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 »
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 »
Nov 302016

Last time out I promised you a reasoned explanation as to why I don’t like character classes and also my thoughts on True20. So, taking it from the top: My issue with classes is that they limit creativity.

image of the True20 core rulebook

True20 Core Rulebook

Disregarding skill points, feats, and combat bonuses (which are valid reasons to have classes, IHMO), the only thing left that defines a class is special class abilities. “What’s wrong with class abilities?” you ask because you are a bright and perceptive reader whom I’m not sucking up to in the least right now.

They limit creativity and they limit characters. Yes, you heard me right. Class abilities limit characters. I will explain. This has been a problem as far back as first edition AD&D when only the Ranger class had a tracking ability, which meant that none of the other classes could track. At all. Not even a little bit. In the basic edition, we just sort of assumed that if you came across a trail of footprints, anyone could follow them but the way the Advanced rules were written any sort of tracking was the sole province of Rangers — who were limited to good alignment too, so in all the world there were only Good trackers. What if you wanted to play a woodsy guy not based on Strider from Lord of the Rings? You were S.O.L.

And yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s a dated example and I know full well that anyone with the Survival skill can follow tracks now and it doesn’t even cost a feat or anything since v3.5 but that doesn’t change my point. I also know that by referencing first ed. rules I am revealing myself to be both old and out of touch. Live with it.

Hypothetically, if someone publishes “Perceive Own Nose” as a new Rogue talent, that’s great for Rogues and better for Rogues who happen to take that particular talent, but it’s sour news for everyone else who suddenly loses the ability to see the nose on their own face — because they lack that class ability. It’s only available to Rogues. Moreover it’s only available to second level Rogues and they have to choose it as a rogue talent, so in this hypothetical world only criminals with a full year’s worth of experience and who undergo special training are capable of perceiving their own nose. Ridiculous.

And yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that most class abilities give bonuses to existing abilities rather than all-new capabilities, but why can’t they be feats instead? “Perceive Own Nose” should be available to everyone the same as Power Attack or Dodge.

And that’s where True20 gets it right.

Everything in True20 is either a skill or a Feat and there’s only 3 classes: Adept, Expert, and Warrior. Classes that specialize in supernatural powers, skills, and combat respectively. Everything else is represented by a feat and you get a new feat each level (plus a few extra to start out with). While this means you might have a somewhat weaker character than in Pathfinder or Dungeons and Dragons because you have to spend feats on stuff you’d otherwise get for free as first level class abilities it also means that you take only the exact abilities you want, which includes options that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to until 5th, 8th, 10th level.

There are limits though. Each class has a pool of feats that’s only available when you take a level in that class (i.e. you can only take the Tough feat if you’re a Warrior), but you can mix and match classes super-easily. There’s no special penalty or bonus for dipping 1-2 levels into another class (unless it happens to be a level that doesn’t grant a to-hit bonus or something like that) so why not give your Warrior a level in Expert? You miss out on the +1 to hit but you can get 8 skill points and can take a feat that replicates the a 5th level Bard ability or the Rogue backstab (and if it’s not your first level of Expert, you still get a +1 to hit 3/4 of the time).  Want an full-fledged spellcaster who has a favored enemy like a Ranger? Like maybe he’s a priest of a church vehemently opposed to the undead. Have your Adept dip one level into Warrior to get the Favored Enemy feat. Pow. Instant custom character.

And if that’s not enough for you, there’s rules in the back for creating custom classes of your own if you feel the need or have a concept that somehow can’t be created with mix-matching the three standard classes.

The issues I have with True20 are less with the system and more with the way that the book itself is organized and laid out. It’s so densely packed with information and options that there’s very little room left over for how to play or even a suggested campaign world. They’ve streamlined the d20 system to such an extent that they’ve not only eliminated all the rough edges but have also smoothed most of the personality out of the system. Still, if you’ve gamed before, and don’t mind doing a little world building it’s pretty close to being the perfect only-one-book-needed-to-play-any-game game.

For some reason True20 never really hit. Maybe because of the issues above, maybe because the publisher didn’t promote it heavily enough. (Green Ronin had their hands full with Mutants & Masterminds so that’s somewhat understandable). I knew a few people who used to be die-hard advocates of it, but even they’ve moved on to more popular systems. It’s always been the “Mr. Pibb” of tabletop RPGs. Those who try it, like it. But hardly anyone has ever tried it.

And that’s why I regretfully have to announce that paNik productions won’t be publishing for True20 any more. If the remaining True20 fans email-bomb us at customerService (at) paNikProductions (dot) com or heavily comment this post we might change our minds but… I honestly doubt that both of them will see this post in time.

 November 30, 2016  Posted by at 7:00 am Favorite Systems, Game Reviews No Responses »
Nov 232016

Yeah, I know that it’s supposed to be called d20 OGL these days but, since that doesn’t really allow for distinctions between Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 / 3.5 and d20 Modern, which is set in the contemporary era. It’s called d20 Modern in my heart so that’s what I’ll call it here, at least until I start getting letters from lawyers.

image of the d20 Modern core rules

d20 Modern Core Rulebook

I think my favorite part about d20 Modern is that it seemed to be a sincere effort to create a set of rules for a modern game independent of any particular setting. Yes, they included the Urban Arcana, Shadow Chasers and Agents of Psi as sample campaign worlds, but that only proves my point by demonstrating that it was designed to work independently of setting. Why does this matter? For a lot of people the system and setting become so intertwined that they have trouble separating the two. For instance, I really like the mechanisms for magic that White Wolf came out with in Mage: the Ascension (at least the 2nd and 3rd edition version — I don’t know what the current version is like) but it doesn’t port well into other systems. So every time I’d bring up the possibility of using the Mage rules even specifically stating repeatedly and at great length that it would not be in the White Wolf universe, half my players would groan because they either had issues with White Wolf’s gothic themes or were sick of vampires — nevermind that it was Mage, not Vampire: the Masquerade. One guy had conflated everything White Wolf had produced into one simmering cauldron of dislike. The same thing happened when I tried to run a purely fantasy based game using the rules set of Shadowrun. One player (a different guy, incidentally) did nothing but gripe that his character couldn’t have cybernetics. In 14th century France.

Now, I’m willing to acknowledge the possibility that I used to hang around with boneheads who habitually miss the point. But that doesn’t change the fact that people are going to have prejudices and as the game master, you’re going to have to deal with those prejudices. When it came out, d20 Modern managed to avoid having prejudices projected on to it (at least among my particular group of boneheads), which made it an excellent system for a lot of modern day adventures.

Another major selling point was that the classes were incredibly broad. Each of the six core classes corresponded to one of the six core attributes so you could really tailor your character to fit your concept. You want a hacker, scientist, or small-town librarian? Build them as a Smart Hero. Worried that they’re not tough enough? Throw in a level or two of Strong Hero and you’ve got a rock-’em sock-’em two-fisted scientist (or hacker, librarian, etc). There were enough optional special abilities that you could even have two Charismatic heroes (or two Fast heroes, or two Strong heroes, or whatever) in the same party and not have them be clones of each other. (Three members with the same class, might be stretching it, but keep in mind I’m only talking about the core rulebook, not the innumerable supplements that came after.) It was great. The only system that I’ve seen come closer to being almost classless while still having classes is True20, which I’ll talk about in a later post (both True20 and my issue with classes). Some folks didn’t care for this flexibility. They want to be able to choose a single class and follow that class all the way to level 20 and you couldn’t do that in d20 Modern. The classes only go to 10, so to get to level 20, you pretty much have to multi-class. (There were also 12 prestige classes which were decent but they  also highly specialized so if you wanted to be a master surgeon rather than a Field Medic, you were S.O.L. I’m also not convinced they’re any better than the base classes, but I digress). I can see the appeal of following a single class, especially for people new to the game. It streamlines character creation and advancement by eliminating a lot of decision points and is less work all around; you only have to decide on feats and where to put your skills. I disagree completely with that viewpoint, but I can see the appeal. To me, role playing games are all about making decisions. The potential to do anything is the whole point of the game. If I wanted to make a few selections from a limited number of options, I’d play a video game instead of role playing. In fact, I think that limiting yourself to one class is tantamount to not having a character concept to begin with, you’re just choosing someone else’s char…

I’m going to stop myself now before this turns into a tirade that’s not about d20 Modern.

Warts and all, it was a good system but some of those warts are pretty big. They had some unnecessary skills like Demolitions and Repair which could have easily been handled through Craft (as they are in Pathfinder). Navigation was a skill (which nobody ever rolled, not even once). Also Spot and Listen were separate skills, which I think was an carry-over from v3.0 but was still annoying. Nobody started out being proficient with anything other than simple weapons (which did not include firearms) so if you wanted a gun or to wear armor there was a significant feat tax you had to pay. If you weren’t proficient in armor, the armor had less of a bonus, which I thought was completely ridiculous and not reflective of how armor actually works. That said, my only personal experience with armor was with the kind I made of out PVC pipe as a young teen so my sadistic friend Rusty could “test” it by whaling on me with a stick. The big take-away from that little experiment? Padding is crucial. Without padding, the armor might keep you from getting a bruise, but it will also distribute the force of the blow all over, so your whole damn arm throbs for like, a whole minute afterward.

I could be wrong about the armor thing. Anyone with law enforcement or military experience who’s actually worn armor, please correct me if I’m wrong. Does it really take special training to get the full protective benefit?

But the biggest fault with d20 Modern nowadays is…?

Nobody’s playing it any more. The books are out of print and kind-of hard to find but the SRD is online for free and it’s still playable but I guess it’s just reached the end of its economic lifestyle. And that’s why I am sad to announce that paNik productions will no longer be supporting d20 Modern in future publications.

But again, maybe I’m wrong. If everyone claps their hands and say “I believe in faeries”… no wait, that’s Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. If you write to us at customerService (at) paNikproductions (dot) com — or just post in the comments that you and all your friends loooove d20 Modern and you’re willing to buy every book we put out… we might go back to publishing for d20 OGL Modern again.

 November 23, 2016  Posted by at 7:00 am Favorite Systems, Game Reviews No Responses »