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.

Advertisements

RPG Yarn

September 19, 2015

So many good titles to use that I won’t remember, like Con-Fluence, which, of course, has to be used when I write something about a con.

Anyway, FFG bought L5R, which has primarily meant to me that I can’t read the RPG forums on a daily basis like I used to.  This, in turn, has caused me to read more rpg.net, since I’m interested in what people have to say about L5R, and I don’t use Facebook.

In reading rpg.net forums, I come across other things.  Add to that that our online group is talking about what to do next for online play, and I run into the question of the ages – what do I want out of a RPG?

Thematics

So many times, I, 100% storyteller, get bogged down in talking about mechanics.  So, let’s start with this, first.

No fake Tolkien.  I don’t hate elves and dwarves … completely.  Norse elves and dwarves are goodsome.  Fairy elves are okayum, I aguessum.  I despise Tolkien knock-offs.  D&D did that.  Videogames did that.

Humans.  Occasional variants.  Melniboneans are fine, though I think that world is not so good for gaming in, not that I have a great idea since I’ve run far more Stormbringer than I’ve ever played.  This is where Conan shines.  Human races are totally the way to go.  Hawkmoon has this, though I’m a bit leery of Hawkmoon as a setting for both thematic and mechanical reasons.

Limited technology.  I’m not very forthright about this with the people I game with because I care more about gaming than I care about specifics or care more about doing things with people than care about specifics, but I’m really not interested in high-tech.  Mech games are fine to me because you just don’t feel the tech.  But, I’d much rather play something with zero sci-fi component, including near future.  I still think of phones as something you dial, not as a chat machine you live off of for everything, even if I do have WeChat installed (to coordinate with people in China, of course).

The idea of a bronze age game is so much more appealing, something like Greek Mythology.

On the other hand, modern is fine.  And, supers high tech doesn’t bother me for the same reason mechs don’t – it’s not really high tech.  Sometime, consider how many superheroes have magical backgrounds or some sort of ludicrous “science” background that is really as explainable as magic is.  “I am an alien, from the planet that gives us the ability to be superstrong at night.”  Yeah, sure.  “When this lightning bolt hit while I was taking chemicals to deal with my health problems, I can now fly!”  Yes, yes you can.

A world that doesn’t hurt my sensibilities.  Wow is this vague.  Mythology?  I get it.  Historical with vampires, witches, and shapeshifters?  Sure.  Some bronze age, religion is everything, yet all we care about is money setting where you bribe monsters who are the monsterification of everything you seek to destroy and which has an afterlife so that dying in a vain attempt to deal with the more powerful is meaningless?  I just don’t get it.

There are plenty of worlds I just can’t engage with because they either don’t make sense to me or I don’t care about what sense they do make.  Star Wars actually hits this.  Not the Star Wars of theory but the Star Wars of practice, where the party is typically a bunch of mercenary scum on the edge of the galaxy, playing Han Solo before the movies.  That’s not Star Wars.  That’s a less depressing Traveller.  My sensibilities in this case are epic space opera.

So, yes, it’s all about context.  It always is.  Expectations affect desirability of presentation of setting.

I think the Young Kingdoms doesn’t work well as a setting for gaming because the books really aren’t about the Young Kingdoms, they are about a specific demigod fighting gods.  I can see one-shots with Rackhir style stories where a PC could actually fit in, but a campaign to me seems to miss out on “I’m Elric and this is my Stormbringer.”

7th Sea is something I don’t embrace more strongly because it just feels like something is off about the world.  There’s a lot of putting forth pirates, then you have adventures where the sea portion is “You arrive at port, what do you do?”  Dungeon crawl angle that I don’t recall ever being used in a session?  Okay.

Yet, L5R works well enough.  I’d rip out a number of things from the world that don’t make any sense to me, but, at some point, I got that the culture is what it is.  So, maybe it’s just getting used to something over time.  I was attracted to L5R by the image of PCs wandering through an Asian Fantasy world smiting ogres.  I’d still rather do that (in a very Inuyasha sort of way, only without Inuyasha and without swords being more important than abilities).

WoD no longer matches my sensibilities.  It did.  It can when it’s just humans fighting things that reside in the darkness.  But, the idea of a bunch of supernaturals all acting like high schoolers towards each other just seems so passé.  It’s overdone in TV, in books, in games.

It’s the halflingification of vampires.  I got to use halflingification more often.  What I mean is that hobbits are cool because the point of Tolkien’s use of hobbits is that the loserman wins.  Halflings are just insipid caricatures of Bilbo.  In 1e V:TM, you get a sense of the otherworldliness of a vampire, that it has all of this ancient power that it uses to own the night.  Then, you play, and you go “Uh, during the day?  I try not to be discovered in my three hours of preparation to be useless so that someone doesn’t just fry me.”  No, most sessions aren’t like that.  It’s that that sort of thing becomes unescapable once you start thinking about it or have to do it once where it becomes pain.

Does Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, or whatever hurt my sensibilities?  Don’t know, never played sufficiently in them.

Exalted did.  I hear people talk a lot about broken mechanics.  I played Exalted a couple of times and was like “What is this world?”  Where Immortal throws so much jargon at you that you may just want to go himsati form and serenade into your … I don’t even remember the term off the top of my head … creche? as you give up on the stratagem of counting coup against the book’s authors, at least Immortal used the modern world as a backdrop.  Exalted was just “Wait, what am I?  What is that?  Where are we?  What is it we care about?  Who the hell is everyone else?”

There are numerous fantasy worlds that got created with some sort of conceit in order to set themselves apart form Tolkien.  I understand the thinking.  I don’t get the execution much of the time.

I just continuously come back to one of the following as a basis for a world:  real world (modern, historical); mythic version of our world; something I’ve read or watched.

The Land, out of the Thomas Covenant series, that sounds like a great fantasy world in certain ways, though I worry about the “I am not a leper who has a power greater than that of god.” situation with having PCs do stuff.  High fantasy based around parties rather than individuals requires a bit of thinking through the modeling.  Some of that is just modeling what it is the campaign is about as it’s probably not about the same things books in a series are about.

Related to sensibilities is that place names, character names, etc. aren’t silly.  If you set a game in some fantasy world that had nothing to do with Thailand and used all of the actual Thai city names, I might balk until I realized that they were real names of things (and begin to wonder why the game wasn’t set in a Mythic Thailand).  (I worked in an office where all of the conference rooms in the building were names of Thai cities.)

Sure, I’ve read stories with Bink in them a bunch of times.  Bink is frickin’ awesome as a character, with a kind of clever, kind of “this doesn’t really make any sense” nature to why he has a power greater than that of god.  But, I don’t want to game with characters named Bink.

No low.  No low fantasy.  No low anything.  If I want to live in a depressing world where I scrape by, I can look at my retirement savings.  This is where settings like Traveller are a fail to me.  Why would I want to be in that world?  Yes, I’m much more of a high fantasy sort, but Conan isn’t high fantasy nor is Hunters Hunted.  Feng Shui can be, but other martial arts settings … can be.

Related to low, is that I have no interest in money.  Wealth, to me, is a meaningless motivator.  I understand on some “intellectual” level that other people can get motivated by playing a game to pursue money, but I just can’t relate to that in any way.  Money in gaming, to me, is “You saved the Kingdom of Kool Kats, you get a palace made of Unobtainium and your garden grows Rubies.”  Otherwise, you just ignore money.  Now, again, this seems to fly in the face of how I like to shop in L5R, but that’s because I see shopping when it’s meaningless to your character to be ironic and about thumbing your nose at games where shopping actually matters.

The motivators in RPGs should be revenge, love, duty, overcoming weakness, building a better world, and the like.

Mechanics

I need to move on.  Probably a million more words on thematics in RPGs.

No accountanting.  One forum post from rpg.net I copied was ranting about character sheets looking like something on an accountant’s desk.  I’d take this a step farther.  I don’t want to spend my time doing accounting.  I’m an Excel expert, building reports is a core competency, I crunch deck win statistics.  I do not want to spend my time fiddling constantly with character numbers or their possessions’ numbers (i.e. money).

Why is a game like L5R so appealing mechanically?  Look at the character sheet.  Okay, don’t look at the character sheets that come with the books or whatever that are a mess of nonintuitive layout.  Look at my character sheets that nobody else can seem to read.  Traits/Rings, Skills & dice pools, technique descriptions, spell lists, about five combat stats.

As much as I get Hero in some weird way for character creation, just no.  The Speed chart I can sort of understand and oddly doesn’t feel broken when I play, but it has to be broken in some way.  Recovery stat to go with your Stun Pips, your Body Pips, your PD, your ED, then throw END on top?  Accountanting in play to go with the supercrunchish character creation.

When I say L5R 3e/4e hits my sweet spot on mechanics, that’s what I mean.  You don’t have too little information that describes your character, like not having any skills.  You aren’t a d20 character sheet, where you track irrelevant things like encumbrance or your AC varies three different ways depending upon which side you get attacked from.

Savage Worlds has a decent character sheet.  But, it falters in a different way.

Resolution mechanics should feel like you are doing something.  In other words, have a decent dice or card system.  But, what is decent?  I dislike d20, d100, 3d6.  I’m not fond of Savage Worlds’ system because it doesn’t feel like the dice are doing anything interesting.  I like d10, R&K.  For some reason, rolling a single d10 just feels reasonable, even though it’s rather simple.  I used to like the up die/down die mechanic more as well as FUDGE dice, but both have become a bit too focused on the middle to me.

But, what I love the most is playing cards.  I may find The Zero Movement’s high school students in a World of Dimness to be not thrilling in two ways, but play Tarot cards from hand to resolve things?  That’s just the best thing ever.

One chart … and it better be funny.  Savage Worlds does, on the other hand, have the amusing Terror Chart, where the normal result in my play is:  heart attack.  Other than specialized charts, like Conan’s out of control sorcery chart, no charts.  You roll your cards and you tick off your hit boxes.

No hit locations – screwjob.  No bleeding – screwjob.  No action loss (stun, knockdown, shaken) – antifun.  No AoO, no matter how unrealistic it is that someone can just run away.  No grappling.

Descriptors?  For one-shots, ‘k.  For campaign play?  I must admit that I haven’t played a host of descriptor based games in a campaign style, so maybe it works better than I think, but I just think it’s likely to exacerbate all of the problems that descriptor oriented systems have from a mechanical standpoint.  Namely, that descriptors are open to interpretation.

Funky dice?  Maybe.  If by funky, you mean things like having + on two sides, – on two sides, and nothing on two sides, that’s okayish, if kind of limited.  If you mean “Uh, so I spelled URAID10T, what does that mean?”, then take me home to my country road and my single d10.

Highly lethal?  Highly boring.  Unless the game handles PCs going from lifed to unlifed largely intact, it’s just too disruptive to be worrying about how any fight might require rewrites.

Hard times at Ravenloft High?  If my character just constantly fails, I can go back to creating solitaire games to play while watching TV.  I don’t know if it’s too high target numbers or that PCs are losers or what, but I’m shocked at how many games I’ve played where I just felt like my PC was less competent than I was.

Crits and fumbles?  Most of the time, these don’t work.  PCs build to do what they need to do without crits, so crits usually just screw them.  Fumbles can be funny, like that Mekton game I played where I twice shot my training sergeant in the back as I learned mech-jockeying.  But, mostly, they introduce a silly element into games that aren’t supposed to be silly.  Even having mooks stab each other in the brain gets tired pretty quick.

By this plate mail I shall rule!  Armor is not my glass of incredibly sweet tea.  I don’t always hate armor, just often hate it.  Conan was great for having reasons to not wear any armor and to have better reasons to not wear anything more than light armor.  L5R 4e makes armor too good, but 3e seemed okay.

While many a protagonist in a fantasy novel will wear armor, they often don’t and, when they do, it’s often not something emphasized.  I can live with the idea that people sometimes have protective clothing on or whatever, but I just picture play involving things other than warring (including “dungeon warring”).  Then, nothing is more annoying than “I spend this round putting on armor because we once again got attacked in the middle of the night.”  Okay, there are more annoying things, but that’s pritnear the top of the list of tedious gaminess.

Have reasonable character creation and experience systems.  This is another place where I get concerned about descriptor games.  But, there are so many ways this goes wrong.

If I have to spend two hours making a character, even my sweet, sweet Ars Magica characters, fail.  If I have one stat at one and another human max because it’s cheaper to do this at character creation than to advance to human max, fail.  If I have no clue how my character will function after I build it, given that I’ve only created thousands of characters for maybe half a dozen primary systems and miscellaneous other systems, fail.  If I randomly can’t be a farmer, fail.  If I have to take Enraged: When angered, 11 or less, recover 8 or less to have enough points to make a functional character, fail.  If skills matter, and some other class gets tons of skills/skill points, and I get only enough to Spot for the party, fail.  Advance in stuff I don’t care about?  Fail.  Buy up one stat because that’s all that really matters to character effectiveness?  Fail.

Again, this is where recent L5R works for me.  You buy up traits, Void, skills that cost the same as they would when advancing, and that’s almost everything a player will have to do, with some odd exceptions for kata, memorizing spells, kiho, emphases, most of which only apply to certain characters, all of which you could ignore.  Advantages don’t work “properly”, but that’s usually tolerable (but not always …).  When you get XP, you spend them on what you want to improve.  You aren’t having to save up for 10 sessions to add one dot to your highest discipline.  You can improve multiple things in a not outrageous amount of time.  New skills aren’t prohibitive.  You aren’t getting better at things that are either irrelevant or out of character.  You aren’t paying one cost for one type of skill and another for a different type (though, I kind of understand the concept that not all skills are the same value and how problematic that can be).

Essential to my experience when playing a RPG is feeling like my PC is unique.  Mechanical distinctiveness goes a long way to assisting that.  If my only distinction is that my 4th level miller/3rd level ditchdigger has one more point of Intuition than Haifa Wehbe’s 4th level miller/3rd level ditchdigger, I’m not going to feel that there’s any difference between the two of us.

Then, I’m in the “My starting PC should be a badass as well as being an expert in pewter watch chains” camp.  So many times, when a game has a loserville phase, people want to start as losers, even when they’ve done the goat to G.O.A.T thing before.  I like character advancement, I just like it to be from major league all star to major league hall of famer, not single A to major league middle reliever.

Character features are either obvious or cool.  Feng Shui may have “feats” just as d20 has “schticks”.  But, FS (1e, 2e maybe not …) won.  Because Carnival of Carnage and Both Guns Blazing and Willow Step and Armor of Life are not Power Attack, Improved Unarmed Strike, or Exotic Weapon Proficiency.

Not everything needs to have a cool name.  Having a skill called stealth is fine.  This is where looking at a character sheet and going “I understand, understand, understand, whoa, what’s One With God do?” is better than “Does this Advanced Knack do the same thing as this Basic Knack?”

Everything on the character sheet matters.  While a preference, this will never happen, so this is more like some Kantian Ideal.  Well, as much as possible matters.  Don’t have more than 20 skills (sadly, the only game I can think of that I play that limits skills sufficiently doesn’t give you skills I think characters should have).

Don’t have combat be inconclusive up until you die.  This is where I find systems with parrying to often cause pain.  While an epic one-on-one duel should have “Btw, I’m underhanded.”, party combat just grinds in a hellish grind of grindiness when you don’t reduce something’s hit boxes every round.

Have something going on besides combat.  Well, by something, I mean something interesting, not just lockpicking or “you detect an ambush” rolls.  I like skills.  I like horizontal diplomacy.  I like brain stuff.  Harp strumming should be a thing.  Things that the system considers important and not just “secondary skills”.

Enemies should not be so complicated that I ignore the rules.  Actually, this is a place that L5R doesn’t work for me.  I routinely overlook or ignore NPC techniques or mastery abilities because tracking on all of them exceeds my interest level.  This *is* a place where Solomon Kane has worked for me, as monster abilities might involve many more lines than PCs, but there’s not much more going on besides their specials to have to think about.  I actually don’t mind systems having one set of rules for PCs and another for other, as long as there’s still enough mechanical clarity to balance encounters.

Gah, I’m sure I’m missing tons of other things, but I have failed my Endurance + P: Blogging check.

So …

From a mechanical standpoint, there’s a reason I keep mentioning L5R.  Other systems just end up bugging me from a little – Conan’s imbalances, grappling – to a lot – my 366 year old Ventrue cannot possibly survive combat with an angry teenager wielding a brick – to “I have no idea how anyone plays this”.

From a thematic standpoint, obviously, generic systems – Hero, GURPS, d20 – have as much theme as the supplement someone wrote provides.  So, it’s not so much about system.  And, I’ll tend to buy only those games where I like the thematics when the system isn’t generic.

So, it’s more about what groups decide to do in the game, which really isn’t the publisher’s fault.

However, there are a few things that will get me to not Kickstart your RPG.  Fake Tolkien, low fantasy, sci-fi, worlds that mean nothing to me.  Meanwhile, I will totally consider buying a hard copy of Against the Dark Yogi.  I will totally sign up for your beta Babylon (not 5) RPG, your “a man or a multi-layered archetype?” game, your fantasy pseudo-Nigeria game, though I’d only look to campaign one of these if I thought it would have the mechanics to support campaign play.


Easy Roads, Paths, Ground

June 21, 2015

I’ve had in mind thoughts about RPGs that don’t seem to coalesce into a single topic.  This topic is about simplifying.

I will read forums and blogs to see what people say about running campaigns.  How much actually penetrates and leads to different behavior is questionable.  The impetus for change is routinely some sort of negative experience rather than a “shoulda done it differently” thought that occurs.

One thing that keeps coming to mind, however, when I think about theoretical campaign experiences is oddly D&D.  Not necessarily what D&D has become or ever was but the stripped down, hack and slash dungeon crawling that I picture when I read play examples in not only D&D and AD&D books but in The Fantasy Trip and whatever (with less of the obsession over distances, light sources, poking refuse piles, whether you look up to see the spiders above you, etc.).  Much more akin to what it’s like to play the HeroQuest boardgame (or Descent for a more modern reference).

I believe this vision of a simple, straightforward, easy to play (and run) game comes up because my experiences seem to make things more difficult than they need to be.  If you have to spend more than 30 minutes getting a character together to play, that’s too much work and too awkward for something you aren’t going to be sure you want to do.  If the players are lost in terms of what they are trying to do, what the world is about, how the system works, or whatever else, that’s … weird.

Why should anything be hard?

Character

It’s not important to have a coherent character.  It’s important to start playing a character that becomes coherent.  The more you understand a system and a world, sure, the more tailoring that can be done up front.  But, most campaigns fail to run very long, so sayeth others and so I observe.  Even campaigns I run that I’m motivated to keep running fall apart in the face of spotty attendance, if not something else.

What interests me in character creation isn’t necessarily what interests someone else.  Some people like shopping for their gear, for instance.  I quite can’t stand it, which is why I have characters running around in game worlds that have no armor when everyone is expected to be outfitted for warfare.

But, even where mechanical details like this are supposed to matter, just … start … playing.  What determines the length of a campaign?  Well, how much you play.  So, play more.

Why is length important?  For some, character advancement is a major or primary appeal.  In my experience, duration of campaign has led to depth.  Where a character starts out as a character sheet, eventually you hit some point in the campaign where you know who the character is.  After that point, then you start playing to who that character actually is rather than who you might have thought it was supposed to be.

15-30 minutes.  Can spend more than that off on your own when you aren’t wasting anyone else’s time, but I find that many a campaign sees people creating characters with everyone else around, and it tends towards being a waste of time to spend more than this when the important thing is playing long enough to have your character become something more than a character sheet.

In The Beginning

I only think of two campaigns I played in as long running.  I don’t include Heroes of Rokugan because of the structured nature of the campaigns and because of the incredible inconsistencies in the schedule of play.  I don’t include the RuneQuest play as the actual number of sessions is nowhere near as high as the span of realworld time used to play.  Plus, my characters keep changing while the situations hardly do – essentially, there’s no story arc.

The Conan d20 campaign started off uncluttered.  We had a reasonably clear need at the beginning, being on the Pictish frontier.  Whether actually doing our jobs or fleeing before an implacable foe, survival was the focus.

In contrast, the Princess Police campaign was much less clear in what we were supposed to be doing and had a very slow start.  It ended up working out because of the commitment level of the players.

I’d encourage the former.  Simple, clear goal(s) with straightforward play to “get into” the campaign.  Not everyone is highly committed to a particular campaign idea to keep going when things aren’t meeting their expectations right away.

I know I can’t escape it, but, for some reason, it’s far harder to articulate and define a campaign vision at the outset than you would think it would be.  Even when you have a campaign mission statement, somehow different players expect different things and GMs expect different things than players.

Deepen

It’s not just characters that add dimensions over time.  I see the play (plots, setting pieces, NPCs) as gaining more dimensions through continued play.  I wouldn’t say this depth necessarily comes with complexity.  I would put it down more to just investment in what happens in the campaign.

This is where I struggle with the idea of a dungeon crawl campaign.  Isn’t it just doing the same thing over and over, with the names changed?  Sure, the Gygaxian model, as far as I can tell, is to dungeon crawl until you get enough resources to establish yourself in the world as a territory manager or whatever.  So, there is a shift from murder hobo to murder lord.  Economics, politics, whatever become relevant at some point, and the 20’x20’x20′ rooms get pushed somewhat to the side.

On the other hand, I’m still trying to wrap myself around how to do more episodic play.  TV shows have done very well with the idea of the same setup every week with only modest evolution in the main character(s) or what they do, i.e. minimizing depth.  There has to be some way to have a satisfying game that is “The Case of the Broken Rubber Band” each week (think Encyclopedia Brown, Sherlock Holmes, etc.).

Maybe others have seen it and I just haven’t, but I’ve yet to see a campaign where there was essentially no concern for change in the PCs mechanically, where a campaign focused on plots, instead.  Come to think of it, I’ve played in adventures at cons that were part of a series where the focus was on the story arc and the characters undergoing changes didn’t really matter.  That doesn’t seem like something with “legs” for a home game.

Even episodic TV shows saw character development.  Magnum P.I. saw a greater focus on his Navy background.  MASH, to my recollection, got more and more into the frustration with the war continuing and, of course, moved into the reality of characters being done with the war.  Not that Jeannie and Tony getting married (or whatever evolution of a show along similar lines) is necessarily much more than a nod toward how things can’t stay exactly the same and be remotely plausible.  My observation, which admittedly does come from most of my TV watching being when I was growing up and relatively little since the ’80s, is that entertainment became more sophisticated over time.  It was fine to have an incredibly repetitive show in the olden days (some weren’t), but the demands for novelty led to more character development.  Unfortunately, at least when I look around, I feel like modern TV has to make every protagonist tortured because simplistic characters don’t satisfy more “sophisticated” audiences.  The idea of simple fun seems to be missed.

What?

I think I got ramblely there.

To restate:  It can’t be that difficult to start a new campaign quickly and with clear goals and expectations that the players buy into to where the campaign has legs.

Characters don’t need to be hyperdetailed – that can arise later.  Motivations don’t need to be complex or convoluted, not even for the villains.  Missions and accomplishments don’t need to be involved – I keep coming back to how one of my failings is that I don’t give clear short term wins and losses to my players; the impact of actions is too enigmatic and subtle.

I may be lost on what HoR3 is supposed to be about, but I do find the format enjoyable.  One benefit of the format, I perceive, is how each module typically has a well-defined mission and how the results of mods are immediate and defined.

I own far, far more modules for D&D/AD&D than the number of modules of a RPG I’ve played in home games.  I would imagine that playing a module based campaign for something other than L5R could work much the same way, but I don’t know.  Maybe the “videogame role-playing” comes through much more with D&Desque adventures in play, as it does when you read them and read over and over again about room descriptions with monster statblocks and what sort of implausible treasure can be had and read not much else (well, there are random encounter tables, too).

As we started up a new campaign that uses Savage Worlds for the system and a pseudohistorical setting, I’ve been looking at my Solomon Kane book recently.  It is an interesting contrast to my ’80s D&D modules, where there’s far less detail and much more focus on a simple, one session adventure with hardly any sort of randomness to the plot.  I certainly grok the SK adventures far more than I can envision how the D&D modules play out.

In my recent experiences, I’ve run across difficult to understand systems, labored character creation, unclear motivations/goals, difficult to resolve scenarios, and maybe a couple of other things.  My intent isn’t to complain.  My intent is to figure out how to easify playing RPGs.  The heights of RPGs are greater than the heights of other games I’ve played (except for the ousting multiple players with Jake Washington experiences).  It shouldn’t be challenging to reach those heights.  I’m not looking to play some dungeoncrawl, hack and slash wargame.  I’m just wondering where the ground is that captures simplicity of action with richness of narrative.


Cost in Translation

February 26, 2011

So, I whine a lot about how some RPG system does things better than some other system. My latest thing, perhaps it will change, perhaps not, is to laud L5R (3e or 4e). I’m finally taking a look at adapting roll and keep to something else.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m okay with Solomon Kane (Savage Worlds engine). It’s way better than alternatives such as d20. I have the sense that my players (in my campaign, not the flawed one shot I ran of Victorian Age SK) don’t find combat as tedious as I do, so it’s not exactly necessary to switch. It’s just that, rather than running something new when I’d much rather play than GM, taking something I theoretically run (um, September wasn’t that long ago), I can see what’s what with a system switch on something I’m already involved in.

But, let’s look at some things to try to figure out why I’m so enthralled with L5R. Savage Worlds tries to divorce attributes from skills in that attributes limit rather than support skills, and attributes aren’t rolled all that often. Admittedly, attributes in d20 aren’t rolled that often either, but whatever. This is counterintuitive. The idea of attribute + skill for resolution is incredibly powerful, whatever spin a game puts on it. Both games explode dice, which I’m in favor of, but I have little feel for SK as to what is good, bad, expected. I don’t feel like a d8 skill is all that much better than a d4 skill, yet from an XP or flavor perspective, it’s rather important. Meanwhile, there’s a massive difference between 3k2 and 4k3 or 4k3 and 8k3+5.

SK is loose about things, a lot of Hindrances have no defined mechanics; it has an “open to GM fiat” feel to it … which I like. However, the more I play systems designed to be rules light/lite, the more I realize that too few rules creates greater!! complexity. FATE pretends to be rules light and is a disaster of trying to figure out what you can/should do, at least in my experience, so different from FUDGE games I’ve played where it’s just roll your dice and that’s what level of success you got. Even if you don’t have a bunch of weird “these aren’t really complicated, no really, rules” tacked on to make a system more than just “GM says so”, you still get systems where it’s basically “GM says so” as so many things are left to interpretation.

Meanwhile, I, of course, rather disdain a lot of fiddly crunch. To me, L5R hits the sweet spot in terms of putting mechanics on things you do and not making it a chore to resolve things. Perhaps I can steal a term thrown about at work all of the time and call it scalable – simple things are handled simply, complex things are more complex; the huge selling point of Magic as a CCG is that it scales really well, where most CCGs (worth playing) are too complicated at first. It’s not that SK is that far from that spot, but I’ve already noticed with translating characters that I can put defined mechanics on things that have none in SK a lot more easily without also having to make a mechanical mess out of what characters should be able to do.

It’s been interesting so far getting into the details of the migration. I always forget just how hard it is to house rule RPGs on a wide scale. The porting over of attributes and skills is relatively easy, though I’m using SK skills rather than L5R skills for the most part. Honor, Glory, Status – also not much of an issue. It’s Edges, Hindrances, what to do about Bennies (they aren’t going away!), stances, magical powers that I’ve been really loose about in SK, Initiative – keep cards? switch to dice? try both? – and so forth that keep making me think. Also, I’m realizing that I want some of 3e and some of 4e L5R. I like Defense Stance (can easily dispense with Center Stance) and how the Defense skill only matters when Defending, though I could use the 3e rules here to simplify and try to avoid having to juggle three rules sets.

One of the things I have the least idea how my players feel about is the mystery Edges I’ve given their characters. I suppose I could just ask. To me, uniqueness/specialness of PCs is fundamental and every PC should break the rules. On the other hand, not knowing what you can do and having problems solved by something out of your control is something I can find grating, so I can see it coming across as heavy-handed. I also have the tendency to try to hide too much information and make the players guess. While I’ve dropped hints about what their mystery Edges have to do with, it may not be interesting to try to figure out, and there’s still the issue of putting mechanics to something so that it feels like a resource rather than a “thank you, GM” situation. While I could have done something about putting mechanics around the SK versions, I think part of not doing that is that I don’t really have a strong mechanical sense of the system and so many other things are not defined. In translating to L5R, I find that I can at least come up with some mechanics for these mystery Advantages to where the players have some control.

One of the things I find somewhat bewildering is that people seem to think that using L5R for another genre than fantasy pseudo-Japan means removing the Honor mechanic. I find that the Honor mechanic is great for defining things coherently. Conan? How do you determine whether you should lose your Code of Honor? How about by tracking actions on an Honor scale? What should being Honorable do for you (that isn’t stupidly broken like Conan’s CoH rules)? How about using your Honor scale for some sort of mechanic? One of my SK PCs has Code of Honor – now I have some idea of how to mechanize that rather than say “I don’t think you would do that”. It’s also rather easy to decide what Honor some character should have even though they don’t live in a homogenous society like Rokugan. It’s Status that’s the hassle, since being a European muckymuck doesn’t necessarily mean anything to tribal natives, nevermind that the scale for Status (and Glory, oddly) in L5R is weighted oddly to reflect Rokugani society. While determining Glory is not so clear at the moment, how to use Glory is pretty easy (3e style, not 4e where it does nothing, which, admittedly, is very easy).

That I’m also messing around with XP costs, since I hate rising costs, and wound charts does not make the process any easier. Given how many wounds people seem to be getting, now, it seems like damage isn’t high enough, which is not only the precise problem I was looking to address but also the usual problem I have when coming up with my own house rules on games – everything is way too hard to k- … incapacitate.

I’d have to say that the number one reason not to try to fix a RPG system is that it leads you down a rabbit hole of constantly fixing more and more things. Why do SK characters use rapiers when they kind of suck? How about not making them suck? Well, then, what’s the relative damage on firearms? Is this Advantage worth N pts.? Undercosted? Can’t ask for help from anyone else since the rules aren’t familiar to them anymore. So much time spent on mechanics when people just want to roll (and/or role) play.


Cable

January 17, 2011

So, I awoke to another game-related dream.  I woke up as I was reviewing the character sheet for a Champions game character for a new Champions campaign (probably a campaign).

Some trivia:  The player was a friend from growing up that I hadn’t seen in over 20 years.  The character’s artwork was female though we referred to the character as him.  The premise was some gadgeteer who had some sort of high-tech cables that did stuff – main attack was a huge Entangle.  I actually comment in the dream that as I got further down the list of powers I realized that the character’s powers really didn’t have any sort of theme and it was just a “I want to be able to do this and this and this” character.  I got into a discussion on the character’s +3 SPD with a -3.5 disad of [Publish], which I naturally interpreted as meaning the character had +3 SPD only while publishing (journalist job or something) as a single 3.5 disad is absurd and would need to be so narrow as to make the ability essentially useless, but my friend couldn’t remember what the disad was supposed to mean and was trying to convince me that it would increase his SPD in combat.

The other players were sitting around a table waiting for me to finish reviewing, and I was quite concerned with time and whether everyone else was ready.

Oh, by the way, for those who don’t follow such things, Cable is a Marvel mutant, Scott and Jean’s son from the future who creates X-Force.  I finally found out (this was like 15 years ago) that the name Cable was some not terribly cool reference to how he was a cable between the past and the future or two sets of mutants or something.  Still find the name okay for some reason, must roll off the tongue.

Anyway, how am I going to make use of this dream?

Champions in particular, but Hero System in general, has incredibly involved combats.  The noncombat system is actually far too simple for me, with basically it just being roll 3d6.  I also rather hate 3d6 resolution since it generates lots of average results and extreme results, like a 14, don’t feel terribly extreme.  But, I want to focus on combat.  I could focus on character building with its incredible precision and heavy accounting-like math, a system that has historically been my favorite for character creation; I once, as far as I know, owned every Champions product up through around Demons Rule.  But, I want to focus on combat.

I don’t dislike all combat.  I just dislike far more combat than a lot of people I’ve played with.  Mostly, it is because of boredom.  Often, it’s because the party is destined to win and there’s no real reason to be involved and there’s nothing terribly interesting to achieve as a personal goal in the combat.  Combats where the party looks like it’s going to lose I’m all in favor of and get enthusiastic about, at least as long as they don’t have anticlimactic endings where the party gets bailed out by something dumb.

Ultimately, I suppose, it comes down to the fact that I don’t like rolling dice for the sake of rolling dice.  I’d much rather do something creative in combat that doesn’t involve rolling dice than just roll attack/roll damage in round 1 of a 6 round fight.

So, combat length.  There’s always minimizing realtime waste.  Some systems leave people with more time to sit around and wait for others to act.  Then, there’s making quicker decisions, not looking up rules in books, etc.  Then, there’s in-combat length, reducing the number of rounds that combat lasts, which is more in my mind.  However, I’m going to address these things individually since they do connect to my greater theme [which is?].

1.  Turn Length

There are a variety of reasons why PCs might have to wait longer or shorter for their turns to come up.  Rather than try to get into every possibility, I’m going to focus on bad guys’ turns and overly involved mechanics.

I’m a big fan of all bad guys going on the same initiative, at least when GMing.  I know it’s unrealistic and takes away from some battles where the bad guys have names and are a serious threat, but as a GM, I find that I can’t focus on things like I can as a player, so it’s far easier to process as many things at once as possible and helps with enemy tactics.

Lots of bad guys equals lots of time for players to blithely ignore how they should be thinking of optimal tactics to win the fight.  Really, I hardly ever see players think about what the party should be doing once combat begins.  I am accumulating infamy for my wolf battles – I’ve run two fights at the beginning of sessions against wolves merely to setup what happens next only to find that the combats last hours longer than I wanted.  Is this entirely due to numbers of bad guys?  Of course not.  It has a lot of something to do with making the wolves too resilient.  If I ever run a game where werewolves are the bad guys, prepare for a TPK.  I’m drifting off topic.  Number of bad guys.  I’m not thrilled with having only one bad guy since it makes too many fights too easy for PCs, but I’d probably say that two tough bad dudes is good times.  Hordes are painful unless they can be abstracted – I personally hate rolling half a dozen or more attacks by dorks but don’t play with folks who seem enthusiastic about rolling for the bad guys for me; on the other hand, I don’t mind it as much as a player where there’s some suspense as to whether I get hit or not.

Then, we get to systems where individual turns take way too long.  I’m not talking about decision time which I’ll get to in a moment.  I’m talking about purely mechanically being overly involved.  Multiple attacks can greatly extend turns.  Hit location tables or, really, any sort of special tables often add virtually nothing yet draw out actions.  Now, long turns isn’t as bad as highly variable turns.  I find that a lot of the time someone will be done in under a minute and someone else will take considerably longer.  For instance, a fighter may just swing sword and hit or miss (miss really sucks when you aren’t doing much) where a spellcaster does something far more complicated.

In terms of turn length, while people play much faster the better they know the system, I’m pro L5R.  I’m going to bring up L5R often because its streamlined combat system is more what I’m looking for.  With Solomon Kane, I find that there’s a great disparity in turns, though that has something to do with having party minions and with my countering with baddie minions.  With Conan, I don’t feel like PC turns take the wrong amount of time, maybe because the massive damage save rule speeds things up, except when people are indecisive and/or don’t know what the rules are.  At least, with Conan, when someone is doing something more complicated, it’s probably more interesting to those who are observing.

2.  Decision/Rules Time

Some people just aren’t sufficiently engaged in what is going on.  That isn’t a system issue.  What is a system issue is when a system offers too many options or when the options are too complicated and require either adjudication or, more likely, looking up rules.

Feng Shui is supposed to be fast-paced Hong Kong Movie style adventuring.  I’m a big fan of it but not its combat.  Combat, rather than being quick and exciting, is often incredibly mechanical and slow.  Part of the slowness can come from players trying to get into the spirit and do heavily descriptive things, which is fine.  It’s more how tedious it is to either gun down a bunch of mooks or how hard it is to put something named down.  Then, the shot system, much like the Speed system in Hero, is extremely mechanical.  I find shot management even more accountingish than Speed management as, usually, in Hero, you do stuff on your phase where shots are often used for things like aiming or get pushed down with active dodge.  Is FS a good example for this section?  Probably not.  Reason it came to mind was that players I play with often don’t grok the shot system and how long their abilities take, which causes indecision and greatly slows down play.  For me, once I got it and understand what my character does (which was harder, of course, in one-shots than when I ran a gambler in a campaign), my shots were pretty much aim or attack with deciding whether to active dodge coming down to what shot number I was on.

Conan is a case where things work okay only because the players don’t know what they are doing.  I built an alt character (who promptly died because he was heroic and the party wasn’t) who took advantage of my experience-gained knowledge of what was effective in Conan.  I was constantly paralyzed by indecision as he had simply too many combat options:  how much to Power Attack for; whether to Improved Feint to do Sneak Attack damage; which playmat square to occupy to maximize effectiveness of attacks; whether to fight defensively; how much Combat Expertise to use; etc.  While that was an extreme case, our players simply don’t think of all of the options available to them or plan ahead for when there are decisions like Power Attack.  And, I’m just talking about basic combat.  Add in maneuvers and our players are inept tactically.  I constantly forgot to use the Aid Another option to help our barbarian kill everything since my attacks were ineffectual, and that’s one of the most basic maneuvers.  We don’t even remember maneuvers in the main book, let alone maneuvers in anything else.  Is that bad?  No!!  If we used everything available to us, while it might make combat more interesting, it would be insane in terms of figuring out what goodies or baddies should do.  I came to the conclusion at one point that a PC can pretty much only recall using one special maneuver.  If that maneuver is too effective, then the GM counters and the PC moves on to the next maneuver.  Whichever maneuver the PC is on is the PC’s schtick.

Another comment on Conan – I despise the grapple rules.  We end up looking them up constantly even though we’ve looked them up so many times that one would think we would know them by heart.  Some on the forum thought they were simple to remember.  Um, only if you do basic things.  What happens when you have multiple grapplers?  What happens when a monster can grapple in addition to doing other things?  We couldn’t even remember how to move a grapple or how it worked to give up attacks to break a grapple, which are basic things.  Simply way overcomplicated rules for something that doesn’t interest me at all.  But, since they are a good way to inflict pain on PCs, they are a key element to the GM’s arsenal.

I’ve played a lot of systems where there were far too many choices.  Someone just asked about the Oz RPG, I assumed the Oz: Dark and Terrible RPG.  I remember that combat was incredibly frustrating when I demoed it in 2009 because it was so counterintuitive and had too many phases.  Too hard to think of others off the top of my head as too many systems blur.

Again, I like the number of options in L5R.  Sure, I don’t use knockdown, disarm, feint as often as they should be used, but I don’t find that there’s an endless list of maneuvers like Conan or too few to where a character bad at normal stuff is useless.  Though, I am against the extra stances in 4e, which I don’t think added anything besides making Defense Stancing shugenja way better in combat than they should be.

3.  Kill!  Kill!  Kill!

I seek combat that lasts 3 rounds max (well, see below).  I don’t want 3 rounds of “I punch/slice/shoot”.  But, people should go down … fast.  Those wolf battles were supposed to be of the 3 round type.  I’m often engaged in 3 round L5R fights where, in contrast, I’ve become bored with the attrition wars that I’m finding to be too often the case when running HoR2 mods with 4e rules and minimal bad guy stat changes.

By the way, if you ever consider comic book fights, they are quite interesting when translated into RPGs because they don’t work like how one might expect.  Comic book fights last a long time, but most of the panels are taken up with someone thinking to oneself or with soliloquy or conversation or being out of the line of fire.  When someone gets hit by an attack, it’s often ineffective or takes them out in one-shot.

This can be simulated in Champions by people taking phases to recover or get away rather than just keep attacking, but normally, I find that people only recover or evade when they feel they need to.  What doesn’t work so well in Champions is the idea that one attack will take someone out (or be completely ineffective, as both extremes produce balance problems).

Not every single combat should be quick, but really, a lot of combats are combat for combat’s sake and not terribly important to the story.  While I’m quite fond of how quick 3e L5R combats went in HoR, the combats typically felt tacked on to give bushi a chance to show off, so they shouldn’t have lasted longer than 3 rounds.  An epic battle, however, that decides how the story will go or whether PCs survive, I can see going on longer – wars of attrition are fine when they are the climax to the adventure.

However, the option to make any battle quick should be available.  This is where I’m having a lot of trouble with Solomon Kane.  I made it way more brutal by making raises openended for damage, yet, it still often bogs down for me into round after round of “When are things going to go down?”  I’m not sure how I can make it nastier, but then, I haven’t thought too much about the details yet.

The Theme

The point of this post was to comment on how I want combat to be fast and brutal as, everything else being equal, that makes them more interesting.  L5R 3e was great for this sort of thing, with one exception – characters could die way too easily.

Sure, L5R 3e wasn’t perfect as a fight might be over before your initiative even came up and one’s attack and damage rolls might mean that any attack was an auto-kill, but I found that there were plenty of subtle tactics to make combat more than just “I swing, you die”.  There needed to be an extended way to avoid death to prevent GMs from having to not keep high dice to keep characters alive.

At the rate things are going, I have no idea whether I’ll ever end up running SK again, but if I do, I want to figure out a way to make combat more brutal but also more interesting to the PCs who don’t have armies of minions.

For game designers out there who give a fig what I want:  don’t give characters too many options; don’t have wildly disparate combat builds, such as one dude with one attack and another with five; don’t use a bunch of tables or special cases; don’t make it too hard to take something down; don’t overuse mooks who are a complete bore most of the time to nuke; don’t require that PCs be smart in their decisions to be successful; don’t have combat feel like accounting; make things go down fast so that we can spend more time on role-playing and less on roll-playing.


ConQuest 2009

September 8, 2009

Could call it PacifiCon these days, too, though I was quite fond of PacifiCon back in the ’90’s, where this con to me is just so “ConQuest”.  One of the three gaming conventions I go to locally.  It was the second year of its latest location.  That should have been a plus.

Maybe it was the economy, but it seemed awfully uneventful.  The RPG schedule was sad and CCGs even sadder, though CCGs are just dying at local cons as the major events all happen at stores or hotels or whatever now.

I really enjoyed last year and enjoyed the previous year, too.  Low expectations are a wonder.

Wargaming, boardgaming, and miniatures seemed to be doing okay, but, then, that’s what this con is known for – DunDraCon is RPGs and KublaCon used to be CCGs.  Having limited interest in any of these in general, I almost hoped we’d have a HoR mod during the weekend.

Friday, I blew off the con.  I had an opportunity to play in a HoR mod.  Originally, I figured it was about six of one, half a dozen of the other whether to do that or sign up for a convention RPG event in the evening, but further thought resulted in my realizing that any HoR mods I miss with the online group I’m fairly likely to never get to play as the campaign only has one more year and there aren’t enough people in the group seemingly to rerun mods.  When Gen Con rolls around next year, I’ll probably want to do whatever is new and maybe get in only a couple older mods, yet there are lots of mods I want to do out of the 30 that currently exist that I haven’t done, nevermind new ones that come out before the end of the campaign.

Ignoring the intro mod for the campaign, it was the first mod of the campaign, and it flew by.  We only spent 2 hours on it when I figured 6 was more likely.  It went so quickly that one of the players volunteered to run another mod for us, so we did another early mod and finished about 11PM.  Too late for me to go to the con.

My main character did finally rank up, “only” took 20 modules and 83 XP.  Now, I just need to get that Emerald Magistrate cert from the GM of an earlier mod, and my character will be … uh … different? than what he was just a couple of weeks ago.

Saturday, I headed over in the morning and checked the event schedule.  Nothing I wanted to do in those times when I wasn’t running anything.  Awesome.  Maybe I could get some stuff done at home, like work on the RPG adventure I was running Monday.  I played a bit of Type P Magic and went home.  Built one V:TES deck for my “tournament” that evening and took a nap.

As expected, the tournament never went off, but unlike the norm for the cons, we didn’t even get enough people for a pickup game.  I didn’t see a number of the usual suspects at the con, though hardly being at it didn’t help.

I played some more Type P, we went out for dinner, just missing hitting the local burger grill that has half-priced burgers on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and I was dropped off at home.

Sunday, I built a new Ultimate Combat! deck in the morning as there was a nebulous plan for me to play with the one-time top ranked player in the world (actually, he still would be if there was such a thing as rankings anymore).  I found him, he had some stuff he needed to do in the morning, I played some more Type P, got lunch, we played six games in the afternoon while he was monitoring an Acquire tournament’s finals.

My brown belt, Instant Replay/Shoulder Throw deck traded games with his brown belt Knowledge/Fighting Spirit deck.  In each game, I pulled off 22 pt. attacks, but he had enough defense in the second game to survive and I couldn’t deal with the counterattack.  I pointed out that one of the things that makes the game so great is how you have incredibly swingy plays, but they seem fair and correct play is rewarded.  I probably made a mistake ceding tempo to his deck by not putting out more technique.

I played my brand new black belt, Mark of the Cheetah deck, a rebuild of an archetype I had done long ago (everything with UC! is long ago).  The build was horrid.  That probably had something to do with not being as familiar with all of the cards as I was back when I played the game every once in a while.  He played a white belt, Adrenaline deck.  I sucked first game and decked myself second game trying to dig for a card that wasn’t left in my deck.

We, then, played our gold belt decks against each other.  Mine seemed much better tuned, a straightforward combination deck that tries to KO as quickly as possible.  I swept the two games as my power generation was more consistent.

We talked about playing about once a month.  Huzzah, guess I need to remember how to build decks for the game.

Played some more Type P.  Went home to get my V:TES stuff for my “draft tournament” (aka second excuse to play some pickup games).  Of course, there was no actual tournament, but I did demo to somebody.  Played some more P.  Played a pickup game of V:TES late in the evening, which I totally wasn’t in the mood for as I needed to do a lot of stuff for my game the next day.  Got ousted quickly, waited around for the game’s end as someone was borrowing a deck (Imbued) from me.  Went home about 12:30AM.

Monday, got up at 6:30AM to get stuff prepared for my Solomon Kane game.  Wandered over to the con.  Ran my game, which was okay.  As my Conan GM pointed out afterwards (his being a player for a change being one of the two drivers to my GMing), the intent was for the party to do some investigating (and, well, more generally, interacting with the world), yet there wasn’t a lot of motivation to do so.  One of the ways I figured the party could figure out what to do was used, so things didn’t bog down too much.  A combat ran long – I just have to remember that combats with lots of participants always will, so I stopped things at something like a cliffhanger.

I’m still not strong on the rules, but running twice in a month rather than twice in six months helped immensely with getting some sort of handle on them.  Might actually have a pretty good grasp by next month as it looks like we will do part two of the adventure in October rather than February.

It’s funny.  On the one hand, I want the game to have more of a Solomon Kane feel, where the characters are more down to Earth and the tone more horroresque, but on the other hand, I want the game to be more lively in the flow of events.  There are some things I need to think about, including tone and types of challenges.

And, that was it.  Barely like being at a con at all.  Actually, for comparison, DunDraCon has gotten so terrible that it isn’t like being at a con much anymore either.  I’ve started wondering whether it’s better to skip DDC in the future, though I think I have enough planned for next year’s to justify going to it again.