Author Archives: Rob Donoghue

TinyFate 0.4

My continued experiment in designing in the open, TinyFate 0.4, is now up online.

It is a mess.  I got some fantastic feedback on 0.3 (THANK YOU ALL) and the result has been ripping into the structure of the doc with meathooks, and as a result,t he current flow is just wrong.  I skip over sections, have sections out of order or repeating, and generally need to reflow the whole thing.

But I’m posting 0.4 largely to keep myself honest.  It’s alive, and I’m slowly moving it forward, and the current version is bad enough to provide me incentive to get to 0.5 as soon as possible. 🙂

TinyFate continues to be a wonderful test of my assumptions.  The reality is, I could absolutely run the original version as written, in all of its index card glory.  The act of writing a full version of it has been an exercise in manually unpacking decades of assumptions and seeing if they hold up.  And some of them don’t.

It has also been an opportunity for me to test the publishing options available for free or cheap today. This version is produced using Sphinx, a free bit of software that lets me write everything in slightly styled text files (in the RST format, which is like but not identical to Markdown) and it autogenerates the website and epub. It’s fun.  I haven’t pushed it particularly far yet, but it offers particular promise.  Because it lets me stitch together multiple files in the same doc, it is easy to re-use and re-organize content.  That means that – in theory – the same RPG could be formatted in one version for reading and another version for reference.  Don’t know if it will actually work yet, but it’s a very compelling prospect.

 

Delving into Exalted 3rd

exaltedmapI have a long-running love of Exalted. It provided one of my favorite games I’ve run, and one of my favorite I’ve played in. It is a big, beautiful mess, and I say that with all the love in the world. Exalted is easy to love, but also easy to find problems with, often passionately. It may seem odd, but I think that it’s one of its real strengths. There are settings that are comparably big, and settings that are comparably wild, but I don’t think there’s another game that is as big and wild. It is so big and wild that every group I know that has played in it has taken strong, personal ownership of it.

This is awesome. It is anti-canon. And it’s an invitation to bend, spindle and mutilate the game with vigor, whether that means carving out your own space in the setting hacking the mechanics (I have at various points played it with Fate, Weapons of the Gods and Risus) while still feeling right. It also means that it is a game that allows for STRONG OPINIONS in a non-negating fashion. The fact that I think Dragon Blooded are far and away the most fun of the exalts does not yuck anyone else’s yum. And when someone tells me how awesome Abyssals are, that does not intrude on my enjoyment. Obviously, there are always jerks, but largely, Exalted is a game that is easy to love, and fun to love.

And if you hate it? Cool. But the rest of this probably won’t interest you much. And if you have no idea what Exalted is, this is going to be a piss-poor place to start. This isn’t really a review in any real sense, just a conversation about a familiar product. If you’re curious about Exalted, I’d recommend checking the used books section for old hardcovers on the cheap. Third edition is interesting, but I have difficulty imagining it as something for a new player.

When Exalted 3rd edition was announced, I was leery. I had enjoyed some of the mechanical cleanup in 2nd edition, but I also felt like they had smoothed over too many rough edges that I had loved in first (and yes, the edition differences are one of those things people have STRONG OPINIONS about). What’s more, I’d had a very tenuous relationship with the various White Wolf reprints – they were invariably produced by people with a lot of talent and a lot of love for the material, but they often felt (to me) more targeted at the nostalgia market than anything else. Their pricing reflected that too, so I ultimately skipped the kickstarter for Exalted third.

However, it’s available for sale now, and after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I broke down and bought the PDF for $30, which I consider steep, but I get the idea that it’s luxury pricing. And I can only complain so much – DFRPG is only $5 less.

Part of the reason I waffled on the purchase is that this is absolutely the kind of book I’d prefer to read a physical copy of. Beyond a certain size, physical books are a bit more manageable for me, and this is a 650 page behemoth. That’s monstrous. And the hardcover is either $65 or or $115 – that is definitely steep for something unseen. Weirdly, I would have been much less hesitant to buy two books for a greater total, but that is a whole rabbit hole on the nature of pricing. Bottom line, I picked it up, and started reading.

The first thing to be super clear about, in case you’re wondering. When I heard how big it was, I thought maybe they had packed the whole Exalted line in there. They did not. This is a third edition of the core book, which is to say, with an overview on everything, but a focus on the Solars.

It’s genuinely a lovely looking PDF. The best of the art is amazing, and the worst of it is merely ok. If there are any real stinkers, I haven’t noticed them yet, but I’m still working through this beast. The page decorations are varied and lovely. The cover is striking.

I’d probably quibble about the font choice for the fiction. It’s a pretty drab sans serif that I’m sure Fred could name at a glance. I think it looks too boring for the material, but that’s just taste.

Two real disappointments though:

  • First – the new map of creation looks FANTASTIC, so much so that I am incredibly frustrated to have gotten only a teeny tiny version of it. I understand i maybe they want to upcharge for a super high quality version, but they could have at least included an ok copy of it, rather than sending me off to google.
  • Second – the index is not hyperlinked. I ranted about this a bit on twitter, but I should unpack this in a reasonable fashion. This is a 650 page book – it’s massive. That means the index is critical, and the prospect of scrolling 500 pages to go through the index manually, then scrolling 300 pages back is a giant pain in the ass, especially when trying to, say, look up mechanics. The file doesn’t appear to be bookmarked either, so navigation is…not great.
    Now, that said, I do not want to suggest that hyperlinking this index would be a trivial exercise. Even with software to automate the effort (which might be dicey) this is a grind, and somebody needs to get paid to do it. But as noted, this is explicitly a luxury product – not only is the flat index inconvenient, it’s a rattling plastic cup holder on a BMW.1

Ok, so the book itself. Before I go much further, I want to give a big caveat – I am pretty sure I am not the audience for this book. There’s a strong element of nostalgia to a book like this, and the things that define the nostalgia for some are not the things that define it for everyone. The things that I would want out of Exalted are not necessarily the things they set out to make. So I’m walking a line here – I think they succeeded at what they set out to do, even if it’s not necessarily my bag. I will kvetch about all manner of things, but take all complaints with the important qualifier that it’s probably not for me.

And nothing illustrates that like how blithely I skipped the introductory fiction. Look, ever since the demon towel monkey experience, I give White Wolf fiction three sentences to grab me, and it usually doesn’t.2 I might come back to it later, but honestly, I’m a tourist in my home town here – I want to get into the meat and see what’s familiar and what has changed, especially mechanically.

So, ok, what follows all feels pretty familiar. High level overview of the setting, sure, great, then two page spreads on each of the Exalt types. These are lovely pages – the two page spreads make me wish for the book or a larger monitor than I’m using. They also contain the first real surprise – two new Exalted groups.

First, The Liminal have a strong Promethean: The Created vibe to them. Created beings born of death whose power use reveals them as monstrous, and who are tied to a creator. I admit, I don’t quite get them. I suspect someone has a really good idea got how they fit into things (as a foil to the Abyssals seems the most obvious) but it doesn’t really come through in the description.

I’m much more excited by The Exigents, who are effectively the Exalted of the lesser gods. Their powers and power level is wildy varied, and their relationship with their patron is super individual, and I love them. God blooded were always one of my favorite things in Exalted, and this idea builds on it in a wonderful way. It opens the door to a wide range of really neat, but still strongly in theme characters. It also gives the more powerful gods champions, which makes the potential interactions with them much more interesting.

Other than that they hit on the core 5 – Solar, Lunar, Sidereal, Abyssal and Dragon blooded. There is also a two page spread teasing other future Exalts.3 This is a little annoying – it’s a 650 page book, and they couldn’t spare another 10 pages? But, ok, whatever.

Next we have about 60 pages of setting information which I absolutely skimmed. Unlike the fiction, I actually look forward to returning to this, but it’s enough of a mix of familiar and novel that it’s going to take some brainpower to sift through. It’s fun to skim – the high level view of the exalted world, where descriptions are limited to a paragraph or two is a wonderful thing. It’s easy to open to a page and find a random thing you could absolutelyhang a game off of.

But then I got to character creation, and I slowed down. I admit, I had heard a lot of interesting promises about 3e really streamlining the Exalted system. That idea is really compelling to me for a lot of reasons, but the jury is still out on whether or not that succeeded. They absolutely did a lot of interesting things, but I’m not entirely sure how streamlined it is.

Chargen itself looks largely familiar – Attributes, abilities, dots, essence, willpower, freebie points and so on. Not much call to dwell on those, but the changes were interesting.

  • In a nice touch, you can pick one of your skills as your “Supernal Ability” – for charms under that ability, you can buy charms as if you had an essence of 5. That is wonderfully liberating and (hopefully) reduces the pressure to just spend all your freebie points on Essence.
  • Merits & Flaws are right there, but handled smartly. The merits are flagged so it’s clear what can be bought after chargen versus earned with play. They’re also priced very inexpensively, and they just come out and say that if you’ve got a weird situation like leading two armies, then just buy the merit twice, no biggee.
  • Flaws delight me. You get no points for them, rather, they create well-articulated opportunities to generate extra XP. Obviously, I’m a big fan of this sort of approach.
  • Yet for all that, the “no skills over 3 without spending Freebie points” limit feels absolutely vestigial. Yes, it’s twinky to be able to buy a bunch of 5s, but, well, Exalted.
  • The virtues are gone, replaced by “Intimacies”. They reflect the things the character values,is driven by, or otherwise considers important. There is no limit to the number of them, and they seem quite freeform. I am intrigued to find out more.
  • Limit breaks have been tweaked a bit, but the idea seems largely intact.
  • There’s a large example of character creation, which is great to include. Viva examples!
  • The Anima effects of the various castes are referenced but not described in their entries, which seemed weird, but skipping ahead, that seems to be because they have longer explanations, so it makes sense.
  • The Attribute & Ability ladders remain somewhat spurious. It is rare that the number of dots actually feels like it’s description. But this is a very old problem.
  • The ability descriptions do a very nice job of adding a single line, bolded note about what makes each ability important, such as “This Ability is important for combat” or “This Ability is necessary to create artifacts”. Not every ability has such a note, but this seems a nice, friendly reference for someone looking to fill in a concept.
  • At first glance, none of the merits seem particularly overwhelming or mandatory, though Artifact and Manse are still hard to argue against. There’s a Selective Contraception merit, but we’re just going to gently set that down and keep moving.
  • Ok, so the Intimacies. They are generally categorized as ties or principals. The categories don’t matter much intrinsically, but some charms apparently depend on the category. Intimacies are minor, major or defining, and those tiers have descriptive and mechanical impact. It seems that they’re pretty easy to shift one step at a time, but there’s a lot of GM and player input on the process for PCs (for NPCs it sounds like this is a big part of social rules, but I haven’t gotten there yet). They also are tied to recovering Willpower. I am even more intrigued now – this seems nicely meaty.

At page 182, we finally start on the actual system. If you want a clear indication that this is a product for an established audience, look not further than this: the core mechanic (rolling dice, counting successes) is finally explained on page 185. It’s pretty clearly assumed the target audience knows this stuff.

It’s familiar enough – roll some D10s, 7, 8 or 9 is usually a success, 10 is usually two successes. Go forth and roll. The one interesting bit comes in the difficulties – they run from 1-5, and the descriptions really lay out a 5 as super damn heroic. Now, why does this matter? Tonally, it sets up very heroic play. It does not take a very big die pool to consistently get results that are narratively very impressive. In that sense, it’s a promise for the rest of the game about what the dice mean.

But this promise is fraught. It really depends on the rest of the mechanics to hold it up as true, and Storywhatever systems have consistently fallen down on this promise. So with that in mind, I accept the promise in good faith, but I am absolutely keeping an eye on it.

Nothing interesting about failure, which is not a criticism so much as a lost opportunity. Stunting is still baked right into things and looks comfortably familiar, though I very much welcome the sidebar that says “if a player stunts and fails, do not use their awesomeness to screw them over”.

But really, I was just digging through this stuff to get to combat. Exalted is fighty, so how fighty was this version?

Answer: Pretty fighty! One very substantial change has been made to the combat system, so give me a minute to unpack it. Of all things, initiative has moved to the center of combat in a very curious way. So, just to make some future things clear, your initiative value is A roll + 3, and action goes from highest to lowest. Simple enough.

Now, there are rules for moving and attacking and multiattack and they’re all well and good, but the really interesting stuff lies in the two types of attacks.

When you attack, you either make a withering attack or a decisive attack. Withering attacks4 are used to wear down enemies and take control of the tempo of the fight. They look a lot like normal WoD Attacks – Attribute + Ability + Specialization + Weapon vs defense, margin of success + some more dice vs Soak all to produce a damage number. But where it gets interesting is that the damage is applied to your enemies initiative value, and you increase your own initiative by 1 + the “damage” dealt.

If you make a Decisive attack, you are trying to actually do some damage in an attempt to end the fight. The attack does not use your weapon’s stats (so it’s just Attribute + Ability + any situational mods) and is a straight up success/failure. If it’s a failure, you lose a few points of initiative. If it’s a success you effectively cash out your initiative and roll a number of damage dice equal to your initiative rating. There’s no soak, though “hardness” can reduce damage. After you’re done, reduce your initiative to three.

Now, obviously the cadence of this is to exchange withering attacks to try to accrue enough of an initiative to land a telling blow. That seems pretty fun and interesting, but there’s more too it.

If you manage to knock someone’s initiative below zero, they’re on the ropes, in a state of “Initiative Crash”, which has some drawbacks, most notably that they cannot make decisive attacks. There’s also a lot of fiddly stuff about putting someone in initiative crash and coming out of it, and at least some of it seems to be there to prevent certain obvious abuses. You can be driven deeper into negatives, though if you hold out for 3 rounds, you get reset back to an initiative of 3. In fighting game terms, this feels like a juggle, a situation where the combination of attacks you are landing let you get off free hits without a counterattack. As with many Exalted mechanics, it feels like it might be a weird fit elsewhere, but having some video game tone in Exalted is kind of on point.

It seems pretty obvious that there’s a large benefit to building up a pile of initiative early up in a fight, which mechanically encourages engaging the mooks5 before you go after the boss, but given that this is Exalted, that seems more feature than bug. I definitely worry about the “initiative piñata” risk, where someone lays withering attacks on weaker targets to be abel to land more powerful decisive attacks on harder targets. It also feels like a fight that goes lopsided is going to stay lopsided.

But the thing it, I might be wrong. This is definitely super interesting, and it’s different enough from other systems that I am confident that certain properties will emerge in play.6I definitely want to try this out, even without introducing charms (which I’m sure really mess with things).

So while I quibble about some things, but this in unquestionably a very clever and in place elegant mechanic, one that I cheerfully look forward to borrowing in the future.

One other bit with a lot of potential are Gambits. Conceptually, they’re straightforward enough – want to make an attack that is really neither withering nor decisive, but rather trying to change the situation, such as with a disarm or knocking someone off their horse? No problem – it’s handled like a decisive attack, but the damage roll is instead roles against a difficulty. Easy peasy. By itself I kind of shrug – disarm rules don’t move my needle much. However, a throwaway comment reveals something very potent – these gambits can be situational. That is, I can frame a fight in such a way that there are special activities you can take that are expressed as gambits. This offers a nice mechanical hook for fighting a mountain, or having an MMO style boss fight where you need to, say, hit the crystals before you can attack the boss7. It’s very explicitly gamey, but so is the whole system, which is fine because it’s Exalted.

There is also the clash, when two characters attack each other on the same initiative number. It’s a contested roll with higher consequences than a normal attack, and that’s cool. It would have been easy for it to have been really overwrought and dramatic, but I think this will happen often enough8 that it was good they went with something quick rather than have it devolve into a mini game every time.

I also want to call out one wonderfully subtle mechanics that provides a pile of genre enforcement. Ranges are nice and abstract – Close, Short, Medium and long. If you want to make any sort of ranged attack from Medium or Long range, you must take an aim action first. I’ll be curious if charms mess with it, but the upshot of it is this – if you want your ranged character to be at parity with the melee characters, you need to be in the mix. Staying at short range leaves you exposed to people rushing you, but it gets you into the ebb and flow of the fight. That’s a clear genre declaration of what archers should look like, and I love that kind of subtle, yet potently opinionated mechanic.

I also like an addition to the injury rules, that you can clear big injuries by taking a permanent injury instead (though it’s still pretty harsh, mechanically). However, I’m not 100% sure how that ends up working with Exalted, since they are supposed to be super awesome at healing.

There are grappling rules, and about them, I will say this: there are definitely grappling rules.

There’s an interesting bit in stealth – in addition to sneak attacking (which works largely as you’d expect) you can “Hold at Bay” – roll to attack, but instead of attacking, you effectively hold the target at knifepoint for a number of rounds equal to the damage you had done. If the target opts not to play along, they will end up on the receiving end of a very unpleasant attack. Definitely a fun addition.

Anyway, that gets us to about page 200. I will be shocked if I have this much to say about the next 450 pages besides “Oh God, so many charms”, but to find out, I’m going to have to actually go look at those pages, so until then, g’night all.

  1. That said, I should add, that the Table of Contents and cross references all seem well linked. That’s awesome, but it made the index thing even more noticeable. ↩︎
  2. Usually because those first few sentences are usually some kind of evocative prose rather than the start of a story. It’s a style thing, and I get that some people dig it, but I’m super impatient that way. I think the last time I was really grabbed by the opening fiction was….Changeling: the Lost maybe? So I’m a curmudgeon. I own it. ↩︎
  3. Looking at them, I inferred Alchemical, Fae, Infernal and God blooded. Not sure about the last one – might be new, but more likely I have forgotten something. ↩︎
  4. I do not love this name, but I am sympathetic. It has the feel of a name picked because it was the least objectionable option out of many, many tries. ↩︎
  5. Curiously, if there are extras rules, I haven’t gotten to them yet. Very curious. ↩︎
  6. Consider, for example, the thee rounds of Initiative Break recovery. If I push you into initiative break with a Withering attack, my best course is to make a decisive attack, another withering attack, then a decisive attack. Assuming I don’t drop you, on the round that you come out, we are both at Initiative 3, and have been set up for a Clash. Elegant. ↩︎
  7. On some level, they are a compelling answer to the problems with Skill Challenges in 4e. ↩︎
  8. There’s even a mechanical trick that makes it more likely – if you choose to delay your action, it costs you two initiative, no matter how much you delay. So it is not expensive to hold until your opponent’s turn to try to force a clash. My only concern is that it introduces a bit of a race condition. ↩︎

Dusting off TinyFate

Someone asked me if I was going to open up TinyFate, and I realized that

A) I absolutely wanted to and
B) i really needed to give it another pass

So, I’m trying an experiment, since TInyFate has been nothing if not an ongoing experiment. I have migrated from the powerpoint style presentation over to google docs, with the expectation that I will see if it can generate a decent epub file once this is done.

But in the meantime, the experiment.  I’ve posted the file to google docs, and have comments turned on via this link: (LINK REMOVED: SEE EDIT FOR DETAILS)

Don’t know how long I’ll keep it open, but if you want to take a look and weigh in, it would be appreciated.

 

EDIT: Feedback has been amazing, thank you to everyone who commented.  I’m taking the link down from this post, so I can start working on version 0.4.  I’ll leave comments on for the moment, because I have a request: If you helped, I want to credit you. Leave a comment here or there with how you would like to be credited, and I’ll make sure names make it into the final doc.

Once again, thank you everyone who contributed. It shined the light on some (obvious in retrospect) blind spots.  I’ll absolutely throw up a flare once 0.4 is ready.

Basic Focus

bluediceOk, based on the previous post and some conversations on G+ with Bryant Durrell, I’m starting to crystallize this system in my head, starting from the Above the Earth concept. I’m going to call it the Focus systems, and I’be already realized there are two versions of it, which I’ll call Basic and Advance out of a sense of tradition. Basic uses 12 dice (a box of 16mm Chessex dice) and is pretty simple. Advanced uses 36 dice (A box of Chessex 12mm dice) and more fun dice tricks. Having a hypothetical advanced version lets me relax a bit with the basic version, because otherwise I feel obliged to throw in every trick I can think of. So with that in mind, the Basics of the Basic Focus system are as follows:

Chargen

Player may describe their character as they see fit, and may append or expand on that description as appropriate. The GM may ask some questions for inspiration, but that’s about the entirety of it. Once complete, the player takes a block of 12 dice.

Play

Play proceeds in traditional style (loaded, I know, but I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel). The GM describes the situation, player responds descriptively, and play proceeds in a free form fashion until a point of uncertainty. At that point, the player may take any number of dice from their pool and roll. The outcome is based on the best die’s result, as follows:

6: Things go awesomely. Achieve the goal and significant benefit.
5: Things Work well: Achieve the goal and get a small or colorful benefit.
4: Things work. Achieve the goal.
3: Complications: Achieve the goal, but with a cost or a choice.
2: Uh Oh: don’t achieve the goal
1: Oh no! Something goes horribly wrong!

So, as I wrote that, I realized that in practice, that’s more grain than I like, and I really just want three outcomes (good, complicates and bad) so I retune it, PBTA style:

5-6: Achieve Goal, woo hoo!
2-4: Complication: Achieve goal, but there’s a cost or complication
1: Something goes wrong

This has a few bits to it:

  • Dice rolled are spent (removed from the pool) but 1’s might go back into the die pool. I like the idea, but it’s one more thing to keep track of, so we’ll see if it works in practice.
  • Boxcars allow critical successes.
  • Asymmetric distribution It makes for a fatter middle, but I’m ok with that, as it’s the fun space.  However, if I did a version with Fate Dice It would force an even distribution, with the tiers mapping to +, 0 and – respectively. That may be an argument for going 1-2/3-4/5-6 but I’ll worry about that later.
  • So what if you have no dice? That will probably call for a roll on “the black die”, which treats a 5 or 6 as a 4 (and gives back a die when rolled).

So far this is largely one way – that is, it’s about spending dice. The trick then is how dice get refreshed. The most obvious solution is something akin to an aspect invocation, but I’m not sure how well that will work for a kid. It’s not that the kid is unwilling to do silly or risky things, but it feels like the communication element needs a bit of nuance, so I’m going to reframe it as follows: When the player answers a question from the GM, the get a die back.

When I first considered that, I thought I’d need more options, but as I thought about it, I realized that this is a really flexible tool because there are no particular limitations on what sort of question the GM asks. It can be used to invite contribution, yes, but it can also be used in a manner like an invoke if the question is sufficiently leading. This feels like it may be all I need (plus maybe the rule of 1s).

And with that, I think I have the whole of what’s needed for Basic Focus (or at least enough to test it out). I’ve already started throwing ideas into the bucket for Advance Focus (it’ll probably be keep 2, and will steal liberally from Risus, Over the Edge and ) but I’m going to let those marinate until I’ve had a chance to put basic through the paces.

Playing With The Dude

Chessex dice block

Character Sheet! (Sort of)

My son is 7, and very excited about this whole RPG thing. We tried Adventure Maximus when he was a little younger, and recently have tried playing with both No Thank You Evil and some simple homebrews I’be cooked up, and while we had fun, it is very clear that I need to step back from a lot of my assumptions.

The kid is unquestionably creative and imaginative, and play is often accompanied by strings of declarations about things that he has decided are true. Interestingly, these are not declarations about what happens, but rather about background details or related matters. To be nerdy, he is using a lot of authorial power but not interfering with the narrative. He also is very clearly merely tolerating any mechanic more complicated than “You roll more dice for things you’re better at”. Not that he doesn’t understand the rules, they just interest him less than the fact that rhino powers have been giving his character headaches and making him chew on furniture.

(Relatedly, he is entirely open to questions like “What do you do that causes problems?” And his answers are on par with any adult tabletop players I have dealt with.)

I had been prepared for other surprises. I started playing a little bit later than him, and I definitely spent a lot of time obsessing over the elements of solo play (chargen and such) so I skewed very mechanically. I don’t know if that was what I wanted or if it was merely the only option I had, but I was ready for a need to create a bunch of fun crunch.

There are definitely a few things that worked well. He likes moving a figure around a map, no question, but not in a grid kind of way. More like an Indiana Jones travel map kind of way. He similarly likes picking a figure or stand as “my guy” and talking about it. No Thank You Evil assumes every kid has a companion, and that’s a great piece of tech, since it gives the GM a “voice” in the scene, even if there are no other characters present.

But few of those things trickle back to mechanics or to the shape of conversation as we played. I should frankly note that we could do diceless play with no particular problems, but part of the point of this is to get him a little comfortable with rules and, if I am honest with myself, to subject him to the vagaries of the dice, so that failure is not just a function of dad being mean.

So I’m going to steal from a very flexible system called Above The Earth by Bryant Durrell. This is a brilliant little supers RPG that forgoes stats and skills in favor of simply handing each player a hundred dice and letting them describe what they’re doing. When there’s uncertainty, the player simply rolls however many dice they want, slowly depleting their reserve and bringing the game to endgame. That base mechanic of grabbing a number of dice based on how much it matters seems like it would line up very well to my son’s colorful descriptions of what he’s doing. It introduces some very basic resource management without requiring constant calculation.

I’ll hack it, of course. The number of dice is the first big consideration – I am not giving a 7 year old 100 tiny dice. That is a recipe for disaster. So the question is “12 or 36?” Why those numbers? because those are the number of dice in a Chessex block of 16mm and 12mm dice respectively. That means that we can get a set that are his, which is cool and important for a kid.

So, numbers. The core mechanic is pretty simple. Pick the best die of whatever number you rolled. 6 is awesome, 1 is “uh oh” with appropriate spread in between. It’s fast and loose, which is fine, but it is pretty easy for him to get “higher is better” (as well as “more sixes is more awesome, but snake eyes is BAAAAD”). That means that I don’t want to encourage rolling lots of dice, since 3 or 4 is enough to be fairly confident of a solid result. That seems like a good argument for 12 dice (which also have the benefit of being larger).

The problem is, of course, refresh. With 12 dice, he’ll run his pool down pretty fast unless there’s a solid replacement mechanic in place. This isn’t hard to do – dice can be rewards or the result of “compels” or similar. This could be a simple as just handing him the dice or as complicated as giving dice values to things that he can borrow dice from as he uses them. Hell, I could treat companions as investment vehicles – pour 4 dice in the pet dinosaur and it becomes a pool of 6 dice you can draw from so long as the dinosaur helps out. I probably won’t do anything like that, at least right now, but it’s probably good to have an avenue for future fiddliness.

Ok, I may have persuaded myself to go with 12. Next step is to try it out with the dude and see how he likes it.

Spend a Point to Be Awesome

on-targetThere is a lot of merit in the very simple mechanic of “Spend a point to do something awesomely” but it raises a very interesting question of what “awesomely” means. The least interesting answer is greater efficacy – a bonus. Unfortunately, it is also the most common answer because things are measured by numerical values in most systems.

Another definition is one of spotlight and style. In terms of story “awesomely” also means “dramatically appropriately”. In the right situation, it is a tool to let a player declare that this skill *matters* in this context.

When talking about simple tiered systems, I admit a temptation to boil a system down to no skill, skill, skill awesomely, then make skilling awesomely a function of spending currency. Weirdly, this is probably what it would take to make me like gumshoe style ablative skills – guarantee that my having the skill will be respected, but allow me to spend to make it remarkable.

Huh.

When I started writing this, that didn’t appeal to me much – I like general point pools more than specific ones, but as I think about it, that could totally work in actual play, especially if one of the upshots of awesomeness is that you can get in on something you maybe normally wouldn’t be able to.

Of course, the trick is then to avoid bidding wars. That is THE WORST part of systems like this. Hmm. Ok, next challenge.

Watching the 7th Sea

7sIf you don’t know by now, you should – the kickstarter for the 2nd edition of 7th Sea has launched, and it has already succeeded beyond all reasonable measures, coming up on half a million dollars as a write this.

I am going to be throwing some hardballs here, so let me start with something important – I have backed the hell out of that kickstarter, and I cannot wait to get my grabby hands on the new stuff. I have devoured the quickstart. I still have several feet of first edition material on my shelf. I love this game.

But it also, historically, has made me crazy.

7th Sea was a deeply flawed gem, and it is through that lens that I am viewing my own hopes and wishes with this new version. Looking at some of the big ones:

Fiction vs. Mechanics

The text of 7th sea emphasized that characters were swashbuckling heroes, but the mechanics more or less demanded that they be chumps. Part of this came from a point buy system that made essential gateways very expensive, so there just weren’t many points to go around. Part of it came from a landscape populated with NPCs who made it clear that the PCs were chumps and these were the people things were really about. There were other snags (roll & keep is a harsh mistress) but those two really hurt.

It’s hard to judge this one from the kickstarter. The mechanics seem looser and more friendly to competence, but I’ve been burned before. I am hopeful, but leery.

WTF Pirates

7th Sea’s setting was a pseudo-europe^f1, isolated from the rest of anything by ancient magic. This had lots of weird knock on effects (like removing Africa, which had all sorts of implications) but it also resulted in a really weird map. See, if you imagine just Faux-Europe, you’ve removed the Mediterranean as well as all ship traffic across the Atlantic. And when you remove those things, the immediate (very logical) question is “Where the hell are the pirates doing their thing?”

Yet despite that, pirates were a critically important part of the setting, so they got shoehorned in really hard. This was awkward enough, but it ended up encroaching on one of the other big themes of the setting (exploring ancient mysteries) by making that largely the domain of pirates because they had nothing else to do.

For 2nd edition, it looks like the map has improved somewhat. What’s more, based on the stuff they’ve show, I would wager that this moves the clock forward to support the (supremely dull) metaplot event that took down the bubble around Europe. If so, that is a big step towards being less dumb.

Metaplot

Oh god, the Metaplot.

7th Sea may have been one of the most 90’s games of all time. In theory, there shouldn’t have been a metaplot. The timeline was frozen at a specific year, and all supplements (until the very end) were considered simultaneous. In theory, this meant a blanks slate. In practice, it was so much sleight of hand, since it just meant the actual nature of the setting was revealed over many, many supplements.

DEEP SPOILERS FOLLOW – One of the secrets of the setting was the nature of magic. It turned out that three of the types of Sorcery available to players were actually secretly gifts from the dark powers which, as they were used, were opening the way to the Bad Things. This was revealed in a supplement, and it pretty aggressively flipped the bird to anyone who thought they were playing a cool, heroic sorcerer.

Similarly, the “Secret Masters of Everything” were revealed towards the very end. The setting was littered with this crap. And it was super annoying because it was usually at the expense of “less exciting” things like heroism, swashbuckling and intrigue – the stuff a lot of people were on board for in the first place,

I have no evidence which way the 2nd edition will jump on this, but I mostly just hope the fact that this kind of thing has become less popular means it will be quietly set aside.

Dumbness

Fact of life: the setting was more or less Europe for Dummies, arguably Europe for dumb americans. As such, it was composed entirely of (analogs for) England, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Russian, and someplace with Vikings and Protestants. This is dumb, but a certain amount of it is necessary dumbness. Keeping things simple kept them accessible, and that’s critically important, so I forgive the broad strokes.

Where it falls down is in the area of uneven interest. Because these were such broad strokes, you could always dig down into them to find real stuff, like faith, trade, oppression and other toothy stuff. Things like this can be great game fodder if and only if someone cares enough to see what’s exciting about it. A lot of people don’t care if commerce in Theah is nonsensical, but the people who do care, care a LOT, and they are not thrown a bone.

This extends beyond issues and into nations. It was easy to go for dumb stereotypes (Vikings! Russian barbarians!) and the quality of the nations varied greatly depending on how interested the writer seemed in actually playing in them.^f2

This one worries me the most. I’m kind of delighted that they’ve added another nation to proxy for a little more of Eastern Europe, but I don’t yet know if it’ll be awesome or if it will be a gimmick. For obvious reasons, this gets even more worrisome when you consider that they might expand to cover Africa and America. Dumb shorthand is not super helpful in that space. But on the other hand, there are some smart people helping out with this project, and they will hopefully curb it.

 

 

 

There are other worries, but those are my big ones, and I am really hopeful that the game manages to escape this particular pain.

 

 

^f1: Ok, yes there are also proxies for China and a mash up of Islamic empires, but they are forcibly off to the side.

^f2: This is why Vodacce is probably the most playable nation as written. But there’s a weird anomaly around Avalon (elizabeth + arthurian myth + Fae incursion + random scotsmen) where there was obviously a lot of passionate interest in the material, but the result was a mess to actual play. Avalon was a place you left to go adventuring.

The Impact of Magic

potion-ballOk, given the pre-eminence of magic in D&D, it is very interesting to see the ways that this shapes the play experience. The most critical may not be th most obvious – timing. Action in D&D is set up in such a way that the default unit (a round) is the amount of time it takes to cast a spell.

That may seem counterintuitive at first. A round is a unit of time, after all. But stop and consider the many discussions of “what is a round” and how it is made abundantly clear that one round does not equate to one attack, but rather to a back and forth of blows, with a net effect measured by the attack. There is no such confusion regarding spellcasting. One round == One spell. ^f1

If you bear that in mind, a lot of the thinking in the 4e design makes a lot of sense. One of its clear drivers was to give every character something cool to do. They did not call all these things spells, but structurally, that’s what they were. Everyone gets to do a cool thing on their action!

It is hard to fault that sentiment, it genuinely is. I would go so far as to say that it was one of the parts of 4e that genuinely worked very well, so far as it went. Of course, it invited other problems with the list of potential actions spinning out of control (especially in conjunction with the way items were handled), but the core sentiment was solid.

And this is where 4e came up to the edge of something fascinating. By abstracting spells out into general actions, spells became the cool things your character can do. And specific things your character could do, rather than some open-ended loosey goosey thing. There were very loose limitations that meant you had cool thing you did all the time, cool things you sometimes whipped out, and the occasional big whammy. But taken as a whole, they were a picture of what your character could do.

By itself, that’s pretty awesome (something that the 4e-based Gamma World illustrated) but it broke down when it ran into the other pillar of D&D spells – resource management.

See, we sometimes talk about D&D as a resource management game, and we envision detailed inventory sheets, tracking the number of torches burned and feet of rope consumed. And while there may be some of that, what we’re really talking about is managing spells (and expendable magic items). This basic fact lies at the root of problems like the “5 minute workday” where adventurers rest up, take on the first encounter, burn through their best renewable resources (that is, best spells)” then rest up for another 8 hours and repeat.^f2

4e almost escaped that pattern, for good or ill. Setting aside daily abilities, you could adventure for a very long time, because each encounter (or scene, depending on how you looked at it) offering the opportunity to largely reset. With that in mind, it would not be hard to imagine that you could get by without constantly having daily abilities ready. Unfortunately, D&D also offered a highly tuned balancing system that emphasized building challenging fights, and things were tuned tightly enough that the daily’s made a pretty big difference. That (combined with potions) was enough to bring back the hoarding of resources. And on some level, that’s what the audience wants.

My big lesson from this is to view resource management as a preference, not something essential to our games. If it’s a requirement, then it’s a shackle, but if it’s something that might make for some cool, we have a lot more flexibility.

^f1:Ok, yes, there’s a qualifier for stuff like quickened spells and the like, but I don’t think any of that undercuts the premise. Arguably , it strengthens it, because it explicitly calls out that we don’t have such a think as a quickened stab. But it is a large part of why D&D does not really use any rules that would make daggers dangerous (as a shorthand for combat rules other crunchy fight games have tried).

^f2: Yes, obviously there are a lot of good solutions to this problem that don’t require much mechanical tweaking, but it’s a problem that comes up often enough to be a real thing.

The Importance of Spells

burning-bookI was riffing a bit on Twitter, and realized I had some stuff about spells I had to unpack.  This will probably take two posts, so  I want to open with the premise – spells are the most important part of D&D.

This is a rough assertion to make because D&D is so big and complicated that any assertion about one thing being the most important is certain to invite skepticism. And I’m cool with that – I don’t expect to persuade anyone who feels differently, but I do hope that I can help unpack a little bit of how I’m thinking about spells to help make some future thoughts make some more sense.

So let’s start with the basics – have you ever made your own D&D clone? I certainly have. It seems like a pretty simple task because at it’s heart, D&D is not that complicated in any of its many guises. It is well elaborated to cover a deep bench of edge cases, but the underlying rules have never been hard to wrap your head around.[1] That has meant that it has always seemed that they are easy to improve, which has lead to a vast universe of house rules and edition progression.

But an interesting thing happens when you start mucking around. Adding skills, tweaking classes, modifying combat – all of those things flow rather smoothly. But at some point you run up against the spell list (really any time from AD&D forward), and the rules change. The problem is that the spells are conceptually straightforward – they have levels and effects and they’re quite tidy. But the sheer volume of them is daunting. To discard the existing spell list in favor of something else seems insanely wasteful, especially since it’s so easy to just modify it – change some levels, add or subtract spells. The D&D spells are that load bearing wall that you can’t tear down, so you just work around it.

And that’s just as well, because if you rip them out, replacing them is hard. Almost every other fantasy game out there that has tried ends up burning a lot of page count for something largely forgettable. There have been exceptions[2] but they are greatly outnumbered by the number of games with “Energy Bolt” and “Persuade” spells that look strangely familiar.

Note, many of these games with boring spells have fascinating magic. Games like Rifts or (choose your favorite) offer pictures of magic that are exciting and compelling. Great, grabby stuff. To this day, the Ley Line Walker from Rifts is one of my favorite magical concepts. But these excellent wrappers were largely let down by the turd of a spell list they contained.

And that leads to real culmination of this – the D&D spell list is what makes D&D feel like D&D. Some of this is all about mechanics and familiar names, but there’s more to it than that. D&D has only the setting implied by its rules. Some of that setting is shaped by things like classes and equipment lists, but nothing defines the setting like the spells.

Not because of the bits of lore among them – Bigby just doesn’t matter that much – but because every single spell is a declaration that in this setting, this thing is possible. It is a thing that happens. That’s bold. And with the sheer volume of information in the spell list, it’s also very broad.

And that’s actually pretty great, because the spell is wonderfully well designed. Long before anyone had ever heard of “moves”, spells were discrete units of fiction and mechanics that established tone and could be strongly re-used. What’s more, they were built with the RPG equivalent of a handle, that allowed them to be easily slotted into various places.

Consider that a spell had an effect, but it also had a wrapper, and the wrapper contained information like who could cast it, when and how. Spell memorization is wrapper. Spell swapping is wrapper. Components are wrapper. And this is critical because the wrapper could be fiddled with infinitely without messing up the effect. The result is that spells could be used as a language of effects. Want to model an interesting trap? it explodes like a fireball. Want to give a monster cool powers? Voila, spell like abilities!

This is pretty damn robust, especially when the spells are cool. And as a result, it seems only natural that spells have become more and more central to what D&D is. It might have started as a fighting game with some magic, but there is a really strong case to be made that it has become something closer to a magic game with some fighting.

And that’s absolutely not a bad thing. But it is an interesting thing, and it’s had some implications. Implications that I’ll dig into in the next post.


  1. It could be argued that earlier editions seem more complicated because the rules were not necessarily well unified, and as a result the edge cases required a bit more work to keep track of, as they were often one-offs, but even with that, we’re not far past the complexity of explaining en passant.  ↩
  2. Rolemaster is my go to example for this, but it accomplished this by virtue of producing a staggeringly HUGE amount of text to provide its vision of magic. Most other successes have either done a similar amount of work, or have done so by pursuing entirely different approaches to magic (such as Ars Magica).  ↩