Friday, July 30, 2010

FATE steampunk characters

My wife and I are playing in a very enjoyable steampunky alternate history game on Sundays. Our characters have been selected to take part in the first U.S. mission to the moon, which is happening in the late 1890's.

I'm such a thin-skinned perfectionist, I always find something to complain about even in a game I'm really enjoying. So let me get that out of the way:
  • I have some minor gripes about the FATE system, and Fudge-based games in general, but I think I'll mostly save them for another post. The system is somewhat lacking in granularity and gradation, and you never want to be the underdog.
  • The lack of a published setting means the players aren't really sure how far to take the steam-punk and pulp elements (the cliff-hanger of the last session suggests to me that the GM pictures both being more prevalent than we PCs have assumed thus far).
Those both are pretty minor complaints. The game is rolling along at a great pace, and our characters and situations thus far are pretty memorable. We've had to think on our feet, and narrowly avoided some dire fates.

Here's the stats for the character's my wife and I are playing:

My character is Basil "Boyo" Munsby.

Basil is a former member of a New York street gang. After getting in trouble with the law, he was ordered into the Navy by Judge that wanted to scare him straight. After he served his time, he decided to go prospecting for Gold. Instead of the yellow metal, he stumbled across a vein of Phlogiston, the rare mineral that the U.S. Government in the setting is now using to power it's expedition to the Moon.

As far as NYC street gangs go, the Bowery Boys were "pretty boys", and almost respectable. So, while Basil is clearly our adventuring party's resident cold-blooded murderer, he can still dress sharp and hide his psychopathic streak if he needs too. He's uncultured "new money", but at least he doesn't look out of place.

I either bribed or intimidated my way into this expedition, on the flimsy excuse that my experience mining Phlogiston will be useful when we get to the moon (which is clearly full of the stuff). So far I've mainly proved my worth by killing foreign spies that tried to sabotage or infiltrate our mission.

  • Half-Mad Bowery Boy: 2
  • Court-Ordered Military Service: 1
  • Phlogiston of the Sierra Madre: 2
  • "New Money" Adventurer: 1

  • Confidence Man: +0
  • Dirty Fighting: +2
  • Fireman: +1
  • Intimidation: +3
  • Midshipman: +0
  • Mining: +1
  • Petty Larceny: +1
  • Politics: +0
  • Sense Treachery: +0
  • Survival: +2
The various criminal-related skills are mostly from his time as a hoodlum, but so is the Fireman skill, as the Bowery Boys ran a volunteer fire-department.

Survival and Mining are mostly from his time prospecting, but he had some rough situations out there in the wilds that further expanded his Intimidation and Fighting skills.

Midshipman was a mistake, and needs to be renamed. He spent some time on a ship in the navy, and I chose a word I'd heard but apparently always misunderstood. I thought Midshipman was an enlisted rank. Looking on the web now, I realize Midshipman is actually the lowest Officer's rank. I should replace it with "Seaman" or "Leading Seaman". I could believe that he's got what it takes to get promoted once while at sea (he's brave and focused), but he's not Commissioned Officer material.

My wife's character is Theresa White.

She's an inventor and engineer. I don't know much of her character's backstory. My wife is at work, so I can't really pick her brain right now, but I've got a copy of her character sheet. Here's what I do know about her PC off the top of my head: She's a published author on various scientific topics. She was the women's fencing champion at college. Margaret E. Knight is a colleague, friend, or role-model of hers.

  • Nine Impossible Things Before Breakfast: 2
  • Obsessed With Technology: 1
  • Unhealthy Curiousity: 2
  • Women's Fencing Champion: 1

  • Alertness: +1
  • Athletics: +0
  • Electrical Guru: +2
  • Here's What I Need: +0
  • I'm Published: +0
  • It's Never Been Done Before: +1
  • Melee: +0
  • Phlogiston Specialist: +2
  • Technological Gadgeteer: +3
  • What Is That?: +1

In our second session she built some mechanical shackles with a 10-hour time lock, so I wouldn't have to kill the enemy that had surrendered to us. We were on an out-bound train, so as long as he couldn't get free till we'd reached our destination, we didn't need more blood on our hands. Or so she told me. :)

The rest of the play group includes a Pinkerton, a daredevil escape artist, a journalist, an employee of the Vanderbilts, and a young Smedley Darlington Butler. Smedley Butler is one of my personal heroes, so I'm kind of jealous that one of my fellow players had the idea first.

Our second session ended quite unexpectedly with the cliff-hanger of a dog-fight in space. We've been attacked by rocket ships from an as-yet-unidentified nation. Just when you thought it was safe to go into orbit...

Monday, July 26, 2010


Here I am reflecting on the Warhammer 3rd dice yet again. This time it's the red (reckless) and green (conservative) dice. In previous posts, I've looked into how the red dice are a bit of a mixed bag. They generate some big hits, but run a lot more risks in the process. Largely, this is balanced by the way that most action cards have a much-better red side. Or do they? As it turns out, many of the red actions only look much better than their green counterparts. I think Vegas casinos would love those red dice and red sides of the cards, as they look much sexier to the players than they really are.

Let's examine the action Troll-Feller Strike. I chose it partly at random (it was in the first PC ziplock I opened), partly because the math on it was reasonably easy for me to figure out, and partly because the other special attack in the PC bag I pulled that one out of is a bit of an under-performer. Troll-Feller Strike, though, while not one of the absolute best cards, but it's pretty darned good. It's a solid tier-2 card, and the tier-1 above it is comprised of just 2 or 3 broken cards, 2 of which have seen major errata from the publisher. I imagine you could easily argue that Troll-Feller Strike is in a 12-way tie for 4th best non-magic attack card. It certainly doesn't suck, and is the type of action you'd be happy to have in your arsenal.

Looking at the Troll-Feller Strike card, one's initial instincts are that this card is much better on the red side than the green side. The red side has that juicy double-boon line and the very respectable comet line, both of which are absent from the green side. What's more, the green side adds an extra black die of difficulty to your roll. First impressions are that this card is much better on red than green. In theory, you could roll a hit for + 7 damage, +2 criticals, and a number of bonus wounds based on the severity of one those criticals. While that's not gonna happen very often, it's still clear that the red side does tons more damage than the green!

Except it doesn't. After running the math, I've concluded that on average it does 0.2 damage more per attack. Average damage for the red side is 12.8725 minus target's toughness. Average damage for the green side is 12.66 minus the target's toughness.

Here's how I arrived at those figures.

I used an attack pool of 1 purple, 3 blue, 2 stance, 1 yellow. In my experience, most attack pools also have at least one white and at least one black die, but since they kinda come close to cancelling each other out (and the math is much simpler without them), I figured we'd leave the white and black out and just stick with this. (Also, I started on this line of thought in a reply to a post on the FFG forum, and the original poster had sited that pool when they asked their question.)

I ran the numbers through the online probability tool at, as that saved me a lot of time, though it meant I don't have numbers for odds of rolling 4 or more successes, or similarly large numbers of boons and banes.

I rounded those results to the nearest percentage point and made little results charts.

Given those numbers, the red side has the following Hit or Miss percentages:
10%: Miss
35%: Hit +1 damage
55%: Hit +3 damage

The red side has the following boon or bane odds:
1%: 2 Fatigue from Banes*
16%: 1 Fatigue from Banes*
21%: 0 boons or banes
25%: If it hits, gets +1 damage, ignore armour soak
19%: If it hits, gets +3 damage, +1 critical.
18%: If it hits, gets +4 damage, +1 critical, ignore armour soak

To determine the overall damage odds, I multiplied those two percentages. These are rough numbers, for several reasons. (The accurate math is actually more complicated because some results are less likely to occur concurrently. With the red dice, you get slightly more banes on rolls that have fewer successes, and some sides have more than one symbol so you get more extreme rolls. I played around with that for a little bit, and decided the numbers weren't different enough to justify the extra effort. This is part of why I rounded them to the nearest percentage point for the charts here, as the long flowing digits aren't any more accurate than the shorter numbers that are easier to read.)

This multiplication came up with the following percentages for the damage results of any given roll.
10%: Miss
13%: Damage N+1
21% Damage N+3
9%: Damage N+2 (+ignore soak)
7%: Damage N+4 (+1 crit)
6%: Damage N+5 (+1 crit, ignore soak)
14%: Damage N+4 (+ignore soak)
10%: Damage N+6 (+1 crit)
10%: Damage N+7 (+1 crit, ignore soak)

If we assume that N=10 (Strength 5 + Hand Weapon), and that the ability to ignore armour soak adds on average 2 points of damage to the total**, then this generates an average damage per attack roll of 12.86.

That doesn't take the comet line into account. The comet line turns one point of damage into a crit, and then adds bonus wounds equal to the severity of that crit. Crit severity will vary wildly depending on what cards have been handed out already as wounds, and which expansions you have. I did a number crunch on my deck and found the average is 2.25 damage. This assumes a fresh deck and no pre-existing “flesh wound” crits on the foe.

The next step was to calculate what percentage of hits can actually find the comet effect useful. Obviously, you don't want to use the comet line if you didn't net any other successes, or if it could be used as a boon to do +1 damage AND cancel a couple points of armour soak. So, this is only going to be an additional boost in the situations where your roll shows 2 or more potential successes, AND you also already have 1 or more banes or 3 or more eagles as your final boon/bane result from all the other dice but the yellow one, AND you roll a comet. You have a roughly 19% chance of rolling a comet (17% from your initial roll of a yellow die, plus 2% from rolls that get one or more Righteous Successes before rolling the comet), a 76% chance of scoring 2+ successes, and 35% (17% + 18%) chance of scoring banes or 3+ boons. So at best, the comet line is a smart move on 5% of all rolls (as .19 * .76 * .35 = .05054). So, on 5% of all rolls, we add .26 damage, meaning we add an average of 0.125 damage per attack roll.

The end result being that we do an average damage on the red side of 12.8725 minus the target's toughness.

Now let's look at the green side. Same process (except we can skip the obnoxious part about the comet, since there's no comet line on the green side).

Green Side:
Hit vs Miss Odds:
11%: Miss
40%: Hit +1 damage
49%: Hit +3 damage

Boon and Bane Odds:
0%*: 2 Fatigue
10%: 1 Fatigue
19%: 0 boons or banes
71%: If it hits, gets +1 damage, ignore armour soak

Overall damage odds:
11%: Miss
12%: Damage N+1
14% Damage N+3
28%: Damage N+2 (+ignore armour soak)
35%: Damage N+4 (+ignore armour soak)

Assuming the same value for N (10) and for armour soak (2) as we did for the red side, this results in an average damage of 12.66 minus the target's toughness.

About 33% of all red rolls will do more damage than the best green roll, which seems pretty good. However, many of the high red rolls are just 1 point higher than green. What's more, the red dice have higher chances (than the green) of rolling the two lowest possible damage results as well. It all works out to the red side of the card having considerably more variance, but just a fractionally better performance in the long run.

The red side does an average damage of 12.8725, just 0.2125 damage per hit more than the green. As I indicated, most of the above numbers were rough, and there could be rounding errors that I've missed. But the margin of error on my numbers is likely to be smaller than the margin of damage bonus that the red side of the card has. Whenever there was doubt (such as the comet effect), I chose for the numerical result that gives the larger boost to the red side, yet it still only got ahead of the green by 2 tenths of a point of damage.

The upshot of all this is that the two sides of the cards are deceiving. The red side often looks much better, when it's actually just minimally better or just breaking even. This all has to do with the extra banes on the red dice, which make you much less likely to score beneficial boon lines. For a card like Accurate Shot, where the green actually looks better than the red, I say with confidence that the red side is actually quite horrible and the gap between them is huge.

I'm continually impressed with the extents to which the designers of WFRP 3rd went to to make a well-balanced game despite it's highly opaque and unique mechanics. Somebody over at FFG must really like math.

CAVEAT: This took some significant time, so I doubt I'll do this level of analysis with any other cards. Which means I can't be certain I didn't just luck into the Troll-Feller Strike as my first card chosen at random. Confirmation Bias may be influencing my conclusions. I expect the other cards to hold true to the same patterns this card did, but I can't be certain without doing a lot more work.

*: In addition, there's a 36% chance of getting a fatigue from the red dice's exertion symbols, which happens almost independently of the boon-bane status of the rest of the roll. Overall, the roll has a 47% chance of generating 1 or more fatigue, with a maximum fatigue gain of 3 points per roll.

By contrast, the green die only has a 10% chance of getting fatigue at all, and a less-than two-tenths of a percent chance of getting 2 fatigue (and no chance at all of getting a third). Given that every roll of the green pool has a 48% chance of qualifying for recovering a fatigue, they can pretty much ignore their exertion status.

36% of green rolls will end up adding 2 extra recharge tokens to an action or dropping the parties best initiative token down by two. Just how bad that is compared to the red sides fatigue has a lot to do with the situation and character build, not to mention just how sadistic the GM is feeling at the moment.

**: I chose to equate “ignore your target's armour soak value for this attack” with +2 damage as 2 is approximately the average soak of foes in the Tome of Adventure. One could argue that this is below average for the sorts of foes you'd use Troll-Feller Strike against. However, since the green dice has very reliable odds of getting the single-boon trigger to ignore the soak, if we assume soak is higher it just makes things worse for the red side. If armour soak is 3, then the red side does an average damage of 13.42 and the green side does 13.29, closing the gap by nearly by half.

Conversely, the red side fairs a tiny bit better against low-armour foes. The red side would do 12.47 damage vs the green sides 12.03 if the armour soak were just 1 instead of 2. The higher the foes armour soak, the better the green side of the card does.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Last Night's Fiasco

Last night I played in a one-shot of "Fiasco". It's a rules-light GM-less RPG that seeks to capture the feel of a Coen brothers movie. In our case, we were a touring rock band that was on the verge of breaking up. Our scenario ended in tragedy, followed by a killer solo album.
If you've never heard of Fiasco, there's plenty of reviews out there that will tell you the basics. I suggest taking a look at:
Rather than cover all that ground, I'm just going to mention a couple things I particularly liked, and a few I didn't.

What I loved about the system:
  • The charts and mechanism for creating character relationships were awesome. There was a random element, but the players had a collaborative decision-making process to go through in choosing which (rolled) numbers to use on which charts, and interpreting those chart results. It was great source of inspiration, and made sure everyone had a voice in how things started. I will absolutely steal this idea for future one-shots I run that may or may not use any other mechanics from Fiasco.
  • The "Tilt" mid-game. It uses a similar mechanism to the character-creation system to show us the end goal/condition half-way through the session. This was pretty genius, and helped us provide structure at the point where the game was just about to explode out of control.
  • The "Aftermath". Not quite as cool as the character creation and tilt, but still pretty neat. Each PC got a montage of images showing the impact of the events detailed in their future life.
What I wasn't crazy about:
  • The unstructured GM-less mechanics of the scenes themselves. The set-up, tilt, and conclusion mechanisms were all pretty awesome, but I wasn't completely enamored with what went between them.
    It felt a little too "Gong Show" or "Voted off the Island" for me. The other players voted on whether the scene was beneficial or damaging to your character, which in and of itself was just an okay mechanic. Problem was there wasn't a clearly-defined end point for a scene, so you didn't know when to start kibbutzing about the voting part. If someone jumped the gun, it would disrupt the scene / spoil the moment.
    I could easily imagine situations where it would lead to out-of-character social tension as well, like Player A constantly cut Player B's scenes short, always gave Player B a damaging vote, or metagamed the voting procedure to make sure the Aftermath for Player B was dismal. With some groups I've gamed with in the past, that would have been a recipe for disaster.
  • Giving away your results dice in the first Act. My dislike for this may have had to do with the impromptu nature of our session (we'd all showed up for a different game, but there'd been too many players, so some of us broke off into a second table, and decided to play Fiasco instead). Since we weren't prepared for it, the description of how things worked was a little weird, and I couldn't quite internalize what the giving away of the results die represented... if indeed it represented anything. It may have been purely mechanical. The second Act, where you keep the results die for yourself, made more sense to me. The first act felt more like a board game too me, where the mechanics trump the story, and the second felt more like an RPG where the mechanics support and enable the story. I can't say for certain how much of that had to do with this one little rule change between the two acts, and how much had to do with simply progressing through the games learning curve (which is very light, but not transparent).
  • It was over too soon. I expect a 5 or 6 player game is probably about the right length, but the 2-act structure seems to make a 3 or 4 player game just whip right by. It was over before we knew it. I'd like to add a third Act for smaller groups, but I imagine some changes would have to be made to the Tilt and Aftermath to make that work.
I had a lot to say about the two things I didn't like, but I would be very interested in playing this again sometime. I suspect it's a game that benefits greatly from playing it repeatedly and getting a handle on the nuances of both the mechanics and the narrative structure.

Final note: I'm not 100% certain that it needs to be GM-less, and I think it might actually work better if there was a single authority giving it structure during the bits that aren't chart based. You could then just essentially use the Tilt and Aftermath as an improv tool for the GM.

Ennies Voting

If you haven't done so yet, there's just a couple days (ends on the 25th) left to vote for the 2010 Ennie Awards. There's some very cool games (and gaming-related products) up for voting this year. There's also a couple real stinkers, in my opinion, so you should head over there and vote for the ones that actually deserve it. :)

The ballot includes links to the publishers product pages for every nominated item, so if you've never heard of a particular game, you can at educate yourself. I found out that way about a couple games I definitely going to buy in the next month or two.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Inglorious Plummers

This cracked me up.

The Bugger of Pacing

I ran a pretty slow session last night at my Continuum game. This is definitely against my normal trends.
Disclaimer: What follows is just a tiny peak inside my brain, and what I'm thinking while I GM. It's internal monologue, but posted in public so I can't just ignore it. No guarantees anyone will find it useful...
I have a tendency as a GM to throw too many things at the players. It's the single criticism about my GMing that I've gotten most often. My settings are very complicated and rich with plot threads, and I don't have a lot of patience for players dithering and weighing their options all session long. So if the players drag their feet at all, I tend to just lump unfortunate events on them until they take an action. Mostly it works, and nearly always gets the results I want, which is a taught fast-paced and exciting game. Sometimes, though, I over do it (hence it showing up as a recurring criticism). The strongest critique of this aspect of my GMing came earlier this year, in regards to it's impact on the fatigue rules in Savage Worlds. While I think not all of that situation was mine to own, I have tried to be more careful about it since then.

In a time-travel game like Continuum, in theory the PCs have all the time in the world to solve their problems. If there's not someone actively shooting at them, they can take as long as they want to solve the current dilemma, or even stick it on the back-burner and deal with it when they're more skilled. So, throwing more trouble at them would fly in the face of a major setting theme. Beyond that, Continuum has some serious "player driven" potential, in that PCs can teleport and time travel in the blink of an eye. As GM you have to be prepared for anything.

The previous session, they'd wrapped up a plotline / adventure (and had done so about 2 or 3 sessions ahead of schedule due to quick and clever actions on the player's part.). The wrap-up had happened in the final minutes of the session, so we hadn't really planned out a likely next move for the PCs. Their characters were in a fairly remote location, too, so there really wasn't much for me to throw at them if I'd intended too. The ball was in their court, and it took them a while to figure out which way to go. Nothing wrong with that.

I mostly let them take their time, but yet I feel conflicted about it. I threw in a couple short conversations with NPCs, but didn't ask for a single die roll all night. Yet due to that Savage Worlds situation back in January, I'm left wondering if maybe even those two GM-initiated conversations were me pushing too hard on the throttle. At the same time, the session seemed painfully slow to me. None of the players yawned or seemed distracted at all, but not much happened.

At least part of why I'm unhappy with it had to do with how much chatter and table-talk we had at the start of the session. Because there was no cliff-hanger, I didn't start the game as soon as I'd like. We chatted and chewed the fat for most of an hour. These are all good things for a group of friends to do, but I think it contributes to my feeling like the game was too slow. Players participate in your game to have fun, and as long as they're having fun they often don't care whether the time is spent killing monsters or just socializing at the table. Even though everyone had fun, the plot was at exactly the same point (in neutral) that it was at when the session started, and on some level that offends me. I have no one to blame but myself, but it's definitely something I should either try to pre-empt, or try to get over. Should I learn to relax, or learn to get the game on track before the late hour annoys me? I guess that probably depends on who I'm playing with. When I'm a player I just detest a slowly paced game, but nobody complained last night so I may be worrying a lot over nothing.

Sometimes getting the pacing right is way more effort than I'd like it to be.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

An idea in need of a blank d20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 16, 2010

Beam Me Up Before You Go-Go

Last night I ran "Wham Trek" at my weekly one-shot group. The mechanics were an extremely light trimmed-down version of Warhammer FRP 3rd. After a brief explanation of the rules, and a tiny bit of clarification that this had nothing to do with George Michael, we were ready to go.

For those still scratching their heads, Wham Trek was an RPG scenario blending of a couple of crazy old boardgames designed by the great Tom Wham, with just a hint of Star Trek parody. The PCs were the crew of the Znutar, and they were responding to a distress call from the backwaters world known as "Snitopia". It would appear there was an unexplained geological upheaval on Snitopia, and an entire mountain range was jumping up and down on the peaceful snits.

For those still scratching their heads, George Michael was half of the 80's UK pop duo "WHAM!"

For reasons I can't really explain, this was a game I'd wanted to run for a long time. I'd been unable (until just recently) to figure out mechanics that would work for it. In theory, it needed to be goofy and light, but able to support random interactions of bizarre weapons and alien biochemistry. I used the board from Awful Green Things as the map of the PCs spaceship. That map shows (amongst other things) where 12 different weapon types can be found on the ship, so I assumed I needed a system that would make these 12 weapons functionally different. I felt that Fudge or Risus or the like wouldn't do that - but in retrospect I probably could have saved myself a lot of trouble.

As it turns out, I forgot to make the PCs specify what weapons and equipment they took down to the surface until they were in the middle of a fight and had already sounded the retreat. As a result, my big list of weapons didn't really matter. I also managed to forget to print one very important sheet of paper - the page with all my NPC stats. Several days had passed since I'd statted out those NPCs, and the morning of the game I'd had a very distracting emergency trip to the vet for one of my cats, so I really had no fuzzy clue what the stats were. Which meant more improvisation, as it turns out was alright.

Dice mechanics were pretty simple, using the dice from Warhammer 3rd as a narrative engine without most of the baggage that game brings with it. I skipped the green and red dice, the fatigue rules, the recharge rates, etc. The "comets" on the yellow dice gave PCs narrative control, the "Chaos Star" on the purple dice meant something really bad happened. In theory I had worked out success, boon and bane results for all the weapons and a few locations internal to the "mountain range" (that is to say, the Bolotomi from the Snit's games) but they really didn't end up mattering as we just improved our way through my missing paperwork. (I wouldn't be surprised if none of the players even knew I was missing most of my GM's notes, since I just kept my error to myself and rolled with it. GMing and grifting have more in common than most of us suspect. If you can fool your players into believing everything is running smoothly, it usually will.)

I replaced the intricate critical hit system from Warhammer with a neat little subsystem stolen from the "New Hope" game I played in last week. Each PC had a handful of consequences - disarmed, wounded, distressed, and captured/killed - they could choose from when a foe got a hit on them. A critical success (lots of hammer or eagle symbols on the dice) let the attacker choose which consequence they suffered, otherwise it was defender's choice. In addition to the common consequences, every PC had one custom consequence unique to that character. The captain could be seduced by aliens, the chief engineer could avoid personal injury by having the engines go offline, the doctor could get cranky and drunk, the communications officer might start speaking in tongues, etc.

It worked well enough for a one-shot, but probably would have been better if I'd had my carefully-balanced NPC stats on hand so I would have felt more confident throwing real challenges at the PCs. As it played out, there were very few injuries and no real PC fatalities. I was probably too easy on them to really capture the proper Tom Wham feel. No one seemed to complain, though.

The best developments of the night started when the Pilot (played by Peter) engaged the warp drive while in the atmosphere of Snitopia, and thus slingshotted around to an hour before the scenario started. You know, the classic Star Trek trick of bumbling into time-travel. This gave them the opportunity to actually cause the problem they'd responded to. When things went poorly and the 1st Officer was lost, they just flew out to where their ship had been half an hour earlier, and kidnapped the younger self of the 1st Officer, thereby disrupting the time line. Transchronal ripples spread throughout the universe as they continued to mess with their previous selves and engage in more time travel. In one time line, they contaminated the Snit gene pool with xenomiscegenation and converted them into a Fremen Fedaykin army that spread across the cosmos destroying everything in the name of the 1st Officer (who, along with the ship's mascot, was revered as a God). Then they undid that timeline and prevented themselves from ever visiting the planet in the first place. Good clean stupid fun.

All in all, we had a blast. I sort of regret the amount of work I went to trying to customize the game system. I made Ook and Leadfoot (the mascot and the robot from Awful Green Things) into followers akin to the "Small But Viscious Dog" in Warhammer, and created small deck of random weapon affects, none of which probably needed the level of detail I'd prepped for them. The game was a big success, but probably would have been just as successful with 1/3 the prep work. Hopefully I'll learn that lesson one of these days.

Friday, July 9, 2010

May the Blackbird be with you

Last night I played in a one-shot called "New Hope" that was sort of set in the Star Wars Universe, and used mechanics somewhat based on the indy RPG "Lady Blackbird".

It was set several years after Return of the Jedi, and the New Republic was every bit as as nasty as the Empire had ever been. Everything you recall from the movies was just Republican propaganda. It was an interesting twist on the Star Wars setting as seen through the perspective of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again." It was a good game and plenty fun, but could probably have used a stronger opening scene. The GM vaguely explained the situation, but since it's a game where the Players have a lot of narrative power, he left most of the details fuzzy at first. He was trying to leave us free to take things in whatever direction we wanted, but as a result, we had a really slow start. I think if he'd narrated the opening situation more forcefully and given us a memorable villain to really hate, the first hour of the game would have been a lot better.

The rules were really interesting. They were derived from or inspired by Lady Blackbird, which is an indy game I was ignorant of until last night. I downloaded it this morning and took a peek through it, and I can tell that New Hope customized and built on it quite a bit. Overall, I think the changes were good ones. That said, I kind of felt like the GM's backlash dice pools were just a little too small. I think they could stand to range from 5 to 9 instead of 4 to 8. It's hard to say for certain, because we had some really lucky rolls on the players part. I just think the game would have been in it's best possible light, if the PCs had taken 25% more damage across the board and had to start worrying about resources and situations. I was the only one really hurt badly during the game, and that was only because I took some very big risks and painted a target on myself. I was so intrigued by the damage system I intentionally left myself open to suffer more of it.

My favorite part of the rules were definitely the "hit points"-like mechanism, which were customized to each character and really made you agonize over damage. You had three rows of labeled boxes. The first row was more like traditional HP, or like a World of Darkness health boxes, in that they were labeled "Hurt", "Wounded", "Crippled" and "Dead" or something to that effect. Below that was a row that had to do with our social status and the level of pursuit, so they were "Recognized", "Wanted", "Hunted" and "Infamous", I think. Then the fourth row were customized to each PC. My character had a wife and family - their health and safety were 5 of my 6 boxes in the third section. When you take damage, it's usually 1 or two points, and you get to apply them to any empty box that seems appropriate. So in a bar-fight I'd probably take the damage as physical damage in the top row, but I might instead take it in the second row and narrate that I was now a wanted man for having killed the person I was struggling with. If my family was present during a conflict, I might knock boxes off of them and say they were captured or harmed in the battle. One of the other characters was a rich man, and he took damage to his wealth when he got backlash off a roll to bribe someone. Having these custom consequences for each character was pretty cool, and really spiced up the conflicts. I may just have to steal the idea sometime.

Overall, it was good fun, and I'd definitely recommend it if you like the free-form "story game" narrative approach to role-playing. The RPG it was closest too in feel (at least of RPGs I'd played before) was probably Universalis, and I imagine if you like that you'll probably get a kick out of New Hope (or Lady Blackbird). It had more structure than Universalis, but appealed to the same mental space and had a similar spirit.

You can download New Hope for free.

You can also download Lady Blackbird for free.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Opposed Checks House-Rule for WFRP 3rd

When I've run Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd, I've replaced the "Opposed Check Difficulty" table from the main rule book with the following chart:
If the Opposing Characteristic is:
Rated at 1 to 3 characteristics dice: add 1 challenge die
Rated at 4 to 5 characteristics dice: add 2 challenge dice
Rated at 6 or more characteristic dice: add 3 challenge dice
The various "+1 misfortune die" modifiers from the original chart remain unchanged.

Overall, it's a fairly minor change, that mostly helps the little guy. This house-rule also cleans up a few weird corner-case situations where someone with an unusually high or low defensive stat seems to circumvent the default math of the rest of the game's systems. It also removes division and comparison from the tabletop, giving standard difficulties instead of needing to recalculate difficulty by the relative traits of the participants, thus speeding up combat a little.

Note that 3 characteristics dice is human average, and 5 characteristics dice is the most a PC can start the game with. So those being the break points on Opposed Checks is reasonable and pretty easy to remember.

To explain why I made those changes, here's an example:

Let's say a character has a Strength or Agility of 3, but no Weapon Skill or Ballistic Skill to go along with it. Average and unexceptional in every way. His odds of hitting the target with a basic attack are 40% or so. I mean any target. That was assuming a Defense 1 (most armors) and 1 Active Defense. There may be freak situations that nerf his odds, but if he's attacking round after round over the long haul the hit rate stays above 35%. In general, the game has very high success rates, give him an stat just 1 point above average, or a single skill die and he'll have a better than 50% success rate.

The majority of attacks use that same math, as their difficulty is "vs Target Defense" which means in general 1 challenge die and 1 or 2 misfortune dice.

Some attacks, however, use Opposed Checks. Often these are on fairly oddball actions, or ones that don't have really big splashy effects. When I've tried to assign a compare or balance the existing actions, I keep coming back to the conclusion that someone on the design team thought that using an Opposed Check was somehow beneficial to the attacker. It's not. Instead all it does is make it harder on the attacker if their stats are unexceptional.

Let's look at that person with a 3-rated stat, who has a 40% chance of hitting any target with a basic attack. What are his odds of hitting a foe by using an Opposed Check?
  • 88% if the target's opposed trait is rated at 1.
  • 59% if the target's opposed trait is rated at 2.
  • 38% if the target's opposed trait is rated at 3 (human average).
  • 24% if the target's opposed trait is rated at 4.
  • 24% if the target's opposed trait is rated at 5.
  • 14% if the target's opposed trait is rated at 6 or higher.
That doesn't look to bad - 88% is sweet. You might think opposed check attacks are amazing at sweeping mooks out of the way. At least until you realize how rare those 1-rated traits are. Even snotlings don't have 1's. The only 1's in the game are the social traits of undead and wild animals. Outside of spells, there's only 1 attack (Backstab) that will ever face off in an opposed check vs a trait rated at 1.
An irrelevant and snarky aside: Backstab faces off against a 1 trait because it's resisted by Intelligence + Observation. There's nothing to the text of the Backstab card to suggest it's meant to be better than other opposed roll attacks. It does face some extra misfortune dice, but they come equipped with an easy way to sidestep them. I think it just got the boost (of being the only action to face Trait 1 opposed stats) by virtue of left-hand-right-hand-syndrome. One person designed the action cards and someone else designed the monster stats. I know the "design by commitee" gripe is a cheap shot on my part, but it's probably exactly what happened. As written, Backstab is best against Zombies, Boars, and huge freakin' Trolls. That just doesn't feel right to me. But, admittedly, it's a minor quibble.

That those same sorts of foes also have really low Fellowship scores is a little weird. Yes, it makes sense a Zombie shouldn't be very friendly, and shouldn't have much luck Influencing you with Social Actions. But as written there's nothing that stops a PC from using "Winning Smile" against a Zombie, or "Insulting Blow" against a Boar. Common sense and/or GM intervention is likely to prevent either, but per the RAW (Rules As Written) these mindless foes are not just valid targets, they are particularly vulnerable to social actions of this sort. I find that a bit silly.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled slightly less ranty post about math and house-rules...
If the foe outclasses you just a tiny bit, the Opposed Check rules in the main book will totally nerf you. The game assumes your odds of hitting with a normal attack will never drop below the high 30%s. Why would you pay for a special attack that might drop as low as 14%? You've dropped from hitting 1/3 of the time to hitting 1/7 of the time. Stick with your basic actions at that point.

Now let's look at the numbers using the house-rule at the top of this post. The same 3-stat individual is attacking. His odds of success under the house-rule are:
  • 59% if the target's opposed trait is rated at 1.
  • 59% if the target's opposed trait is rated at 2.
  • 59% if the target's opposed trait is rated at 3 (human average).
  • 38% if the target's opposed trait is rated at 4.
  • 38% if the target's opposed trait is rated at 5.
  • 24% if the target's opposed trait is rated at 6 or higher.
The extremes have been ironed out of the scale. There's no longer the random boost making Backstab situationally better than all other Opposed action cards. The 24% difficulty vs the hardest foes is now only a little bit worse than normal odds, and still probably worth attempting an attack. You're hitting 1/4 the time instead of 1/3 the time (or 1/7th under the normal rules). For a card like Dramatic Flourish, those 10 extra percentage points mean it might actually be worth using sometimes.

There's two other minor reasons I like this rule:
  1. The reduced variation frees up some character design space. The example above focuses on attackers with human average stats, but it's possible to have a 2-rated trait for a PC in warhammer. The odds get much worse than presented above if your stats are that low, dropping down to an 8% success rate. Applying the house rule takes some of the sting out of being below-average in a stat. Having 2 dice in something is limiting enough without Opposed Checks stomping you down further. The game system includes character classes like "Scribe" and "Rat-Catcher" so being a little substandard should be encouraged, not punished.
  2. No math, just a chart with 3 entries. The system from the rulebook required comparing stats to figure out if something was less than, but not less than half a stat. If I'm keeping track of the wounds, status, and recharge tokens per action of half a dozen goblins, two orcs, a giant boar and 3 mobs of snotling henchmen, I don't want to have to do even the tiniest bit of division in the middle of that. It was pretty minor mindless division, but it was still prone to slowing the game down or even derailing the GM's focus.

I've run the house-rule for a 6-PC one-shot and few smaller test combats, and it seems to work well, with no unexpected ripples into other rules. It's pretty tight, easy to remember, and very functional.

A few of the GMs on the WFRP forums do something similar, but they divide the opposing trait by 2 and either round down or use a misfortune die for the fraction. I don't like that because it still leaves the weird trait-1 loophole for Backstab, and because it's marginally less elegant than my system. Marginally.

An email from my friend Peter reminded me of this House-Rule, which I meant to post more than a month ago. I'd been working on some pie charts to go with it, and gotten sidetracked on other probability related topics. Thank you for jogging my memory, Peter!