Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Gaming Withdrawal (Too Many Cancelled Games)

It's been a rough couple of weeks for me, as I'm not getting my fix of choice. Gaming, that is.

My typical weekly gaming schedule involves a Continuum campaign I run, a Fate game I play in, and an additional one-shot that I either GM or play in. I really hate canceling sessions. I don't like letting people down. Also, I must admit I get really psyched to game, and there's a huge let down for me when I don't get to follow through on it.

  • A couple weeks ago, I missed a Thursday night one-shot. (And I missed another 2 weeks before that, come to think of it.)
  • That weekend we went camping, and so the Fate game was canceled.
  • I'd hoped to get some horror gaming around the campfire going that weekend to replace it, but rain, and a smoke-inhalation-induced headache kept me from running the game I'd prepared.
  • Then on Wednesday, there was a last-minute emergency that canceled my Continuum game just minutes after was supposed to start.

All this came about during a time frame when I thought the amount of gaming I was doing was actually going to increase. A player who'd had to leave my Continuum game a couple months ago because of schedule conflicts inquired about returning, but at a different day and time. It being a game with time-travel and teleportation, where party unity is already quite fragile, I agreed. I'm weaving a related narrative for him into the main narrative for the folks playing in the "main" session, and the limited overlap shouldn't be much of a problem.  However, the first session with him was mostly recap, and the two scenes I did run fell a little flat (I kinda prepped the wrong things). The second week of it was much better, but the player had something come up in the middle of it, and had to leave early.

So that's four and a half sessions I've missed in recent memory. Two and a half of which I did my normal amount (as in, more than is really necessary) of GM prep work for. So I'm kinda wound up, bursting with ideas and wanting to run them.

This week, for various reasons, I'm going to have to miss all four games. I can't imagine what that will feel like, knowing that I missed out on 8.5 games in just over a month. I bet that by my next opportunity to game, my hands will be shaking from the withdrawal.

Actually, as I look at my keyboard, I see that's already happening. I'll try to look at the bright side: there's a chance the dice tracks on my arm will finally heal a little, assuming I can keep from picking at the scabs.

Monday, August 2, 2010

It was probably Fate

Played in a great session at the Fate Steampunk  campaign yesterday.  My character came very close to dying, repeatedly. Surprisingly, I took hardly any damage, just a single "clipped" result, but to get by with so little injury took activating all six of my aspects, spending all three of my fate points, and getting three different assists from other players (using the optional rule where they can spent two fate points to give me a +1 bonus).  I boarded two enemy vessels, one in the traditional "boarding party melee" fashion, the other more sneakily to plant a bomb. Trying to sneak back off the enemy battleship, I was accosted by guards, and had some bad luck trying to escape. I barely got off the ship before it blew up, and was left adrift on the luminiferous aether. Luckily, one of my fellow PCs was able to fly over and save me. Had it not been for the assistance of my team-mates, I would have gone down in a blaze of glory. Instead, I waded through the carnage virtually unscathed, as though I were protected from on high.

Of particular personal pride was that I used my "Phlogiston of the Sierra Madre" Aspect and my Fireman (+1), Mining(+1), and Midshipman(+0) skills to destroy the enemy ship. These were some of the wackier elements of my character, the sorts of things you take that give flavor and a sense of history. At the same time they make you worry that perhaps your wasting your points because they're rarely going to come up, and they're really outside the purview of the what your character was built to do.  Yesterday, however, they were absolutely vital to me having the tools and training to get into weird places on board the enemy vessel, and deploy the dynamite.

This seems as good a time as any to discuss the probabilities behind the mechanics of Fudge (which is the basis of Fate, and several Fate-derived games, as well as being the basis of F#). All three systems use Fudge dice (though, you can also play Fate or Fudge using two d6 instead, and just subtracting one from the other). The dice rolls end up having quite a pronounced bell curve, with around 20% of all rolls netting a +0 result, and the odds dropping off pretty fast as you approach the outer ends of the curves. Here's a graph comparing the three die mechanics I've played with for Fudge-based games.

Nothing terribly surprising in that chart. Four Fudge Dice provide more variance and a gentler curve than 3 Fudge Dice. The steeper curves emphasize your Skills, the gentler curves emphasize the random element. So F#, which (ironically?) abstracts and downplays skills, actually makes skill level matter more definitively than it does in vanilla Fudge, simply by using one less die.

You can compare these odds to the d20 system by extending the chart out to about +/- 10 and just drawing a horizontal line at the 5% level. Fudge characters have very narrow results windows that are very skill-dependent, unlike d20's haphazard and wide-ranging variations.

One more note: Your odds of rolling a -3 or -4 on 4dF are about 6%, but we always seem to get them more often than that at the table top. :)  I actually rolled -3 on three consecutive rolls last session!

The real point in making these curves was so that I could figure out when to use Aspects in Fate. In Fate 2.0, an Aspect can be invoked for either of two major dice-related effects. You can turn 1 Fudge die to it's "+" side, from a blank side or a "-" side. Alternately, you can invoke the Aspect to reroll all four dice.  At the tabletop yesterday, I had a hard time deciding which to use when my dice came up "+---". Flipping a die to it's best side was a guaranteed boost of two ranks, but since that would only generate a +0 result, it felt like maybe the odds favored rerolling instead. Looking at the 4dF bell curve, it becomes obvious that the reroll option is okay at -2, but really shines at -3 and -4.

  • If your roll is +4 or +3, obviously you don't want to (and really can't) use an Aspect at all. Be happy with your good luck, and don't get greedy.
  • If your roll is +1 or +2, you may consider using an Aspect to turn a "-" into a "+". Doing so would get you a lovely roll that's likely to be a success even if your skills are only fair or average. Personally, though, I'd only do that if this were a critical roll, with a life on the line. Otherwise, I'd hold on to my Aspects to save my bacon further down the road. You definitely don't want to reroll, as that has more than an 80% chance of being a wasted effort, and is very likely to backfire.
  • If your roll is -1 to +0, then it's definitely time to swap a "-" into a "+". Fudge-based systems tend to have a very unforgiving results ladder. The step from "nearly impossible" to "stupidly easy" is just about two or three points away. The sweet spot from the GM's point of view is difficulties just 1 above the PCs skills, as that gives them a less than 50% chance of success on rolling alone, but is still easily within the reach of a single Aspect of Fate Point to correct. If you're playing with a GM who's challenging but fair, there's going to be a lot of cases where the difficulty is 1 above your skill, so boosting your roll from +0 to +2 is frequently going to pay off. (At least when I'm GMing, my goal is for the players to win, but only after a hard-fought battle.) On a roll like this, never use an Aspect for a reroll - rerolls have a less than 40% chance of improving your position, and are just as likely to make things worse.
  • If your roll is -2, you'll want to reroll if your action is offensive (an attack roll, or a skill check that will advance the plot but not ruin you if it's failed).  If your current result is -2 on 4dF, the reroll has an 80% chance of improving my situation, and only a 6.17% chance of making things worse. If you reroll an attack, you can afford to be risky, as it's not usually the end of the world if the reroll fails. Your only real downside is that you've spent a resource (the Aspect) and wasted a turn. There's big benefits to be gained if your attack roll rockets up from -2 to +4, as not only does your chance of hitting go up, but the damage you do on a successful hit goes up as well. On an attack, a high roll always means more impact.
    However, if your roll is something defensive, you're actually better off flipping a die instead of rerolling all of them. Turning the die is a guaranteed +2 boost, which means it will always reduce the type of damage you suffer by category. Getting a bad reroll means not just depleting a resource, it usually means taking even more damage. A defensive reroll when you're sitting at -2 has only a 40% chance of saving you more damage then the single die flip would, and equal odds of being less effective. On a defense, a high roll is often no more effective than a medium roll, as either cancels all the damage - it's more important to assure you don't have the crummy below average roll that would amplify your injuries.
  • At -3 and -4, reroll, reroll, reroll. It doesn't matter if your roll is offensive or defensive in nature, you've got a better than 90% chance of improving your situation, and your average improvement is nearly double what you'd get if you just flipped a single die.

And now a brief rant about a house-rule that's been used at the game I'm playing in. This house rule, which apparently originates in Spirit of the Century (and I've been told appears in Starblazer Adventures, Dresden Files, and other Fate-based games), goes like this: "Spending a Fate chip gives +2 on a roll instead of +1." Man, I think that rule is awful. I don't think I would never use it in a game I was running.

Aspects are cool character-specific things you can invoke to boost your rolls. They help differentiate between characters, because not everyone will always be able to invoke all their aspects in every situation. Finding a good use for your "Phlogiston of the Sierra Madre" Aspect is, as previously mentioned, a spotlight moment where your character stands in stark relief from the rest of the party. So it's very cool that the Aspects have a little bit of complexity, a great deal of variance, and some serious power potential. Aspects are hugely potent, but not very reliable - they're great for saving your bacon in a tight spot or fumbled roll, but don't tend to be helpful on average medium rolls and are useless if the dice are deliver their top natural results.

Fate points, per the default Fate 2.0 rules, can be spent on any roll to get a flat +1 boost. This can help take the sting out of a failure, but it can just as easily turn a home run into a grand slam.  While a Fate point's over all power is less than an Aspect, they're simpler to invoke and much more reliable. They also don't add to character flavor or differentiation at all. An Fate point says to the world "I'm a Hero", where as an Aspect says "This is the type of Hero I am." Fate points make any hero a little more capable of doing the same things everyone else can do. They make the other stats on your sheet matter less, and make the characters less unique.

Given the steep bell curve of the system, I completely understand why Fate points are needed, as the odds can be pretty harsh if the players lack the most relevant skill. But I think the balance between the two mechanics in Fate 2.0 is very deliberate and intentional. Aspects are meant to be more powerful, but narrower in scope and less reliable. Aspects make you an expert. Fate points make you a generalist. If you had to choose between getting an extra Aspect point or getting an extra Fate point, it'd be a tough call.

Once you've applied that house-rule, however, that balance is upset. Suddenly Fate points grossly outstrip Aspects, because they're now just as potent as an Aspect 98.77% of the time and yet still much easier to utilize. This really degrades character niche and uniqueness. I'll admit that's a personal hobgoblin of mine - I really like it when characters act and play differently, and I'm known for playing some oddball characters.

I just feel that if a game like Fate or Spirit of the Century is going to have a long involved character creation process (where you chart out the PCs life and assign skills using complex little tree diagrams, and dream up these catchy flavorful Aspects), it's really counter-productive to have some mechanism overshadow all that. If Fate points give +2 to a roll, making them better than Aspects, and more beneficial than most of the skill ratings on the typical character sheet, then they really do threaten to dwarf and trivialize all other mechanics. I think that's a shame.

If someone else is playing the Mad Scientist and I'm not, I really don't want my character to be able to build steam mechs and reanimate corpses. That's their "thing", their niche, and I'd rather they get to keep that spotlight for themselves. But a double-strength Fate chip means I've got a decent shot of duplicating their efforts. It filled in the conceptual gap between our characters.

I despise that house rule, but not to such an extent that it's a game-breaker. I'm still really enjoying the campaign I'm playing in, and yesterday's session was incredible. A big chunk of that is because our GM is really good at improvising and putting us in difficult positions with no obvious solution. I enjoy having to squirm out of the situations he creates for us. But honestly, I took some ridiculous risks in that last session, and I probably should have at least been badly injured. Fate points are what saved me, and they're what allowed me to pull of three stupidly high-risk rolls that I really had no business succeeding at. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.