Monthly Archives: January 2011

How Challenges Hurt

It’s pretty easy to model a damage-dealing challenge. On some level, that’s what almost any trap is. Consider the classic “Hallway full of darts” – it makes an attack against each player after they act for some amount of damage and players try to dodge through, spot pressure plates or disarm the mechanism. Right off the bat this is something that’s pretty easy to model as a combat challenge, with the player’s able to inflict damage by trying to circumvent (dodge), Understand (find patterns, stay off pressure plates) or manipulate (disarm). Smashing is probably off the table since hitting the walls with a sword doesn’t help much, but that’s fine. Player might be able to use acrobatics or athletics to dodge, perception, dungeoneering or maybe even stealth to try to avoid triggering it, or dungeoneering to try to disarm it.

The DM sets the difficulty of these things by setting the defenses, which helps dictate the shape of the challenge. In many challenges, one path might be easier than others (so it may have a weak defense). Alternately, a challenge may have one best solution and many ok solutions, in which case the approach that supports the most skills will have the highest defense, while the specialized defense may be lower. In the case of the dart trap, Understanding supports lots of skills, so that might mean a high will defense, but only one skill is useful for manipulating, so the fort defense might be the low one.[1](It’s also entirely reasonable for the DM to give the challenge vulnerability to certain approaches. Vulnerability 10 (Disarm) might be a little awkward on the page, but the idea is pretty workable).

All very easy, but it gets more complicated when we get out into the realm of other challenges, ones with consequences that are less easily measured in hit points. This is where the GM really needs to put some thought into things because this is probably the single most important part of designing a good challenge, though this may not be immediately be obvious.

What the GM needs to decide is what this challenge threatens and determine how to measure that. The easiest way to do this is to express this in terms of some kind of currency. Just as Hit Points are a currency for the health and well being of the characters, there may be other currencies to reflect other important things.

There are a few existing currencies within 4e beyond hit points. Treasure (both gold and magic) and XP are both good examples. I’d be very hesitant to threaten a character’s XP with a challenge, but it might be reasonable to threaten money, such as with a challenge that imposes repair bills. Dark Sun also introduced the idea of “Provisions” as currency, and that makes for a GREAT currency for outdoor challenges over time.

However, there will not always be some existing currency for you to use, in which case the GM’s going to have to think of something to use that reflects the situation. This could be something concrete in the situation (like, each round, one of the seven sentinels falls) or it may be an arbitrary pool of points (the resolve of the citizenry has 100 points, but the propaganda of the cultists is doing damage to it every round).

As a math or game exercise, this is easy enough to do, but the trick is to make sure the currency is something more than an abstract exercise. The first trick of this is to realize that there are two main ways to handle currency and you don’t want to mix them. The first kind has intrinsic value, like gold. Every time it’s diminished, the owner loses out on something, and a near win is still going to be very costly. The second kind works as ablative protection for something else, like Hit Points do with health. The actual loss of the currency doesn’t cost much of anything, but if the currency is completely expended, then something very terrible happens.

Intrinsic currency is usually less valuable in total than ablative currency – that is to say, losing all your money may stink, but not as much as a sucking chest wound. That’s important for GMs to bear in mind when deciding how to structure the currency for a challenge. Intrinsic currency is useful when a challenge is supposed to be inconvenient and to burn through resources. Ablative currency is better for the all or nothing.

There’s a temptation to mix the two with a sense that doing so increases the stakes, and thus the excitement and tension of the challenge. COnsider launching attacks against the PC’s troops. If damage removes troops, that’s intrinsic (because it diminishes the resource) but it also feels like an ablative challenge because if they lose, all the troops are lost. That’s dangerous and tricky, since it is more likely to increase frustration – for players it can feel like they’re in a lose-lose situation. The currency loss hurts badly enough that the whole exercise feels pointless.

Sometimes that’s desirable, such as to underscore a very bleak situation, but that should be _rare_.

One alternative to consider in all this is to give the PCs SP’s, just as they have HP. That’s actually a very workable model, and if you can get the table to accept the idea that these all work as measures of how long the player can stay functional rather than concrete measures of health then you’re ready to rock.[2] That is a little bit of a weird idea, though, so I’m not counting on it.

Anyway, the question of how the challenge hurts you back is only one issue on the table. Tomorrow, we need to figure out when and where it gets a chance to do so.

1 – When building a challenge, the question to ask is whether you’re trying to engage the group equally or if you’re looking to give one player a chance to showcase his particular strengths (like the classic thief disarming a trap or wizard deciphering arcane runes). That can give you

2 – You can even keep them the same as HP. Yes, there’s a temptation to switch stat from situation to situation, but that invites bookkeeping pain. Instead, I would suggest that endurance is the one truly unifying element required for all human endeavors. It’s physical necessity is obvious, and for mental exertion I would suggest that while wisdom is all about that burst of will and focus that lets you shrug off a mental assault, constitution is still what you lean on to decide not to have that cigarette. (Yes, this is a rationalization of a mechanic. I’m ok with that).

The Challenge Strikes Back

If you spend time designing monster for 4e you will quickly discover that while some parts of the design are pretty standardized, like hit points and defenses, others are much more art than science. Specifically, monster abilities follow few hard and fast guidelines, and are instead something you come up with by mixing your ideas with a rough overview of the abilities of monsters at a similar level.

This is important because “combat-izing” challenges requires a similar mindset. The simple reality is every challenge will be a little bit different. In many ways, creating a challenge is more akin to creating a monster (where elements must be created from scratch) than creating an encounter (where existing elements must be arranged cleverly). This may seems like a very fine distinction, but it’s a critical one.[1]

We’ve already got some of the most important elements of making challenges feel more like combat – tools for pacing, acting and determining victory – but those are all from the perspective of the actor (in this case, the PCs). To handle the rest of the model we need three more tools to round things out: Sequencing, Situation and Consequence.

In combat, these handled by initiative, the battle mat, and the various monster attacks and actions. Ideally, we want some equivalency with these ideas (because they’re familiar and comfortable to players) but we don’t need to adhere so closely to them that we trip ourselves up.

Sequencing is the easiest to get out of the way: initiative is a very flexible concept since it’s ultimately just the order things happen in. There are basically 3 possible models here:
1. Roll initiative as normal (possibly for each challenge element)
2. Go around the table, then the challenge acts
3. Challenge acts after each player acts.

These are pretty self explanatory, especially the fact that #3 is much more dangerous from the player’s perspective. I’m not going to dwell on this for the moment because I think this is the easiest element to handle, but may also be the most situational. If nothing else, it’s just not going to make sense until we have the rest of the model in place.

Situation, on the other hand, is pretty critical. In combat, the map serves as a passive answer to a lot of critical questions. Yes, there’s range and counting squares and stuff, but there are also broader situational things like who’s in play or what areas are threatened (and by what threats). We probably would not want a literal battlemat, but at the same time, we want to provide enough ambient information to keep things clear for the players. That suggests that a more abstract model, such as diagram mapping or a card-game model might be in order.

Lastly, consequences are probably the most nuanced of these, in part because of their role. While we’re streamlining sequencing and initiative, we’re actually _enhancing_ consequences. Combat consequences are generally limited to hit points and death.[2] In a challenge, the consequences are far more wide ranging. Certainly, the personal health and safety of the characters may be at risk, but many challenges will threaten other things entirely. Whatever it is the challenge threatens, there needs to be a way to express it, probably through the depletion of some sort of currency (of which hit points are an example). So that introduces two issues: representing the currency at risk and then representing _how_ to threaten it (that is to say, how to damage it).

So, the next step is to break those elements out, and run through how to handle them.

1 – This is also fairly early thinking on this idea. If this gets some traction and use and there is ever a substantial body of example to reference (akin to a monster manual) then the dynamic will change, as challenges can be built out of various “problems” which have been used and documented.

2 – Statuses occupy an interesting niche here, in that they are consequences, but only in a very short term sense. They don’t get taken away from the fight, though they may have a profound impact on the ultimate outcome of the fight. Curiously, that’s more akin to a situational element – a status is not a piece of geography, but its impact on the fight is very similar. It forces decisions and drives the direction of action. I think there’s a place for statuses (and status-equivalents) in challenges, but for this reason I think it belongs under situation, not consequences. That said, games like Mouseguard have done a great job of illustrating ways to handle long term status-like effects, but that may be a bit too far out on a limb for this.

This Is Not A Science

First, 2 Realizations:
1) SP is also used for currency, but to heck with it, I’ll keep using it for the time being. This whole thing is going to need a big language cleanup by the time it’s done.
2) Rather than 1d6/1d8/1d0 damage progression, it probably makes more sense to use the light, medium and heavy damage progressions from page 42. I’ll still use the previous model for illustration because I can remember it, but at the table, I’d totally go with the other approach.

All right, so with the basic concept in place, let’s start with how to actually build a situation. Assuming a default monster HP level of 24 + 8 per Level, it’s pretty easy to do a quick XP/budget conversion. A single 7th level monster is equal to a situation with 80sp. That math is pretty easy. What exactly to do with those 80 points is a little more interesting. It’s effectively a budget with which to create problems, or to reflect player action. For example, breaking into the enemy camp might be an 80 sp challenge, or you might break it down into 4 20sp guards who need to be overcome.

Now, one fun part of this is that, in theory, SP can be converted 1:1 with hit points. That is to say, if I’m running a fight with an elite opponent with 250 hit points, I could take 50 of those points and turn them into SP and use them to make the fight more interesting. In strictly literal practice, there are some problems with this: monster hit points are not actually consistent with this and the budgeting will not always be intuitive. Much the same way traps can sometimes be turned against enemies, there are going to be time it makes sense to keep hitting the situation rather than the monster.

And here, right here, is the critical decision point. Those are real roadblocks, and not every player would be comfortable going past them, and as such, it’s entirely reasonable to say this model won’t work for you. No harm no foul. But if you can tolerate the loosey-goosey, GM improvisation this demands then stick with me. You can do some cool stuff with this.

First, don’t worry too literally about monster hit points. If you bring a monster in as its own encounter element then you know what the rules are for that. It has a certain number of hit points and costs a certain amount of XP. No problem. But when you throw in a monster as part of a situation, its hit points are just a part of the situation. To illustrate, consider the 20sp guard. We can “beat” him by doing 20 points of damage (progress) with stealth, but if it turns into a fight, he’ll have 20hp (or more aptly, 20 hp minus any reduction in sp from earlier skill rolls).

This rolls into the second thing: If you have a monster that also has a challenge component, don’t worry too strictly about distinguishing it’s HP budget from it’s SP budget because – and this is the kicker – really they’re the same thing. Consider, for example, the group being attacked by a goblin horde (treated as one creature). The players can fight – just keep killing goblins until they stop – but maybe they want to try to scare them off (Intimidation). If a player wants to engage the “situation”, then he might use intimidation to reduce SP, which comes out of the horde’s HP budget.[1] Something similar might happen when you try to reason with someone you’re fighting, trying to convince him not to fight.[2]

This interoperability with hit points would not work on its own, but there’s another important element of challenges – the difficulty. How hard is it to do this stuff? To answer that, I ask the much more important question: What are you going to do?

There’s an instinct to answer “Use this skill!” but that overlooks something important. The goal here is to open up _actions_, which skills represent and support, but do not define. That may not be immediately clear, but pull up to a higher level. When faced with a challenge, there are a few ways to approach it, but in the abstract, they break down into four different approaches:

First, you can try to circumvent it. You can elude it, go around or otherwise avoid engaging it on its terms.
Second, you can try to manipulate, control or wrestle with it. You meet it head on and try to bring it to heel.
Third, you can try to understand it. Study it, and use that knowledge against it.
Fourth, you can hit it. Hard. Possibly repeatedly.
Fifth, you can suck it up.
Sixth, you can run away.

Now, I want to set aside #5 and #6 right away. Both of these might call for skill rolls, but neither actually helps get past a challenge, so they’re outside of the scope. #6 might be a _different_ challenge, but that’s it own thing. #5 is the desperate hope that the other guy will get tired punching you. There are situations where it’s appropriate, such as when the challenge is on a time limit or otherwise constrained, but in that case, it’s under the auspices of what bad things the challenge is doing, and that’s another topic. So, in short, they’re off the table here.

#4 is easy. D&D already handles that really well.

#1-3 is the trick. You will generally use a skill to do one of these things, but there’s no 100% correlation between which skill is used what way. There are some logical limitations, but they’re situational. When you need to travel through enemy territory, Survival might be used to get around enemies (circumvent) or it might be used to try to find the best route (understand). Viewing actions through this lens of what they accomplish makes them more versatile and interesting, and definitely I smore satisfying than the “skill first” approach where a player says “I use Survival!” and upon being asked “Do do what?” has to scramble for an answer. [3]

Experienced 4e hackers probably have already seen where I’m going, but I’ll lay it out here. The 4 approaches correspond to the four defenses used by 4e. Thus:

1 – Circumvent – Reflex
2 – Manipulate – Fortitude
3 – Understand – Will
4 – Smash – Armor

While this creates a little bit of a shift in how to handle some situations (Stealth being an attack vs. reflex rather than a roll vs. Perception) it streamlines things a lot and, more importantly, makes it VERY easy to extrapolate a challenge from a monster (or to fold a monster into a challenge).

So, for example, If the Warlord of the Orcs is hunting for you, the GM could create the hunt as a situation, drawing from his HP to budget it (or just creating it), and set all the “difficulties” of the hunt (which is to say, its defenses) using the Warlord’s stats. In effect, by evading the hunt, they’re fighting him by proxy.

Now obviously, there’s more to cover. The big one is, of course, the bad things that challenges can do to you in return – without that they’re pretty toothless. But that, I think, is something for next week.

1 – Yes, this effectively “weaponizes” skills (which is part of why I want to sync up with the page 42 damage expressions. A strict mind could view these as repeatable stunts). This is an idea I’m fond of from its success in SOTC fights as a way to help all players feel able to contribute at all times 9and ot encourage them to find interesting ways to apply their skills). This is maybe a little less relevant to 4e where there’s less of an idea of a “non-combat” character, but it can still help.

2 – This may immediately raise some confusion of how to handle fights where a lot of HP and SP damage has been done, but 4e actually solves that VERY elegantly for us. If you take someone down to zero HP (or SP), you decide what happens to them. Often this is just used to decide “Dead or Unconscious”, but it’s a MUCH more powerful tool than that. The guy who takes his last HP could decide his enemy listened to reason and surrendered. , just as the guy who takes the last SP could decide he distracted the guy enough for him to get stabbed (or that he had just gotten through, just as he got killed, for maximum angst). The limiter on this is not a function of rules, but of what makes sense to the table, as it should be.

3- Important note: In all three cases, the activity moves towards action. That is, just studying something isn’t going to make progress against a challenge (unless studying IS the challenge) – the knowledge needs to be gained and applied. This need not be _strictly_ applied with each roll, but it must be part of the trend. That is, if you sneak past the guard and get him to down to zero, you should be taking him out (in whatever manner you see fit). If all you’re doing is going past him and not actually impacting the situation, that’s just a roll, not a challenge.

Fighting the Situation

What are hit points?

Historically, they were a measure of health and toughness, but over time (much like armor class) that got more and more abstracted until you’re left with some incongruous trappings (like tying them to constitution) and a simple reality: They’re a pacing mechanism. They measure how long something stays fighting, which in turn is a yardstick for scene length. If you need evidence of it, look at how monsters were changed with Monster Manual 3 – the change to hit points was not because monsters had somehow been written up as too healthy, it was to address pacing issues.

In fact, you could probably get away with really simplifying hit points by just tracking the number of “hits” a monster took over the course of a fight. Hit him with a basic attack or an at will, or do some real on going damage, it’s one hit. Hit him with an encounter power and it’s two hits. Daily and it’s 3. Strikers by and large do an extra hit. Simple, yes, but such a fight would be virtually identical to a normal one from a player’s perspective (barring some sort of math nerd tracking all damage at all times) provided the number of hits worked out close to those of a regular fight. Players would still track damage (because, hey, they have the bandwidth) but the GM could more easily tune fights up and down with this system.[1]

The problem is that players wouldn’t stand for it. We _like_ rolling damage. One of the most established truths of D&D is that the roll to hit and the roll for damage are separate things. “Margin of Success” is one of those idea that may find root in other games, but which has no home in D&D. There are crits, and that is good, and one or two feats that can bleed across a little, but by and large the damage dice are beholden to none. A great hit can roll crappy damage, or a minor attack can max out. It’s just one of those things that makes it D&D.

And that’s the inversion I think we need. The instinct is to expand the scope of skill challenges, taking advantage of their structure because it’s intellectually exciting, but I think that’s too far removed from what excites people about D&D. We want to hit things with axes and roll for damage: Why not solve all our problems that way?

Which is to say, my not literally give challenges hit points, and let skill rolls do damage?

It sounds crazy on the surface, I know, but it’s actually a surprisingly workable model. Obviously you’ll have to call it something other than Hit Points – Challenge Points abbreviates to CP, which is already in use, so let’s say Situation Points, or SP – and damage might be called something like “Progress” but we all know a damage roll when we see it.

So that guard over there? He’s a 20 point challenge. Every time you beat him with stealth, you inflict damage (sorry, ‘make progress’) on those points. Say a simple rule of thumb: Untrained skills do d6 + Stat + 1/2 level damage. Trained do d8, trained plus skill focus does d10. Easy peasy. Your stealth guy is gonna chew up that challenge in no time, but if he fails, the guard goes active, but his hit points are still based on the remaining SP (which additionally allows for the small, skirmishy fights we were talking about). That’s one example, but it’s easy to see others, with skill use being freely interchangeable with actual attacks when appropriate, it becomes easy to think of the difficulty of skill checks as a defense: you don’t just roll to avoid the storm, you roll to kicks its ass (which is to say, to maintain control of the situation. Players may not _be_ more proactive in these situations, but they’ll like feel like they are.

Obviously, this requires a pretty drastic reconsideration of how these encounters are built and budgeted, but I am confident it can be done, and more, it can be done in a manner that continues to stay within the rules and spirit of 4e. More on that tomorrow.[2]

1- In doing so, the GM would effectively have just turned fights into skill challenges. The “hits” model is essential the same at its heart.

2- Unless I get totally sidetracked by my inspiration of how to make Hawkman awesome.

Situation – The Problem

This all began with @sarahdarkmagic raising an innocuous question on twitter: how to run breaking into a castle in 4e. Specifically, the issue was that doing it as a skill challenge did not provide the right feel, which was more fast and skirmishy, taking out guards and such. Now, I could argue that a skill challenge can be made to do that, but I’ll concede it’s hard. Making skill challenges feel dynamic is a trick of its own, and not an easy one to master. When you add in combat, this complicates things even further, since 4e’s world of skills and the world of fighting are very far apart indeed.

A number of very good suggestions were put forward, including the incorporation of daily and encounter powers into skill challenges for bonuses (always a good practice) but that got me thinking about the nature of this specific problem and how I’d want it to go as a player. I’d be thinking in terms of stealth computer games like Thief or Splinter Cell, where play is like a montage of badassness. You sneak up on a guard, find some clever way around the complication, then take him out.

In practical terms, that’s an encounter in miniature – opposition + some interesting twist. And right off the bat, this reveals a lot of what makes this hard for a GM. While this mini-encounter may have fewer moving parts than a big one, it’s still a pain to design. The real work in encounter design is not filling in the details, it’s coming up with the hook that makes this encounter stand out. Coming up with a sequence of those would be work enough, and having to do it for a single skill-challenge equivalent (centered around one player no less!) is way too much work for the payout[1].

So you need to cut corners. Trim down the number of encounters. Maybe re-use some tricks. And then you bump up against the other problem, how to actually run it. Yes, you could make it purely skill driven, but the reality is our player wants to stab himself some guards (or snap their necks or something equally dramatic). That demands fast, brutal fights. No problem! Sounds like a job for Minions, right?

Well, no. The problem is that if you use minions, the guards are no longer a credible threat. Why bother to be stealthy when you can kill these guys with a forcefully thrown piece of paper? But if you make them full-on opponents, then this whole thing is just going to drag out impossibly long. You might think you could make do with lower level opponents, but even a level 1 enemy can have 20-odd hit points, and it’s easy for that to be the wrong number[2], to say nothing of the lameness of using weenie opponents like that.

So we need some way to tune the enemies more finely than they currently, and that’s what got me thinking that maybe we have the problem backwards. And that’s where I’m going next.

1 – Unless you also play stealth video games, and have a mental library of situations to steal and reskin. If so, awesome.

2 – That said, here’s a dirty trick that works only for rogues with daggers or shuriken. Their actual weapon damage is pretty trivial, quickly overcome by their bonuses and sneak attack bonuses. For them, figure out their minimum damage on an attack (all bonuses +1 for a 1 on the roll) and add 4 to that. That’s your perfect HP number. That opponent will probably survive the initial attack if it’s not a backstab, but will almost certainly die if it is.


The first post-holiday game of the Cold War game I’ve been running was last night. Coming back from a break is always rough, and there’s often a fear the game will have lost it’s inertia during the hiatus. Thankfully, things went off very well, and we had a great adventure chasing shadows and lightning in time-stopped Washington DC.

It was a great session, but I was not originally going to write about it. We’d had fun, but I’d had no particular mechanical insights as a result of it, and I’m not comfortable saying how awesome a session was without some sort of excuse. I have a skill challenge idea queued up that’s chomping at the bit to see daylight and I was ready to let the session go by with a nod until Fred noticed something: we had finished early.

This is strange enough that we went back through the usual range of possible explanations: had we started early? No, we actually started about 15 minutes late. Had the session felt skimpy on content? Nope, it had been pretty much stuffed from end to end.

We had no explanation, except that the pacing of this particular adventure had really just rocketed along. I was a bit surprised myself, since I hadn’t exactly planned for it to be a fast session, but in retrospect I saw many of the decisions that lead to it. Some of them were just good habits, but some of it seems to have been an upshot of running Leverage (and its variants) over the break. Leverage does a lot to support very tight pacing without calling it out explicitly, and I need to keep a few of those things in mind. Some of them are classics (like starting out with a bang) but a few more are up for consideration of a permanent place in the toolbox. Notably:

Niche Protection is Not Just For GMs – It helps things a lot when players have an understanding and respect for the strengths of other characters, measured by the simple rubric that if they encounter a problem of a certain kind, are they more likely to just try to tackle it or are they likely to call in the expert? This has a subtle impact on how effectively you can play with a divided group: if the group has that level of respect, then getting divided isn’t a big deal because they’ll naturally draw each other back into play. If they’re all rugged individualists or roughly equally capable, then things can remain unfocused. Mechanics play a role in this (as you often want the guy with the bigger bonus) but it really hinges on the players buying into the idea to work.

Small Details Carry Weight – In Leverage, these tend to take the form of post-its littering the table in front of me, which demands a certain brevity, but I came at it from a different angle last night. To underscore the oddness of the time stop, I made the decision to switch to the language of a horror game in my descriptions. That meant small, colorful details but not a lot of dwelling on minutiae. Draw attention to things that change. The net result may not have been hugely scary, but it was surprisingly focused. Horror, after all, depends a lot on pacing to maintain tension, so it’s no shock that what works for it can work well for other pacing.

This kind of terseness also goes a long way towards helping your players create strong visuals in play (since it gives them more freedom to play while providing simple building blocks to anchor from). Since those are the things they’re going to take home with them at the end, don’t underestimate how big a deal that is.

Maintain a Clear Course of Action – This is one that’s going to be easy to say, but maybe hard to explain, and I expect to chew on how to express it more effectively for a while, but the short of it is this: the clearer the course of action is (clear in terms of evident, not necessarily clear in terms of a lack of obstacles – obstacles are half the fun), the faster things will move, especially if there is some external pressure to keep things moving. On its face, this is dangerously close to a case for railroading, but that’s not the heart of it at all. For one thing, there will often be more than one useful course of action, and for another this is about action on the scene level, not the whole arc of the adventure.

This hinges on information management – it’s all about making sure the players have enough information to make decisions (at least most of the time) and that means that they need to feel confident in their knowledge of 1) What they would need to do, 2) Whether or not they’re capable of it and 3) the immediate consequences of doing so. Adversarial dungeoning encourages GMs to be be very cagey about these data points, especially #2 and #3, but that’s a bad instinct. Not only does it slow play, but keeping everything obscure utterly devalues the things you shroud for good reasons.

The Good Parts Version – This is an old one from the bottom of the bag that merits dusting off. The speed of a particular scene or action should not depend on its importance, but rather it should be inverse to the level of player engagement. The only long scenes are ones where all the players are engaging each other – everything else deserves to be brisk and keep the ball moving. If it’s something a player enjoys, it should take longer than something that’s clearly a plot necessity.

This technique is super-useful to GMs looking to weed their own garden. It makes you aware of things you’re stretching out because they’re cool to you but not your players, so you can decide what to do about that.

Anyway, it’s not a science yet, but I feel like I may have started getting my hands around really making pacing work. Which is one more reason I need to get working on that Skill Challenge thing.

Canon is Overrated

I was thinking about settings the other day, and I started pondering the real difference between settings based on existing fiction versus setting designed for gaming from the ground up. Some of it is obvious: Game settings are built with a certain amount of expected expandability, if only because more books can be written. They are expected to have the kind of fractal depth of history, with only the success of publishing deciding how deep into the fractal things go.

Settings based on fiction are built differently. They have an essential, recognizable seed which needs to exist to be considered part of the setting in question. In popular settings (Star Wars and Dragonlance spring to mind), the material may go quite far afield from that core, but those variations are usually just shadows of the core. The odd fan might like them better, and more details is always appreciated by a certain type of enthusiast, but the core remains recognizable.

All this was going through my mind when I got to thinking about Amber. See, something that you will notice very quickly in any Amber RPG community is that it’s all about that group’s version of Amber. This is not accidental – most groups are well aware of other campaigns and ideas out there, ideas contradictory to their own – but there is very little sense that other people’s interpretations in any way lessen your own. When you go to a convention, the number of interpretations you will be exposed to can be truly dizzying, but what’s perhaps crazier still is that they will almost all be recognizably Amber.

This resonates on some level with the classic “shared” adventures of D&D’s past, the ones that the 3e series tried to recapture the spirit of. Against the Giants, Slave Lords, Temple of Elemental Evil and others were seminal experiences for players, but the expectation was that other groups played these adventures too, and had different experiences with them. Even Dragonlance, which has an “official” outcome, can create an experience through play.

What’s weird is that I find this attitude to be more of an exception than the rule in games with strong settings. The idea of the official canon is such that variations on setting are pushed to the fringe, sometimes treated as a sign of an inability to “do it right”.

My suspicion is that a lot of it is a function of “living” settings – people are not necessarily comfortable diverging from the game as written until the final input is received, and since many games are infinitely open ended in their presentation, that final input never comes. Some of it is also a function of volume: It is easy to retool Amber because there are relatively few moving parts. Similarly, an adventure makes for a very small setting.

I dwell on this because I really, really like the Amber approach. I love enthusiastic setting ownership. I love to see what people do with a setting to make it sing as much as I do seeing what people do to make rules work better for their table. The question, and this is the one I’ll be thinking about for a while, is how to make it happen.

More Mage

First, if you haven’t read Dave Chalker’s love letter to Mage you probably should. It’a great piece, and makes a great bookend to Ryan Macklin’s similar letter a while back and Daniel Perez’s letter to Vampire: the Masquerade.

I admit I love this kind of positive stuff, if only because you see so little of it, yet it’s so important to why we game. But beyond the general, I want to point back to Dave’s post because I think he finally managed to crystallize some things about mage for me.

I’ve mentioned before that mage contained multitudes – that one of its big strengths was that you could slice it a thousand different ways and come up with a thousand different games. A lot of that capability rested on the robustness of the ideas and the mechanics, and they were very robust, so much so that I think they almost pulled the game apart.

One one hand, the ideas were incredibly robust because it was, at its heart, a game ABOUT ideas. It was a literal expression of every half-assed philosophical discussion ever had at 3am, only with fireballs and trench coats. It let you go as far towards relativism or truth as your personal taste allowed, and if that didn’t match up with other people at the table, that was JUST FINE, because the whole _point_ was that you had differing world views.

For better or for worse, the ideas of the game also paid you back depending upon what you brought to the game. If you wanted to half ass it and just do cool kung fu or get drunk and mind control chicks, that was an option, but if you really wanted to think about a worldview, and what it meant if it was big T Truth, you had all the space in the world to do so. I will even go so far as to say that without at least some thought, the game got lame very fast, especially once the Technocracy got folded into the table. If you wanted to do magic and also have ideas, that was ok, but it only really shined when you wanted to have ideas, and let them be magic.

The mechanics this was paired with seemed ideal at first blush, and by this I mean the magic system. There were other rules, and I’m sure they’re important to someone, but magic was rather the point of the exercise. The sphere system was flexible enough to represent almost any effect, and freeform enough to put that capability in players hands. That was a big deal. Trusting players with that kind of power has dangers, but it can lead to the best sort of game, as mage highlighted.

See, there were a couple of ways to approach the sphere system, but there were two big ones. The first was “I have this kind of magic, I want this kind of effect, what kind of spheres does that take?”. The second is “I have these spheres. What can they do?”

And that, there, is where the wishbone splits. Both approaches are potentially awesome, but they make for RADICALLY different games. The former dovetails with what I was talking about regarding a game of ideas. If you’re playing the idea game, and your power comes from the burning fire of your soul, you’re not going to use it to summon cream pies, no matter what your dots say you can do. The latter is what really cemented Mage’s reputation as a supers game without tights. Once you start building powers from spheres, the sky;s the limit, and you end up with lists of effects that puts Champions to shame.[1]

But the thing I really need to underscore here is that this branching goes in two different but seriously awesome directions, which only became problematic if they mixed. The two approaches mix very poorly, resulting in the usual cascade of RPG bitching and moaning of people not getting it or spoiling their fun. That one game could do this thing is, honestly, a pretty amazing thing.

Now, I should note that I’m not hating on new Mage. I actually love it, albeit for a whole other host of reasons. But it’s pretty interesting to dust off old mage and see what thoughts it brings.

1 – Which highlights the irony of using a more skill-list driven approach to feel “more magical”.

Fortune Cards

Wizards of the Coast announced that they will begin selling Fortune Cards for 4e. As far as I can tell, these will be cards with power boosts on them. You bring your deck to the game, flip up a card at the beginning of an encounter, and sometime during the encounter you can use the power or bonus listed on the card, kind of like gaining an extra encounter power. From the examples, these will be much more interesting than run-of-the-mill “+2 to your next attack” kind of stuff. The examples shown include powers that help out teammates, or which take numeric values from things like the number of bloodied allies.

I do not think it’s much of a stretch to say these things are going to sell like hotcakes. They’re reminiscent of the Gamma World cards in many ways (including a painful pricing model – 4 bucks for 8 cards) which have been flying off the shelf, and with good reason. A little bit of randomness paired with a little bit of extra oomph are a lot of fun in 4e combat. Players who use the cards will be actively looking for exciting opportunities to use their cards (the interesting ones at least) or take risks they can afford because the card offers a buffer against some type of danger.

But mostly, they’re going to sell like mad, and make WOTC a ton of money. I’m pretty confident they’ve wanted to be able to make money in cards out of 4e since it started, and the fact that the power card model doesn’t actually work[1] was probably a bit of a blow. So with that in mind, I can’t hold it against them to follow this model and rake in some cash.

Still, I’m grumpy. Thankfully, I don’t have the power to come to your game and take your cards away, so this hopefully doesn’t create too much of a problem for you and your game.

See, the thing that bigger me about the Gamma World cards was that rarity seemed to equate to power. Some cards were just better than others, sometimes drastically so, and a player willing to spend more money on cards could fill his deck with more powerful ones, effectively buying his way to a more powerful character.[2] I’m really uncomfortable with this idea. Now, without seeing the Fortune Cards, there’s no real way to determine if that problem will continue, but I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t. Making rare cards more powerful is a tool to drive sales, and WOTC (as a business) has every reason to follow a strategy that maximizes sales.

Obviously, this also raises the question of what you do when only some players want to shell out money for these things at the table. Barring very generous friends, most of the solutions to this problem are a bit rought.

Perhaps less reasonably, I also bemoan a lost opportunity. While this is the most commercially viable model for something like fortune cards, it’s probably the least interesting from an RPG sense. See, I actually LOVE the use of cards in games, so much so that I have boxes dedicated to homemade cards or bizarre tarot and tarot-like decks that can be applied to games[3]. They’re powerful, versatile and inspirational, and they can do so much that it’s a shame to see them do so little.

Thankfully, there’s some hope. Once the cards get out in the wild, I expect people will find more interesting ways to use them (Gamefiend, I’m looking at you). For example, consider what happens if the GM has a single deck for the table; suddenly, you have a reward for coolness (or anything else deserving reward) that’s less problematic than adding extra action points. A simple tweak, but full of potential, and just scratching the surface.

1 – Because bonuses are constant being recalculated, having cards with powers on them that don’t reflect character’s actual numbers are pretty useless.

2 – I also had an issue with thematic mismatches, but that was much more easily fixed by just mkaing decks out of cards of the correct theme

3 – Why yes, I AM an Everway fan.

App Pricing

Adamant Entertainment recently made a bold announcement. They’re changing their PDF pricing model so that every single product is now $1. No typo. Everything for a buck. Referred to as “App Pricing,” it’s a nod to the market success of inexpensive applications that are purchased in great numbers for platforms like the iPhone or Android. It’s an interesting decision, and possibly a risky one, but I suspect it may ultimately prove to be a smart one.

We’ll know more in a year or so, but in the absence of real data (inasmuch as a single publisher’s success or failure will qualify as data) there’s a lot to look at here. Some of it points to why this is a good idea, some points to the dangers, and most importantly, a lot of it informs upon the more important question: whether or not this is a good idea for you.

Speaking entirely hypothetically, the math behind such a price change is pretty transparent – the proposition is that the lower the cost, the more of a widget you will sell. If you could sell 100 at $3 apiece, but 500 at $1, the advantage is clear. What’s not clear, of course, is where the sweet spot lies. Reducing price will almost certainly increase sales, but it’s reasonable to wonder whether the increase in sales offsets the loss in per-unit pricing. No one can really know for sure, but it’s only by taking risks like this that you find out.

That said, Adamant is not jumping blindly into this – part of the motivation for this has been noted on Gareth’s blog. On each occasion he’s sold his products at a drastic discount (roughly comparable to app pricing) he’s profited greatly by it. Switching that over to a standard model has a certain amount of logic.

This seems like such a good match is that Adamant has a pretty deep catalog, over 200 items. That puts them in a position to benefit vertically (if a single title becomes a runaway hit) or horizontally (from small purchases inspiring other small purchases, so someone who wouldn’t buy a $5 item might by 5 $1 items) and to generally have more product to draw in eyeballs. A smaller publisher with less of a critical mass it going to have a harder time – they might get lucky with a big hit, but they’re less likely to pick up ambient sales.

One interesting choice is to go with flat pricing, rather than a mixed bag (where ‘premium’ product might go for two, three or even five dollars). The reasoning is straightforward enough – removing price confusion and comparison removes some of the friction to buy – but I’m not entirely sold on the idea. I hope it does well by Adamant, but were I in that position, I’d be more likely to use a mixed model.

It’s easy to look at the immediate situation surrounding this decision, it’s also important to take the long view. The electronic product market is trending upwards, for good (more sales! Yay!) or ill (more competition and noise! Boo!) but a pricing scheme like this is a bet not the market continuing to improve, not only in terms of popularity, but also in terms of ease of use. The barriers to purchasing and using PDFs are much less than they used to be, but they’re still non-trivial. As they lower, the rising tide lifts all boats.

I actually think that’s a good bet. Optimistic, sure, but it’s the bet I’d make. But there’s another factor, on that might be a much deeper problem.

When you make a purchase with a credit card or with a service like paypal, the merchant is charged some money. If this was just a percentage of the cost, it would be no problem – it could simply scale with the cost. Unfortunately, part of the cost is also a flat fee, and that’s a real problem for low cost goods. It is entirely possible that the flat rate and the fees means the merchant will actually lose money on the purchase.

This is not a new problem. If you’ve ever heard the term “micropayments”, this is what has really kept it from ever becoming much more than a buzzword. There are ways around it – apple tries to bundle your purchases together when you buy apps, but just sucks the cost when it can’t – but they’re not solutions that work very well on the scale of the RPG industry. One common solution is the minimum purchase (you’ve probably seen this at small shops). I believe rpgnow used to have such a policy (to keep themselves from losing money) but I don’t know if it’s still in place or not. Whatever the state of it, if it’s not worth a merchant’s while to sell things for a buck, sooner or later he will stop. Is this unsurmountable? Probably not, but it’s an unpleasant reality to be wrestled with.

Bottom line, I would be hesitant to propose that anyone with a smaller catalog take a similar plunge, but all the same I would suggest people keep an eye on this. If successful, this is not only going to suggest a path, it’s also going to exert some pressure to bring pdf prices down. This latter point is maybe dangerous – there’s a danger of a race to the bottom that is mostly held in check solely by the payment issues – but it may also just be a herald of change.

Anyway, I applaud this effort, and will be watching it curiously. And if you’re also curious, you should definitely pick up a few games at this price. I’d definitely suggest Icons.

EDIT: I just checked RPGnow, and it looks like thing have bumped up to $1.99, so perhaps the micro payments issue has been addressed. To this I say, hooray!