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Kill Your Cliffhangers

cliffhangerThe Invisible Sun kickstarter has me thinking a lot about how to handle gameplay in a world of erratic schedules and spotty attendance. I think there are a lot of techniques for dealing with this that I either take for granted or don’t think about very much, and I would like to really unpack them into something useful.

The rub is that there are two different categories of issues here, one that stems from an excess of time, one that stems from a shortage. There are a lot of great techniques for dealing with an excess of time – flashbacks, one off scenes, bluebooking, parallel play and so on. These are great ways for players to participate in the game outside of the time at the table, and these contributions can be pulled into play. This is fun, and I’ll totally get back to it at another time, but my real problem is at the other end of the spectrum.

What can you do when there’s not enough time to play and scheduling is a problem? As folks get older and there start being things like kids and more demanding careers, this is a real concern. This is certainly the space I’m in, and I’ve put no small amount of work into finding tricks for dealing with this.

The first and most critical change has entailed a change to the underlying structure of the games I run. This takes a number of different forms, but their shared purpose is to make it logical for players to come and go with some frequency.

The most straightforward solution to this is to support these comings and goings in game. This isn’t hard if the game has some underlying weirdness – there can be some in-setting reason for people to become dimensionally untethered, slip out of time or fall back to the waking world at inopportune moments (and re-appear just as easily). I infer that Invisible Sun does this through The Shadow, and it’s a good trick.

This trick can be used in a lot of places, but not everywhere. Sometimes it’s just a poor match for the setting, and you need to figure out another approach. The solution I’be found works best is a combination of fixed locations, episodic play and an ensemble cast.

Fixed location games are those that take place in one general location, such as a city or a space station. The nature of the place is such that adventure and adventure opportunities come to the location, and the heroes only rarely need to venture outside of it. Examples include Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine, and any number of fantasy cities, with the best examples probably found in shared fiction, like Sanctuary or Liavek.

One element of this location is that characters need to have a role within its context. This might be a position of importance (head of security) or just proximity (it’s the port they call home) but whatever form it takes, it serves as the thing the character is doing when not in play. This is not just for color – it is the thing that provides the explanation for why they’re not available. Even if it would be great to have Security Officer Rimbaldi along on this bug hunt, he’s got a matter to deal with over in the diplomat wing, and he can’t get free.

This idea of a role creates a problem for using starship crews or magical academies as the heart of a fixed location. It’s not impossible, but you need to take steps to explicitly address why some people are only available some of the time.

Even without the role, the fixed location makes it very easy for the group to reconnect whenever necessary. If the game is on the move, you not only need to justify a departure, but also figure out how people get back together, and that can be even more of a bear.

Episodic Play is one of those ideas that seems like it should be simple, but fights against a lot of habit. As the name suggests, a session of play is more like an episode of a television show than a part of a serial. There are a lot of implications to this, but the biggest one flies in the face of decades of GM advice, some of which I have authored myself – it means you need to retire the cliffhanger.

Yes, the cliffhanger is a time-honored tradition, one very strongly baked into our lore. When you see a good depiction of gaming in the media, it almost always ends with the GM introducing something terrible then announcing “and we’ll see you all next week!”, to the collected groans of the table.

So this is hard advice to give, but if you have uneven attendance, cliffhangers are going to make you’re life harder. Not only may you lose players between cliffhanger and resolution, you also need to deal with players who missed the cliffhanger coming in for the resolution, and there is not a lot that takes the air out of a cliffhanger like needing to re-explain it.

In the absence of cliffhangers, the goal becomes to wrap up a complete arc within one session, which requires a lot of attention to pacing. Thankfully there are a few tricks to simplify things, both in prep and in play.

In prep, take a little bit of extra time to think about the exit ramps from your scenario, sort of like inverted hooks. The iconic example of this is the dungeon – a 5 room dungeon might make for a night’s entertainment, but a 50 room labyrinth is going to leave you ending mid-dungeon. That may sound anemic, but look around online – there are a lot of very good small dungeon scenarios out there, and they’re worth a look. Owen K.C. Stephens in particular has a knack for them.

In play, be more aggressive in your use of the “camera” as GM. When it comes time to frame a scene, do it aggressively and generously. By aggressively, I mean start the action close to the action, and by generously I mean do it in a way that assumes the characters have been smart and competent. Using scene framing to screw players is a great way to destroy trust, but doing it generously is a great way to get their buy in.

By the same token, know when to tie things off and move onto the next scene. You don’t always need to do this – sometimes players want to sit around and chew the fat. But if they’re doing that 2 hours into a 4 hour session, then keep things moving. But if you can get this sense of timing down, then short scenes become a viable option. That may seem a small thing, but if your table is comfortable resolving some things quickly, then a lot more can be happening in your world without it needing to be all epic all the time.

Short scenes also mean that if your game comes to a conclusion at the 3 hour mark in a 4 hour session, you have things to do with that last hour. That relieves a lot of the stress to time things out just so.

I’ve mentioned time twice so far, but it bears mention a third time. Once you start looking to get in a full session in the window you have available, it helps to watch the clock. This one is hard for me – it feels counterintuitive. I want to get into the flow of the moment and time will take care of itself. But that’s a selfish instinct. I don’t need to be a slave to the map, but I should be aware of it.

We’re just skimming the surface here, but this is one of those areas where it’s worth studying what makes for good television. You don’t need to go full Prime Time Adventures, but it’s worth seeing what makes the episodic TV you like exciting to you and seeing how to translate that to the table.

The Ensemble Cast is another idea easily traced to television where the idea is that the entire cast is larger than you’ll see in any given episode. Star Trek provides numerous examples of this – the crew of any given ship is usually larger than the number of people with actual lines in an episode. There are not a lot of techniques associated with this idea, but it’s an important concept to bear in mind. Not only does it make the shifting cast (based on attendance) seem more appropriate, it impacts prep and gives the GM explicitly permission to narrow the scope of what to prepare.

What this means may depend on the GM. On the practical side, it may mean not throwing a stealth mission in when all the thieves are out on spring break. On the narrative side, it may mean you have a little bit more leeway bringing in characters personal issues because you know the scope is narrower.

***

There is one more option that I explicitly have not mentioned here: Friendly Mechanics.

Many games have rules that make flexible scheduling easier. Often, these loosen the 1:1 relationship between character and player. This may be as lightweight was a system that allows or encourages players to play NPCs in scenes that their main character is not involved in, or it could be as structured as Ars Magica’s system of creating several different characters and then choosing who to play situationally.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this space, but I do not consider it essential for one simple reason – it’s not to everyone’s taste. I can do fixed locations, episodic play and an ensemble cast with almost any game out there, shaped to the tastes of the players of that game. But once I start changing the rules, that’s a whole other ball of wax.

It’s a ball of wax I’m happy to tackle, but it’s a topic for another time.

Tarnished Iron and Debt

Women with a glowing metal gauntlet raised and ready to kick some ass.Conversation on twitter with @robweiland and @hippywizard lead to me spending my lunch writing the house rules I would use to address that grumpiness about dracheneisen in 7th Sea.  And thus, I share. 

In first edition 7th Sea, one of the most delightful things about the Eisen was that their signature was punching evil in the face with a dracheneisen gauntlet. In 2nd edition, this has been replaced with creepy magic, and it feels like an unfair tradeoff. Dracheneisen still exists in the setting, but it’s explicitly put out of the reach of starting characters.

I don’t like this much. The easy solution is to just say it’s purchaseable as a more expensive signature item. Technically, the rules suggest that a dracheneisen item would be worth 10 points, but considering what 5 points gets you, that seems extreme. So if you want the quick fix, add the following:

NEW ADVANTAGE: Heir to Iron (5 points, Eisen Only)

You own a dracheneisen artifact, either a heavy melee weapon, a piece of armor or a panzerhand. Describe it in detail, bearing in mind that it should have a storied history.

  • It is indestructible by any normal means
  • It has all the benefits of a signature item (see the advantage of that name).
  • It glows when within 30′ of a monster
  • If brandished before a monster, monstrous abilities which cost 1 danger point cost 2. If the item leaves the scene, the benefit is lost
  • If it is a weapon, it causes one extra wound when striking a character with a Sorcery Advantage or Monster Quality.
  • If it is a piece of armor, once per scene you may spend a hero point to avoid the automatic dramatic wound from a firearm
  • If it is a Panzerhand, and you are fighting in the Eisenfaust style, it acts as both armor and weapon.

NEW BACKGROUND: Iron Heir (Eisen Only)

You are the heir to a proud tradition, embodied by the dracheneisen weapon handed down to you. You must live up to it, or die trying.

Quirk: Earn a hero Point when you opt not use your Dracheneisen artifact in a situation where it would be helpful because the foe or task is unworthy.

Advantages: Heir to Iron

Skills: Athletics, Intimidate, Scholarship, Warfare, Weaponry


However, if you want to buy into the idea that dracheneisen should be rare and is really worth 10 steps of a story, then consider the following:

NEW ADVANTAGE: Tarnished Dracheneisen (4 points, Eisen only)

Dracheneisen cannot be destroyed, but it can become tarnished. No one is entirely sure how this happens – the Eisen say that it can happen when the weapon is shamed by its wielder, but alchemists are skeptical, expecting that the process is more mundane. Whatever the explanation, it can be cleaned, but not easily. The Eisen say that only the blood of monsters can clean Dracheneisen, and that is not terribly far from he truth.

You own a dracheneisen artifact, either a heavy melee weapon, a piece of armor or a panzerhand. Describe it in detail, bearing in mind that it should have a storied history.

  • It is indestructible by any normal means
  • It has all the benefits of a signature item (see the advantage of that name).

It is possible to “unlock” the other attributes of the item through stories. There are three levels of purification, each of which requires a 2 step story (usually 1. Find a rare monster, 2. Kill the hell out of it).

  • After the first story, It glows when within 30′ of a monster
  • After the second story, If brandished before a monster, monstrous abilities which cost 1 danger point cost 2. If the item leaves the scene, the benefit is lost
  • After the third and final story, it gains a benefit based on its form:
    • If it is a weapon, it causes one extra wound when striking a character with a Sorcery Advantage or Monster Quality.
    • If it is a piece of armor, once per scene you may spend a hero point to avoid the automatic dramatic wound from a firearm
    • If it is a Panzerhand, and you are fighting in the Eisenfaust style, it acts as both armor and weapon.

NEW BACKGROUND: Trubeneisen

Your name is a storied one, but it has been shamed. You carry an artifact that is marked by that shame. It will be made clean again. So you swear.

Quirk: Gain a hero point when you take a risk to protect your good name.

Advantages: Survivalist, Tarnished Dracheneisen

Skills: Athletics, Intimidate, Scholarship, Warfare, Weaponry


OPTIONAL RULE: Debt

Sometimes circumstances result in a character getting an advantage that they haven’t paid for. If this is just a momentary circumstance, then all is well – fate giveth and fate taketh away. However, sometimes it’s a real change to the character that has not been “paid for” in points to story.

In those circumstances, the player has accrued a debt equal to the number of story steps they would have needed to gain the advantage in question. Debt can be “paid off” with a story equal to the size of the debt. If a character somehow accrues more than one debt, track them separately, and remove them separately (that is, if Gaston has a debt of 3 and a debt of 2, they can be removed with a 3 step story and a 2 step story. it need not be a 5 step story, though that would work too).

At the beginning of a session, when the GM collects danger points, she gains one extra danger point for every point of debt among the characters present. a

The Expected Outcome

This is one of those ideas that is simple in any context other than gaming: In most situations, when you describe something happening (“Diana Thunderstone punched the bruiser in the jaw…”), there are clear consequences that you can also describe (“…and he went down like a sack of bricks.”)

In gaming, we introduce uncertainty into this equation, so that if Diana’s player rolls higher than a 10, the guy goes down like a sack of bricks, but if she rolls less than 10, he doesn’t. We introduce different layers of complication to this (Maybe she only makes a little progress towards knocking him out, or maybe she takes some damage or whatever).

But if you peel back all that machinery, it comes back to the simple idea of an expected outcome. It’s the way things are supposed to go.

For all that this is a very simple idea, it has roots spread throughout gaming, many of which come back to the question of how we decide what is a reasonable expected outcome (and by extension, who gets to decide it). This is complicated further by the fact that we deal in realms of the imagination, which means finding any kind of shared agreement on what is reasonable can be tricky. How tall is a giant? How much weight can a pegasus carry? Can painting a vampire protect them from the sun? The potential array of questions is endless, and while it is possible to answer some of them, we end up having to turn to other tricks to deal with them.

The most common trick is, of course, to fold these things into a system, so the system provides the answer. Often the system (usually including some amount of randomization) fills the gap of all the things we don’t know to allow us to come to an agreed upon answer. Analyzing every single detail of skill and position makes it very cumbersome to determine if Khadgar hits the orc, so we take that uncertainty and throw it in a box labeled “To hit roll”, and now we have an answer. Or, rather, we have reduced it to a narrow range of expected outcomes, and given ourselves the tools to select between them.

But even an example that simple still depends on a broader idea of an expected outcome. There are the “obvious” assumptions – Khadgar needs to be within reach of the Troll, he has to have his sword, he needs to not be incapacitated and so on. System addresses many of these, but they are sufficiently obvious that there is rarely much need to look anything up or otherwise step out of the action. More tenuous are things situational events – what if the orc is distracted? What if it’s knocked on its ass?

System can address these, and a well constructed system (like 5e) offers tools (like advantage & disadvantage) to quickly systematize edge cases. However, this is one of those areas where GM skill and experience plays a strong role in making the right ruling and continuing to move on. The most obvious example in almost any system is the question of when to roll the dice. I mention this casually, but the decision of when to roll and when not to roll is incredibly powerful and usually falls explicitly into the GM’s hands.

Now, this idea of an expected outcome tends to hover over any situation in play. If there are greatly divergent expectations at the table, that creates a problem. If there’s great divergence between the expectations of the players/GM and the system, that can be a deal breaker (in fact, many game designs begin from this disconnect, looking to deliver an outcome closer to their expectations).

It is super interesting to look at PBTA in this regard – it has a weird relationship with expected outcomes (as it does with difficulty), and there’s a case that you might be better off going in without expected outcomes. At the other end of the spectrum, diceless games lean very heavily on expected outcomes, usually largely dependent on the GM’s sensibilities.

To my mind, this reveals something kind of critical about GM power. When you talk about giving GM power, I think people imagine very different things, often involving dropping elephants from the sky. It gets confused all the further when you have SUPER STRICT limitation on the GM except they’re still the owner of the entire fictional world – not sure what problem that solves.

But for me, when I say I want the GM to have a lot of power – more than the designer – I am speaking directly to expected outcomes. I think that system is a poor substitute for good judgement in deciding what outcomes(or range of outcomes) would most satisfy that table at that moment, and it seems silly to not acknowledge that authority. It’s not about purple beams from the sky, it’s about responsiveness. It’s about the moment of play.

Or at least that’s the expected outcome.

2d6 and 3 out of 5

On a very primal level, one of my favorite things about the various Powered by the Apocalypse games is that they use 2d6 for resolution. It’s just about the simplest possible way to generate a curve, using the most ubiquitously available dice. The math is easy and fast. It uses an even number of dice, which may seem like a small thing, but is important when you want to buy cool dice (you don’t want to know how much I paid for the metal set I picked up at Gencon).

But PBTA was far from the first 2d6 system, and and I can’t think of another such system that has been so sticky. A big part of that is, I think, that PBTA has driven forth a very concrete means of reading the dice that only generates 3 outcomes1 with very little player training. Once the player has internalized that 7-9 is the middle result, they can easily infer whether they’be done better or worse.

There’s some interesting knock-on effects to this. First, it rewards the simplicity of the dice. It would be easy to produce a more nuanced curve with more or different dice, but that could impede the ease of learning that core number. It would also introduce a temptation to get fiddle, which would also detract from the simplicity.

It also allows for the designer to play GM in a very concrete way. The design of a move is a decision bout how an activity should look – that’s one of its big strengths. It’s apparently simple design actually conceals something a little more complicated. I’ve talked about this before, but the most direct way this is expressed is the range of outcomes. Consider:

10+ Success with Benefit
7-9 Success
6- Complication

Vs.

10+ Success
7-9 Success with Complication
6- Problem

Vs.

10+ Success with Complication
7-9 Not Quite Failure
6- Ha ha ha ha ha

As you look through PBTA material, you can find all three of these patterns (and others) reflecting the designer’s take on that particular sort of action in the context of the genre. Sometimes this is applied with grace and nuance, sometimes it’s shotgunned across things as an expression of the designer’s taste. Which is fine – PBTA is an opinionated game system, so this is a feature.

But, of course, it makes me go hmm.

If one wanted to start from the core idea (a simply expressed narrow range of outcomes) it would probably be possible to create an ur-list of maybe 5 outcomes. You could theoretically produce three sets of moves out of it (high, medium, low) out of that set. So, suppose the list is:

  • movespectrumSuccess with Added benefit
  • Success
  • Success at a cost
  • Mitigated Failure/Complications
  • Disaster

So a “nice” move would be

10+ Success with Added benefit
7-9 Success
6- Success at a cost

 

And an average move would be

10+ Success
7-9 Success at a cost
6- Mitigated Failure/Complications

while an “unkind” move would be

10+ Success at a cost
7-9 Mitigated Failure/Complications
6- Disaster

 

Such an approach would not need to replace any existing moves so much as simply provide a set of guidelines for whipping up moves on the fly. And that works on paper, but it has one big drawback – it is effectively a back donor for inserting difficulty into PBTA and that is probably a very bad thing indeed.

So I’m not so sure there’s much use for this idea in the context of PBTA as anything but a shiny bauble. However, as an indicator for how to maybe steal a chunk of PBTA tech and use it elsewhere, this may prove a very interesting starting point.

  1. Yes, there are ultra-positive results in some builds, but they are something of a sidebar. ↩︎

Signifier Stats

A lot of games have a category of stats (often called something else) which may have some mechanical effect, but are most critical as signifiers of player intent. I’m calling them signifier stats because I need to call them something, because I’ve found myself thinking about them a bit.

The most famous and obvious example of a signifier stat is alignment in D&D. It’s not a perfect communicator, of course, but it does a decent job of conveying the kind of play that the player is looking forward to. Choosing Lawful Good is not (usually) an indicator of an interesting a shady political play or bloodthirsty mayhem. It’s incomplete – sometimes an alignment is chosen for contrast (the one honest man among thieves, or the secret betrayer) or because the player has seized upon a particular nuance (The paladin who is super lawful, but who does not recognize the current ruling power as legitimate, or any number of doomed heroes). But in any case, alignment is n obvious part of the communication, and when your whole playgroup chooses Chaotic Good, they’re telling you something.

A less famous but even more clear cut example is Good and Bad Stuff from the Amber Diceless RPG (and its successor, Lords of Gossamer and Shadow). Amber characters are bought with 100 points. Unspent points translate into “good stuff”, and you can overspend a little an pay it off by taking a few points of “bad stuff” . Effectively, if you spend 105 points on stats and powers, you have 5 points of bad stuff. If you spend 95 points, you have 5 good stuff.

Because Amber is a diceless system, “stuff” is where a lot of things dictated by luck come into play. Lots of good stuff? Things go your way. Bad stuff? It can feel like the universe has painted a target on your back. This was not entirely reliable – for many GM’s good stuff merely meant terrible things only happened frequently rather than constantly – but it established a spread of expectations at the table.

When the game first came out, I thought of this as a balance mechanic. It was tied into points, wasn’t it? Clearly, the point was to penalize players who overspend and reward those who didn’t. But in time I cam to realize it was and of the reverse – players taking bad stuff were agreeing to make the GM’s life easier and were getting rewarded for it. Players buying Good Stuff were buying a degree of protection, and paying for that1.

Now, collecting player intent before play starts is one of those things that it’s just worth doing. There’s no substitute for talking with your players about expectations before starting play. But unless you are playing a very thematically constrained game, that conversation will probably reveal a spectrum of possibilities that do not necessarily indicate where each player wants to go. Even if everyone agrees they want swashbuckling high adventure, having an explicit indicator of the kind of play each player is going for within that space can be a super useful idea.

Obviously, this purpose can also be served by direct hooks on the sheet – things like backgrounds or aspects – but those may not necessarily answer the same questions. Signifier stats occupy a space between the tone of the game as a whole and the specific character hooks, and used properly, they offer a bridge between the two.

To illustrate using an amber example, let’s say we have agreed on a nasty, political-and-fisticuffs game of Amber. I’ve made my character and bought a connection to my parent, one of the princes or princesses of Amber.

If I am playing a Good Stuff character, my relationship with my parent is probably pretty healthy. They’re quite possibly still a jerk, and they may yank me around of army own good, but I know they have my back. If I buy more allies over time, they’ll be reasonably solid – betrayal is a risk, but it’s the exception.

If I’m playing a Bad Stuff character, my parent may very well consider me one more playing piece. I benefit some because I’m a useful pawn, but we both know this is a relationship of expedience. If I gain allies, I must constantly watch my back, since I am in a nest of vipers. The occasional person I feel I can trust is a treasure (and a liability)

I could explicitly articulate these things with each connection and with each relationship, but with a signifier stat, I don’t need to. That saves hassle, yes, but it also means that players who are uncomfortable explicitly seizing the narrative can still express a preference. That’s some pretty useful mojo.

  1. But, critically, the game never said this was the case. Many players picked their Good and Bad stuff rating for entirely non-mechanical reasons because of the type of character the played ↩︎

The Size of Aspects

I’ve remarked on a few occasions that an essential decision in Fate is how big aspects are. That is, should aspects be the big, important signifiers of what really matters, or should they be more of a language to express the moment in mechanical terms.

As Fate has evolved, it has gone more down the second path, and there are a lot of benefits to that. It is fairly easy to turn any scene into a handful of aspects, and by extension have the baseline mechanical attributes you need to run the scene. That’s a useful tool.

But it’s important to note that plenty of other system can do it. If I’m doing a Risus or WaRP variant, I can assign d6 pools to any arbitrary thing you can think of (On Fire 3d, Deep Shadows 2d). In Cortex Plus I can do similar things with a die value (on Fire d8, Deep Shadows d6). If the game has reasonably flexible descriptive mechanics, it’s pretty doable.

In this context, the main feature of Fate is that it’s simple. In each of the examples above, a little bit of thought needs to be given to assigning a rating. Is this a 3d6 fire, or a 4d fire? What’s the difference? Sometimes that can be easy to intuit (especially if you know the system very well) but it’s still an extra step. In Fate, it is simple On Fire or it’s not.

Obviously that’s double edged. There are times when you might want granularity, but that is the nature of tradeoffs. The right answer is the one you need right this minute.

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.