Monday, June 22, 2015

How to Ruin your Indie RPG: Part 2 - Dice

If you are like me, then in building your RPGs, you have thought "I bet I could invent the perfect dice resolution mechanic."

Well, you are wrong. Not only by definition (no mechanic can be perfect), but also pragmatically. Until the next Pythagoras of dice comes along and figures out how to resolve RPG events in some enlightened way, we are pretty much stuck with our choice of the existing systems. There are a lot, and they yield unique, but also fundamentally similar probability distributions.

So, barring the search for a perfect dice system, why don't we try and layout everything the d20 can do (other than be rolled and have static modifiers added to it)? So next time, when you are making a system, you can explore your options within one die instead of trying to compare all the different systems.

Here we go...

Gambling: I'm going to list this one first to get it out of the way, because it can be applied to pretty much any of the following options, or implemented on its own as well. Simply, the players, and possibly GM, gamble on what the outcome of a roll will be. Maybe you could bet Hit Points, and get some kind of return in damage or outcome on a success. Maybe you could use the Price-is-Right method of guessing under, and being as close as possible, without going over. You could have a few different kinds of bets to choose from, like Craps, and each one has a certain probability for a certain return. Wanna bet odds for you attack roll? Okay, that's 50% probability, for 1d6 damage. Wanna bet only 18-20? Okay, that's 15%, for 2d8 damage. The options are countless here. Also, gambling is fun and reasonably stressful. That can be great for combat, at least.

Crits and Fumbles: These are almost universally used. Typically, a roll of 1 is a fumble and a roll of a 20 is a critical. You could always change which number means what. Maybe hitting the target number exactly is a critical hit, and a 20 is just a success as per normal roll. Maybe they are both crits? So now your crit chance is 10% for numbers 19 and lower, 5% for 20, and 10% for numbers 21 and above. Weird.

Expanded Crits and Fumbles: Check this out. You could also use this idea for a different kind of bonus. Forget the "GM's friend" of + or - 2 to adjust the roll for any situational things. Instead, expand the critical or fumble zone by 2 (so 18-20 crit, or 1-3 fumble). Now, taking a risk isn't about changing normal success and failure probabilities, it's about changing extraordinary success and/or failure probabilities.

Advantage & Disadvantage: If you don't know what this is, or haven't downloaded the Basic D&D Rules over at Wizards, you should. What I love about this mechanic is how self-contained it is. I suppose you could expand it to use 3d20s, if you were a hedonistic psychopath...

Evens & Odds: I first saw this in 13th Age, where certain character attacks/abilities can only be used on evens or odds. It is particularly interesting when you consider that some things can be used on even or odd misses, which is a great way of adding a silver lining to a failed attack roll. Damn, I missed the goblin...But hey! I can cleave into the next guy for 3 damage, because I rolled an even number! Huzzah! 

Lucky Numbers: Again we return to the renowned Zak S. for his creative kung-fu mechanic that can totally be applied to anything your heart desires. It's like evens and odds.

Success+ (plus): I got this from a mechanic called "boosting" from Within the Ring of Fire. Essentially, the higher you roll in that system (which is an exploding 2d8 system), the more damage you deal with your attack, or the cooler stunts you can perform with skill checks, etc. You could do it as a 1:1 excess roll converts to damage thing. You could do it in increments that create greater and greater effects, like for every 3 points above the target number you can choose to do a stunt, which get stronger the more times you boost.

Failure- (minus): Same as above, but with failures and numbers below the target number.

Results fall within a range: This is a big change, but the idea is akin to this 2d6 system, but with a d20. You figure it out. Shouldn't be too hard.

Target is success, further is worse: In this one, you are aiming for the target number exactly, and each step away from it, above or below, is a little bit less successful.

Dice as Static Modifiers: My friend Max found a variant for 5e where the proficiency bonus is handled with a die that you roll in addition to the d20. So +2 proficiency would be 1d4, +3 would be 1d6, +4 1d8, +5 1d10, and +6 1d12. Granted, +12 is a bit high considering the original cap of +6, but you get the drift. You can do this easily for stats, weapons, classes (like a combat die, a magic die, a skill die, etc.).

Dice as Situational Modifiers: This one is new, as far as I can tell. Essentially, you use dice instead of the static bonus from a given situation. 1d4 for a moderate advantage, 1d6 for a good advantage, 1d8 for a serious advantage.

Dice as Modifier Resource: As above, but you get to add them on demand, instead of as a way of mechanizing an in-game advantage. Also, you only have so many per day, or per encounter, etc.

Reroll Numbers: This is from the way 13th Age handles two-weapon fighting. Simply, reroll all missed attacks on natural 2s. But you can expand on this indefinitely. Higher level fighters might get to reroll certain missed attacks.

Roll Under: Another big change, though you can implement it on only certain rolls to more easily describe improvement over time (roll under stats, for example). Goblin Punch's house system uses this mechanic really well.

Opposed Rolls, Higher Wins: Self explanatory.

Opposed Rolls, Difference is Result: As above, but you can add in the Success+ or Failure- stuff too.

Everything is save vs. 11: Why not flip a coin for every roll? Except don't flip a coin, because you can't adjust the probability of a coin flip. Instead, adjust the 50/50 chances with situational stuff, or Situational dice.

Everything is save vs. X: As above, but you choose a number other than 11 as your base for success. Make it 14 for a more difficult game, or 8 for an easier one, etc.

That's all I've got. If you've got anymore, leave them in the comments!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

How to Ruin your Indie RPG: Part 1 - Magic

Look at me! Posting on a Sunday. What a rebel.

So this will be a bit of a series here. A sort of "Thomas Edison's attempt at the light bulb" kind of journal.

So here we go: magic.

Magic is the answer to all of your problems. Or rather, all of your character's/players' problems. Need a door unlocked? Magic. Need to immolate thirty goblins? Magic. Fly over a chasm? Magic. Make something magical? Magic. Stop something from being magical? Magic. Magic. Magic. Magic.

In our brains, magic has no limits. You can't put out a house fire with a sword, but you can put out a house fire with magic. You can't survive in the desert with only a sword, but you can survive in the desert with only magic. So, when you try to make an RPG (a fantasy-style RPG, that is), you have to put in rules, or fluff, or both, that limit how the player characters can use magic.

If you don't, locked doors are no longer locked doors, they are magic taxes. Goblins are no longer enemies, they are experience point checks that you cash in using magic. The BBEG is no longer a threat to humanity, he/she is just an antagonist that hasn't had enough magic thrown at him/her yet.

What are we meager game designers to do in the face of such limitless power?

Limit it! Of course. But how? The way I see it, there are three options:

  1. Decide that magic can only do a few things. A la The Last Airbender. Four elements, room for interpretation within the elements, but ultimately, no one is going to auto-unlock a door or mind-control an important NPC.
  2. Limit the amount of magic players can do. If you are interested in ways that systems can/do do this, check out this thread.
  3. Make magic dangerous, to the point where the wizard will want the rogue to fiddle until their lock pick breaks before they cast that knock spell.
5e D&D does #2, and it adds a lot of flexibility over past editions with things like short rest spell slot recoveries, at-will cantrips, unrestricted number of casts per prepared spells, etc. This is a middle-ground, please-all system, and it works, so if your opinion is "if it ain't broke don't fix it," then power to ya.

But there are an unlucky few of us out there that just can't leave well enough alone.

I want a magic system that doesn't require me to front load all the work of designing spells. I want a magic system that limits casters using in-game realities instead of abstract memory limits. I want a magic system that isn't spelled out like a biology textbook, no schools, no types, no domains, no skill sub-systems. I want a magic system that lets players experiment during play. And lastly, I want a magic system that can represent a wide variety of spellcasters, eschewing the idea of magical colleges or universally readable scrolls for unique backgrounds and power sources.

I have begun believing that the only way to get a system that meets all those needs is to step back and start thinking about magic differently. No more spells. No more neat little effects wrapped up in a convenient package. We need to ask some boilerplate questions like:

What does it mean when you say "My character can do magic?"

Maybe magic is a state of mind. Maybe you focus really hard, and you find a place where there is magic, deep inside of you. It hurts a little to stay in that place, but while you are there only your imagination is the limit.

Maybe magic comes from a thing in the world, like gold or meat or spirits, and you have to eat it, or break it, or wear it, or burn it to release the magic into your body and store it for later use.

I kinda like both of those things. Other magic systems outta left field that you've thought up or seen? Leave them in the comments.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Difficulty with Lists

Humans are, by and large, not very creative when they are older. The freewheeling creativity of our childhood is deadened by a fierce mix of academic indoctrination and modern desk job monotony.

So, when you give the players of a tabletop RPG a list, they're immediate unconscious reaction is this:

The list is all there is. Everything that exists is on the list, nothing that exists is not on the list.

So if you show your players a list of skills they can choose from, then they won't create a character that specializes in something that isn't on that list.

The first time I played the amazing game called Risus, my players took a good hour to make their characters. Making a Risus character is about a five minute process, even if you have just encountered the rules for the first time. But my players sat and pondered their cliches forever, because they couldn't stretch their mind around the blank space. They were afraid that this or that choice might screw them over in combat, or overlap too much with other party members. And they were especially afraid of just throwing out an idea.

But the more you play Risus, or other fast and loose RPGs, the more comfortable you become with doing weird and awesome things, and defining your character more by what they've done and less by what mechanics they are made up of.

For example, in 13th Age, characters don't have skills, they have backgrounds, and much like a Risus cliche, a background can be anything. We're not talking "Acrobatics +4," or "Use Rope +6," we're talking "Famous Spinal Surgeon +5" and "Ex-thrall of a Mindflayer Overlord +2."

I like this. I dislike how high their numbers go, but I like the idea. 5e D&D did backgrounds (as an optional feature) and at first I was really excited, but as it ends up, 5e backgrounds are just another way of quantifying abilities and sneaking in skill training. It allows you to invent any new background that you want (awesome!) but it shoe-horns you into a set format of Skill Proficiencies, Languages, Equipment, and Features (boo!).

I say, let the players go wild and describe their backgrounds however they like. Give them a couple mathematical bonuses to distribute among these backgrounds so it doesn't break the system (I like +3, +2, and +1). Adding a quick rule about how they can apply these bonuses (i.e. only ability checks, not attack rolls, etc.) ties it up nicely.

This is dangerous idea, however, when over applied. Weapon lists can be seen this way, but most people aren't as knowledgeable about weapons as they are about different backgrounds a character can have. If you don't describe the benefits a whip conveys when a character wields it, players are not likely to think of it as an option.

Classes are the same. Do warlocks exist in your world? How about rangers? This kind of blank space isn't easily filled by a player's creativity. If you don't give players anything to go on, they will flounder around, or even wore, stick to the stereotypes.

Look through your game and ask yourself if the lists you are handing to your players are helping them be creative, or boxing their creativity in.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Movie Initiative (Part 2)

Here is part 1, read up!

So, as a refresher, the initiative system we're discussing here is this:

Phase 1: People using magic declare they are going to do so. Describe the beginning of the ritual/casting.
Phase 2: People using ranged attacks declare they are going to do so. Describe the aiming, nocking,etc.
Phase 3: People attacking in melee declare so, and then do so simultaneously.
Phase 4: People moving declare so and then do so simultaneously. (Helpful to have a speed mechanic here. I should also add that this is when characters who are using their turn for anything outside of combat or magic takes their action.)
Phase 5: All ranged attacks are resolved.
Phase 6: All spells/magic effects are resolved.

So let's explore the implications of this system a bit.

First of all, although it has phases, it clearly implies that all of this stuff is happening more or less simultaneously. Declaring actions is meant to draw attention to the fact that spells and projectile attacks can be interrupted before they occur. So although the aiming and chanting happens at the same time as the swinging and running, the magic and ranged attacks are not complete until after the melee attacks and moves have resolved.

So, if your sorcerer or archer gets hit in the face with a broadsword, that thing you were trying to do doesn't happen. No concentration checks or anything, all you have protecting you are your fellow party members, your strategic positioning during the encounter, and your Armor Class.

Since melee attacks are declared and then resolved immediately, they cannot be interrupted in the same way.

By the same token, moving can be done without any prep, so if a combatant wants to turn tail and run, there is no opportunity attack or arrow to the knee that can stop him before he starts (though that arrow may bring him down half way to his escape). However, if a combatant is going to run, it should be pretty clear after they do not cast, aim, or swing in melee. So although opportunity attacks are not part of this system, melee attackers can choose to wack the guys who look ready to flee if they so desired.

My system uses a "ganging-up" mechanic (largely based on one from Within the Ring of Fire), which replaces flanking for theater of the mind combat. Essentially, successive attacks against the same combatant in the same round of combat get bonuses to hit. This not only leads to cool combo moves planned out by the party on the fly, but it also gives a little bonus to those bow and javelin users.

Since all melee attacks occur before the ranged attacks, ranged attackers have their pick of the lot for targets. That goblin that your rogue and fighter just smacked upside the head but failed to kill? Well he's too busy to dodge your arrow, so you have a nice hefty bonus if you loose your bowstring in his direction.

Essentially, this system gives ranged attackers time to pick good targets. Shots that are "open," so to speak.

You might wonder how magicians fair in this system, since they essentially warn everyone of what they are doing at the beginning, and then only get to finish their spell at the very end. That would seem like a huge disadvantage. Because it is.

But, when you use that disadvantage and get rid of the usual ones, it balances out. In my system, there are no saves versus magic. There aren't even attacks with magic projectiles like a magic missile. If your spell goes off at the end of the round, it just works, no questions asked. The only option for combatants trying to avoid a spell are to stop it before it finishes, or get out of its area of effect.


All this talk is good, but let me run you through an example round to give you a better idea of how this would work:

The situation: You kick down the door to the evil cult's lair and just inside they have some poor guy tied to the floor above a pentagram, ready to be carved like a christmas ham. There are five cultists, two on either side of the would-be sacrifice, and another across the room, reading from a black tome of cult-y magics. The fight is on.

Phase 1: The head cultists at the back of the room flips to a different page in his evil book and begins chanting and motioning with his free hand. The candles lit throughout the room have their flames stolen and collected into a ball of fire the size of a watermelon at the tip of the cultists fingers. Slowly the fiery mass condenses and shrinks, burning brighter with each passing second.

Meanwhile, the party wizard pulls out a scroll from her belt and unfurls it, whispering in an arcane language and taking a few steps toward the pentagram.

Phase 2: The party rogue uses throwing daggers, cuz he's a bad ass halfling with a chip on his shoulder. He's about to pull one out and make a pin-cushion out of that fireball wielding cultist, but the party fighter says "I got this," and takes a javelin from his back. "You get that guy untied," the warrior nods toward that poor sap on the floor, and the rogue agrees.

One of the cultists pulls out a dagger and takes aim at the party wizard, but luckily...

Phase 3: The cleric takes notice and moves himself between the two. He uses his mace to knock some sense into that knife-totting cultist, who loses his shot at our caster friend.

Unfortunately for the cleric, two of the other cultists give him a run for his money, and their combined (melee) dagger hits take away nearly half the cleric's HP. Ouch, being outnumbered really sucks.

The last cultist goon takes his knife and goes to shiv the fighter before he can toss his pointy stick at their leader, but his pitiful attempt is sidestepped by our handsome warrior and the cultist tumbles out the broken door frame.

Phase 4: The rogue now takes his turn, cutting the captive free, who immediately scrambles for the door, though he doesn't get out quite yet.

Phase 5: The javelin flies through the air, piercing the cultist's black book to his chest and poking out the other the sorcerer's back. His ball of fire goes pifft into a wisp of smoke harmlessly. He stumbles backward, nearly dead.

Phase 6: The wizard's scroll glows a bright blue, and from its parchment an icy ray rockets toward the cult leader. His body freezes solid in a matter of seconds, and then falls backwards from the dais, shattering on the ground into a million tiny cult-cubes.

[Aftermath]: The other four cultists look back in horror at the effectiveness of the party, but know that if they continue their attack, they may take this cleric heathen with them to hell. The freed stranger cries many thanks as he continues toward the door. And the battle continues...


There ya go. Hope it sounds interesting enough for you to give it a try.