Saturday, November 14, 2009

Action Cards Changes (Part Two)

Changes for Action Cards (Part Two)

The Strengths of Action Cards
So I think one of the things to assess before considering any changes is what (at least for my perception) AC does well. Those things I don't want to change and if possible, they ought to be the elements enhanced by any changes.

1. Ownership: AC encourages and supports a sense of ownership by the players over their characters on several levels. First and most obvious is that the resolution system a character is using is their own. They made in in a sense. In some sense it is a handmade die for them with different results they've tailored. Second, the augmentation and detailing a player performs on their character is entirely in their hands- how they define their abilities, how they write their edges and abilities. In play they're able to take what they've written-- consistently-- and put that into play. That's always shaped by their sense of who their character is and what he would/could do. Third, the unique cards are wholly owned by the character defining them for good or ill and also helping to delineate the character's sphere of action and influence.

2. Immersiveness: In the game, there's always the chance that you'll have to narrate when you come to a pull situation. You can't just roll and forget. That means players have to keep their head in the game. The consequences are to allow your character to lose autonomy and have the Gm define the scene and results.

3. Simplicity: Leaving aside the optional mechanics of magic, style keywords, and qualities-- the basic resolution system of the game is pretty clear. You can see the result on first appearances: meaning you don't have to take the additional mental step after reading the dice of then trying to figure out what level of success that means. Once players get used to the idea of their participation and control, they can then use those basic rules to handle just about any situation they can define. Most conflicts follow the same pattern for testing and resolution.

4. Success Reading: As mentioned above, I think the ability to easily and clearly read how successful you were in your attempt, while at the same time having a scale of success is an important factor. For example, in most roll under system, you have four states in an attempt: success, failure, critical success, critical failure. If the system has quality definitions beyond these, they usually require a player to do an additional math calculation to determine margin of success. OOH AC has 6 basic states of resolution, plus 8 fungible states-- and that's before one adds edges in. Open ended systems-- roll high and let's see what you got-- are generally worse in this aspect as the player has to turn to the GM for confirmation of the relative quality of his success, even before any oppositional rolls or numbers might be taken into account.

5. Adaptability: A good deal of this does come from the simplicity of the system. As I mentioned in my consideration of adapting L5R to HQ, when you try to move things over from a high detail to a lower detail system, you do end up blending things together-- the obvious chrome of the system becomes lost. However in general I can see about adapting just about anything over to the game-- though in some cases requiring some significant additional mechanics to satisfy my sense of mechanical propriety and detail. Power levels in the game, in some sense, become defined by what is a reasonable argument for a person to make about their character.

6. Narrative Focus: Both the system itself and the way I run it encourage a narrative approach-- since we have relative rankings one could read things a little mechanically (i.e an OK represents a value of +1 while a Bad represents a -2). Given that we have a couple of systems of bumps (from abilities, powers and edges) that could get read pretty strictly. But I certainly haven't done that and I don't think the players see things in terms of those numbers. Part of that comes from the emphasis on justification (a form of negotiated resolution) to get those bumps. The other part of it comes from the Unique cards which can't be resolved without the players engaging in narrative. At the same time, the game is not entirely driven by narrative-- like Amber-- so there's a structure and a strong method for resolution still in the system.

7. Shared Power: As with the narrative focus, some of this comes from the cards but some of it comes from what the system has generally encouraged. Running AC has certainly pushed me to allow the players to have greater control over scenes and some of that arise out of sharing power in defining what resolution means.

8. Opacity: The game looks transparent in some ways. You know what your cards are, you have a sense of the system, but in some ways the permutations of that system: what a resolution is going to be like, what the situation is going to be, is so complex that it is a little hard to good out-- with the exception of stacked bumps, which I'll come back to. In this respect AC works because you're constantly tuning and at the same time absolutely goobing something is tough.

Abilities
Probably the biggest change I've imagining for a revision to Action Cards is the consolidation of everything I've been calling skills, talents, advantages, qualities, traits, etc. Right now I have a mess of things: skills (which allow redraw on an action), qualities (which provide a global bump), talents (which allow you to do something other people normally couldn't), and ranked advantages (for specialty stuff). And of course I keep changing what I call things.

I want to simplify that. Part of the reason is those things often get confused at the table-- and when push comes to shove, they can be functionally defined as being the same. I also want to remove mechanisms that take away from the device of having edges on cards. So anything which provides a global bump is out.

Instead everything is bought as an ability-- or whatever I'm going to end up calling it. On your character sheet, abilities get written in either in a Physical/Combat box or a Knowledge/Social box. Any ability has two purposes: it can be used as support for a matrix argument (“I'm strong, so I can do X”) and it allows a redraw on related actions.

If any ability allows you to do something “super”-- like see in the dark, leap higher than a fence, crush rocks with your bare-hands, it is considered a Meta-Ability (or some other term, I'm not married to that). It costs more, but otherwise functions as any other ability- you can do something other cannot, you can use the ability in negotiation resolutions, and you can get a redraw when you're trying to do something related to that ability. How potent a super ability is depends on the campaign frame. In a very abstract game, things like equipment and such would be abilities.

Magic and Other Powers
Generally special powers-- magic, super-powers, gadgets, psionics, etc can be handled using the same basic system. For that the new rules will present two different system options. I should note that these don't include the consideration of how to adapt existing power systems over to Action Cards. For example, for the Changeling game, I presented a pretty literal translation of the various Changeling Contracts. That seems to make sense given that those provide a strong flavor to the game. I'll probably present some rules and tools in the revision for how to handle those more detailed systems.

But generally, I see two basic approaches to how to handle Magic (I'll use that as the catch-all term). The first is still abstract, but a slightly higher detail system. In this players buy ranks in various areas of magic. Each area roughly defines the kinds of effects which the character can carry out. These are fairly broadly defined, so on the granular level redundancy exists. Player purchase ranks in these areas (schools or whatever we might call them). Each rank allows a player to apply a modifier to the spell they're casting (fast, many, range, damaging, and so on). That allows them to define the effects of the spells in various ways. I'll probably provide a sample set of magical schools (trying to keep it to two dozen or less) and a sample set of modifiers (again, I'm going to consolidate and trim those if possible).

Additional rules and ideas will be provide for this on how abilities will interact with those powers-- i.e. What kind of ability does one buy to get a repull on a spell. I might also provide discussion of optional mechanics which would help define spell-caster types, consideration of when to allow casters to use the same modifier twice, and options for casting fatigue. Generally this will be a slightly reworked version of the magic system that I'm using for the Third Continent game.

More abstract magic would be handled in a similar way to other abilities. Magic or powers would be meta-abilities (or whatever I end up calling those). For example a person might take Fire Magic as an ability which would allow them to attempt to create your typical magical effects with flames. GMs could either work from a framework, for example the list of schools mentioned above, or could encourage players to take more colorful ability descriptions, like Summon Deadly Flames. In either case these abilities would function like other meta-abilities: as support for an argument, as a redraw for tests in the relevant area, and as a descriptor of some power they have beyond normal persons.

One option to consider, especially for a game with a structure like the schools and an evolving power level, would be to have a breakdown of strengths. For example someone might buy the ability Fire Magic (Low) or Fire Magic (High). I'd either go with a two or three tier structure-- probably two for simplicity's sake.

Keyword Systems
Right now I have the system for keyword groupings in the game-- representing combat styles or other like professional systems (Steve's Thief/Spy keyword sets for example). While I think those are an interesting idea I'll be moving those to be an optional module for the game. I have a couple of reasons for that.

Right now the use of keywords is pretty flexible-- essentially if you have a relevant keyword and can work it into your description of an action, you can get a bump. In some ways this is redundant with both the existing Edge and Talents systems. The later will be going away, but part of the reason for a revision is to give better emphasis to the Edge system, so I don't want a duplicate mechanic unless it really helps to simulate the genre. The other problem is that while they provide some color on the character sheet, they're often forgotten in play or don't add anything significant to a character's effects. They could be better done as standard abilities or else have more impact as edges on cards.

I should also note the variant mechanic I used in the 3C game where these keywords aren't bonus things but rather fairly specific and stackable maneuver elements (ala my Wushu mechanics). I think that's not a bad system but it does need some tuning, is only appropriate for a higher detail version of AC, and really needs to be another optional system.

A Drawback to Action Cards: Short Games
Action Cards doesn't lend itself to short run or one-shot games. The effort required to create a character means that you do make an investment of time that requires the player-GM contract to assume a longer run game.

I do think that an optional ruleset could be built in to fix this problem. Right now a character's deck is made up of 24 cards: seven with fixed results, seven with variable player defined results, six special cards, and four unique to the character cards. For a one shot, it would work like this--

Each player begins with thirteen cards-- the seven fixed plus the six special cards. The GM then deals out to each player seven other standard result cards-- a mixed bag, but generally with more distinctive results (so an experienced card, built on the assumption that the player has spent some points on card buy ups). Player pick one and pass the rest to the left, creating a card draft. One the everyone has these seven cards, the GM then lays out a set of positive unique cards prepared ahead of time-- probably twice the number of players. Each player picks one in a random order. Then the GM lays out a set of negative unique cards and players (in reverse order) pick one each. So the person who picked last in the positive set gets to pick first in the negative.

Players by this point should have a concept for their character-- they get to make up two unique cards to add to the deck, pick a number of abilities and also get to pick a couple of “global edges”- i.e. bumps that they can work into their actions. This goes a little against my moving away from Qualities which do this, but for a short-run game I think this will work.

Next post: damage, combat, drama points, edge limits, abilities as narrow or broad, what a GM's guide needs and so on.