Thursday, April 29, 2010

Savagely Tricky

Here's what the Savage Worlds rule book should have said about Tricks, but didn't:
Tricks are only really worth it if your character has a low Fighting die but a high Agility or Smarts, and the enemy has a Parry higher than your average attack roll.

Despite what you might have inferred from the concept and fluff text of Tricks, they are not actually intended to model crafty or sneaky fighters. Any character who has actually invested points in their Fighting score and related combat stats will be more effective making normal attacks than wasting their time and actions throwing sand in the opponents eyes, or telling the enemy to look behind them.

What tricks do well is they enable typically non-combatant characters (such as gadgeteers, healers, and spellcasters who've run out of power points) to contribute to the group's success during a fight scene. Tricks are most effective against foes with a low Agility or Smarts, so they're better against Extras and henchman than against a named criminal mastermind that's intended to be a challenge for the whole party.

Even then, the best benefit of a trick will be felt only if someone is prepared to follow it up with a normal attack before the tricked foe acts again. Players should coordinate tricks so that one PC sets it up, and someone else acting right after them takes advantage of it. If you cannot guarantee this sort of situation, only use Tricks if you're the last PC acting in the round, as then a lucky initiative draw may allow the trick to be in effect when yourself of an allied character acts next round. If no one is positioned to follow up on your trick, the low-Fighting character is generally better off firing a pistol at a distant foe than using a trick on an adjacent one.

One exception to needing teamwork, however, is when a character that is not combat-oriented at all is stuck in melee and just wants to flee. With a lucky back-to-back initiative draw, you might be able to use a trick followed by an attack to shake a foe and get away without provoking a free attack. This is of course a desperate move, one best used when the alternative is probably the death of your character. If you succeed at the Trick escape, the GM should proceed to use the Chase mechanics instead of normal movement rules, as without the special Chase rules most foes will be able to automatically catch up with you again if they successfully unshake on their turn.
Honestly, no one writes rule books like that, but I really wish they did. If every game book discussed mechanics so frankly it would improve performance at the table for the casual gamer, and eliminate much of the advantage that can be gained by rules lawyering and munchkinism.

My buddy Erik recently did an amazing mathematical analysis of the Trick mechanic in Savage Worlds. Here's the link. Go ogle his charts and probability graphs for yourself. My proposed text above is really just a straight-forward summary of his discoveries and hard work. I've been meaning to provide a link for the past two weeks, but wanted to find the best way to summarize the heart of his findings. Thank you Erik, it was really helpful to me to see these things spelled out clearly!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Actions Wanted

Brainstorming a short list of action cards that I think Warhammer 3rd could really use. Most of these would be actions you can buy with XP, not new basic actions.
  • Hold Them At Bay - a card that makes it tricky for people to engage you, or get past you. This sort of thing can be done with existing Location rules, but it's a little fuzzy, and someone who rushes you will always get to attack first. This could be an on-going effect that causes fatigue or penalty dice to anyone trying to get close to you while it's recharging. Since Fatigue=Wounds for most NPCs, that would work pretty well, I think.
  • Set To Receive Charge - a card that does bonus damage if it's your first attack since the opponent engaged you. (Alternately, this might actual be some sort of interrupt / pre-empt type action, but the game doesn't do much of that. Fake Out is the only such card I can think of.)
  • Feint - Strikes me as odd that they made Parry, Dodge, and Block into action cards, but didn't include the other assumed part of melee combat: the Feint. This would probably be a card to let you boost other attacks later. The trade-off would have to be pretty good, since you'd be losing an attack in one round to boost the later attack. Or maybe it could work like an active defense that gives bonus dice instead of penalty dice, but doesn't use your action?
  • Double Parry - The one extra black die given by a Main Gauche seems a little under-powered. Perhaps that's for the best since it doesn't require any skill or investment to get it. There's certainly room for a better (or more frequent) two-weapon parry.
  • Trample - An attack card that uses your Riding skill, with damage based on your mount. There's attacks that use Observation, Skullduggery, and even Leadership, so why not Riding?
  • Trick Riding - Currently, any sort of Trick Riding would be done with the Perform A Stunt card. I feel that it's an oversight to not have any cards in the whole game that make you roll Riding. You can be generically "good" at riding, but not have any specific tricks that give a real benefit or showcase your talents, which is pretty odd given how many other cards there are that give tricks and special moves for various skills.
  • Something good for Roadwardens - This probably overlaps with the last two, since riding is one of their skills. There's just nothing special for Roadwardens at the moment. They have an odd combo of attributes and skills that just don't apply collectively to very many action cards. If there was an Intelligence + Weaponskill card, it'd be great for them, but no such thing exists.
  • Boating Tricks - The Boatman Career has the special power of reducing a black die of penalties suffered for being on a boat. Which really only matters if you can talk the rest of the PCs into getting onto a boat with you. If you want to make the boatman stand out a bit more, you could easily add some sort of Master of the Tops or similar swashbuckling actions. Crazy flamboyant actions along the lines of the Roger's pirate swordsman school from 7th Sea.
The game already has a lot of actions, so the demand for actions in general is perhaps not great. At least not unless someone wants to make a particular character type. Coachmen and Boatmen, for example, don't have much to make them special, so the riding and boating tricks could be really useful if someone in your group drew one of those for their starting career. I could easily see how a Watchman or Soldier character might want the ability to hold a spot of ground.

High Scoring Vulgarity

Last week while my wife was convalescing from a back injury, we tried out a new little video game. It's called Clockwords. It's a little bit like Scrabble or other word games, but with a timer element that is represented by a battle between a steam-tech robotic weapon system and invading insects. It's actually pretty cool. Here's a link. She was bedridden much of the week, but she could still shout words at me.

Fun game. Very different from the sorts of games we usually play.

The majority of words you spell score probably around 50 points of damage. But I got vulgar, and it paid off. :) 394 damage from "Vulgarity". The yellow "R" is what did it, it made the 4 bronze letters explode while the evil insects were crossing each others trails.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Clash of the Plot Holes

This scathing movie review is a cross-post from my non-gaming blog. The movie is so stinky, I felt compelled to place the review here as well to maximize exposure.

If Peter Jackson had attention-deficit disorder, and was doing a lot of meth while making the Lord of the Rings films, we now know what the results would have been like. They would have been just like the new remake of Clash of the Titans.

It's kinda pretty at times, but that's the most I can say for it. It's not so much exciting as it is spastic. Within this film, things happen for arbitrary and senseless reasons, and they do so as quickly as possible. Most of the fight scenes are the action-movie equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting. It may be pretty, and it sure has a lot going on - but what looks from a distance to be detail, on closer examination turns out to just be random splatters without meaning.

"Let's put Treebeard in the desert! Then we'll have him ride around on the back of one of those giant elephants. When he gets off the elephant, he'll do some kung-fu, then we'll wrap a giant snake around him, and then he'll explode!" It's like that, except the giant elephant has been replaced by a Scorpion of variable size, and Treebeard is wearing Iron Man's neon-blue heart implant. Don't ask me why, none of it made any sense. I still can't figure out why the freaking Ents were even in Clash of the Titans. They're not in the 1980's version, and they're not in Greek myth either, and their inclusion is completely random - but the same thing can be said about almost every element of this movie.

The film is really shallow, too, and it features characters we neither care about, nor believe in. At no point during the film did I want Perseus to succeed at his stated goal, but neither did I particularly want him to fail. Most of the time, I just didn't care. It's not like he was fighting against a villain. The film pointedly has no villains. I mean, there's Calibos, he seems pretty bad, but when you think about it, he's just angry because Zeus raped his wife and Hades took advantage of him. His actions are deplorable, but his motivations are basically the same as the Hero - he's rebelling against that bastard Zeus. But Zeus isn't the bad guy either, as the film ham-handedly reminds us during its hard-to-swallow happy ending. So that must mean Hades is the villain, except the film points out to us again and again that Hades is only so bitter and manipulative because Zeus tricked and betrayed him.

I'm a big fan of "shades of gray"-style moral ambiguity in a film, but in the Clash remake, this is done really sloppily and never fully explored. We're never torn over what is the right thing to do, and neither are any of the characters. Instead, we're just given mixed messages about who really is the monster, and then quickly distracted from contemplating any of it by yet another incomprehensible action sequence. Hey look - a harpy! WTF?

In this film, the main character, Perseus, has 3 fathers:
  • There's the mortal fisherman who raised him as his own. Shortly before he dies, he tells Perseus that what he really wants his son to do is to stand against the Gods, and change the world so that mankind will no longer be enslaved by Olympus. Perseus starts off to fulfill his father's last wish, and then kind of abandons that goal without ever saying why.
  • There's Zeus, king of the Gods, who raped Perseus's mother, and then abandoned the resulting child. But he's not the bad guy, we are told again and again. After 20 years of being a dead-beat dad, he's now trying to make up for it. His wish is for Perseus to take his rightful place in Olympus, but Perseus declines that opportunity both times it's offered to him.
  • His third father is the asshole who killed his mother and tried drowning him as a child. Later, he turns into a real (as opposed to just figurative) monster, and tries to slay the adult Perseus. Obviously, that won't do, so he's killed by his step-son Perseus. His dying wish is, strangely enough, for Perseus to not become a God, and stay away from Olympus. It's delivered very oddly, practically "I know I've been trying to kill you, but it's for your own good. Please don't become a God, because that'd be really bad for you, and I'm worried about your future and the fate of humanity." It's a really lame attempt at a Darth Vader redemption, made all the weaker by the fact that the director doesn't feel compelled to give it more than 3 seconds of screen time.
So, of course, the mutated, mother-killing, trailer-trash monster of a father gets his dying wish fulfilled by Perseus. The film tries hard not to draw attention to this fact, though, and instead just sweeps it under the rug. It's like they're playing thesis-statement roulette, with a new winner every five minutes.

The worst part of the film, however, is the hackneyed attempt at foreshadowing that then gets abandoned and forgotten at the end, ret-conning itself into a red herring. I'm talking about the warning of the Stygian Witches. They go to see the witches, these three inhuman blind seers of great wisdom and insight. On the way there, Io (Perseus's shallow and unbelievable love interest) spends several minutes ominously warning Perseus not to ask any more questions of the witches beyond the obvious "how to kill the Kraken" question. She says he won't like the answer he gets, and it's really played up as a big deal, like there's something nasty in his destiny.

Sure enough, the witches drop a doozy on him. They prophecy that he's going to die while fighting the Kraken. The music swells dramatically, and Io says something like "Oh, Perseus! I told you not to ask them anything else! This is so tragic!"

Then the end of the movie rolls around, and he doesn't die. In fact, he's never even wounded, and you don't feel he's actually in a lot of peril. Apparently, the all-knowing magically gifted witches were just screwin' with him, not actually foretelling the future. Despite the prophesy scene having be played up like it was a really important plot point, there's no mention of it at the end of the film, it too is just swept under the rug.

Now, it's possible that the film is just being unexpectedly subtle at the end. I doubt it, because everything has been in-your-face and beat-over-your-head before that point, but there's a remote chance it was actually a clever ending that was just so subtle it failed. Because, frankly, the last 5 minutes of the film would make a lot more sense if it were actually a far-subtler version of the end of Brazil (or the recent movie Repo-Men). Here's what I mean:

Maybe, just maybe, the Kraken actually kills Perseus. At the very end, he dives into the water in a harbor to save some girl that's almost certainly dead. After expressing her willingness to be a human sacrifice, she's fallen hundreds of feet into the water, and 80 tons of rock is falling on her. The harbor is between two steep cliffs, with a city built into them. The scenery and location were a prominent part of the scene.

He and the girl are next seen on a flat and featureless beach, and rescue ships are on the horizon coming to take the girl home. Maybe Perseus rescued her, swam several miles away to some nearby island, and somehow signaled the survivors in the devastated city that they needed a rescue. That seems to be what the film is saying. But I suppose it's also possible that he and the girl both died, and the featureless beach is Elysium / Heaven / etc. If that's what the movie was trying to convey, it did a piss poor job of saying it, but I can't completely rule it out. At least it would have made a lot more sense than the happy ending they seem to be trying to shove down our throats.

I could go on like this for a few pages more, there's just so much wrong with film. Io's supposed backstory didn't match her on-screen powers. Hades make-up was inconsistent and laughable. The CGI critters kept changing size relative to humans. The Kraken came from Cloverfield. Etc.

I suppose maybe I should have put some spoiler warnings at the top of this post... but I think if I just "ruined" the movie for you, I was probably doing you a favor.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Tale Of Two Forums

"A couple years ago, White Wolf released this RPG called Scion. I started a campaign the first chance I got.

At first, I loved it, but I was really bummed how long it took them to release new material for it. Six months out, all they had was one rulebook, and a super-short demo adventure. Their release schedule kept falling apart, and it was frustrating, too, because that first book was at best 1/3rd of the setting and rules. PCs in Scion have a primary stat called that can be rated from 2 to 12, and the first book only covered characters with a rating of 2 to 4. It took them nearly a year to get the second and third books out, IIRC.

Anyhow, I was running the game for that whole time, and a good while later. There were things I loved about it, but the more I analyzed the game, the more it fell apart. I eventually came to the conclusion that the core mechanics were broken, and that later books just compounded those problems. Of course, I was emotionally invested in the game by then, so when I thought about these things, I got fired up.

I spent a lot of time at the Scion forums, posting various house-rules and what have you. What I noticed though, was that I spent less and less time coming up with cool new things to improve my gaming experience (and those of others I interacted with on the forums) and more and more time just venting about the rules and the company. There were things they were doing wrong with Scion, and I just had to let everyone know.

Every topic that came up on the forum, I figured out some way to bring it back around to the things that pissed me off about the game and the direction it was going. I got quite cynical. I knew that I was no longer being helpful to others, and that I was probably just coming off as troll. There they were, trying to post all their cool ideas about a game they loved, and I'd just come along and rain on everyone's parade.

Then, just over a year ago, White Wolf rebooted their forum software. Everyone that wanted to post on the new version of the forum had to build their account all over again. Knowing, as I did, that I had long before ceased to gain enjoyment or serve a useful function at that forum, I declined to make a new account. I just walked away.

Ever since that, I've felt better. Other facets of my life improved, because I was no longer voluntarily subjecting myself and others to my own negativity."

I typed that up at the FFG WFRP forums today, and have not yet decided whether or not to post it. The WFRP 3rd Edition forum has several rather obnoxious posters, who just troll the place, taking every opportunity they can to bitch about the new edition. Half the time they're screaming about how angry they are because the game has only had three releases in 6 months, whereas 2nd Ed has years of sourcebooks. The rest of the time they bitch about how "it's a board game, not an RPG" because it uses colorful cards. Edition wars are part and parcel of the gaming experience, but this is pretty extreme.

And I'm left wondering why the hell do these people think we care? I wish they would just move on, and not linger around a forum that is intended for the enjoyment of a product they don't like. I mean, it's not like there isn't already a really good forum for 2nd Ed WFRP, and for people who just want to rant about how much they hate 3rd Ed. It's called Strike To Stun. And yet, even when they're getting me all fired up by trolling at the only good 3rd Ed forum, I can understand where they're coming from, because my own Scion experience was so like what they are doing.

Eventually, you just need to break the cycle.

I'm glad I finally found the strength to move on and leave Scion behind. I hope they find the strength to do the same for Warhammer's forums. If you hang out at places where people like the same things as you, you'll enjoy your life a lot more, and feel much better about yourself. If you insist on trolling places where other people enjoy things you hate, you can only make everyone (yourself included) feel worse. That's my 2 cents, anyway.

7 Feats? For a starting character?

This is just a little rant about game mechanics. It's really not helpful in any way, and not particularly entertaining. If you're looking for usable content, scroll down to my next post.

If you just want to hear me whine a little bit, this is the place.

When I did my initial review of the Warhammer 3rd Ed, one of the things I didn't like about the game was the analysis paralysis that sets in during character creation. Between the main game and the player's toolkit there's over 100 action cards, and they're not easy to analyze. You could spend all day reading over the action cards, and still not know what's best for your character. As it turns out, it's actually a little worse than that. On top of the 100 action cards, there are more than 70 talent cards.

Turns out the analysis paralysis isn't only likely to show up at character creation. I'm really glad they put everything on cards, or this game would be a nightmare. Instead, the cards make it run smoothly.

I was thinking about it today, though, and I realized just how insanely buff starting PCs are. Talents and Actions are both very much like Feats in D&D, or Edges in Savage Worlds. It's relatively easy for a starting character to begin the game with 3 Talents and 4 Action cards, that would use 6 of your 20 to 25 character points.

Imagine a 1st-level D&D 3.x character that starts with 7 Feats. Or a starting Savage Worlds character somehow loaded up with 7 Edges. That seems pretty busted, right? Surprisingly, WFRP has fewer combos, so I think it's probably less unbalancing than giving someone 6 extra feats or edges would be in either of those games. Still, it was kind of a shock when I sat down to analyze it.

So I broke out my rarely-used D&D 4.0 PHB to compare. There a PC starts with 1 Feat, 2 at-will attack powers, 1 encounter attack power, and 1 daily attack power. This is roughly the equivalent of 1 Talent and 4 Actions in WFRP's terms, as near as I can eyeball it. So, you're only a little bit stronger / more diverse in WFRP than in 4.0 D&D, and that only if you choose to spend 6 of your 20 points on talents and actions. You could just as easily build a valid WFRP character with 0 talents and 1 only special action. Unless, of course, we factor in the 8 "basic actions" that all PCs start with. You just have a lot of options in WFRP.

Why on earth do they give starting PCs so many options? It's a design choice I'll never understand. If I'd written the rulebook, all PCs would start with exactly 2 talents and 1 special action. Instead they start with 0-3 and 1-4, and I don't feel like the game gains anything for having all this extra options at character creation. Later on, when you know the system better and are advancing your characters, it's probably justified, but right out of the gates, it's overwhelming. Remember the law of 7 +/- 2? It would seem the FFG crew have either never heard of it, or at least interpret it very differently. I guess they thought it should mean "don't start with more than 7 Feats"...

It's especially weird for a game whose previous editions are noted for the meager power levels of starting characters. I guess they wanted to distinguish this edition from that which came before, but it seems an inelegant way to do so. WFRP 1st & 2nd are the game where a single goblin armed with a wooden spoon is a danger capable of a TPK, though, so maybe I shouldn't complain. There was certainly room to build up the heroism a few notches, and 3rd Ed did so rather nicely, even if it did so at the cost of making character creation painful.

I'm planning on running WFRP for my weekly one-shot group sometime soon. When I do, it'll be with pregens, and for most of the characters, I'll be going with 1 or 2 talents, and only 1 or 2 actions. I might even trim the default character points down from 20 to somewhere in the low teens. I see no need to complicate things to the fullest extent possible.

Gripe session over. We now return you to (hopefully) more useful content...

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Race Card

In Warhammer FRP 3rd Ed, nearly all your actions and abilities are on cool little cards. This means you don't have to look up anything in a rulebook during the game, because you've got all your feats, powers, and special moves right there in front of you.

I don't have a clue why they didn't do the same with racial abilities. Every race has a couple special rules and abilities, and they're literally the only character powers that aren't always at your fingertips. As my wife and I have been testing out various mechanics and getting a handle on the combat system, we find we're constantly forgetting about racial abilities. So, I broke out Strange Eons and fixed this glaring oversight.

The above file has enough cards for 4 humans, 2 High Elves, a Wood Elf and a Dwarf, because that's what would fit on a page easily, (with plenty of room for sloppy cutters with those oversized round-tipped kindergarten scissors).

It only lists powers that you use at the table during sessions, so things you do once at character creation (and then ignore forever after) aren't on the sheet, and neither is the once-every-11 sessions XP benefit that humans get.

Bodyguard and Charcoal-Burner

Here's two "new" careers for Warhammer FRP 3rd. They're loose conversions of existing careers from 2nd Ed. A more faithful rendering of the Bodyguard would have had Strength instead of Agility, but then both careers would have had the same Primary Characteristics, and I didn't want that. The result was that the Bodyguard had a slightly less potent set of skills than it might have otherwise had, which encouraged me to give it a better-than-average Career Ability to compensate.

The artwork is original. I bought a Wacom "bamboo" tablet yesterday, and these are two of my first three pieces of art from it. Honestly, it shows on the Charcoal-Burner. I was having such a hard time getting the hang of the tablet, that I really goofed up his body proportions. Which frustrated me so much I never finished his face. Maybe I'll redo the art on him at some future point... but don't hold your breath. I've got nearly a dozen additional career cards finished except for artwork, so I doubt I'll get around to fixing older artwork any time soon.

The card backgrounds are from Hurlanc and Vendolis' WFRP plug-in for Strange Eons. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in WFRP, as it enables you to build your own custom components for the game with a minimum of effort. (Going crazy with a wacom tablet is completely optional.)

Currently, for reasons unknown to me, the Strange Eons program only deals with the front side of career cards. So the back, with all the flavor text and trappings info, is missing. That's part of why I'm converting careers instead of making entirely new ones. Instead of having to type up a bunch of background text and lay it out in quark or office, I can just say "please reference the 2nd Ed main book".