Tuesday, 25 March 2014

So, how’s it going?

Not so bad, thanks for asking. Apart from updating this blog, it seems.

“Esotericism now classes these seven variations, with their four great divisions, into only three distinct primeval races — as it does not take into consideration the First Race, which had neither type nor colour, and hardly an objective, though colossal form.”

Helena Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. 2: Anthropogenesis

In trying to wrap my head around WaRP, I seem to have written a completely new game by mistake. It’s approaching readiness for public consumption, and I’m quite pleased with it.

It started with me putting a bit of meat on the bones of the Fringe Powers section of the WaRP rules. Not in the sense of greatly expanding the list of available powers, but more in the sense of making a “fringe powers toolkit”. I’ve long admired Everway’s approach to constructing powers and I wanted something similar in this system.

To that I’ve added stress loading mechanics (taking inspiration from Don’t Rest Your Head and Greg Saunder’s Summerland). Partly this leverages WaRP’s Flaws, Motivations and Secrets, making them slightly more mechanical.

The third item is agency building. Nothing complicated. But in this game, the characters are under constant observation by agencies with (a) different motivations and (b) different lines they’re willing to cross.

Anything else?

Well, it’s urban fantasy, it’s characters-as-the-monsters, so it’s well-trodden ground by both mainstream and indie RPGs, well into my comfort zone if not very original. Closer to the spiral into madness of DRYH (i.e. the way Vampire: the Masquerade should be) than the messy relationship territory of Monsterhearts.

But it’s bring your own myth. There’s a bare minimum of premise (where the monsters really come from) but after that, well — a fairy is a fairy, a vampire is a vampire. Any creative player interested in this genre will put their own spin on the myths, no need for me to provide mine. Although for the record, I’ve been watching Grimm and re-reading Clive Barker’s early fantasy.

So I’m feeling fairly positive about the exercise, and the modular approach is working — the components here also slot right into my other game.

Anyway:

[we are]

There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m going to come out with it.

You’re a vehicle for an Atlantean colony. Somehow you became infected with a microscopic pre-human civilisation. Possibly you inherited it from your parents. Or maybe you were bitten recently by… something… and the colony found a new vehicle. Maybe someone deliberately infected you for their own reasons. Do you remember being bundled into a black van by people in ski masks and given an injection against your will? That’s how it happens sometimes.

Vehicle is one of their terms, by the way. You’re a means to an end, something that they can steer. They’ll steer your body, your thoughts, your feelings, your life. Eventually, none of this will be yours.

Have you been experiencing any side effects? Altered perception? Strength, speed, appetite? Urges to meet strangers in remote gothic locations to compare clothing?

The Institute is here to help. We’re just going to need a sample. Lie still.

(Cross posted to the UKRPDC)

Saturday, 22 March 2014

RPG Second Look: FATE (and Bundles of)

Be quick! The Bundle of Holding has re-released its Bundle of FATE, an offer good for another 4 days or so. Also this could be your last chance to look at Starblazer Adventures and Legends of Anglerre from Cubicle 7, as the license is about to lapse.

Now I’ve absorbed the Bundle of FATE, my roll-call of FATE-related games is:

  • FATE Core
  • FATE Accelerated
  • Spirit of the Century
  • FreeFATE
  • Bounty Hunters of the Atomic Wasteland (UKRPDC)
  • Nova Praxis
  • Bulldogs!
  • Ehdrigor
  • Full Moon
  • Diaspora
  • The Kerberos Club (which I have in its Wild Talents edition)
  • Legends of Anglerre
  • Starblazer Adventures

That’s a lot of FATE.

Titles of particular note are:

1. Bounty Hunters of the Atomic Wasteland

This is a free game, it’s easy to learn, it’s from the UK Roleplayers Design Collective. Good introduction to FATE concepts.

2. Nova Praxis

Interesting for its iPad-specific layout (an “enhanced PDF”). Obviously competing with Eclipse Phase for the Transhuman crown, possibly more digestible, and nice to see someone doing something cool with the electronic format. Roots in both FATE Core and Voidstar’s own Strands of FATE.

3. The Kerberos Club

I’ve mentioned my Wild Talents version before. This is the same great game in what’s probably a better overall package (it’s self-contained, for one thing).

4. Diaspora

This is the game I’m most excited about, because it’s from the folks who wrote Hollowpoint. (Brad Murray even signed the BoH version with a special message!)

5. Other Free Stuff

FATE Core and Accelerated are pay what you want, and Free FATE is, well, free. But of course, the FATE Core is included in the Bundle, which is both a bargain and supporting a good cause. The FATE Core SRD is online, too.

There are a few guides to the different versions of FATE out there:

Why Pay For Free Stuff?

FATE

I’ve been anticipating a deeper look at FATE for a while, although I’ve not had time to digest the contents of the bundle yet.

FATE is sort-of the Linux of RPGs. It has very specific moving parts, and it has loads of forks where the designers have put the moving parts in subtly different locations. And of course, it’s free.

That begs the question, what are you paying for in Spirit of the Century that you don’t get in FATE Core?

First, you get a complete package for pulp-genre play. This includes examples to put the game into pulp context, as well as a compelling backdrop (the Century Club) and the “novelisation” of the characters. I love all of that, and I don’t really like pulp.

Second, I felt I got a lot more hand-holding, advice, and a sense of how the game is supposed to be played. But, I have read SotC much more recently than FATE Core. Overall I preferred SotC as an introduction to FATE, and I felt the Core was a bit sterile. On the other hand I like the Core’s workflows and toolkit approach.

(Spirit of the Century is also “pay what you want” now, so I would vote for it in a toss up between SotC and FATE Core. But of course, if you’re in time for the bundle…)

Beyond the Core

After basic usability, the other way FATE editions differentiate themselves is the extra stuff. The thing about Diaspora that really got my attention was the idea of generating the stellar map from player interaction. See the GameGeeks review (also includes a review of Bulldogs!):

(The classic GameGeeks episodes also cover Spirit of the Century and FATE Core nicely.)

Similarly the Kerberos Club marries FATE with the concept of superheroic Archetypes from Wild Talents (a part of that system I actually like), adding examples of Aspects and when to Invoke them.

Last Words: It’s all FATE, right?

When the system is basically the same, products are differentiated on usability. I approve of this wholeheartedly.

I’m a big fan of the Open Game License, too. It gets us away from me-too systems and focuses effort on doing creative things with games.

That said, FATE is FATE. I’m still on the fence regarding the system itself. I’m a fan of dynamic point economies (e.g. Don’t Rest Your Head), but the Aspects (and invocation / compulsion) need some thought and some familiarity with the game to get it to run smoothly. Two great quotes from Kurt Wiegel of GameGeeks:

In GameGeeks #221:

I don’t really want to call [FATE Core] rules-light. It’s really more rules-medium, with a very different focus than what we’re accustomed to as gamers.

And from GameGeeks #24:

Properly done, Fate Points should really be flying across the table left and right.

Anyway, if you’re reading this in time, check out the Bundle of Holding!

(And if you’re reading this from the future… do we have jet packs yet?)

Saturday, 15 March 2014

New Thief

The new Thief game is apparently not good. I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.

Some say it’s a calamitous disaster. A woeful disappointment. There’s a complete roundup of reviews but I mostly went straight to the Zero Punctuation review:

 

Another good review, slightly less acerbic but just as sweary:

There goes my last reason for buying a new console. Oh, wait, there’s Dishonoured…

I would like to be the last person in this post to say “taff”.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Old and New Favourites

Weaveworld cover

Nothing like a bit of food poisoning to give you new perspective. For me it was the chance to re-read Clive Barker’s Weaveworld.

This is a book from my late teens, and like most teens I liked my flavours strong and not subtle.  It’s too long, the characters are mostly one-trick ponies, the prose is unnecessary, and the plot swings from being pedestrian to incomprehensible. Still, it resonates very strongly, mainly for Barker’s description of magic.

I prefer The Great and Secret Show (and Imajica, although I read that much later) for magical imagery, but Weaveworld has coloured my perception of what magic should appear to be in both fiction and games. I say appear, because I don’t think there’s any system behind the magic, it’s all texture and the effect it has on the environment. The closest we get to philosophy is probably the concept of Cosm / Metacosm / Quiddity in the books of the Art.

Compared to Immacolata’s  Menstruum and Gentle’s Pneuma, magic in D&D looks a bit agricultural. Barker’s mages usually either know innately how to do magic (the Seerkind), or they’ve seized it through hard work and sacrifice (the Jaffe, Swann), or have been gifted it (Shadwell). Mostly Barker writes about people using magic, rather than the magic itself.

This is probably why Mage: the Ascension appealed to me so strongly (and it cites Imajica in the bibliography). Unfortunately it’s mired in an awful system and an awful political structure, the same clans-and-tribes nonsense inherited from the earlier oWoD games. When I ran Mage the best fun came from mostly ignoring the rules and using the spheres as a rough guide, and pushing all the Traditions nonsense to the background (the characters were mostly Hollow).

I have no idea how magic works in a modern FATE driven game like Dresden Files. My preference is for something completely freeform; a bit like the Everway approach, if that weren’t so light and twee and goody-goody. And looking at FATE (which I have been recently) I’m not sure an Aspect driven game would work either. Of course being my new favourite thing WaRP has a lot of promise, with magic being described in the same loose sense as other Traits. The only downside is there’s not enough to lose; no sanity, no acquiring deformities through paradox, etc. I’ll work on that.

New Favourite: The Anachroneironaut

Now for a new favourite. My new favourite blog is the Anachroneironaut. Amazing gothic illustrations, lovecraftian houseplants, and ink. Check out this amazing piece of art inspired by Perdido Street Station.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

d100 Hate

There’s a debate going on somewhere about whether the mechanic of roll under percentile (as used by BRP, RuneQuest, CoC, etc.) is “disdained”. And on this rare occasion the forum debate is enough to inspire a post…

To clarify roll-under: you get your dice and try to roll equal to or less than your skill. This is compared to roll-and-add where you roll dice, add a modifier and try to hit a target number.

Some of the cited detractions of roll-under percentile are:

  • No bell curve (inferior to 3d6, which is also a roll-under for GURPS)
  • No range of interesting results (binary pass/fail)
  • Confusing bonus, e.g. is +20% a benefit (applied to skill before the roll) or a penalty (applied to the roll itself)?
  • Subtraction is harder than addition
  • Roll under a modified value is less intuitive than roll and add

I’m not going to talk about bell curves. Bell curves are useful in considering a range of performance over a group of people; applying them to individual skill rolls makes sense if you don’t know who is going to be performing the task (maybe your PC is a gestalt?), otherwise it’s a matter of taste, and less transparent than a linear roll.

The other items are worth considering, because they all represent some kind of cognitive load on the player. This includes the “fix” for the binary pass/fail in d% which I and plenty of other people house rule as

Pass = full %

“Success” = half %

“Expert success” = one fifth %

“Critical” = one twentieth %

Of course you need to attach meanings to Success, Critical, etc. (and add fails, fumbles). But, as long as the player knows the order of desirable outcome, everything’s fine.

Really there’s two objections:

  1. Whether d% is aesthetically pleasing to the players (and I think that has as much to do with percentiles, as contending with long lists of skills; see below)
  2. Whether d% actually causes more of a cognitive load than other systems.

Aesthetics

Can d% really be aesthetically pleasing? A pleasing RPG design is going to be one where the player can visualise what they are going to do in the game.

  • At the iNtuitive end of the scale, there’s an appreciation for the character as a rounded individual and their sense of place within the game world. This is helped by pretty character sheets and meaningful names. This is probably not helped by long lists of narrowly-defined skills, particularly if they have obscure names.
  • At the Sensing end of the scale, there’s the effect the character can have on the game world, and therefore what they should spend most of their time doing. Having a system where skill aptitude is declared absolutely is beneficial here, and you don’t get more absolute than a percentage.

You can overcome the long lists issue by chunking the information. ORE games like Reign do this by clustering skills under headings. RuneQuest 3 did this as well. If you do this you may please your iNtuitive types but the Sensing types would rather have an alphabetical list, thanks.1

There’s one other aesthetic consideration: roll low may give less of a sense of achievement than roll high for a success. I think that’s down to the norms of the group. People learn that they want to roll low fairly quickly.

Cognitive Load

First, consider the granularity of success; if you apply the fix above to the % roll, you require the player to make some mental division to establish whether they’ve achieved an extraordinary success. A linear die roll with adds makes things easier.

Well, maybe not. On one side you have the effort of division, and on the other side you have the need to keep several factors in working memory. Typically roll and add systems involve adding two or more numbers together before the roll is made (e.g. Unisystem, Interlok), and once you factor in additional bonuses, time to scan the character sheet for the right stats, and the GM’s time to think of a target number, you probably have around the same amount of effort.

It may even be more effort. In a d% system where rolling under 1/5 of the skill is important, that calculation will be done after the roll and only when the player thinks there’s a chance they qualify.

Roll and Add Roll Under %
  1. GM declares stat and/or skill, may declare difficulty
  2. Players and GM negotiate bonus/penalty, apply as needed
  3. Player retrieves information from character sheet and rolls dice
  4. Player sums up result.
  5. GM compares result with their difficulty.
  6. Outcome is declared.
  1. GM declares skill for roll
  2. Players and GM negotiate bonus or penalty, apply as needed
  3. Player retrieves information (single %) and rolls
  4. If the roll is significant (e.g. near a point where under-1/5-skill is a consideration) player then makes calculation. Otherwise, dice stand.
  5. GM compares result with their difficulty.
  6. Declare outcome.

Let’s ignore steps 1 and 2 for now, and assume it’s no more of an effort for the GM to declare “roll $ATTRIBUTE plus $SKILL” than it is to declare “roll SKILL%”. Let’s assume any negotiation step will take the same amount of time (mostly dominated by players arguing if they’re in cover or not, etc.)

Let’s also ignore step 3, and assume it takes the same amount of time for players to scan their sheets and get the information they need to make the test. Not always true when the player needs to retrieve 2 pieces of information vs. just one, but we’ll forget that now.

The real load comes at steps 4 and 5. In step 4, on the left the player has to add several numbers together (easy, but harder with more numbers). On the right, the player has to divide (harder), but not always; when they do roll, it’s because they’re motivated to make the calculation because they might get a better result out of it.

OK, what about the load on the GM? On the right, the GM has to contend with a limited number of outcomes (“Fail”, “Success”, “Critical”) and the meanings of those outcomes will be established in the norms of the group and in the rules.

On the right, the GM has to go through an interpretive step (comparing how much better the player rolled than the number the GM has in her head; is it one point better, 3 points better, etc.). That’s a load of arithmetic you’ve heaped on the GM. The only way the GM can get away from this burden is to accept a binary pass/fail as the only outcome, something which d% is criticised for.

Arguably the d% system presents less of a burden than additive systems, even simple ones. Why then do some people react badly to d%? I propose that the strength of d% is exactly the reason some people can’t stand it: some players don’t want to know how likely an outcome is. If there’s only a 30% chance of success, why make the attempt? But if there’s an unknown but slender chance, choosing to blindly roll is seen as heroic, rather than tactical. Furthermore the promise of some open-ended rolling is alluring and optimistic, whereas the chance of rolling 5% or less is pessimistic.

So that’s it, then. This isn’t to do with cognitive load at all, it all swings back to aesthetics. Gamers who hate d% are incurable optimists and fantasists, wilfully ignoring realities and probabilities, and gamers who embrace d% are realists and pessimists. It would explain why d% works so well for Cthulhu.


  1. INtuitive types probably don’t like the Big List of Skills approach (myself included). Each skill is of very precise function, and there’s not much room to interpret experience from one skill benefitting another skill, and for some of us that doesn’t make much sense. But that’s not a problem, that’s the game. If you don’t like that play a different game with broad-brush characters like Everway or Over the Edge or Summerland or Ghostbusters.