Sunday, October 14, 2018

I buried the lead in a tangent.

Earlier today, I wrote a lengthy rant about 7th Sea and why I chose to reduce the damage of duelists instead of increasing the damage of non-duelists. In a rambling tangent buried deep in that post, I said this:
Options that look strong or weak during character creation should not turn out to have radically different power-levels in play. You would not expect "Duelist" to be significantly stronger than Army Officer, Mercenary, Cavalry, Hunter, or any of the other martial-themed Background options, but it really is.

Thinking back on that, I realized this point was actually far more important than I presented it as, and I probably should have led with that statement.

The internet is full of two years of 7th Sea posts about why Duelists are unbalanced vs non-combatant NPCs, to which the most common rebuttal is "Duelists should be vastly stronger than non-combatants".

Those rebuttals are absolutely right, but they are also entirely missing the point.

Duelists have dedicated at least one of their two Background choices to being a bad-ass in combat. I entirely agree that compared to another character that hasn't chosen any significant combat options, the Duelist should be very potent.

The problem is there are several other character creation options that cost the exact same as being a Duelist (by which I mean it takes one of your 2 Background choices), and every single one of them is significantly under-powered in comparison to the Duelist.

If someone chose Cavalry and Mercenary as their two Backgrounds, they've doubled-down on combat-capable character concepts, but those two Backgrounds combined together contribute far less to their damage output or chances of emerging victorious from a battle than the single choice of Duelist that another player took.

A character who took Duelist and Courtier would do at least double the damage of a character who took Soldier and Assassin. That's what really bothers me about it.

Miss Harker continues to Vamp about

Since my last two posts were about 7th Sea, I just wanted to mention that I'm still currently running Night's Black Agents / The Dracula Dossier. Everyone's schedules are such that we only get to play that about once a month, so I'm planning to do a semi-regular 7th Sea campaign with a different group of players, and hopefully get to game twice a month this way.

In my most recent session of NBA, the PCs got raided by the secret British Vampire Program. They'd not stirred up a lot of Heat in London, and didn't cover their tracks well enough. So there was a cool fight and chase scene as their safehouse got burned & blown. They learned a thing or two about the opposition (including seeing Seward Serum up close) and then slipped away into the night.

The session left with them still in London, trying to keep a low profile while hunting Jack the Ripper (who the PCs had accidentally unleashed into the world a half dozen sessions ago). I actually left off with a fun cliffhanger where one of the PCs found herself in a trunk with a vampire. When you hear Mina Harker's voice in your head at midnight, I do not recommend inviting her in, not even if you're riding in the trunk of a car down a busy street and there's no earthly chance she could actually be there. The power of Apportation scoffs at your puny mortal concepts of time and space.

Putting A Finer Point On The Sword

A couple days ago I posted a set of house-ruled Dueling Maneuvers for 7th Sea 2nd Edition, which dramatically reduced the amount of damage a Duelist could do. This cut it down to about 150% to 175% of a what a non-Duelist PC could do, instead of the 300% to 500% of a non-Duelists damage output as the official rules-as-written would have it. Since then, I've been reading additional other posts on forums and blogs with other people's house-rules and alternatives for exactly that same situation.

It seems most people's solution is to scale up the damage done by non-Duelists. Usually this is achieved via providing a 1-, 2-, or 3-point Advantage that gives non-Duelists access to Slash (and in some cases Parry and/or a few other Maneuvers). Adding a single Advantage seems like a far more elegant solution than completely rewriting 5 or 6 maneuvers and several of the Style Bonuses, so I can see the appeal of going that route.

That said, here are the reasons why I chose the larger-scale revision, and in particular why I chose to lower Duelist's damage output instead of raising non-Duelist's effectiveness.

Reason #1: I'd rather slow the death spiral than speed it up.

In 7th Sea 2nd Edition, a PC has 20 health boxes. 20 points of damage drops a character. A typical non-Duelist starting character is going to deal 2 to 4 points of damage per Round. A starting Duelist, on the other hand, under the core rules,  is going to deal somewhere between 10 and 15 points of damage in a turn. Which means a duel to the death is probably 2 Rounds in length, and if there's a min-maxed or "high level" Duelist on one side of a fight, PC death could happen in a single Round. Each player only rolls dice once per Round. This just seems really short and fast to me. There's no time or warning for a player to realize their out of their league - if a non-Duelist accidentally picked a fight with a major (Duelist) Villain, they'd be dead before they realized the danger they were in. Should a PC stir-up trouble, I want them to have a chance to flee, or an opportunity for other PCs to jump in and save them. Such an escape is just not likely if a battle to the death can happen in one or two die rolls. That is the single biggest problem I have with boosting non-Duelists up to Duelist levels of damage. It seems safer (from a campaign perspective) to slow everything down instead.

The other side of that coin is also mildly troubling. It's not nearly as big a deal if an NPC gets cut down without warning in one or two die rolls, but it still definitely complicates the GM's ability to plan a balanced and exciting fight scene or develop an ongoing storyline with a memorable recurring villain. I've read a fair bit online where GMs have said they needed to throw Brute Squads of 20 or 30 nameless NPCs against the PCs to keep their fights challenging. While that makes sense for a big battle at the end of major story arc, it seems less than ideal for the bread-and-butter of your standard session.

There are a few other lesser concerns that lead to my approach. I'll detail them below, but honestly these are all much smaller deals than the tendency towards instant death in the rules as written.

(Minor) Reason #2: A new "leveling the playing field" advantage isn't part of any Background package.

During character creation, players pick 2 Backgrounds that tell their back-story and give them a starting collection of Advantages and Skills. If I were to add a hypothetical Advantage that closes the gap between Duelists and non-Duelists, it wouldn't appear on any of the current Backgrounds. So either I'd need to make new Backgrounds or edit the existing ones, or live with the notion that PCs who are non-Duelists but want to be good at fighting have to spend their bonus Advantage points on it, and so have slightly fewer customization options than the full-on Duelist. Not particularly horrible, but it does undercut the elegance and appeal of just adding a single Advantage to solve the balance issues.

Tangent: I prefer transparency during character creation
One of my pet peeves in regards to gaming is RPG systems with hidden bad-choices in character creation. 1st Edition 7th Sea had these in spades. If you sunk a bunch of character creation points into knacks, especially advanced knacks, it was a terrible waste of your time and power, as those were much faster and easier to raise via XP in just a  session or two. Also, Panache, which sounded on the surface like it might be the Charisma-esque dump-stat most characters could safely ignore, was actually the strongest stat in the game as it determined how many actions you got per turn. In the first 7th Sea campaign I ever played in, we didn't make our characters together, so multiple players missed both of these truths about the creation system, and spent the rest of the campaign feeling envious of my character. It was not a great dynamic, and I learned a lot from that experience. The goal is for everyone at the table to have fun, and that is far less likely to happen if one PC is vastly outperforming others.
Options that look strong or weak during character creation should not turn out to have radically different power-levels in play. You would not expect "Duelist" to be significantly stronger than Army Officer, Mercenary, Cavalry, Hunter, or any of the other martial-themed Background options, but it really is.

That is at the core of why I'm house-ruling the Dueling damage down. During character creation, it's not going to be obvious to most players just how much better a Duelist is to a non-duelist. I can warn them, but the gap is so huge that they are almost certainly going to underestimate the importance and regret it later. If I do successfully put the fear of Duelists into them, then the whole table will be playing Duelists, which erodes character niche integrity and results in everyone having the same skills. I don't want disappointed or envious players, but I also don't want a gang of cookie-cutter PCs with diminished individuality.

(Minor) Reason #3: A ranged combat character can't compete with Dueling.

7th Sea 2nd Edition has loosey-goosey movement rules... or really, no movement rules at all. In many RPGs, movement and ranges are tracked more explicitly. In such games, this often means that melee damage output defaults to being higher than ranged damage, as a trade-off for play balance. You can hit harder if you spend an action or two moving into position and are willing to risk the extra danger of being on the front lines.

This edition of 7th Sea has no concept of the "Front Lines", and explicitly employs mechanics such as Consequences and Brute Squads that affect the entire party regardless of (non-existent) positioning. Rarely will the Swordsman find himself in greater peril than the Archer. As GM, I can force that situation, but there's nothing in the default mechanics that makes it happen, so every time I do so, everyone at the table will know that's me actively working to make it harder on the melee characters. That's a well you can't draw from infinitely without someone crying foul.

Guns have a bit of a balancing factor built in to them to account for this: they always do a Dramatic Wound, which is almost as good as doing 5 damage. Those guns are black-powder weapons, however, so they take 5 actions to reload. A PC carrying a brace of pistols (a not-so-subtle fashion style) can almost match a starting Duelist's damage output for the first Round (and just the first round). A gun-using PC can't keep up later in the campaign as the Duelist improves his Weaponry skill, but for a shorter campaign, this is very close to balanced against Duelists. Duelists are still better, but with the rules-as-written the only hope of a non-Duelist to not feel useless in a fight is to carry multiple pistols.

A PC with a bow, or a bandolier full of throwing knives, just can't compete. If the game were entirely and completely set in just the Restoration and Golden-Age-of-Piracy era, I wouldn't worry much about that. Instead, it's more of a greatest hits of European history. A friend once described the anachronistic setting thusly: "7th Sea is set in the 100-year era between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Industrial Revolution". Yes, it's mostly Pirates and Musketeers, but other perfectly-valid character inspirations include Vikings and King Arthur and Machiavelli and Robin Hood. Unfortunately, that last archetype doesn't seem to have a workable model in the current mechanics. At best you could get a Signature Item (your prized bow) and the Sniper Advantage, but that still only buffs your damage output up to about 8 Wounds per Round, at the cost of a Hero Point each Round.

Tangent: I'm not worried about Pistols overwhelming my new Duelists
I've reduced the damage or Dueling, but not Pistols. For the record, I am not the least bit worried about that swinging balance too far in the opposite direction. While 7th Sea doesn't have a rigid Encumbrance system to limit PCs from loading up on pistols, it does have social etiquette. Unlike D&D where a guy in full armor sporting 5 weapons is normal, in 7th Sea someone carrying half a dozen pistols is going to look conspicuously murderous. The campaign I'm planning to run will have courtly intrigue as well as daring-do, and the need to be able to attend court will prevent players from packing too much heat. Maybe if I was running a purely pirates-in-the-wilderness style of campaign there would be more cause for concern, but I don't expect it to be a problem.

If you're worried about this being a abused, there's one very elegant and organic way to limit the effectiveness of carrying 3 or more pistols. Just require a Raise to draw a weapon, and a Raise to fire with your off-hand. (And remember, they already take 5 Raises to reload.) With that in place, Pistols are cemented in their role as a good-opening move but an inefficient long-battle strategy.

(Minor) Reason #4: To open up some design space for Signature Weapons

In 1st Edition of 7th Sea, there were all sorts of cool weapons for swordsmen. Puzzle Swords, Dracheneisen Panzerhands, Sidhe Weapons, Rune Weapons, Castillian Blades, MacEachern Weapons, Twisted Blades, and Pattern-Welded-Steel. Having a distinctive "hero weapon" was definitely a thing, and what style of weapon you had was flavorful as well as meaningful. Almost none of that exists in 2nd Edition, and the only thing really left along those lines is the "Signature Item" Advantage.

If you've got a Signature Item, and it is a weapon, you can use it to do bonus damage. This costs a Hero Point to activate. Most characters start each session with just 1 Hero Point and can only reliably expect to get maybe 2 more Hero Points in a session, so it's already pretty limited. I've seen some posts where people say Signature Item is how non-Duelists can compete with Duelists, but I don't buy it. If you do spend 3 Hero Points on three consecutive hits in the first round of a Duel you could indeed to Duelist levels of damage in the first Round. It's expensive as heck, both draining your per-session resources and costing 60% the cost of the Duelist Academy at character creation.  Despite that cost, it doesn't get your damage up high enough to kill the Duelist you're battling in that one Round (especially if they Parry or Riposte), so they'll rip you apart in Round 2 when you don't have any Hero Points left.

It's worth noting as well that a Signature Weapon doesn't level up with you. A Duelist will do more damage (nearly doubling it) as he raises his Weaponry, but a Signature Weapon is probably going to be same bonus your entire career. And there's a weird little wrinkle where a Signature Weapon is useful to a starting Duelist (it's probably +2 damage on a Hero Point spend) but has no impact on Duelist who has raised their Weaponry during play. So the GM can't really award a fancy sword as a treasure to a Duelist, gifting it late in a campaign as a reward for success, because it won't really do anything by then. (It's still a decent treasure for a non-Duelist, as written. The dynamic is a little weird.)

Other than that, a sword is a sword is a sword. 7th Sea is not D&D, and you won't find intricate equipment lists and weapons using different dice types or significant modifiers. This is both a good thing (it's liberating and rules-lite) and a bad thing (that the only type of "special" weapon is a generic special item that is identical in stats to all other "special" items).  Reducing the automatic damage output of a Duelist makes generic Signature Weapons more useful to Duelists (and to non-Duelists as it makes them much more competitive) and also potentially opens up the possibility that a GM could introduce a more specific weapon bonus without it just further aggravating the tendency for battles to the death ending in the first Round. Not that I've done anything with that just yet, and I might not ever, but it seems like there's more room at the table for that as a possibility if Duelists are taken down a notch first.

(Minor) Reason #5: So I'm not obligated to make all Villains be Duelists

A single PC Duelist, under the default rules, can murder any non-Duelist in two Rounds or less. The only reliable defense is the Parry and Riposte Maneuvers. I'd rather have the option of crafting Villains with any background (or Background) that fits the story, instead of limiting myself to only those who've been a Duelist Academy.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Balance Of A Sword: Dueling on the 7th Sea

I'm looking at possibly starting a 7th Sea RPG campaign next month. I'm all excited to try out the new-ish 2nd Edition of the game, but I've noticed in the past that sometimes games by that designer (John Wick, not Keanu Reeves) have some mathematical and mechanical issues. The first edition of 7th Sea had a few bugs (Panache was way too strong, damage calculation slowed combat considerably, Swordsman Schools and Sorcery both probably cost more than they were actually worth during character creation, and Half-blooded Sorcery in particular was a disaster), but was still worth playing because the setting was so cool. I've complained at length about the balance issues and lack of niche-protection in the otherwise conceptually excellent Wilderness of Mirrors by the same author. John Wick writes great settings, and comes up with innovative mechanics, but I feel like sometimes he's doesn't take enough care with play-balance and munchkin-prevention. Or maybe his home playgroup is made up of such high-caliber players that balance issues are tertiary to the story and fun. We should all be so lucky.

With that in mind, I poked around the internet a bit looking to see what flaws my fellow gamers had identified in their 7th Sea 2nd Edition campaigns. The biggest complain I've read (aside from some folks just not taking to the more "story game" approach in the rules, or having been burned because they expected it to be more of a 1.5 edition instead of a completely new core mechanic) is about Duelists.

In short, Duelists are way too powerful. According to this article I read, a properly trained Swordsman from the Duelist Academy can do 3 to 5 times as much damage as a character with identical stats who just didn't take the Duelist Background. That's a problem, and a bad one. It's at least as big of a character creation land mine as the over-importance of Panache in the first edition. 

The problem seems to be mostly in Slashes and Ripostes. Both of these Maneuvers are significantly better than the default attack of any non-Duelist. Most starting PCs will do 1 damage per hit, maybe 3 or 4 damage total in a Round. A starting Duelist is will almost always do 3 damage per hit, and a total of 9 to 12 in a round while also preventing at least one wound to themselves with a well-timed Riposte.  When one character outperforms the rest of the party combined, it's a recipe for unhappy envious players.

The obvious power-level of the Slash and Riposte also have the side-effect of making the other Duelist options seem worthless in comparison. The only other option that compares favorably is the Lunge, but doing a Lunge ends your turn prematurely. Instead of providing interesting options and tactics to spice up duels, the strength of Slashes and Ripostes pretty much render the Duelists choices meaningless. The optimal sequence of plays for every Duelist in a sword fight is to Riposte against the first attack an enemy launches, use a Slash for the actions directly before and after the Riposte, and then a Lunge instead of a Slash for your very last action of each turn. If you're graced with the good luck of having more than 4 Actions to spend in a Round, you might throw in a single Bash, Parry or Feint, but this will be rare and you'll always know that these moves are inferior to every Slash, Riposte and your final turn-ending Lunge. That all feels like a missed opportunity to me.

I'm currently considering the following house-ruled Maneuver set for all Duelists. It reduces the overall bonus for being a Duelist to roughly a 50% increase in combat effectiveness, instead of the 200% to 400% increase that they receive with the default system written in the rulebook. Duelists have the following combat Maneuver options, listed in the same seemingly-random order in which they appear in the rulebook:

Slash: This is a basic attack, the same as any non-duelist can use. It does 1 Wound to the target. You may spend additional Raises to add damage to this attack, the same as a non-duelist can when they land an attack. Slash is the only Maneuver that is exempt from the consecutive-actions limitation on page 235 of the rulebook (you can Slash twice in a row, but cannot use any other Maneuver twice in a row without doing something else in between).
(Duelists will rarely use the basic Slash in this version. Their other options are generally better in one way or another. The only common exception to this is to use a Slash for a killing blow if your enemy starts the round close to defeat. When that happens, it will be worth it to dump a stack of raises into one large Slash early in the round to prevent them from striking back.)

Parry: This prevents a number of Wounds equal to your Ranks in Weaponry. Using Parry takes your action (and 1 Raise) and must be done immediately following the attack by an enemy that caused the Wounds your are preventing.  
(This is functionally identical to the Parry as written on page 235 of the rulebook, nothing has changed about Parry.)

Feint: This does no damage when activated. Instead, it puts the foe in a position that makes them more vulnerable. The next time your target is injured in this same Round, they take +2 extra Wounds. 
(Note that this house rule leaves the Feint at the same power-level it had in the rulebook provided you have another action to follow it up with (or an allied PC available to do the same), but I've made it just a little trickier to use. A Duelist needs good planning or a good roll at the start of the Round to get the bonus damage, and they will have to switch their tactics up from round to round. It's now usually, but not quite always, better than a non-duelists attack or an unraised Slash. Much like the new Lunge listed below, the two actions spent for a Feint+Slash are collectively 50% more damaging than two consecutive Slashes or two attacks from of a non-duelist.)

Lunge: Performing a Lunge requires 2 Raises (exactly). It does damage equal to your Ranks in Weaponry. (Unlike a Slash, this cannot be increased by Raises.)
(Note that there is no longer any restriction about Lunges ending your action. You can open your assault with a Lunge now, but it is no longer possible to spend extra Raises to increase the damage of a Lunge. The Lunge is now the only attack that does damage based on Weaponry Ranks. If your Weaponry Rank is 3 to 5, Lunges are better than Slashes. Most PC Duelists will start with Weaponry 3, so it's generally 50% better than a Slash in the early campaign. If you have enough actions available, a Feint followed by a Lunge can be very powerful.)

Bash: Does 1 Wound to the target. (Unlike a Slash, this cannot be increased by Raises.)  If that wound is not prevented, the next time this Round that target deals Wounds, their damage is reduced by your Ranks in Weaponry.
(If attacked with this version of Bash, if you can Riposte or Parry it's worth doing so to prevent the Bash penalty from effecting you. Note that a Feint preceding a Bash will boost it's damage up to the point where a Riposte cannot stop the Bash from landing and applying its penalty.)

Riposte: This prevents 1 Wound from an attack you just suffered, and does 1 Wound to the attacker in response. Using Riposte takes your action (and 1 Raise) and must be done immediately following the attack by an enemy that caused the Wound your are preventing. 
(Note that there is no longer a limit to how many Ripostes you can do in a turn, I just dramatically reduced the damage each Riposte prevents and does. Against non-duelists, the Riposte is pretty much always better than a Parry, but against a fellow Duelist the best defensive choice will depend quite a bit on what attack Maneuver they threw at you. Riposte effectively stops a basic attack, Bash or unRaised Slash, but is not a full defense against a Lunge or raised Slash or any attacked boosted by a Feint.)

 Hopefully that reigns in the power of Duelists enough to keep things fun for the other players, and also adds enough meaningful decision-making to each Round to keep the Duelist's player entertained and engaged. The idea was to keep the rules elegant, while enhancing the tactical variety from turn to turn.

Those house-ruled Maneuvers will require a few house-rules for specific Duelist Styles, as a few of the existing Style Bonuses give out too much bonus damage or interact weirdly with my revised versions of Riposte or Lunge. In general below, I haven't house-ruled any defensive powers, and have only worked to reign-in damage output. For balance reasons, I believe any particular Dueling Style should only add about +2 damage per Round, and getting even that much of a bonus should require the player to jump through a hoop or two to get it so it's not 100% guaranteed to happen every Round. Damage-prevention powers are less likely to need revision, because any PC willing to sacrifice offensive power and aggressive success to just concentrate on staying alive should be able to do so pretty reliably.

Aldana: Once per Round, when you perform a Feint, instead of adding +2 extra Wounds, it adds extra Wounds equal to your Panache.

Drexel: When the Metzger and Gerbeck stances talk about "additional" or "fewer" Raises, this is referring only to initiative order, and not any other effect. (I feel this is more a clarification than a House-Rule per se, but it's possible the original authors intended it to function differently with the old Lunge rules in a way that's not crystal-clear in the rules as written. Regardless of that intent, in my revised Maneuver system, it only affects initiative.)

Eisenfaust: Your Ripostes prevent up to 2 Wounds (instead of just 1), and inflict 2 Wounds on the attacker (instead of just 1).

Sabat: When you apply bonus Wounds from your own Feint to your own Lunge, instead of the usual +2 extra Wounds, you can apply +3 extra Wounds.

Those effects are intended to entirely replace the Style Bonus for the effected Dueling Styles, so the boosted Riposte mentioned for Eisenfaust completely replaces the "Iron Reply" text/ability, and the like. No other House Rules should be necessary to make any of the Duelist Styles in the core book play nicely with my revised Maneuvers.

On page 174 of the Pirate Nations book:

Lakedaimon Agoge: Your Lunges require 3 Raises to perform, but they do damage equal to your Weaponry Ranks +2. (This replaces the "Agoge Thrust" alternative-to-Lunge Maneuver rule, but does NOT replace the other effects mentioned for weapon type -- the benefits that you would gain a second of if you took the "Agoge Weapon Mastery" Advantage on page 150 of this book. On that note, I'm not convinced Agoge Weapon Mastery is worth the investment, even in the default rules system, but that's perhaps beside the point here.)

On page 195 of the Nations of Theah Volume 1:

Hallbjorn:  Your Feints are replaced with Slams. Slams do 1 immediate damage in addition to the normal Feint effect of setting up your target to take +2 extra Wounds the next time they take Wounds this Round.

None of the other Dueling Styles in the core 7th Sea 2nd Edition book, Pirate Nations or Nations of Theah volume 1 seem like they would need any house-ruling to work with these rules. I haven't read any of the other books, so I'm not sure if any of them have Duelist Academies or Swordsman Schools that need further modifying.

Hey, speaking of Nations of Theah, Volume 1... I couldn't help but notice that the page that mentions the Rossini Style (page 79) fails to actually provide a Style Bonus for Rossini. I'm not sure if that's a publishing error, if it got intentionally cut, or if it's lurking on some other page and I've just missed it. Here's a proposed house-rule for the Rossini special move if you also can't find it in your copy of that book:

Rossini: You may perform the Parry or Riposte Maneuvers in response to another character nearby being dealt Wounds, instead of just when you take Wounds. It still costs your Action and a Raise as normal, but it prevents Wounds to the person you are defending instead of to yourself.