Feb 092017
 

I like Kickstarter. Even though the paNik campaign didn’t get funded, I still think it’s truly great and one of the things that makes modern life worth living. If you have a dream but no money, Kickstarter can help make that dream come true (assuming said dream is practical and you’re sufficiently convincing and/or popular… not that I’m bitter). 20 years ago, your only option for most Kickstarter projects was to go begging to banks, getting a second job and saving, or mortgaging your house (assuming you have one — and that’s really just a different way of saying going back to the banks).
But just as important are the benefits to the sponsors. You don’t just get the book or artwork or whatever tangible product is being manufactured. You also get the satisfaction of knowing that you get to help someone else realize their dream — at least a little. It’s incredibly empowering. Personally every time I browse through projects, I feel like a di Medici, patronizing the next da Vinci or Caravaggio. It’s a feeling that was formerly only experienced by bankers and the very wealthy, now made affordable by modern technology. Most of the time I don’t even want the stuff I’m sponsoring, I just either think it’s a good idea or the creator seems especially passionate or with increasing frequency: when it’s someone’s first project and it looks like they won’t get funded (not that I’m bitter). Usually I’ll only pledge a handful of dollars; I try to strike a balance between giving enough to actually matter but not so much that I get saddled with a ton of crap I can’t use. Sometimes, I get caught up in the excitement and actually end up pledging a significant amount of money (usually with gaming stuff) and since I’m (in all honesty) motivated by the idea of Kickstarter than I am the actual products of Kickstarter, within a few days I usually forget all about the things to which I’ve pledged. So, I’m surprised and delighted when a package comes in the mail. It’s always nice to get something besides bills and coupons for local businesses.
Except when the product is not… good.
Now, I don’t want to disparage Kickstarter as a whole (which is why I spent the first two paragraphs championing it). I know Kickstarter folks aren’t necessarily professionals and don’t have pro-grade skills so I cut them a lot of slack. I overlook amateur design decisions like too-large a typeface with too-small a leading, tiny margins, etc. etc. I also don’t expect high-quality prose (although… is it too much to ask that somebody check for proper homonym use before going to press?).

Still, you need to have a new idea.

I’m not going to name names, but I recently received a book that was basically a Pathfinder adventure ported over to Savage Worlds. As far as I know, it was an original adventure; I’m not trying to imply that they just re-skinned someone else’s published work or anything like that. But it was clearly set in a Pathfinder-esque world, complete with Pathfinder-type treasure such as bags of holding and swords that give “to hit” bonuses. Those are all old ideas and ones I’d prefer to do without (for reasons which I’ll get around to explaining in later posts). Why re-invent the wheel? It’s not like you’re going to improve on the concept of “roundness”.

There are millions of possible fantasy worlds. I want to see something different than just another Pathfinder clone. After all, Pathfinder is just a clone of Dungeons and Dragons, which itself borrows heavily from Lord of the Rings. Any differences between them are largely the result of lost resolution (such as when you photocopy a photocopy of a photocopy of a picture). I’m sick to death of Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds with stock elves, stock dwarves, stock wizards, et cetera. But. I understand the appeal. I get why people still like that stuff. Pathfinder is (or was) the most popular tabletop RPG for a reason. But let Pathfinder be Pathfinder.

The super cool thing about Savage Worlds is that it lets you create your own world with your own system of magic and magic items. Back in the day the only way to do that was to create a bunch of house rules that were likely to just make your players grumble. After all, if they’re expecting to play game X, they’re not going to be happy with game X2. Yeah, GURPS came out pretty early, but… GURPS had problems of its own (for instance: firearms had more attributes than player characters. It’s true).

I’ve been writing, deleting, and re-writing paragraphs for a while now… only to find myself griping in circles. As cathartic as that may be for me, it’s less than amusing for you so I’m just going to come sum everything up right now.

Open source games (or easily license-able games like Savage Worlds) give you a framework with which you can innovate without needing to create a whole new ruleset (which is both cumbersome and, in most cases, needless). Through the magic of Kickstarter, other people can enjoy your innovation with the convenience of not needing to learn new rules. These technologies (and open source rulesets are a form of technology) make it easier than ever to be creative.

Just actually be creative.

 February 9, 2017  Posted by at 9:20 am Anecdotes, Rants No Responses »
Feb 072017
 

In my last post, I advocated limiting player character racial options to foster character development, reduce stereotypical character behavior, and generally foster creativity. Those weren’t idle words, I practice what I preach. The last fantasy game I ran was in Savage Worlds in a world I called Byelloterrania (as a riff on “Mediterranean”. Plus I just like “Byello” as a prefix). Giving your world a name is important because it shows that you’ve put at least some thought into things and it immediately sets that world apart from any “default” world your players might assume they’re going to be playing in. Byelloterrania had only 3 player character races.

In ancient times Byelloterrania was ruled by one sprawling empire, which was a paradise for humans. Unfortunately it was a paradise built on orc slave labor. When the orcs inevitably rebelled a multi-generation long war shredded the Empire. From the ashes, 3 kingdoms emerged.

Picture of effete author Ashley Wilkes

I’d like to strengthen the Empire but all this ennui is just too crushing.

Effetroix

What’s left of the old Empire reorganized into a country called Effetroix (a name I derived from “effete”). Effetroixan orcs are still enslaved there and the humans have become decadent and lazy. They’re more interested in recapturing the glory days (and preventing further rebellions) and have lost the drive to innovate.

Pellucid

The other human-run kingdom, Pellucid (a name I found up by looking up synonyms for “clear”) is a monotheistic theocracy comprised largely of fiefs who supported the orc rebellion. Despite being the smallest kingdom it has a rapidly growing economy and is the leading source of technological innovation having recently domesticated horzes and dolgs. (Changing the spelling is an attempt to make ordinary animals seem strange and foreign.)

Picture of Groucho Marx looking wistful

Guess where I stole the name “Freedonia” from?

Freedonia

The kingdom of orcs, for orcs, and by orcs. Since most orcs are poorly educated and they eschew anything Empire-related, the government is a hot mess. Still, it beats slavery and things are gradually getting more organized.

Effetroixan Orcs

Effetroixan slave-orcs have the following racial traits:

  • Big: Orcs have Size +1, which increases their Toughness by +1.
  • Infravision: Orcs can see in the infrared spectrum, halving attack penalties (round down) for bad lighting.
  • Strong: Orcs are extremely mighty and begin with a d6 Strength attribute instead of a d4.
  • Uneducated: Efetroxian Orcs may not begin play with any Knowledge (skill) although they may buy the skill(s) through normal character advancement. They are illiterate unless they acquire the Knowledge (Language: Reading) skill.

Free Orcs

Effetroixan slave-orcs have the following racial traits:

  • Big: Orcs have Size +1, which increases their Toughness by +1.
  • Cursed: Although Efetroxian wizards were unable to destroy the rebelling Fredonians with magic, various lingering curses cling to the nation nonetheless. Fredonian Orcs receive one less Benny per game session.
  • Infravision: Orcs can see in the infrared spectrum, halving attack penalties (round down) for bad lighting.
  • Strong: Orcs are extremely mighty and begin with a d6 Strength attribute instead of a d4.

Effetroixan Humans

Effetroixan humans have the following traits:

  • Racial Enemy: Efetroxian humans suffer a -4 Charisma penalty when dealing with free orcs.
  • Refined: Efextroxians have exceptionally refined hearing and receive a +2 bonus to any Notice skill rolls relying on hearing.

As with any other human, they also receive a free advance during character creation.

Non-Effetroixan Humans

Humans from Pellucidia or Freedonia have no special traits other than the usual free advance during character creation.

Astute readers will notice that I mentioned there were three races… not four. That’s because the differences between Effetroixan and non-Effetroixan characters are cultural, not racial. There’s still only orcs and humans. The third race, I added as a joke.

Hobbits

The most universally hated race in Byelloterrania, hobbits are small, nimble humanoids with large, bare feet. During the Great War, a group of hobbits somehow acquired powerful magics which could have turned the tide conclusively to one side or the other. Refusing to choose sides, the hobbits destroyed these magical artifacts rather than let either side get them.

Hobbits live in remote small villages where they avoid contact with outsiders. Any hobbits encountered traveling outside of their home village are usually exiled, making them doubly-reviled. Not even other hobbits can trust the shifty little creeps.

  • Devil’s Luck: Luck may be the only think keeping the wretched race alive. Hobbits draw one additional Benny per game session. This may be combined with the Luck and Great Luck Edges.
  • Low-Light Vision: Hobbits ignore penalties for Dim and Dark lighting, allowing them to see in all but pitch black conditions.
  • Mockers: Accustomed to abuse, Hobbits have learned to give as good as they get. They begin play with a d6 Taunt skill.
  • Reviled: Hobbits suffer a -4 Charisma penalty when dealing with either humans or orcs.
  • Short: Hobbits average only 4’ tall, giving them a Size of -1 and reduces Toughness by 1.
  • Spirited: Hobbits are generally optimistic. They start with a d6 Spirit instead of a d4.

Unsurprisingly, nobody wanted to play a hobbit. Ever.

Now, when I was putting this together I expected everyone to create characters from all over the place — just like they do in every Pathfinder game. To my surprise, everyone played an orc — except for one player who went human. Moreover they all chose to live in (and be from) Freedonia.

Yehani was the token human from a formerly noble family, willing to do anything to reclaim her ancestral lands from the orcs — even earning the orcs trust and building infrastructure like roads.

Thorn was a former orc mercenary hoping to make up for a troubled past by seeking justice for others, kicking butt, and writing wrongs.

Elmer was an orc witch with a hatred of slavery so intense he was willing to back Yehani’s power grab if it means someday there will be an army strong enough to invade Effetroix.

Jonan was basically an orc jester who originally was solely motivated by profit but after an expedition to Pellucid, became obsessed with horzes and importing to Freedonia so no Orc would ever have to pull a plow or wagon again.

Had I opened up the floodgates to the standard array of races, Thorn would probably have been a dwarf, Elmer an elf, and Jonan either a hobbit or half-elf… but don’t they just seem more interesting as orcs? Furthermore, if they were all different races their only reason together would have been for the money and the campaign would have just been another series of dungeon crawls (which, to be honest, was all I was going for… at first). I know it would have been just ‘crawls, having played with that particular group before and that’s how they roll.

Instead, their mutual orc-ness gave them a reason to band together and a motivation to try to improve the lives of the orc peasants they lived among. Over time, the campaign became about empire-building and political alliances — and not because of anything I did as the GM. It was the players who took things in a completely different direction because their characters were more fleshed out than mere racial stereotypes. They only had to stretch a little at first… but they kept on stretching. And had fun in the process.

As one player said, “If you’d told me when we started this campaign that I’d be mediating disputes between the Bricklayers Guild and the Livery Coalition… and having fun doing it, I’d have said you were crazy and refused to play.”

Luckily for all of us, they did play and it was a blast.

 February 7, 2017  Posted by at 8:14 pm Anecdotes, Fun Stuff, Rants No Responses »
Jan 312017
 

Something I first noticed a long time ago is the tendency for characters in fantasy campaigns to devolve into stereotypes. In almost every fantasy game I’ve participated in as either a player or game master it seems that every player character is always of a different race (they also have different roles such as fighter, spell-caster, etc… but that’s due more to necessity than anything else).  What are the odds that every group of 5 adventurers will have a human, elf, dwarf, half-orc, and hobbit (or hobbit analog)? Not great. It could happen once or twice but more than that and it starts feeling contrived. This isn’t a problem — role-playing games are all about suspending disbelief — but what it is, is lazy.

What I mean by that is: it leads to lazy role-playing. Everybody knows that dwarves are gruff, elves are flighty (or aloof), half-orcs have anger issues, and hobbits are cheerful — and that’s all they are, or rather, that’s all most players allow them to be. Instead of dwarf-ness being one of many descriptors of a character, the dwarf character becomes the dwarf. The dwarf never has anything to distinguish it them from any other dwarf in the world — but they don’t have to. All they have to do is to distinguish themselves from the other player characters, which they did by declaring a different race. Character development done. Pow!

Picture of Gimli, the dwarf from the Lord of the Rings Movie

Archetype or Stereotype? Do dwarves wield anything other than axes? Ever?

I’d think this was just an aspect of gaming as a whole, except that its something I very seldom see in games with a modern setting. When humans are the only player-character race available, players go to greater lengths to define their characters. (A notable exception are games where everyone plays a different variation of the same monster; there’s not enough vomit in the world for me to be able to express my feelings for Malkavian clowns. A madness-themed clan from Vampire: the Masquerade. Virtually everyone’s first Malkavian character concept was either “murderous clown” or “psychotic mime”.)

Now, I am not, and will probably never advocate eliminating fantasy races. Part of the fun of gaming is pretending to be not only someone else but something else. That said, you should try paring down the number of available choices to 2 or 3 — at most the number of players – 2. When you guarantee that at least 2 of your players will have the same race, you’d be surprised how much work they go to to differentiate themselves. Give it a shot.

No, this is not just a trick to force players who don’t like to role-play to role-play or to force them into writing elaborate backstories, although don’t be surprised if either is the (partial) result. With two dwarves in the party, you go from being the dwarf to being an adventurous dwarf from the mountains or a cautious dwarf from the hills or the impetuous steppe dwarf. Already you’ve expanded from a single characteristic (dwarf) to three! Moreover since dwarves are clannish (a “racial” trait that only comes into play around other dwarves) the two dwarf characters are likely to either love or hate each other, which adds yet another layer for storytelling. If their clans are allied (or they’re from the same clan) do they always vote the same when making party decisions? If not, do they always disagree just for the sake of disagreeing? Either way, it’s a different kind of inter-player interaction that you don’t see when everyone is the only racial ambassador for 20 miles.

I hate to go Disney but… I’m gonna go Disney here. Consider the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs movie. There were only two races: humans and dwarves and every one of those seven dwarfs had a distinct (if unsubtly defined) personality — and so did the humans. Snow was innocent. The Queen was envious. The huntsman, compassionate (or weak-willed depending on how you choose to look at it). Admittedly, Prince Charming was pretty bland but then again, he didn’t have any lines either (that I remember). If nothing else, Disney knows how to make interesting characters.

Picture of Sexy Snow White Cosplayer

I’m sure this is the type of Snow White we’d all rather think about.

Limiting player options can be a hard sell, especially if one or more of your players have their hearts set on playing a “forbidden” race. I’ve found it’s best to get it out of the way before you even mention making characters. Say something like “Hey guys, I’m thinking of a campaign world where’s there’s 3 major empires and the only races are hobbits and elves. The hobbits used to be kept as pets by the elves but enough of them escaped that they started their own empire, Hobbitsylvania. The other 2 empires are run by elves and… etc.” Only after you’ve outlined the world and gotten folks interested, when they’re starting to buy into the idea — only then do you mention building characters.  Your players will get on-board.

 January 31, 2017  Posted by at 6:56 am Rants No Responses »
Jan 242017
 

In my last post, I ranted about the evils of min-maxing. I had more to say but I cut myself off in the interest of not taking up a month of your time reading a single article.

Something I almost always hear when I bring up the topic is: Why don’t you want people to play powerful characters?

My response: That is so not the issue. I have nothing against powerful characters. In my mind powerful equates to effective. If a character is too clumsy to scale a short wall, can’t drive to the next town over, or is too obnoxious to function in a social setting… they’re just not effective, no matter how many goblins they can kill before becoming winded.

image of an Elephant Seal holding a blue bucket

He’s got the bucket. He’s halfway there.

Say you’re playing a psychic character. It’s fine to bump up your powers a little bit by taking a physical flaw like “limp.” You could even take it a step further and get another boost by making them “wheelchair bound” and having little-to-no melee ability. The next step is to go for total paralysis… and thence to abandoning the body altogether until the character is nothing more than a psychic brain soaking in a bucket of life-sustaining fluids.

Now comparing our limping psychic with the brain-in-a-bucket… who is more effective at the task of making a sandwich? Dusting for finger prints? Convincing the boozy derelict to tell you where the McGuffin is? Hailing a taxi? (Depending on your game system, the brain-in-a-bucket may be able to accomplish them through telekinesis, ESP, and telepathy respectively, but it’s likely that they either can’t afford all three or they use up all their “spell points” performing them, so there’s nothing left to fight bad guys with).

Believe me, I understand the virtue of power fantasies. It feels good to pretend to be completely bad ass… but do you always have to be Superman? Isn’t it just as satisfying to be Spider-man or Cyborg (both of whom are more bad ass than you or I will ever be)?

But I digress. The point of today is to light a candle rather than to curse the darkness.

How to keep Min-Maxing From Killing You

Friends, the solution is so simple that I, myself, doubted it at first. But it works and it could be yours for… sorry. I started channeling an infomercial there for a moment.

But my solution is pretty simple: Make everything a cooperative roll.

By everything, I mean “most important things”.

Most systems have some sort of mechanism for allowing two or more characters to pool their efforts so that the highest-skilled character gets a bonus to their roll, allowing them to achieve feats they otherwise aren’t capable of through the power of teamwork. Sounds great… in theory. Because in most systems, the bonus is so paltry it’s hardly ever worth the bother. On the plus side, there’s also no penalty if the lower-skilled characters fail. The only downside is the higher-skilled character doesn’t get a bonus they wouldn’t have gotten anyway if the lower-skilled character never made the attempt in the first place.

I’m not talking about that type of cooperative roll.

I’m talking about the type of cooperative roll where the highest skilled character makes their roll and everyone sees how well they did. Then I make the characters with absolutely nothing in that skill make a nominal roll as well to see if they did something to mess things up for the high-skilled character. (Depending on your system, you may need to reverse the order). If the zero-skill-ers succeed, fine. If they fail, the high-skill-er gets a penalty — and suddenly everyone at the table is irritated at the zero-skill-er, who is suddenly motivated to acquire that skill.

Group of women laughing while a man stands aside looking dejected.

One of these characters isn’t playing along with Operation: Laugh At All the Sultan’s Jokes

This method enforces teamwork and cooperation, not just in how the characters are played… but also how they’re built. Thugs can no longer safely skimp on social skills, knowing that the party leader can carry them. And I primarily use this method on social rolls (those being the skills my players tend to forego in favor of the skillset of murderous hobos). I justify it as: Picture your brother and yourself in a fancy office with leather seats, and velvet curtains. Your potential employer has the Queen of England on speed dial. That’s just how classy they are. You, being the team negotiator, have just made an incredibly compelling case as to why you should be hired for double the usual rate when… your brother inexplicably starts picking their nose. All your work is undone; you are clearly ill-mannered peasants and undeserving of a high-paying job. That’s an extreme example but the same principle applies to most other interactions. Even if they sit perfectly skill throughout the encounter such robotic mannerisms can still be off-putting.

A character with absolutely no skill in Diplomacy/Negotiations/Etiquette has absolutely no idea how to behave during Diplomacy/Negotiations/Etiquette, hence they have to roll to see if they unwittingly commit some sort of faux pas. It shouldn’t be a difficult roll. I’m only talking about DC 8-11 (for Pathfinder) or +2-3 (for Savage Worlds, which offsets the penalty for lacking a skill). You want to incentivize, not mandate the skill so there should be a better-than 50% of the skill-less player succeeding. On the other hand, if you make it a sure thing then the roll becomes a formality and is easily skipped over so try to keep the odds of success less than 75%. Also, only unskilled characters should have to roll. If they have a single point of a skill then they have some idea of how to act and know enough not to do anything embarrassing and counterproductive. (I suppose there might theoretically be cases where a character might need more than the bare minimum in a skill to avoid slipping up… but those should be extreme exceptions.)

As for a penalty… I’d say -2 is adequate for Pathfinder and -1 for Savage Worlds, those being the inverse of the “teamwork” bonuses in both systems. And the penalty is cumulative. This means that (using last post’s example) of the melee fighter, ranged fighter, healer, and sneak… about half of them will fail, giving the face a -4 penalty (-2 SW) most of the time. The next time they level up, they’ll think hard about learning the basics of social conduct.

You can use this mechanism for non-social rolls — as long as you can think of a logical application. For instance, those with absolutely no knowledge of crafting and/or repair won’t know to clean and oil their weapons. Those with no ranks in Riding or Animal Handling not only can’t do stunts in combat but also might slow the whole caravan down by 15% because they waste everybody’s time by being thrown from their steed or being unable to stop their mount from racing off into fields. The same thing applies to vehicle operation — except speed is reduced by 50% because the unskilled driver can’t get the vehicle out of second gear… and so on.

You don’t want to use this mechanism where there’s already a penalty for failure (such as climbing or swimming). Nor do you want to overdo it. You don’t want to seem like you’re picking on the player(s) of unskilled characters. I’d say no more than twice per session — and even that can be too much if it’s twice every session — should be enough to nudge your players toward reasonable characters.

 January 24, 2017  Posted by at 8:32 am Rants No Responses »
Jan 172017
 

We recently introduced a new guy into our Sunday game. As he was new to the group and new to the system, he showed up with his character unfinished. This was a good thing, since I always get a better sense of the character’s stats and abilities if I can watch it being built. It’s easier for me to remember their capabilities that way (as opposed to looking at a finished character sheet and hoping I’ll suddenly manifest a photographic memory) and thus, easier and more fun to plan adventures. It also gives me a chance to get insight into a player’s thought processes (again, helping me customize things to appeal to the individual).

New Guy’s character concept was a magical sniper and he needed a few pointers on skills. He’d completely overlooked Stealth, for instance — which is crucial for sniping and naturally, everyone should have athletics. He readily accepted our suggested tweaks because, as he said repeatedly and unintentionally ironically that “I’m not a min-maxer.” If only that were true.

You see, he’d given his character the lowest possible Strength and the highest possible Intelligence (which is crucial for arcane casting).  People this is the very definition of min-maxing. When you bottom out something you think you won’t need to afford maxing out something else which you think you’ll be using all the time, you ARE a min-maxer. There’s no point in denying it.

Image of an woman with a dramatically undersized leg.

If you have one leg minimum size and the other maxed out… you might be a min-maxer.

So… now that we’ve defined the terms, here’s where I explain why min-maxing is a bad thing, bad enough to be called a “game killer.”

A min-maxed character is imbalanced, by their very nature. Imbalanced things tend to fall. Sure they can wobble around for a while, perhaps even an extended period of time, but eventually the inherent instability causes them to stumble and fall — unless someone keeps tilting the table to keep them upright. That someone is usually the game master and a good one can keep things balanced almost indefinitely. Over time, they might even start to think that balancing unstable characters is their job. It’s not. It’s the job of everyone at the gaming table to help everyone have a good time — and if you’re only concerned with making your character the best at X, you’re not doing your job. Why? Because the min-maxed character completely sucks at everything except the few tasks they’re optimized for. That generates a lot of slack that the other players have to pick up. If they also happen to be min-maxers, this becomes increasingly difficult. Everyone has more to juggle.

Going back to our sniper-mage… the guy is made out of paper. He’s capable of dishing out truly prodigious amounts of damage but in the trial session we went through (designed to convince him of the importance of rounding our his guy), he got beaten up by a toothless old hobo in ill health. (No lessons were learned, by the way.) The character is unstable. He can wobble around for awhile but no matter how good a shot or how stealthy he is, eventually someone will engage him in melee combat and at that moment his character is dead.

So now, as the game master, I’m put in the position of having to either tilt the table (metaphorically) to ensure all combat only happens at range — or become a player killer. I don’t like killing players. (Wounding, maiming, and severely incapacitating, sure.) It takes time and effort to make up a character. Nobody likes to feel like their time has been wasted. Another reason not to kill player characters is, due to some quirk of min-maxer psychology, they never make the connection that they died due to over-specialization and their next character is even more lopsided, if possible. Therefore, killing them only makes things worse.

image of hand playing mumbledepeg.

This is what GMing a group of min-maxers feels like.

I’m trying to make a broader point than just whining about the New Guy, though. Assume that a typical gaming party consists of some combination of melee specialist (Fighter), ranged specialist (Mage), face (Bard), sneak/scout (Rogue), and medic (Cleric) and that they’re optimized for their role and only their role. What happens when they need to cross a river and there’s no bridge or boat they can hire? Since swimming comes up so seldom in most games, it’s the first skill dumped by the min-maxer. What happens when they need to engage in a car (or chariot) chase? The bad guy gets away. Always. (Until somebody makes a racing-optimized character). So the game master now has to juggle things to make sure that the party never encounters any rivers or chase scenes just to prevent a total party wipeout. Worse than that, though… players expect to face challenges they’re good at overcoming. Meaning that the above group needs to not only face melee antagonists, ranged antagonists, heated negotiation, hidden information, and the aftermath of melee and ranged antagonists at least once per session. Moreover they have to face those things without their characters being confronted by one of areas of incompetence. You’d need a difficulty 6 combat encounter for the melee and ranged specialist… but if the face becomes incapacitated then the difficulty 5 interrogation you had planned for afterward is shot all to hell because the other characters can only handle social skills with a difficulty of 1 or 2. (I’m making those numbers up so as not to reference any particular system).

Is this impossible? No. But it takes work. More work for the players and more work for the game master. Eventually, even the most enthusiastic game master gets tired and needs a break now and then. They have to spend at least an hour each week prepping for the game. Is it your fault they have to spend an hour and a half instead? (Maybe not, but it never hurts to ask these things from time to time). Is your GM having fun? Or are they visibly frazzled and fatigued?

Are you in a group of fairly reliable gamers who just can’t seem to keep a campaign going? Does everybody want to play but nobody wants to game master? Do your campaigns always peter out after 2 or 3 sessions? It could be due to lots of factors.

But it could also be due to min-maxing.

 

 January 17, 2017  Posted by at 8:01 am Rants No Responses »
Jan 102017
 
picture of a man fleeing a crowd

Athletics: Super handy for any character
in any game.

Something like 13-15 years ago I tried to run a Shadowrun game. Since my previous Shadowrun campaigns tended toward gritty street-level affairs, I thought I’d mix things up by trying to go “epic.” I’d been itching to use the Bug City adventure/sourcebook for some time and used it as the basis for the campaign. The player characters would be hired by a corporation to break into Bug City and retrieve valuable data from the server. There was also a list of secondary goals they could accomplish for an extra bonus but the data was the primary mission; without it, the corporation would suffer extensive losses (if not go bankrupt outright) and not be able to pay the characters if they failed. It was going to be like a big heist movie, where all the specialist characters came together to pull off feats that none of them could accomplish on their own — with a lot of giant insect monsters. They were meant to be one of the best in their particular business. Elite. Maybe not the best in the world, but certainly one of the top two available in the North American continent.

Since this was a new campaign and I wanted the players to sense the grand scale I was going for, everybody got to make tougher-than-normal starting characters.  Basically, I adjusted the values for each priority upward by a few points (increasing resources by 25% in the process) and let everyone have one skill at 8 (or 2 skills at 7). To top it off, everyone got either 25 or 30 experience points so mages could start out as initiates if they wanted to (they did).  If having higher numbers to play around with didn’t make them feel like big shots, the equivalent experience of 5-6 missions got the point across. “I’ve already maxed out this skill and I can raise it again with XP?” — was something frequently uttered. “Yes” was always the answer, “although you’ll get more mileage from the points by bumping up weaker skills”.

On the other hand, most of the guys had never played Shadowrun before so, while they knew they were getting a good deal… they didn’t realize quite how good. They were also somehow convinced that I was somehow working against them as the game master. They acted as if all my suggestions were tricks, designed to make them have sucky characters (despite all the aforementioned bonuses. It made no sense). My number one piece of advice: Everyone should put points into the Athletics skill and everyone should have at least two points in some sort of vehicular skill. In Shadowrun, Athletics is more versatile than the climbing/swimmin combo it is in most games; instead it’s a catch-all of just about everything physical you might do — such as running, jumping, or lifting things (in addition to climbing and swimming) — things expert criminals do ALL the time. Suggesting a vehicle skill (Car or Bike) was my attempt to sustain a sense of realism. It just seemed ludicrous to me that the top assassins (or cat burglars, or mercenaries) can.  shoot wings off flies but need to take a taxi to get to the mission.

“Yeah, yeah yeah,” they said. “I’m not falling for your tricks.”

Since this was a large party of 7-8 guys I didn’t want to waste everyone’s time by inspecting everyone’s character sheet. Instead I ran a quick scenario where they got to engage in mock combat with some non-player characters. This g-bave everyone a chance to see how the system played out and a chance to move points around if they decided they didn’t like how they’d built their guy. Nobody moved anything. I’d planned on a prolonged scene, allowing the player characters a chance to go on mini “training missions” in an X-men style “Danger Room” but I could tell that folks were growing bored with fake make-believe combat. They wanted real make-believe combat. So I started the adventure.

Some background on Bug City: An enormous hive of evil insect spirits was discovered in Chicago. After repeated failed attempts to eliminate the threat, the army decided that containment was the best they could do. Accordingly, they blew up a ring around the city center two blocks deep and bulldozed the rubble into a makeshift wall. This, they reinforced with barbed wire, guard towers, and armed patrols with orders to shoot anything they see move. In addition, drones and astral magicians patrolled the skies overhead.

Just getting into Bug City is a mission in and of itself.

On the other hand, the player characters were supposed to be elite and they were told all of this in advance, so they could tailor their characters to the adventure. Everybody made their Stealth rolls to avoid the patrols. The techie made his Electronics roll to mask them from the drones. The mage kept a lookout for astrally projecting wizards and elementals. It was all going so well.

And then they got to the rubble.

“O.K. everybody, everyone needs to roll Athletics (8) to climb the rubble. You’ll need to accumulate 3 successes in 2 rolls at most. Otherwise, you’ll only be halfway over before the spotlights swing back to your position.” I said.

Crickets chirped.

Nobody had put ANY points into Athletics except for the guy playing the physical adept A type of mage who channels their power into physical enhancements instead of casting spells. — who had automatic successes in Athletics (in second edition this was a thing; a cool idea but game unbalancing if you had more than one per skill – which is what everybody did). In Shadowrun, if you don’t have a skill, you can default to an attribute with a +4 penalty, allowing anyone to attempt anything at any time — they’d just have a very low chance of success. In this particular case, a challenging Athletics (8) roll became an extremely hard Body (12) roll. Needing to get 3 successes made it practically impossible. Other than the physical adept, only one other character made the climb (an ork who’d maxed out Body).

I was faced with a dilemma. Do I let the players duke it out with the army and fight their way inside, knowing that the half who survived would be deprived of essential resources? Do I end the campaign on only the third session (1 to make characters, 1 to train, and the official start)?

image of a jolly bear wearing round glasses

You too can be as wise as a bear wearing glasses. Always choose Athletics

In the end, it came down to the physical adept. Automatic successes meant that he automatically could climb the rubble regardless of how burdened he was (I said it was unbalanced) so he ended up carrying the party over the rubble one by one. Because the gap in the searchlight pattern only happened every 45 minutes, it took about nine hours (in-game time) to clear the first obstacle. (The adept would scale the wall to get outside, wait 45 minutes, throw a guy over his shoulders and clamber over the wall again only to wait 45 more minutes to climb out again.)

Moral of the story: When your game master says “take a skill” you should damn well take the skill.

 January 10, 2017  Posted by at 8:04 am Anecdotes Tagged with:  No Responses »
Jan 042017
 

The Entropic Gaming System by Mystic Throne Entertainment is a hidden gem of a gaming system. I originally bought a copy as a show of solidarity to other small press publishers and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s a really solid game system. It’s detailed without being overly complex and the basics are easy to learn. There are a fair number of combat maneuvers that take some work to memorize but they’re all logically derived from the core mechanic so it all falls into place pretty readily.

Cover of the Entropic Gaming System RPG rulebook

Don’t let the muddy cover illustration (and bad scan) fool you. It’s a top shelf game.

Like most games, Entropic breaks most things into attributes and skills. Like Savage Worlds, each is represented by a die type ranging from d4 to d12. Like White Wolf you almost always roll an attribute and a skill together and add the result together. Most of the time, you’re shooting for 7, which is pretty easy if you have 2d8 in a skill/attribute combo. Not so much if you’ve got 2d4. What I haven’t seen before is their elegant method of determining crits. If both dice come up the same number, it’s a critical. Critical hit or critical failure depends entirely on whether you would have succeeded or not normally. I once critically succeeded against an orc by rolling a 2, the lowest possible result for myself. The orc lacked the skill in question and his attribute die came up a 1. I had doubles and I technically beat his roll so… critical success. Characters who are good at stuff tend to be very good and the skills they’re not good at, they tend to be terrible — much like the real world. However, because you always roll at least one die, there’s a chance that an unskilled character might succeed through luck or raw talent.

You might think that this sort of set-up would lend itself to min-maxing characters and you’d be right… to a point. Dexterity is considerably more useful than other attributes so everyone will be sure to load up on it. It’s not as bad as in some systems since they make a point of declaring that two-handed weapons (and presumably heavy machine guns) use Strength instead of Dexterity to attack. So there’s ways around the conundrum of having a less-than-agile but still effective combatant. Likewise, there are enough skills that nobody can master them all and everyone will be forced to make a roll they aren’t optimized for at least twice per session.  Min-maxers will love rolling 2d12 Dexterity + Firearms… right up until they have to score a 7 on their d4 + nothing Spirit + Resist roll. Such characters tend not to last long, which I like.

Combat plays really quickly, even through everyone gets 3 actions per round. It seems like a lot until you realize that movement is an action and so is parrying or dodging. So if you’ve got 3 guys shooting at you and you opt to dodge them all, you could easily use up all your actions before your turn comes. You’re a chump if you do, though, since a better use of one of those actions would be to dive for cover. There’s a variety of combat maneuvers you can use to gain an advantage (or to penalize your opponent) so fights against heavily armored opponents don’t end up with one side just making a bunch of attacks and hoping for a critical.

Another thing that streamlines combat is: fixed damage. A dagger does 3 points of damage on every hit. A given gun always does 5 damage. You’d think this would remove some of the drama from play by eliminating the damage roll but it mostly just serves to move things along. Plus, there’s always a chance that an attacker might score a critical hit (which gives a bonus to damage). Alternately, a character can spend a Hero Point (the equivalent of a Fate point or Savage World Bennie) for a modest bonus to damage. Likewise, you can spend a Hero Point to gain either a +1d6 to any skill roll or +3 if you prefer a sure thing. You can cash in hero points for other bonuses/benefits, all of which are summarized on a single page. Furthermore, most situational bonuses give you the equivalent benefit of a Hero Point (which must be spent immediately)  so you not only get to choose the mechanic your bonus uses but, it’s a consistent system across the board. In this manner, the EGS saves a lot of time and system space (both physically in the book and also how much you need to carry around in your head) in a manner both ingenious and elegant.

The 0nly major flaw with the EGS is that it’s still pretty new and I don’t think all that widely distributed, so you’re likely to find other people playing it. Also, if you’re the type of GM who likes to run book adventures, you’re mostly out of luck. (There are some available… some published by paNik productions… but they may not be in your preferred genre). On the other hand, it has a tremendous amount of potential and it’s a system I really believe in. Which is why I develop for it.

 January 4, 2017  Posted by at 7:00 am Favorite Systems, Game Reviews No Responses »
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 DriveThroughRPG.com). 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 »