Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Crunchometer and Savage Worlds / Deadlands Reloaded

My current Deadlands Reloaded game is moving towards a storyline climax after which we will change systems, and possibly just do something else completely. I like the setting, but it's a lot more complicated than vanilla Savage-Worlds. I've been running Deadlands Reloaded every other Sunday, and a few sessions of straight Savage Worlds fantasy with a different group in-between. What I've learned is that if Savage Worlds is a c12 on the crunchometer, Deadlands Reloaded is at least a c16, and probably a c20. Even without the Adventure Deck (which we've been using), the additional fate chip options and the far less homogenous magic of Deadlands make it really hard to keep on top of the expanded system.

By contrast, in the vanilla fantasy version I spend a lot less time looking up rules, and especially charts. I can run it without opening a rule book except when we're leveling-up the characters or if a PC gets incapacitated. For the Deadlands version, I've made a different summary-sheet for each spellcaster, plus printed off combat modifier cheat-sheets for the whole group, and yet we still end up having to consult charts or text every single session.

I know there's D&D groups out there that make do with that all the time, but for me it's a real drag to pause and look things up in the middle of a session (in session after session). It's been diminishing the fun, so we're intentionally moving towards a plot resolution that will allow us to ditch the system. The group was a little divided on this. Of the 5 of us (down from 6 after one player moved out-of-state), 1 really likes the system, 1 loves her character so much she'll tolerate the system, and 3 of us detest the system enough we want to end the game. Obviously, that's not healthy or sustainable, so we're wrapping up. My plan is for 2-3 more sessions.

More Crunchometer

Here's a quick link for anyone that found my Crunchometer useful or interesting. (The Crunchometer is a system for categorizing RPG mechanics by overall complexity level and burden on the players. Link to my original post)

Anyhow, the main point of today's post is to provide a link to a blog that used my idea. "Vampire", author of the blog Alea lacta Est, put up some crunchometer ratings for games he's run. Here's the link to his crunchometer ratings. Many of the games he rates overlap with ones I rated, but he adds Ninja Burger, and disagrees with me a tiny bit on a few White Wolf products.
A quick aside about that: Comparing our ratings, I see he marked Scion a little less complicated than I did, but Exalted more complicated. Hmm... Glad I never got past character-creation in Exalted. :) All joking aside, I will say that Scion starts out much simpler than it becomes. Hero-level Scion, especially if you're just using the Hero book, is probably a c12 in my opinion as well, it's just that as you push into Demigod and God the mechanics start coming apart at the seams and maintaining play balance becomes a continual chore.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Petrified PCs

I killed a character this weekend. I haven't done so in a while - at least not to a character that wasn't in a one-shot. Every so often we head down to Portland for the weekend to visit friends, and recently that's involved some D&D-esque gaming. We've been using Savage Worlds instead of D&D, but working to make it feel like an old school 1st Ed AD&D campaign. While starting Savage Worlds characters are pretty robust (especially compared to 1st-level D&D characters), I feel it's necessary to have PC death loom as a serious specter in a game that's mostly dungeon a romp. I play the monsters to their abilities and intelligence, never fudge the dice and rarely pull my punches. It's mostly balanced for the player's stats, but there's some sandbox elements and the players ran smack into them this Saturday.

Long story short, the PCs ended up in a significant battle. I'd statted it out, but didn't expect to actually have them encounter the big bad (a Medusa) until the next session - I was just dropping some foreshadowing. The players, bless their heroic little hearts, dove right in and chased after those hints. They found the back door escape route that the Medusa would have otherwise used if she were badly pressed, and cut straight to the big encounter. They traipsed in, using polished shields as mirrors, and making zero efforts at stealth or concealment.

Out pops the Medusa, her mate (based on the Maedar from an old issue of Dragon magazine) and two blind Grimlock bodyguards. They caught the PCs on a bit of narrow terrain in the old sandbox. The good news was that view to the Medusa was partially eclipsed by the guards. The bad news was that the PCs couldn't flee (or get to her) without taking opportunity hits. Things went south pretty quickly. First I thought it was going to be a TPK. Then I thought one PC would escape. Then that PC went back into the fight, and it looked like a TPK again. In the end, though, the big armored fighter held his ground and made every roll he needed to resist poison and petrification, so only one of the three PCs died. Not that there weren't ramifications for the other two, however - one PC ended up with a permanent -1 Charisma disfigurement - her facial muscles frozen in a horrified expression.

Instead of making up whole new rules for petrifying gaze, I just used the existing Terror / Fright Table rules, but suspended the "Becoming Jaded" portion. Everytime they attacked her, they'd have to make a Guts check. Averting your eyes could give you a bonus on the guts check, at the cost of the same penalty to your other actions and parry. Partial cover (on either end) also provided a bonus on the PCs rolls. It was simple and easy, amounting to just applying "trappings" to the guts check - if you died of a heart attack (a roll of 21+ on the Fright Chart) you'd turn to stone, the "Mark of Terror" result was a partial petrification, etc. It worked like a charm - constant danger, plenty of guts checks (which is an otherwise underutilized skill), drained several bennies, and yet was never actually lethal.

The actual kill ended up being when the Medusa got close enough to do poison bites - which I treated as a single mundane venomous snake attack but with +2 on the Fighting Roll to represent that there were a dozen snakes. A bad vigor roll took down the PCs healer. Let that be a warning to those who play Savage Worlds - the venomous snake entry is surprisingly potent.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Wilderness of Mirrors House Rules

Yesterday I GM'd the rules-lite espionage RPG Wilderness of Mirrors. It was a lot of fun, but we ran into a few snags and hurdles. Nothing we couldn't overcome, but the next time I run it, I'll definitely be using some house rules to dodge those problems. Here's links to three posts I wrote this morning about bits I found to be problematic, and how I intend to fix them:
Despite those fairly large snags, the game delivered on fun. It's just that it was the sort of fun where everyone comments repeatedly "this is silly and needs to be fixed". Those three house rules should fit the bill.

My players came up with some great mission details. By actively giving them some subplots at cross-purposes I was able to promote a little bit of treachery despite the superfluous piles of Mission Points. One PC sacrificed herself to kill the big bad, another PC eliminated a personal enemy that the group was ordered to abduct and convert, and a third PC tried hard to get the second one killed but kept failing. I consider myself lucky to have such a fun group to game with.

I'd previously blogged about Wilderness of Mirrors a few weeks ago, identifying my favorite part and a few early red flags, should anyone be interested in reading more of my thoughts on the game.

Character Creation House Rules for Wilderness of Mirrors

The next time I GM the Wilderness of Mirrors espionage RPG, I'll be completely doing away with the point-buy system for character creation. Instead, we'll just assign each PC one stat at level 5, one at 4, one at 3, one at 2, and the final (weakest) stat at 1. The players get to choose which stat gets which rating.

Why the need for the change:
The point-buy system in the Wilderness of Mirrors rulebook looks neat on the surface, but (as I'd mentioned in my initial pre-game post) it boils down to only 6 different arrays of stats.
  • 5, 5, 5, 1, 1
  • 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
  • 4, 4, 2, 2, 2
  • 4, 3, 3, 3, 1
  • 5, 5, 2, 2, 1
  • 3, 3, 3, 2, 2

To save the group a lot of time learning crunching numbers, I wrote down those 6 permutations and brought it to the game I GM'd yesterday.

All four players in my group looked at that an decided 5, 5, 5, 1, 1, was superior to the other five possible arrangements. And honestly, they're right. It gives you a total of 17 dice, whereas the other versions give between 13 and 15 dice total. Analyzing those trade-offs, The more you think about it, the worse the other set-ups look, because you'll be rolling one extra die in your weak area at the cost of losing a total of three (or more) dice from two of your best areas. And it's not like that second die in your weakspot is going to really help much - you'd need to roll an 11 or 12 on 2d6 to get any measure of narrative control.

My group is not typically a munchkiny bunch - we run weird one-shots and run lots of goofy narrative systems. Realizing how heavily the system rewards that choice, the decision was easy. When one option is so much better than the alternatives, no one wanted to be the only person left in the dust.

This quickly developed into several different (but related) problems.

All or nothing: With the stats being just 5's and 1's, that means that for any given stat you either always have narrative control, or never have narrative control (since you're looking to roll a 11+ on either 5d6 or 1d6). If it's just a binary function, why spend time rolling dice and adding numbers? Okay, I'm over simplifying it - there's actually plenty of times you want to roll 16+, which means the options aren't "yes" and "no", they're more like "50/50" and "no". That's really not an improvement.

Character redundancy: With all characters having the 5, 5, 5, 1, 1 stat arrangement, you can be certain that any two characters will have one stat that's rated the same - they'll overlap one of the 5s. This is detrimental to accepted notions such as individuality, character concept, and character niche. Instead of "I'm the assassin, and he's the techie" you end up with "We're both assassins and techies, but I'm also the team leader and he's also very stealthy".

Saturn is a dump stat: The character overlap problem gets even worse because you almost never roll Saturn. The team leader needs it at level 5, everyone else is going to want to rate it at 1. Which means the above problem of character redundancy just got worse, since every character except the team leader has a Five-Star rating in 3 out of 4 remaining stats. This also has the unfortunate effect of making the team leader the weakest character in the group.

Special powers: The highest-ranked PC in a Stat gets a corresponding one-time-use power. If there's a tie, they both get that power, but whoever uses it first uses it up for the whole group. For our group of 4 players, this meant that the special power for Saturn went to the team leader. The special power for Mercury was shared between two players. The special power for Mars was shared between 3 players, as were the special powers for Vulcan and Pluto.

It was ugly.

We all looked at it and said "this isn't gonna work". After a few seconds of pondering aloud, I instructed everyone to switch to the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 spread instead. That change resulted in characters that overlapped less, but it still resulted in 4 out of 5 characters having a "1" in Saturn. It was better, though. With this spread, everyone felt like they had a focus, and the characters weren't just carbon copies. We played it out, and were happy with the results (though Saturn still seems like a dump stat).

Earning Mission Points in Wilderness of Mirrors

On paper, mission points are the main tool and resource of the players in a game of Wilderness of Mirrors. The first time I GM'd the game, however, they failed to provide the expected dramatic tension, and weren't even a meaningful form of resource allocation. The PCs had far too many Mission Points for them to carry any weight or meaning.

This is bad, as one of the ways the game achieves the "you don't know who to trust" element of the spy genre is by giving out "Trust Points" when PCs betray each other or narrate in events that hose the group. But if you're sitting on a pile of 12 Mission Points and have only been using about 2 per hour of play, you're really not motivated to do anything underhanded to add Trust Points (which, other than how they're gained, work just like Mission Points) to your collection.
It's worth noting that I did not play using "Solution #1" from the rule book. It strikes me as much harder on the players. It may turn out you're just fine handing out tons of Mission points if using that mechanic. Eyeballing it, it seems like too harsh a correction to me. After 2 hours of play, the difficulty needed to earn basic narration rights for a PC would be a 41 (instead of 11), and that's pretty brutal. In the final scenes of 4-hour session, the PCs would need to roll a 65 to even get a veto/ammendment option.

So, the rest of this post assumes you, like me, are not using "Solution #1", and are instead using solutions 2 or 3, or some similar variant of your own devising.
It feels to me that the number of Mission Points needs to be curtailed a bit. Of particular concern are Mission Points gained by flavorful embellishing details, and Mission Points gained by details that help the Party succeed at it's mission. The goal is to reduce the former and all-but prevent the later.

House Rule regarding how Mission Points are earned:
At the start of the planning stage, the GM sets aside X # of Mission Points, under the name "Style Points". X is usually 3, but if there's fewer than 4 players, X is one less than the number of players (minimum of 1). These X Style Points are for flavor, in-genre tropishness, awesome ideas, etc. Whoever comes up with the coolest idea during Planning gets all 3 points, but if the GM's having a hard time deciding, he can split them between 2 or 3 players. Style Points go directly to the pool of the player who won them, they don't get split up by the Saturn. In all other ways, they work just like Mission Points.

Actual Mission Points then are handed out only for details that provide challenges to the team. On the map or plan that the team is drawing up, anyone may designate a detail to be a challenge. They describe the challenge, and list 2 of the 5 attributes - those are the only two attributes that can be used on that challenge. This gets written on the plan, and is then worth one Mission Point. This might not seem like much of a bonus, but there's nothing stopping players from putting in additional challenges beyond what they expect to deal with. For example, if there's two entrances to the building, one might have a guard post (takes Mercury or Mars to get past) and the other has a security lock (takes Vulcan or Pluto to circumvent). Unless things go very badly, no individual player will have to deal with both of them. In fact, the existence of these two challenges makes it easier for the party that splits up, because they can match appropriate skills and get in by different routes. But at least they've added some measure of a challenge in exchange for the two Mission Points they've earned.

I suspect you'll end up with 8-15 mission points per player, but if still at the high end they'll be offset by more (and better defined) challenges.

The rules for Trust Points remain unchanged, and will hopefully become more attractive since there's a bit more challenge in the mission.

Thoughts behind that House Rule:
For those interested in why I concluded such a house rule was needed, here's the problems I found with the existing system. These became apparent in just one session of play, and were a real shame to deal with...

Earning Mission Points for trivial details: Here's the prime source of the problem. The game says any given "detail" the players bring up in the planning stage is worth from 1 to 3 mission points. But it gives no parameters of what constitutes a "detail". It being a cinematic game, you naturally want to reward stylish and flavorful details, details that play to tropes of the genre, and of course details that provide challenges for the players to overcome.

So at first I'm giving out mission points freely. As I'm handing out the 12th or 13th point, however, I realized that really the only detail they've given that potentially adds any challenge was "The perimeter is patrolled by guards in scuba gear with harpoon guns." The scenario at that point was shaping up to be flavorful and cool, but a total walk in the park.

Crap. Half the details given out so far were actively making it easier on the players, and I was foolishly rewarding them with bonus dice for making it easier on themselves. So I slammed on the brakes, and started only giving out points for details that actively made the scenario tougher on them. I feel I was draconian from then on. At least 50% of the details after that didn't get rewarded, and only one detail in the whole list was awarded more than one point. Despite my being a hard-nose, the party still earned 31 mission points during the planning stage.

Motivating Saturn to not just evenly split the mission points: This is a minor problem, but worth mentioning. So you've got 31 mission points, and your team leader has Saturn rating of 5 so the other 3 players each start with 5 free mission points (for a total of 46 points for the whole team). What's that team leader going to do?

Unless there's some abnormally clever reason to do otherwise, they're gonna take 5 of the 31 free points for themselves, then split the remaining 26 points roughly evenly between all the players. It just felt like there wasn't much of a motivation for splitting it in any other way. With a total pot of 46 points, it's not like anyone can argue that their character really needs more than say 14 or 15 mission points. Which means that one of the big "advantages" to the Saturn stat (to compensate that you probably never roll it) is negated by the decision being almost meaningless. Maybe, late in campaign, after you've established some rivalries and betrayal, there might be a situation where a Saturn is motivated to snub someone at Mission Point allotment time, but for a one-shot it was pointless. (And yes, I gave my team leader secret directives to get the "traitor" killed, so she slighted him by about 4 mission points. This tipped him off, and yet still wasn't enough of a deficit to matter, since it left him with about 9 points.)

Defining what you roll: In most RPGs, you take an action, then roll for success or failure. In Wilderness of Mirrors, you basically just state the category of action (from five categories) and roll. If your total is 11 or higher, you narrate what happens. If you roll lower than that, the GM narrates.

Since the categories are very broadly (and vaguely) defined, it's pretty easy to justify using your specialty for just about everything. Seriously. You put a PC in a knife-fight, expecting them to use Mars (the hit man stat). Instead, they roll Vulcan (the fixer / techie stat) to produce a hidden sonic device that immobilizes the foe. You present them with a locked and alarmed door, expecting them to use Vulcan to disable it, and they instead suggest Pluto (the stealth stat) for thievery, or Mars for demolitions, or Mercury (the charisma stat) to charm an code-key off someone. Surprise, it turns out every stat is actually a 5! Or, rather, that every roll is made using your best stat.

This flexibility with the stats and rolls means Mission Points and Trust Points are further devalued - as you'll almost always be rolling 5 dice even without them.

When can you spend mission points? The rules seem to be implying you spend the mission points before you roll, but don't state it very firmly. For reasons stemming back to Luck Points in Cyberpunk 2020 (but also applicable to 7th Sea's Drama Dice, and Savage World's Bennies), I generally prefer to have players spend such resources after they've seen their other dice. It just sucks too much to squander a rare resource on a roll that would have succeeded without it, or on a roll that doesn't have a chance to succeed even with the resource.

In Wilderness of Mirrors, however, the resources aren't rare at all. Instead of 3 per player, you get at least 10 per player, maybe as many as 15 or 20 counting Mission and Trust. Unless you trim back the number of Mission Points earned (or use Solution #1), I heartily endorse making the players choose how many Mission Points and Trust Points they'll spend before they roll any dice.

PC Mortality House Rule for Wilderness of Mirrors

Wilderness of Mirrors is largely a game about narration rights. However, it provides precious little in terms of guidance as to what is or isn't allowed when you're narrating. Technically, if you wanted to narrate "a nuclear bomb kills everyone but me", the only thing stopping you is the fact that no one would ever game with you again. Obviously, that extreme an action is out of bounds, but there's no good guidelines in the rulebook to what is or isn't acceptable.

On page 12 of the rulebook, under the label "Solution #2" (the second of three possible ways to handle the mechanic of putting the mission on a time deadline), there's some helpful advice regarding "permanent damage" and how the GM needs full narrative control to inflict any lasting injuries on your character. (Attaining full narrative control isn't easy for the GM.)

Sadly, this "permanent damage" rule is only mentioned in one of the three options of how to handle that mechanic. If using "Solutions" 1 or 3, the issue of how to deliver such injuries is a little unclear.

More importantly, the game is rife with inter-party conflict. The rulebook actively encourages the GM to create situations where one PC is ordered to plant a bomb to kill another. That begs the question, can a PC kill another PC? Can they narrate permanent injury to a PC? If the answer to either of those is "yes", then how do you defend yourself? The game has no contested rolls, partly because until someone's narrating the results, you wouldn't know if they're attacking you.

The Two-Chip Rule:
Here's my proposal, which replaces the "permanent injury" rule, and is intended to work with any of the three "solutions".

Each PC starts the game with two poker chips (or colored stones, etc ), one each of two different colors, let's say red and blue.

While you have the blue chip, the narrator cannot give you any permanent damage. He can still wound you, even describe that you're captured, etc, but escape remains likely and your future actions are in no way penalized. Any time his narration (or veto) wounds you, he may choose to take away your blue chip. If you don't have a blue chip any more, when the GM's narrating (not just using his veto) he can give you permanent damage. So, the GM has to "set up" his big moves against players by first stripping their blue chip in some harmful development. It takes a one-two punch to really hurt a PC.

While you have the red chip, no other players can incapacitate you, nor give you permanent injury. If a player narrates some sort of harm to you, however, they may choose to remove your red chip. Thereafter, for the rest of the session, any time a player narrates harm to you, they may choose to give you a permanent injury or incapacitate you. Note that even if Player A makes you discard your red chip, you become vulnerable to actions from not just Player A, but also B, C, D, etc.
The reason I put in the "gang-up" aspect of this rule is because Wilderness of Mirrors lacks a detailed initiative system. I didn't want an inter-party conflict to be determined solely by who acted first. This way, the timely intervention of another PC can tip the scales.
The GM can't kill you, no matter what. There's only two ways a PC can die:
  1. That PC's player may narrate their own character's death, via heroic sacrifice, suicide, or enemy action.
  2. Another PC may kill them, but only if the target PC currently has no red chip, and has already been incapacitated by a PC's action. So a PC can be killed by another PC, but it takes 3 successful narrations to do so. The three narrations could be performed by 1, 2 or 3 different players, however.
Once per session, a narration (not a veto) that details healing, medical treatment, the passage of large spans of time, etc, may include the restoration of your blue and/or red chip(s).