Wednesday, January 23, 2019

4 reasons to visit Whitspur

In a recent D&D session, the players arrived in a new city.  I didn't want to just give them a giant exposition dump about the city at the get-go. Exposition is dangerous -- if it goes on too long, the players will tune-out while the GM rambles. If it's kept short and sweet,  it tends to give the players a razor-sharp singularity of purpose that can strain verisimilitude or rail-road.  I wanted to provide the facts on the ground in a way that would give the players a personalized window into the setting, get them engaged, but not necessarily all on the same page from the first scene.

So I made four note cards. On one side they listed a nutshell reason why the PC would be coming to town, just buzz-word summation, for the players to choose from: "Glorious Adventure", "Conspiracy Theory", "Paycheck, then a Vacation", and "Family (Is Thicker Than Water)". Based on just those titles, the players split them up between themselves. Once everybody had chosen, they were allowed to read the other side quietly. The idea was to internalize some facts and goals to inform their roleplaying, rather than just blanketing the party with all the info at once. Everyone knew a different unique thing about the town, and had a slightly different reason for being there.

Here's what the other side of the cards said:

Family (Is Thicker Than Water)
I have family that lives in Whitspur. Cousin Edreth and Cousin Bjarne. They work at the Whitspur Mill and Grainery (like their fathers before them). I haven't seen them in a couple years, but we used to visit their family every year when we were kids.

On those visits, us kids would sneak out at night and climb the silver steps on the outside of the giant white stone tower. It must have been 200 feet tall, at least. For fun we'd knock on the silver door at the top, and sometimes something behind it would knock back at us. We used to make up horror stories about what was inside.

One particularly windy night, Edreth's best friend, Krisjof, fell off the steps and died. That was the last time my parents ever took me to Whitspur. 

Glorious Adventure
Whitespire is named for the white marble tower at it's center. They say it's a mile high, and no one has ever been inside the tower! The only door is at the top, made of indelible Electril (an alloy of Silver and Mithril) and magically warded.

There's a riddle carved into that door, known as “The Riddle of Blood”, that's never been solved. They say only the cleverest adventurer of them all could solve that riddle. Whoever does will find untold riches inside that tower.

Other rumors say The Riddle of Blood is just a euphemism for human sacrifice. There's a noble family of Paladins, the Elfenbeinspeers, who have guarded that tower for hundreds of years against all evil that has tried to release it with human blood.

Whichever story is true, I'm confident a great adventure awaits me in Whitespire.

Paycheck, then Vacation
The Duke owes me 20 gold, and 2 weeks vacation in a room with a view of the gleaming spire of Whitspur.

Last spring, I helped drive off some bandits from the township of Thegdress. Despite being far to the east, Thegdress owes fealty to the Elfenbeinspeer family of nobles, who summer in Whitspur.

This payment letter I've got here says that I can collect my reward from the Innkeep and Paymaster at Duke Elfenbeinspeer's family Inn in Whitspur. For my past service to Thegdress, I will receive 20 pieces of gold, a “Magic Lantern in a Bottle”, and 2 weeks room and board with the “full Elfenbeinspeer Elegance Experience”. It's gonna be a good two weeks.

Conspiracy Theory
Whitspur has a famous impenetrable tower made of white marble, with silver stairs running up the side of it. It's over 100 feet tall, and covered with runic sigils. I haven't seen the sigils yet, but I suspect they are runes from the ancient Authrek civilization.

The Authrek reigned in the Age of Madness, more than a thousand years ago. They were powerful necromancers who worshipped Orcus, with human sacrifice. Most Authrek ruins are deep beneath the earth, which is why most scholars don't realize Whitspur's climbing tower to be one. I suspect the foundations of that tower reach deep into the underworld. I believe this site is the epicenter, the great temple where the Authrek sacrificed millions of victims.

There's an order of Paladins that guard that tower, led by Duke Elfenbeinspeer, and I bet they know dire ancient secrets they aren't telling us.

It worked pretty well. All the players internalized their little bit of unique info, and only shared it via in-character dialogue when it came about organically. A few subplots kept them from just rushing straight to the tower -- there was some shady business going on at the Inn, and cousin Bjarne was in the stocks in town square -- and they rode into town in the middle of the night. When the first light of dawn showed them that the cursed tower was physically missing and the white stone blocks from it were being used in new construction at the edge of town, everyone felt the tension level rise real suddenly.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Exit Through Reprisal's Mouth

For X-mas, my girlfriend got me this cool little notebook called a Rocketbook. It uses a special erasable pen, and comes with an App. The App makes it easy to use your phone to Scan in whatever you draw on the page, and it runs Optical Character Recognition to scan all your writing into text. Then it automatically shoots that over to whatever inbox or dropbox or data cloud service you prefer. It's fast and easy, and totally should have resulted in me posting a bunch of stuff about my D&D games here the day I got back from the trip. Should have, but I procrastinate quite well.

The photo to the left is the scan of one dungeon map. I brought my Dwarven Forge stuff, so in play this map was a tactile 3-D thing that I built on the table as they explored. It was pretty cool. I had never before tried taking Dwarven Forge on the road, but in practice it was less of a hardship or hassle than I had imagined it would be to haul this stuff down to Portland.

The OCR function got most, but not all of my words:

##New Years Map 2018-19 ## Exit through Reprisal's Mouth? Blood Recepticals Blood stocks Iron Maiden B Box Barricade Portculis Butcher shop Log for Bridge DC 12 to cross 3 feet of water at the bottom of a 12 fost pit Stairs Down from Whitspur mu Rubble/cave-in all Digging 

For future reference, it seemed to capture words written horizontally, or sloping downward at 45 degrees. Words sloping upwards to the right did not scan.

Whitspur is the town that is mostly addicted to undead meals.  (Described in my previous post from a few days ago.) The blood recipticals are part of the mechanism that turns a little bit of blood into a full undead ghoul. Parts of the dungeon is an ancient temple of Orcus, and other parts are a ill-considered butcher shop set-up by the chef of the Inn upstairs. It's a long story.

Reprisal was this evil little Quasit that the PCs had defeated the previous time I ran D&D in Portland many months before. He was the demon-familiar of an NPC Sorceress, who used him for reconnaissance and to lead her kobold minions. The PCs murdered him half a dozen times, but due to ways of demons and familiars, the Sorceress could manifest him anew with a 15-minute ritual every day. No matter how often they killed him, she would send him out again to be her eyes, ears, and mouth. The PCs really responded to this, and tried to fool, manipulate or bargain with Reprisal several times, and then killed him again whenever his presence was inconvenient. When they solved the dilemma and completed the mission, the PCs thought for sure they'd never see Reprisal again.

So this session, when they arrived at the Inn they'd been traveling to, Reprisal was waiting for them. That was not good. After a bit of banter, they determined that he was no longer working for the old villainess, and was now a free agent roaming the countryside. Rather than murdering him some more and testing whether or not he could still reform infinitely, they decided to point him in the direction of someone else they thought could use some annoying. I think they were a little surprised and lot pleased when this worked and he took off to hassle some sad-sack NPCs  they'd left behind down the road a ways. Better them than us.

Not that you asked for it, but here's a little more detail on that: The NPCs were a group of incompetent orcish merchant-bandits that the PCs had scattered to the winds but been unable or unwilling to hunt down and destroy to the last. So it was feasible that Reprisal would harry them into a more permanent defeat or frustration that would make the Orcs stay away. Worst case scenario, if he joined forces with them, it was basically just combining two negligible minor threats, that might rolled together be a single speed-bump added to the adventure. This seemed mostly harmless at the time.

And then, roughly 48 hours and 2 marathon D&D sessions later, they're exploring this subterranean temple of Orcus, and they see this giant archway in the shape of a green demonic head. If you're familiar with some of the oldest Dwarven Forge sets, you may know the piece I used. I tell them it's the spitting image of Reprisal the Quasit, just blown up to epic proportions. This is in the room with the magical mechanisms that summon an infinite army of undead if you know the right ritual.  I tell them there's lots of Abyssal runes carved into the walls, and as they read them, it talks about how the army can be summoned up, belched forth from the mighty jowls of Orcus, before his triumphant return to conquer the world.

So now the players are left with a troubling mystery. Is it just that all Quasits are formed as miniature versions of the Great Demon Lord they serve? If so, that's nothing to worry about - there's just a minor link between Reprisal and their current Dungeon by way of Alignment. But there's a chance, at least a small one, that maybe this annoying little Demon they've been playing Cat-and-also-Cat with for the past few sessions is actually some sort of Avatar of a pretty serious big-bad with outsized ambitions. Maybe sending him to the local Orcs wasn't such a great idea after all. They all started debating what their next move needed to be.

And then, because I'm a dirty GM, I chose that moment to crank up the pressure. The City Guard unit that was tracking the PCs (it's a long story, but hinted at in that post I linked to earlier) started clumsily probing the dungeon and setting up an ambush. Not wanting to be identified and captured or exiled, the PCs felt they had best flee deeper into the dungeon, by walking through the Mouth of Reprisal.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

7 recent sessions

I haven't been keeping up on the old gaming blog much. Since my last post, I have run 2 sessions of 7th Sea, played in 1 session of Ravnica-flavored D&D, and run 4 consecutive marathon sessions of D&D. Here's a bit about each:

7th Sea 2nd Ed: Thus far, the PCs have fought Ghouls, saved a woman from a lynch mob, investigated a supernatural murder scene, and navigated the social strata of a nobleman's court function. We left off last session with the PCs transporting a body on a boat in occupied territory during a storm, and just noticing that the Ghouls were sneaking aboard for a rematch. Next session should be exciting. (That session is scheduled for tomorrow,  but it's probably going to be cancelled on account of an ill player. It's a small game with just 3 PCs, so being even 1 PC down on a session has a pretty big impact.)

Ravnica: Using the new-ish D&D book that is based on the coolest world in Magic: The Gathering. I usually GM (and none of my frequent players would really be into Ravnica) but then a work-friend invited me to this, and I just couldn't turn it down. I was so certain I was going to play a Goblin Izzet Guild Mage, because, after all, this is likely the only time I will ever get to RP in Ravnica. Goblins as RPG characters can be hella fun. Then I get to the character creation session, and two other players also want to be Goblin Izzet Guild Mages. Three goblins of the same guild struggling to carve out sub-niches while stepping on each other's feats (pun intended) seemed less than ideal for everyone. Plan B then, is as follows Class: Druid / Background: Simic Combine Scientist / Race: Simic Hybrid. Essentially a fusion of elf and Blue Bottle Jellyfish (aka Portugese Man'o'war). A mutant who strives to mutate others. The first session was short because it came on the heels of character gen, but it was highly entertaining. The two goblins were hamming it up, so I get to enjoy over-the-top Izzet antics while embodying an entirely different style of mad scientist myself. I think it's going to be good.

D&D Marathon: Every time I make it down to Portland to see my old high-school buddies, we pack the evenings with copious amounts of alcohol and D&D. We introduced a new player this time as another old friend who's usually absent was able to join us for the festivities, and he played a Minotaur Bard. (We needed more cowbell.)  I had great success with a complex no-easy-answers storyline the last time we'd been in Portland, so I went for similar damned-if-you-do-or-don't material this time, too. The first encounter was a group of traveling merchants who just so happened to be orcs. The PCs of course went the full murder-hobo route, for which I made them feel guilty even though it was totally what I expected them to do. I'm kind of a bastard GM sometimes. The rest of the story had to do with a city where everyone was addicted to the newest menu at the largest inn. The players did some investigating, and then broke into the dungeon beneath the inn, accidentally alerting the unit of the city watch that keeps that dungeon sealed up tight. The ruins below has an evil altar that supplies a never-ending supply of undead if you know the correct dark ritual. Yep, the whole town is addicted to delicious ghoul flesh. (I cast "Purify Food and Drink". It should be safe to eat now.) At the end of the session, the PCs were sort-of-trapped. They're behind a secret door that the guard unit doesn't know about, but the guards do know they broke in, and could potentially reveal the gruesome secret to the town. So they need to either find another exit, or else fight their way through a couple dozen policemen on their way out. I don't get down to Portland often, so they've got some time to think up a good plan.

Night's Black Agents: Ideally, this game would meet once a month, but it's a tricky group to schedule sometimes. We're all frequently busy elsewhere. Hopefully in February I'll have another session to tell you about.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Quick On Their Feet

Ran another session of Night's Black Agents / Dracula Dossier tonight.


This session started with a PC in the trunk of a car with a vampire. The PC was in the trunk of the car, because this particular vampire had created a telepathic link with the PC a few sessions back, and could mesmerize her for a moment or two at sunset. So, trunk of the car seemed the best place for her as the other PCs drove around near that time, so the Vamp couldn't see through her eyes and know where they were. What no one was counting on was that the Vampire could not just communicate and spy on, but could actually manifest next to the PC if the PC didn't actively try to resist her. Oops.

So a big chunk of the session involved the PCs suddenly having a fight with a vampire at a random street corner in London. They were unprepared for this, but did a decent job of thinking on their feet. They opened up a fire hydrant, and were happy to discover that did indeed count as running water. They escaped by carjacking some poor sap who was stuck at the same intersection as them. Quick thinkers, but not terribly heroic.

Police were quick to respond to the scene; confirming for the players that indeed Edom (the British vampiric intelligence agency, or maybe counter-vampire agency) was still watching them closely, and the Heat Level in London is too high for the PCs to operate safely.  When the PC hacker tried to hack the London surveillance network, a thing he'd accomplished twice before without trouble, he was suddenly met with stiff resistance from some government-issue white hat that was waiting for him to intrude again. They managed to get away again, but they now know they've been made, and no longer have the upper hand on the digital front.

They are leaving two active Vampires (no less than Mina Harker and Jack the Ripper) behind in London, but being international super-spies, the PCs are never more than a montage away from a new Operation. They have put a bunch of extra photos and strings on the Adversary Map (known affectionately by the players as "the Murder-Board"), so when things cool down and they can return, they will get a large Operational Pool bonus for targeting any of these Vamps or elements of Edom that they have identified in the past few sessions.

For now, they're laying low on the continent, and next session will be moving against the German biker gang that they suspect is working for a nosferatu rival of Dracula. The enemy of our enemy... is still a vampire, and needs to be staked, after all.

As GM, I am just a tiny bit worried about the players hitting the wall back in London. It made sense that this would be a very difficult area to make progress, given the high degree of government surveillance in that city, and it being one of the HQs for Edom, and the complicated nature of the "relationship" between Edom/Harker/Dracula in this particular. The PCs had early-on identified that Romania is "end-game" territory best saved till they have spent lots of XP and learned all they could about the best ways to hunt Vampires. London falls into the same "save this high-level stuff for later" territory, but they didn't figure that out until the second time things went pear-shaped.

Thankfully, NBA and the Dracula Dossier give the PCs a ton of leads to pursue all across the globe, so they decided to just head back to the continent and follow up more productively on some targets they earned intel on back in the early days of the campaign. These are lower-level targets who are more exposed than the NPCs realize, so they won't see the PCs coming. It should provide a good chance for a relatively easy victory that will bolster the PCs spirits, and lead them toward juicier targets further up the villain's org chart.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

I buried the lead in a tangent.

Earlier today, I wrote a lengthy rant about 7th Sea and why I chose to reduce the damage of duelists instead of increasing the damage of non-duelists. In a rambling tangent buried deep in that post, I said this:
Options that look strong or weak during character creation should not turn out to have radically different power-levels in play. You would not expect "Duelist" to be significantly stronger than Army Officer, Mercenary, Cavalry, Hunter, or any of the other martial-themed Background options, but it really is.

Thinking back on that, I realized this point was actually far more important than I presented it as, and I probably should have led with that statement.

The internet is full of two years of 7th Sea posts about why Duelists are unbalanced vs non-combatant NPCs, to which the most common rebuttal is "Duelists should be vastly stronger than non-combatants".

Those rebuttals are absolutely right, but they are also entirely missing the point.

Duelists have dedicated at least one of their two Background choices to being a bad-ass in combat. I entirely agree that compared to another character that hasn't chosen any significant combat options, the Duelist should be very potent.

The problem is there are several other character creation options that cost the exact same as being a Duelist (by which I mean it takes one of your 2 Background choices), and every single one of them is significantly under-powered in comparison to the Duelist.

If someone chose Cavalry and Mercenary as their two Backgrounds, they've doubled-down on combat-capable character concepts, but those two Backgrounds combined together contribute far less to their damage output or chances of emerging victorious from a battle than the single choice of Duelist that another player took.

A character who took Duelist and Courtier would do at least double the damage of a character who took Soldier and Assassin. That's what really bothers me about it.

Miss Harker continues to Vamp about

Since my last two posts were about 7th Sea, I just wanted to mention that I'm still currently running Night's Black Agents / The Dracula Dossier. Everyone's schedules are such that we only get to play that about once a month, so I'm planning to do a semi-regular 7th Sea campaign with a different group of players, and hopefully get to game twice a month this way.

In my most recent session of NBA, the PCs got raided by the secret British Vampire Program. They'd not stirred up a lot of Heat in London, and didn't cover their tracks well enough. So there was a cool fight and chase scene as their safehouse got burned & blown. They learned a thing or two about the opposition (including seeing Seward Serum up close) and then slipped away into the night.

The session left with them still in London, trying to keep a low profile while hunting Jack the Ripper (who the PCs had accidentally unleashed into the world a half dozen sessions ago). I actually left off with a fun cliffhanger where one of the PCs found herself in a trunk with a vampire. When you hear Mina Harker's voice in your head at midnight, I do not recommend inviting her in, not even if you're riding in the trunk of a car down a busy street and there's no earthly chance she could actually be there. The power of Apportation scoffs at your puny mortal concepts of time and space.

Putting A Finer Point On The Sword

A couple days ago I posted a set of house-ruled Dueling Maneuvers for 7th Sea 2nd Edition, which dramatically reduced the amount of damage a Duelist could do. This cut it down to about 150% to 175% of a what a non-Duelist PC could do, instead of the 300% to 500% of a non-Duelists damage output as the official rules-as-written would have it. Since then, I've been reading additional other posts on forums and blogs with other people's house-rules and alternatives for exactly that same situation.

It seems most people's solution is to scale up the damage done by non-Duelists. Usually this is achieved via providing a 1-, 2-, or 3-point Advantage that gives non-Duelists access to Slash (and in some cases Parry and/or a few other Maneuvers). Adding a single Advantage seems like a far more elegant solution than completely rewriting 5 or 6 maneuvers and several of the Style Bonuses, so I can see the appeal of going that route.

That said, here are the reasons why I chose the larger-scale revision, and in particular why I chose to lower Duelist's damage output instead of raising non-Duelist's effectiveness.

Reason #1: I'd rather slow the death spiral than speed it up.

In 7th Sea 2nd Edition, a PC has 20 health boxes. 20 points of damage drops a character. A typical non-Duelist starting character is going to deal 2 to 4 points of damage per Round. A starting Duelist, on the other hand, under the core rules,  is going to deal somewhere between 10 and 15 points of damage in a turn. Which means a duel to the death is probably 2 Rounds in length, and if there's a min-maxed or "high level" Duelist on one side of a fight, PC death could happen in a single Round. Each player only rolls dice once per Round. This just seems really short and fast to me. There's no time or warning for a player to realize their out of their league - if a non-Duelist accidentally picked a fight with a major (Duelist) Villain, they'd be dead before they realized the danger they were in. Should a PC stir-up trouble, I want them to have a chance to flee, or an opportunity for other PCs to jump in and save them. Such an escape is just not likely if a battle to the death can happen in one or two die rolls. That is the single biggest problem I have with boosting non-Duelists up to Duelist levels of damage. It seems safer (from a campaign perspective) to slow everything down instead.

The other side of that coin is also mildly troubling. It's not nearly as big a deal if an NPC gets cut down without warning in one or two die rolls, but it still definitely complicates the GM's ability to plan a balanced and exciting fight scene or develop an ongoing storyline with a memorable recurring villain. I've read a fair bit online where GMs have said they needed to throw Brute Squads of 20 or 30 nameless NPCs against the PCs to keep their fights challenging. While that makes sense for a big battle at the end of major story arc, it seems less than ideal for the bread-and-butter of your standard session.

There are a few other lesser concerns that lead to my approach. I'll detail them below, but honestly these are all much smaller deals than the tendency towards instant death in the rules as written.

(Minor) Reason #2: A new "leveling the playing field" advantage isn't part of any Background package.

During character creation, players pick 2 Backgrounds that tell their back-story and give them a starting collection of Advantages and Skills. If I were to add a hypothetical Advantage that closes the gap between Duelists and non-Duelists, it wouldn't appear on any of the current Backgrounds. So either I'd need to make new Backgrounds or edit the existing ones, or live with the notion that PCs who are non-Duelists but want to be good at fighting have to spend their bonus Advantage points on it, and so have slightly fewer customization options than the full-on Duelist. Not particularly horrible, but it does undercut the elegance and appeal of just adding a single Advantage to solve the balance issues.

Tangent: I prefer transparency during character creation
One of my pet peeves in regards to gaming is RPG systems with hidden bad-choices in character creation. 1st Edition 7th Sea had these in spades. If you sunk a bunch of character creation points into knacks, especially advanced knacks, it was a terrible waste of your time and power, as those were much faster and easier to raise via XP in just a  session or two. Also, Panache, which sounded on the surface like it might be the Charisma-esque dump-stat most characters could safely ignore, was actually the strongest stat in the game as it determined how many actions you got per turn. In the first 7th Sea campaign I ever played in, we didn't make our characters together, so multiple players missed both of these truths about the creation system, and spent the rest of the campaign feeling envious of my character. It was not a great dynamic, and I learned a lot from that experience. The goal is for everyone at the table to have fun, and that is far less likely to happen if one PC is vastly outperforming others.
Options that look strong or weak during character creation should not turn out to have radically different power-levels in play. You would not expect "Duelist" to be significantly stronger than Army Officer, Mercenary, Cavalry, Hunter, or any of the other martial-themed Background options, but it really is.

That is at the core of why I'm house-ruling the Dueling damage down. During character creation, it's not going to be obvious to most players just how much better a Duelist is to a non-duelist. I can warn them, but the gap is so huge that they are almost certainly going to underestimate the importance and regret it later. If I do successfully put the fear of Duelists into them, then the whole table will be playing Duelists, which erodes character niche integrity and results in everyone having the same skills. I don't want disappointed or envious players, but I also don't want a gang of cookie-cutter PCs with diminished individuality.

(Minor) Reason #3: A ranged combat character can't compete with Dueling.

7th Sea 2nd Edition has loosey-goosey movement rules... or really, no movement rules at all. In many RPGs, movement and ranges are tracked more explicitly. In such games, this often means that melee damage output defaults to being higher than ranged damage, as a trade-off for play balance. You can hit harder if you spend an action or two moving into position and are willing to risk the extra danger of being on the front lines.

This edition of 7th Sea has no concept of the "Front Lines", and explicitly employs mechanics such as Consequences and Brute Squads that affect the entire party regardless of (non-existent) positioning. Rarely will the Swordsman find himself in greater peril than the Archer. As GM, I can force that situation, but there's nothing in the default mechanics that makes it happen, so every time I do so, everyone at the table will know that's me actively working to make it harder on the melee characters. That's a well you can't draw from infinitely without someone crying foul.

Guns have a bit of a balancing factor built in to them to account for this: they always do a Dramatic Wound, which is almost as good as doing 5 damage. Those guns are black-powder weapons, however, so they take 5 actions to reload. A PC carrying a brace of pistols (a not-so-subtle fashion style) can almost match a starting Duelist's damage output for the first Round (and just the first round). A gun-using PC can't keep up later in the campaign as the Duelist improves his Weaponry skill, but for a shorter campaign, this is very close to balanced against Duelists. Duelists are still better, but with the rules-as-written the only hope of a non-Duelist to not feel useless in a fight is to carry multiple pistols.

A PC with a bow, or a bandolier full of throwing knives, just can't compete. If the game were entirely and completely set in just the Restoration and Golden-Age-of-Piracy era, I wouldn't worry much about that. Instead, it's more of a greatest hits of European history. A friend once described the anachronistic setting thusly: "7th Sea is set in the 100-year era between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Industrial Revolution". Yes, it's mostly Pirates and Musketeers, but other perfectly-valid character inspirations include Vikings and King Arthur and Machiavelli and Robin Hood. Unfortunately, that last archetype doesn't seem to have a workable model in the current mechanics. At best you could get a Signature Item (your prized bow) and the Sniper Advantage, but that still only buffs your damage output up to about 8 Wounds per Round, at the cost of a Hero Point each Round.

Tangent: I'm not worried about Pistols overwhelming my new Duelists
I've reduced the damage or Dueling, but not Pistols. For the record, I am not the least bit worried about that swinging balance too far in the opposite direction. While 7th Sea doesn't have a rigid Encumbrance system to limit PCs from loading up on pistols, it does have social etiquette. Unlike D&D where a guy in full armor sporting 5 weapons is normal, in 7th Sea someone carrying half a dozen pistols is going to look conspicuously murderous. The campaign I'm planning to run will have courtly intrigue as well as daring-do, and the need to be able to attend court will prevent players from packing too much heat. Maybe if I was running a purely pirates-in-the-wilderness style of campaign there would be more cause for concern, but I don't expect it to be a problem.

If you're worried about this being a abused, there's one very elegant and organic way to limit the effectiveness of carrying 3 or more pistols. Just require a Raise to draw a weapon, and a Raise to fire with your off-hand. (And remember, they already take 5 Raises to reload.) With that in place, Pistols are cemented in their role as a good-opening move but an inefficient long-battle strategy.

(Minor) Reason #4: To open up some design space for Signature Weapons

In 1st Edition of 7th Sea, there were all sorts of cool weapons for swordsmen. Puzzle Swords, Dracheneisen Panzerhands, Sidhe Weapons, Rune Weapons, Castillian Blades, MacEachern Weapons, Twisted Blades, and Pattern-Welded-Steel. Having a distinctive "hero weapon" was definitely a thing, and what style of weapon you had was flavorful as well as meaningful. Almost none of that exists in 2nd Edition, and the only thing really left along those lines is the "Signature Item" Advantage.

If you've got a Signature Item, and it is a weapon, you can use it to do bonus damage. This costs a Hero Point to activate. Most characters start each session with just 1 Hero Point and can only reliably expect to get maybe 2 more Hero Points in a session, so it's already pretty limited. I've seen some posts where people say Signature Item is how non-Duelists can compete with Duelists, but I don't buy it. If you do spend 3 Hero Points on three consecutive hits in the first round of a Duel you could indeed to Duelist levels of damage in the first Round. It's expensive as heck, both draining your per-session resources and costing 60% the cost of the Duelist Academy at character creation.  Despite that cost, it doesn't get your damage up high enough to kill the Duelist you're battling in that one Round (especially if they Parry or Riposte), so they'll rip you apart in Round 2 when you don't have any Hero Points left.

It's worth noting as well that a Signature Weapon doesn't level up with you. A Duelist will do more damage (nearly doubling it) as he raises his Weaponry, but a Signature Weapon is probably going to be same bonus your entire career. And there's a weird little wrinkle where a Signature Weapon is useful to a starting Duelist (it's probably +2 damage on a Hero Point spend) but has no impact on Duelist who has raised their Weaponry during play. So the GM can't really award a fancy sword as a treasure to a Duelist, gifting it late in a campaign as a reward for success, because it won't really do anything by then. (It's still a decent treasure for a non-Duelist, as written. The dynamic is a little weird.)

Other than that, a sword is a sword is a sword. 7th Sea is not D&D, and you won't find intricate equipment lists and weapons using different dice types or significant modifiers. This is both a good thing (it's liberating and rules-lite) and a bad thing (that the only type of "special" weapon is a generic special item that is identical in stats to all other "special" items).  Reducing the automatic damage output of a Duelist makes generic Signature Weapons more useful to Duelists (and to non-Duelists as it makes them much more competitive) and also potentially opens up the possibility that a GM could introduce a more specific weapon bonus without it just further aggravating the tendency for battles to the death ending in the first Round. Not that I've done anything with that just yet, and I might not ever, but it seems like there's more room at the table for that as a possibility if Duelists are taken down a notch first.

(Minor) Reason #5: So I'm not obligated to make all Villains be Duelists

A single PC Duelist, under the default rules, can murder any non-Duelist in two Rounds or less. The only reliable defense is the Parry and Riposte Maneuvers. I'd rather have the option of crafting Villains with any background (or Background) that fits the story, instead of limiting myself to only those who've been a Duelist Academy.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Balance Of A Sword: Dueling on the 7th Sea

I'm looking at possibly starting a 7th Sea RPG campaign next month. I'm all excited to try out the new-ish 2nd Edition of the game, but I've noticed in the past that sometimes games by that designer (John Wick, not Keanu Reeves) have some mathematical and mechanical issues. The first edition of 7th Sea had a few bugs (Panache was way too strong, damage calculation slowed combat considerably, Swordsman Schools and Sorcery both probably cost more than they were actually worth during character creation, and Half-blooded Sorcery in particular was a disaster), but was still worth playing because the setting was so cool. I've complained at length about the balance issues and lack of niche-protection in the otherwise conceptually excellent Wilderness of Mirrors by the same author. John Wick writes great settings, and comes up with innovative mechanics, but I feel like sometimes he's doesn't take enough care with play-balance and munchkin-prevention. Or maybe his home playgroup is made up of such high-caliber players that balance issues are tertiary to the story and fun. We should all be so lucky.

With that in mind, I poked around the internet a bit looking to see what flaws my fellow gamers had identified in their 7th Sea 2nd Edition campaigns. The biggest complain I've read (aside from some folks just not taking to the more "story game" approach in the rules, or having been burned because they expected it to be more of a 1.5 edition instead of a completely new core mechanic) is about Duelists.

In short, Duelists are way too powerful. According to this article I read, a properly trained Swordsman from the Duelist Academy can do 3 to 5 times as much damage as a character with identical stats who just didn't take the Duelist Background. That's a problem, and a bad one. It's at least as big of a character creation land mine as the over-importance of Panache in the first edition. 

The problem seems to be mostly in Slashes and Ripostes. Both of these Maneuvers are significantly better than the default attack of any non-Duelist. Most starting PCs will do 1 damage per hit, maybe 3 or 4 damage total in a Round. A starting Duelist is will almost always do 3 damage per hit, and a total of 9 to 12 in a round while also preventing at least one wound to themselves with a well-timed Riposte.  When one character outperforms the rest of the party combined, it's a recipe for unhappy envious players.

The obvious power-level of the Slash and Riposte also have the side-effect of making the other Duelist options seem worthless in comparison. The only other option that compares favorably is the Lunge, but doing a Lunge ends your turn prematurely. Instead of providing interesting options and tactics to spice up duels, the strength of Slashes and Ripostes pretty much render the Duelists choices meaningless. The optimal sequence of plays for every Duelist in a sword fight is to Riposte against the first attack an enemy launches, use a Slash for the actions directly before and after the Riposte, and then a Lunge instead of a Slash for your very last action of each turn. If you're graced with the good luck of having more than 4 Actions to spend in a Round, you might throw in a single Bash, Parry or Feint, but this will be rare and you'll always know that these moves are inferior to every Slash, Riposte and your final turn-ending Lunge. That all feels like a missed opportunity to me.

I'm currently considering the following house-ruled Maneuver set for all Duelists. It reduces the overall bonus for being a Duelist to roughly a 50% increase in combat effectiveness, instead of the 200% to 400% increase that they receive with the default system written in the rulebook. Duelists have the following combat Maneuver options, listed in the same seemingly-random order in which they appear in the rulebook:

Slash: This is a basic attack, the same as any non-duelist can use. It does 1 Wound to the target. You may spend additional Raises to add damage to this attack, the same as a non-duelist can when they land an attack. Slash is the only Maneuver that is exempt from the consecutive-actions limitation on page 235 of the rulebook (you can Slash twice in a row, but cannot use any other Maneuver twice in a row without doing something else in between).
(Duelists will rarely use the basic Slash. Their other options are generally better in one way or another. The only common exception to this is to use a Slash for a killing blow if your enemy starts the round close to defeat. When that happens, it will be worth it to dump a stack of raises into one large Slash early in the round to prevent them from striking back.)

Parry: This prevents a number of Wounds equal to your Ranks in Weaponry. Using Parry takes your action (and 1 Raise) and must be done immediately following the attack by an enemy that caused the Wounds your are preventing.  
(This is functionally identical to the Parry as written on page 235 of the rulebook, nothing has changed about Parry.)

Feint: This does no damage when activated. Instead, it puts the foe in a position that makes them more vulnerable. The next time your target is injured in this same Round, they take +2 extra Wounds. 
(Note that this house rule leaves the Feint at the same power-level it had in the rulebook provided you have another action to follow it up with (or an allied PC available to do the same), but I've made it just a little trickier to use. A Duelist needs good planning or a good roll at the start of the Round to get the bonus damage, and they will have to switch their tactics up from round to round. It's now usually, but not quite always, better than a non-duelists attack or an unraised Slash. Much like the new Lunge listed below, the two actions spent for a Feint+Slash are collectively 50% more damaging than two consecutive Slashes or two attacks from of a non-duelist.)

Lunge: Performing a Lunge requires 2 Raises (exactly). It does damage equal to your Ranks in Weaponry. (Unlike a Slash, this cannot be increased by Raises.)
(Note that there is no longer any restriction about Lunges ending your action. You can open your assault with a Lunge now, but it is no longer possible to spend extra Raises to increase the damage of a Lunge. The Lunge is now the only attack that does damage based on Weaponry Ranks. If your Weaponry Rank is 3 to 5, Lunges are better than Slashes. Most PC Duelists will start with Weaponry 3, so it's generally 50% better than a Slash in the early campaign. If you have enough actions available, a Feint followed by a Lunge can be very powerful.)

Bash: Does 1 Wound the target. (Unlike a Slash, this cannot be increased by Raises.)  If that wound is not prevented, the next time this Round that target deals Wounds, their damage is reduced by your Ranks in Weaponry.
(If attacked with this version of Bash, if you can Riposte or Parry it's worth doing so to prevent the Bash penalty from effecting you. Note that a Feint preceeding a Bash will boost it's damage up to the point where a Riposte cannot stop the Bash from landing and applying its penalty.)

Riposte: This prevents 1 Wound from an attack you just suffered, and does 1 Wound to the attacker in response. Using Riposte takes your action (and 1 Raise) and must be done immediately following the attack by an enemy that caused the Wound your are preventing. 
(Note that there is no longer a limit to how many Ripostes you can do in a turn, I just dramatically reduced the damage each Riposte prevents and does. Against non-duelists, the Riposte is pretty much always better than a Parry, but against a fellow Duelist the best defensive choice will depend quite a bit on what attack Maneuver they threw at you. Riposte effectively stops a basic attack, Bash or unRaised Slash, but is not a full defense against a Lunge or raised Slash or any attacked boosted by a Feint.)

 Hopefully that reigns in the power of Duelists enough to keep things fun for the other players, and also adds enough meaningful decision-making to each Round to keep the Duelist's player entertained and engaged. The idea was to keep the rules elegant, while enhancing the tactical variety from turn to turn.

Those house-ruled Maneuvers will require a few house-rules for specific Duelist Styles, as a few of the existing Style Bonuses give out too much bonus damage or interact weirdly with my revised versions of Riposte or Lunge. In general below, I haven't house-ruled any defensive powers, and have only worked to reign-in damage output. For balance reasons, I believe any particular Dueling Style should only add about +2 damage per Round, and getting even that much of a bonus should require the player to jump through a hoop or two to get it so it's not 100% guaranteed to happen every Round. Damage-prevention powers are less likely to need revision, because any PC willing to sacrifice offensive power and aggressive success to just concentrate on staying alive should be able to do so pretty reliably.

Aldana: Once per Round, when you perform a Feint, instead of adding +2 extra Wounds, it adds extra Wounds equal to your Panache.

Drexel: When the Metzger and Gerbeck stances talk about "additional" or "fewer" Raises, this is referring only to initiative order, and not any other effect. (I feel this is more a clarification than a House-Rule per se, but it's possible the original authors intended it to function differently with the old Lunge rules in a way that's not crystal-clear in the rules as written. Regardless of that intent, in my revised Maneuver system, it only affects initiative.)

Eisenfaust: Your Ripostes prevent up to 2 Wounds (instead of just 1), and inflict 2 Wounds on the attacker (instead of just 1).

Sabat: When you apply bonus Wounds from your own Feint to your own Lunge, instead of the usual +2 extra Wounds, you can apply +3 extra Wounds.

Those effects are intended to entirely replace the Style Bonus for the effected Dueling Styles, so the boosted Riposte mentioned for Eisenfaust completely replaces the "Iron Reply" text/ability, and the like. No other House Rules should be necessary to make any of the Duelist Styles in the core book play nicely with my revised Maneuvers.

On page 174 of the Pirate Nations book:

Lakedaimon Agoge: Your Lunges require 3 Raises to perform, but they do damage equal to your Weaponry Ranks +2. (This replaces the "Agoge Thrust" alternative-to-Lunge Maneuver rule, but does NOT replace the other effects mentioned for weapon type -- the benefits that you would gain a second of if you took the "Agoge Weapon Mastery" Advantage on page 150 of this book. On that note, I'm not convinced Agoge Weapon Mastery is worth the investment, even in the default rules system, but that's perhaps beside the point here.)

On page 195 of the Nations of Theah Volume 1:

Hallbjorn:  Your Feints are replaced with Slams. Slams do 1 immediate damage in addition to the normal Feint effect of setting up your target to take +2 extra Wounds the next time they take Wounds this Round.

None of the other Dueling Styles in the core 7th Sea 2nd Edition book, Pirate Nations or Nations of Theah volume 1 seem like they would need any house-ruling to work with these rules. I haven't read any of the other books, so I'm not sure if any of them have Duelist Academies or Swordsman Schools that need further modifying.

Hey, speaking of Nations of Theah, Volume 1... I couldn't help but notice that the page that mentions the Rossini Style (page 79) fails to actually provide a Style Bonus for Rossini. I'm not sure if that's a publishing error, if it got intentionally cut, or if it's lurking on some other page and I've just missed it. Here's a proposed house-rule for the Rossini special move if you also can't find it in your copy of that book:

Rossini: You may perform the Parry or Riposte Maneuvers in response to another character nearby being dealt Wounds, instead of just when you take Wounds. It still costs your Action and a Raise as normal, but it prevents Wounds to the person you are defending instead of to yourself.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Dragonflight game highlights

Last weekend I went to a local gaming convention, Dragonflight. It was a ton of fun. Because of my work and sporadic volunteering, this was the first game convention I'd attended in something like 5 years where I was actually off-the-clock and free to sign up for a full event schedule. Man, it was nice. I played the following games, including quite a few that were new to me:
  • Night's Black Agents - The first of 2 different NBA sessions I played in, each set in a non-typical era for this RPG. Usually, it's a game of burned superspies hunting vampires in the modern day. Instead, this scenario was set in 1870 in the Ottoman Empire, with everyone playing real-life historical figures instead of modern superspies. I played George Stoker, surgeon, officer, and younger brother of the author of Dracula. 
  • The Captain is Dead - a brightly colored cooperative board game about everything going wrong on a space ship all at once. The game was really solid. I have some minor concerns about replayability because there are card decks where every card in the deck gets played every session of the game... but I'm still probably going to buy The Captain is Dead in a paycheck or two.
  • Prime 20 - Tim Beach's ultra-streamlined version of the d20 system, GM'd by Tim Beach himself. He did something fun for character creation: we built Lego minifigs from a big bag of Lego parts, and then quickly stat-ed those minifigs in Prime 20 mechanics. The adventure was a rescue mission that evolved into diplomacy when we learned the "abducted" villager had actually eloped.
  • Thanos Rising - The first of many pick-up games of this Marvel-themed cooperative dicefest that I played this week. OMG, I played so much Thanos Rising. Every hole in my event schedule was filled with a round of Thanos.
  • Night's Black Agents - My second NBA session of the weekend. This one was set within 24 hours of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. We had a pretty cool chase/combat scene in a Berlin subway station.
  • Cthulhu 7th - The new rules features in Cthulhu 7th Edition were enjoyable and meshed well with my gaming style and tastes. It seems like a more forgiving version of the game. That said, the GM had the Phobia Deck handy for when I found myself face-to-face with mind-bending horror. I drew the outburst of Violence card, and it colored the rest of the session. Pretty cool.
  • Urchin - A recurring staple of my Dragonflight experience is the Saturday Midnight Urchin game. All those years when I was a volunteer or board member for Dragonflight, the midnight Urchin was the one game I'd make sure I always got to play. As is my tradition, I re-curred my favorite Urchin character, an outrageous over-the-top musician name Rory Wanker, who is forever chasing his (imaginary?) former glory in the music industry. I'm getting the band back together!
  • Thanos Rising - So much Thanos Rising. Seriously, this game has no right being this good. It's a movie-tie-in by USAopoly that came out right after the movie did. That could have easily been a design disaster. How on earth did it end up being such a solid game? Shut up and hand me the dice.
  • Dr Who: Time of the Daleks - This is a semi-cooperative dice game with some card and board game elements. It really nails the theme. If I had played it for the first time maybe half a year ago, I probably would have fallen in love with it. Unfortunately for the good Doctor, it's mechanics kind of scratch the same itch that Thanos does, but you can finish three games of Thanos in the duration of one Time of the Daleks, and Thanos is easier to teach to new players. Given all that, I just don't see myself buying Time of the Daleks.
  • Gaslands - This game is everything I ever wanted Car Wars to be, but more elegant and much faster-paced. Our introductory death-race ended in a three-car-pile-up and massive explosion, in under and hour. I foresee myself buying and modding a bunch of Hot Wheels and Matchbox Cars in the near future.
  • Thanos Rising - And we closed out the Con with another nail-biting Thanos struggle.

That was a fun weekend.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Urchin Character Sheets

Doing a bit of spring cleaning today, I stumbled across some old Urchin character sheets. The character creation rules for the Urchin RPG require you to use a piece of trash for your character sheet, which is why these are on egg cartons, dog food packages, tin foil from left-overs, and old holey socks. In the game you play crazy people living in the rail and steam tunnels under New York City. Each character starts with 3 Talents, which are defined by the player. These talents are very open-ended, and tend to be both humorous and bizarre. Here's a photo of the party:
As part of my ongoing efforts to de-clutter my home and life, I am now going to return these character sheets to the trash from whence they were born.