Treasure Split

June 11, 2016

See if I can tie everything into a theme.

I played a recent RPG session.  In that session, almost all of the time was spent on things I disdain in a role-playing game.  However, I was often entertained.  I can do roll-playing.  It wasn’t like my expectations were different as it’s a group I’ve played a lot with, just forgetting how obsessed some people can be by such things as treasure allocation.

Actually, treasure allocation can be pretty funny.  There are so many cartoons or just insane [from a modern perspective] explanations in actual published books about D&D style treasure splits.  It’s like you are metaing on a parody of a parody or something maybe not that many levels deep.

It’s the unenlightened selfishness that can be entertaining.  After all, if parties do what makes sense, that’s much less of a subgame.  The whole subgame of “I want this, but if you get it, I should get that” does actually still exist in this decade.

I wanted one magic item.  For thematic reasons.  Its only good ability had nothing to do with those thematics.  Its only good ability is something I don’t expect to hardly ever use, not that its other two abilities are likely to see much use, either.  I would have gotten it for nothing if it lacked the good ability.  I did end up with it.  I couldn’t spend my share of the treasure to power up (since this is a game where your stuff and randomly determined attributes/special abilities are far more important to making you distinct than anything you try to become accomplished at) because everything else expensive went to other people.  Now sitting on a bunch of cash that, sure, just pays for the next resurrection.

I really have my own subgame going on of being ready to whine at any moment about how the party and random die rolls perpetually screw me.  Come on, you know this is fun.

Two games of Shadowfist, Thursday.  I won half of them.  That’s the split.  What’s the treasure?

I played the first game really badly in terms of two specific plays when everyone was close to winning.  Nevertheless, just because people stopped the player to my right, I did end up winning with two $10,000 Mans, two Buffalo Soldiers (completely shut down a Carnival of Carnage + Final Brawl board near-wipe), and some other 2-F dude.

I really like that I can play $10,000 Man with no Jammer resources.  I just need to figure out the right Classic Tech deck to run them.  Probably a factionless deck, since Architects, Syndicate, Dragons all have other hitters while Jammers defeats playing them in a non-Jammers deck.

$20,000 = win.  Treasure.

Oh, Syndicate won the other game.  We don’t play the right decks to just make Syndicate cry, which is always what happens when I play Syndicate – you know, decks that do well at stopping characters from taking sites.

I’m really overdue for some more meaty blog posts, some philosophical thing on how gaming should work or some deep dive card analysis on Promise of 1528 or something.

I was looking at a tournament winning V:TES deck recently and noticed some pretty amusing tech.  I’m totally going to steal that tech to play one of the clans I’m still allowed to play.

You see, part of the treasure trove that was my looking at my TWDs last month was realizing that my personal banned list had to expand massively.  I’m now unable to play Gangrel, Malkavians, Nosferatu, Giovanni (other than Augustus), and maybe some other crypt things (!Ventrue??).  Should be obvious why if you read one of those posts, but it occurs to me that what is obvious in my paradigm is not obvious in other people’s.  Like, people keep wondering why Scouting Mission is on my personal banned list when it seems obviously obvious.

The split is that I have such a large amount of the card pool I’m cut off from in standard constructed tournament play that I have to rethink what I will actually play in future tournaments.  Unfortunately, the next local tournaments appear to be ones I can’t play in due to the timing of trips.  With SoCal not providing anything in the way of opportunities for Hall of Fame advancement, getting to be like those middle years when tournaments were few and far between and others had risen up to unseat my peculiar perch.

I can, for instance, play much more Ravnos.  Except, I’ve won every tournament I’ve ever played playing Ravnos, which means I can’t play Ravnos, even though I want to murder wusses like Lambach with Spleen as is this nature of all things Ravnos.

I haven’t done a real !Trem deck in a long time.  Even with my limitations, I’m sure I can generate middling levels of bleed.  I got to get back to Laibonism.

Name:  Buffalo Dime
Faction:  Jammer
Size:  50

Jammer Cards (38)
Characters (21)
5x $10,000 Man
4x Buffalo Soldier
5x Dump Warrior
2x Napalm Addict
5x Portal Rat

Edges (1)
1x Payback time

Events (15)
2x Anarchy in the HK!
1x Disco Inferno
5x Scrounging [yes, terrible art version … that can’t be Salvaged]
1x Stick it to The Man!
1x The Underground
2x “Trust Me, I’ve Got a Plan”
3x Turbo Boost

States (1)
1x Homemade Tank

Generic Cards (12)
Events (3)
1x Salvage
1x The Algernon Effect
1x “We Can Rebuild Him”

Sites (9)
4x Dockyard
3x Manufactured Island
2x Mobius Gardens

Time to retire this bloated monstrosity, this mountain of filler, this Bugbear of the Bayou.  I never put a Portal Rat in play even with a bunch of edges that deserved nuking.  Just too much value in 10 grand worth of Man and Rasta Rebels.


Sane Pain

December 30, 2015

It may have been a thread on rpg.net that had something about Savage Worlds that got me to thinking about hit points, aka wounds, aka …

I’m going to focus on cons, as the pros of various things are largely the cons of others.

D&D

I’ve played some 4e.  I have not actually played any 5e.  Come to think of it, I haven’t played a number of other D&Ds. So, when I say D&D, I typically think of AD&D 1e and d20.

Cons:  Combatants are at full offense until they keel over.  Hit points are exceedingly gamey.

The latter doesn’t actually bother me.  I know I complain about how gamey mechanics are, especially when it comes to PC build components.  But, on the other hand, I am so, so, so, so not into realism when it comes to games.  That hit points are abstracted, mechanicized, or whatever really means nothing to me.

So, what about how hit points only matter when you run out of them?  This is something I can be concerned about.  But, not because of PCs.  Because of what PCs fight.  That a PC never weakens, just manages the accounting of their life points, well, it’s actually something I see as a pro.  A pro not just because it means PCs get to do stuff until they become fine red mist but also just the game accounting of this one stat.  It’s simple.  It doesn’t feel weird to me.  It does mean that players have to manage a resource that matters.

That monsters and crap fight full power until they are ashed, though, can be pretty ugly.  It’s not just on the GM side, where the GM has to think through what it means that an enemy that doesn’t retreat will just keep swinging.  It’s ugly that the incentives are all in favor of assured annihilation.

This was the strength of L5R 3e/3r, when I played it a lot.  You actually had a reason not to focus fire on your enemies.  Well, at least, some of the time.

Conan was my big D&Desque experience.  While it wasn’t always peach smoothies with whip cream to deal with my 120+ HP character’s management of HP (or how annoying crap like drowning took away the only thing the character was good at in combat – damage sponge), I didn’t think badly of HP.  A counterargument, though, is that HP weren’t clean in Conan – that the massive damage save rule meant you could have hundreds of HP and still explode before losing them all.  Then, some of the most tedious enemies (all of the most tedious enemies besides those that could grapple for free?) were like chopping down giant piles of wet wood.

Savage Worlds

You thought I was going to go to something more … Asian?

Cons:  Shaken is moronic.  Wounds often seem too much “oh, whatever … aaauuggghhhh”.  Where’s the healing?

Current thread on rpg.net about people’s SW combat experiences.  My first(?) experience was not pain, it was excruciating agony.  I spent 30+ minutes just toggling back and forth between Shaken and not Shaken.  I may not care a ton about combat, but I do care about doing things.

That’s what really inspired this post.  Doing things.  Doing things is necessary.  Doing things is why you do things, like play games.  Rolling dice just to achieve recovery from a condition that stops you from doing anything is … a sign that someone didn’t playtest better.  When I ran Solomon Kane, I houseruled a change to Shaken without ever running RAW.

The flip side of being in Shaken lock is not achieving any progress.  That’s the thing about D&D style hit point loss.  It may not matter that my 126 HP PC loses 50 HP in a fight, but it still feels like something happened.  If I never achieve better than Shaken, have I achieved anything at all?

RuneQuest has been like this.  Do nothing a bunch of the time, then Oh My Gods!  Of course, there, it’s usually much more brutal to the PCs.  Getting back to SW, as much as I’ve seen characters flail about, I’ve also seen the “take 3 wounds, soak?” situations.  While one wound is okay.  Three puts a damper on doing anything.

Maybe it’s just the genres of SW I’ve played, but I also find that healing isn’t quick enough.  Now, to be fair to SW (SK), I don’t recall it being that big of a deal for my Solomon Kane PCs to heal back up.  I’m not exactly sure why that was; I’ve managed to forget quite a bit about running SK.  I know that I just found reading the healing rules to be frustrating.

RuneQuest

Why not?

Cons:  Bleeding sucks.  Losing limbs sucks.  Hit locations suck.  Unconsciousness sucks.

As I recall, bleeding was an optional rule.  But, we used it.  Again, I don’t give a crap about realism.  Bleeding, as a mechanic, has never worked in my experience.  If anything, it produces ludicrously unrealistic actions, like cauterizing wounds and wasting time not trying to kill something that’s trying to kill you and carrying around a bunch of healing stuff just with the idea of stopping bleeding.

Hit locations are something I have never found to be remotely interesting.  All it does is create more complication for more variance without offering anything I can see to make combat better.  The loss of use of a limb in RQ was just obscenely common.  And, yet again, produced incredibly gamey player incentives.  Have to run around with Heal-6’s to make sure you got your limb back.

Unconsciousness, in and of itself, is not the problem.  It’s a problem when you achieve it while still in positive life boxes.  That screws up my math all of the time.  The “unconscious at zero, dying at negatives” is far more intuitive to me.

Feng Shui

Speaking of dying.  Death checks.  SW has them, too, of course.

Cons:  Loss of combat prowess with the AV mechanic can be brutal.  Feels sudden to go into penalties.

I guess 1e FS has similarities to SW.  I just didn’t feel the Impairment penalties as much.  Sure, I was in death checks at times, really should have died in one session where someone fumbled Medicine while I was in negatives.

I don’t think the concept is wrong so much as the execution.  Maybe what it needs to be is something like thirds.  First third, fine.  Second third, minor loss of functionality.  Third third, what?

Legend of the Five Rings

Had to get here, eventually.

Cons:  Which edition?  Let’s say 4e.  Lots of wound levels.  Overreliance on magical healing.  What do wound penalties affect?  Wound chart is oriented to getting you killed (unlike 3e).  Damage varies a lot.  Little ability to defend without help.

I’m sure I’m missing some things for what is the game I’ve examined the most.

Lots of wound levels means some sort of death spiral.  Sure, the windows can be so tight that you are rarely in a particular level.  So, it’s not always a death spiral.  Sometimes, it’s a “why are there so many levels of penalties” situation.

4e is particularly bad about focusing on magical healing for recovery given the crappiness of Medicine, but that’s not so much an indictment of L5R, as plenty of RPG systems just assume magical healing and have horrendous natural healing rules, as it is an indictment of 4e vs. 3r.

The different application of wound penalties in my L5R play is a perfect example of why you put in more examples of mechanics and combat in core books.  Sometimes, they would only apply to physical actions.  Sometimes, they would only apply to “actions”, even though I don’t think action is defined anywhere.  Sometimes, they applied to certain rolls but not others whether it was to prevent a death spiral or not.

My view is that wound penalties should never apply to surviving.  Keep in mind that RPGs are incredibly asymmetrical when it comes to combat.  Players don’t typically care whether NPCs survive and GMs may or may not.  Meanwhile, survival is often a core goal with players for their PCs.  If you make survival harder, you basically just screw players.

By the way, what are wound penalties supposed to apply to in 4e?  Anything with a TN.  Full Defense – no TN.  Damage rolls – no TN.

Damage in D&D or SW or RQ or a whole lot of things can vary immensely.  But, there’s just something that feels uncontrolled about damage with L5R.  With RQ, the frustration is that my normal damage doesn’t take out my enemies until after I’ve direct interventioned to get resurrected, not that the variance is crazy.  Conan could be lopsided in damage output, though that was a lot of poor choices in PC builds, but it felt like you had an idea how badly something would hurt.  With L5R, it’s pretty hard to have a good feel for how much something will hurt when you have one kept die explode five times.  The long tail is a many tailed beast just because of volume of rolls.

Interestingly, powerful defenses can be one of the worst things about combat in L5R.  Be the Mountain, Kami’s Strength, Hida with the right kata in the previous edition giving you like +100 TNtbH, Reflexes 5 with shugenja stance and Defense 5 and armor, Daidoji force fields – these are some pretty annoying things for a GM to provide challenges for.

But, for a normal bushi, there’s often little you can do but hope for a magic buff or someone to guard you.  Even if you have the ho hum Reflexes 5 and Heavy Armor, you don’t get shugenja stance, you don’t get Defense 5.  You swing and hope you kill faster.  I experienced just how dramatic it can be when I switched from being a guarder to being a swinger with my REF-5 Hare.  Even just armor is this massive deal, which I find really annoying.  Though, I also find the idea that AD&D characters run around in +2 Chainmail with +2 Shields to be rather obnoxious, too.

Points Greatest Hits

So, what do I want?

I don’t want characters to be unable to act, including being unable to reasonably move.  Now, that’s up to a point.  I actually don’t mind unconsciousness if the timing of it is good.  While it can be a huge suck to be unconscious when everyone else is fighting, theoretically, combat speeds up as combatants drop while character death is rife with issues.

Character notdeath being highly manageable.  Conan was actually a fairly forgiving system due to Fate Points.  I think that worked well.

In general, I’d take it another step and say rather minimal impact of having wounds.  Should this be different for PCs than for others?  Perhaps.  I haven’t gotten to running a vassal combat for AtDY yet.  I kind of hate mooks in Feng Shui, though extras in SK weren’t as bad.  So, having PCs and majors on a level of being minimally impacted sounds good … up until you start thinking about monsters.  Should Shadowspawn, the monster that inspired my thinking of things as giant piles of wet wood, be easy to cripple?  Probably not.  But, do I want the massive incentives of focus fire and maximizing damage output to be in my experience?  Not particularly.

Does D&D do it right?  Not quite.  However, it may be a lot more righter than more modern wound mechanics.  There should probably be some sort of mechanic to make one feel like something is happening besides number loss, though I’m not entirely sure what that mechanic should be.  As much as I disdain D&D 4e, there is something to the idea of being Bloodied being a good thing.

Maybe, instead of getting weaker by damage, the key is to get stronger.  No, it really isn’t.  Anyone who has played much knows why.  When you make things get stronger as they get closer to being taken out, well, any serious fight sees PCs also getting closer to being taken out when their enemies are, so that stronger enemy just creates a different type of death spiral.

A resource that mitigates wound penalties?  That’s a use of Void Points that I vastly preferred in 3r versus 4e.  VPs were more common in 3r, but they were still a limited resource.  (Actually, PCs were likely to have more, which is yet another reason having them do things like nullify wound penalties was awesome.)  4e wanted to make Fear and WP strong.  Well, it succeeded.  Not sure why that’s fun.

RQ tries to have damage be part of its economy (at least, in my play, which is incredibly economic).  You buy potions to counteract damage.  In no way does this sound like a good idea to me, though it does tie into how much old school FRPGs seemed intent on being money obsessed.

I’ve often really enjoyed being close to death and fighting as hard as possible.  Conan provided a lot of that, where I was often in negative HP and still trying to do stuff.  That Conan often had an out against HP beasts (like my character) was a good thing.  Still not perfect, but I’d prefer Conan d20 mechanics over oD&D.

Beyond just how hit boxes are handled, having options for defending that aren’t just a form of suicide (I’m looking Fading Suns and how awful Dodge is) that anyone can use is something to keep in mind.

Finally, I have a sense that many a system doesn’t really realize what it does to PCs with wound mechanics more “realistic” or whatever than D&D HP.  Whether it’s impairments so crippling that a PC can’t do important things anymore or making wound systems messier such that it gets hard to sense how much trouble you are actually in or systems that make recovery dependent upon money or magic, they actually take a step back in the fun department.


Re D&D

August 3, 2014

I was reading this review:  Review of Dungeon Magazine #1.  I followed links and read some blog posts about oD&D.

To say I totally get what is being said about how the nature of oD&D was different from what people often think of as the point of RPGs these days is hardly value add.

I could cite examples, bring up anecdotes, and contrast with what I play.  Sure, let’s do some of that.

The gist of one of the blog posts I ended up reading was that D&D wasn’t about killing monsters.  It was about loot.  Okay, right, kill and loot, kill and loot.  Except no, take away the kill part.  Killing monsters was the most common form of challenge overcoming, but it wasn’t just that it didn’t have to be, it had nothing to do with the goal, which was to accumulate treasure.  XP gains from monster smiting were horrid.  XP gains from meaningful treasure were how you badged up, uh, I mean, leveled up.

Well, there’s more to the gist.  Gistierly, the play experience was the extremely gamist one of leveling up.  Didn’t I just say that or doesn’t everyone know that?  Again, it’s the difference between an aspect and the end all and be all of play.  Leveling up was the end all and be all of play, to where death was part of play because death prevented just continuously leveling up.

The argument being made was that balance existed not in terms of PC vs. PC or PC vs. challenge but in terms of PC vs. game.  Weak characters died.  Poor decisions led to death.  Bad luck, more death.  The group was fighting against not progressing but each PC was also fighting against not progressing to where there were advantages to other PCs dying – this last comment being mine and some arguable value add.

I believe it’s the combat example in the AD&D 1e DMG that shows PCs of uneven levels in a party, where low level thief gets killed because … low level thief.

I find PC death problematic for reasons I went into in some blog post.  That’s because what I play isn’t supposed to be a survival contest.  It could be, but that’s something to get into later.  oD&D death was the norm because, hey, start playing some new dude and hope for weak encounters with goodly treasure, which, actually, didn’t need to be that goodly due to the constantly increasing XP requirements to level.

An anecdote for the obsession with treasure was my playing the gold box Pool of Radiance computer game.  I memorized the game after a certain point.  I couldn’t care less about killing monsters except for how fixed encounters had fixed treasures.  Some treasures were just hidden and could be accessed with no fighting.  Wandering monsters were annoyances that slowed down my completing pieces of the game, which, admittedly, did involve quests that involved killing monsters.  Now, I played it so many times that I did go looking for random encounters at times just to do something different.  But, I was usually focused on how to turbo level up one half-elf fighter/magic-user/cleric and eventually got to the point of just turbo grabbing the +5 longsword.

Killing monsters couldn’t cause level increases to any sort of meaningful degree.  It was always treasure or rewards.

Contrast with what I play.  Okay, RuneQuest is this loot model and, thus, an exception, with the level system not being so rigid or possibly better put as a stage system, which ends up working out the same.  Even when I play or run level systems, Conan d20, I don’t think about how players should be earning levels.  I think they should just go up a level every 2-3 sessions because the variety at the mechanics level is gaining abilities, not creating a new character.  L5R is not impossible to play with highly divergent PC abilities, after all, shugenja already exist.  It’s just not oriented towards the idea that a new samurai will pop up every couple of sessions, even though that would actually make sense.

I can totally see a campaign of yoriki where the yoriki die constantly.  After all, samurai are supposed to die.  But, the player expectations would have to be completely different.  Out goes character development.  Out goes coherent narrative.

Gamist play has drama.  Narrativist play tries to capture the drama found in fiction, where you set up a scene where everything is at stake.  Simulationist play gains drama from how things happen to the character that aren’t preplotted and not just a mechanism – the character exists in *this* world where what *this* character chooses to do has impact – it’s the drama of the reality of the game.  Gamist drama is the same drama you find in other competitive endeavors, the dice/cards/whatever either go your way or they don’t and stories are made when the unexpected happens or when there’s a high level of unknown or when crucial mechanical decisions are made.

But, I can get that from playing things other than D&D or some RPG.  I can get that from CCGs, from mahjong, from solitaire.  I could get that from computer games, if I played those anymore.

Is there a point to the idea that a RPG is really just an exercise in maximizing loot gain?  Can’t Descent, WoW, or all sorts of other things achieve that experience without the rigmarole of using a RPG framework?

For some people, I guess not.  There’s something about the more open-ended experience of tabletop play or maybe it’s the people you do it with or the milieu where a kitchen table is qualitatively different from a computer screen.  I’m certainly willing to play a loot Roll-PG and not willing to play a MMO.  I’m willing to constantly create new RuneQuest characters rather than go through resurrection over and over.

But, it only works when that’s what is expected.  Yes, all things come back to the idea that everyone needs to be on the same page.  In this case, if one player thinks the game is about achieving in character goals and another is looking to level up, it’s going to be frustrating.  I know I’ve been on one side of that, the question is whether I’ve also been on the other.  I can imagine I have.

Consider HoR.  It’s easy to focus on your PC and basically ignore what other people are trying to accomplish that doesn’t maximize your XP and your certs and your Honor.  I can believe I’ve been that player at one time or another, where I was focused on maximizing rewards (“loot”), where someone else was role-playing to not their level up maximizing benefit.

The more I think about this, the more I think about this.  It interests me, at least, that sometimes I’m not the 100% storyteller that every quiz says I am.  I can be the treasure guy, though not when it’s just boring old money to be had.

It’s a matter of being in the right mode.  Unfortunately, I commonly see cases where the modes are different for the players.  Anyway, that style of loot play can be fun.  I don’t want to take the position of the snobby narrativist who deems gamist play to be the realm of boardgames.  But, there shouldn’t be any mixed messages.  If all we do is loothunt, we shouldn’t be worrying about some NPC’s sick parent or whether my +3 boomerang of paralysis has a name or not.  Otherwise, I’m going to break out of loothunt mode and start wondering whether I’ll find a NPC to help or whatever.  Then, there should also be no attempt to compare such a loothuntventure to something with a nonmechanical story.

Others may be able to deal with the mixed natures of such games.  I just end up baffled to where I don’t optimize my loothuntventuring.


Kill The Wizard

May 10, 2014

A thought for individual games has solidified some, recently, into a general philosophy that I may increasingly embrace.

PCs shouldn’t do “magic”.

There’s a reason, of course, for those quotes.  What is “magic”?  “Magic” encompasses those abilities that are disproportionately versatile, world-altering, or otherwise too efficient at challenge-solving.  These sort of superior PC abilities put an extra burden on the GM when it comes to fashioning challenges.  Furthermore, there tends to be a massive discrepancy in usefulness of PCs with regards to each other, which can affect player enjoyment.  I’ll start with giving some examples of “magic” and come back to the issues with it later.

Let’s start with supers.  Superstrength is quite versatile in superhero worlds and in a number of superhero RPGs (to their credits).  But, it’s not “magic”.  Variable Power Pool in Champions is obviously “magic”.  Green Lantern does “magic”.  As does Magneto.  But, so does Professor X and numerous other psychs.  This could be why I hate the idea of psy based supers.  When you can read minds, game over, you win.  When you can control minds, game over, you win.  Techlords, aka gadgeteers, also do “magic”.  Reed Richards can make anything.  Tony Stark can come up with any modification to the armor.  Bat sharkfood.  Whatever.

If it’s boring that Superman can pretty much do anything with his angel/god powers, it’s also incredibly boring that somebody can just kitbash victory.  If.  I don’t find Superman all that interesting as a character, but there are adventures of his that I find interesting.  It’s a staple of fiction that the genius puts together some ad hoc world-saving device that may very well never be seen again (or, much more rarely, find an old one in the closet to deal with a repetitive problem).  I don’t have a problem with the Doctor throwing something together, etc.

However, I lost focus, there.  “Magic” is something characters in fiction do all of the time, and it works because fiction and RPGs are two different things.  PCs should not be about the “wait around a few hours, then roll Science to make the Winning Tool”.

Talked a bit about superworlds, very lightly on how science can fix every problem with the power of science!!  Obviously, magic lends itself highly to “magic”.

For various reasons, Elric is a terrible RPG character.  One of those reasons is that the way he solves problems is “Now, what was that summoning spell to bring some god or army of supernatural monsters to save me?”  Thomas Covenant *is* magic/”magic”.  Etc.  But, I think it’s time to stop on the fiction side of things and get into the game side of things.

D&D.  Are magic-users and clerics, et al, doing “magic”?  In some cases, yes.  In some cases, no.  The pattern with many D&D versions is that the magic-user starts off weak and becomes dominant later.  Cleric may never start off weak and may not have quite the upside a magic-user does, but there’s still a very different power* progression to the magicless.  The “Do I cast Sleep or Magic Missile today?” magic-user is not doing “magic”.  On the other hand, it’s not just higher level spells, it’s just effects that can be overly effective with the right GM, like Invisibility, that get into doing “magic”.

*  Power isn’t the clearest term to use, as power can mean magnitude of effect to some, where I often factor in versatility/effectiveness when I speak of power (including when I talk about it in CCGs).

D&D is heavily predicated upon PC magic, either in terms of permanents – the ubiquitous magic items – or in terms of spells.  What about Conan d20, a far more swords and sorcery game?

Magical ability very easily becomes a situation of “magic”.  Yes, the system is far more subtle, but that just means that the player needs to be cleverer to really exploit it.  There were many situations where some spell, possibly one that wasn’t spectacular, could deal with challenges in a way that the rest of the party had no ability to use.

Vampire.  V:TM or V:TR, though my experience is much greater with the former.  A key feature of the game is that PCs have superhuman abilities, many of which are essentially magic.  Without those abilities, not vampires anymore.  The more openended disciplines, such as Animalism, Dominate, and Presence, are “magic”.  Clever use can just blow apart challenges.  Thaumaturgy in V:TM is, of course, the worst offender unless the GM clamps down on what PCs can learn to do.

Hopefully little point to dragging out more examples of magic=”magic” or where XYZ=”magic”, but, of course, can’t skip over expending words on noting the brokenness of shugenja in L5R.

There’s a vaguely amusing thread on the AEG forums at the moment where someone asked about how much buying additional spells with XP should cost.  The shugenja player isn’t happy, where the monk (admittedly, kiho never see play in my campaigns, so I don’t bother learning much about them) and four bushi are all satisfied.  My amusement at someone being frustrated by not having a higher level of godlike power is tempered by the idea that it’s probably just someone who doesn’t understand the system well enough to understand just how much shugenja are better than everyone else.  On the other hand, the GM might be reining in spell effectiveness to a much greater degree than most do.

Why are shugenja gods?

Commune.  Commune is the single most broken effect in L5R.  As much as GMs may anticipate how Commune destroys investigation challenges and come up with cheesy “the kami were all banished” or makes kami a pain in the ass to get info out of even though it’s pathetically easy to call max Raises on a Commune spell for clarity every single time, then just recast it over and over until you ask the right questions, those who can’t speak to the kami can’t just ask the world to supply the investigation destroying information that kami can provide.

Path to Inner Peace.  Sure, there are some other abilities that enable real healing, i.e. non-Medicine healing since Medicine is garbage healing.  Pritnear no PCs have them.  While it should be obvious at all times, our 20 Goblin Winter campaign, which didn’t allow shugenja, clearly showed that the lack of real healing completely changes party action.  We would have to head back to Shinsei’s Last Hope and mope about for a while to not have someone sit in wound penalties … while hunting for Shadowlands monsters.  I would say that the real problem with Path isn’t that Path is “magic”, but that all RPGs should pretty much have daily instaheal, which is a whole separate blog post that can get into my thoughts on a thread I was reading not long ago.

Jade Strike.  Invulnerable?  Okay, everyone guard the shugenja.

Fires of Purity.  Forget that it’s something like 4k4+ damage every round in real combat situations.  As mentioned in at least one previous blog post, it makes kidnapping impossible.  It destroys cavalry.  It turns grapple from murder into turbomurder.  It prevents party members from being attacked, at times.

The all shugenja party is the optimized party.  Can go on about how great your murder prowess is with simple attacks and no-dachi 7 or testsubo 7, but the all shugenja party will murder just fine and have a host of abilities that the magicless won’t have.  As for courtier/artisan/monk abilities, outside of Henshin, I never see them do anything you can’t do by improving Awareness or whatever, which has a lot to do with how poorly the game explains how these abilities are supposed to be useful, but it is what it is.  I really don’t expect Sword and Fan to change my play experiences significantly.  Of course, YMMV.

So, great, plenty of examples of “magic”.  Whining isn’t that useful.

There are other reasons I think hunter (with a lowercase “h”) campaigns make far more sense than monster campaigns in the World of Darkness, but a major reason would be the difference in the nature of challenges.  If the PC vampire can run around Dominating kine left and right, going to be a lot different than “shotgun to the head” sort of challenges that hunters will face.  Clearly, there’s a difference between Garou and mages, though Garou ability to interdimensionally travel is rather a huge “magic” problem.

Quite a few players of supers are probably going to be fine with character concepts around punching buildings apart, blasting buildings apart, flying charges into buildings until they fall apart, and the like where “magic” isn’t so much of an issue.  I’m vastly more familiar with Champions than other supers games, so I think in terms of every single ability being built and bought, which greatly limits versatility.  Again, just don’t allow the Variable Power Pools or Multipowers with 15 slots or any of the sort of stuff you might see in Mystic Masters.

The most problematic situation from a marketing/sales perspective is taking “magic” out of fantasy by limiting/restricting/removing PC magic.  Yet, fiction is full of (and used to be mostly about) protagonists who killed the foul sorcerers with no magic or extremely limited magic.  That was kind of the point of Elric – being the supreme sorcerer was a twist compared to the Conans of the genre.

I think it can be done.

I think removing shugenja from L5R as a PC option is entirely viable.  Sure, I would come up with healing house rules to make Medicine Raises give +1k1 instead of +1k0 to wound treatment, though that’s still probably not nearly enough healing to where I’d probably just say you heal Stamina xN after every scene or each day (x8 or something for the former and x15 or something or the simpler full heal for the latter).

Our Conan campaign didn’t always have the sorcerer PC(s) around.  Again, though, magic != “magic”.  With L5R, it would be incredibly hard to remove the “magic” abilities of someone who could do magic, though it would actually be far easier if the party wizard was a maho-tsukai, where your spell selection is much more tailorable by a GM.  But, with Conan, it shouldn’t really be that hard to limit spellcasting, especially with the far more esoteric Defensive Blasts of 2e, versus the nuclear option Defensive Blast of 1e.

RuneQuest’s battle magic, with the exception of healing, tends to be incredibly narrow and just a lot of buffs.  I don’t feel the “magic” in the game at all.  Rune Magic being one-shot also makes that awful and largely irrelevant.  I know my characters have never found Rune Magic remotely effective.

Shadowrun is a world I just don’t get, so there’s little point to my commenting on how to take the “magic” out of the game.  May be that the whole point of the game is that everyone has “magic” since it’s a world that combines the two things that are most prone to leading to “magic” – high technology and … magic.

“But, when are you going to elaborate on why ‘magic’ is a problem?”

From a GM perspective, consider this scenario:  You have a party with one or two “magic”-users and some inferior PCs.  You aren’t lazy and actually consider all of the different ways “magic” can overcome challenges too easily.  Then, game day/night happens and your “magic”-users don’t show up.  Okay, GMs who adjust on the fly better may be asking “And …?”  But, it’s just more work when I already find GMing to be choreful.

From a player perspective, it can get really old to be a spearchucker.  Not so much for me, as I embrace sidekickness to a far, far greater degree than others, but even I can get tired of “taking up space” in games.  Some RPG campaigns are also far less about mechanics than others, and I can get into my personal narratives to a greater degree to where mechanical spearchuckerness is not so bad.  L5R is like that for me where I’m far more into NPC relations and shopping than I am trying to find a purpose as a non-shugenja.  Lots of folks aren’t so keen on being mechanically disadvantaged by lacking that old time “magic”.

Then, why even bother having it be an issue in the first place?  Why not just have parties where the PCs are competing (because PCs do compete – if they didn’t, folks wouldn’t complain about how unbalanced different character builds are) on a relatively level playing field?  “Okay, you scurvy lot.  Who is the fighter?  Who is the talker?  Who is the rogue?  Got it.  Now, at all times there’s this ghost that hangs out with you that heals you to full twice a day …”


No Way Out

June 29, 2013

Lot of minor things I’ve had on my mind in the past couple of weeks.  While just as minor for any given instance, what I’m posting about today cuts across a number of instances.

Time to dwell on choice/variety again.  As I say, boardgames just don’t compel me like RPGs and CCGs because they have nowhere near the variety … variety of experience that is.  When you tell a story about a boardgame, it’s more like “then I forked his rook and queen, 15 moves later, I won”, which may be significant, but it’s not distinct.  Sure, hearing about the exploits of one’s RPG character is pretty painful for people who weren’t there, but it’s great when it’s reminiscing among people who were there.  Can look at my last V:TES tournament win for why I embrace CCG variety –

Key play in the game?  After my first Villein, I played another master – Powerbase: Madrid.  It ended the game in the same state as it had been four turns after I played it – full of counters and unused.

Let me see if I can work backwards a bit on recent experiences and how they relate to choice/variety.

Last night, we played the first session of our RuneQuest campaign since escaping from the dungeon we were trapped in for 4 or so months (it felt like at least 6 to one of our core players).  It was a perfect example of everything defining about our RQ play.

First, there are no meaningful options.  Sure, there are different choices.  But, they all lead down the twin paths of either minimizing screwage or not minimizing screwage.  What was highly amusing, to an extent, of this session was how happy people felt to be out of the dungeon only to engage in exactly the same behavior and experience that is SOP for the group – try to leave town to make progress on a party goal, find random loot and/or random encounter, turn back to town to evaluate loot and/or lick wounds, find out details about unusual treasure and/or heal up, set out from town, find random loot and/or random encounter, turn back to town to evaluate loot and/or lick wounds.

Now, I got a bit away from the real examples of the lack of meaningful choices.  Just thought that paradigm might amuse people.  First, there’s only one way to build characters.  I always get the same armor.  I always either get weapon package A (poleaxe) or weapon package B (not poleaxe – whatever weapon can’t do enough damage to matter much).  Everyone gets Disruption, Heal 2+, Protection, Bladesharp (or Bludgeon) as battle magic.  None of us play to our cults strongly, as, if I did, I’d never adventure with the rest of the party.  In fact, I try to find the optimal cult for having no agenda whatsoever as personal agenda means no plausible way I’d hang out with the rest of the party.

Then, combat is always the same.  Last night, there was a procession that included tied up slaves.  I turned invisible and went to free the slaves, trying to do something more interesting than just standard stand in a line and exchange blows until one side is a mess.  It achieved nothing.  The slaves were combat useless, which meant all I did was take actions that could have been standing with my two comrades and exchanging blows with the monsters.  Then, I didn’t bother casting Protection and Bladesharp at the start of combat as I hoped to not have to do SOP combat.  Then, I get one-shotted (dead, a frequent result), where, if I had Protection up, I would have only been unconscious and bleeding to death rather than dead.  I wanted to use my broadsword as I need to get my skill up to 90% in that as a Runelord requirement, but I can’t because broadswords don’t do enough damage to matter in real fights, and we don’t get minor encounters.

Then, the system has no (standard) reroll mechanics, so there’s no way to control bad results, meaning that everything is a randomfest of randomness.  But, I realized something yesterday or early this morning:  as much as our RQ play is just a series of random die rolls to resolve everything, there’s no deviation in play that makes any sense.  There’s an optimal way to build (fast and weak = useless, weak physically and magically inclined = useless, low armor = dead, etc.), there are optimal tactics given that the party never embraces group tactics of a different strategic sort, greed is essential.

For example, of the last, I gave a bunch of money away to a group of elves who gave us money for helping with an undead problem that is affecting the entire region.  I wasn’t expecting that to be an optimal choice for my character, but not only was there no benefit to doing so, a drawback of not having the money for other uses, but also that I had to make a roll just to avoid offending folks I just dumped more money on than I’ve ever had.  Again, there are no choices in this campaign – optimal greed is optimal advancement, which is what the campaign is all about.

Okay, what are some other instances of lack of choices, or, at least, the perception of such?

Friday’s article on Daily MTG from the developer dude, Sam Stoddard, spoke about having variety in limited play.  For instance, losing to four different “dragons” that nuke your board position is not all that interesting, even if the specific “dragon” is different.  As usual, I try to compare and contrast with how V:TES plays.

Some folks complain about the lack of variety in V:TES, but there’s just no evidence of that when you look at what people play in environments outside of your own.  Which isn’t to say that V:TES couldn’t use some different choices.  It’s just not a problem.  If anything, relating to Sam’s article about limited play in Magic, I feel like limited play of V:TES suffers from lack of variety.  It always amazes me that people go on about how you see cards you don’t see in constructed but ignore that the way decks play (or should play if you built/drafted correctly) isn’t really that varied.  Sure, I can’t predict what’s going to happen when using four different sets in balance or whatever, but, when there is a predominance of one or two sets, it’s not hard to have an idea of the key cards/strategies.

I’ll skip commenting upon my Tuesday night experiences as those highlight very different problems, problems that are largely my fault rather than the game’s fault.

But, to finish up, how about a boardgame example?  Le Havre, to me, is not the most obvious example since the game is all about too many choices of how boardgames lack variety, but actually, from a high level standpoint, I feel like every game is the same precisely because every game is about wanting to achieve steel, shipping, building while having too many choices and not enough actions after the first few turns.  When looked at, at the game level rather than the action level, boardgames just scream repetition of experience.

So, what’s the point?

I guess the points, by game type, are:

  1. RPGs – Variety of character builds and player/PC actions should be viable.
  2. CCGs – If you think the game lacks variety, build something different, anyway.  You may be wrong.
  3. Boardgames – Prioritize other games that have more varied experiences, at least if you have a personality like mine.

Critical Nit

April 22, 2012

Critical hits, fumbles, hit location, bleeding, wounds, conditions, weapon damage, armor damage, and a host of other things are bad for PCs.  Feel it intuitively?  Take my word for it?  Perhaps.  Or, I can try to explain why.

One thing I think it takes time for people to realize, and it helps immensely to GM to see it, is that PCs and antagonists don’t have a symmetric relationship to combat.  This manifests in a number of ways.  One way is that PCs will usually be designed for greater efficiency in combat, eschewing certain weapon choices, armor choices, fighting styles, or whatever because they are suboptimal.  On the other hand, “people antagonists” in worlds where stuff outside of combat matters are usually much more focused on combat than an equivalent experience PC.

For example:  In Conan, a dagger is pretty much useless.  Can add poison, can have a bunch of Sneak Attack damage, but you can just substitute some other weapon and be better off.  The thief’s weapon of choice for a PC, assuming you go with some low damage weapon, is a shortsword.  There are examples in Conan of how a PC will go for more well-roundedness with Feat slots or whatever, but a really good example of how NPCs focus on combat was when I played in the battle event at Gen Con for HoR, where rank 2 Bayushi Bushi we fought all had 9k4 attack rolls as compared to my 6k3.  I might not get up to Kenjutsu 5 by rank 3(!!) at the rate things are going due to wanting a high Intelligence and putting points into noncombat skills, neither of which were relevant for one-shot antagonists.

Most of the asymmetry between protagonists and antagonists comes out of the typical fate we look for from each.  All players care about with regards to antagonists is removing the threat of them.  Usually, that means depriving them of life.  Don’t remotely care whether they have all of their limbs, whether they will never be able to breed again, how dented their shields are, etc.  They must be incapacitated, preferably permanently.

Meanwhile, lasting wounds, especially permanent ones, are a resource hit to a PC.  Weapon damage and armor damage – resource hit.  Even if it just takes money to fix something, if the money required rises to the level of significant, then resource hit.  Even survival can be a resource, as various systems have resurrection, usually at a great wealth cost.  Of course, survival can be even more important with the lack of resurrection.

Okay, all this seems obvious.  But, what about crits, fumbles, conditions, bleeding, and hit locations?

Bleeding, and what I really mean by bleeding is not someone in their death throes but someone who can start bleeding from lesser attacks, should be obvious.  Rules for bleeding from casual wounds force PCs to take noncombat actions or to put PCs on a clock.  Who cares whether the goblin bleeds?  The goblin is going to die or I am.

One thing about crits and fumbles is how often they occur and what the results are.  You can build these mechanics in such a way that they favor PCs.  For instance, you can say that fumbles only occur if you suck and make sure PCs never suck.  You can have fumbles reduce the amount of damage or attack percentage when PCs have a huge advantage with either.  Crits don’t tend to be so bad for PCs when PCs have far more hit points than their opponents and all crits do is increase damage.  And, so forth.

Yet, in all likelihood, these two mechanics will punish PCs.  There’s a crucial principle when it comes to RPG combat.  The principle is that PCs want combat to have less variance.  The more predictable combat is, the more reliably the PCs win.

But, you say, what about when the opposition is stronger than the party?  Of course that can occur, but why should it?  Why would the party be favored to lose?  Because … all sorts of reasons, you say.

Sure, there are legitimate reasons to put a party into a losing fight.  Parties choosing to bite off more than they can chew should be at a disadvantage.  Not every fight is supposed to be winnable.  In fact, if you are doing videogame roll-playing, like old school D&D dungeon crawling, the idea is that you go as far as you can as long as you believe you have the advantage and run/hide when you no longer think you can continue.  Though, if you were engaging in this sort of thing, you would expect every first combat in an adventure to be in the party’s favor, otherwise, the party will never get anywhere.

So, back to crits and fumbles.  They increase variance.  But, there are also other imbalances that normally occur.  For crits, antagonists usually make more attacks than PCs.  While this can vary, being outnumbered is a common combat setup for a party.  Even when not outnumbered, monsters often have more attacks than PCs.  There are plenty of RPGs where an animal would get both a bite and claw attacks or a bite and two claw attacks, while a PC will get a single attack.  Everything else being equal, which admittedly isn’t often the case, the increased number of attacks by antagonists leads to more crits.

But, you say, doesn’t this apply equally to fumbles?  Sure, volumewise, can tilt towards PCs.  Fumbles are primarily a screwjob on PCs because of the effects of fumbles.  For instance, if a possibility is to attack a friend or oneself, it’s rather normal for PCs to do more damage than their opponents.  Or, if the fumble is drop weapon, a PC will typically be highly dependent upon a particular weapon where some lizardman or whatever just switches to natural weaponry.  Actually, it doesn’t even need to be that complicated.  PC attacks are more valuable than antagonist attacks, if for no other reason than that the PC perspective is that PCs must win, where antagonists winning is … problematic.

It may seem like too many of my “typical” scenarios would be ones where the party is fighting a larger, but less skilled, force.  It’s also common to fight a single big bad or two badasses.  In these cases, if fumbles are just as likely and the effects of fumbles are normally things like losing attacks, losing defenses, attacking allies, or whatever, then fumbles can be worse for the antagonists.  At the same time, fewer opposition tends to go with more skilled opposition, so in theory, they will fumble less often, depending upon the system.

Again, though, we run into the idea of asymmetry.  If a party gets an easy fight because the opposition rolls badly, then the party is inclined to seek out more fights, to the extent such things are possible within an adventure, balancing out the results, or the party will be more successful, which, as long as it isn’t the norm that combats are easy, is likely not to make the players sad.  Meanwhile, a fight that goes badly because of unexpected results can either prevent the party from continuing on towards a goal or can result in permanent losses, which somehow seems sadder to the players.

As I’ve pointed out in the past, not even that long ago, while GMs can establish that the costs of failure be measured in things like lost reputation, prevention of story goals, being captured, and whatnot, the norm with FRPGs is death or other results that are of a similar severity.  Losing out on treasure, for instance, can be just as bad as dying in systems where stuff/wealth is critical to success.  I stopped playing my first RuneQuest character in part because he lost a bunch of Intelligence, reducing his skills to where I became more inept than I was at initial character creation.

Conditions are more nebulous.  What are conditions?  L5R 4e has a list that I recall fairly well that includes, among others:  Dazed, Fatigued, Blinded, Prone.  Pritnear every system has rules for being poisoned.  Attribute loss would be similar to a condition.  Some systems make these more permanent than others.  Permanent conditions, of course, are a major screwjob on PCs.  We played for over a year with a blind character in Conan.  There were unusual reasons why it worked at all.  In most cases, any sort of permanent injury means retiring or suiciding your character to get one that is whole.

But, what about temporary conditions?  Much less clear how they punish PCs.  Still, predictability.  That’s what we look for.  Dazed is an interesting condition in L5R.  It tends to be extremely bad in a fight, unless the one Dazed has nonattack combat abilities.  For instance, while not great for a shugenja to get Dazed, a shugenja can still cast spells.  A badass bushi Dazed is essentially useless, same with the vast majority of creatures.  I’ve GMed where a PC could Daze enemies, and it made fights insipid, in the favor of the party.

So, why bring up conditions?  Because conditions are more commonly inflicted on the party than inflicted by the party.  The whole point of supplements like the Monster Manual is to throw different stuff at parties and “different” often comes with special abilities that do weird things to enemies.  Also, an easy victory by the party due to blinding the enemy dragon tends not to be as problematic as an easy PC kill when your tank or spellcaster or whoever goes blind.  Anyway, that conditions are more commonly relevant to a PC than to an antagonist means having to deal with something outside of the norm, greatly increasing the reduction of efficiency of the party.

Conditions are things that have more impact the fewer combatants on a side.  If you kill a mook a turn, then you don’t really care if one of those mooks is also stunned.

Hit locations is interesting in that I see them being a PC screwjob whether the PCs are outnumbered or whether the party outnumbers the enemy.  While the Conan forums may have always given the impression that PCs fight similarly built NPCs, I have rarely played any RPGs where the antagonists were often built like the PCs.  Feng Shui, with named characters, comes to mind as a case where antagonists were akin to PCs, but usually, you either have a horde of mooks or a small number of big bads.

Obviously, if fighting your doppelgangers (not the monster but identical builds), hit locations would be fair.  But, when fighting inferior opposition, do you really care whether you hack off an arm or a leg when the enemy is dead either way?  Then, hit locations usually go with spreading damage around, i.e. the target can potentially receive more damage than a straight hit point system.  Even in RuneQuest, there’s some truth to this for PCs in that taking out a limb caps damage from a single attack.  I would argue that RQ is a good example of how this screws PCs on the other side – the big bad side.  If you spread damage around on a big bad, all that ends up happening is you end up taking far longer to kill the big bad.

But, you say, RQ has pretty severe penalties for losing a limb, so doesn’t this suck that much more for big bads, which are being outnumbered by the party?  No.  Hit points in systems with hit locations don’t tend to follow a “balanced” scale.  If you take a RQ character and give it 10 more hit points with the normal increases in each hit location, it becomes far, far more resilient.  How do I know?  I had such a character for a time.  One of my characters had roughly a 50% increase in hit points, and he became ridiculously more resilient to damage.  A big bad is not only going to have these defensive benefits but also improvements in offense to justify being a party challenge.  But, even ignoring the offensive side of the game, spreading damage on a high hit point target is awful for a party.

Note that one of the most played systems, if not a FRPG, which uses hit locations is BattleTech.  While BT is its own thing and lacks a lot of similarities to hit location systems in FRPGs, it is interesting to note just how resilient spreading damage can end up being in BT, something I think is a good thing in the game.  Of course, where limbs come off all of the time in BT and the player can not be too displeased, limb loss at the humanoid PC level is something I equate with a dead PC, displaying a way in which I find hit locations to be a screwjob to PCs – you would rather take generic damage and live or not live than lose the use of part of a body even if you do live.

Okay, you say, I get it – you just want PCs to never be threatened, for adventures to lack any sort of challenge, any sort of adventure.  Free XP and gold for all.

Actually, several of these mechanics I’m fine with, if handled in a reasonable way.  The ones I’m never fine with are bleeding, hit locations, and equipment damage; not specifically because they screw PCs but because they generate a bunch of accounting hassles while punishing PCs in ways I don’t see any benefit in.

Yes, I do realize that not having bleeding makes for some undramatic situations where you can just leave a horribly wounded person lying around forever.  Actually, let me make an exception or modifier to my feelings on bleeding.  Bleeding from any sort of damaging attack is annoying since it generally requires being taken out of a fight to deal with, which is crippling to parties.  Bleeding to death from something like being in negative hit points might be fine, preferable even if the alternative is you just die when you hit negative hit points (or the equivalent).  Conan, for instance, has bleeding to death rules that I’m fine with.

I’m generally anti-fumbles not because I have no sense of humor and hate variance but because too many fumble systems are disproportionately brutal to a PC, and it’s not often funny if fumbling directly leads to dying.  Maybe, it’s the systems I’ve played recently that have colored my thinking.  In the past, when I played less gamist systems, fumbles were more entertaining.  Immortal saw a 10% chance of fumbling every single time you used your magical powers (that everyone pretty much had); it even seemed like the intent was that you would fumble so that you got weird disadvantages from being tainted.

Really, more my point is that GMs/groups need to be aware of how these sorts of mechanics affect party results.  In particular, the more of these mechanics, the greater difficulty PCs have in being functional, a major takeaway from my RuneQuest experiences.

Maybe this is another case of my being inconsistent or having a hard time articulating a point of view that hits a sweet spot on a spectrum, but I’m hardly in favor of predictable combat.  If I know success is inevitable, I’m inclined to not fight it out at all.  At the same time, I have no interest in combat just being a randomfest of randomness, where anything can happen.

Why?  Because high levels of randomness undermines strategy and tactics, as well as undermining character building.  Decisions should matter.  If I want to attack the enemy but just end up shooting my commander in the back every time due to fumbles (this basically happened in a Mekton game I played in for our party), then I have no attack strategy/tactic left.  Why does my build matter if combat is highly unpredictable?  I might know next to nothing about first aid and be an aggro character, only to find myself repeatedly being removed from combat to stop bleeding.  Or, maybe I’m the tank healer who just sucks up attacks and keeps everyone else alive … who gets critted repeatedly or who fumbles parries repeatedly or who takes a head shot and gets immediately knocked out.


Fan-tizzy

January 29, 2012

I’ve been thinking about fantasy RPG systems.  In particular, it’s the age old question of what FRPG system I would want to use.  Hardly exciting.  Can already predict talking about L5R’s sweet spot with mechanics and flawed world.  But, I started thinking about some specifics.

First of all, what games are FRPGs?  I don’t mean so much whether Shadowrun counts as fantasy or whether mixed genre games should go in their own, though this is relevant.  I mean more that there’s a particular subtype of fantasy role-playing that I have in mind.

Conan d20 is certainly a FRPG, but it isn’t what I’m concerned with at the moment.  Conan simulates swords and sorcery, a genre with limited magic and where supernatural elements are typically rooted in the “bad”, the enemy.  Or, if “good”, only show up to counter evil.

What I’m wondering about these days is what system would I play something like Wheel of Time in or Spellsinger or Young Kingdoms – worlds where magic is in the hands of the heroes.  There is a Wheel of Time d20 supplement, yet there’s no way I would want to use d20 as a base.  Young Kingdoms is covered by the Chaosium model, which I have no interest in either.

Why not these systems, though?

d20

Too mechanical.  Too much accounting.  I feel like I’m playing a MMORPG, which should give an idea of how pointless I view 4e D&D, which is an obvious MMO ripoff.

Starting characters are too weak.  Experience benefits are too slow and awkward.  Feats are boring.  The only thing I actually like about d20 is the skill system and “improvements” on d20 keep trying to “fix” the skill system.  I don’t even like how d20 or any D&D version does attributes, even though it’s the 3-18 system that I was first introduced to and has been used extensively in RPGs.  I hate using a d20 for resolution as to me it produces far too much variance and too many dull rolls.

I can’t speak to how well the magic system works for D&D d20, too little experience too long ago.

Chaosium

RuneQuest, Stormbringer/Elric, Call of Cthulhu, Basic Role-Playing, etc.  d100 resolution has the same problem as d20 resolution, only providing more “empty” values – rolls that don’t interest me in any way.

All of these games are far too crippling to PCs in my experience.  In our RuneQuest play, I just figure that a limb will be lost every fight, that death is two or three hits, that combat doesn’t really work unless you are superior to the enemy, have a bunch of potions (mainly Heal 6’s to restore limbs), and enough PCs know Healing 2 or Xenohealing 2 for recovery and stopping bleeding.

It’s RQ that inspired me to about a few things.  The first is the usual problem I have with features such as hit location, bleeding, fumble charts that screw over PCs.  Other than building the “there’s no symmetry between PCs and what they fight” arguments for why these things suck, which is kind of interesting when you think about just how much difference there is and how that impacts game design, there’s not much gained from this line of thinking.

The more interesting line of thinking for me that got me on this kick was two-fold:  what sort of magic system I want to see when the PCs are expected to be spellcasters; how games should handle recovery.

The more I’ve come to participate in RQ’s magic system, the less it makes sense to me from a marketing standpoint.  Much like Vampire: The Masquerade made a mistake by having variety of abilities at discipline dot levels PCs wouldn’t have and not at the levels that players care about, RQ is all about having this giant world of magic that PCs barely touch.

Even Battle Magic, which is readily attainable, depletes power points in a death spiral way and the costs of learning it are absurd relative to our income.  My recollection is that, in fact, the intention is to limit each PC to a few spells.  Unfortunately, that rules out the focused spellcaster and just causes everyone to look the same, which is the number one thing that I complain about.

Then, there’s Rune Magic, which seems like it would be important.  It’s laughable how poor the incentives are.  Sure, we are dumb and don’t sacrifice to learn Rune Magic every chance we get, which seems to be the way the game is supposed to be played.  But, even so, when I knew a Rune Spell, I never wanted to cast it, just like any one-shot effect that seems good is something no one wants to ever use.  Even at Rune Lord, every spell is a one-shot.  To actually play the game they talk about requires a bunch of Rune Priests, which I’ve been told shouldn’t be adventuring, anyway.

So, what should a “PC magic” system look like?  Daily spell slots?  It might get tiresome to hear, but I do think it works with L5R, though maybe only because the need to cast is relatively rare.  I actually have found, in my not so recent experiences, that D&D spell slots work okay.

Power points?  I don’t find this to work.  It’s all about replenishment rate.  In games with this mechanic, I find someone blows their wad out in a fight and, then, can’t do anything forever.  In Conan, sorcery is better suited to bad guys as they can replenish with human sacrifices.  But, then, Conan isn’t a “PC magic” system.

Fantasy Hero

Which brings us to Fantasy Hero.  The Hero engine was intended for Champions, and it often shows in how the system often doesn’t capture the flavor of genres without a lot of work under the hood.  On the plus side, the engine is so customizable from a power standpoint (the skill system blows), that you can eventually find a particular flavor.

Anyway, if you play it without a bunch of limitations, casting a spell is pretty much just a factor of making a skill roll (which blows) and spending END.  Rechargability is easy, so you can produce consistent effects (depending upon making skill rolls) each and every fight.  This is more what I’ve been thinking of when it comes to recovery.

I find that recovery can be a huge problem.  In Conan, sure, you will get your hit points back after three days of rest, but fighting back to back major fights is crippling.  L5R is not remotely designed for multiple battles in a row – shugenja will run out of Water slots for healing fast and possibly all slots; Void Points will be gone by the second fight.  Another case of how D&D does things better, as the whole engine was built around the idea of multiple fights.

Take an extreme example.  You fight a major battle with everyone a mess and half your offensive spells gone.  Clerics replace enough hit points and the other half of the offensive spells enable a second engagement of the same level.  When tapped out (spellwise), you are done for the day.  Now, of course, D&D’s dungeon crawling philosophy is predicated upon the idea that you can secure a part of the dungeon long enough to refresh, which is not different from other situations where you know when you have to stop and you stop.

With Fantasy Hero, if you want to enable an easily recharged battery, it’s simple to have that recharged battery.  Can take five phases, or whatever, to replenish END every fight.  I think a lot of people are opposed to this.  I’m not sure if they’ve thought it through or not, but I can see how it sounds wrong.

If you can instantly recover (heal, have full spell options, etc.) after every fight, then what’s the real cost of a fight?  Preventing death could be, though death is not a viable option in some worlds, like worlds that make any sense.  A lot of adventures don’t have a viable alternative to winning a fight.  In fiction, you would just get captured or you would fail some mission critical objective, like preventing the damsel from being whisked away or a village being burned to the ground.

Being captured has often been considered worse than death in the hack and slash world.  After all, can get resurrected, but being captured means losing stuff, and stuff is the game’s god.

Precious

Okay, I forgot to mention earlier another thing that always bothers me in FRPGs that I’m choosing to dredge up.  I hate stuff.  I hate external power.  To me, characters and not just fantasy characters should be defined by what makes the character special and not how special their stuff is.

Admittedly, in certain cases, a character is tied to stuff.  Elric is tied to Stormbringer, even if he is special without it.  There’s a certain allowance that can be given to a character, though only when the stuff is unique.

I particularly hate armor.  I quickly got tired of AD&D’s armor system where you always chose the heaviest armor you could.  RuneQuest is exactly the same way.  I don’t care if it’s realistic or not.  It has terrible flavor, and again, it makes everyone the same.  I find that in RQ, every single one of my characters gets exactly the same armor because any other choice is moronic.  For a variety of reasons, Conan has grown in my esteem, but one thing I always credited it with was that armor was something to be minimized.  Sure, it’s hecka useful to have some, more so than I thought for quite a long time, but in a world where the outdoors matter, anything above light armor is suicidal.

So, what system succeeds in the stuff department?  Conan does a very good job, even though some weapons are much better.  L5R does well enough, though 4e is a step back with how powerful armor turns out to be.

None Of The Above

And, so it goes.  I may really like L5R at the moment, but I have major questions as to how adaptable it is to more generic fantasy with even just the system.  I suppose anything can be house ruled, with house ruling the closest system being more sensible than another.  I could change basic healing in L5R to something where you pretty much restore all your wounds after every fight without Path to Inner Peace.

But, I wonder.  I wonder if I’m overcomplicating things and missing an obvious choice if all I wanted to do was dungeon crawl or reflect a specific fantasy genre where magic resided heavily in the party.  AD&D or oD&D would probably be fine for dungeon crawling.  As for high fantasy, I’ve already argued that the nature of it is antithetical to mechanics.  Medium fantasy, for lack of a better term, is not even something I have a clear grasp on.  Maybe Spellsinger would fall into it.  Maybe when you cross swords and sorcery with high fantasy, as Moorcock does, you get a balance rather than two different genres.

Maybe if I understood Ars Magica better.  Maybe if I went to the trouble of playing around with Fantasy Hero (and just ignore how much I hate skills in Hero).  Savage Worlds isn’t going to do it – I never developed a good sense of the mechanics.  RQ, in theory, could be made more palatable to me, but it would completely change the nature of the game, and it would likely be less palatable to others.