Friday, October 30, 2009

Getting the Most out of 4E Skills

The 4e skill list is very functional, and there are some great ideas for tying it to powers, but sometimes you just want to stretch the bounds of what a skill can do, or as a GM you want to create challenges that might be a little bit more creative than just using skills by the numbers. For folks in that situation, I present the following list that I started pulling together when I was trying to write some non-typical skill challenges.

Unexpected Things Skills May Be Useful For
Acrobatics - Catching spilled drinks, making a dramatic entrance, dancing with style.

Arcana - Droning on and on and on, make fake magic look authentic, repairing old magical widgets.

Athletics - Flexing of muscles or otherwise generally putting on a show, dancing without embarrassing yourself

Bluff - Sincere sounding compliments, pretending you've met someone before.

Diplomacy - Insult someone without them being able to call you on it, say the right thing about someone's outfit.

Dungeoneering - Find exits, talk about architecture.

Endurance - Look attentive through intensely boring conversations, drink all night.

Heal - Discuss hangover cures, spot a limp.

History - Recognize someone's name, explain politics.

Insight - Read the subtext of a work of art, judge who is really important in a room.

Intimidate - Exude subtle menace, make someone angry, escalate to a superior

Nature - Cook, get along with someone's dog.

Perception - Judge the quality of someone's clothes, spot a cheater.

Religion - Give a sermon, discuss philosophy at great length.

Stealth - Escape a conversation, cut into a line.

Streetwise - Know the odds on a horse race, know who's on an invitation list.

Thievery - Entertain small children, repair small knick-knacks, slip something into someone's drink.

Feel free to add your own!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Kindle, Nook and Virtual Books

I've had a kindle 2 for several months now, having acquired it a little bit before the DX came out. I love it, but I also acknowledge it's too expensive for what it is, and the future of DRM'd books is enough of a crapshoot as to make it a very expensive gamble. I generally encourage people not to get one unless they have very specific needs. If you read a lot of books, often multiple books at once, and do so in unpredictable places (either just randomly or because you travel a lot) then you should consider it. If the books you read are predominantly fiction or entertaining non-fiction (as opposed to reference books) then it's probably a good match, but even then consider the price.

If you shop through amazon, odds are good the savings on buying kindle books will often be very slim - in many cases it is less than a dollar - so while you'll see some savings over time, it's going to take a long while before you make up the cost of the reader. Someday an e-reader might be a good way to save money on books, but we are very much not there yet.

All that said, we are getting closer to the point where it is worth giving an e-reader some serious thought. For all it's faults, the kindle represented Amazon's commitment to the idea of ebooks, and that gave the whole idea a shot in the arm. For all that these new and interesting readers are starting to come out, looking to be a kindle killer, never for a second underestimate just how profound the impact of the kindle was. Ebook and e-readers have been around for more than a decade, and the barriers to their success have not been technological. E-ink has offered some improvements in battery life and readability, but it has also traded away functionality that older readers took for granted. And ebooks are not large files - for all that ubiquitous wirelessness improves the experience, transferring books was something that worked just fine in a dial-up world.

Having that kind of commitment to the device and to the idea of ebooks created a market. Without the kindle, the sony ebook would have been a curiosity that sat in its technological corner and gathered dust. By making the market legitimate, it opened the door to competition, and now we find ourselves looking at the devices which are responses to the Kindle. Most of them are pitched in terms of offering something the kindle lacks, which kind of reflects the real state of the market, and several look interesting. Sony is gong to offer a smaller reader, which intrigues me but leaves me skeptical[1] and combination devices like the entourage edge offer a promising look at a potential next generation path, but most of the interest at the moment is on the Nook.

The Nook is Barnes & Noble's answer to the Kindle, and is firmly positioned in response to it. There's a lot of attention given to the inclusion of a color touchscreen for navigation, but I admit that doesn't impress me much. It's going to look cooler than the Kindle, and I suspect it will make navigating your library much faster (since you can scroll through it all rather than go through it a page at a time) but I would dread trying to use it for navigation and typing. It's not that the kindle's particularly awesome at these things, but for some things you just want a hardware keyboard.

No, what's really interesting is the capabilities of the nook.

First, it has wifi, Some people are excitedly hoping this might open up, but I wouldn't hold my breath - this function is not for web surfing, but rather for something kind of cool. If you're in a barnes & noble, you can read books over this connection without buying them. It's a "browse" function which is kind of awesome in theory, though in practice I think it just means finding a space in the café just got that much harder.

Second, it supports many more formats than the kindle. I won't go into the weeds here, but there are several formats for ebooks, and the Kindle only supports a tiny slice of them. When people talk about other readers being able to get content the kindle can't, it's mostly bullshit, but sometimes (as in the case of library loaning) it's because it depends on a format the kindle doesn't support.

Last, and perhaps best, it support book loaning. You can send a copy of a book on your nook to a friend for two weeks. You can't read it for those two weeks, and when time runs out, it disappears from their nook and appears back on yours. I cannot stress how INSANELY awesome this is. One of the greatest problems with the kindle is the lack of social element. There's nothing I love like loaning a book to a friend, and the kindle takes that from me. This (combined with the fact that B&N's goal is to make their books readable on every piece of technology under the sun) could be a killer app.

But it won't be. See, what's kind of fascinating about these differences is that, excepting the wifi one, they're all software driven. The kindle or any other wireless reader could do the same thing with a patch. My big hope is that the nook will be popular enough to force Amazon to actually do that. And it might happen, but I'm a little skeptical. For one thing, as far as I can tell the market for the nook is "people who would have bought a kindle, but don't like Amazon". I mean, they exist, but that's not a huge market. B&N _might_ be able to do a strong upsell through their stores, but that feels like a crapshoot, esp because even if B&N embraces the ebook, that doesn't mean every employee will.

But I'm still optimistic. I think a competitor would have to come up with something drastically better or cheaper than the kindle to unseat it in the short term, but over the long term the hounds might wear down the lion, forcing it to either give up its throne or (more likely) transform to adapt to the realities of this new world.

1 - In the last generation of ebooks, one of the most promising companies basically destroyed themselves by deciding people wanted an ebook reader the size of a Palm Pilot, and added extra functionality. The result was, basically, a more expensive, less useful palm, and unsurprisingly they didn't sell. That this was evidence that there was "No market for ebooks" enraged me for several years.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

When to Roll the Bones

One of the most important questions in any RPG is when you should engage the system. The precise form this takes varies from game to game, but it tends to sound like "When should and shouldn't I roll for things?". On the surface, this is an obvious and easily addressed concern . You don't want players to have to roll for everything they do, like eating lunch or walking across the room, so you only want them to roll for the good stuff. And that's where it gets a little fuzzy.

What the good stuff is tends to be a little bit handwaved in rules texts because it tends to fall under the pornography rule - people know it when they see it. And this kind of works - most GMs have a sense of when they should and shouldn't call for a roll based on what's fun for them - but it is not often examined, and that can be a problem when the dice and the sentiment at the table start to diverge.

The rub is that there are at least three very different criteria for when you should engage the system, and while any game may use these in any combination, sequentially or simultaneously, being aware of these criteria can be very useful to a GM trying to figure out why a scene feels flat.

The first reason you might bust out the dice is because what the character is going to do is challenging. Because the task is hard, the dice are used to represent the chance for failure. This sort of roll can be a good way to reinforce the reality of the world because the logic of it is obvious - hard things are harder to do. It drives play by inspiring creativity from players, who will use these challenges as opportunities to use their problem solving skills to make the task easier or otherwise optimize their chances.

The second reason you might roll is because the event is exciting, which usually means that there's some risk involved in failure. This is pretty logical because excitement and risk tend to be tied to moments of high investment in what's going on in the game, and this criteria reinforces the excitement of play. It drives play by driving towards these moments of excitement, and also by hitting on our gambling bug by offering a chance at risk/reward.

The last reason you might call for a roll is because it's dramatic. This can be fuzzy because this often allows a broad disconnect between the apparent action and what's being rolled for, so let me try to pin it down a little. A dramatic event is one which will ultimately make an important decision about the game. The drama might be intensely personal (does this character love my character or not?) or it may shape the game (does the kingdom fall?) but the game is changed in some way by the outcome of this roll. This is often closely tied to the idea of "stakes" - things that explicitly ride on the outcome of a roll or scene - and can produce some weird outcome when the stakes are explicit and separate from play. It's an idea out of fiction where a scene may not be about what it's about. As an example, the scene might involve two people fighting, but the goal of one of the characters is actually to impress one of the ladies watching - is this fencing or seduction?[1] Anyway, for simplicity we'll say a dramatic roll is one that will make an important change in the game, depending on its outcome.

For purposes of illustration, let's turn to a classic situation: A player comes to a hole in the ground that he must cross. Should he roll?
  • If the criteria is challenge, then they GM considers how wide the hole is and how well the character can jump. If it's something the character has a high chance of success at, he may forgo the roll, but if it's uncertain, then it merits the use of dice.
  • If the criteria is excitement, the GM considers what makes this jump exciting . Technically there's some risk/reward - after all the player could fall and hurt himself - but that's pretty dull. The GM would probably forgo the roll unless some other factor (like "The character is being pursued") that ups the tension and allows for a better risk/reward.
  • If the criteria is drama, then the GM considers why this jump matters, and to be honest, it's hard to come up with an example that's not entirely contrived, but not impossible. Lois McMaster Bujold managed to do it in the first few pages of The Warrior's Apprentice, and most examples I could think of would be riffs on that.

So, that's all simple enough so far, and could be boiled down to "Be aware of what criteria you're using when you call for a roll" but, of course, there's a catch.

These criteria are far from exclusive - a task can be hard, exciting and important all at the same time. Or it might be hard and important, exciting and important or hard and exciting. And that's where this gets interesting because this can open a window on how you plan for moments of system engagement. When you put an obstacle in your player's path, you can ask yourself how many of the criteria it meets.

Now, I'm not saying every challenge should meet all three criteria. If everything is hard, exciting and dramatic, then that's really saying the game should be turned to 11 at all times. If that's what you want, then great, go for it, but odds are good you and your group are more comfortable with a particular sort of distribution. Think about the difference between a game that is mostly hard, some excitement and a little dramatic and one which is mostly exciting, with occasional hard and dramatic elements. Both of those are good, playable games, but they're very different in tone and flavor.

If you can figure out the proportion your table likes, then you have a super-useful piece of information for making future games more engaging.

1 - One modified by the other at my table, but this idea messes with some people because the two skills aren't physically connected.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Diaspora's Killer App

So, I recently got my hands on a copy of Diaspora[1], a game of hard, character-driven sci-fi using a version of Fate. It's a lovely book; the cover's gorgeous the size is exactly in my sweet spot, and of course I get a little thrill seeing something like this come out. When people come out with games like Diaspora, Awesome Adventures or Starblazers I take a little pride in the fact that these things have been born from the decision to open up Fate fully enough to let people take true ownership of it and create these projects.

Anyway, Diaspora's pretty hot. Good tech rules, excellent setting design material, squad and social combat, and I'll cheerfully admit that I think the explanations of some fate concepts (notably zones) are probably even clearer in Diaspora than they are in SOTC. If you're curious, CW Richeson has written one of his (as usual) thorough reviews of the game, and Fred has also put in his two bits. It's a good game, and I found it worth the price, but it's also a starting point for something.

It's always a little weird when you find someone else had a similar thought to you, and I had just that experience when I hit the section on "Scopes." Scopes are basically categories of aspects[2] - it might be personal, it might be on the scene, on the zone, on your enemy and so on. This is important because in Diaspora, you can only use one aspect per scope per roll. This is important because it puts a limit on the behavior of just using 4 or 5 aspects to make a phenomenal roll. This is an intentional part of SOTC - it's in keeping with the high-action pulp tone of the game - but it doesn't translate well to less cinematic genres.[3]

Scopes are a really good idea, and a better name than "Categories", which is what I called them, so right off the bat, consider the name stolen. It's one of those small rule shifts that organically generates a very desirable outcome. See, one of the weaknesses of the SOTC maneuver system (which is how you put aspects on other people and things) is that characters have enough aspects that it's very rare that they'll run out of things they can use, so they have little incentive to make more. [4]

Scopes change that. Players want aspects in every scope possible because that optimizes the number of potential bonuses they can get. By maneuvering to change the situation - putting aspects on enemies, zones, scenes and the like - the players can try to put an aspect in every possible scope, and maximize their bonuses. That means that the cheesiest, most combat-monkey abusive thing you can do is to run around doing things that are cool, creative and more interesting than "I shoot him". This is such a wonderful expression of the idea that the optimized way to play is also the most interesting that it nearly brings a tear to my eye.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Scope is a wonderful playground for a lot of other ideas, old and new. The idea of "Campaign aspects" has been around for a long time - aspects that are always around during the game, usually ones that reinforce genre - and it's easy to add a "Campaign" scope and slap it into your game. Better yet, it means you could define the campaign in more than one aspect, and it doesn't mechanically create any problems - the limits is still one per scope.

You want to introduce magical weapons without them getting out of hand? Bam, equipment scope. Simple as that.

You could even abstract the idea further, and change the categories from descriptive to conceptual: What if the scopes are Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Void? Sure, this won't work for every game, but for a version of Fireborn or L5R? You'd have to ask what those things mean, sure, but that makes them MORE useful. What if the magic of the universe means you can't use Fire aspects in a situation where Water dominates? What if you can't use earth and wind aspects in the same scene? What if your fire aspects grant a higher or lower bonus based upon how much fire chi you're carrying? What if your magical powers depend upon whow your aspects are distributed within the scopes? [5]

I'm only scratching the surface here, but hopefully in doing so I reveal how robust the design space underneath is. Scopes are a fantastic addition to the toolbox, and I hope that anyone else looking to play around with the Fate toolset will give them a look-over and see if they might be just the thing needed to tighten that last screw.

1- I paid for it, so all's good on that front.

2 - I'm assuming some familiarity with aspects and fate here, but if this is gibberish, here's the shorthand - an aspect is a descriptor that can be applied to anything. A character might be "Strong", a building might be "On Fire" and so on. You can use these descriptors for bonuses, or when they create problems for you, they can generate currency. For more detail, just check out Fate.

3 - Interestingly, original Fate addressed this problem differently. In core Fate, aspects dont' grant +2, they let you turn one of the dice to a +. This usually was equivalent to a +2 (as you flipped a - to a +) but subsequent aspect use suffered from diminishing returns and capped out at +4, the best the dice could roll (though after that you could get a +1 per aspect).

4- The "free tag" rule (that the first user of a created aspect is free) was created to balance this out and give some incentive to maneuver, but it's really only worth it when players are running low on points. This isn't bad - it means desperate fights are more colorful - but it's not ideal (especially since these new aspects rarely matter past their free tag).

5 - Just saying: Scopes + Keywords == Awesome.

If you're interested, the Diaspora SRD is now up with all their open content, and the guys have a blog which offers some nice insights into their thinking.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Something Cool for Monday

No gaming stuff today - Mondays are for reminding myself that there's good in the world, and sharing a bit of that good.

I read a lot of stuff daily, just out of habit. Google Reader helps me maintain most of it - I have a fat stack of RSS feeds and searches that it all pulls into one place so I can go through it and see what's to be found. This works pretty well, and I think most infovores have their own variant on this. However, there is one resource I like to hit that exists outside this automated process.

Arts & Letters Daily is a link site, but it's one that is manually maintained by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Manually is kind of important here because there's a natural culling to the process: has 3 categories, and at most adds one or two links per day to each category. Each link will be to something thoughtful and interesting, the kind of thing you may feel like you're missing out on in a world of blog-post-backslapping. That combination of low volume and high quality makes for something delightful to read and easy to keep up with.

In some ways this seems positively archaic (in that way that only things on the Internet can truly be archaic) - a relic of an era of hand-crafted content, ruled by librarians with a quiet fist. But that's what draws me back to it - there are precious few thoughtful, quiet corners of the Internet, and is far and away one of my favorites.

If you visit, do yourself a favor and scroll to the bottom of the sidebar to the "Classics" section, where they keep links to several must-read essays and articles, including Fukuyama's "End of History"[1], Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" and many others.

1 - Fukuyama's essay is worth reading from a purely historical perspective. Consider when it was written (1989), and then think that as odd as some of it may sound today, a lot of people really bought into this back then. It's now far enough in the past that it merely makes me smile rather than, say, foam at the mouth, which was my usual response for Fukuyama for many years.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Facing the (Too) Big Bad

Normally, players will encounter a villain at about the time they’re ready to fight him, so he’ll be at about their level range[1], probably a little bit higher just to make the fight interesting. That works a lot of the time, but sometimes you might want to introduce a villain earlier in the game, to plant a seed early on that both invests the characters in their relationship with him, and expresses just how scary this guy is. One easy way to do that is to have the players fight him well before they are ready for it.

This can seem unfair, because it is. Assuming the level disparity is high enough, then the players have no real chance of winning, and as the GM you need to go into the fight planning for the outcomes that will likely come of this. The three main possibilities are TPK (total party kill), flight, and heroic sacrifice.

If your players are the kind to take it down to the wire, or you introduce the villain in a particularly bad situation, then he may take down the entire party. A TPK is something a lot of GMs will flinch away from, and often with good reason, but the trick is to be prepared for it in such a way that it moves the game forward, not drags it to a halt. Remember that in most non-horror systems, death is rarely death. More often it means "knocked out and at your enemy's mercy" and while that may mean death in some situations, it can also mean something more interesting.

Captivity is the most straightforward way to handle the outcome. The characters wake up imprisoned somewhere and must free themselves before moving on to things like revenge or thwarting. Think about how captivity can really shift the focus of the campaign. The characters may end up far from home, isolated from allies and resources, and basically finding all of their assumptions about the game so far turned on their ear. That may sound drastic, but if the reveal of the villain was sufficiently dramatic, then the change in situation should be equally dramatic. The good news is that the choice of captivity usually reveals something new about the villain, such as who his allies are.

Disdain is also popular. Leaving the characters beaten but alive is trickier. It’s a classic trope of video games to have the villain leave heroes alive as a sign of contempt or to send a message, but players may take it as a sign of stupidity. Unless you feel up for the acting challenge of really selling contempt, don’t risk it. Similarly, if the villain has a more complex message than “I am here!” then the message thing might work.

What works best of all is if you have a nuanced villain who has a reason for leaving them alive. Maybe it’s mysterious (to be revealed later), or maybe he’s trying to persuade the characters to join him. Perhaps he considers himself a good guy forced to do bad things, and he won’t unnecessarily kill. If leaving the characters beaten but alive reveals something about the villain that makes him more interesting then it’s a valid option.

The last option is to have a last minute rescue. This is the most dangerous and problematic option because if it’s done wrong it really profoundly sucks. Having a heroic NPC show up to drive the villain away is incredibly lame, and is a flag to the players that the GM is more interested in showcasing his cool NPCs than he is in helping the players. So don’t do it, ok?

One twist on this chestnut is a little more tolerable, and that is to have the heroic NPC die in the process. The idea is that the player’s love of the heroic NPC will turn towards bitter hatred towards the villain and guilt over his death that motivates them to action. It can work, but only very, very rarely. The problem is that this is incredibly overdone, to the point of cliche, and players first thought on meeting any old warrior-sage is to wonder what sort of heroic sacrifice is going to kill him. Worse, when the GM chooses the character to sacrifice, he often chooses one that is well loved by him, not necessarily by the players, and that just means watching GM Kabuki.[2]

There are other ways to pull off a rescue that don’t leave your players looking like crap. The first is a distraction: a smoke bomb, an illusion or some other trick that draws the villains attention long enough for everyone to flee. This doesn’t work so well if most of the party is already at 0 health, so this needs to be well timed. This is straightforward, and it can be a good way to introduce a new and (seemingly) trustworthy NPC, but it is a little bit overdone. If you’re looking for a hook for an NPC, then consider it, but don’t invent one just to rescue the characters – it will feel flat.

One particularly dirty trick is to have the rescuer be another villain, especially one that the players really dislike and who would enjoy having the characters owe him. As as bonus, consider how suspicious they look getting help from him. Neither villain is likely to be committed enough to risk their life fighting one another, so the characters are left with two fresh problems, which seems ideal to me.


If your players are smart enough to flee in the face of an overwhelming enemy, then more power to them. That kind of thinking is less common than you might expect.

Fleeing raises some of the same questions and issues that a TPK does, only in this case the main question is “Why is the villain not pursuing to finish them off?” These might end up being the exact same reasons he wouldn’t kill them (contempt, rescue and such) but it might be something as practical as, say, a huge iron door slowing him down enough to buy time.

Flight calls for it's own sort of tension and tempo - when characters flee it is usually because the players feel fairly certain that the outcome of the fight would not go their way. This is a great basis for a chase scene, and if it seem slike a good opportunity for one, then totally go for that. There's lots of good advice on how to do so, and it's worth using. However, that is not always going to be the case.

There's a bit in one of Stephen King's Dark Tower books which is basically th emost boring chase ever. The heroes are in a dark tunnel, there's something huge and bad after them, but it's held off by the light, so they steadily go through their supply of little sterno lanterns, lighting them and running, one at a time. On paper it seems like it should be very tense: huge menace, dwindling resource, etc.. In reality it's incredibly flat because it pushes beyond suspension of disbelief - there is no other way this scene could possibly play out than the way it does (which is, of course, they get away in the nick of time).

A lot of chase scenes end up feeling that way in games where the GM is expecting only a chase scene. Just as it's a bad idea to call for the players to roll dice if you can't manage failure, it's a bad idea to start a chase if you have no strategy for it going south. Now, I'm not arguing against a little sleight of hand to tilt things if needed - that's a whole other thing - but rather if you only have one possible outcome, you're running a cutscene, and those suck. Seriously.

All of which comes back to the point: If there is no natural way for you to manage the chase, then let the escape succeed and move onto the next thing. Simple as that.

Realistically . though, I doubt many of you are kind enough to let the players off that easily, so if you feel you must have a chase, then consider minions. The big bad does not need to pursue the players himself, he can just send some mooks. What makes that interesting, even if the players aren't afraid of the mooks, is that fighting the mooks takes time, and the big bad might follow along behind them. That possibility is goign to be far more a fruitful source of tension than any actual fight.

There is a good chance that one of your players is dreaming of this opportunity. They want to be the one who shouts "Go, NOW!" and takes up a stance to face the big bad himself with the expectation that he's going to die in this fight, but he's going to buy his friends time.

A lot of GMs worry about this scenario. This splits the party, it unduly focuses on one character, and it leads to a PC death - all of these are by the book bad things. A lot of GMs are willing to cheat a little bit to keep this from happening. They'll let other players knock out the first one, they'll make the big bad just do something entirely unfair and knock the guy aside and take him out of the fight rather than kill him, or just use soem movement power to go around him.

Don't do that.

Seriously. This is the thing the player wants and the best thing you can do is push them and push them HARD. The only thing worse than this sacrifice being meaningless is if it's too easy. You need to trust the system and your own design of the bad guy and make it a serious throw down. Keep track of every round that he survives and give the rest of the party a token for it, and let those tokens be their budget for the subsequent escape.

Once the player loses, you can apply some of the same thinking to his fate that you do in the TPK, but don't go out on a limb to keep the character alive. If it's _really_ appropriate that he not be killed, then fine, roll with that, but be willing to end it. The player knew what he was in for when he started down this road, and by giving him closure, you're giving him a gift. This character's death will become one of those stories he tells when he talks about the best game ever.[3]

1 - "Levels" are used as a convenient shorthand here, but the basic model applies just as easily to point based systems or any other system where such power discrepancies exist.

2 - If you really feel you want to try this approach, then do three things.

First, make sure the players are invested, not just that they’re supposed to care. Listen to them talk, pay attention to who they enjoy scenes with, note which NPCs they seek out when they have questions. Those are the NPCs you want to pull from, even if they’re not the ones you have lovingly described and statted up. Specifically, it should not be any kind of old soldier, any kind of young, novice soldier (or prince), or anyone at all who is actually a dragon in disguise.

Second, give them an exit strategy. The rescuer may be willing to risk his life, but making him actively suicidal is a little too on the nose. If he dies in a suicide attack, that’s uncomfortable, but if he gets killed because his plan almost works, then that can be really powerful.

Last, give it consequences. The rescuers purpose is not to die, it is to change the situation, usually for the worse. One good trick for this is to make the NPCs means of fighting something that can be taken away. If someone busted out the artifact sword to face down the villain, then make sure that when the dust settles, the villain now has the sword. One way or another, make sure that something of this sacrifice remains in the game so it doesn’t feel like a cheap throwaway.

3 - All this assumes this is being done heroically, not habitually. If a player is demonstrably being cavalier with the life of his characters rather than making a sacrifice, then feel free to one-shot him and move on, or otherwise bypass his personal drama.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Skill Challenge: Changing the World on Your Downtime

If anything, this skill challenge was even more ambitious than yesterday's. It really steps outside the bounds of what a skill challenge normally does and instead introduces a way to track a situation (the status of the character's home city) and for players to influence it or not, as they see fit. Cleaning up this Town
Sure, it's safe for you to walk the streets. Someone tries to jump you for your wallet you'll probably beat them so bad they'll be begging you to take their money. For you this is just a nice stepping off point between going off and killing dragons, rescuing princesses or whatever it is you lot do. From where you sit, it must look pretty nice, but us? We have to live here. I don't expect you to care much, but the least you could do is throw an old man a copper or two.

The city of Valmer is a cesspit of crime, poverty and decay. Once a small mill-town, the construction of a bridge across the river turned it's sleepy dirt road into a major thoroughfare, and the city grew far too quickly for any kind of planning. The original miller who owned much of the local land now styles himself a duke, and his wealth is such that no one argues. He maintains a number of 'knights' who have benefited from his elevation, and he supplements them with mercenaries when absolutely necessary. It's not a nice place to live, though it's a decent enough base for an adventurer.

The health of a city is a complicated thing, but the players can impact it. There are several possible successes they can seek to accumulate, each of which touches upon some aspect of life in the city. The main areas they can try to improve are health, safety, quality of life, trade and education. For the more driven, rebellion is an option, and for the less socially interested, that time might be better spent training or turning a profit.

When the characters are between adventures, they may spend their time trying to change the city, for better or for worse as suits their needs. This is an ongoing skill challenge, and the DM may call for the players to describe their actions during the downtime between sessions, and call for a roll to apply it to one of the possible successes. Not every character may be interested in making such a change, so players may also take actions that pursue their own interest.

Setup: You can change circumstances in the city over time through your actions.
Level: Equal to the level of the party.
Complexity: Open ended, zero sum (that is, there is no end condition. Successes and failure both simply trigger events and change the situation, potentially canceling each other out). Each of the six categories (health, safety, education, honesty, quality of life and rebellion) has its own score which goes up and down over the course of play. Players may each take a "turn" on their downtime between adventures, and use this skill challenge as a shorthand of what they've been up to while off screen.

Primary Tasks:
Health (moderate DCs): You take time improving the health of the people of the city. You might take direct action, using your heal or nature skills to help out at a clinic, or you might pursue it more indirectly - dungeoneering might help you improve the drainage system, streetwise or intimidate might help you put together work crews to clean up bad areas or you might even use diplomacy or religion to try to get others to help out.

Safety (moderate DCs): You set about making the streets safer. Whether this is by walking patrols (streetwise or intimidate), busting heads (combat skill), through community organization (diplomacy or religion) or even through civil planning to improve visibility or build more streetlights (arcana, dungeoneering or possibly something else) you are making the streets safer to travel and the people less fearful.

Honesty (high DCs): Cities depend on a certain amount of trust. Scales must be reasonably honest, goods must be delivered in a timely fashion, contracts must be upheld; every day is a delicate interplay of these forces, and every corrupt guard or dishonest merchant adds a little more friction to the process. You are taking steps to improve the status quo, calling out dishonest merchants, helping cut through red tape and expose corruption wherever you find it.

You might be a diligent investigator (insight or streetwise) a legal champion (history) or just a pair of fists willing to fight for what's right (combat or intimidation).

Quality of Life (moderate DCs): This is the catch-all for improvements that don't fall into any other category, but still improve life in the city. Education, celebrations, holidays, public art projects and many other things can help improve the general quality of life in the city. Players may teach teaching (using an academic skill like history, religion, nature or arcana) or otherwise support teaching, the arts and other pursuits.

Rebellion (high DCs): Not content to change the city, you're looking to tear down the duke and his men. Violent insurgency (combat), sabotage (stealth, bluff) or even public mockery (bluff, streetwise, stealth) are all potentially tools in your arsenal. If successful, the impact of this will be profound, but the risks that come with this are equally problematic.

Training (moderate DCs): Keep to yourself, mind your own business and practice your skills. You can use almost any skill. If successful, start the next adventure with an extra action point. If you fail, start the adventure down one healing surge.

Profit (hard DCs): You concentrate on making a little bit of money on the side. You put up a little seed money (up to your level x10 in gp) and make the roll. If successful, you gain an amount equal to your seed money. If you fail, you lose your seed money. You gain a bonus to this roll equal to the current honesty score of the skill challenge. Success or failure at this roll does not count towards the skill challenge as a whole.

Exploit (moderate DCs): You concentrate on turning a profit at the expense of your fellow citizens. ou put up a little seed money (up to your level x10 in gp) and make the roll. If successful, you gain an amount equal to your seed money. If you fail, you lose your seed money. You take a bonus to this roll equal to the current honesty score of the skill challenge. Success or failure at this roll does not count towards the skill challenge as a whole.

Establish Connections (Moderate DCs): You spend your time establishing contacts in the city. When you attempt this task, you name an NPC you're looking to influence - this can either be an existing NPC, or you can invent a new one. The DM determines the appropriate skill to roll, and which task the NPC is active in. If successful, the NPC becomes one of your contacts, and gives you a +2 item bonus to tasks of his type within the city. If you fail, you not only don't you gain the contact, but you lose one of your existing contacts. Success or failure at this roll does not count towards the skill challenge as a whole.

Other Actions:
The characters may opt to try other approaches.

Charity (Automatic Success): If the characters opt to throw some money at the problems, it can make a difference. If the characters spend or donate an amount equal to the gp value of a treasure parcel of their level, they may gain one automatic success in Health, Safety, Education, Honesty or quality of life. For twice that much, they can purchase an automatic success in rebellion. This can be done multiple times, but a character must use his action to oversee spending the money.

Adventuring (Special): If the characters end up adventuring in the city, the outcome of that adventure should could as at least one success or failure in an appropriate score. If the adventure is a failure, inflicts a lot of property damage, or furthers the interest of the duke or similar parties, it will probably score as a failure, while a successful adventure that removes a threat to the city will count as a failure.

A lot can happen in the city, some of it in direct opposition to the character's and their interests.

Status Quo (automatic, every round): There is a natural resistance to change that comes from many forces pulling in their own direction. However, there is also a natural tendency for some change to remain in place Every score starts with a status quo value of 0, but it may change over time. After the players have taken their turns, perform the following two steps:
  1. The highest and lowest score each move one step closer to their status quo, so if the score is higher than the status quo value, it's reduced by one and If the score is lower than the status quo value, it is increased by one.
  2. For each score whose current value is ten or more than their current status quo value, increase that status quo value by 5 and reduce the current score to equal the status quo value. Similarly, if any score is more than ten below it's current status quo value, reduce the status quo value by 5 and increase the current score to the status quo value. This generally represents some significant achievement or setback in that particular arena.
The Duke (automatic, every round): The duke has his own vested interest in things, and he will reduce one positive score by one, regardless of its status quo. If he reduces the score to zero in this fashion, then it's status quo becomes zero. He will usually lower the highest score after the status quo event, but for purposes of determining his priority, treat the rebellion score as five points higher than it is.

Martial Law (Triggered at the end of the round when any score is -5): Things have gotten so bad that the Duke cracks down, bringing in troops and bringing the city to heel. All scores are set to a value 2 points below their status quo value. .

Revolution (Triggered when Rebellion status quo becomes 20): The duke is removed and he is replaced with an NPC from the player's list of contacts, and he now grants a +4 bonus within his area of interest. This new duke may also now forgo the Duke trigger each round. Additionally, the revolution score and status quo both drop to zero.

The status quo values represent the general state of the city, with the individual scores representing fluctuations. At zero, the state of that particular score is pretty abysmal, while at five there's some hope for improvement. At ten, the city is at least at par, and at fifteen, that particular segment is noteworthy and important. At twenty or greater, the city has become an exemplar of that particular field.
For each of the potential arenas, the following describes the state of the city at each status quo value.
0: The canals run brown with filth and food rots in warehouses before it reaches the people who need it. Disease runs rampant, and death carts are not an uncommon sight on the city streets.
5: The sickest and poorest have places to go. Religious charity, poorhouses and improvement in some of the worst sanitary condition keep disease from running absolutely rampant, but it still claims more lives than it should.
10: The water supply is reasonably clean, and while life in the bad parts of town can be hard and dirty, it is not a guaranteed death sentence. There may even be the beginnings of a hospital. This general improvement in quality of life grants a +2 bonus to all quality of life or train skill checks.
15: The streets are clean and open and the water sparkles. Disease is responded to quickly and efficiently, and there is food enough for the churches and poorhouses. At this point there is at least one major hospital in the city. The bonus to other skill checks increases to +3. However, DCs to improve the health score are now 5 higher.
20: The city virtually gleams, streets and waterways sparkling. Several hospitals see to the health of the city, and great warehouses make starvation almost unheard of. The bonus to other checks increases to +4, and DCs to improve the health score are now 10 higher.

0: It is foolish to travel the streets alone and unarmed, even in full daylight, in anywhere but the finest parts of the city. The city watch is little more than one more street gang, and at night, all wise folks bar their doors and pray for morning.
5: The city watch may be corrupt, but they at least try to do their job. Lamps are lit on most major thoroughfares, and daylight crime is at least fairly rare.
10: The streets are safe during the day, but it is still dangerous at night, especially in bad neighborhoods where the lamps can't be counted on. The watch is reliable, but they can't be everywhere. This improved level of safety grants a +2 bonus to profit and honesty skill checks, but applies a -2 penalty to rebellion checks.
15: The watch is honest and the streets are well lit. Children can play during the day without concern, and night requires only reasonable caution in all but the worst parts of town. Crime exists, but violent crime is reasonably rare. The bonus and penalty to other skill checks is increased to +3/-3, and the DCs to improve safety are increased by 5.
20: It is a point of pride that a man may walk the streets safely, and any violent crime will be investigated and prosecuted with extreme prejudice. The watch is renown for its honesty and effectiveness. The bonus and penalty to other skill checks is increased to +4/-4, and the DCs to improve safety are increased by 10.

0: Nothing gets done in this town unless you know someone and can afford to grease their palm, and even if you do pay, the outcome is unreliable. Mismanagement is a prevalent as corruption, and the wheels of the city are more or less ground to a halt. Goods cost 25% more than the cost listed in the Player's Handbook.
5: If you bribe a man, you can at least feel confident he'll do what you paid for. It is perhaps a stretch to say that things work, but they stumble along in a rough facsimile of function. Trade is slow, but moving, and goods cost only 10% more than the cost listed in the Player's Handbook.
10: Bribery is less open now, and things can get done without it, though it unquestionably speeds the process. Government is inept, but no more so than anyone expects, and trade moves along adequately. Goods cost their listed value in the Player's Handbook.
15: Bribery is a rare thing, reserved for high crimes and special occasions, and the government does its job well. Trade flows briskly, and non-magical goods can be purchased at 5% under the values listed in the PHB and the DCs to improve honesty are increased by 5.
20: The city is a well-oiled machine, it's officers known throughout the land for their efficiency and honesty. The city has become a hub of trade, and non-magical goods can be purchased at 10% under the values listed in the PHB and the DCs to improve honesty are increased by 10.

Quality of Life
0: Life is terrible. Graffiti and busking are the closest things the city sees to art and music, and education is something only the rich can offer their children.
5: Life is bad. A handful of artists get lucky enough to find patrons, but most quietly starve. The handful of teachers trying to teach the basics are overwhelmed.
10: Life is OK. In addition to patrons, a handful of theaters and other venues allow the arts to get by, if not flourish. Education is at least available to some, and a few rudimentary schools have sprung up, improving the ad hoc approach. Improved communication grants a +2 to all skill checks to improve health.
15: Life is good. The arts have blossomed, and the city is home to at least a few artists of reknown. The schools have also grown, and a number of academies have started making names for themselves. The bonus to skill checks is increased to +3 but the DCs of checks to improve Quality of Life increase by 5
20: Life is great! The city is a centre of culture, with arts and education at the forefront. The city draws grand masters of the arts, and its universities attract students from across the continent. The bonus to skill checks is increased to +4 but the DCs of checks to improve Quality of Life increase by 5

0: The government's iron fist is closed tightly around the city, and his rule is unquestioned.
5: Mutterings can be heard in dark corners and back rooms, voices of those who feel that enough is enough.
10: There is now a movement, a full fledged underground working to undermine the current ruler, though it must operate in secret and it must proceed very carefully indeed.
15: The movement has grown, and almost daily there are strikes, protests and acts of sabotage. Revolt bubbles just beneath the surface.
20: Revolution! The city is up in arms to remove the current ruler. Hopefully, this is fodder for any number of adventures as it transpires, but more importantly, the revolution trigger occurs.

  • There's a conceptual debt to Birthright here, since this is more or less a small scale version of a long action. For those unfamiliar, Birthright let players play the movers and shakers of the setting - nobles, bishops, guildmasters and such - and between adventures the camera would draw back to the big map, to play the bigger game. At this scale, each character could take one action per month, and most of them revolved around maintaining or improving their respective domains. There were a few non-domain actions for characters who were not so exalted as to have kingdoms to run, but the heart of the matter was in the domain actions. This skill challenge operates on a very different scale, but it's based on that same idea of coming up with a shorthand way to play the things that happen during downtime in such a way that they impact the game.
  • This engine is, by intent, very generic. The duke is pure color, and could just as easily be replaced with almost anything, just by tweaking the initial dials.
  • This is probably a little bit too fiddly when all is said and done, though it's not that complex by most tabletop RPG standards. I think I let my desire for some sim-city bleed through a bit too much.
  • I love the inclusion of revolution because it's unstable. Players can start a revolution, but there's no guarantee it won't just burn down whatever they build up. That feels right to me, though it might be a bit on the cynical side - a bit more Danton's Death than Common Sense.
  • EDIT: Cam's reminded me that this is also a riff on the social meters from Underground, which was an awesome and crazy little game.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Skill Challenge Hubris: The Siege of Fallcrest

A while back I wrote some stuff for WOTC, much of which did not see the light of day. No harm in that, but among it had been a couple of skill challenges I was pretty happy with (though, of course, I can find warts in retrospect). James Wyatt was cool enough to say it was all right for me to repost them to my blog, so I wanted to roll out a few with some comments and thoughts.

This one was one of the two really ambitious ones which, I think, really pushes the boundaries of what a skill challenge can do. Structurally, it's designed to be big enough that it could constitute an entire session if the DM is inclined to play a scene for each action taken - that's certainly how I envision it being played - but it can just as easily be pushed through at speed moving on to the rest of the adventure.

The Siege of Fallcrest
The barking laughter of the gnolls diminished to a low mutter as their leader stepped to the front. Fully a head taller than the soldiers around him, his mane and muzzle were snow white, and his beastial face marked by a cruel scar. In a painful approximation of common he shouted a challenge to the stone walls, and was drowned out by a hundred howls rising behind him.
The arrows from the walls fell short of their mark, but Fallcre
st's answer to the invader was clear. There would be no surrender this day.

This is an intensely detailed skill challenge, of the sort that the challenge itself may be a large part of the session. Not every skill challenge needs to be as detailed as this, but this is a great illustration of just how much you can do with a skill challenge.

This is a good challenge for players who are about to transition from the heroic to the paragon tier, and are ready to move on from Fallcrest (see The Town of Fallcrest in the Dungeon Master's Guide) to a larger or more exotic base of operations. Mechanically, this challenge changes drastically with each failure. The first failure allows the gnolls to enter the city, the second presses them further in and so on. This is offset by the trigger conditions (below) which only allow one failure to accumulate per day (which is to say, per pass around the table). Any additional failures on a single round trigger the "Casualties of War" event rather than counting as a failure.

Setup: A force of gnolls is marching out of the moonhills, several-hundred strong, intent on raiding Fallcrest. The town has been warned (hopefully by the PCs) and Lord Markelhay is mustering what troops he can, calling up conscripts and sending riders for reinforcements, but there's no way to tell if they'll make it in time. Fallcrest's walls have been proof against attacks in the past, but her garrison is small and composed of more farmers than soldiers, and without the character's there's little chance of success.

Character's try to hold the walls of Fallcrest against the raiders, and try to catch the gnoll's leader in battle.

Each round of this skill challenge represents one day of the battle, with each character performing an action for the day. Reinforcements are five days out, so odds are good this will be resolved before they arrive. Players may opt to pass on their turn, but any day that a player passes on counts as a failure. Any healing surges lost over the course of this challenge are not recovered until the character takes a long rest after the end of the challenge.

Level: Equal to the level for the party (usually high heroic tier)
Complexity: 3 ( requires 8 successes before 3 failures).
Primary Skills: Dungeoneering, Diplomacy, Heal

Arcana (Hard DC): Moonstone keep has ancient defenses, pillars of moonlight that have long since fallen inactive. If they can be fixed, it will grant the defenders a great benefit. Failing this roll does not count as a failure towards the skill challenge, and a success does not help the skill challenge. Instead, if the player succeeds, then all rolls made after the second failure receive a +2 bonus.

Athletics (Hard DC, one use): The cliff that separates the upper and lower city slows the progress of the enemy forces. After the second failure but before the third one, a daring group might be able to climb up the cliff (a high DC athletics check) in an unexpected location and strike at the gnolls from behind, forcing them to regroup at the top of the cliff. If this roll fails, the forces committed to this would have been better used at the keep, and it counts as another failure. If successful, rather than count as a success, the gnolls are pushed back and it cancels the second failure, returning the challenge to having only one failure.

Bluff (Moderate DCs): The gnolls are fierce and driven, but they're not terribly well organized, and it's entirely possible to try to disrupt them with trickery. Manning towers with empty suits of armor to look like there are more men, blowing horns to suggest that reinforcements are coming and other such tricks all stand a decent chance of disrupting the enemy attack. However, there are limits on how far such trickery can go, and each time bluff is successfully used in this fashion, the DC increases by 5.

Diplomacy (Moderate DCs): The people of the city are scared, and will benefit from strong leadership. Giving speeches and talking to people about victory is a great way to do this. Unfortunately, this is harder to do when you're actively losing, so the DC goes up by five with each failure.

You can attempt to parlay with the gnolls before the first failure, but the best that will do is buy some time. It is a high DC roll, and a failure will result in the loss of a healing surge in addition to the normal results of the failure.

Dungeoneering (Moderate DCs): Before the first failure and after the second one, dungeoneering can be used to help reinforce the walls and gates (of the city and moonstone keep respectively) and operate the very outdated siege equipment.

After the first failure (but before the second one) then you can set traps in the city. These rolls do not count towards or against the challenge : instead on a success it grants another character a +2, and on a failure, it costs the character one healing surge.

Heal (Variable DC): You may use your healing skill to tend to the sick and wounded, helping keep soldiers in fighting trim. Before there are any failures, this is an easy check. After the first failure it becomes a moderate check, and after the second it is is hard.

Alternately, you can spend time tending to wounded allies. This is a moderate DC check, but if successful, another character can recover two healing surges, with no penalties to a failure.

Insight (Moderate or Easy DC, special): You can spend some time watching the gnolls and get a grasp of how they works. While they are brutal and enthusiastic, they are given to infighting, and most of their organization really comes down to bigger gnolls barking at smaller ones, with Whitemane as the biggest one of them all. It's clear that if Whitemane were removed from the equation, the army would fall apart.

Once you have made a successful insight check, you may still use insight as a lookout skill (see below).

Intimidate (triggered, High DC, usable only once): Immediately after a failure, the next character to act can attempt to cancel the failure by standing and holding the gap long enough for defenses to get by. This is an intimidation skill check (since the trick is getting them to engage him, not just go around) with a high DC. If successful, the failure is cancelled as if it hadn't happened (though the players do not accrue a success). If he fails, another failure is accrued. Whatever the outcome, the player loses half his starting number of healing surges (if he doesn't have enough surges, he drops to 1 hit point).

Nature (Moderate DC): Before the first failure, you can skirmish and scout the enemy forces outside of the wall.

Religion (Variable DC, One Use): One time during the battle, you may rally the faithful, delivering a powerful sermon to inspire the troops and reassure the civilians. There are no atheists in the foxholes, and the difficulty reduces as the battle gets worse. Before the first failure, this is a hard DC check, after the first failure it is a moderate DC check and after the second failure, it's and easy DC check.

Stealth (Variable DC): Striking from ambush is a powerful tactic, but the Gnolls will grow canny to it. The first time you use this skill, it is a moderate DC check, but the difficulty increases by five on each subsequent check.

Alternately, you may use your stealth to spy on the enemy, using stealth for lookout purposes (see below).

Streetwise (Moderate DC): After the first failure, when fighting is in the streets, you can use your superior knowledge of the terrain to scatter the enemy, launch ambushes and generally engage in brutal street-to-street fighting.

Thievery (Moderate DC): War provides opportunity, and it is not hard to do a little looting of your own when you should be fighting. If successful, the success does not count towards the skill challenge. Instead, you find loot worth one tenth of the monetary value of a treasure parcel of the character's level. Failures accrue as normal.

Other Approaches
Skills are not the only way to confront the enemy, and there are indirect ways to help.

Stand and Fight (High DC): The character can simply jump into the middle of the fighting, and may roll the bonus to his basic melee basic ranged or ranged basic attack against the DC as if it were a skill. He may also sacrifice one or more healing surges before the roll, gaining a +2 bonus to the roll for each surge spent.

Lookout (Moderate DC): A number of skills, like acrobatics, athletics, insight, perception, and stealth, are not always useful in direct confrontation, but come in useful when it comes to keeping track of the enemy, and delivering messages among your allies. When a skill is used in this fashion, it is a moderate DC check, and it does not count towards the success or failure count. Instead, if successful it allows you to grant another character who is acting this round a +2 to their check. On a failure, the character loses one healing surge.

Fighting begins with the gnolls outside the southern walls of Fallcrest, and each failure brings them closer to Moonstone Keep.

The walls are overrun! (triggered by first failure): After the first failure, the gnolls will be inside the walls, fighting and looting from street to street. This changes the utility of some of some skills for the challenge, and moves the fighting to the cliffside, trying to keep the gnolls from moving to the lower city.

To the keep! (Triggered by the second failure): After the second failure, the gnolls have made it down the cliffs to the lower city and are now pressing at the gates of Moonstone Keep.

The gates cannot hold! (triggered by the third failure): The gates of Moonstone keep have fallen, and the players have failed. They now must face Whitemane and his vanguard.

Casualties of war (triggered by a second failure in a single round):
The players do not accumulate a failure, but an NPC ally falls in the defense of the city. They may not be killed outright: it is possible they are captured or cut off from the main body of troops: but their ultimate fate is now tied to the outcome of the skill challenge.

Players may wish to try to rescue particularly well-loved NPCs. This is a moderate DC check (usually streetwise, nature or stealth) if the success only recovers the NPC, and does not count towards the challenge. If the rescue also strikes at the enemy, it's a high DC.

Ultimate Outcome
Success: The gnolls are held at bay, and you manage to catch up with the retreating Whitemane and his guards. This encounter is one level above the party's level, and the enemy units are placed before players decide where their characters are coming from. The damage to the city is serious, but recoverable.

Failure: The Gnolls have made it into the gates of Moonstone Keep, with Whitemane at the lead. Still, if the characters can kill Whitemane, the invaders will fall into disarray. This encounter is three levels above the party's level, and the DM doesn't need to place his units until after the players do so. If the characters win this fight, they manage to save Moonstone Keep and those within, though the city has still been ravaged.

Some Thoughts
  • In retrospect, this would benefit from a table of what works and doesn't work depending upon which failure we're at. The narrative is pretty simple, but I think it's obscured within the the text, and it goes something like this:
    Before the first failure: The gnolls are outside the city walls. They can be skirmished with, or the city can be made ready for the invasion.
    First failure:
    The gnolls breach the walls.
    After the first failure:
    The gnolls have breached the walls and fighting is happening in the upper city and pushing towards the lower city.
    Second Failure:
    The gnolls push down the cliff from the upper city to the lower city.
    After the second failure:
    Fighting in the lower city as the Gnolls besiege the keep.
    Third Failure:
    The Gnolls breach the keep.

  • Note that one way or another this ends in a fight scene, albeit one that is slanted in favor of or against the PCs. I feel pretty confident that by the time things reach that point, players will be gung ho for some straight up action.

  • I sincerely hope, but am not entirely sure, that the scenes that I consider implicit in a lot of these actions comes through. For example, I consider the Athletics actions to be something of a gimme for how to play out. Someone has a crazy plan that just might work, a heroic PC takes a handful of troops to try to pull it off - that's exactly how it should go.

  • This would benefit greatly from a bit more guidance on how to run scenes as subsets of a challenge. I actually did write some stuff about that, but that doesn't help here. The bottom line is that you can run a scene however you like, be it a fight, a roll, some roleplaying or even another skill challenge and then take the final outcome of that seen and "roll it up" as a success or failure in the larger skill challenge. To use the athletics example again, I could do that as a scene with an athletics/stealth skill challenge followed by a fight, with victory in the fight translating into success and defeat into failure. Basic "Dungeon as Skill Challenge" kind of stuff.

  • This challenge favors the PCs. Given the way failures are handled, they will probably win it, and that's as it should be. What's important (and much more up in the air) is what the price is going to be. The Casualties of War trigger is in there explicitly to turn failures into pain for the characters, so that you can have them win, but still pay a potentially hefty price for it. I'm a huge fan of this model, but it's not always easy to pull off.

  • And, obviously, all this assumes an existing investment in Fallcrest. If you don't have such an investment, then this is an interesting exercise, but it has no teeth. This is designed as a culmination of events in play, after the characters have found allies in the town, have come to hate Whitemane and have already gotten well and truly tied into the events leading up to this.
Anyway, I may post more of these later if there's an interest, but for the moment, feel free to deconstruct at will.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Go Big or Go Home

There are a lot of good games out there with interesting and playable skill systems, and it is rare that I’ll decide against a game based on that alone (though there are exceptions). I find the Advantages and Disadvantages to be much more telling, whether their called that, Merits & Flaws, Edges & Hindrances or Lord knows what else. In many games, a lot of the real meat of things is hidden among these.

It’s a model that makes a lot of sense: if you put your crunchiest rules in your ads/disads section then you reduce the overall crunch of the game in play, since players are effectively selecting which rules they’ll play with, and the ones which aren’t chosen can be set aside. Done consciously, this can be a fantastic model. For example, if all of your advanced firearms rules are actually put into your firearms ads/disads , then your gunbunny can use the advanced rules while everyone else can get along without worrying about them.

Unfortunately, this is rarely done consciously, at least not across the board. There are exceptions – usually in the form of fighting styles – but most often the ads/disads list tends to look pretty similar from game to game, usually with the difference emerging in levels of detail. Sometimes there will be embarrassments, like the advantage everyone must take to be viable in play, but it’s usually not broken. It’s just boring.

The trick comes when you start trying to map these advantages and disadvantages to fiction, which is to say to the kinds of characters that players are thinking of. There’s a pretty profound disconnect between what ads/disads are attempting to model and how they model it. The simple difference is this: If a character in fiction has some sort of advantage that’s worth noting, then whatever it is it’s turned up to 11. If one guy in the group is particularly tough, he’s TOUGH. If one’s a tracker then he can tell you what you ate by looking at your footprints. [1] If you’ve got money, you’re rich enough to build a batcave. If he has visions of the future, that’s a BIG FREAKING DEAL.

In fiction, these things are a 24 ounce porterhouse, but most RPG systems send you to the salad bar with a tiny plate. It just doesn’t work out the way you’d hope.

One of the best tricks I ever saw in a game was in Adventure!, with the inclusion of 6 point merits. Most merits in the system were rated like stats, from 1-5, but if you bought one up to 5, you could buy the 6th point, at which point the merit would transform into what you had always imagined it to be. Wealth became unimaginable wealth. A man of mystery became a true enigma. You flipped a switch and turned on the awesome.

On some level, I’m not sure why to bother with any ads/disads except those 6 pointers, so to speak. I mean, sure, in some games it might be interesting to distinguish between one character having a middle class income and another having an upper middle class income, but I think we’re all smart enough to make that distinction when appropriate.[2] But for high adventure, high octane stuff? The difference between level 1 and level 2 toughness just doesn’t cut it – I want to be tough as nails or not bother.

Now, as interesting as it would be to see a game designed from the ground up with this sort of thinking, that’s simply not practical for most folks out there. We have our existing games, and we want to make them work, and the good news is that this is pretty easy to do with any game that has advantages and disadvantages.

First off, look though the list for character-defining advantages. A lot of systems have these, and they’re easy to spot because they tend to be the most expensive options, and they very clearly define the character in some way, like making him non-human. Look at how much that costs, and set that as your ballpark for about how much an advantage should cost.

Once you’ve done that, start building bundles. To make a bundle, you start with an and you take all the advantages that seem to match that idea and combine them together that totals up to about your goal number of points. [3]

For Example: For a hypothetical game, I’m looking at making an approximately 20 point bundle for “The Tough Guy”. The game has a Toughness advantage (3 points per level), a High Pain Tolerance advantage (5 points) and a Quick healing advantage (4 or 8 Points). I make a bundle out of Level 4 toughness, Level 1 Quick Healing, and High Pain Tolerance. Total cost is 21 points, which is close enough to my ballpark. I now write that up as a 21 point advantage[4] with all the mechanical benefits of the advantages I used to make it.[5]

Depending on how the game handles disadvantages, you could even fold those into your bundles. If you can do this, then it’s fantastic – if a bit more abusable – and it’s a great way to make sure that the “Ninja” advantage is badass, but comes with built in enemies. It means that if the disads are strongly tied to the central concept, then they’re more likely to be remembered, and they’re more likely to matter when they come up.

Once you start on these, they tend to be very easy to pull together quickly if your players express an interest in one concept or another. And once you have enough of them under your belt, you can pretty much remove the entire ads/disads table from player sight, except for purposes of building new bundles.

Now, the last thing to consider here is pricing. Up to this point it’s all been a bit of sleight of hand, changing nothing about the underlying game. But the bundles are going to be pricey, and in some games that could mean really gimping a character on skills or in other areas, which kind of sucks. The simplest way to address this is to offer discount pricing on bundles or to offer more points, but while both of those solutions are simple, they are just treating symptoms of the problem. The bottom line is this: if you’re doing bundles, it’s because you want players to buy them because you like the fact that it puts a strong concept front and center. If that is the case, then just give each player one. Dock them a few points if you feel you need to, but let them otherwise just spend as they see fit. If they buy a second bundle[6], then that’s great, they’ll do so with full awareness of the tradeoffs, but without feeling shoehorned into it.

Anyway, this is something that will add a bit to your prep for your next game, but can be used with anything from Savage Worlds to nWoD to Cortex to make characters whose concepts are worn a little bit more on their sleeve (assuming you think that’s a good thing).

1 – Yeah, there’s some bleed between ads/disads and skills depending on the system. Honestly, the same logic applies to skills, but that is more the domain of competence porn.

2 – The one other exception is when we’re talking about a character’s goal. If it is a character’s goal to become super-rich or incredibly well connected or anything else like that, then it might be appropriate for them to have some stunted version of the full advantage because that is guaranteed to change over the course of play (or at least it should be). In fact, having a goal that has this kind of concrete game-manifestation can work out very well because there’s no confusion or miscommunication regarding what the end-goal looks like.

3 – Fans of Eden’s
Buffy the Vampire Slayer may recognize that this is basically how that game handles a lot of supernatural powers.

4 - Realistically I'd probably round it off to 20 points, but that's just because I like round numbers.

5 – And here we hit the rub. This is not going to be hugely popular with your min-maxers because they will have put a lot of thought into the specific combinations they want to build. It would be easy to dismiss those concerns as mere twinkery, but don’t be too hasty. Use this energy to your advantage, and get the min-maxers help in building bundles. He may look at your “Tough Guy” bundle and point out a way you could make a guy much tougher for those 20 points, and if so, then make the change. After all, the goal is not to penalize players, it’s to make these concepts pop much more strongly.

6 – Yes, you should be considerate if someone buys a bundle that overlaps with another bundle in such a way that some points are wasted. Just redefine one of the bundles to remove the overlap, and carry on. This will save you infinitely more headaches than giving back points. If there's a lot of overlap, consider that a red flag of a muddy concept or a Ninja/Special Forces problem[7].

7 - The Ninja/Special Forces problem is something that comes up in many games with player-created attributes. If you are playing a game like Over the Edge and you have one character with "Ninja, 4d" and another with "Special Forces, 4d" then you are goign to have precious little mechanical differentiation between them. They'll roll the same dice for most of the same sort of activities, so the difference is almost entirely one of color. And in that case, the color becomes INCREDIBLY important to keeping the characters from becoming dull. (and yes, it's a footnote on a footnote. Sue me.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Cool Things on Monday: Terrible Minds

One of the nicer things about achieving some small success in game publishing is that it has completely changed my views on it. Prviously, it had been fairly abstract and distant, with a few banner names and products that sprang, fully formed, from the brow of their respective companies. Some of you are laughing, I know I am, but that's what it looked like from the ground.

Nowadays, I see a very personal ecosystem, teeming with hundreds of folks all doing their bit out of a love of the hobby. I look at the guy working for a big company and the guy working on his dream game in his basement, and the differences between them are much different than I ever thought they were. It's not a difference of passion, and usually not one of skill either. Mostly it's just a difference of hours worked, and the willingness to work more.

Which is, as you think about it, just like everything else.

Anyway, I mention this because this change in perspective has made it possible for me to actually meet people in the gaming industry as fellow gamers rather than as some sort of crazy icons. This has been awesome (though I'll say right now, I swear to god Half the people I met at Gencon 2008 were named some variant on Jason or Justin, and I remember NONE of the names) and it leads directly to the gentleman I'm hoping to point y'all at today.

Chuck Wendig was at Dreamation (or maybe Dexcon, I mix them up a lot) to promo the upcoming Changeling: The Lost and to do a little panel work. I was there for my usual hippie indie reasons, but I was very curious about this new Changeling - I'd loved the old one in a conceptually-wonderful-but-unlikely-to-play-it sort of way - so I grabbed a slot. It ended up being a lot of fun. Chuck runs a tight game, and it showcased a lot of the things which ended up really exciting me about C:tL. So, when the game wrapped up, we chatted a bit, and I asked if he was interested in a meal. Turns out he was, so he joined a number of us hippies at the restaurant, where I think everyone was a little surprised that no one burst into flame at this pro & indie mix.

Anyway, the universal assessment was Chuck was a cool guy, and as a result he had a small posse show up at his panels (which was hopefully not too weird) and a good time was had by all. Plus, we got to meet Mrs. Chuck, who was charming and seemed possessed of infinite patience.

I mention this as framing for a much simpler point: You should read Chuck's blog at He's actually had one for a while, but it used to be a terrifying monstrosity, which I'd have to select-all to read because on anything but IE, the text was black on a black background. It had no RSS, and this made me sad. Thankfully, he's been dragged into the twenty-first century, and has upgraded to a wordpress blog with all the appropriate bells and whistles, so now the rest of the universe can actually read it.

So why should you? Well, sure, you could read it because Chuck's done some awesome game designs, having recently wrestled the new Hunter: the Vigil to the ground like a bear and having a trail of credits that sparkle like stars in the sky. But if that was all there was to it, it wouldn't be as interesting. See, Chuck also writes, and writes about writing, and does both of these things with a unique, compelling, and sometimes profoundly useful style. His stuff is insightful, and it's genuinely fun to read; check out his posts on writing in the weeds, blogging about blogging and fake writing for a start. Plus, he occasionally throws in some really spectacular macro-lens photography, which makes for lovely (if sometimes disturbing) eye candy.

With all that, the fact that he's a cool guy is just a bonus.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Pitch

I have probably been unduly influenced by reading too many screenwriting books, but I have a bit of a habit before I start a new game. I like to write up a pitch for it[1]. It's short, usually only 500-1000 words, with the idea that it can just go into an email. The idea is to sum up the tone and premise of the game and give the players enough to start chewing on character concepts, but there's a bit more to it. The act of writing it down in this fashion also helps me focus on the idea and see if I'm actually excited about it. There have been plenty of times when I've had an interesting seed, but in the act of writing it down I discover that I don't have anywhere I want to take it, and I'd much rather find that out before I start the game.

This comes up because I've been wanting to run a gritty fantasy game. I've been influenced in this thought by Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains, but also by a kind of nostalgia. My old Rolemaster games were pretty much pure urban grit, and I've been itching to get back to that. The other night I was finally struck by a solid premise that got around some of my concerns of the genre (specifically, I like giving characters a shared backstory, but that's usually much nicer than fantasy noir demands) but created an open enough framework for some straight-up sword and dagger goodness.[2]

The pitch is as follows:

When the hordes came out of the east, the Empire was unprepared. It had gone unchallenged for too long, and while its armies were vast, they were poorly led. What would have once been little more than a border skirmish turned into a full-fledged invasion that threatened the imperial capitol itself. The empire proved robust, and the shock powered its counter-attack, leading to a year-long stalemate on the eastern front. The warlord of of the horde sought to break the impasse with a daring move, leaving a fraction of his forces as a distraction in the east and leading the rest on a march across the deadlands.

There's no reason for the empire to have expected that. The lands of the north are called the deadlands for a reason - the things that wander it are old, and little is known of them except that they kill. The idea of leading an army across it was inspired madness - even if they succeeded in reaching the pass, the citadels that guarded it would hold them long enough for the things in the north to descend upon the invader. But if they could succeed, and strike through Tramontana pass, they would have a clear run at the exposed belly of the Empire.

The northernmost citadel was the Dragon's Head, also called the Shield of the North. It was manned with five thousand of the empires finest troops, veterans of numerous deadland incursions. Hard, hard men. The khan pulled the walls down around their ears within a week and pressed down the pass to the second fortress.

Waiting at the southern end of the pass was the Dragon's Tail, also known as the Ass of the North. It was populated by every soldier who had pissed someone off enough for the worst assignment in the Empire, as well as a handful of mercenaries, explorers and traders. When the horde arrived, the commander filled the southern gate with fire powder and withdrew with his bodyguard, making it clear that retreat was not an option. All in all, there were almost seven thousand people within the walls of the Dragon's Tail when the horde came. In a week, there were half that number. In another week, perhaps a thousand remained. By the end of the third week, when the things from the north fell upon the horde's rear flank and reinforcements were still a week out, a few hundred defenders remained. The things had reached the gate when the forces of the empire finally arrived to hold the fort, and there they found only a hundred defenders, tattered and bloody.

A proud and victorious (if somewhat by default) empire paraded these heroes back to the imperial capitol. There were 91 of them in all, but with the commander, his bodyguard, and the general of the reinforcing army it made a perfect 100, a number the sages and bards seized upon and called for celebration of the Golden Century, the hundred who had saved the empire. A hundred golden medals were hammered out, granted to these heroes along with other recognitions - including an audience with the emperor himself. They were the heroes of the empire, feasted and celebrated in every corner of the land.

That was then.

Seven years have past since the Dragon's Siege and the members of the Golden Century have found that heroism tarnishes faster than gold. Some leveraged their fame into position, at court or away. Others used the opportunity to pursue other goals, dreams of education or exploration. Still others have faded away, disappearing down the back alleys and wine shops of the empire. They are all history now, an unwelcome reminder of a time best forgotten.

Still, they know their own. Karl Mitterand was one of them, and his death has drawn out his compatriots for his funeral. Karl had been a soldier, and a drunk, and since the Dragon's Siege, he'd steadily become more one than the other. The ceremony is in two days, and apparently Karl sold his medal for drinking money. It's embarrassing, but there's no way in hell he's going into the ground without it.

Some questions for Chargen:
What were you before the battle?
What have you done since?
What have you done with your medal? (And what's your number?)

Now, I have some more ideas about the setting in my head. For example, I think the empire has a wild range of cultures within its boundaries, and I'm pretty sure the Heroes of Dragon pass were awarded lands, but they mostly got cheated out of them since they're under the oversight of either the reinforcing general or the citadel's commander (if he's a dick - he might not be) and thanks to some bureaucratic wrangling, he basically owns them. He's done pretty well by this whole hero gig, a point to hold in contrast to the actual heroes.

I could go on, almost indefinitely, but I am intentionally reigning that in[3]. I'll answer any questions players have, but this is a loose sketch that has just enough framework for the characters to fit in, and to allow the players to bring in details that appeal to them. That said, you'll notice the pitch makes it clear where the action will start - looking for Karl's medal. I'm all for open-endedness, but it's essential to have some direction to start with.

By accident, this also suggests a fairly practical model for scheduling purposes. I have a core of folks I intend to offer seats at the table, but there are many more people out there than there are chairs. The Golden Century is a great model for allowing guest characters, even recurring ones, by filling in some of the remaining numbers. Serendipity.

Anyway, with that out of the way, I need to see about scheduling and picking a system, both of which will require some work, but I'm good with that.

1 - I also tend to name the campaigns. This one is looking like "Golden Century"
2 - Curiously, I still haven't picked a system for this yet. Rolemaster would be perfect, but for the bookkeeping element. Burning Wheel has some merit, but the minigame is too transparent for what I'm looking for. So I'll chew on that for a bit.
3 - This is crazy hard for me, since I know what questions I want answered, and how I'd answer them, but I must be patient.