Monthly Archives: November 2009

Cool Monday: Instapaper

As excited as I am to get onto dice variants and Warhammer 3e, I need to maintain discipline. Monday posts exist primarily to remind myself that the internet has cool and wonderful things within its bounds. This offsets the other 6 days of the week when I face reminders of the cesspit parts.

There’s a lot of good stuff to read on the Internet, but the simple reality is that it’s a pain to keep track of it all. An RSS aggregator, like Google News or NetNewsWire goes a long way towards making the good stuff easier to keep track of, but it doesn’t give me any extra time to read. That becomes a problem on those occasions when something very long and very thoughtful merits reading.

Historically, my solution was to see if they had a print view (because nothing says fun like clicking through 6 times to get through a piece) and either bookmark that or print it out in hopes of getting back to it later. Sometimes it worked, but even when it did it tended to result in a pile of stuff. That’s not terrible, but it’s lossy.

I’ve been much happier about these things since I found Instapaper.

So, Instapaper is sort of a clipping service, a lightweight and smartly designed one. It works like this: I find an article I’d like to read later, and I click on the Instapaper bookmarklet.[1] I get a little popup, and that’s that. Later on, if I go to the Instapaper site, they’ve got the article archived for me, either in its original format or with much of the formatting stripped out (which makes it much easier for screen reading).

So far that’s nice and convenient, but where it really shines is in how it works with other technology. First and foremost, you can export bundles of the articles you’re reading into a variety of ebook formats. I have a fat batch of articles stores on my kindle to make for random reading anytime I need.[2]

Perhaps even better, there’s an iphone/ipod touch app (both a free and paid version) which syncs with your account and keeps the articles on your device. As a touch owner, this has been a godsend. Because it archives them locally, I can read my articles while I’m offline.

Instapaper is the brainchild of Marco Arment, a name that might be familiar to folks who pay attention to Tumblr development. He is my current nerd rockstar, because so far as I’m concerned, that’s a fantastic 1-2 punch.

Anyway, if you have a lot of stuff online you want to read, and you want to make you’re life easier, then check out Instapaper. You’ll know pretty quickly if it’s the thing for you or not.

1 – That’s nerdy term for a bookmark that does something. It’s nothing technical that calls for installation or anything weird. It’s just like any other bookmark in your browser.

2- It won’t mail directly to the kindle, but that’s more a function of Amazon’s policies than a technical limitation.

Rich Dice: Force, Finesse and Fortune

Long car rides help me think, and the holidays is a time of many long car rides. Specifically, I found myself thinking about the forthcoming Dragon Age RPG. I’m pretty excited about this game, for a swath of reasons. It’s Green Ronin, so right off the bat I have a certain amount of brand trust. The sales model (4 boxed sets, each representing a level range) makes me quite curious to see in action, and the bits that Chris Pramas has revealed so far about the system interest me greatly.[1] Though hell, he’s put up another post: I need to read that!
The big thing is that the core mechanic is a 3d6 model, specifically 3d6 + Stat + thing-which-is-most-certainly-not-called-a-skill-but-is-basically-a-skill trying to hit a target number. Bonuses don’t seem to be too huge, so target numbers are probably start in the 10-20 range. In short, it’s not terribly removed from d20[2], excepting that the 3d6 curve is probably a bit more appealing to those who have been bent over the wheel of fate by flat rolling.
One interesting thing it does with this approach is to take something of a variant on d6’s wild die with the “dragon die”. One of your dice is the dragon die, and when you make a roll where degree of success matters, then that is not determined by how high you roll, but rather by the number showing on the dragon die. If it’s a 1, your success is narrow, but on a 6 it’s profound[3] and that translates into mechanical effects.
I dig this, because it’s a great example of something that’s started to be called “rich dice rolling”. The idea is that in some games, a single roll of the dice can reveal many different and unrelated (or only loosely related) pieces of information. For example, the core system for Godlike and subsequent games called for rolling a number of d10s and building sets (like two 4s, three 7s and whatnot). Those rolls were considered to have a “height” – the number – and a “width” – the number of dice in the set. So a set of 3 sevens would have a height of 7 and a width of 3. Those two numbers were used to track different things, like how well something was done versus how long it took to do. In combat, for example, width determined if you hit, but height determined hit location.
This was a little bit different than including a “wild die” (one differently colored die with special significance) in a set of d6s, but the underlying idea was very similar, and subsequent games have experimented with other ways to make die rolls richer. Fred Hicks’ Don’t Rest Your Head may be the current grand champion for richest die rolls, with a sophisticated economy of events plugging away in the background based on dice color.
Taking this back to Dragon Age, I was pretty intrigued. I’m always on the lookout for a system that balances crunch and simplicity at just my sweet spot[4] and this initial overview of Dragon Age suggested it might be in that ballpark. But it also got me thinking about that dragon die, and about the other two dice.
Specifically, I found myself wondering if it would be possible to make all three dice into rich dice. It seemed reasonable: I wouldn’t expect players to be able to keep track of more than maybe four rich dice, but sticking with three kept things intellectually manageable. Plus, three dice matches one of the criteria for my ideal pocket game (requiring nothing I can’t carry in a small box), and three is an auspicious number, so why not?
So if they were rich, what would they be? The classic trilogy is Mind/Body/Spirit, and while I suspect that could probably work, it’s a little bit abstract (especially in terms of spirit). I kicked it around a little more and realized I like the idea of one of the dice being luck – just all the stupid things that happen around us every day. That was satisfying, and it meant that I could make the remaining dice into an opposed pair. Good/Evil, Black/White, Tastes Great/Less Filling or anything else. I actually ended up thinking about something that is ubiquitous in gaming and a lot of fiction – strength vs. speed, or perhaps more precisely power vs. precision.[5]
I dig this division a lot, partly because Clauswitz vs. Jomini makes me do a little dance, but also because it’s VERY easy to conceptualize, especially in a fight. That said, I was looking at two-thirds of an alliterative name with “Luck, Power & Precision” so I swapped it out for “Fortune, Force and Finesse”.
So there was the bones. Roll 3d6, each of a different color (I’m totally undecided on color scheme – probably White/Red/Black because those are the easiest colors to get) and in addition to your total, you can sketch a quick image of how the roll succeeded or failed. Even if there’s no mechanical support at all, it’s useful information for the GM who is interested in how to color his descriptions[6].
But, of course, once you introduce something like this, the possibilities for how to use it mechanically start bubbling to the surface. “Oooh!” say some nerd hindbrain, “Force can also be the basis for damage, and finesse can be, um, armor penetration!” and so it begins.
That hindbrain been bubbling for a bit. Some of what it says isn’t to bad, so next week, we’ll see about exposing some of those ideas to the whithering power of daylight to see what becomes of them.

1- Curiously, for all that I LOVE the Dragon Age video game, that love doesn’t really translate into real excitement for the RPG. I’m curious to read more about the setting, sure, but Bioware did such a solid job with the game that I haven’t been left thinking “There are stories in Ferelden I feel still need to be told”. Not that that will keep me from buying new downloadable content when it comes out. The connection mostly interests me because I’m not sure how it will shake out from a marketing perspective.

2 – by d20 I mean the core precept of the system: roll a d20, add some bonuses, try to hit a certain number or higher. I am by no means saying this is a d20 clone, or even anything close to that, but rather I’m saying that by making the basic resolution something familiar to someone who’s been exposed to d20 maybe once, they are doing themselves a favor. Dice pools, chart lookups, success counting or weird dice are all well and good, but since one of the stated goals of the product is to grow the hobby, it’s not too bad an idea to go with something this simple.

3 – Extra points if you use a ghost die for this.

4 – I still haven’t quite found it, and there’s a good chance I never will, but that’s rather besides the point, isn’t it?

5 – You can, incidentally, port this over to PDQ quite trivially, especially if your game or character has some central thematic conflict, like passion vs. reason. You can just designate one die to each pole, and use them to color how you play. When you’re rolling more than 2 dice, then their source is either drama or awesomeness. Easy as pie.

6 – This is a practice that is at odds with the idea of “Only roll the dice when it matters”, but many GMs will call for a roll that has no specific drama or any real chance of failure just so she can have some information to use as the seed of how she will describe events. An example would be calling for a sailing roll before taking a trip: a bad roll won’t mean the trip won’t happen, but it means the GM might describe the trip as stormy and encountering incidental problems.

Happy Turkey Day

Happy Thanksgiving!
No long message for today. I’m busy being overwhelmed by the sheer number of things I have to be thankful for. Friends and family, risks and opportunities, hopes and even fears. They’re pretty amazing.
Also, my mom has made mealy puddin’, and if you don’t already know what it is, I assure you that you probably don’t want to know more than the fact that her side of the family is the Scottish one.
So with that in mind, even if you don’t celebrate the holiday, I hope it’s a great day all the same.

Geist’s Sleight of Hand

Monstrous horror is very rarely about what it’s about. It’s not that every piece of horror is explicitly a metaphor about something that you can point to, but there’s usually something going on that we can identify with that makes it resonate with us. No one is really worried about vampires, but we do fear disease (and we worry about sex). We don’t cower from tentacle horrors, but we all wrestle with the sense that the universe is an indifferent place that we can expect little kindness or understanding from.

A monster that doesn’t strike these kinds of notes is just a colorful description. It’s the literary equivalent of bad syfy cgi, bringing you Mansquito and his ilk. Most writers know this, but it’s easy to blow past in the desire for novelty, and that can even work sometimes. Splatterpunk has an audience after all. But the good stuff? It’s not about what it’s about.

This lens is the reason I’ve always had a certain appreciation for White Wolf’s games, though I never truly became a fan until the new Changeling came out. Through both iterations of the World of Darkness, they have been at their strongest when then games have not been about what they’re about.

Now, the obvious joke to make here is one about emo supers, and while I’ll concede that there’s some truth to it, I’m thinking in a slightly different direction. Take Vampire, for example – more than anything it’s a game about being on the inside. The vampires are the cliques who run things as we imagine them to be; pretty, petty and vicious. This is not a horror theme (though it has horror trappings), but it doesn’t really need to be.

Of course, it’s easy to punch a hole in that analysis. A game that seizes upon some other theme like alienation could still rock out, but the point is that it’s still grabbing another recognizable theme and using vampires as a way to explore it.

The reason that Changeling grabbed me so much was because of this. It’s a great story about fae and weirdness, but it sunk its teeth into me because it’s also about the people who *matter* in your life (or about being mad at The Man, but that grabbed me less).

I mention all this because I feel like WW has performed a magic trick with Geist, one which just knocked my socks off when I saw it. As with other nWoD games, there’s interesting cosmology and fun, dark, mystical things, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about the people who play in the World of Darkness, specifically twenty-somethings in group houses after college figuring out what they’re going to do with their lives.


Geist has turned a number of WoD assumptions on their ear, explicitly swapping out the vast conspiracy for a lose (and gothy) confederation of nerds and artists. Better yet, one of the essential elements of character creation is coming up with the group’s personal mythology.

There are a lot of other things I dig about Geist. The powers system may be my favorite of any of the nWoD games, and it builds on the foundations of really excellent products like Orpheus, but it is all left in the dust by the sheer magnificence of its undertone. A game about gamers that’s not about gamers.

I raise a drink to that.

The Vic-20 and Genre

One of the first computer games I ever played was a game on the VIC-20 called “Night Driving”. A black screen, with colored rectangles representing the reflectors on the side of the road. It was a celebration of the limitations of the platform – there was no way that computer could display anything like a real road, so it turned that weakness into a selling point. Now, It was hardly a great game – it’s other main selling point was that it was one of maybe 3 games available – but I always loved the sheer chutzpah of it.

I think of this sometimes when I look at runaway successes in literature, and I’m specifically looking at the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises, with a little bit of an eye towards Dan Brown. I look at those and one common thread runs between them: the manner in which they inspire nerdfury. Specifically, they’re genre books that are fairly indifferent to the rules of genre. You’d think that would be a problem, but I sometimes suspect that it’s actually a big advantage.

At the most obvious explanation is a trifle cynical. For any given genre, there are a certain number of people who are interested, and a vastly smaller number of people who care a whole hell of a lot. If you write for those enthusiasts then there’s a good chance that you’re not going to be too interesting to the larger populace because they’ve already demonstrated that they don’t really care that much.

A slightly less cynical explanation is that the basics of a genre are usually very quickly grasped, and it’s those basics that really matter. Sticking to those basics (whatever they are) is more likely to appeal. Moving away from them, even if it’s “more” into the genre, is moving away from what people came for.

There’s a nice lesson there – if you’re enthusiastic about a genre and willing to just use it to launch into a story you’re excited about, then there are examples of how well it can work. Naturally, some readers immediately want to point out that these examples of how things can work are reprehensible affronts against all that is literature, so we can just take that rage as a given.

Now, the counterpoint is that the more purely you serve a genre, the more you create an audience for yourself. The people who are REALLY into a genre are always looking out for something to serve their level of interest, and they constitute a pre-existing audience. You can do well by playing to that, even in a market as small as the RPG industry (some would say you are already doing so by writing RPGs but, hey, into every life a little recursion must fall).

The problem comes, I think, when the choice is not made, and you end up kind of half-falling into genre. If you make the choice consciously, you can work with it. If you make it accidentally then you’re a lot more dependent on luck than you are on your talent and effort, and that’s a pretty tenuous position.

Writing Tools

I’ve got nothing against Microsoft Word. I use it almost every day, and it’s really good at doing what it’s supposed to do – make documents that look professional enough for a business context without needing all the overhead of a full-bore layout program. Sure, that wasn’t how it started: back in the days of wordstar (and CUTTING EDGE ascii art) the big deal was that we could write these things on a computer, and edit our writing rather than re-writing everything. I grew up as this transition was taking place, and it’s still pretty miraculous to me. As much as I enjoy writing things by hand, I can’t imagine going back to needing to do so for everything.

I mention all this because software has evolved with time. As we got used to this idea of writing on computers, the software came to reflect more than just the need to write. Writing was easy, after all, so why not start adding useful things like formatting, indexes, styles and so on. The actual writing is all well and good, but anyone can do that, right? The computer can make your writing look better (and in the case of things like spell-checkers, might actually make it better).

It’s a little cynical, sure, but it’s been a good thing overall. Yes, programs like Word allow for people to create layout abominations to raise up on the altar of Comic Sans, but it also means that Joe guy can make a layout that’s good enough with very little time, skill, or knowledge. The impact on layout is very like that of sophisticated photography software: the folks who could only do a few tricks get overshadowed by software, but the people with real talent end up really standing out.

The problem with this is that the actual writing tends to get lost in the wash. Not to say it’s impossible to write in something like Word, but there’s a lot of noise to deal with. All the options and buttons are there on the screen, begging to be used, and that’s bad enough, but the real danger is more sinister. When you write something and lay out out at the same time (which is what you can accidentally end up doing in word) then it tends to feel done, and that’s incredibly dangerous. Editing and rewriting are critical important to any kind of quality writing, but when you have something your brain thinks is a finished product, it’s easy to gloss over it, or hesitate to make a change because it will throw off the pagination.

This was a big problem for me, and I tried a bunch of tricks to try to deal with it. My Word interface is incredibly minimal, and I prepared equally minimalistic stylesheets to keep the text looking raw. It worked ok, but it was occasionally a pain, especially when Word decided to explode in helpfulness all over whatever I was writing.

I found relief in the form of writing software. Not Word Processing or Text Editing, but honest-to-God writing software, programs designed with the actual act of writing in mind. The first I came across was Writeroom, and it changed a lot of how I do things. See, Writeroom and a number of programs like it are fullscreen text editors – they were designed to remove all the distractions that come from working on a computer, like pop up windows, chat and mail notifications and so on. You fire it up and your whole screen goes black, except for your little green cursor. Yes, you are effectively using software to make your too-expensive computer look and feel like an old CRT Apple IIe, but as counter-intuitive as that is, it works REALLY well. Those distractions (and the temptations that come with them, to just check a website or the like) are absolute killers, and being able to shut them out let me really focus.

Since then, a number of similar programs have come out, including Darkroom (which may have predated Writeroom, I don’t recall), Writemonkey and Q10. These had their own small gimmicks, and they all had the advantage of working on Windows, so I tended to view them as roughly interchangeable. But my poking around also revealed that there was a whole category of programs dedicated to writing novels or other long-form works.

This is a weird category because there are a number of really robust and interesting options available for apple, but there are almost no comparable programs available for windows. The closest I’ve seen is people who have adapted Microsoft OneNote to writing, and while they do so to good effect, it’s definitely a case of making use of the tools available.

On the OSX side there were programs like Ulysses, Copywrite, Storymill and my favorite, Scrivener[1]. There are fine distinctions between the features of these programs, but the basics are the same. You create a collection of documents (which might be documents or media or whatever) which you can organize and edit as you see fit. Sounds simple enough, but it means that you can do things like keep your research notes, character thoughts, random ideas and your actual writing together in the same place, where it’s easy to edit, hide or shift around whatever parts you need in a way that suits your writing style. There’s very little in the way of formatting – headers, bold and italic, though footnotes tend to get good support – and the bells and whistles are much more about things that make writing easier, like offering a fullscreen mode.

All these functions sit on top of a database, rather than a collection of documents, which offers a lot of benefits. Most notably, you just don’t worry about saving your work – it just happens. The database architecture means that you can also do robust version control, and while that may sound unnecessarily technical, it’s incredibly handy to realize you can save your work like you would a video game and, if you end up with the writer’s equivalent of a TPK, you can revert to the save without disrupting your current ‘game’.

The upshot of this is that I started writing on the mac unless I absolutely had no choice. Now, “no choice” comes up more often than you’d think, especially if you’re collaborating with others, since you need to use the software that everyone has. This got exacerbated when I picked up a netbook – I love it, but it runs windows, so Scrivener was not an option. So I went back to where I started and grabbed a full screen editor (as it turns out, they’re very well-suited to netbook use).

I started using Writemonkey for the most frivolous of reasons: One of its options turns on typing sounds as you write. Actual typing sounds – you can choose between an old style typewriter, an old IBM keyboard or a bunch of other options. I’m an absolute sucker for that sort of thing, but it turns out to have been a good decision. WM was rock solid. It supports markdown for minimal formatting, it exported without problems, and it did everything I asked of it, but it was still a choice I went to out of necessity rather than any real desire.

That changed with the latest release of Writemonkey, as it added “Focus”. It’s a little rough to explain, but the idea is this: imagine you’re writing a very long doc, and you are looking through it and realize you need to expand on one section. In WM, you can highlight that section, hit f6, and the rest of the document vanishes while you work on that one section. When you’re done, just hit f6 and you swap back to seeing everything, but with your new writing now tidily in place.

Now, maybe it’s just me, but I find it very easy to get a little bit overwhelmed by very long documents. This ability to just zero in on a specific section and work on it without giving any thought to the rest of the document is an absolute godsend. There are some other nice implicit uses for it – it helps with writing off an outline for example – but the bottom line is that it offers the same sort of advantage that the full screen editor does, the ability to focus on the writing without distraction.

Now, hold my hand in the fire, and I’ll acknowledge that Scrivener is still my first love. I paid money for it, and it’s got many more features, but it’s not entirely without warts. I’ve heard of problems syncing the DB with dropbox, and that makes me kind of nervous. Plus, the one downside of the whole database model is that I need to export anything if I want to share it. But despite these small things, Scrivener is still the single best program I’ve used for organizing and writing a project, but when it comes to just writing, Writemonkey may actually be my favorite. The simplicity of it (it’s just editing a text file) makes it much easier to just jump into writing something.

The good news is I never really need to choose. Circumstance tends to dictate whether I’m going to be on a Mac or Windows box at at given moment, and I now have a tool for each one which I am absolutely delighted to use to write.

1 – For the absolute best list of writing programs for both windows and mac, check out the link page at (the guys behind Scrivener).

Golden Century: Badass

Swinging back to Golden Century, the first question I ask myself is how to handle the various flavors of badass within one system. For the moment, I’m assuming a flavor of Fate because, hey, it’s a pretty robust platform.

Cecil is easy. He’s unstoppable, so whatever wound system I use, he’ll double it. I could fiddle around with alternatives like armor-equivalence, but that seems to complicate things unnecessarily. The idea is not that he doesn’t get hurt, it’s that he doesn’t stop coming, so a longer wound track totally does the job.

The Butcher is similarly easy – his fighting and intimidation will come out of the same pool, easy peasy. The guy is terrifying, and much of his badass will be expressed through people’s unwillingness to fight him, so it’s just a matter of remembering to respect that. As a GM it specifically means that I need to remember that “The other guy chickening out” is a reasonable (or even likely) outcome for scenes.

Sandon and Eira are a bit more interesting. Sandon has the fantastic situational awareness, and Eira has the classic Old Master schtick, both of which are potent but are also too colorful (and nuanced) to wave off with a simple bonus. Sandon suggests to me that his ability might interact well with the idea of scopes – he should have some bonus that relates to bringing in aspects in the environment scope.

Possible approaches include making the bonus for environmental aspects bigger for him, reducing the difficulty of creating new environmental aspects, or giving him more free tags of environmental aspects. The end result I’m looking for is that I expect him to be using the environment virtually every time he acts, so I want to reward that.

The main answer, I think, is that I will let him freely create and use environmental aspects without needing to roll to set them up and find them – so long as he describes using the environment in a colorful and reasonable fashion, he can spend a fate point on that aspect. This is pretty potent – free and open use of another scope means his bonus can get pretty high – but that also means i can afford to be a little bit strict about it. The environment has to be used in a way that directly impacts what’s being done – actions that just happen to use the environment are less likely to be usable.

The downside of this approach is that it does not quite make things full on wild-and-woolly Jackie Chan style environment use (which would really require more free tags). Instead it allows for spiking efforts by bringing in the environment without any preparation or planning, and I think that captures the idea.

Thinking about Sandon also gives some insight into Eira. I can apply similar logic to suggest that her real area of strength is also a scope, specifically, the scope of the other person. As with Sandon, opening up another scope to casual use allows for badass spiking, but the mechanic needs to be a little bit different, simply because people are not quite as willy-nilly as the environment.

I think what I’d like is for her to be able to discover other people’s aspects by fighting them. That has a mechanical benefit, but it also plays nicely into that old master vibe of figuring out that you carry a lot of regret around by how you hold your sword. It shouldn’t be instant or transparent, but it should be fairly easy. My thought is this: If Eira wins an exchange (that is to say, would cause damage), she can forgo the damage and instead reveal one of her opponent’s aspects. This will be treated like a successful maneuver, so she’ll get a free tag on it (which should make up for forgoing the damage). If I, as GM, don’t have an aspect to reveal, she can make one up.

My one fear with this is that, depending on how I handle injuries, then she’s potentially forgoing a different exploitable aspect (the injury) to do this, which may not mechanically balance out. If that proves to the case, ti will probably make discovery easier, maybe only requiring a single step.

I think I’ll also broaden this a bit so that she can do something similar out of combat with almost any thoughtful activity (pouring tea and whatnot). That is to say, her particular badass will be usable outside of fights to discern the aspects of others, though there may be some color limitations on that.

Ok, that’s all 4. Feeling good about this.

Oh, as a total aside, here is the reason Dragon Age totally won for me.

One of the starting paths is an urban elf. Elves were slaves until a few hundred years ago, and they’re still second class citizens, living in ghettos called alienages. You start in the alienage in Denerim, the capital city, waking up to discover that today is your wedding day. It all goes horribly, horribly wrong, but that’s arguably less important than the context it goes wrong in. They do a wonderful job of giving you the clear sense that you are connected to the community, through ties of friendship and family. Later on in the game, when you get to come back to the alienage, those ties are reinforced, with nods back to the events at the beginning.

All this is prelude to some events in the endgame. I won’t spoil the details, but something bad happens in Denerim, and you have to deal with it. It’s presented as a strategic problem and you have a number of ways you could approach it. and I was thinking about it in those terms until the map of the city popped up, and one of the hotspots of trouble was the alienage.

I did not stop to think before clicking on it. There was no analysis or consideration, simply an utterly primal gut reaction of “MY FAMILY IS IN TROUBLE” and the need to do something about it. I don’t know if that sounds as awesome as it was, but for me that kind and quality of visceral emotional reaction to a game is hard to come by, and I can’t praise Bioware enough for their handling of it.

Fever Dreams of Relative Advantage

Still stuck thinking about relative advantage, so I’m going to flesh that out a little bit more. Also, I’m home sick and a little bit loopy, so roll with it. Dragon Age seems to be proving a decent example of the benefits of a relative advantage type of system. You level up a fair amount over the course of the game (about 20-25 levels) and gaining levels can gain new abilities, but the increase in effectiveness comes out of those abilities, which do not improve so dramatically as the actual levels. That is to say, a 20th level character can easily deal with threats that a 1st level character would have trouble with, but the difference in their capability levels is not as broad as the difference in their levels suggests.

To translate this into 4e terms, imagine that every character in 4e “locked in” at level 5, so that their attacks, defenses and hit points were all fixed at the levels they were at level 5. Now imagine, however, that they continued to gain new powers as they leveled up[1] – this means that the difference between a level 5 and a level 30 character is entirely measurable in terms of what powers they have (well, and the base-attack damage bump at level 21, but I’m setting that aside for the moment). Now, this will definitely be a profound power gap – high level powers are definitely better than their lower level equivalents – but not as profound as it looks at first. The lower level powers don’t exactly suck, and higher level powers might be two or three times better, but that is a much smaller multiplier than the level difference would suggest.

But now imagine that’s the game you’re running, and what it changes. What does it now _mean_ to have a 25th level monster? It’s attack and defense bonuses, as well as hit points, should be keyed off level 5, but its damage is pretty much unchanged. It suddenly makes sense that a troop of pikemen is really dangerous, even to a high level monster, but that certain monsters (especially ones with abilities like damage resistance) are dangerous because of what they’re capable of. Elites and Solos becomes the really important currency because the bump in attack and defense can be more potent than many levels of powers (and with HP capped around level 5, they will thankfully die eventually).

This is the heir to an idea that some people tried with 3.*, of capping level advancement at lower levels to keep things gritty, and I think this approach serves much the same purpose. If you lock down early, then every +1 you can squeeze out of play suddenly carries much more weight[2], and a lot of feats and powers suddenly look a lot more interesting.

Now, 4e doesn’t need this. The way it handles NPCs allows for a lot of DM hand-wavery to just say that the town guards are whatever level they need to be, and sometimes that’s all you really need. I dig that approach in a lot of games, but I admit it rubs me raw in D&D – it makes the treadmill a little bit too apparent – and something like this lets me imagine the world external to my characters as fitting together in a way that suits my sensibilities.

Anyway, I think I’m feverish, so I dunno how much sense this will make, but I’m scheduling this to post because I’m hopeful there’s some nugget of utility to it.

1 – And better gear. But I am temporarily setting that aside for the moment because, frankly, the frustration that comes of tracking gear in 4e is such a profound thing for me that it probably merits its own post sometime.

2- I picked level 5 because the average bonus at this point is near 10, so it’s close to the balancing point between bonuses and dice being dominant. Given the way D&D works this is mostly just sleight of hand, but it’s something I instinctively gravitate towards.

4E and Power Cards

Today was originally going to be more Golden Century, but twitter discussion lead to a realization that I really want to talk about something core to D&D 4E and how that interacts with power cards.

The appeal of power cards is obvious in play with 4e – the number of powers and their exception-based design makes cards an excellent bookkeeping method, at least on paper. But there’s a catch: the actual fiddly numbers make pe-produced cards impractical – even with the description of the power it is necessary to look up the character’s attack and damage modifiers, often on a case-by-case basis. This means that the custom-generated cards from the character builder are really the only option, and even they need to be updated and re-printed regularly.

The rub is that it feels like it should be much easier than this, but the breakdown is hidden under a bit of sleight of hand. The practical reality of 4e is actually pretty simple – if you’re fighting something of your level, then you’ll probably hit on an 11 or more and miss on a 10 or less. There’s some fiddliness within the range – a 15 or more should pretty much always work, a 5 or less should pretty much always fail, but it’s really not much more complicated than that, whether you’re first level or thirtieth level. If your opponent is higher level it might be a little harder, if they’re lower level it’s a little easier.

The bottom line is that it’s all pretty much relative. Because the attack and defense modifiers scale up at roughly the same pace, they’re almost irrelevant. You could dispose of most of them and couch things entirely in terms of relative advantage, and it would greatly simplify things.[1] But doing so would strip away the sense of advancement that comes from watching numbers getting bigger.

Relative advantage would allow for the necessary information to exist purely on cards. When people imagine using power cards, they imagine something akin to Magic: the Gathering (with good reason – it’s a great model), but that’s just not practical with 4e. The number crunching not only calls for data external to the cards, but it also keeps the cards themselves from having any kind of elegance to them – a lot of what makes the magic experience work so well is that individual cards can be quite simple, with the complexity emerging in play.

But what makes it so problematic is that 4e is so *close* to being card-able that it invites frustration when the reality differs so much from the expectation. Arguably, this suggests that the space exists for someone to create a game which does fill that niche. Warhammer 3e might exist in a similar space, but it’s a big space and there’s lots to done in it.

1 – So, imagine the baseline of hitting on an 11+ against an equal opponent, and cards (assuming monsters are also covered by cards) simply introduce modifiers on that baseline rather than requiring the tracking of persistent modifiers. A particularily tough monster might be at +2 to its defense, a mook might be -1. That’s the basic shape of a pure relative advantage approach .

Golden Century Chargen

We did chargen for Golden Century this weekend. Started with 4 players, but if this gets some legs, part of the point of the GC concept is that it will be easy to add additional cast members, in the form of other members of the golden century, to facilitate pickup play. This was the same thinking that lead to the creation of the Century Club in the game that became Spirit of the Century, so I have reason to think it’s a good model.

As a warning, this is some pretty serious “Tell me about your character” stuff, but it’s necessary to get it out there so I can then start discussing what I’m going to do with it.

One curious thing about this character generation is that when we started, I had no idea what system I would be running the game in. There were a few strong contenders – Savage Worlds or mods of Cortex or Fate were all in my mind – but none of them were the definite winner. I mean, I knew whatever I ended up with would have some version of aspects, but I can port that to nearly anything, but beyond that I wanted to see where the players took things and choose a system based on that.

Our four characters are Sandon, Balin, Cecil and Eira. I actually got their names later in the process, but it’s easier to explain things with names. Anyway, I had a few questions in mind regarding how they’d gotten where they are, things that had happened to them and so on, but I ended up starting with a question I haven’t used before, but which I am very pleased with in retrospect. It laid out a clear expectation for the game, revealed really useful things about the characters, and gave me a sense of what sort of mechanics I’m going to need to support. That question was: How are you badass?

Sandon Korga has a brilliant, instinctive sense of situational awareness. This makes him a fantastic battlefield commander, and lets him really exploit the environment in fights. Unfortunately, it is really only something he excels at in the moment – he’s not the guy you want making plans or offering leadership, though his success in battle means such things are often thrust upon him.

Balin, “The Butcher” is a psycho, plain and simple. He’s got knives, and he knows how to use them, but the real problem is that the crazy comes off him in waves. He’s one of those guys whose indifference to the fact that he might just cut you open is so apparent as to be downright scary. Scary as he is, his reputation is even scarier, and the rumor is he ate dead soldiers at the Siege of the Dragon’s Tail.

Cecil is unstoppable, simple as that. He is relentless and pushes on past any point of rationality.

Eira was a great swordmistress in her youth, but in her age the speed and strength that came with that have dwindled, but her knowledge remains. She has an old master’s understanding of fighting, and has the experience that allows her to defeat foes many years her junior.

The next question was: How did you end up at the Dragon’s Tail? This was followed up by a personal question to each one, based on his background so far.

Sandon, a career military guy, had done something that embarrassed his commanding officer badly enough that his C.O. had gotten assigned there, and Sandon got dragged along. Sandon, it turned out, was from a family of cobbles, and much of his military paycheck was going home to the family.

Balin had killed a man, a priest, and was there with a group of penitent brothers (Church prisoners conscripted for suicide missions) en route to the north. Balin had grown up in the slums of the capitol, with a sister sold off into slavery and doing occasional work as a thug until he killed the priest. There is a boy, his landlord’s son (9 years old at the time, 14 when we start play) who thinks he’s a hero.[1]

Cecil’s wife had died, but had also apparently then gotten back up. He had been on her trail, and this was the last stop. We discovered that Cecil was a noble and that this was a politically important arranged marriage that both parties found tolerable, though there were no children.

Eira has working as a teacher for a scion of one of the great houses. The kid had been sent here for his safety and vanished in the last days of the battle. I asked her what she had done when, as they were heading north, she was offered a large sum to make the scion disappear. She said no, of course, but her report of the matter never made it back to the great house, so the rumor is she did him n.

I asked them to briefly give a sense of what the battle looked like from their perspective.

For Sandon, it was a blur – too hurried for any details to stick.

Balin spent much of it in the larder, acting as cook, and doing terrible and demonstrative things to the enemy bodies (hanging them from the walls, like meat). He killed a lot of men at one point when an enemy push made it to the kitchens.

Cecil very nearly died holding off the last push, and was so badly injured that he was still recovering when he got he award.

Eira spent the time protecting her ward, only losing sight of him towards the end when she was called out to a duel by one of the enemy leaders.

The next question, “what have you done with success?”, was important to me because it’s part of the heart of the darkness of the game. These guys are all former lottery winners, for all intents and purposes. They were heroes of the realm, and could have nearly anything, but that was 5 years ago – what have they done with it. Implicit in this is the assumption that all the glory and wealth has not improved their lives, and has possibly made it worse.

Sandon was given command of a personal unit of imperial legionnaires who mutinied during his first battle when he gave a command that would leave their families endangered (because it was tactically necessary – Sandon is incredibly unsentimental when in battle) . Their mutiny meant that they died with their families, while Sandon and his handful of loyal troops managed to hold out. By the accounting of things, it was a massacre, and Sandon’s refusal to report the mutiny (to protect the honor of the dead soldiers) meant it was all on his head. Since then he’s spent some time as a mercenary, but when pushed into command it tends to go badly and over time he earned the nickname “The Curse”. These days he tends to take guard work under a pseudonym.

Balin was pardoned, and while he has his penitent brand on the back of his right hand, he wears his Century medal strapped to the back of the other. He tried to open a business (a restaurant, which quickly failed) and has tried to fit in with the upper crust of society with a dogged determination and a certain amount of obliviousness to his perpetual failure.

Cecil founded an order of knights dedicated to hunting the undead (and by extension, to find his wife) but he mismanaged it badly. The knighthood went broke and its command was usurped from within, and today is a fraternal order that is seeing reasonable success without Cecil.

Eira could not escape the assassin’s reputation, and has sought a life of obscurity to avoid both misdirected attempts at vengeance and offers of employment.

Because it’s one of my games, we came up with a quick connecting story for each of the characters:

  • Cecil served under Sandon at the massacre. Sandon was also the person who put Cecil in the position to get nearly killed at the Dragon’s Tail.
  • Eira trained Cecil in sword after the battle, and made used of the knighthood while it was intact.
  • Balin disposes of bodies for Eira, when her attempts at obscurity fail. As an aside, he actually delivers them to someone else to dispose of, but everyone just assumes he does terrible things to them.
  • Sandon and Balin drink together frequently, and Balin thinks that Sandon can offer great insight into the court and is a boon to his social climbing. So Wrong.
  • Sandon and Cecil were once hired to hunt down a dangerous assassin who, after a bit of confusion, was revealed to be Eira. The three then turned on their erstwhile employer.
  • Cecil arranged for a marriage between Balin and one of his cousins. On paper it worked out well for both of them, but in practice it’s an emotional minefield.

In a nod to Chuck, I asked what each character wanted and feares.

Sandon wants financial security for his family (who are the worst sort of nouveau riche after their bump in status due to him, but are now in steadily accruing debt). He fears responsibility.

Balin Wants to be respected as a right proper gentleman, and he fears losing his wife.

Eira wants fame and glory – she wants to be a legend. She fears death through creeping old age.

Cecil wants to put his wife to death, and fears the lure of eternal life might make him like her.

Lastly, I got 4 aspects from everyone – one was supposed to be the BIG aspect, the one they woudl have if they had only one.

Sandon: Korga the Curse, Unswayed by Sentiment in Battle, ‘I’ll Apologize Later’ and Burdens of Family
Balin: Butcher, Branded, Striving for Respectibility, Intimidating
Eira: Old Master, Assassin’s Reputation, Great House Connections, Last One Standing
Cecil: Unstoppable, She’s Missing, Unwavering Resolve, “I can take anything, but not that”

That’s a lot of stuff, but I feel like the characters are very solid. I can see a few gaps and disconnects, but they’re ones I can work with. It now falls on me to think about hwo to make the world equally solid, and how to make this all work mechanically.

1- This particular harpoon (“who thinks you’re worth saving”)did not sink in as well as it could have – the answer is a little too protected. Not sure how much mileage I will get out of it.