Monthly Archives: January 2011

A Magic Trick

I mentioned earlier in the supernatural/Leverage hack a couple types of dice that allow you to simulate more dangerous monsters in a fair fight, specifically kept dice (which are used in addition to the usual two) and hard dice (which always roll their max value). In comments, I also mentioned Hurt dice, which aren’t rolled, but are treated as part of the pool when you calculate damage. Between these dice and a little bit of manipulation of damage thresholds (that is, how quickly things get taken out), you have the basic tools for modeling most monsters and other nasty beasties, particularity because the bulk of them are purely physical threats.

The bulk, but not all. There are weird powers and other craziness to deal with, but rather than reinvent the wheel, I would just drag Smallville into the mix. Smallville has an incredibly robust system for modeling powers that works in terms of how they work in fiction (rather than in physics) and it would take very little reskinning to translate heat vision over into flaming breath.

For supernatural, the real trick is handling the _weaknesses_ of the various supernatural menaces. A lot of the things that show up are simply too dangerous to fight, even unfairly, unless you have some particular trick up your sleeve.

Now, I mentioned knowledge-based weaknesses before, but it bears repeating. When the weakness is to an action (like vampire’s vulnerability to decapitation or zombie’s to getting shot in the head) then so long as the characters know this, it is assumed that all their actions are in pursuit of this end. As such, there’s no real mechanical concern with making “called shots” – you just fight and do what you can.

Other weaknesses, such as to salt or iron, may benefit from a mechanical representation, but that is thankfully very easy.

A mild weakness pretty much guarantees that you will always have an unfair fight. Going after a werewolf might suck, but if you’re armed with silver, it levels the playing field. A mild weakness is generally something that the critter is vulnerable to (so it can’t heal or ignore) but which is not necessarily much more dangerous to it. If you need to kill something by stabbing it through the heart with a particular weapon, that’s a mild weakness, since you have the means to kill them, but you don’t make them any less dangerous.

A medium weakness is like a mild weakness, except the substance actively hurts the creature. Any damage you inflict is considered one die step higher.

A serious weakness will drop the creature with a hit of any quality. Don’t bother with damage – if you hit, it’s done. Now, “done” may have various meanings – it might mean incapacitating (like holy water to demons) or temporarily dispersed (like hitting a ghost with salt) but it usually means something short of destruction. Serious weaknesses are usually very important to keeping hunters alive, but are rarely a long-term solution to whatever problem is on hand. Serious weaknesses may include things like demon traps. One important note: many serious weaknesses are not also mild weaknesses. That is, they don’t necessarily make it an unfair fight.

An absolute weakness is like a serious weakness, but it’s final. This happens, and the fat lady has sung. Simple as that.

Now, here’s an important thing – serious and absolute weaknesses are very common on the show, but very uncommon in RPGs. The idea of being able to kill a big bad in one shot is at odds with our training that such an action needs to be accompanied by an extensive fight scene. Now, I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a fight scene – landing that critical blow can be a big deal – but there’s not always going to be one. That might be anti-climactic, but consider the earlier post about structure: if the “hard part” of the adventure has been finding out what’s going on, or getting your hand on the weakness, it’s ok for the final fight to be short. But if you get right to the fight, making it a cakewalk is satisfying for nobody – the only time you’re going to want to do that is if the big bad was a fake-out, and you have something else up your sleeve to fill the time.

Anyway, between the simple dice tricks, Smallville powers, and a basic weakness model, you should be all set for ghouls, ghosts and every other bit of nastiness you wan to throw at your players.

Adding the Monster

One of my absolute favorite tricks in Leverage is that there is no obligation to stat the opposition from the getgo. Structurally, there are certain questions you need to answer about the mark and such, but the mark isn’t really the opposition. I’m thinking more about characters like Sterling, the ones who can really give the players a run for their money and who make for interesting challenges. While the GM _can_ write them up, the system doesn’t require it, and in fact offers a much more elegant solution.

The trick to this revolves around the primary use for complications (situations where a player rolls a 1). Complications give the GM currency which can be most easily thought of as narrator plot points. The GM can use them to introduce twists and complications in the form of slapping new descriptors down on the table. So, for example, let’s say the players are casing a joint and they produce some complications. The GM might use those to say “Ok, there’s an Insurance Investigator checking the place out too, that might be a problem”. And if that GM is me, then he picks up a sharpie and writes “Insurance Investigator d8”[1] on a post-it note and puts it down on the table. That’s now in play, and the GM will pick up that d8 any time the Insurance Investigator comes up to mess with the players (and a clever player who finds a way to leverage the investigator might be able to pick it up too).

That’s a good start, but where it gets fun is that the GM can add to it as he gets more complications. Let’s say that this investigator is in a really good scene, and based on how it went (and the complications I have to spend) I add “Sees more than he let’s on d10” to his post-it. Later on he ends up in a scrap on the player’s side and one of the _players_ spends some plot points to add “Old Army Buddy d8” to the note.[2]

The net result is that if an NPC is interesting enough, he will develop stats over time that emerge organically from play. This is pretty cool, and to come around to the point of this post, it can be turned around as a fantastic way to handle monsters in an investigative game.

See, the thing about Supernatural’s monsters is that a lot fo them are throwaways. There are certain recurring types (demons and vampires, for example) but a lot of them are just some familiar-sounding name out of the mythology of your choice. Now, it’s totally possible to build a monster in advance based on an idea, but that’s not the only way to do it. It’s entirely possible to build a monster from it’s _effects_.

To illustrate what I mean, imagine the monster’s stats as a blank sheet. As you start the adventure, you describe the gruesomely mangled bodies of the victims. With this point, you have revealed something about the monster – whatever it is, it’s capable of making injuries like this. So you note down “Monstrous Claws d8” or “Heavy Cleaver d10” or whatever caused the wounds. If you want to leave it uncertain, then “Monstrous Claws? d8”, with the question mark indicating that you might refine the descriptor later.

Later on as they talk to the Sheriff about what he saw, the Sheriff talks about unloading his revolver into the thing’s back and it not even flinching. Slap down “Bulletproof? d8” on the sheet, leaving your options open, Maybe it’s a ghost, maybe it’s heavily armored, maybe it just shrugs off gunfire. When you get a better idea, you can scratch out Bulletproof and write down something more precise.

Sometimes information might be wrong (bad witnesses or the like) so feel free to note that with extra question marks (“Can fly??? d8”) so that you know which information you can ditch if it ends up contradictory.

Continuing this over time you’ll find yourself creating a complete picture of the monster while your players are doing the same thing. In effect, their investigation is your monster creation process. At some point it will all fall into place (for you or them) and all you’ll need to do is slap on a name (and for that I really recommend having a list of monster names on hand in advance).

Not every game will suit this approach, and it definitely is a better tool for the GM who likes to discover things while describing them, but if you need to pull a session out of the air, this lets you do so with only the barest outline of a plan, and build it as you go.

[↩]1 – In my house rules, complications are a tad more potent than they are in base Leverage rules, starting at d8 rather than d6, on the reasoning that since d6 is the default die (that is, the die you roll when there’s no relevant descriptor) the GM has an infinite budget of those.

[↩]2 – Note that the player has just done two useful things there – created a connection to the character AND given him something useful in a fight that the player can add to his pool in the fight.

Setting Up The Menace

Like many modern shows, Supernatural episodes tend to fall into one of two categories: arc episodes and standalone episodes. Arc episode tie into the larger plot and may have an unsatisfying conclusion since their ultimate resolutions further down the line (they may also not make as much sense without seeing previous episodes). Standalone episodes are pretty self contained. Even if they make a nod to the the bigger plot, it will just be in passing. Rather, the episode will follow the general shape of, “Hear about threat, investigate threat, discover threat, threat escalates, resolve threat” where the threat is usually the monster of the week. There are exceptions to this model, often to fantastic results, but that’s the underlying shape of it.

With that in mind, when I talk about adventure structure, I’m talking with the standalone episodes in mind. This is not because they’re the better ones (in fact, they usually aren’t – Supernatural’s arcs are what make the show for me) but because they make a solid foundation to build on. Once you can do a solid monster-of-the-week game, you can build from there to other ends.

The thing to consider when talking about the structure of games is that, like Leverage, the most important element is information management, but unlike Leverage, Hunters start out much more in the dark about what’s going on. At the outset of the game, they discover something bad is happening somewhere and go to investigate.

1. News Report of Strange Event
2. Many news reports of seemingly unrelated events
3. Rumor among truckers and travelers
4. Mystically Portentious Sign
5. Contacted by friendly Hunter
6. Contacted by another Hunter
7. Contacted by former hunter
8. Stumble across it
9. Become Victims
10. Contacted by mysterious forces

1. Local disappearances
2. Traveller disappearances
3. Pattern of Deaths
4. Exotic Deaths
5. People seeing strange things
6. Odd Behavior
(This could probably get fleshed out to 10, but I’m not sure how many ways I can restate “Weird deaths or disappearances”)

Once they find the problem, there is usually a period of time spent looking at what has happened and trying to figure out what could have caused it. This period might be very short or very long, and it will shape the episode. Basically, the “hard” part of the episode is going to be one of the following:

  1. Finding out what the creature is (and by extension, its weakness)
  2. Get their hands on whatever they need to exploit the weakness (get the arcane widget, find the body, find the lair)
  3. Applying the fix (Actually shooting/burning/stabbing/whatevering the thing, performing the ritual or the like).

In RPGs, there’s often a temptation to make all three of these the hard part, and the result is adventures that turn into long slogs. By making only one of them the real problem, pacing stays pretty sharp, and the formula becomes MUCH more usable. If the problem was ALWAYS that the monster was unknown then every show/game would be about research, which would get dull fast. Ditto the other hard points. Shifting emphasis between these three consistent points (Research, Investigate, Apply) gives you the benefits of consistency while still providing versatility.

So that gives us a basic frame. Next thing we need to do is plug in some monsters.

Hunter Combat

It struck me last night that there should probably be one more Hunter Weapon, Cunning. this represents low animal cunning and trickery, and all the areas where books won’t save you. Mechanically, it’s the fallback weapon, when nothing else quite applies, which is important, because I as thought about it, charm was going to end up getting rolled a LOT if there wasn’t something to roll over to.

Also, since Superage and Levernatural are both terrible words, I’m just going to call this “Hunters” and leave it at that.

So with that said, let’s get on to kicking things in the head.

Since Combat is a bit more common in the context of Hunters than Leverage, we’ll uses a slightly more fiddly damage system revolving around “statuses”. Those statuses are Hurt, Tired, Confused and Scared. During a roll where there is a possibility for damage, the loser gains these statuses as die traits, at a level equal to the highest opposing die not used in the roll. If that value is lower than the character’s current status value, then just increase their status by one (if there’s no unused die, treat it as a d4).

Frex: Frank is started by a ghost who wins a roll and scares him. The ghost rolled 3d6, keeping a 4 and 5, not using the 2. Since the highest unused die is a d6. Frank is now Scared d6

If the exact same roll were to happen again, Frank’s Scared d6 would bump up to a scared d8.

Status Effects
When a character is carrying a status, it is initially just an inconvenience. So long as the status is less than the appropriate stat (Sharp for confused, Tough for Hurt or Tired and Stubborn for scared) then the character rolls an extra d4 along with rolls where the status might apply. So long as stress is at this level, it’s easy to get rid of – it just needs the character to spend a scene doing something dedicated to removing it, such as putting on bandages, taking a nap and so on.[1]

Once the status equals the stat in question, it’s become a serious matter. In addition to the d4, they now put their status die into play, allowing opposition to roll it against them. At this point, getting rid of the status will take some serious downtime, possibly in a sickbed.

When the status exceeds the stat, the character is taken out of play in a manner of the GM’s choosing (though this may be a great time to spend plot points to soften the blow). Alternately, the player can spend a plot point to stay on his feet for one scene. He can keep doing this, paying plot points every scene to stay on his feet, as long as he has the budget for it, but once he stops, he’s down.

Like most of the rest of the world, critters are defined more simply than players, as traits. Most critters have a core trait that reflects what they are like Vampire d6 or Wumpus d8. They might have more traits, but that core trait ends up being very important for much of what the critter does.

Killing Critters
When critter’s take a status (usually hurt), they also roll the d4. Unlike Hunters, critters usually go down as soon a status equal’s their core trait. A lot of critters can be killed in perfectly normal ways using this system. Some monster may be a little tougher or more fragile (being taken out as if their die level was higher or lower) but none of that’s very complicated. (and yes, when players take something out, they describe how it happened, that can matter a lot).

Where it gets problematic is when you start dealing with things that can’t be killed in a normal way. These tend to fall into one of three categories:

1. Dispersible – You can beat these things, possibly very easy, but that only gets rid of them for a scene. Ghosts are a great example of this (though they’re a bit more complicated).
2. Fast healers – These things shrug off damage done. They take statuses normally, but they only remain in effect for the next roll, then they’re gone. Vampires and Demons work this way.
3. Invulnerable – You just can’t hurt these guys. Think Angels.

In each of these cases, there is usually some way around this resistance, and it’s a function of knowing what that is and getting your hands on the right tool for the job. Finding out and acquiring the thing you need makes a good adventure seed for oddball monsters, but a lot of them are standard enough (silver, iron, salt, holy water) that hunters are usually equipped. In such a case, all that’s required is that the hunters have the tools and describe using them.

This applies equally well to knowledge of weaknesses. Decapitating a vampire is not a function of making an awesome roll, rather, it’s a function of taking one out and being able to describe it in a way that includes decapitation. Smart players will make sure the scene includes enough large blade to make sure that’s reasonable.

One interesting point about these weaknesses is that they’re often two-layererd. There’s a reasonably simple trick for fending the critter off (iron and salt for ghosts, holy water for daemons) but actually getting rid of it requires something more substantial (like salting and burning the bones, or an exorcism). This two-tiered structure tends to work itself well into plot design.

Nasty Critters
This merits more discussion later, but in short, a lot of monsters aren’t going to make it easy for you to kill them. Even if you have a gun full of silver bullets, a werewolf is strong and fast, enough so that you may never get a shot off.

There are a lot of different potential critter tricks, but here’s the key one. Depending on the scariness of the critter, their core die might be treated as a kept die, or a hard die (or in some cases, a hard kept die, which is nasty).

A kept die means that it’s always added to the total, effectively letting the critter keep three dice (one of which is always that core die).

A hard die is never rolled, it’s just set down as it’s maximum value.

A hard kept die means it is always added to the roll at it’s maximum value. This is, mechanically, pretty terrifying.

Fair and Unfair Fights
So, given that die advantage, what’s to keep a hunter from just getting torn apart? Something as fast and strong as a vampire should, by all rights, have no more trouble with a highly trained hunter than you might with an exceptionally fierce rabbit. Thankfully, hunters know this, and they cheat.

All of those rules about hard and kept dice apply in a fair fight. A fair fight is generally one where both sides know it’s coming (or at least the other side does) and has time to put their game face on. A good hunter knows to avoid any fight like that.

Unfair fights are ones that start with your opponent off balance, and keep up the pace so he stays that way. Most unfair fights begin after a successful skill roll of a non-combat kind. Maybe to sneak up on something, maybe to confuse it, maybe to just piss it off. If a hunter uses a success like that to launch an attack, then it’s an unfair fight, and there are not hard or kept dice.

However, if the hunter can’t win the fight quickly, and the critter has the opportunity to catch its breath and get its feet back under it, then it goes back to being a fair fight. And that’s just no good.

All right, enough for today, I think.

[↩]1 – This may seem like a kindness, but the reality is it’s an invitation to the GM for something bad to happen. If you think about any horror movie you can, the worst things happen when the characters stop to recover their wits, get some sleep, take a shower or the like. As such, don’t just hand wave these scenes – make sure the players describe exactly what they’re doing and how it lets their guard down. This is not to say that you ALWAYS attack them in these scenes, just often enough to maintain tension (and consider whether you want to attack on the same status they’re recovering from or not)

Superage (or maybe Levernatural)

So, I had reason to sit down and do character creation for Supernatural last week. Still a solid game, but character creation frustrates me, and underscored some of the decisions made for Leverage. So, naturally, I started doing the conversion in my head. So with that in mind, I present “Hunters”, a Leverage hack for dealing with supernatural threats.

I. Character Creation
Step 1: Attributes
I shortened up the attribute list on principle, though I recognize and such list is pretty arbitrary. It mostly let me err on the side of choosing stat names that people might actually use in conversation. They are:
Characters have 6 attributes
(Sharp is probably the only one that really requires explanation, and it covers awareness and perception. Stubborn is what more fancy-pants people call willpower.)

Take 1d10, 2 d8’s and 3d6’s and distribute it among those. At your option, you may drop one of the d6s to a d4, and either increase a d6 to a d8, or a d8 to a d10.

Step 2: Weapons
I went round and round on this for a while, trying to map roles to hunters, but I realized there’s an essential difference between hunter’s and the thieve’s of leverage. While the thieves may have a unified purpose, they do different things. Hunters all do the same thing (kill monsters), just in different ways. So rather than roles, hunters have WEAPONS. These are skills and abilities they apply to the hunt.

Every Hunter is armed with five weapons that help keep them alive in tough situations. These weapons are more important than any knife or shotgun, they’re the essential strengths of the hunter, and they break down as follows.
Fists – Whether it’s back street brawling or seven different black belts, this is the ability to throw a punch or kick.
Books – Research is not the most exciting part of a hunter’s life, but it can be the most important. weapon in their arsenal. When it come time to find the right arcane antique or incant the correct exorcism ritual, this is the weapon to bring to bear.
Guns – Shooting things. It’s kind of amazing how well this can work as a strategy.
Tools – The toolbox or lab may not be as dramatic as the arsenal, but there are times when bullets aren’t going to do the job. Building or repairing things may not seem too dramatic until you realize that things include bombs and cars. (Oh yeah – this covers driving.)
Charm – Sometimes you can talk your way out of things you can’t shoot your way out of.

Take 1d10, 1d8, 2 d6’s and 1d4 and distribute it among these weapons.

Step 3: Distinctions
Each player picks three distinctions. Distinctions are descriptors like “Army Brat” or “Friends in Low Places” and they work the same way they do in Leverage (that is, if it would help, add a d8 to the roll, if it would create a problem, add a d4 to the roll and gain a plot point). It’s worth noting that specific gear (like, say, a car) probably deserves to be a distinction.

Step 4: OPTIONAL Mark
The player may pick a fourth distinction which has some magical significance. It might be a curse or a bloodline or a destiny, or most anything else. The TV show provides no shortage of examples of this. Mechanically, this works just like any other distinction, but for the GM this is basically a big cosmic “kick me” sign. By marking your character, you’re guaranteeing that the mark will come up a lot over the course of play, specifically, bringing in supernatural interest.

Players may remove marks if they are resolved (assuming that’s possible) or may add a new mark during a season break. A character may only have one mark at a time.

Ok, so that’s the opener, tomorrow we’ll get into combat and monsters, and meanwhile I’m chewing on some scenario tables.


A while back I talked about Brown M&Ms, small things that you can look for that reveal that there might be problems with the larger system. I was doing chargen for something this weekend when I spotted something that was very much a brown M&M for me: the driving skill.

You can tell a lot about a modern game by how it handles driving. As a fairly ubiquitous skill (at least among adults in a modern American setting) it is actually an anomaly to find a character who can’t drive, but such characters do exist, so it’s necessary to account for them. At the same time, you will have characters for whom driving is their thing, and they need to be effectively distinguishable from people who are just basic-competency drivers.

That’s a tricky problem, and most of the solutions for it are pretty awkward. For example, one option is to make it mandatory that everyone buy the driving skill to whatever the system considers competence(assuming that the descriptions match the reality of the dice) but that kind of sucks for players who are usually already a little squeezed for points.

You can address that by giving basic competence level in driving for free, but what about the guy who can’t drive? Does he get to use those points somewhere else? Plus, have you just made it much cheaper to make Driving Guy than Shooting Guy?

Then there’s the classic “Everyone can drive, but you only need to roll the dice when doing something dramatic, like a chase or the like”. Now, I love this sentiment, so why is it a brown M&M for me? Because if this approach is the exception rather than the rule in a game, then there’s a problem. Are you rolling for boring things with other skills? Have you thought about what other skills can do without rolling? I think this is a great approach if it’s the approach for all skills, but otherwise, it’s a lazy solution.

Now, for all that this is a sticky problem, there have been games that have handled it well. Over The Edge had a default competency level of 2d6 for things that common sense said you should be able to do (run, drive, jump and so on). The nWoD system makes you buy it, but makes it cheap to do so because (unlike many other systems) the first rank of a skill conveys fair competence, mechanically. Systems that let you default to using just stats for such rolls offer a somewhat half-assed solution, but it’s better than nothing.

While driving is really iconic for me, it’s not the only skill that runs into this problem. Pick any game with a skill list and consider which of these anyone could do. The whole athletics category jumps to mind, but there can be other fun things like reading and writing which can also get a little weird.

This can seem like a very small thing, but it’s exactly the sort of detail work that makes up the hard 20% of making a game sing. Just something to bear in mind.

Building a Challenge

Ok, let’s do this thing:

Climbing the Mountain
Ok, the mountain. It’s big, it’s windy, it’s snowy, there are bad things living there that want to eat your face. You guys need to get to the top, probably because there’s some ancient city or something up there. I dunno. Make something up. For reference, let’s say this is about a level 5 challenge. I want to make it a big, but not hugem one, so I’m going to create a budget based off about 3 monsters. That’s 192 situation points to play with

The baseline challenge here is probably going to be the ongoing storm. I could probably do something complicated revolving around decreasing temperatures or the like, but honestly, it’s a to simpler to treat this as straight damage. So, let’s start from this baseline:

Winter Storm
Initiative: 0
SP: 192 (82 after budgeting)
AC: – Fortitude: 20, Reflex: 19, Will: 17[1]
Icy Winds (Standard, At Will)
+9 vs fortitude; 1d8+2 cold damage against all targets

With nothing more than that, the challenge would be simple: Every round the storm attacks, and every round the players make skill attacks, following this general logic:

Circumvent – Take risks to do cool things like cross ice bridges and otherwise look awesome, mostly with athletics or acrobatics.
Manipulate – Really, this is just a matter of sucking it up and struggling on.
Understand – Find paths and routes that minimize exposure to the storm, using Nature or perception.
Smash – Smashing isn’t really an option – you can’t fight the storm, so it’s not really on the table.
Powers – Using a power with a strong movement component counts as a skill use. If it has a damage component, then use that, but if not, then for an encounter power do 1d10+4 base, and for a daily, 2d8+4.

Base damage will be (1d6+4/1d10+4/2d8+4) + Stat + 1/2 level. Since I want to reward certain options and diminish the effectiveness of others. I want the rangers and such to get their chance to shine here, so use of Nature will get a damage bump of one step (Possibly up to the 4th level, 3d6+4). On the other hand, just slogging along is kind of dull, so I think it will drop damage by one step.

That’s enough to cover the basics, so now we need to jazz it up.

First, let’s start thinking about things that can happen to jazz it up. It’s a wintery mountain, so attacks by monsters and avalanches both spring to mind.

For monsters, I’ll throw in a pack of half a dozen wolves (Level 5 critters) using their stats as normal, so I’ll take 60 SP out of the challenge to budget for them, making them 10 HP apiece. And, actually, I’ll take another 10 to make the leader of the pack a grizzled, scarred old alpha with 20hp and +1s across the board (a poor man’s elite).

Now, I could do the Avalanche by making it an attack the storm makes (effectively an encounter power), but I want it to have a little more substance, so it’s going to be it’s own problem. I’m going to take another 40sp from the budget for it. That’s low enough that it’s not going to be too tough to overcome, but it’s not trivial.

Initiative: 0
SP: 40
AC: – Fortitude: 21, Reflex: 18, Will: 19
Wall of Snow (Standard, At Will)
+11 vs Reflex, 2d8+4 damage and target is Scattered

“Scattered” is a special status, indicating someone’s been separated from the group. On the plus side, they can no longer be attacked by the Avalanche. On the downside, if the wolves comes, no one can help you out. A scattered character cannot make any attacks against the storm. To remove the scattered status, a character (either the scattered character or another character who is not scattered) must make a nature check with a DC of 20 (effectively passing up a chance to attack the storm.

Attacking the Avalanche
Circumvent – Outrun it, or do something like jump from passing boulder to passing boulder (Acrobatics)
Manipulate – Ride it out! (Athletic or endurance)
Understand – Find Shelter! (Perception or nature – as with the storm, nature gets a damage bump.
Smash – No options
Powers – Using a power with a strong movement component or with a Wall component (something that might create shelter) counts as a skill use. If it has a damage component, then use that, but if not, then for an encounter power do 1d10+4 base, and for a daily, 2d8+4.

OK, I think that covers it. Does that seem playable?

1 – These defenses are about a point high for a monster of that level. That’s intentional, since skills are going to be a bit higher than attacks at this level.

What Doesn’t Work

I put out a call for challenge requests and got some interesting ones, but what struck me that that many of them were most interesting for why they don’t work, so I’m going to be doing counter-examples today. These are all things you might want to do in a game, but they’re not necessarily good candidates for the combative model of challenges.

1. Convincing a judge that the defendant is innocent
I admit I’d be leery of trying this on in play because it’s very hard to draw in the whole group. Legal arguments support tag teaming very poorly. However, you could make a larger challenge out of the investigation AND the case, especially if you were willing to go all Law & Order on it. That is to say, the investigation actions could diminish the SP of the prosecution’s case to the point where the lawyer’s arguments can do enough damage to the case to finish it off.

The problem with this is that it’s difficult to create any real sense of urgency to this. There’s potentially big stakes (especially if the player’s are arguing their own case) but it’s difficult to come up with ways for the investigators and lawyers to be threatened. Instead, you’d need to do something like put this on a timeline, allowing only a limited number of rounds. Mechanically, this works fine, but it overlooks one key element: If players are doing an investigation, then it’s probably because they _like_ investigation, so doing it entirely as abstract rolls probably removes some of their enjoyment of figuring it out.

So while I wouldn’t make a challenge out of it, I might steal a bit from the model to mix with an idea from Gumshoe, and put clues behind small challenges that generally don’t fight back. That is to say, players will always be able to find the clues, so long as they look for them. If the philosophy of this approach is uncomfortable, then there’s no need to use it. It’s just an idea for using clues to get to other things, rather than playing to get to clues.

2. Indiana Jones Escaping from the Rolling Boulder

Fred actually did this one very effectively in play. Putting the boulder on the map and simply moving it forward was more than enough of a threat to represent the idea.

3. Research something in a library

Research is pretty boring stuff under the best of circumstances, but unless the books are jumping off the shelves to attack the players, there’s not much back and forth to it. You’re pretty much just marking time to get the job done. Curiously, this is one of the tasks that a vanilla skill challenge can handle quickly and discretely, provided you think letting your players fail at research isn’t super lame. Which it is, if it’s plot-driving.

Of course, if the books ARE attacking the characters, then you may have the most awesome library ever.

4. Survive a Plague

This is an interesting one for a couple of reasons (setting aside existing disease rules, which are actually pretty good). First and foremost, are you _really_ going to let your characters die from the plague? I mean, I guess you might if you’ve got some crazed ideas about realism, but would that really make a fun game for anybody?

Second, it’s very passive. Unless you want to roll a lot of hand-washing and water-boiling actions, then this is not going to be a lot of fun or particularly interesting.

Both of these suggest that this might be a great _backdrop_ to something else (dealing with a dungeon while fighting off a disease is one of those ideas that’s good on paper, but has been lame in every published implementation I’ve scene). Alternately, it might be a good problem at a larger scale (protect a town from the depredations of plague) , but on a personal level, it’s just not engaging enough.

So why talk about what doesn’t work? Because I think that’s important to understanding a tool. See, here’s the thing: I _could_ use the combative challenge to model any of those things, and when I was younger, I had a sort of geeky machismo which would want to do so just to illustrate that this particular tool “can do anything!”. That was a little silly, because I wasn’t smart enough to distinguish between something you can do and something that’s not worth doing.

The purpose of this idea is not to create some sort of super-catchall replacement that keeps you from ever having to use another tool. It’s to add another tool to your bag, one that handles a different kind of situation. Yes, you might use this method and stop using skill challenges (or vice versa), but as a GM, you’ll be better prepared for play if you could use either, and can pick the tool that best fits the situation (or better yet, steal parts from both or either tool as needed).

This is one of those things that books and rules can only help so much with. They can help tell a GM how to use EVERYTHING, or how to use one thing really well, but the reality of play is going to take you somewhere between those points, and learning what not to use is a critical skill in navigating those waters.

Mapping the Challenge

Not every challenge needs a map (or equivalent) to work well. Often the challenge revolves around something large and amorphous which can be engaged by any character at any time. However, maps make challenges more interesting.

It’s possible that’s backwards. It may be more accurate to say that challenges with different fronts, which allow different courses of action, are more interesting, and it’s simply that those challenges also tend to want maps. But that gets enough into chicken and egg territory that I’ll stick with the simpler version: Maps are a way to make a challenge more awesome.

There are two things a map is going to do, in a purely abstract way, which drive play. A map reveals what elements of a challenge are in play at the moment, and it creates a geography of use. That is to say, if there are two seperate parts of the challenge, then that is roughly akin to there being two separate “rooms” for characters to enter, depending upon which part they wish to engage.

Implicit in both of these is the idea that there’s more than one element to a challenge. Mechanically, the GM has used the SP pool to buy one ore more problems (what I’ll call these sub-challenges) to harass the players. It’s important to be aware that the GM rarely _has_ to buy problems to run a challenge, but doing so keeps the challenge from being too abstract.

To illustrate all these ideas, let’s use a ship passing through dangerous waters. This is easy to model as a challenge – the ship has hit points which the storm attacks, player actions try to run out or weather the storm. However, this is kind of a dull challenge on its face. The level of engagement is kind of abstract, and when played at a high level, the fact that there’s no sailing skill (or equivalent) in 4e introduces a lot of skill confusion. If we want to make this a more exciting challenge, we want to make the actions more diverse and personal.

So, let’s say I take the SP I budgeted for that storm and I start dividing it off into problems. Thinking about it, there are three big issues on the ship: navigation, keeping the rigging intact, and manning the bilges. Right off the bat, I could use those to create three “zones” where players would need to choose to array themselves (The rigging, the wheel and the hold), so they can attack the problem tied to that area. From the players perspective, this calls for an allocation of resources because even if the rules for moving between zones are simple (change zones instead of making an attack against the challenge) you don’t want to waste time on that when things get tense.

From the GM’s perspective, this allows me to threaten different things in different ways. For example, let’s assume I’m designing the problem that the navigators are facing the same way I would a monster. Sure, it’s got a basic attack (storms buffet the ship, do some damage) but I can also give it other attacks that threaten other things. How about a rechargeable “Waves smash over the side of the ship” attack that threatens the players directly rather than the ship? Does some damage and forces them to spend some time (an important resource) tying themselves down, something that may cause complications later. With that, the guys manning the wheel and trying to keep the ship on course have concrete things to do and deal with which are anything but abstract.

That illustrates the separation that the map allows, but there’s also the element of the reveal. In my game, each of these “zones” would be represented by an index card or post-it for players to put their minis near to indicate where they are. After they’ve beaten one of them, I would then place another note on the table: “The Sea Monster” (because I love the classics).[1]

As GM, I know this sea monster has always been part of the challenge, but if I’d laid it out with the other problems at the outset, it would have changed the nature of the scene into “Fight, and also this other stuff”. By breaking the challenge into problems, I can control the sequencing, and only after the players are already invested in this “other stuff” to I roll out the monster, so that they’re facing a very real choice between keeping the ship safe from the storm and keeping the people on the ship safe from the thing grabbing people off the deck.

Obviously, you can get much more sophisticated than this illustration. A challenge might have lots and lots of small problems, with the problems scattered around the map or coming in waves, but the basic structure is easy to achieve.

Implicitly, problems also end up simplifying the issue of initiative. If problems act on their turn, like monsters, then multiple problems means multiple actions. This spares us needing to do any initiative tricks to maintain a sense of pacing, since that will just happen organically.

Now, I want to reiterate that not every challenge needs a map – the trap from yesterday, for example, can do fine without one – but if you expect the challenge to be large and engaging, then building ti as a map of problems is going to make things a lot more engaging than just build one big lump of trouble.

1 – Conceptually, you might also think of the challenge as a dungeon. It opens with doors into 3 rooms (Navigation, rigging and bilge) which all exit onto the large “sea monster” room, which you get to by beating the “monster” in the room you went through. You could, if you particularly like the idea, build entire challenges as abstract dungeons (because dungeon is just another word for flowchart).