Friday, November 20, 2009


Hey! Say welcome to the cold that's been floating around, now visiting me! Delightful!

So a brief linkdump:

An interesting interview with a game writer from Valve.

Related to my earlier comments about the idea of the Three Up, Three Down device for defining one's character, Robin Laws on the course of a character's dramatic arc.

For GMs, 42 third act twists.

Yellow Dawn, an rpg I want to know more about.

Visualizing the Choose Your Own Adventure books.

OK- back to being ill.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Overwhelmed Skip Day

Question for the Day: Is it a sign of the times that I love Keyboard Cat but I've never actually watched the viral video for it?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Action Cards Changes (Part Three)

Changes for Action Cards (Part Three)

Drama Points
I like the concept of drama points, and in great part I've borrowed from Mutants & Masterminds conception of them. That is, they can be used for a repull, to gain a clue, or in general to ask for a situational advantage in the game. Players rarely use the last two abilities- the first because it seems a little meta and the second because given that I allow them to describe elements of the scene, they don't have to do that. So we'll eliminate the clutter of those two uses.

Generally players start each session with a drama point. I don't provide the option M&M does, where players can buy a feat to increase that starting DP value. That isn't necessary given that your average game of AC will likely have fewer 'rolls' than your average game of M&M. I reward good play at the table with a drama point: success in a story arc, generating applause, and playing to one's own disadvantages. I also give them out, per M&M, when a storyline bad guy makes his dramatic escape or when the players get captured. Players can spend experience points to buy drama points as well, but these are temporary.

I've had a couple of situations where players have managed to accumulate a horde of DPs. I think that does somewhat diminish the game importance of them. I'm probably going to impose a cap of five, as I've done in a couple of versions, at any one time. I'm also wondering about limiting the number of drama points which can be spent on any one result. I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, I do want the players to succeed and not get frustrated, but on the other hand, spending through a series of repulls based on drama points feels gamey and reduces risks and consequences.

Profession Tracks
I wrote up that set of rules for structure Profession Tracks (ala Final Fantasy Tactics). I'll probably include that system as an optional module, primarily for high detail games. I'll also put into some notes on methods for creating these kinds of tracks. I think they're a pretty successful mechanic in that for the most part they are point equivalent to buying standard things, but there are abilities and limits on the track which can only be accessed through those purchases.

Edges are great and one of my favorite elements of the game. Originally, edges were broken up and applied to specific results on cards. However with LV I changed that mechanic, allowing players to buy edges and then allowing them to narrate their applicability to any of the four types on a card. That's been a successful change.

I do want to formally impose a rule that edge on a card can, at most provide a +3 bump. These bumps can come from multiple sources (so one, two or three edges on a card). I've also considered limiting how far up a particular edge can be bought up- limiting edges to a value of Edge 1 or Edge 2. One of the tougher parts of my job is considering how strongly applicable an edge is- broad edges ought to be less useful than narrow ones. I have to get into some fractional thinking when I look at that.

Right now AC uses an active attack and active response system for combat. That is, a test is made by the attack to hit and the defender makes an active response to defend against that attack. Against a passive target, a simple attack test is made against a required difficulty assign by the GM for circumstances. This system has a couple of benefits-- players buy abilities and edges for both attack and defense, being able to tailor a character to be more or less defensive. It also means players have an active roll even when subject to an attack-- depending on the circumstances they made be able to narrate their response for additional effect. It keeps their head in the game, as opposed to simply being told they've been hit (which is generally the system for M&M, Champions, nWoD- though in most there are some 'abort to' options). Lastly, as an active response, they can spend drama points to affect the results.

I think one of the things that needs clarification and definition in the rules is how to handle some of the unusual circumstances of combat. For example, how are ties resolved? In the Third Continent game I've adjusted that as a factor of armor-- with a greater number of Dodges being available (ala GURPS) but those being based on a Physical pull and the player losing ties if they are wearing armor. There also the question of adjudicating edges and other factors for this. I will probably break out a high detail and low detail set of resolution options for combat. They'll still be overall pretty easy, but I want to have a couple of different modules available-- for those who do want to distinguish between parries and dodges, want the crunch of armor as a factor and so on. I also need some notes on how to handle special effects (like disarm, trip, and so on) in a general way, grapples, and multiple opponents.

I may also include another approach entirely, for those GMs who want an even faster and more dramatic resolution system for combat, borrowing an idea from HeroQuest. In this case, combat can be resolved as a simple or extended contest. In a simple contest, both participants make a combat pull and then the GM adjudicates the results-- applying damage and consequences from that. There's no attack or defense pull- just a gross combat pull. Likewise an extended contest would follow the same pattern, with players attempting to race for a set value of total results over time and with consequences applied to both sides at the end. This would allow players to alternate between abilities and such. I'd have to work out the specifics of this-- including how margins determine results, but it could be used for a low-detail and more abstract game. That likely won't be the primary method for combat resolution I use in the future however.

Masteries and Skills
Something I want to consider for the future-- especially when players take on named villains, is the idea that when fighting a skilled opponent, in some ways trained fighters can cancel one another's advantages. In HQ, this is represented by Masteries-- which do cancel when two oppoents of equal skill face one another.

In the same way, I can imagine that opponents of equal numbers of relevant skills might actually cancel one another out in the game. A combat accuracy skill might cancel a defensive evasion skill. Neither would be able to use it. Players would have to fall back to other options, which could encourage a variety of skills...or abilities or whatever I'm calling them today. I like the idea right now, but I'm not sure exactly how to implement that. In HQ the method is easy, because only one skills is applied on either side. In AC this would be more difficult to evaluate, especially since the NPC write ups tend to be more sketchy. It could be done with an equalization factor assigned to the NPC-- which would be compared to the players number of relevant skills. For example, let's say Sergei has six combat skills, attack and defense. A named bad guy goes to fight against him- and has a Skill Rank of 5. In that case, his skill matches up against Sergei's, leaving Sergei to pick one skill which his opponent is unable to counter. If the Villain had a SR of 6, neither could apply skills to the combat. If he had an SR of 7, then the bad guy would have one skill. He'd have to declare the uncountered skill (attack or defense before the combat).

I think this is an interesting option-- and one I might apply for one-on-one dueling situations. It forces the characters back to their cards in situations where they are fighting a well-trained opponent. It needs more thinking, but is a possible options for the future.

Defining Narrow versus Broad
So one of the factors that needs to be worked in is some more careful thinking about ability definitions: specifically the distinction between Narrow and Broad abilities and how that comes into play in game. One of the point made in the original rules is that the GM will grant the benefit of the doubt about bumps and positive effects for narrow skills. The reverse of that is that broad skills will tend to get less effect.

That's how I put it originally, but in practice I don't think it falls out that way. On the one hand, I try to be generous and I don't like saying no to player options. Given that I haven't particularly well defined what is a broad vs. narrow skill, the blame reasonably lies with me. On the other hand, given that we're working within a small range (when you think about it, a 1-6 range, but with some significant threshold breaks), any modifier makes a pretty large distance.

So the question is how to actually have those strictures in play. I take as an assumption two things: there are Swiss-army knife skills and players generally don't intend for those skills to be game breakers. HQ gets around this with a fairly mechanical approach. The problem is that system does impose penalties for broad skills. That brings me to a rule of GMing: it is nearly always better to offer bonuses than to present penalties to players. By that logic- bonuses ought to be offered on actions for players who use narrow, especially very narrow skills. In the GMs mental calculation they should be given a slight edge, and certainly should always get an advantage over those who are using broader abilities.

Penalties, on the other hand, should be kept out of the players' line of sight. If a GM wants to apply a penalty to a player for use of an overly broad ability-- then it acts as a bonus to his opponent, which the GM calculates himself. If it is a circumstantial thing: like lack of tools, rushing, and so on, that should be represented by an increased difficulty for the player: the threshold for success ought to be raised. Mind you this does sometimes bump into the players sense of what success means versus the GMs-- for example, we have three levels of standard success: OK, Good and Excellent. But Excellent isn't a critical success, and we can go above that level with addition of bumps and edges. I tend to think of things in this way:
Edge Boosted results/Unique Success Cards
Moment of Glory/Deadlock (for certain results

So a player can get trumped even with an Excellent result, if their opponent beats them on edges and such. I'd say no unopposed action difficulty should ever be above an Excellent, just as a bit of mental parsing.

There is one exception to my rule about penalties-- the one time they do have a place is where you want to make a specific point or create a particular effect: for example, wound penalties create a sense of tension. Rushing in a high pressure situation can either be modeled by the GM as an increased difficulty or else with a penalty-- the latter only if you've really want to turn the screws on the player.

One of the areas I'm still least pleased with in the current rules is damage. In some ways, damage is an odd factor here- where you move from a lighter, more narrativist system to potential crunch and detail. Damage on the players' side can be a nice confirmation that they've successfully executed an attack, damage on the GM's side ought to serve to create tension and demonstrate risk. Because results are assessed and translated through the medium of the GM there is the risk that players may perceive a degree of unfairness to damage results. The GM has to end up with a number they give to the players, coming through a black box of the system. At least for the low-detail version of the system, I don't think you can delineate for every situation exactly how much damage is done-- but I'll come back to that. For this next rules revision, I'm going to include two versions of the damage system: high and low detail.

High Detail: I've been experimenting with the high-detail version of the damage rules in the Sunday Third Continent game. I do think some genres: classic fantasy and something like SWAT require a level of combat crunch and detail to get things to feel right. In some ways the damage system I present is still pretty low detail, but compared to the rest of the engine it feels crunchy. Of course the big change is that it does bring dice into the system which was a decision I wrestled with while working through a couple of different versions.

Characters have a pool of hit points ranging from 12-24. They begin at 12 but can buy additional points. Wound effects occur when characters get to their last few points. So the system has some flexibility, but still remains close to the semi-realistic damage systems of GURPS and the like (by that I mean the most HP a person can have is double the starting base). Weapons when they hit do X wounds in damage, plus they roll Yd10 to determine possible extra damage. A good hit, some abilities and other circumstances can give the player additional dice to roll for extra damage. The number the player needs to roll on the dice to do damage is based on their opponent's armor. Besides that, armor can also have a slight degree of damage resistance (one or two points) and depending on the weight of it, can impact the subjects defensive abilities. It is a basic system with a fairly narrow range-- enough to allow some weapons to feel different and for there to be some benefits and drawbacks to wearing armor.

While I was nervous about the inclusion of dice, this system has worked well (at least from my perception) without slowing the game down too much. Most importantly it maintains that focus on ownership for the players: they're able to roll and count their own damage and supplement that through the choice of actions. So while we do break a mechanical principle of the game system, we are maintaining a thematic one. It also nicely supports the idea that the game does have a heavier emphasis towards combat in the classic D&D way. The detail of the weapon and amror charts don't get in the way- since most players only need refer to them for initial choices or upgrades and the GM perhaps a little more in play. The idea of weapons doing fixed and variable wounds means that players always do a base damage and then have some risk for the later roll, but even if they crap out, they've done a little something. This also means that combat is dangerous. I've tried to keep the weapons in relative parity at least within the classes (my thinking is that 1 fixed wound is about equivalent to 2 variable dice).

The system has a few other bits that need some tuning. I need to spell out the critical hits effects in the rules further. I need to balance magical damage with standard damage as right now it is pretty easy for mages to deal slightly better damage at range than some non-magical types. If I present this as an option in the rules, I also need to probably include the detailed combat styles system I've got in the rules right now-- but cleaned up and balanced a little further.

Low Detail: The current basic system uses a set of six wounds levels. If an attack would do equal or less damage than the target's current wound level, their level moves up by one. Otherwise it moves up to the appropriate level. Wound penalties- both drops and having to test for things happen at the two most severe wound levels. This damage system removes detail from both the weapon and armor sides of things. Most damage, unless backed by narrative or other circumstances will be generally the same- usually ranging from one to three wound levels, in my experience. Armor is taken into account as a mitigating factor for damage, but mostly to push the curve down or to eliminate any advantage the opponent's weapons might have.

The bottom line is that all of those result are situationally adjudicated by the GM. There are no hard or fast rules on the amount of wounding which is done. I use players card results to help guide me as well as my own GM deck pulls. The problem with this has two parts: first, this can seem arbitrary to the players and second, the range remains fairly narrow- so any wound level rise is about 20% of a persons hits (if we ignore the top level).

To solve this I first need to present some more concrete rules about how I go about adjudicating wounds-- they may still be fairly open-ended, but I need to make clear what I'm taking into account as a GM. For the second problem, I think I'll probably borrow a page from HQ. I'm thinking that damage will causes the wound effects as well as causing increasing limitation through injury. An injury temporarily prevents the use of an ability for a time-- so for example if Dave got hit for two wounds levels and an injury, he might put an X next to his Flying skill and move himself up to the second level of wounds. This helps make combat more risky- or at least puts in some layers of effect without having to resort to a set of conditions. It effectively doubles the range of options for the GM when detailing damage and could easily be used for social or magical combat.

OK, I've got one final summary post to do on this topic but it will be a little bit-- light blogging this week as I've had a couple of deadlines suddenly loom.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Action Cards Changes (Part Two)

Changes for Action Cards (Part Two)

The Strengths of Action Cards
So I think one of the things to assess before considering any changes is what (at least for my perception) AC does well. Those things I don't want to change and if possible, they ought to be the elements enhanced by any changes.

1. Ownership: AC encourages and supports a sense of ownership by the players over their characters on several levels. First and most obvious is that the resolution system a character is using is their own. They made in in a sense. In some sense it is a handmade die for them with different results they've tailored. Second, the augmentation and detailing a player performs on their character is entirely in their hands- how they define their abilities, how they write their edges and abilities. In play they're able to take what they've written-- consistently-- and put that into play. That's always shaped by their sense of who their character is and what he would/could do. Third, the unique cards are wholly owned by the character defining them for good or ill and also helping to delineate the character's sphere of action and influence.

2. Immersiveness: In the game, there's always the chance that you'll have to narrate when you come to a pull situation. You can't just roll and forget. That means players have to keep their head in the game. The consequences are to allow your character to lose autonomy and have the Gm define the scene and results.

3. Simplicity: Leaving aside the optional mechanics of magic, style keywords, and qualities-- the basic resolution system of the game is pretty clear. You can see the result on first appearances: meaning you don't have to take the additional mental step after reading the dice of then trying to figure out what level of success that means. Once players get used to the idea of their participation and control, they can then use those basic rules to handle just about any situation they can define. Most conflicts follow the same pattern for testing and resolution.

4. Success Reading: As mentioned above, I think the ability to easily and clearly read how successful you were in your attempt, while at the same time having a scale of success is an important factor. For example, in most roll under system, you have four states in an attempt: success, failure, critical success, critical failure. If the system has quality definitions beyond these, they usually require a player to do an additional math calculation to determine margin of success. OOH AC has 6 basic states of resolution, plus 8 fungible states-- and that's before one adds edges in. Open ended systems-- roll high and let's see what you got-- are generally worse in this aspect as the player has to turn to the GM for confirmation of the relative quality of his success, even before any oppositional rolls or numbers might be taken into account.

5. Adaptability: A good deal of this does come from the simplicity of the system. As I mentioned in my consideration of adapting L5R to HQ, when you try to move things over from a high detail to a lower detail system, you do end up blending things together-- the obvious chrome of the system becomes lost. However in general I can see about adapting just about anything over to the game-- though in some cases requiring some significant additional mechanics to satisfy my sense of mechanical propriety and detail. Power levels in the game, in some sense, become defined by what is a reasonable argument for a person to make about their character.

6. Narrative Focus: Both the system itself and the way I run it encourage a narrative approach-- since we have relative rankings one could read things a little mechanically (i.e an OK represents a value of +1 while a Bad represents a -2). Given that we have a couple of systems of bumps (from abilities, powers and edges) that could get read pretty strictly. But I certainly haven't done that and I don't think the players see things in terms of those numbers. Part of that comes from the emphasis on justification (a form of negotiated resolution) to get those bumps. The other part of it comes from the Unique cards which can't be resolved without the players engaging in narrative. At the same time, the game is not entirely driven by narrative-- like Amber-- so there's a structure and a strong method for resolution still in the system.

7. Shared Power: As with the narrative focus, some of this comes from the cards but some of it comes from what the system has generally encouraged. Running AC has certainly pushed me to allow the players to have greater control over scenes and some of that arise out of sharing power in defining what resolution means.

8. Opacity: The game looks transparent in some ways. You know what your cards are, you have a sense of the system, but in some ways the permutations of that system: what a resolution is going to be like, what the situation is going to be, is so complex that it is a little hard to good out-- with the exception of stacked bumps, which I'll come back to. In this respect AC works because you're constantly tuning and at the same time absolutely goobing something is tough.

Probably the biggest change I've imagining for a revision to Action Cards is the consolidation of everything I've been calling skills, talents, advantages, qualities, traits, etc. Right now I have a mess of things: skills (which allow redraw on an action), qualities (which provide a global bump), talents (which allow you to do something other people normally couldn't), and ranked advantages (for specialty stuff). And of course I keep changing what I call things.

I want to simplify that. Part of the reason is those things often get confused at the table-- and when push comes to shove, they can be functionally defined as being the same. I also want to remove mechanisms that take away from the device of having edges on cards. So anything which provides a global bump is out.

Instead everything is bought as an ability-- or whatever I'm going to end up calling it. On your character sheet, abilities get written in either in a Physical/Combat box or a Knowledge/Social box. Any ability has two purposes: it can be used as support for a matrix argument (“I'm strong, so I can do X”) and it allows a redraw on related actions.

If any ability allows you to do something “super”-- like see in the dark, leap higher than a fence, crush rocks with your bare-hands, it is considered a Meta-Ability (or some other term, I'm not married to that). It costs more, but otherwise functions as any other ability- you can do something other cannot, you can use the ability in negotiation resolutions, and you can get a redraw when you're trying to do something related to that ability. How potent a super ability is depends on the campaign frame. In a very abstract game, things like equipment and such would be abilities.

Magic and Other Powers
Generally special powers-- magic, super-powers, gadgets, psionics, etc can be handled using the same basic system. For that the new rules will present two different system options. I should note that these don't include the consideration of how to adapt existing power systems over to Action Cards. For example, for the Changeling game, I presented a pretty literal translation of the various Changeling Contracts. That seems to make sense given that those provide a strong flavor to the game. I'll probably present some rules and tools in the revision for how to handle those more detailed systems.

But generally, I see two basic approaches to how to handle Magic (I'll use that as the catch-all term). The first is still abstract, but a slightly higher detail system. In this players buy ranks in various areas of magic. Each area roughly defines the kinds of effects which the character can carry out. These are fairly broadly defined, so on the granular level redundancy exists. Player purchase ranks in these areas (schools or whatever we might call them). Each rank allows a player to apply a modifier to the spell they're casting (fast, many, range, damaging, and so on). That allows them to define the effects of the spells in various ways. I'll probably provide a sample set of magical schools (trying to keep it to two dozen or less) and a sample set of modifiers (again, I'm going to consolidate and trim those if possible).

Additional rules and ideas will be provide for this on how abilities will interact with those powers-- i.e. What kind of ability does one buy to get a repull on a spell. I might also provide discussion of optional mechanics which would help define spell-caster types, consideration of when to allow casters to use the same modifier twice, and options for casting fatigue. Generally this will be a slightly reworked version of the magic system that I'm using for the Third Continent game.

More abstract magic would be handled in a similar way to other abilities. Magic or powers would be meta-abilities (or whatever I end up calling those). For example a person might take Fire Magic as an ability which would allow them to attempt to create your typical magical effects with flames. GMs could either work from a framework, for example the list of schools mentioned above, or could encourage players to take more colorful ability descriptions, like Summon Deadly Flames. In either case these abilities would function like other meta-abilities: as support for an argument, as a redraw for tests in the relevant area, and as a descriptor of some power they have beyond normal persons.

One option to consider, especially for a game with a structure like the schools and an evolving power level, would be to have a breakdown of strengths. For example someone might buy the ability Fire Magic (Low) or Fire Magic (High). I'd either go with a two or three tier structure-- probably two for simplicity's sake.

Keyword Systems
Right now I have the system for keyword groupings in the game-- representing combat styles or other like professional systems (Steve's Thief/Spy keyword sets for example). While I think those are an interesting idea I'll be moving those to be an optional module for the game. I have a couple of reasons for that.

Right now the use of keywords is pretty flexible-- essentially if you have a relevant keyword and can work it into your description of an action, you can get a bump. In some ways this is redundant with both the existing Edge and Talents systems. The later will be going away, but part of the reason for a revision is to give better emphasis to the Edge system, so I don't want a duplicate mechanic unless it really helps to simulate the genre. The other problem is that while they provide some color on the character sheet, they're often forgotten in play or don't add anything significant to a character's effects. They could be better done as standard abilities or else have more impact as edges on cards.

I should also note the variant mechanic I used in the 3C game where these keywords aren't bonus things but rather fairly specific and stackable maneuver elements (ala my Wushu mechanics). I think that's not a bad system but it does need some tuning, is only appropriate for a higher detail version of AC, and really needs to be another optional system.

A Drawback to Action Cards: Short Games
Action Cards doesn't lend itself to short run or one-shot games. The effort required to create a character means that you do make an investment of time that requires the player-GM contract to assume a longer run game.

I do think that an optional ruleset could be built in to fix this problem. Right now a character's deck is made up of 24 cards: seven with fixed results, seven with variable player defined results, six special cards, and four unique to the character cards. For a one shot, it would work like this--

Each player begins with thirteen cards-- the seven fixed plus the six special cards. The GM then deals out to each player seven other standard result cards-- a mixed bag, but generally with more distinctive results (so an experienced card, built on the assumption that the player has spent some points on card buy ups). Player pick one and pass the rest to the left, creating a card draft. One the everyone has these seven cards, the GM then lays out a set of positive unique cards prepared ahead of time-- probably twice the number of players. Each player picks one in a random order. Then the GM lays out a set of negative unique cards and players (in reverse order) pick one each. So the person who picked last in the positive set gets to pick first in the negative.

Players by this point should have a concept for their character-- they get to make up two unique cards to add to the deck, pick a number of abilities and also get to pick a couple of “global edges”- i.e. bumps that they can work into their actions. This goes a little against my moving away from Qualities which do this, but for a short-run game I think this will work.

Next post: damage, combat, drama points, edge limits, abilities as narrow or broad, what a GM's guide needs and so on.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Action Cards Changes (Part One)

Ok, so I've been thinking about some of the revisions I want to possibly do to the Action Cards system. I'm pretty happy with the game right now, so I don't want to change the core concepts or anything, but I do want to consider how to streamline the game a little and how to break out approaches to optional modules. I've got a couple of significant changes in mind-- but mostly some tweaking. Eventually-- as I said some months ago, I want to write up a nice formal version of the rules, complete with enough detail and information for someone else to run the game if they wanted to.

So far Action Cards has seen several versions: the original quick system for a fantasy Three Musketeers game, the City of Ocean game, Libri Vidicos, Changeling the Lost and now the Third Continent Fantasy campaign that I haven't decided on a name for. In the course of that I've made a number of changes. Some of the things I've built have been intended to help simulate a particular genre.

One of the things I haven't yet written up is a set of guidelines for how to actually GM Action Cards-- that's probably my next big hurdle. To start my discussion about changes, I want to talk about a distinction with Action Cards I really want to make in any GM section I end up writing. This is pretty rough, and some of it repeats from earlier post on these topics.

Resolution Types
In my posts breaking down game structures in general and HQ in particular, I talked about the various forms of resolution at the table- some subtle and some obvious. In a revision to AC, I want to stress that there are two ways for players to affect the course of the game, in terms of tests-- that is declaring they want to do something and have something happen. There's Negotiated Resolution and Tested Resolution. Tested resolution is, obviously, the default mode for most games-- declare an action, make a roll, add factors from character sheet/circumstance and have the GM assess success. AC has this as well in the form of the card draws-- action is declared, the card draw is made and skills are applied for redraws if necessary.

However, there's still room for negotiation, even in that kind of resolution-- if it is a special card, the player has an opportunity to make an argument about what happens. If the card has edges on it, they have the chance to explain how those edges apply to the action at hand. And it can also be that the negotiation may come from the GM's side-- if the player can't make an argument from the special card in a timely fashion, or the GM draws his own special card or so on.

Negotiated resolutions, on the other hand, involve the player interacting without making a card draw resolution. The GM is the arbiter of when the risk or challenge of a situation demands the move to tested resolution-- with the idea being, as Robin Laws suggests-- that failure would be dramatically significant, appropriate and or dramatic. Here the drama of the narrative aids in making that choice.

Negotiated resolutions involve the player making an argument about why they should be successful about something they're trying to do. They state their goal, their method and then present support for why they should be successful at that. What serves as support for an argument? The situation- if the player has worked to set things up- so we'll call all of that the rp side of things, background, equipment, but obviously abilities. I want those things written on the character sheet to serve both a mechanical purpose and also have the potential to serve as support in an argument. I'll come back to impact of narrow skills on this in a bit.

What I want to stress in this is that equal weight (at least) needs to rest on negotiated tests. The perception needs to be eliminated that falling back to those is a GM “gimme” or not really part of the game. Instead we should see that as a strong part of the game play-- in the same way that Gumshoe has a system for resolution without rolling. And we should stress that sometimes negotiated arguments don't work-- if the situation is a stretch, if the argument seems weak. At that point the GM has the option to say no or to move to tested resolution. Generally where there's an organized opposition, tested resolution makes more sense, but where there's an impersonal force or circumstances, then negotiated ought to work. Negotiated also works best where the players are working to set something up as support for future activities.

Some examples--

The group is trying to climb up a mountain. What does the mountain mean? Is it intended to be a real physical obstacle, possibly preventing passage or causing injury to the group? If so, then we're talking about tested resolution. “OK, everybody make Physical Pulls for climbing up the mountain. You've got the right equipment for doing it, so you just need an OK result.”

On the other hand is it a set piece just to illustrate the scene- in which case you may just move to negotiated resolution. “OK, you've got a modest climb ahead of you. What does everybody have skill-wise for this?” Players answer. “OK, Raythe and Ori both have experience as hunters, plus Raythe has the Climb skill, so they can get you guys up the mountain with no problem.

Or let's take a variation on that same situation, where the question is one of time concerns pressing on the group-- you could do that as a tested resolution to assess their speed. Or you could follow a different negotiated route. “OK, you've got a modest climb ahead of you, but you want to get up quickly. What does everybody have skill-wise for this?” Players answer. “OK, Raythe and Ori both have experience as hunters, plus Raythe has the Climb skill. They'll be able to get everyone else up decently, but they are slowed by having to make sure of everyone's status, you move on at a modest pace.”

Or if you're perhaps putting the mountain there to make a point about everyone's different levels of abilities, then you can mix it up. “OK, you've got a modest climb ahead of you, but you want to get up quickly. What does everybody have skill-wise for this?” Players answer. “OK, Raythe and Ori both have experience as hunters, plus Raythe has the Climb skill. They'll be able to manage this without a pull. The rest of you make straight physical pulls and let's see what happens.”

But as I suggested in an earlier post, negotiated resolutions can be more or less formal. For a formal example, consider a group of PCs going into a formal court situation. Cerise suggests that she will try to set up some contacts among the people they group does know (method) in order to provide some support and resources if their interactions at court go badly (goal). She presents her strongest key pieces of support in favor of the argument. A) The whole group will circle out to do this, which means they can talk to a fairly large group, even focusing only on people they have close ties to; B) She has Networking and Asset Management as abilities so organizing this won't be difficult; C) on a personal level she, like many members of the party, has Charming and Diplomacy.

At that point the GM can decide in their favor, have Cerise make a pull to test success, or have the group make individual pulls. What kind of resolution occurs here ought to be determined by the following two things.

1.Did the player present good support, without making a reach? If yes, then move to question 2, if not go to tested resolution.
2.Is failure in this scene dramatically interesting or demonstrates some stakes at hand? If yes, then maybe a test ought to be pulled.

Negotiated resolution has a strong place in interactions with NPCs obviously. If a player doesn't want to go through a full exchange with an NPC, they can state their case as an argument. For example: Beletan wants to convince Prof. Morgandine to teach him some normally restricted magics (goal) and he wants to do that through charm and demonstration of competency (method). Beletan states that he's been working with Prof. Morgandine for some time, he has the diplomacy ability, and he has built up significant levels in a variety of magical areas- including banish which ought to allay any concerns he might have. That makes good sense-- and depending on the reward outcome Beletan wanted from this, I'd probably accept the argument.

Another example I've given before is how negotiations fit especially with character with social or diplomatic skills. Often those kinds of skills get lost in the shuffle-- players forget to bring them up or feel embarrassed that they have to fall back to those if face to face table conversations don't go well. Players ought to be willing to bring those skills to bear before engaging in conversation, or even at crucial points in the dialogue itself. Mind you one of the things that this does do is force the players to kind of state up front what their goals are with the conversation.

For example, Valmont states that he wants to plant the rumor in the mind of Nisa Ocalan about a particular incident. She has some serious skills and pull, so Valmont wants to play if carefully. Before talking with her in character at the table, Steve (Valmont's player) states: going into this I want to play it cool, but over the course of the conversation subtly suggest that the recent incident ought to be blamed on House Malbrect. (So we have a stated goal, and an implied method of subtle implication). I have the rumor-mongering keyword from my Spy set, I have Diplomacy as a skill, and I've spent some time asking gathering information on her beforehand.

Now there are a couple of ways to this to play out-- we'll of course do the face to face interaction, Steve's conversation with the GM. But that argument will serve as a filter for how I read what Steve says. None of us necessarily have the skills of our characters, but here I take that into account-- keeping in my that what here's saying is actually coded to a particular effect. Unless he makes a faux pas in the discussion, I'm probably going to have that result occur. What he's said has gone into the black box of the argument and come out translated on the other side. On the other hand, if I am going to make tests during the conversation-- then I have to take into account the argument he's made beforehand and add that in as bonuses and bumps.

I've given players with advanced social skills a couple of other negotiated methods they can put to use as well. For example, they have the room to take pauses of breaks in the conversation to gather their thoughts without penalty. The other option is for social take-backs-- a quick rewind if they've stated something inelegantly or gotten a particularly bad reaction. Both of those can be used to help model the suave character.

I seem to be writing this with a kind of rigid mechanical language, but I don't want to give that impression. Instead what I want to have in a revision of AC is a strong emphasis on the variety of resolution methods available, especially those which value interactivity. Rolling the dice and winning can be satisfying, but at least as satisfying ought to be the ability to make a case based on your character's actions and buys and have it go off successfully.

More on the actual specific changes for the game in the next post.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Exalted City of Crux

Still cheating-- have a couple of projects I'm working on right now (editing and revising) so I'll post one of my favorite game bits-- my description of the City of Crux from the Dragonblooded Game. I do love this setting and hope someday to be able to return there-


“Crux is by no stretch of the imagination a place of dreams for anyone. Perhaps I phrase that poorly…those whom I have been given to associate with would find Crux a punishment, a place of bewildering contrasts, strange impoverishments and confusing patterns. Perhaps that is why is has remained a stop over point rather that a true gateway to the Threshold from the Blessed Isle. The scales tip that way as they say. I am perhaps stating, again as I have said, the case rather badly. I suspect it is my confusion at this moment. Trapped as I am and awaiting, if not death then something truly painful, I am driven back to the only gift that has served me well these years—not tact, for I am notably short in that, not sense, as I am trapped in a space I can measure with the span of my hands from a sitting position, and not loveliness which if you know me goes without saying and those who have put up with me these many years have been gentle enough not to bring to my attention.

What I have is a gift for observation and a curiosity that has made me, at times, an asset to the Thousand Scales. Yes, I am aware that they “do not” exist, but I will leave it to you to ration that out if you will. Perhaps, should these papers fall upwards along the chain, someone will delete those words and replace them with something inoffensive like “my family” or “my associates”. So be it.”

The ancient city of Crux lies on the threshold, south and to the west of Arjuf. Other cities draw the Dragon-Blooded to them when they make the leap out into the greater world from the Blessed Isle, but the lures of Crux are more subtle. Like its greater satrapy, Cascading Flowers Kingdom, Crux has fallen into a kind of decay that conceals its greatness. For those willing to dig beneath the surface, figuratively and literally, Crux offers secrets and wealth aplenty.

When the Scarlet Empress rose and cemented her control upon the Blessed Isle, she looked forth out to the Threshold for the places that she could bend to her will by diplomacy and steel. Cascading Flowers was among the first of these places to pledge itself to the new empire, and as a result it remained relatively unravaged by the wars which followed. As well, it gained a number of key concessions that those who fell to the Legions could not obtain. The cost for the satrapy would be Dragon Blooded provincial observation, the usual costs in food and coin, but also a relative cement of the kingdom’s borders. With no ambitious Exalt at its helm, looking for greater conquests, Cascading Flowers would remain as it ever was. A fine place, tiny and stable, kept in place by ancient treaties and agreements.

Now, with the Scarlet Throne vacant, that status is in question, and the lord of the province, Son of Wreaths, dreaming in the capital at Blossoming Pearl, must consider which of his neighbors will eventually decide that these lands look particularly attractive. Even now those considering adventure, employment or even scavenging have been to draw to this sleepy, age clogged place.

Crux, though not the capital, is the most important city in the province. As a major port, it provides lifeblood through the various Guild caravans and fleets that pass through it on the way to other major points like the Lap, Arjuf, and the City of the Steel Lotus. A great river connects Crux and Blossoming Pearl. The wetlands it creates in the midlands serve the farmers, ranging from the weedlanders to the more careful and controlled rice plains. The far south of the province begins to level out, however, leading into stony plains and eventually the mountains of the neighboring regions.

Crux, it should be noted, is an artifact of the First Age, now greatly decayed. Even in the time of Shogun, the mechanisms of the city had already decayed and locked into place. The three tiers of the city are built on gigantic slabs of circular stone, some mile across. The levels are connected with a great shaft a hundred feet across that once lifted the city into the air and back down. This function, alas has been long lost and to put it politely, the city is stuck in the ground. The highest level, called the Day Quarter, sits at ground level but tilted at a slight angle, meaning that one walks uphill to go from the dockside, where one edge of the city dips into the seam-- to the wealthy quarter in the south. The furthest point of the south actually lifts up about twenty feet from the lip of the hole, requiring intricate structures access to the city levels below. This south gate only leads into the lower city, protecting access for the wealthy district.

Day Quarter houses notable embassies of the few Dragon Blooded families who have decided to place interests here. Most have some connection to Guild trading, making the necessary arrangements for goods to be transferred here to avoid certain tariffs and taxes. Other important local families and merchants also own homes there. In the center of the Day Quarter lies the great Tilted Bazaar. The docks of the city possess a great number of cranes, used to carry goods from incoming ships to waiting caravans or to the various levels of Crux itself.

Access to the lower city, known as the Dusk Quarter, comes in one of two ways. The first are three great stairs carved into the wall of the city. The east wall is for traveling up during the day, and down during the night. The west goes down during the day and up after dusk. Guards ensure that no one goes in the wrong direction. The southern stair, which serves as an access gate out from the city, can be used by persons heading up or down, but at their own risk. Each year a number of travelers fall to their death from these stairs. The stairs hug the wall, going down the hundred feet counter clockwise.

The other faster and more convenient way to travel down is via the numerous elevators scattered across the city. Hatches and cut access ways, some normally used for the lighting of the lower area, have great cranks and pulleys arranged next to them. For a nominal fee, a person and their luggage can be lowered down. Some of these machines are powered by men, some by machines and some by animals. The most sophisticated tend to be in the wealthier side of the side. The largest elevators exist near the docks, attached to cranes for lowering supplies down below.

Once upon a time, the city itself would rise and fall, but some great accident left this working disabled. The only evidence of this magical and mechanical marvel lies in the fact that the Dusk Quarter rotates around the great column supporting the upper level. It completes one cycle every twenty-four hours. Lights to illuminate the lower level were crafted shortly after the machinery stopped working, a system that drew in and amplified the sun’s glow during the day. However, over the years those devices have been either disabled or have themselves slowly run down. Now, on the brightest days outside, the Dusk Quarter feels slightly overcast. The situation grows worse from there.

The northern point of the Day Quarter contains the various docks and shipping areas for those Guildships and travelers coming by sea. Given that the northern edge dips below the sea, the city has a great waterfall. The fall is kept in check by certain magics and is filtered to be palatable. It lowers to a dim stream at low tide and a rushing torrent at high tide. This water is useful to the residents of the lower quarter. Combined with rainwater caught but buckets or tunnels in the walls (boiled carefully) they can survive. Wastewater from the upper level goes into a complex sewer system that flushes the material down the inside of the central column down to the furthest bowels of the city. Still, because of the holes in the ground of the highest level (cut carefully to avoid having to patch too many sewage lines) rain can pour down in rivers rather than in a spray.

Most of the tradesmen, workers, domestics, and those who prefer a lower profile live in the Dusk Quarter. If they have business above, they must make the hike upwards and some do this each day. Dusk Quarter is notorious for the businesses that hug the walls between the stairs, receiving the least light—brothels, bars and places of more illicit entertainments. The further one moves out from the central post of the Dusk Quarter, the grimmer the city becomes. This means only those with little money or questionable business use the stairs as they invariably terminate in places no one would really want to be lost in.

Finally, deep below that, rarely seen by even the longest lasting dwellers in the city, lies the Night Quarter. Reachable by a set of stairs along the central pillar, it contains the ancient and oldest workings of the city, including the mechanism which turns the Dusk Quarter. Down there, the most desperate are said to make their lives…cleaning and sifting through the sewage systems of the city, living on a pittance from the city service commission or just simply off the refuse of the upper tiers. It is said that a great many things can be found there in the Night Quarter, most of them being your own death. Tunnels for those hoping to mine something from the earth, strange races perhaps, criminal haunts…rumors there are aplenty.

Crux has a significant, but strange community of sorcerers and would-be sorcerers. While there are a few exalt mages who still have legitimacy and contacts with the colleges on the Blessed Isle, they tend to be affiliated with specific families or passing through on the way to somewhere better. Most sorcerers of real power and training either remain on the Isle or else find a place isolated and alone where they can pursue their work. Life in the Threshold, while opening them to new opportunities in learning and magic also presents a host of problems.

But Crux overall has never suffered from a shortage of sorcerers and thaumaturgists. Most sorcerers, Exalted or in some cases God-blooded, are outcaste—either trained outside the isle or else having broken with or been sentenced away from their house. Significant restrictions on learning and activity exist on the isle and the unwary trip over them in their hunt for power. Those people who have caused problems find themselves in the Threshold, and Crux attracts them like flies. As well, mortals who dabble in the arts and sciences of thaumaturgy have found Crux attractive, given the number of magi here and the strong presence of the gods and spirits.

All of these mages tend to be split into two factions within the city, though a rare few have no allegiance. Each faction is headed by a Dragon Blooded who controls his allies and apprentices with promises of essence, magical knowledge, materials and research assistance. Sharpened Thought, is a former artisan of manses on the Blessed Isle, when one of his creations mistuned itself in the last stages of creation, he was forced to flee he. Fire-aspected, he already had a strong bias against him in the Heptagram. Eventually he arrived here and began to draw in pupils and hangers on. However, a few years later, Oaksaint Vross arrived, an Outcaste Dragon Blooded of Air. He had been trained in the Threshold by various masters and had built a solid reputation for himself. Since that time, the two have been biter rivals, sending agents against one another, sabotaging projects and generally trying to steal the most promising students from one another. Those Sorcerers affiliated with a family here avoid interacting with these two, and in fact with each other. This means that the only reliable source of magical training and knowledge lies with these two bitter old magi.

In part, Crux draws those magically inclined and repels those of the Immaculate Order, because of the large number of spirits, elements, and small gods who hover around the edges of the city. The original agreement between Cascading Flowers and the Scarlet Empress gave the satrapy a certain leeway regarding these beings. Notable is the spiral stairs of water in the bay that lead into a contained spirit city beneath the waves known as the Spiral. Sages and sorcerers sometimes venture there to bargain with spirits or simply to see the wonders of the place. Obeying strange rules unto itself, some travelers never return while others have claimed to see themselves in strange garments or forms…

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Powers in Mutants & Masterminds

Kind of a cheat blog post today-- a quick overview post on power construction in Mutants and Masterminds I wrote up for Kenny's group this morning. Action Cards revision to be the next post topic.

After last night, I thought I might do a quick run through of how powrs are bought and created-- since there are some interesting things you can do with powers. There are some more complicated bits, but not nearly as bad as Champions.

Let me start with a basic example--

Spade's Gun-- a gun is a basic Blast Power. That means a strike at range-- you can define that however you want: a lighting strike, throwing rocks, gusts of wind, whatever-- in this case he's shooting things.

Powers have a rank-- rank determines effect. Actually rolling to hit is always strictly based on your Attack Bonus (ranged or melee), but the rank of a power determines how much actual effect it has.

So for most standard powers, if you hit the target, they make a Damage/Toughness Save against 15 plus the rank of your power.

So, let's say Spade has Blast 8 (Gun). That will cost him 16 points-- since Blast costs 2 points per rank.

So I usually write that as:

Rank 8-- Blast (16pts) Save: 23+

Now for any powers that you have, you can add two different kinds of bonuses-- which enhance the power. You can add Extras or Feats.

Extras really significantly increase the effect of the power. These include things like Area Effect, Autofire or Increased Range.

Extras generally increase the cost per rank of the power by +1; some cost more, but generally it is a +1.

So let's say that Spade wants to have his Gun always affect an area (which could be dangerous if there are innocents around...but you know, you can't make an omelet without killing a few bystanders.).

This would cost him 3 points per rank, instead of two.

Rank 8--Blast: Area Effect-(24 points) Save 23+

That means whenever he uses it, he can opt to use the Autofire, and the targets he hits have to save against a 23+ for damage.

On the other hand, power feats are small bonuses or add ons you can use to slightly enhance a power. They include things like Accurate, Precise, Indirect and so on-- picture them as character feats applied to a particular power. They cost 1 point.

So again, let's say Spade wants to have his gun have a couple of bonuses.

He wants to be a better shot with it, so he wants the Accurate feat, which gives him a +2 to his to hit rolls. (He's still limited by the Power Level of the game, so the most his to hit roll bonus will ever be is +8 at Power level 8). He also wants the Precise power feat, so he can shoot into combat without hitting his buddies and to get him a bonus if he's trying to do non-combat stunts like shooting a rope or blasting a glass out of someone's hand. Finally, the Indirect feat allows him to use his skill to bounce shots off of things, to hit people behind cover or around corners.

I'd write that like this:

Rank 8--Blast (19pts) Save: 23+
*Feat Accurate
*Feat Precise
*Feat Indirect

So the cost is still 2 points per rank, but he's playing a total of 3 extra points for the three feats. He can choose to use those separately or all at the same time.

Alternate Powers
OK-- here's where it gets funky. Buying powers with lots of Extras can get really pricey. The advantage to buying them as I mentioned above at +1 pp per rank is that you get the full effect of them. The other way to get those extras-- but at a reduced effectiveness is to buy an Alternate Power. Alternate Power is a special kind of feat, so each alternate power costs 1 point.

Let's say that Spade wants to be able to do Area Effect and Autofire for his Gun power, but he doesn't want to pay that many points. He decides to buy Alternate Powers for using those-- they'll be less effective, but it gives him more options. It doesn't necessarily mean he has settings on his gun, but more that he's trained himself to use his guns effectively in different ways.

The important thing about Alternate Powers is that you can only use one at a time. Switching to those powers happens on your turn.

So his basic power right now looks like this.

Rank 8-- Blast (16pts) Save: 23+

To buy the Area Effect Alternate Power feat, we spend 1 point

*Alt Power: Blast, Area Effect

To figure out what Rank that Alt Power will be, we look at the cost. Normally Blast costs 2 pp for each rank, Area Effect is an extra which costs +1 per rank-- so the cost is 3 pp per rank.

We take that cost per rank (3) and look at how much he spent on the original power (not counting feats)-- that's 16 points.

16 points divided by 3 points per rank= 5 ranks, because we round down.

So now I'd write that power as:
Rank 8-- Blast (17pts) Save: 23+
*Alt Power: Blast, Area Effect- Rank 5 Save: 20+

So, when Spade chooses to do an Area Effect attack, instead of his normal attack, his potential damage is reduced.

So if we look at the two versions:

Rank 8-- Blast- Area Effect (24 points) Save 23+
Rank 8-- Blast (17pts) Save: 23+
*Alt Power: Blast, Area Effect- Rank 5 Save: 20+

We can see that he saves seven points, but at the cost of that Area Effect being weaker. Let's say he wanted both Area Effect and Autofire on his power. Look at the difference in the costs and effects of the two versions:

Rank 8-- Blast- Area Effect, Autofire (36 points) Save 23+
Rank 8-- Blast (18pts) Save: 23+
*Alt Power: Blast, Area Effect- Rank 4 Save: 19+

The first version is pretty nasty-- but the second version is probably most effective against Agents and Mooks, but not against other supers.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Character Ethos and Development

I'm writing posting a day early as I want to clear the decks for working on a revision of something for Gene in the next couple of days. Gene is, btw, embarking on a Pork-based safari in Chicago this weekend. Our thoughts and prayers go with him. Plus, new semester's coming up in LV and I have to put the course listings together.

Three Up, Three Down
Anyway, I mentioned before asking the players to come up with a list of plots/sub-plots revolving around their characters that they were most interested in. I got some really good response on that-- some of it was confirmatory. That's good as it shows that I'm on the same page as the players about what they (and by extension their characters) are interested in. A few things were a surprise to me and that's good-- it helps me catch things which otherwise I might have overlooked. As a tool, asking those kinds of things of the players doesn't meta-determine the game: how those plots will roll out still remains in question. And it doesn't keep the GM from introducing new and novel things. But it does give me a leg up in prep and point me towards ideas which need more table time. Obivously not everything can be covered in the course of a campaign, but I can do my best to do more things in depth.

On a related note, I wanted to mention another tool that I have asked some of the players to try. It began from a post here. I liked it, but went in a just slightly different direction. Here's what I asked the Changeling players:

An interesting article there-- I like the idea of defining three key core concepts for characters, one's which serve as the center for identity and also one's which are likely to be static (or even iconic) in the sense that they're probably not going to change over the course of the narrative arc. And also the sense of three concepts which the character is less attached to, or perhaps that are changeable through the course of the narrative.

If you have a chance I'd like for you guys to think about and define a version of this 3 up, 3 down concept-- in this way. What are three things about your character's core concept-- things that make them themselves which are not going to change based on the story. And what are three current characters you see as potentially evolving.

I've mentioned that iconic ethos before, from Robin Laws' discussion about it here.

So far I've gotten responses back from Shari and Sherri-- and we've been working on refining those. One of the things to work through in Sherri's case was what would change and what wouldn't. In the case of her character for Libri Vidicos, we talked about what made her character fun to play. As a specific example, she talked about the fact that Lucy-- for good or ill-- doesn't really get how other people see her. She has no real sense of the impression she's giving off. Sherri originally talked about that being something Lucy might out grow-- but I pointed out that in fact that was a core concept-- changing that would really change who the character is and make playing Lucy less fun. On the other hand she mentioned being Aoniaen as a crucial core concept-- but I asked exactly what that meant? What defines that for her? If it is about what she thinks about being an Aoniaen, then that might actually be a changeable concept. Shari's done a set for her LV character cerise, and you can see those here.

I think this is a useful exercise-- and one that's had me going back to look at my past characters to analyze what really served as the three core ideas and the three that either did evolve over the course of the game or I wanted to have evolve. I also thought about some games where I'd had those core concepts impinged on-- some my fault and others from the GM & player side, but I'll take a look at that later.

I'd like to point out that while the original post focuses on players not stepping on each other's territory, I think that's really a distant secondary consideration. In long term campaigns your characters are going to change and evolve. As a GM, I want to be able to give the players the chance to do that. But I don't want to mandate character change that violates the player's sense of who their character is. Not that the player's won't be tested-- but I do want to be on the same page on those goals.

Campaign Ethos
Despite being a rampant *sshole, Carl P a number of years ago said something to me about gamemastering that stuck with me. It's taken me a while to really come around to running with it, and I'll admit I don't always do it as well as I'd like. We'd just had a session where Barry's character had been hitting on a female NPC and things had gone very badly for him. Carl and I were talking about it and he questioned why the scene had skewed that way. I had some in-game logic reasons (mostly about the target's orientation) but I also mentioned that his approach just bugged me. Carl pointed out that Barry had been working within his frame of reference and that he was handling things in what seemed to him an appropriate manner-- but which I'd read as kind of douchebaggy and borderline misogynistic. Carl's point was a good one-- that I had to understand and try to match a players expectations about the game, shaping the narrative to them instead of making them hit the brick wall of my expectations. Scott and I have gone around a couple of times about what constitutes a good romantic plot in games and I've been trying harder to provide him the kinds of plots he wants-- even if they're not the kind that I myself would invest in. That's not a knock on him-- actually more on me in that is has taken me a long time to try come to terms with separating my opinions and value judgments from running.

However, I don't separate them entirely. For example, I've mentioned before that I don't run villain campaigns anymore. I have a practical reason for that: those kinds of games will usually explode and create problems in the group. But I have other reasons, not least of which is that villainous games often make light fare of really awful things. Even if that isn't the intent, over time a kind of dark undertone can come about. But I like to run games with heroes-- or at least not villains. Those heroes may be broken, flawed, have other reasons for doing what they're doing, but they are striving for a general positive result. They may lose in that pursuit, they may only gain a fraction of their goal, but there will be a struggle for something positive- even in a game like Vampire, which their original goal was preservation of themselves, it morphed into preservation of others and in the end allowed them to come to redemption. So generally if you're playing in one of my games you know that heroism is rewarded-- that's the ethos behind the story. We take those conventions into consideration in other dramatic narratives- you know a Spielberg or even Lucas film will be based in that. I'm not saying my vision is that strong at all-- but generally players know that there's a value to positive action and that's part of the contract when they sit down to play.

Where might there be exceptions to that? If I were to run a really serious Call of Cthulhu game, embracing the awful nihilism of the setting-- where one can temporarily put a stop to things, but in the long run everyone is screwed. But I doubt I'd do that-- I'm more likely to approach ti from a pulp direction these days. Or at least tone down the awful realizations in the face of the small victories. Mind you again, that's not to say that everything is sunshine and happiness-- I have some pretty dark plots in other campaigns, and NPCs with very mixed motivations and even delusions about what's right. And players have lost before.

The other key ethos that forms a structure when I run is that the game, while made up of individual characters, is not about an individual character. It may happen that some players get juicier plots or more table time, but I'm trying to balance the attention a player gets with what that player wants. My point here is that I'm running a game for a group. In that sense, actions taken by a group or collectively have a greater weight than individual actions. Teamwork, overcoming the obstacles which separate the various PCs, gathering allies and building are all positive actions. That is, I tend to inherently see those as positive steps and as fitting with the path of the drama. Not that everyone has to do everything together, but that at the end of the day the group can join together in purpose despite disagreements, antagonisms, and past history. Those kinds of disagreements and struggles make that coming together even richer. For example, Will's game was about that coming together despite deep mistrust and real awfulness on all of the players' parts (with the exception of Jesse). But that could have gone an entirely different direction that, to my mind at least, would have been less satisfying.

Sherri had an interesting conversation in which she tried to explain how that ethos worked in my games to another player. However, that player dismissed that approach, I think in part assuming that this was simply Sherri's read on how my games operate. She didn't grasp that it formed a kind of a backbone to what I run. In the same way that you might describe something as an exploration game or a dungeon crawl or a sci-fi game, you can call my approach group oriented. What does that mean in practice? It means that in my mental scales of value, group actions rank higher than individual ones. And individual actions directly antagonistic to the group have even lower weight when I'm assessing the dramatic path of the narrative and making judgment calls. That's not to suggest conformity or a lock-step approach, but one which values the shared experience at the table. And that's not to say that individual actions are always bad-- people get their own scenes, interact with their own NPCs, pursue their own agendas, keep some information for themselves. I mean I love to use that against the group- telling someone something that I'm sure they'll either not tell anyone else or forget to tell another player. Individual actions can include one's of sacrifice and martyrdom, great dramatic tropes. But I find real selfishness on a player's part problematic. In the case of Sherri's interaction with that player, I found it odd. But that's also a consequence of putting a lot of power in the hands of the players, it does become hard to point out where the dramatic conventions of the narrative do impose on one's play style. But as I mentioned to some players this weekend, I do think that's my crucial criteria for players: that they're as invested in the other PC's at the table as they are in their own. I've had players in the past who couldn't get past that, the ability to empathize with the experience of another character besides their own.

I think the best example of this was CJ who brought the whole Crux campaign to a halt by being completely self-centered. He didn't start that way, but he certainly took that ball and ran with it. He started with a character who was built not to change and became irritated that there were other people at the table, quite frankly. I can point to other cases, some funny, some not where players either through sociopathy or obliviousness, rode roughshod over other players: Chris, Paul, Ryan, Sabin, etc. On the other hand, I've been guilty of badly setting things up in relation to that. Probably my biggest mistake in that regard was to push Will to do a Scorpion Clan character in the L5R game. He was coming in late to the campaign and at the time, since they would be operating in a Scorpion city, I thought he would gain some advantages from that. However in practice it isolated him from the rest of the group-- creating an imposed narrative wedge. So I bear most of the responsibility for creating a set up that went directly against one of the core directions of my GMing style.

So to bring this section back around to the point I made at the beginning, I've been working towards two goals- not necessarily in alignment, but not necessarily opposed. One is to recognize to reduce how my own value judgments affect the way games play out. I don't think GMs can be totally objective, but they can recognize where they're reacting to something more from an out-of-game considerations. I'm not talking about personal animosities or hang ups- but about what kind of weight we place on certain behaviors and attitudes, such that when we see them played out by PCs we can take them in context. My other goal is to try to make the genre considerations of my games clear in the sense that players know what they getting into and can play with them. But also to be clear about the meta-genre considerations, the nature of comedy, tragedy and so on within the context of the game universe. I'm a little at a loss I'll admit, because I don't have a particularly good vocabulary for this kind of thing. When we watch TV shows, movies, read books, we understand the narrative logic-- the value placed on certain ideals. They don't hyper-determine actions, but do provide a consistent universe. To give another example-- I'm often thrown when new writers come on to comic series and turn things over. Not a change up of plots, characters and settings, but when they really change the basic ethos of the series. Those kinds of things shouldn't provide a net or a straitjacket, but should be more gossamer and flexible.

For Sunday I hope to talk about some of the new ideas I have for Action Cards-- how to make things work even more smoothly there: or at least options to smooth the mechanics further.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Converting L5R to HeroQuest 2e

Converting L5R to HeroQuest 2e

So after having spent like five posts defining first systems in general and then HeroQuest in particular, we finally get to this.

So some thoughts about adapting over Legend of the Five Rings to HeroQuest 2e (finally...). Let's begin with the basics: all characteristics, skills, equipment, advantages and disadvantages can be handled by abilities. That's a pretty basic idea. One of the questions will be how do I want to present those-- should I create a list of example abilities? Doing so makes things easier, but also tends to limit what people go for-- usually drawing from those lists rather than going through the making up one's own process. Maybe-- it at least serves as a starting point.

As is my habit, I'll be using the term skill and ability here interchangeably. That's a mental block I haven't yet overcome. But I mean abilities as defined in HQ.

One of the things I need to prepare myself mentally for is the idea of defining the broadness and narrowness of skills-- i.e. how do I see them? Certainly some of that is going to come around in play-- if a PC ends up relying on one or two skills to the exclusion of all else, then by definition that skills a little too broad. However, that can also be a sign that the game's too focused on one aspect or another. Generally, I think you can at the start identify three levels of abilities: broad, medium and narrow. For example, Strong would be broad, Weight-Lifting would be medium and Arm-Pinning could be narrow. Or from a classic example, Perception would be broad, Spot Hidden Object would be medium, and Sense Ambush might be narrow...maybe.

So I suspect one of the first steps will be to go through the L5R skill lists and come up with a list of abilities drawn from the names and texts, with a range of scope. Laws' suggests focusing on the text of things when doing this-- what the ability looks like or covers rather than the hard mechanics.

One of the things that sticks out like a sore thumb, especially in the later L5R d20 material is the fall back to new and more complicated combat mechanics and abilities. Everything reflects yet another complication, modifier, or slight change to the combat situation. All of that has to wash out when handling this system. Combat abilities will have to be a mix of medium, with a few narrow to be used as augments for particular situations or to flavor what a character is doing. That's probably going to mean working out flavor combat abilities by families. I have to keep in mind that the characters will probably start with about twelve abilities, plus a keyword from a school (see below). Breaking things into too narrow a range also means reducing overall effectiveness. There should be enough diversity among these concepts to make each character feel unique, but also able to act in more than a niche situation. However, within their niche, they should be well set.

Clan Schools
Probably the most important distinction between characters lies in their choice of schools. In L5R there represent dojos or training paths which set a character's “class” more than anything. As PC advance, they gain new abilities within their schools. I will probably handle these as keywords, with several abiltiies group beneath them. One of the problems with these schools is that especially within the more focused samurai classes, most of the ability tend to be varying degrees of granular combat effects. Let me take two examples, drawn from the 2e rules:

Lion Bushi School
*Rank One: The Way of the Lion: May ignore an opponent's armor bonus or gain a raise for damage or a called shot.
*Rank Two: The Strength of Purity: May add honor rank to damage done.
*Rank Three: With the Strength of My Ancestors: May attack twice per round.
*Rank Four: The Hand of Destiny: Doesn't take penalties for called shots.
*Rank Five: May reroll failures, but reroll loses the benefits of any raises.

So as you can see we have a pretty mechanical thing. However, we may be able to salvage some things from that. There's an emphasis on precision, so any combat abilities will likely have that as a description. There's also the sense of overcoming failure, and the guidance of the ancestors, as well as purity of soul as a focus in combat. We want to have a couple of abilities which reflect combat, but others which reinforce the ideas of the school. The Loin stuff also reflects a focus on large-scale engagements, so that can be used.

Keyword: Lion Bushi School
*Precise Swordsmanship (the broad combat ability)
*Keeping the Righteous Heart (to represent the focus on honor)
*Knowing the Battlefield (a warfare ability)
*At Home in War (a combat ability for mass situations)
*Ancestral Guidance (knowledge of the ancestors, probably used as a reach or broad ability)

I've left out a few things, like archery or unarmed there, or a narrower battle tactics skill

For another example, consider the Mantis Bushi School, which only has four techniques listed (as a minor clan school). The Mantis are the only really strongly sea-faring clan.

*Rank One: Fight Without Steel: knowledge of peasant or improvised weapons.
*Rank Two: Voice of the Storm: allows character to all-out attack with less penalty
*Rank Three: Claws of the Mantis: Allows character to use two weapons
*Rank Four: Yoritomo's Rolling Wave: Increased defense due to ability to maintain balance on the rolling surfaces of boats and such.

Keyword: Mantis Bushi School
*Balanced Footwork (ability to avoid situations that might knock down)
*Master of the Seas (knowledge of sailing which comes from cultural background- fairly broad)
*Fight Without Steel (combat ability for use of peasant or improvised weapons)
*Ferocious Charge (a more brawl and extnded ability which might be used as an augment or for effect)
*Scaling the Masts (a nice athletics ability for climbing and scrambling)

For a less combat oriented example, consider the Yaskui Tradesmen School. This gets short shrift in the original books- with each rank of the school giving access to new goods the character can obtain relatively quickly. So we have to fall back to more thematic ideas

Keyword: Yasuki Tradesman School
*Honorable Commerce (a merchant ability, but also denoting that such trade is not against their code, so can be used as a resistance against those who might question their methods)
*Hasten Friends in Low Places (a contact skill for the lower reaches, with an emphasis on being able to get things done quickly)
*Useful Goods (In the sense of preparedness, being able to have at hand or find minor objects, a kind of wealth substitute ability)
*Gifts of Dubious Nature (both a bribery skill and also the ability to lay one's hands on forged or illegal things)
*Staying Out of Harms Way (a defensive combat skill)

The nice thing about keywords is that they do allow a thematic grouping, but players can also buy up a focus in a few abilities underneath a particular keyword.

Clans and Families
Clans and families obviously set a lot of things for the character. I suspect this will make up the other set of keywords available to the players. Each family will have a keyword set associated with it. Some of those will be the same across the families, but there will be a couple of distinctions between them. There will be at least one distinct “personality” skill in each set-- like Crab's knowledge of the Shadowlands, the Crane's artfulness, the Unicorn gift with riding, and so on. I'm also debating about something that reflects their outlook-- like “Crab Honor” which represents the particular flavor of what matters and doesn't matter to them.

Honor and Glory
Which does bring me to an interesting issue in the game. In L5R players have both Honor and Glory ratings. These can serve as bonuses for particular skills or measuring rank. They can go up or down depending on actions. In the past, I've mostly sidelined these functions, but here I think I can make them active abilities. Honor can be used to challenge someones honor or to defend against challenges to one's own, such as social attacks. It can also be used in contests against certain drives, such as personal flaws. In HQ damage can be done to Honor as an ability and I think that works here. I will probably have Honor be defined by the Clan flavor-- so there's a difference between Crab Honor, Scorpion Honor and Lion Honor. That can be represented by circumstantial bonuses.

Glory will also be its own ability, but not made distinct between the different clans. It can be used as an augment for social contests, or as a fall back skill used directly. It represents reputation and tales told. Strong actions can give temporary boosts, as failures can lead to damage to one's glory. I like that the mechanic there seems symmetrical with other abilities.

I like the idea that a duel, either social or swordplay, can be an extended contest. This can make the specialist dueling schools (like the Crane and Dragon) quite good in their narrow roles, but second to more rounded fighters in general combat. An extended dueling contest would begin with an assessment of the opponent (dueling perception, assess adversary, gather rumors), then a focus contest (dueling focus, stare-down, garner support), then probably exclusively to a certain kind of duel-- the iaijutsu draw contest, and then the strike (iaijutsu strike, precise swordsmanship, discredit opponent). It also allows the classic samurai trope of one challenger being outclassed even before the blades have been drawn.

Some non-standard magical stuff can be handled easily- particularly that of the Monks and the Artisans. Dragon Monks have tattoos that grant them unusual powers and Monks likewise have kihos. Those will simply be handled as discrete abilities. For example, the Grasshopper Tattoo might be the ability Prodigious Leap. A kiho about resistance might be the ability Endure Hardship. The same thing with some of the small magics the Artisans have.

For the more classic magic of the shugenja I'll probably build a framework. Magical schools for the different families will have some abilities tuned to their particular style-- like the Kuni's work against the Shadowlands or the Yogo's skills with wardings. The Crane and the Unicorn both have spell users with a slightly different style, the making of material objects, but functionally that won't matter.

L5R breaks spells into the five elements: Air, Fire, Water, Earth and Void. The last is less of a consideration as only one family, the Phoenix can take up spells of that element. I imagine that each element will be a kind of keyword, with abilities underneath it. The base effect within an elemental magic set will be to serve as a skill for auments and for communing with or summon small amounts of the element. Each element has some meta-concepts tied to it (Fire with Speed, Earth with Resistance, Air with Lore, Water with Purification) so on the fly augments should be easy. Then spells themselves will be listed under the elemental keyword. They'll be written fairly broadly, as I imagine players won't have that many spells, but will use them for various effects.

The game provides notes for the various schools having different elemental affinities, so for example the Asahina Shugenja school of the Crane has an affinity for Air and a Deficiency to Earth. I'll probably set the rule so that the element with an affinity must be at least three higher in rating than any other element, and the element with a deficiency must be at least three lower than any other element. I imagine I'll also put in some sample abilities for magical dueling.

We it took me about sic entries to finally get to this and put down some of my starting ideas about L5R conversion down on the blog. Seems like a lot of front work for not all that much payoff. However it will help if and when I sit down to do the full write up. There are a couple of other settings I'd like to think about for conversion, but I'll stop talking about that for a while.

For Friday, I'm hoping to talk about some of the new ideas for doing my next major revision to the Action Cards system-- version 3.0. I keep tuning that and there are a few things from HQ I want to think about for a very indirect application to the game. I might also talk about a character exploration exercise that Sherri and Sharon have been working through and one can get on the same page as a player about their character.

Monday, November 2, 2009

HeroQuest 2e: Contests and Frameworks

Here's an interesting short article about games, reflecting what I've been saying about L5R and what happened to it.

Contests in HQ Continued-- Last Day
I mentioned the simple group contests in my last post about HeroQuest and I want to say something important about those before I talk about Extended Contests. Combat's obviously one of the crucial kinds of scene in most rpgs. Now mind you I've moved away from combats every session or even every other session for most of my games-- but they form core scenes for some kinds of games (for example superhero and dungeon crawl games rely on them). HQ suggests that most conflicts will be resolved through simple group contests-- with the extended contests as serious set piece sections for a game. That's interesting in that it puts a good deal of narrative burden on the GMs and players. By that I mean, a quick combat resolution in that system will involve the group making a roll apiece, with the GM narrating the results. That's a fairly low-granularity system, relying on the GM to make the scene feel invested and engaging.

Now that's not a bad thing-- and it does bring up a couple of questions. Again, what's the point of a combat? It should be a chance to bring in risk, to defeat an obstacle in a physical manner, and to get the group to utilize or show off certain skills. Narratively, there's no difference between combat as an obstacle and any other kind. Mechanically, there's often great difference-- with large sections of the rules now in play for those kinds of contests. HQ treats things from the narrative perspective on all obstacles which shapes the mechanics. Combat's just another kind of challenge.

But importantly, even in these little challenges, like group simple combats-- take for example the group moving through a group of mook guard or driving off a raiding party-- there's risk. Failure can mean penalties applied to the players. Even if they win, some players may suffer consequences- not necessarily to physical abilities, but to the shaking of confidence or the like. But the important thing here is that if you're going to go to resolution, you open up the possibility of consequence. If something's going to be a cakewalk, then you don't go to formal tested resolution, you stick with the negotiated system.

One of the points to be made here and worth thinking about is this-- once you reduce significantly the amount of time a combat takes up-- you get a move in two different directions. On the one hand, you free up space for other forms of conflict and possibly for an emphasis on storytelling and narrative interactions. On the other hand, if you reduce the space a combat fills, you also increase the number of combats you can have in a session. There's a truism in games with lengthy combat systems (say a full party on an equal number of opponents fight) that you don't start after a certain hour of the session. For example, you'd better get to a fight in Champions with at least half the session remaining or you're going to run late.

OK, let me move on here.

Extended Contests
mechanically, an extended contest follows the same basic system as a simple contest, but the contest requires several rolls, with each side building up points towards their victory. The winner in any round scores points, with the first side to gain five points winning the contest. Probably the most common example we're going to see of an extended contest will be a set-piece fight or a duel. The rules suggest only using extended contests for pivotal scenes where the consequences can have significant effects on the long-term story. Interestingly, the system has a distinction between two kinds of results: rising action and climax. I like this-- in rising action contests, the players may suffer consequences, but they generally reduce the party's abiltiies rather than eliminating them. However at the climax, the stakes become higher, with larger and more severe results being possible.

There are a number of additional mechanics supplementing this basic system. Winner of extended contests may make a risky attempt to inflict a parting shot on their opponents to increase the consequences, but there's a chance the contest could end up reversing back on them. The mechanics of the system allow players to switch through abilities, sometimes taking an action to boost themselves or to deal with secondary circumstances in the combat. One interesting feature of the system is that consequences and penalties don't resolve and apply until a contest is over. That's a classic cinematic/dramatic device, with a character not being actually winded or noticing their wounds until they have a moment to catch their breath.

Assuming a player is free of an opponent in an extended contest, they can attempt to aid another player. This is done as a risky test, with escalating difficulty, attempting to reduce the score against the player they're helping. The escalating difficulty is both a balancing and dramatic device. Fighting multiple opponents gives a player a -3 cumulative penalty versus each opponent after the first. Each exchange still has its own resolution and score however. An interesting mechanic used for followers could also be applied to handling groups and mooks. A follower can act as a full combatant with his own contest rolls, but get knocked out when 3 points are scored against them. Optionally they can serve as a kind of wingman, reducing the multiple opponent penalty or as a resolution point soak for themselves. Finally the follower may be used to perform assist tests or unrelated actions. Finally, in extended contests, players can also go for risky gambits to close a fight early or take a more defensive stance to keep from being knocked out.

Augments and Important Notes About Abilities

I think one of the most interesting factors in the resolution of contests in the HQ system it that when two opponents face off, if one has a more specific skill they're applying to the situation they gain a bonus. The example given in the rules suggests a contest between someone with the Strong ability and another with Arm-Wrestling-- we have a case of the broadest possible versus the highly specific to the situation. There the latter would gain a +6 bonus to their test. I suspect most conflicts like this will be narrower, granting the more specific a +3 instead. One implication for this system is that GM's do have to have some things sketched out a little-- at least moreso than I do at times-- in order to play fair with these determinations.

Another interesting idea is that players also set the benchmark of specificity in a group. If someone else has a more specific and applicable ability, even if they're not in the scene, the character takes a penalty. The point of these rules seems twofold-- to encourage players to take some specific skills and also to encourage players not to step on one another's shticks. I think that's something worthwhile to strive for, but I can also see some players bristling at this, especially those focus on autonomy over group work. The broad potential nature of these abilities also means that sometimes players will try to use one where it doesn't really fit. This is considered a stretch and nets a -6 penalty.

Sidebar: A later edit, after Sherri and I talked about a couple of points, specifically about the possible penalty for broad/narrow within the group. First, I think Laws actually frames it badly in the mechanics. Given that a person with a narrower skill has a bonus in a one-on-one contest, then if Player A is using a broad skill in a contest against something or someone, and Player B has a narrower and more applicable skill, then it shouldn't be done as a penalty to Player A, but rather as a bonus to their opposition. Penalties suck and you can keep the same balance without the potential reaction by applying the bonus elsewhere.

Second, we have to look at what that rule is trying to accomplish. On the one hand it is about making sure that players who have invested in a particular area don't have other players who've bought broadly stealing the spotlight or constantly showing them up in what they're supposed to be good at. I think that's an admirable goal for a game. On the other hand, it is also about keeping players from buying and relying on one or two broad skills as swiss-army knives to solve any situation. Again I think that's an admirable goal.

In the case of both of these admirable goals, I think the rules are written to give the GM an option they can enforce if they find either of these situations going on. In play, these kinds of things only ought to come up if a player is turf-stomping (and the player who is being stomped on doesn't like it) or continually falling back to X or Y ability (again I keep saying skill when I mean ability). I can't imagine in play consistently checking those things...only when I see a nail sticking up should I have to get the hammer out.


The game includes the concept of augments which are lingering bonuses a player gains to future ability uses. For example, success on a previous contest (as mentioned earlier) may result in an augment bonus which will affect that ability or a related one in a future contest. Other players can also try to provide an augment for a player before they go into a contest-- otherwise it is more of an assist action. To provide an augment, the player must describe how they're helping and it must be entertaining and/or novel. Repeated uses of the same kind augment don't work over time or suffer an increasing resistance- for dramatic effect. Augments resolve through a simple contest-- and notably active augments are limited to one attempt. If the augment takes, then that's what the player gets-- if it fails, no other augment attempts can be made. Again, not necessarily realistic, but definitely appropriate to a dramatic narrative. The rules also have notes on conducting plots to gain augments and for handling them without rolls.

Interestingly since equipment functions as a ability, i.e. Something you use to solve problems, it doesn't provide an augment unless you can find a description in which it will help you in a particular circumstance. So, having a Kakita Blade in L5R would be an ability which could be used in combat. But you could also figure out a story or reason why it might give you an augment for a particular contest. The assumption in the game is that items cancel one another out-- armor and weapons-- except for the ratings of the abilities associated with them. Patrons, contacts and sidekicks can all function likewise- as an abstract ability used to overcome an obstacle.

One of the few places in the system where we get some parallel or alternate mechanics comes in the form of the Community rules. I have wonder if this system hadn't originated out of Glorantha if we'd have the same thing. Communities can simply act as abilities or they can form the core of a series. In that case they have resources which can be drawn on, with some risk. A communities resources can grow over time and players can increase or decrease those resources and injure or improve their relations with the community. I can see how some of those structures might be used for a samurai building game, with the players managing a fief-- or for a magistrate game, revolving around the characters relation to the community they oversee.

Magic, Everything Else and Last Bits

OK, I'm almost done running through the parts and pieces of this system. Just a few more details to get out there-- mostly so I have in mind the options and tools for crafting a conversion of the system over to another setting. The last couple of chapters of the book focus on this-- first how to build “genre packs” and then providing a detailed example for the Glorantha setting.

The rules again come back to the idea of keywords I mentioned before-- groups of related abilities underneath one simple idea, usually a class, background or culture. Since costs for raising keyword groups are affected by the number of elements beneath them, there's a balance there. They can serve as a useful starting point for characters.

The discussion of magic mostly focuses on building the narrative and logical framework for how magic operates. Otherwise, magic generally just functions as an ability. The key point here would be how narrowly those abilities are bought-- at the level of individual spell, of general powers or something even larger. There's a few ideas about how to handle other powers as well-- for example the difference between ordinary Strength as an ability and Super-Strength lies in the narrative limits, but the GM may also want to impose caps on some ordinary abilities while allowing extraordinary ones to keep increasing. That's an interesting approach and I'd be curious to see how that would actually play out over time. Most everything else high-tech equipment, psychic powers, species traits and so on follow the same basic system. Interestingly, the Gloranthan system of magic provided has more detail-- including some things which happen as certain level limits, notes on how and when magical augments can be used and so on. But I'll come back to that later.

OK. I think I'm done with my overview. Wednesday I'll come back to talk about some ideas of how this might apply to an L5R game.