Friday, January 30, 2015

Triple Comparison: Setting, Art, System, and Layout in P&P RPGs

In this post, I'm going to review three games based on their performance in four areas: setting, art, system, and layout. The games are:
I'm using a simple '*' rating system for each category score:
  • * = detracts from the game
  • * * = maintains game quality
  • * * * = adds significant quality to the game

Not every game needs to come with a setting. Whether it should or not depends on the goals of the game designers. In fact, if all I as a customer will get for setting is another Forgotten Realms or Firefly spin-off, I'd rather the designers save the ink, paper, and time, and hopefully save me a little money. A full-fledged setting that is tacked on at the very end of the game design process is not worthwhile, no matter how in-depth it is.

4e D&D: **
You may be surprised by this, but I think that 4e did setting very tastefully and meaningfully. Technically, the 4e D&D rules are supposed to be setting-independent, but that doesn't mean that there aren't hints dropped all over PHB at a wider world. 

Some examples: the gods (1 page, front and back) all have three strictures listed for their worshipers. Every single stricture bullet point is both a little more characterization of the deity, and a potential adventure hook for the players. All of the races have "[Race] adventures" listed, with three example characters and their motivations for going out questing. Each one of these is a window into the larger setting. Some even hook you in with references to fallen empires and ancient kingdoms.

I can appreciate the light sprinkle of setting detail over the (obviously rules-heavy) game that is 4e. It gets the players excited to write their own adventures and start playing. And best of all, in terms of game design, it takes very little work.

Ring of Fire: ***
This is an indie game that you may never have heard of. It was written by an RPG Youtuber that I used to watch religiously before I transitioned over to rpg blogs instead of vlogs. The man is a master of immersion and storytelling grandeur, so I was eager to get the WtRoF Saga book when it came out.

As far as setting goes, there isn't a sour note in the whole 60+ pages of world-building that sit at the end of this 200 page book. Ander went above and beyond any RPG setting expectations, and questioned everything, everything, to make it more fantastical. Day and night cycles? Fantastical. Calendar? Included, and fantastical. Countries and creeds? You get the picture.

This setting must have taken Ander years to put together. That is amazing, and well worth what I paid for the book. I could easily use this setting in another game as well, giving the book even more value to me. But, a time sink like this is intimidating to new players, and sometimes simply not an option for game designers.

Dogs: ***
There's more than one way to impress with your game's setting, however, and Dogs in the Vineyard is the perfect example of a less-traveled road by which to do so. In Dogs, you play the young religious police of a roughly Mormon-equivalent group in still-territorial Utah. The setting is just the 19th century United States, with a few (nicely politically correct) groups added in, plus a little religious or satanic magic too. Nothing too complex, certainly not a world-building undertaking the size of WtRoF.

BUT, the feel of the game is translated so strongly through the introductory descriptions of what being one of "God's Watchdogs" is like, that players can't help but be immersed. Dogs doesn't give you some wide world to go explore, it gives you a deep culture and time period to go explore. This kind of setting has to deliver drama and action on top of its physical locations and societies, because the game is so focused in its scope.

There is far more in Dogs about the interactions between groups than there is about the landscape or technology. That's the drama and action I'm talking about. The game would not be complete without it.

This one will be short and sweet.

4e: ***
I love 4e art. The style and color palette choices are excellent and unlike any other fantasy art I've ever seen. Occasionally, there are pieces from 3.5, but largely, the art is coherent and inspiring (especially the class close-ups, talk about PRETTY). It is professional and it ties the 4e books together neatly.

Ring of Fire: ***
This indie game used indie artists from all over. Although it isn't very coherent, and some pieces are less than professional looking, I as an rpg player appreciate when younger/newer artists contribute to my games. It feels good to know that I am helping them follow their artistic passion by buying these books. And when the art is good, it's really good (I mean, check out that cover! Bad ass.)

Dogs: **
Being another indie game, you can't compare Dogs to something like 4e. There are about a dozen pencil and ink pieces in the rule book that are all coherent and tasteful. They are black and white, which prevents you from seeing the rainbow coats that the Watchdogs have to wear, so that is a small downside. This kind of art is a good balance between a consistent look and feel and an indie budget. You can't always have it all, and using art as an accent rather than a main draw for customers is the right way to go.

This is where I could write thousands of words, but instead I'm going to choose one thing about the systems that might otherwise go unnoticed.

4e: **
Check out my Cocktail Weenie post about 4e here. My one addition would be this: when you include literally thousands of bite-sized rules, you are dissuading people from homebrewing their own. This is good for book sales, but may scare away a large customer base of rpg tinkerers. It also puts a huge responsibility on the layout people to make the rules digestible.

Ring of Fire: **
The dice system in WtRoF is a 2d8 system. Double 1s is a crit fail, but there is no crit success. Instead, 8s explode. This creates an open-ended central die mechanic. So while most rolls (and thus most character actions) will be results between 8 and 10, or average performance, you will occasionally get results in the 20s or 30s. It gives players the sense that "anything is possible," but the general grittiness of the rest of the game's mechanics prevent there from being a 4e-style "superhero" effect. Even the task resolution mechanics can add flavor and tone to your game. Which brings us to...

Dogs: ***
Dogs uses a "roll a pool of dice and use them one at a time" system for combat, and it feels like you are gambling. Because you are, essentially. If you play your cards (dice) wrong, you will have screwed yourself over for this encounter. It changes the entire pace of the game, and also emphasizes changes in strategy as opposed to big hits or critical failures. I've never seen another system like it, and I think that adds to the draw of this game. Sometimes, being different in multiple areas is enough to pull some attention in an ever more cluttered market and industry.

Surprisingly important, let me tell you...

4e: ***
I have never spent more than 15 seconds looking for a rule in 4e D&D. The books are fantastically sectioned off and many rules are color coded (although they did use both red and green, which makes it harder for my colorblind friends to differentiate at-will and encounter powers, that's a no-no). The pages never feel cluttered, the font is clear, and lists are all alphabetical unless another organization system is more intuitive. A+. This is really a matter of time and outside feedback, and it is one of the reasons I like 4e as much as I do. Infinitely better than 3.5 D&D. Also infinitely better than...

Ring of Fire: *
Ouch. This book was written like a stream of consciousness. There are chapter headings, and even the longest table of contents I have ever seen, but those things don't do much good. For example: there are rarely page references within the book when a rule is mentioned. There are key rules that are not denoted in bold or a separate paragraph, so you have to search for them every time you need them, even if you know the exact page. There are no rules for magic in the Saga book, but this was not clear until my friend and I got feedback from the creator, because the Saga book mentions magic in the rules on several occasions, but never references other books or chapters about magic. There are paragraphs that should be split up into three or four smaller paragraphs, so on and so forth. 

Not good. I would play WtRoF a lot if it were laid out in a way that could help me and others understand it better. I still bought it, but I don't think game designers should be content with that kind of reaction.

Dogs: **
My one critique of the layout of Dogs is that the margins and type face are so large, that something like character creation takes up over 20 pages. That is a lot of pages to flip through for a set of rules that will always be referenced and used all together. The creators even seemed to acknowledge this, because they put in recap pages at the end of the sections to condense the info down and make sure you got everything.

Rule of thumb: if you have to do that, maybe your layout needs to be clearer.

That being said, the sections and sub-sections are all nicely demarcated, and the table of contents is good. I did a one-shot of this game with a friend who had never seen it before that night, and he picked it up from the rule book just fine, so long as I was there to guide him through some of the sections and make sure he got everything.

  • 4e D&D: 10 stars
  • Within the Ring of Fire: 9 stars
  • Dogs in the Vineyard: 10 stars

Setting in a game needs to be deliberate and tasteful. Including a half-ass setting doesn't detract me from the product, but it does detract from my opinion of the company.

Art should be within the game designer's reasonable limits, and including indie artists is a big plus. Hell, I've seen no art games that I liked, but an illustration here or there never hurts.

System is where players' personal tastes will be most influential. System and art put pressures on layout, so make sure you understand what you are getting into. And ask yourself, what do the rules say about my game's setting and tone? Number distributions and dice rolls speak louder than you think.

Layout can be a deal breaker, even for a great game. The simpler your game, the less art, the easier layout is. But this is also where game design time and effort really shine through. Layout is not at all a matter of opinion. Some people will learn to deal with bad layouts if they have played the game enough, but new players will not. And one last thing: don't underestimate font and style. If opening your rpg book is like opening an ancient tome or magical text, points to you. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Character Backstories Done Better: Part 2

[See part 1 here]

How do we make a backstory system that creates more Blood-back Jack vs. Fives McGee dynamics? More histories that are usable?

Well, Jack and Fives aren't technically backstory, they're relationship occurred in-game.

But that's still good character development, and that's really what backstory is all about, right? Establishing a character that you can then develop.

But rather than develop your character's in the vacuum of your mind, why not use the details of the game as a jumping-off point for in-game improvisation?

Whether GMs should prepare or improvise is a long-running debate, and I think the answer has always been "do both, and go with whichever is most appropriate in the moment." But I don't think I've ever seen an RPG blog post about player improvisation.

Picture the scene: a group of adventurers is visiting the human king of Somewhere after they helped to defend the local farms from a gnoll raid. The king (GM) is preparing to ask the heroes to complete another quest, and guarantees them a handsome reward if they do. Then one of the adventurers (players), a half-elf, steps forward and pronounces himself the bastard son of the king. "I will go on this quest for you, father!" the player roleplays, "But as my reward, I want to be acknowledged as your son."

The GM and the other players gasp. Woh! That's not in the script! And didn't I say that these "heir to some throne" backstories are rubbish? I did, because those backstories are usually built outside of the GM's world. They require some other kingdom to be built into the world. Whatever race that player chooses defines the kingdom they can be heir to. These backstories are the network agents to the GM's TV show. "I don't care what the dynamics of your beautiful story and world are, I want to be a prince."

That kills the GM's creative freedom, where as the big throne room reveal builds on it. It limits what the character can do (if the player was playing a dwarf, sorry son, but you aren't the heir to the human king), but it limits them only to what fits with the GM's world.

Also, it allows the players and GM to be honestly surprised by other player's characters.

This does throw some wildcards into your sessions. Ideally, not every session. If each player claims to be the heir to some throne or merchant fortune, well, they aren't being creative enough. That's the long and short of it.

I'll let you consider the numerous ups and downs of this. It's how I'd prefer to run games. Let me leave you with one development of this kind of in-game backstory improvisation system: mind-control rules.

The party wizard gets in deep with some devil stuff, and has to roll against being dominated by a pit fiend from another plane. Rather than having the player roll against the mind-control publicly, have him/her do it alone. No one else sees, neither the players nor the GM. The player reads the mind-control's effects, and then rolls and figures out how to play their character from there: just as they were, or as though they are now part of the devil's greater plots. No one else knows either way.

Won't it be a surprise when the wizard throws his allies under the hellish bus at the key moment? And won't it be more awesome when the other players survive the stab in the back, or die valiantly trying?

The GM and the players need to be the storytellers in the game. That's when you get the best stories, and in my opinion, have the most fun.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Character Backstories Done Better: Part 1

I hate asking my players for backstory stuff before our first sessions. It feels like assigning homework. And not the fun kind of homework, like pouring over game books to choose a race, class, feat-tree, spells, etc. The crappy kind, like a creative writing assignment for college. Ew.

Even I, an aspiring creative writer, would rather just be able to sit down and do only the stuff I enjoy about the game. It is a game, after all. How many potential RISK games have ended before they began because of the laborious setup? Even if it is a small investment, like one hour out of six hours spent on the game, it is at worst off-putting for many new players, and at best a chore for the pen & paper veterans out there.

The standard way of getting players to characterize backstory is by asking them for a write-up of some kind to be delivered to the GM before the game. The GM then (ideally) takes these backstories and tries to shoehorn them into his/her already pretty much established story line.

[Note: Sandbox games would seem to avoid this conundrum, but then you have the problem of no plot momentum. A player's backstory will only become relevant if the sandbox party decides to pursue it. Pick your poison.]

I don't like the standard way, because I have played games that do it better. Bully Pulpit Game's FIASCO, for example, is a storytelling game where all the players (there is no GM) decide their characters' backstories by a combination of randomly generated details and collective brainstorming. This all happens before the game technically begins, so the surprises in the story come from peoples' actions as opposed to their history and connection to the story. But that is the point of FIASCO, that is its narrative niche, and it works.

In other words, FIASCO has a backtory mechanic (or system, as it were) that produces backstories that fit the narrative scope of the game. The backstories all result in people with unstable relationships, bad habits, questionable morals, and dirty secrets. Put them in a contrived plot, and you get a FIASCO. Success.

So what kind of characters does the "standard" backstory system (never really written in rules, just accepted as the "best we can do" by GMs and players everywhere) create, and what does this tell us about the stories that pen & paper RPGs are going for? A few examples:

  • This character is a loner, whose family/wife/child/best friend/village/etc. were killed/wiped out. They walk the world alone now, like some non-drow Drizzt book, forever alone and maybe seeking revenge. *Queue sad music*.... Oh boy am I guilty of this one. Everyone is. We write out a backstory about how our character doesn't have/do well in relationships, in a game where the whole point is to work as a team. Terrible. Either your backstory will be ignored for the sake of the game, or the game will be run into the ground for the sake of your backstory. Or the GM will be running four separate mini-campaigns to fill in everyone's backstory quota. This is bad.
  • This character has an enormous organization or country unique to his/her backstory that will need to be entirely fleshed out in order to incorporate it into the GM's plot. He/she is a pirate king, the wealthiest merchant in the seven seas, a robber baron, the leader of a robin hood-type band of countrymen, a knight of some far-away land, a cousin to the king of the neighboring country, etc. But for some reason, they choose to explore dungeons and kill trolls instead of do the things those kinds of people would actually do. I'm guilty here too. 
I'm gonna stop at this second one, though I could do more, because I have a particularly salient example for it. Let me introduce you to one of my favorite characters.

Blood-back Jack.

A human merchant man named Jack, and his beautiful daughter of sixteen are stopping in at an island coastal town to trade and sell wares. As Jack and his daughter are about to take their small merchant boat elsewhere, pirates attack the town. They take Jack and his daughter captive. Jack they leave alive so they can appraise his wares and get an idea of what they might fence them for. The daughter they leave alive for other more obvious reasons.

First they torture Jack by tying him to a tree and whipping his back raw. He tells them everything they want to know. They let him go, leaving him naked, with no food or money. (Hey! That's bad backstory #1!)

Jack runs into the jungle of the island in search of help. Anyone that might save his daughter. He finds an old shaman woman, perhaps a native of the island, not like the (now dead) townsfolk. He beseeches her to save his daughter's soul. Save her innocence, he pleads, and give him the power to fight off the pirates. He will give the woman anything she wants in return. 

Anything? Anything.

The shaman woman spins dark spells and incantations, and produces a crystal ball. Jack peers into it, and sees the ghostly face of his daughter inside. She says, "Father?". 

Jack looks up to the shaman woman, to see his daughter looking back at him, with the shaman woman's dark and manipulative eyes staring out of her innocent looking face. The shaman woman has sent the soul of Jack's daughter into the crystal ball before the pirates could defile her. Her chastity is safe. In payment, she has taken his daughter's body and youth for herself. Oh, and one more thing.

The shaman woman touches her rattling wooden staff to Jacks head, and everything goes dark.

Jack wakes up in the same place, the crystal ball sitting next to him. His daughter's soul is still trapped inside. The shaman woman in his daughter's body is nowhere to be found. But now Jack can feel a dark power coursing through him. The wounds on his back have all closed over with a deep red scar tissue. 

He returns to the town, to find all the pirates searching for his daughter who disappeared hours before. Jack exacts his revenge on them with blasts of dark energy, leaving none alive. He takes the pirate ship for himself, builds a crew, and declares himself Captain Blood-back Jack. Some call him Jack Fiend, for his hellish powers. He roams the seven seas (this is all bullet #2) in search of a magic that can restore his daughter.

That was a backstory I made up for a human warlock I played a number of times. He is one of my favorite characters. But none of his backstory was ever resolved, or even mentioned in game.


Because in the first session I played with him, his pirate ship was blown to smithereens by a (WAY too overpowered) Gnome Sorcerer Merchant named Fives McGee. Jack declared Fives his arch-nemesis from that session on, and he never looked back. Jack's backstory was my story of Jack, but my friends' story of Jack was totally different, and when I played with them, I have to admit, I wanted to learn more about that Fives McGee story line.

Because it happened in game. Everyone at the table knew about it. The drama was real instead of forced.

I think that is where I'll leave off this first part. Tomorrow I'll give you my suggestions for how to make your backstory mechanics so that they create interesting, collective stories, as opposed to fantasy-writer-in-training-esque shameless ego-stroking.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Getting the Most Out of Your Six Ability Scores

If there is a single mechanic thing that unites generations of pen & paper RPG players, it is the six abilities. Whether you are a grognard, or just came in with 5th Edition, in your free time, you're probably gonna roll some Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma.

In a system I was putting together about three years ago, I tried to retool the ability scores into different categories. I tried everything. In the end, I came back around to the six we all know and love/hate. You are free to disagree, but I don't think we'll ever see a system for capturing your character's basic capabilities that is better than the six ability scores.

But once we have those six on lock-down, and we know we're going to generate them in some fashion within a range of 1-20ish, we as game designers should be squeezing as much out of those six numbers as we can. Let's talk about how to do that.

How about Basic Role-Playing's roll-under system? Zak S. talks about its elegance and drawbacks here, read up. It's worth noting, however (spoilers!) that he comes to the all-too reasonable conclusion: how you set target numbers, whether with stats, like the roll-under system, or as a separate scale you roll against, doesn't much change the feel of play.

So, stats as target numbers using roll-under? Eh, if you think it makes life easier, do it.

Now onto the real fun stuff.

Although the roll-under vs. hit DC dichotomy makes little difference, I am wholeheartedly a proponent of using the untranslated ability scores in your game. The great thing about roll-under is that it forces you to use your actual score during the game, and it appreciates every point of granularity that is there. Case and point: 4th Edition's "constitution score as 1st level HP" mechanic. I love that kinda stuff. It is easy to calculate, and makes each stat meaningful for all characters.

And I really do mean all the stats. Strength score? Well, how about that encumbrance system you were trying to fix a la here and here. Looking for everyone to actually use intelligence? Try here again. Over a Jovial Priest, there is a collection of stats-for-stuff house-rules here. There are a gazillion other ways to do it, but just make sure you do it.

Really. No more dump stats. What a waste.

Speaking of which, let's talk about modifiers. It is truly a sin that modifiers became the only thing used of the ability scores, when we had a perfectly good number lying around as the "score" itself. Having touched on that, though, we should address that even some modifiers were left out in the cold.

You should use all of them too. And not just with certain skill checks or saves. I mean your Charisma modifier should affect every social interaction you have. Your Wisdom modifier should protect your from all magic, or something! It doesn't have to be those rules, but it does have to be something.

Every number on the character sheet is a chance to further describe your character. If fighters in your game can point to their Charisma modifier of -3 and say "Eh, it doesn't really mean anything. I'd play exactly the same if I had a +1 modifier," then you, my friend, are wasting a creative opportunity.

Grognardia has a fantastic amount about old school use of ability scores and modifiers here, here, and many other heres. He discusses ability scores on a much different level than I am currently doing, but it is useful as all hell regarding game design.

I am generally not a fan of strict game balance. But I am a fan of strict ability balance. If characters with high Strength do significantly better than characters with high Wisdom in essentially all aspects of your game, you are bottle-necking your players.

You solution is one of two things: either you add to your game to make the under-utilized stats more useful (my personal choice), or you subtract from your game to remove that hangnail-esque mechanic.

If only sorcerers use Charisma in your game, and they only use it for magic, take it out. Or conjoin it with Wisdom and make it "Personality" or something. Seriously. I don't tie classes to abilities in my games, but it is a very common rule. If you are going down that path, don't screw over certain classes by tying them to crappy abilities. Start by making each ability worthwhile in its own right, and then tie it to the class that makes the most sense.

There will be plenty more on this to come, but I think this is enough for today.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

4th Edition D&D: The Cocktail Weenie Approach

I love 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. I mean the real 4e D&D, too. Not that 4e revamp that just wrote powers down in a list for the most anal of the 3.5 lovers. I have only played (as opposed to GM'd) 4e once, as far as I can remember. I was a half-orc beast-master ranger. My friend Max was the GM. It was a TPK.

It was an honest mistake on Max's part. He had simply neglected the power of a large monster aura mixed with a tiny roof arena, far too high to jump from. It was pretty ugly. I tried jumping, if I recall correctly.

But, all is forgiven.

The fact that I only played 4e once, and GM'd many times (a whole Neverwinter Heroic tier campaign, at one point) is probably why I like it so much.

4e made the GM's job much, much easier. I loved how monster stat blocks were organized. I loved how XP for encounters and encounter building was streamlined, and made more effective.

But all those things are just good game design. I mean, nothing is ever just good game design. Good game design should be applauded. But you can't make a perfect game, so once the ever-welcome notes of round numbers and aesthetically pleasing presentations and such have been hit, you have to make some stylistic choices, and you're gonna begin to lose people.

For 4e, nearly all those stylistic choices occurred on the other side of the screen.

4e took what I call the "Cocktail Weenie" approach to character building and playing. The designers over at Wizards gave us as much as they could, in terms of powers and combinations and races and classes and builds and variants and spells (really just more powers) and psionics (really just more powers, but a little different) and so on and so on. 3.5 eventually got to that point as well, but I think we could all feel the intent to flood the game with these bite-sized rules modules in 4e.

And hell, they did a good job. Who knew you could fit so many different things onto a damn toothpick.

Some of my friends dislike 4e because it "feels too much like a video game, specifically an mmorpg." To which I say: "Are you using a mouse to play? Are you typing into a chat box? Are you constantly getting worthless loot from your kills? No? Then it ain't a f*#$ing mmo, son."

Just because 4e took a page from the computer game design book, modularity in all things, doesn't mean it is supposed to feel like a computer game.

Let me tell you, behind the screen, I could not be happier for those computer game-inspired design choices. Being able to plug my numbers and choices into a little color-coded block and make a new rule that was always perfectly balanced with other powers of the same level and could immediately be understood by anyone with a functional knowledge of the system was a blessing.

That being said, however, there are drawbacks to the Cocktail Weenie approach. They have almost anything you could want shoved on a toothpick.

Almost anything.

But not everything. You can't each cereal with a toothpick, no matter how hard you try. Ice cream doesn't go great on toothpicks either, after a while. And don't even get me started on peanuts.

You couldn't make a dragon shaman in 4e, for example. They got close, but flight at-will is a tough thing to mimic in the power system, even at higher levels. Not to mention the auras that were constant in 3.5 and the natural armor that increased over time.

When everything is modular, you can't really develop abilities, you can only replace them, or add parts to them. That can be a seriously disappointing thing for certain kinds of players. Flowers are modular: they are all made of little cells, each nicely sealed and independent. But we can't easily see and interact with cells individually, so there is still some magic there. That kind of magic counts for certain pen & paper players.

As for me, I've always been on the fence between the complex and impenetrable beauty of 3.5 and the straight-forward and translucent mechanics of D&D the 4th. Regardless, 4e had a huge impact on me while I was designing my own games and playing around with different systems. Also the art is awesome.

Hey, for me, that counts.

Monday, January 19, 2015

When Things Go So Well, They Start Going Badly

"I can't see through the cloud of blood!"

That is a quote by my friend Max (yes, the previously mentioned Max). He and I and another friend of ours were playing F.E.A.R. Or maybe it was F.E.A.R. 2? Either way, there was a point during our run through of the video game at which enemies were flooding our small office room stronghold so fast, and Max (who had the controls) was pumping shotgun shells into the crowd so intensely, that the first-person shooter screen was just a cloud of red particles.

"Get out of there! Get out of there!" I yelled. "There's more coming in!"

"I can't see through the cloud of blood!" Max yelled back.

It turns out that Max did very well. There was only a single, badly injured enemy left once the gore-cloud settled. But there was panic there for he and the rest of us in front of the TV, because for a moment, our victory seemed to be going up in bloody smoke.

That doesn't happen much in pen and paper games. Without some kind of Deus Ex Machina on the side of the PCs, or the enemies, once one side gets the upper hand, it's pretty much all over.

Occasionally, a random fumble will net the fighter a dropped weapon, or a double critical hit will take out the bard (eh...), but other than that, there is very little that truly happens randomly in combat. If someone isn't swinging a sword or slinging a spell, the rest of the world is just constant and, well...dull.

What if the fighter's weapon got stuck in the enemy's body, or armor, after they attacked? They don't have to let go, but if the $h!t is still hitting the fan, he may want to begin considering a secondary weapon. (Hey! Now your fighter has a reason for carrying that secondary weapon!)

What if the fireball set off by the wizard incinerated a bunch of grass and sent up a cloud of dirt and dust? Uh oh, now there is concealment to deal with, and that stuff blows around with the wind before it settles.

Here we go. The slimy blood and bile of that giant you just gutted is making it extremely hard to hold onto your sword. It may be time to go fisticuffs to save yourself the "keep your grip" checks.

I guess the point is to escalate the challenge when the players are doing really well. Let them keep rising to the new occasion, rather than just having them stomp all over an encounter or challenge that they rolled way above average for.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

What if we Slowed Everything Way Down?

How do you define a session of your favorite pen & paper game? One act of your story? Two combat encounters, a skill challenge, and a little roleplaying?

If your session were a movie, how long would it take? Could it be done in a half-hour TV show? A one hour network episode? A full-hour pay-per-view show? A two-hour feature film?

Here's a thought. Maybe we pen & paper players should actively move away from that kind of pacing. Maybe the one or two session adventure is a bad style for our medium that we just haven't been able to see, because it is so ingrained in our play-style.

This is something I'm going to work on myself, and I encourage you to do the same. Slow. Down. Your. Games. See what it feels like to spend the entire four hours of your session on one fight. This obviously means making every turn more visual, more sensory, more cinematic. It means bringing in character thoughts and inner monologues more often. It means considering regrouping, hiding behind cover to plan, creating ebb and flow in the drama of one scene.

There will be players who don't like this. There will be players who get bored very quickly. It is the age of light-speed, micro-entertainment, after all. But perhaps that's a good thing. We obviously want the hobby to be as inclusive as possible, but we also want to make use of the magic of tabletop games. The magic of collective storytelling and creativity.

I like playing all kinds of games, but when I DM, I'd give my left arm for the courage to take it slowly and deliberately. Most of the time, I am too afraid of boring my players. I tell myself it is because most of my players don't want that kind of play, but maybe I think that because my players and I have never really given that kind of play a try.

Let me know how it works.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Shadow of Mordor: Video Games Improving the Hobby

I don't want my pen & paper games to be replicas of my video games. I firmly believe, however, that it is crucially important to study all rpgs and story-driven games to better understand what works and doesn't work about them, and which of those qualities that work can be translate into other mediums.

Enter the much-less-than-a-year-old LotR licensed game Shadow of Mordor.

Like all creative works, SoM has plenty of stuff that DMs can steal for their game: interesting plot twists, unique creatures, names, etc.. But there are two significant pieces of the game that make it excellent (in my humble opinion), and we need to examine them to see if we can add them to our tabletop repertoire.

The Combat

Video game combat is very different from pen & paper combat. No matter how complex and visually exciting it is, it does boil down to pushing one or more buttons repeatedly. That kind of monotony cannot be allowed to sneak its way into our tabletop games.

But if we take a look at more than just the boilerplate, we find a very interesting system. SoM uses the Batman Arkham combat engine (essentially), which has two major parts: a few plain but well-animated basic attacks, and then a plethora of extremely satisfying finishing moves, all of which use the same button activation, but have a varied appearance. The game camera also goes into slow-motion and zooms in for every single finisher the player does.

As most players of SoM will tell you, this leads to extremely satisfying and dynamic encounters, even sans the god-like superpowers your character eventually gets later in the game. So, what is the takeaway for the table?

  1. If you (the DM) aren't narrating how the characters defeat enemies in great detail, you are missing out on a great opportunity to increase immersion. Remember, camera slow-mo, zooooooom in.
  2. If the players are encouraged to narrate their hits and near misses (or really, all of their actions) in good detail, everyone is missing out on the immersion.
  3. Combat feels better when it goes smooooooooothly. There are a number of ways to do this, each way is better or worse depending on the group. Some quick examples:
    1. Initiative around the table clockwise instead of by roll, so everyone knows exactly when they go right from the start.
    2. Roll attack and damage at the same time, and just ignore the damage roll if you miss.
    3. Monster swarms/mobs instead of individuals.
    4. Minion/mook monsters with "hits-to-down" instead of a hit point pool.
  4. Lastly, SoM shows us an example of a game without a huge number of combat options (at the beginning, at least), that remains satisfying and dynamic. It isn't about having 100 things to do with each attack, but rather having at least one thing cool to do when the moment is right. Consider the following house rule I just made up (and sort of stole from Risus, now that I think about it):
    1. Whenever one combatant (player or otherwise), would reduce another combatant to 0 HP, the victorious combatant may do whatever they like to the defeated one, keeping them alive if they so choose. This could include: knock downs, trips, chokes, slams, pins, interrogations, aerial decapitations, brow-beatings, humiliations, scarring, and so on.
The Enemies

SoM's Nemesis System is a program for randomly generating, designing, and promoting boss Orcs during the game to replicate the ebb and flow of Mordor's chain of command. It was the biggest draw for the game's release, and rightfully so: this was the first time a video game could even attempt to mimic the creative potential of a DM. I think the developers did an excellent job with it.

Of course, no program could ever come up with more, or more creative enemies than a human DM could, but there is one thing the computer has on all of us behind the screen:

The computer never forgets to do its job.

DMing is a LOT of work, so who can blame us for forgetting to come up with a unique name, voice, appearance, and stat write-up for every big-baddy that trudges toward the party in a blind fury? It's almost impossible, but there are ways to cut yourself some slack and still save face, story-wise.

  1. SoM only gives enemies titles and personalities when they do significant things (like kill the player character, or get assigned as a bodyguard to an important Orc captain). DMs can do the same. When one of your Orcs or giants or whatnots deal a PC a grievous wound, or catch them sneaking around the camp, or escapes a battle with them, that enemy needs to be important and unique for later on.
  2. Get yourself some random voice, appearance, and surname/title tables and use them! Using the SoM method, this stuff writes itself. "Zaku the Handsome" is an Orc captain with terrible face boils and deformities. His name is ironic, memorable, and gives you 90% of his necessary description right off the bat.
  3. Keep a one-page log of the relations between named and reoccurring NPCs, so that when one dies or is displaced, or switches sides, etc., you have a reference for how the other guys will react. 
Let me know if there are any other games/movies/etc. that you want me to distill for the table!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Feats of an Unorthodox Nature

Although my knowledge is limited, I can pretty safely say that no tabletop rpgs have rules for doing the mundane things that the players themselves do on a regular basis in real life. Walking on solid ground, casually speaking with someone in a single language, buying food, eating food, sleeping, navigating a small town, etc..

The vast majority of rpgs, on the other hand, devote most of their rules to those things that are considered extraordinary, but within the bounds of the setting. (For a wonderful discussion of the quantity of rules in a game, and what it means and doesn't mean, check out this post over at How To Start a Revolution....) This would include (to taste): martial combat like swinging swords and shooting arrows, magic in nearly any form, character health and performance, character death and destruction, nuanced or uncommon skills like riding a horse into battle or singing a beautiful song, avoiding bad things be they fireballs or spiked pits, navigating magical or intensely wild landscapes, etc..

Then there are my favorite things, the Feats of an Unorthodox Nature. When designing a game, you have to decide whether this category of actions will be a very long list, or a rarely referenced, highly obscure group of things that no one ever does. A perfect example, last night I was flipping through my friend Max's 5e dmg, and I came across an optional rule at the back: climbing on larger combatants. In our 3.5 games, this was unheard of. No one ever even considered it a viable option. In 4e, I seem to recall one Rogue class power that could be taken that allowed for climbing combatants. No one was going to play a rogue simply to have that power at level 17 or some-such, however.

Now here we are in 5e, with an optional rule that would allow anyone to attempt this radical maneuver.

Personally, I don't care one way or the other whether you allow climbing opponents in your game. But the way you rule it in or out affects how the players will use it.

Think about it. You sit the players down for the first 5e session and declare the "climbing combatants" rule is fair game...and suddenly it's climbing season. You won't be able to get your players off the big boss monsters. And why not? We're all here to have fun! Why wouldn't we use the rules that sound the most fun?

But you don't want your players climbing your monsters constantly! You want them climbing monsters when it's cool, and fits with the flow of the encounter, and when they aren't just trying it for the attack or defense bonus it grants.

Here's how I fix it. Don't write a bunch of rules for every cool but crazy thing a player could do, just write one good rule for this category of unorthodox actions. My rule is:

  • Want to do something crazy awesome? (Or maybe just crazy?) Roll the check with Disadvantage. Success works as written, but failure has two states: If a single die is too low (i.e. you failed due to disadvantage) then you fail. However, if both dice results are too low, then you fumble
I was inspired by the 5e rules, and by this Called Shot Mechanic by Zak S. Later, I actually found the same exact rule over at The Last Gasp, but without the advantage/disadvantage terminology.

This fixes the problem of non-use and abuse of crazy maneuvers by giving the players a "blank check." You aren't pushing the players (unconsciously) toward a particular choice of action, but you are also opening the door for narratively-appropriate inspiration.

If that troll is begging to be climbed on, then the players will try it. But if there's something even cooler burning a hole in your player's imagination, they'll try that instead. That's the difference between a rule that provides players agency, and a rule that provides players with a script.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

An Opportunity to Attack Attacks of Opportunity

Opportunity attacks, indeed, reaction-type actions in general, are an example of a mechanic that is good on paper, and...not so good in practice.

If you like attacks of opportunity, well, no offense...

Apologies aside, I have my reasons for removing reactions from any game I put together.

First, they are hard to use well. Players with only one reaction a round have to choose which threat to react to before they know all the threats. If we are aiming to get players to strategize like it was real combat (not necessarily simulate real combat, but give players the thrill of real combat) then asking them to make a decision out of game that could not possibly be taken in game not only only interrupts the thrill and pace of the fight, but also detracts from the immersion.

Second, it encourages metagame strategy. A la "If I move now, and provoke an AoP, then my friend can escape without provoking an attack." This doesn't just affect the players, either. The DM is caged in by the players's near infinite ability to instantly react with sword swings.

Against a single dragon? If the dragon moves away, the party essentially gets a second round of attacks.

4th edition Dungeons and Dragons attempted to fix this with the defender archetype combatants, which could place penalties on people who tried attacking the squishy/fleeing allies or getting away from the defenders themselves. Other instances include spring attack and fly-by attack feats in 3rd, among others.

But this doesn't jive with sound game design philosophy: creating an exception to a rule, which is already an exception to a basic rule of the game is inconsistent and wastes space, time, energy, money, ink, etc.. Why give everyone the ability to attack out of turn just to allow a quarter of the combatants (if not more) to deny that ability?

Here's the upshot: First, don't give the players of your game an in game option, just to grant another player (or non-player character) the ability to strip them of that option easily.

Second, don't give players a choice that their characters should never truly have. A knight in melee with three orcs doesn't let one flee for fear of not being able to swing at the second one should it flee too.

And lastly, if you want the players to be able to "react" in combat, rather than just "act," then you should allow for players to pass, or "wait," and jump in on the action later.

Yes, this screws up many initiative systems. But if you make a simple rule to avoid abuse (such as -2 to all rolls taken in a reaction...after all, there's a price for not being proactive) then you will have real strategy occurring at the table, and you can ignore who isn't taking their all-too-important 5-foot steps.