Monthly Archives: May 2012

ICT: Classes Part 2

Ok, so you’ve got a nice shiny die representing your class. That’s all you need, right?

Well, sure, we could leave it there, but that would be kind of dull.  Instead we’re going to jazz it up with a little bit of crunch that really shines a light on what a class does.

At the highest level, class abilities provide a list of special exceptions of improvements on the normal rules that the class is capable of.  A lot of these hinge on opportunities (when the GM rolls a 1) or on spending a plot point.  As noted earlier, the normal limts on spending PPs are fairly restrictive, but classes represent the various exceptions to this.

While there will always be exceptions, most classes will have the following:

  • Something they can do by spending a plot point
  • Something they can do when presented with an opportunity[1]
  • Something they can do by spending a plot point in response to an opportunity.
  • Some sort of special ability.

As an example, let’s start with the Squire. The formal write up of the squire abilities looks something like this:

  • Lucky: Can spend a plot point to reroll all of his dice (GM benefits from opportunities in both rolls)
  • Opportunist: Can take an opportunity[2] to gain a plot point
  • Fortune’s Smile: Can spend a plot point in response to an opportunity to reroll any number of his dice. (GM benefits from opportunities in both rolls)
  • Teamwork: When the Squire gives initiative to an ally, they may add a bonus d6 to their pool. If that ally is a Squire or Knight, that bonus is increased to d8.

Written down on a card, it looks something like this:

The little notations before the abilities have mechanical meanings.  I actually have drawn little iconic versions of them, but that’s not really my strength, so I swapped back to something supported by ascii.  In this case they mean the following:

* : Spend a Plot Point to…
(): Take an opportunity to… (whether you won or lost)
[] : Take an opportunity to… (only if you won)

(*) : Take an opportunity to spend a plot point to… (whether you won or lost)

[*] : Take an opportunity to spend a plot point to… (only if you won)
– : special ability

(EDIT: Kudos to the keen eyed commenter who spotted my omission of (*), which is now corrected)

The squire is not a very sophisticated class – it’s abilities are pretty much reroll driven, with the idea representing the young hero who survives through pluck and good luck more than power and talent, with a little bit of teamwork thrown into the mix.

The Chemist is a little bit more fiddly, but he also has a very clear schtick – he’s a healing class focused on the creation and use of potions. Again, the formal writeup:

  • Bombs: The chemist may spent a plot point to create a d8 “bomb” asset, which may be of a type Fire, Ice or Lightning, and may be used as part of an attack.
  • Opportunist: May take an opportunity to gain a plot point.
  • Throw Potion: The chemist may use any potion in his inventory on any other party member without impacting intiative or taking a penalty[3].
  • Potion Master: All potions used by the Chemist are stepped up one level. 
  • Brew Potions: Given an hour and a lab (or several hours and a traveling kit), the Chemist may brew a single potion of d8 potency.  He may brew an additional potion for each PP spent.[4]

And the card:

And a few more examples:

Ok, enough of that.  Next we’ll get onto the magic users and other weirdos.

1 – Most classes have the ability to gain a PP as a result of an opportunity. This is common enough to effectively be a default, but it’s a class ability because it allows the design of more powerful classes which do not have that feature (and as such, must hit their distinctions hard to get PP).

2 – At this point I realize I may be getting ahead of myself on the rules here, since this requires some fair grasp of concepts from Leverage and/or Marvel Heroic.  If it’s not clear, “Take an opportunity” means “Take an action in response to the GM rolling a 1”.  it’s entirely possible to take several opportunities on one roll. 

3 – To give someone else a potion, you need to be near them (though that’s mostly descriptive). Mechanically, you need to attempt to hand them initiative or take a penalty to your action. The Chemist ignores these problems.

4 – The Hunter is, I think, going to be able to contribute viscera to this process for bonuses.  But I haven’t quite worked that out yet. 

ICT: Classes Part 1

Classes in ICT are explicitly designed to carry a lot of weight. They have their own rules, with the idea being that you need to learn the core rules, but beyond that you only need familiarity with the rules relevant to your class or classes.

In this sense, it’s a bit like 4e, but unlike 4e, the mechanics are fairly terse. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are designed to fit on a single index card. But despite this, there’s a lot of flux in this design space – there are some guidelines for creating characters, but (much like equipment) there’s room for some really crazy open ended stuff.

Also, probably unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of Final Fantasy Tactics (and a touch of 4e) to be found in these classes. We’ll talk more about what that means once we have a few examples under our belt.

Characters start out with a class level of d6 in one of the starting classes. Exactly what the starting classes are is something of a setting decision, but for purposes of illustration, we’ll say that they’re Squire and Chemist. When the character acts, he gets to add his class die to the pool for any combat rolls. Out of combat, if the class is not relevant to the roll, the player rolls a d6 instead.

As the character gains experience, he may increase his level die from d6 all the way up to d12[1]. In addition to increasing the size of their die for rolls, leveling up can open the door to access new classes. Basically, non-starting classes have requirements that usually revolve around levels in other classes. For example:
Thief – Requires Squire d8
Knight – Requires Squire d10
Black Mage – Requires Chemist d10
White Mage – Requires Chemist d10
Paladin – Requires Knight d10 and White Mage d8

We’ll get into how exactly those improvements are made when we talk about experience and advancment, but for the moment, just be comfortable with the idea that your class die is going to get bigger and as it does, it may open up the ability to switch classes.

Next, we’ll start drilling into class abilities.

1- For players who like a more descriptive take on these things, the “levels” of a class break down as follows:
Novice d6
(no Adjective) d8
Experienced d10
Master d12

So a Squire d10 might also be called an Experienced Squire d10.

ICT: Distinction, Plot Points and Gear

Index Card Tactics made use of distinctions – 3 per characters. For the unfamiliar these are descriptors without die values.  Some of the ones we had in play included “Poor sense of direction” and “Very good at WANTING to be a knight”.   Players may add a single distinction to a roll: if the player thinks the distinction will help, then it adds a d8 to the pool. If the player thinks it will get in the way, then he gets a plot point and adds a d4 to the pool.

Distinctions can also come up out of combat, though that’s a little fast and loose. They’re much more aspect-like in that context (albeit with no compel) and in practice a distinction can substitute for a die roll, for good or ill, when relevant.  Not for every die roll, but for that whole range of not-critical-but-seeing-how-things-unfold kind of die rolls.  For example, the characters might roll to try to find their way out of the forest or may opt to point out one character’s terrible sense of direction. If so, that character gets a PP and the party gets lost.

Plot Points
The number of things plot points can be spent on is greatly limited by default in ICT. A plot point may be spent to:

  • Create an asset at d6. 2 PP makes it d8. 4 makes it d10 and 8 makes it d12.
  • Keep an extra die when tallying your result.  2 PP lets you keep 2 extra dice, 4 PP lets you keep 3, 8 PP lets you keep 4 and so on.

This may seem a bit limited at first glance, but there are two reasons for this.  First, it simplifies the default, which is important to a game like this.  Second, it frees up space to move a lot of these effects over to character classes to allow for more interesting mechanical differentiation.

Gear falls into 3 categories: weapons, armor and potions. There are a few other oddballs (like shields, which only matter to some classes), but those are the heart of it.

Every character has one weapon and one piece of armor, and over time, those can get replaced with better versions.  This is blatantly a video-game model, and I own that. If you want to expand it to allow more weapons, the model for that is relatively self explanatory.  If you do that, make weapon choice happen the same time a character picks his stat, and make him stick with it until his next action.

Weapons provide a bonus any time you act in combat.   Weapons have a category (for example, “Sword”) which has some relevant interactions with classes in terms of what classes can use which weapons.  They also have a die value (starting at d6 usually) and often have some sort of distinguishing name (like “Knight’s Sword”).

As they adventure, they may find or buy more powerful weapons, which are represented in two ways. First, the base quality may improve.  The Training Sword d6 may get replaced with an Iron Sword d8, then Silver Sword d10 and finally Knight Sword d12.   This improvement is pretty straightforward – it makes the die pool bigger, and these are the big-deal upgrades.

Weapons may also have descriptors with a mechanical effect.  This is an intentionally wide scope, and while there will be some common ideas (like situational bonus dice) there is no concrete limit that things must adhere to.  

For Example:
Stone Sword d8
– On success, player may opt to inflict Petrified status in lieu of damage.

Fire Sword d6
– d10 vs ice creatures.

Jester’s Sword d4
– On success, in addition to the outcome, roll d6

  1. Attacker Recovers d12
  2. inflict Sleep d12
  3. Inflict Stone d12
  4. Inflict Confused d12
  5. Inflict Toad d12
  6. Roll again, but swap attacker and target

Armor works basically the same way as weapons do, but the bonus is applied when you’re defending in combat.  Like weapons, armor has different types, die values and descriptors.  The main difference is that while weapon F/X are about increasing damage or adding effects, armor bonuses are about reducing damage or mitigating effects.

Robe of Shielding d6
– Effect: Shield d8 (Apply damage to shield before character)

Titan’s Armor d8
– Double benefit of selecting Resolve.

Potions are basically canned effect dice that spare you the trouble of rolling.  Right now there are only 2 kinds, healing and Remedy. They have a die value (usually d6 or d8) and they’re applied as recovery against damage and conditions respectively.

More specialized potions exist that get a +2 step effect, but only work against specific conditions.  So a d6 remedy potion operates at d6, but a d6 Soft potion works at d10 vs. Petrification.  To simulate the “always works” element, I may demand that any specialized potion be built on a base of d8 (effectively d12) but I might also like the idea of cheapo potions that kind of work.

Ok, that’s a lot. Probably enough for today. Classes are probably next.

Index Card Situation

This is not technically part of Index Card Tactics, though it’s related, in that another part of ICT is that it uses situation generators like Two Guys With Swords. This is another such tool (and don’t worry, I’ll be getting onto classes and equipment and so on).

This trick works best for a group of 4 or 5 who either have some sense of their character or who are willing to make things up enthusiastically.

  1. Hand each player an index card. Have them write the name of one NPC who is very important to their character, with perhaps a single sentence description of who they are and why they matter. Broad strokes.  
  2. Pass the card to the player on your left (not the GM).
  3. On the card they have received, the player now writes down something bad that might happen to the person named. This should not have a lot of details outside of the character, so “Stripped of their title”  is good but “Stripped of their title by the Cardinal” is not.
  4. Pass the card to the player on your left (not the GM).
  5. On the card received, the player now writes down a good outcome, flavored by the bad one.  It should not merely be “The bad thing doesn’t happen” but rather an outcome that might be hoped for over and above mere nullification. To continue the example of stripped of title, “Be honored by the king” would work well.
  6. Pass the card to the player on your left (not the GM).
  7. On the card received, the player now writes down who wants the bad outcome to happen.
  8. Pass cards back to the first player.
  9. Player looks at the situation as presented and – privately – writes their rating on the card, representing their interest in seeing this in play. Ratings are from 0 (I actively hate this, and never want it to see the light of day) to 5 (This is AWESOME, I totally want this) .
  10. Cards are handed over to the GM.
  11. GM looks through the cards and, based on interest level, puts them in motion.
Notes and Variations
  • Step one assumes a friendly NPC.  It’s possible to allow it to be a hated NPC, in which case that should be noted on the card, and the logic of step 7 inverts to “Who wants the good outcome for this character?”
  • It is possible for Step 1 to be something other than a character, such as a town or organization.  For certain games (conspiracy oriented one, frex) that might be apt, but go easy on it.
  • Step 7 is fre-form as presented, but if you’re using a game with an existing cast of characters “in play” (like a Dresden Files City, a tech Noir playset, or even something like Apocalypse World’s fronts) then the character selected should be drawn from that list, or tied to that element.
  • In step 11, Player rating is important to determining plot relevance but it’s also a useful yardstick for difficulty. That is, a low-interest situation should also be one that is reasonably easy to resolve. 
  • In step 11, one challenge to the GM is how to tie things together when player interest is high.  This is, to my mind, one of the fun things about bing a GM.
  • In Step 11, If interest is across the board low, then that may be a reason to check your table.  Is it that your players have radically different tastes and they’re spilling on each other? Are they looking for more of a monster smash this evening? Do the NPCs really not grab them?  Only you can really know your table, but take it as a cue to think about it. 

Index Card Tactics

I was talking about this with Ryan Macklin last night and I had a moment of “huh, I should write this down” so here it is.

At Pax East, I ran a game of what can probably best be described as tabletop Final Fantasy Tactics.  Early in the con I had run a game of Cortex+ D&D that had gone well, but I’d been struck by a desire to hack it further, and the end result is something that you can still see the Cortex+ roots in, but is kind of its own beast.

One of the essential rules of this design was that everything could be done on index cards (or post-its), and the character “sheet” ended up being a set of cards, one for stats, one (eventually 2) for class, one for distinctions and one for equipment.

The stats were really the core of this, and they worked out very well, both accidentally and intentionally, and they were the result of trying to add in a few more mechanical and tactical hooks. I went with 4 stats and chose my preferred four that describe _how_ you do something rather than what you do. For the unfamiliar, they are Force (Strength, directness), Grace (Speed & dexterity), Wits (Thoughtfulness and intellect) and Resolve (Willpower and endurance).  In a narrative sense, you choose the stat that matches how you’re acting, so an attack might be forceful (Hammer the guy), Graceful (Dodge around), Witty (Study the opponent, then strike) or Resolute (Wait for an opening). It’s a nice, colorful set, but I wanted to jazz them up a little, which produced this:

The actual dice values are, I hope, fairly self explanatory.  When taking forceful action, this guy rolls a d6. Pretty simple.

Now, before I get into the details of this, let me provide a little data on how play worked for context.  Initiative was based on the Marvel model that Fred came up with, and on your go, you took an action and chose which stat you would use as part of the roll.   Once that happened, that was the mode you operated in until your next action, which was relevant for defense rolls, and which had tactical implications that I’ll explain in a minute.  The important thing is that you got locked into that mode.

Now, the other details: The black arrows represented advantage, so Force had an advantage over Grace, which had an advantage over Resolve and so on.  The mechanical upshot of this was simple – in a conflict, the stat with the advantage would step up one[1].  Thus, if this guy used Force against someone else using Grace, his D6 would be bumped up to a d8. This is not a huge bonus, but it offers an additional incentive to stat choice beyond “The best one”.

The other bit is that each stat has a specific mechanical effect, taken down in shorthand on the sheet, and they break down as follows:

Force: Any stress (damage) you inflict is stepped up by one
Wits: Any conditions (non-damage) you create are stepped up by one
Resolve: Step down a stress or condition die on you.
Grace: You may interrupt initiative to take action or refuse to accept to take your turn (unless the other part is also using grace and has a bigger die).[2]

So, that makes the choices pretty straightforward. But what about the GM? You definitely don’t want to keep track of all that. And so you don’t – these are PC rules. For enemies, life’s much simpler.

Since this was Final Fantasy Tactics inspired, most of the opposition was in the form of monsters, which were statted up pretty simply, like:

Just a few notes for a die pool, a special attack (If he used the earthshaker dice, he didn’t do damage, but imposed the wobbly condition) and a note that he was a force creature, which suggested what he was strong or weak against.[3] Simpler monsters didn’t have a stat at all, and boss monsters might have two that they can switch between.  Easy on the GM, but creates a broader landscape of choices (especially when there’s a range of enemy stats – do you want to use wits on the ogre knowing that there’s a RESOLVE Troll on the board?).

Anyway, there was more stuff with classes and gear, but I figured I’d start with the basics.

1 – “Step up” is shorthand for “Increase die size by one” so stepping up a d6 turns it into a d8. “Step down” is just the reverse

2 – This worked startlingly well.

3 – In the future I might consider making this hidden information for the video-gamey reason of offering an avenue (SCAN) to finding this out. But that might also be too much work.  

A Thesis

Not Particularly Contentious: GM Skill/Quality strongly impacts quality of play experience.

Only Contentious In a Fake Way: Choice of game system strongly impacts quality of play experience.

My (Possibly Contentious) Thesis: As quality of GM increases, the impact of choice of game system on quality of play experience diminishes  (though it is unlikely to diminish to zero).

The Curious Question This Raises: Is the diminishment in importance relative or absolute? That is, does the choice of system stay the same while GM improves, so it’s a smaller percentage of a larger whole, or does the improvement in GM quality also diminish the impact of the system?

My Answer: A little bit of both. Relative diminishment actually happens, but I think some actual diminishment happens too, especially when the GM has internalized[1] the lessons of the game (and thus no longer needs to lean on the mechanics) or when the GM more strongly takes ownership of the rules to suit her own table.[2]

1 – There’s a great example of this in Tech Noir, a system which has, I think, Internalized the most important lessons from Gumshoe.  In my mind, Gumshoe’s biggest lesson is to teach the GM that there should always be information to move the game forward, and it has an entire clue and investigation system to make that happen.  Tech Noir skips that and just tells the GM that the players should always get a new piece of information.   While that’s a system example, I think it clearly illustrates the idea of how internalizing a system can produce similar outcomes without actually using the system.

2 – Now this is contentious, especially to folks who strongly support playing with rules as written.  Take it as a given that it’s an argument I’ve had many times, a position a respect, but an idea I disagree with.  If you disagree, then your answer to the curious question may be different, which is ok.