Cost in Translation

February 26, 2011

So, I whine a lot about how some RPG system does things better than some other system. My latest thing, perhaps it will change, perhaps not, is to laud L5R (3e or 4e). I’m finally taking a look at adapting roll and keep to something else.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m okay with Solomon Kane (Savage Worlds engine). It’s way better than alternatives such as d20. I have the sense that my players (in my campaign, not the flawed one shot I ran of Victorian Age SK) don’t find combat as tedious as I do, so it’s not exactly necessary to switch. It’s just that, rather than running something new when I’d much rather play than GM, taking something I theoretically run (um, September wasn’t that long ago), I can see what’s what with a system switch on something I’m already involved in.

But, let’s look at some things to try to figure out why I’m so enthralled with L5R. Savage Worlds tries to divorce attributes from skills in that attributes limit rather than support skills, and attributes aren’t rolled all that often. Admittedly, attributes in d20 aren’t rolled that often either, but whatever. This is counterintuitive. The idea of attribute + skill for resolution is incredibly powerful, whatever spin a game puts on it. Both games explode dice, which I’m in favor of, but I have little feel for SK as to what is good, bad, expected. I don’t feel like a d8 skill is all that much better than a d4 skill, yet from an XP or flavor perspective, it’s rather important. Meanwhile, there’s a massive difference between 3k2 and 4k3 or 4k3 and 8k3+5.

SK is loose about things, a lot of Hindrances have no defined mechanics; it has an “open to GM fiat” feel to it … which I like. However, the more I play systems designed to be rules light/lite, the more I realize that too few rules creates greater!! complexity. FATE pretends to be rules light and is a disaster of trying to figure out what you can/should do, at least in my experience, so different from FUDGE games I’ve played where it’s just roll your dice and that’s what level of success you got. Even if you don’t have a bunch of weird “these aren’t really complicated, no really, rules” tacked on to make a system more than just “GM says so”, you still get systems where it’s basically “GM says so” as so many things are left to interpretation.

Meanwhile, I, of course, rather disdain a lot of fiddly crunch. To me, L5R hits the sweet spot in terms of putting mechanics on things you do and not making it a chore to resolve things. Perhaps I can steal a term thrown about at work all of the time and call it scalable – simple things are handled simply, complex things are more complex; the huge selling point of Magic as a CCG is that it scales really well, where most CCGs (worth playing) are too complicated at first. It’s not that SK is that far from that spot, but I’ve already noticed with translating characters that I can put defined mechanics on things that have none in SK a lot more easily without also having to make a mechanical mess out of what characters should be able to do.

It’s been interesting so far getting into the details of the migration. I always forget just how hard it is to house rule RPGs on a wide scale. The porting over of attributes and skills is relatively easy, though I’m using SK skills rather than L5R skills for the most part. Honor, Glory, Status – also not much of an issue. It’s Edges, Hindrances, what to do about Bennies (they aren’t going away!), stances, magical powers that I’ve been really loose about in SK, Initiative – keep cards? switch to dice? try both? – and so forth that keep making me think. Also, I’m realizing that I want some of 3e and some of 4e L5R. I like Defense Stance (can easily dispense with Center Stance) and how the Defense skill only matters when Defending, though I could use the 3e rules here to simplify and try to avoid having to juggle three rules sets.

One of the things I have the least idea how my players feel about is the mystery Edges I’ve given their characters. I suppose I could just ask. To me, uniqueness/specialness of PCs is fundamental and every PC should break the rules. On the other hand, not knowing what you can do and having problems solved by something out of your control is something I can find grating, so I can see it coming across as heavy-handed. I also have the tendency to try to hide too much information and make the players guess. While I’ve dropped hints about what their mystery Edges have to do with, it may not be interesting to try to figure out, and there’s still the issue of putting mechanics to something so that it feels like a resource rather than a “thank you, GM” situation. While I could have done something about putting mechanics around the SK versions, I think part of not doing that is that I don’t really have a strong mechanical sense of the system and so many other things are not defined. In translating to L5R, I find that I can at least come up with some mechanics for these mystery Advantages to where the players have some control.

One of the things I find somewhat bewildering is that people seem to think that using L5R for another genre than fantasy pseudo-Japan means removing the Honor mechanic. I find that the Honor mechanic is great for defining things coherently. Conan? How do you determine whether you should lose your Code of Honor? How about by tracking actions on an Honor scale? What should being Honorable do for you (that isn’t stupidly broken like Conan’s CoH rules)? How about using your Honor scale for some sort of mechanic? One of my SK PCs has Code of Honor – now I have some idea of how to mechanize that rather than say “I don’t think you would do that”. It’s also rather easy to decide what Honor some character should have even though they don’t live in a homogenous society like Rokugan. It’s Status that’s the hassle, since being a European muckymuck doesn’t necessarily mean anything to tribal natives, nevermind that the scale for Status (and Glory, oddly) in L5R is weighted oddly to reflect Rokugani society. While determining Glory is not so clear at the moment, how to use Glory is pretty easy (3e style, not 4e where it does nothing, which, admittedly, is very easy).

That I’m also messing around with XP costs, since I hate rising costs, and wound charts does not make the process any easier. Given how many wounds people seem to be getting, now, it seems like damage isn’t high enough, which is not only the precise problem I was looking to address but also the usual problem I have when coming up with my own house rules on games – everything is way too hard to k- … incapacitate.

I’d have to say that the number one reason not to try to fix a RPG system is that it leads you down a rabbit hole of constantly fixing more and more things. Why do SK characters use rapiers when they kind of suck? How about not making them suck? Well, then, what’s the relative damage on firearms? Is this Advantage worth N pts.? Undercosted? Can’t ask for help from anyone else since the rules aren’t familiar to them anymore. So much time spent on mechanics when people just want to roll (and/or role) play.

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DunDraCon 2011

February 23, 2011

Surprisingly easy to get to the con given all of the rain Friday.

Friday

Get in early enough to do something by 7PM, consider trying to do the L5R LARP that was happening at 8PM, but the organization left something to be desired and I lost interest while waiting.  Saw someone I didn’t expect to see (moved) and talked for a while and we settled into some three/four-player Dominion.

Ah, Dominion.  I was reminded, as I am pretty much every time I play, why I’m not fond of the game.  That we used random card draw with at least the base set and Prosperity seemed odd to me given how often cards just don’t work together to provide interesting or effective strategies, theoretically exacerbating the problem of there only being limited strategies to a game.  But, upon further thought, I’m not sure that’s quite the case.  I just think the game is fundamentally flawed by having a narrow, i.e. 1 or 2, optimal strategies within any given game.  While this may appeal to people with an interest in efficiency, my interest in efficiency isn’t in the doing but in the knowing.  In fact, the doing of clear effectiveness bores the hell out of me.  Maybe somebody would like to argue that the value in the game is that it’s quickly over and you can move on to the next one.  Hmm, that would be the argument people use for why Magic is better than other (more fun) CCGs.  Still doesn’t work – there’s no point in playing a game that’s usually unfun when there are plenty of others that are.

We, then, played seven-player 7 Wonders.  It was okay.  I think it has, at least with so many players, a problematic mechanic with regards to player interaction.  It’s not quite that there’s none across table, just that you have to really know what’s what to impact the game over yonder.  We so didn’t have that what’s what knowledge.  Being cognizant of how to draft games in a general sense and picking up games quickly (while often losing interest quickly), I can now lord over lesser beings with my undefeated 7 Wonders record.  I didn’t have too much trouble completing the Great Pyramids and got a last epoch boost in military to crush my neighbors for an eleven point boost, giving me the only 50+ point score.  Would I play it again?  I’d only say probably not just to keep my silly record intact, it’s actually … okay … inoffensive.  I just can’t say I’d care one way or the other.

Find out I didn’t get into a Saturday morning game, begin to think this DDC will be as awful as the last two were.

Saturday

Ah, not just a gamer anymore, an old gamer.  While gaming has decreased (at local cons), sleeping has increased.  No morning game = little morning left after getting out of bed.  Leisurely lunch over at the shopping center, continue creating characters for my Sunday night game, unable to get a V:TES game together, finally my 4PM game arrives.

Marvel Universe using BASH system.  Have about 50 Marvel supers to choose from (no cosmic powered or villains).  I can’t think of anything specific at first.  Yes, I have favorites expressed in my former buying habits, but I was trying to think of something different.  Not particularly wanting to go the mutant route and thinking more in the Avengers vein, I finally thought of Vision … One of the themes of the con for me was being chill.  When the GM read off names, I was almost tempted by Moon Knight, though I found out later that it was the crazy MK, so I was fine with not having to think that hard.

So, Vision, The Hulk, Captain America, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Shadow Cat & Lockheed, and Spiderman team up to defend part of New York from a giant Hydra robot.  As expected, Vision and Lockheed team up for the kill and The Hulk throws it out of harm’s way.  Other stuff happens, but really, does any of the minor characters’ exploits really matter?  Uatu shows up to speak aloud in our presence of the danger of Kang going 70 million years into the past to find a cosmic cube and to randomly create a portal to Doctor Doom’s castle where a timeship may or may not be.  Once there, The Hulk starts drawing fire, Shadowcat goes to find the defense system controls, Vision also runs some “shoot me ineffectually” forward positioning, Doombots show up, and eventually the timeship is secured.  With Spiderman at the controls, dinosaur time.  Wolverine squares off with t-rex, stampede comes through, Hulk smashes stampede, stampede smashes injured t-rex, we resume mission.  Hulk leaps on Kang’s ship, Nightcrawler bamfs us in, Shadowcat, Lockheed, Vision phase.  As expected, Lockheed and Vision bombard Kang’s forcefield with hotness, which eventually drops to the three-bladed Nightcrawler.  Shadowcat claims the cosmic cube.

To the future … with Kang!?!  We try to find his honey and he stops messing with our centuries.  Uatu gives him coordinates, he leaves, and the world changes.  We not so smart.  Uatu is not himself, nor Thanos, nor a bunch of other supervillains that may come to mind, but Apocalypse.  Nightcrawler bamfs a speeding semi into Apocalypse, mutants unconsciousify Apocalypse momentarily, but he recovers to full strength, so The Hulk jumps him and gets casually flung aside, leaving Captain America to go all steroid freak on Apocalypse and make him not so living.  Dr. Strange is found to restore our reality.

On the one hand, having a bunch of superhero nerds note nerdy things is interesting, on the other, it gets distracting.  The game was basically a series of combats.  In and of itself, that’s reasonable for a superhero game, but things dragged.  The Doom castle stuff was especially slow as none of the weapons had any effect on The Hulk or me.

Oh well, it was the first scheduled RPG I got into at DDC in three years.

Sunday

Old people sleep.  Nice leisurely lunch at the shopping center, followed by reading the adventure I was running, followed by, wait for it, a pick-up game of V:TES!  Once upon a time, you could play all con, all night.  One DDC, we had a 17-player game, while the finals were going on.  These days, it takes incredible effort just to get people who don’t play anymore to fill out a four-player table for a single game over a four-day convention.  No one got ousted.

My game was full but in a weird place.  It turned out to be a pretty good room for us.  I had two extra players (8 total), so the extra space was nice.  What was I running?  The intro mod to HoR3, New Beginnings.  I had two players deeply into it playing twin Bayushi brothers.  They did an amazing job acting out the scene of Akodo meeting Ikoma.  Things went longer than I wanted and I was losing coherency six hours in, but I didn’t feel as badly as I usually do after running a RPG afterwards.

Monday

I slept through my alarm.  That happens, on average, about once a year.  I woke up a bit after 7AM (going to bed around 2AM, not falling asleep much in between – bah, only old people need sleep).  Got ready to go down to confirm that I was in an 8AM game.  Checked the sheets.  Didn’t see my name.  Checked the program, had an interesting realization.  Checked the sheets again.  Found my name, for my 10AM game.  I had a crummy parking spot anyway and Monday was not going to see a full parking lot and I don’t really like any of the food around the hotel, so I drove over to another shopping center and got a sandwich at Nob Hill.  Drove back, packed, took my stuff to the car, waited in the game room until other people arrived. Yup, the usual things you do before your game begins on the last day of a four-day con.

L5R – but not HoR.  This con was ridiculous for L5R when you consider how D&D and Call of Cthulhu prevalent it typically is.  The LARP, a L5R related game at the same time as the LARP, my game, this game.  Though, this game was billed as having Call of Cthulhu elements, so there you go.

I decided to play the Miya character.  I think we were all rank 2.  We had a Shiba bushi, Isawa Earth shugenja, Soshi shugenja, and Kakita bushi.  We were on our way to a matchmaking event.  In my case, I was the official herald for the event with a personal interest in improving the prospects of my three daughters.  I got the assistance of one of the matchmakers as things were progressing adequately until the Shiba started in about “terrible slaughter”.  An agent of the Lying Darkness was shapeshifting and we confronted it, had a nice dinner, then confronted it and its fellow Lord Moon Lobby in a cave.  Did we survive?  Don’t know.  In the end, four of us were trying to scramble away from a shadow beast coming through a gate while the Soshi shugenja cast a spell to send a message for help.  So, whether Hiromi, Kasumi, and Miwa gained husbands or lost a father is a page left unwritten.


Super Role

February 6, 2011

Tis the day of the Super Bowl, an event branded on celebrating excellence.  While more true in the case of the commercials (even, then, they’ve gone downhill) than in the case of many of the games (which have gotten a lot better in recent years), the marketing machine works wondrously for promoting the idea of greatness.

Anyway, I could talk just about greatness, but I’m more motivated to talk about something else.

Still, can start with greatness.

What do people want out of RPG experiences?

By what sort of characters people typically build, it’s not what I would have expected thirty years ago when I was introduced to RPGs.  Or, what I expect to some extent even today.

What I find curious is that I thought the point of RPGs was to play the characters one finds in books, movies, TV … in stories.  Not necessarily the exact character but one just as heroic, successful, ideal, and/or cool.  That interest is something I find terribly rare in playing RPGs.

Maybe because it seems naive and, therefore, uncool to play a heroic character, but I find that a lot of folks would rather play characters who are villainous or ordinary and forced only by circumstance to be heroic.  That may be realistic, but gaming isn’t about realism.

Sure, I don’t make blatantly heroic characters.  Part of that is being too aware of how “unsophisticated” that is; part of that is because such a character would never fit into the parties I play in; and, part of that is that I don’t like spending much time in the spotlight.  But, I aspire to something greater.

Perhaps the aspirations of greater power are more common than greater deeds, but still, greater deeds is a pretty common aspiration.  So, why all of the morally ambiguous or bankrupt characters?

Okay, I need to be more specific.  I do understand that gaming is an outlet for letting loose and being able to take actions that would be unacceptable in real life.  Why all of the morally ambiguous or bankrupt characters in heroic genres?

I get that Conan’s world isn’t a heroic world; it’s probably less heroic than many a sword and sorcery world.  So, our groups being heroic only by accident is more amusing than questionable.  But, what about L5R?  Why is the Scorpion Clan so popular?  Why do people want to play Spider characters?  Assholes of any clan or concept?  Yes, L5R’s world isn’t as nobly inclined as, say, Inuyasha’s world or Middle Earth or whatever.  Part of the attraction of the game world is that it can satisfy a wide range of interests, from mass combat to monster-fighting to political war to intrigue to black ops.  Sure, only really monster-fighting in that list is noble, but there are plenty of bad guys that can be countered besides Shadowlands monsters.  Yet, rather than an interest in being an actual force for the common good, I see far more those who only concern themselves with their own interests or actively work against others’ interests.

Perhaps some of it has to do with the nature of a living campaign, where PC vs. PC is an element and where constantly opposing blatant evil is not.  Perhaps others don’t see L5R as a heroic genre, reserving that for their D&D games or supers games or whatever.

What do people really want?

I know what I really want.  I want my own niche.  There is nothing I find more important than niche protection.  If a character isn’t unique, isn’t special, in some way, then it shouldn’t exist.  I harp on systems that encourage like characters, often through unbalanced mechanics that too heavily encourage a limited number of builds, because characters should always be distinct and have their moments when they are the most important thing in the story.  And, that’s why niche protection is so important – everybody needs to be the star some of the time, even if it’s less time than somebody else.

This has been in my thoughts recently because my first HoR3 character clearly fails in this regard.  In HoR2, the archetype was extraordinarily unusual based on my experiences.  In HoR3, Tattooed Monk seems to be the most common school, social monks are standard due to the trait bonus being Reflexes (which encourages Awareness) and one of the better tattoos being Crane.  Not only does my general concept lack any sort of uniqueness, but the party I usually play in has another TM and a character who is strictly better socially (who is even a Dragon!).  Now, I can establish my own identity through personality, which I think was more so the case with my main character in HoR2, but this is always a greater challenge for me than establishing characters mechanically due to my inherent subtleness and, somewhat, due to my trying to play personalities different from my own.  I’d still have a mechanical problem, as I don’t see a way to claim a distinct enough mechanical identity given the restrictions I’ve put on myself (i.e. that this character needs to get to rank 3 and my other character rank 4).

I’m still fuzzy on my second character’s (my main character, in theory) personality, but I already feel distinctiveness after only one play even though I wasn’t even playing the school he will be a member of!  Unfortunately, two of the next three mods are ones I intend to play with my first character either because they are part of a series or because of what is publicly known about one of the mods (that it’s political).

One could argue an inconsistency here.  If everyone is heroic, no one stands out as unique, right?  I don’t see that.  I see people who don’t aspire to greatness being less likely to stand out.  Aren’t stories full of groups of heroes who retain their own identities?

What don’t people want?

Yes, there are those people who play RPGs to just let off some steam, whether by murdering a bunch of monsters or by making crude jokes or by making nerdy sci-fi/fantasy references that other gamers will get.  Sometimes, that’s all there is and the story is not so relevant.  For me, though, that’s not really the desired RPG* experience, as those things can be satisfied with tactical boardgames (D&D) or, nowadays, MMORPGs.  Yet, the lack of interest in there being a unique narrative is prevalent.

*  Tabletop.  Well, “tabletop” since I don’t actually play L5R much at a table.  How about “personal”?  Still has problems with definition.  Is there really any difference between a living campaign played online and a MMO?  In my experience, incredibly different, but maybe it’s because of how little MMOing I’ve done.  Then, why rag on D&D as not being real RPing?  Because it’s often not, where a character is a set of numbers.

There are those who can make a strong argument about MMORPGs being the RPG experience they want, and where I find MMOs to be a failure is that characters aren’t special/unique.  It’s not just limitations on builds and what can be acquired, it’s also limitations on situations.  What has millions of players and makes tons of money, though, versus what has maybe a couple of thousand and barely survives to publish?

Did I have a point?

My topic is not that clear.  What it was really supposed to be about was relevance.  I have played recently in sessions of RPGs where my characters just weren’t relevant.  This was mostly due to mechanical irrelevance where either the character was inferior in every way that mattered to others or had no mechanical impact to the adventure (he wasn’t alone in this).  In one case, though, it included having no relevance in decision-making.

The advantage of a home campaign is that you can always tailor situations to cater to the PCs.  Some of that control is lost with something like HoR, so it’s up to the player to put more effort into establishing a recognizable niche.  For the former, there’s a responsibility on the GM to work with a player to establish that PC’s role.  In the latter, the player may have to change plans, as I’m looking to do.

What makes for a great character?  Does a great character need to be great?

In most of my experiences, the characters I had the most fondness for were those who had their moments, who did great things because they were capable in ways that others weren’t, no matter how goofy those ways may sound.