Monday, November 8, 2010

Fallout; Combat Types; and Hacks: RPG Miscellany

On Saturday we had the character creation and first session of Dave's new Fallout campaign. He opted to use Action Cards to run it, which I'm glad to see. That's our local homebrew rules I've been running for a number of years. Only recently have we had other people using it; Kenny with his excellent HALO adaptation and now Dave with Fallout. I'm not a big Fallout fan- I played some ways into the first PC game, but never followed up on the franchise after that. I know a lot of people love the most recent one and I suspect eventually I'll pick it up cheap to see if I can do it. I'm not an FPS player so I approach those kinds of games with a measure of hesitation.

I'm also not so big a fan of Post-Apocalypse gaming. I've played and read quite a bit of it in the day: old Gamma World, Aftermath, and Morrow Project for example. But it never grabbed me. That being said, boy I had an absolute blast at the game. Dave provided an excellent background and some of the other players' enthusiasm for the setting really sold it. I liked my character and everyone else's--and I'd had a hard time coming up with something I thought I'd like. But I'd been thinking about a character concept for a Pathfinder game that didn't happen and ran with that- a particular version of greediness as a flaw. As a GM Dave also pulled out a number of new tricks.

Character creation was simple; most of us are pretty familiar with how Action Cards works and Dave had done up some profession suggestions lists. We only had skills, qualities and a flaw to worry about (a total of ten item). We got a couple of raises from our background. Dave had also converted the Perks system from Fallout into a set of interesting abilities and we each began with one. He started us out in medias res, with all of us in an open topped vehicle heading to our “destination” when we suddenly see the white light and mushroom cloud of an explosion off in the distance. We're thrown by the blast wave. We come to in a hospital tent being treated by one of the Fallout factions. They question us which allows Dave to put together a quick GM manifest of our names, backgrounds, etc. We're then wheeled into a room where we're questioned about what happened-- which leads to a flashback several weeks earlier and the real start of the campaign. It was a great linking device and felt like a video game opening sequence. Another clever thing he did i the sequence was to keep us apart and not interacting in that intro-- that way if a PC does die, he can slot the replacement in without it seeming like a continuity violation. That keeps the danger high despite the “final scene” having been shown on screen.

Dave supplied a number of other mechanical modifications to the system which suited the game. He opted to go with dice based damage and hit points, which I think works for kind of crunchy, bloody game. Fallout has a thing called VATS which allowed for more specific shots-- he modeled that through the accumulation of VATS points which can be spent on attacks to make a called shot. At the end of the game Dave didn't hand out experience points. Instead, to simulate the kind of random nature of rewards in Fallout, he tossed out a set of hand-made reward cards on to the table. We were allowed to go through, pick one and keep it. As a group we had to negotiate and we can trade these off between sessions. It supplied an excellent, tangible reward and Dave put a lot of effort into putting these together.

I also have to mention the radio station. I've often heard guys who've played the game talk about how much they love the radio channel stuff in the game. Dave crafted a radio program ahead of time, with music and everything. He played the short and evocative piece on his phone-- a really nice touch. He used that interlude in the middle of the session to set up background, establish atmosphere, and point us to the key plot threads for the session. It was great. based on the response, he'll have to do one for each session now.

Combat Thinking
So I've been thinking about the different ways systems handle combat in terms of rolling. This is just a small mental exercise trying to figure out the options and their benefits. Here are the categories that I've come up with:

Success vs. Success: Attacker rolls under a skill number to determine success.
What the attacker needs to roll under for success is on the PC's sheet: a skill number in GURPS, a skill percentage in Call of Cthulhu. In this system, the defender usually gets to make a defense roll if they are aware of the attack. If they succeed, the attack misses. Variations on this system include types of defenses (dodge, parry, blocks) and critical results requiring critical responses. Usually defense skills in these systems are quite a bit lower than the attack skills, but that can vary. Whether the defense action of the defender eats up an action or opportunity varies.

Competitive Rolls: Attacker rolls and adds value, trying to hit a static target number.
This system has the die roll and total going upwards. If the attacker meets a minimum threshold of success, they hit. The defender then can roll to beat the attacker's total. If they do so, the attack misses. Variations may allow the defender to simply tie the attacker. The level of awareness and action required from the defender may vary. Unisystem uses this mechanic. Storyteller also does so, and there the defense action eat up a player's options.

Rolling vs. Target Number: Attacker rolls against a number established by the target.
It may be that the attacker has to roll above or below some “Defense Value” set by the defender. Generally this number is a passive factor of speed, armor and skill. Many classic systems use this, HERO System, d20, AD&D, True20, Rolemaster, Storytelling. Generally the defender does not have an active part in the attack resolution process. They may choose options which modify the value necessary to hit them (aborting to a dodge, increasing their parry, activating powers) and so on.

These would seem to be the basic forms of combat resolution. Of course there's a good deal of variation to that. For example, a variation of Competitive Rolls has the defender's roll not eliminating the attackers success, but perhaps reducing it. I believe the ORE system functions this way.

I'd also point to how time gets measured in combat. I can see three basic break downs.

Moment to Moment: Each action taken represents a discrete combat maneuver, a spell, a step-- measured tightly from second to second. GURPS, as an example, sees time in combat in this way. The new Scion and Exalted operate abstractly in this way.

Sequences: A turn is considered to be a bundle or set of time. An attack's considered not one particular strike but instead setting up, perhaps some feinting, getting into position, and a series of exchanges. I believe d20 can be seen this way since a turn is something like six seconds. Rolemaster explicitly handles time this way. Storyteller allows multiple actions in a round on a character's turn, so it does this.

Scenes: An interesting alternative is the way HeroQuest approaches the combat-- where it is a back and forth competition. There's little in the way of specific maneuvers or action choices. Instead the opponents are locked in a struggle, a combat, with one side working to gain an advantage over the other. When one side has accumulated enough advantage, they win. Time doesn't get measured except where other circumstances force it (like a ticking bomb rolling across the deck).

Hacks and Conversions
Working on a couple of things for the future. Eventually I want to reboot my Exalted Dragonblooded campaign, but with a different system. We'd been playing with first edition for a couple of years-- and while it functions, there's a lot of mess there. Second Edition Exalted didn't work for me either-- I ran Scion and got a taste of the combat wheel. It functioned decently OK at first and then felt more and more creaky as the campaign rolled on. I read recently about another GM using the exalted-lite demo system to play. I want something more like that- Exalted has a great deal of flavor and tremendous ideas, but I want an easier game.

I suspect we'll probably do a version of it using Action Cards. That's going to require some serious work to make the conversion however. The Charm system will have to be reduced and condensed-- focused on the essential aspects to make it easier. I think what I'm going to work on as a stepping stone to that will be an adaptation of Scion. It has something of the same epic feel, but with a small set of secondary mechanics. I have some ideas about how to convert the powers and also some structural changes I want to make to the cards themselves.

The other hack I'm thinking about revolves around HeroQuest. I like 95% of that system. Of the two stumbling blacks I have with that game, one's more easily dealt with than the other. I don't like expendable drama points also being experience points so that's easy to fix. However, the other problem lies in the resolution mechanic. HQ uses a d20 for everything. I don't like the smooth curve of that die-- it can really throw a session into wild fits. I'd like a smoother curve, or at least a mechanic which the players don't see as having that same problem. Now I don't want to knock the d20 generally, but the fewer rolls made in a game, the larger the randomness of the d20 appears. And HQ encourages a fairly light approach to rolling.

So in order to have HQ feel right to me (and some of the potential players) I need to remove or obscure that smooth curve. HQ operates by a success vs. success comparative system for any conflict. Players have a skill number from 1-20 (and higher, but let's leave that aside) and have to roll under that. Their opposition rolls as well). Results range from critical success (rolling a one), to standard success (making the roll), to standard failure (missing the roll), to critical failure (rolling a 20). The relative level of success is compared, with margins of success breaking ties. In a simple contest, that resolves things. In an extended contest, like combat, the players score point over the course of rounds until one side accumulates enough for victory.

The first option is to simply replace the 1d20 with 2d10. This creates a smoother curve, but the system remains pretty much the same. A critical success would be read as a 2 or 3; a critical failure as a 19 or 20. That changes the percent chance for either critical from 5% to 3% which is not that big a shift. There would have to be a couple of other modifications regarding the Masteries as well.

On the other hand, some of my players like dice pools. I could shift things in that direction. In such a system, abilities would be rated from 1-10 instead of 1-20. Each point in an ability grants the character a d10. If the player rolls a 10 on any die, they succeed. For comparative successes, the number of 10's would be contrasted. To handle the critical failure/success mechanic, players would have a key die in their pool, always the first one rolled. If the key die shows a 1 then the roll becomes a critical failure. If the key die shows a 10, then it becomes a critical success. I'm not entirely happy with that right now- it seems a little draconic, and puts critical success/failure at a 10% chance. I need to come up with a simple and easily read system which stays close to that 5% line.


  1. On Combat Thinking, the GURPS style Success vs. Success is something I hate about GURPS. It means combat between high skill opponents is very slow.

    I'd categorize these options as:
    Attacker Skill Roll trumped by Defender Skill Roll
    Attacker Skill Roll vs Defender Skill Roll
    Attacker Skill Roll vs Defender Target Number

    I'm peeking through they copy of Dogs In The Vineyard you loaned me, and it's resolution system kind of fits into the Roll vs Roll category, but has wonderful little twists. The standard attack (ie Raise) is two dice, but if you beat it using one die it acts as a Counter attack, not just a dodge. You roll all your dice first and then it's resource management, but some of the ideas could be used with a normal die rolling or card based system. It has a lot of the subtleties of a high-crunch game like Riddle of Steel, but it's so much simpler.

    In your HQ die pool hack, why the Target Number of 10 for a d10 based dice pool? With the maximum 10 die pool, they'll average only one success after rolling all their dice. For a 5 die pool, they'll average half a success. The Players will feel like losers. This means they'll often go several rounds without a single success rolled.

  2. The HQ dice pool hack is based on the idea that all you need is one success to have the skill work. It only becomes a competition when there's a tie and you have to handle margins of success. So on a d20, every number raised increases the chance of success by 5%. In this system, since we're halving the range, every die added increases the chance of success by 10%.

    As for the GURPS thing, the defense number's usually fairly lower, but because of the curve, it doesn't take much for a players to get to a point where the combat slows down. On the other hand, many systems use an active defense roll, which adds an extra step. I'm in favor of streamlining, but when I asked players about this the one thing they mentioned was that the defense role made them feel like a participant in that part of the turn. They preferred that to systems where their opponent just rolled and hit them or not. They felt like something was being done to them without their participation. Ironically I like Rolemaster's solution which has players setting a portion of their attack pool out for defense each round--giving them some control over that without another individual roll.

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