Monthly Archives: October 2010

Crunchy Aspects

Ok, here’s the thing – Aspects make for a great shorthand because most of the “rules” that surround them are actually based around our shared understanding of a word or words. If I say a guy is STRONG, there’s not a lot of confusion regarding what that means, nor is there much confusion regarding when that might be helpful. Lifting furniture? Check. Smashing stuff? Check. Reciting Poetry? Not so much.

Even more, the reality is that for 90-odd percent of aspects, that works just fine. That’s enough that it’s entirely possible to play and enjoy the game without worrying about the edge cases. At the very worst, it might be necessary to make the occasionally impromptu ruling, but that’s just not terribly onerous.


I am entirely aware that there are players who like the open ended nature of aspects, but at the same time desire a little more structure to them. These players may not have thought of it, but they would enjoy the benefits of a common pool of aspects which they can draw from and establish a shared understanding. Such explicit aspects would serve several purposes, not least of which would be tying mechanics to specific aspects, possibly even doing away with stunts entirely in favor of what I will call “Rich Aspects”.

In the land of rich aspects, most aspects would remain unchanged, but the manner they’re presented would be expanded, using write-ups in a manner that might be more in keeping with the way that powers get written up in some other games.[1] A Rich aspect will be composed of five parts: a description, bonuses, benefits, penalties and complications. Bonuses and Benefits are things the player can invoke the aspect for, either for a bonus (for bonuses, natch) or a narrative element for benefits. Penalties and complications are situations where the aspect might be compelled, either when acting (penalties) or as plot seeds or events (complications).

For Example:[2]

Soldier of the Empire
Service in the imperial legions gives a man the opportunity to see the world at only moderate risk of life and limb. The imperial infantry is well respected for its discipline and prowess, and a man who returns from his five years with all his parts can expect easy employment with the guard of any of the great houses.
Fight with sword or spear, set up or break down camp, march, walk sentry duty

Collect a small pension. Find a war buddy. Immaculately maintain your gear.

Pass as something other than a military man, disobey a rightful order.

Be recognized by an old friend (or enemy). Get called back up.

There are two benefits to this approach. First, for players, this has one of the benefits that keys offer – explicit clarity. For game designers, it makes it possible to make aspects a more mechanically central part of the game, creating aspect lifepaths or making specific aspects into necessary gateways to other aspects, powers or skills.

Now, me, I’m sufficiently lazy that they only reason I’d really delve into this is as a proof of concept, but I admit it tickles some crunch-happy part of my brain, even as it otherwise makes me flinch.

1 – Look, if this sounds absolutely heretical then just keep moving along. I am aware this is a drastic departure from the normal way of doing Fate, but that’s rather the point.

2 – Curiously, I did write all this in advance of Wednesday’s discussion. That said, that discussion makes me more inclined to explore this idea a little further later, just because it, and examples like Houses of the Blooded, suggest it may have more legs than I originally thought.

The Role of Spending

There are a few games out there (FUDGE was one of them) where game currency (fate points, bennies, actions points, drama dice, whatever) are also experience points. I do not like this model at _all_ because it presents players with a decision that has such a profound opportunity cost as to be no fun at all. If you spend the point on a roll, you’ve “wasted” it, but if you don’t use it on the roll, you might get hosed. This sort of model seems to have its roots in the days when a character could die from a single bad roll, so the calculation was more “If I don’t spend this now, I may never get to spend it at all.” I don’t play games like that anymore, and I’m happy to not have to think that way.

The biggest culprit in this for me was 7th Sea, a game I have a profound love-hate relationship with. Stylistically, it was exactly the sort of game where you would expect the currency (drama dice) to be spent hand over fist in feats of derring-do, but the incentive was to hoard them as aggressively as possible. I ended up inverting the system and saying that *spent* drama dice turned into XP, and that got the spigots flowing again.

As I was thinking about TSOY’s keys, I realized this model could work very nicely for Fate as well, if you were to run an XP heavy game. You can treat Fate points as XP by keeping a bowl in the middle of the table. Every time a player spends a FP, it goes into the bowl. The GM might also randomly toss into the bowl when he wants to reward general awesomeness. At night’s end, the points in the bowl are converted to XP and divided among the players.[1]

This is a bit of sleight of hand, but it speaks to the kinds of behaviors one wants to encourage in a game. If the currency of the game is something you want to see used, then set up the rules to encourage it. If you worry that currency will be unfunny or game breaking there’s an instinct to impose artificial limitations. Don’t. Instead, ask if it’s what you really want.

4e’s action points raise this question quite effectively. They’re very limited because their function (allowing an extra action) is crazily unbalancing if it’s allowed to stack. Because of that limitation, the flow of a potential non-XP reward is strongly curtailed. In contrasts, consider AP’s as presented in Eberron (3e) , simply granting one or more D6’s of bonus to a roll. It’s useful, and can even help land some big hits, but stockpiling and multiples are much easier to handle.With these, DMs could hand them out for good roleplaying or bringing snacks or for engaging aspect or belief type mechanics.

While I’m specifically talking about XP, currency and rewards what I’m really asking is whether a mechanic is going to get used in a way that makes the game more fun, or if it creates an unnecessary barrier to play.

1 – Give any extra to whoever the table considers the night’s spotlight player, or just let it ride til next time.

Keys and Explicit Compels

The Shadow of Yesterday has a fantastic mechanic (one of many) called “keys” that allow the player to determine in which circumstances they gain XP. It’s easier to show than explain so consider this:

Key of Conscience

Your character has a soft spot for those weaker than their opponents. Gain 1 XP every time your character helps someone who cannot help themselves. Gain 2 XP every time your character defends someone with might who is in danger and cannot save themselves. Gain 5 XP every time your character takes someone in an unfortunate situation and changes their life to where they can help themselves. Buyoff: Ignore a request for help.

XP is pretty easy to come by in TSOY, so much so that many GMs just let players track it themselves. It’s so easy that the first time you play it seems like cheating, but really, that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

Now, there are a lot of interesting similarities between Keys and Aspects, and at some point I want to discuss in game currency vs. XP as a reward, but before I do that, I want to highlight one incredibly important difference – Keys are almost entirely player triggered. That is to say, the GM might set up situations where the key might or might not come up, but it’s the player’s decision that drives the reward.

Even more importantly, the player explicitly knows what will trigger a key. There might be a little wiggle room, but it’s much more transparent than something entirely dependent on GM interpretation.

If this idea appeals, there’s nothing that says it can’t get applied to Aspects equally easily – the only thing it requires is explicitly writing down what circumstances might trigger an aspect for good or ill. For example, if I have the Aspect “Soft Hearted” I could add a note that says “Gain a Fate Point whenever the character makes trouble for himself by helping someone in trouble.”

In doing this I am, effectively, writing my own compels. What’s more, I am also communicating very clearly to the GM the kinds of situations where I expect to see this aspect come up. In doing so I’m making it easier for him to do so.

Explicit compels are far from the only technique that supports this. Aside from just talking to the GM, things like anchors[2] are designed to serve a similar purpose. But for players who are not entirely comfortable with the “fuzzy” nature of aspects, this sort of explicit detail may help them get a grasp on things.

1 – Buyoff is basically how you get the key off your sheet. It pays off big time, with 10 XP, more than enough to buy a new Key, but you can’t re-buy the key you’ve bought off.

2 – Explicit setting elements (people & places) tied to each aspect.

Symmetry and Asymmetry

I love chess, at least conceptually. I’m not a very good player, but as a bottomless bucket of metaphor? Fantastic. But I sometimes bump my nose against its perfect symmetry. Not to say that’s a failing of the game, but it means chess can’t tell certain stories that an asymmetrical game can.

An asymmetrical game is one where both sides have an even shot of winning, but different resources and sometimes even different rules. A game of Magic: the Gathering is somewhat asymmetrical, but not very. The new Archenemy decks (which gives one player a bigger, more powerful deck and pits him against several opponents) is a better example.

My favorite is probably Fox & Geese, a checkers variant I learned as a kid. One side has 4 pieces that move normally (the geese), the other has one piece that can move like a king (the fox), and the fox’s goal is to get to the far side of the board, while the geese attempt to pin him. To a kid, it seems like a lopsided game – the fox seems way too powerful – but with experience, the potency of the geese are revealed. It’s not a game with huge replay value (though kids like it) but it’s a wonderful illustration of principal.

Symmetry vs. Asymmetry is a conflict that doesn’t see much play because it’s not terribly dramatic, but it’s a subtly potent one, and one that’s worth looking at in character creation in RPGs. For illustration, I’m going to compare D&D 4essentials vs. Gamma World. Both games use template selection as the basis for character creation. There’s a bit of a distraction with generating stats (which Gamma World cuts to the heart of quite effectively), but it’s just that; a distraction. The reality is that you combine a few elements. For D&D it’s Race + Class[1], for GW it’s Template + Template.

The difference that stands out is that in D&D, the choice is profoundly asymmetrical. Your race contributes a few bits and pieces (mechanically) but the meat of things is in your class choice. Certainly, some of those racial pieces may be essential to your concept, and that’s fine, but the choice of race sways things less than the choice of class. That is to say A dwarf Knight and an Elf Knight have more mechanical similarities than a Dwarf Knight and a Dwarf Wizard.

This is not a criticism, by the way. D&D classes are sufficiently complex and full of choices that you would not necessarily WANT race to be more complicated. If race had the same mechanical depth as class, character generation would be way more complicated than could possibly be considered. However, there are some tradeoffs made for that model.

Consider, in contrast, Gamma World, where the character is created from two symmetrical templates. While the templates vary in color an content, they are similar in structure and capability. This means that character creation is a simple matter of taking any two templates and smashing them together. This is fast and easy, and has some incidental benefits – it requires only one random table, and it means that each new addition expands the range of possibilities more effectively – but it also demands a bit more mechanical simplicity. For the same reasons that D&D classes can be complicated, Gamma World templates need to be pretty straightforward.

Again, it’s not a condemnation, but it’s a consideration – both approaches have strengths and weaknesses, and which one is better suited to a particular game is something that it’s worth thinking about. Consider that it would not be hard to re-imagine D&D so that races and classes are symmetrical, but it would mostly be done by simplifying classes, thus changing the nature of the game.[2]

Now, I’m nuts for combinative template systems. The speed of templates combined with the flexibility of interpretation that combination allows tends to make for some really solid, inspiration ideas (including my long standing favorite from a game I ran, Cowboy/Ninja/Diplomat). It’s one of those ideas that I wish more games could support, but which hits upon unexpected rocks when you try.

See, you can theoretically make templates for most games, but you’re likely to bump up against the vagaries of point buys. If the game has progressive costs (first point costs 1, second costs 2 and so on) then it’s hard to say Template 1 gives you two ranks and Template 2 gives you three ranks because that’s 5 ranks for a cost of 15 points that you got for 9 points ((1+2) + (1+2+3)). Yes, you could abstract it further and say you get whatever 9 points buys, but that wastes 3 points, at which point your attempts to come up with a fair way to handle the extra points undercut the whole point of going with templates. [3]

The trick is that a lot of games handle addition badly (Fudge/Fate’s especially bad at this) and break quickly if one character ends up pulling Kensai and Duelist or some other combination that piles strength on top of strength. All to say nothing of weird fiddly bits, like when two templates both have the same (non stacking) advantage or if one has an advantage that impacts the cost of something else.

All of which is to say that you need a system which gracefully handles addition (which, for example, Run Out The Guns did[4]) or which, like Gamma World, decouples the templates entirely. That is to say, like most 4e games, there’s a thin rail of a system where your character has hit points a basic attack and a normal set of actions which everything else is layer on top of. By layering on entirely new material (that is to say, new powers) and minimal modifiers, there’s no way for the templates to trip over each other. There may be some combinations that offer more or less interesting variety, but none that break the game. Not only is this useful now, it’s useful as new templates get added (because of COURSE they will) because they’re harder to break the system with, and you don’t need to stress out as much about every possible combination. Design the template well, and the combinations take care of themselves.

Now, my fondness for combining templates may be a bit more enthusiastic than average, and it may be a bit extreme to wish that EVERY game supported them, but it’s definitely an idea that could see more use to good effect.

1 – D&D does often offer a third choice for style, and I’ve written about how important (and poorly supported) it is, but practically it’s a subset of class choice, especially in Essentials. Effectively there are two different “Cleric” classes, for example.

2 – It would also still be Column A + Column B. Until you find a way to allow a Dwarf/Half-Elf character to make sense you can’t fully combine them. Not that it’s impossible, especially in 4e, but it’s a bit of a leap.

3 – I cannot tell you how much time I’ve beat my head against this with tri-stat, and it never quite works, which is a huge shame since if it did, it would be a thing of beauty.

4 – ROTG was built on top of Rolemaster, which is very addition tolerant, in part because the diminishing returns are built on the far side of the point buy. That is to say, ranks 1-10 increase your skill by 5 each (it’s a percentile system) , but 11-20 increase it less, maybe 3 each – it’s been a while and I forget the numbers – and so on. Net result, a big addition spike doesn’t actually break anything.

Cool Monday: Apple TV

So, I broke down and got one of the new Apple TVs recently, and I’ve been making pretty good use of it for the past week or three. It’s a neat little device, and while it’s not necessarily all I would hope it could be, it has a fair amount of promise.

Physically, it’s really tiny. I had seen pictures, but I was still surprised at how small it was. In addition to being surprising, it offered a practical benefit – there was no need for me to doing any shuffling of boxes to get it set up. It tucked away easily, and was a simple matter of plugging in the power and the HDMI cable (which, predictably, did not come with the device).[1] I’ve read some people observe that choosing to make it black (rather than the usual apple silver/white) also makes it blend into a media center more effectively, and I suspect that would probably also be true if we had more of a stack. As is, the Xbox 360 and Wii kind of mess up that idea of devices being black.

The remote is also noteworthy. Bigger than the older mac remote, it also has enough buttons that using it makes sense. It’s still small enough to be easy to lose, but at least it’s big enough to be hard to accidentally leave in a pocket. You can also use your iphone/ipod touch/ipad as a remote, and that’s neat, but I find myself gravitating back to the actual remote 95% of the time.

Anyway, enough about the device, and on to actually using it.

Unlike it’s predecessor, the Apple TV doesn’t actually have a lot of onboard horsepower. It’s designed to stream content, not store it, and by itself, it’s not terribly useful. You can use it to rent TV shows and movies from apple (*cough* rip-off *cough*), watch Youtube videos (those which you can navigate too successfully – not always an easy task) and listen to many internet radio stations. All nice, but not really worth a hundred bucks. For it to really be worth your while, you need something else: either Netflix, or your own media library.

For Netflix, it’s pretty sweet. I have a couple other machines capable streaming Netflix (Tivo, Xbox 360 and Wii) and the apple TV definitely has the best interface for it – notably it makes good use of the screen for recommendations and navigation, so I’m not quite as shackled to my playlist as I have been. If nothing else, it makes me glad that I can let my Xbox gold membership (which is required to do netflix) slip and still have an excellent Netflix option.

Now, if it was just Netflix, it would be hard to justify why to get an Apple TV rather than Roku box, but there’s a bit more. Apple TV also can use itunes content from other machines on your network. This is, I have to say, a little more exciting on paper than it is in practice, but it’s decently sweet. The most recent itunes update allows any machine on the network to share itunes content with other machines using itunes, and the Apple TV taps into this. I suspect this might be a little cooler if I had a dedicated media PC, but just playing around with it and my laptop has allowed me to listen to music or watch TED talks that are sitting on the hard drive upstairs.

It’s not flawless. The way that my lists and folders translate across to the Apple TV seems glitchy – a lot of my lists seem to have vanished, and it’s hard to pin down why. I think it’s mostly related to nested folders or smartlists, but whatever the cause, it’s a little frustrating, because without lists the sheer volume of music is basically unmanageable. However, it’s clear that if I had a swath of movies sitting on a hard drive, it would be quite convenient.[2]

There are still some oddball elements. You can’t control volume with the remote, which is a pain since it means I always need to have the second remote on hand when watching. The sharing software is subject to some strange limits – machines going to sleep or otherwise doing other things seem to take them off the list of options.

Tellingly, some of the best reasons to get it don’t exist yet. Sometime in November, Apple will be rolling out the 4.2 patch for the ipad, allowing video playing on your ipad to play on across your apple TV. That’s pretty sweet and pretty promising if true, specifically if it allows me to get hulu plus[3] from my ipad to my TV. And hopefully hulu itself will be available at some point, and between my wife and I we’ve concluded that that’s th epoint when it will be worth it for us.

Anyway, in summary, the utility of the Apple TV box depends a lot on your situation.

If you don’t have a lot of local media (ripped DVDs etc) and you don’t subscribe to a service like Netflix, then I would definitely not recommend it. Apple rentals are overpriced, and the other features are kind of nice, but not worth $100.

If you don’t have a lot of local media but have been curious about Netflix to your TV, then definitely consider it. The monthly fee for Netflix is not too bad, and if you watch enough streaming content, the apple TV quickly pays for itself when compared to buying DVDs. Netflix’s selectionis not comprehensive, but it’s gotten broad enough to be pretty impressive. However, I would be remiss to not suggest that there’s also a similar device, the Roku, which is only $60, and can stream more content (Amazon, Hulu plus and Pandora most notably). Right this minute, if you only want to stream content the Roku seems like a much better idea. However, most of these streaming services have a vested interest in getting themselves onto multiple platforms, so within a year, I expect the Apple TV to have a similar range of streaming. However, that’s just one man’s bet, and there’s no guaranteed timeline. If you are only interested in streaming, the Roku may be a better call.[4]

If you don’t have local media and you already stream through another device, then a lot depends on the device. If your device doesn’t do HD then this is an upgrade. If your device charges a monthly fee over and above your Netflix subscription (Xbox) then the Apple TV will quickly pay for itself. If your device has a terrible interface (Tivo) then this will make your life vastly easier. However, excepting subscription cost, it’s hard to put a price tag on these improvements, so this decision is much more subjective (and similarly raises the question of whether you’d be better off with a Roku).

If you’ve got a lot of media on your home network that you know you can access and share through itunes (knowing is important) that you want to get down to your TV, then this is a great deal. Much less hassle and cost than buying and hooking up a dedicated media PC. Instead, you can just put the media PC on the network, and keep it as far from your TV as you like.

If you want to stream AND have local content, then this is pretty much a killer 1-2 punch.

All in all, I’m happy with my purchase, and I expect it will be worthwhile for others down the line, but a wait-and-see response is probably still appropriate, at least past November.

1 – It has an optical port for sound, but I haven’t messed around with it yet – HDMI does fine with sound to the TV, but I admit its presence makes me a little tempted to try out some speakers.

2 – So, the potential limitations of itunes sharing is one thing that concerns me with Apple TV. The good news is that since it’s the same sharing that your computers use, you can usually test it out on your computers before buying an Apple TV.

3 – We just dropped our Netflix subscription from 3 disc to 1 disc, and the cost difference basically covers the cost of Hulu Plus. Maybe not for everyone, but it’s a pretty good deal from our perspective. With the exception of a handful of shows, most of my TV view in is on Netflix or Hulu these days.

4 – But I went Apple because, honestly, I expect them to still be in business in 2 years, even if Apple TV doesn’t do great. Roku has one product, and if the market doesn’t do well, I worry about support. But again, one man’s concerns.

Fate Spies

This is the ruleset I’m using for my current Cold War espionage game. There’s a mild supers element to the game I’m running, but I’ve compartmentalized that and taken it out of this writeup. I may write it up as a standalone at some point, but honestly, the supers part is the most hand-wavey part of the game.

Character Creation
Like most Fate games, character generation is something performed with the players sitting down together and figuring out some elements of their shared history. The assumption is that when play begins the players are an established unit or cell, and that inter-player trust can be a solid commodity. A game looking to introduce a little more conflict within the party might mix it up a little.

Characters have five aspects. The first three relate to the character’s history and background, while the last two relate to missions the character has previously been on with the team.

Background Aspects
The first aspect picked should be the primary aspect for the agent. This is a descriptor which, if you only had to describe the character in one way, it would be this. I might be a role like Assassin or Mechanic, or it might be something that speaks to their story like Sole Survivor. There’s nothing that mechanically distinguishes this aspect from other aspects as an aspect, but it is going to say a lot about the agent’s role in the game, so it maybe important to consider how it’s phrased.

The other two aspects should catch the character coming and going. The first reflects where the character comes from (their background, family, education or the like) and the third reflects how they got into the agency or their time in the agency (or some other service) before joining the team.

Flashpoint Aspects
The last two aspects will be flashpoints – missions that they team took together. The details of these jobs should be worked out between the players and the GM.

After all aspects have been chosen, each player needs to come up with an anchor for each of his aspect. An anchor is a person, place or thing that is representative of that aspect to the player. The GM is expected to bring anchors up in play with some frequency as a guarantee that even fairly abstract aspects get hit often enough.

There are eight broad roles which cover the breadth of agent activities, and they are:

They will be ranked at one of 4 levels
World Class (+6)
Elite (+4)
Trained (+2)
Untrained (+0)

Agents are exceptionally skilled, and as such have one world class role, two elite, four trained and one untrained skill.

Skill Breakdown
Athlete covers most physical activities like running, jumping and climbing. Hopefully it’s pretty straightforward. If no other physical role is appropriate to a task, use athlete.

An Elite Athlete may choose one of the following benefits:
Mobility – The character can do crazy parkour/Jackie Chan type stuff, allowing them to move full tilt in environments a normal person would have to slow down for.
Brute – The character is strong as hell and can perform a burst of strength to do thing silk break ropes or bust down a door.

A World Class Athlete receives both Elite benefits.

Diplomat covers most social interaction, from making friends to lying to impressing the opposite sex. It does NOT cover the perception of the same (that’s under this auspices of Observer).

An Elite diplomat may choose one of the following benefits:
Subtle Inquiry – You can tell the GM you want the answer to a specific question before you enter conversation with an NPC. Provided you converse with them for a reasonable time, you subtly steer the conversation in such a way that you get the answer you’d have gotten if you’d asked.
Plant Seed – After a few minutes of conversation, you can plant an idea in someone through subtle language and cues. This isn’t mind control or hypnotism, it just plants an idea the way that a song gets stuck in your head. It’s not a big thing, but it can be a good way to help someone have a brilliant idea.
Gambler – In any game of chance where there are other players, the character may roll Diplomat rather than luck (which is a 0).
Dangerous Grace – In any social situation where there are rules of behavior, you can force someone into a Faux Pas, or prevent such a faux pas from someone (including yourself).

A World Class Diplomat may choose two Elite benefits.

keep track of what’s going on. They rely on keen eyes, keen ears and the sharp intellect to separate the wheat from the chafe.

An Elite Observer may choose one of the following benefits:
Cold Read – Upon entering a scene, the observer may ask one of the following questions and get a good faith answer:
Who is the most dangerous person in the room?
Who is the most important person in the room?
Who is watching me?
Where is the fastest exit?
Faces Are an Open Book – Any time they make a roll against another person regarding deception (such as whether or not someone is lying) the player will be told what the opposition rolled after the fact.
Elementary – When the character finds a piece of information, he may ask for one additional piece of information he can extrapolate from it (such as the weight of the person who left footprints) over and above what his roll may merit.

A World Class Observer may choose two elite benefits, or he may choose a single benefit (Cold Read or Elementary) and ask two questions.

covers all the interactions with people that do not depend on them liking you. A good politicians understands how power structures work, can give good orders and find loopholes in those he receives. He understands the law and perhaps most important to an agent, he understands paperwork. Outside of the uses on a mission, politician is the skill required to requisition resources for a mission or to effectively call in support.

An elite politicians can choose one of the following benefits:
A Little Bit of Law – The politician is actually a lawyer, and has the education and paperwork to prove it, and is familiar enough with international law to fake it in any country where he can speak the language. The exact benefits of this vary from country to country, but even in those with few protections for lawyers, knowledge of the law can be handy.
SOP – The politician knows the rules and regulations of any organization large enough to have rules. That means he can identify them on sight and make declarations regarding how they are supposed to respond in specific situations. For example “Ok, those are Hercule Security guards – that means 4 man teams, 1/2 hour patrol intervals and a mandatory lunch break of not less than 45 minutes”
The Man – The politician is a person of importance, if not prominence. He might own a large share of a major corporation or be royalty from someplace where that matters, but whatever the case, he moves in the circles with the movers and shakers.

A World Class politician may have two of these benefits, or he may choose to focus on The Man, in which case he is one of the dozen or so secret figures who pull the strings behind the scenes. Whether or not this is apt for a player is a decision for the table.

know things. Simple as that. While there are many situations where the application of this trait is obvious, this also has the advantage of being the fallback trait to roll when no other trait seems appropriate. Scholar can be used to make declarations as appropriate, or to allow the agent to get answers without research.

An elite scholar can choose one of the following benefits:
Linguist – The agent is the master of a number of different (and unspecified languages). In practice it means that the character can speak any language that comes up in play.
Great Mind – The scholar can choose some academic field. Within that field he is a published, respected figure, the sort that gives speeches and writes book. He can use one of his aspects for free when rolling scholar within that sphere, and when dealing with other scholars within the same circle he can use the Scholar in lieu of Diplomat.
Pattern Recognition – Given time to study the paperwork around a situation (which is to say, the kind of situation that would have paperwork to research) the character can extract one aspect associated with the situation.

A world Class scholar may choose any two of these benefits, or may take an improved version of Great Mind, in which case he is the greatest authority on the world on the topic.

covers violence of any stripe – guns, fists, sharp sticks and so on. It’s pretty simple

An elite soldier can choose one of the following benefits.
Heavy Weapons – The agent can use larger weapons, from rocket launchers to tanks. Technological complexity is no barrier to them.
Martial Arts – The character’s skill with unarmed combat is such that they do not grant superiority (see the notes on combat, below) when fighting hand to hand, no matter what the opponent is armed with, and they gain superiority against other unarmed opponents who are not similarly trained.
Tactician – The agent can use soldier in lieu of Observer when in a fight.

A World Class Soldier may take two of these benefits.

covers the ability to fix, understand and operate machinery (including driving cars).

An elite technician can choose one of the following benefits.
Pilot – The agent can drive anything, including planes, helicopters and boats.
Hacker – Computers behave for the agent like they do in the movies (well, specifically, movies from the early 80’s, so it’s still all green screens and squealing modems) rather than the way they act in real life.
Gadgeteer – The agent doesn’t need to spend fate points to have reasonable tools and gadgets on hand, and anything you can’t carry you can probably build it out of parts on hand.

A World Class Technician can take two benefits.

covers activities of stealth, deception and (of course) theft.

An Elite thief can take one of the following benefits.
Fast Hands – The agent can perform feats of legerdemain while in the middle of the most distracting of circumstances, such as in the middle of a fight or chase.
Face in a Crowd – The agent can sneak in plain sight provided there are people for him to mingle among.
Magician – The agent is an accomplished stage magician, capable of displays both flashy and subtle.

A World Class Thief can take two benefits.

Special Rules

Aspect Invocation

Characters may only invoke a single aspect of their own per roll, for either a +2 bonus or a reroll. Similarly, they may only tag one aspect on the scene.

Aspect Exploitation
Characters may exploit any number of aspects of their opposition in a scene on a given roll. That means that if you want to spend a bunch of fate points for a big bonus, you need to know your enemy well.

Descriptive bonuses
Good plans, good tools and other things that might help a roll can grant a +1 bonus to any roll. Such bonuses do not stack. Superiority (see below) is an application of this rule.

Combat and Conflict[1]
In any situation where an agent is throwing down with opposition (whether in a fight, a chase or the like) things get resolved pretty quickly. It’s all about advantage. Both parties roll appropriate skills and the outcome depends on the margin.

At any point in the fight, things will be in one of the following states:
Bother side are on equal footing
One side has an edge
One side holds an advantage
One side holds a decisive advantage

The meaning of margin of success depends a lot on the starting point in the conflict. Once one side wins they are considered to control the tempo of the fight, and this is mechanically reflected by them holding an edge, advantage or decisive advantage. The side which controls tempo has more options than the other side, depending on their status.

Starting from even footing (and some fights may start with one side or the other having an edge) the outcomes are as follows:

Win by 0-1 – status does not change
Win by 2-3 – winner gains the edge
Win by 4-6 – winner gains the advantage
Win by 7+ – winner gains a decisive advantage

If you hold the edge, the outcome chart changes as follows:
Win by 0-3 – keep the edge (unless he gives it up, see below)
Win by 4-6 – gain the advantage
Win by 7+ – gain a decisive advantage

The side with the edge gets to narrate the direction of the fight – not outcomes per se, but the general direction of things. As part of his description, the agent can give up the edge (restoring tempo to a neutral state) and add an aspect to the scene as part of the description.

If you hold the advantage, the outcome chart changes as follows:
Win by 0-4 – keep the advanatage (unless he gives it up, see above)
Win by 5+ – gain a decisive advantage

The side with advantage can describe things in such a way as to harm or inconvenience the other side. You can sacrifice advantage to reflect that inconvenience or damage as a consequence.

Decisive Advantage
Once you hold decisive advantage, you can sacrifice it for victory on your terms. That said, it’s not carte blanche – you can achieve one end with a decisive victory, and if there are more things you need to accomplish, you may need to reach it more than once.

Weapons and tools impact the roll in terms of the relative advantage they offer. Any weapon is a help against an unarmed opponent, but certain weapons will be more useful in certain situations, such as a knife in close quarters. Advantage is usually worth a +1 bump, but may be as high as +3 if it’s extreme. In very extreme situations (like a fight at range where only one person has a ranged weapon), not only does that grant superiority, but the defender can’t ever get better than edge, no matter how well he rolls.

Non-Fudge Alternative
If played without Fudge Dice, this is the alternate system.

The base roll is 3d6, with the outcome modified the role value[3] making use of bonus and penalty dice to reflect a lot of things. When a roll has one or more bonus dice, they’re extra d6’s rolled along with the usual 3d6, and the player counts the 3 highest dice showing. If the roll has penalty dice, then they’re extra d6s as too, except the player counts the three lowest dice.

On a normal roll, the outcomes break down as follows:
Less than Five – Unmitigated failure, described by the GM with an eye on making trouble.
5-9 – Failure, described by the player, who may mitigate the consequences of the failure, but not cancel it out. Best phrased as “Tell me how you fail.”
10-14 – Qualified success – This is a reasonable success, but the door is open to complications. The GM may, at his option, introduce a complication to the success, or a choice that must be made in order to succeed. When the GM does this, the player gets a fate point.
15-19 – Unqualified success, narrated by the GM
20+ – Dramatic success – as with an unqualified success, but the player has the option to ask for a little extra spin.

Conflict works roughly the same way, but table changes a little
Base or with Edge
1-4 – Edge
5-8 – Advantage
9+ – Decisive Advantage

With Advantage
0-4 – Maintain
5+ Decisive Advantage

Superiority is still reflected as a straight bonus to the roll.

Aspects in the 3d6 game can be used for rerolls or bonus dice.

1 – Informally, I’m calling this the Tempo System, because edge used to be called tempo, and I still think of it as that in my head.

2 – Notice there’s not really any difference between the normal and the edge table, I just separate them for clarity. The big change comes once you have Advantage. It all looks very fiddly, but the reality is much simpler: The threshold for taking someone out drops by two so long as you hold the advantage.

3 – Designer hat here. Some part of me suspects the 3d6 model would work better with an additional tier, so roles would be untrained (0), trained (+2), experienced (+4), elite (+6) and world class(+8), suggesting a distribution of 1 world class, 2 elite, 2 experienced, 2 trained, 1 untrained.

Here Comes The Flood

In case you haven’t heard, there’s another chance for gamers to get a great deal and do some good: the Pakistan Flood Relief Bundle. A $25 contribution gets you more than $700 worth of goodness.[1]

I’m happy to have picked mine up, both for the good cause and for the truly excellent games contained therein. Here are the ones I was most excited to get my hands on.

Exalted Second Edition (Hard to go wrong here)
Spycraft 2.0 Rulebook (Similarly – totally worth it)
Unsung: Deluxe Download
Don’t Rest Your Head
Fear Itself
Sufficiently Advanced
Hot War
Starblazer Adventures
HarnMaster Third Edition
Dragon Warriors RPG
Wild Talents 2nd Edition
Kingdom Builder Generator Pack (I have no idea what this is, but a name like that totally grabs my interest)
Time & Temp: Paperless Office Edition (been meaning to pick this one up for a while)
Open Game Table: The Anthology of Roleplaying Game Blogs, Vol. 2

So, those are the ones that have grabbed my eye, but they’re only a portion of the total list. What have I overlooked? What else is worth a looksee?

1 – And for the curious, there’s not much overlap between this and the previous Haiti relief bundle.

Rich Dice Extravaganza

This is shaping up to be a really good week for people interested in rich dice. For the unfamiliar, “rich dice” is a term used in RPGs when a die roll reveals more than one piece of information. For example, in the One Roll Engine, when you roll a set, the highest number in the set determines how quickly you act, but the size of the set (pair, trio, etc) determines how well you act. Similarly, in Don’t Rest Your Head, the dice determine who wins a roll, but the color of a highest die rolled determines which factor “dominates” the outcome.

This is a really robust technology. In addition to allowing more meaningful rolls, it also allows interesting mechanical hooks, such as how Dragon Age handles criticals. This is good stuff. And the unending font of creativity which id Daniel Solis has put forward a very interesting design, Split Decision. Go read it for more detail, but in short, you roll 4d6 of 2 colors, and build a roll out of any two dice. Normally you’d just keep the two highest, but which colors you use also has a mechanical impact, so sometimes you might want to build a less optimal number to get an optimal color combination.

Now, the model used in split decision is usable in a lot of other ways. Any time someone is rolling multiple dice (either to total up or to count successes) you can introduce new colors or dice types to introduce more mechanics or meaning.[1]

The trick that I think is most powerful (and which not all Rich Rolling system supports) is the addition of player choice. If you can create meaningful tradeoffs then you can really give individual dice rolls a lot of potency. Structurally, this is very simple (as split decision demonstrates) – more difficult is figuring out how to implement it in a way which is both meaningful and plays well.

That last can be trickier than you might think. Linneus has a great piece on his four principles of dice games that it’s worth thinking about in terms of RPGs, an done point he hits is especially relevant – don’t waste a lot of time. You want a meaningful decision, but not one that the player is going to agonize over. You might make an exception if it’s the only roll, but even then I’d hesitate – if the decision draws things too far out of the game then it can really move things too far away from play.

That may seem like I kind of abstract consideration, but it actually leads to some very concrete guidelines if looked at the right way. Consider D&D – in a given fight, it is rare that any one thing tips the battle by itself. Usually it’s a slow depletion of luck and resources – you don’t begrudge a particular hit, you just take it and move on. This is because D&D is nicely structured to spread the big decision (who wins the fight) over lots of little decisions (individual actions). That defines a lot of what makes it playable, and that same logic is worth considering when you think about player choice. A big decision that’s either morally very difficult or deeply impactful is going to have a lot more impact than one whose ultimate impact is part of the bigger picture.

Even so, decision paralysis can be a real danger. If I say “Take 5 hit points of damage to get +2 to hit and damage on an attack” then some players will take their time calculating cost-benefit, others will swear and remember they could have done it after they roll, and others will just forget about the option. That’s a different sort of choice than the kind you want to be thinking about with rich rolls – specifically, with a rich roll you want a choice to be absolutely necessary. If the character is rolling 5 dice either way, the player needs to decide how many are white and how many are black. Notice the difference – they must make the decision. At worse, they may come up with a default decision (like always going 3w, 2b). Choices that are built directly into the process, rather than layered on top of it (as is the case with, say, “which spell should I cast”) tend to be a little bit easier to handle.

All that said, the other factor is where to hook the choice in mechanically. There are some good examples on the Split Decision page of using the decision to fill in a counter that has a mechanical effect when it reaches 10. In the case of Split Decision, this is a solid pacing mechanic, since at 10, some sort of endgame gets triggered, and it’s easy to bring that model across to other systems where there are setting-sized decisions to make, such as associating yourself witht he light or the dark side.

The one drawback of this is that you need to make sure the die rolling proceeds narration if you really want things to make sense, and not everyone enjoys that. See, if the dice chosen reflect behavior and that behavior is not reflected in the narration then you can end up with situations where the fiction has you saving kittens bu the dice say you’re showing a callous disregard for all life. If making the choice in the dice means making a choice in the fiction, then the fiction needs time to reflect it.[2]

Still, that’s not the only path – these choices can have immediate consequences too. This can be a s simple as having the colors of your dice split between offense and defense. To take the split decision model, let’s say red is damage and blue is defense. Each red die used in your attack translates into extra damage, Each blue die translates into an increase in your defense value. When the big numbers come up red, do you take the risk and expose yourself to land the big hit?

When you want to design a system like this, it’s worth listing the range of outcomes that your secondary information can generate. In the case of split decision, it’s something like:

2 red
high red, low blue
tied red & blue
low red, high blue
2 blue

Five apparent outcomes, but that number is not quite as concrete as you might think. There are often ways to compress the list down if there’s some other number you’re going for. Ties are easy to ignore – you can just say they’re player choice, and beyond that you can try to build sets. In this case it’s easy to break this down to a list of 4 or three as follows:

2 red
high red, low blue
low red, high blue
2 blue


2 red
2 blue

In this way you can often find the system can end up dovetailing with some specific set of outcomes you’re looking to accomplish.

With that in mind, I suggest anyone thinking about these things take a look at Paul Tevis’s post on “but” and look at those outcomes and consider how they might map.

1 – If you have the budget to create custom dice, you can do what Warhammer 3rd does, and have things like reckless and cautious dice, where one generates stronger outcomes, but with a greater chance of hurting yourself. Curiously, though, since that decision is made *before* dice are rolled, it’s not really rich rolling (though the fact that the WHFRP3E dice track 3 different outcomes is).

2 – It’s because of this that this system excels at a meta-level, where the decisions are not necessarily obvious in the outcome. That is to say, in things like magic systems, where there is no external indicator of which Elohim you are now deeper indebted to through that show of power.

When the GM Rolls

I should be working on something else, but a question came up in conversation that my brain has been worrying like a bone: When should the GM roll dice?[1]

For a little bit of context, it’s important to be aware that there are several game designs in which the GM never rolls. The most famous example is probably the SAGA system, though Apocalypse World has also brought the practice to mind for many. For players unfamiliar with these games, this may seem counterintuitive at first, but it’s fairly easy to imagine. Most systems are fairly symmetrical, so the average outcome of die roll + modifier is roughly in line with difficulty, which means that changing which side is active (rolling) and which is reactive (using a passive value) doesn’t actually change the outcome.

To illustrate more concretely, let’s suppose your opponents has an attack modifier of +5 and is rolling d20 to try to hit your armor class of 16. He needs to roll a 11 or better to succeed, straight up 50/50 change. However, suppose instead of an attack modifier of +5, he had an attack _value_ of 16? Rather than roll any dice, he would just act as if his attack roll had totaled 16. Similarly, rather than an armor class of 16, you had a defense value of +6. When he attacks, you have to roll d20 and add that 6, trying to beat his 16.

It’s a weird shift, but it doesn’t actually change much of anything about the system.[2] Modifiers still get applied without changing the math at all. This also works for skills too: Trying to sneak? Stealth vs. a fixed difficulty. Trying to spot someone sneaking? Perceptions versus a fixed difficulty. Easy peasy. In short: EVERYTHING is a target number.

Of course, this is not the only model. Apocalypse world’s system isn’t symmetrical (it’s not attack vs defense), it’s based on rolling for outcomes, and all the “tables” you’d roll on (the moves) are purely for players. There’s no question of the GM rolling because there’s no place where she _would_ roll.

Bottom line, this is a design option, but it’s a curious one, and also a bit contentious. Some GM’s love it, viewing that it gives them less to do during a game so they can focus on other priorities (those priorities varying from GM to GM). Other GMs find it off-putting, usually because the techniques of die rolling are part of their kit, important to their sense of drama or communication.[3]

Personally, I have a great intellectual appreciation for the GM not rolling. It keeps the players proactive, even in otherwise reactive situations, and I’m a lazy enough guy to appreciate the release. However, in practice. it falls short for me when I go cold turkey. It’s something that’s very hard for me to put my finger on, but I feel that I am not suitably engaging the game, and that my decisions and rulings have too few limitations. I enjoy the bounds that dice put on things, and I use them for oracular purposes (LINK: as often as I do as arbiters, perhaps even more often. In retrospect, one of my stumbling points with Apocalypse World was that I was not comfortable raining more-or-less unchecked fire down on the players when the dice turned against them. It felt like cheating.

Anyway, all that was a big prelude to come around to the question: When should the GM roll dice?

Obviously, different systems have specific answers to this, but that’s not quite what I’m getting at. It’s not something I’ve thought about generally speaking when kicking around design.

The big answer seems to be “When there’s an outcome the GM doesn’t know” but that’s deceptively simple. It begs the question of why the GM doesn’t know. Most often, is it because uncertainty is desirable for the same reasons uncertainty is useful for players, and perhaps unsurprisingly, those are the kinds of rolls that can most easily be passed from the GM to the player.

Other reasons for uncertainty really revolve around what the GM _should_ know, and that’s kind of interesting, because that’s a pretty profound design decision – it has a lot of implications for the GM’s role and authority. Consider something very old school – reaction tables. Games like AD&D used tables to determine the reactions of NPCs. Now, whether this is an assertion that the GM shouldn’t make these decisions or a tool to save him the decision-making (much the same way a random table for encounters save the headaches of filling in blank areas on the map) is not as important as the fact that it could be either.

Still, while that speaks to certain issues, I’m not sure it does so informatively. Turning it on its ear, maybe the question is what the GM rolling the dice signals.

Curiously, what it doesn’t signal is that something interesting is about to happen. That’s a key one, because one might expect that to be the case, but the reality is that when something interesting is about to happen, the GM usually calls for a *player* to roll dice. There are a few tension-building techniques that look like the the GM is rolling to make things happen, like rolling for no apparent reason to make players nervous, but they’re not actually mechanically relevant.

What it does signal, at least to my mind, is that the GM is now subjecting himself to the rules. By rolling the dice, he is making an announcement that the decision which follows is going to be subject to the outcome of the dice. This is, I think, why dice fudging can be such a visceral issue for people, far beyond it’s theoretical impact. It takes something the GM is communicating very explicitly and makes a lie of it.[4]

Does it signal anything else? That something is happening, sure, but that’s usually already quite clear. Sometimes it communicates details about what’s happening, but that only applies in systems where the number or type of dice use signifies something. That is, a double handful of d10s is a meaningful way to communicate to Exalted players that their enemy is a scary badass, but in D&D, all d20s are pretty much the same (though you can do some stunts with pulling out the REALLY big d20).

At the end here, I don’t feel like I’m any closer to an actual insight. Lots of things that work part of the time, or offer limited insight. I feel like there’s something here, but I can’t quite see to the heart of it. Still, I feel like I’m closer to sense of how to use the point at which the GM rolls as something to get purchase on in a design.

1 – Here’s an important note – I don’t have an answer to this, and I don’t swear I will have one by the time this is over. If I had an answer, the question would not be nearly as compelling, so this is mostly me airing out my thought process.

2 – Ok, that’s a small lie. You need to decide on defaults, so in the case of d20, you create attack value by assuming the NPCs always roll 10s or 11s. Either is about right (stupid averages) but it’s an important decision. I tend to vote 11, and players win ties, which is mathematically closer to 10.5.

3 – There’s also a concrete mechanical impact on systems that involve competitive die rolls (attack vs. defense) that is best illustrated by the Fudge dice used by Fate. The usual 4df roll generates a curved result from -4 to +4, but because each die is neutral, your odds are never going to get any better by changing the number of dice. This is important because when the GM rolls 4df as well, it’s the same as if the GM had rolled nothing and the player had rolled 8df, for a result from -8 to +8, but with no better odds of success. In situations like this (or in any game where there is rolling on both sides of a contest), there may not be a change in overall odds, but the range of possibilities broadens. That may or may not have any mechanical impact, depending on the system, but it’s somthing to keep in mind.

4 – While I don’t think this reflects on the broader issue of whether or not GMs should fudge dice rolls, it definitely suggests a reason it’s such a hot button topic.

A Cool Thing on Monday: Rollabind

I am a bit of a notebook nerd. I mean, yes, I’m a nerd of many stripes, but office supplies are one of my great weaknesses. I can cheerfully compare the virtues of a Moleskine vs. Miquelrius vs. Rhodia vs. Picadilly far beyond the interest of most folks. This is occasionally a problem (specifically a storage problem) but it dovetails well with a lot of my other interests.

One thing I’ve been using for over a decade is the Rollabind system, and it’s so incredibly useful that I keep coming back to it. It’s a binding system that makes for a nice alternative to three-hole punch. It uses a series of rings along the binding that makes it easy to add and remove pages, but also allows the whole document to open and close easily like a notebook without the weird angles that comes from putting things in a binder.

It’s a little difficult to visualize, but an illustration should clarify it. the paper is punched like so:

You then put a plastic ring in each groove, and the whole thing is bound up like so:

From the side, it closes up to look like this.

Bottom line, you get repositionable pages, like you have with a three ring binder, but with the slimmer, more utilitarian profile of a notebook. Plus, once you have a punch you can easily make notebooks of any size. I’m partial to punching stacks of index cards to bind them on one edge or the other, making little notebooks of them.

The benefits for RPGs are obvious. You can make quick notebooks for character sheets or for game sets. The ability to take notes up up front then move them to the back makes it easy to make for an all-purpose toolbox.

I realize this is a pretty unrestrained endorsement of rollabind, but as noted, I’ve been using these since the late nineties, and you have no idea how happy I am to not have to deal with shelving three ring binders.

Anyway, you can get this stuff via Rollabind on their website, though if you want to get it in stores, Staples carries it too. If you want the somewhat more swank version then you can get them via Levenger as the Circa System.[1] I should note that a lot of my enthusiasm is because I invested in a binding kit back in the day, which I probably would not have done if I hadn’t seen the notebooks first-hand (Waldenbooks had some as day planners) so if you’re curious, I would strongly suggest checking out a notebooks at Staples (or sometimes Target) and seeing how useful it looks to you.

1 – Myndology has a similar disc bound system but it’s much more expensive and offers no real benefits, but I mention out of a desire to be thorough.