Sunday, 29 April 2012

Ten Worthwhile Mechanics

System mechanics are normally a necessary evil – they don’t often add value. Here’s ten bits of system I actually like.

1. Karma, Drama and Llama Fortune (Everway)

Jonathan Tweet’s concept of resolution for Everway is (I believe) the foundation of Ron Edward’s GNS Theory

2. 10-segment Rounds (Judge Dredd)

Lots of systems have ways of splitting up the combat round into chunks. Runequest uses strike ranks; Feng Shui and others have an open-ended initiative roll and count down to zero, with each action taking a number of “shots”; Exalted has a similar structure based on a character’s speed. But the Judge Dredd RPG method has always worked for me: a round lasts ten segments, and a character acts on certain segments (say you have 3 actions, you act on segment 3, 6 and 9). It’s slightly artificial but it’s one less thing you have to worry about in combat. I used it in Department V.

3. Column-based Damage (1st edition Paranoia)

Paranoia uses a 20 column table to work out damage. All weapons lie on a column, with a percentage table at the bottom indicating injury (from “nothing” to “vaporised”). Armour causes weapons to shift to the left (less severe). Does away with rolling damage, soak rolls and so forth. Obviously good with Paranoia where the body count is high, but could be used with any game with careful balancing of the damage effects.

4. Self-Image (Lace and Steel)

Lace and Steel does a lot of cool things, but Self-Image is particularly useful. It’s how the character feels about themself. It’s rated between +4 and -4, and confers a penalty/bonus to some skill rolls (social rolls especially). You lose Self Image as a result of having a bad day – a setback in the adventure, a tiring journey, being humiliated or losing a duel. You gain it as reward for success in the adventure.

5. Frequent, Major and Versatile (Everway)

Instead of balancing a huge list of special powers the Everway method of powers was to ask if the power could be used Frequently, could it disrupt an entire scene (Major), or could it be used in many different situations (Versatile). Each letter cost 1 point (a major expense since 1 elemental point makes the element twice as potent as the level below). 

6. The BIT system (Burning Wheel)

I don’t really care for the Burning Wheel rpg, except for the Beliefs, Instincts and Traits which is very cute. I particularly like Instincts because they indicate behaviours – a kind of “insurance” that allows the player to say “but my character would always do…”.

7. A Chinese Portrait (Nephilim)

Nephilim uses a Chinese Portrait to illustrate the different supernatural races (and we love playing modern-day fantasy supernatural games, don’t we). It also uses the Metamorphosis to show how the Nephilim changes in appearance as its elemental soul becomes more prominent.

8. Fate Points/Bennies/Brownie Points

As used by WFRP, Spirit of the Century, Savage Worlds and others. The implementation in SotC is particularly good – players spend points to leverage their Stunts.

9. Exhaustion and Madness Dice (Don’t Rest Your Head)

Since Exhaustion is a big deal in DRYH, you get exhaustion dice to add to your dice pool when rolling for skill checks. The more dice that you have the better your chances, but the exhaustion dice stay with you to indicate level of fatigue.

10. Vampire the Masquerade’s Character Sheet

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p>Really? A character sheet? Yes. VtM was the first game I played/ran where the character sheet combined utility and attractiveness. The sheet pretty much laid out all of the decisions the player had to make for character generation (other than choosing a Demeanour and a Clan, etc).

RPG Spotlight: Runequest’s extended family

I thought about writing a retrospective of Runequest, and then noticed someone else did a few years ago.

The author of the Grognardia blog, James Maliszewski is probably around my age – maybe a bit older. His first game was the D&D basic set (my second; the first was the Traveller “starter edition”). It’s clear he’s stuck with AD&D while I never took to that system. In fact the longer I play, the less tolerance I have for rules. I know that old school gaming is so trendy it hurts right now, and if the hipsters from Shoreditch want to pedal their fixies over to their chums for an evening of Tunnels and Trolls à la Dubstep, more power to them. But it’s not for me.

Where was I? Ah yes, Runequest.

RQII

The first game I played in was (old) Runequest 2nd edition (with its shameful but evocative cover art), steeped in the Gloranthan mythos. We wandered around a cave system for a while, got bored and got into a bar fight, where we inadvertently decapitated each other. THE END.

It’s a brutal system that shares its roots with D&D’s wargaming past, but it also distances itself from those roots with its skill system – something we take for granted now. If D&D is a “skirmish wargame” then this is a “personal wargame”. It has hit points and hit locations, and armour just soaks up damage rather than granting an armour class. At the same time it’s still got seven attributes that are very much like D&D.

Surprisingly it’s really quick to learn and administrate for a (relatively) complex game. Yes, there’s a ton of magic and cults and stuff, but those are all flavour. You have to derive a few stats from your PC’s attributes (mostly wargame-y stuff like your “damage bonus”) but that’s about it. The rest comes down to skill percentages. Contests (strength, magic) use a “resistance table”.

It’s frankly a bit broken as well. The probability is that if you run a lot of fights, someone is going to lose a limb each session unless the PCs are tanked up on armour. (Stormbringer ditches hit locations which is a good thing IMHO).  There are some really abusive low-level spells also – anything that approaches mind control (like Befuddle and Demoralize) is going to be seriously disruptive, which is why D&D keeps those kinds of spells in the high levels.

RQ3rdGW

What blew me away was the setting and mythos. The 3rd edition did away with Glorantha in favour of an alternate earth, but it still kept the Primitive/Barbarian/Civilised population split with the incumbent differences in philosophy. The magic section included three creation myths/theories for the Shaman (Spirit Magic), Priestess (Divine Magic) and Sorcerer (Sorcery).

It tried to apply mechanics to underlying metaphysics too. It dealt with possession by spirits in a battle of magical Power. It allowed Sorcerers to manipulate all of their spells based on their Free INT. It scaled low level spells into high level ones and let the caster boost the spells to get through magical defences. It was still broken, but it was cool.

Also, monsters used the same stats as people, which made them more alive and threatening. Not to mention the presence of Jabberwocks, Bandersnatches, Jack-o-Bears and Scorpion men alongside the elves and orcs.

One thing 3rd edition did very nicely was the poorly titled Land of Ninja:

RQLON

Co-authored by Sandy Petersen and Bob Charrette (who co-wrote the Bushido rpg), this book covers the culture and mythology in depth, introduces a system of Honour to the game as well as “Ki Skills”. The latter were obtainable on mastering a skill; if you spent a magic point before you tried your skill and managed to roll under your Ki skill, it would count as a critical. A very neat mechanic for upping the power level for characters who were already masters of basic skills, without recourse to lots of stupid power trees.

I heartily recommend getting a copy, even if you never plan to run Runequest. Heck, even if you never plan to run an oriental mythic game. It’s that good.

Its present-day equivalent is (I suppose) Mongoose’s Land of the Samurai which someone else has blogged about (and name-checked RQ:LON). I don’t own a copy. The author of LotS is Lawrence Whitaker, he of Mongoose’s Elric of Melnibone series.

Mongoose

Mongoose Publishing no longer make Runequest products.

It’s all very confusing. Mongoose RQ isn’t the RQ I played as a teenager. It’s not better or worse, just different – things like location-only hit points, starting skill % being the combination of two stats, the concept of Common and Advanced skills, and so on. It does include Hero Points, making it less deadly. 1e MRQ was broken for weapon parries, but that was plugged in 2e MRQ:

MRQ2

Contrary to my previous misgivings this is a fine book, well laid out and with a lovely hardback faux leather cover. It feels really nice and reads well.

The content is exactly the same as Legend, which you can get for a dollar on DTRPG. The only difference (aside from expunging all Glorantha content – so no monsters) is the digest format that fits my iPad nicely. It looks like Mongoose are flogging off the RQII books cheaply following the name change.

Legend

From what I hear the core book and the Monster Coliseum were well done but some of the others suffered from Mongoose’s sloppy presentation. If Legend is just a reprint of those books then maybe they’ll have taken the time to tidy up the content. Maybe.

Chaosium

Just to muddy the waters further, Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying system – the heart of “classic” Runequest and also Call of Cthulhu – was published in 2008.

BRP

Interestingly Chaosium’s business model isn’t a million miles from Mongoose’s – sell the core book and offer supplements for setting and extra rules. Whereas Mongoose has gone after some big names like Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber, Chaosium’s products are in-house supplements. Although The Chronicles of Future Earth is doing a damn good impression of Gene Wolfe’s Urth.

Chaosium supplies a Classic Fantasy book as well as some books on magic, a bestiary and a few others – many of which are reprints of old RQ material. So if you really wanted to run a properly old school Runequest, you could. If you could get past the nasty beige covers that make all the BRP merchandise look so cheap.

HeroQuest

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p>So Mongoose got the rules in the Runequest divorce, and Moon Design kept the setting. I guess HeroQuest is now the official setting for Glorantha. I couldn’t really care since I never invested anything in the setting, but the rules look quite interesting (you can download a preview at the link above). From the character sheet it’s clearly a lot lighter than BRP/MRQ, and it explicitly favours a narrative style with its take on character generation and creating “dramatic rhythm”.

I do wonder what this would do to the feel of Runequest. RQ is a punishing simulation game, and whilst that isn’t my bag it did impart a particular pragmatism to the feel of the game. In any case, if I were running a narrative style game in Glorantha, learning the HeroQuest system would not be my first choice. Oh, look.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Rule of Four

I’m going to stick my neck out and say for any RPG system, four stats is pretty much the perfect number.

Eliphas Levi refers to the tetrad:

the first square and perfect number, the source of all numerical combinations and the principle of all forms.1

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p>From the numerological point of view four represents the divine trinity married with humanity to produce an earthly presence.

Four is a number people can visualise and therefore understand. Four represents a balance of forces on two axes. Four seasons. Four elements. Four compass points.

There’s no problem with more attributes if that’s what you want, but don’t try to pretend the system is anything other than more of a game. D&D’s six attributes – and specifically the “holy trinity” of Strength, Dexterity and Constitution – have influenced RPG design ever since, all the way from Runequest and Traveller to Vampire and beyond. In the latter case there’s a “high art” RPG that pretends to a high level of emotional and narrative roleplaying, but is actually abnormally crunchy. I blame the stupid number of traits and their endless combinations.

Kudos to Spirit of the Century for coming up with a system with no attributes – although it has a high number of aspects in its place. I’ll write a more in-depth analysis soon.


  1. from Trancendental Magic, translated by Arthur Edward Waite

Thursday, 26 April 2012

RPG Spotlight: Ghostbusters International

No, really.

GBI

Everway is so awesome it’s created a sort of blind spot in my memory. Before Everway all RPGs were clunky, elaborate systems with big stats, skills, and lots of complicated dice rolling.

But Ghostbusters came first. And at the time I never took it seriously, because it was a “comedy game”. It worked fine for the one-offs (like the Aliens vs Predator in the Wild West game). Now I can’t get enough of this kind of system.

Ghostbusters International was my first introduction to a properly minimalist game system. PCs were defined by four attributes (Brains, Muscles, Moves and Cool) each of which had a Talent – something that conferred a bonus to your dice whenever that Talent applied. Sounds familiar?

GBI did a couple of other things. Firstly it had the Ghost Die. You always rolled the Ghost Die as one of your dice – if it came up with a Ghost, that meant bad stuff (even on a success).

Secondly, it had Brownie Points. You had a limited supply which you used to buy extra dice to augment your rolls when you needed them. But you were also rewarded with Brownie Points by succeeding in missions – and if you got enough you could even spend them to bump up your stats.

Then there were Tags and Goals. Long before Burning Wheel’s BIT system or Summerland’s tags, GBI established a system of writing simple descriptors to define your character’s appearance and motivations – with no in-game function other than telling you how to roleplay.

This was 1986. Almost a decade before Everway, which in the words of Rob Barrett “prematurely anticipated the present day market for rules light gaming”.

And allegedly it was the first dice pool game. A forerunner of WEG Star Wars, it also inspired Jonathan Tweet to make Over the Edge, and Mark Rein*Hagen to do Vampire.

And that is why it must die.

When we build a time machine we will go back and ensure that it never sees the light of day. The Storyteller System will never come to pass and the dice economy will not be distorted in favour of d10s.

Hell of a game, though.

How Not To Run A Game Business

I’ve been reading Your Business Sucks lately. The author is incisive, caustic, and possibly on the verge of a mental breakdown.

I also read the jolly good Tears of Envy blog, which I found because the blogger comments on YBS’s Stop. Making. Games. post. A lot of what’s said in ToE reflects my feelings, so go read that post instead. But I wanted to comment on one of the points in Stop Making Games:

I’m tired of it. I love games. No, let me rephrase that. I fucking love games. I love games so much that I play the shitheel games because I can’t find another starship combat game. I am tired of the bar being so fucking low. I am goddamned fed up with the idea that it’s okay to put out shitty games because you’re not in it to be wealthy. It’s bad for the industry.

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p>I sympathise to a point. But I’ve heard this argument that e-publishing lowers the barrier to entry and therefore lowers the standard of quality, and it’s quite frankly bullshit (and rebuffed by ToE). All entertainment industries have been putting out mediocre products to the masses long before e-publishing ever became an option. Two words: Dan Brown.

To YBS’s other comment about “[playing] shitheel games because I can’t find another… [decent] game [in the genre I like]” – I have to take the Open Source view here. If you don’t like the tools, make your own and stop moaning. That’s what I and half of the gamers I know do. I’ll complain along with you about sliding standards of quality in writing, gaming, winemaking and the music industry but I am free to vote with my wallet.

Last point – it does seem YBS’s gaming bent is towards traditional gamist style games (e.g. D&D). Because in their failed hunt for a decent rpg they’ve clearly overlooked games like Dogs In The Vineyard and Spirit Of The Century and Monsters and Other Childish Things, all of which are very high quality products. It’s a shame if the current trend in gaming doesn’t cater to your tastes – but maybe that’s telling you to dig out your old rpgs and play those instead (and put a Hawkwind album on the turntable while you’re at it).

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Holiday Report part 2: Fight Club

Over the holiday I gathered some friends together to look at commercial rpg combat systems. The main one I wanted to cover was Burning Wheel which I blogged about earlier. We also covered Exalted, talked a bit about Feng Shui, I gave a demo of Lace and Steel. I also played in my first Dogs In The Vineyard game.

Burning Wheel

BurningwheelRPGCover

Summary: A weird and complicated 3-round Scissors/Paper/Stone that requires a lot of cross-referencing skills.

How it works: player and GM writes down their character’s intentions for each of 3 volleys, out of sight of the other. Each volley is then played out by revealing actions, the chosen actions are cross-referenced, skill rolls made and damage applied.

Comments:

I really just don’t get what the combat is trying to achieve. Simulation? The three-volley meta-game is cute but it’s not realistic or easy to visualise for players. It’s also hard to learn or play through, because of the excessive back-and-forth to find different tables to cross-reference actions to find out if it’s a “standard”, “opposed” or no roll at all.

We concluded that because of the abstraction it feels less like a sword fight that a lot of much simpler games. I expect if we were all hardcore BW gamers we could commit the interaction tables to memory. But frankly I have better things to do with my time. This is a system that needs to be printed on index cards. Actually it looks like the Mouse Guard RPG does exactly this – maybe that’s the fix this clunky system needs.

There are a couple of things which are strange, and a couple which are plain wrong. Like the fact that a light wound deducts successes, but a more severe wound takes away a whole dice which is less of a penalty. I’m surprised that the author didn’t spot that one when revising BW:Gold.

Then there are some specific combat moves that confuse me. Why is a Beat a special action? It’s a fundamental move in any sword fight. Why is it harder to Beat against an opponent compared to a Push? Why does Push use Power, but Beat uses Weapon Skill? Why is there no Avoid and Strike? To be fair these technical decisions on the simulation that I don’t agree with; if they work as a game, then no problem.

As for the claim of Brutal and Gut-Wrenching combat, it was certainly that for the play testers, though not for the two knights we had duking it out. They simply cut and scratched each other to pieces in a slow death spiral. My conclusion is that this is no different from any other combat system – slow attrition of resources. No matter which tactics we used we couldn’t seem to end the combat quickly or decisively. To be fair we did miss a Steel test which might have resulted in sudden death – although Steel is about character reaction to pain, not tactics (i.e. if you get injured you may flinch and hesitate, meaning the opponent can hit you again).

Conclusion:

Clearly Burning Wheel’s combat isn’t for me. It may be good for other people. Unfortunately there isn’t enough other good stuff in BWG to make me want to run it. The game has one really great element in the BIT system and its effect on Artha. That’s 17 pages out of 600. Lifepaths would be interesting if WFRP hadn’t done them first and much better. My advice would be to rip off the BIT system and jury-rig WFRP’s fate points system to work more like Artha, and play that instead.

Exalted

Exalted Second Edition Core Book

Summary: Fairly straightforward to follow but tiresome grind and health/essence attrition. Streamlined combat in Exalted hasn’t improved much on Storyteller’s awful hunt-and-peck for successes.

How It Works: A segment-based round system. Attack dice are rolled and success compared against the opponents Defensive Value. Attacks and defences may be boosted by use of Charms (i.e. magic). Damage dice are figured using formula of incoming attack plus weapon minus armour, and damage applied to a wound track.

Comments: 

Some of the testers didn’t like the use of DV instead of rolling to parry an attack. DV does make defences into a dynamic version of Armour Class, but it makes rolling much faster.

All the dice pools are derived from skills (and equipment) rather than being transparent on the character sheet – meaning there’s some maths to do before you can roll dice. This is probably only a one-off calculation though.

The flow of combat was easy to follow, but actual fighting was quite a grind because of the slow attrition of health levels. Of course, if the characters had not been armoured the soak levels would have been lower and incremental damage higher. We were using fairly low-level weapons and armour which (combined with Stamina) roughly cancelled each other out. With higher level kit Armour and Weapon balance will overtake natural stamina, meaning no “naked dwarf” syndrome. At that level the armour penetrating charms become interesting.

We played an exchange using no charms, then switched to some basic charms for dice adding (1 die per point of essence, and up to 8 motes at once). Here it became obvious that (a) the combat becomes based on Essence attrition and (b) investing a lot of essence in the first blow is futile, since the opponent gets to invest exactly the same in their defence. However because of the way charms refresh, when the second mover gets to attack they then get to spend essence, while the first mover doesn’t (since their action hasn’t refreshed, they can’t cast another charm). The second mover makes a massive attack against a weakened defence. If this kills their opponent then they have won; if it doesn’t they get exactly the same in return.

We also discussed Stunts as a nebulous bonus. While there’s a guideline on how many bonus dice can be conferred based on a stunt’s description, the single die bonus is almost automatic (as long as the player describes their action). Dom likened it to WFRP’s Strike Mighty Blow which only gave a bonus if the player said “strike mighty blow!” when rolling the dice. In other words it’s entirely about the players gaming the system and remembering to speak up. Once the players start describing more complex moves just to get higher bonuses, the combat could descend into anarchy.

Conclusion:

Another HP attrition system. From a player POV the combat system looks pretty cool, in that the players get to narrate a lot of cool stuff. So great when they’re winning. I’m less keen from the POV of the GM, who has to balance the opponents well enough that they provide enough challenge without killing the PCs.

I don’t mind the buckets of dice, but the additional layers of system that add to dice pools would probably wear me down. In that respect it’s like Wild Talents, and I should probably just avoid it.

Dogs in the Vineyard

Dogs in the Vineyard cover small

I’ve heard of the game before but never played, so I was really happy to get a chance to play at the con.

Summary: dice heavy but maths light, combat is extremely simple and very game-like.

How It Works: each side rolls a dice pool and keeps the dice in front of them; then during the exchange, they bid pairs of dice as challenges which must be answered in kind. If you can answer an attack with two dice you “see”, if you answer with only one you can counter, and if you have to answer with more dice than the attack you take “fallout”, or damage.

Comments/Conclusion:

My views of the system are from the POV of a player, rather than playtester. But I was frankly blown away by the entire system. Combat escalation, building in relationships to conflicts, and rolling buckets of dice is very appealing, and it’s an example of a game where not only can the GM grant on-the-fly bonuses easily, they can also allow other players to provide help in conflicts. DitV was a bit silly but combined the game aspect of the system very well with the roleplaying.

That covers the Game aspect. It also does some really impressive things with the Narrative. But since this post is about system, I’m not going to gush about that now.

Lace and Steel

L S

Summary: a card based system that is very easy to learn and follow, but has a high game element.

How it Works: players hold hands of cards and play attacks in “lines” (Upper, Middle or Lower) which must be then parried in the same Line. One side continues to attack until it loses the initiative. Cards played/discarded amount to fatigue, and numerical values on cards amount to damage.

Comments:

Since I was actually running this system in one of my games, I’m going to be generally positive about it. I won’t reiterate my previous comments but there are a couple of observations for the combat system in play.

Firstly it’s fine for playing through 1-on-1 combats. However once I had two players fighting two different combats it became a lot harder to manage, even though the actual game remained fairly robust. In this respect dice have an advantage over cards. (Also at one point I was simultaneously running fencing and magical duels in different locations, and risked mixing the decks up).

The comments from the demo were very positive – it was really easy to pick up and a genuinely fun game to play. But it’s also very specific in flavour. It only works with sword fighting. It doesn’t attempt to cover ranged combat with the cards, though it does note how many melee passes equal one ranged combat round. It wouldn’t mix well in a modern game; it works because loading bows and muskets is slow.

In this wound system the hit points are nearly always single digits – something I vastly prefer. It means that a single point of damage is significant, if not great. I liked this approach in WFRP also. If you must have hit points it’s the way to go.

Conclusion:

Now that I’ve both played and run Lace and Steel I continue to love it, but the card system is just one feature. With its take on magic, Repartee and Self-Image rules, and its setting the game is a complete package and I’m not sure how well elements would work in isolation. But I would say that for any game that features a fantasy court structure it’s very difficult to beat, at least for running the game.

There is one bit I don’t like, which is standard dice rolling. I nicked Summerland’s difficulty = # of dice mechanic. The probabilities worked out fine.

Feng Shui 

Feng Shui

Summary: a simple idea based on martial arts stunts, with a fairly easy to follow round structure, hampered by far too many rules and details in the rulebook. Still, very cool.

How It Works: Combat actions take a number of “shots” to complete; a combat round is a number of shots long and counts down to zero. Combat skills and powers follow a hierarchy based on the chosen martial art. Famously “mooks” with no name have a set number of hit points.

Comment:

Sadly we ran out of time to playtest the combat system, although we talked a bit about it.

Mostly we agreed the book is far too complicated for what should be a fairly simple mechanic. For the types of gamers we are, we want to run quickfire wacky martial arts combat, and (like Exalted) the Feng Shui system appears to need more investment of time.

In fact the more I look at Feng Shui the more I am reminded of Exalted 2nd Edition’s tiny print and dense text. From what I’ve read of the system it may be a lot better than Exalted to pick up and play, but it still puts me off. That’s my preference of course.

Maybe the next time we playtest I’ll give it a fair appraisal. 

Final Words

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p>Most progressive HP-attrition systems are designed to make the player feel scared for their character, but actually the layer of abstraction and the slow decrease of HP without penalty takes away from realism. If you have to have hit points, keep them in single digits to make each point significant.

If this exercise has taught me anything it’s that I really don’t have the patience for a complex system, and should stick to Summerland and Everway. The problem with that approach is when it comes to running fights, a simple system may not provide the right level of granularity – may not be game enough.

 Clearly the way to go is make combat and other conflict into mini games. It works in Lace and Steel. While I think Burning Wheel does it very badly, I’m very intrigued by Mouse Guard – which looks like Burning Wheel with the crusts cut off.

MouseGuardContents

Lovely. Must restrain credit card.

Monday, 23 April 2012

How To Kill Your Party

I ran Candlewick last Saturday. I think it’s the closest I ever came to killing one or more PCs.

I felt deeply conflicted. I don’t have a problem with PCs dying through bad luck or incompetence. In Candlewick I don’t have a problem because it’s supposed to be a brutal, tragic setting – even if the PCs are children. In fact, especially because they’re children.

On the other hand I did have an NPC practically drag them into the place of doom. Normally the PCs could run away, or at least have their eldrich horror friends come to their rescue. In this case their options were severely limited because of where they were. They were up against something that was bigger and rolled more dice than them.

I Cast Detect Plot

I’m guilty of making players make rolls to find stuff out, assuming they will be successful. What if they’re not successful? Do they just blindly wander by the plot? I’ve played in those games, and I’ve run them. I prefer narrativism that thrives on players getting the right information at the right time, without having to roll dice.

But consider party death. It’s very hard to make PC death narrativistic without being arbitrary or contrived. Most deaths should be tragic and avoidable, the result of bad luck or judgement – not the GM suddenly declaring “rocks fall, everybody dies”.

To avoid death being arbitrary, you actually need a healthy does of simulationism and gamism. The former because you need an objective view that the most likely outcome is a death. The latter because you need to give your players a chance to cheat death. If they succeed or fail, Drama will follow in the aftermath.

Why Don’t You Just Die?

Killing PCs is not just rare, it’s pretty hard to do in a way that’s balanced. Consider the examples on Wikipedia’s TPK page – it notes CoC and Paranoia as high party attrition games as a consequence of the genre, but in these cases anything that can kill a PC probably will because it is overwhelmingly strong.

Balanced simulation/gamist systems can be either abstract, needlessly complex, or just very tiresome to play through. D&D, Exalted and others suffer from exactly this problem. I firmly believe that the harder and more complex a game is, the less it feels like a dramatic combat.

I was actually quite pleased with the way MaoCT handled combat and harm, and it’s partly because damage is in low single-digits applied directly to the player’s stats. I’m not sure how the players felt, but they certainly got the message. If they’d have been crossing off boxes on a wound track (Exalted, World of Darkness) or hit points, would the consequences have been as immediate?

Time and Place

There’s nothing wrong with killing PCs, but it has to mean something. That means the players have to be able to visualise where their PCs are, and the circumstances surrounding their death.

In one of the best fantasy games I’ve ever played I lost my first character in the 3rd session. At the time we were escaping some foreign troops. I hadn’t realised where my character was – there was a lot going on – and all of a sudden, I’d been shot with a crossbow (through the spleen, as I remember).

I rationalised it as the character being a monk, not a warrior, and just being unlucky with being suddenly confronted by troops. But if the GM had been clearer about the lay of the land it would have seemed fair even if there was no way to win.

It’s not necessary to pull punches but it is necessary to give players a sense of how deep they’re in, even if the characters aren’t.

Final Words

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p>Some games (CoC, Paranoia) carry the expectation the players will die; they make this easy by making the odds of dying transparent and high. Other games give the expectation that no-one will die; they often do this by having no really clear mechanic for injury and loss, as well as abstractive mechanisms. OK, you’re going to die if you run out of hit points, but the attrition rate is so slow that it drags the combat out and robs the scene of drama.

Very few games really deal with recognising and appreciating risk. Crucially there’s a step that’s overlooked when players are confronted with a risk – a contract between player and GM that they understand they are risking something, and will pay the price if they fail. That may seem implicit in all games, but the way we play a lot of games it really isn’t.

On the other hand, in a game like Candlewick where the characters are children, missing that step out is valid when the character’s innocence hasn’t taught them to be wary yet. In fact, these experiences are the hard knocks that will teach them to be more careful in future – if they survive.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Holiday Report, part 1

Back from the ‘con. That’s what we call the annual get-together of RPGSoc alumni and friends where we spend a week playing each other’s games.

So, a lot to talk about. I ran two games that I enjoyed and that the players went to great pains to appear enthusiastic about, saving their sneers and derision for when I had gone to bed. Which was nice.

I also played in two LARPs and two tabletop games, all very fine games. One of these was Dogs In Human Resources, a pastiche on Dogs In The Vineyard. I was completely blown away by the system and the approach to investigation and letting the players make their own choices. I think it could even be called a gaming epiphany.

One of the things I wanted to do was “fight club” where we compared several different RPG combat systems. There wasn’t too much time but I collared experts on Burning Wheel and Exalted as well as playing through a bit of Lace and Steel and talking about Feng Shui. More on that later.

There was the usual socialising, drinking, and playing Guitar Hero. I have now succumbed and ordered Guitar Hero 5 for the Wii. With practice I may embarrass myself slightly less next time.

The Rules, part 3

Last year I wrote some rules (with a follow up) on how to structure a one-off, and this time I think I stuck to them pretty well, with positive results. So I’d say they’re good rules.

I realised a couple of other things.

Consider how players interact with each other and with the GM.  Let’s say there are 2 axes of interaction – one Player to Player, the other Player to GM.

Interaction cropped

Just to clarify – low P-P and high P-GM doesn’t necessarily mean the players aren’t talking with one another – it just means that the P-GM relationship is dominant. Also this table doesn’t mean the bottom quadrants are less work-intensive – they are probably more work, especially up front. But during a game the best LARP GMs hardly interact with the players at all because they’ve balanced motives and strengths in their PCs and can let them run free.

I prefer games where the players collaborate rather than conspire against each other – mainly because I’m a very bad conspirator. That’s the main reason I don’t like LARPs much.

My ideal game (both as PC and GM) is a high/high interaction (upper right), typically in the form of narrativist tabletop RPG. If that sounds like a lot of work – well, sometimes it is. But for me the very best game is one where all the players and the GM are engaged in the story and contributing to it.

Now, if a GM is happy to run a tabletop in the top left – essentially as many 1-2-1 interactions with her players, that’s fine. On the other hand, running games to schedule takes GM energy and if that energy is being drawn away because GM-player interaction is dominant, that can interfere with the experience. I think there’s a case (at least for 1-off games) to try to maximise player-player interaction.

Now there are several things that take up GM time and can push the dynamic into the upper-left quadrant. Here are a few I can think of.

  1. The need to adjudicate and interpret a game system to determine success or failure (gamist)
  2. Allowing the players to wander where they want, thus avoiding interaction between PCs (simulationist)
  3. An excessive amount of background that stunts in-character development
  4. Pandering to loner PCs
  5. Over-narration (see #3)

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p>Items 1 and 2 in themselves don’t give rise to this problem, but they can do in extreme circumstances. A golden rule is that a one-off is not a good place to introduce a complex system to players.

Item 3 is a problem, I think. Back-plot is never bad, but if the players have to wade through 6 pages of A4 there’s a risk they will miss goals and crucial interactions. They may be so overwhelmed with the background that they don’t know who to trust. That’s a good way to turn a party into a pack of loners.

Which brings me to item 4. When 1-2-1 interactions in-game dominate the GM’s time they take time away from other players and from the GM’s time to think of and expound on plot. Given that most gamers are geeks and introverts used to working things out on our own before asking for help, this is our default state. Therefore, don’t give the players the opportunity to be loners.

Some PCs will want to rush off on their own and try to solve the plot even when they’re clearly unqualified. I think this behaviour happens when a difficult puzzle appears – there’s no obvious way for the PCs to move forward, so the party fractures and each person tries random skills from within their ability set. The only way to avoid this is for the whole party to have a clear view of each other’s strengths and collective resources (so cut down on extraneous background). Even then the loners will want to hare off down dead ends without telling anyone, so best to manage this with a limited play sandbox and some common goals to attract them to the other PCs. Having some PCs as leader figures can help.

And finally there’s #5, over-narration. I am guilty as charged. This is a case of the GM making a rod for his own back – so stop talking and listen to the players.

Monday, 16 April 2012

The Shared Experience

Tonight we went to see The Hunger Games:

HungerGames

Utterly predictable, far too long to get to the killing (most of which happened off screen), a lot of wasted plot opportunities and fairly uninventive murdering. I can’t think of a single point where the protagonist has to make a moral choice – and at no point is she forced to take an innocent life for her own survival, or made to feel conflicted in her participation. Good soundtrack, though.

Battle Royale with Cheese

The first cinema (the Vue) declined to show the film despite it being listed on Monday night. I guess they didn’t have enough pre-sold tickets.

The Odeon did show the film after an interminable period of targeted ads for zit cream and a “live” NKOTBSB concert. There was a brief intermission when they showed a “red carpet” feature sponsored by M&Ms with banal soundbite interviews from the cast, interspersed with footage from the film. What this was supposed to serve I have no idea. They had my £9.20 plus ice-cream money, so I wasn’t exactly a hard-sell.

After that (which nicely spoiled me for the best scenes in the film) we suffered more ads, followed by the inevitable Orange “turn off your phone” skit and a final anti-piracy message.

This message consisted of an empty, dusty cinema, signifying the “end of the shared experience”, the result of (you guessed it) piracy.

No, people are not avoiding the cinema because of piracy. They are avoiding it because they can do better than spend over the odds for weird-shaped seats and overpriced food and having to sit through 40 mins of ads before they get to see the feature they paid for.

Cinema is dying? Good. Fuck you, Odeon.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Electronic Digest

I said before that I really like the trend in digest-sized rpg manuals. I recently picked up Mongoose’s reworked RQII, Legend, for a dollar from Drivethrurpg just to read it on my iPad.

I also recently came across the blog How Not To Run A Game Business. Although it rants on the border of incoherent at times, the March 5th Post makes some good points about the inflexibility of print media and how we’re not using all of the software and authoring techniques available to us today.

It made me think about what I want from a game, particularly as my iPad is my main reading tool these days. Here’s a short list:

  • I’d like it in a digest format, purely so it fits on the iPad screen. But to go even further – some games come in the full pdf and a “print friendly” format. How cool would it be to have an iPad edition and a full-size edition?
  • I’d like a hyperlinked document. Really I’d like a document constructed like a wiki. I put a high value on a good index and being able to search a pdf, but it would be even better if when a core concept is mentioned (e.g. Lace and Steel’s “Self Image”) it links back to the definition.
  • I’d like printable resources that I can also edit. For example, it would be nice to take a branded character sheet and edit it for the players.
  • I’d like those resources to be legally distributable to my players, so they can read the system and plan their character.

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p>The other thing I’d like to see is a voucher for a PDF version of a game I buy in print. That way I could still get a nice glossy book to go on the shelf, and have a portable electronic version for everyday reading an annotation. These days new music on vinyl will include a voucher for the mp3, or even a CD.

But honestly I’m not attached to my physical copies any more. I’m willing to pay for the electronic product but if it’s on my iPad, I’d like it to be fit for purpose and not just a copy of a print version twice the size.

(Don’t worry, brick-and-mortar shops – I’ll always have a boardgame habit).