Bench Players

July 28, 2014

I was going through V:TES decks I had written up in preparation for the upcoming Berkeley tournaments.  I had used a system, when deciding what to take to LA in February, of listing pros and cons and giving a rating to how much I wanted to play the deck.  While doing the same for the upcoming tournaments, I had a couple of thoughts.

One of which I forgot.  Some sort of earth-quivering epiphany, I’m sure.

Another thought came from a recent experience.  I was invited to an Independence Day event by a Shadowfist player.  Now, Merlin and I have played in a RPG campaign together (Feng Shui), played some other stuff together, my perfect victory record with the Dune Boardgame came from playing it at his house, and we even were designing a CCG together (with Bill) that was Merlin’s pet project at the time, but Shadowfist is the main thing he’s playing when I’m around.  I picked up some Shadowfist boxes from him of non-Modern stuff.  Whether I make use of it, hard to say given how little Shadowfist action is going on in the area.  But, anyway, he was mentioning that such and such a set had good cards for whatever faction, and I responded about how I wasn’t that concerned about good cards.

The gist of my response was intended to be, “I’m not concerned with good cards, I’m concerned with cards I’d be interested in playing.”

The two are very much not the same thing.  Not the same thing for Shadowfist.  Not the same thing for Babylon 5.  And, …


Clearly not the same thing with V:TES, but one of the criteria for decks I decide to take to tournaments is functionality.  There are pieces to that.  Will it just roll over and die to stealth bleed?  To vote?  To some dude with a .44?  Those are not decks I’m enthused to play.  I even downgrade the desirability of decks that have no coherent ousting plan, as hard as that may be to believe.


Babylon 5 taught me that decks that don’t meet a minimum threshold of viability (aka nutpunchers in V:TES lingo) are to be eschewed.  It’s not just that I will lose, it’s that I will skew results for everyone else.  V:TES is arguably more that way because it’s attack left.

To a greater degree than many years ago, I feel a responsibility to be relevant in tournaments.  I used to think casual play and tournament play didn’t need to be different for me, and that was wrongheadedness.  Even when I was more likely to play some goofy deck in a tournament, it was by design.  In casual play, it’s all about “let me see how this works” with varying degrees of caring whether it will work or not.  Tournament play is far more about “okay, it’s funny, but will it keep vote decks from winning?” or whatever the goal in V:TES is supposed to be.

That’s not a bad thing.  Some of what I miss about two-player CCGs is the idea of bringing something to the table intended to compete with tournament decks.

But, it does make both deckbuilding and deckdeciding less fun.  I can throw in a couple of random, funny cards in any sort of well-designed deck, but how boring is that deck going to remain because it plays cards/strategies I’ve played dozens of times before?  It’s far more interesting to play some deck that doesn’t seem like it should do anything, yet does.

Which brings up something.  One of the things missing from my multiplayer CCG play in the last 10 years or so is the desire to try to show how something is better than people think.  Sure, I build concept decks (see old post about these) that show how something is still broken even when it isn’t played in the standard way, but those are really boring decks when I’m not in the heat of the moment of having arguments with imaginary forum posters.  Whether I can get back to the idea of “for you see, Elixir of Distillation is tech against Suicide Auspex” is unclear.

I think it was around the time of Gargoyles with Presence that I went from “this is underrated and should see some play” to “this is funny and … it is funny” and rarely crossed back.  It’s not that I always play joke decks, Mercury’s Arrow was totally … er … totally … um …

I asked people if they wanted to give me decks to play for one tournament weekend and I got a couple.  I wasn’t terribly enthused by the experience, which was useful to learn.

As someone who believes the game isn’t boring, even with no new cards, I can’t justify playing a deck that will be known to be boring.  On the other hand, to be responsible as a tournament participant means playing “junk” and not junk.  The issue with this is that such decks don’t often come readily to mind.  I’m so anti playing certain stapley cards that even reasonable decks with these cards are downgraded or written off.

I could, of course, build 80% of a deck and roll dice to randomly determine the rest of the deck, a completely cunning scheme that cannot possibly fail.  Too much effort.  Would be rolling dice forever when I need that precious time to hunt through my collection for the cards to go into my decks.

Actually, it would be funny to play some webdecks, you know, the cool ones or just plain “why did you not play better cards?” ones.  The primary downside being reduced credit for goofiness if I should accidentally achieve firstest place.  The plusser side is that it will confuse people when I play that intercept deck with no wakes or whatever.  Though, I’ve discovered that not having the cards everyone expects you to have tends to make for some very unenthralling experiences.

There are lots of good cards.  Maybe, it’s time to play with some of them.  Only 10% of a deck determined by random die rolls is still funny, am I right?

BattleTech Scenario Building

July 19, 2014

No pretentious title.

I have been creating BattleTech scenarios for months.  I had a Davion/Kurita campaign where I was tracking results but didn’t really do much with those results.  The current campaign we are playing is called “Arms Race”, as it’s about the hunt for Lostech in the 3025-3040 period, where I think around 3033 makes sense for the actual year, though it may not matter a lot.

My faction is Warrior House Kamata.  Gary’s is a merc unit with mysterious backing.  Andy’s is the Atrean Hussars unless he tells me differently (he has only played one scenario so far).  I like the idea of the crap Houses getting advanced tech and changing the course of history, especially Liao not being the whipping boy for those periods I know anything about (which is about to 3057).

Anyway, scenarios.  By anecdotal measure, I’ve gotten a lot better at them.  Some of the Davion/Kurita ones didn’t go over well, though that had something to do with not planning to maps and mechs, not knowing LOS, movement, and water rules all that well, and whatever.  I’m actually quite surprised by how many of the Arms Race scenarios have worked out well.

Experimenting may have paid off.  Of course, the next experiment may end up a failure, but it’s heartening that so many experiments haven’t failed.

Such as?

The only real exploration scenario for Arms Race involved building ruins and random mines and exploration results.  It was quite funny how often Gary failed to find any Lostech early on and got hammered by mines but managed to acquire the almighty Gauss Rifle in the end.  Liao still hasn’t gotten their hands on a Gauss.

That might not be a great technology to introduce since it’s so good compared to 3025 tech and makes for a high percentage of one-shot kills to the head.  Other tech recovered has been Ultra 5, LB 10-x, Artemis IV, Small Pulse, Medium Pulse.  There will never be double heat sinks or XL engines, as those completely change the game.  LB 10-x is the autocannon that should have existed in 3025 play.  Streak SRM-2 and CASE are two clearly acceptable things to add.  Maybe Large Pulse, though I want to encourage ammo using weapons since they are so awful, which, by the way, means that Anti-Missile Systems will never appear.

Getting back to scenarios that worked, I had a three faction scenario that was 2 v. 1, two Liao mechs, two merc mechs, four Marik mechs.  It got defensive towards the end, after a Gauss Rifle shot decapitated a fresh Archer.  So, it wasn’t perfect.  But, it had a number of interesting things going on and allowed three players to play, where our previous attempts at three player play where everyone was on their own side I found to be incredibly tedious.  I’m writing a scenario that’s a treasure hunt where everyone is on their own side, to see if it’s possible to have a three-sided game actually work.

Gary and I have built out our companies to where we have defined pilots (mine have names, including the one who got killed last session).  Our last session saw interesting negotiation over salvage and not just murdering each other’s mechs/pilots, which is how things would have gone in earlier play before we defined pilots.

That’s probably the hardest thing about putting together scenarios.  Almost all of the ones in scenario supplements I’ve bought in the last 20 years or whatever involve destroying the other side or gaining VPs for destroyed mechs.  That’s really not all that fun when you bother to personalize your mechs/pilots.  Mech destruction should happen.  Pilots getting taken out by Gauss to the brain will happen.  But, it shouldn’t be 50% turnover every week.  For one thing, the harsher combats are, the less incentive to put at risk your forces, which leads to boring defensive struggles.  Thematically, House forces can easily replace but mercs shouldn’t be able to easily replace mechs, though I’m fine with handwaving a lot of this to not produce faction death spirals.

So, as this campaign has gone on, I’ve added more and more thematic content.  I have in mind who the mysterious backer of Gary’s merc unit is, after considering and discarding a number of possibilities the other players guessed.  I see the Free Worlds League/Capellan Confederation alliance breaking down during this campaign.

I’ve also added mechanical content, in that I often didn’t previously specify how maps were going to be set up before play, what happens when you retreat, whether units deploy on to a map or start on a map, etc.  I always had VP conditions, but I introduced a round-by-round score card system, a la boxing, to have more VP possibilities and to encourage aggression.  It has worked really well, so far, flattening out VP acquisition and encouraging me to get aggressive when “behind on the card”.  Gary put together an experience point system for pilot improvement that uses margin of victory.  I think adding unit special abilities would be another good way to use XP.  Individual pilot abilities might make sense, but I don’t know about getting too far into accounting and increasing detail too much.

In the Davion/Kurita campaign, I was seeing a lot of the problems in BattleTech.  Fights could often be unfun due to randomness, rules, movement issues, mech stupidity (even though one of my main goals was to play with mechs right out of TRO3025 to see how they really play, before you fix them).  Player style led to one side being very aggressive and the other side defensive.  Fights were often one-sided as pretty much everything came down to taking out mechs.  How salvage was ever supposed to happen except in one-sided beatdowns was unclear.

In this campaign, I’m seeing a lot of what BT should be.  While I don’t expect to get into Mechwarrior, I feel a narrative in this campaign, even before pilots got defined.  I have to be creative, but I’m finding ways to not have scenarios devolve into total annihilation.  Mech vs. nature effects are interesting to me.  We are probably going to introduce strafing and other pseudo-environmental effects soon.  Mech design/refit is under way, with the group trying to keep reasonable on modifications and with no new design yet being introduced.  I’m taking map configuration more and more into play.  We tend to do three mechs on three mechs as a sweet spot on volume of decisions and volume of firepower.  We tend to play slower, less maneuverable mechs to reduce analysis paralysis.  We avoid light mechs not just because of maneuverability issues but to have more of a slugfest.  We minimize elevation, and I think avoiding woodriffic maps makes for better play.  I hate water, but I’m going to try a scenario with frozen rivers just to use water maps without having to put up with water nonsense.  There’s even some hope for salvage without the result being brutally one-sided.

Due to limiting space taken and to encourage faster engagement, we have been using mostly one map, sometimes two or even 1.5.  I’m thinking two (or 1.5) makes more sense to have the longer range weapons have more play and to create more variety in maneuvering, but we can’t feasibly do more than that and we have only limited time much of the time, so smaller engagements that resolve faster are better.

I usually do a 10 round limit on the scenario to prevent drawn out endgame situations and because I may have to do other gaming after BT.  This has been in use for a lot of scenarios at this point, but it was a huge improvement when it got introduced.  Again, the more we make BT like boxing – win by decision, TKO, rather than requiring a knockout – the better it seems to get.

Private Schools

July 11, 2014

I argue vehemently about how much better shugenja are than other schools in L5R 4e.  At least, the schools anyone should ever allow, so exclude Henshin.

I don’t see why I need to beat the dead horse as to why.

I see some value into going into why it’s a problem.

With 3e/3r, school imbalances didn’t bother me.  This was in sharp contrast to how class imbalances in Conan d20 bothered me, when I was playing the two at the same time.  I went into why.

With 4e, it’s not so much that shugenja bother me, as I like having party members who cast Path to Inner Peace, Jade Strike, even Tempest of Air (I just played a HoR3 mod where Tempest put a fleeing baddie into the kill zone of my fellow bushi … I never attacked in the combat).  It’s how everyone else sucks so hard that bothers me.

I mentioned this on the forums, and the only response was that design philosophy was to not have the insane power that 3r had.  Except, that’s terrible design philosophy.  That’s the D&D philosophy of starting out a worthless nobody and grinding into brokenness.  L5R is broken at SR-3.  Yet, most of the play is at SR-1 and SR-2.  I’d much rather have fun than not.  A lot of having fun has nothing to do with power.  Part of having fun has to do with being special in some way.

Not that I see courtiers being special in 3r, but bushi?  Yes, bushi felt special.  Maybe my views are distorted because my primary bushi experience in 3r was with a Mirumoto Bushi that gets an awesome ability at SR-1, a solid ability at SR-1, then a second attack at SR-2.  Maybe my views are distorted because TNs to cast spells for shugenja were generally higher in 3r (had to innate and use scroll to match lower 4e TNs), and mastery didn’t show up until you got to the broken stage of 3r play – mid to late SR-2.

As previously mentioned, courtier abilities are too campaign dependent for me to consider useful.  But, let’s just list bushi abilities for those ranks that, by far, most of my play is at.

Hida Bushi – Heavy Armor, damage bonus, Reduction – fantastic.

Hiruma Bushi – +1k0 to attacks, only ever seen the noncombat ability relevant twice, situational +10 ATN – meanwhile, Earthy shugenja gives 10 Reduction at this rank.

Kakita Bushi – skip a turn to do more on other turns is useful to be able to do but has very little value, situational +2k0 to attacks – weak.

Daidoji Iron Warrior – more wounds, +1k0 attacks, broken guard ability – shugenja level combat impact.

Mirumoto Bushi – minor ATN bonus, spell manipulation, dueling ability – awful, and I get really tired of hearing about how the school is strong at SR-5 … I’ve yet to play with a SR-5 bushi in 4e.

Akodo Bushi – Free Raise, probable +1k0 to attacks, add Honor to one roll per round – really solid.

Matsu Beserker – +Honor to damage, some other stuff – +Honor to damage and some other stuff.

Yoritomo Bushi – even more minor ATN bonus, +1k0 attack, situational pile on – I’d rather be a Hiruma.

Tsuruchi Archer – +1k0 attack, Initiative bonus, +2k0 damage – would I rather be a Hiruma?  Basically trading +2k0 damage for nontrivial ATN bonus.  Damage is always useful, so this is probably better.

Shiba Bushi – double Void (primarily a noncombat ability), free guard, spell manipulation – all abilities you leverage from building around (i.e. as unlimited as double Void is, it’s still limited by how few VPs you will have), one of which is pretty useless without a shugenja.

Bayushi Bushi – Initiative bonus, probable ATN bonus, damage bonus – the sort of abilities you want in combat.

Moto Bushi – +1k0 damage, situational attack bonus – huh?  What is the thinking here?

Utaku Battle Maiden – +Honor to attack maybe damage, bonus to Initiative or ATN – better than Hiruma.

Only the Shiba gets a powerful noncombat ability.  So, one might think bushi are meant to fight.

Yet, how much better are a lot of these abilities than not having them at all?  I got into this with analysis of the courtier archer.  The reality is that they generally sound fair – you will be better at combat than those who don’t have these abilities.  Some schools will be much better at combat, like Hida and Matsu.  They kind of sound in line with courtier abilities, if you could ever analyze courtier abilities for how actually useful they are, something I suppose I should make some effort to do, some day.

But, they all have one huge limitation – they only help combat, which is, on average, around a third of my L5R play (one campaign, it’s probably more like 75% of what matters).  Most shugenja spells are combat spells.  But, some aren’t.  Some really good ones.  Even if you made Importune impossible, an area of shugenja betterness that some have gravitated towards, I will just use up that Air slot on By the Light of Lady Moon or Nature’s Touch.  As much as Commune should not exist mechanically, I don’t see it going away for thematic reasons.  Extinguish, Jurojin’s Balm are both narrow but see use.  Reversal of Fortunes should be usable in noncombat situations, otherwise you get into a huge argument on what is and is not possible outside of combat.  Ignoring Void spells, other utility spells see far less use in my experience, but they exist.  Then, there’s Path to Inner Peace, which isn’t just a combat spell, but it’s so often tied to combat.

Betterness.  I choose “better” for shugenja because, even if you believe bushi are as good at combat as shugenja, shugenja would still be better, having abilities not limited to combat.  Even if you somehow thought courtier techniques made a bigger difference than spells outside of combat, courtiers get pritnear nothing for combat and most spells are combat spells.  I don’t think anyone questions shugenja versatility.  I think they overstate what nonshugenja can do compared to what shugenja can do in their fields of core competency.

Getting completely off on a tangent, I have the sense that so much of people thinking courtiers talk better and bushi murder better comes down to people building characters differently in terms of traits and skills.  My mind was blown by someone recently saying that Courtier/Etiquette Insight bonuses are to help courtiers.  Um, you mean, if they waste their time getting Courtier 7/Etiquette 7?  Because, everyone (in HoR) gets Courtier 3/Etiquette 3, unless they think it’s inappropriate to the character, which just makes everyone (in HoR) more talky.  I’m exaggerating, but it’s really, really hard not to buy those up to three in HoR, where rank 1 skills don’t count for Insight.  In other campaigns, sure, might just pick up rank 1 skills, instead, for the same Insight payoff.

There’s nothing to prevent a shugenja from having Heavy Weapons 7 or Kenjutsu 7.  There’s nothing to stop a shugenja from having Courtier 5.  Etc.  My Usagi Bushi has Awareness 5.  My 3r Omoidasu had a weapon skill of 10, at IR-1.

Let’s assume, for a second, that bushi and courtiers and weirdoes had no techniques and that shugenja couldn’t cast spells.  I build my shugenja exactly the same way I build one of them, say Earth 3, Agility 3, Reflexes 3 as a newb or newbish shugenja who wants to be fighty.  We are exactly equal.  Maybe the bushi has a kata that I can’t take, but core book kata largely suck.  Now, we add back in techniques.  The bushi gets 1-3 combat abilities.  The shugenja casts spells … badly … except for Earth spells, in this hypothetical.  Still, the bushi does Medicine and the shugenja does Path.  The bushi does swing with Agility 3/Kenjutsu 3, the shugenja drops Fires of Purity first and does 4k4 more damage every round (possibly less, possibly more) with the shugenja’s Agility 3/Kenjutsu 3.

So, what was the point of this post?  Actually, the point of this post was to talk about fixes.

Bushi are “easy” to fix.  Give all bushi simple action attacks as part of being a bushi.  Change their simple action attack techniques to two Free Raises with whatever weapons they are supposed to be using.  That’s the power fix.  Someone mentioned regeneration on the forums, I had that idea as well.  Make Stamina do something – bushi gain Stamina in wounds back every … round?  That could be supertedious.  Every minute?  That deals with the problem of how bad nonmagical healing is … for bushi.  I’d rather just see everyone get back 50% wounds after every fight to prevent the “we can’t go forward because we are too beat up” problem that is common in FRPGs.

But, what about everyone else?  Bushi can be elevated to be more cool and maybe even better at combat than shugenja.  But, why would anyone ever play a courtier, artisan, ninja, or monk?

For courtiers, I see some ability based off of mental traits.  Add Willpower to X, add Perception to Y.  But, what are those rules?  How do they avoid stepping on just being better at skills?  Actually, it would help a lot if I had some idea what courtiers, artisans, et al, are supposed to do in play.  While combat may only be a third, investigation is about a third, and, while Courtier rolls and Sincerity rolls make up about a third of play, that’s it – they are skill rolls.  Techniques rarely come into the equation.  Sure, Free Raise on those is useful.  Bayushi Courtier ability gets used.  But, Yasuki?  Kitsuki get investigation help, so they are good.  Omoidasu don’t get techniques until SR-3.  Yoritomo is a more specialized form of skill bonus, but sure.  Asako are screwed because knowing stuff rarely matters to the plot or to doing cool things.

More generally, a lot of adventures screw courtiers by just having social challenges not be that hard or be focused on a single roll that can be Honor Rolled.  If social challenges were Commerce TN 30, followed by Courtier TN 30, followed by Sincerity TN 30, with Free Raises for allies and gifts and Temptation, sure, I can see why they have the techniques they do.  Never see that.

Of course, it’s a vicious circle.  To not blow away the bushi and force shugenja to cast social bonus spells, social challenges are either limited or not that hard.  Because they are limited or not that hard, people would rather play bushi or shugenja to get their fight on.  Because people are playing bushi/shugenja, don’t make social challenges that involved.

Even my Awareness 5 bushi spending 30 odd sessions at Winter Court didn’t have to make a lot of social rolls (in a single session) or do a lot that involved gifts, allies (we aren’t using allies, so, um, yeah), or whatever.  I did try to use role-playing to support roll-playing, and that may have made a big difference on achieving goals, but, actually, the goals didn’t really matter that much.  It was fun to participate, but it wasn’t life and death.  Why would it be life and death when the party has no courtiers and has a bunch of characters who don’t even bother taking one rank in core social skills?

I’m just going to throw this out here, now, and not play into my native secretiveness.  My intention in HoR4 is to play a courtier, just as I played one in HoR1 and HoR2.  I don’t care that my techniques aren’t likely to matter.  I expect to have fun with the mechanical oddity of the character and with whatever thematics I develop as I play the character.  But, I know how to build characters to leverage what I want to be good at.  I embrace being a support PC or doing what interests me and not what is optimal for party success.  Other folks don’t worry about mechanics, which can work, too.  But, you know what, I hope to have at least two shugenja at every table because shugenja win …

Unless 5e changes things, which is what I’m hoping for.  Power to the nonmagical people, 5e!

RPG Pillars

July 9, 2014

I read this D&D 5e review Review of D&D Basic Rules and came across these lines:  The “three pillars of adventure” they tell us, are “exploration”, “social interaction” and “combat” – and the way this section is worded makes it very clear that the first two are the game’s priorities. It has to be admitted that 4th edition tried to make this emphasis too, although the written intent was not completely supported by the combat-heavy focus of the rules.

Putting aside the idea that D&D 4e was anything besides a videogame turned into a boardgame, I started trying to think of arguments for or against the idea that these are the three pillars.

First of all, you can try to fit this model by expanding the terms.  Challenges of the natural disaster sort or the like could be considered to be “fighting” against something and rolled into combat.  Contests, say a poetry slam in L5R or a jousting event in a Camelot game might roll up into social interaction.

Why that and not combat?  Without getting into generalizing activity in RPGs versus challenges, let’s say we limit the three pillars to types of challenges.  Combat is interactive/opposed and threatens danger (mental/physical/spiritual?, as opposed to social danger?).  Putting out a fire, rescuing people from a burning building, figuring out what to do about an imminent tidal wave all feel opposed to me.  Social interaction could certainly be opposed, but I kind of see the root of social interaction being establishing your character’s place in the world – there’s some sort of lasting effect.  Contests often lack a danger element (or you can’t really do anything about sabotage except to stop it before the contest), but I see them about establishing your character’s place, with the rewards of success or the price of failure hopefully having some sort of lasting impact, whether immediate “you get to kiss the apple festival queen” or more general “+3 reputation in Apple Village”.

So, what distinguishes exploration?

Combat and social interaction aren’t about unknowns, aren’t cored on discovery.  Exploration is the discovery challenge group.  So, investigation is exploration, in this model.

I don’t know about this model.  In a post not that long ago, I talked about the common strategies parties take to deal with challenges.  One of them was stealth.  How does stealth fit into the model?  Or, is stealth a tactic and this three pillars model isn’t about tactics?

At some point, I had thought of some activity that didn’t seem to fit all that well, maybe.  If I think about recent experiences, let’s see if I can find a problem point.

I just ran a Conan session.  It was mostly about gathering information and planning how to find someone.  That was really just exploration, though it could have gotten into social interaction if there was more of an effort to establish something about the world.  A couple of players whose characters didn’t know each other talked to each other, which was social interaction.  I ended with a combat.  The (pure) thief stole some stuff.  Exploration because the thief was learning about his target?  Combat because he had to oppose Move Silently and Hide checks against Spot/Listen checks?

I ran a L5R adventure a couple of times recently.  There were rolls in the beginning to simulate investigation (exploration), tracking (exploration), fighting (combat), a natural disaster (combat).  Characters interacted with NPCs (social interaction).  They did investigations (exploration).  They fought (combat).  They debated ethics (social interaction).

So far, so good?

Let’s try some more exotic RPG genres.

Supers.  I fight supervillains (combat).  I investigate why something was stolen or where the supervillain lair is or where the plot resolver are (exploration).  I banter with supervillains, superheroes, and romantic interests (social interaction).  I hide my secret identity (social interaction).  I find out the supervillain is my twin sibling or is only committing crime to make the world better or is dying and will quickly resolve the plot for me, so I soliloquy (social interaction but maybe exploration if I had to do something to find out).

Gritty space.  The ship’s engines are acting up (… combat? … this is closest to being a natural disaster).  We need to make money by transporting wooden shoes to the planet “that knew nothing of arch support” (exploration to get shoes, find planet, chart course; social interaction to negotiate trade agreement).  Argue with fellow crew about priority of engines versus air quality versus keeping pet space skunks (social interaction).

I guess everything can be shoehorned on to these pillars.  If it’s about discovery, it’s exploration.  If it’s about establishing a character’s place in the world, even if it’s just in contrast with another PC, it’s social interaction.  If it’s opposing something, where a tidal wave isn’t what you are opposing but the tidal wave’s effect on Surf Village, it’s combat.  Kind of not too happy with the last one.  There’s a big difference between making some computer skill checks and trying to kill someone before they kill you.  Or, is there?

Again, it’s the consequences not the challenge.  Why are you making computer skill checks?  If it was to call up someone’s Facebook profile, that’s exploration.  For combat, it’s to stop a virus from spreading, it’s to activate hyperdrive before you slam into a sun, etc.  The opposition isn’t the computer, even if that’s what the roll is against.  The opposition is the consequence of failure.

Now, I’m projecting.  If someone was really arguing that the three pillars are exploring, social, and combat with those terms meaning just what they typically mean, that’s clearly not the case.  May say those are more common activities/challenges, especially combat.  May say that HoR tags correspond fairly well to those, in that the most common tags are:  combat; politics; travel; intrigue.  But, is an archery contest social?  Is it combat with no danger?  A not terribly unusual HoR tag is supernatural, which usually means learning about some spiritual thing.  Actually, I’m overlooking one of the most common tags:  investigation.  Exploration has to include investigation or three pillars fall done and crack.  Investigation is the most common activity in RPGs that aren’t tactical wargames.

As investigation is more common than exploration in RPGs, why not use the term “discovery”, instead?  I’m fine with not renaming social – I’m the one who emphasizes the importance of interacting with NPCs or NPLs (non-player locations) to interface with the world and make it more than just dice-rolling.  It may not seem social to brew the best coffee in the Million Spheres, but your brew only matters if someone else partakes or otherwise interacts with your coffee.  Combat is the most problematic term.  “Contention”?  Bad, as I’m putting contests into social interaction most of the time.  Actually, if one simply changes COM-bat to com-BAT, then it works, which is maybe what was intended all along.  I don’t do COM-bat with the heavy snowfall challenge, but I am totally com-BATting it with my bracelets of flamethrowing.

So, why do I care, besides upping my blog post count?

When I’m not doing something, I may think in terms of structure, think analytically.  In the moment, I just make stuff up.  Great!  Creativity and logic – pure frickin’ genius in one package … ladies.  Except, I look back on my GMing efforts and see lots of missed opportunities.  I see flipping the switch between creative and logical being an all or nothing kind of deal.  Maybe gaming theory doesn’t help me merge the two, hasn’t to this point much, but, if I can structure how I put together RPG sessions/campaigns, maybe I can take advantage of some logical thinking.  As a practical example, next RPG session I run – how many “discovery” does it have?  Social?  Combat?  Does the balance sound right given player preferences?  Can I clearly identify the true challenges and what the consequences should be to where I can set better difficulty levels?

Whoa.  That last question opens up a whole ‘nother blog post.  For this one, I’d just state that “combat’s” primary feature is the nature of the consequences.  “Exploration” has a consequence of failing to move forward or moving forward in a less effectual way … one hopes for the latter as the former is just awful in RPGs, but the latter can also be pain.  “Social interaction” has thematic consequences where “combat” has mechanical ones … I guess.  Gee, this really deserves more than a paragraph, if I think of more to say on the nature of consequences and what they mean for making better experiences.  Actually, this paragraph is probably far more important than arguing about what to call things or how one thing categorizes versus another.

Anyway, that review of D&D 5e does make things sound much better.  I’m not a fan of any D&D system, anymore, but the WoW edition of the game really irritated me, even after I stopped playing it.  D&D has not always been played as a tactical wargame for the simple reason that it was always one or two as market leader and played in many, many ways, but my experiences have only been as a tactical wargame except for one campaign that had a story if not a particularly coherent one, and I just don’t take it seriously as an option for a game that is supposed to have a story.  True, I do consider Conan d20 a legit option for telling a story, so I can see an argument that I’m overstating as one d20 FRPG is kind of similar to another d20 FRPG systemwise, but I just have never experienced D&D as anything with a coherent plot or with a world that you could meaningfully engage with beyond dice-rolling, which isn’t the system so much as it’s how people implement the system.  I take Fantasy Hero as a more credible system to run a FRPG (as opposed to boardgame) in, even though it’s all kinds of dry and crunchy, just because it lacks … for me … the baggage that D&D carries.

While I question D&D 5e emphasizing exploration and social interaction over combat, which is kind of irrelevant to my point but I can’t help trying to see if D&D can really take a move away from tactical wargaming, that review does point out how the system is adding thematic elements to characters.  The RPG narrative should be more than whether I critted the Drider right before it spellnuked me.  Mechanical narratives are cool, but I can get those from Descent or HeroQuest or BattleTech … from something that isn’t a RPG.

Mother Demeanor

July 2, 2014

Running Conan, I got to thinking about the world.  I rate it as one of the best worlds for running a RPG, possibly the best fantasy world I’ve run across.  I may be a high fantasy sort, but high fantasy IPs often make for junky worlds to run in, just as how I find Star Wars to be a terrible world to run a game in.

There are obvious reasons why The Hyborian Age differs from The Young Kingdoms, why even whatever Traveller’s milieu is is better than Star Wars for gaming.  Most of the fantasy fiction I read involves protagonists who are essential to the story.  Thomas Covenant is unique.  Elric is either unique or the infinite Eternal Champions have a unique role.  Jon-Tom Meriweather unique.  Etc.

That unique importance runs into a bunch of issues in gaming.  Take the most common Star Wars problem.  Most folks are attracted to being Force-wielders, yet the point of the good movies was having one messiah hero who mastered Forcestuff.  Pretty much every Star Wars game I’ve played in has been scum on the edge of the galaxy, whether PCs had Force powers or not, which could just as easily be Traveller or some other gritty game (with psionics) that is, like, the opposite of space opera in tone.

Anyway, nothing new about that.  I started thinking on another level, as I haven’t run a Conan campaign before or even run it much at all.

Okay, swords and sorcery or dark fantasy or horror fantasy if you read the stories and don’t watch the movies (I don’t remember the movies virtually at all) already has a dark element.  Well, read about human trafficking, forced prostitution, bestiality, and a bunch of other stuff from Conan RPG supplements and you get plenty of less-than-light.

But, as dark as the world gets portrayed, it doesn’t come across as a downer world, except when I’m reading through the Shadizar boxed set and have to read repeatedly about what it’s like for women in the city and Zamora, in general.  I’ve probably passed along just how depraved, perverted, and negative the world can be to my players.

Because extremes are more interesting.  The reality (of the fantasy) is that Conan is a world where you determine your fate.  May be terrible to be certain NPCs in the world, but PCs can be the Valerias or whomevers who aren’t just lifelong sex slaves, demonic sacrifices, or whatever.

Okay, still not that interesting.  What I got to thinking about was how the world is neutral towards PCs.  By this, I mean that some worlds will tend to be friendly, some will be hostile, some will adjust depending upon the power of the PCs.  One thing about high fantasy is that the stakes are always the highest possible that the protagonists can deal with.  For Camelot, that might just be some annoying knight or wizard or monster on a quest, where Lord of the Rings is about putting an end to living evil.  As the protagonists up their games, the baddies up theirs.  Sure, that might be the difference between the fate of the world and the fate of the world, so it’s functionally already on the highest mode of difficulty.

Conan gives a world in which the world just doesn’t give a shit about the PCs.  Not just that it doesn’t matter how powerful you are (the savages will eventually conquer your empire).  But, that you can be a 20th level whatever and still have a brawl in the marketplace with level one commoners.  Not that that is so likely since it shouldn’t be much of a challenge, though the scaling in the game is such that you can challenge high level characters with lower level opposition or monsters with obnoxious abilities (involving grapple, much of the time).  Offense far outstrips defense as you go up in levels, so you don’t have to worry about invincible PCs, plus there’s the lack of magic items and sorcery is limited in many ways.

There’s just something about how the world comes across to me where the PC interaction with the world is different from so many others.  I feel like PCs can make the world friendlier or more violent, depending upon the tactics they use.  I feel like the world’s baseline adjustment to PCs going up in levels is not very noticeable.  Compare to how many worlds become arms races, not just of mechanical power but of such things as the Status race in L5R.  Some worlds may have an inverse reaction to PCs, where early on everything is ridiculously difficult but gets ridiculously easy when you progress.

To keep trying different words for the same thought, there’s just something about how the experience in Conan seems more controlled by the players than in other worlds.  Again, a lot of this may be due to how unimportant the PCs are.  If you can take care of yourself better than the masses, people won’t mess with you (normally) – you don’t get into situations where people will mess with you because you are stronger, weaker, or even because you are PCs.  There’s no good versus evil battle.  You can do horrible stuff and fit right in.  Or, you can be a shining beacon of virtue and not fit right in but still not have The Society of Injustice on your ass all of the time.  If you pick fights, you will get into fights.  If you don’t, you won’t.

Well, yes, you will get into fights because combat is a core thing to do.  But, as I’ve pointed out a couple of times recently, our Conan play of yesteryear was notable for how social our party was and how often we didn’t fight normal humans because we Diplomacized them or Bluffed them or Intimidated them.  We almost always were fighting monsters or faceless hordes (often inhuman), with the occasional sorcerer.

The lack of external authority, the lack of repercussions to actions, etc. all make Conan virtually the opposite of L5R in terms of heroic fantasy.  While both games have Glory/Reputation and Honor/Honour, it’s just … it’s just opposite day, otherwise.  Where I find Rokugan to be depressing any time the legal system comes up or the “why don’t we just all get together and kaminuke the Shadowlands today?” questions come up, I find Conan has the potential for being optimistic and happycheeryface because you can decide how to live your life (up until the point you fail a climb check and fall into a hellbeast that consumes your soul, or until you blow your magic roll real bad and roll really high on the runaway magic chart and have your soul ripped out and consumed, or you get turned into a doll and have your soul consumed by a demon, or …).

Now, I really haven’t had a lot of D&D campaign play.  One campaign saw very little actually end up happening and another was a dungeon crawl with zero story.  There were a couple of others that were shorter.  But, anyway.  Where D&D so often strikes me as lacking in any sort of narrative, Conan seems inclined to having some sort of narrative, which is weird.  It’s weird because it’s really easy to play Conan as either a dungeon crawl or a lost green stone city crawl.  It’s weird because Conan also lends itself to episodic play, which is akin to having D&D sessions that are dungeon of the week.

Another feature that I mention for Conan and a reason I favor it so much is that it’s relatable to a degree that Middle Earth isn’t.  D&D just killed me on taking elves and dwarves seriously.  I may not know what it would really be like to live in a preindustrial society or even just to live among the many cultures of Earth, but I get the historical mishmash that is The Hyborian Age in ways that I wouldn’t even be able to with the nations of The Young Kingdoms.  Why this is important to the thrust of this post, which is about a different player experience to most RPG play I engage in, is that players can bring as much real world knowledge as they want into play.  The verisimilitude is not dependent upon “getting” the world.  If you can get Mongols, you can project what you know about them on Hyrkanians.  If you get Spaniards (with maybe some Italianness thrown in), you can project on to Zingarans.  I may not have an easy time getting Zamorians, but I don’t find Stygians hard to grok.  At least we have stereotypes to use for a world full of stereotypes.

Then, while I’m a fan of modern day play, especially modern supernatural, and I’m a fan of historical play, including historical supernatural, The Hyborian Age is enough fantasy to not be constrained by modern thinking or trying to put yourself into a particular historical period.

As much as someone can embrace the racism and sexism prevalent in the world, someone can also not and the world still works.  Rokugan, being far more artificial and far more constrained in terms of cultural standards, really doesn’t give you much of a choice in terms of how you view situations, at least up until the point where you are so comfortable with the norms that you specifically defy the norms.

Ultimately, I guess I can summarize by saying that PC identity is much more controllable by the players for a number of reasons.  One reason is that the world has a personality, but that personality is complex where many worlds have simple personalities.  Another reason is that the world doesn’t need the PCs, so the PCs have freedom of choice to a much greater degree.

Surviving The Table Of (Un)Death

July 1, 2014

Not a World Cup analogy but something of a sports analogy.  In major US team sports, there are about 30 teams in the leagues.  If every team had an equal chance of winning, that gives about 3% chance of winning a championship.  In a card tournament with 20 participants, with an equal chance of winning, each participant has a 5% chance of winning.

But, there’s nothing like an equal chance of winning.

Where the sports analogy breaks down is that multiplayer CCG tournaments aren’t one on one.  Maybe there’s a NASCAR analogy that could be used or a PGA one or whatever, but let’s get away from questionable comparisons.

At a given table of V:TES, there’s either a 20% or 25% chance of winning (ignoring games with no winner, which is a pretty significant thing to ignore) for each player.  Interestingly, if you figure you have a 20% chance of winning and play three rounds, after three rounds, it’s about a coin flip on having at least one game win.  Figure a 20 person tournament and three rounds and 12 possible game wins exist, which is pretty close to the idea that half of the participants, 10, will have a game win.

While kind of pointless math, a 12 player tournament with two rounds and a 20% model sees an average of about four players with a game win, which actually seems about right, as it’s common to have someone with two or for there to be GWless tables.

Moving on.

In order to win, everyone else must lose.

So, let them.

Going back to the sports analogy for a moment, CCG events see a situation where you can choose any team you want.  You want Gretzky, Pele, Jordan, etc. on your team, that’s your choice.  What you can’t choose is your coach/manager.  For certain sports, I’m a big believer that head coach is a horribly underrated position.  Well, mostly, I think this with NBA.  Jordan won zero championships without Phil Jackson.  Kobe won zero championships without Phil.  Having a star or two isn’t hard.  Not going to say there isn’t an advantage to having the best player in the game or having three hall of famers versus two hall of famers, but the variety of coaches with championships is low.

You are your head coach.  Your deck is your team.

I was thinking about how some players win or lose more than their share.  I have consistently, for what?, 10 years, pointed to player ability being far more important than deck strength in V:TES, and I’d imagine other multiplayer CCGs are the same.

If I had to explain how I’ve won more than my share of tournaments, I’d mostly put it down to everyone else losing.  I didn’t really do much to seize victory.  My first V:TES, VEKN-sanctioned tournament win came from my prey getting ousted when he played Game of Malkav.  My second TWDA-eligible win came when the entire table ganged up on my winnie Dominate prey and due to a Direct Intervention from my predator to hold off my prey from getting a second VP.  When I won with Baali/!Salubri, it was because my Dominate stealth bleed prey was hated by the entire table.  And, so it goes.

Because so many of my early tournaments were 10-12 person affairs, it was just a matter of getting to the finals with a couple of VPs and having everyone else lose.  Obviously, this works less well when there are more players, as getting to the finals becomes that much more difficult.

May call it “luck wins”.  And, these happen.  But, interestingly enough, it’s not the fact that you see the same winners over and over again that I’ve always used as an argument for player ability trumping all but also how some players never win.  You would think that if seating position, luck, or whatever in combination was that significant, there would be more of the one-time winners.  That doesn’t seem more common elsewhere, but it has been quite rare in my experience.  Now, as tournament sizes have grown larger, maybe I’ve seen that more often, though it gets hard for me to remember who wins some of our tournaments when it isn’t me, myself, and I.

I was inspired to write this morning because the never-winners need to be doing something different.  I don’t see it being playing better decks, as anyone can play any deck (I can build pritnear any V:TES deck and lend it to someone, if someone didn’t have the cards).  I don’t see it being choosing better seating positions in finals, as I’ve often had no choice of where I sat … though, maybe people would sit in front of me out of a strong lack of fear, which meant I didn’t have the hardest decks to oust in front of me.

There are usually crucial decisions in V:TES games.  Making the right decisions at key points in the game will lead to victory.  But, what I’m thinking about is less making those decisions and more letting other players screw up those decisions.

The odds are that you will lose.  Not just lose a tournament but lose even if you make the finals.  That’s the nature of tournaments not being two participants, with the caveat that you aren’t a far better player than your opponents.  The achievement is not to win all of the time but to not lose some of the time.  Over time, not losing starts looking more and more impressive.  Or, maybe, it just gets funnier and funnier …