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.