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.

When I say first level, I don't mean it literally, since Mage, like all Storyteller games, is a point buy system both in gen and advancement. Be that as it may, it still gives you a whopping feel of being a gimped, barely competant newbie. Yes, I realized we've not played yet, but still, the common theme that people kept coming back to was that they couldn't make what they wanted.

There were a pair of players who wanted to play members of a local business, one in law the other in finance. They envisioned themselves as local powers, with connections in the city and finances to give them some clout. They got that. No problem. Well, slight problem. That alone cost them everything in terms of discretionary point spending. Even though they were old orld mages for whom a library would be perfect, no dice, because no points. They also are near cripples physically. One is smart and the other smooth, but don't ask either of them to run across the street; they'll trip or hyperventlate.

I created my own character to be their security consultant. I was picturing a Jason Bourne, Tycho Cain (for those who read the Fiddleback trilogy of Dark Conspiracy), protagonist from Taken kind of guy. No, I didn't expect to be that good right away, but what I didn't expect was that to even be anywhere close to good, I'd need to be deficient in a lot of other things. My character can't shoot a gun, for example, at all, because I needed those points for other things, like brawling and driving. I could have put points into the firearms skill, but in this system, a pool of 6 dice will, on average, land you 2 successes. If you're fighting someone, you're not likely going to have a pool of 6 dice, because his defense will subtract from your pool.

One of the other players insisted this was fine. "You can't be awesome right from the start."

I reject that. I think that kind of thinking is an artifact of older games. Why not? Isn't being awesome what we ultimately want for our characters? Does anyone really sit down and think "you know, I think I'd like to play a barely competant guy for about 2 years until he grows into something wicked, assuming the game last long enough for that to happen."

Oh yeah, quick note: this mage game is slated to run 12 sessions, including the one we spent making characters. We ain't climbing no peaks of advancement.

But back to the "you can't be cool in the beginning" argument, I ask why not? The most successful game I ever ran was an elder Vampire game. People started the game with superhuman power. Scatch that. They started with supervampire power. By the baseline of the game, these were characters that had hundreds of experience points already spent on them, and that was before the first session of the game. These guys could lift cars and controlled multinational corporations and millions, if not billions of dollars. You know what that meant?

That the group never hit a point where they said: "We don't have what it takes to deal with this."

Oh, I beat them up. I hit them hard. Between political difficulties, moral quandries, and supernatural threats of all sorts that were tough enough to hurt them, these guys got pushed to the limit. By the time the game was over, four were dead, one had lost his favorite retainer (an NPC much loved by everyone in the game), and most of them were affected in some significant manner. They had a lot of power, but they were still challeneged. As a bonus, if anyone felt short changed by not being able to actualize a concept they were happy with, I didn't hear about it.

That's an extreme example though. For something more scaled down, let's design a hypothetical system right here. As a starting point, you're assumed to be average in all things, and I mean real average. Storyteller 4e still defines average as a score of 2, but when each die only has a 1/3 chance of rolling a success, it means that average fails most rolls.

So your character is average, by which I mean that in perfectly placid situations, he should be able to at least marginally succeed in most simple rolls (rolls, not tasks). Now I'm going to go outside mainstream design and suggest that the best way to do this isn't to make all his attributes some value that accomplishes this by default.

Screw attributes. They're a big part of the problem we're addressing here. Pitch 'em. Let's instead give you a default average roll for all your skills (except for those special ones that you simply can't roll unskilled, like surgery and piloting rockets). You can buy these up as part of creating your character.

I hear my friends now. "But it's easier for me to think about how fast my guy is, or how strong he is." Fair enough. Sometimes characters can find a solid foundation in something that's not neatly defined in a skill, like being tireless or rediculously built. I'm on board with that.

So use aspects, or some other "make your own attribute" system. This means you're good at what you want to be good at, and you can do so without having to go all dump stat min/max on your character sheet. You want to play a character with a deficiency? G-d knows I love that, so do it. Throw in a rule about negative aspects, and put it on your sheet. But now you're playing that deficiency because you want to, because it's part of your character, not because you were looking to squeeze some points out of something else.

Something like this gives you the opporunity to be good at the things you want to be good at, and skipping that whole agonizing process where you settle for less and hope your character grows into the concept you had. At that point you're playing a waiting game, not your character, and it's not as fun. This idea that you can't play someone extraordinary right out of the gates is something a lot of us have been taught, but now that I consider it doesn't necessarily have to be this way, I'm looking at traditional character generation and wondering how much fun the story men we made are really going to be.

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