How To: Win 20+

February 22, 2013

I haven’t written much about V:TES recently.  I missed out on the recent excursion to get some tournaments in down South, so missed out on some fodder for posts.  But, I got to thinking about something while looking over deck lists.  I have a theory that I want to “test”.

Since there is no such thing as rigorous testing with this game, I thought I’d take a look at what decks won 20+ player tournaments, going back about 20 tournaments.  As it happens, by going back 19 tournaments, capture October 2012, which includes three 100+ player tournaments from the European Championships.

What am I looking for?

Three things.  Wakes, intercept, and bounce.  In particular, the reaction card kind.

Start with the 100+ player decks and move down.

EC 2012 FCQ: Goratrix/Omaya Wall

Wall deck using Auspex – lots of all three.

EC 2012 Day 1: Unmada and Lutz

Small amounts of each – max output for any one is four slots, with cards overlapping in functions.

EC 2012 LCQ: Toreador Triple-A

Three Deflection, two On the Qui Vive, two Second Tradition.  Amusingly, no Auspex reactions.

If the Toreador had only been doing Auspex, all three 100+ player tournament winning decks would have been using it.

EC 2012 Day 2: Girls Will Find Inner Sleaze

Couple bleed wakes, couple Lost in Translation, and Aksinya.

Porque esto es África

No real reactions.

EC 2012 Silence of Death: Toreador Aching Beauty

Two Eyes of Argus, five Second Tradition, five Telepathic Misdirection.

the nephandus experimental v3.0

No reactions.  The Unmasking for permacept, of course.

Arika’s raping team

Five Deflection.

rambo shambo

Wake, bounce, Delaying Tactics, can use Spectral Divination for intercept, The Unmasking.

Speed Kills

Two Lost in Translation, two Second Tradition.

Extremely Silent and Incredibly Far Away

While not heavy on reaction cards, this is a wall deck that uses permacept and Atonement.  Only two bounce cards, though.

Cara Roja

Wake, bounce, even a touch of Auspex bounce.

Anarch_Goratrix v1.1

Wall deck.

Heavy duty

Twelve wakes, 13 Murmur of the False Will.

Pascek’s Hounds

Permacept, four Cats’ Guidance, four wakes.

Inner Circle


Ventrue Anti 1.1

Grinder deck has lots of these things … shocking.

Cute Little Stone Babies

Two Deflection.

Shane Grimald Deck #4

Wake, bounce, Delaying Tactics.

So, what was the point of all this?

Actually, before getting to that, comment upon the potential metagame biases in just looking 19 decks back.  Lot of decks are from Europe.  But, Europe isn’t one big metagame.  Add in some decks from elsewhere and I’m not going to worry much about metagame biases when I’m looking at so few decks, anyway.

The point of all of this is not one-fold.

First, I keep thinking about how many fat vampire decks along the lines of Girls or Lutz or whatever that have paltry levels of intercept or defense against actions besides permavotes to mess with voting.  I wanted to see if there was a pattern in tournament winning decks from larger events of just ignoring the possibility of being messed with by non-bleed/non-vote actions (and inability to stop tool up actions).

Second, I was curious to see if there was a pattern of having far more bounce cards than wake cards in these decks.  I’m constantly amazed by the decks that run 5+ bounce cards and don’t seem to care about waking.  Not only is that negative actions by keeping someone untapped who didn’t need to be, but it means vulnerability to tap plays – Anarch Troublemaker, Mind Numb, etc.

Within this tiny sample size of 19 decks, there really is no pattern.  Some decks are wall decks.  Some have moderate amounts of wake + bounce.  Some have little to no reaction plan.  Only one does the “I bounce but I don’t care about waking” thing that *doesn’t* involve Aksinya.

Given a lack of pattern, I don’t see an obvious way to take advantage of the metagame.  Now, it could very well be that the decks that didn’t win provided much clearer information.  A breakdown of just the 100+ tournaments of every deck would be far more useful data than what I’m working with.

For some, the threshold of credible stealth is to get to three, to bypass Second Tradition.  Against a lot of my decks and based on inconsistent observation, it still seems like two stealth is far and away mightier than one stealth.  For instance, the Nephandi and Shamblers above are not going to be blocking much in the way of two stealth actions (no intercept locations).

Well, the one thing I take away from this exercise is that there is a decent amount of diversity in what wins, and that wall decks do just fine.  Wait, that’s two things.


DunDraCon 2013

February 19, 2013

Is it worth going to this con?

For a couple of years not long ago, I was disliking it, but it has been okay/decent in the past few.  The question is not because I dislike the con or think it’s a waste of money.  It’s that I really enjoyed going down to Los Angeles for V:TES last Labor Day Weekend, and, of course, NoCal and SoCal schedule conventions on the same three-day weekends.

I’m still not sure.  Obviously, I would only consider going to LA if others are going, which didn’t used to be a thing.  Does seem like that’s going to be a thing going forward, though.

Anyway, DDC 2013.

Pre-regged for a Friday night game, three Saturday morning games, Sunday night game.  Had 8 hours of running Rio Grande boardgames Sunday, so anything earlier than 6PM wasn’t possible.

Get to con after the new kickoff time for the con – 12PM.  I’m really disliking the move to start gaming at these cons earlier and earlier.  Friday is not a holiday.  May wonder why it matters to me when it’s just bonus gaming for people who have the time.

It means hotel rooms and accessories for hotel rooms are gobbled up faster.  We got a double room, so that was fine.  All of the refrigerators were gone, though.  Obviously, they are all going to be used up if people arrive later, but there’s an increasing lack of fairness to people who can’t take time off.  Then, parking lots spaces go faster.  And, there may be an effect on further depressing Monday gaming, which was already depressed.  I realize people are just doing what they prefer, people aren’t all that fond of Monday gaming anyway, but it’s just further separating those who can make the con longer from those who can’t.

I did run by Costco on the way up because gas was important.  I tried to find something I wanted to drink for the con but only found something where a frig would have been useful.

Got into the room and had nothing to do until I found out whether I got into the Friday night game.  Went to a new restaurant in a walkable strip mall.  Did not think my lasagna was remotely worth the price, but I’d go back and try something else if others wanted to go.  Yes, at some point, will get to gaming.

Got into my Friday night game – Santa Muerte: All That Glitters.  It was a Sixth Edition Champions game run by the CEO of Hero Games.  The premise was that we were all Texans who played football together in high school, doing an annual dirt bike trip along the Mexican border.  We run across a failed attempt to get gold coins over the border, leading to being chased by a drug cartel into a city that borders dimensions ruled by narco saints – unofficial Catholic saints.  We stumble around a bit until the authorities let us know that the drug cartel dudes are running around the city causing problems.  So, we pray to Santa Muerte to gain superpowers and face off against the superpowered drug runners.

The premise?  Good.  The research/detail/lesson in Mexican religion?  I love this sort of thing.  The concept of gaining superpowers in the middle of the game?  Cool.  The way you gain superpowers in this game?  Cool for some, problematic in my case.

And, that’s the thing – this game was full of problems.  The biggest problem was that the GM kept getting distracted and sidetracked into telling us things that might be interesting but didn’t have to do with playing.  That was exacerbated by one of the players actually having real world experience worshiping Santa Muerte!!  So, the GM would ask him if he wanted to add anything, but the player had a hard time articulating anything helpful, so it only wasted time.

That wasted time meant we didn’t gain superpowers until 1AM.  The game started at 8PM.  The game ended about on time at 2AM.  I’m not hugely bothered by a superhero game in which I basically don’t have superpowers, but that is not ideal and could be bothersome to people looking to play a superhero in a game labeled as a superhero game.

The game ended without a climax.  Enough people were tired or had 8AM games that we didn’t play out the battle with the drug dudes.  So, not only did I have superpowers for all of an hour of real time, it didn’t matter that I had them as the only time they got used was to provide a force wall screen for a bartender, who never took an action to run away from the fight.

In fact, I only rolled dice three times during the game.  Twice I rolled attacks in a fight that ended as soon as we took out one of ten guys (so, it wasn’t a real fight).  Once, I rolled damage and dealt zero because we were effectively fighting zombies and I was using a fist (3.5d6 normal damage not good for generating more than 4 Body Pips).

Not rolling dice could be fine.  It wasn’t.  Two reasons:  one, this is Champions/Hero System, not a storytelly/narrativisty game; two, nothing on my character sheet ended up mattering.  My character was a Texas Congressman.  His seeming role was that of party face.  In fact, his nickname was “Faceman”.  I had social skills.  I had a higher than average Presence.  I never rolled a social skill nor did my attempt to do a Presence Attack involve actually using dice – the random NPC just did what I wanted anyway.

Speaking of things on the character sheet not mattering, we spent a lot of time deciding what mundane equipment we had on our dirt bike trip.  This is precisely the sort of minutia that doesn’t remotely interest me.  We spent half an hour or so worrying about stuff like having a lighter or what sort of gun a Texan would reasonably have on a dirt bike trip.  And, it didn’t matter.  Oh, someone could argue that when we made sacrifices to Santa Muerte for our powers, what we had mattered, but it didn’t.  I was writing stuff down like Chapstick, aloe vera for sunburn, and other absurdly unimportant stuff.  We didn’t use guns, even though most of the PCs had them.

Did you catch the part about my being a Texas Congressman and making sacrifices to Santa Muerte?

This was another problem.  While asking Santa Muerte for powers is interesting, for some of our concepts it made no sense.  My character wasn’t even Catholic, nevermind the lack of clarity on why an American Catholic would be praying to a narco saint for help.  I justified everything I did by never believing any of it was real, that it was all drug-induced or that I was dreaming.  Still, if I thought the adventure could proceed without going through a ritual of praying to Santa Muerte, I would have had my non-Catholic Republican not bother.

Well, bottom line is points for effort, points for being an interesting theme to me, lots of lost points for having severe flaws with actually doing things that mattered or made sense.

Did not get into any Saturday games.  Not first choice, second, or third.  That was bummerrific, given how uninspiring my Friday night game was, given that it was the only slot with multiple games I was interested in, and given that my first choice was the game at the con I had the most interest in – Feng Shui, played as triad members.

On the other hand, I could sleep in, which I did.  Didn’t get moving Saturday until 10:30AM.  Had nothing to do.  Kept looking through the program for something to do and finally noticed an undead gunslingers game Saturday evening.  Used my priority slip for that.  Got into it.

Boneslingers is a game that the GM has been developing.  It’s essentially zombie gunslingers, though the game has evolved away from zombies and more towards revenants.  Not being a fan of zombies but being good with other forms of dead/undead, I like that.

We all had our Burdens – reasons we didn’t just die when we got killed but turned into undead.  There were seven players.  I mention this for two reasons.  One, every character had its own thing going on, so having a lot of subplots is not ideal.  Two, the GM handled the number of players well.

The GM did a very interesting thing with character assignment.  Rather than the usual “Who got here first?” or “Who wants to play what?”, he provided each of us with a scene and asked us what we were doing in that scene.  In my case, a guy was having his leg amputated in a bonesaw’s office.  What was I doing?

Interrogating the screaming patient, of course.  I needed information on who he met – height, weight, hair color, demeanor.

I ended up with Tagg Morgan, a Civil War vet who was obsessed with hunting down Ben Maverick, who beat to death my best friend and left my friend’s wife a widow.

The system is very storytellery.  Few rules.  Normal folks die from a point of damage.  Boneslingers start with 22d6 to spread over six attributes.  Every point of damage permanently takes away a die.  It’s not a game for long term campaign play.  As I was thinking about how you would do a campaign, I got to thinking about Highlander.  I can see similar issues with characters permanently going away, with characters being special, with fights being rather final.  And, flashbacks are perfect for Boneslingers, just as they are for Highlander.

Anyway, one of the PCs is running cattle to California when the rest of us run across him and the rustlers trying to steal his cattle.  We all get together for drinks, even if we can barely enjoy drinking in our undead states, after dealing with them.  A stagecoach comes into town with three dead men.  Apparently, a gold shipment has been stolen.  We track back to a ranch.  We get into a firefight with some women who stole the gold, killing them all.  US Marshals show up and we run when one of them IDs one of our group as Jim Garret, the meanest, most badass Boneslinger in the West.  We get blamed for stealing the gold and murdering innocent womenfolk.  While planning our next move, we get met by a group of mercenaries working for the owner of the mine who offer the mine owner’s help for clearing our names if we help take the mine back from the miners, who revolted and seized the mine.

Before we can figure that out, one of our party turns out to actually be Jim Garret, so we have something of a confrontation.  But, we all ride off to the mine and decide to put subplots off for a while.  To this point, I’m unclear on my motivation.  I only care about tracking Ben Maverick.  I’m unclear on the ramifications of getting blamed for stealing the gold and I don’t care about other people’s subplots.

On the way to the mine, we run across a skinned Boneslinger crawling through the salt flats.  Being undead isn’t all peaches and cream.  Turns out to be Ben Maverick, who got skinned by one of the mercs.  He die dies and haunts me and now I no longer believe he offed my friend.  So, now, I gots to go around and ask everyone not only about Ben but about my friend to see if I can figure out who really did it.  None of my asking leads anywhere.

What does lead us somewhere is getting to the mine village, talking to the villagers, and going up to the mine to talk to the miners.  Turns out the miners are dying left and right from pulverizing quartz crystal while extracting gold (all historically true, including the town of Delamar).  Eight hundred women are widows due to the mining losses.  Jebediah Mason, the mine owner shows up right about the time we are hankering to talk to him, and we barely stop a village woman from shooting him.  He is just as much of a patsy as the rest of us, turns out the mercs are playing everyone to gain control of the mine.

So, we set up shop and wait for 40 gunmen to ride into town so that we can murder them in self defense.  Which we do, including one Boneslinger shooting the dynamite she’s sitting on to take out the guy who skinned Ben.

Jim Garret embraces his Jim Garretness and kills many before walking off.  Two others join him, though they kind of branch off.  One Boneslinger satisfies his Burden and passes on to the next life.  The rest of us carry on.

Good game.  I liked the GM’s style and he controlled things well.  Unlike the Friday game, in this game we didn’t sweat what sort of mundane stuff we carried or other trivial concerns.  I talked to the GM for half an hour or after the game to provide feedback on mechanics and the session.  I think I articulated poorly.  Got too bogged down in things that didn’t really bother me.  I couldn’t nail down where I think the mechanics could be changed for the better, but, then, the mechanics weren’t all that important, anyway.

The system is like a lot of storytellery systems in that it probably has huge problems if you really care about mechanics, but, at the same time, the sort of people who play these games don’t care about the mechanics that much.  For instance, the system uses descriptors for your strength (Ace) and your weakness (Deuce).  I’m tired of descriptor games but not for one-shots.  I just don’t see them working for campaign play, even for me.  But, that’s fine.  Convention games are worth playing, and this is just fine for that, just as Dogs in the Vineyard and the like always worked well for me in convention play.

Sunday morning, got up early and got boardgames out of the car for my two, four-hour blocks of Rio Grande games.  Lot of parking spaces at 8AM, which surprised me, guess more people commute to the con than I think.

My big mistake was not realizing that I could have run multiple games at the same time.  I didn’t think about how scalable on the low side the games I was running were.  All of them could go down to two players, only one could go up to five.

I started my table off with Assyria.  It went well.  I think it’s the best of the four games I brought/learned.  Then, the players played Pantheon, which didn’t seem as good, though one of the players liked both.  While that was going on, I played a two-player of Fürstenfeld with a fifth player.  After Pantheon ended, one of the players left, we took a break, and we played a five-player of Fürstenfeld.

My boardgame group liked Fürstenfeld far more than I expected.  I think it’s a comfortable, easy game, maybe requiring a bit of thinking of the sort that doesn’t interest me a whole lot when you play the advanced game.  I kept dissuading people from Albion as my boardgame group didn’t like it, and I really think it is too limited.

Next time I run boardgames, I’ll look to have more players.  That will also cut my number of hours down, as eight hours of teaching boardgames was exhausting, especially with no real food.

In my interest in having a relaxing meal of real food and not protein bars and nut clusters, I was happy not to get into the Sunday night game I signed up for.  Brad and I hit the Hopyard, a normal thing for us as Brad likes it a lot.  They overcook their burgers, their sodas don’t have enough syrup, and I don’t drink beer, but it’s okay.  It was a pleasant wind down as I didn’t have any Monday plans that I needed to get up for.

Monday, didn’t do much until we checked out of the hotel.  Did get a four-player V:TES game in to end the con.  Decent game, though I was lending out two of my decks – lending decks out is becoming less interesting to me.

What’s the grade?

I only did two things of significance outside my running stuff.  I try to aim to do three.  That one of them wasn’t good didn’t bother me a whole lot but obviously doesn’t rate well.  Everything was just sort of middling, with my two RPGs averaging out.  Nongaming stuff went fine.

My first thought when leaving the con was B- or C+.  Since B- seems high and C+ seems low, B-/C+ … or about as unremarkable as you can be sounds just about right.

Kata Analysis

February 10, 2013

One of the major differences for bushi players between 3e and 4e Legend of the Five Rings is kata.  In 3e, kata were crazy.  The basic ones were reasonable, but the fancy ones did weird stuff that could lead to abusive plays/combinations.

To avoid abuses, Fourth Edition kata came out not-remotely-deadly dull.  Not to say this wasn’t in line with the dryness of school techniques in 4e, but kata are a clear example of both the nerf hammer and the aridity arising from the nerf hammer.

Still, not all suck.  So, because it may become relevant to me at some point, even sooner rather than later in one amusing case*, I decided to give my uninformed opinions of the kata out of the main book and The Great Clans.  Yes, uninformed.  I have pretty much not seen anyone use these.  Most of my L5R play to this point has been Heroes of Rokugan, and HoR restrictions meant that locals have never done anything with 4e kata.

*  Daigotsu Bushi with Strength of the Spider about to see some play.

I’m going to only look at main book and Great Clans because the “Book of …” series isn’t done, leaving room for a follow up piece when it is done, and because these two books have the greatest concentration of kata.

The Top:

Book Kata Element Ring Rating
GC Strength of the Crab Earth 3 ****
GC Strength of the Phoenix Void 3 ****
Main Striking as Air Air 3 ***
Main Indomitable Warrior Style Earth 4 ***
Main Strength in Arms Style Water 4 ***
Main Strength of Purity Style Void 4 ***
GC Strength of the Crane Air 3 ***
GC Strength of the Dragon Fire 3 ***
GC Strength of the Lion Water 3 ***
GC Strength of the Scorpion Fire 3 ***
GC Strength of the Spider Earth 3 ***

Clearly, kata have gotten better.  There are 17 main book kata, less than 25% make my better than average list.

In general, the reason the GC kata do better is that they have modest requirements that fit the schools of the clan and have effects that work with what the schools want to be doing.

Best of the Best

Strength of the Crab gets high marks because bushi should be typically both in Attack Stance and wearing armor.  Low rank bushi are pretty much worthless without armor as, not only won’t they have spells to cast, but the shugenja will have higher ATNs from being in shugenja stance.  Armor not only gives bushi a chance at not being hit, but Reduction is something the armorless don’t normally have.

Strength of the Phoenix rates because the Phoenix only have one bushi school and that school should be Guarding almost all of the time.  Also, that +3 to ATN matters a lot more when someone already has a good ATN than it would for someone with a poor ATN.  In theory, the Shiba will normally be bumping someone something like ATN 20 to ATN 25, this will put that to ATN 28, which is an actual difficult TN for many.

Opportunity Cost

It’s important to keep in mind that only one kata can be up at a time (and that activating a kata is always a Simple Action for some groups), so opportunity cost is huge.  While I could have penalized some kata even more for being inferior to others that PCs would normally use instead, I did try to keep in mind when there were “strictly” better options.

Hida Bushi get interesting kata options, though two of the above don’t open up until they meet the non-trivial requirements.  Later, I’ll say something about a kata that Hiruma might employ over Strength of the Crab.

Shiba Bushi do have a decision to make between Strength of Air and Strength of the Phoenix.  SoA also works well with guarding, but its benefit is to the guarder rather than the guardee.  Arguably, my ratings already are strange because there are many instances when improving the guarder’s ATN is more important than further boosting the guardee’s.  I’d very much like to see how this plays out in practice, rather than in theory.


Kata Element Ring Rating
Strength of the Crab Earth 3 ****
Strength of the Phoenix Void 3 ****
Striking as Air Air 3 ***
Strength of the Crane Air 3 ***
Strength of the Dragon Fire 3 ***
Strength of the Lion Water 3 ***
Strength of the Scorpion Fire 3 ***
Strength of the Spider Earth 3 ***
Indomitable Warrior Style Earth 4 ***
Strength in Arms Style Water 4 ***
Strength of Purity Style Void 4 ***
Veiled Menace Style Air 4 ** (***)
Striking as Void Void 3 **
Breath of Wind Style Air 3 **
Iron Forest Style Air 4 **
Spinning Blades Style Fire 5 **
Striking as Earth Earth 3 *
Striking as Fire Fire 3 *
Strength of the Mantis Air 3 *
Striking as Water Water 4 *
Disappearing World Style Fire 4 *
Hidden Blade Style Air 4 *
Reckless Abandon Style Fire 4 *
Strength of the Unicorn Water 3 0 (**)
Balance the Elements Style Void 3 0
Iron in the Mountains Style Earth 3 0
Son of Storms Water 3 0
Dance of the Winds Air 3 0
Art of Ninjutsu Water 5 0

Besides commenting on the worst, there are a few oddballs I want to single out.

Strength in Arms Style and Iron Forest Style both allow characters to ignore Agility in combat.  The advantage of that is that more points are freed up to be spent on Reflexes, Earth Ring, Void Ring, skill ranks, or whatever.

Why is SiAS better than IFS?  Both schools that get IFS at normal cost (I assume that main book kata are open to anyone per the sidebar option) get Agility as a school bonus!  In fact, the typical Daidoji Iron Warrior build is a Kakita to double stack Agility for the “free” four experience points.  Besides, spears and polearms are natively substandard weapons, only being elevated because of mechanics like the IFS kata.

Veiled Menace Style has two ratings because I don’t know what the timing of it is.  If you can add to your ATN after an attack has been rolled, then it’s far better than if you have to make the decision prior to a roll.  This was the kata a Hiruma might employ instead of Strength of the Crab, though probably not.

Strength of the Unicorn has two ratings for an obvious reason.  If a GM never goes after the Unicorn’s horse, then it’s worthless.  If a GM commonly goes after the steed, then it’s nice, though I must admit that Utaku Warhorses don’t need help, so it’s really more for Shinjo and Moto riding lesser steeds.

Other Costs

Spinning Blades Style was something I almost gave one star to.  A requirement of five in a Ring is absurd, which brings up that not only opportunity cost matters but that requirements are an issue as well.  However, unlike Art of Ninjutsu, which I would never expect a PC to qualify for since some of the schools don’t care about Water at all and Daigotsu has better things to do than buy Perception up to 5, any PC that meets the requirements for SBS will likely take it.  Of course, the only reason a PC would meet those requirements, given that Intelligence 5 is hardly an important buy, is to take this kata.

Other Losers

Balance of the Elements Style, per designer intent, does nothing.  Again, staff has said that the intent of this kata is that it only ever can be used to do anything if you have multiple combats in a single day.

Iron in the Mountains Style reads as a misprint.  What it should say is that you *also* add Earth to your ATN in Defense Stance.  As written, talking about pretty much the difference in ATN of a single point, which is so, so not worth 3XP.

Son of Storms is hilariously awful, as well.  Why am I spending XP to bypass a single point of Reduction?

Dance of the Winds suffers from obvious opportunity costs.  Not only do you need to be using a spear or polearm but you are foregoing using vastly better kata for an unpredictable combat benefit.


Count of Kata
Element Total
Air 8
Earth 5
Fire 6
Void 4
Water 6
Grand Total 29

Interesting that Air, which is the best Ring in 4e in my opinion (if not only for combat), gets the most kata.  Then, Book of Air coming out first only adds to its lead.

Rating Air Earth Fire Void Water Grand Total
0 1 1 1 2 5
* 2 1 3 1 7
** 2 1 1 4
** (***) 1 1
*** 2 2 2 1 2 9
**** 1 1 2
0 (**) 1 1
Grand Total 8 5 6 4 6 29

Unfortunately, I don’t see this chart showing much of interest.  Earth comes out relatively well, Water relatively poorly, with Fire hardly better.  Small sample size and less than rigorous ratings are problems with trying to draw conclusions.

I suppose if I assign points, with the two oddballs getting minimum points, then it seems more cogent to look at the data this way.

Average of Points
Element Total
Void 2.3
Earth 2.2
Fire 1.8
Air 1.8
Water 1.2
Grand Total 1.8

This does tend to indicate the worthlessness of Water kata.  I do have a hard time trying to figure out what Water kata should do mechanically.  Maybe that’s the case for everyone.  Certainly, I’m no fan of tactical movement manipulation, which is what Striking as Water (overcosted requirements) champions.

Roll With It

February 3, 2013

Back to thinking about RPG challenges.  While I’ve been on this subject quite a bit lately, I want to delve into something a bit specific.

My post, Total War, relates but the other way around.  There, I spoke of engaging the whole party as much as possible.  Here, part of what I want to examine involves individual contributions.

Anyway, the topic is die rolls.  More specifically, individual die rolls.  Combat, for instance, usually has a number of die rolls, which has become my main reason for why it works so well as a challenge.

Because.  If the challenge comes down to one die roll, what happens when you fail?

I’m not talking about the climactic scene at the end of an adventure where you talk to some godlike power and it either does what you want or banishes you home as losers.  That’s an entirely reasonable situation to come down to a single pass/fail die roll.

What I’m talking about are things like notice rolls to perceive a necessary lead to continue moving forward with the plot.  Another example – you need to get in to talk to high muckety muck to get a lead on where to find Sir Badalot so that you can smite him.  This is a Diplomacy roll or an Etiquette roll or whatever.  Everyone fails.  … and …

Simple philosophy is that any time a roll must be made in order for plot to advance, then that roll shouldn’t exist.  Two problems with that, though.  The first is that it’s not always easy to catch that such rolls are present, even when writing out challenge mechanics.  The second is that there should be important rolls, otherwise … no rolls are important, which defeats any system that relies on rolls, unless we bring everything back to combat or other situations that involve a multitude of rolls, again.

In terms of theory, it seems reasonable as an adventure constructor to have three ways in mind to accomplish any essential task and, of course, allow players to come up with ideas the GM hasn’t thought of.

In terms of practice, have to identify the essential tasks from the “nice to haves” and make sure each one has the sufficient number of options, something I haven’t been good about in adventures.  It’s not that I don’t try to think of various ways to move the party through the plot, it’s that it’s hard as a GM to view the adventure the same way as a player, who doesn’t know what’s going on.  What’s essential isn’t always obvious.  Then, I do get lazy about providing more than a couple of ways to deal with something.

I feel like I put structure into adventures.  But, I think it’s not the right structure.  I think in terms of narratives (the GM’s view) and not decision points (the players’ views).

Okay, three ways to do anything essential.  Great.  What does that mean?

First of all, relating to the problem I see that I’m addressing here, just having three different rolls doesn’t solve the problem.  After all, what if the party fails all three different rolls, say, Diplomacy, Intimidation, Seduction to get access, information, or assistance?  Then, you end up in the same situation as the single roll.  Also, suppose the party doesn’t fail all three.  Suppose the party has like a 95% chance of succeeding at at least one of the three rolls.  Then, they weren’t important.  Failure is what makes a die roll important.

So, three rolls is less than ideal.  Sure, one roll can be an “evil” roll, like rolling L: Underworld in L5R, where you do get punished for doing that instead of a normal roll (Courtier) that got failed.  However, besides that still having problems, I think there are better and more satisfying ways to achieve goals.

Heroes of Rokugan modules sometimes provide what I find to be more satisfying ways to deal with challenges than just more rolls.  PCs acquire Favors and Allies from mods.  In my experience, they just keep accumulating, being rarely used for anything.  That may not be the same for people who cash them in for off stage stuff, but I’ve never had that come up.  Instead, on occasion, a mod will have a mechanic for cashing one or the other in to do something.  In a number of cases, it doesn’t matter to my tables because one or more PCs can hit social TNs or whatever.

But, the idea is sound.  Basically, there needs to be a mechanism for parties to have a resource that can be expended instead of making a die roll.  Well, duh, many will think – that’s what money/gold/treasure is for!  Can’t scare away highway robbers?  Bribe them to go away.

For some genres, that makes sense.  Though, that only provides a second way to deal with issues.  In the Feng Shui variant game I’m running, money wouldn’t make much sense, as wealth is just flavor in the genre.  I do have Contacts as a mechanic, that is basically the same idea as Allies in L5R.  I could develop that more and have them be expendable resources to deal with plot moving tasks.  In truth, kind of the whole point of them in the first place was to help with plot moving tasks, but I haven’t made that clear enough.

For instance, you have the POTUS as a Contact.  You need to infiltrate an embassy (well, consulate).  Boom!  Consulate party invite.

The important thing is that there’s a cost.  You can make a roll in the first place with no meaningful cost.  You can avoid rolling at a cost.  You can fail the roll and have a cost, ideally a greater cost than avoiding the roll all together since there should be a cost/punishment to failure to make success matter.  When I craft adventures, I need to think more of the costs, especially if the PC’s aren’t going to be aware of them at the time as this is a pain to track, of using a method besides the die roll to move forward.

On another topic and one that may or may not seem related, one thing that bothers me is a die roll challenge that the whole party makes and that someone will likely succeed at, with a greater number of PCs increasing the likelihood of success.

Take a typical perception roll to see someone getting away or someone pulling a weapon or someone doctoring a drink or whatever.  If the roll has a not very high difficulty, then someone among five players should consistently make it.  Even worse, if the roll was necessary to make for the party, you get into the problems above if everyone fails, but people won’t fail because the difficulty wasn’t high enough that a large group would all fail it.

In Total War, I went into how I think challenges that are only relevant to part of the party are a problem.  However, the flip side of that is that if everyone can overcome a challenge, then being good at something hardly matters.  Using L5R again as an example, suppose a Lore: History roll with a party of five players will enable the party to understand enough of what is going on to make the right decision.  The party has three INT 2’s and two INT 3’s.  One of the INT 3’s has a rank in L: History.  Everyone Voids for, let’s say, 3k2, 3k2, 3d10, 4k3, 5k4.  If the TN is 25, it’s almost a coin flip for the highest roll, which seems bad.  So, the TN is 20.  That gives the first two rollers a 21% chance each, 28% for the third, 57% for the fourth, and 85% for the last.  The 5k4 could fail, but one can do the math on how slim it would be for anyone, which I approximate at 3% without doing the multiplication.

Besides that the roll becomes not so meaningful when someone will succeed, you often get multiple successes.  The “expert” doesn’t seem all that special when the critical die roll in the expert’s field is made by someone else as well.

I had an idea yesterday while playing our L5R home campaign to discourage the “everyone rolls” situation.  Take the worst result and subtract the difference between the DC/TN/whatever the system calls the target number and that result from the highest result.  Keep in mind that if the roll wasn’t that hard to begin with, there’s a definite floor to results to prevent this from being that harsh.  In reality, it’s just averaging the two results.  Repeat as necessary for second worst and second best and so on.  Of course, L5R is very different from, say, d20.  In d20, much more likely to have a less than 50% roll or have the average of two rolls be rather poor.

If that system doesn’t turn out to work in practice, then another system is to modify the best result by other people’s results.  Like the Aid action in d20 that is an easy +2 to another’s roll, only everyone can do it and every roll adds or subtracts.  Unfortunately for L5R, modifiers tend to be of the +5/-5 sort, which is way too large.  Could be something like everyone who succeeds adds 2 and everyone who fails subtracts 2.  That discourages people with 2d10, 3k2, and the like from rolling in L5R but may discourage too much those who roll 4k3 and other okay dice pools.  Though, again, because L5R has a lot of explosive results, the 36 on 4k3 is still good even with several -2’s.

I laud L5R’s system quite often because I find it more fun to roll dice as a player than most other systems, it’s a system of success, it’s not too crunchy, etc.  I do think it has an issue with group success being too easy, as some random 3k2 die roll explodes into the 30’s or whatever.  (And, there’s the issue of contested rolls I’ve mentioned before.)

Of course, the harder a group roll becomes, the more important that there be other ways to move forward than just die rolls.