Move Your Mice

October 29, 2012

I started writing a combat strategy primer for the L5R RPG (4e).  It’s long, which is why I haven’t finished.  I’m not sure where I will post it, probably here and maybe a couple of other places in the hopes that people will see it, maybe even offer it up on the AEG forum.

Not a combat primer, since someone could just read the book and have a basic idea how combat works.  A combat strategy primer since I get routinely frustrated by how obtuse people are about how to conduct themselves in combat.

L5R has had a reputation as a highly lethal system.  Seems a bit overblown now that I look back at even the 3e days.  Fourth Edition is certainly less immediately lethal than Third Edition, though I have often said that I don’t think that’s to the benefits of PCs – it’s much better that PCs one-shot enemies than have the enemies hang around round after round to get more shots in, even if enemies have a greater likelihood of one-shotting PCs.  Also, there are much more lethal systems, like the old school RuneQuest I play Friday nights.  Even D&D, in nearly any version prior to 4e, can be quickly deadly.

Having said that, L5R plays rather dangerously.  Deaths should occur on a regular basis, but GMs are kind.  GMs don’t gang up on PCs, have enemies run away even if the result of combat is in doubt, etc.  When I run L5R combats, it’s amazingly hard not to kill off characters or wipe parties, but I’m a softy so I find ways to limit the damage.  What makes L5R so much more dangerous than the system is I feel a lack of practice, a lack of understanding of the rules, and a lack of strategic/tactical sense.

Because the mantra is “L5R combat is lethal, avoid it.”, PCs don’t get the same level of experience as they would with other systems.  I find myself forgetting to make tactical decisions that I think about often because “often” isn’t often enough.

A primer.  One can get into fairly sophisticated stuff as one learns a system in and out.  I’m not concerned with such things from others.  I’m concerned with such basic things as knowing the various uses of Void Points, using different stances when the situation calls for stance changes, recognizing the importance of Initiative order, casting spells sensibly, etc.

For instance, regardless of system, it seems intuitively obvious that if you are ganging up on someone and plan on knocking someone over that you time things so that the enemy is still prone for murderer #2 to get the attack bonus against a prone opponent.  Yet, I too often see Tempest of Air fired off at the beginning of a round, the enemy stand up, then the rest of the party make attacks.

As a primer, I think what I’ve written up so far is a fail.  It’s wordy.  It’s not laid out in an easy to read manner.  Once I finish the remaining sections, I plan to go through and see what I can do about summarizing things in a format that someone who isn’t all that interested in being effective in combat will bother to read.  I also see running it by Andy, since we have talked about awful tactics many times in the past, for both omissions and readability.

What’s interesting is that I had never thought about doing this before.  Sure, I keep thinking about explaining how what people do is terrible, to be a bit more humble about it, I include my own wealth of terrible decisions.  I’m a strategist not a tactician, so I “know” better than I perform in the heat of the moment.  But, I never thought to actually come up with a guide/manual/document to point out or remind people of simple ways to perform better.

Where did the idea to write it down come from?  Amusingly, from my mother.

The idea is so obvious that I started doing online searches for combat strategy primers.  And, found none.  Now, I was looking for something someone might have done for L5R, but even a D&D search only resulted in a combat primer and not a combat strategy primer.

Yes, players learn these things as they play.  Except when they don’t.  Getting someone up to speed would also be a lot faster by having a document of basic strategy that could be reviewed.

Why is this primer important?  What’s wrong with some players being less efficient than others?  Doesn’t a GM just rebalance based upon the skill of the players and skill of playing to the rules?

To an extent, the last is true.  I’ve talked with Brad about how bad our Conan d20 tactics are and the conclusion is that the level of opposition would simply have to rise if we were more effective.

But, Conan d20 and L5R are different animals.  Or, more specifically, Fate Points and Void Points are two different animals.  Void Points make L5R PCs more effective at doing things and help in combat through things like damage reduction or increased Armor TN.  While Fate Points can be used like that, the primary use of a Fate Point is to not die.  For those that don’t know, that’s the actual mechanic – Left for Dead = don’t die when you would normally die.  While I’m not that averse to creating new characters since I love character creation, I also don’t like getting killed because others do dumb stuff when there’s little ability on my part to compensate, so I fear for my L5R characters more than my Conan characters.

Well, there are other reasons I fear for my characters in Conan less than I do in L5R.  The philosophies of the PCs are different.  In Conan, running away is entirely reasonable.  The only time when that produces a moral problem is when someone has a Code of Honor and there’s something that would break the code, like a comrade being left behind.  In L5R, honorable behavior means never running from a fight, ever.  A strategic withdrawal can be construed as fleeing from battle, which means Honor hit.  In theory, if playing a samurai as the genre says they believe, death is assumed and dying is not a thing.  In practice, it’s a hassle to bring in a new character as a previous blog post has addressed.  A reason I die so often in RuneQuest is that I have this strange belief that I’m not some random mercenary who cares more about his own life than anything, including dignity.  A reason our party doesn’t get wiped more is that other players feel differently and often cut deals with enemies to save ourselves, even if that transgresses our supposed beliefs – “We all hate Chaos.  Please Chaotic monster, don’t kill us.  We have treasure if you will spare us.”

So, getting back to the questions above, the problem with fighting poorly is that fights have greater consequences to the PCs in L5R.  Also, while the GM can provide weak enough opponents to the party to enable even inept parties to survive their poor decisions, that’s rather embarrassing.  Some day, it’s nice to graduate from goblins and bandit mooks to ogres and Lost and have a legitimate chance of success.

Finally, some folks will never learn mechanics.  The “game” that they are playing is not a game of roll-playing but of role-playing with dice, et al, being a necessary evil.  Having a document to help understand the implications of the rules is not likely to matter.  Still, rather than be frustrated, it’s worth taking a shot at helping such so that their disdain for the mechanics has less impact on everyone else.

Riddle Me This …

October 23, 2012

What makes for a good challenge?

I used to care less about characters sheets, but, then, I used to play more of my RPing in one-shots.  In a campaign, the character sheet should matter as advancement is only meaningful if you have context for it.

But, is a challenge that just comes down to a die roll all that compelling?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  I like it when my obscure skill is the key to overcoming a challenge, and I like putting all of my resources into one megaroll.  However, that’s in the heat of the moment.  Stepping back, isn’t it just a random result that I’m getting excited by?  Sure, increasing the probability of a role succeeding may involve player input, but outside of that influence, what is compelling about randomness leading to success or failure?

Where’s the input from me, the player?

On the other hand, consider the situation where all of the contribution of the PC is due to the player.  For instance, say I’m interrogating someone and all of the questions are from me, the player, rather than the character’s aptitude being considered.

I would contend the ideal is for player decisions to have influence on character results, but that the decisions are no greater an element to success than character ability with randomness thrown in to make results unpredictable.  Though, is it really that important for results to be unpredictable?  Given a certain level of character competence mixed with player competence, I can see automatic success.  On the other hand, such judgment calls can be difficult and character competence is typically defined not in the absolute but in the relative, with a greater probability of success than a relative inferior.

Another reason combat tends to be more compelling than other challenges is that combat is not any one thing.  It’s not a single die roll.  It’s not a single tactical decision.  Tactical decisions, which typically come from the player, can (and should) matter, while character sheet mechanics distinguish different character builds.

Is there an analogy to CCGs, where the character build is the deck construction step and the play of the deck is the tactical decisions made?

How does one develop challenges so that decisions and character sheets both matter?  I should note that I’m not a fan of logistical challenges – how to build a pulley system to lift a heavy object, for instance, or how to arrange caravan guards and set their watches.  I play RPGs to have adventures and have little interest in mundane considerations.

In keeping with an earlier post, I’m trying to think of challenges for the party and not individuals.  In a recent session of one of my campaigns, there was a fight with a fire burning out of control.  I like these sorts of situations – those who like combat can fight and I can try to come up with something else to do that improves the situation.  Unfortunately, my non-combat actions had no impact on this scene.  But, let’s say you take the fight out of the equation.

A fire is burning out of control.  Or, there’s flooding.  Or, there’s an earthquake, lava flow, blizzard, whatever.  Mundanes abound, and the party likes at least some of the mundanes.  What do you do?  What do you do?

There’s an adventure I played where you need to cook a meal.  It’s important to get the ingredients, then make cooking rolls, while under a time limit.  It could have been done better, if maybe not a lot better.  The character sheet bit was making cooking rolls, though that could have been diversified since few characters will have the game’s cooking skill.  The decisions were how to get the ingredients.  That structure seems right.  I think the reason why I thought it could be better is the two events were separated, rather than blended.  I’d like to see:  discuss which ingredients to get, find out how to get them right away, process (cook) them right away.  Everything feels like the part of one action rather than separate actions.

Other time limit challenges come to mind that would work similarly.  We have to put on a show.  What acts are we going to do?  Who is going to do them (based on what skills they require)?  How are we going to adapt to audience reaction?  A fort needs repairing before being sieged.  A way across a river needs to be devised.  An escape (assuming enough elements to interact with that a variety of skills/abilities get put to use at the same time) needs to be executed.

Less defined challenges could work.  Suppose a ruler wants to be compensated before marrying a child to a party member.  The problem I have with less defined challenges is that the PCs often have a hard time ever coming to a decision about what to do.  Even if they do, it might be a terrible decision, and unlike a combat where each decision is part of a scene, one decision can make or break the endeavor.  And, then, there’s also the issue of whether every party member is relevant to the challenge.  Spellcasters are great for solving problems others can’t, which might be true of combat as well, but people in combat feel like they are doing stuff, where less immediate challenges don’t require someone to do anything.

An example of a challenge that can be rewarding or not for any given PC.  The party makes it to a city.  The party needs information.  If the primary way to get info is to be a talker, then the non-talkers are out of luck.  Consider, though, a party with a brawler, a knight, a scholar, a priest, and a sneak.  The brawler drinks at the pub to listen to gossip.  The knight checks in with nobility or knightly orders.  The scholar finds other nerds.  The priest finds religios.  The sneak spies.  In each case, if there is not only a die roll involved but a decision beyond this first level decision … *and* … there’s different and relevant information to be gained, then this can be quite compelling.

Note that if people just get the same info, then only some of the PCs were doing anything important.  Same if some info is important and some is not so much.  What is the second stage decision of the brawler?  Deciding who to believe, perhaps, which means the GM needs multiple information sources.  The knight?  What to say in a dangerous political arena?  Whether to go to a friendly knight with less info or a knave with more info?  Scholar?  What research to engage in, what crackpot to talk to, etc.  Priest?  Whether to ask, demand, draw forth answers.  Sneak?  Who to spy on.  The thing is that while it may seem like excessive detail, without a decision on how to approach one’s personal challenge, you get back to simply abstracting a situation down to a die roll, which is character dependent but not player dependent.

Of course, not every challenge is a major challenge and some can be dealt with only through player decisions or through abstracted die rolls, but my concern is for coming up with more challenges for parties which combine the two, as combat so often does.  Otherwise, I’m concerned that combat challenges will be more satisfying.  For someone else, this might not be a problem.  For me, I need combats to naturally flow from the situation to feel comfortable, not just be “Angry dudes charge you, roll initiative.” just so that players have interesting things to do.

Bloody Fast

October 16, 2012

We were talking at dinner after playing Sunday about something when I noted that tool up actions for Assamites were not productive.  Specifically, Succulent Vitae (an action modifier but one that requires a hunt action) and Retain the Quick Blood are both conceptual failures.

Assamite decks, in general, lack time.  Forcing them to use up more time to be productive down the road is unhelpful.  As to why they lack time, no real bounce, sketchy intercept, challenges to multiacting.  I used the example that a “Retain the Ventrue Blood” card that took an action and got counters for blood costs from Dominate/Fortitude/Presence combat cards (obviously, lacking the combat card limitation would be insane) that slowly returned would be great.  Great not because it would make Thoughts Betrayed more playable or Armor of Vitality/Hidden Strength or Presence combat ends that much stronger but great because the Ventrue who plays the card would just Freak Drive after playing it.  Or, if no Freak Drive, then Deflection, Parity Shift, Second Tradition, etc. would all keep the Ventrue deck alive long enough to see the card pay off.

As I’m working with indie decks more than normal at the moment with Experiment #2 running, I got some extra inspiration to come up with some card ideas.

As always, I don’t know every card idea someone has come up with (I mostly ignore the card idea submissions, for instance), so it’s always possible someone came up with these already.

Tasty Vitae
C = 0
Only usable at the end of a round of combat.
<qui>: This vampire gains an amount of blood equal to the amount of blood or life lost by the opposing minion to damage during this round. A vampire may play only one Tasty Vitae each round.
<QUI>: As above, but this vampire gains an additional blood.

Some of the inspiration for this came from pointing out that Wake With Evening’s Freshness is a Thaumaturgy ritual in the RPG and how different the game would have been if only Tremere had real wakes out of the original set.  Taste of Vitae is an effect open to all, and Quietus is the blood discipline, so why shouldn’t Quietus get a strictly better Tasty?

And, yes, it was intentional to drop the line about not being able to play when being burnt or sent to torpor.  And, yes, this Tasty can feed off of allies, which is the far more important difference.

Good?  Um, yeah, just kinda amazing when you think about how much better than Taste it is.  That’s sort of the point, though – Quietus doesn’t need okay cards or cards that halfass addressing a weakness, it needs great cards, especially if the idea is to get people to play Quietus combat rather than the far better strategies of stealth bleed and stealth bleed + vote.

The Blood is the Life
C = 1b
+1 Stealth Action.
<qui>: Put this card on this acting vampire.  The vampire with this card pays one less blood or pool to employ retainers.
<QUI>: As above, and the vampire with this card pays one less blood or pool for recruiting allies.

Quietus is a fairly silly discipline in the RPG.  Well, maybe if Thaumaturgy didn’t exist, it would make a bit more sense, though how a blood manipulation discipline makes an area silent is not entirely clear.  The flavor here is that the master of blood gains mastery over those things that have it, feed on it, or, in the name of simpler card text, have little to nothing to do with it, like wraiths.  Maybe it’s intimidation – “Serve me or enjoy heart attacks!”  Maybe it’s more subtle – “I’ve been feeling very Viagra-y lately without pills, must be that new dashing friend from the Middle East I’ve been hanging out with that’s got my blood flowing.”

A tool up, investment action that leads to value only down the line?  Yeah.  But, I thought it was interesting, anyway.  An alternative for a speedier card would be to make it an action modifier instead.

The Blood is the Life
Action Modifier
C = 0
<qui>: Play when employing a retainer.  The cost of the retainer is reduced by one blood or pool (to a minimum of zero).
<QUI>: Play when recruiting an ally.  The cost of the ally is reduced by one blood or pool (to a minimum of zero).

That does make a lot more sense, given my rant above.

Flavor matters.  Being distinct matters.  When it comes to disciplines, some are flavorfully fast and some flavorfully slow.  I don’t mean Celerity.  I mean that some disciplines would normally be used immediately and are better represented with transient effects, especially combat cards and reaction cards.  Other disciplines are flavorfully more of a “work at it a while” nature and that should be represented with more actions cards.  Potence is an obvious fast discipline, reflected well with only 9 action cards in the game.  Quietus could be categorized as such or not.  Dominate and Presence are “slower” in flavor, especially the former.  Both disciplines have a lot of action cards relative to other disciplines.

Anyway, two disciplines are obvious slowpokes – Thaumaturgy and Necromancy.  That the former only has 8 actions is criminal.  But, that’s a concern for another day.  Today, I’m more concerned with Necromancy.

As the recent thread about Harbingers attests, while Giovanni have gotten awesome support in more recent years, Necromancy hasn’t.  Strange when you consider that the three other clans with Necromancy could all use help that Giovanni don’t need.

From a balance perspective, it’s okay to have slower, action-based investment plays for the Necroclans, as two of them have Fortitude to Freak and two have Dominate …

Giovanni have always been about allies and retainers.  But, what about Necromancy?  Kind of interesting that Necromancy has only one retainer.

Undead Bodyguard
C = 1b
Zombie with 2 life.
<nec>: You may burn this retainer in combat to prevent up to 2 damage to the minion with this retainer.
<NEC>: As above, and when the minion with this retainer is in combat, the opposing minion takes 1 damage during strike resolution if range is close.

Harassing Wraith
C = 1b
Wraith with 1 life.
<nec>: Harassing Wraith is immune to damage that is not aggravated.  The minion with this retainer gets an optional maneuver each combat.
<NEC>: As above, and the minion with this retainer gets an optional press each combat.

Original?  Not terribly.  One is very similar to Zombie, hopefully enough better than Zombie that it might actually see play.  The other is rather similar to Shadow of the Beast.

Both do play into the idea of making Necromancy more relevant in combat.  The latter is perfect for all of those Torment the Soul decks people have been wanting to play.  The timing on the Undead Bodyguard is kind of ugly – “I burn it between resolution of the strike and resolution of the damage to gain both effects.  I can do that, right?”  Maybe, that’s why Zombie works the way it does.

Anyway, not every one of these ideas was equally inspired.  I’m less concerned with the specifics than I am the concepts of making “fast” cards for Quietus that support Quietus combat decks (as annoying as such decks might be) and “slow” cards for Necromancy that have more relevance in tournament play.

Though, the Necromancy ideas really aren’t that helpful.

C = 1b
+1 Stealth Action.
<nec>: Put this card on the acting minion and put one Defilement Counter on this card.  The minion with this card can burn a Defilement Counter instead of paying the cost for a combat card.  Burn this card when it has no Defilement Counters.
<NEC>: As above, but put an additional Defilement Counter on this card when it is put into play.

A bit cuter.  What’s the point of this?  Not Burning Wrath or The Death of My Conscience, though maybe those would happen.  Breath of Thanatos and Mercy for Seth aren’t that costly, so it doesn’t help Harbingers swing, though Hidden Strength for infinite is something and King of the Mountain … well, I don’t know if anything will get people to play King of the Mountain.  It’s really intended to make Compress less overcosted, maybe even get some of the other crummy Thanatosis cards to see play, while making Groaning Corpse better, which just doesn’t bother me all that much.

Experiment #2 – Less Is Less

October 15, 2012

Played some games yesterday, not all of which involved decks from Experiment #2, so will toss in some other comments.  First two games were three players, last two were four.

First game, played a new !Gangrel deck that did some stuff but not what it was supposed to.  Unfortunately, to do what it is supposed to do, it should really be a rush deck, but then, it will just fall over and die.  While choking horribly on actions.

Second game, played the experiment’s Assamite deck with minor changes.  Did nothing all game as I choked on maneuvers, Nest of Eagles, and Haqim’s Law: Leaderships.  Got blocked by Second Tradition a lot and was no threat in combat, so all my guys died.

Third game brought up something a bit more interesting.  I lent out the experiment’s Ravnos deck.  Now, the person playing it does often complain about my decks, but the complaints in this game were a bit more of the “why aren’t you playing better cards” style of complaints.  This was a similar refrain to when I lent out the Giovanni deck during our previous playday.  This game did have a couple of amusing situations.  I played Skin Trap against my prey’s minion with Treasured Samadji just to cycle as I went to long to wave, only to have him play combat ends.  Horatio, with VIC, Breath of the Dragoned a blocking Underbridge Stray, which was about my only effective combat all game.

Fourth game, we wanted to end quick.  I lent out a deck from Experiment #1.  While I was fine playing the !Brujah deck when I tried to make it as functional as possible, this was a more combat oriented build that was far inferior to the votey build I was running during the experiment.  Predictably, it did nothing and died.  The complaints about it weren’t that surprising because high cap rush is usually garbage.

Taking the bitching and moaning from lending out decks from these experiments into account, it seems a bad idea to lend any more out.  The question, though, is whether this frustration with playing with inferior card choices due to limited options would extend to players who weren’t experienced.

Not quite the same words I used the last time I commented on Experiment #2 but the same sentiment – while I feel like I can build different decks with just a box of Lords of the Night precons and a box of boosters, that’s the thing – they would be different decks.  This is completely unlike Experiment #1, where I felt like I could modify a particular deck in a variety of ways, especially with regards to masters.

With Experiment #1, the !Toreador deck could have been less intercepty, combat could have changed, could have voted, could maybe have bled more, etc. and still felt like it could play and be a variation of a single deck.  With Experiment #2, making the Assamite deck less bloaty, intercepty, or reactiony just seems to produce a different deck.  First, I wouldn’t make it less dependent upon HQ:L as that’s the primary way a LotN deck can survive given the master options available.  What I could do is make it more stealthy so that those go through more often but at the cost of being either less blocky or (even) less fighty.

I could spend more time thinking about how to build the Ravnos deck differently, but it’s not all that exciting an exercise given the crap Ravnos in LotN.  The Giovanni deck I can see going in some very different directions, but can I see making substantial changes to the build I already have and calling it the same deck?  Maybe, as the Giovanni deck has better individual cards, which means playing around with quantities is more of an option, though there’s still little to do with master selection.

I’m already thinking about a different experiment, as I don’t know how long I can stay interested with the limited card choices LotN offers.  I have in mind a few things.  One would be to take a precon from some set and allow the use of commons (or, I guess, fixed cards) from that set and the next two sets, as that better captures the idea that people don’t just pick up cards from a single set.  And, it addresses how many sets are missing crucial cards for producing “normal” (if still limited) builds.  Another idea was to specifically take the Ventrue precon from KoT and evolve it, since I’ve been playing a KoT precon and it both has more game than most other precons, just as the CE Ventrue precon did, while also having glaring weaknesses – bunch of cards that require Prince/Justicar and lack of reliability in getting one of those creatures in play.

I do think that mixing up building my usual decks with running an experiment makes me less interested in the experiment.  If I were using these experiments to build stock decks that could be lent out to newbs, that might be one thing, though that’s fairly pointless since we don’t have newbs.  Instead, I play them like I would any decks I have built, which means I tire of them exceedingly quickly.  If only playing decks from the experiment, I can suspend my disbelief to some extent and live with the limited variety.  When having unlimited decks at hand for contrast, it’s hard to remember to embrace an environment with many fewer options.

Then, I might be more enthusiastic about playing an experiment deck if I could play one in a tournament, as that provides a far more rigorous test, but we haven’t had any conversation about tournaments in quite some time and may very well end up having the next in December.


October 7, 2012

To reiterate a reaction I have had, contrary to those who complain about deckbuilding being hard for V:TES, I find it easy, absurdly easy, actually, these days.

To the point where I will never likely catch up to playing the decks I’ve created.  More specifically, I write decks out in FELDB that I will never end up pulling the physical cards for.  To try to be less confusing, I will say a written deck is “created”, where a “built” deck is one that has been physically put together and is ready to see play (I don’t play online, so physical play and play are synonymous).

I created five decks last week after Sunday’s play session.  I won’t play again until a week from now.  I estimate only two of the decks – 40% – will see me go to the effort to build.

Why am I bothering to mention any of this?

Because I want to explain something about the “reactive” process in the hope that it helps people build more decks faster, since variety is the selling point of CCGs.

I have an extremely reactive personality.  It’s why development suits me far better than design.  I don’t seek to create for the sake of creation but create out of reaction to a need or want.  In other words, I have a fix-it mentality.  CCG cards I design are not intended to open up design space but to fix something in the game.  Strategies I most strongly consider are intended to fix a metagame, which is probably why I enjoy metagaming so much.  Decks I build are typically intended to fix a strategy or specific card use.  For instance for one way this manifests, if the goal is to win with a clan and the clan’s forte is a garbage strategy, then abandon that strategy for one that is better.  Another way it manifests is simply efficiency of a design concept that someone else came up with.  I rarely apply this last to V:TES because I don’t see the value in efficient deck construction in V:TES – this was far more applicable to Babylon 5, Wheel of Time, Ultimate Combat!, and maybe other CCGs (though rarely Magic for reasons that are too involved to explain).

The first deck was in reaction to the discussion about power creep, more specifically Villein.  Though, even that really isn’t specific enough.  Someone said that there are no Lutz decks in the TWDA that lack Minion Tap and Villein.  So, I decided to build one.  The Call was an obvious thing to build around.  I might never build this deck since it’s just so boring, as most decks with Dementation are.  The masters I went with are funny, but that doesn’t carry a lot of weight.

That deck was created on Tuesday.  Four more decks were created on Friday.

I got to thinking about Freak Drive for something I don’t recall, which quickly became Fortitude + Obfuscate to get actions through.  Then, since I wasn’t trying to build a Samedi deck and wanted some sort of defense, I decided to do a search of vampires with AUS/For/Obf.  Interestingly, quite a few have Dementation, which was not pleasing.  Few of the card choices were interesting, so I got bored as I went along.  Deciding on the crypt was the toughest part.  I eventually dropped Tariq as I’ve played him previously in Aus/Obf and Aus/For/Obf decks and his “lose 4 blood” ability is an annoyance.  I also decided against a warped crypt of a bunch of titled Aus/Obf dudes that I would graft Fortitude to – Greger, Korah, etc.  While I may not think that highly of Fortitude, I still play it often and the other two disciplines are probably the two I play the most.  z … z … z …

Next, I keep wanting to play with Helicopter because I just don’t, so I searched for equipment-discounting vamps and decided Marie Faucigny, who shows up in a lot of my searches and whom I like playing with, was a starting point.  Magic of the Smith was a way to Helicopter up for my girl.  Alastor, of course, was always in mind.  As it happens, Aus/Obf/Tha makes for an amusing group 3/4 crypt (Marie being the only 3).  I decided to aim for Sabbatness and titledness.  Bunch of fat vampires meant accelerators, while my solution for lack of ousting power was a common one I fall back on.  Unfortunately, the Helicopter playing powers of the deck are terrible, tool up decks bore me, and intercept combat is too common an archetype for me these days.

Some search I was doing, maybe a search on HttB to see what sort of cards I haven’t played from the set yet, displayed As the Crow and Dive Bomb right there, in front of my face.  Got to thinking about As the Crow, which naturally led to Gargoyles with Serpentis.  This is the most likely of the decks to get made, even though I have terrible “luck” playing non-slave Gargoyles, there being so few of them.  Really should diversify the crypt.  Get bored throwing Forestal in Gargoyle decks, but he is an obvious support dude.

Finally, I was doing some search and Shell Break totally invaded my mind.  I did the usual search of unique allies to see whose shells I could break, and Cry Wolf howled.  After that, the deck created itself.  Using cards I don’t play (hardly) ever and being another variation of Giovanni combat makes this another likely choice for moving to the build stage.  Though, I’m kind of wondering how I block with just +1 intercept from Shell Break … might have to throw some Coterie Tactics* in for additional win.

*  It should be fairly obvious that many deck ideas come from doing searches.  Often, the ideas have nothing to do with what sort of deck I was originally thinking of building.  Interesting discipline mix on a particular vampire typically results in searching for others with similar mixes, for instance.  Coterie Tactics, an unplayable card but one that gets one thinking about if there’s any way to actually make it playable, came up when I was searching for cards with no requirements of various card types.  Basically, every search in a deckbuilder should produce deck ideas**, which is why deckbuilders are crucial to playing CCGs.

**  Many of which will suck.  But, it’s important to build decks that suck just to make sure that a card or strategy really does suck.  Just don’t play too many games with the same sucky deck as that will just annoy people.  Given my profound, totally not obvious, and in all ways brilliant advice on building more decks using a reactive style to deckbuilding, I’m sure that you will have far too many decks built to keep playing the same trite crap.

Total War

October 4, 2012

The title is just a more pretentious version of what this post is about – full engagement by a party in RPGs.

I’ve found myself frequently making the note in one form or another, “There’s a reason D&D [et al] have worked so well historically.  RPGs focused on combat provide opportunities for contributions from everyone.”

I feel like I should state that I don’t hate D&D or any of the other, numerous tactical wargame RPGs of its ilk.  It’s just that I see the value in RPGs being that they tell stories, where clearing a dungeon or whatever is something that works as a boardgame.  And, yes, one can always go beyond the tactical wargame structure of such games, just as one can take a system bent less to wargaming and make it very wargamey.

Anyway, I need to get back to the topic, which is the difficulty of fully engaging a party as often as possible.

There are some totally legitimate reasons that not every PC has something to do at a given time.  Splitting the party is not the end of the world … necessarily.  Brief, private moments help individualize PCs thematically, while showing off mechanical specialty helps individualize, um, mechanically.

Nor am I terribly bothered by there being stretches when some PCs turn into observers.  But, these stretches should still be entertaining and/or brief enough.

I suppose there’s a broader issue of when a party doesn’t feel like a party but like a group of PCs who adventure together, but that seems like something to address another time.

One can always say the GM should keep everyone engaged.  Or, one could say it’s both the GM’s and players’ responsibilities to be engaged.  Take, for instance, the common situation of planning how to deal with a challenge, like breaking into a building.  Players who provide no input to planning are hardly the GM’s fault.  While these are important elements to PC engagement, they aren’t really what I want to speak about.

What concerns me more, as a potential GM, is structural reasons why PCs will be disincentivized to engage in handling a challenge.  Some players are naturally less active – the casual gamer is not a rare bird, for instance.  Some know mechanics better or the world better or whatever.  But, there’s no reason to build into challenges extra reasons for only some of the party to tackle them, with the exception of an intended spotlight moment, of course.

I should provide examples as this may all seem vague and overly philosophical, when, in truth, I find it a substantial problem.  Because it’s what I play the most these days and because it highlights well issues I perceive, I’m afraid I’ll have to focus examples on L5R.

L5R is very much not oriented towards being a tactical wargame.  Social challenges over customs or politics or intrigue and investigative challenges are not only common but very often more common than combat and other physical challenges.

The example of a more extreme case of disincentivizing full party engagement is the social challenge.  While these can show up in other games, such as the use of Diplomacy or Bluff in d20, the Sincerity roll (sometimes, Courtier or Etiquette or even Intimidation or Temptation) in L5R is a frequent roll to overcome a major challenge.  It could be talking down a crazy person, convincing someone of much higher station to change opinion, or whatever.

How does it usually play out?  While more than one PC might provide input and can assist mechanically, the challenge usually comes down to a single roll by whoever the best talker in the party is (or whoever talks the most).  Typically, there are PCs with poor social skills in parties.  If this sort of challenge was less common and/or less essential to resolving challenges, it could be more palatable as a spotlight moment for the player who wanted to play a courtier or similar social character.  What I find, however, is that the impact of making the roll is greater than the impact of any other roll to overcome challenges to where half or more of the party has no relevance to a key plot point.

While nowhere near as exclusionary, I find that investigative challenges have similar problems.  Unlike the “one big roll to convince X of Y” that social rolls often are, an investigation often involves discussing ideas for generating leads, following leads, or dealing with challenges once the investigation points in the right direction.  I have a personality such that I care far more for plot progression than I do my character sheet, but I notice that those who value more playing in character may feel less inclined to aid investigations due to a lack of aptitude of the character.

An example of an investigative challenge may be to follow some tracks.  In L5R, that’s a Perception/Hunting roll.  If there are, like, two PCs with Perception of 3 and only one has the Hunting skill, it’s a rather party-limited challenge.  L5R is a bit different than some systems in that Void Points, Luck, and Honor Rolls can help important rolls while the exploding dice make absurd results possible, but how compelling is it for the PER 2, Hunting 0 character when there are three tracking rolls crucial to finding someone/something?

Is that a structural problem?  Place it in contrast with combat, where even combat inept PCs are engaged in the challenge.  Other physical challenges are often (if not always) similarly engaging to an entire party – everyone has to run, climb, swim, jump, whatever.

Then, you have rarer (IME) challenges, such as puzzles/riddles, which also tend to be better suited to a limited portion of the PCs (or players).

I’m not inclined to do away with challenges that may not be worth engaging in for some of the party.  I am, however, inclined to try to provide my players challenges that are more often akin to combat in engaging the entire party and to keep party-limited challenges briefer and less crucial.

The obvious question, then, becomes for one such as myself who finds gratuitous combat unappealing, “What are good party challenges to fully engage all of the PCs besides combat?”

Keep in mind that players usually make an effort to have a combat strategy but may not put effort into giving every character as much competence in other areas.  This can be something the GM helps with – “I’m going to have man vs. nature challenges, so learn how to swim and stuff.”  But, typically, combat mechanics are developed to a point where options exist, even if the only reasonable option is to evade enemies until the rest of the party mops up, where other sorts of challenges are more commonly “all or nothing” with a single (or series of identical) die rolls.

As GM, I can force situations where each individual PC must do something to contribute to overcoming a challenge.  For instance, a night of entertainment requires each PC to simultaneously entertain a different audience.  But, that can seem arbitrary/forced/awkward and fail suspension of disbelief.  I haven’t brainstormed ideas, so that’s an obvious step.  It’s just something that concerns me as I like all of the players to be into what is going on, whether I’m a GM or a player.

Experiment #2 – First Contact

October 1, 2012

So, I was a bit less rigid about gathering cards for this experiment.  I had two nearly intact Giovanni precons lying around, and I really wanted to understand its strength and weaknesses more, so I decided to use both.  Though, I did decide to limit myself to only one copy of each booster Giovanni.  I had a virtually intact Ravnos precon.  I had some strange Assamite precon dregs that involved cards from two Assamite precons.  I decided to take out the second precon’s cards and planned to restore the Assamite precon to its full complement of cards.  But forgot.

I have rares tallied for the first seven boxes of Lords of the Night I opened.  I used box #1’s rares.  For simplicity, I assumed x5 of each common from the box and x2 of each vampire/uncommon since I didn’t track such things.  Really, only Third Edition was worth tracking to that level because of its uneven distributions of more common cards.

I didn’t actually pull two of each vampire/uncommon and five of each common because I didn’t have that kind of time and didn’t need a bunch of the cards in the set to do initial decks.  I pulled the ones I thought might get use in my decks.  Here is what I played yesterday:

Deck Name:   Experiment 2 – Assamites
Created By:  Bakr
Description: Intercept “combat” with pool gain and bleed.

Crypt: (12 cards, Min: 14, Max: 31, Avg: 5.66)
2  Bakr                               CEL OBF QUI dem pro8  Assamite
1  Bertrand d`Anjou                   auscel qui     4  Assamite
2  Evan Rogers                        cel qui        3  Assamite
1  Hafsa                              OBF QUI aus cel6  Assamite
2  Kashan                             CEL OBF QUI obt pre7  Assamite
2  Layla bint-Nadr                    CELOBF qui     5  Assamite
1  Monty Coven                        CEL OBFQUI dom for pre8  Assamite
1  Sajid al Misbah                    QUI            4  Assamite

Library: (63 cards)
Master (7 cards)
2  Agent of Power
1  Black Throne, The
2  Path of Blood, The
1  Quietus
1  Underworld Hunting Ground

Action (12 cards)
6  Haqim`s Law: Leadership
6  Loss

Action Modifier (1 cards)
1  Into Thin Air

Reaction (16 cards)
3  Black Sunrise
4  Eluding the Arms of Morpheus
2  Lost in Translation
6  Nest of Eagles
1  Rooftop Shadow

Combat (16 cards)
1  Baal`s Bloody Talons
1  Mercury`s Arrow
4  Pursuit
4  Selective Silence
3  Taste of Death
3  Weighted Walking Stick

Combo (11 cards)
7  Blood Awakening
1  Resist Earth`s Grasp
3  Swallowed by the Night

All things ever can be determined by a single game of V:TES.  For instance, I’m sure it’s normal throughout the world that one plays in a game with two vote decks at the table and the only titled vampire in play is Kashan … up until Darlene Kill-Ian gains PRO & Pre and acquires a Fee Stake.

What’s the funniest thing about all LotN, all of the time?  So far, it’s that Assamites rule.  Sure, FoS can bleed at will and gain pool from it and have Sirius Eternals, but Assamites have reliable (hope for no other Ass players) pool gain in the form of HL: Leadership.  Pool gain is something horribly horribly missing in LotN.

Note how not pulling all of the cards to restore the precon’s contents kind of was major – no Market Square for my intercept deck.  Webs don’t work for me as well as they should, but with so much pool gain, should have had them in here, as well.

It’s always nice when one’s prey has no intercept or bounce, thus meaning that every single Loss lands.  Would have been interesting to see what would happen in a more normal situation.  Really should have more fearsome combat and could totally steal the Giovanni deck’s Tastes of Vitae.  On the other hand, I got 3 VPs while getting into combat once(?) and punching for 1 … against my prey!!

Deck Name:   Experiment 2 – Ravnos
Created By:  Brian Thompson
Description:  Block, stealth, don’t hurt me.

Crypt: (12 cards, Min: 13, Max: 27, Avg: 4.83)
1  Anjalika Underwood                 ANI aus chi for5  Ravnos
2  Brian Thompson                     ani chifor     4  Ravnos
1  Chavi Oraczko                      ANI CHI FOR nec7  Ravnos
1  Gwen Brand                         auschi         3  Ravnos
1  Jayakumar                          ANI FOR chi tha6  Ravnos
1  Johann Matheson                    ani auschi     4  Ravnos
2  Neel Ramanathan                    anifor         3  Ravnos
1  Papa Legba                         ani chi for obt5  Ravnos
1  Vasiliy Vasilevich                 ANI CHI for pro8  Ravnos
1  Vassily Taltos                     aus cel chi dom for obf6  Ravnos

Library: (63 cards)
Master (12 cards)
1  Agent of Power
2  Chimerstry
2  Path of Paradox, The
2  Svadharma
4  Vessel
1  Week of Nightmares

Action Modifier (10 cards)
2  False Resonance
4  Fata Morgana
1  Freak Drive
1  Leverage
1  Mirror`s Visage
1  Will-o`-the-Wisp

Reaction (14 cards)
1  Army of Apparitions
4  Fillip
1  Forced Vigilance
3  Ignis Fatuus
3  Instinctive Reaction
2  Lost in Translation

Combat (13 cards)
2  Amria
3  Carrion Crows
4  Indomitability
1  Mayaparisatya
1  Skin of Night
2  Soak

Ally (2 cards)
2  Underbridge Stray

Retainer (3 cards)
3  Raven Spy

Equipment (3 cards)
1  Karavalanisha Vrana
1  Talith
1  Treasured Samadji

Combo (6 cards)
2  Mirror Image
4  Occlusion

While reviewing the Ravnos precon contents, I couldn’t help but think about my tournament winning Ravnos deck.  It too seemed inclined to try to block stuff and have no real other plan for what it did.

The two extra Vessels could have been stolen from the Assamite deck or the FoS deck I didn’t bother pulling cards for.

The crypt of the Ravnos precon is unplayable.  I hoped for better from boosters.  While better, the Ravnos really got a mess in this set.  I debated running Ganesh.  Sadly, the deck could really use both ANI and CHI.  So, that I got about as perfect a crypt draw in the game I played, with Vasiliy, Chavi, Papa, and Anjalika, does not bode well for more table sweeps.

I did choke on stealth at times, but since some of the stealth doubles as combat defense and I liked having a bunch of combat defense against my Flurry of Action/additional strike predator, it worked out well until Week of Nightmares dropped for the automatic win.

One thing I thought about is taking the Ravnos precon without booster supplement and simply using a crypt of x2 of each of the group 2 Ravnos I would want to play with – Gabrin, Joaquina, Vaclav, Khalil, Salbatore, and Sarisha.  Still would have a crippling lack of pool gain and wakes, but at least, the crypt wouldn’t be a joke.

So, you may be wondering why I didn’t run Sense the Savage Way since I had five of those to play with from “boosters”.  That would have helped the wake problem.  On the other hand, that would have required playing more awful high caps in a deck with no pool management.  I decided I’d rather run chumps who couldn’t do hardly anything but might get a Raven Spy and who could be targeted by Karavalanisha Vrana for some supposed pool gain.  When you are relying on a rare that I might not have gotten in my “box” that costs 2 pool for pool gain, hope to drop Week for the win.

Deck Name:   Experiment 2 – Giovanni
Created By:  Giovanni del Georgio
Description:  I bleed, I bruise, I block?

Crypt: (12 cards, Min: 12, Max: 34, Avg: 5.5)
1  Accorri Giovanni                   DOM POT ani nec6  Giovanni
1  Diego Giovanni                     CHI DOM NEC POT ani8  Giovanni
1  Eric Milliner                      pot            2  Giovanni
1  Gianmaria Giovanni                 POT dom nec obt5  Giovanni
1  Giovanni del Georgio               DOM NEC POT PRO8  Giovanni
2  Guillaume Giovanni                 CEL DOM NEC POT obt9  Giovanni
1  Kay Polerno                        dom necpro     4  Giovanni
1  Margaret Milliner                  dom for nec pot pre5  Giovanni
1  Nunzio Giovanni                    nec pot        3  Giovanni
1  Primo Giovanni                     domnec pot     4  Giovanni
1  Stephen Milliner                   necpre         3  Giovanni

Library: (75 cards)
Master (8 cards)
1  Giant`s Blood
1  KRCG News Radio
2  Necromancy
4  Vessel

Action (13 cards)
3  Divine Sign
4  Dominate Kine
1  Graverobbing
3  Harass
2  Sudario Refraction

Action Modifier (12 cards)
6  Call of the Hungry Dead
6  Conditioning

Reaction (8 cards)
5  Eluding the Arms of Morpheus
3  Fillip

Combat (19 cards)
4  Brute Force
4  Immortal Grapple
3  Slam
4  Taste of Vitae
4  Torn Signpost

Equipment (1 cards)
1  Camera Phone

Combo (14 cards)
7  Murmur of the False Will
7  Spectral Divination

For anyone familiar with the contents of the Giovanni precon, might be wondering where all of the Shambling Hordes are.  After all, with two precons to work with, that’s a reliable eight to work with.  But, I had an interesting discovery.

After cutting the offensive chaff that is the melee weapon angle, I realized that there’s a nontrivial amount of intercept in the deck between Divine Sign, Spectral, and KRCG.  Since I so rarely play with Divine Sign and Shamblers would have made the deck even busier, I decided to go with the three-fold path of bleed, bruise, and gain intercept.  I should have played the fourth to be more serious about committing to the intercept angle.

What was amusing is that this deck has the best card quality yet was the only three of the decks to lose.  Only deck that got played twice and both times failed to get a VP, though I could have probably gotten one when I played it if I was more cautious.  The bruise thing just didn’t work out.  I do like the crypt options far more than for the other decks (Assamite isn’t terrible, Ravnos is).  Maybe the two of us who played it just didn’t play it aggro enough since it really is meant to be forward looking even if it does have a rather lot of wakes.

Speaking of the bruise thing not working out, I realized that Slam was my only answer to ranged combat while I was designing the deck.  I put back in a copy to not just roll over and die to a single .44 or from Aid from Bats, but I really should have run as many as possible, as getting tooled by run to long and Bats/Crows is sort of what happened when I played the deck.  I like how my booster option of Cold Aura is the exact opposite of what I want with this deck.

The lack of defense, even if limited bleed bounce, targeted intercept, and casual intercept is hardly weak in the LotN world, could be obviously supplemented by blowing up predator’s minions with Shamblers, even if that is terribly boring.  Still, while not being bored is an important element of these experiments, not everyone finds Shamblers as dull as I do, and they are rather good, which plays into the test to see how competitive these decks can be.

With a second copy of booster Giovanni, I would probably play two of each of the 8-caps.  Guillaume was doubled up when I wasn’t sure whether I was going to run Shamblers or not.  He’s okay, big helps with bouncing, but he’s hardly being used optimally in a location low world.

Experiment #2 contrasted with Experiment #1 does show something rather notable about how V:TES has been published.  Third Edition was all about a lot of variance.  Obtenebration wasn’t playable with the cards I had in my pool, for instance.  I had plenty of master options – many terrible ones or, at least, ones I would never do if I had better cards – but it was easy to run 20% masters.  My On the Qui Vives had to move around at times between decks, but I had the “best wake ever” to draw upon.  I could run a full load of Blood Dolls.  Voter Captivation was an option.

Lords of the Night has Eluding and Fillip to provide wakes, if kind of awkward ones, in copious amounts.  But, the master selection is horrid.  I’m running Agent of Power just because I might as well use up a few more master slots.  I seriously was going to run five in the Assamite deck until I realized that the deck needed to be small to more reliably draw The Path of Blood.

There are votes in the precons, and Reckless Agitation is not weak.  But, no Voter Cap and no vote push and such awesome voting power as the FoS having one titled vampire with a mighty 1 vote means I really have no interest in trying.

LotN is a very focused set.  Sure, that’s obvious cryptwise, where you get four different clans.  But, there isn’t a wide variety of cards in the set, and you get a goodly number of copies of the commons per box.  A couple of boxes of boosters and you get four or so Target Vitals, The Eternals of Sirius, and Underbridge Strays as well.  I might have been somewhat fortunate to get Will-o’-the-Wisp and Mirror’s Visage for more Chimerstry stealth, but I didn’t really need more stealth.  Kumpania would have been a more useful rare, but I’m getting off on a tangent.

With LotN, if a common is important, you get a bunch of them.  Since the four clans have so little overlap in disciplines, they don’t fight over anything but the generic cards.  Plenty of Camera Phones to go around.  Enough Lost in Translations.  Enough Leverages that a Shambler bleed deck with Camera Phones and Leverages would be entirely possible.

I can see trying some different things with each of the clans, but I don’t see the complex decisions in deckbuilding that I saw with the Third Edition experiment.