Thursday, April 23, 2009

Handling Classic High Fantasy with Action Cards (Some Thoughts)

I don't think this will come as a particular surprise to anyone who has followed my internal debate about mechanics, especially in relation to the upcoming Third Continent campaign, but I've changed my mind once again. At first I was going to modify Storyteller, then Action Cards, then I did quite a bit of work on a 2d10 version of Gurps, plus there were other earlier drafts where I tried to work through a version of True20. In the end I've come full circle back to using my Action Cards system for a couple of reasons. The first is that the system is easy to run and pick up. The second is that the amount of work I actually have to do to get that system into shape for this is far less than a crunchier system. I did an inventory of what I had left to work on otherwise and it felt a little overwhelming. Plus there's a certain amount of upkeep mechanics work in a game like this and that would be more involved. I'm trying to keep to my own dictum of worrying less about mechanics and more about story and table experience-- which weights my final decision heavily in favor of using action cards. A final selfish reason does come to mind as well-- I wrote the system so if I come up with anything cool, its actually mine rather than an add-on to an existing proprietary game.

Warning: what follows is obscure mechanics stuff based on my Action Cards stuff.

So here's what I'm doing:

1. I'm using dice for damage resolution, probably the biggest mechanical change to the system. I've chosen this for a couple of reasons. It gives me some of the combat crunch I want without changing the basic mechanics for success and test resolution. Damage serves as a kind of objective measure of success and also a tangible reward for actions at the table. The rest of the system is geared towards player control and description of actions, but damage as a mechanic falls a little outside of that. There's also a certain satisfaction to rolling and fistful of dice for damage, and you can't underestimate that. Also, I think keeping dice to a single area limits the general impact and makes that moment special.

Combat resolution will be handled as usual, with the applications of Skills, Edges and Maneuvers. Attackers pull a Combat result and apply any bumps or drops. The Defender gets a Defense pull-- either Dodge, Parry or Block. I've broken those three out and will probably have people buy those applicable skills separately. A character's Dodge will be affected by the armor they're wearing-- losing ties for wearing medium, and a -1 drop for wearing heavier armor. Parry and Block won't be affected by this, but won't always be useful.

If the Attacker hits, they roll d10's for damage. They get a number based on their weapon, bonus dice for any advantages they have (like Strong), bonus dice for edges on their result or maneuvers used, plus a possible bonus die/dice for great success in their attack (determined at least partially by margin of success). Players roll these dice and count up successes, which are results of 6+. The defender then subtracts his Soak directly from the damage done. If the attack is Cutting, damage done is increased by about 25%, if the attack is Piercing damage done is increased by about 50%. The GM will calculate and announce these results.

A starting character will have 12 wounds. These can be bought up as an advantage, up to a total of 24 wounds. When a character gets to below 1/3, they take penalties.

I'm working on a mechanic for handling critical hits and combat effects. Basically that will be based on the number of 10's rolled in the damage resolution. So if the character has rolled at least X number of 10's, then there's either a combat effect (like bleeding, knock down, stun check, etc) or I pull from a critical hit deck-- probably marked in on my GM resolution deck. This should be fast and easy to calculate.

The damage system I have here allows room for a couple of things. Base damage from a weapon will obviously vary. Likewise, base soak from armor will vary. By adding in a quick (but not too heavy) bonus for Cutting and Pierce damage, that helps differentiate between weapons as well. It also means that maybe some character abilities might shift the damage they do. Having '6' as the damage target number also means that magical equipment and special abilities may modify this. For example a special blade might allow damage to happen on 5+, or particularly resistant armor might make it happen on 7+. That allows for diversity and means I don't have to increase soak just to represent mega-toughness. Having a critical/combat effect system based on number of tens rolled, while not giving double successes, means that some combat abilities might allow players to count 9's as 10's or reduce the number they need to cause a particular effect.

I think generally that will fix my concerns about combat crunch while still keeping narrative power in the hands of the players.

2. A good deal of what I'm working on falls out from that-- a more defined weapon and armor table (but not too defined). I'll put extra combat effects and crit results on the GM cards themselves so that I don't have to add anything new on my side of the table. I have a couple of other things that have to be done to make this work. I need to lay out a clearer list of advantages, some definition of skills (re: combat), and probably reexamine combat styles. I don't think I have to make any real changes there, but I need to go through and spell things out a little more and provide a decent reference list to give people ideas. I need to define skill overlap a little as well,

3. Changeling has contracts, ranked special abilities characters can purchase to create effects. They're not that far off from the old Legend of the Five Rings schools I had with that system. I plan to have a set of these available for PCs to purchase, but simulating class tracks. At the start I'd have a small pool, but these could lead on to other profession track packages-- i.e. that you'd have to have a minimum level in one or more prerequisite professions before taking a more advanced one. These would function like the various classes from the Final Fantasy Tactics games. Since the characters will begin as adolescents I will just provide the starter sets at the beginning: Squire, Hunter, Initiate (Divine Magic, full), Apprentice (Arcane Magic, full), Layman (Divine Magic, partial), Dabbler (Arcane Magic, partial), Urchin (starter to the Thief/Rogue track), Student (starter to Diplomacy track), and Acolyte (if I decide to have Martial Arts as a factor, not sure about that). I'm debating about having a Focus resource which would be used for repulls, activating some abilities, and magic.

4. A minor thing but one of the ideas I've been wrestling with is whether to add a fifth stat to the cards. Right now Perception pulls, one of the most common skill checks in any game, are based on Knowledge (or Smarts as I have it in Changeling). That lumps that fairly potent ability together with a lot of other pulls. My thought had been to add in a stat which would cover Perception and Willpower, ala Presence as defined in old RM or Wisdom as it is handled in d20. I'm leaning towards not doing this, given that it would add another look-up on the card, but I'm not sure yet.

5. Lastly I've got a couple of things I need to do with the magic system as it stands in LV. First, for this campaign I'm working on a basic mechanic which divides Divine Magic from Arcane. I need to decide how much that's built into the system itself and how much of it simply represents special effects. Second, I need to revise and define the costs and skills associated with magic casting. That's a little fudgey and at times too potent as I have it right now in the original version. Mages can buy several things and I'm working on how to break those out: Areas of Knowledge (Fire, Water, Body, etc), Keywords (Powerful, Enduring, Farther), and potency with their magic which determines how many modifiers they can apply to a spell.

My original version of the spell system ends up with a weird amalgam of being an effect-defined system and a spell-defined system. Effect defined systems treat all things as reducible to what they do. Spell defined systems take into account the special effect involved. When I wrote the original rules I leaned heavily on True20 Sorcery-- and broke things up into effect areas, but then I wrote in examples based on levels that don't necessarily fit with those effects. That ended up boxing me in a little.

I think what I might do is keep those categories but eliminate the list of example effects based on levels. Instead, I'd say each “school” has a set of base effects. For example, Fire has Burn (for damage), Ignite (for lighting things on fire), Blind, and Creation (for creating fire and solidifying it into things, like weapons or a shield). But then you have certain affects which are generally associated with a particular areas, but these come from dramatic convention rather than anything else. The best example of this would be Shadowport which is generally considered a Darkness effect. The actual effect is a Movement one, with a Darkness FX and a limitation. But I don't want people to have to buy Movement just to get that. So I'm thinking of adding in something called Emulation as an modifier or a special kind of spell. Essentially it applies to causing a spell effect which might be better defined from another school. So another example might be something like looking into a fire to scry on someone also by a fire. Essentially it'd be more difficult than just doing a Scry spell, but it would mean that players wouldn't have to buy up every effect they wanted to do.


  1. I've been thinking a little about your damage mechanic. I'll recap how I understand it. Roll d10 against a Target Number (TN), each success equals a unit of damage. Natural 10s are critical hits.

    Unarmored foes are TN 6+. Armor increases the TN. The crit range can be lowered to 9+ or more. "Unquote".

    Here's what I'd add, to add realistic combat crunch.

    Get rid of the multiplier for cutting and piercing damage. It's a mechanic to simulate armor resisting damage better than flesh, and I think your current mechanic does just fine without it.

    Good bashing weapons (maces, morningstars, two handed swords, estocs, halberds) are great against flexible armor. Let's say chain's TN is 8+. On a roll of 7, the die counts as blunt damage. Flimsier weapons like broad (ie arming) swords don't get this.

    Piercing damage is actually less deadly than cutting: you're more likely to hit an artery or disable a limb with a 4" wide wound than a 1" wide stab. Shorter pistol bullets make small wounds, a longer rilfe round of the same caliber makes a wider wound and does way more damage. Stabbing weapons are good for getting between plates of armor, splitting chain links, and getting in a first strike in a duel. Let stabbing attacks have less damage dice, but also get a lower TN against armor.

    Consider letting a good attack card pull lower the damage TN. This would represent bypassing armor. This could be instead of or in addition to more dice.

    More crunch, for weapon length. The guy with the longer weapon gets a defensive bonus against the guy with a shorter weapon. Until the shorter weapon hits, when the longer weapon becomes too long. Historically, this is why the deployed two handed swords against pikemen. Parry, charge, the pikemen are helpless.

    I don't know how much crunch you want, but I figure that's enough for now!

  2. The point about cut and pierce makes sense and can be handled more simply within the mechanical structure I've got-- I'll consider that and some of the other stuff. I'm not sure if I'm going to factor in weapon length except for calculating initiative, but I'll have to think about that. I don't want too many modifiers, OOH there ought to be a reason for people to use said weapons.

  3. Yeah, I wouldn't include the weapon length stuff if you're not using hex paper.

    Here's a jokey rule I once suggested in an online GURPS chambara discussion. The person with the bigger weapon cannot hit with it, or only at a penalty. But holding it increases their effective unarmed combat skill, including parries.

    You could let longer weapons get an initiative bonus and parry better. This wouldn't always be a literal parry. It could be swinging to force the shorter weapon to back off, aborting their attack. The classic case is a guy with a baseball bat swinging it around to get a bunch of unarmed attackers to step back.

    Here's how I understand your damage system mathematically. Things that increase maximum damage add extra dice. Strength. Bigger weapons. Etc.

    Things that increase the chance of an effective hit lower TN. Critical hit card pulls, called shots to location, armor piercing, dexterity, etc. This overlaps a bit with roll/card pull to hit. The big distinction is armor, which is only handled with the TN mechanic and is ignored during the card pull to hit.

    And for each, vice versa. Fatigue reduces damage dice. Bad lighting increases TN or penalizes the card pull to hit.