Friday, October 30, 2009

The Tools of HeroQuest 2e

The Tools of HeroQuest 2e

HeroQuest presents itself as a toolkit for storytelling games. I think that's more accurate here than most other games that make that claim. The mechanics are pretty consistent, but the rules also present a number of options about how to make changes. Strikingly, those changes don't feel like a rejiggering of the game. They feel like another path the rules developer could have gone in and kept the same pattern. I want to lay out the basics of HQ as I understand them, trying to see what tools I have available to me (while staying close to the system) in porting over Legend of the Five Rings.

Characters in HeroQuest have three mechanical parts, plus the player's own self-definition of the character. Those are Abilities, Flaws and Hero Points.

Abilities are, to paraphrase the rules, anything you use to solve a problem. I'm going to come back that, but abilities form 90+% of your character. Flaws are essentially inverted abilities, they follow the same pattern and can serve as a force of resistance in a contest or the GM may handle them as a penalty assessed to particular actions. Hero Points serve two functions- they are drama points which can be spent in play for a bump up in results and they are always your experience points. Notably, they're really the only system in the game that has a different mechanic.

I want to focus in on the idea of Abilities as they're going to be the bread and butter of the game.

Abilities cover just about everything that I talked about earlier as mechanical aspects of a game: characteristics, skills, advantages, powers, and even equipment. All of them are handled the same way.

Each ability has a rating. Rolling that number or below on a d20 is a success. Rolling a 1 is a critical success. Rolling above the ability's rating is a failure; rolling a 20 is a critical failure. If two things are contesting and get the same level of victory, then the person with the lower roll has the edge. There are a couple of notable consequences to this-- we have a smooth curve of probability distribution, rather than a bell curve. That means each point of an ability increases the chance of success by the same amount. It also means a roll-under approach, with some odd effects. The rules suggest that one could have the higher number rolled as having a success in a tied contest. While that does give some greater leeway to higher skills, it also requires reversing one's mental calculation about what's a good result. Fading Suns used that and I recall the players and myself not liking the break it caused.

There are a couple of complications to this question of ability ratings. If a rating hits 21, it converts over to a 1 with a mastery, which I'll use the @ sign to represent throughout. A mastery allows a player to bump his results up by one level, so a failure can be moved to a success or a success can be moved to a critical success. Masteries cancel each other out-- so two people with abilities at 5@ and 10@ will be rolling at 5 and 10 respectively, without any bumps. This means that the abilities have important break points at 21, 41, 61 and so on. As well, the experience system allows players to bring up abilities which have straggled when they raise a skill to a mastery-- this means there can be some point calculation and efficiency there- another break point.

Character Creation
Abilities are generally discrete units, but there's an option for something called 'keywords'. A keyword represents a group of related abilities joined under a common element. So, for example, Warrior Mage (like a class) would have several abilities under it. The rating of the keyword is used for all of them and players can also specialize in some of the things under a keyword. So, if a character has the cultural background keyword, Aoniaen at 15, they might have Identify Magic +1, Spooky Lore +2, and Magocratic Etiquette at +0. The game suggests that you can work with abilities exclusively, keywords exclusively or easily mix the two. Keyword buy ups have a slightly different cost in Hero Points to raise. I'll want to keep that in mind when we hit L5R.

HQ presents three versions of character creation. You can write out a descriptive story about your character and then mark elements in the description which will serve as abilities. For example if you say that your character “...handles his fast car like a race driver,” you could take “Fast Car” or “Race Driver” as abilities. You can also go the route of just putting together a list of abilities, with a main ability plus ten others. The other option is to pick abilities as you go along. In any case, you get a main ability at a high number, a set of abilities at an equal lower number, plus some HeroPoints to spend to raise those abilities. Depending on the game, you may also get some cultural or background keywords or the like.

The system presents three (and a half) kinds of contests or methods of resolution. The first is automatic success-- where the character winds by virtue of the situation or their skills. I'm going to liken this to the negotiated resolution I talked about before. The rules do make explicit that some times people like to roll or have a chance to show off their skills, even in circumstances where the GM knows that failure's not a dramatically appropriate result. The game suggests fake rolling a contest in those cases-- which is a refreshing admission.

Framing and Scale
I need to make a point here in terms of framing the contests, both simple and extended. There are no scales in this game. No rules for distance, for movement, for time, for any of the classic units that typically mechanize the situation. Instead, a contest represents an abstract measure of the time necessary for the story. How far away is something-- either your right there or you'll have to take an action to get there- again driven by the narrative.

Simple Contests
A simple contest involves the player(s) rolling a die against the GM rolling a die. For example, a mountainside might be considered to have “Hard to Climb 10”. Again the book suggests these resistances should be dramatically appropriate-- not that you have to calculate the resistance of everything in the world in a solid way. The players have to frame their contest-- naming what they want to have happen and how they're going about doing that. (So not too far off from a matrix argument).

There are couple of notes about resolution that have to be kept in mind as well. If you're going to use a Hero Point to bump a result up, you need to describe how you're taxing yourself, finding a new path or pushing your strengths. Also, the game specifies no repeat attempts. A contest is about your putting all of your effort into overcoming something- if you want to try again, you need to use another ability or find some kind of special circumstance which might permit it.

In a contest between two rolls, you end up with five degrees of success. A tie means no change or else that both sides suffer or gain from the consequences. Marginal Success, the victor gets what they want but the loser doesn't suffer effects beyond the loss. Minor success, a clear victory and the loser suffers some short-term penalties. Major success, the victor gains benefits beyond the contest and the loser suffers penalties beyond the contest of longer duration. Complete success, which grants big bonuses and big penalties to the winner and loser respectively.

I should say a word about modifiers here as well. Generally the GM can assign modifiers to a player's skill to represent circumstances or they can simply up the resistance. The latter's a better approach as it doesn't obviously penalize the player. A player can also can modifiers from various sources-- augments, assists and so on which I'll talk about later. They can also add description (ala stunting) or describe a connection to something else to try to gain a modifier. Most of these are either a +3 or +6 to the player's effective ability. If a modifier pushes a player's ability up over twenty, then they gain the appropriate mastery. The same thing happens in the other direction.

One of the most common sources of modifiers, often lingering ones comes from winning or losing contests. These are states of adversity and can hit on literal or metaphorical areas. Obviously in combat, loss may mean injury. But in a social contest, it may mean loss of reputation or friends. Contests between nations may damage resources or economies. There are various levels to this-- applying a penalty until time or effort has been expended to repair the state-- duration and degree dependent on the level of loss. Worse states may require the player to test to see if they can even use an ability or even act. Of course, characters can also be dying from their injuries-- again both literal and metaphorical. Destruction of one's social reputation may require the person to retreat off into the woods, never to be seen again. Or in something like L5R, may require seppuku to rid themselves of that shame.

On the reverse side, winning a contest may providing lingering benefits in the form of bonuses to the appropriate ability. The player may also make an argument for the bonus to apply to a different ability or circumstance. Benefits last until a contest is lost on the ability or the story moves forward significantly.

Multiple Contestants

I should also note that simple contests can be resolved in group form, with each player rolling against a separate roll by the GM. Each side tracks points from the margins of victory. It may be that the members are participating against one another or trying together to accomplish some task.

I'm about 1700 words in and I haven't gotten to Extended Contests, the heart of the game in some ways. I'm going to stop here and continue on with Sunday's post. Obviously tomorrow is Halloween, so I'll be skipping posting for that most wonderful day of the year.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Adapting L5R

Off-Topic Idea
So I just had an idea that I want to get down on the page before I forget. A good number of Euro Games (Puerto Rico, Caylus, Power Grid, and so on) are about building things up-- creating an engine that generates resources, creates opportunities, and acquiring victory points. I'm wondering about the possibility of a game which goes the other direction. That is, you begin with a bunch of resources and engines but as the game progresses, those get slowly stripped away from you. Your goal is to keep your structure more intact than your opponents at the end of the game.

The theme of the game could be corporate downsizing. You'd begin with resources of personnel, finances, and some other things-- probably represented by cubes of some kind. You'd have a set of projects or departments to start the game with in your display. Each turn you'd be forced to allocate personnel and resources in an attempt to protect, maintain and even possibly grow things. Then, at the end of each turn there'd be a cutting-- where each person has to lose some things, cut a department, eliminate people, and so on. What is lost at the end of the round would be random, but from a closed set of options, so you'd know what the general pool of cuts are, but not when they'd actually happen. The side game to the thing would be to also create value in certain project areas-- through your actions. At the end of the game points would be based on intact structures and also how well your department matches the new direction for the company (determined by measuring where value has been built). So your choices on any turn have to be balanced between preservation of your resources and shaping the company vision.

Adapting L5R: Another Path

Back to what I was talking about before.

A while after I finished running Legend of the Five Rings with Rolemaster, I decided I (sort of) wanted to run another samurai campaign. However I wasn't sure about whether or not I could sustain such a campaign-- I didn't have any really great ideas rolling around in my head for it. So decided to handle it as the start of an HCI style campaign. In retrospect, though I really enjoyed the whole campaign, I could have easily run the game solely with the samurai setting. We had what I've come to call the Shining Path (from Rob's game) syndrome-- where you have a campaign set up with multiple options and directions, but the players focus on one to the exclusion of others.

I opted to go with the Storyteller system for this new version. I had the advantage of already having some of the structures (lists of advantages, the schools) in text form. A number of additional supplements had also come out since then, including rules for Monks, so I would have to go through that material as well. Once again I bit off a little more than I could chew-- deciding to write up adaptation for everything rather than focusing on what players wanted and just writing up those systems. I had an idea that I needed to maintain consistency and also have all the options out and written up for the players. I think that ended up being false-- players made their choices thematically, rather than by comparing the mechanics of the classes. Consistency wouldn't have been a big issue, and later mechanics might have benefited from having seen how their earlier things functioned in play. And, of course, Sherri warned me that I was probably taking on too much at once.

Storyteller's an odd system to convert to, especially since both game sources I was working from the original L5R roll and keep system and the Rolemaster percentile and add skill, functioned completely differently. Both are open, roll up systems, but both have different scales and systems for resolving those things. Storyteller has you adding dice for a dice pool, but how exactly do bonus dice translate to the bonus dice in L5R or the +X% modifiers in Rolemaster. I really had to wing it pretty hard. Storyteller has a good deal of combat crunch and detail, but not nearly as much as something like d20-- so unfortunately some abilities seemed repetitive: how many extra dice for something can you get? In the other system those modifiers/bonuses would have been split among several systems.

That aside, I again had to consider the four areas: Classes & Schools, Advantages, and Magic. Since this would be a point based system, I didn't have to worry as much about restrictive class structures. Players could choose the skills they wished to buy and then choose training schools with bonus abilities which matched their character. Again the question arose about when a person could actually gain another rank in their school. I'd pegged that to levels in the RM version, but I decided to keep that question open and at a certain point allow players to advance. I wrote up just about every school and also had to come up with stuff for the different shugenja as the material for that ended up being lacking. We only ended up with a single spell-caster so the details for the shugenja of a number of clans got dropped to the side- one of the few places I really cut corners. Advantages (and Flaws) required a lot of rewriting. I went through and cut some and added others from other Storyteller materials (like Exalted). I tried to use that as a model and assigned guesstimate point costs-- which ended up mostly close to their value, but not entirely.

Probably the hardest time I had with magic. I kind of wrote up rough guidelines for how magic would operate. Casting a spell would require a number of success equal to half its rank and then additional effects could be applied to extra successes. I copied out the various spells from the sourcebooks and wrote up a couple of pages of quick guidelines. However I never really defined that well-- is a casting roll an attack roll? How is that defended against? Does using extra successes to raise an effect then leave fewer successes over such that the spell can be blocked more easily? How do you determine extra damage. Shari was a pretty good sport about running with it, and I tried to give her some flexibility as we went along.

I did have another magic system to work out as well-- the kiho magic for Monks. That system, as presented in the original rules is actually pretty complicated. It has five kinds of kihos with different durations, stacking limits, rules on activation and a host of other details. I ended up porting that structure over pretty straight. That was unfortunate-- I should have reduced the complexity of that when I had the chance. It resulted in a lot of look ups during the play of the game. I also added martial arts forms and weapons styles, the beginning of my more flexible approach to martial arts in the wushu system. However, while the styles did add flavor and ended up as a nice element for the couple of tournaments we had, they also-- again-- added an unnecessary level of complexity.

Storyteller handled some of the social elements better than Rolemaster, but they still ended up relegated to second chair. Some schools had social abilities, but often they were simply abilities which a courtier could use in combat. The focus of the game and the mechanics still rested firmly on fighting, damage and conflict. I had systems for honor and reputation in the game, but I never deployed them adequately. The problem came that no one really likes to have their character punished for action choices in a way which seems to impinge on the actual player. That's a problematic situation.

OK, tomorrow-- with all of that in mind, laying out the basic premises of HeroQuest 2e-- figuring out the toolbox I have to work with there.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mechanics and Mental Weight

Mechanics and Mental Weight
In part I'm batting around in different directions on these posts with the idea that I'll go back later and tighten them up into a single article. Again, my main goal is to prepare some thinking about converting one or more existing game systems/settings over to the new HeroQuest 2e. That game has major differences from most other rpgs, requiring some real consideration of what's going on at the table.

A few things that came up/occurred to me after yesterday's post. Gene mentioned the idea of break points rather than just choices. I think that fits better because choices or even resolutions suggest an active mechanic, which happens quite a bit. But as I suggested yesterday, sometimes those shifts and breaks come about more passively-- either as a factor of the character's nature (this player has handsome, so this NPC is more likely to approach them) or as a result of past behavior (these people are going to avoid the party because of the negative reputation they've built up over time). There's no roll and the players don't see the events playing out at the table, just the results.

But I think more importantly is for the GM to consider what constitutes an actual break when player's have active involvement. If the situation is going to go one direction, regardless of the PC's actions, then that isn't a break. A good GM has to be prepared to show a shift in things. If the player's asked to roll, test or contest then the resolution should be undetermined before hand. Now the player may not always get the result they desire, but when a player takes an action and succeeds, they should see some change in the narrative-- for good or ill. Bouncing off of things is among the most frustrating things for the player. Even in the player doesn't “win”, they should see some kind of result. There's a classic trope that the player makes an action and it just bounces off to demonstrate the invulnerability of the opponent. Even in that case something should be stressed about the change in the situation: information gleaned, gaining attention of the bad guy, perhaps a sense of weakness on the player's part. Just saying it bounces off is usually the weaker way to play that out.

One can't forget that rolling dice (or pulling cards) is actually fun as well. One of the dangers of a narrative heavy game, or one which resolves most things through negotiation is that players get fewer opportunities to roll. The fewer the number of rolls made in a game, the greater the investment and emotional weight placed on them. That's actually one of the drawbacks to the Action Cards system-- players can see pretty visibly how many rolls they've made. They don't track in parallel how many breaks they've managed or controlled through negotiated resolution, so there's a different weight there. I'd also say that fewer rolls means that certain skills become more obviously useful-- at least they become the ones which seem to have more rolled tests against them. Again I think players don't consider in that the utility of skills(or abilities or whatnot) used in negotiated resolutions—often there's no obvious [yes/no] result from those resolutions so some players categorize them differently, which I think is a mistake.

There's another interesting sidebar about abilities that came up in conversation with Sherri last night. Different systems put different weight on it, but in most game systems, combat usually has a higher level of detail than anything else. Combat also often operates under another set of mechanical systems, with factors like initiative, damage, armor, etc. Even the segmentation of time and events within a combat scene works differently. Combat options, because of their level of crunch and detail, are often the easiest to expand as a game system wears on with more and more supplements. Legend of the Five Rings, for example, explodes into combat detail in the second edition as a substitute for anything substantive-- which is a point I'll come back to later when I'm talking about converting that in particular. Another usual difference is that the idea of critical success usually apply to combat more than any other part of the rules. Even if a game has the idea of a critical success for non-combat actions, there's usually not the detail or added mechanics to resolve it beyond saying- you did well. There are a couple of rare exceptions. Rolemaster Standard System for all of its craziness, did have tables for different non-combat skill classes and individualized results for exceptional success in those.

Sidebar to that sidebar-- one of the things that Storyteller does well is perceived success. By that I mean, where you roll and count up successes, you know when you've really done well. With other open roll systems, sometimes a;ll but the highest rolls feel the same and the GM can narrate them the same way. I've been trying in ST to make sure to reward a large number of successes, to show how absurdly high they are. And pretty quickly they can be crazy high. Storyteller defines a single success as basic, but things like three successes as being extraordinary (except in combat where these things are opposed). So five successes ought to be legendary-- which in a lot of the systems (especially Exalted) is quite easily doable. But the point here is that you have an immediate gratification to rolling a bunch of successes in ST that you don't necessarily get in other one-die open systems unless you roll a critical.

The point I want to make here is that combat usually exists as a separate system, not in complete parallel with the rest of an rpg. Again, this is another place where HeroQuest diverges-- all contested systems use the same form of resolution, even down to how time and such get applied (liberally, as it happens).


I've converted a number of existing game systems and settings to other ones over the years. Some of that's been fairly straight line and some has been pretty catch as catch can. Usually with things like setting and sourcebook material I handle it pretty loosely. For example, I adapted a good deal of Warhammer Fantasy rpg material for my old GURPS game. I never worried about the mechanics there, just the basic ideas. The same thing when I borrowed Rolemaster or MERP modules for ideas. When I ran Rolemaster on the Third Continent, I used a great deal of Runequest/Glorantha there, but again only for plots and general capabilities. I never worked out any kind of formal conversion. I've thematically borrowed Mage: the Ascension for Champions, Unknown Armies for Action Cards, and Amber for GURPS.

But I have done some heavy-duty full conversions as well. For example, my Action Cards version of Changeling: the Lost is pretty direct. Mind you, Action cards is pretty loose but I can usually look at the various abilities and mechanics and come up with how those will function in AC. I've dropped a few systems, but kept some of the crucial interlaced parts. Players can look through the original source material and probably see how the mechanics of the various contracts, tokens and other abilities would fit into the current game.

But I've also converted Legend of the Five Rings twice into other system, both with a high level of detail. My first attempt was a conversion over to RMSS. Rolemaster had the advantage of having a lot of existing parts and scattershot mechanics, so I could pick and choose the elements which would best simulate the Rokugan setting. I had four main tasks to accomplish. First, converting the classes over to RM classes. Since L5R really only had a few (Samurai, Monk, Scout, Shugenja, Courtier) that was reasonably easy. Each class was defined by the costs it had for the many and various skills. Second was to convert the advantages and disadvantages into background options and picks. Some of the bonuses ended up being harder than others to figure, but most went straight over, but it did take some work to consolidate those from various sources and bring them together. The third part ended up being the most subjective. L5R has “schools” with five ranks of abilities and the idea that players gain those abilities through advancement, with the last rank really being the apex of skills. Many of them were purely combat oriented and therefore easy to convert, but others had more complex affects. For example, the Suzume Clan ability to avoid danger or the Yasuki Tradesmen's contacts. Things like the Tattooed Monk's powers I also had to figure out-- define each of the possible choices and figure out when such a character could buy more of them-- a level limit? Free? Purchased with development points. In the end I pegged ranks in Schools to character levels, with PCs gaining their new abilities at certain levels. The final part was figuring out how to handle magic-- I really didn't even try to simulate the original L5R's restrictions (such as scroll use) but instead simply chose out various spell lists that seemed to reflect Rokugani magic. We ended up with one and a half mages, so that didn't prove to be a problem.

How successful was it? I think it worked pretty well for what it was-- a more conventional fantasy game with a samurai backdrop. Rolemaster focuses on combat and the campaign reflected that. Most social interactions tended to be handled through Negotiated resolution. The magic felt powerful, but perhaps not exactly of the original setting. I left out some important mechanics because I couldn't see exactly how to handle them: Honor and Glory. I put a good deal of work into the conversion-- I wrote up pretty much everything so that any choice could be simulated. That's always a hard call when you're doing something like this-- do you do everything up front or do you just work on what the players have chosen? Despite that effort I pretty much decided against using Rolemaster again.

Shorter post today-- still pressing on, tomorrow about the Storyteller conversion of L5R and talking about the system premises of HeroQuest 2e and how they change up a good deal of what I've been talking about.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Breaking Down Systems

Continuing on from what I started to talk about in yesterday's post. I mentioned about the different parts which make up a character (stats, skills, powers and equipment). Before I get to talking about HeroQuest and game conversion (which honestly is the whole point of this thing). I still want to look at some of the other ways we can break down how a system functions.

So I think it is worth thinking about where the rubber meets the road in terms of mechanics and games. I'd say things break down into three groups: modifiers, inherent and restricted things. Those are hugely imprecise and vague terms, but that's what I'm going to run with now. Inherent represent those things skills and stats which all players have. Generally in a game with characteristics all players have the same set (though it would be amusing to see one where they didn't). They also have some skills or things they can do out of the gate without training- like running. GURPS, of course, has a complex and formal set of these things where an untrained person can try to perform a skill, but at a default or reduced number if they don't actually have any training in it. D20 likewise has skills that you can't make a roll on unless you have a rank representing training, but everything else you can use your stat bonus as a base to make an attempt. HERO System has Everyman skills.

On the other hand, restricted things represent everything that you have no default in. You gain these through leveling up, through expending points, or at initial character creation. This can be as simple as I can pilot and airplane, to I can cast firebolts. Most of what defines a character as a character comes from this stuff. Usually it is heavily tied to the chrome of the system. And often there are structures in place that highly regulate what kinds of restricted items you can have for your character: class paths, limits on points, favored abilities, etc. Modifiers, OOH, just affect the other two things. They don't provide anything new-- like a sword, which has damage specs and other factors, but is simply an improvement on punching someone. A number of GURPS advantages serve the same purpose-- for example, "Voice" just gives a bonus to other skills.

Anyway, I think that's a way of looking at the mechanics aspects for a low-granularity viewpoint. You probably break those out, much, much more fully. But how do those things come into play. Generally they affect break points, where the situation could go one way or the other. And I think there are several different kinds of break points in a game which represent how the decision to go one way or the other happens. Some breaks are subtle, while some are more obvious shifts in the course of the game and narrative.

* Choice through Evaluation (GM)
* Choice through Negotiation (Player to GM)
* Choice through Test (Player & GM)

By choice through evaluation, I mean cases where the GM has to make a decision about what's happening on the fly. Most of the time that will be driven by story and meta-concerns. For example, where a particular character is at that moment, what kinds of stories or incidents players like, whether or not a particular player has gotten enough table time, what kind of mood people seem to be in. But sometimes it will be driven by character sheet information. For example, a character with Dangerous Beauty is more likely to get certain kinds of approaches. A character armed to the teeth might get unwanted attention. Or a character with a high level of inherent power might be passively traced. I can't recall exactly the game right now, but one system I read had “Bad Stuff” for characters in it-- essentially if a character wanted to buy something beyond their normal costs, they could take the difference as bad stuff. Then if something awful had to happen to the party, it would land on them by default. In any case, these kinds of breaks- where the story shifts in one direction or another are internal to the GM and can be modified by what a character has bought for their player. They're probably not worrying about too much as they really represent the backroom decisions on the GM's part.

But let's consider where the player and the GM start to interact. But first I have to say something about a real shift in the way games have been written in the last twenty years. At least for the way we play, game design has finally started to catch up to what we've been doing for a long time. Just about every game system now suggests that players shouldn't have to make an active roll on something unless it is important-- that those moments should stand out. If the action is commonplace or easy for them based on their skill or even not important to the plot, rollings usually not necessary (with exceptions). That's a far cry from early games like Rolemaster which had rolls for everything and encourages constant roll, roll, roll until you die. Even more mechanics heavy games like d20 and its horrible, awful, unending spawn of versions, usually has that advice and/or has a mechanic for players to pass by certain things (like the Take '10' rule).

But what often happens at the game table these days is Negotiation, or mechanics-free resolution. I spoke some months back about the idea of the Matrix arguments and how they could be used as a tool for resolving longer or more involved actions outside of the game table. Essentially, that works by stating: I want to do X, I want to do it by method Y, and I have these three Z things in my favor to support me in trying that. But we get those kinds of arguments and statements at the table all of the time now. The easiest things is something like “I want to Climb this wall, which should be easy because my Climb skill is 20.” But it can be more complicated, “I want to see who everyone seems to be talking to in the room, I've got the talent Party Savant, a skill in Human Perception, and I know most of the guests already.” Here the player presents supporting statements about what they're doing beyond the basic skill they'd usually be called on to test. A GM, given that supporting evidence can move to the end result, accepting that the argument has been proven: that the PC can find the person everyone is talking to.

But it can be more literal-- any conversation between a PC and an NPC at the table is a kind of negotiation. This goes back to my point about dealing with NPCs-- in any piece of dialogue, both parties should want something. What that is may not be necessarily understood by the other person (or may be misunderstood). The most basic level may be simply trying to get to know the person or building up the relationship. But often it is about getting information or soliciting aid. We have certain mechanical supplements to those moments as well. Someone might state a piece of dialogue and then mention “...and I have Cute as an advantage.” out of character. That's an argument for what they've said being taken a certain way. Or for another example, Will's character in the Changeling game has an ability which grants him a bump to social interactions of a certain kind. He can mention that effect before engaging in conversation, making an argument that the NPCs reaction should lean more positively. Dialogue can more back and forth between negotiated and tested, for example if a player hits a stopping point they can request a roll on something like Diplomacy or Human Perception for example to buy a clue. Or as a GM, I might also ask for a roll in order to see if I ought to supply additional OOC info to help them out.

Sidebar: Some of the way in which we handle situations in our games currently is a form of negotiation on a meta-level. I describe the scene and the elements in it, but I don't flesh everything out. Players know now that they have some leeway to describe things. That used to be in the form of “Is there a chandelier I can swing across the room from?”-- now they say “There's a chandelier and I'm going to swing across the room from it.” That simple change dramatically changes the way the players look at the scene, and I rarely have to say “Yes, but...” or even “No...” to those things since most players understand the limits of the genre.

The Action Cards system is entirely built around this kind of negotiation. Players have cards with abstract results-- Crawling from the Wreckage (where the action happens but something, literal or metaphorical, breaks), Deadlock (where nothing moves forward or changes), and their various unique cards. They have room to negotiate what happens in those cases. I really like that system-- except for one thing. Players sometimes have a hard time when I step in to put in my own GM negotiation on those effects. I try to give them time, but if I've got something in mind and they've paused, I do move the scene forward to my liking. Sometimes, where something really strong has popped up for me, I'll jump in right away. I try not to do that too often as a GM, but it happens. Some players are flexible about that, but I have to be careful as other players dislike it. I can see their reaction to the perceived loss of autonomy. My argument would be that those moments are the trade off for the general freedom the characters have in nearly all other situations.

Test resolutions involve the GM or the player stating an action and then having the player and possibly the GM roll to see if that action succeeds or fails- possibly determining a degree of success or failure from the roll. I think it is important to consider the difference between a test and a contest. A test is simply to see if you can do something, like a roll in GURPS to see if you manage to play your flute. A contest is a roll against something else (see different words, with “con” the prefix meaning against or something like that...). The contest may be against another rolled opponent or can simply be against a difficulty. Of course here for rolls I'm talking about any kind of randomized system (dice, cards, or whatnot). But generally we consider difficulty levels as simple contests, rather than lumping them in with opposed ones, which usually involve an active force. The resolution system shapes this-- a roll under system (like Hero, Call of Cthulhu, GURPS) has you rolling under whatever you've got written on your sheet. Now that can be modified by circumstances such that even rolling under what's written on your sheet can fail. However the real secret is that in the heat of the game, the last thing the GM wants to do is tell you that you've rolled under what's on your sheet, but you've still actually failed. That's why a roll up system (Unisystem, Cyberpunk, d20, Storyteller), where you roll and try to get a higher total systems, usually has more failures. That's purely an anecdotal observation, but I bet that GM's have an easier time stating a high difficulty required than asking players to take a penalty to their roll. It is all about stealing power from the players-- purely a narrative construct.

Contests may be simple things-- like did I manage to knock my enemy down or did I win initiative. They can be more complicated. An extended contest usually refers to one which takes several rolls to complete. But a contest may be more complicated-- a fight is usually a big, complicated and compound contest-- with trolls on a variety of skills and systems and all kinds of mechanics coming into play before final resolution. Even a simple attack will often have an attacker roll and defender roll-- with various factors impacting that, and then you move to damage resolution, criticals, resolving effects, all of which may have their own test or contest. So, lots of different ways to see those actions...

Hit my 2K limit- Tomorrow, continuing to talk about Test resolutions, converting games, L5R and HeroQuest 2e.

Monday, October 26, 2009

All Things Equal: What Makes a Character

I encourage gamers/goobers to go and check out rpggeek aka as they've really come a long way in the last couple of months. There's a lot of stuff there and the ability to search through by various things-- families, genres, systems, mechanics, etc. As more people rate their collections and review things it will become even more useful.

Starting Thoughts on Something I'm Going to Talk About Tomorrow

For mechanical aspects, it seems like most systems use some kind of combination of the following items: Characteristics or stats- usually representing inherent general ability in an aspect (this can be as broad as L5R's use of the elements for several different things; the classic ST, DX, INT; or really narrow sets like Manual Dexterity). Some may be figured from other stats. Skills- which generally represent training or knowledge of how to do something. Some may be “everyman” in that they represent inherent or instinctual ability. Skill lists may be less (Melee) or more (Fencing Saber Parry) granular. They can be a close list or an open creation exercise, and some skills may have specializations or the like. Equipment- the stuff you have and what you can do with it. Some equipment's independent of your character and some requires spending some kind or points or picks on them. Powers- things you can do. They're not necessarily a function of training, but can be. These include feats, magic, advantages, merits, charms, superpowers, and so on. Probably the biggest catch-all area-- usually defined as anything that isn't something else.

Different games will have different combinations of these things-- often equipments more an afterthought or an in-play item. Lighter games often throw away Characteristics in favor of skills. But usually you have, I'd say at least two of these different classes of things defining one's character. And usually they have a different mechanical basis or system. For example, in d20 your characteristics have a number and that number determines a bonus. That bonus then applies to other areas, notably skills. Skills have a number, but it is a straight value to which the bonus from the associated characters is added. Feats, then operate by a completely different but connected logic. The same thing with equipment there. GURPS, at core, has the same thing going on-- with feats being replaced by advantages. Some have closer systems-- such as Storyteller, but the applications and costs differ still between the two sides of skills and characteristics, and then the powers stuff builds atop that. Even something like Mouse Guard with its simple and stripped down system has a number of different mechanics, with not all of them acting in the same way.

On the other hand, in HeroQuest 2e, we really only have one thing: Abilities. You're entirely defined by your abilities, they cover everything listed above: characteristics, skills, equipment, and powers.

And they're all equivalent.

I'm going to talk about this in detail tomorrow and my thoughts on converting a couple of different games to this system. Right now my brain just hurts.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

White Mountain, Black River Session Four

White Mountain, Black River
Wushu Campaign Session Report Four

After having dispatched the bandits sent to ambush them, the group returned just in time for the next part of the contest. Wu Long, Hong To and Zhen Ai quickly informed Li Jong and Fei Lang about what had happened and their suspicions about Minister Chow and his son, local favorite Golden Blaze. They decided to keep an eye on the Minister as best they could and, should the opportunity present itself, to follow him. However time and the necessity to place well on the contest meant that they could do little else at this time. They still had to make a good showing so as to increase the reputation of the Provincial Magistrates when they revealed themselves.

The Minister of present Affairs, Ningfu Sung returned to them and explained that the next portion of the contest would be by groups-- with members of each group participating in individual contests and scoring points for their group. The two groups with the highest total would have one selected to participate in a final event the following day. Minister Sung explained that six tests were available: Tests of Prowess & Strength; Perception & Deftness; Dexterity & Adroitness; Intelligence & Skill; Speed & Agility; and Martial Prowess. The exact nature of the contest would remain a mystery and each group was to nominate a person ahead of time to undertake one. With only five members, the party's team would be short one and they opted to leave out the test of Speed and Agility. That turned out to involved running across the tops of poles, while catching birds and avoiding arrows fired at them, with the goal of placing a live bird in a cage suspended at the end of the course. Sedate Rao undertook that contest for his team, reporting back afterward about the unpleasant fragility of said birds in the event.

Next tiny courtier Zhen Ai took up the Test of Prowess and Strength facing off against Great Bear Zin. Her opponent broke into laughter at the sight of her as did a number in the crowd. The contest involved each person catching an iron bell dropped from a scaffold twenty feet above them, then carrying the heavy bell down a course and then placing it upon the highest hook they could reach on a wooden tower at the other end. Both competitors caught their bell and set off, with Zhen Ai's strength shocking the crowd into silence. However in the race down the field, Great Bear Zin's stride broke away from that of the courtier, giving him the lead. Not to be outdone, Zhen Ai raced herself forward with all of her focus. As Great Bear Zin began his leap upwards to hang his bell, she in turn leapt upon him, using his momentum and her own to hang the bell high while the Great Bear fell under the weight.

Next came the Test of Dexterity and Adriotness with Hong To facing off against Doctor Jang-Lu of the Holy Society. Each competitor as armed with a brush. At a signal, baskets of flower petals would be thrown in the air above them. Each competitor had to write the character for “beauty” upon as many petals as they could and then simultaneously arrange for the petals to fall upon the ground in the shape of the character for wisdom. Hong To went into the contest with gusto, if perhaps a lack of exacting penmanship. At the same time, he also tried to time his movement to send move than a little breeze to disrupt the final pattern of his opponent. The judging was close, and while the Doctor had written more gracefully on more petals, Hong To had managed to create a final recognizable pattern which was visible from the stands. Drunk with victory, Hong To commented on his opponent's weakness. Doctor Jang-Lu attempted to answer gracefully, but finally Hong To's rudeness drove him to warn that To had certainly earned the enmity of the Holy Society.

The Test of Martial Prowess came next, with Wu Long moving through a couple of opponents before facing Seven Century Chaozhu of the Holy Society. They battled for several round in a hard fought contest. Finally Wu Long managed to get the upper hand and knocked his opponent out. Wounded, Wu Long noted Minister Chow watching closely and speaking to his assistant. However the rush through the events meant that the group could not follow up on that. Instead their attention was drawn by Golden Blaze who won his matches, while seemingly able to walk away from blows that might had been fatal to another. Fei Lang noted Golden Blaze's sword, etched with the markings of a classic Daoist Coin Sword. He suggested to the group that the sword and the fortune teller might be tied together-- with the fortune teller binding new fortunes to his victims-- the fate of Golden Blaze. Thus is Golden Blaze suffered a fatal injury it could be forestalled and then eventually passed to another. Zhen Ai spoke to other locals and discovered that Golden Blaze had walked away from some other fatal accidents, explaining the deaths outside the contest.

The Li Jong had to present himself for his chosen test, that of Perception and Deftness. Here the contestants found themselves blindfolded. Armed only with a staff, they had to catch thrown papers with the sayings of the Dao and fling them against a board to stick in the proper order. Again the contest was close fought, with Li Jong getting fewer of the papers actually caught with his staff, but managing to get them in the right order based on luck and instinct. After some consultation the Judges awarded Li Jong the victory, but by a close margin.

The final contest saw Fei Lang facing off against Green Saber Jiaqui of the Righteous Party-- who held a grudge against the group from their earlier somewhat humiliating defeat of them. Each contestant found themselves beneath a twenty foot pole, with a water filled basin perched upon it. Inside the basin were stones, all but one white. The contestants had to retrieve the single black stone in the basin without getting wet or spilling the water or white stones out upon the ground. They then had to place the basin and stone upon an alter a short way down the course. At the signal both shot up into the air, Fei Lang with an ice pillar conjured by magic and Jiaqui with a prodigious leap. Fei lang froze the water in his basin with sorcery and flipped the ice over to get at the black stone at the bottom. Jiaqui struck the bottom of his basin, knocking water and stones directly into the air, plucked the black stone from the sky and then caught the water and white stones again in the basin. Both rushed forward, but as Fei Lang concentrated, Jiaqui gave his opponent's basin a kick, sending the ice flying away. Fei Long desperately cast his magic forming a frozen bridge that caught the ice and dropped it back into the bowl as he ran forward. Jiaqui won the contest as the first to place his basin down, by the judges marked as a close score, having noted Fei Lang's quick thinking.

The group retreated by to their inn, a little exhausted perhaps by their efforts. They still had to deal with the evil Oracle and Golden Blaze. They also realized that Blaze's injury that day and two days previous likely meant that someone would have to die soon. They met with Sedate Rao and mentioned to him to beware of any passing fortune tellers. Rao grew pale, explaining that he'd been offered a free casting only this morning. Usually trusting in his own skills, he decided that such luck might not be a bad idea. Fei Lang concentrated his vision and saw that Rao had been touched by black magic-- with an awful death now awaiting him.

Back at the inn, the group worked feverishly to set up what protections they could around the now panicked Rao. Zhen Ai, Li Jong and Hong To scoured the nearby blocks to find what good luck charms and fortunate items they could to aid in the efforts. Fei Lang and Wu Long worked together to set up wards in their rooms. Then Fei Lang worked a careful spell of shielding, tying it as best he could to a subtle tracking. Then they waited. The night passed slowly, with an increasingly nervous Sedate Rao trying to keep himself in the circle. Then darkness stole in from the window and Fei Lang found himself engaged in a battle of wills with a powerful dark sorcerer-- and barely eked out a victory, driven the blacken fate away. Exhausted, he managed to illuminate the trail of the retreating spell and the group, including Rao, took off across the city to find the source of the magic.

The ran from rooftop to rooftop with Li Jong and Wu Long's sharp eyes managing to keep sight of the glowing spell trail. Eventually they found themselves in yet another cemetery and rushed forward into a decayed temple. Even as they advanced they realized that the sorcerer they sought was not alone. He had with him ten Hopping Vampires-- created from the corpses of the victims of his dark oracles. The group engaged in battle and found themselves quickly wounded and weakened-- while they could dispatch some, the numbers pressed against them. Zhei Ai one her last legs fought off several with all of her focus and will. Fei Lang realized that while powerful, these were not true Hopping Vampires but instead animated constructs at the sorcerer's behest. The group desperately broke away and coordinated their assault upon Ku Tung-- finally managing bring him down with all of their combined strength. Weakened and bloody, they cast what blessings and retreated back to the inn for prepare for the next day's contest.

They arrived early and fought their way through the bureaucracy to meet with Ningfu Sung, the Minister of Present Affairs. The group presented their story, only to find out that Wu Long would face Golden Blaze in the deciding event. Minister Sung, breaking protocol brought them before the City Governor Flawless Ning. The group decided to reveal their identities as Provincial Magistrates and laid out the whole tale for him. Governor Ning grew gravely pale and then ordered that the final round begin. Zhen Ai could see his shock-- both at the betrayal of one of his own ministers and also that the new Provincial Magistrates had arrived and he'd not yet informed his own master, the Governor of Yanzhou, Qui Cheng-- who would be somewhat upset by his mistake.

Wu Long and Golden Blaze took the field, the arena crowded with onlookers. Blaze seemed pale and wan, perhaps just beginning to feel the effects of the now broken spell. His once shining sword now seemed tarnished and rusted. At the signal, Wu Long simply turned his back on his opponent. Furious Golden Blaze charged forward recklessly. At the last second, Wu Long spun and struck taking Golden Blaze's head from his shoulders. Then Wu Long walked off the field, heedless of the cheers of the crowd or the crying wail of Golden Blaze's father, the corrupt minister Chow.

GM Notes:
A really good session from my reckoning. We got a lot done. A little follow up investigation, exciting one-on-one contests for each player, the tension-filled scene of trying to protect the NPC Sedate Rao, the battle with the sorcerer and his vampiric minions, and final the last scenes with Flawing Ning and the death of Golden Blaze. The system ran a little smoother-- in part because the contests had everyone go through their character sheet before we got to the mass fight. The fight was a hard one and they really managed to pull it out once they coordinated. A good deal of the inspiration of the events was taken from the Auspicious Beginnings module for Weapons of the Gods, a really great resource.

White Mountain, Black River Session Three

White Mountain, Black River
Wushu Campaign Session Report Three

The next day in Rooted Serenity, the group took advantage of some time to begin looking into the situation with the recent strange murders in the city. Eliminations, scoring and qualifications in the contest continued but their own schedules remained free. Li Jong and Fei Lang headed off to see what they could find from the guards and the temples, respectively.

As the other two, Zhen Ai and Wu Long prepared for their own investigations, they were approached by the master of the inn where they were staying. It seemed person had arrived who'd asked for them by name. The innkeeper seemed hesitant to bring the person to them, understandable given his somewhat shabby appearance. Wu Long went down to greet him and met the final assigned Provincial Magistrate, Tong Ho also known by his Daoist name, Brass Monkey. A former courier and dispatch messenger in the Imperial service, Tong Ho carried himself with youthful exuberance and something of a disregard for convention. The three sat down to discuss recent happenings and decided to set out together to see what they could uncover.

After some hunting around and conversations with the general populace, the three discovered that two deaths had occurred in the city lately. One before the contest had begun and another just a day or two before. The bodies had been found in the city, one with a blow to the head and the other with a broken neck. In both cases, death had been ascribed to accident, but rumors had leaked out that both had an oily black marking near the wound-- something their exorcist colleague Fei Lang said could be the sign of a malign force having been involved. They also discovered that these were not the only similar deaths which had taken place. At least three had occurred during the time of the previous contest and one had happened in the seasons between. They also discovered that while rumors had leaked out, the city guard had been trying to keep the matter quiet for fear of inciting the populace.

The group went to visit the household of Mr. Huang, the latest victim and formerly a modest merchant. To Hong opted to disguise himself as a Daoist priest and produced religious beads he'd “borrowed” from Fei Lang to complete his disguise. Li Jong and Zhen Ai presented themselves as simple former customers come to pay their respects. They spoke with Mr. Huang's son, currently presiding over the funeral vigil in the shop. Hong To distracted both the son and the real priest present allowing the other two to examine the body and confirm the marks upon it. After some drama as Hong To took his role to heart they discovered that the family had been apparently bought off by local officials to keep the matter from becoming too overly talked about. The Minster of Licenses and Practices, Zhuge Chow, had paid for the elaborate ceremony and burial to help make this go smoothly and not disrupt the events of the contest.

With this information in hand, the group returned to their inn and happened upon the fighter Sedate Rao whom Zhen Ai had defeated in the tournament the day previous. He complimented their skills and in turn the group asked him to join them for dinner. He gratefully accepted, perhaps having hoped such an invitation might be forthcoming. At the banquet hall the group noted that the local contest favorite Golden Blaze had set himself up in the largest banquet room with a group of hangers on. Strangely they noted he seemed to be relatively uninjured from the grievous wound he'd seemingly taken in the fight the day before. The group blended with the crowd, attempting to ascertain his condition.

Golden Blaze proclaimed his luck in only receiving a superficial wound the day before. He boasted and bought drinks. Wu Long complimented him on his skill and withdrew. Zhen Ai noticed one of Golden Blaze's party, seemingly a mentor-companion frowning at his carrying on, but she was unable to corner him to speak with him. Hong To, undaunted, engaged Golden Blaze in an “accidental” and impromptu wrestling match, confirming for himself that Golden Blaze seemed to have little injury. Later he spoke with one of the courtesans who had dallied with Golden Blaze and found that the arrogant young warrior had only a minor scar to show for his wound. The also discovered that Golden Blaze's father was in fact the Minster of Licenses and Affairs, Zhuge Chow, whose name they heard earlier in the day.

With some time to spare before a few minor contests in the afternoon, the group returned to their hunt-- this time checking up again with Mr. Huang's family and with that of the other victims. Two common features eventually came out after some investigation. First, each victim had been strongly superstitious, often engaging with a local oracle. In at least two cases, including that own Mr. Huang, their own oracle had been indisposed or shut down and happened upon a traveling seer who cast their fortune for them at a cheap rate. While they had a description of this wandering oracle, they had no name. Second, in each case, the generous Zhuge Chow had paid for the funeral of the victim and had taken care of all of the arrangements. This didn't seem unusual at the time since the wealthy often undertook such projects to aid the less fortunate, but Minister Chow's recurring name made them suspicious.

Wu Long, Zhen Ai and Hong To followed back the trail, eventually finding that all of the victim's bodies had been sent for burial to an obscure and rarely used graveyard outside the city. They traveled there and searched about. In a building at the far end of the graveyard they discovered a semi-collapsed shrine building, inside the found the marking and tools of black magics. They decided to return to town to gather their companions, Li Jong and especially the scholar Fei Lang, to aid them in determining the nature of the problem.

However as they attempted to exit, they found themselves cut off by eight brigands, including two competitors eliminated from the contest in the first found. They rushed forward and attacked the party, only to find themselves seriously outclassed. Hong To demonstrated his elusive fighting style that combined screaming cowardly retreats with quick hidden strikes. In a few moments, the bandits found themselves scattered and unconscious. Zhen Ai woke one up and set to questioning him. He confessed that they'd been hired a few hours earlier, clearly by someone with money and the seal of one of the ministers of the city...

GM Notes:

Dusty and Scott out this session, but we had Gene joining us for the first time. I had some fun investigation and character interaction, but I wanted to make sure I threw in a fight there at the end. I was a good chance to see them take on a large number of players. I changed a couple of the combat rules which forced some change ups in how people conducted attack and defense actions which seemed to work well. Plus with a smaller group of players people seemed more comfortable in the combat.

Friday, October 23, 2009

White Mountain, Black River Session Two

White Mountain, Black River
Wushu Campaign Session Report Two

The warrior Wu Long (Dancing Wind), the scholar Fei Long (Frost Wolf)and Zhen Ai (Nine Blossoms) meet with Master Fudoyan to receive his warm and effusive thanks for the rescue of his daughter and the return on his foolish and wayward son. Li Jong arrives and the three cousins meet their new Provincial Magistrate partner. Of a more severe bearing, Li Jong finds the three perhaps a little wanting at first glance. His estimation is not improved by the introduction of Scampering Weed, the Beggar Clan girl the group has decided to bring along as an assistant. Still they pass greetings and proceed on their mission. That's interrupted by the arrival of the fourth cousin, Shimmering Flower, an alchemist who is only just now catching up with the group after some accident clean up and repair. The now expanded group decide to travel with Turbulent Stone and Dawning Rose. They thank the PCs for having rescued them last session and mention that they also happen to be traveling to Rooted Serenity for the contest.

After several days on the road, they reach city and the two members of the Righteous Party part ways from the PCs, but not before inviting them to dine with them after securing their place in the tournament. The group arrives at the courtyard just as the Minister of Present Affairs, Ningfu Sung, is attempting to drive off one last latecomer and close up for the day. The group intercedes, presenting their papers and working their diplomacy hard. Finally the Minister relents and processes their paperwork. They receive thanks from the other tardy contestant, Jiexun a swordswoman. Front Wolf attempts to hide his nervousness . His fear/hesitation around beautiful women continues to be a thorn in his side.

The group goes to meet with the Turbulent Stone at the great banquet hall of the city, an enormous structure in the middle of a man-made lake. The find themselves joining a larger dinner, with the rest of the Righteous Party contestants. The group engages in small talk and begins to realize some rift within the group. They try to pin down if the matter lies with their intrusion on the gathering or rather something deeper, but cannot determine the source.

A side comment from one of the Righteous Party members, the Taoist Many Tempered Xiaohu, does draw their attention. He mentions a pair of recent deaths within the city. They might be written down to accidents or natural causes but for the black markings upon the body which suggest something else. The group retires outside to the bridge to watch the fireworks announcing the opening of the tournament the next day. Frost Wolf concentrates and attempts to use his skills as an exorcist to see if he can sense anything in the city. He feels a dark presence, a looming evil unspecified but still hungry. Unable to track further, the group resolves to investigate the situation after the first round of the contest tomorrow.

The next day finds the group matched into pairs for two-on-two battles. This seems to be a preliminary judging round, used to shake out those without the necessary skills to compete in the later contests. Zhen Ai and Li Jong go first. Not yet used to one another's tactics in battle, they get off on the wrong foot. Still, despite Li Jong's being knocked from the ring, Zhen Ai manages to finish the contest, earning some praise from her opponent, the Sleeping Boxer Sedate Rao. Next Fei Long finds himself paired with the lovely Jiexun, resulting in more missed communication. Still he manages to acquit himself well against his opponents, including Green Saber Jiaqi of the Righteous Party. Wu Long and Shimmering Flower fight against more members of the Righteous Party. Shimmering Flower dispatches her opponent in a spectacular fashion, launching a blinding potion directly into Many Tempered Xiaohu's face. The liquid becomes caught beneath his mask resulting in painful wounds and a newly minted pledge of enmity. Reluctantly, Wu Long dispatches his opponent, Dawning Rose, by knocking her out of the ring. In between bouts the group watches the other contests-- seeing for the first time the fearsome skills of the Holy Society contestants (rivals to the Righteous Party). But a more shocking contest is that of the local favorite, Golden Blaze. He fights one against two, with a hellbent style and a stylized coin sword. Despite taking a deep wound, he fights on, decapitating his foe.

The group sizes up their victories and resolves to investigate the local murders the next day, before the contest continues.

GM Notes:
As I'm writing this from my notes, we just finished the fifth session of the campaign last week. I think I got most of the details right here. So far we've had a different line up of players from session to session. The next game would bring the final Provincial Magistrate, Tong Ho (Brass Monkey) played by Gene. Both Gene and Dusty (Li Jong) we expect to have down for the games on an irregular basis. The core group will be Sherri (Zhen Ai), Kenny (Wu Long) and Scott (Fei Long). My plan right now is to alternate character, development and set up sessions with the smaller group sessions with more directed and episodic investigations when we have the larger group. That will be easier now that we have all five PCs introduced.

* Session had some rough patches system wise for a couple of reasons. As I mentioned this is a home-brew based on Storyteller but with a fairly detailed martial arts engine. That means there's a level of complexity there. We had two players this session who made up their characters before hand and had to jump right into the thick of things. Both had played Storyteller before, but there's enough system changes that it took getting used to.

* I did the two-on-two battles as a kind of exercise to let the players try out their abilities and to partner the two newer players with ones who had already completed one session with it. Unfortunately, the paired fights actually ended up with some oddness that I think doing a one-on-one duel or a larger melee might have glossed over. I made a change after this session about when values reset (on a person's next action rather than at the top of the round). I'm still working out the kinks here-- making a couple of small changes each time. I'm hoping that the system will eventually play smooth once we get used to the complexity of choices. We'll see-- there's a kind of pleasure to seeing this as an evolving exercise and being able to modify things on the fly.

* Probably the weirdest thing for me as a GM (besides trying to keep names straight in this setting) is the fact that the night before this game, I run Libri Vidicos, a high trust, low detail system. There's a kind of weird mental break I have in running a more mechanics heavy game the next night. I think Scott, Kenny and Sherri feel that to.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

RPGs I Like: Mutants and Masterminds, 2e (Part Two)

RPGs I Like: Mutants and Masterminds, Second Edition
Part Two

Part One here

Mutants & Masterminds provides a detailed system for character creation while still remaining relatively simple. Players have access to a comprehensive set of powers with the mechanics behind those powers being fairly easy to grasp. Green Ronin's adaptation really reworks the OGL engine base, but there's enough connection to the base form that players coming to it from d20 will be able to pick up and run with it quickly. It strikes a nice balance between high detail crunch and abstracting concepts.

Combat, as I've said, runs quickly but maintains the feel of the superhero genre. Players can easily begin with a basic level of play detail and bring in more as they get comfortable with the system. The completeness of the core book also works to the games advantage, requiring really only a single book for everything you need to play and play well.

Over the years I've taught and run a number of superhero systems. This was by far the easiest to get across to players. I measure some of that in the time it takes players to stop looking at their sheets all of the time and also the time it takes for them to seize initiative about their options and maneuvers. A few players I had who had been completely turned off by other supers games found themselves enjoying this immensely. They liked the flow of it and often commented that things felt balanced. In particular they felt they didn't have to have extensive background and familiarity with the game to do well. They'd tried other games where clearly there were “optimal” character creation and advancement choices-- where they saw themselves dropping behind more experienced players over time.

One of my player's, more mathematically inclined, has some issues with the strength/lift chart. Since I handle most of that abstractly, that's never come up in play. The game does have an awful lot of conditions-- sickened, nauseated, shaken, etc-- some of which are close enough to be redundant. I usually stick with the basics. Most of those conditions come fro specific powers so some of the weight rests on the players to remember them.

I think M&M works as a Supers game, but I'm not sure how well it functions at lower powers levels. The range of numbers is fairly narrow, so I think a low-powered or normals-based game suing this system might feel a little unsatisfying. At that level most characters would be very close within the same range and might feel flat. I think that's always a question with engines that simulate superbeings. For example, GURPS 3e for me has the opposite problem. I think I handles low-powered and normal games well, but supers terribly, with a cumbersome system. I think likewise, Mutants and Masterminds' strength lies in handling superheroes and related genres.

Of course any point based system is open to what we locally call “goobing.” The abstract nature of the game does mean that a careful point cruncher could make an abusive character. I don't think it is any more likely here than in any other system except those that bore down to the atomic level for mechanics and balance. Mutants and Masterminds isn't exactly a high trust system, but is has a greater level of trust and freedom than those systems. There's a trade off between ease and character balance. If the latter is vital to your group or you have problem players who always goob out the system, then this might not be the game for you. I have quibbles with a couple of the powers (the potential problems of Posession ala Jericho from the Teen Titans or the relative weakness of Deflection as a power). Often when I've seen problems in play I've gone back to the rules and seen something I missed at first glance that explains some limit that was overlooked.

My one exception would be something which probably ought to be marked as a caution (or stop-sign) power. There are some arrays, like Alternate Form, which allow players to switch through sets of different powers. Each set can have several items in them, and each is bought an an Alternate Power feat. While a character can't have more than one set active from an array at a time, it does mean that this is a relatively inexpensive way to have characters with lots of power choices. There's the potential for characters to have essentially everything for any situation. There are some limits on it, but GMs will need to watch those kinds of power arrays closely.

Core Materials and Key Supplements
The core book for Mutants & Masterminds pretty much has everything you need to play. That's both a strength and a limitation, as most of the supplemental products work variations on those tools. For those who like lots of publications with new rules and mechanics, they mind find that disappointing. If you want a strong all-in-one system, then you'll be satisfied. Green Ronin also produces a Pocket Players Guide for M&M which has all of the core rules and mechanics in a B&W trade paperback form. Its a great supplement and cheap- if you have a group where usually only one person picks up the rules, you can probably convince a couple of others to grab this.

Ultimate Power, as I've mentioned before, breaks down the power rules into the core components. It is the most mechanically oriented of all the supplements. It breaks down into three major sections- a general discussion on how powers function, then a breakdown of all the base effects (plus modifiers) and then a section where it takes those tools and presents a hefty list of new powers built from them. I'd recommend this as the one book you definitely want to buy if you play and enjoy M&M. It isn't required, but it does nicely expand the information. As with the main books, there's also a pocket version of this available.

The Masterminds Manual is a useful GM resource for modifying gameplay. It walks through the various aspects of the game (character creation, characteristics, skills, feats, powers, device, combat, etc.). Each section goes over the logic of the system and possible variations. For example how you handle different tech levels of equipment, how to build new feats, skill synergy and group and how to add attacks of opportunity (...if you wanted to...). That's a nice full volume, but given that nearly everything here is optional, you may find yourself only using a small portion of the material.

Setting Products
Green Ronin has produced three very distinct superhero campaign settings for Mutants and Masterminds. It is nice to see those kinds of choice available. Generally I build my own setting, but I usually buy this kind of material for plot ideas and for villain and ally write ups. The diversity of the material here mean that if you're looking for a background to get a game started right away, you can probably find one to suit your group's temperament.

Freedom City presents a more fully fleshed out sourcebook for the setting from the core book. With an expansive history, a variety of sources for powers, hidden civilizations and aliens races it is a nice example of your classic “anything goes” super world. Think the Marvel or DC Universe or actually more likely the Astro City comic setting. The book covers the 'default' location of Freedom City and the world beyond. If you're looking for a basic supers setting, it works. As well other M&M products use this as the standard backdrop. There's also a pretty good module Time of Vengeance available set here.

Paragons, on the other hand, has a more complicated look at a superhero campaign. It presents a campaign backdrop with a little more realism, though I use that term loosely. Campaign powers come from a single source, and there's information on how to set the coming of those powers as the start of a campaign or in the relatively recent past. While the book provides information on NPCs and organizations, it also presents a lot of options and discussion of the implications of those options for this kind of campaign. I like it as a toolkit, but building the right atmosphere for this kind of campaign will take more work than the more conventional setting of Freedom City. There's also a module available for the Paragons' setting, A More Perfect Union, but I have not read that.

The most recent setting adapts the Wild Cards series of books to the M&M system. Some may remember that being done before for GURPS. This is a complicated world setting but the author does a great job of presenting, adapting and summarizing the material from the seventeen plus books in the series []. I really like the setting, but I suspect that you'd have to have some players with a handle on the background to make it work unless you started from a new ground zero event. Still this may be the best adaptation of source material to an existing game system I've ever seen. It is comprehensive while at the same time being usable. There's also a module All In, available for it.

Other Products
Crooks presents your classic collection of villains and organizations for M&M. It's based in the “Meta-4” universe which appeared in the 1st edition of M&M but hasn't been followed up on. Despite that the characters presented can easily be used outside that context. My only criticism would be that there's some really dark bad guys in here which certainly don't fit with a four-color game. Lockdown presents your classic supervillain prison, with plenty of character material. That's a staple of superhero games and if you like it, this book certainly fits the bill.

Agents of Freedom provides a campaign style framework for running super-agents. As I mentioned before, I don't think M&M works as well at the lower power level. There some recognition of that in the set up here-- providing more points per power level for super-agent characters but keeping the caps in place. It has a nice discussion of typical options & equipments, skill systems, and outlines for running several different kinds of campaigns. As well it provides several extensive example agencies. Golden Age provides campaign suggestions for running pulp, WW2 and Cold War-era games. There's some nice stuff on what “Golden Age” means, history, advice on appropriate character design, discussion of WW2 in the context of the Freedom City setting and quite a bit more. For GMs who want to run in this era is has a lot of useful material. I'd also suggest Fires of War from BlackWyrn, another WW2 sourcebok which has a version doen for M&M.

My two least favorite products so far have been the M&M Annual #2 and Book of Magic. The former product is about one-third general super campaign notes and two-thirds quickie adventures which had been available on the web previously. That's a little disappointing. The first annual for the first edition of M&M had some nice material in it. I bought the pdf for Annual #2 expecting more of the same and was disappointed. With Book of Magic I was hoping for perhaps some more specific structures and options for how to make a magic-centered game. Perhaps some style ideas and things which would help make magic feel less like a special effect or a generic power class. Instead there's some example characters, devices, and a lot of very general discussion about magic that goes all over the place. I ended up skimming through that as little felt new or novel.

Mecha and Manga is the most recent sourebook from Green Ronin. It has advice on adapting the system to a wide variety of related genres. From the classic anime goofiness of Tenchi Miyo, to mecha settings like Neon Genesis Evangelion or Patlabor, to Martial Arts for Ranma ½ or Naruto, to the Pet Genre of...yes, Pokemon. I like what've they've done here and there's a nice mix of mechanics, character archetypes and general gamemastering advice for the genre. While not as comprehensive or dedicated as something like BESM 3e, if you like M&M you'll find this incredibly useful for porting game sin that direction.

There are a few products available I haven't picked up so I can't say much beyond what they appear to be. Worlds of Freedom is an alternate worlds sourcebook. Iron Age presents material for running the dark and gritty heroes of the 80's and '90's (think Lobo, Wildcats, and The Dark Knight). Warriors & Warlocks tries to spirit of fantasy comics (like Conan)- which seems a little odd given that some of the core engine for doing fantasy seems to have been done with True20. Hero High presents material for a teen/school based campaign. Freedom's Most Wanted is another antagonist book set in the Freedom City universe. Time of Crisis is an epic adventure of worlds colliding (ala Criss on Infintie earths) Instant Superheroes is a collection of ready-made archetypes, and the M&M Beginners Guide is a 32 page quick overview of the system.

I should also note that Green Ronin has a number of Archetype pdfs available-- some with a focus around a particular kind of character (example one) or related to a specific sourcebook (example two). I don't find these as useful, but your results may vary. They also have nice third-party support through the M&M Superlink license which allows other companies to publish materials for the game.

Mutants & Masterminds does what I want a superhero system to do. It plays fast, can simulate high powered events, has room for deep character moments, and new players take to it quickly. Of the supers systems I've used, it best matches my play style and focus.

As a basically a system, I don't think M&M is portable out to other games. The one exception might be the damage resolution mechanic which is a nice one. Doing away with hit points or wounds and providing an easy system to simulate wear down over combat could work elsewhere. In the other direction, I do think M&M can be used for other genres, but I suspect that would take some work. True20 and Blue Rose take some of the concepts but apply a narrower and more strictly based advancement system, doing away with the points. I think Mutants & Masterminds, points and all, can work as a generic engine (ala Hero System or GURPS)-- and certainly the Mecha and Manga and Warriors & Warlocks supplements try for that. But for some kinds of genres I'd be put off by the amount of mechanics you'd have to reconcile.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

RPGs I Like: Mutants and Masterminds, 2e (Part One)

Another overly long article I'm breaking into two parts...

RPGs I Like: Mutants and Masterminds, Second Edition

I like the superhero genre and Mutants and Masterminds has become my go to system for those games. I say that having run and played in a lot of superhero systems (Champions, City of Heroes, Superhero 2044, Villains and Vigilantes, DC Heroes, Marvel Superheroes, GURPS Supers) and read still others (Godlike, Underground, Enforcers, Superworld, Beyond Human). For the kinds of games I'm running now- faster and more cinematic- M&M works well.

M&M builds from the d20 OGL in a fairly different direction. While at heart there's the basic d20 system, in execution it feels quite distinct. I'll admit I avoided it for some time because of that link, but I was really pleased when I finally sat down with the first edition. I had been running demos of CoH at Origins when I had a player explain the mechanics of M&M to me. Honestly, that's my favorite part about cons, getting solid face-to-face explanations from people who've played the game.

Edition Notes
I started with Mutants & Masterminds in the first edition and eventually moved up, somewhat reluctantly, to the second. I hesitated initially as I'd bought most of the sourcebooks and was pretty happy with the play of the game. However the quality of the changes from first to second finally won me over. Every change seemed for the better, including some substantial retooling of the game elements. While Green Ronin made some major changes, learning the new system was easy. I had only a couple of problems converting existing characters between the two editions. Materials with mechanics (like characters and powers) from the first edition don't port quickly unfortunately and some things (like Gimmicks Guide to Gadgets) ended up obsolete. Overall though I was pleased with my choice to move to the newer version.

System Basics
As with other supers systems, M&M uses points to build your character. In a holdover from the OGL a character's power level sets limits on how high anything can be bought. I generally dislike levels as a concept, but here it works. Here characters don't “level-up” per se, but instead when they gain enough spendable hero points they reach the next power level increasing those caps. That helps keep balance in the system and give players a goal to shoot for. I like that the system builds those limits in, as opposed to having to figure out and recalculate ratios and points as we used to have to do in Champions.

Points can be spent on characteristics, saves, combat values, feats, skills and powers. Characteristics mainly serve to feed bonuses for basic actions, skills and saves. They don't feed directly into the combat values. Attack and Defense- used for the basic combat rolls are bought up independently. You have four basic save types (Fortitude, Reflex, Will and Toughness) with the last being the standard damage save. The skills list is basic but comprehensive, with the ability to buy specializations. Players can buy ranks in skills relatively cheaply, which works given their place within the genre. The feat list is excellent-- a nice range of choices. There's little in the way of overstacking, chained requisite feats (i.e. Master Improved Overrun Bullrush II). Instead most feats have a basic function. For those which need to have an evolving power level, players can buy ranks in the feat. For example, Defensive Roll which grants a Toughness save when not caught flat-footed. I like this system as it allows the player to tailor their abilities nicely- for example Uncanny Dodge allows you to maintain your Dodge bonus when flat-footed, but how much depends on the rank you've bought it to. I also like that feats and ranks in feats all cost the same thing- one point per rank.

That's one of the things I like about M&M. There's a point system, but it doesn't feel as crunchy or difficult as some other games. It takes a kind of middle path regarding abstraction and balance. The mechanics across the board are easy enough that things feel right, without feeling like every bit has to be perfectly defined and made exact with each other. That may not appeal to everyone, but the results have been satisfying in the groups I've run for.

Of course the question of powers is the big one. Here M&M tries to strike a happy medium between reducing powers to their base effect and having some colorful options.

Powers have a basic thing that they do and players buy ranks in those powers. The effect and scope of that power determines the cost per rank. So, something like a Blast power, a simple ranged attack, will cost 2 points per rank. Something like Astral Form costs 5 points per rank to represent the effects involved with that. That rank doesn't affect the attack roll, but rather determines the resistance or the number used for contest resolution. So some powers end up more narrowly defined, while others serve as groupings with more than one effect. One could reduce all of these to “base effects,” but the book provides a nice mix of the two-- providing the kind of color that helps this kind of game. For those who want to see and tinker with the engine, the Ultimate Power supplement provides that framework. It isn't necessary, but can be useful.

Power can, of course, be modified. Some have their “Special Effect” built in, like Light Control. Most assume the player will assign the source or type of the power. Powers can have Power Feats, Extras and Flaws. Power Feats cost 1 point and add a little something to the use of the power, like Improved Range or Subtle. The most important Power Feat is “Alternate Power.” Many powers suggest “Alternate Powers”-- for example Light Control's standard effect is to control the amount of light in an area. However, players could also buy Blast, Dazzle or Illusions under that power as well. What that means in practice is that the player can use one of those powers at a time. So if they'd taken those options, they could use Blast or Dazzle on a turn. (Sidebar: yes, a Mutlipower with Ultra Slots). I like this system as it does make things pretty easy to calculate and for new players to understand. The cost savings of these groups, called arrays in M&M, is at a trade off for that single use at a time and the fact that an ability which neutralizes or drains that power affects all powers in the array.

Extras for powers significantly affect the scope and strength of the power. For example affecting a different saving throw than the power usually does, increasing duration, or autofire all fall into this. Generally those Extras raises the cost per rank by one, depending on the effect-- but the range of change is fairly narrow, so the math stay simple. On the opposite side, Flaws reduce the overall effect of the power (decreasing range, tiring, and so on) at the same time reducing the cost per rank.

A character's level generally sets the maximum power rank, but there are some exceptions. Since there's a difference within Super Strength between effective lift and combat ability, players can by things like that above the limit. So a character could be really super-strong for narrative purposes but he'd still be balanced in power. Some powers have the player buy ranks and then assign them to specific utility abilities, such as Super Movement or Immunity. In the case of the latter, things like immunity to aging, disease, and poison each take up one rank. More comprehensive or powerful immunities, like critical hits, suffocation or a particular type of damage require more ranks. Essentially the Gm has the discretion to allow powers with generally non-combat effects to break the PL cap.

Mechanics and Combat
Combat's usually at the core of a superhero game, and the M&M system works pretty smoothly. It does change things up a little which takes players some getting used to. To attack, you roll your Attack Value + d20. Your Attack value can be modified by feats, range and circumstances, but generally it remains pretty static. You try to beat your opponent's Defense Value +10. Some powers don't require an attack roll which can be easy to overlook.

The system has a unique way of handling damage. When hit by a standard attack, the target rolls their Toughness Save + d20 against the attack's power level +15. It they make the roll, they take no damage. If they miss the roll less than five, they take a Bruise, which gives them a -1 against further damage saves. Those stack, so over time a character will become worn down as they take more damage. If they miss by 5-9, they take a Bruise and are Stunned for a round. If they miss by 10-14, they tale a Bruise and are Staggered. If they miss by 15 or more, they're knocked out. Lethal damage is handled in much the same way, with the consequences being more severe.

This system feels a little odd at first, but it works in play. It does mean that a bad damage save and no hero points for rerolls means that a player can get knocked out in one shot. We typically use the optional rule that the first hit of a fight cannot KO a PC, but can only do Stun + Bruise. There's a trade off here for the players-- they get to roll actively when hit to resist damage. But they don't get to make a roll for damage against their target. I've only had one player who didn't like the change up.

Some powers, such as mental blasts, follow the same process but use a different saving throw for the damage. For powers which cause an effect, like Paralyze or Dazzle, the target makes the appropriate saving throw against a target number of 10 + the appropriate power's rank. There's a symmetry to the system and once a group has played through a sample fight they understand the basic mechanics well. There's more chrome to the mechanics which can be applied and player's have to get used to their powers and feats, but once they do they can run with it. The has has more depth than I'm presenting here-- maneuver options for example-- but those are options and players naturally move to those after they've done a few fights.

What really sold me on the system, besides the ease of putting characters together, was that fights went smoothly and quickly. We could play out two full fights in a session, plus investigation, plus character interplay, plus bookeeping. Even a big set-piece battle where I fill the table with bad guys, have environmental obstacles and other twists, usually won't take more than an hour. Most fights will be shorter than that and because of the speed and pacing, players feel satisfied-- they've gotten to take a number of actions and had their moment in the spotlight. I think that sense of participation and action is key to a good session. At least some of that comes from having the players make their damage saves-- they're able to react to damage being done to them, even if it is just making a roll (and they can spend hero points if they do botch a roll). That keeps them in the scene.

Tomorrow- strengths, weakness, and an assessment of the products out now for the system.