Thursday, May 29, 2008

Fatebinding and Mortal Reverence

Scion has a couple of trippy and unwieldy mechanics involving Fate. Everytime you spend Legend points, the GM is supposed to roll to see if you get fatebound. The mechanics are convoluted. The difficulty number changes over the course of the scene, and there's a lot to track.

Worse, despite complicated rules, much is left to GM fiat. If there's 2 or more mortal NPCs in the room the GM chooses whether to apply those 6 successes as one strength 6 bond or 2 strength 3 bonds, or some other combination, which arbitrarily changes the power level. And then the GM chooses the exact fatebound role they pick up, and those can very quite a bit in terms of story potential and power. If the GM wants to saddle you with a nemesis or sidekick, they can suck your willpower and legend points away, and if they want to reward you with a lover who boosts all your rolls, they can do that to, so it's very subjective.

As a result, I've largely ignored the letter of the rules, and just winged it. For a while, that worked great. I mean, why slow everything down with another dozen+ dierolls per combat if in the end I'm just going to have to make the critical decision myself anyway? I know I'm not alone in this, most of the best STs on the Scion Forum have admitted to eyeballing it too.

But I now expect trouble with the way improvised Fatebonds interact with the Mortal Reverence system, especially now that the PCs are high enough Legend that they have actual worshipers. The mortal reverence system pretty much requires solid fatebond numbers, not mutable improvisation. Plus, it's a little unclear. If the bonuses stack, then they bump up to huge numbers (like seriously +1000 dice would be pretty easy to attain). If they don't stack, then the system's not worth the hassle, as +3 dice is barely noticable at God level.

So I came up with an idea of how to solve this. If you're in my Scion Campaign, please don't read any further. Seriously, this will only work if the PCs don't know about it before hand, and I think you'll find it to be a lot of fun. It'll benefit your characters, so just trust me and let it happen. To facilitate that, I'll put the rest of this in as a comment, so you have to intentionally click on it to read it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fungeon - The Blank White Cards of Hack & Slash Dungeon Romps

I just discovered Fungeon today*. It's a GM-less hack and slash dungeon romp, where the players build the dungeon as they explore.I'd done something similar (but dreadfully more complex) several years back, which we lovingly called Forge Knight Quest (as it used parts from Dwarven Forge dungeon tiles, the Mage Knight miniatures game, and Warhammer Quest). We played that till till someone broke their nose.** Eventually, it sprouted Forge Knight Quest Dark, which allowed "programmable" monster behavior inspired by Simulator Bots in the Nintendo 64 game Perfect Dark. Basically, it just liberally mixed bits of all the above games in an attempt to make a semi-random GM-less dungeon-romp minis game. We'd also played a bit of D&D minis, and a game that blended all the WotC minis systems (D&D, StarWars and even Axis & Allies using the Godzilla-ish conversion rules they'd put up at, plus a bit of Heroscape thrown in for good measure. What can I say? I like minis, but I also like cooperative games.

Fungeon is kinda like that, except it's more like an RPG, not minis-based, and is a lot more rules-light. So it's got a bit in common with the Rune RPG, too, only a lot lighter. It's also kinda reminiscent of Blank White Cards, since you're making a joint map and encounters on paper (and on the fly). Strikes me as a lot of fun, and I might give it a shot after we've moved into the new apartment.

*: When a forumite talked (joked?) about converting Scion to Fungeon's mechanics - a very odd concept. He wrote it straight-faced with no apparent irony, but what a strange idea.

**: I mean that literally. In the midst of the game, she realized she'd left something out in the car, so she went downstairs to get it. Walking back to the elevator she fell and broke her nose. She went to the hospital, and for some reason we never played the game again. It'd been a regular weekly game for a couple months before that. Go fig.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

D&D and Scion

As stated last week, I'll be running a couple sessions of D&D the next few trips to Portland. I wanted to get myself up to speed on the 3.5 rules since I hadn't run in a while, so I checked out the Rules Compendium from my local library. (Great book, by the way. Too bad it came out so late in 3.5's life, as it's both really helpful and easy-to-use. Despite 4th being out any day now, I'm still tempted to buy a copy of the 3.5 Rules Compendium.)

Anyhow, in refamiliarizing myself with D&D, I've come to realize a new analogy to explain my frustration with certain mechanical aspects (namely DV and soak) of Scion.

Scion is like a D&D campaign with the following houserules:
  1. The calculation for AC is 12 + Dex Mod + Armor + Level.
  2. All characters and monsters have Damage Reduction at least equal to Hit Dice + Con Mod.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Nature vs Nurture in Scion

The core concept of Scion is strongly in the "Nature" camp - PCs are children of Gods, and that semi-divine nature blesses them with many powers and the potential for immortality.

However, much of the rest of the game flirts with the "Nurture" position, or at least doesn't give one much reason to put much stock in biology.
  • If another God adopts a Scion, it changes their favored abilities/epics/purviews. Hard to say whether that's "Nurture" or just "Nature can be changed".
  • Divine Ichor doesn't necessarily have the same chromosomes and DNA as our mortal cells. Likely it doesn't, in fact, since bodies made of said ichor can shapeshift and turn immaterial and lift hundreds of tons and what not.
  • The laws of Genetics came to be codified only because Gaia was locked away in Tarterus for a few thousand years. Now that she's free, the very concept of "Nature" becomes wild and unpredictable, and the laws of biology trend towards mutability and inconstancy.
  • Not all Scions grow up to be Gods - within the setting, many don't even make it to Demigod, and it's largely assumed the PCs are amongst the first to achieve Godhood in the modern era.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A, B, and/or C

In my ideal world, I'd have 3 different RPG groups every week, or at least biweekly. (They need better names than what follows, but at the time of writting the following in an email to a friend, I didn't want to spend a bunch of time brainstorming names, so letters were good enough.
  • Group A would be a serious method-acting group, where the goal was to tell an ongoing narrative as artfully and entertainingly as possible.
  • Group B would be a more freeform group, where we tried different things. Everyone would try to resist getting too attached to their characters, and in general take the game a little less seriously. That grants the freedom to experiment.
  • Group C would be somebody else's campaign, so I could learn from sitting in a players chair, and seeing what did and didn't work for them.
I've got a pretty solid Group A up here, meeting nearly every week with long-term plotlines and character development. I've been mainly getting my B and C fix just once-a-year of late, at Gwen Con.

Getting to blow off some steam via slightly off-kilter D&D in Portland sounds like Group B Heaven.

Of course, nobody with a real life ever has the time for 3 gaming groups*, let alone the social dynamics of hanging in three circles. It almost has to be 3 different circles, too, as there's some danger if you have too much crossover between A and B. Either you end up taking B too seriously, or A gets disrupted by B's lighter/experimental influence. It seems there needs to be at least one player in each group that isn't in the other groups for it all to flow naturally without the streams ever getting crossed. Of course, some folks who do have (or make) the time for 2 or more groups just pick A or B (as fits their style) and focus on it to the exclusion of all else. I bet that's far more common than the A/B/C pattern I try to follow.

*: Then again, some would argue I don't have a real life.

Scion Throwing Rules

Helpful stuff I wrote at the Scion Forums. I'm duplicating it here so when it inevitably comes up again, I can cut and paste.
Scion Forum FAQ wrote:
Q: How far can I throw things? Where are the throwing rules?

A: The throwing rules are most clearly stated in Demigod, page 54.

Other information relevant to throwing can be found in Hero, pages 126-127, page 181, and page 203.
Here's a more specific question:

PapillonV wrote:
So, a Scion has Strength 4, Epic Strength 2, and Athletics 2. He's throwing a baseball across a field. He doesn't have anything like Hurl to the Horizon yet.

Ignoring Str+Athletics rolls and the like, what's the base distance he can chuck it, and how's it calculated?

IMHO, the furthest he can throw the baseball is 160 yards.

Here's how I arrived at that number:

A baseball is something just about any mortal can throw with one hand, so definitely this Scion can, too. That means it's normal range will be modified by his Epic Strength. Per page 126 of Hero, it's normal range is quadrupled.

But what is it's normal range? That's not clearly spelled out anywhere. We can compare it to thrown weapons, to get a place to start. All the thrown weapons have a range increment of 10 or 15 yards. I'd suggest going with 10, but that's really up to the GM.

But that 10 isn't it's maximum range. According to page 203 of Hero, even a mortal can throw it (or any 10-yard range weapon) up to 20 yards at +2 to difficulty, or 40 yards at +4 difficulty.

So the scion, with his Epic Strength, can throw the baseball 40 yards at normal difficulty, up to 80 yards at +2 difficulty, up to 160 yards at +4 difficulty.
Say the same Scion then wants to throw the oft-cited manhole cover (he stole one on the way to the field just to practice). How's it calculated then?
He probably throws the manhole cover about the same distance, but it's technically up to the GM. Here's what makes the area somewhat grey...

Well, first we need to know if its a "normal throw" or a "feat of strength" throw. Demigod page 54 indicates he can the former category is things he could hold in one hand without his epic strength, the later category is things he needs his epic strength to hold.

He's got Str 4, Ath 2, so that totals to 6. We look up 6 on the chart on page 181 to see that this lets him lift 550 pounds, presumably using both hands. Sadly, no where do the rules exactly state how much one hand can hold. But since the manhole cover weighs around 1/3 his lift capacity, we can probably assume it's a one-hand item for him.

Since it's a one-hand item, we use the same math as a baseball. Therefore, "officially" it's the same 40/80/160 yards.

Ultimately though, it's the GMs call. I'd be tempted to trim it's range a bit, just 'cause it weighs more and really isn't designed for throwing. In fact, I'd give it a range of 5 yards, which he quadruples to 20 due to epic strength. He can toss it to 40 at +2 diff, or 80 at +4 difficulty.


But, I'm not sure that's enough of an answer, so here's the extra credit. Let's talk about something he can't throw with one hand, something a bit bigger, like a motorcycle.

He can throw a motorcycle 8 yards.

Demigod says he can throw "as a feat of strength" anything he can lift if his Mundane Strength + Athletics total were 5 lower, or if his Epic Strength total were 1 lower. Most of the time, you can just forget the first part. The Epic is what's going to matter, unless the PC has 1 or 0 dots of Epic, or has just frankly tons of Arete: Athletics.

For example, by the Mundane system, he can throw (as a feat of strength) things of up to 40 pounds (since Str+Ath-5=1), but by the Epic system, he can throw things of up to 500 lbs (the amount of bonus that 1 dot of Epic strength adds to your lift total). Epic's just a heck of a lot better.

So, we decide he can throw the motorcycle. But how far?

The answer is on Demigod page 54, but the formula is never stated explicitly. From the example, we can conclude the formula is Mundane Strength + Athletics + Epic Strength Successes in yards.
In his case, that's 4+2+2=8

There's no range "increments" for feat of strength throwing. There's no penalty at up to 8 yards, and he just can't throw it further than 8 yards. (Unless he stunts. Stunt dice and other bonus dice add to the formula, so a 3-die stunt would let him throw a motorcycle 11 yards. There's still no range penalty for that.)

Composure, Resolve, Reflexes

(at the Scion Forums) kagetora0 wrote:
In my gaming group, we have decided to experiment with two things: using the nWoD stats (Basically, nixing Appearance and Perception, and adding Composure and Resolve, as social and mental 'resistance' stats) and then using those stats to make a social and mental "DV"
The main trouble we've run into is knacks. It's been a challenge to come up with a variety of knacks for Epic Resolve and Epic Composure; and equally a challenge to slide the old Appearance and Perception knacks in again.
Another option would be to go for a 12-stat system instead of 9-stat.

You'd keep Appearance and Perception, but still add Composure and Resolve.

For the 12th Stat, you could add "Reflexes". Reflexes is about reaction time, speed, and gross/full-body movement. Dexterity would remain the stat of precision and accuracy.

In this way, you'd break up attack pools and DV to be based upon two different stats. This would allow for more variety amongst PCs as well as making it easier for the GM to craft antagonists that were hard to hit or good at hitting, but not necessarily both. This could solve a lot of Scion's problems.

Of course, it would have other impact, and you'd need to make some other tangential rulings to support it:

  1. At character creation, you'd get 10/8/5 (Or maybe even 11/8/6) points for Attributes.
  2. At template/upgrade you'd get 6/4/3
  3. Possibly raise the standard per-session XP award by 1 since your points have to go a little further to shore up all your weaknesses.
  4. You'd still need plenty more knacks for Composure and Resolve, plus a couple extra for Dexterity and Reflexes (assuming the original Dex knacks were now split between them)
  5. Numerous boons would need their dice pools altered to make the new stats worthwhile
  6. I'd be tempted to base starting Willpower off Highest Virtue + (Average of Composure and Resolve)

I kinda like that. I think it would solve a lot of the systemic flaws of Scion. Unfortunately, it's too sweeping a change to implement to my campaign at this stage.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

D&D Repatriation

I'll be running D&D again soon. This isn't about 4th Ed excitement (in fact, I'll be running 3.5 so I don't have to learn a new system before the first session), it's about friends offering to cover most of my gas money to Portland once a month if I DM for them.

It's going to be a light-hearted (and somewhat nostalgic) game. It'll be the only campaign I've run in the past 5 years were Python quotes at the table were not only tolerated, but possibly even encouraged. I'm even going to start it with the old "approached by a wizard in tavern" intro, just to set the tone. My plan is for each session to be self-contained, a single short adventure, with the same characters but otherwise little in terms of ongoing plot. It's not really a campaign, it's an excuse to hang with friends once a month and sling some dice in the process.

Bet you never expected that, huh? A little outside my comfort zone. I'm nervous, since I didn't pick the game. Last time that happened, it didn't go so well. I'm hoping the completely casual nature will keep this from being another train-wreck. We're running 9th level characters, since my recollection is that the sweet spot of 3.5 mechanics is 8th to 13th level or so. That was pretty much my only bit of say in the process - 9th level characters, only using stuff from the corebooks so I don't have to read up on a whole bunch of other stuff. I plan to haul minis down there, and either a water-soluble battlemat or cardboard dungeon tiles. It'll be 80% improvised. The bits I'll work out in advance involve crazy dungeon tricks, good old school White Plume Mountain / Tomb Of Horrors stuff.

Wish me luck!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Magic Decision

In my inbox:
Each year every DCI Judge needs to renew and actively judge events (based on level). Failure to do either can result in your judge membership expiring soon
It's been about 9 or 10 months since I last judged or played in a tournament. It's been 6 to 8 months since I last bought a Magic card. I haven't actually played Magic since I moved to Seattle (which is silly, considering that the HQ of judging and the game itself is like 20 minute drive away). I need to make a decision.

Here's the options I see before me:
  1. Dive back into it. Recommit to judging before my Level 2 expires. Find a place I want to play and/or judge, and go do some casual games from time to time. Start buying cards again so I can get up to speed on what the formats are like and how the rules have changed.
  2. Get out. Set up an ebay account and start selling all my cards. Score some money, and free up shelf space.
  3. Follow plan #2, then regret it later, and feel like an idiot.
It's the existence of course #3 that makes this tough.

Elegance and the Heart of RPGs

Got an email today from an old friend I hadn't talked to in ages. He recommended I look at Primetime Adventures and FATE (the later of which I'd read when a different friend recommended it).

In replying to him, I ran through an overview of RPGs, and it helped me to put recent developments of my tastes in gaming into words. Most of the following is quoted from our email exchange:

In general, the more simplistic the rules set, the better the game. Simple rules let you focus on the drama, the story, and the characters. Every moment spent thinking about rules just undermines that. For my tastes, RPGs are primarily an acting / storytelling medium, with just a touch of game involved to handle dramatic conflict. I suspect the trick is to simplify the heck out of the rules, boiling every action down to no more than 1 die roll, and a structure simple enough to never require looking anything up during the game.
  • I agree that FATE reads really good, but I have yet to play it.
  • Amber works, it's just plain solid provided the GMs ego never enters the picture.
  • Dogs In The Vineyard seems to work, but I haven't played it enough. Really just tested it a tiny bit. We'll likely be using it for Firefly later this year.
  • Universalis is awesome (though best as just a way to set up a game run in a slightly different system).
  • FUDGE's only real flaw was that the 7 words they chose didn't have an order that all minds settle on - if they'd just used numbers 1 to 7 the game would demo better. As written, it trips people up on the first session.
  • GUMSHOE strikes me as amazing for Mystery games.
  • Continuum worked great once I "dumbed down" most of the complexity right out of the system and just focused on the complexity of the setting.
  • d6 Star Wars was decent as long you weren't playing Jedi - trying to emulate the lightsaber battles of the movies just breaks it.
  • With the exception of 3 sections that contradicted each-other, old WoD LARP actually functioned pretty well (provided your disbelief wasn't ruined by the Rock-Paper-Scissors aspect). I think it was at the cusp of having too many powers - a neonate game ran well, but an elder game was a few too many rules to expect the players to internalize.
  • And I've played (and crafted) some homebrewed lite systems that work really well.
  • 3.X D&D (and this pains me to say, since I grew up on D&D, and I have a couple buddies who work at Wizards) doesn't do enough to encourage good stories. It tries too hard to be a tactical combat system, and it has way too many fiddly bits. It can be a good game, but in order for it to consistently be a good roleplaying experience, you have to really abstract the rules down to nothing (or at least to True20). I'm hopeful that 4th Ed will fix some of that.
My friend said this:
You know, I'm starting to believe that RPGs really aren't fun at all, and anyone who thinks that they have had a fun RPG experience is remembering wrong. :)
there's been nothing that I WANT to do in an RPG that videogames don't do better than tabletop games. :)
I suspect he included smileys for fear that I would react violently and argue vociferously.

But in a lot of ways, he's right. He's absolutely correct that video games can (and often do) a better job of immersing you in environment than RPGs - vids have picture and sound, which for all the attempts at GMing a good description, just blow RPGs out of the water 9 scenes out of 10.

It's certainly easier to find a good video game than a good GM.

And as far as tactical challenges, those are certainly better handled by video games (or maybe a really streamlined miniatures game) than by RPGs. So, you've definitely got a point there.

The one thing I prefer about RPGs which I don't have much faith in technology improving on, is the opportunity to act. I love up-close improvisational drama. RPGs allow me to do that without having to make a big production of it.

The problem is that then games like 7th Sea and Scion make the process of running it such a chore that you might as well go join some big theatrical production. Same thing with LARPing once you break 20 players with any frequency. It's all just too much work, and the GM ends up spread too thin.

Fiddling with byzantine rules, hiding behind a screen, rolling tons of dice and adding up successes to compare against difficulty charts, all of that just undermines the things RPGs do well: getting your friends together to share in a joint story where every one gets to contribute to the plot and the drama and the characterizations.

So far, I have yet to see an online or video game that actually gives me a chance to genuinely act. None I've played allow me to (at least) improvise in largely-unlimited directions. If you know of one, please send me a link, 'cause it would almost certainly have to kick butt.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Unwritten Rules on the USS Catastrophe

I used to work for a gamestore. Prior to that I worked at that gamestore. And before that I worked at the same gamestore, under different ownership. Before that, I worked at the Game Distributor (that had begun as the original store to which that store was a sister location, and eventually the sole inheritor thereof). For several years, I would attend the GAMA Trade Show (aka GTS aka Game Manufacturer Association Tradeshow) in Vegas every spring, scoping out the new hot games and getting the inside scoop on where the industry was headed.

At one of those GTS's in years past, I played this boardgame called Vapour's Gambit. It was a cyberpunk-ish racing game. Hoverboard racing, on a modular course, with ramps and pits and other hazards that would spring up through-out the game. It was fast, and fun, with simple concise rules and just enough luck to keep the finishing order in doubt till the last turn. But they'd signed an exclusive deal with another distributor, our competitor at the time.

A few years went by, and eventually the exclusive deal fell by the wayside. The game became available via other channels, and the game store I was managing at this point happily picked it up based on my recommendation. And it stunk. The game utterly lacked timing rules. There had been timing rules when I'd played at GTS years before. Somehow, they'd vanished, or, more likely, had never been written down in the first place. At those two intro plays of the game years before, there was clearly communicated understanding of when certain tiles could be played, and the game had a nice rhythm and balance because of that. Without said rules, the game lost much of it's strategic depth. Further, the game tended to devolve into arguments about who shouted "wait" first, and what space you were on when they did so. As a result, I've only ended up playing my copy a handful of times, despite my fond memories and anticipation. It's as though the game came with a rough draft of the rules, and that the demo had used something very different, an accumulated set of elegant house-rules that made the game much more enjoyable.
Side note: Not only did it feel like only 1/2 the rules came in my box, but only 1/2 the components as well. This was the same game (I remembered the artwork) but the board sections had no narrows, no intersections, just 4 corners and two straights making a grand total of 2 possible board layouts, without any of the cool stuff. Turns out the other boards (which we'd played with at GTS long ago) were from some little expansion they'd done, which was now out of print. What a pale shadow of the game I'd remembered.
On a similar note, I remember one of my coworkers at Distro telling me to never pass up an opportunity to play the L5R RPG with the crew from Alderac. He'd done so at two different cons, with different GMs (both were members of the design team, IIRC), and was struck at what a completely different game it played with them then how it read. Both used a similar set of house-rules on even basic fundamental principles of the game - house rules that digressed from the printed word significantly.

It's very easy to fall into this trap.

You're designing a game. You write up one set of rules, and then playtest it heavily. In playtesting, you start implementing house-rules to fix little things that weren't perfect in your initial ruleset. But unless you take very good notes, you'll end up missing one or more of these little tweaks when you get around to implementing the changes. The more complicated the game, the more likely that is to happen.

I wrote a really cool little game "The USS Catastrophe" a few years back. We playtested it a lot, and found the initial rules sucked, but quickly found things that fixed it. After a while, I had a fun little game that everybody really enjoyed. I never got around to rewriting the rulesheet to match the changes we'd implemented, since everybody just new how it worked. If I were to decide to seek out a publisher now, I'd have to play the heck out of it all over again first, and reinvent the wheel to restore all those little changes we'd made. I didn't have a business plan then, and I didn't take it too seriously. Honestly, I wasn't in the right head space to try getting something published back then - I was under the yoke of manipulative bosses I no longer have to bow to. So I daydream about spontaneously remembering what we'd done to make it work, polishing it up with some snappy graphics, and showing this thing off a bit.

I can't possibly speak highly enough of the value of blind playtests.

It's very easy to neglect something vital to the game when writing your rules, something you'd never forget when presenting the game in person. This often comes from the more casual way we describe things face-to-face than via the written word. If I say "it plays kinda like chess" (just an example) then that conveys all sorts of info: you expect it to be 2-player, on a checkered board, alternating turns, you move one piece per turn, the goal is abstractly derived from military conquest so capturing or destroying enemy pieces is important, position is everything, there's multiple types of pieces with differing movement and capture capabilities, etc. Rather than defining all that, I'll be defining what's different about this game. In face-to-face playtests, you can sum things up abstractly via comparison or verbal shorthand, and gather from reaction whether the other players understand the concept. But it's really damn easy to miss that in a rulebook. You're not going to say "this plays like Settlers" (unless perhaps your publisher is also the publisher of Settlers of Catan) in your rulebook, yet it's actually pretty easy to accidentally assume your audience is already familiar with the concepts behind your game and thus leave out something important.

Please forgive all the rambling above. The gist of what I'm saying is this: I look back at my old rules for The USS Catastrophe, and I see that they are but a thin shadow of what we'd played with. Like my experiences with Vapour's Gambit, or my co-workers tale about the L5R RPG, the designer (me) never thought to chronicle key details which were self-evident in face-to-face play, but which would hamstring those who tried to play without knowing those facts. We all knew how it worked back then, but clearly I don't even know how it's supposed to work now. So I now see how easy it is to flub up something like this.

If I'd used blind playtesting, I'd have had to write everything down in the clearest possible language and context, and I'd have a functional game to shop around today.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Extended Roll Nightmare

*: That raises a whole other issue, that of Extended Rolls.

Some RPGs are too vague. There's no answer offered to questions like "how fast can I run?"

Others are too specific, offering precise mechanical formula to derive speeds (and other minutia) in a way that results in there never being a contest because the character who's just one-point better always wins. These tend to suffer from one of two issues:
  1. Disconnect from Drama / Disconnect from Reality: Difficulties are being set by formula, in a vacuum where the PCs stats aren't taken into account. Sometimes this results in a good plotline or obstacle idea being rendered insurmountable because the magic formulas don't perfectly match reality. Often this is a result of not enough (or too much) gradation in the stat range for a normal human. RPGs are at best an imperfect simulation, after all. As a result, it becomes very easy to improvise your campaign into a corner: If I say "the wall is made from bricks, and stands 50 feet high and 5 feet thick" it has a quantified difficulty to climb or topple, whose interaction with the PCs stats will be outside my control if I didn't do my homework first. Such a system encourages the GM to play "by the books" cause the players will notice if he veers to far afield.
  2. Infinite Extended Rolls: The way around that is often presented as extended rolls. When I first encountered Extended Rolls, I thought they were nifty. It was a cute twist on dice mechanics. But it's very easy to go overboard. Case in point: Scion.
You knew I was about to criticize Scion, didn't you. While the above was a general rant about RPG mechanics and philosophy, the following is honed in on a single game, and in particular one system within it. I feel a tiny bit bad writing this. Conceptually, Scion rocks, but with every session I grow more dissatisfied with the mechanics. (With the exception of 2 strangely tense sessions, I really enjoy the setting and characters, so I intend to carry it through on my planned story-arc all the way to Legend 12 even if it hurts sometimes.)

There's a PC in my Scion game who's a bit of a weaponsmith. The game doesn't really offer any guidelines on how to handle that, especially pre-Godhood. The first weapon she made, I let it be a little too good - she got 11 successes, and since the best mortal weaponsmith couldn't score more than 10, I figured I'd let the dagger she made be damn good. Too good. It was quickly overshadowing the 3-dot Relic that was her primary weapon. I had to bump up full-fledged Relics a tad at Demigod in order to compensate.

Then I worked on that Hitori Hanzo system. This was an improvement in that it gave structure to what PCs could build, but it unleashed the ugliness that is Extended Rolls. The PC in question could make a 1-dot Sword in 8 to 16 hours and 1 to 2 rolls - that sounds just fine. She could also make a 5-dot Sword in about 72-88 hours of work, via 9 to 11 rolls. She literally can't fail, so there's no reason not to set her sights high. However, do we really want to just sit there rolling a two-handed dice pool 9 times when there's no drawback to failure? How boring. At that point, we might as well just say "you make a 5-dot relic every 80 hours, automatically". But if we do that, the PCs have a never-ending supply of beefy weaponry, and balance (between characters as well as PC vs NPC) becomes shaky.
And just in case anyone reading this doesn't know: an Extended Roll is really multiple sequential die rolls with their results added together. Typically it's used (along with a high difficulty) to represent lengthy processes, such as research, smithing, or warfare, abstracted out to a roll ever X days instead of fiddling constantly with daily minutia. The idea is that it occupies a middle-ground between "one roll summarizes your life's work" and "rolling once per combat round or discrete individual action". Often, though, these systems aren't aggressive enough. They either mitigate overall failure into non-existence, or they result in dozens of tedious rolls, or both.
So perhaps I could use the system in Scion: God. Maybe not. That system conveniently makes all Relics just involve 2 die rolls - one Intelligence, the other Dexterity. Planning the Relic, then following through. On the surface, it sounds great. But it has two problems.
  1. The difficulties are 35 and 50, with no concise statement that it is or isn't and extended roll.
    If this is not an extended roll, it means that making even the simplest magic item requires 7 dots of Epic Intelligence and 9 dots of Epic Dexterity. She'll likely never be able to make a Relic on that system, as she lacks Arete and currently has no plans to ever buy the 9th dot of Dex. This doesn't fit well with the commonality of Relics in the setting - clearly it can't be that major of an ordeal to make a Relic, or else a PC shouldn't be eligible for 15+ of them in the course of attaining Godhood.
    If it is an extended roll, then, per the Hitori Hanzo paragraph, she can currently make a Relic if she just rolls about 7 times. Not only would that have the aforementioned balance problems, it contradicts the notion of Hephasteus and the Cyclopes making all the Greek items for the other gods.
  2. No power-level differentiation. A 1-dot Relic has the same difficulties as a 5-dot Relic. The material components are the same unless the later provides access to multiple purviews. In fact, Purviews seem to be the only thing the author of page 79 of Scion: God deemed worthy of specifically addressing or restricting, despite there being things (speed reductions and unique powers) that are rather more directly potent than simply granting Purview access.
So, it's time to look at that drawing board again. I need a Scion Relicsmithing system that:
  • Involves no more than 2 or 3 rolls per Relic.
  • Differentiates between Relic powers.
  • Has a chance of failure, especially if you ambitiously overstep your talent.
  • Isn't restricted to being used by min-maxed forge gods. (Heph & company can make really good Relics, but he, Weyland, and the 'Clops aren't the only Relic makers in the universe. Or at least, they shouldn't be.) Such Gods should merely be better at it, being faster, or somewhat less prone to failure, or perhaps capable of making overall more impressive items.

Tricks from Trail of Cthulhu

As with all GUMSHOE games, in Trail of Cthulhu random luck can't prevent the players from finding the important clues. All purely-investigative skills are 100% error proof. If you have just a single level of Evidence Collection, you will automatically spot the spatters of blood behind the sofa left over from the otherwise cleaned murder scene. With even 1 dot of Cryptology, you will eventually break the cypher. I like this approach, as it prevents one bad die roll from collapsing an entire plotline. Randomness is good and fine for fight scenes and incidental subplots, but when it comes to major clue-finding, GUMSHOE doesn't mess around.

There's even this sidebar on page 56 where they present the option of doing this with everything important:

Let's say your plotline hinges on the PCs getting onto the enemy base, which is guarded by a steep wall. Most games would provide stats for climbing the wall (and some would add details for knocking a hole through it). Nearly all RPGs would couch it as some sort of difficulty, and if the PCs failed to roll well enough, they'd be stuck (or, perhaps, they could annoyingly roll again and again until they succeeded*). What's more, the stats of the wall would be based on it's height and surface (for climbing) or thickness and material (for breaching it). That leaves a GM in a spot where he may have to fudge in the PCs favor, or at least provide an opportunity for the players to go fetch a ladder.

Trail of Cthulhu suggests that's entirely the wrong way to go about it. Difficulty shouldn't be based off the composition of the wall. Nor should it scale up with character level. Difficulty should instead scale inversely to the dramatic necessity of the task. If the PCs have to get over that wall in order for the plot to continue, climbing the wall should be automatically successful. If, on the other hand, there's more than one way to access the base, and those ways are built in to the scenario and/or addressed by the author(/GM) ahead of time, then it's okay to make some (not all) of the access modes more difficult.

They suggest not making the roll involve getting over the wall at all (that's guaranteed) but instead making "failure" on the roll mean you still succeed, but there's some negative side-effect doesn't stop the plot in it's tracks. Perhaps you're injured in the process of successfully climbing or you make enough noise descending the other side to attract attention from guards a few seconds after you make the guaranteed ascent.

The idea is this: Outside of major (non-trivial) combats and the climactic final scene of the adventure, player success should never be jeopardized by something as uncontrolled as the dice. Players can still fail by making wrong decisions. Players can still fail due to bad luck in the final confrontation. But no random nameless guard or 50 foot wall should be the source of the PC death or critical mission failure. That's a simple concept (and one I've used before without really thinking too heavily about it) but it's rare to see that appear in writing as a philosophy behind scenario design.

Kudos to Kenneth Hite and Robin Laws for putting that in words in a game that still has dice-based mechanics. Previously, I'd only seen such blunt statements in entirely diceless games. GUMSHOE is a happy medium between gaming paradigms.

Reviewing Cthu-Clue

You may recall that earlier this year I got The Esoterrorists from Pelgrane Press, and thereafter I reported that I was looking forward to Trail of Cthulhu, the port of Call of Cthulhu over to the GUMSHOE system from Esoterrorists. Said book has released, and I finally got my hands on a copy. It is sweet. It's not as system-minimal as Esoterrorists (they added some chrome to make the system fit the Mythos and the 30s better), but it's still light enough to be something I'll happily run some day. Well worth the Amazon gift card I spent on it. (Thanks, Susan & Bill!) This is quickly becoming my favorite Cthulhu-themed RPG.

Far more than just a port, Trail of Cthulhu has plenty of new material as well. I love the bisociative way Kenneth Hite handles the big bads of the Cthulhu mythos. Each is defined by several intentionally contradictory bullet points / paragraphs. His sources include Lovecraft, Derleth, previous Cthulhu RPGs, other authors who have touched upon the mythos previously, and his own explorations. I particularly relish his notion of using scientific principles such as gravity, electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear forces, etc, as if they were classical Elements. It's a very fresh and interesting take. Here's a sample:
"Azathoth" is the name given in the Necronomicon to "the monstrous nuclear chaos beyond angled space," the illusory personification of the Big Bang, just as "Thor" personifies lightning. The "invocation" or "summoning" of "Azathoth" is occult code for the release of atomic energy.

The only thing I don't like about the book is the golden ink used on certain page elements. It catches the light unevenly, and depending on the angles between book/lightsource/eye it shifts between painfully blinding, normal, near-invisible, and wonderfully eyecatching. Perhaps I should just be thankful the angles so far documented have yet to summon the Hounds of Tindalos.

I imagine some Call of Cthulhu purists will object to the very notion of Trail of Cthulhu, for exactly the inverse of the reason it was ported in the first place. In GUMSHOE games, players cannot miss a vital clue because of bad die rolls. Narratively, that total competence is just wonderful. I think any mystery game could benefit from this methodology, as it makes mystery-based RPGs finally able to replicate (without the GM having to cheat in the PCs favor) the experience of mystery novels and movies. However, I can see the point that will likely be made by some, that having a plotline stall out (and/or the world come to an end) because one PC failed a single critical investigation roll (and thus never saw one or more crucial clues / pieces of evidence) is very much in keeping with the bleak tone of Lovecraft's fiction. The trick is balancing the "insignificance of man" so endemic to the setting against the needs of dramatic narrative. CoC tells purer/bleaker mythos stories, but ToC is the better game.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Mod links for Brad

Okay, so anyone can use these links - it's just that Brad had inquired about the mod I keep trying (unsuccessfully) to finish, and I wanted to make sure he knew I had other mods completed:

Weird Worlds: Return To Infinite Space: modding forum and big list of mods. Note that the mod list hasn't been updated in months, so you'll find at least 3 or 4 extra mods on the forums beyond what's on that roster. Obviously, I only made a small fraction of the mods listed there.

Of the ones that aren't my creation, my favorite is Even Weirder Worlds by Phlagm. I tend to like the mods with new content more than those that just port the existing stuff over to a new setting (like the Star Trek mods). EWW has the most of that.

The mods I created can be downloaded from these links:
Teeming With Life
Drives 'R' Us
Sgqwonkian Crisis
Of the three I completed, Drives 'R' Us is probably the best, followed closely by Teeming With Life. Sgqwonkian Crisis is fun when it works, but it is really buggy and crash-prone, so it rates a distant third.
To access any of them, follow the links above, and then click on the little red "attachment" at the top of the first post on each thread. Once it's downloaded, just unzip and stick it in your Weird Worlds folder on your harddrive.

FYI: non-Transitive Gaming

Nontransitive game

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A non-transitive game is a game for which the various strategies produce one or more "loops" of preferences. As a result, in a non-transitive game the fact that strategy A is preferred over strategy B, and strategy B is preferred over strategy C, does not necessarily imply that strategy A is preferred over strategy C. See also intransitivity, transitive relation.

A prototypical example non-transitive game is the game Rock, Paper, Scissors which is explicitly constructed as a non-transitive game. In probabilistic games like Penney's game, the violation of transitivity results in a more subtle way, and is often presented as a probability paradox.