Friday, January 28, 2011

John Wick could use an editor

Last night I played Yesterday's Tomorrow (a retro-pulp RPG, sometimes abbreviated "Yes. Tom." below, because it amuses me to do so) by John Wick. Between it, and my experiences running Wilderness of Mirrors half a dozen times in the past year, I've come to an inescapable conclusion. John Wick needs to get himself a number of assistants:  a friend who is really good with numbers, a blind playtest group, and a cold-blooded editor who is not afraid to hurt his feelings.

Don't get me wrong, I love John Wick's games. I subscribe to his YouTube channel. 7th Sea remains my favorite setting in all of gaming. I really admire the core idea of Wilderness of Mirrors, putting the "planning stage" of caper and spy movies front-and-center in RPGs. Yesterday's Tomorrow had some awesome concepts (Peril) and a great sense of genre. On an abstract theory level, all of these are incredible games. However, all of these games share one or two common flaws that really get under my skin and detract from the experience at the table. I love them, but I'm never completely happy with them.

Off Balance: 

In Yesterday's Tomorrow, character creation makes no mathematical sense. There's four Attributes ("Styles"), and each rating point in them unlocks corresponding advantages: so far, so good. But the advantages make no attempt at either balance nor coherence. Most advantages boil down to just +1 die. The exceptions are the "Special" advantages, for which there are basically one per Style, and you can only get them for your best Styles. All this works well in theory, but the actual power-level of the Specials vary wildly. Fighting Styles and Titles give +2 dice per level of advantage, making them twice as good as normal advantages. They're "Special" and somewhat limited, so that's fine. But for each point put in Mysticism, you get +3 dice and a special power. There's no trade-off, nothing to balance it. The Specials for Mystery are just plain better than for the other three Styles, with no rationale or explanation of why. Plus, given that the rules specifically allow you to use Advantages from one Style on rolls of completely different Style, those bonus dice in Mysticism are really flexible. If you want to be the best fighter, don't waste your points on Kung Fu or Marksmanship, take Mysticism: Invisibility and attack people from surprise. If you want to social your way through situations, don't worry about Titles and Romance, just take Mysticism: Command and Mysticism: Hypnosis. Sure, it's a "high trust" game that's not really about success or failure, but when one of four attributes is so obviously more powerful than the others, the rules really shouldn't pretend that it isn't.

Then there's all sorts of other weird little blips to character creation, like the Athletics Talent that gets +2 dice for no specified reason (all other Talents are +1 die), several instances where "Imagination" is accidentally substituted for "Science!" without explanation, and the weird phrasing of the Romantic Interest special. Then there's the bit where it tells you further information on Gadgets can be found in the Risks section, but when you go to look it up, there's nothing there on the topic. There's a really simple and elegant character creation system hiding beneath these layers of unexplained and arbitrary wonkiness. The game comes very close to greatness, but ultimately fails to live up to it's potential. It falls victim due to balance issues, poor editing and lack of examples for some of the less obvious things you can put on a character sheet.

The weirdest bit has to do with NPC Companions - each PC can have one, but the rules don't really explain how they work. If they add to your pools, they're way over-powered, giving +6 dice (split across three Styles) for 1 advantage rank. If instead you have to spend your PC's Peril to activate them, you'll almost never do it, because your heroes pool will almost always be larger. If they're a second character you get to play even when your main PC is not in the scene... well that's just not ever stated and is only vaguely implied at best.

Wilderness of Mirrors had similar lack of balance at character creation. 5 attributes, one of which ("Saturn", the team-leader power) was a completely useless dump stat for every PC except the actual Team Leader, because it literally can't be rolled for any useful purpose during the game. So while there's no single ultimate stat like in Yes. Tom., there's one stat that's just obviously worse than all the others.

In 7th Sea, the best stat was clearly Panache, as each level of it gave you another action per round to use the rest of your stats. Every campaign I've played or GM'd of it had all the players openly envious of the PC(s) that had more Panache then them. A low Panache could make combat deathly boring for you, waiting your turn while everyone else took two to three times as many actions each round.  Likewise, Attributes were far better than Skills and Knacks, and the costs at character creation were completely different ratios than the costs later with XP. The player who put the bulk of his or her points in Attributes (especially Panache) would be at a great advantage over the player who wasted points on skills. Let's say you wanted to be a great swordsman - the way to do so was not to invest character points in Attack: Fencing or Parry. Putting those points in other areas (Panache and Finesse) would get far greater results for your investment. That's really counter-intuitive, and thus far from ideal.

Second-best is too darned good:

This is also related to character creation, and is a recurring theme in John Wick's recent games. Essentially it boils down to lack of character niche or specialization. By default, every character ends up being really good at everything. There's no "I'm our breaking & entering specialist" or "she's the tank", or "he's the smooth talker", because everyone is almost equally good at everything.

In Yes. Tom. there's four attributes ("Styles") and each PC is really good at two of them. But even when rolling the one's you're supposedly not good at, you're still likely to get enough advantages affecting the roll that success is guaranteed. At four dice, you're looking at a 93% chance of getting the single success needed to narrate "I kill them" or "I jump out the window to safety" or "I convince them that I'm trustworthy". But four dice is about the lowest you should ever be rolling. Sure, I'll prefer to roll my best stat with the 10 dice it could generate for me, but effectively the characters have no weaknesses (especially if they took Mysticism). If the big lumbering thug with murder on her mind has to finesse her way through covert diplomatic negotiations at an upper-class soiree, she probably pulls it off. The only thing that could stop her is if she chooses not to roll, or intentionally narrates her own failure. So there's no risk of failure in your worst stats, it's just that you'll get to narrate more bells and whistles and flavor text in your best stats.

On one hand, I applaud the power-realization that the game enables. Certainly it's a fresh new way to approach the core concepts of fantasy gaming, and it definitely captures the dashing larger-than-life heroes of the pulp genre. It should appeal to narrativists, method actors, and monty haulers alike - I have to acknowledge that that is pretty cool in the abstract.

At the same time, it makes all the PCs very cookie-cutter. Your top two (out of four) styles are mechanically augmented, they get the specials, and just more advantages in general. There's no distinction between those top two, however. Action primary and Romance secondary will play and feel almost exactly the same as Romance primary and Action secondary.  Which means that there are exactly 6 character builds (Action & Mystery highest, Action & Romance highest, Action & Science highest, Mystery & Romance highest, Mystery & Science highest, Romance & Science highest). The mysticism powers should in theory expand that somewhat, but in practice there's strong mathematical incentives to spend most of your Mystery advantages on getting most of the mysticism powers, so two characters with Mystery as a high stat will mostly duplicate powers. With really good roleplayers and a small enough group, this will be a non-issue, but a game that only works within certain constraints should probably at least mention that fact in passing. Some advice for GMs in group size, or advice for PCs in character creation goals would be well worth adding a page to the short pdf.

Wilderness of Mirrors has the same problem. There's five attributes, and each PC has enough points to get themselves the maximum score in 3 out of 5 if they take the minimum score in the remaining two. Given that one stat ("Saturn") is an under-used dump stat for all but one of the PCs, it's not a hard sacrifice to make, at least for everyone but the Team Leader.   Your three high-rated attributes are flexible enough to cover most situations, and the typical character employing this "hat trick" build will almost never be forced to roll their one genuinely bad stat. If it does come up, they'll probably have a few spare Mission Points to cover it. End result: every PC is equally good at everything that matters (with the possible ironic exception of the team leader, who gets shafted).

Now here's where John Wick's recent creations have problems that his earlier works didn't always exhibit.  7th Sea did not have this problem at all. It featured half a dozen different types of Sorcery, each of which oozed flavor (literally, in the case of Porté), and had completely different mechanical engines and effect types. There were half a dozen (and five or six times that with all the sourcebooks in play) Swordsman Schools, each of which had it's own special moves and most employed functionally different weapons. There were enough attributes and skills that know one character could master them all. A large palette of Advantages, Arcana, and Backgrounds rounded out the options at character creation and gave each PC their own theme. It was a little fiddly as a result, but you could have a large party of 8 PCs with very distinct specialties and no overlap.

So why was 7th Sea better in that regard? Was it just a function of being more crunchy? Are his recent designs too rules-light to have room for play balance or character niche? Is it impossible to make a story game that is fair and mathematically sound, and also gives each PC something special? Is character niche only achievable in a crunchy, option-loaded system?

I don't think that's the answer or the cause. I suspect that explanation is that 7th Sea was a team effort. I've never met the man, but my take on this is that John Wick is an "ideas guy". The sort of person who brainstorms and dreams really well, comes up with cool ideas and isn't afraid to put even the wildest of them to paper. I am moved by his artistry, even as I criticize and decry the rough edges. I'm hoping that someday soon John Wick gets himself a really top-notch support team to help put the final polish on his games and fix mathematical awkwardness. I invariably love his core concepts, yet often end up frustrated over the presentation and finer details.

 A few simple fixes:

I hate to be the guy that just bitches and gripes, and never does anything to solve the problem. So here's some links to possible solutions to the complaints I've raised.

House-rules and fixes for Wilderness of Mirrors.

House-rules used to reduce the excessive combat math in 7th Sea.
For those new to 7th Sea, or just making characters for the first time, following these short rules. (Delivered from memory, it's been a few years since I last made a character)
  • Buy Sorcery and/or a Swordsman School, they make your character more interesting. Don't waste points upgrading their knacks just yet, you'll be fine with the basics for a while, and they're easy to raise with XP later.
  • If you have not read your Sorcery thoroughly, only take it Full-Blooded. Some of the Half-Blooded sorceries are crippled in non-obvious and unsolvable ways.
  • Panache is the king of Attributes. A Panache of at least 3 is a must have, or you'll regret it.
  • Attributes are better than Skills, and a broad base of Skills is far more important than raising individual Knacks. Though it doesn't read like this should be true, Basic Knacks are far better than Advanced Knacks. Advanced Knacks only cost more at character creation, and are cheap with XP later. At character creation, there's no need to raise any Knack above 1.
In just a moment I'll adress the rules to "Yes. Tom." In my very next post, I'll provide a set of House-Rules that I think would bring out the best Yesterday's Tomorrow has to offer.

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