Sunday, October 14, 2018

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.

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