Dec 282016

My last post was about Fate… which was formally spelled FATE – an acronym for Fudge Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment. Fate is derived from and is a streamlined version of Fudge.

cover of the FUDGE Rulebook

FUDGE Rulebook

Fudge has a lot to recommend it including the revolutionary idea of having all rolls be equal to your base rank plus or minus a small amount depending on how you rolled. (i.e. the same central mechanic as Fate), which is simply brilliant. (Even though I wrote about Fate first, Fudge had the idea originally. Both are open-source, so it’s all nice and legal). Having come from systems wherein you were assumed to fail at a task unless you rolled a certain minimum, I quickly became enamored of  a system where you could safely assume that a competent character will usually perform competently most of the time. The idea that a character with a +5 skill can’t possibly roll lower than +1 (because you roll 4 dice) and won’t usually roll any lower than +3 (because it’s rare to get more than a net +/- 2) rocked my world. You didn’t have to worry that your Olympic-level athlete character would fumble a walking-down-the-street-roll and trip in front of speeding cars. (That’s a ludicrous example, but… you know what I mean. Some systems call for you to roll for seemingly trivial things).

However, I found the main book to be overwhelming. It seemed to be less a system for playing a game than it was a system for creating a gaming system which you would then play. There’s no set skill list and there are at least 2 different mechanics for tracking damage, among other things. So, you can’t just sit down, make up a character, and start playing like you can with most games. You first have to make several key decisions on which rule(s) to use for a given situation. It’s extra confusing because they’re presented as equally weighted options. Simply stating that “X is the default way of tracking damage but Y and Z are valid alternatives if you prefer them instead” would have gone a long way toward helping me figure it out.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a ton of good ideas in the Fudge core book, you just have to figure out which are the best for you and your group — which is not an easy task when all you want to do is learn the system.

Now, for all my issues with Fudge, Palmer took to it like a SWAT team takes to Kevlar. He came up with his own Fudge sub-set a.k.a. Dr. Nik’s Happy Fun Rules (available for free download through Objectively, I can say it’s pretty good, especially for quick pickup games or convention games. I don’t know that I’d enjoy it for an extended year-long campaign — but that’s just my personal preference. If you just want to sit down with some friends and say: “O.K. Tonight we’re going to run through Mystery Mountain. Everybody make up characters.” — it’s perfect. Everything is distilled down to 5 extremely broad attributes and 1 player-defined attribute, the Archetype.  Sometimes the archetype opens up extra abilities for your player. For instance, it’s logical that a character with Archetype (paramedic) or Archetype (doctor) would be able to perform first aid or surgery.  Other times, you can roll your archetype attribute instead of the default attribute. An Archetype (elven woodsman) would be able to roll Archetype (elven woodsman) to stealthily move through the forest instead of the Physical attribute (assuming Archetype was higher).

I’d imagine all Fudge variants play pretty quickly but Dr. Nik’s Fudge is streamlined to supersonic levels. It only takes about a minute to learn. It’s ideal for groups that can’t meet regularly and who don’t want to waste a lot of time reading a 100 page rulebook (Dr. Nik’s Happy Fun Rules is only 5 pages long). And that’s why I develop for it. Because not every gaming group is the same as mine.

 December 28, 2016  Posted by at 7:00 am Favorite Systems, Game Reviews No Responses »
Dec 212016

Fate is fantastic. I would play fate, fate, and nothing but fate except for it’s primary flaw: It’s not for everyone. To understand my rationale for that statement, I have to explain a little bit about how the mechanics work.

Cover of the Fate core rulebook

Fate Core Rules

First off, it uses special Fate dice, the sides of which are either blank, have a plus sign or have a minus sign. There’s also a Fate card deck you can use if you prefer that and in a pinch you can use just a bunch of regular six-siders (and mentally convert 1-2 to minus; 3-4 to blank; and 5-6 to plus). You roll four dice and add to your skill to determine how you do on every skill challenge, so a character with an average skill will, on average, do average. A character with a Good (+3) skill will, on average, do a Good (+3) job with that skill (sometimes Fair (+2), sometimes Great (+4), occasionally better or worse). This makes it super easy to plan encounters appropriate for players since an enemy with Great (+4) Fighting is a match for a single player with Great (+4) fighting and a pretty tough challenge for two players with Fair (+2) fighting each.

Everything is covered by broad, broad skills (although you’re encouraged to customize the skill list if you want a more granular approach or absolutely insist on Punching being a separate skill from Stabbing) so every roll is covered by a unified mechanic that takes only 30 seconds to learn. Simple and elegant.

Where it starts to get hairy is with the concept of Aspects: a word or short phrase that describes your character, like “Surly Mercenary”, “Untrained Wizard”, or “IT Geek” (these are really simplistic examples). Each player character gets 5. At any point in the game you can spend a Fate point (equivalent to a Savage World “Bennie” or Pathfinder “Hero Point”) to gain a +2 bonus to a skill roll IF you have an aspect appropriate to the skill and/or current circumstances. So, “Surly Mercenary” might be invoked for +2 Fighting, but not “Untrained Wizard”. “IT Geek” could be used to help disarm a bomb (since the aspect and the task are tangentially involved with electronics).

On the other hand,  aspects can be used against you (usually by the Game Master) for -2 to a roll. (You earn a Fate point if this happens, so failure now can lead to future success.) For example the surliness of the mercenary or geekiness of the IT guy could both be invoked against them in roll involving social interaction. “Untrained Wizard” might be invoked against the player during a magical duel t0 reflect the disadvantage created by their lack of formal education. An “I Hate Orcs” aspect could be invoked for a bonus to Fighting against orcs or a penalty to Rapport or Empathy. The best aspects can be applied positively or negatively depending on circumstance.

On top of that, you can take an action to create a temporary or situational aspect through use of a skill roll. If you succeed, you don’t have to spent any points to later call on the bonus (at least the first time). The great thing about this, is that it lets you use non-combat skills to great effect in combat and vice versa. For instance, you might use Athletics to create a temporary “I’m Flexing” aspect to gain +2 Rapport to your next roll against the beach bimbos you’re trying to interrogate. Alternately, you could use Athletics to create a “Temporarily Blinded” aspect on someone by throwing dirt in their eyes. A player of a female character once used Rapport to create an “Slowly Unzipping My Top” aspect to distract a combatant, giving her ally +2 Fighting for the round. Fate rewards teamwork and creativity.  You might even go so far as to say Fate requires teamwork and creativity — and that’s the problem. Not everyone is capable (or capable of creativity in real-time; Fate is pretty fast-paced). It can be extra challenging for some folks because there isn’t a comprehensive list of situational aspects (nor could there be a list. Almost anything is possible).

In my regular gaming group, exactly half of them looooovvee Fate like nobody’s business. The others… have issues. One guy just can’t do anything quickly and prefers choosing from a menu of options over free-form decision making. He eventually got the hang of using the limited number of character Aspects but was overwhelmed by the possibilities afforded by creating situational aspects on the fly. Consequently, he was at a serious disadvantage compared to the other players and kept attempting the same skill roll over and over again — just because he couldn’t think of anything else to do (or to create a situational aspect to give him a bonus). The other players could have helped him out with some suggestions — but they didn’t because they have poor teamwork. Another player was just plain crippled by a combination of analysis paralysis and anxiety. Other game systems had conditioned him to associate failed rolls with “losing the game” so he wouldn’t attempt anything without first trying to rack up a bunch of situational bonuses. Then, he couldn’t make up his mind which situational aspect to try to create (even though they all give the same +2).

And then… you throw in Fate stunts, which are kind-of like Pathfinder Feats or Savage Worlds Edges, which allow you to bend the rules (or give a bonus) in specific circumstances. For instance: Backstab allows you to roll Stealth to attack (instead of Fight or Shoot) but only when you make a sneak attack. Hard-Boiled lets you temporarily ignore wounds. Hardcore Parkour gives +2 Athletics to move through a dangerous environment. Stunts let you make your character even more awesome… in a very narrowly defined way. There’s a short list of suggested stunts related to each skill but you’re encouraged to make up your own, which again, half the group loved and half struggled with.

I don’t actually play Fate on a regular basis (although I could because as the GM and tie-breaker, I can always vote for it) because it’s only fun if it’s fun for everyone and half my group doesn’t have fun with it.

I do sincerely adore the system and recommend that everyone at least give it a try, which is why I develop for it.

 December 21, 2016  Posted by at 7:00 am Favorite Systems, Game Reviews No Responses »
Dec 142016
image of the Savage Worlds core rulebook

Savage Worlds Deluxe Rulebook

I’ll be honest: when I first sat down with the Savage Worlds rulebook, I didn’t think too much of it. At the time I favored strict simulationist realism and Savage Worlds just seemed to be too quick-and-dirty and lacking in granularity but now I think it’s my favorite system.  What’s changed? Mostly me. I finally realized that I’m not 14 any more and the prospect of gradually working a new character up from a zero-level peasant (or Savage Worlds equivalent) to a level 50 bazillion soldier-warlock over a period of years is not only unlikely but also undesirable. In the adult world, it’s hard to get everyone together for long campaigns. My average is about 6 months and I’m lead to understand that that’s unusually long for most groups. Additionally, I had real-world accomplishments all the time, be it a math test or the art show at the fair or getting 10 bucks for mowing Old Man Ward’s lawn. None of those are major feats (except maybe for lawn mowing; thing was huge!) but back then every week had something to mark it as different from the week before — so if it took 5 weeks for my character to improve 5% in his skills, I didn’t mind.

Nowadays however, the daily grind is relentless, nobody acknowledges your successes on the job, and even payday has lost the thrill since almost everything gets spent within 48 hours of receiving the money. Anything left over I feel obligated to save in case I fall and break something — or to spend on grown-up stuff like ladders and cleaning supplies. I’m not complaining or claiming that I’ve got it worse than anyone else; it’s like that for everybody. EVERYbody needs to feel like they did something from time to time. Savage Worlds offers that opportunity.

All character attributes (and skills) are represented by a die type — the standard d4, d6, d8, d10, d12. So you might have a d8 Strength or a d10 Spirit attribute or a d4 Shooting skill, meaning there’s only 5 levels to anything (6 if you count d-zero for skills you don’t have) so compared to AD&D (the yardstick by which I measure most games) and it’s -5 to +20 bonuses… it doesn’t seem very nuanced. In principle. In practice, that’s a feature. not a bug.

A group of go-getter players can earn an advance at least every other week (and even unmotivated slackers should be getting enough experience to advance every 3-4 weeks. If you haven’t advanced after 5 weeks, you missed a session). So twice a month you can experience the thrill of going from d6 to d8 () in one or more skills. It’s a bigger jump so it has more emotional impact than… “I’m now 3rd level. I have 3 more hit points (because I’m a wizard) am slightly less pathetic in 4 skills.” A d6 to d8 jump is the difference between high school  and college sports. In a few short weeks, you could even go pro with a d10! Naturally, there are a few restrictions, intended to keep you from going from Scabby Poindexter to Rock Hunkmeister overnight (as well there should be) so you can’t rapidly go from d6 to d10 in everything — at least not that quickly, but when your character advances, you feel like they’re markedly better as opposed to slightly less awful.

That addresses my granularity concern. But what about realism and verisimilitude?

The game mechanic is super-simple. Take your skill (or attribute) die in hand and roll a 4 or higher to succeed. You also get to roll a d6 “wild die” at the same time and take the higher of the two dice. If you roll the die’s maximum value, called “acing” you get to roll again and add to the total… so it’s possible to get a 33 on a d4. Unlikely, but possible). Admittedly, the math doesn’t seem like it would represents real-world physics but a fight somehow manages to play like a real-world fight would play out (or at least what I remember of getting my real-world 14 year old butt kicked). After all a semi-competent player character with a d6 Shooting has a 75% chance of hitting a foe (because of the wild die). So two guys blasting it out should always come down to who shoots first, right?

Nope. In Savage Worlds, situational modifiers matter. And boy, do they really matter. A -2 vision (or cover) penalty to hit drops your 75% success rate to ~30.5% so characters have a real motivation to take even partial cover. Hiding behind a fallen log doesn’t just give you a 20% better armor class, it doubles your chances of survival. As a result, even highly skilled characters still miss fairly frequently. Likewise, if you get “the drop” on somebody, the target isn’t just denied his Dexterity bonus to defense (which may or may not even matter), you get a friggin’ +4 to hit AND damage! Talk about a feeling of accomplishment. POW!

Furthermore, for a system that puts a relatively strong emphasis on combat, there’s plenty of things for weenie characters to do in combat, like trick opponents — or to throw them off guard with a Taunt skill roll. In most games, such actions might only give the target a -2 penalty, which only matters at first level. By the time they get a +10 bonus, it’s not so relevant. But in Savage Worlds a -2 penalty is a big big deal (as we’ve seen above). I’ve seen two players take out a heavily armored guard with a loaf of bread in this manner. The first player yelled “catch” and threw the bread at the guard (an Agility-based trick) while the second player stepped up and cold cocked the distracted guard in the face. I have never seen that ploy work so well in any other game (mostly because players know it won’t help, so they don’t try it).

But it’s not all penalties and reduced chance of success. Because all dice can “ace” anyone at any time might get lucky, the weeniest of weenies can get a lucky hit in. I’ve seen an NPC meat shield(with a d6 skill) kill steal a major demon from the player characters because he happened to roll a 23 on an attack roll (which was only intended to give the player characters the “friends in melee” bonus). It was awesome. The player characters carried that unnamed NPC around on their shoulders and threw him a parade, which I guess is a metaphor for my experience with Savage Worlds: It started out as a just another disposable ruleset like the dozen next to it on my shelf. But somehow it scored a critical hit on my heart and now I carry it around everywhere and want to throw it parades. Or develop for it, which is the next best thing.

 December 14, 2016  Posted by at 7:00 am Favorite Systems, Game Reviews No Responses »
Dec 072016

Despite my previous diatribes against character classes, I still like Pathfinder.

Cover of the Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook

Pathfinder Core Rulebook

Pathfinder is the inheritor of the spirit (if not the intellectual property) of good ol’ Dungeons & Dragons and since my first gaming experience was with D&D, it was the yardstick by which I measure other games – at least until 4th edition, which, I did not care for much at all. (5th seems to be headed in the right direction but, in all honestly: I’ve never actually played it. I’ve just sunk too much money into other games and the “brand name” doesn’t mean as much to me these days.) Anyway. By becoming D&D v3.75, Pathfinder became my yardstick by default.

The main rulebook has a good number of classes, which you can customize with feats and skill selections. Thus you can build an archer-fighter, a strength-fighter, and a dexterity-fighter all the same level but all with completely different abilities. The Advanced Players Guide introduced the concept of Archetypes, which are basically sub-classes. Don’t like or don’t anticipate ever using a particular class ability? There’s probably an archetype that substitutes something better instead. The Advanced Players Guide as well as lots of other books published since added still more classes (and still more archetypes for said classes). Also there’s an uncountable amount of third-party compatible stuff out there.

With all of the above in play, there’s no reason why you can’t realize almost any campaign-appropriate character concept. Pathfinder is a player’s dream system.

That said, it can be challenging to game master.

Not so much if you’re running the pre-packaged adventures Paizo makes; they’re high quality and there’s plenty of them. But if you primarily run homebrewed campaigns, there can be a lot to keep track of.

The bewildering number of options available to every character makes it more difficult to design effective challenges for your players. For instance, you can’t count on Rogues to have the Trapfinding ability because a given player may have traded it away as part of taking some sort of con-man archetype. That’s really just one small example, but multiply that by 5-6 players and 20+ character classes and you realize that there’s a lot of variables that need juggled. You have to amass a tremendous body of knowledge to run a game. I don’t envy a new GM just starting out.

The choices can also be overwhelming for new players. IMHO, they tend to fall into two camps: Crammers and Explorers.

Crammers want to know everything. Rules mastery is a big thing for them and you can count on the Crammer to pick stuff up pretty quickly. If they can’t afford rulebooks (and you don’t have spares to lend) they go online and read the SRD. They’re motivated to have the best character they possibly can — which unfortunately usually equates to the most powerful character. They get help from message boards and player websites on how to optimize their characters and end up with a guy who’s super great at one particular task or style of combat and who sucks at everything else. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this per se, but it’s one of those things that makes it hard to plan a game. How many encounters are a challenge for the indestructible guy and won’t immediately destroy the wienies in the group?

Explorers tend to make seemingly random choices. They’re not so much interested in mastering the rules as they are just playing around to see what happens — or because they want to develop a particular concept. They build a character based on what seems cool at the time, which is fine, except Pathfinder isn’t set up to reward this style of play. Not all feats are equal and it’s entirely possible to make a wrong choice. For instance: the Run feat is just a bad choice. Choosing it will gimp up your character. An Explorer with Run is at a significant disadvantage against a Crammer with Power Attack — so they can become frustrated that their guy never seems to shine.

Explorers eventually either lose interest in the game or they wise up and become Crammers, so if you play long enough you’ll end up with a party of specialists, each of whom operate at level +2 within their area of specialty and at level -5 for everything else. Hard to juggle.

O.K. Looking back it seems like I’ve spent most of my time complaining about Pathfinder, which is probably misleading. There’s a lot of choices because there’s a lot of books. There’s a lot of books because there’s lots of players. There’s lots of players because it’s lots of fun. It’s so much fun that I wanted to publish for Pathfinder, even though there’s no 21st century setting. That’s why I wrote Modern Adventures. (One of those third party compatible things). paNik plans to publish for Pathfinder for as long as we can. It’s good stuff.

 December 7, 2016  Posted by at 7:00 am Favorite Systems, Game Reviews No Responses »