Monthly Archives: February 2014

Half Baked at Dreamation

Since I’m watching a game at Dreamation, I’ll take the opportunity to share some half-formed ideas.

I am pondering what happens with a smaller dice set in Fate. Specifically, I am pondering reducing the roll to 2df, with the dice having specific meanings – one die will be the character and how well he performs and the other will be the world, the way the situation goes. The dice will be different colors, of course, so their influence on the narrative will be quite obvious.

This thinking came out of some thoughts about taking Fate diceless, something that’s pretty easy to do if you are already comfortable with diceless play, but which introduces some challenges if you don’t. The smaller dice spread moves some of the priority back to skills/approaches and aspects, but there’s also a bit of a shift in what the dice mean in this regard.

See, I am intrigued by the idea of the dice being separated from the ladder. That is, a –2 on the dice could mean things went pretty badly but the outcome is still based on the core value comparison. There are some problems with this – flat diceless resolution produces a bit too much predictability when using the Fate spread, and that can be pretty unsatisfying. This could be addressed by allowing aspects to be applied to resolution OR the roll as two separate things, but that is probably a bit too fiddly.

I’m also pondering another random thought too – what happens if you move Fate resolution downstream, and make aspects situation changers? That is, in a conflicted roll, suppose that no aspects are applied before the roll, and the roll stands in fiction, but does not yet have any consequence except in description – no stress is inflicted, no aspects are created, but the flow of action is considered to still be in flux. When I use an aspect, that is me taking an action that corresponds with the aspect (parrying, diving out of the way, counterattacking and so on). When both sides are done invoking aspects, then that’s the end of the conflict, resolved according to the final array of outcomes.

There’s an immediate problem with this in that it breaks down in multi-character scenes, but I think that’s addressable. In a duel situation, my fear would be that it would be too predictable, so I’d be inclined to make it all rerolls instead of bonuses, but that might be too fiddly.

I feel like there’s a space of play that both of these ideas touch upon, and I don’t yet have a firm grip on it, but this is how I circle in on these things.

Seven Ways to Argent – First Thoughts

This setting is clearly designed with games like Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, Amber, Lords of Olympus, Everway and Planescape in mind. This is not a complaint about any of these settings, but rather an expression of how much I love them all, but that I don’t actually own them, so I’m just sketching out something that I would play with.

There are seven threads that tie the universe together, each extending infinitely through the substance of reality, and each touching countless worlds along its path. They share a common root, starting in a common world that stands at the center of all things. Each has a destination as well, albeit one that is infinitely far from its source. There is no way to simply traverse the distance, but there are beings of power who can circumvent that distance.

The city-state of Argent lies at the center of this web. Each way begins here, and the people and families that live here have raised up a golden city at this crossroads of worlds. Magic, science and wealth exist hand in hand on the streets of Argent, all under the watchful eye of the great families who rule the cities and the ways beyond.

The first Way is a grand staircase lined with doors that open on myriad worlds. It begins in the highest tower of Argent Palace and continues forever, changing its nature and shape as it goes. It ends at another tower, a great dark tower that looks out upon the landscape of the last world.

The second Way is a tree with worlds suspended from its branches. It begins as the great forest that surrounds Argent in two directions, with dark and mysterious ways hidden in the spaces between trees. Over its distance, it changes – in places one walks upon branches the size of cities, in others, the trees surround gates or pools of water, in others, the path goes within the great tree itself. At its end, one comes tot he very top of the tree, and may look out on a canopy that is wider than the world, under a forgotten sun.

The third is an unending road that wends between crossroads, changing from a dirt track to a superhighways as it goes, often with no clear indicators of when one has gotten on or off the road. It beings at the gates of Argent City, and its terminus is a great cliff, overlooking an ocean of fog, though there are some who say that is a false end, and that there is merely a road that has been turned.

The fourth is a great river, ever flowing, ever shifting, born from a spring at the center of Argent which fills its canals and flows out to irrigate the surrounding farmland. It is an inconsistent, unpredictable way, and the route between two points is not always the same. Some say that the River has a consciousness behind it, and left to its devices, ti will take you where you need to be. It terminates in a great waterfall that plunges out of sight, or at least it seems to. If it continues further, none have ever returned from discovering it.

The fifth is a secret.

The sixth is found on the sea and stars beyond Argent harbor as one passes from sight of the Great Lighthouse. It is possible to sail beneath the skies of a million million worlds, if one but knows the way. It ends upon a forbidden shore, far beyond all that is known.

The seventh hides behind every mirror, rooted in the palace’s Chamber of Mirrors and proceeding through mad reflections of every world that is passed. This is the least predictable of the Ways, full of dangers and misdirection, It terminates at the great black wall, a mirrored surface the size of a world which reflects nothing.

While each way is infinite (or close enough to be indistinguishable) , they are far from identical. The nature of the travelers, worlds, powers and secrets found upon each way has a distinct flavor and style. These differences are reflected in the style and nature of the keepers of each way – the members of the extended family given responsibility to study, watch and (when necessary) police the Way they keep. Each group naturally considers their own way to be the pre-eminent ones, and the matriarch of the family seems happy to fuel these rivalries.

More to follow

Drama on a Miss

Ok, there’s a bit of furor afoot at the moment about the idea of Damage on a Miss.

For the unfamiliar, it’s an idea I first encountered in D&D 4e, which figures prominently in 13th Age, and which is currently prominent because a build option in D&D next may allow it. A horrible, trollish rant was put up in opposition to it, but it is telling how much the idea bothers people by the number of people who are willing to disregard the nature of the communication because they also dislike Damage on a Miss. I’ve already written some about how this kind of rant is good for preparing yourself for playtest feedback, but I’m now going to engage in the monumentally foolish action of talking about the rule itself.

In short, the idea behind the rule is this: When you make a d20 style to-hit roll and miss, you still inflict some fraction of your damage, usually just your stat mod. I’m not going to speak to the specifics of the D&D Next implementation because it’s a playtest doc, and to pick certain kinds of nits[1] would reveal a profound misunderstanding of what playtest means.

But I will speak to the idea of the rule because it wonderfully illustrates a host of ideas, the most important of which is (and this is a bit of a spoiler) that there is very rarely a truly bad rule, and even more rarely, a good one. Games are full of moving parts and tradeoffs, and understanding the strengths and problems of any particular rule technology is how you build a design that does what you intend. “Good” is a shorthand, not an analysis, and definitely not an outcome.

And with that in mind, I am kind of delighted by Damage on a Miss (DoaM from here on in) as a piece of rules technology because it illustrates the balance so wonderfully. And so, I shall now contradict myself with great abandon.

DoaM is a great rule because it avoids the sense of a “wasted” action for a player, especially when that action is part of their bread and butter.

DoaM is a terrible rule because it’s counterintuitive. It is easy to imagine a hit translating into damage of some sort, but having a miss do the same is difficult to visualize and explain. Hit points may be abstract, but they’re broadly understood, and this pushes the abstraction too far.

DoaM is a weird rule because it takes the premise that hit points are an abstraction and runs with it. That is both very logical and very disruptive, because hit points themselves are a tough foundation to build anything from.

DoaM is a great rule because it speeds up combat by guaranteeing that fights keep going forward, even if the dice are a bit whiffy.

DoaM is a terrible rule because it makes combat more boring. Not only are outcomes more predictable, the emotional satisfaction of a good hit can be diminished by the fact that you know there’s a consolation prize for missing.

DoaM is a weird Rule because it interacts oddly with other accuracy-increasing rules, sometimes to its detriment. For this one area, I will use D&D as a specific example, because increasing the number of attacks is another way to increase accuracy (or, to put it another way, reduce the whiff chance). If you’re making 4 attacks, odds are good one will hit, and that true “whiffs”, missing on all rolls, will be enough of an edge case that whiffs may not be a problem any longer. This does not automatically cut either way, but it’s something that merits inspection.

DoaM is a great rule because it actually makes armor a bit more interesting in its long term effect. That is, reduced chance to hit as damage mitigation has always been an awkward solution when implemented as a binary, but if you shift the premise to assume some damage, but that armor prevents serious damage, you generate an outcome similar to DoaM.[2]

DoaM is a terrible rule because I can kill someone on a miss. Arguably, this is just another version of unintuitive, but it’s a very palpable example.

DoaM is a weird rule because absolutes are weird, emotionally. For some people the difference between a 0.000001% chance of success and a 0% chance of success is REALLY important.

DoaM is a great rule because it builds on D&D’s history. It was a great rule in 4e.

DoaM is a terrible rule because it contradicts every non 4e version of D&D.

DoaM is a weird Rule because it’s been in the game since the beginning with spells, but that potentially opens the other can of worms of what exactly saving throws are supposed to mean in fiction.

DoaM is a great Rule since it’s a gatekeeper. If it’s a game-breaker for someone, then they may not actually be a great audience for anything new for D&D.

DoaM is a terrible rule Because it alienates older players.

DoaM is a weird rule because it’s an unearned reward. Whether that’s bad or not has a lot to do with what one thinks players need to earn.

And that’s just the 101 stuff. This could easily go on all day, especially as you delve into specifics, like whether it’s an across-the-board rule or a specific build option (which have very different implications). And importantly, I think these things are all true.

I don’t say that to invite debate on specific points, but rather to highlight the nature of the argument is very different depending upon where you are coming from, and it boils down to this – If you cannot see the way a rule could work, then I am intensely suspicious of your opinion that it does not (and vice versa).

DoaM is an impressively emotional issue in this case because it’s easy to take as a proxy for what D&D really is. It hangs a flag on something that’s always been a problem (hit points) in a way that could be taken as killing a sacred cow (though exactly which cow may depend on who you ask). And I don’t intend to dismiss those emotional arguments – they’re important – but they’re not design arguments, and it’s important to separate these things.

Do I have a final conclusion on DoaM in D&D Next? Not really. The language could be cleaned up, and it may have problems interacting with multiple attacks, but those are largely fixable. More importantly, it’s a modular design element, and easily extracted (as opposed to being a far-reaching element, as it is in 4e or 13th Age). So I’m fine with it being there, but I’m not really invested in it.

And, importantly, if they drop it, it will be because they tested it and thought it through, not because someone on the internet got mad.

  1. Specifically, I am speaking about implementation details. Does it contradict other text? Is it unclear how it interacts with other rules? Does the exact number balance correctly? These are all valid concerns, and they’re exactly what playtesting should reveal. But these are not things which speak to the underlying rule and whether it works or does not. They are knobs, and can tuned. If they cannot be tuned, then that may reveal something to be unworkable, but the gap between “needs work” and “unworkable” is deep and wide. Best to not throw an idea or rule down it until you see if you can build a bridge. Also, the DDN specific stuff has already had robust conversation, and if you’re interested in that, then go join that conversation. Coming in late game with “brilliant insights” that ignore all conversation that has gone before is amateurish and disrespectful.  ↩
  2. And less you think that sounds too abstract/wonky, that is actually exactly the model that was used by games like Rolemaster and (I think) Harn. Landing a hit was trivial, but it was also trivial in its impact. What you really wanted was a good enough hit that you would get a critical, an injury or similar.  ↩