Category Archives: DARPG

One Night In Starkhaven

We had a guest in town last night, so rather than run the Cold War game (which had no good insertion point for an NPC and was, more importantly, not necessarily up the guest’s alley) I opted to run another game on pretty short notice. Leverage would have been the obvious choice, but I was feeling a little contrary and knowing what the new player liked, I opted for some Dragon Age.

I’ve written a lot about Dragon Age in the past and in general, my opinion did not change. It is by and large a fantastic, fun, lightweight and speedy engine with a few bugs that annoy me, and in final reckoning, the parts I love FAR outweigh the parts I don’t.

That said, MAN I want to hack this game. I keep resisting because I want to give Green Ronin a chance to finish first, because they will clearly do awesome things, but it gets harder every time I dust it off. I’m pretty confident in my faith in GR, reinforced by my use of some of the Beta material for the next set. Of our four characters, two of them used new backgrounds (Duster Dwarf and Orlesian Exile) and having those options really opened things up some. Yest I also had to do little tweaks along the way, like any time someone’s background rolls suggested they learn Heraldry, I so very much allowed a reroll. I like some weirdness in random distribution, but “I got +1 Cunning!” “I got Heraldry!” is not a comparison I like imposing on my players.

I also did the “fair” randomization approach for stats. Rather than rolling a bunch of 3d6 stats, I had everyone roll a fistfull of d8s. The # of 1’s was your communication, the # of 8’s was your willpower and so on. It meant everyone had positive stats, but it also put people on roughly equal footing and while still imposing some randomness. Definitely produced some interesting results (our Orlesian Exile had huge strength and communication, but no Dexterity). However, it reminded me that the stats are a little wonky.

Specifically, Magic (and to a lesser extent, Willpower) are kind of dump stats unless you’re a mage. That kind of hurts in a random distribution system, so I’d be tempted to change up the dice next time to either d6 for non-mages, or d8’s but make “magic” results into wildcard results, so you can put that point anywhere.

(Alternately, you can allow players to add magic to their spell resistance rolls, which is what I did, or would have done if the one mage they encountered had not gotten chewed to bits before she could do much than summon help).

Anyway, the big success is that mys wife (who played a mage, and upheld my experience that every mage who gets a choice learns Walking Bomb) was ok with the system. Her crunch tolerance is not very high (4e gives her hives) so any system she actually enjoys playing is worth making a note of. I’m looking forward to getting back to the Cold War game, but this was an enjoyable enough distraction that I definitely wan to take it for a spin again.

Stunted Dragons

I love the Stunt system in Dragon Age. The model is pretty simple: Roll 3d6 to do things, with one die (the dragon die) being an off color. If you roll a pair, you get a number of points to spend equal to the number showing on your dragon die. The points can be spent for a number of things like extra damage, moving some distance or otherwise being generally awesome. It’s fun, fast and colorful.

The problem is that there are stunts for combat and stunts for spellcasting, but none for other skill uses. This omission is frustrating because the stunt system is so cool that it’s hard not to want to see it show up in other situations. The problem, of course, is that there are so many specific and fiddly skills (sorry, “Focuses”) that you’d need to come up with stunts for all of them, and to be totally frank, that’s just not entirely practical. Coming up with Heraldry stunts stunts is an exercise that I do not really wish to partake in.

The trick is that the answer is already in the system, just not where you would expect it to be. It is not that the existing stunt exists to handle combat skills, it exists to handle fight scenes. By coming up with other type of scenes, it is possible to come up with other stunt lists that might be just as applicable.

This requires coming up with two different lists: types of scenes, and stunt actions. It’s important to acknowledge that neither list will be comprehensive, and it will behoove GMs to come up with new scene types and stunt effects as they run their own games.[1] For illustration, let’s start with a few scene types: Infiltration, Investigation, Social, Mingling and Travel.

Infiltration scenes are like they sound. The characters are trying to sneak in somewhere. Presumably, there are people on the lookout for them, and while dexterity and stealth are rolled the most here, other things may come up.

In an investigation scene, characters are trying to acquire knowledge, whether through research, investigation, interrogation or the like.

Social scenes are interaction driven, where the characters are obliged to the confines of the situation, like a party or some other formal event. Physical position and location are far less important than interaction and impressions on people around you.

Mingling scenes are more general than social scenes – there are people around, but there’s no structure holding anyone in place. This is really the default scene for just hanging around in a city or bar, where there are people around. Shopping expeditions and planning sessions are mostly mingling scenes.

Travel Scenes are general, like mingling scenes, except they take place in isolation. The environment is important, people not so much. These characters don’t have to be traveling for this kind of isolation, but its certainly the most common route to it.

Ok, this is by no means a comprehensive list, but it covers a lot of situations where the players are doing something and rolling dice to get it done. So with that as a basis, let’s look for some things stunts can do.

1 – Skirmish – As in combat, this allows the character to move two yards per point spent. (Infiltration, Mingling, Travel)
1 – Tell – (as in, a poker tell) Pick up one maybe-useful, random information about the situation. The GM can really just pull things off the top of his head here, like revealing someone is left handed, or seeing someone perform a suspicious action. (Investigative, Social, Mingling)
1 – Wow – If you have spent points to Impress someone (see below) each additional point increases the number of impressed people by one.(Social, Mingling)
2 – Find – Get your hands on something reasonably likely to be available (such as a drink at a party or suitable firewood in the wilderness) without interrupting your action – you were already on top if it. (Any)
2 – Lure – either with a come-hither glance or a well placed pebble, you send someone off in a useful direction. Move an NPC two yards. (Mingle, Infiltration)
2 – Read – Ask the GM “Who here is most likely to…” and get a good faith answer, though likelihood is not a guarantee. (Social, Mingling, Investigation)
3 – Impress – Someone else has noticed how good you are, and now has a favorable opinion of you. (Social, Mingling)
3 – Master – Doing this has given you as sense of how it’s done. Gain a +2 bonus to any further attempts to use the same focus for the rest of the scene. Does not stack. (Any)
3 – Guide – Allow an ally to benefit from your success as if they had rolled it (in addition to the benefit you gain).
4 – Follow up – The flow goes with you. Immediately take another action.(Any)
4 – Predict – Ask the GM an if question (such as, “if someone were going to attack, where would they come from?”) His answer is now true for the scene – if the event asked about happens, it will unfold (roughly) as outlined.(Any)

It’s almost certainly possible to come up with more of these, and in fact it’s desirable to do so, but they make a good starting point. Now, with these sets of tools, it’s easy to create a list. For example:

Social Stunts
SP Cost
1 Tell – (as in, a poker tell) Pick up one maybe-useful, random information about the situation. The GM can really just pull things off the top of his head here, like revealing someone is left handed, or seeing someone perform a suspicious action.
1+ Wow – If you have spent points to Impress someone (see below) each additional point increases the number of impressed people by one.
2 Find – Get your hands on something reasonably likely to be available (such as a drink at a party or suitable firewood in the wilderness) wihtout interrupting your action – you were already on top if it.
2 Read – Ask the GM “Who here is most likely to…” and get a good faith answer, though likelihood is not a guarantee.
3 Impress – Someone else has noticed how good you are, and now has a favorable opinion of you.
3 Master – Doing this has given you as sense of how it’s done. Gain a +2 bonus to any further attempts to use the same focus for the rest of the scene. Does not stack.
3 Guide – Allow an ally to benefit from your success as if they had rolled it (in addition to the benefit you gain).
4 Follow Up – The flow goes with you. Immediately take another action.
4 Predict – Ask the GM an if question (such as, “if someone were going to attack, where would they come from?”) His answer is now true for the scene – if the event asked about happens, it will unfold (roughly) as outlined.

Similar tables can be easily constructed for infiltration, mingling and so on, and I’ll probably do a page that does exactly that, but before I do, let’s open the floor to people who aren’t en route to Gencon: what scene or stunt effects should we add to this?

1 – This includes scene specific stunts. For example, if your fight scene has a specific prop, like a catapult, you might allow it to be fired s a two point stunt, causing whatever effect is appropriate. This is not a suitable stunt for EVERY fight, just for a specific one.

Dragon Age RPG: The Box

I had sworn to myself that today would not be another Dragon Age post. Seriously. I needed a break, and I even had a whole thing on Relationship maps written up. But I’m apparently a big liar and I’ve bumped that off to Friday, and I’m back on Dragon Age. The good news is that this is a much smaller point and one that, I think, is less contentious.

It’s about the box.

Folks might have noticed that every time I mention the box I get very worked up. There’s a bit of a story to that. See, back when WOTC announced they would be releasing a boxed starter set for 4e I got really excited. It sounded great: a box set with rules, battlemap, tokens and dice all done up with the great production values WOTC had brought to 4e so far, all at a reasonable price point. This was a great idea. A boxed set that was an all-in-one product that you could just give someone and they could start playing was a great gift. And if they were interested in what was in the box, then heck, maybe they’d buy some more 4e stuff.

The problem is that the reality was terrible. The problem wasn’t the rules (which were fine) or the components (which were actually fantastic) – it was the box. More specifically, it was the lack of a box. See, they had gone the cheap route of just wrapping it in a cardboard sleeve and wrapping it in a slipcase. Once you opened it, it stopped being a discrete thing and became a pile of parts.
This may sound like a trivial concern, and on paper it probably is, but in terms of actual experience this is huge. The box keeps the game together, and serves the dual purposes of providing practical organization (since it also holds your dice, pencils, character sheets, loose papers and so on) and providing a conceptual anchor of what the game is. Yes, once you’ve played a few games it’s not too hard to start thinking about games as abstractions, but when you’re getting your had around our weird little hobby, it helps a lot for it to be something concrete and specific – something you can point to.

So this is why the 4e set was such a let down for me, and why I am so obsessed about DARPG having an actual box.

Interestingly, there are also a few more boxed sets hitting the market, notably the new Warhammer RPG 3rd edition and the new Doctor Who RPG. Maybe it’s something in the water, but maybe there’s a bit more to it than that. Even over and above the creation of a self-contained product (because that’s another big advantage of the box set: it has, or should have, everything you need to play) this is one of the few ways a company can distinguish its product any more.

Even a few years ago, there was a gap between the big and small publishers that could be seen in the quality of their books. If you wanted really gorgeous production values, you needed to go big. Today, that line is thin enough that if you depend on it, then Luke Crane or John Harper are going to come up and kick you in the junk. The little guy knows how to make really gorgeous books now, so that’s not much of a differentiator.

The little guy doesn’t really know how to do boxed sets yet. This won’t last for too long, but the window currently exists, and I’ll be curious to see how many people shoot for it.

Dragon Age: Leaving Out the Egg

Back in the day, Betty Crocker rolled onto the market with mixes for making cakes and such. More women were working and there was less time available. The idea was to make it easier to make real home baked food with less time and effort. It was a good idea, and Betty Crocker did a number of really clever things with chemistry – all you needed to do was combine the mix and water then bake.

It failed miserably.

So Betty Crocker sat down and did some serious market research, and they discovered something. Women weren’t using the mixes because it was too easy – it felt like cheating. So Betty Crocker went back to the lab and changed the formula to remove the egg component so the cook needed to add an egg of her own. That was enough to make it feel “home made” and it was a tremendous success.

I mention this because this speaks to a lesson that’s useful for a lot of products: if you “leave out the egg”, which is to say create an opportunity for the user to invest a little bit of effort to make a product their own, they’ll be more invested in it, and more enthusiastic.

In turn, I bring this up because it seems to me that one of the most contentious elements of the Dragon Age RPG is something of an egg left out.

The issue at hand is random character creation. The DARPG creates stats in a decidedly old-school fashion – you roll 3d6 for each of 8 stats, and the sole concession to customization is that you get to swap two stats. The immediate reaction to this is usually a pretty straightforward “What the hell? Is it 1985?” and that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Random stat generation is an idea that’s been pretty much set aside in favor of more player choice for a very long time.

The reasons for this are obvious – if stats are important and impactful, you can create a situation where a player with bad luck ends up with a character that’s not much fun to play when compared to his friend who rolled much better. AD&D was a really bad experience for a lot of us who got exposed to the difference between a fighter with a 12 strength and one with an 18/00, and it really soured people on the whole idea. After all, a lot of game design is fixing the problems you had with the last game you played.

There are some real problems with randomly generating stats or other character elements, but it has some real advantages that have been set aside along with the limitations. A random spread of stats has some of the advantages of an oracle – it can suggest ideas and patterns that would not otherwise be obvious. This idea of “what do you do with what you have?” is a tonal one in addition to a mechanical one – less badass but perhaps more heroic depending on perspective. That idea is a potent enough one that a lot of work has been put in over the years to try to capture this part of randomization without risking the flaws.

Random creation is also very quick – spending points requires a number of decisions that depend upon further knowledge of the system to do right. That can be something of a drag, and can end up putting the cart before the horse. It’s often the first decision of the game, so you don’t want to make it a painful one. The randomization also tends to produce more organic spreads – point buys tend to result in all-or-nothing spikes.

Now, this is not an assertion that randomization is the only way to go. There are a lot of other ways to approach it[1]. But I did want to lay out that it’s not as crazy an idea as it might first appear. Most specifically, these benefits sync up with the goals of a game for newbies, notably simplified choices and speed of play.

That’s all well and good, but here’s the thing that struck me during yesterday’s discussion. There are a lot of ways to address the issues of randomness – 4d6 and drop one, roll 12 and keep the best 8, roll then sort; the list is endless and has been kicked around for decades. It would take maybe a sentence or two to mention these options, so the choice not to do so is an interesting one.[2]

And this is where I come back to eggs. To leave out the egg from an RPG, it needs to be something that is obvious and trivial to address. Certainly, every RPG has a certain amount of egglessness – house rules are our bread and butter – but it is a little bit trickier to put in something that is (for lack of a better term) blatantly trivial. If you can do so, especially for someone with very little experience with games, then it can be a real win because it makes the first step much less scary, Once they’ve made the obvious house rule, they’ve crossed an invisible threshold into a sense of ownership of the game.[3]

The rules for generating stats feel like an egg left out. There are so many possible ways to address it if you feel it’s a problem that it seems like a gimmee. It’s easy to see and easy to make he change without disrupting the rest of the game in any way.

The thing I’m left wondering is whether or not it was intentional. If it was accidental, then it’s a lucky thing, but if it was intentional, then it’s freaking brilliant. And if it was intentional, then man, I am going to find a way to buy Chris Pramas a drink, because that is some badass ninja stuff.[4]

I am, by the way, entirely aware that I’m taking a very positive (and somewhat quirky) perspective on the Dragon Age RPG, and some of it absolutely hinges on a certain amount of hope regarding what’s still coming. My predictions and expectations could be totally wrong, and even if they’re right, the whole game could crash and burn for unrelated reasons. I’m pretty comfortable with the idea that others aren’t going to share that perspective, so objections and counterpoints are welcome, but I’m likely to stick with my optimism for the time being.

1 – One alternate example is equitable randomness, where the randomness determines which good thing you get, rather than whether or not you get a good thing. REIGN chargen is based entirely on this model, and the DARPG uses it for the bonuses you get from your backgrounds.

2 – Now, here I make a brief aside. This is an obvious omission, and it’s one of many obvious omissions in the game. You can tell they’re obvious omissions because the reader’s first instinct is to think “Why didn’t they include THIS?”. With that in mind, take a look at the credits page for the game – this is a pretty good list of folks with some serious stuff under their belt, and it’s safe to say that they thought of most of these things, but they made the conscious (and ballsy) decision not to do so. Paring things down to 64 pages required resisting the completist urge of game design, and that’s not an easy thing. It would have been easy to do this all in a standard 256 page full color hardcover, and that probably would have been a very good game with moderate commercial success, but it would have been just like any other game out there. The risks involved in the design are the risks necessary for this game to maybe make the jump to broader adoption.

3 – This flies in the face of the school of thought that says rules should be complete and that if they require house ruling, then they’re bad rules. That’s all well and good for pure design, but house ruling is engaging, and the power of that should not be underestimated.

4 – And, hey, on the off chance that I do get an answer from Chris, I have one more question: is it a real box? Please please please tell me it’s a real box.

EDIT – One last bit of credit where it’s due. The Betty Crocker story is from a fantastic book called “Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950’s America” by Laura Shapiro. It’s one of those books like Pollan’s Botany of Desire which is about one thing, but is really about a number of other very interesting things. Well worth a read.

Dragon Age RPG

The Dragon Age RPG is one I’ve been excited about for a while, not because it’s based on a video game I’m nuts for, but because of its avowed goal of being a game to bring people into the hobby. Games make that claim all the time, but there were three things going on with DARPG that raised my interest: It’s a boxed set (hopefully a real one, not a faux one like the 4e starter set), it’s got a hook into a good franchise that is neither too weird nor too overwhelming but can still bring in eyeballs, and it’s by Green Ronin, a company that I would describe as pretty darn sharp.

As if to demonstrate that sharpness, Green Ronin put DARPG up for preorder recently, and offered up a free PDF along with the preorder. It boggles my mind that this is not standard practice, but it’s not, so GR gets props for a smart move. They get an initial wave of buzz and interest based off people reading and talking about the PDF, and they hopefully can build on that when the actual game releases.

It’s also a move that benefits me a lot because, hey, I get to read it. I’m always happy to cheer on my own enlightened self interest.

Here’s the short form: The Dragon Age RPG looks to have the shortest distance from opening the box to playing at the table of any game I’ve seen in over a decade, possibly since red box D&D.[1] It is not a revolutionary game by any stretch of the imagination, and for most gamers with a few games under it’s belt, it’s going to seem absolutely tired. Old ideas like random chargen and hit points are all over the place. With the exception of the Dragon Die and the stunt system, experienced gamers aren’t goignt fo find much new here.

But that makes it exactly what it should be. As a game for existing gamers, Dragon Age is ok, but not as impressive as other Green Ronin offerings. As a game for a new gamer, it’s exactly right.

First, by sticking to very strongly established mechanics (many of which will be at least conversationally familiar to people who’ve played video games) with a minimum of complexity, they’ve made a game that is easy to learn to play. The simplicity, brevity (main rulebook is 64 pages) and the clarity[2] combine to make a game that can be learned from the text, without depending on arcane oral tradition. I think back to my youth and this seems a very big deal.

Second, the setting is equally familiar. Not just because some players will know it from the video game, but because the video game’s setting is designed to be quickly recognizable. Elves live in the woods and have bows. Dwarves live underground and have axes. Humans run the show. Magic is mysterious and risk-filled. Sure, each of these points has more depth as you drill into them, but the basic are immediately recognizable to anyone with a little pop culture knowledge.

Last, the game minimizes the barriers to play by avoiding the temptation of weird dice. By making it playable with nothing but the dice you can salvage from a Risk box, you get a couple of advantages. There’s no awkwardness as you finish reading the rules but find yourself needing to wait until you’ve taken a trip to that creepy store [3] to get supplies. There’s more of a sense of the familiar. And perhaps best of all, you can scale up with your group size – adding a few more d6s is a lot easier than, say, having to share one set of polyhedrals.

Put it all in a box set and you’ve got a product that I’m really excited about. I could see giving this game as a gift to a non-player, and that’s almost unprecedented.

Now, it’s not all sunshine and puppies. As noted the game is pretty simple (though I admit it’s at a level of simplicity I dig, since I think my wife would not be bothered by it) and a few corners got cut to support the size and the release schedule. You can’t play a Grey Warden, which is kind of a kick in the head, since that’s so central to the computer game. The logic’s clear: this set covers levels 1-5, next one will be 6-10 (then 11-15 and 16-20 or so I understand) and subsequent sets will be adding rules for things like specialty careers including things like Grey Warden. I suspect we’ll also get magic items and runes in later sets too.

There are a few layout decisions that raise my eyebrow – magic precedes combat, which is weird in terms of the order rules are explained for example – but they’re all quickly set aside by the presence of indexes, glossary and comprehensive reference pages. It should not be so exciting to me to see a game do what should be the basics, but it is.

The sample adventure is in the GM’s book rather than in its own booklet. This makes sense in terms of cost, and it’s not a bad thing, but I admit I flash back to my well worn copy of Keep on the Borderlands, and I regret that as long as they were trying to recapture the magic of redbox, they didn’t revive that tradition.

And that’s really what’s going on here. Unlike the old school, this is not an attempt to recreate old D&D, rather, it’s an attempt to answer the same questions, only with decades of experience with how it went the first time. This makes the choices of what rules are included (and which ones aren’t included) really fascinating to me. The Green Ronin guys know their stuff, and you can assume every choice in the design is a deliberate one.

Choices like a very traditional hit point and damage system are not made because they couldn’t think of another way, but rather because that choice maximized the accessibility of the game. On reading, it really feels like they pulled it off, and I’m genuinely excited to give it a play sometime and find out. One way or another I wish them luck: success with a game designed to bring new players into the hobby benefits us all.

1 – The only other real contender in the intervening time is Feng Shui. There are simpler games, sure, but they lack the structure to answer the question of “OK, what do I do now?”.

2 – Randomization has one huge benefit for new players – it removes optimization choices. There’s more to it than that, but by putting the harder decision of chargen in the hands of the dice, game-stopping questions are removed from play.

3- Yes, that’s an unfair characterization, but not everyone is lucky enough to be near one of the many friendly, clean, well lit gamestores with helpful staff. And even for those who are, the store is an unknown, and unknowns are scary and off-putting, especially for teenagers.