Tuesday, July 20, 2010

An idea in need of a blank d20

I've come up with an interesting way to get "boon" and "bane"-like effects from Warhammer 3rd into just about any RPG, but without the extra baggage and complexity, and without disrupting the normal mechanics of these games. First I'll need to establish some context about which aspects of the boon system I want to port over.

I really like the ideas behind the Warhammer dice, but I'm not sure I would have taken it as far as they did. Having so many skulls and eagles come up means you really have to really come up with a lot of Boon and Bane results. This forces a pretty crunchy system with action cards, and requires either a lot of GM effort between sessions, or the use of a published module. The latter is clearly what the publisher is pushing towards, but it's never really been my style. I've tried trimming it down a bit for Everhammer, which worked pretty well. I've also tried trimming it down rather further than that, for WhamTrek, which didn't work as well mechanically but was silly enough to function for a one-shot. In the lite narrative version, it felt like boons and banes were happening way too often - every single die roll resulted in the GM having to come up with something cool and unexpected. It was draining.

One of the other problems I have with the Warhammer dice is that it's not symmetrical. (Peter pointed this out to me the other day.) If I roll Observation opposed by your Stealth, in Warhammer's system my Stress or Fatigue go up or down by the results of the roll, but your stress or fatigue is always unaffected. As a GM, I plan to roll dice a lot less often than my players do (I prefer player-facing systems), but this particular effect of the Boon & Bane system makes that plan a tiny bit undesirable.

My players the other night got me thinking about the Wild Die in d6 Star Wars. Overall though, if I recall correctly, it didn't quite do what I wanted, either. The benefit of rolling a "6" was that it increased your success rate instead of adding beneficial side effects. The not-strictly-numerical complications and side effects of a "1" only happened in one roll in 36, and that just wasn't often enough to be interesting. Making them happen 1 in 6 rolls would likely be too much, though.

What I think I want in an RPG mechanic is something that works like boons and banes, but a lot less often, maybe 30% of all rolls having some sort of side effect either good or bad (instead of 60% or 70% of rolls like it is in Warhammer 3rd). It would also have a few less levels of gradation, too - I'd like to be caring about 1 to 2 boons or banes on a roll, not have to be prepared for oddball rolls like "4 boons and 1 chaos star".

I was contemplating this the other day, and it occurred to me I could handle this, in any tandem with just about any game system, by using a single blank d20. I know chessex makes large blank d20s you can mark up with a sharpie. I'd prep this extra die, and use it in conjunction with a more normal success/fail mechanic of whatever game I was running. As an example, you could add exactly one die like this to the default dice pools of World of Darkness. Or, you could roll this die along side a normal d20 in D&D to trigger exceptional events that are more interesting than just double-damage.

I'd draw on 6 sides of it (so 30% chance of something unusual happening), with a total of 4 symbols. Probably this distribution:
  • 2 sides marked with a 4-leaf clover - "Lucky Break" - These would result in something unexpected and good happens to the character. These would be improvised, or could be prepared on a list in advance and crossed off as they come up. They'd be able to vary a bit in power, sometimes being minor but other times huge, but they'd always be helpful.
  • 1 side would be marked with a Jolly Roger - "Ill Luck" - Something unexpected and unfortunate happens to the character. Again the GM could improvise, but I'd probably come up with a list like my "101 Wild Die 1's" chart from back in the day to fall back on if nothing inspired me during a scene. Players would know that when this symbol came up, things were going to get nasty. 5% seems about right.
  • 2 sides marked with a Tower - "Situational / Location-based Event" - These would trigger a specific result depending on the location or scene. It might be good or bad, but it would be consistent through-out the scene. Examples: If the scene is a fight on a narrow ledge, rolling this symbol means you're falling off after this action. If the scene is taking place in the Imperial Palace, this roll means that your action is observed by a random powerful NPC courtier (and thus it's good or bad depending on who saw it). The GM would prep one of these for every scene they intended to run. I might do this symbol in two colors, so that it's possible to have two different effects, or severity levels, in a scene if the GM desires.
  • 1 side would be marked with a stick figure, or a trio of stick figures - "Minor NPC Event" - this would mean that something unusual happens to some NPC in the scene, typically a minor one. This would again be something the GM improvises, but it would probably be guided by whether or not the task failed. If you fail, this symbol means some NPC working against you gets a lucky break. If you succeed, this symbol often means your action affects an extra target, or that an allied NPC gets a lucky break. This way we get around having to roll dice for all the extras, but also avoid the "you can't gain Stress because I'm sneaking up on you" problem with opposed rolls in Warhammer. If the PCs are alone in the scene, this symbol causes an NPC to arrive at the location (or triggers a wandering monster encounter if it's that sort of campaign).
For now, I'm going to mark the die in pencil, so I can test out how well this idea works, and fiddle with percentages after getting some actual experience with it at the table. It may turn out that the Jolly Rogers and Clovers need to appear in equal numbers, or that the Tower needs to show up more often. I'd like to be able to tweak it after a session or two.

Another option, though this would require more work (at least the first time) is to make small decks of cards that correspond to these symbols. Whenever the symbol comes up, you flip over the top card and apply it if it makes any sense in that situation. The main benefit of such a further randomization is that it would let the GM make some of the results really potent without the players feeling like the GM had it out for them. If made up on the fly or chosen off a list, there's the danger of favoritism or perceived favoritism, neither of which is fun.


Markwalt said...

You know, it's funny you wrote about this... I was thinking about how to add this sort of thing to FATE as well.

I like the idea of using cards.

Anonymous said...

It isn't random, but FATE nominally has this already in terms of aspects. They can be used by players for limited control and can be compelled for unfortunate effects. Getting a FATE point every time you are hit with an unfortunate effect should help take some of the sting out of it.

r_b_bergstrom said...

I don't think that FATE's aspects hit this at all. FATE's "margin of success" is closer, but still not quite right.

Let's say there's a battle on a bridge, and there's some chance that combatants might fall over the edge.

In WHFRP3rdEd, this would be modeled with a Chaos Star or 3 Banes sending you into the water, and it could happen regardless of whether or not you hit with the attack you were rolling. The better you are with your sword, the less likely you'll take a fall, but it's still a possibility for anyone.

With my proposed custom d20, it's a 5% or 10% chance on every action on the bridge. Even if you maxed out your melee skill, you could still have troubles. Probably, I'd run that as "if you roll a Tower, you must make a very difficult Athletics test or fall off the bridge". That way skill is still a factor, but it's a different skill than you use to attack, and it's not an easy roll when it does come up.

In FATE, either you have a relevant Aspect or you don't. If you've got "Big As An Ox" or "Rash" the GM can force you off the bridge, or suck a number of Fate points out of you. If you don't have a trait like that, the only way you'll fall off a bridge is if the GM calls for an Athletics check. But since there's no mechanism for requiring Athletics checks at a random interval, you probably have to apply it across the board. Which means the difficulty has to be low, or it'll sweep half the combatants away in the river below. But if the difficulty is low, then a character with a reasonable Athletics can always shrug it off. You could tie it in Margin of Success, so missing an attack by 3 or 4 points sends you off the bridge, but then again there's no chance of someone connecting and going over along with the foe they just killed. End result is that very rarely will a character be "at risk" for such a situation. Either you're going to be immune to the danger (due to high relevant skill and no threatening aspect), or you'll be highly motivated to get off the bridge ASAP.

More often than not this means the guy who didn't make an athletic fighter type has to retreat, and either the battle follows him to the less interesting location or he sits on the sidelines twiddling his thumbs. Either of which I think is a little sad.

Things like a fight on a slippery ledge, or complicated arenas like the factory battles in Terminator and T2, are awesome when they show up in movies, but really hard to emulate in gaming. The system / die I'm proposing would hopefully change that somewhat.

Anonymous said...

I'm not saying that FATE gives you the exact same results, that it is a better way of handling it than the d20 idea or even as good. But FATE does actually have rules to deal with good and bad things happening outside the context of rolls to hit and defense.

So when fighting on a bridge players aspects can be compelled, like "rash" as you mentioned. Villain aspects could be used if they had say "bull rush" or "sweeping blow". The bridge itself can have an aspect "dangerous footing 2". This would allow the GM, at an appropriately dramatic moment, to check off a box and have someone loose their footing.

It would not be random, and random may be much preferable. But FATE is very explicitly about being character/story/drama driven. So the fact that someone might only fall if they had a specific aspect is the desired goal. I'm not saying that it's a good goal, just that that is what the rules are aiming for.


r_b_bergstrom said...

I was unaware that bridges could have aspects, or that marking one off could make a character lose their footing.

That's pretty cool.

What section of the rules covers that sort of thing? I read them once thoroughly a few years ago, and then skimmed them again last week, and completely missed that sort of stuff.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, you wouldn't really get that reading the 2.0 rules. It's explicitly spelled out in the FATE based games like SotC. In SotC the example is an old temple with "lots of booby traps" as an aspect that the GM then compels to spring a trap on the character.

In 2.0 there are lots of NPCs listed with aspects and check boxes, so the GM can certainly use aspects just like players. On pg 17 it discuses using aspects to get effects rather than die bonuses. Pg 25 discuses aspects on things, rather than characters, that are not part of a character. It's done in the context of shared equipment. Like the group having a spaceship with the aspect "first spaceship ever made 2". But it does imply that anything can have an aspect.

Put all of this together with the explicit use of such things in SotC, Starblazer Adventures, Diaspora, and the Dresden Files and I don't see any reason why the bridge couldn't have the aspect "slippery footing 2" and use it just like a character aspect.

One cool thing that they have in the FATE derived games, but not mentioned in 2.0, is the idea of players compelling aspects on others. So in SotC if the bridge had "slippery footing" a player could spend a FATE point to compel that and cause an opponent to slip.


r_b_bergstrom said...

I think the idea is very cool.

I can, however, imagine a few ugly wrinkles that could pop up, considering the way aspect-triggering is handled, and the back-and-forth bidding wars.

What I'm saying is, if you put that "Slippery Bridge" aspect out there and try to have a fight on it, the PCs will trigger it a lot at the start of the fight. Either it will clear the bridge of most of the opposition, or garner them a lot of fate points as the GM cancels it.

You're limited to activations equal to the aspect rating of the bridge (I think), but there's still no mechanism to keep the PCs from firing it off on the first turn of the fight. As written, there's no random aspect or tension. As soon as the PCs learn the battlefield has that aspect, they'll fire it all off at once. Won't they?

Also, if they bid back and forth, they could burn through the whole aspect rating with just one character falling off.

I still like the idea, I'm just a little apprehensive about the execution. Probably need to see it in action before I pronounce judgment. :)

Here's hoping Mark throws some cool location or item aspects at us in an upcoming session.

Anonymous said...

My take on how it runs in 2.0 is that you only use a check if you are using your aspect, ie if the bridge run by the GM uses it, not if it is compelled.

In FATE based games I believe that the GM doesn't pay you for refusing your compels, the bad guy just looses FATE.

The GM also has veto power.

FATE is a very high trust game. If people want to break it, they can. Certain people should not be allowed in high trust games.


r_b_bergstrom said...

Thinking on it, you're right about it not getting checked off if it's compelled by someone else. I hadn't been thinking of the bridge as if it were an NPC. That would, however, create a slightly different weird situation. If the bridge had "slippery narrow bridge: 2", then the GM could make 2 PCs fall off, but there'd be no limit to how many NPCs the players could make fall off. I think. I'm still a little iffy on the compels.

I also didn't realize bad guys got fate points. I haven't done a thorough read of the GM section in a couple years, but when I re-read the player's section last week, I'd inferred (possibly erroneously) that Fate points were a PC-only mechanic.

r_b_bergstrom said...

As to your statement about it being a high-trust game, and just shouldn't be played with people you can't trust... I don't know if that's exactly relevant here. As I see it, there's a undesirable but legal move (compelling like crazy) that is really similar to a desirable legal move (compelling, but just a little less often or at least not at the very start of the scene). One person could easily feel their "trust" has been betrayed, while another feels they're just using the mechanics as they exist.

In this example, the bridge was expressly created for the purpose of making people slip and fall off. All that the "trust breaker" is doing wrong is over-relying on the bridge to do the thing the GM created it for. Or maybe they're not over-relying, they're just expecting it to do it's thing on round one, when it's most effective, instead of on round five, when it's most dramatic. Choosing between drama and effectiveness is something players do all the time, and usually either decision (or play-style) is valid. Here's a situation where "most effective" is questionably not valid, yet the rules don't seem to acknowledge that.

Then again, we are talking about rules for use in game A (FATE) that apparently exist in games B, C & D (SotC, Starblazers, Dresden) but are at best implied in game A. Since I've never read B, C, & D, I may be arguing about something that's actually addressed and resolved in those three sources. I should probably just let the topic die, unless I'm willing to go buy book B, C or D for the sake of seeing how they deal with it.

Anonymous said...

Interesting you use boon and bane, as that I developed an RPG system that uses the same terms. What's even more ironic is that I developed that boon/bane strategy (according to my notes and computer publishing) the day you posted this! Crazy.

I guess it's not that crazy as there are only a few words in English that mean boon and have a contradictory term such as bane. The obvious being advantage/disadvantage.

Thanks for an interesting article though, and good luck in your writing. :)

r_b_bergstrom said...

@ (most recent) anonymous:

I chose boon and bane because those are the terms used by the rules to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition.