Monday, November 16, 2009

Action Cards Changes (Part Three)

Changes for Action Cards (Part Three)

Drama Points
I like the concept of drama points, and in great part I've borrowed from Mutants & Masterminds conception of them. That is, they can be used for a repull, to gain a clue, or in general to ask for a situational advantage in the game. Players rarely use the last two abilities- the first because it seems a little meta and the second because given that I allow them to describe elements of the scene, they don't have to do that. So we'll eliminate the clutter of those two uses.

Generally players start each session with a drama point. I don't provide the option M&M does, where players can buy a feat to increase that starting DP value. That isn't necessary given that your average game of AC will likely have fewer 'rolls' than your average game of M&M. I reward good play at the table with a drama point: success in a story arc, generating applause, and playing to one's own disadvantages. I also give them out, per M&M, when a storyline bad guy makes his dramatic escape or when the players get captured. Players can spend experience points to buy drama points as well, but these are temporary.

I've had a couple of situations where players have managed to accumulate a horde of DPs. I think that does somewhat diminish the game importance of them. I'm probably going to impose a cap of five, as I've done in a couple of versions, at any one time. I'm also wondering about limiting the number of drama points which can be spent on any one result. I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, I do want the players to succeed and not get frustrated, but on the other hand, spending through a series of repulls based on drama points feels gamey and reduces risks and consequences.

Profession Tracks
I wrote up that set of rules for structure Profession Tracks (ala Final Fantasy Tactics). I'll probably include that system as an optional module, primarily for high detail games. I'll also put into some notes on methods for creating these kinds of tracks. I think they're a pretty successful mechanic in that for the most part they are point equivalent to buying standard things, but there are abilities and limits on the track which can only be accessed through those purchases.

Edges are great and one of my favorite elements of the game. Originally, edges were broken up and applied to specific results on cards. However with LV I changed that mechanic, allowing players to buy edges and then allowing them to narrate their applicability to any of the four types on a card. That's been a successful change.

I do want to formally impose a rule that edge on a card can, at most provide a +3 bump. These bumps can come from multiple sources (so one, two or three edges on a card). I've also considered limiting how far up a particular edge can be bought up- limiting edges to a value of Edge 1 or Edge 2. One of the tougher parts of my job is considering how strongly applicable an edge is- broad edges ought to be less useful than narrow ones. I have to get into some fractional thinking when I look at that.

Right now AC uses an active attack and active response system for combat. That is, a test is made by the attack to hit and the defender makes an active response to defend against that attack. Against a passive target, a simple attack test is made against a required difficulty assign by the GM for circumstances. This system has a couple of benefits-- players buy abilities and edges for both attack and defense, being able to tailor a character to be more or less defensive. It also means players have an active roll even when subject to an attack-- depending on the circumstances they made be able to narrate their response for additional effect. It keeps their head in the game, as opposed to simply being told they've been hit (which is generally the system for M&M, Champions, nWoD- though in most there are some 'abort to' options). Lastly, as an active response, they can spend drama points to affect the results.

I think one of the things that needs clarification and definition in the rules is how to handle some of the unusual circumstances of combat. For example, how are ties resolved? In the Third Continent game I've adjusted that as a factor of armor-- with a greater number of Dodges being available (ala GURPS) but those being based on a Physical pull and the player losing ties if they are wearing armor. There also the question of adjudicating edges and other factors for this. I will probably break out a high detail and low detail set of resolution options for combat. They'll still be overall pretty easy, but I want to have a couple of different modules available-- for those who do want to distinguish between parries and dodges, want the crunch of armor as a factor and so on. I also need some notes on how to handle special effects (like disarm, trip, and so on) in a general way, grapples, and multiple opponents.

I may also include another approach entirely, for those GMs who want an even faster and more dramatic resolution system for combat, borrowing an idea from HeroQuest. In this case, combat can be resolved as a simple or extended contest. In a simple contest, both participants make a combat pull and then the GM adjudicates the results-- applying damage and consequences from that. There's no attack or defense pull- just a gross combat pull. Likewise an extended contest would follow the same pattern, with players attempting to race for a set value of total results over time and with consequences applied to both sides at the end. This would allow players to alternate between abilities and such. I'd have to work out the specifics of this-- including how margins determine results, but it could be used for a low-detail and more abstract game. That likely won't be the primary method for combat resolution I use in the future however.

Masteries and Skills
Something I want to consider for the future-- especially when players take on named villains, is the idea that when fighting a skilled opponent, in some ways trained fighters can cancel one another's advantages. In HQ, this is represented by Masteries-- which do cancel when two oppoents of equal skill face one another.

In the same way, I can imagine that opponents of equal numbers of relevant skills might actually cancel one another out in the game. A combat accuracy skill might cancel a defensive evasion skill. Neither would be able to use it. Players would have to fall back to other options, which could encourage a variety of skills...or abilities or whatever I'm calling them today. I like the idea right now, but I'm not sure exactly how to implement that. In HQ the method is easy, because only one skills is applied on either side. In AC this would be more difficult to evaluate, especially since the NPC write ups tend to be more sketchy. It could be done with an equalization factor assigned to the NPC-- which would be compared to the players number of relevant skills. For example, let's say Sergei has six combat skills, attack and defense. A named bad guy goes to fight against him- and has a Skill Rank of 5. In that case, his skill matches up against Sergei's, leaving Sergei to pick one skill which his opponent is unable to counter. If the Villain had a SR of 6, neither could apply skills to the combat. If he had an SR of 7, then the bad guy would have one skill. He'd have to declare the uncountered skill (attack or defense before the combat).

I think this is an interesting option-- and one I might apply for one-on-one dueling situations. It forces the characters back to their cards in situations where they are fighting a well-trained opponent. It needs more thinking, but is a possible options for the future.

Defining Narrow versus Broad
So one of the factors that needs to be worked in is some more careful thinking about ability definitions: specifically the distinction between Narrow and Broad abilities and how that comes into play in game. One of the point made in the original rules is that the GM will grant the benefit of the doubt about bumps and positive effects for narrow skills. The reverse of that is that broad skills will tend to get less effect.

That's how I put it originally, but in practice I don't think it falls out that way. On the one hand, I try to be generous and I don't like saying no to player options. Given that I haven't particularly well defined what is a broad vs. narrow skill, the blame reasonably lies with me. On the other hand, given that we're working within a small range (when you think about it, a 1-6 range, but with some significant threshold breaks), any modifier makes a pretty large distance.

So the question is how to actually have those strictures in play. I take as an assumption two things: there are Swiss-army knife skills and players generally don't intend for those skills to be game breakers. HQ gets around this with a fairly mechanical approach. The problem is that system does impose penalties for broad skills. That brings me to a rule of GMing: it is nearly always better to offer bonuses than to present penalties to players. By that logic- bonuses ought to be offered on actions for players who use narrow, especially very narrow skills. In the GMs mental calculation they should be given a slight edge, and certainly should always get an advantage over those who are using broader abilities.

Penalties, on the other hand, should be kept out of the players' line of sight. If a GM wants to apply a penalty to a player for use of an overly broad ability-- then it acts as a bonus to his opponent, which the GM calculates himself. If it is a circumstantial thing: like lack of tools, rushing, and so on, that should be represented by an increased difficulty for the player: the threshold for success ought to be raised. Mind you this does sometimes bump into the players sense of what success means versus the GMs-- for example, we have three levels of standard success: OK, Good and Excellent. But Excellent isn't a critical success, and we can go above that level with addition of bumps and edges. I tend to think of things in this way:
Edge Boosted results/Unique Success Cards
Moment of Glory/Deadlock (for certain results

So a player can get trumped even with an Excellent result, if their opponent beats them on edges and such. I'd say no unopposed action difficulty should ever be above an Excellent, just as a bit of mental parsing.

There is one exception to my rule about penalties-- the one time they do have a place is where you want to make a specific point or create a particular effect: for example, wound penalties create a sense of tension. Rushing in a high pressure situation can either be modeled by the GM as an increased difficulty or else with a penalty-- the latter only if you've really want to turn the screws on the player.

One of the areas I'm still least pleased with in the current rules is damage. In some ways, damage is an odd factor here- where you move from a lighter, more narrativist system to potential crunch and detail. Damage on the players' side can be a nice confirmation that they've successfully executed an attack, damage on the GM's side ought to serve to create tension and demonstrate risk. Because results are assessed and translated through the medium of the GM there is the risk that players may perceive a degree of unfairness to damage results. The GM has to end up with a number they give to the players, coming through a black box of the system. At least for the low-detail version of the system, I don't think you can delineate for every situation exactly how much damage is done-- but I'll come back to that. For this next rules revision, I'm going to include two versions of the damage system: high and low detail.

High Detail: I've been experimenting with the high-detail version of the damage rules in the Sunday Third Continent game. I do think some genres: classic fantasy and something like SWAT require a level of combat crunch and detail to get things to feel right. In some ways the damage system I present is still pretty low detail, but compared to the rest of the engine it feels crunchy. Of course the big change is that it does bring dice into the system which was a decision I wrestled with while working through a couple of different versions.

Characters have a pool of hit points ranging from 12-24. They begin at 12 but can buy additional points. Wound effects occur when characters get to their last few points. So the system has some flexibility, but still remains close to the semi-realistic damage systems of GURPS and the like (by that I mean the most HP a person can have is double the starting base). Weapons when they hit do X wounds in damage, plus they roll Yd10 to determine possible extra damage. A good hit, some abilities and other circumstances can give the player additional dice to roll for extra damage. The number the player needs to roll on the dice to do damage is based on their opponent's armor. Besides that, armor can also have a slight degree of damage resistance (one or two points) and depending on the weight of it, can impact the subjects defensive abilities. It is a basic system with a fairly narrow range-- enough to allow some weapons to feel different and for there to be some benefits and drawbacks to wearing armor.

While I was nervous about the inclusion of dice, this system has worked well (at least from my perception) without slowing the game down too much. Most importantly it maintains that focus on ownership for the players: they're able to roll and count their own damage and supplement that through the choice of actions. So while we do break a mechanical principle of the game system, we are maintaining a thematic one. It also nicely supports the idea that the game does have a heavier emphasis towards combat in the classic D&D way. The detail of the weapon and amror charts don't get in the way- since most players only need refer to them for initial choices or upgrades and the GM perhaps a little more in play. The idea of weapons doing fixed and variable wounds means that players always do a base damage and then have some risk for the later roll, but even if they crap out, they've done a little something. This also means that combat is dangerous. I've tried to keep the weapons in relative parity at least within the classes (my thinking is that 1 fixed wound is about equivalent to 2 variable dice).

The system has a few other bits that need some tuning. I need to spell out the critical hits effects in the rules further. I need to balance magical damage with standard damage as right now it is pretty easy for mages to deal slightly better damage at range than some non-magical types. If I present this as an option in the rules, I also need to probably include the detailed combat styles system I've got in the rules right now-- but cleaned up and balanced a little further.

Low Detail: The current basic system uses a set of six wounds levels. If an attack would do equal or less damage than the target's current wound level, their level moves up by one. Otherwise it moves up to the appropriate level. Wound penalties- both drops and having to test for things happen at the two most severe wound levels. This damage system removes detail from both the weapon and armor sides of things. Most damage, unless backed by narrative or other circumstances will be generally the same- usually ranging from one to three wound levels, in my experience. Armor is taken into account as a mitigating factor for damage, but mostly to push the curve down or to eliminate any advantage the opponent's weapons might have.

The bottom line is that all of those result are situationally adjudicated by the GM. There are no hard or fast rules on the amount of wounding which is done. I use players card results to help guide me as well as my own GM deck pulls. The problem with this has two parts: first, this can seem arbitrary to the players and second, the range remains fairly narrow- so any wound level rise is about 20% of a persons hits (if we ignore the top level).

To solve this I first need to present some more concrete rules about how I go about adjudicating wounds-- they may still be fairly open-ended, but I need to make clear what I'm taking into account as a GM. For the second problem, I think I'll probably borrow a page from HQ. I'm thinking that damage will causes the wound effects as well as causing increasing limitation through injury. An injury temporarily prevents the use of an ability for a time-- so for example if Dave got hit for two wounds levels and an injury, he might put an X next to his Flying skill and move himself up to the second level of wounds. This helps make combat more risky- or at least puts in some layers of effect without having to resort to a set of conditions. It effectively doubles the range of options for the GM when detailing damage and could easily be used for social or magical combat.

OK, I've got one final summary post to do on this topic but it will be a little bit-- light blogging this week as I've had a couple of deadlines suddenly loom.


  1. The injury idea sounds interesting flavor-wise, but considering that players currently only have 5-6 potential wound boxes to begin with in this system (the LV and Changeling variants, anyway), one good solid hit can be enough to take the player out or at least leave them with a serious penalty to their card draws. An additional penalty on top of the existing penalties seems a bit steep; maybe you could encourage players to opt for an injury (skill penalty) instead of a global wound penalty. (A la Arkham Horror's injury/derangement system.)

    Re: Limiting drama point repulls, I think that's something you should evaluate case-by-case as the GM. If the situation advances the story, gives dramatic tension, etc., invoke GM's fiat. Otherwise, if a player really has their heart set on succeeding on that particular pull, let 'em sink all their DPs into it, especially if you've capped them at 5 to begin with. They are a limited resource, and spending them for a re-pull is the player's only recourse in terms of affecting the path of the game at that moment (assuming narrative negotiation fail has failed).

  2. On the Drama Point repull, lotsa thoughts.

    In a sense, you could consider every DP spend as a generic Crit: something interesting is going to happen. If they succeed, they get to narrate a result. If they fail, you can narrate a result. GMs ought to present a crisis ie danger/opportunity moment. (Yeah, I know, "crisis" in Chinese isn't really made out of the symbols for danger and opportunity, but it's a useful concept).

    "You fall on your ass and Doctor Apocalypse starts laughing..."

    "Your grenade turns out to be a smoke grenade."

    "Your rapier has gone through a buckle on his armor. Your weapon hand and his shield arm are stuck together."

    Another way to look at it is how failure during the climax is handled in movies. Generally, the audience is allowed to absorb the moment. Any further spends have to wait a turn or two. At that point, the hero either has to let someone else save the day or he somehow has to use a new resource to accomplish his goals.

  3. I'm gonna point out that not every pull is a dramatic pass/fail point. And not all games are manic action. Laws has a nice post about hope/fear being a truer sense of a test point...and of 'win space' being a necessary relent from the constant life-or-death/success-or-humiliation tests of an RPG. There are times when a character is trying to bring their resources to bear for a longer term 'build' or demonstration of character contribution. They've sunk a lot of points in being good enough at something other than combat to have a little success montage...and sometimes their pulls fail them utterly. Spending drama points to say, 'No--this is not my scene of humiliation. I worked hard on this and I'll spend my resources to let me show that' is perfectly honorable.

    Frankly, I have no trouble with a single DP pull in high-drama points...but when it's finally time for my little success montage and I've been asked to pull for some reason, I'd like to be able to have it if I've got the DP to ensure that.

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