Sunday, March 31, 2013

New Year, New Games - March Report

As March winds down, I find that I've written less this month than I have in most of the previous months since I started this blog (which wasn't too long ago). Unlike some folks whose blog updates have been few and far between these days, the big reason my posts have been more rare this month is because I have been lucky enough to have spent so much time actually gaming lately that I haven't been able to spend much time writing about gaming. How's that for a problem? Yeah, I couldn't hope for a better problem to have.

That having been said, of course I've got more to say about the new games that I've been playing! 

Star Wars Edge of the Empire Beginner Box

I've talked before about how I'm a huge fan of beginner or basic boxes. I love the idea of a simplified version of often complicated games that really only rarely need the level of complication that they get published with. The EotE Beginner Box features a really nice, simple rule set (in a very slim but detailed book) and very attractive game assets (maps, character folios and dice that remind me of Q-Workshop) that fit together quite well to provide a nice gaming experience. 

The first experience I had with the EotE box was with my home game group when a bunch of folks couldn't make game night, but we had just enough players (4) to put the box through its paces. The next time I got to run it was this past Monday (3/25) for a Google+ hangout group including +Bear Wojtek+Larry Moore+Wayne Snyder+Gabriel Perez Gallardi & +Nathaniel Hull. For the hangout group, we used all of the basic box characters, plus Mathus from FFG's website. Both groups had an absolute blast once they got used to the dice mechanics of Success (yes!), Failure (no!), Advantage (and!), Disadvantage (but!), Triumph (hell yes!) and Despair (fuck no!). One of the core realizations that made the G+ session absolutely rock was one that +Larry Moore called "passing the Advantage," where you can give a Boost die to an ally if you roll at least 2 Advantage, even if you've failed your roll.

After playing this game twice, I just can't stop thinking about it. Just can't stop. Sort of like back in the 90's when I couldn't stop thinking about/playing d6 Star Wars from WEG. I wouldn't say that the game has rekindled my love for Star Wars (some loves are eternal and never need rekindling), but it has returned Star Wars to the forefront of my thoughts, somewhat to the detriment of this blog (since I write so much about DCC here). After the first G+ session, everyone more or less agreed that they wanted to continue playing the game. Some folks wanted to make their own characters rather than continue to play the pregens from the beginner box, so I made the deal that once FFG releases it rules in a final version (none of this "pay to play Beta" crap at MY game table, even if it's digital!), folks who want to switch out their pregens can do so. Until then, the cast is the one from the box plus the extra guest stars FFG released on its website; this game will be taking over my Monday night (every other week) gaming slot.


Too complicated to be fun, I think
Okay, I'm going to say something I feel like a dick for saying: I don't feel like a hero when I'm playing Shadowrun. I don't even feel like a murderhobo. I just feel like a confused schlub. I am not a fan of feeling confused. Or like a schlub.

As of now, we've had exactly two sessions (although I'm writing this a few days before what's supposed to be our next Shadowrun session, so maybe things will change for me in session three), one of which was a "group comes up with character concepts for everyone to play and how they all fit together to create a cohesive team" session and the other of which was actual game play. Session one was fun. Session two... was boring. It was like trying to figure out a puzzle, not knowing where all of the pieces were or whether they were all in the same box and, oops, I think that piece goes to this other puzzle. Maybe it's just me, but in a gaming situation, I tend to be a bit of a "let's go go go!" sort of guy; I don't want to have to wait until tomorrow to go do this thing, I'm afraid that our mission might be compromised in the meantime.

It turns out that being a successful Shadowrunner means knowing shit tons about the world of Shadowrun. To me, that means reading a bunch of books that are written like stereo instructions and less interesting than the one-billionth Drizzt novel that Salvatore crapped out of his schlock-hole. Seriously, folks. Guns and trolls, cybernetics and dragons. This shit should scream exciting. Instead, the rule books are written as if Catalyst Labs deliberately wants you to not understand or care about what's in them, just buy the next book so you can get more stats for guns. Realistically, I'm relying on my knowledge of the setting from 20+ years ago to get me through, here. My four or six page character sheet meant largely nothing to me. I think my agitation started to show later in the session, but eventually things started happening and stopped sucking.

I had this whole section right here that I cut out because I didn't think it was actually useful. Suffice it to say that I don't really know how SR can be "run right,' which is to say "run in a way that's fun and engaging for all of the players involved." That's always been a problem for SR (ugh, remember back in the decker days? yeah, every party was a split party) and SR GMs need to actively work to combat it. The setting and natural inclinations of how to tell stories is working against you and you need to sort this shit out before we get to a gaming table.

For die hard SR fans, I wish you all luck, but this thing is written for shit. Don't even leave a comment, it'll probably be ignored.

Next Month

In April, I'm looking at more DCC (my current funnel adventure, To Catch A Fallen Star, is going awesome!) and the beginning of a regular EotE campaign! Furthermore, at the request of +Kubo Mshila+Matt Woodard will be putting together some sort of sci fi game that will likely use either FATE Core or Savage Worlds as its game engine. Either way is cool with me, but I haven't tried FATE yet am eager to give it a shot. I love the concept of natural descriptions of things becoming game mechanics for them, so the Aspect system of FATE seems a natural fit for my style. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Implied Setting In BLUEHOLME

I've previously talked about how much I like the retroclone BLUEHOLME: it's a slick presentation of the original game rules as reorganized and edited by Dr. Eric J Holmes for his Basic Box edition of D&D. Dreamscape Designs is ramping up production of the BLUEHOLME Compleat rules (a full version of the game expanded beyond the 3rd level, apparently going all the way to level 20, with new classes and races) and even started up a new G+ Community for BLUEHOLME (which can be found here) so now I can talk to folks about BLUEHOLME and not have to use a forum to do it (god, do I hate forums!). All of this, from my perspective, has popped onto my computer screen in the last half an hour or so (maybe a little more), so of course I've got BLUEHOLME on my mind. Not being the sort of blogger who just posts news about the RPG industry (how much time have I spent here talking about James Maliszewski and the Dwimmermount project? Oh yeah, none.), you know there's got to be a "content opportunity" here, right? Of course there is!

So, when I started reading through BLUEHOLME the very first time, I made a serious mistake: I thought it had gotten something from Holmes very, very wrong. So I put it down. Left it on the pile of RPGs to get to to read some time when I've got time for it and the inclination to do some RPG reading. Then, someone else, I think it was +Erik Tenkar, posted about BLUEHOLME being the best approximation of the Holmes rules he'd ever seen, so I dove back in, to both BH and Holmes, just to verify. Sure enough, yes, the thing that I thought they had gotten wrong, they hadn't; it was me mis-remembering things all long. Along the way, I discovered that I really enjoyed BH and not the least because of the excellent and evocative use of public domain art. The art served not only to create a style reminiscent of the original line artwork of the Holmes edition, but also ended up implying a setting to me that I really enjoyed, one that Dreamscape Design ended up reinforcing again when they released their (free) module the Maze of Nuromen.

So, as I see it, what is this magnificent aesthetic that has seized my imagination and makes me all googly and giddy inside? Take a look at that cover there. That dragon is not the sort of dragon drawn by post-genre fantasy artists, nor is his would-be-slayer a post-genre dragon slayer*. This all very pre-genre stuff here, which a lot of public domain art tends to be, what with the age of almost all of it. In fact, all of the art in BLUEHOLME itself comes from two guys: Henry J. Ford & Victor R. Lambdin. Go ahead, check them out on Wikipedia. Well, you can check out HJ Ford. Apparently, this was not the first "blue book" he ever appeared in, either (the first would be Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book, published in 1889). The style used by these artists may well be regarded as anachronistic and antique by modern gamers accustomed to anime heroes from games like Exalted or D&D 4e's hyper-hero everyone's-an-Olympic-gold-medalist art. Yes, it is old school, even older-school than most old school around today, and that's what makes it kickass.

Dreamscape Design goes keeps up the oldest-school feel in their module the Maze of Nuromen. Here, all of the work comes from Harry Clarke's illustrations for Bayard Taylor's 1890 translation of Goethe's Faust. Here's the thing: I've loved Clarke's illustrations since I first got my hands on a copy of Bayard's Faust decades ago. Seeing them here was nostaligic in the way that I suppose BLUEHOLME itself might be nostalgic for folks who were raised on Holmes (I wasn't; I was a Mentzer child; my love of Holmes is a product of  my modern perspective). Bayard's Faust is amazing in that he preserves Goethe's original rhyme scheme and meter, a crazy difficult task that took 20 years to finish; Clarke's haunting and often bizarre illustrations fit right alongside that sort of obsession, which instills in me a sense of Lovecraftian super-consciousness as if the mad translator (interpreter, really) had found some secret insight into the fabric of reality through his obsession with perfecting his art; Clarke does a simply stellar job of invoking not only the original text and its very solid translation, but also of, in my view, drawing the reader/viewer in to that half-insane world of the frenzied artist who labors for twenty years just to get a translation right. Clarke's art, therefore, is a perfect fit for Bayard's pursuit of the perfect translation, Faust's pursuit of perfect knowledge and Nuromen's pursuit of perfect freedom.

Right, but what does all that artsy mumbo-jumbo tell me about the implied setting for BLUEHOLME? Plenty. Before I go any further, let me express that I have no special knowledge of what Dreamscape Designs and Michael Thomas plan to intend as an implied setting for BH, and that all of what follows is purely my own reaction to the art that's presented in BH and the general aesthetic created by the books themselves. To me, it's the same aesthetic found in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Buechner's Woyzeck, and German impressionist theater. It's the aesthetic of the Continent, of a Europe not unlike that found in LotFP's Weird Fantasy, but without all of the reality-rending cosmic horror (well, less of it, anyway) and Goethe's Erlkoennig instead. Half-fairy tale, half-heroic lay with a dash of humanist moralism, the art of BLUEHOLME pushes me to expect, as an implied setting, the backdrop of a Central Europe-like world where elves steal children in the night, dwarves trick men into pacts for their souls and wizard-scientists treat equally well with demons of the nether and the laws of physics itself. Where elector princes jockey for political favor while paying lip service to protecting their common folk from the forces of Chaos that threaten to burst in the door. It's WFRP where the grottiness is replaced by otherworldly, haunting beauty. It's Weird Fantasy where the impending doom is replaced with morals at the end of the story. This is BLUEHOLME!

Or rather, this is what got me excited about BLUEHOLME, but may not be the intent of the publishers.

Maybe it's the fact that I studied German language and literature for so long, but I freaking love the idea of a world informed by German folk and fairy tales mingled with the humanist drama (and implied cosmology) of Goethe & Schiller set against the backdrop of satirical absurdism of Buechner & Brecht. If I were to run BLUEHOLME (which I get excited about the prospect of doing every few weeks, then I realize my gaming schedule is packed tight with all the crazy shit I play and run), this would be how I'd do it and the world in which the players would find themselves. I'm sure that most players' experience with all of the literary and theatrical references I'd be bringing to the table are pretty limited, so I'd have to do extra work to bring the setting and tone to life. Luckily, choosing the art they have, Dreamscape Design has already pushed me down the right path.

*By "post-genre" here, I am referring to the concept of D&D as a genre, rather than just a game. Since it's inception, D&D has become a genre unto itself, often twisting fantasy away from its pre-genre Appendix N roots. An excellent example of how crappy post-genre fantasy can be is Dragonlance. I friggin' hate that schlock. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Mercenary's Guide To Ur-Hadad

Captain Chogrun Versk of the mercenary band known as the Brotherhood of the Blue Mark steps forward to give all interested parties five things every mercenary needs to know about Ur-Hadad and how to survive and profit there. 

Five things any mercenary worth his salt needs to know to get by and get rich in Ur-Hadad? Why should I tell you? Then we'll have every scuzz-bum with a rusty chopper strap a serving tray to his chest and try to make it big off what I say! Hmm, maybe I'll just give a fake account to throw 'em off the scent, eh?

Nah, I'm just yanking your balls, chum. A good merc knows to do the job he got paid for and you paid me solid coin for my thoughts, an' I'm sure you're planning on a solid profit from 'em, too, so I figure, spirit of enterprise being what it is, you'll get what you paid for.

Image by Temarinde @ DeviantART
#1 - Make a friend outside of your mercenary company so, in case the lot of you get slaughtered, there'll be someone left outside your family to say something nice at your funeral. Some mercs'll say that bartenders and serving wenches are great for this, particularly since they're going to see a hefty portion of your coin. Me, I say forget them, they move on to the next mark the second you step out the front door. Instead, claim a tavern as your favorite, but make friends of the drunks who spend time there. All of them. By rounds for the house. Never turn down that beggar looking to buy a drop of grog or bit of brew. Folks remember where their booze comes from and get all misty-eyed when the supply gets shut off. If you want to make sure enough people are properly bereaved when you pass that the gods themselves will take notice of their lamentations and provide you a seat of honor at their tables, nothing gets the job done like sobbing drunks.

#2 - The Spearmarket sells more than just sword arms, you can find swords there, too, but not usually the best. The armorers and weaponsmiths of the Spearmarket are competent, and can provide you with enough materiel to support your rank-and-file, but if you want a choice spot of equipment custom-built to your specifications, don't even think about looking in the 'Market. Take this chopper at my belt here. I had that made by a down-on-his luck artisan over in the Scuzzberg district. Here's the thing: most of the best smiths of arms and armor are flat broke, so don't expect to find them in nice places. Their work is too good for a merc company to afford for the grunts and often too functional for the hoity-toity tastes of nobles who'd rather have silver filigree on a blade than a good edge. Any armorer or weaponsmith operating out of a dump of a shop is more likely to produce master-grade gear than any of the chumps in the Spearmarket.

Image by JasonRoll @ DeviantART
#3 - Every army marches on its stomach, and yours is no different. Once you've secured a contract, your next move, before you start spending any advance you've got on whores and ale, start arranging your provisions. Here, you've got two solid options: Dockside and Mustertown. Dockside, you'll end up with better quality food that's been prepared for the sea voyage to Ur-Hadad (which can sometimes be a very long trip), fresh fish, tubers and rice from the western colonies, and large quantities of fruits from the south to keep scurvy at bay. In Mustertown, you'll sacrifice quality for price, paying as low as one fifth of what you'll pay Dockside, but you might need to buy five times as much just to keep your grunts happy. For my money, I'll take Dockside every time; the smaller load of provisions means less I have to spend on pack mules and drovers, much less mess cooks.

#4 - Keep a talented tailor on retainer so you can dress for success. When negotiating, you need to match your attire to the customer. Merchants don't tend to like merc who dress better than they do, while nobles won't hire anyone whose clothes don't look more expensive than Uglothi pleasure slave. At the same time, your grunts might need to dress for the job, too. If your client is looking to hire heavy cavalry, dress them like Volczik hussars, but if they want light infantry, you want Escali skirmishers. Never lie to your client and say your men actually are Volczik or Escali (unless they are), but you can imply that they are, particularly if you draw attention to their "native garb." In my experience, clients will pay more for reputation alone; and there aren't many Hadadi merchants or nobles who can tell the difference between a fake Volczik and a real one at a muster distance.

Image by lathander1987 @ DeviantART
#5 - When times are tight and you can't find a foreign war to go off and fight, Ur-Hadad's under city is full of ancient horrors and forgotten tribes of beastmen and long-lost treasures that are just begging to be slaughtered or uncovered. Yes, it can be dangerous, but you're a mercenary. Act like one. With the right bribes to the right criers, you can easily whip up a fake scare related to something in the under city. Once some well-meaning citizen steps up to do his civic duty and, say, offers a bounty on vermen scalps, all you need to do is traipse down into the under city and start your bloody harvest. We call scams like this "rat catching" and it doesn't pay well, but at least it pays. Plus, it gives your grunts something to do after the whore money has run out. Who knows, occasionally you find some lost elven or ophidian treasure down there, too. Don't make a habit of going down there, though; it can take days to wash the stink off.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

To Catch A Fallen Star: Players' Information & Rumors

For this week's DCC Donnerstag, here's the Players' Information for tonight's brand new funnel adventure, To Catch A Fallen Star.

Players' Information

The miles through the swamp from Mustertown have not been kind. The muck and mire of the trackless swamp that runs up to the walls of Ur-Hadad and swallowed her sister, now known only as the Sunken City, have been hard going these last six hours, but at last you reach the small stretch of dry land that marks your destination.

"It should come as no surprise, friends," said Vane Barbute last night at the Soiled Dove tavern, hunkering close to you over the long festhall table, "that my cohort Clave and I have, on several occasions, had brushes with death. Isn't that right, Clave?" Clave finished emptying his tankard before clearing his hair from his eyes and barking a terse "Yep."

The large one-time blacksmith continued, "Only so many times a man can stare ol' Death in the face before it starts taking a toll on him, is the thing." Vane leaned in conspiratorially, his voice on the verge of whisper. "It ain't the healthiest thing, that's for sure, is it, Clave?" Clave took his next mug from the serving girl and as he lowered it to his lips, his clumsy "Nope" was muffled by its clay interior.

Barbute, a mountain of a man arrayed in mail forged from dragon scale all the colors of the sea, roiled backward, levying an accusing finger across the table at you. "Don't you think that means you can take us, chumps! I might have developed a slight limp and Clave here has that hacking cough that won't quit, but we'll wipe the floor with you and every scum-sucking villager who looks like you! And that's before Clave decides it's time to break out the Imapler, Demonspear of Khal-Thuzas, that you see strapped to his back there! Am I right, Clave?" As the next empty mug found its way to the table from Clave's hand, the syllable "Yep" rode a belch from deep within Clave's gullet.

"And I've got that achy joint thing, and Clave's got, well, Clave probably doesn't want me to talk about that other thing, do you, Clave?" Reaching for his next mug of ale, Clave glowered at Vane, nearly hiding behind the mug's rim, and shook his head narrowly. His "Nope" was nearly inaudible.

"Bah!" cried Vane, lurching back towards you as close as he could come without actually crossing the table. He grabbed the shoulder of one of you, as much for effect as to keep himself from falling forward, and looked into your eyes, "Were there but some cure for the price we paid to keep out of Ahriman's grasp, why I'd gladly pay more than this shit hole is worth for it. And what with being a charter member of the Divine Order of the Purple Tentacle, I might even see to sponsoring the membership for whoever brought it to me, wouldn't you, Clave?" Another finished mug, and another burbled "Yep" issued forth from Vane's companion.

Seizing on the opportunity that was so busy presenting itself, you immediately trekked out into the swamp, looking for that scion of wisdom and enlightenment, the filthy bog witch who all carefully refer to as "the Lady." Though the Lady herself had no restorative draughts to loan you, after long thought and a pipefull of noxious swamp weed, she set you on your current course.

"It were two hunnerd year ago," she creaked in her ancient, hag-ly croon, "that them Gromovs died off. A line of Barons and Baronesses, goin' all the way back to the first Pascha, they was. Folk held queer thoughts about 'em, sayin' that they lived longer than they should. I heared one of 'em was suppost to be old as a dwarf's granddad. They was suppost to have fought back ev'ry disease and plague what killt off so many over the centuries. Now that sounds like sum'in' magic to me. If I was thinking about some sort of health elixir, I might could start thinking real hard about making that big ol' trip through the swamp to where their manor used to be. Might still be some secret worth something to them big ol' Tentacle lummoxes up in there. Yep, that's what I'd do."

The precious few moments you've tarried here have allowed you to dry your feet and fish the leeches from your trousers, even the hard-to-reach leeches. The ruined husk of Kaj Gromsk, seat of the Gromovs' Barony, looms on a dead hill not five miles to the east. A meager meal passes between you as you plan what to do next.


Each player may roll once for rumors his characters have picked up (1d12):

1 - Them Gromov's never died, actually. They just torched their own castle and moved off to start a new life in Skall or somewhere like that.

2 - Spiders! I'm scared of 'em! You'll never catch me out in that swamp! Full of spiders!

3 - I heard that a band of vermen from Borderlands have been harrying the farmlands not far from Gromsk. If I were to bet, I'd wager they're looking to make a go of proper banditry.

4 - They says that the hill the Gromovs built Kaj Gromsk on top of really ain't no hill at all, but a sleeping demon baby. I heard that if it ever wakes up, it'll grow to full size and start off eating people's souls... and cows... and chicken coops.

5 - The last of the Gromovs was a powerful sorcerer who tricked eighteen virgins into his bed all at the same time for some sort of sacrifice. Lucky bastard, I say, even if he is long-dead. No, both boys and girls. Why do you ask?

6 - A legend talks of a Gromov noble who found a holy warrior fresh from the Schism War in the south. In return for healing his leprosy, the paladin vowed to protect the Gromov family even in death.

7 - Them vermen that stole ol' Gert's prize goat ain't been seen in the past two weeks. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad they're gone, but it makes you wonder, don't it?

8 - A bog witch once cursed a Gromov's favorite horse for spitting on her. I'm pretty sure that's why all of them died horrible, grizzly deaths when their castle burned down.

9 - Isn't it odd that Gromsk is the one bit of rocky land in this whole part of the swamp? I wonder why that is.

10 - When I was young, I thought I might make a go of prospecting out at Gromsk. Only thing I ever found that was worth more than a bucket of nightsoil was these odd chunks of rock that were shaped like huge bugs or lobsters or something. I sold them to a wizard for enough gold to carouse my way to level two. Whatever that means. Stupid wizard never explained that part.

11 - Vermen come in all shapes and sizes. All of the shapes are grotesque, all of the sizes are too big to not be terrifying.

12 - A huge beast guards the ruins of Kaj Gromsk and eats everyone who's dumb enough to stray too close. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

It Is Your Destiny! -- More Narrative Control in EotE

One of the really neat things in FFG's new Edge of the Empire game is the degree of narrative control that the game's funky dice give to both the player and the GM. Every time an Advantge, Threat, Triumph or Despair are rolled, they need to be interpreted, not merely noted. At first, this took my group some time to get used to (yes, including me). Numerical results are usually so easy to interpret, particularly when all you need to worry about is the binary success/fail yes/no sort of thing, but interpretive results about near-failures and half-successes took a little longer to sort out, but one thing became quickly apparent: Advantages (or Threats) rolled needed to be used right away and needed to be used. You couldn't just them go ignored or start to stack up or anything like that. The Advantage (again, or Threat) pertains to the action being attempted and rolled for at that point in time and whatever narrative control they give the player or the GM goes away at the end of the action being resolved. 

Google Search; Star Wars Advantage
Yup, the Death Star is an Advantage
In combat, gaining Advantage (blah blah Threat) means having a very temporary advantage that needs to be spent in remarkably short order (in the grand scheme of in-game time). Things like "I dive into cover, making it harder to hit me!" and "After my first hail of shots, the Gamorrean exposes an opening, making it easier for one of my pals to take him down!" make great sense in combat. Even in social situations, gaining Advantage from skill use is fairly fleeting and needs to be resolved whenever it is rolled so that we know how to interpret it. "He gives you the part and seems to buy your story, but the second you're out the door, he calls the Hutt's goons on you," and "You didn't manage to trick the bounty hunters into believing you're someone else, but you did distract them enough that they're firmly paying attention to you and not your allies, who now have a solid opening." Situations like these work great if you have an immediate in situ need to generate a narrative opening and can quickly get you and your players thinking about other ways that you might want a little more input on how the story's going. This is fine as long as someone rolling for something, but is it possible to allow players (and sometimes even the GM) to re-write details of the narrative when there's no Advantage or Threat (or even Triumph or Despair) to tie the creative editing into? 

[Player]! It Is Your Destiny!

Star Wars Edge of the Empire is not a story game. It has more than a few story game features, particularly a focus on narrative, but it has a lot of elements of traditional game design. However cool it might be to play a Star Wars story game, a narrative-based traditional RPG is, in my opinion, what most Star Wars gamers are probably looking for [statement not verified for accuracy]. Many story games employ a form of "narrative currency" and whether they knew it or not when they made the game, FFG gave us an excellent one in EotE when they wrote Destiny Points into the system.

Normally, Light Side Destiny Points are spent by players to be better at a thing or to make it harder for NPC to accomplish something and occasionally to activate the benefits of certain talents and Force Powers. Dark Side Destiny Points are used by the GM to do pretty much the same thing, but to the GM's benefit. Once used, Light Side points become Dark Side points and Dark Side points become Light Side points, creating a continuum of narrative currency; as one side uses more, the other gains more. What a neat idea!

During my first EotE session, one of my players asked a question to which I didn't have the answer he was looking for. "Well, spend a Light Side point for it, and that's how it is," says I. "Sounds great," said the player, and we established then and there that I'd allow certain expenditures of LSP for in game story effects and narrative control. Strangely, no one attempted to abuse this mechanism (I really would have expected more abuse) and everyone got along with it well. By the end of the session, it turned out that the smuggler had known the "space traffic controller" for years and owed her at least one date (James Bond/Moneypenny-style), the bounty hunter had false ID papers all along (which was reasonable since she probably worked below the law frequently) and the droid had a MacGuffin device in its internal storage all along. Nothing earth shattering, nothing mind blowing, just simple things that the players really wanted to work one way and were willing to spend capital (and give ME, the GM, the Master of the Dark Side, capital to spend against them!) to get that thing. Who am I to say now? Well, yes, obviously, I'm the GM and Rule 0 and all that, but... I'm more of a "Say Yes" sort of GM rather than the [attempt at political humor expurgated] sort of one. 

But what about for the GM? If the GM is already in control of the behind-the-scenes workings of the entire universe, then how is it possible that he would ever need to spend Dark Side points? Can't he just decide that whatever detail is the way that he wants? Of course he can and will. That's precisely why he should spent Dark Side points to do so. If you're spending DSP to create a negative situation for the players, then you're demonstrating to the players that you're playing by the same rules they are. Use these to create drawbacks for the players, the sorts of things that rolled Threats might generate. Maybe the dock manager starts out suspicious (because someone in the last spaceport graffiti'd anti-Imperial slogans in a place that the PCs didn't notice) or maybe the players forgot to charge their energy packs, so once they're out of ammo, they're out, man! Maybe they locked the keys to the Krayt Fang inside it. Maybe it ends up that the player character knows the [important NPC]... but that guy hates him for something he did years ago! There are all sorts of options. Whenever an opportunity to twist a story element (that normally isn't a plot point) pops up, look at it as an opportunity for the Dark Side to make things worse for the players, and show that that you, the GM, just made things worse for them. 

In a way, Destiny Points aren't just a narrative currency, but also an oppositional currency (too bad that's not a word) in that it is the currency used by two different sets of opponents (the GM and the players). Normally, I tend to look at RPGs as a cooperative storytelling framework, but the inclusion of Destiny Points deliberately points GMs in direct opposition to the players, instead of the normal "in conflict with players" status that GMs normally enjoy (as I see it, there's a big difference between being in conflict with and in opposition to something). Bearing the oppositional nature of Destiny Points in mind adjudicating when to spend DSP and when to allow players to spend LSP for narrative control, you can make informed decisions about just what's appropriate when. Remember that currencies exist to be spent and use them!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Stupid Dice Tricks: Success Distributions

Sometimes it can be terribly difficult for me to come up with new and exciting dice math topics to talk about. Right now, I'm in the middle of analyzing the probabilities of the dice for Fantasy Flight's new Edge of the Empire game, but that analysis is going to be pretty huge and probably take awhile, particularly since I need to figure out how I want to analyze it. In the meantime, I'll be fielding some easier topics while the numbers don't just get crunched, they get ground up, chewed up and spit back out. During that time, if you have any questions about dice rolls and the statistics that they represent, I'll gladly take on any that you've got.

For today, my softball topic is something that +Edgar Johnson made me think of after last week's post about using Dungeon World-like 2d6+mod dice rolls in DCC. Dr. Johnson asked if you could just roll 2d10+mod and have similar results in DCC to the established Difficulty Classes already in play in the game. Let's take a look at that, shall we?

2d10+Mod Vs d20+Mod

Now, as we all know by now, central tendency is going to skew some results here when we compare a d20 roll (which has a flat probability where every facet is equally likely to occur; 5% likely to be exact) to a 2d10 roll (where the closer to the mean number of the range, here 11, the more likely the number is to occur due to their being more ways to make that particular number out of different sets of digits from each die). We know that. That's what central tendency does. But do you know by how much? Or what the consequences of that mismatch would be?

So, here's a chart. This is how it works. For each of the standard Difficulty Classes (5, 10, 15 & 20), here is the percentage chance of each occurring depending on how you're rolling the dice. Due to central tendency, rolling a 5 on 2d10 is much more likely than on 1d20 since the 5 is on the low side of the probability "hump." A DC 10 is also more likely on 2d10 for the same reason, but when we get to 15, and again at 20, we notice that the likelihood starts to fall off, again due to the probability hump.

The consequence here is that you're far more likely to succeed at easier tasks in the 2d10 system, but far less likely to succeed at harder tasks. Would you as a player prefer to succeed more often at easy things or hard things? Yep, you're starting to see why this model doesn't work really well.

For folks who don't like 2d6, however, there's some great news out there: with a little bit of math, you can work out your own dice expressions that have the same probability distributions (or really similar ones) so you can have the success range that feels right for you. Let's see how it's done.

Range Wrangling

Applying standard DCC target numbers to a 2d10 system just isn't going to work. What about the sort of logic we used last time for the 2d6+mod roll, then? Isn't there a corresponding range that we can use on the 2d10+mod roll to have similar percentages of failure, complicated/partial success and success? Why sure, of course there is! Here's how it breaks down.

Using the most reasonable math at my disposal, the logical success ranges work like this:

  • 2d6: Failure = 6 or less, Partial/complicated success = 7-9, Complete success = 10 or better
  • 2d8: Failure = 8 or less, Partial/complicated success = 9-12, Complete success = 13 or better
  • 2d10: Failure = 10 or less, Partial/complicated success = 11-15, Complete success = 16 or better
  • 2d12: Failure = 12 or less, Partial/complicated sucess = 13-18, Complete success = 19 or better
These success ranges produce very closely similar results as far as the probability of success goes, with some small variance. For example, you are slightly more likely to roll a complete success on 2d12 (10.42%) than on 2d10 (10%) much less 2d6 (8.33%). Yes, these can seem like big differences, but consider that, when dealing with the smaller range of numbers on the 2d6 distribution, any modifier is going to provide a much larger effect in this distribution than in any higher one. In a manner of speaking, every +1 is bigger in the 2d6 distribution than it is in 2d8, 2d10 or 2d12 (in descending order of "+1 bigness"). 

Where It's All Going

When you're deciding between these different dice expressions, you are, in effect, deciding how large of an impact character stats (in the form of bonuses and penalties to these dice rolls) will have on the success or failure of that particular character. If you want a high degree of randomness, where success is less a function of character stats and more a function of luck, use a higher "d" dice expression (like 2d12), but if you want character stats to have a large impact (for good or ill; remember that penalties will be just as big as bonuses), use a lower "d" (like 2d6). 

Bonus neat fact: in a 2d* expression, the mean of the distribution (which is always where the low end of the "partial/complicated success" range begins) is exactly one digit higher than the die type (meaning that failure has a maximum value equal to the die type). For example, the 2d6 range has a mean of 7 (6+1; the failure range here has a maximum value of 6, equal to the die type) and the 2d12 range has a mean of 13 (12+1; the failure range has a maximum value of 12). Neat stuff, huh?

DCC Donnerstag: The Risk & Reward Perspective on Experience

The other day, +Dak Ultimak, king of CRAWL!, the best damn gaming zine on the face of everything that's ever had a face, asked a simple question:

How do you reward XP for non-combat? And if you don't use the standard (RAW) XP, pretend that you do, and how do you do it. Also remember I like things systematic.

And then later, +Erik Tenkar started asking about experience awards, which left +Edgar Johnson spouting off our joint philosophy of Risk & Rewayrd, and stating the case really well. Here's the thing: DCC awards XP based on challenges faced and overcome, not on the basis of some objective difficulty level of those encounters, but rather how hard it was for the characters who are accomplishing them. If you have an easy time of an encounter, you won't get many -- if any -- experience points; the reward here (the experience) is commensurate with the risk (how many resources were expended, how much effort used, etc.). But Dak's question directly discussed XP for non-combat activity, so where does Risk & Reward fit in there?

Other than treasure (magical and mundane), the DCC Judge has two primary reward mechanisms: the first is experience points, the second being Luck points. Yes, an argument can easily be made for story rewards or in-game RP opportunities as rewards, but I'm speaking from a mechanistic point of view here. As I see it, in the DCC Rulebook, Joseph Goodman encourages us to reward risk with experience points and behavior with Luck. But what the hell does that mean? When will I stop ending paragraphs with questions?

When Dak asks about rewarding XP for non-combat, he's not distinguishing one sort of non-combat activity from another. For situations where there's no real risk but the players act in such a way that they deserve a reward, I'll give Luck. Maybe they stick to their alignment when it would be easier to do otherwise. Maybe the gods have been appeased, the players have been particularly clever, or maybe they just made the Judge laugh hard enough that a reward is in order. Whatever it is, I usually reward Luck for things involving clever ideas, fulfilling quests and acting in character. Luck rewards often involve little to no risk on the part of the character earning them.

Experience awards, on the other hand, explicitly must involve a risk to the character. The greater the risk posed by the encounter to the characters, the more experience points I will award for it. There is no objective difficulty to these values, and everything is judged on a case-by-case basis whether we're talking in or out of combat. Non-combat encounters that I have given XP for often involve traps, tricks or enigmas that pose a credible threat to the PCs and could do some serious damage if given the chance. Do the players have to do some planning to avoid getting turned to stone by the Medusa Ray trap laid by the serpent men? Then that might be worth an experience point. It might be worth two if it actually petrifies one or more PCs but the group still gets past it.

But wait, didn't Dak want a system?

The System -- Or, How The Hell Do I Keep This Shit Straight?

I understand Dak's problems with assigning experience in DCC. It's not an exact science and is definitely more of an art. However, like any art, there are some simple scraps of logic you can throw together to make that art easier. Here's how I do it.

Before any given session, I prep two things. The first is a regular ol' sheet of notebook paper and the other is a stack of 3x5 note cards. On the left-hand side of the notebook paper, I write the name of every PC who's participating in the night's festivities so I can (a) record specific Luck gains and (b) keep track of who's participating in each fight. If a character is off doing something else while the rest of the characters kill monsters, then they're not risking the same as the other PCs, so they aren't earning the same XP. The notecards are used in combat encounters to track initiative (and sometimes hp) and award XP, but more on that down below.

For non-combat encounters, players, as I've said above, only get XP if they're exposed to a serious risk. The dungeon's set-piece trap or trick is a great example here. The death trap that they can only escape from by clever application of wit and wisdom. The folds in space and time that threaten to trap the PCs in the same room for eternity if the correct solution isn't worked out. Things like that. If the PCs defeat such an encounter, I give them one experience points; I give them two if they do so at extreme personal cost (such as the death of at least on PC).

More likely worth Luck than XP
For combat encounters, it's pretty easy to see if an encounter is going to be a cake walk. If, by the second round of combat, no PC has been hit by an enemy in the encounter, it's probably not worth any XP. However, once the first PC takes damage, I make a tally mark on the encounter's note card, demonstrating that some amount of risk has been assumed by the PCs at this point. Tally mark number two gets made when two of the following occur: a PC takes more than half of his hp in damage, someone fails a spell casting check, someone fails a skill check, or an entire round goes by with no PC scoring damage on an enemy. The third tally mark is only made when at least one PC hits 0 hp, while tally mark #4 only occurs when the players narrow wrest victory from the jaws of defeat, usually at extreme personal cost (usually the death of no fewer than three PCs; I've given out 4 XP from a single encounter exactly once and in that encounter, exactly one PC survived). All in all, not a single XP gets awarded if the PCs aren't exposed to sufficient enough risk to provide them with a challenge.

At the end of the session, I add up all the tally marks and award that much XP to the PCs that participate in each encounter (or fraction thereof for the folks who wandered off). Luck points get a similar treatment, except most sessions don't see a single Luck point awarded (much less enough to get tallied). This method is designed to reward those players who hurl their PCs into danger rather than those who merely sit by and let their friends take the brunt of the damage. DCC may not be about heroism (as it's classically defined), but it's definitely about heroic action; that's what I want to see in my games, so that's what I reward.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Down & Out In Mos Shuuta -- Under the Hood of EotE

This last Sunday, my home game suffered from some big absences (we were down to four out of seven players) so we decided to rethink our normal Sunday night game. Since +Matt Woodard had been working on a ShadowRun campaign, I thought that it might be time to fire up a mini-run, but it turns out that no one has characters ready (including myself; I may have said this before, but I am scared shitless of creating characters in ShadowRun 4e, even more scared than making 3.x or Pathfinder characters), so we were on to Plan C. Plan C involved me hitching a ride with Matt back to my place to drop off unnecessary gaming materials and to pick up my new Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game Box. Within a few minutes of getting back to the house where we game, we were killing Gamorreans in a Mos Shuuta cantina and loving it. I know that I'll end up writing about this game at the end of the month in my New Year, New Games post for March, but I thought our night of scoundrelous mayhem and the system itself deserved a post all its own. After all, I'm a huge fan of "basic sets," spend a lot of my time sorting out rules mechanics and had a great time with the play experience; I have enough to talk about here that it's time to just get right into it.

Beginning With The Box

I love "basic boxes," "starter sets" or whatever you want to call them. For the player, they represent your first glimpse into the larger world of the RPG, broken down into manageable, bite-sized chunks that are designed to not overwhelm the players. My entrance into the RPG hobby was through the Mentzer Red Box so my expectations are a little high. I love the slim rule books, the crappy dice, the now-necessary hand outs, the (sometimes well-constructed, sometimes poorly-constructed) box itself; I love the idea of this little box serving not only as my own introduction to the given game, but also, perhaps the introduction of generations of imaginary future Muszkiewiczes (yes, that is the correct pluralization of Muszkiewicz) who just might find the box on a shelf somewhere in a closet or attic or (more probably) bookshelf and say to themselves that it looks like fun. Thus is the cycle perpetuated, right?

So, how does the EotE Beginner Box hold up compared to some of my other favorite starter sets? Well, it's a bit of a mixed bag. First, the rules are in fact nice and slim but still complete and robust. Really there was only one rules question that I had that I couldn't figure out (which was more of an advanced sort of question and one for a later post; perhaps an upcoming "Things I Learned About EotE" post is in the offing). Some things from the main rules are glossed over, which is totally fine since they really aren't needed until your players & characters become sufficiently advanced. Yes, the fact that character creation rules are missing is a bit of a bummer, but those would swell the rules well beyond starter set size, so I'm not too upset. Besides, the pregenerated characters represented a really great cross-section of Star Wars archetypes and in-game roles that serve to provide a balanced team to all players, newbies and veterans alike. Also, the dice were fairly high quality. Sure, they're not my GameScience precision dice, but they're alright and seem to be on par with the quality of Q Workshop dice (these may actually be Q Workshop dice, I honestly have no idea) which are pretty good, just not as great as GameScience ones. The maps are nice, if a bit small (of course, we're all used to traditional battle mats and minis, so we're spoiled) and the tokens are better than average (they feel board game-quality, which is really nice).

Worst. Box. Ever.
Which brings me to the bad. The box itself sucks. Really sucks. This thing will not survive more than the most delicate of treatments. My "only used once" box is already ripped and torn. It's made of crazy thin card stock, the shape of which is only maintained due to a cardboard insert. From my perspective, this crappy box is the worst mistake that Fantasy Flight made with this boxed set. It has everything else that my imaginary future Muszkiewiczes will need to play the game; too bad they won't be able to find it in the original box that it came it. (I'll probably end up actually constructing a box for this game, I like it that much.) The poor quality here makes me wonder if Fantasy Flight actually understands what the point of making a beginner's box actually is. I mean, "box" is in the friggin' name of this product, so you'd think they'd have bothered with a halfway decent one. This fact irritates me so much that I just spent an entire paragraph talking smack about how shitty it was; I don't normally hold on to negativity that long.

Under The Hood

Most folks who've been reading my blog for awhile will already know that I'm not afraid of funky dice. Duh. Not to sound opinionated, but objecting to a game just because it doesn't use dice that you already have is a pretty weak argument. Okay, really weak. "Oh, I'd play DCC if it weren't for the fact it uses all those strange dice." "Oh, FFG just wants to gauge us for more money so they made up pointless dice you'll never use for anything else." Forget it. I know each of you geeks out there owns something bizarre and particular that you bought for some game or hobby or something that you're not friggin' using. Ever own a bobble head? Well, these funky FFG dice are much cooler and *gasp* you'll actually get use out of these. So shut up. I'm sick of this crap.

The dice themselves, once you get used to them, are easy to read and figure out. We quickly went from "what's that symbol mean?" to mentally adding up dice results and interpreting them (yes, interpreting the dice in EotE is a real and important thing). Even the player who tends to not dig on the dice math seemed to not have any problems sorting out her dice rolls. It took us a little bit to sort out what counted as an Advantage or a Threat and what you could (or had to) do with them, but once we re-read the section of the adventure that teaches how to read the dice for the second time, we were confident enough in what we were doing to rock it out.

The included adventure was really well-done. Not as in "it was a compelling story that had us in tears and on the edge of our seats in suspense," but as in "does exactly what it sets out to do." And what it sets out to do is to put the characters in an exciting environment where each one gets to do his or her own thing and teach the rules to the players and the DM as the game progresses. Which means I don't actually have to crack open the rule book before playing (but I totally did), which is nice. On-the-job training, after a fashion, and it worked. So, mission accomplished, FFG! For your next mission, may I suggest teaching your team to order boxes for your games that don't completely suck? Sorry, sorry, I'm still bitter about the box.

In Play

To get this party started right, I cued up the Star Wars intro music and read the opening crawl from the starter adventure. Geeky and fun. Only a few laughs. The opening crawl as written is evocative and very much in the feeling of the originals; since I've run about six bazillion Star Wars RPG sessions (of various editions), I know a good crawl when I see one (as well as a bad one; if you want examples if bad, I'd be glad to provide any of the tons I've written that always get too long or miss their mark somehow). So, everyone was keyed up. The team got to working together nicely, playing to each others' strengths. It was nice to see the players pair up differently than they normally do for D&D.

As far as rules in play, they seemed to work pretty simply and have reasonable narrative consequences. Task resolution of all types boils down to roughly the same options, which makes it easy to think about what you can do at any one point in time. Combat works quickly and smoothly, especially once the DM understands the difference between the several sorts of enemies (Minions, Henchmen, Rivals and Nemeses in ascending order of threat). Most situations just needed a little common sense adjudicating and few rules got in the way of logic. Every skill check follows the same rules, which makes tons of sense, since FFG is requiring a high degree of player buy-in with their specialty dice; if you're going to make people learn to read and use special dice, you had better make sure you fucking use them as often as you can. The starship combat rules follow the same lead and roughly the same structure as person-to-person combat and avoid the common pitfall of "one guy flies the ship, the rest of the players take a nap" that so many other games (including my beloved d6 Star Wars!) have been guilty. Once the players stole their own ship and got into a dogfight with some TIE Fighters, everyone had something vital to contribute to the war effort. The smuggler worked to keep the TIEs from hitting the ship, while the bounty hunter & wookiee (could wookiee perhaps be the original "race as class?") manned the top & bottom gun turrets and the droid worked to keep the damage from the initial hit under control. Easy to learn? Yes. Simple to implement? Yes. Fun to play? Yes.

The session ended with the inevitable jump into hyperspace with the players wondering why I even bothered to give them experience points. "Surely this was a one-shot?" they asked.

"Why?" I asked in return. "Wouldn't you play this again?"

"Oh yeah, you bet we would," they said something approximately like what with my memory of the conversation being significantly less than perfect. "But we've got D&D & ShadowRun already. We don't want to lose a night of either of those games."

"Well," says I, "How about Edge of Empire as our 'we're three men down but still want to game' game?"

The gleam in their collective eyes was all the answer I needed. I think the fact that they ended up with a rust-red YT-1300 was the defining factor.

The Verdict

Yep. I'll play & run EotE again and love it. I think, though, that I am the ideal EotE DM. I have a deep and abiding love for the setting (no, I'm not challenging your deep and abiding love) and the right mind to find the beautiful balance in the rules system. "Skills & talents" makes a ton of sense to me for Star Wars (when compared to "class & level" particularly), so the character development is what I'd like to see. I'd gladly run this again with my home group at the drop of a hat, particularly since it felt like they had a bunch of fun. In fact, I dug it so much that I think I might just have to give it a shot via G+ soon. Takers?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Stupid Dice Tricks: Making Task Resolution Even More Funky In DCC

Over the past month, I've talked a lot about different ways to use dice to accomplish different things, particularly with an eye to how the probability distributions of those dice expressions pan out. Every gamer has his or her own preference and much of what I've talked about thus far has been to help me figure out what my own preferences are, particularly since I want a better skill system to use in my DCC games. Here's what I've come up with:

  • Percentile-based skill systems bore me and don't let me use all my funky dice. 
  • Roll-low systems are counter-intuitive since bigger numbers should mean better. 
  • Success based on target numbers can be interesting, but require a lot of thinking on the DM's part and one of two assumptions:
    • There are static, universal target numbers to describe how difficult tasks are at absolutely any point in time that simply exist in an objective fashion within the game mechanics.
    • The difficulty itself is what matters and the target numbers scale upward with character ability. 
  • Systems that allow a player to gauge her own success without conferring with the DM to determine success or failure vastly speed up play. 
  • The system should be able to accommodate differing degrees of proficiency without total rejiggering. 
  • Being able to discuss degrees of success is always nice. Successes with complications are cool.
  • Multiple-dice dice expressions are preferable since they provide solid central tendency. 
  • I'd like to be able to use different sorts of dice of all sorts. I love my funky dice. 
What with these being my own personal preference, they're not up for debate. The Romans used to say "De gustabus non desputandem est," and I'm the one with the gustabus here.* Rather than argue, let's see if we can find the system we're looking for.

A Trip to Dungeon World

So, a lot of folks gave Dungeon World a lot of crap and I don't understand it. I think that +Adam Koebel and crew did an awesome job on this game, in particular with their core mechanic: roll 2d6, add a relevant modifier (like Intelligence bonus or Strength bonus) and enjoy the result. If you got a 10 or better, you win, you did it. If you roll from 7 to 9, you succeed, but there's some down side or complication to your success. And so, when we break it down, assuming no bonuses or penalties to the roll, you have a 58.33% chance of succeeding at all, a 16.67% chance of succeeding outright (a complete success without complications) and a 41.6% chance of succeeding with complications. All in all, really nice odds of success. Once we start mucking around with bonuses and penalties, our curves start changing drastically. At "+1," success becomes 72.22% likely, 27.78% chance of succeeding outright and 44.44% likely to achieve a complicated success. Keeping the party going, a +2 bonus makes overall success 83.33% likely (41.67% likely outright and 41.66% likely to be complicated) while a +3 bonus makes overall success 91.67% likely (58.33% outright success chance, 33.34% chance of a complicated success). I like the sound of those odds. You're really quite likely in each chance to roll a "yes, but..." sort of result (with a decreasing chance of complication as skill/bonus increases), which I enjoy. Here we have a super-simple task resolution system strongly influenced by central tendency but that easily accounts for character skill, uses an intuitive roll-high system that helps assign degrees of success and has an integrally-defined success factor (so I know when I roll whether I'm successful or not and don't need to ask the DM). It seems like it has everything I want in a simple resolution system; but wait, there's more!

Dungeon World Crawl Classics

Here's what I think could be more awesome about the DW system: my funky dice. Further, since I'd probably be using this mechanism for Dungeon Crawl Classics, I need it to handle both proficient character actions and non-proficient character actions. In DCC, if your character is attempting something that either (a) is related to the sort of thing that members of your character's class should be able to do (like clerics talking about religion) or (b) is related to whatever that character's profession was at level 0. Normally in DCC, if your character is proficient at whatever you're trying, you roll a d20 and add a relevant ability score modifier (d20 system what?), but if you're not proficient, you roll 1d10 and add the modifier. Target numbers come in the form of Difficulty Classes that go up in blocks of 5 (5, 10, 15 & 20 which amount to easy, average, hard and really tough respectively). Some favorable circumstances may give you a bonus, the sort of thing many of us DCC Judges are starting to want to give Raises for instead**, and some may give you penalties. Why not put these ideas all together with the Dungeon World mechanic to have a super-simple DCC-compatible system?

Here's how it works. For any task in which your character should be proficient, roll 2d6 and add the relevant ability modifier. A roll of 10 or better means an unmitigated success, whereas a roll of 7 to 9 is a success with a complication. If you are not proficient, you suffer a d-1 penalty*** (making the dice roll d4+d6+modifier). Similarly, any advantages your character may gain add d+1 Raises while penalties apply d-1 Lowers. It may be wise (for simplicity's sake) to add Lowers to one of the dice in expression and Raises to the other; thus, modifiers of d-1 and d+1 might result in d4+d8+mod rather than a 2d6 +mod wash. You'd have to throw in a minimum and maximum here as defined by the dice chain (d3 to d30 for the extended dice chain, d2 to d20 for the standard one) to avoid dice that would make Xeno freak out**** and to keep things simple. As long as we keep the success ranges the same (which we will), the players are easily able to figure out whether they've succeeded or not without having to bug the Judge, even if the Judge had to help them to sort out what to roll in the first place.

What It Won't Do

Here's the up side of the d20 system: you only have to remember one rule. Roll 1d20, add some stuff, get better than a particular target number and you win. With this being the core mechanic of DCC as much as it is for D&D (and every other d20 game), keeping this rule consistent means that players have fewer rules to remember. Unfortunately adding this simple task resolution system to the mix means that players have to remember one more thing, so that's less than optimum. Until your players get it, there might be a bit of a learning curve.

There are also already skill rules in DCC. Thieves, for example (why do I spend so much of my time thinking about thieves?) already have a very well-defined series of skills with special bonuses to those skills depending on alignment and ability modifiers. At first I'd hoped I could refit these thief skills (and the halfling's sneak skill) into the neat, snug-fitting 2d6+mod roll, but the bonuses here would be huge in many cases, trivializing the skill. Also, many of these thief (and halfling) skills are meant to be opposed in some way and while you could just make it a 2d6+mod vs. 2d6+mod roll-off, it might be a lot simpler to go the intended route and make opposed d20+mod rolls that don't rely on the "degrees of success-o-meter" that 2d6+mod uses. I hate making special cases out of some things, so using one rule for skill checks in one circumstance and another method in another just seems overly complicated.

The De-Complexification Rebrandification

I missed the opportunity to design
a d12-based resolution system.
And so, we're left with a strange circumstance. DCC already has a mechanism for skill checks, but are we necessarily describing a skill check mechanism? It doesn't feel like it to me. I'm less worried about using overt skills like those of the thief and more interested in discussing implicit aptitudes -- unwritten rules about things like "what a haberdasher should be able to tell about a person's station in life as defined by his clothes" or "what a wizard might know about Asashausk-Etlag, Demon Marquess of the Black Spires of Glomphekh, She-Who-Devours-Her-Mates." Realistically, the term "skill check" refers to some degree of explicit, specialized knowledge which is not what we're talking about here. Implied aptitudes come close to the domain of old fashioned "ability checks" (a mechanism I never liked due to its roll-low logic), so why not simply rebrand these rolls as Ability Checks (with proper capitalization)? This makes them a distinct task resolution mechanism than skills and also implies that we can continue to use it for all sorts of things where a character's general (but not explicit) ability and aptitude are being tested. Gone is the "roll 1d20 lower than your ability score" and in its place is 2d6+mod. Bam. Throw in the Raises and Lowers that DCC thrives on and we've got something appropriately flavored for my favorite fantasy RPG. I'll be testing this mechanism in an upcoming DCC funnel that the Metal Gods crew will be embarking upon soon, so within a few weeks, you should be hearing about how this played out.

*"De gustabus non desputandem est" is Latin for, roughly, "you can't argue over flavor." In English, we tend to say "there's no accounting for taste," but that always seems rude to me. I prefer the much more phenomenologically sound Latin version.
** If you haven't been following my Stupid Dice Tricks, you might not know what I mean by a Raise. A Raise means to raise the die type by one along whatever dice chain you're using. If you don't know what a dice chain is, please start over.
*** This is my new notation for Raises and Lowers. A d-1 penalty means to lower the die type by one along the relevant dice chain, while a d+2 bonus would mean to raise the die type by two along the same dice chain.
**** What, people don't get references to classical Greek philosophy these days?
***** This footnote does not exist. I really put it here to show off how ridiculous these footnotes were getting. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

DCC Donnerstag: Some Thieves Have All The Luck

One of the issues that the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad group has developed is thieves with absolutely huge Luck scores. Since thieves regenerate Luck spent by burning and DCC Judges commonly use Luck as an alternative reward for adventure and goal completion (as well as other things like playing true to alignment and, I'll readily admit, making the Judge laugh), thieves can end up with vast pools of Luck that make the effects of luck fairly extreme. Thieves have a limited amount of rolls that luck naturally modifies (remember that most luck modifications to dice rolls are the result of class features), including critical hit result rolls and fumbles, but increasingly higher and higher luck scores may also trivializing Luck checks (rolling a d20 lower than the Luck score to determine something fairly random; this is how I handle spot-style checks these days).   This topic is one I've been putting off for awhile, because (a) I wanted to make sure that this really is a problem and (b) I wanted to make sure that I had some solutions.

It's Actually A Problem

It's totally cool to me that the thief's in-game schtick entirely revolves around Luck. He can use Luck to do better at any of his thiefy skills (which might not be super awesome at, say, level one), to augment his attack rolls, to help out on saving throws, etc. Basically, with a big enough Luck reserve, thief characters can accomplish anything and resist most things as well. And this is cool. Other classes have their own ways of accomplishing this sort of stuff (Deed dice, spells, etc.), and the thief does pay a price in hit dice, which means a hit that finds purchase in the thief's vile hide usually has a bigger impact than on other front-line fighters, such as warriors or dwarves. To some degree, the fact that the thief has a replenishing pool of Luck to draw from to fuel his particular brand of awesome is part of balancing the thief against other classes; since his awesome relies on Luck, it makes sense for him to always have Luck to work with and for use of Luck to not impair the normal function of Luck. However, as other classes begin to look at Luck as an ever-diminishing last-ditch effort, you'll quickly find that (perhaps as early as 2nd level) your warriors, dwarves, clerics, wizards and elves quickly become Luck-starved as a necessity of their survival whereas their thief (and halfling) companions are flush with the stuff, able to pour Luck point after Luck point into nearly failed (or sometimes completely failed) rolls (in my experience, this is less of a problem for halflings since they have more opportunity to spend Luck since they may do so to help out their companions and thereby often do). The problem comes when all PCs gain Luck at the same rate (1-2 or so per adventure, possibly more for extreme success or the like); the thieves in the group will quickly amass the maximum amount of Luck (18) since theirs keeps replenishing, but the rest of the party, simply to survive, rarely gains enough Luck to maintain a consistent Luck score (and if they did gain enough, the thief would max out even faster). A Luck-maxed thief starts each adventure with only a 10% chance of failure at any Luck check, head and shoulders above other characters, but that chance should (by my reckoning) decrease over the course of the adventure as the thief spends more and more of his Luck to accomplish deeds and stave off death, occasionally permanently investing Luck in assured success or to create opportunities that weren't there before; in short, the Luck economy in the game should provide the thief with just as many interesting choices with long-standing effects that it does to every other class.

Encouraging Luck Expenditure

I've noticed that a lot of the thieves in the MGoUH game rarely spend Luck, which is a total bummer. They'll just accept that missed attack or failed saving throw along with whatever consequences arise. I don't think the thieves' players forget about the Luck die, so much as don't feel encouraged to take advantage of it. The more we as Judges encourage thieves to spend Luck early in the game, the less likely they are to have a massive amount of it during that final climactic encounter of the adventure and the less likely they are to trivialize that encounter. Here are some ideas I have for making sure that your thieves have to burn up some Luck over the course of your adventures:

  • Encourage Thief Skill Use: As far as I can tell, most of us don't go about writing in opportunities for thieves to use their skills. Sure, the opportunities are implicitly there, what with the necessary finding and removal of traps as well as the ability of any thief to sneak up on foes to initiate the ever-awesome Backstab, and these implicit opportunities are also opportunities for failure and thus Luck point expenditure. If we as Judges work to create opportunities to use more of the thief's less-obvious skills (maybe the thief finds several vials of poisons requiring a Handle Poison check or the temple bears inscriptions in an ancient language unknown to even the party's wizards necessitating a Read Languages check), then we're creating more opportunities, again, for failure and Luck use. Every use of a thief skill imparts some form of advantage (not setting off that deadly trap or the extra damage done by that Backstab), so make sure that these new opportunities do the same (like, you know, poisoning foes or maybe that ancient inscription includes the password to disarm the doomsday device at the end of the dungeon).
  • Luck Die As Deed Die: What if we allow a Luck die used to modify an attack roll to function similar to a warrior or dwarf's Deed die? This could encourage thieves to spend Luck before an attack roll is made (otherwise, there's little to no reason to do so). While this Luck die will only modify the attack roll (unlike the proper Deed die which also modifies damage), any result of 3 or better can have a result similar to that of a Deed die (which many of us Judges use to give the players narrative influence over an encounter). It also might not hurt to remind thieves that spending Luck could give them a Luck die to add to damage as well, which could make those Backstabs freaking crazy. In effect, treating the Luck die added to an attack roll as a Deed die allows the thief to do things that the RAW don't like disarm foes, drive them back or, well, you know by now what a Deed die does, so I won't explain anymore. Really, a thief should be able to do a lot of that stuff anyway, so here's how to make it happen and make your thieves spend some Luck.

A Hard Cap

The examples of Luck regeneration by thieves discuss initial Luck scores (see page 36); this could be read to imply that there is a hard cap placed on Luck scores. The hard cap would vary from character to character, capping at whatever the character's initial Luck score was when he was created. While this rule could be interpreted out of the Rules As Written, I don't really recommend it. First, it would require some serious record keeping of stuff that will be changing drastically over time from the time the character is created up until any present moment, which sucks. Second, it prevents characters from saving up Luck since any luck in excess of the hard cap would be ignored; that might work out fine for your thief PCs, but would likely penalize your non-thief PCs more than is reasonable (because a rule like this that only applies to thieves seems pretty biased and unfair). So, don't do this. I probably shouldn't even have written about it, but it had occurred to me as a possible answer so it seemed disingenuous of me to exclude it. Again, just don't do this. 

Permanent Loss For Permanent Gain

Tacos = burn and Jesus = Luck, right?
Sometimes, it just makes sense that Luck burn is just that, and that even thieves (and halflings) can't just rest the burn away. Sometimes the damage is too great, the foes too difficult or the needs of the party are too demanding for that Luck point to come back in a day or two when the thief has rested. Sometimes, you just have to take the loss, and every Judge is well within their rights to decide that any application of Luck burn is a candidate for permanent loss should the case warrant it. This method avoids the ridiculous bookkeeping of the the hard cap method and encourages player agency toward awesome-ness while providing a "bleeder valve" as it were. When employing this method, I recommend that Judges offer players the opportunities to do something beyond the normal scope of the rules at the cost of a Luck point, a permanent Luck point (this must be expressed so that players can make the correct choice for themselves and their characters!), such as any of the following:
  • Stave Off Death: Your character is dead and you know it. You've gone below 0 hp, failed your saving throw, had your head crushed by the pile of boulders while you were already impaled on the punji stakes at the bottom of the pit trap. You're fucking dead. But for the low, low cost of a single point of permanent Luck burn, your character can take a single action next round, after which you collapse into unconsciousness. You may only do this for a number of rounds equal to your character's level (thus, this may not be done at 0 level). 
  • Yeah, I Have It Right Here: Forget to buy something back in town but now it's terribly important to moving forward through the dungeon? Did you think you bought something or had it left over from the last adventure but can't seem to find it on your character sheet? Do you only now realize the benefit of the hand held mirror inside a dungeon? If you act now, that missing piece of gear can be yours! For every Luck point you permanently expend, you can retcon your character sheet to include one item it didn't have before with a value of up to 10 gp per level, but you must still pay full cost for that item. (The item[s] purchased may not be magical or have any magical properties; no potions, scrolls or other doodads of ultimate power.)
  • Don't Sweat the Details: Yes, the Judge is almost always right. Yes, we understand Rule Zero. Yes, we get that the Judge establishes the continuity that keeps the campaign going. But... Sometimes you really need a detail of story to be slightly yet significantly different than the way the Judge is ruling it. Sometimes you need the shadowy villain to be left-handed (so it's possible that he actually was the evil duke all along!) or the town cleric to be a secretly Chaotic cultist to Ahriman (so that Smolken has a sacrificing buddy). Run your revision of reality by the Judge (and possibly the other players if you're feeling sociable) and if he (they) like the idea, you can permanently burn a Luck point to make it happen. (This use allows the PCs some narrative control of the story, but should never be viewed as license to run roughshod over the Judge. As the arbiter of what does and does not work in the campaign, repeated attempts to rewrite the Judge's reality can result in serious Bad Universe Days* for your PCs.)
Luck is one of the unique, defining factors of the DCC RPG and we need to treat it like the important mechanic that it is. In some ways, this means limiting it, but for the most part, it means learning to use Luck responsibly and reasonably as both players and Judges. Have fun with Luck, that's what it's there for, and use Luck to make your game more fun. Never ever ever should Luck be a source of consternation within a group, so make sure that it is always used fairly and impartially (no "this works for Player A but not for Player B" sorts of stuff) and adjudicated wisely with an eye toward making the game as much fun as it can be while still being a challenge. 

Luck should never kill the game's challenge.

Thanks again, folks, for yet another awesome DCC Donnerstag.

*Bad Universe Day: (As defined by Ms. Michelle Nesbitt.) That really crappy bad day where everything in the universe seems to be stacked against you, even your own mind and body. You feel bad, you think bad, you look bad and only bad things happen to you. While relatively rare in real life, the Judge can make all you days Bad Universe Days.