, crashing it into the cockpit while emptying my gun into the gastank so it explodes while I fall into the harbor," on the other hand would get a rousing round of whoops and hollars, maybe even get people doing the wave (anyone remember that? Anyone?). Of course, it also comes with a hefty die bonus.

I'll admit though, my joy in playing the audience didn't come from encouraging more narrative input from the players. It should have been that, and it has been something I wanted more of in the past, but this time it was something far simpler.

I got to heckle the actors, and it was part of the game, so it was 100% okay.

Oh, the joy. Maybe some of that player character sadism has worn off on me, but I did so very much love dropping my head on the table and snoring, or outright booing when someone wanted to search bodies for spare cash. And yes, I even got to yell "you suck!" at Glitterpony once when he played it like a girly man. It was far more fun than it was supposed to be, I'm sure.

As for observations that might be useful to you, faithful reader, well, here's what I observed:
  • Simple, but out of the box: The combat system is pretty cool. As I said above, you want to do something, you give the action dice. Combat in Extreme Vengeance is loosely organized chaos. There's no codified initiative. Instead, everyone shouts out what they want to do when they want to do it, and whoever puts more dice into the action gets to go first. If you want to go before someone else, up your bid. He can up his as well until someone comes out on top. There aren't any rounds either. You stay in the current exchange until everyone's out of dice. Then all pools refresh and you go at it again. Thus you can be truly awesome at one action, or try to split your pool among multiple actions. Remember though, narration can increase your die pools, so even though driving and shooting might require you to allocate dice to two actions, while keeping some in reserve for defence, saying you're yanking your hot rod underneath the trailer of an 18 wheeler to come up on the passenger side and emptying your uzi at the gunman hanging out the window as you sideswipe another car is probably going to get you plenty of bonus dice. The game encourages you to think big.

    This is all handled with die pools, which are a tried and true method of game mechanic design. This chaotic element, while something I found cool though, was something that some of my players found frustrating. There was a lot of confusion in the beginning. One player wanted to shoot three guys. He thought he was putting three dice into the effort, but in order to shoot three people, he was really putting one die into three different shots, which meant he was routinely interrupted (he was shooting extras though, so one die was all he needed).

    I like out of the box thinking in RPG design. I've already got many many many shelves filled with similar, now stock, mechanics. So this sort of thing was refreshing for me. It might push some out of their comfort zone though, and not everyone likes that.
  • Action movie effects: While you only have 2 stats, your character gets loaded up with a series of powers call his repitior. This is a series of camera tricks, special props, and special acting abilities that allow him to manipulate the movie. Examples include catchprases, soundtracks, zooming camera, and the famous single hit shown in quick cut multi-angle replay. They're awesome, and upon reading any of them you immediately know what they look like and how they can be used. I loved them.

    So did my players. Too much. This game laid bare a simple truth: give a player something to play with on his character sheet and he's going to use it. All of it. All of the time.

    Characters start with too many repitiors in this game. The session we played consisted of a single scene: the characters converge at a run down project building where a gang has taken over and the leader, whom the characters all have a grudge against, is issuing demands. After a quick fight with some extras, the group blasted onto the roof.

    At this point we're about15 minutes into the movie. It's an in media res sort of beginning, with minimal character development so far, and we're about to kick off the first big fight that spells the end of the beginning action sequence. After this, we'll probably throttle it back, show the characters relaxing a little bit, establish them more as people, and then ramp things up again. You've all seen films like this. But remember, right now the credits are in recent memory and we've just begun the movie.

    So the characters bust down the door to the roof and converge on the gang leader.

    Suddenly one of the players invokes a flashback to show the gang leader killed his brother and then flashes back to the present all angry and crying tears of vengeance with screams of "Luigi!" (he was playing Mario, a plumber).

    As Mario throws a wrench at the ganger, Glitterpony draws his piece and fires, the camera riding the bullet to impact.

    Now we cut to one of the other characters and the film speeds up as he fires off a burst with incredible speed.

    The ganger manages to get his hands on one of the characters and proceeds to grab his throat and punch him in the face over and over, pausing after each one in true JCVD fashion.

    Glitterpony doesn't like that, and as the camera turns back to him, his soundtrack begins to play, and he cuts to a flashback of the ganger grabbing his friend by the throat and punching him in the face (I outlawed that use).

    In short, the party tried to blow through every last use of repitior they had in that first fight. Only one of them thought to try a stunt action without resorting to a repitior (and it was prety cool, running at the ganger, dropping to his knees and sliding through the guy's legs while driving the butt of his guns into the ganger's knees; I gave him big cheers, and big bonus dice for that). Repitior are cool, but they're too available in the beginning. I think the game should start you off with less and ease you up as you progress. This forces you to come up with more stunts of your own and get more comfortable milking the crowd for cheers, which is where the real meat of the game is, I think.
In the end, I think Extreme Vengeance has a number of really interesting ideas, but it's a bit rough, and perhap a little overenthusiastic in the beginning. It gives players what they want, but provides too much of a good thing. Because the die system is a little unusual, I think forcing new players to rely on it more in the beginning to get them comfortable with it would be a superior way to ease into the game as it wants to be played. Still, it reeks of fun potential, and I hope to give it another try. When I make my own action game (yes Raj, I'm still going to complete "BAM! the RPG" just for you), I intend to use this for plenty of inspiration.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Game Findings: 7th Sea

This post might seem a little unusual. After all, 7th Sea is hardly some small indie game that no one's heard of, and it's been around long enough to generate tons of reviews. I'm willing to bet that any gamer who is both old and ecclectic enough has at least given this a short go.

So why the hell am I talking about it here? Because in the course of finishing up my campaign I encountered a few things that I'd not read about, nor ever experienced in all the 7th Sea games we'd played previously, and those things caught all of us by surprise. That sounded worth talking about here.

In a nutshell, high-level 7th Sea is a very different game from low-level 7th Sea (if you'll forgive the rough nomenclature). Now sure, there's an excellent argument to be made that if the game doesn't change at all as your chracter advances, then there's no point in advancing at all. If you're prepared to say that, I'm prepared to agree with you. Statistical analysis of the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons showed that the average hit percentage stayed the same and even dipped a little bit as you progessed from level 1 to level 30. You opposition ramped up in pace with you, meaning that while you were doing math with larger numbers, your actual performance wasn't changing much at all. What's the point then?

Well, in D&D, you get access to more and better powers. These things open up avenues of action that you didn't have previously, making you a little broader in addition to numerically taller. But we're not talking about D&D, we're talking about 7th Sea. The thing is, 7th Sea does that exact thing as well, assuming you're either a swordsman or a sorcerer. In all the time I've played and run this game, eery character has always been one or the other (usually a swordsman), so that shouldn't be much of an issue. But you can in fact make a character who is neither, which happened this last campaign.

I'm rambling, so let's break this down a bit, and start with the basics. The roll and keep system is a good one. No, it's a great one. It's simple, it's flexible, and raising is still the single most awesome game mechanic that I've encountered in a decade. 7th Sea takes roll and keep and makes heavy use of it to great effect. However, at the end of a long campaign where most people are rolling pools approaching 10k5 or more, things begin to slow down. With rasing and well placed bonuses, those pools can shoot close to the 10k10 range, especially when dealing damage. Add in exploding dice, and suddenly you're dealing with a whole lot more math than you were at the beginning of the campaign where people were tossing 6k3. Actions began to slow down, and while the size of the pools finally convinced most people to throw everything away once they reached their target number, anytime we had opposed rolls there was no choice but to add everything up. This would have been muchworse had we done raising by the book, which drove target numbers ever higher instead of reducing the pool size. We could still move the game along, but there was a noticeable lag. In short, the roll and keep system didn't scale well to the high end of the game. It worked, but it didn't work as well as it once did.

High scores impacted combat in another way: panache. For those few out there unfamiliar with the system, combat has 10 phases, and you get one action per point in your panache score. Roll those dice, and each one tells you which phase you get an action on. If you've got a panache of 3, you're going to have 3 actions, the phase of each determined by the results of the dice. It's a cool system and one I found got things moving quickly and cleanly. There's an easy sub-system for dealing with ties, and certain options to let you act out of phase. It's good, and well designed.

When most the combattants have 3+ actions though, the nature of combat changes. Obviously, there's going to be more ties that need to be resolved, but more than that there are a lot of abilities in the game that build up over rounds or require rounds to recharge. Swordsman schools are big on this, and they're what I was getting at when drawing a comparison to D&D, but I'll deal with them more specifically in a moment. For now, suffice to say that when you've got an ability that takes a few rounds of combat to really develop power, there's a big diference in its effectiveness if your opponent is going twice this round or if he's going five times. And Theus help you if you're ganged up on by two panache 5 opponents. You've got no chance.

Therein lays the big scaling problem with this game. The way your character grows mechanically in ways more intesting than larger numbers is his accrual of special abilities, granted by either his school or sorcerous heritage. However, when you factor in the average die pool size getting chucked around by the time you can lay hands on many of these abilities, they lose a lot of luster. The best example of this is an ability one of my players wanted from the very first session of play. It was the ability to begin administering last rights to your opponent in the middle of a fight, and the process was so unnerving that it gave you a mounting fear factor in the combat. In terms of imagery, it's phenominal, and I wanted to see it in play as badly as he wanted to use it.

As the game grew to a close, he amassed enough experience to earn that power. Each round he was in a fight, his fear rating would increase by 1. Unfortunately, by the time he got it, each round was so chocked full of actions that the fights would be over in a single pass, or two in extreme cases. Everyone was doing so much that the party could lay waste to the opposition, who also had a ton of actions, before his fear factorcould grow to anything meaningful. He hung his head after several fights like this and proclaimed he'd dedicated his character to gaining a useess ability.

Normally I don't pan things so quickly, but he really did seem to be right in this case. His ability still looked phenominal on paper, but because to much action could be packed into each round now, it was useless, especially since fear is a resisted thing in thi game, and high level opponents had appropriately high scores, which meant you'd need a high fear rating to shake them. This proved true of many swordsman abilities (though certainly not all of them). The bredth promised in that style of advancement wasn't keeping pace with the power level of the game, which drove several people to begin concentrating strictly on numbers, and within that stats. The power of stats over skills is a widely known quirk of the system, but that stats outshine everything else, including schools and sorcery, was something none of us were ready for.

In short, 7th Sea remains a fantastic game with a rich world anda great system filled with simple innovative rules, but the game tops out long before anyone maxes out their scores. Just because the character sheet goes to 11 (or, really, 5) doesn't mean you can play that same game all the way through.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Another Day: Gear

Finally, we come to gear. All gear, no matter what it is, adds dice to your roll if you can explain how it's helpful. Weapons add dice to combat encounter, obviously, but you could add their dice to hunting rolls for a lot of them too. Armor also adds dice to your combat encounters. A fishing rod would add to hunting rolls if you're near fishable waters. Geiger counters add to circumventing radiation hazards. And so on.

Here's the gist of gear: you can make it as specific or as general as you like. If you want a hundred thousand different kinds of firearms, you can have them. Assign them different die ratings as you feel is appropriate. If you want to abstract it to pistol, rifle, shotgun, that works too. Since the mechanics are stripped down to a single stat due to the way encounters are handled, adjudicating gear on the fly should be a snap.

There are two important things to know about gear.

First, gear use is always optional. This includes passive stuff like armor. You don't want to use it in this encounter, then it didn't absorb any punishment. Basically this makes armor piecemeal, but you decide whether the blow lands on the armor. If you want the added protection it affords, add its dice to your pool, and you're more likely to knock out an encounter faster, and thus take less damage. Likewise, you can go fishing and choose not to use the fishing rod, but this means you're wading and trying to barehand the fish instead.

Second, every time you use gear, it degrades. Every single piece of gear you have has its own health meter, and it's damaged with every use. Not a lot necessarily, but it happens. Use gear over and over and it'll become less effective, offering less dice, until it becomes useless. So the decision to use what gear when is an important one.

Finally, a word about ammo. Tracking ammo is important for a game about resource management. But since encounters aren't resolved in a blow by blow fashion, tracking each individual shot isn't important. Instead, ammo counts represent how many encounters worth of ammo you have. Each time you use a gun, deduct one ammo from its score. This is the same for a revolver as it is a fully automatic weapon. And again, just like creating the guns themselves, you can be as specific or general as you like when it comes to ammunition. You want all pistol ammo to fit all pistols? Do it. If you're a gun nut who wants hyper-precision in the game, these mechanics allow for that just as easily.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Another Day: Failed Rolls

If you recall, I said most of the optional actions you can take during your travels didn't have a difficulty number. Thus, you can't really fail at these actions. If you go hunting, you're going to come back with something. If you try repairing your gear, you will restore it. It's a question of how much, not if at all.

Encounters, however, are different. They've all got target numbers, and until you beat them, they stick around. What's a failed roll mean in these cases?

It doesn't mean failure. It just means you haven't completely overcome the encounter yet. The thing is, if you don't wipe an encounter out in one shot, it hits back. See, in this game, the GM rolls no dice. All he does is slap down cards and narrate. Encounters hurt you when they aren't taken out.

For example, you're wandering through a plague ravaged land. The GM slaps down a 7 of hearts for the encounter, but nothing happens until you bed down for the evening inside the ruins of a building. While you checked it for corpses, rats still infest the walls, and their fleas bite you. You realize it quickly, and roll your medic skill to treat yourself. Unfortunately, you're not a very good medic and you have no gear to aid the roll, so you come up with a high score of 4. The encounter loses points equal to your roll, dropping it to a 3, but it sticks around.

This is your shortfall. You failed the roll by 3, and since the encounter is still alive and kicking, it does its rating in damage to you. In this case, you burn with fever and take 3 points against your health. Tomorrow, you can try again, this time against a difficulty of 3.

This does, however, leave you with another decision. Do you deal with this encounter again and let another day go by, or do you press on and deal with the lingering effects of this encounter while running into another. If you're alone, you're gonna stay put, of course. But let's say you're in a party. Food's running low, but the group thinks it can make it to the next safepoint if they press. They want to go on.

That next day, a new encounter card hits the table. It's a Jack 10 Spades encounter. Raiders rush your position, and your party needs to put them down as fast as possible, because their wild hooting is drawing more of their clan to your position by the minute. But you're still sick. You can either roll against the illness, or you can help the party fight the raiders. That's bad for your health though; you'll take another 3 points of health from the fever. Then again, unless the party can come up with a collective 10, everyone will be taking damage from the raider assault. But remember, you only get one action per day.

Choose wisely.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Another Day: Them Bones

With all this talk of difficulties and optional actions, it stands that we really need to talk about dice. So let's do that this week .

Another Day is a die pool system. Yes, another. I like them. Sue me.

In this case, it's a pool of d6s. I tried this originally with d10s but didn't like the results as much. Given that target numbers only go above 10 in the rarest of circumstances, it seemed necessary to keep the die to a d6.

Your character has skills. I have a sample, list, and it's pretty specific, but you can go as specific or general as you like. Whenever you attempt to do something, you roll your skill in dice. Look for the single highest die. That's your result.

Now, there's one small wrinkle in this. And that is like dice combine to higher number. Add 1 to the result for every like die. That means if you roll a pair of 5s, your actual result is 6. If you roll four 5s, your actual result is 8. Thus more dice is better. Skills top out at 5 dice, by the way.

And this is where cooperation comes in. Players working together on a problem can merge their results, getting more matching dice and driving that final result higher. They don't even have to be using the same skill, as long as they're working together on the same problem.

And that's all there is to die rolling.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Another Day: Other Actions

So now we've got how to generate an encounter, and you're always going to have an encounter to deal with. But I did at one point mention ignoring an encounter. Why would you ever want to do that? Because sometimes you just gotta. If you're really ground down, you might not have the juice required to soldier on. You might be out of ammo, or worse, out of food. Someone might be violently ill, while someone else is nursing a terrible gash in his leg which you just know is going to get infected.

And then, worst of all, all these injuries are going to reduce the party's carrying capacity and you're going to have to start leaving gear behind.


Each day, every player gets one action. Dealing with an encounter is an action. But sometimes fate will smile on you and you'll pull a low number. One or two members of the party can probably handle that. That leaves the rest with a free action to do something else. What could they possibly do?

They can scrounge for gear, hunt for food, tend to the wounded, rest for their own recovery, and even try some field maintenance on their erroding stuff.

How's that work? Pretty similarly to rolling against an encounter. You roll the appropriate skill, except in this case there's rarely a difficulty number (occassionally there will be). Your margin of success gives you what you're looking for. Want food? Your roll tells you how many days worth you brought back. Looking to repair something? Your result restores that many points of wear to the thing. Etc.

The thing is, if you're doing that, you're not dealing with the encounter, so make the most of your downtime, because tomorrow you might draw that Jack King 10 encounter.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Another Day: Random Encounters

As if there's any other kind!

In this game, encounters are generated on the fly using a standard deck of playing cards, jokers included. Each day, the players deduct from their food/water rations or take starving damage. Then the GM slaps a card down on the table. Everything about the encounter is on that card, mechanically speaking, of course.

The suit of the card tells you what kind of encounter this is:
  • Clubs - nature. This could be a storm, an earthquake, a collapsing building, falling tree, or whatever else tickles your fancy. The one thing it must be though is active. No tree blocking the road or anything like that (though that could be a component, provided there's some other element, like a raging fire behind you). You could even say they've wandered into the middle of a minefield. Not exactly nature, but close enough for me, and I'm writing this game, so if I say it's okay, it's okay. This, like all encounters, must place you in immediate danger.
  • Spades - violence. Call them whatever you like, this is a wandering monster encounter.
  • Hearts - ancient hazard. The exact nature of this varies according to what ruined your world (no, I'm not talking about the players; be nice). This can be a plague village, spoiled food, parasitic infections, radiation zones, drifting chemical clouds, or anything else that threatens the health of the travellers in a way that doesn't involve cutting, crushing, burning, or shooting them.
  • Diamonds - gear. Pull a second card and slap it down on this one. The encounter involves some kind of gear that you might be able to scavange. That doesn't mean it's passive treasure waiting to be harvested. I mean, it could, but what old school GM isn't out to hurt his players in the worst way possible? We're talking Tomb of Horrors here! So instead of putting that fully functioning .50 cal machinegun with pristine ammo in a carrying case and handing it to the party, put it on an automated turret and drop that thing into a plague village. The players trip the automated defenses when the walk in, discover everyone dead from a strange disease, and then face the gun when trying to get out. Apparently someone set the defenses to keep the sick in before everyone died, see. Now, if they can successfully deal with the encounter, they have the added benefit of possibly walking out with the gun too, but it will be shooting them in the meantime....
The number of the card tells you the difficulty of the encounter. That's the target the players need to beat in order to move past the encounter. Yes, they can work together. Remember, I said teamwork would be rewarded in these rules. In fact, they probably should work together. This means if they get anything between a 2-4 on a draw, they'll breeze through it no sweat more than likely. Start getting above 6 and there's going to need to be cooperation and gear.

I know, that doesn't mean much now because you don't know how dice work. That's another post, coming next.

And then there's the face cards. These add certain mechanical twists to the encounter. Grab another card and slap it down in order to get the difficulty, but use the suit of the face card. If you draw another face card, you apply its effects as well and keep going until you get a number card.
  • Jack - The difficulty of this encounter keeps mounting. Add one to its difficulty every day you don't completely succeed.
  • Queen - These encounters are especially punishing. Partial successes still reduce their difficulty, but they deal damage as if 2 points higher if you haven't overcome them yet. Thus if you reduce a Queen encoutner to 6, it deals 8 points of damage.
  • King - The difficulty of this encounter isn't reduced by partial successes. You need to clear it all at once or not at all.
  • Ace - Draw two cards. Both encounters occur simultaneously. Again, if you draw face cards, keep applying them and draw until you pull a number.
  • Joker - There's no cooperation allowed in this encounter. The bandits manage to split the party up and hunt them individually. The fire separates them. Automated defenses in the old tech building seals them in different sections. Whatever the reason, each player is on his own.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Another Day: Wandering the Wastes, Olde School Style

I've already mentioned that play in this game is getting from point A to point B, the assumption being that both points afford safety, and the in between most assuredly does not. Now, travel quests are nothing new, but the way I actually envisioned this was something closer to a dungeon crawl, sans dungeon.

Rather than ask the GM to plot out a map for every session and stock it with a massive number of encounters so that the players will encounter at least some of them, I decided to try abstracting the whole thing. And since old school design received such a hard push in this, I figured what the hell, let's randomize it while we're at it. Old school games loved random elements.

So here's the rundown: at the start of play, you decide how many encounters you'll face before you reach your next safepoint. This could be because the distance is long, but it could also be a short overland trek fraught with extreme danger. Up to you. Also up to you is what "you" means in this case, meaning that the players could request a certain encounter count, everyone could come to a consensus, or GM could just tell the players how many they're facing. He could also not tell them, if he wanted to be like that.

That's so old school.

Then, once you've got the number, everyone plays the journey, day by day, encounter by encounter. Every day you consume some food (or you take starving damage), and you deal with an encounter. That encounter might beat you up, force you to consume some resources, maybe both, and if you don't successfully deal with it that day, nothing says it won't be there tomorrow too. Remember, your journey's only over once you face a certain number of encounters. That could take 3 days; it could take 3 weeks. You've only got enough resources to survive for so long. Now, you can choose to ignore an encounter (and suffer for it) in order to scrounge for food and gear, but that takes time, and time means more food and water consumed.

In essence, the game is one of resource management across multiple spectrums. Health metrics are interlaced, and there's an ever dwindling pool of resources to contend with. Every day is a decision to push forward or break and loot, which comes with no guarantees.

Monday, August 1, 2011

New Stuff! Now on Wednesdays

Another bit of administrative shift here. For now, posts will appear once a week, on Wednesdays. Remamber that Wednesday night game I told you about? The one that's playing 7th Sea? The one that was going to be my new playtesting bed?

They want to play Mage now. Trying new stuff isn't high on anyone's list, so I'm kinda stuck here. Accordingly, playtesting has largely fallen apart for the moment. But I've taken a bite out of a big project, so there's going to be a lot more on theory and design, and less on how it turns out, at least until I can scare up a new group and time somehow.

In the meantime... theory-ward!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Another Day: Pain is Fun!

When I first started this project, I had the idea that the most robust part of your character should be his capacity to absorb punishment. As I move through this design, I'm all the more convinced of it, because taking damage needs to be somehow interesting too, as that appears to be a big thrust of the game.

And then there's the request that the rules be involved, maybe even a little complicated. Yeah, for real, that was specifically requested.

I'm no fan of making something needlessly complicated, so I'm instead taking that request as permission to go a little more in depth than I might otherwise and not bother sanding it smooth afterward. What's that leave me with?

The damage matrix.

What I've done is create separate health meters for differnet kinds of abuse a survivor might suffer. (Side note: Survivor. I like that as a term for character. I think I'll use that.) So if you're sunburnt and starving, you can't take a beating as well as you normally could. You could represent this from a single damage meter, but that doesn't provide enough detail for a game like this. So instead, you have various metrics of heath: nutrition, health (disease), toughness (physical injury), weathering (exposure), and packing (how much gear you can carry).

As you encounter different hardships, different health meters get assaulted. Tracking damage is pretty easy, and largely similar to how it works in other games. You have a number of levels, and each level can take a number of points equal to your score. So let's say you have 4 health levels in all scores (because it's looking like that's what I'm going to use). If your Toughness is a 5, you can take 5 points in each of those 4 levels. So far, pretty standard stuff.

Here's where it becomes a matrix. As you drop to a new level, you take wound penalties. You wound penalties don't affect your skills or your actions, but your other health meters. You don't take damage in those other meters, but those scores drop. So say you've also got a 5 in Health, and you take a few gunshots that damage your Toughness to the point that you take wound penalties. This drops your Health to 4. Now, you can only take 4 points of damage per wound level. You don't actually take any Health damage, but you're not as resilient to disease until those gunshots heal.

Now let's say that you already had 5 points of Health damage when this happens. Normally that keeps you in the first level, but when your Health drops to 4, those 5 points can't be contained in a single level. Now 4 points fill the top level, and the last point goes into the next level down, which also inflicts penalties. Damage suddenly cascades.

It's a little tricky to track and to explain, but in the sample I showed someone, he got it as soon as he began to use it. I'm thinking this might make a good app for the iPhone to help in tracking, because I've yet to come up with a good way to visually present the damage matrix that makes it both easy to use and understand.

In a nutshell though, that's the core of the character. Survival and pain and suffering, oh my!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Another Day: Basic Play

I spent a lot of time thinking about "old school" gaming in thinking about how to Another Day should play, and what I came up with was a dungeon. Back in the early days of D&D, play largely consisted of trying to get in and back out of a dungeon without dying. In short, it was more a survival game than anything else. Oh, sure, there was a quest element to it, and you were in theory accomplishing something, but really, especially in the early levels, you were just trying to make it to the end.

So I took that idea for Another Day. This is a post-apocalyptic game, not a fantasy one, so dungeon crawling isn't necessarily appropriate, but if you abstract the dungeon into a series of encounters, you can translate that into just about any setting.

This means that in Another Day, you're going from one safe point to the next, and need to face down a certain number of encounters in between. The GM probably decides the number of encounters, which could be totally random, and you deal with each of them as they come up. Encounters probably wear you down, forcing you to deal with diminished capacities as you continue, making each subsequent encounter a little more difficult.

Sounds like a death spiral made into a whole game, doesn't it? I guess it kind of is, so the question is how to make that fun? Working on it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Another Day: The Big 3

As ever these days, I started with the three questions to give myself a little better orientation as to how to tackly this project.

1) What's this game about?

This one was handed to me in the specs, in a fashion. It's about survival, and specifically not about questing. This means that character viability must be a big deal in this game. Generalized hit points, where you go from 100% efficacy to dead is no good here. A survival game needs to have a health system that has all different shades of suffering built into it, so you can, um, enjoy(?) the degree to which your character has progressed towards death.

2) How it is about that?

Many games focus on how it is you accomplish something. I'm thinking that if this game is about survival, it's instead got to focus on how you take various kinds of damage. In fact, right now I'm thinking that your only attributes all deal with how you weather different kinds of hardship and damage. The focus of the character is how he survives, not how he accomplishes actions.

3) What actions does it reward?

That's a good question. Since this game is about living to see the next day and nothing more, you could say survival is its own reward, but that's pretty tepid. So I think what I'm going to do is tap into some of the other specs and, in the spirit of old school mentality, say that teamwork will be rewarded somehow. You'll need to work together to survive. Old D&D was like this, in the beginning anyway, and I think it was always intended to stay that way, even if it really didn't the higher the levels climbed. So Another Day will have something in it that rewards working together.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Another Day: The Specs

Another Day is another game I started working on by request. It was put out as something of a lark, but given that I've been able to get zero in the way of playtesting for Heroes of Destiny in a while, I figured I'd take the time to put together the rough draft of this. I did promise it, after all, even if the description didn't sound like something I wanted to play.

What I wound up doing was taking that description as a challenge. Take something that sounded tedious and make it fun, as I'd define it, while still meeting all the requested design specifications. What were they? So glad you asked.
  • Old school feel
  • Post apocalyptic
  • Involved, perhaps even complicated character mechanics
  • Simple resolution mechanics
  • Make hit location important so you can have piecemeal armor matter
  • Gear must degrade
  • Make the game about survival, not heroics; you play to see how long you survive, not to see who you can save or what you can accomplish
  • Gear must be detail oriented, with ammunition specific to certain firearms
  • Fly fishing must be a part of the game
Not my kind of thing at all. But one weekend I decided to sit down with a notebook and see what I could do with it. I'll show you what I came up with in future posts.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Game Findings: Swashbuckler

With most of my recent gaming caught up in playing other people's work and playtesting ground to wish dust, I'm left with precious little design work to write about. But that doesn't mean I haven't been learning this whole time. So, for a little bit, I'll be musing about the things I've learned by playing some other titles.

First up, Swashbuckler, by Jolly Roger Games. This was something I really wanted to try as soon as I read about it. The setting is more or less real world Europe, and the core system is pretty spare. Roll some dice, add them up, look for a target number, and you succeed if your total exceeds the difficulty. One thing about this I thought was pretty clever is that attributes are measured with different sized dice, ranging from d6 to d20, while skills are pools of d6s. Since rolling a 1 on your attribute die constitutes a funble, this strikes me as a clever way of differentiating talent and training and making them distinct and equally important.

Since this was a game played with FLux rules, I made the characters, and I made them with experience already spent. I think I spent experience in a way not intended by the game though, since the players all had skills so advanced that they regularly blasted past most target numbers with ease. This had them wanting to raise. Alas, there is no raise mechanic, and I didn't cobble one together for them.

So if you don't spend xp on skills, what do you spend them on? Fighting tecniques. See, combat in Swashbuckler has nothing to do with your stats or skills. Combat is its own independent system. You have a number of techniques available to you, and at the start of combat you select which one you're using. You compare your chosen maneuver against the one your opponent is using, which gives you a modifier. You then apply this modifier to a straight d20 roll, and the higher roll wins. The next exchange, however, you can only use certain techniques, ones the last technique allows. For example, after you lunge, you might only be able to perform a hasty parry, even though you know the maneuvers "shoulder ram" and "hack" as well. Thus your techniques form a web, with some leading to others.

It's neat in concept, and it's pretty cool in application too. I found that what happened was that players first jumped to what they thought was the best technique, but after a few fights they began watching the opponent to determine what kind of style he used, and tried to pick their way through their own fight webs to choose techniques that would give them the best advantage. I'm sure that's exactly what the game intended, and my players had a lot of fun with it.

Combat's very fast, with damage being the margin of victory over your opponent, and wound checks working as a simplified version of 7th Sea's own mechanic (as soon as you fail a wound check, you're down). This makes for fragile characters, but I think it works with the combat system, which is geared more toward not getting hit with the right use of techniques than it is about weathering repeated blows. That strikes me as true to the genre as well. You don't see many swashbuckling films where a fencer powers through receiving thrust after slash after lunge. It's more about desperate, last minute parries, so my hat's off to Jolly Roger Games for getting the genre down in mechanics.

Any hitches? Well, a few.

The combat system is AWESOME when it's one-on-one. One of my players got into a duel with an arrogant musketeer and we went back and forth through multile exchanges that were exciting and beautifully choreographed for us by the rules. It turned tense as they both struck home several times and were woozy and exhausted, either one about to drop when the next blade cut flesh. Everyone agreed it was a fantastic way to run a fight.

This back and forth falls apart very quickly when you're trying to run multiple combattants at once however. It was true both when you have a single opponent fighting multiple foes and when you have multiple one-on-one fights going on. In both cases the fact you need to shift focus from one pair to another means that natural rhythm that develops in one-on-one fighting is lost, and the whole thing becomes just another combat. I'd almost suggest that this become a separate duelling mechanic used to handle duels of honor and use a more abstracted ruleset similar to attribute and skill use for broader combats, since it's a real pitty how much magic the combat system loses when you can't focus in on two fighters exclusively.

The other complaint, though I suspect this will be a common one in many games, is that there's no raise mechanic. Ever since being introduced to raising, my players have become hardcore addicts of the rule, in whatever incarnation it may take. They crave the ability to set their own stakes and reach for the stars in ways that aren't exclusively the call of a high die roll. Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with too many games that provide this. Hell, a lot of my own games don't even do this, and I love the concept as much as they do. I don't count that as any failing of the game though; it's a taste thing only.

All in all, Swashbuckler proved to be a fantastic sidebar in our campaign, and I think everyone enjoyed it. That said, given how the combat system really seems to need to be constrained to two individuals to shine, I thnk playing this as an extended one shot worked best for us. I'd want to flesh this out and create a combat system that better handled larger fights (perhaps something like 7th Sea's system, where your techniques aren't tied to a web and can be used in place of basic attacks). It's a fun game though, and not pricey either. Recommended.

Monday, July 11, 2011

More HoD Playtesting

Or not, actually. I know the last playtest report posted just a few days ago, but truth be told that happened months ago. As in many month. And since then, we've had no end of hitches in getting together for additional play sessions. One player is a father of young children, another is getting married in the fall. In addition, two of the three are avid fishermen, and it's fishing season in a big way here. Facing your destiny in the supernaturally tinted American west has been losing to a lot of competition.

However, I still run a regular Wednesday game, and my hope, once I wrap up the campaign that's been chugging along since we began mid-week play, is to turn that into a playtesting meet. It's a different group, and the scheduling changes the way we play, since we've only got a couple of hours instead of a whole afternoon, but to my mind that's a plus, not a negative. Having only 2-3 hours means that we don't have time for elaborate and complicated resolution mechanics, and seeing as how I'm looking to keep dice simple and fast in this game, the constraints of play time serve as further impetus to get that right.

So, once 7th Sea/Swashbuckler/Vice and Steel/Poison'd (all merged thanks to The Flux) wraps up, I'll see if I can't convince the Wednesday night guys to give Heroes of Destiny a roll. This time I'm not offering it up as a blank slate on which we'll scrawl any campaign of any genre though; I'm making it easier on myself. It was written originally to be fantasy, so we'll play it fantasy. For starters. Let's get that worked out before having to deal with all the complications modern technology can bring to the table (I'm content to ignore most of it, but my players tend to give birth to live cattle if I do that too much, and while I like burgers as much as the next guy, there's only so much room here).

Here's the thing: I've actually got a few fantasy adventures I've been dying to try out for a while. There's the old 2e Illithiad, which pits the party against a secret mind flayer invasion of a coastal region and eventually has them racing to save the sun from death. It's got a techno-horror bent to it, and since much of the initial action occurs in a city, it's opening arc is set in a place with ample opportunity to have lots of recurring characters, i.e. Dream characters.

Then there's the Drow War. I'd like to provide a link to this, but Mongoose doesn't seem to have a page for it anymore. It's a series of 30 individual adventures written for D&D 3e which takes you from scrub to epic hero, and I've tried to run it twice. We never made it all the way through, either time. Now, this campaign is much more classic D&D, with each adventure sending you to a new place with lots of combat, but I have a strong suspicion (without doing any of the work) that it could be made into a good campaign for Heroes of Destiny too. Each player in the campaign is supposed to select a star sign which grants him a small mechanical bonus throughout the campaign. Turning star signs into Ideals and forcing the players to choose between their earthly lives and heavenly power seems like it could be very much in line with the campaign's themes, and works quite well for HoD as well.

Thinking about translating this campaign has me riffing on the idea of redefining Dreams, or providing another way of defining them at least, to make the game more compatible with fantasy that includes a lot of questing. Let's face it, questing is a mainstay of the genre. Listen to Kevin Smith talk about the Rings movies sometime. Questing, however, introduces an element of difficulty in keeping NPCs present, which is important if the nature of their relationship with the PCs is to change and matter. So I'm thinking about ways to expand Dreams to larger things like nations and kingdoms. The relationship with these dreams wouldn't seem to be quite as personal at first, but if a partisan must sacrifice his standing in his country in order to pursue his ideals, it could still have great personal impact.

We'll see how it goes, and naturally I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Relationship Health for NPC Tracking

One additional suggestion that came out of the whole stages of relationship health meter idea tied back to formally ending a scene. In addition to ending a scene by consensus, John said he thought it would be neat to include a sort of postlude if anyone's Dreams suffered damage, be it from heeding the Call of Destiny, or temporary damage from endangering your Dreams. He said it should show the repricussions of the change, even if they happen off camera for the PC and he has no way of knowing about it.

In my mind's eye, I picture this as an opportunity for the player to take over in a limited GM capacity for a moment, and narrate what's happening to the NPC that's important to him. He controls that person's fate in a way, and gets him more involved in telling the story of his character through telling a side tale of someone important to his character. It's a marvelous idea, and one I intend to introduce straight away.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Heroes of Destiny: Fourth Playtest

The last playtest blew a huge hole in the mechanical basis of the game, so I had a lot of work ahead of me to get the game in shape to play again, as prior posts attest. Walking into this game, I wasn't sure how the revisions would go over, so I had the train roll into town and got the players into trouble right away.

Non-combat rules changed very little, so people were fine with just rolling along. Destiny worked a little different, what with 10s counting double, but it didn't come up much. No one defended or endangered dreams this session, so despite the fact that those rules underwent a massive rewrite, there wasn't much testing going on there.

We did see several combats though. That's right, several. The new rules allowed us to engage in multiple altercations and have time left over for not ony more game, but more combat. Needless to say, it went much more smoothly. I found information much easier to track on my end with NPCs reduced to series of target numbers, and not once did a player stop to ask what the hell he was doing.

New recovery rules proved intuitive, and while I still wonder if they make a person a little too tough, hard opposition can still put plenty of hurt on a PC. Players found the entire system far easier to track than the bloodied/bruised system in place previously, so there's a win. I think it bears more watching/testing, but it's a step in the right direction.

Damage, special damage that is, needs some work though. The whole damage = margin thing is cool and it works, but having all weapons provide bonuses to the attack pool isn't translating into harder hits the way I hoped it would, and it puts our spellcasters at something of a disadvantage when compared to gunslingers. I haven't worked out how to make it work instead (players are pushing for a straight damage bonus, but that feels wrong to me for no reason I can articulate), so that's grist for the design mill. The short of it is, there needs to be ways of making special attacks more potent, ideally without adding a while separate damage score to the whole thing.

Which brings us to the other major complaint of the game: potencies suck. Okay, no, they don't suck, but they're not, well, potent enough. The general feeling was that for abilities that cost extra successes to activate, they should have a lot more oomph than they do now. Some of the design suggestions made them into quasi-feat chains ala D&D, which was a real turn off for me. I don't hate D&D, but I want to avoid the design methodology that created that system as much as I can, given the playstyle it engenders and that I've experienced. I want to avoid a power grab system that turns characters into compilations of special abilities. That said, if people aren't feeling their potencies matter much mechanically, that absolutely does need work. Throw that on the pile I guess.

Next up, some possible solutions... I hope.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Ideals, take 3

In thinking over the 10s are double successes idea, I've decided that a 10% chance per die of getting a bonus isn't good enough. There needs to be a more compelling reason for hewing to your ideals. Destiny dice need to be that much better when you're following the true calling of your heart instead of just being a big damn hero in general.

The double success idea is a good one. I like it. It's still simple and prevents dice overload. It just doesn't get triggered often enough.

So why not just take out the trigger and make it automatic? Act in accordance to your ideals, and any successes you roll on Destiny dice count as double, up to the rating of your ideals in play. Roll those dice over to 10 if it helps you keep track of them.

I think that's the version of the rules that's going to hit the next playtest session.

Monday, June 27, 2011

New Use for Ideals

With Dreams squared away, we now turn to the action side of the pool: Ideals. Again, no additional dice, so what whole double dice spent thing doesn't cut it anymore. However, my solution for this is much simpler than the whole rigamarole required to fix Dreams (probably because Dreams required that recovery be fixed first, where this is based on action resolution, which required no adjustments).

In short, every 10 you roll on a Destiny die counts as 2 successes, up to the rating of the Ideal, assuming you're acting in accordance to your ideals, of course.

It's simple. It works a lot like talents and trainings. It doesn't add dice. It doesn't require any additional rerolling. In fact the only concern I have with it at the moment is whether it's a significant enough benefit. After all, you only have a 10% chance of getting a 10 on any d10, and that means that there will be plenty of times when you roll in accordance to your ideals and get no benefit. And even if you do get a benefit, will it be powerful enough to make a real difference?

I could say that we need to play it to find out, and that's true, but this is one I think I want to spend a little more time on. It might need another revision before the next testing session.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

New Use for Dreams

With damage and recovery worked out, I feel there's enough new ground laid to take a look at Dreams. Dreams are, in the definition of the game, a way to keep the character going. He can persevere because he still has something to live for.

Well, the old rules lost sight of that, sort of. They could certainly boost your damage capacity by adding Hope dice to your pool, but they were semi-action oriented in the same breath. With the new 10 die maximum mandate, adding dice is no longer an option, so we need some other way of representing hopes.

John, for whom this game is written, gave a fantastic idea: Dreams, when either being defended or endangered, act as trainings for recovery checks, meaning that dice up to the invoked Dream can recover on a 4 instead of a 5. That's some awesome stuff right there. It's simple. It's thematic. It uses the existing rules. We're going with that.

I'm going to throw in one additional bonus for defeding your Dreams: you can recover for free as long as your Dreams are directly in peril. So if your wife is being attacked by crazy cultists, and you're fighting them off her, you can recover for free every single exchange with no need to set aside a success from your pool to activate the ability.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Recovery without Die Status

Chucking the whole healthy to bloody and then back to bruised thing for dice means the entire way that health is measured in Heroes of Destiny is up for grabs. Not just health, but damage, damage recovery, and no small number of potencies. There's a whole web of interconnected concepts that need to change together.

Today, I'm dealing with the matter of getting your dice back. Wounding seems pretty simple. You take damage, dice drop out of your pool. That part can stay the same. 2 points knocks loose a Hope die, while a single point bloodies a Destiny die.

The question is, what happens then? How do you get them back, in the middle of things I mean? And make no mistake, you need some manner of recovery, otherwise this is just another death spiral game, and I know of few people who enjoy death spirals.

So, first things first: all dice of a type are the same. This means that all d6s in play act the same, just as all d10s in play are the same. What this means is that a die is in play or it isn't. If you recover a die, it's a full fledged member of your pool. You can roll it, but you can also use it to take more damage. Recovery means you're getting some of your damage capacity back too.

Now that we've got that, how do you get those dice back into your pool? An idea that one of my players had was to roll your injury dice (the ones knocked out of your play, bloodied to use the old nomenclature). For every die that comes up a success, you return it to your pool. Anything that doesn't come up 5 or better stays where it is.

I like that. It's pretty simple, and it uses the existing rules. Yeah, okay, there's an additional die roll in that, but it's not too bad, is it? Bears testing to find out; I'd like to keep additional rolling to a minimum, but this particular roll might work out. However, I'd like to add one wrinkle to this: recovery isn't automatic. You need to expend a little effort. So, on any given round you can allocate a single success from your pool to recovery. That lets you recover at the end of the exchange, and those dice return to your pool for use at the beginning of the next exchange.

That's complete enough to begin play again. I'll let you know how it works out.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Few Rules For The Other NPCs

One of the characters in our playtest is a former lawman who's given up the badge and moved out west in order to start a new, more pedestrian life with his wife and child. His ideal is Champion, which he defines as standing up for other people when they're in trouble, while his Dreams include his wife, child, and a new, quiter life.

In the train ride out to Redemption, AZ, our family of east coast transplants ran into no small amount of trouble when something possessed a passenger and turned him into a near unkillable creature that was doing awful things to the rest of the people. You can read all about it in the prior playtest reports to Heroes of Destiny.

As you might imagine, our lawman found himself called into action again, and the player found he really hit a groove with the character taking control of situations on the verge of panic and enforcing order while wrangling posses to hunt down the supernatural terror. He found a joy and a sense of purpose in it that he imagined his character had as well, and said that's clearly why he became a lawman.

This put him in conflict with his wife, who he described as nervous and clingy. She was always asking him not to get involved, to stay with her and protect her, just her. In the process of saving the train, he endangered his relationship with her quite a bit and heeded destiny's call just as much. Every time he lost Hope, he dropped his Dream rating for his wife. By the time they rolled into Redemption, she'd gone from a 3 to a 1, and that 1 was damaged down to a temproary 0.

So when he arrived home at one point, she greeted him by throwing crockery at his head. He was confused at first, until I explained to him that their relationship had been damaged both in the long term and short term, at which point he perked up and made the following suggestion:
In addition to providing some personality notes about each NPC that's a Dream, all Dreams should have a health status of sorts. This has nothing to do with combat and everything to do with their relationship to the character. At each rating in Dream, make a note of some change in the relationship. So if your wife is one of your Dreams at rating 3, define a telling point of the relationship at ratings 3, 2, 1, and 0. If your dream is a business, define what your relationship to the business is at each point rating.

Another fantastic idea. I think I'll have a hard time getting the guys to make those charts up mid-play, but for future tests, it's totally on.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Scene Structure in Heroes of Destiny

One suggestion that came out of the last playtest was to add a formal finish to any scene. Most time, play just flows from one person to another, one locaiton to the next, and from scene to scene. That's all well and good, but given that certain mechanics apply for one scene, he asked that we formally declare the end of a scene to clear up any ambiguity.

It's a small thing, but I like it. I think the appealing part of it is that by asking for scene close by consensus, it gets the players thinking about story structure and pulls them into more of a director stance, even if subtly. Anything that helps bridge that divide between players and GM is a good thing in my opinion. Many games have suffered when players show up with no sense of responsibility beyond attendence and playing their own character in a vacuum, and the GM runs games and plots with no eye toward engaging the players, instead looking at their characters as his own playthings. It's gone bad from both ends. Meeting in the middle, even in small ways like this, brings everyone closer together, and I really look forward to seeing how this easily implimented practice changes play.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

NPC Special Abilities

Now that I've got the new way potencies work, in a general sense, I can return to NPC spceial abilities. I still don't want resources to manage on the NPC side. We've seen how well that worked. However, creating interesting opposition requires something that can do more than deal damage. No, this game isn't super-meaty in terms of combat, but still, you do want to mix up the violence now and again. Descriptions are great, and I intend to use them quite a bit, but since a player experiences a game in large part through how it affects his character sheet, I want to put in a few special abilities, similar to potencies, that NPCs can use to make them stand out as different from one another.

In the interest of keeping all the calculations on the player's side, however, I'm staying away from the idea of activating them on my own somehow though. I'm not sure if I'll keep the encounter pool, or how it'll work if I do, but I do know that's not going to be the way that I'm going to invoke their abilities.

So how to do it? The same way we're trying to do everything else in this game: margin of success/failure on the player's roll. Since an NPC's stats are the target numbers for attack and defense rolls made by the players, the special abiltiies can things that trigger when certain margins are hit.

For example, a brilliant swordsman NPC might have a riposte abilitiy that kicks off with a margin of 3. He has a defense of 5. A player takes a swing at him, but only comes up with 2 successes for the roll. That triggers the swordsman's riposte ability, which means he gets an automatic, free attack against the player. This happens whenever anyone misses him by 3.

Like potencies, these can be tiered as well, with greater effects triggered by greater margins. And there's nothing that says a player has to utterly fail in order for a special condition to kick off.

For example, a cultist has a special ability that allows him to call for aid from others in the crowd when he's in trouble. When a PC makes a successful attack with a margin of 3 or less, the cultist successfully calls another member to his side to stand against the PC.

Now, I thought Gifts as NPC stats was a good idea too, so this sounds nice in theory, but the only way to be sure is to test it. I'd like to say I'm confident, but the last idea worked out so poorly I'm instead going to say I'm cautiously optimistic.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Potencies Redeux

With the idea of splitting your main pool into tinier ones and then rolling them separately, potencies need a rework. However, the new combat method does lend itself for a pretty easy conversion. Instead of allocating dice pre-roll to a potency, you allocate successes from your roll to potencies in order to activate them. In fact, this allows for more robust potencies that exist in tiers. For one success, you can get X benefit, but for two successes, you get Y, and for three you get Z.

That's all nice and vague, so let's slap some examples down on the page.
  • Flashing Blades - you can make an additional attack against a target in the same exchange. This action costs 3 successes. Upon activation, you can apply an attack you've already made a second time against the target. In effect, you deal damage two times from a single attack.
  • Pain Rage - the pain of your injuries burns red, granting you furious strength. This action costs 2 successes. Upon activation, you may add any current damage you are suffering (in dice, not points) to the damage of an attack.
  • Wild Aggression - you throw yourself on your opponent, heedless of danger to yourself. This action costs 1 success. Upon activation, you can apply an attack you've already made against the target. You may not defend or recover this exchange.
  • Take It - you steel yourself to take a hit. This action costs 1 success per level; there is no limit to the number of successes you can give to this potency. For each level, you steel a single die by increasing the amount of damage required to knock it out of your pool. Thus it takes 2 points to knock out a Destiny die and 3 points to knock out a Hope die. You can only apply this potency once to a since die, but may apply it to multiple dice.
  • Berserker - you throw yourself into a howling rage, allowing you to temporarily overcome your injuries. This action costs 1 success. Next exchange, you may roll all your dice, including the injured ones. However, you may not recover or defend in that exchange.
This does make the decision to use potencies something that happens after the roll rather than before, but while that might take a little of the risk out of it, it also breaks up the number of decisions that need to be made at one time, and I think that'll lead to a better play experience. People can roll, figure out how many successes they have, and then decide if they've got the slack to bust out the special moves. Some rolls might make that decision for them, making it a faster process. It's certainly worth testing, anyway.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The New Combat Procedure

In theory, combat already works the same way that non-combat checks do. In our playtest, however, the players never tried to do more than one thing at a time when making non-combat checks, so that similarity never appeared. However, once we got into combat, people were splitting their pools and rolling all over the place, which was exactly how it was supposed to work.

Fluidity was a problem though, so this is an attempt to make it a faster, simpler resolution system. Here's the new proposed combat procedure:
  1. Declare your actions
  2. Roll your Pool
  3. Apply modifiers for talents and trainings
  4. Sort out your successes
  5. Allocate your successes toward your declared actions
  6. Compare them to your target numbers
  7. Record the consequences based on margins of success and/or failure
Seven steps seems like a pretty involved process, I know, but have a look at that list again. It's pretty granular (I'm a technical writer by trade; I'm trained to write instructions in a highly detailed fashion and leave little in the realm of assumed user knowledge). In a nutchell, you're rolling like you would for any other check, the only difference here is that you might be splitting your successes among multiple actions like attack and defense. Otherwise it's identical to a standard roll, and playtesting has showed the standard roll works beautifully.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The 10 Die Limit

One of the things all three playtesters wound up begging for in unison pretty quickly when we got into discussing what worked and didn't in our playtest was a cap on The Pool. 10 dice, they said. 10 dice was a great number. Don't mess with it. Take away from it for injury if you like; that's okay, but please, dear G-d please, no more. Between endangering dreams, seeing your dreams in actual harm, and acting according to your ideals, you could wind up with a mountain of dice. Mountains of dice are nice in theory, because everyone loves powerful characters, but in actual play mountains of dice suck. They're too much to manage, and the game becomes more about moving dice around than playng the game.

Please, Cliff, they begged, keep a hard cap of 10 dice for The Pool, and find another use for all that other stuff.

A rough rule I've picked up for evaluating playtest feedback is that if one person says something needs to change, but the other two seem not to care, I'll make a note about it but won't necessarily do anything right away. If two people seem to think there's something wrong, however, it needs to change. When all three agree there's a problem, it's a big problem.

Thus, without any further hint of consideration, there's now a 10 die limit on The Pool. You don't add to it. Nothing grants bonus dice. Maybe some things can grant bonus successes, meaning it's still possible to score more than 10 successes in a single roll, but you will never have more than 10 dice in your pool. Ever.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Diceless NPCs, Done Better

In the last playtest report of Heroes of Destiny, I noted that the method by which I set up NPCs to not use dice wasn't effective. Upon reflection, I believe a large part of this is because while I did remove the physical act of rolling dice, I didn't substantively remove the need to manage resources enough from NPCs. In effect, I took out the time required to generate the resource, but the real work in running NPCs remained. Thus in play they weren't any easier to adjudicate.

So, in redesigning them, what I really need to do is take the work out of running the NPCs, not the dice. They're not the same thing. How to do that? Well, if my goal is to make combat roll just like non-combat actions, it means they need to work like any other obstacle. That is, NPCs aren't lists of stats, but target numbers that the PCs need to hit. An NPC's attack score is really just the TN the player needs to make on his defense roll, and his defense score is the difficulty for a PC's attack roll.

In theory, this removes the resource management problem from NPCs. Instead, the GM just needs to get the roll tallies from each player in turn, compare them to the target numbers that are the NPC's stats, and give back the information. Damage is based on how much the PC fails his defense roll.

What about special abilities? Well, I don't know yet. I'll get back to that. Not forgotten, but not for now. That's a little detailed given that there's a lot of basic system work that still needs rework.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Heroes of Destiny: Third Playtest

The third playtest of Heroes of Destiny was the first one that involved a multi-sessions campaign. Our very first test was a one shot run at the rules in a swashbuckling setting, and the second one was largely a character generation session. Now, we got to sit down with player-generated characters and have a full game session dedicated to gaming.

The rules are still rough, very rough, in places, but I'm happy to report that when this system works, it works.

The game picked up with our group of old west heroes on board a train headed out to Redemption Colorado from the east coast, each for reasons of his own. The three are brothers, and the ties of blood pull them together even though their pasts might otherwise drive them apart. One is a former law man, the other two of more shady occupations, all looking to set up life in the west through a shared stake in an area supposedly rich in gold.

Last game, one of the passengers went crazy, half ate two others, and then proceeded to fight the three of them. He lost to a small hail of gunfire that sent him tumbling off the roof of a train car, falling into the rushing darkness.

We picked up pretty much right there. The session that proceeded was very heavy on role playing and non-combat die resolution. The latter went amazingly smoothly. Despite the long hiatus between sessions, people picked up on the basic roll really quickly. That's not too surprising, as there's not a lot to it. Pick up some dice, roll them, and look for 5s. If that took a long time to figure out, we'd be neck deep in a whole other set of problems.

What was really exciting, however, was how talents and trainings affected play. Without any prompting from me, people would throw their dice, look at their sheet, and then alter their role playing so that they could leverage those bonuses that allowed them to manipulate the pool results. Characters really came to life early in the game, and while good players will always bring that kind of spark to their play (and this group had at least one such player), it happened early in the game, without much of a warm up period.

Even better still, I got to see first hand what it was like to watch a system fade into the background. We played for several hours without anyone stopping to puzzle something out. What questions there were became routine (mostly asking if a particular talent or training could apply to a situation/approach), which left the game wholly uninterrupted by the rules. We played, people occassionally tossed dice with complete confidence, read the results without any difficulty, and we proceeded with play.

One hang up we hit a little early was a question of cooperation, as in how to do it? The on the fly ruling I made was that the primary actor rolled his pool, but all participants could modify that roll with their talents, trainings, and gifts. However, if any participant wanted to include his Destiny dice, he could swap those out for any of the pool's Hope dice. That kept die rolling down while letting everyone participate. The group came up with the little flourish that you still rolled your own Destiny dice, which turned out to be a nice touch. This ruling went over big, and it's become part of the baseline rules from now on.

The play about erodiing Hope and burgeoning Destiny is also growing on people. One player lost almost all connection to his wife during play as he stood up and took over as lawman more and more throughout the session. He remarked at one point that it felt right, both in terms of his character and how it was coming off in play. His wife wanted him to put away the badge and live the simple life, but his ideals were calling him back to action, and he was consistently choosing them over her, and it was straining their relationship. He said there was a small story playing in his head about such things, even though we weren't playing them as part of the game, and that made the whole experience richer for him. I can't say that would happen to everyone, but it was really nice to hear about.

Then we closed in on the end of the adventure and hit combat. Combat hit back too. Even though they were supposed to sprout from a common root, combat was everything basic resolution wasn't: it was difficult, intrusive, slow, confusing, and ground play to a halt. No one was happy with it.

There were several large categories of problems when it came to combat:
  • Too Many Dice - Despite my assumption that the creation of multiple effort pools would make people die hungry, it turned out not to be the case, and all the various options that granted additional dice turned some people's pools into veritable seas. They had so many ways of drumming up more dice upon more dice that they literally had too many options and didn't know what to do with them all. This means that Dreams and Ideals need a complete overhaul, since playtesting showed they were important to play and populat as a concepts, but their mechanical implications need wholesale replacement.
  • Hope Limits on Potencies - The idea that only the extraordinary can really let rip with potencies is a good one. Representing this by placing a semi-flexible cap on the amount of Hope you can put into a potency is not. It created confusion and the need to perform a calculation every time someone wanted to roll a potency.
  • NPCs Are Hard - I'd designed NPCs to be diceless in order to speed and simplify their resolutions. I did this by listing the automatic successes they had toward several kinds of actions by way of assigning them gifts. Nice theory. In fact, it didn't work so well. The fact that NPCs have gifts means they still have resources that need management. Removing the dice meant that I didn't even have the physical tracking aid to use. I started using dice to help out halfway through, but it still was far more complicated than it was supposed to be.
  • Damage - Damage is all kinds of screwed up. People either miss or commit grievous wounds on their opponents. Each time a player took a hit he went from fine to half dead. I wanted injuries to matter in this game, but this is too deadly for the kind of experience I'm trying to create. It needs to be scaled WAY back.
  • Different Die Statuses - We've tried it several times now, and the whole fine/bloodied/bruised thing is just not working. Even though everyone gets how it works, people don't like them. The general consensus is that a die should be in play, or not. But having some that can do something when others can't, when they're otherwise identical, is unpopular. Wounding, and by extension recovery, needs new rules that simplify this.
Despite the rash of problems that came up, however, the game was seen in a positive light overall. People loved the basic resolution, and even those who were skeptical about dropping skills and using more descriptive traits like talents and trainings are 100% sold on the idea now. They love them, and they love using them. The goal is to make combat work much more like basic resolution, ideally to the point where combat is no different from any other kind of die rolling.

The ways I try to make this happen follow in later posts.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Shadowitz 2e: First Playtest

Our regular group hosted a guest recently, and so we took a break from the regular game to give Shadowitz 2e a trial run. I used a Die Hard like scenario, where the players would be inside a tower that got taken over by terrorists, initially separated from their weapons and with all their cyberware locked down. The idea was to have them sneak to the security station at the base of the tower, recover their gear and unlock their ware, and then have a series of running gun battles with terrorist groups as they tried to diffuse a bomb set to blow the top 15 floors off the building.

Instead, they jumped the first guys they saw regardless of the fact they had no weapons and little in the way of augmentation. The scenario ended before it began, and we instead settled in for a 90 minute fight that ended with a whole lot of dead hostages and an exploded building. But hey, the combat system got a hell of a workout.

The first thing I noticed was that wounding hurts a lot more than it used to. A lot more than it used to. Maybe too much. I'm not sure. In a single fight it really slapped the group around, but it was a situation that was stacked with near impossible odds (in the hopes they'd decide to do something other than overtly rush the bad guys) with no down time with which to recover from even stun injuries, so I'm not sure it's a fair test of how the penalties impact regular play.

That said, getting hit really messes you up now. You can't blithely ignore the flying lead anymore. Defensive actions are really a must. So much so that I'm thinking that dice put toward yin shouldn't be eaten up by an attack. While I prefer to shade things in favor of offense to move the game along, wounds are simply too crippling to nail someone with without providing a hearty defensive option.

Raising seems pretty cool, but again, with wounds locking down your pool, once you take a big hit, you're not raising anymore. I'm actually fine with that.

The new shot clock works just fine. I didn't expect any problems with it. In fact, the multi-track approach was very well received by any who had a comment about it.

Physical mages are powerful. I had adjusted the rules from what I posted here to make the magic rules a little more forgiving, but with the right suite of powers they are monsters. Again, not necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately, since the group never unlocked their cyberware I can't fairly compare them to the samurai, who never got to cut loose. That's a comparison I'd really want to make before deciding what, if anything, needs to change with the physical mages.

With a flat target number of 4 and wound penalties changing way more dice into wound dice, I think my initial assessment of the knack list and pyramid is correct. Knacks need to be more specialized and more numerous. There's one other major revision I think I need to look at though, and that's the attempt to keep all pools at 10.

See, when the game judged the level of success based on the number of hits you rolled, having a massive pool just became cumbersome after a while, and once you exceeded a certain number of successes, you hit a point of rapidly diminishing returns in terms of how long it took you to sort your pool. For that reason, keeping the knack ratings capped at 10, and limiting them to 7 to start, was a good idea. But that's not the way the game works anymore.

Now, no matter the hits you roll, you only score a minimal success. If you want more, you have to raise, and to raise you have to drop dice fro your pool. Now, a massive score in a knack doesn't mean lots of sorting. You're looking for the task threshold and that's it. In fact, the new raise rules don't just mean that large pools aren't as cumbersome, but I think they require larger pools. If you want to really shine, you need spare dice you can throw away on raises. The existing knack pyramid needs a revision. While 7 dice to start is probably still okay, if lower powered than it used to be, I think there needs to be more slots for higher rating knacks, and maybe a higher ground floor. Knacks of 3 aren't very useful.

What surprised me most, however, was how many comments I got back immediately upon wrapping up the session about how people would readily return to this game to test it further. One big fight scene didn't give people opportunity to play with their demons, and that was something nearly everyone wanted to explore more. They saw a lot of potential in mucking about with questions of edge and punk and worldliness. I'm not sure when or if that'll happen, as this was a sort of design on a lark and one I wasn't planning on returning to, but hey, you never know.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Other Mechanical Changes

With that core engine in place, I can begin looking at the rest of the Shadowitz system and see what needs adjusting. The answer is a whole hell of a lot.

Remove Methods
First of all, it's now gone to a roll over vs a roll under system, and Punk and Demon have become the core character attributes. Methods don't mix into that well, and so I think they've got to go. Just straight out gone. A character now has knacks and a single target number he's looking for on all dice, regardless of his approach.

New Dice Rules
Speaking of which, impairment dice need an overhaul too. If higher dice are better, and the target number is 5, what do we do about injuries. I still think changing the pool composition to keep the possibility of action alive but  less likely is a solid mechanic. So let's change the target number to 4, make d6 the base die, d10 the edge die, and d4 the impairment die.

1s glitch instead of 6s.

Finally, I'd like to shift the degree of success away from luck and into the realm of player choice. So I'm going to take the raise mechanic I used in 7th Sea and introduce it here. Any roll gives you basic success, regardless of the margin by which you beat the target threshold. If you want to achieve more, you need to raise.

Remove 1 die from your pool for each raise; it doesn't matter if it's a d6 or a d10, but you can't remove d4s to raise. You're stuck with them. If you succeed in your roll, you can get additional levels of performance based on the raises you made. In combat, this means raising is the only way to deal additional damage. An attack deals base damage + raises.

Fewer Aspects
In the original game, you started with 5 aspects. That's a lot, and they didn't get used much because there was a lot else going on. Now, you get 2 plus your demon. If you want more you can get more later, but start with 2 and learn to work them both.

Likewise, starting karma (which used to be called Edge) now starts at 2 points, not 5. A smaller pool means you're more likely to work those compels more often to earn more karma.

Shot Clock Revision
I've rejiggered the shot clock to give it multiple tracks. Now, your initiative score doesn't reduce the number of shots an action takes, but tells you which track you're on. Higher tracks have more spaces, meaning you still proceed around the clock more slowly, and thus get to act more often than slower opponents. This lets everyone use the same list of shot costs without the need to do any calculations that might foul things up or slow them down.

Knack List Revision
Resources is gone as a knack, since it's now based on your Worldliness score. The knack pyramid remains, but with the loss of methods, I'm wondering if making knacks more specific and increasing their number is a good idea. When making a few NPCs, I ran out of knacks to take a few times. Food for thought.

Contacts Overhaul
With Fixer gone, there needs to be some other way of making contacts important to the characters. Fixer was a neat idea, but it always bothered me that contacts were still only capable of doing the things characters could do already.

So now, every character gets 5 contact aspects. They can use these to build their contacts, giving them access to knacks (probably different ones than the character has himself), as well as certain other abilities like resources and position. These are part of the character sheet though, and a character can spend money and experience to increase his contacts just like he can himself. While the GM might play the contact when the character speaks to him, the player is responsible for the mechanics, advancing the contact, and making all the necessary rolls.

The Inner Demon

Let's move on to the second aspect of the mission statement: the inner demon. This is the means by which the characters maintain their individuality. Characters in Neuromancer did it through drug addiction, death wishes, isolation, extreme body modification, and sheer insanity. There wasn't anyone in that book who was just a little quirky. They were either faceless and forgettable, or they had something really wrong with them. So we need something similar for this game, something to give players the power stay themselves, but to do so in a way that breaks them.
Okay, so there's clearly got to be some kind of disadvantage tied to a character's inner demon, but again, it needs to be mechanical. The 90s were strewn with RPGs that introduced disadvantages that you were just supposed to role play, and while they were a big step in the direction of thinking about your character's personality and not just his combat stats, too often these disadvantages were banks of points that you got for free and proceeded to ignore in actual play. A character's inner demon needs to inflict a mechanical penalty to the character, while at the same time it needs to provide some mechanism by which a character can increase his punk rating.
So, each character has a demon, defined along theme appropriate lines. This gets a variable rating (um... 1-5 maybe?) defined by the player at the start of each adventure (I'm still assuming this being a Shadowrun game, that it will be built around specific missions/jobs). The rating determines how hard the demon is kicking at that particular time. Sometimes it's nice and placid and behind the scenes, and sometimes it's a raging beast. Take for example the demon "drug addict." At a rating 1, the character might feel the occasional pang, but he can pretty much white knuckle his way through the job. At rating 5, he's jonsing for a fix constantly. Time that should be spent gathering intel on the team's target is spent instead scoring a fix and blissing out. He's walking into firefights high, and he's going through withdrawal when they need him driving the getaway car.
A character's Edge is equal to his Punk + Demon. Yes, this does mean that the more messed up a character is on any given run, the better he'll be performing, but we're going to chalk that up to him being less distracted by all the trivialities of the world. Demons are an aspect with only a downside. The GM can compel the aspect, just as any other, and you are free to resist if you like. However, it costs you a number of points equal to your demon rating to avoid succumbing. When it's really kicking, you're going to be spent just keeping it at bay, and if things get too rough, you are going to give in. 

That should make the "brokenness" of cyberpunk characters a more front a center thing in this game. With rare exception, players want their characters to be good at what they do. That means high edge. But that high edge comes with a price, and I'm willing to bet people will pay it, which hands the GM the tools necessary to help players explore the dark parts of their character's unique snowflake of a personality.