Monthly Archives: June 2010

What next?

Dresden’s going to be out the door soon, and I’ve been chewing on what to do next.

I’ve committed to finding some time to do my reading for Faith & Credit, a hypothetical game set in America under the Articles of Confederation, where the creation of the Constitution is the ‘conspiracy’ of the setting. It’s American Swashbuckling (as distinct from leatherstocking), and a challenge to myself to see how to do straight history. There are already some great games dealing with the American Revolutionary War, with a twist. As a lover of history, I am most inrigued by how well the things that make history compelling can make for a compelling game.

However, Faith & Credit’s been on the back burner for years, so it runs the risk of getting overshadowed by other ideas. Most notably, I am tempted to take my own device and do something wrong. Maybe straight fantasy, maybe something more specific like a Dune or Amber pastiche. God knows I have no shortage of mechanical ideas I’d love to build into something and take for a spin, but for the moment, that’s just a vague interest.

There is also the spectre of a GMing book. I’ve got years of ideas back on Livejournal before I started writing on this blog, and some of them aren’t half bad. Finding, polishing and expanding on the greatest hits might make for an interesting read (or at least an interesting project).

I dunno. It’s possible Origins will leave me inspired (hopefully inspired to do something other than Podcast – cons always make me wan tot Podcast, then I get home and realize I definitely lack the time or focus for it), but for now I’m flipping through options like so many three by five cards.

Any ideas? What’s out there that needs doing?

You Need to Make This Fit in This Using This

There is a scene in Apollo 13 which stays with me despite the rest of the movie having basically fallen out of my brain. This scene is the one which resonates with every engineer I’ve ever spoken with about it, and more than a few generally nerdy folks as well. There’s a point where the ground engineering crew needs to fix a problem up in space, so they need to find a solution that uses only the resources the astronauts have available to them. In the scene, the guy speaking to the engineers holds up a square pipe fitting and says “You need to make this fit…” then holding up a round pipe fitting, “… in this…” then he upends a box onto the table containing all the tools on board – things the astronauts have in their pockets and so on “…using this.”

If you are of a puzzle solving bent, this is the kind of moment you dream of, but may never experience. It’s not that there’s a shortage of problems to be solved, rather, it is the limitations (and in this case, the stakes) that are rare. If the challenge had been to fit the two things together, using any tools or resources available then it might have been an interesting distraction, but it would not have been compelling.[1]

In the absence of life presenting us with these problems, a lot of people turn to games to scratch that itch, including roleplaying games. Often, when you speak to an “old school” player who pays attention to things like strict inventory lists and enjoys random encounter tables that might drop a dragon on your low level party, they often describe the game in these terms – problem solving, resource management, cleverness and so on. Characters need to survive and get things done with a limited set of resources, and the limits on the resources keep things interesting.

To put it more concretely, a player with a detailed inventory may look at it like the debris spilled on the table in Apollo 13. The challenge is whether they can solve the problems presented with those resources. If you put the same player in a game that uses a dramatic inventory system (such as, “you have everything you reasonably would have”) then they will get frustrated. Either they now have too many tools (in which case there is no challenge) or not enough (and more frustratingly, they don’t know what they don’t have).

It is easy to assume that any player looking for this experience in a game is going to be a forty-something year old neckbeard, clinging to his well loved white box D&D, but doing so is a bad idea. Partly because it’s a dick move, but more because this guy is going to show up in a lot more places than the dungeon. See, it’s not always about inventory. It might be about mechanics (powers and such), it might be about setting (NPCs, relationships and motives) or it might be about the players themselves (with clear rules about player rights, powers and responsibilities in play) but the behavior is the same.

The desire for clear frameworks (problems, scenes, stories) and discrete limits (inventory, conservation of characters, narrative rights) is a huge part of RPGs, and as much as we like to fight tooth and nail over the chrome, that underlying desire is a large part of what makes this one hobby. It’s not the only element, nor is it the sole lens through which to regard the hobby, but it’s maybe something to keep in mind the next time you roll your eyes at someone else’s play.

So am I saying that the guy with the four page inventory list and the dirty hippie indie guy with formalized language for scene framing are more similar in their anal retentiveness than they are different in their expression of it?

Damn skippy I am.

1 – One more way path leading back to my favorite broken record: Constraints breed creativity.

Team of Ninjas

Given that I mentioned them yesterday, I want to give a shout out to the Dresden Files RPG Team of Ninjas. See, here’s a confession – I have some fingerprints on this game from early on, but between kid and work and such, I’ve only been able to watch from afar as these guys have pulled together an unbelievable game. To the reader, they’re just names on the credit’s page, but I want to take a moment to call each of them out.

Leonard Balsera – Lead System Developer
So, folks may know Lenny as the third name on the cover of Spirit of the Century, but may not know how he got there. See, back in the day when all this stuff was just Fate 2.0 and getting kicked around on mailing lists, there was this one guy who was so on top of things an so enthusiastic that we really had only two choices: recruit him, or kill him. Assassins are expensive, so we have been the beneficiaries of Lenny’s boundless, booze-powered energy ever since. Lenny has a keen instinct for mechanics and a passion for play that becomes apparent within about 15 seconds of meeting him, which I strongly suggest you do. And when you do, call him Landon Darkwood. He likes that. I promise!

Genevieve Cogman – Author
Genevieve is an old friend from AmberMUSH, the same place we met Jim Butcher back in the day. She is this brilliantly creative woman whose only flaw I can spot is that she lives in England, which is just too damn far away. The very first actual material for the game came from her hand, and as with everything she writes, it was a joy to behold. While she’s done other RPG writing, including no small amount of In Nomine stuff, what you really want to track down is her long awaited GURPS Vorkosigan.

Adam Dray
– Assistant Managing Editor
Adam is a local who we only see at conventions and only interact with on the Internet. I genuinely have no idea why this is, because he’s a cool guy, but for our purposes here, he’s also a sharp eyed editor who also made sure a lot of the One Bad Egg products ended up looking properly polished. He’s also a game designer in his own right, and like all good game designers, he has one outstanding project that we’re all very excited to see get finished, a post-cyberpunk conspiracy game called Verge.

Ken Hite – Author
Author of The Idiot’s Guide to American History. Apparently, he also writes games!

Ryan Macklin – Lead Project Developer, Assistant Editor
If there is anything related to the RPG business which Ryan does not do, I can only assume it’s because it has not yet occurred to him to do it. Podcasting, blogging, publishing, designing, editing – he does it all. I suppose he might not illustrate, but then, I’ve never seen anything he’s drawn, so who’s to say? Yet for all that, Ryan maintains a fantastically unique view on the hobby, almost as if his range of experience helps him maintain a broader perspective on things and lets him see gaming things the way they fit in the world, not just fit in the world of gaming. Should you ever find him deep in discussion, mysteriously full (but quickly emptying) flask on hand, you owe it to yourself to join the conversation. And bug him to get Mythender out. He loves that.

Chad Underkoffler – Lead Setting Developer, Assistant Editor
Contrary to reports, Chad is not actually a robot from the future powered by beer, but it’s understandable why there might be some confusion. See, Chad is this brilliant, creative guy who is responsible for games like Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies and Dead Inside, and there’s a picture you get from those games and how much heart they have that, I think, opens a window to the kind of passion this guy carries around. But it’s easy to overlook that passion in the face of his pure technical mastery. Chad shoved more Dresden Files canon into his brain than I think it’s truly designed to hold, and more than anything he’s the reason the setting material is as thorough and amazing as it is. How does he do it? I do not know, but this is how rumors of robots and the future come from. If you see him, ask him a question. Seriously, any question. The man’s a vending machine of insight, so take advantage.

Amanda Valentine – Managing Editor

So, a bit of context. Notice that we have something like 4 people with the title editor, plus a Project Developer? This is not entirely normal, and our implementation is especially abnormal because we are true believers in the power of editing. And that RPG folks need to be herded like Cats. To that end, Amanda demonstrated her super powers. Now, I don’t mean to downplay her editing chops, for they are profound, but they are just one arrow in her quiver of making sure things happen. We were lucky to have two people with really strong project management skills with Ryan and Amanda, and together I like to think of them as the Stick and the Carrot. Why Ryan is the stick is a reason I’ll leave to the imagination, but Amanda is the carrot because she is an absolute sweetheart who is a joy to interact with and who will sweetly, kindly and politely make sure you get your stuff done without ever explicitly stating the number of places she’s willing to break this carrot off.

Clark Valentine – Author

Clark is a god-damned secret weapon. If I did not know him to be a real human with real human weakness, I would say he is the one man alive with no fear of the blank page. You tell Clark you need words and, no matter how poorly you asked or how little guidance you gave him, you will by God get words. And they will be the words you would have asked for if you had been smart enough to think of in the first place. I can say firsthand how good this guy is because I know what the notes on Baltimore looked like when he received them, and I have seen what he did from that messy, messy starting place. Clark has no idea how good he is, and even as I say this now, he thinks I’m just being nice, but he’s wrong. He’s really that good.

As an extra note, Fred made an amusing discovery about the credits. According to the credits page, we have no layout guy! But don’t worry, Fred’s going to kick the ass of whoever made that mistake, and make sure that our mysterious layout guy gets recognition, whoever he is!

Fred called out the two secret weapons in the comments, and I think this is important enough to pull forward into the post, so quoting from Fred here:

There are two people listed explicitly as secret weapons on our credits page, so let me speak to them a little:

Priscilla Spencer — Priscilla not only provided the killer image of the brothers Gruff for the game, she was also Chad’s “silent” secret personal Archive about the series. She’s been my lieutenant moderator and site-runner over on the Jim Butcher website for a while now, but she got there by way of being a big fan, showcasing her extensive and in-depth knowledge of the series. On the forums, she’s the keeper of the timeline of the series, even, which is no mean feat by itself. Part of the reason Chad’s stuff is so good and so on point is that he had someone like Priscilla looking over his shoulder.

Chris Hanrahan — Chris is one of the owners of Endgame out in Oakland, California, one of the best game stores in the nation, and the guy I do the irregular That’s How We Roll podcast with. But he’s also been an invaluable business consultant on the entire project. Whenever I had another crazy idea about what to do with the product, he either reined me in or cheered me on as was appropriate. And if you like the names we gave to the books, those happened through brainstorming sessions he and I had. For the game-as-product, his fingerprints are all over it.

Five Years

So, there are now two copies of each of the Dresden Files RPG books in my house. They are, not to put to fine a point on it, freaking gorgeous.

It’s somewhat unreal to look at them and consider how long it took to get here. Five Years. In that time, Fred and I have both had kids and changed careers. We’ve faced accusations of the game being vaporware, as well as every other fan driven complaint you can imagine. We’ve also had more kind words, expressions of enthusiasm and support, and general good-human-contact than I would have even thought possible, once upon a time.

I am pretty sure that, five years ago, neither of us even imagined books like these. We were simply not this ambitious, and the costs and business decisions involved in making a product like this would have been something we’d have absolutely balked. It was so far beyond anything we could accomplish that the very idea would have merited a laugh. Yet here we are. In a little over a week we’re getting on the road to Origins and are going to start selling this to people.

It’s crazy, but I hope there are some useful lessons in it.

See, here’s the thing – for all that Dresden’s going to be decently big (by RPG standards) we’re still a pretty small shop. We can do most of what we do because Fred is a dedicated, driven guy who has chosen to make this his focus, not because of any magical excess of talent[1] or brilliance. And being a small shop is a big deal because it means we can take forever bringing a product to market because we’re crazily picky[2], and we don’t have the kind of deadlines and schedules that come from this being the source of our paycheck. We are incredibly fortunate in this regard.

It’s still not entirely real yet. I feel some accomplishment looking at the physical books, and I think we’ve done well by Jim. These are important things. But I think I need to get through Origins to really convince myself that it’s done. That from that point forward it’s all fan support and inventory management.

And at that point, I may finally be able to let the next thing out of the box in a my head, and see what it wants to do.

1 – Ok, we cheat a little because Fred’s got some solid layout chops; I’ve watched him earn those over the years. But that is genuinely only a sideshow to the sheer amount of talent, focus and dedication Fred brings to the table. Somewhere down the line I need to talk up exactly how awesome the whole DFRPG team is, but at this moment I want to point to Fred and say, “Damn, man, that’s how it’s done.” I have watched him grow into this role with passion and intensity much as I am watching him do the same with fatherhood, and I could not be prouder (or luckier) to call this man my friend.

2 – Or we can rush something out if we’re excited. Freedom, baby!

What’s in Your Red Box?

A few 4E enthusiasts have been bumping their nose against the increased complexity that emerges in combat as you get into the paragon tier. The trick is that while fights are still fun, they’re a lot less predictable, which can mess with scheduling and planning, and problems like the durability of Elites and Solos becomes more of an issue.[1]

This complexity has had the curious upshot of increasing interest in the forthcoming Red Box for 4e. The hope is that it will include rules for people to streamline 4e while still keeping the elements that people really enjoy in play.[2] I share this optimism, but I am also impatient. The prospect of streamlining the 4e experience is a powerful one, and I think it’s worth thinking about what it could look like partly for the fun of it, but also partly to cover bets: if the Red Box isn’t what we need, then I suspect the internet will provide.[3]

In the absence of bounty of the internet, I find myself chewing on the things I’d love to see in a streamlined version of 4e. As I think about them, I’m sure that some of them are pretty far out, but it’s not always clear to me which ones. So just to toss a few out.

5 Important Decisions
4e chargen has a LOT of decisions, but in my mind there are only 5 that really matter: Race, Class, Style, Paragon Path and Epic Destiny. Notably absent from this list is power source and stats. Power source is probably not a controversial drop – not only is it implicit in class, it simply doesn’t carry a lot of conceptual weight. It’s one of those ideas that -could- be a lot more central to the game, but just isn’t.

Stats are trickier, but to my mind it’s a simple thing – for a given class, stat spreads are usually pretty predictable. Some classes might have two or even 3 possible spreads you pick from, but those tend to be pretty flawed. Stats, especially in their intersection with Race, force the choice between interesting and effective, and that’s a terrible choice. Just skip it, and make everyone interesting AND effective.[4]

Of what remains, four of them are hopefully pretty obvious. Race, class, paragon path and epic destiny are all pretty significant choices, and are the things you mention (outside of level) when describing a character. But Style probably merits a little explanation, since it’s present in 4e, but lives in many different places. In short, style is what differentiates your character from some other character of the same class. In practice, this is a combination of elements – subclass, feat selection, gear selection and power selection can all weigh into this – but the concept is actually much simpler than that.

One guy wants to play a sword and shield fighter in heavy armor, another wants to play one with a huge axe, less armor and more mobility.[5] They sift through the feats, gear and powers trying to find a combination that reflects the idea in their head, but whether or not they find it is an utter crapshoot. Some concepts (even obvious concepts) are simply supported better than others are, and some require some particularly precarious combinations, like just the right magic items to pull off. For pure 4e, there’s some joy in the fiddliness of figuring those combinations out, but for a streamlined version it would be nice to just skip the middelman and have the *kind* of character you want (which is to say, the style) be as clear and meaningful a choice as class.

MORE Skills, Fewer Powers, No Feats
So, I don’t literally mean adding skills, but I wouldn’t really reduce them, so they’ll look bigger. Skills are already pretty streamlined. Sure, there are some changes I might want on a pure pipe dream level (decoupling them from level, for example) and I might suggest streamlining skill challenges to “Once around the table and go”, but those are just wishful thinking.

Powers, on the other hand, obviously need to get pared down to streamline the game. To my mind, I would just fold them into the big 5 choices, above, and make them automatic form there.

Feats could be dropped without a problem, especially if the 2% utility from them get folded into Style. For the feats that people “have” to take? They should just be incorporated into the class and called a day.

I’m torn on levels. You could pretty easily break the game down into, say, 6 levels that each represented a five level band. That would simplify things, but I’m not sure it would do so usefully.

And with those out of the way, one last thing:

What I’m Afraid Of
My worst case scenario for redbox is that it’s 4e with the decisions made for you. That is to say, imagine a 4e fighter pre-gen presented as a class – that is to say with all of his power (and maybe feat) choices made at each level. Not that this is a bad idea for a product – I think it’d be something great for a third party publisher to produce – but it’s a very, very different sort of streamlining than I’m hoping for.

1 – By all reports, Monster Manual 3 has a lot more interesting Boss Monsters who aren’t elite or solo. This is a welcome addition, if so.

2 – Personally, I’m also hopeful for the forthcoming Dark Sun books to help with this. To my mind, a lot of the excess complexity as you level up comes from tracking magic items. Dark Sun will (reportedly) have rules for playing with less gear, and that prospect alone is pretty cool to me.

3 – This is also an interesting option for third party publishing. Streamlined 4e is likely going to step away from the necessity of the character builder, which may well blow the doors off the barn, so to speak.

4 – Likelihood of stats getting dropped in this fashion? Nil.

5 – And if your thought was “Well, why not play a Barbarian?” then you now truly understand just how muddy this issue can be. There’s a relationship between style and class that no version of D&D has completely nailed down. 3E probably came closest with its sheer volume of classes, but their mechanical shortcomings undercut most of the benefits.

Dust in my Brain

Man, I am rusty. We had session zero of our cold war supers-as-nukes game (which needs a name) last night, and while it went well, that is mostly a testimony to the quality of my players rather than any particular art on my part. As noted previously we’d done three phases of chargen last time, and we managed to do another phase by mail (explaining why it snowed in the Sahara in February of 1979) but we didn’t have time for the fifth, so this session was phase five. For me, that meant making sure that it was self contained enough to wrap up in one session, and that it hit enough character points for everyone to have some ideas for what aspects to pick up. At the same time we were trying out a new, simplified version of Fate and playing in a genre that I don’t have an instinctive grasp of. And I cannot remember the last game I’ve run that wasn’t either 4e or a one-shot focused on testing out a new game system.[1]

So, all in all, an interesting start.

On the rules side, I made one last minute addition to the skill list (Athlete) but I’m not sure it ended up being a too-useful addition. A lot of what it does could be subsumed under Soldier or Thief, so I’m not sure it needs to be its own category. Something I’ll keep an eye on. I also think that the broader skill steps (+2/+4/+6) works out better, I may need to swing back to the adjective ladder or a suitable stand in for rolling results – the players were producing numerical results without any real context for what they meant, and that’s a little bloodless.

On the chargen side, I think we ended up sparking some interesting and useful discussion about Aspects. As a group, we have been using aspects for so long that they have no novelty at all to them, and we regularly go for aspects with a bit of poetic twist on them, one that helps paint a more subtle and nuanced image of the character. This is fantastic, but since we’re using fewer aspects, I discovered that we had a group with mostly internally focused aspects. Now, that’s not a bad thing in play – lots of good ways to invoke or compel them, no question at all – but they say very little about the game as a whole. In talking about this, I hit upon a term that I’m pleased with: aspects are also an invitation.

Specifically, they are an invitation to the GM to bring certain types of elements into the game, especially when the aspect speaks to something external to the character. This might be as straightforward as an external character as an enemy or ally, but it might be as broad as a certain type of relationship the character expects to see recur. Now, just mentioning this was enough to get my players to step up -as noted, they’re awesome – but it was necessary to communicate this because I think that I, as GM, needed to make it explicit that I welcomed any direction they wanted to provide. They know that even if they do no such thing, I’m going to step in and fill in the world anyway, so it’s not usually a worry.

And, to be frank, I doubt it would have even come up in another genre. Cold War spy stuff is WAY outside of my comfort zone, so I was in the unusual position of kind of scrabbling around a little bit for some purchase. And it was worth it – sitting down and explicitly drawing out these external points helped bring my vision of the characters more in line with the players, and in one case my impression had been far enough off base that the clarification was super useful.

Still, it’s a bit humbling, and in many ways I’m glad this session was part of chargen, since it helped me get the cobwebs off certain parts of my brain. I still need to get more comfortable with the genre, but I think we’re off to a good start.

1 – Such one shots have their own rules, since they tend to be short on plot and long on mechanical engagement, since that’s kind of the point.

Nerdy Saturday

This weekend ended up having the right combination of scheduling openings to allow for a bit of pickup play, so I gathered some friends to try out some newly acquired games, one RPG and one board game.

The RPG in question was ICONS, a supers game from Adamant Entertainment, written by Steve Kenson. Kenson is the brain behind Mutants and Masterminds, and the pitch for ICONS is a similarly broad supers game, but more fast and loose with the addition of elements like aspects. This prospect excited me enough to pre-order, and while the book itself is not yet in print, the PDF came as part of the pre-order, so that was what I was operating out of.

ICONS: Chargen

We had two ipads with the game at the table, and it ended up revealing a lot of strengths and weaknesses of the approach. It was frustrating to not be able to flip through the book casually, but at the same time the ability to use a search to look something up (or fail to look it
up) was convenient. All in all though, I’d have preferred the physical book, and in retrospect I wish I’d printed out a few key pages (like the ones covering damage).

Now, the real point of excitement for the game, at least for us, was character creation. ICONS has a random chargen system, and that prospect was what had us jazzed. We sat down, busted out the dice, and saw what we got.

We weren’t disappointed. The first character got the “Highly Trained”
origin, meaning he had fewer powers but more Specialties (Skills, effectively). He rolled well enough to get one power (blast), and the final result was The Sting, a pulp hero from the 40’s armed with a lightning gun and stranded in the present day.

The next character got the Unearthly origin, and took the option of rolling two other origins, getting Artificial and Transformed. That was his only real stroke of luck, since everything else was a series of 5’s and 4s when the powers came along. This ended up being Crew-10 (Conversationally called “Crouton”) – he looked like a humanoid robot, but he was actually a ship from another dimension that had ended up coming through an anomaly into our world. He had a full crew, and many of his aspects were related to drama among them. He ended up with leaping, blast, strike and regeneration, all at 4 or 5. However, because of the two +2s from his origin, he had a 9 strength.

The last character got a gadgeteer background. Now, I should note this last player is what I would describe as “Cheerfully abusive” of systems. She’s cheerful about it, and we’re all used to it, but if she had been left to her own devices, she’d build something scarily abusive. Which is why it was very strange that the dice did exactly that.

Echo Prime had three power slots, and the first one to come up was Time Control. This is a scary power, one that takes two slots but lets you take a pair of powers within the group. In this case, she took Multi-Attack and duplication. The fact that her other power was affliction 7 was scary too, but it was really the multi-attack/duplication combo that took the cake. She could generate
3 duplicates, and all four of them could make 2 attacks. This ended up being tellingly scary in play. Echo Prime was from the future, having stolen the Chrono Glove under some fairly unpleasant circumstances.

Since everyone was out of time-or-space, we ran with that as the theme for the group, creating “The Improbables”, a team committed to dealing with anomalies of time and space from their paradox-driven headquarters.

Finishing chargen, we had a few thoughts:

  • Do not expect balance. You may know this intellectually, but the reality is far more profound than you can expect. Sometimes, this imbalance genuinely problematic, as we discovered.
  • One future house rule we may implement is that if a power costs double, but you can get it as part of another power (as is the case with duplication), it will take two slots within the power. This still doesn’t prevent the ugly multiattack/duplicate combo, but it would at least make it cost more.
  • There’s some weirdness related to the levels of powers. Some powers are perfectly useful even at low levels (and some, like immunity, seem to not even use their level) but others are harder to gauge, especially movement powers. Crew-10 had Leaping 5, and we really weren’t sure what that meant, as the sole guideline was what leaping 7 allowed. That was less helpful than you might think because the progression up the numbers is not linear.
  • A corollary to this is that a lot of powers don’t get particularly super until they’re level 7 or so (which requires a very good roll).
  • The logic of this seems to be that 7 is when abilities start getting superhuman, but I admit that doesn’t really map for me. It allows a bit too much range for being lamely super.
  • The order you get powers is kind of a big deal. Some powers (like super speed) are only so useful, but they let you choose your subsequent power rather than roll again. Kind of lame if you roll it as your last power. More problematically, it kind of messes with the idea of random chargen in the first place.

ICONS: Playing the Game

Gameplay broke down into three scenes of escalating violence. The first was a bank-robbery, albeit one being performed by cowboys. It was finished in one page – Crew-10 lept in an crushed one of the guns, then dodged a hail of gunfire. The Sting stunned one with his lightning gun, then Echo Prime and his duplicates dropped all the remaining cowboys in one go. Slightly anti-climatic.

The second fight lasted all of two pages, mostly because Echo Prime blew his awareness check and was off pushing himself on a swing set when Time Dog arrived riding a T-Rex. The Sting landed a blow or two on Time Dog while the T-Rex jumped on top of Crew-10. Things promptly ended when Echo Prime descended on Time Dog, attacking him some 8 times. Meanwhile, given that the T-Rex was on top of Crew-10, I decided he could grab it for free, at which point, he threw it, and given that he’s Strength 9, the Dino ended up in the river.

The last fight was against one of the villains from the book, Rex Mundi, as he attempted to hijack the hero’s base. This fight got interesting because Rex was an old enemy, so he was prepared for Echo Prime, and had some tough minions to keep him tied up. Rex is actually a pretty good villain to use because he’s simple and badass – Blast, Force Field and Invulnerability. He also is terribly inaccurate and easy to hit (but almost impossible to injure).

The minions originally used a binding attack to try to pin down Echo Prime but after that proved frustrating, they just shot the hell out of him which worked spectacularly well – only the application of determination kept him on his feet. Meanwhile, the Sting and Crew-10 went after Rex. The Sting was basically incapable of hurting Rex, but used Determination to make a blinding attack with his lightning gun, which helped a lot. Meanwhile, Crew-10 could do just enough damage to occasionally do 1 point of damage to Rex, so it was going slow.

Things ended when Crew-10 realized they were fighting in a limitless void swirling between time and space, and he threw Rex as far as he could (which, as previously noted, was very far indeed). The minions went down pretty fast after that in a wave of Echo Prime kung fu.

All in all, it played out pretty well, but it definitely raised out a few interesting issues.

  • In theory, the system of the GM never rolling is pretty neat, but there are some weird awkwardness that comes from it. Most powers work on degree of success, which requires inversions when a bad guy is using a power, which does not always go smoothly.
  • This last fight did reveal where the numbers get rough. The Sting was not terribly useful in terms of actual fighting. The player was creative in his application of determination so he made some use for himself, but it was rough. For big opponents, his damage output couldn’t stack up, and against groups of minions, Echo Prime got 8 attacks to his one. As noted, some imbalance is to be expected, but this was definitely sub-optimal.
  • The sample villains are way better built than the heroes. Their numerical values trend higher and their powers are much more synergistic. This is not terrible if the assumption is a whole team fights one villain, but there’s a shortage of peer-level opposition.
  • If there’s a mechanical effect of blindness we couldn’t find it and ended up winging it, calling it a -2 penalty. Had a similar issue handling more than 2 people cooperating.
  • The Determination (think Fate Points) economy is going to require tuning on a game-by-game basis, I think. If you’re familiar with Fate, you’re familiar with the shape of it, but the potential power disparity between characters may mean some characters will be a LOT more dependent on determination to be effective. Just something to be mindful of.

All in all, it was fun, though the chargen was the real strength of it. I definitely would not recommend the game for a rookie group – there are a lot of assumptions baked into it which will be comfortable for someone who’s played supers before but may boggle a newcomer. Additionally, for all that there are problems, they seem the sort of problems that will be fun and easy to fix, and there’s a Wiki for just that purpose.

Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island was a much shorter experience, but an excellent one all the same. The game has fantastic production values – metal box with a parts sorter and very distinctive tokens – and costs under $20. That alone is miraculous enough that the fact that the game is great is almost bonus.

The shortest way to describe FI as “Pandemic you can play in half an hour.” If you’re familiar with Pandemic[1], FI will be almost instantly recognizable, with only a few twists. If you haven’t played Pandemic, the slightly longer explanation is as follows.

It’s a cooperative game played on a board composed of 20 tiles. Players run around the board trying to build sets of treasure cards while the tiles attempt to sink, making the map dangerous and unstable. If players can build the sets, turn them in for treasures, and get off the island before it all goes down, then they win. Otherwise, they drown and lose.

Looking at it the next day, it turns out we cheated in a way that made the game MUCH easier for us, which is interesting because we *barely* pulled off the win. [2] Of course, getting mauled at novice level at the outset is a hallmark of the pandemic legacy.

All in all, very fast, very fun, with the sole complaint being a limit of only 2-4 players (I like bigger cooperative games).

1 – No shock, as I believe they’re from the same designer.

2 – We weren’t discarding flood cards, so we had much more margin for error in our play

The Stranger, the Twins and the Scales

A little something more for the Bones Blog Carnival – A peek at an old project of mine that I’m re-examining.

The Stranger is a lone figure on an empty plain. His strength, motivation and importance come from within, but his weakness come in his lack of ties to those around him. The Stranger is never a welcome figure.

The Mystery is a question to be answered, usually one of great importance. It may be a secret to be revealed, a crime to be solved or something lost to be found. Whatever form it takes, there is a great unknown that must become known to allow further progress.

The Menace is a threat to all – it has no allies or enemies; it is simply a danger that cannot be allowed to go unchecked. It may be malicious to all, such as a killer or mad beast. It may be vastly indifferent like a storm or natural disaster. Whatever its form, it is unquestionably a threat which demands response, and the only responses that are really viable are to face it, flee it or succumb to it.

A cocked stranger combines the worst elements of both facings. The Menace may have some Mystery about it which needs to solved to be able to deal with it, or the Mystery may contain some Menace that prevents it from being solved or which will be released if the Mystery is not solved.

The twins are two figures, opposite one another. Who they are is far less important than how they relate to each other. They are defined by this relationship. When the twins appear, the relationship will be pushed to the forefront, to be strengthened or shattered.

The lovers may actually be lovers, but they may just as easily be family members, partners or friends. Whatever the relationship, acknowledged or not, it defines both of them in ways they may not admit. If one is pricked, the other will be sure to bleed. This is strength and weakness – the partner is a source of strength, but also of vulnerability.

Hatred ties one man to another as easily as love. The Duelists are in direct opposition to one another. They may compete over prizes and things, but those are just distractions – the goal is to overcome the other person. While this facing covers physical confrontations, it is equally apt for contests of words, or even long-standing rivalries, as between an investigator and his quarry.

The Twins usually assume a degree of equity, but the mismatched twins discard that in one of two ways – there may be a mismatch of sentiment, or a mismatch of means. Regard the cocked hexbone carefully – if the figures are on opposite sides of the color line, there is a mismatch in sentiment – one may view the other as a friend or rival, but the other does not share that view. They may be in opposition in their viewpoints (one loving, one hating) but more often, it merely means the sentiment is strongly held by only one.
If the figures are on the same side of the color line, and it is only the background that crosses it, the mismatch is in means. One party is more capable than the other in this arena of conflict, and this issue will be deeply lopsided if it comes to the forefront. This may mean a wife who dominates her husband or perhaps the relationship of the hunter to the prey.

The Scales are identical to the Twins, except that a third figure has been placed between them. This third figure serves as the crux of matters – the fulcrum point of the scale. Where the twins relationship is with each other, the Scales are defined by their relationship to the crux. The crux itself is usually torn between these forces, though whether she is the subject or object of the choice it creates depends upon the facing.

The crux is desired by both of the figures at the poles, and they will contest each other to gain it. This has some apparent similarities with the Duelists, but the conflict is entirely about the crux, not about each other,. Still, they may not value the crux itself so much as they value winning it. This does not always work out well for the crux, since the scales represent rival suitors as easily as they do two huntsmen after the same quarry.

Power shifts into the hands of the crux now, who faces a choice between the two polar figures. Each may make his case, offer bribes or sweet promises, but the decision is ultimately in the hands of the crux. Again, it is not always good to be the crux – the choices may not be desirable, but there is always a choice.

When the scales are cocked, the outcome seems certain. The conflict is nearly won, the choice seems obvious and if matters are left as they are, things will play out predictably. The figure on the losing end may still have some chance to turn things around, but the odds aren’t good.

What to Do Wrong

So, I’m going to cop to something here: when we did Pulp for Spirit of the Century, we did it wrong. Internet Wrong at least. Wrong time period, pulling from inappropriate sources, violating all manner of sacred cows of the genre. It would be easy to blame this on laziness, but I promise you, we busted hump for that book, so why do it wrong?

The answer to that is not something we were even thinking about at the time. Instead, we were thinking “What makes this stuff exciting to us? What makes us want to play right the hell now?” The answer had a lot of talking gorillas and dramatic fight scenes that were unquestionably influenced by some of the more modern incarnations of Pulp, things like Planetary and Indiana Jones.

In retrospect, I still think it was the right decision. There are lots of other games out there that serve other approaches and perspectives on what pulp is about, and most of them are fantastic. As a hobby, we benefit more from those difference in perspective and approach than we do even from our differences in rules.

That point comes around some when I think about licensed properties. Now, on one hand I’m a hypocrite on this, since we have the DFRPG in the pipe, and I would shoot a man for a chance to write a new Amber RPG, but with those crazy exceptions[1], I find that I’d be more inclined to do a lot of other games wrong, and in doing so, I think I’d be more likely to do them right.

By right, I mean “With an emphasis on what makes this playable and fun” and therein likes the rub. It’s not impossible to do this with a licensed product, but there are definitely additional challenges that come from it. Take the Dresden Files as an example. If we released a game that was simply modern urban fantasy through a detective fiction lens, we would not need to worry about accurately reflecting the events and characters in the book while still making sure to leave leeway for what might happen in future volumes. That would remove a HUGE burden from our shoulder, design-wise. Now, for Dresden, we consider the tradeoff to be worth it – Jim’s sandbox is enough fun to want to play in it – but it’s made me incredibly conscious of the dangers of that choice.

There is a profound danger in doing something right, when that something is not of the same kind as your end product. Since the something is usually a book or movie, and the end product is probably a game, there is a certain amount of necessary drift. The things that make one magnificent can fall down dead for the other, and that introduces an apparent paradox: to best capture the spirit of an idea in a game, you need to change it from what made it great in its original source.

This is hardly something new to games[2]. Movies have long been aware that just re-shooting a book line-by-line is going to make a really dull movie. Certain changes are necessary along with the change in medium – masterful changes to a great book yield a great movie, but “masterful” is the operative word here. Making the changes that need to be made can be more of a creative challenge than just starting from scratch.

Now, I’m all for the school of thought that says hard things are worth doing, but I also think there’s such a thing as unnecessary labor. Personally, I wish more people would concentrate on making their own game that captures that thing they love about Harry Potter or Dune or god knows what. But it doesn’t happen – there’s a stigma attached to it. Sometimes you get things pushed through a lens (the way Fading Suns has Dune elements) so that the creator can put some manner of unique mark on it, to declare their creativity. I understand that instinct, but it’s a shame because the net result dilutes the things that actually make us excited in the first place.

And that’s the center of it all for me – translating the things that EXCITE us into games. This is as true for licenses as it is for games we played 20 years ago and can no longer see the fun in. The act of drawing out that excitement is so much more important than doing it right (for any measure of right), but it’s so much EASIER to try to do something right, so we skitter back from our passion in fear of being wrong.

That blows.

I don’t know if there’s a real solution to this, but I will say this: when I see a game that’s passionate but wrong, it’s a lot more likely to grab me than one that is complete but bloodless. I have seen no shortage of examples of both, and it’s a schism I see from the largest to the smallest of publishers. I just wish there was a way to encourage folks who are willing to slop the table a bit, or at least to find them more consistently, but it remains a crapshoot where they’re gonna pop up.

Meanwhile, go do something wrong.

1 – Both of which born from specific, thought slightly tangential loves of the specific properties.

2 – And it’s an ongoing lesson of Transmedia

Less Dice for More Awesome

To be totally honest, I’m not entirely sure what a Blog Carnival is, but I’m really excited for The Bones to come out, so I’ll take a swing. All it takes is a post about dice, right?

That’s actually a daunting topic. I could go on at great length about dice bags, certainly. The dice we gave out as wedding favors. How my original D&D dice (the ones you color with a crayon) all met a terrible fate when I left the expert D&D box on top of a heater. But instead, I’m going to pick a trick I’m very fond of. See, it’s very easy to come up with a pretty robust system of randomness when you have an unlimited number of dice to draw from, and it’s with that in mind that it’s always nice to travel armed with big stack of dice, but sometimes that’s just not an option. Sometimes you need to pull a game together with just whatever fits in your pocket, so there are a few interesting tricks for getting a seriously broad range of outcomes with just a few dice.

Now, if you only have one six sided die, you’re kind of hosed for variety. You can roll for the value from 1-6, or you can make a binary success or failure (usually on 3+, 4+ or 5+ depending) but there’s only so much variety out there. Certainly, you can even make a weird sort of curve[1], with

  1. Spectacular Failure
  2. Failure
  3. Partial Failure
  4. Partial Success
  5. Success
  6. Dramatic Success

But with a single die, the randomness of that is crazy. Still, it’s a useful chart as you manage to scratch up more dice.

With 2 dice, you start getting some interesting options. Just adding them together gives you a little bit more of a curve, but that’s not the only trick. If the dice are different colors you can subtract one from the other to make a range from -5 to +5, as is done in Feng Shui or ad hoc fudge. Alternately, you could subtract the smaller die from the larger die to produce a small number from 0 to 5, weighted towards 1. Lastly, you can introduce some level of skill by allowing the roll of two dice and choosing the best one (or the worst one) for anything that you could do with a single die, including that success chart.

3 dice, though, is a magical number. If you have three six-sided dice, you can do almost anything.

Right off the bat, it’s a 10 centered curve, which makes it a reasonable (if imperfect) stand in for a d20. Plus, in some ways, this makes for an even better way to generate a fudge-style curve than d6-d6. Many, many gamer have internalized the D&D stat curve[2], so they know a 12 is a +1 and a 6 is a -2 on such an instinctive level that they can read a 3d6 and turn it into a value from -5 to +5 with negligible thought.

There’s another trick from fudge as well which can be useful here, called min-mid-max. When you roll 3 dice, depending on circumstances, you can take the lowest, middle or highest value. By itself, this allows a simple skill system (Untrained, trained and expert) which can be used with any of the resolutions you can use with a single d6, including that chart. Alternately, you can do a 7 step system that goes something like this:

  1. Lowest die (average 2)
  2. Middle die (average 3.5)
  3. Highest die (average 4.9)
  4. Lowest die + Middle Die (average 5.5)
  5. Lowest Die + Highest Die (average 7)
  6. Middle Die + Highest Die (average 8.4)
  7. Sum of all 3 dice (average 10.5)

This is a fun one because while the averages progress in a reasonable fashion, the maximums have curious jumps. Being level 7 is the only way to get a result higher than 12, just a being level 4 is the only way to get a result higher than 6. This creates an interesting 2 tier model, where the best of one tier (level 3 and 6 respectively) are almost as good as the worst of the next tier (4 and 7) over the long run, but there are some things that they just can’t do. I find there are a lot of things this models very well, especially in a game with a lot of competition, such as Amber.[3]

Now, this only scratches the surface of what can be done with a few dice, and doesn’t even touch on fun things like bluffing or hidden information. But what I hope it illustrates is that dice, even just a few of them, are incredibly powerful and versatile. When you think about a system it might be fun to go deep into the dice bag to make things go, but when you need to make do with less, there are still a lot of options.

1 – Pretty sure this is stolen from Dying Earth
2 – Int((3d6-10)/2)

3 – One nice bonus there is that it makes “faking down” your level of ability entirely doable even with open die rolls. You simply take a lower set.