April 24, 2011

Today would be perfect for some sort of Rebirth themed post about V:TES.  I have been low V:TES this year.  It’s Easter.  Rebirth could totally be a Card of the Weak entry – I see zero copies in tournament winning decks.

But, there’s nothing interesting to me about Rebirth.  What is of more interest to me is what would get me enthused about V:TES again.  Not so much outside of the game, as, of course, all I need to be enthused … well interested … about a game is playing it and not hating it.

I’m not in a V:TES deckbuilding mode at the moment.  To get into that mode likely wouldn’t require a lot.  But, a general issue for what sort of decks I want to build has been finding those things that I don’t do often enough.

I do clans.  I do disciplines.  I do titles.  Sects.

There’s plenty that I don’t do enough of because it involves nonstandard ways of approaching deck construction for this game.  For instance, I build around single cards far, far less often than I have for other CCGs.  Part of that may be that single cards in V:TES are often sufficiently weak that there’s a lack of definition, at least in the case of library cards.

And, for some reason, I just can’t get that enthused about specific vampires.  I have to force myself to build around a particular one.  Well, let’s do that.  Rolling randomly for “clan”, I get 17.  Interesting, Harbingers.  Fifteen possibilities, roll a 1, Solomon Batanea.  Hmmm.  Not all that interesting.  I play with Solomon a fair amount since I’ve embraced group 3/4 HoS, Aus/For, whatever.

But, what’s this?  Laibon with Aus/For.  That’s novel.  While Aus/Nec Laibon doesn’t do a whole lot for me, For/Nec has an okay crypt.  I’m having trouble getting into For/Nec Laibon since it would be easier to go For/Nec Anarch, so let’s stay with Aus/For Laibon for the moment.  Why even bother focusing on disciplines?  Well, if it turns out to be dull, can do something else, but disciplines is the glue of so many decks.

Aus/For Laibon.  What does Laibonism bring to the table?  Bleed.  Kerrie.  Aus/For stickman deck with an entirely Laibon angle so that it can be a junkier version of a top level deck archetype?  Sure, why not?  This deck is so easy, it’s sleazy – Elephant Guardian, Masai Blood Milk, Powerbase: Luanda.  Pshaw, cards I’ve never played (Luanda) and such straightforwardness that the curvature of the Earth only hinders.  Actually, this is a perfect example of why stuff like randomization is awesome.  This deck seems entirely reasonable but also something I wouldn’t have thought of.

Next.  One more random vampire go.  Nagaraja … damn, there’s a lot of bloodlines in the game.  Not looking good, who has played Nagaraja more than I?  Roll a 9, Anu Diptinatpa.  Here we go, randomization for the win!  I’ve never played Anu.  Group 5/6 splendor.  I don’t care too much about the disciplines here, as Anu has a meaningful special.  Of course, stealth is good, but Anu plus weenie Obf is snoring.  Vicissitude, eh?  What are you doing there, Anu?  Trying to get me to do group 5/6 Vic bleed?  Pretty funky crypt.  No real shortage of NEC in 5/6.  The real deal, though, is figuring out how to keep Anu topped off.  As one deck posted to the newsgroup shows, ally horde works just like any sort of “all my dudes have +1 bleed” deck does.  Necromancy has Summon Soul for lame refill, though Perfectionist makes it less lame, and the card might do something else during the game.  All three Nagaraja library cards involve gaining blood.  It may just be time for me to finally breakdown and play with Nagaraja clan cards rather than writing decks for them that never get built because they suck so bad.  Boom, next.

Library time.  Randomization is much harder, here, in theory.  4 – Political Action.  96 – Peace Treaty.  Been there, done that.  Okay, randomly determining a number between 1 and 165 is dumb.  Different way.  9 – Black Hand.  Oooh.  Weeding out boring reprints, we have four options.  The dice are kind and we get Watchtower: Greatest Fall.  Done it once, I think, maybe, who knows?  Time to do it again for the very first(?) time?

I just need a doofus Seraph.  5 – Yazid Tamari … really?  Like I haven’t played him.  Well, he’s at least easier than some of the other options for passing a vote.  Animal Magnetism – um, no.  Hall of Hades’ Court – um, maybe.  Obfuscate to get the action going.  Alamut to pass it?  Nah, that’s just a snoring Ass vote deck.  Powerbase: Madrid and Dia de los Muertos should pretty much put me over the top to get some stupid vote through.  I do need to Avengers Assemble!, so that means either !Malk Sibyl’s Tongue or Drop Point Network or Inconnu Tutelage (which I’ve never played).  To leverage an ongoing effect, I need to draw the number of turns in the game out as much as possible, which means I need to kill players quickly to speed the game up so that more turns are played.  !Malks help with, of course, even without Dementation.  Okay, + bleeders with Obfuscate and votes.  Not much in the way of native bleeders, though Gratiano is funny for 2/3.  Well, bleed is easy.  Actually, Gratiano is funny with Dominate, but now, I’m getting discipline stretched.  Black Hand angle?  Soldat, whom I respect and admire.  Tarbaby Jack, whom I play.  Kind of old crypt at this point, though maybe all 8 caps is the way to go and I can Golconda myself for fun and profit.  8-cap theme in my Greatest Fall deck – boom, baby.  Next.

9 – Equipment.  14 – 3e.  7 – Helicopter.  Really?  Helicopter?  Let’s roll a d6 for group number – 5.  Capacity 1-11 – 9.  Eighteen possibilities, 17 roll, Annazir.  Well, I have at least one written deck for Annazir already, but hey, he’s Annazirrific, so why the hell not?  Let’s see.  Infernal, votes, + bleed, can play Condemnations, Contagion, et al.  Nope, just not seeing any synergy with Helicopter at all.  I guess I’ll have to go thematic.  What do you do from a Helicopter?  Drop Bombs, of course.  Kind of expensive, maybe Grenades are a better choice.  Wait.  Didn’t I randomize Peace Treaty, earlier?  Annazir – Helicopter – Grenade – Peace Treaty.  Boom, baby.  Boom.

Well, as we can see, it’s easy to get inspired to build decks.  Randomness is, of course, the only legitimate way to build a new deck.  Now that I’ve established what my next four decks will be, time to get back to writing RPG stuff.  Oh, by the way, for those who sneer at such sophisticated deck construction methodology, my Backflip/Backstep deck has never lost …


And, then, TPK

April 18, 2011

There are a number of possible themes that would make sense for today.  Taxes – did that last year.  Passover – I finally read Testament (the RPG supplement) more closely a while back and there’s a lot of inspiration for gaming, but there should be a better time.

But, how about the NBA playoffs?  For those following the first round, it’s been a lot less unbalanced than what was expected at the beginning of the season.  What is the draw of sports?  Sports are predicated on the idea that on any given day anyone can win and anyone can lose.  The Lady Huskies lost in the NCAA Women’s Tournament to someone who was neither Baylor nor Stanford.  Memphis won their first playoff game in franchise history against the #1 seed (admittedly, with a star out).  Buster Douglas.  Miracle on Ice.  Etc.

A game has to have that same level of unpredictability, otherwise why bother playing it?  Even games that can be reduced to math, like chess, a handicap can make the game sufficiently close to create an unknown result.

But, what of a role-playing game?

I see RPGs as being a way to model fiction, usually fantasy fiction but whatever genre appeals.  There’s always been a dissonance between the two, however, in that (typical) RPGs really haven’t been designed to model fiction; they’ve been designed as … games!  D&D stole a lot from Tolkien, but it didn’t steal a predetermined narrative.  One could try to make the case that fiction doesn’t have to be predetermined and can be modeled with RPG mechanics.  Sure, things work out in dramatic ways, but there’s no requirement that RPGs be less dramatic.

Is there?

The typical RPG has a random resolution mechanic to show success, failure, and frequently levels of success or failure.  Most use dice, as dice are easily grokable and attainable producers of random results.  There’s also infinite variation on how to use dice.  Deck of cards is a more visceral randomizer to me but has a different aesthetic than dice, where some folks just love dice, and has less straightforward math to make a coherent and/or balanced system.

So, you get to the end of the quest and everyone is down except you, the wizard, and you got one spell left with which to fell the tyrannical dragon and save your party’s reputations as adventurers.  Roll the dice, need whatever result on the die roll (casting roll in some systems, damage roll in others) and you blow it.  Total party kill.  Start back off at zero XP.  Back to being a goblinkiller rather than something cool.  A great story ruined by bad luck.  Perhaps.

One of my favorite categories of abilities in RPGs is the category of controlling luck or just controlling results.  I don’t mind failure, in and of itself.  Failing at things is often funny and makes a character more interesting – there’s a reason fiction isn’t written where the protagonists always succeed.  I do find certain types of failure aggravating, however.  I don’t like failing at things my character is supposed to be better at than anyone else; that sounds kind of ridiculous, but I don’t design characters to be good at the usual things or even things that are actually all that useful.  If I design a character who is the acknowledged expert on dessert toppings, I don’t want my one roll in a campaign that actually involves making dessert toppings to fail.  Obviously, from a game balance perspective, can’t expect to succeed at important things all of the time just because that’s one’s forte.

Of more relevance to the idea of whether a RPG should model fiction or not is how aggravating it can be to fail a roll when at a climactic moment in a session.  Or, sometimes in not so climactic moments.  While plenty of things have bothered me about playing Conan – archery sucking, barbarian being the only fighter worth playing, low Strength character without spells or a bunch of Sneak Attack is useless in combat, etc. – the most discouraging element of play (rather than theory) has been how many times my character has failed Terror checks.  Oooh, it’s scary.  I run away.  Have fun guys during this scene that I’m not a part of because I can’t make a coin flip.  Beyond the fact that it’s absurdly unheroic, it’s brutal to the party to have a member run away at the onset of combat.  So, I did things to improve my save vs. Terror.  Still failed them.  It’s just the nature of the game that characters built a certain way have an unusually high chance of running away.  Not fight kind of badly, like … well, I’m not sure what since failing a Fear check in L5R is brutal even if you don’t run away and rolling on the Fear Table in Solomon Kane has seen PCs get three heart attacks … but flat out take yourself out of a combat for at least a couple of rounds.

So, I’m into rerolls.  I’m into result substitution.  I’m into luck points/fate points/whatever that can manipulate results.  I’m a huge fan of Honor Rolls in L5R, which is why the 4e rules bother me so.  I don’t think of it as a bonus to high Honor characters.  I think of it as a right that every PC has to greatly increase the odds of making a roll in a session.  But, that’s me.

What of drama?

In fiction, drama is created by challenge and by the writer making things seem important.  In a RPG, the players don’t have the same level of control over what’s important.  Arguably, the GM shouldn’t have control over what’s important, either.

And, that’s the crux of it.  Should drama be planned or be unexpected.  I’ve long been of the mindset of planned drama.  I create scenes in my mind and provide my players with the tools to enact the results I expect.  And, then, they screw it up.  As a player, the story unfolds in my mind, I can see where the script is taking us; our short term ineptness and stupidity will only make the awesomeness we will unleash against antagonists all the more bodacious.

Should we be allowed to screw that up?

Random results produce drama.  A TPK is going to be fairly dramatic for me since it’s so rare in my experiences.  One-shotting a big bad, throwing the expected challenge level of a session completely off, can be far more interesting than an expected struggle against a worthy foe.  Of course, a GM needs to be adaptable.  But, how much should a GM be adaptable while adjusting things to produce the planned result or be adaptable by saying “wow, that was unexpected, roll up new characters guys” or “wow, that was unexpected, good job ole chaps, babes and booze for everyone”.

If we look at oD&D, we see a game predicated more on the idea that the story comes from the results of the die rolls.  Sure, there’s Raise Dead, et al.  There’s rolling up a new character.  There’s plenty of ways to punish parties that are unexpectedly successful.  “Oh, what great wealth you adventurers bring back, only 80% taxes on treasure.”  But, like other games, the results aren’t scripted.  Virginia Commonwealth slays Smaug.

Should fiction be limited to fiction?  Or, should fiction be reinterpreted to be less scripted than, well, it is.  Maybe the writer uses a randomizer to determine what will happen.  I’ve rolled out combats in fictions I’ve written for RPGs, though it was more for the elements during the combat and less about the result.

I’m increasingly of the mind that I should be less rigid in my perspective of story.  Many people I enjoy the idea that luck affects their characters’ stories.  I may continue to believe that a lot of wasted opportunities for really good dramatic situations occur when you leave things up to chance.  On the other hand, chance can easily develop a character or story in ways that scripting won’t.  My main Conan character has always been more animal-friendly than the others.  That only happened because I kept rolling 20’s on Handle Animal early on.  I’m not sure if there’s an optimal point of balance between telling a particular story and leaving it up to chance, nevermind where that point would be, but it’s certainly reasonable to stop carping about how RPGs fail to deliver like fiction does.  Sometimes they deliver something else that’s just as good.  And, sometimes they do deliver just like fiction.


April 3, 2011

The title for this, by the way, has to do with a joke about what to call something at work.

Last Sunday, we did our every two week thing.  We played a three-player V:TES game in which we called the game when I Eldritch Glimmered Santaleous into torpor with my Backstep/Backflip deck.  Neither of my two RPG Launchers in play were ever used.  We demoed the game to somebody hovering around and Brandon’s demo decks were so bleedy that +1 bleed cards in hand were just a liability and the average bleed by three different decks was around 4.

Then, I opened up some Dragon Dice.  I invested in Dragon Dice, probably unwisely since I’ve never found it that enjoyable to actually play.  But, as with anything I invest in, I have a lot.  I don’t have a top tier collection – I’d only say my Babylon 5 CCG, Wheel of Time CCG, and V:TES collections would be in the top tier for collectible games.  And, at some point, I stopped getting more, even though the game is surprisingly undead.  Having a lot means that it’s easy for me to field material to play with.  And, I’m kind of pro using stuff I already own rather than buying more stuff I won’t use.

There’s something to Dragon Dice that appeals to me.  Much like Magic appeals to me on various levels, not everything about a game has to do with how well it plays.  Dragon Dice is a perfectly serviceable game, I’d even go so far to say the mechanics are good.  It’s just that what I envision the game being about is not what it’s about.  It’s a fairly dry wargamey … dice game.  To call it a wargame would be confusing, but it’s wargamey vis-a-vis CCGs.  That’s not at all what I envision.

For whatever reason, I actually buy into the flavor.  I know.  It’s just D&D.  It’s even kind of sillier than D&D, a game I stopped caring about because I woke up one day and deemed it silly.  I suppose I could be persuaded to buy a hardcore Norse mythology RPG that had elves and dwarves, but anything else with such a hackneyed premise must be eschewed (oh, poor Middle Earth).  Anyway, I read about the various troop types and the war of races loyal to either Nature or Death and get all enthused about having D&D monsters (some are exactly so) represented with ten-sided dice come charging out to whoop some ass.

Then, I play the game.  And, it’s just about picking up dice and looking at their symbols and resigning oneself to the fact that common, 1-pt. dice armies are almost always better than anything else.  What’s odd about this dichotomy is that I actually like the Wheel of Time CCG.  It’s a game that can easily take two hours with two people that involves rolling dice to resolve everything.  Why isn’t the flavor lost with it?  Is it just because cards are way cooler than dice?  That secret information is why CCGs are awesome and CDGs and CMGs aren’t?

So, a friend of mine and I talked a lot about Campaign Dragon Dice to make it have more of a role-playing feel.  We even started sketching some rules and scenarios.  Ended up being too much effort when there were other things to play.  However, every time I think about Dragon Dice, I think about how I want to use the dice to do something different than actually play Dragon Dice, not because I hate playing DD but because it just seems like the cute icons on the dice could be put to better use.

Which brings me to my topic for today (only 600 words in).  Using components of one game for another.  I have actually played Dragon Dice versus Ultimate Combat! or some such craziness.  That’s not so much what I mean.  Referring to a recent blog post, I mentioned wanting to talk more about using CCG cards in RPGs.

I have heard of someone using Magic cards in a D&D game.  The impetus for the train of thought came from a L5R GM using L5R cards in his game.  As mentioned in the other post, a lot of CCGs don’t mix all that well with the RPGs because of scale.  CCGs typically go at a much broader level – see Shadowfist/Feng Shui, WoT (yes, WoT has a RPG), etc.

I’m actually a big fan of hands of cards in any sort of game, so I have been attracted to RPGs like The Zero Movement (Tarot-based).  How well would a V:TM game actually work with V:TES cards?  Might be interesting to do something like what the L5R guy did and have the cards represent some sort of non-directly translated mechanic.  Voter Captivation may not have to be a Presence effect, for instance.  I’d rather that a hand of cards be more directly applicable to situations, prefer when the cards are used as the resolution system since that gives much greater control to the player over what happens in a story than things like dice resolution.

How could my DD monsters be put to use?  Could I whip out a DD ten-sider in my Solomon Kane sessions and have that be the monster without it being goofy?  Maybe the smaller dice could be used to represent minion allies.  If the Coronel’s musketeers fire, roll to see how many hits they get.  When hit back, roll for saves.  Etc.

While I could always use the terrain dice from DD as eight-siders, what about the magic items being … magic items, minor terrains being used to show progress/features while traveling, etc.?

One of the problems is having genres that don’t mix, of course.  Wheel of Time is kind of specific in its nationalities, names, et al.  So, it may not port well to some other RPG.  On the other hand, Tomb Raider cards are often fairly generic (for something modern), though the art may be a problem.  L5R cards can probably work for any Asian fantasy game.  Magic cards, often portraying generic fantasy and just being often better to look at than cards of other games, can work to represent.  As much as people complain about how Ultimate Combat! cards look, since the technique cards are actual martial arts moves, that seems kind of good for resolving martial arts contests.

Subgames.  One of the things that’s possible, if rare, is to use one game as a subgame in another.  UC! could easily be used to fight out a wrestling match.  DD could be used for mass combat.  What of Seventh Sea CCG or Pirates of the Caribbean CCG to resolve ship battles?  I think it’s rare because it’s actually rare to get into mechanics that a game doesn’t already cover.  Also, it’s a hassle to bring a bunch of extra stuff.  Why fight out a L5R mass combat instead of using the mass combat tables that come in the mainbooks (admittedly, 4e’s is bland)?

I don’t know.  I’m sure there’s a lot of material to mine with using components of one game for another (mechanically, I’m so going to remember some day to pull out the ships from Age of Empires III and use them for my SK game, or whatever).  It’s just hard to pin down what makes sense to do and what would fly with others.  And, there’s always the problem when coming up with house rules of going to all of the effort to codify them.