Category Archives: heartbreaker

Heartbreaking Roles

broken-heartI’m intermittently working on a terrible idea of a game, a fantasy heartbreaker which I’ve currently title “NMMDI” or “Nyquil Made Me Do It”. This is the actual working title, on the cover, in Papyrus. I have no better way to insure it gets a real name if I ever finish it.

The idea behind it is to make a pretty standard fantasy heartbreaker with characters, gear, strong GM and so on, but with sensibilities from more recent games. I actually took the D&D Red Book as my template as I started out, though I’ll deviate a little bit by the time it’s done.

The mechanical stuff may be a future topic, but I realized I wanted to share one section from the definition of terms, because it illustrates somethign which has gotten important to me over time.

At the Table

When the rules talk about a player they mean someone sitting around the table (or in the chat) or otherwise playing the game. Everyone is a player, but some players have one or more roles. The Host is the person whose home is being used for the game. Online games and convention games may not have a host, but those situations should be pretty clear. The Organizer is the person who took responsibility for scheduling the game, keeping track of who can and can’t come and so forth. A Proctor is a player who brings supplies for the game, including refreshments. The Game Master, abbreviated as GM, is the player responsible for facilitating and driving play, providing opposition and a great many other things. Other players are Play Masters, abbreviated as PMs[1].

It is expected that there be overlap between the roles. A PM may also be Host and Proctor, another PM may be Organizer, another PM may also be Proctor, and the GM may well have no other roles besides GMing. It’s important to communicate the roles between the players so everyone has a clear set of expectations, but it also has some impact in game. There are bonuses that go along with most roles, and if you expect your GM to also be Organizer, Host and Proctor, then those bonuses go to her!

So, first, yes – there’s a small pool of awards that get handed out at the beginning of each session to reward the players who have helped facilitate the game. If any of those dice don’t get allocated (which is to say, if the GM also has to facilitate the game), then they go into the GM’s pool to mess with stuff. In fairness, that’s not much of a penalty for the players, but my hope is that the rewards both incentivize and normalize other players taking roles in making the game go. I know that in some groups this is taken as a given, but in others, the GM also has to effectively project manage the whole process, which kind of sucks. If the GM has to do more work in play, then it’s too much work, and if you’re playing a game where the GM doesn’t do more work, then why is only one player doing the out of game work?

Overall, the challenge of writing a game with no assumptions has been really fascinating, and it shows up a lot in things like this – the ideas surrounding the roles of the people at the table. It also means writing a lot more than I’m used to. Not sure whether it will ultimately produce anything worthwhile, or if it’s just going to be a sharpening stone. But it should be fun either way.

  1. That PM thing? At first, I felt awkward about it as overly contrived, but as I’ve written more text, it’s proven SUPER helpful for clarity while simultaneously suggesting that everyone is a player, which is kind of a big deal for me.  ↩

The Boring Part

So, there are a few things you need to accept as baselines for a Fantasy heartbreaker. Characters will probably have some manner of race/class combination, there might or might not be some skills or feats (or feat-like things), maybe some levels, and perhaps most importantly, stats.

Statistics are one of the first things you think of when you look at a character’s sheets, so much so that “Stats” is conversationally synonymous with the character’s sheet. With that in mind, that’s the first mechanical thing I’m thinking about. The choice of stats can be a simple thing, but it’s worth some time and thought, specifically to determine how many stats to use and what they should represent.

Setting aside special stats[1], the classic split is between the mental and the physical. It’s entirely possible to get by with just those two stats, but fairly dull. Still, they make a good foundation, and how you split them says a lot about the game.

The first split is probably one that it may seem like I’m overlooking: Social. Only slightly less common than the 2 way split is the 3 way split between physical, mental (knowledge) and social (spiritual). This 3 way split is the basis of Tri-stat and Storyteller/Storytelling stats. In two-way splits fold social under mental, usually when social interaction doesn’t get a lot of mechanical support.

D&D is actually kind of fascinating to look at through this lens. From a physical/mental perspective, it’s a split set, 3 & 3. From a three way perspective you get a 3:2:1 split, which is probably more reflective of the real priorities of the game. Contrasted with White Wolf, which has a 3:3:3 split.[2]

I probably want to have at least a little social support, so let’s go with a 3 way split as the foundation.

Given that, I could stop at 3 stats, but that’s still pretty dull, so the question is how to split them.

The first option is to split them consistently. The Storytelling system does this by splitting each category into three subcategories that correspond roughly to power, finesse and resistance. This is pretty intuitive for physical stats, but not necessarily so much for mental, and it’s definitely jarring for social stuff.

The second is to look at how they’ll be used, and split it like that. Unfortunately, I’m starting from scratch here, so I have no real answer to that. Still, I may take a lesson from that.

Another possibility is to look at stat systems I like. Rolemaster left its mark on me, for example, but to be honest I’d be hard pressed to remember all the stats it used, so perhaps not the best example. Dragon Age has a pretty nice set of 8, though one of them (magic) is a special stat, with the rest having a 3:3:1 split, with social getting the short end of the stick with the nicely named “Communication” stats. However, arguably it’s actually 3:2:2 depending upon how you use Cunning.

Now, here’s where we start getting into the more trivial-seeming areas of the decision making process. First, I don’t want names of stats that sound too stupid or too technical. Second, I’d like an even number of stats within a given range, so 4, 6, 8 or 10. The good news is that these limits actually clarify things: 4 is too few, and 10 is more than I really want to try to keep in mind, so 6 or 8.

6 would be ideal. It’s easy to remember and the fact that it’s D&D’s number speaks well for it. Eight would be a function of necessity if I want to flesh out the possibilities. Part of the problem is that Strength, Dexterity and Endurance really are hard to go without, and that’s half of a 6 point spread right there.

Assuming we’re going to go with 8, I want at least a 3:2:2 split. This prospect leaves me waffling a bit, and this has me inclined to steal a page from Dragon Age, and shuffle magic back into the deck. This will introduce some complications – making the magic stat mean something for non-magical characters will be important, but I have a thought on that[3] – and it rounds things up to 8, nice and tidy.

So, we’ve got 4 stats already: Strength, Dexterity and Endurance (maybe Agility rather than Dex) and Magic. That leaves 4 slots, and I think I’m going to go with a structured split (active/passive). For mental, that’s say Cunning and Willpower, and for social I’ll steal from our own playbook and go with Rapport and Composure.

[EDIT: Discussion in comments has convinced me that the mental pair is actually Intellect and Focus.]

This almost certainly seems like overthinking a fairly simple decision, especially this early in, but it’s important to think about why you make a choice so you’re prepared to change it later on if you find the design suggests one thing, but your earlier decision is still saying something else. Right now, this spread of stats isn’t saying a lot (intentionally) but it’s suggesting an emphasis on the physical, classical sensibilities[4], the presence of magic, and a non-trivial role for mental and physical activity. Will those still be the case down the line? if it’s not, then by understanding why choices were made, it’s easy to understand how to change them.

1 – Such as for things like magic.

2 – There’s an instinctive desire to consider a symmetrical distribution to be automatically superior, but it’s an unfair assumption. The distribution should reflect the priorities of the game – if it does that well, it’s the right distribution.

3 – Theft continues to be fun, so I’m going to steal from the Liavek novels and tie magic to luck. No, I’m not sure what that means yet, but it seems like an idea to start with.

4 – Compare with my non-Amber stats (Force, resolve, grace, wits) or a non-stat system, like Aspects or the Smallville iteration of Cortex.

Heartbreak Spoken Here

Opinion seems to favor the Fantasy Heartbreaker, so the other idea gets back burnered for the moment. So with that in mind, I need to think a little but about first principles, and that in turn means thinking about influences that I’ll be keeping in mind.

The first is, of coursed, D&D. But that’s a wide swath of material, and deserves some drilling down. Now, personally, I have fond memories of red book basic D&D for its readability and accessibility. I have a great deal of respect for the OSR’s[2] desire for simplicity, but I have always differed from them in that I feel simplicity has been more successfully achieved by games which are not D&D and therefor not part of their discussion. So, while I have an eye towards the spirit of slim, simple books, the tools I may use to get there may be quite different.

This may be harsh to say, but I can’t think of anything I’d steal from first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. There are maybe a few ideas which had strong underpinnings but poor expression[3] but there are other places I’ll turn to for how those ideas eventually got expressed. I mean, I loved these books, and I’ll try to keep the wahoo sensibilities of the DMG in my back pocket, but it’s hard to separate what’s truly useful from what is compelling due to the time and place I was when I read them.

That said, I want even less from 2e. I think it was an improvement on 1e in almost every way, and it was solidly playable, but it was also very bland. However, that blandness also meant it ended up supporting some of the best settings I’ve ever seen in RPGs, with Planescape, Birthright and Red Steel jumping right to top of mind. The mechanics may not have left much of a mark, but the settings absolutely did. Not sure what, if anything, I’ll end up dong with them in a heartbreaker, but they’re definitely on the table.

3e, and all the things born from it up to and including Pathfinder, Fantasycraft and other current incarnations, did a lot of things right. Most notably, the level of character customization was, when good, magnificent. If you look through older 1e and 2e products that represented fiction, like Conan or Lankhmar, the characters almost always broke the multiclass rules to try to capture the correct sense of them. In 3e, making those characters was now in bounds. The addition of Feats was also noteworthy and also emblematic of everything within the d20 sphere – potentially very useful, but potentially very cumbersome. There’s so much stuff here that there’s no useful way to narrow it down, but it would be foolish to go forward without it on hand. Almost anything you can think of in fantasy has at least been tried (not necessarily with any success) in d20, and it’s always useful to see earlier efforts.

In contrast, 4e is much more focused, and that’s nicely reflective of what it brings to the table. More structure, more clarity of action, and a much stronger metagame. It put different characters on better footing (explicitly pulling non-spellcasters out of the gutter and onto the table). I definitely want to draw heavily from here, but there are things I want to explicitly avoid, primary among them being the decoupling of color and mechanics. It is important to me that game effects be described in game terms, not created in game terms.[4] Really, in general, 4e is a smooth, well oiled machine for miniature combat, so taking out the parts i need to do something else with it will probably make for a lot of smoke and noise.

Beyond D&D, I first turn to Rolemaster. The brutality of the combat, the diversity of the characters supported and the range and potential of the magic system are all huge advantages. The one downside is bookkeeping – RM had a lot of it, and that doesn’t fly well. Still, the ideas are mineable, and things like Run Out The Guns and 3E D&D have demonstrated that many Rolemaster ideas can be streamlined.

Earthdawn is also worth keeping in mind as a game that hangs together almost as well as 4e, but does it through setting elements. Fantastic setting design, the best magic item system can think of, coupled with the conceit that EVERYONE is using magic, just not necessarily to cast spells. In many ways, Earthdawn and 4E were made for each other, but those two trains will likely never meet.

Am I a bad gamer because I don’t care much about Runequest? Or Harn? I’m ok if I am.

Another obvious influence, the one that got me thinking down this path in the first place, is Green Ronin’s Dragon Age. It’s a simple, elegant system that showcases many of the benefits of random character creation and has a really fun, expandable mechanic with its dragon die. By and large, I only wish there was more of this game to steal from, because man, it’s awesome.

Exalted has a bit of a back of the mind presence, but it’s so much its own thing that it’s hard to even view it within this cloud. Still, 1st ed Dragon Blooded was so mind-bendingly good that I suspect it will be hard to totally shake myself of its shadow. Similarly, things like Everway, Amber or Pendragon are so much their own thing that it’s hard to look at too closely, though they’ll never be too far out of mind.

The big-setting games – Talislanta and Empire of the Petal Throne specifically – are in a similar boat. They are so much the expressions of a vision that they are brilliant to explore, but hard to use without feeling like a mooch.

I dig Warhammer Fantasy RPG, but I’m nto sure if there’s anything I’d actually take from it except perhaps the Lifepath system, and in practice, Burning Wheel has already taken and improved that particular technology. Now, Burning Wheel is definitely something to steal parts from – the game as a whole has never quite been my bag, but it’s made out of the highest quality parts, many of which deserve to be borrowed.

Obviously, there are games beyond the fantasy sphere I’ll draw from, but since the starting point of a Fantasy Heartbreaker is it’s D&Dness, I wanted to start from that base. I’ll pull in other games later as needs arise. But that said, what baseline fantasy have I overlooked in my thinking?

1 – Erol Otus Cover, though the Choose Your Own Adventure part of the one with the Elmore cover was pretty sweet.

2 – Old School Revival, which changed its name from Old School Renaissance for what may be slightly silly reasons. It’s a small but talkative movement of players who thrive on old versions of D&D.

3 – Like the Weapon vs. Armor table. In theory, this was an interesting way to differentiate weapons, in practice it was too complicated to use, and did not actually work in conjunction with the way the armor class system actually worked, since the actual number of your AC did not necessarily correlate to any type of armor, especially for monsters. Yes, it was base AC, but that was just extra fiddliness. It’s easy to argue that ti made sense, but the simple reality is it saw little use, and even the streamlined version of it in 2e was left by the wayside. Rolemaster did it well by baking it into the system, but it’s safe to say the RM comabat system was awash in tradeoffs.

4 – In previous editions, Fireball was a sphere of fire that exploded to a particular size. That’s what it did. Rules existed to reflect what happens when a ball of fire explodes (though they were not necessarily consistent in this – each spell was it’s own little packet of rules, and that could cause some muddle). In 4e, a fireball does fire damage to a specific size area on the grid. It matters not at all whether this is an exploding ball of fire, a rain of fire, fire leaping from the ground, or heat vision so long as the mechanical effect is the same. This works fantastically well within its sphere, but becomes a problem when you want to actually bow something up by, say, throwing a fireball into an enclosed space. In an older edition, it might blow a door off or the like, but in the current edition, it does no such thing.[5] And fireball is one of the EASY powers to model. Others are almost impossible to visualize.

5 – The tradeoff is that the new edition allows for easy reskinning of powers, monsters and everything else. If you turn the fireball into a rain of fire in old editions, it changed how people thought about using the power. In 4e, it just changes how they visualize it. This is powerful and useful.