Monday, November 30, 2009

Cool Monday: Instapaper

As excited as I am to get onto dice variants and Warhammer 3e, I need to maintain discipline. Monday posts exist primarily to remind myself that the internet has cool and wonderful things within its bounds. This offsets the other 6 days of the week when I face reminders of the cesspit parts.

There's a lot of good stuff to read on the Internet, but the simple reality is that it's a pain to keep track of it all. An RSS aggregator, like Google News or NetNewsWire goes a long way towards making the good stuff easier to keep track of, but it doesn't give me any extra time to read. That becomes a problem on those occasions when something very long and very thoughtful merits reading.

Historically, my solution was to see if they had a print view (because nothing says fun like clicking through 6 times to get through a piece) and either bookmark that or print it out in hopes of getting back to it later. Sometimes it worked, but even when it did it tended to result in a pile of stuff. That's not terrible, but it's lossy.

I've been much happier about these things since I found Instapaper.

So, Instapaper is sort of a clipping service, a lightweight and smartly designed one. It works like this: I find an article I'd like to read later, and I click on the Instapaper bookmarklet.[1] I get a little popup, and that's that. Later on, if I go to the Instapaper site, they've got the article archived for me, either in its original format or with much of the formatting stripped out (which makes it much easier for screen reading).

So far that's nice and convenient, but where it really shines is in how it works with other technology. First and foremost, you can export bundles of the articles you're reading into a variety of ebook formats. I have a fat batch of articles stores on my kindle to make for random reading anytime I need.[2]

Perhaps even better, there's an iphone/ipod touch app (both a free and paid version) which syncs with your account and keeps the articles on your device. As a touch owner, this has been a godsend. Because it archives them locally, I can read my articles while I'm offline.

Instapaper is the brainchild of Marco Arment, a name that might be familiar to folks who pay attention to Tumblr development. He is my current nerd rockstar, because so far as I'm concerned, that's a fantastic 1-2 punch.

Anyway, if you have a lot of stuff online you want to read, and you want to make you're life easier, then check out Instapaper. You'll know pretty quickly if it's the thing for you or not.

1 - That's nerdy term for a bookmark that does something. It's nothing technical that calls for installation or anything weird. It's just like any other bookmark in your browser.

2- It won't mail directly to the kindle, but that's more a function of Amazon's policies than a technical limitation.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Rich Dice: Force, Finesse and Fortune

Long car rides help me think, and the holidays is a time of many long car rides. Specifically, I found myself thinking about the forthcoming Dragon Age RPG. I'm pretty excited about this game, for a swath of reasons. It's Green Ronin, so right off the bat I have a certain amount of brand trust. The sales model (4 boxed sets, each representing a level range) makes me quite curious to see in action, and the bits that Chris Pramas has revealed so far about the system interest me greatly.[1] Though hell, he's put up another post: I need to read that!

The big thing is that the core mechanic is a 3d6 model, specifically 3d6 + Stat + thing-which-is-most-certainly-not-called-a-skill-but-is-basically-a-skill trying to hit a target number. Bonuses don't seem to be too huge, so target numbers are probably start in the 10-20 range. In short, it's not terribly removed from d20[2], excepting that the 3d6 curve is probably a bit more appealing to those who have been bent over the wheel of fate by flat rolling.

One interesting thing it does with this approach is to take something of a variant on d6's wild die with the "dragon die". One of your dice is the dragon die, and when you make a roll where degree of success matters, then that is not determined by how high you roll, but rather by the number showing on the dragon die. If it's a 1, your success is narrow, but on a 6 it's profound[3] and that translates into mechanical effects.

I dig this, because it's a great example of something that's started to be called "rich dice rolling". The idea is that in some games, a single roll of the dice can reveal many different and unrelated (or only loosely related) pieces of information. For example, the core system for Godlike and subsequent games called for rolling a number of d10s and building sets (like two 4s, three 7s and whatnot). Those rolls were considered to have a "height" - the number - and a "width" - the number of dice in the set. So a set of 3 sevens would have a height of 7 and a width of 3. Those two numbers were used to track different things, like how well something was done versus how long it took to do. In combat, for example, width determined if you hit, but height determined hit location.

This was a little bit different than including a "wild die" (one differently colored die with special significance) in a set of d6s, but the underlying idea was very similar, and subsequent games have experimented with other ways to make die rolls richer. Fred Hicks' Don't Rest Your Head may be the current grand champion for richest die rolls, with a sophisticated economy of events plugging away in the background based on dice color.

Taking this back to Dragon Age, I was pretty intrigued. I'm always on the lookout for a system that balances crunch and simplicity at just my sweet spot[4] and this initial overview of Dragon Age suggested it might be in that ballpark. But it also got me thinking about that dragon die, and about the other two dice.

Specifically, I found myself wondering if it would be possible to make all three dice into rich dice. It seemed reasonable: I wouldn't expect players to be able to keep track of more than maybe four rich dice, but sticking with three kept things intellectually manageable. Plus, three dice matches one of the criteria for my ideal pocket game (requiring nothing I can't carry in a small box), and three is an auspicious number, so why not?

So if they were rich, what would they be? The classic trilogy is Mind/Body/Spirit, and while I suspect that could probably work, it's a little bit abstract (especially in terms of spirit). I kicked it around a little more and realized I like the idea of one of the dice being luck - just all the stupid things that happen around us every day. That was satisfying, and it meant that I could make the remaining dice into an opposed pair. Good/Evil, Black/White, Tastes Great/Less Filling or anything else. I actually ended up thinking about something that is ubiquitous in gaming and a lot of fiction - strength vs. speed, or perhaps more precisely power vs. precision.[5]

I dig this division a lot, partly because Clauswitz vs. Jomini makes me do a little dance, but also because it's VERY easy to conceptualize, especially in a fight. That said, I was looking at two-thirds of an alliterative name with "Luck, Power & Precision" so I swapped it out for "Fortune, Force and Finesse".

So there was the bones. Roll 3d6, each of a different color (I'm totally undecided on color scheme - probably White/Red/Black because those are the easiest colors to get) and in addition to your total, you can sketch a quick image of how the roll succeeded or failed. Even if there's no mechanical support at all, it's useful information for the GM who is interested in how to color his descriptions[6].

But, of course, once you introduce something like this, the possibilities for how to use it mechanically start bubbling to the surface. "Oooh!" say some nerd hindbrain, "Force can also be the basis for damage, and finesse can be, um, armor penetration!" and so it begins.

That hindbrain been bubbling for a bit. Some of what it says isn't to bad, so next week, we'll see about exposing some of those ideas to the whithering power of daylight to see what becomes of them.

1- Curiously, for all that I LOVE the Dragon Age video game, that love doesn't really translate into real excitement for the RPG. I'm curious to read more about the setting, sure, but Bioware did such a solid job with the game that I haven't been left thinking "There are stories in Ferelden I feel still need to be told". Not that that will keep me from buying new downloadable content when it comes out. The connection mostly interests me because I'm not sure how it will shake out from a marketing perspective.

2 - by d20 I mean the core precept of the system: roll a d20, add some bonuses, try to hit a certain number or higher. I am by no means saying this is a d20 clone, or even anything close to that, but rather I'm saying that by making the basic resolution something familiar to someone who's been exposed to d20 maybe once, they are doing themselves a favor. Dice pools, chart lookups, success counting or weird dice are all well and good, but since one of the stated goals of the product is to grow the hobby, it's not too bad an idea to go with something this simple.

3 - Extra points if you use a ghost die for this.

4 - I still haven't quite found it, and there's a good chance I never will, but that's rather besides the point, isn't it?

5 - You can, incidentally, port this over to PDQ quite trivially, especially if your game or character has some central thematic conflict, like passion vs. reason. You can just designate one die to each pole, and use them to color how you play. When you're rolling more than 2 dice, then their source is either drama or awesomeness. Easy as pie.

6 - This is a practice that is at odds with the idea of "Only roll the dice when it matters", but many GMs will call for a roll that has no specific drama or any real chance of failure just so she can have some information to use as the seed of how she will describe events. An example would be calling for a sailing roll before taking a trip: a bad roll won't mean the trip won't happen, but it means the GM might describe the trip as stormy and encountering incidental problems.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Turkey Day

Happy Thanksgiving!

No long message for today. I'm busy being overwhelmed by the sheer number of things I have to be thankful for. Friends and family, risks and opportunities, hopes and even fears. They're pretty amazing.

Also, my mom has made mealy puddin', and if you don't already know what it is, I assure you that you probably don't want to know more than the fact that her side of the family is the Scottish one.

So with that in mind, even if you don't celebrate the holiday, I hope it's a great day all the same.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Geist's Sleight of Hand

Monstrous horror is very rarely about what it's about. It's not that every piece of horror is explicitly a metaphor about something that you can point to, but there's usually something going on that we can identify with that makes it resonate with us. No one is really worried about vampires, but we do fear disease (and we worry about sex). We don't cower from tentacle horrors, but we all wrestle with the sense that the universe is an indifferent place that we can expect little kindness or understanding from.

A monster that doesn't strike these kinds of notes is just a colorful description. It's the literary equivalent of bad syfy cgi, bringing you Mansquito and his ilk. Most writers know this, but it's easy to blow past in the desire for novelty, and that can even work sometimes. Splatterpunk has an audience after all. But the good stuff? It's not about what it's about.

This lens is the reason I've always had a certain appreciation for White Wolf's games, though I never truly became a fan until the new Changeling came out. Through both iterations of the World of Darkness, they have been at their strongest when then games have not been about what they're about.

Now, the obvious joke to make here is one about emo supers, and while I'll concede that there's some truth to it, I'm thinking in a slightly different direction. Take Vampire, for example - more than anything it's a game about being on the inside. The vampires are the cliques who run things as we imagine them to be; pretty, petty and vicious. This is not a horror theme (though it has horror trappings), but it doesn't really need to be.

Of course, it's easy to punch a hole in that analysis. A game that seizes upon some other theme like alienation could still rock out, but the point is that it's still grabbing another recognizable theme and using vampires as a way to explore it.

The reason that Changeling grabbed me so much was because of this. It's a great story about fae and weirdness, but it sunk its teeth into me because it's also about the people who *matter* in your life (or about being mad at The Man, but that grabbed me less).

I mention all this because I feel like WW has performed a magic trick with Geist, one which just knocked my socks off when I saw it. As with other nWoD games, there's interesting cosmology and fun, dark, mystical things, but that's not what it's about. It's about the people who play in the World of Darkness, specifically twenty-somethings in group houses after college figuring out what they're going to do with their lives.


Geist has turned a number of WoD assumptions on their ear, explicitly swapping out the vast conspiracy for a lose (and gothy) confederation of nerds and artists. Better yet, one of the essential elements of character creation is coming up with the group's personal mythology.

There are a lot of other things I dig about Geist. The powers system may be my favorite of any of the nWoD games, and it builds on the foundations of really excellent products like Orpheus, but it is all left in the dust by the sheer magnificence of its undertone. A game about gamers that's not about gamers.

I raise a drink to that.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Vic-20 and Genre

One of the first computer games I ever played was a game on the VIC-20 called "Night Driving". A black screen, with colored rectangles representing the reflectors on the side of the road. It was a celebration of the limitations of the platform - there was no way that computer could display anything like a real road, so it turned that weakness into a selling point. Now, It was hardly a great game - it's other main selling point was that it was one of maybe 3 games available - but I always loved the sheer chutzpah of it.

I think of this sometimes when I look at runaway successes in literature, and I'm specifically looking at the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises, with a little bit of an eye towards Dan Brown. I look at those and one common thread runs between them: the manner in which they inspire nerdfury. Specifically, they're genre books that are fairly indifferent to the rules of genre. You'd think that would be a problem, but I sometimes suspect that it's actually a big advantage.

At the most obvious explanation is a trifle cynical. For any given genre, there are a certain number of people who are interested, and a vastly smaller number of people who care a whole hell of a lot. If you write for those enthusiasts then there's a good chance that you're not going to be too interesting to the larger populace because they've already demonstrated that they don't really care that much.

A slightly less cynical explanation is that the basics of a genre are usually very quickly grasped, and it's those basics that really matter. Sticking to those basics (whatever they are) is more likely to appeal. Moving away from them, even if it's "more" into the genre, is moving away from what people came for.

There's a nice lesson there - if you're enthusiastic about a genre and willing to just use it to launch into a story you're excited about, then there are examples of how well it can work. Naturally, some readers immediately want to point out that these examples of how things can work are reprehensible affronts against all that is literature, so we can just take that rage as a given.

Now, the counterpoint is that the more purely you serve a genre, the more you create an audience for yourself. The people who are REALLY into a genre are always looking out for something to serve their level of interest, and they constitute a pre-existing audience. You can do well by playing to that, even in a market as small as the RPG industry (some would say you are already doing so by writing RPGs but, hey, into every life a little recursion must fall).

The problem comes, I think, when the choice is not made, and you end up kind of half-falling into genre. If you make the choice consciously, you can work with it. If you make it accidentally then you're a lot more dependent on luck than you are on your talent and effort, and that's a pretty tenuous position.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Writing Tools

I've got nothing against Microsoft Word. I use it almost every day, and it's really good at doing what it's supposed to do - make documents that look professional enough for a business context without needing all the overhead of a full-bore layout program. Sure, that wasn't how it started: back in the days of wordstar (and CUTTING EDGE ascii art) the big deal was that we could write these things on a computer, and edit our writing rather than re-writing everything. I grew up as this transition was taking place, and it's still pretty miraculous to me. As much as I enjoy writing things by hand, I can't imagine going back to needing to do so for everything.

I mention all this because software has evolved with time. As we got used to this idea of writing on computers, the software came to reflect more than just the need to write. Writing was easy, after all, so why not start adding useful things like formatting, indexes, styles and so on. The actual writing is all well and good, but anyone can do that, right? The computer can make your writing look better (and in the case of things like spell-checkers, might actually make it better).

It's a little cynical, sure, but it's been a good thing overall. Yes, programs like Word allow for people to create layout abominations to raise up on the altar of Comic Sans, but it also means that Joe guy can make a layout that's good enough with very little time, skill, or knowledge. The impact on layout is very like that of sophisticated photography software: the folks who could only do a few tricks get overshadowed by software, but the people with real talent end up really standing out.

The problem with this is that the actual writing tends to get lost in the wash. Not to say it's impossible to write in something like Word, but there's a lot of noise to deal with. All the options and buttons are there on the screen, begging to be used, and that's bad enough, but the real danger is more sinister. When you write something and lay out out at the same time (which is what you can accidentally end up doing in word) then it tends to feel done, and that's incredibly dangerous. Editing and rewriting are critical important to any kind of quality writing, but when you have something your brain thinks is a finished product, it's easy to gloss over it, or hesitate to make a change because it will throw off the pagination.

This was a big problem for me, and I tried a bunch of tricks to try to deal with it. My Word interface is incredibly minimal, and I prepared equally minimalistic stylesheets to keep the text looking raw. It worked ok, but it was occasionally a pain, especially when Word decided to explode in helpfulness all over whatever I was writing.

I found relief in the form of writing software. Not Word Processing or Text Editing, but honest-to-God writing software, programs designed with the actual act of writing in mind. The first I came across was Writeroom, and it changed a lot of how I do things. See, Writeroom and a number of programs like it are fullscreen text editors - they were designed to remove all the distractions that come from working on a computer, like pop up windows, chat and mail notifications and so on. You fire it up and your whole screen goes black, except for your little green cursor. Yes, you are effectively using software to make your too-expensive computer look and feel like an old CRT Apple IIe, but as counter-intuitive as that is, it works REALLY well. Those distractions (and the temptations that come with them, to just check a website or the like) are absolute killers, and being able to shut them out let me really focus.

Since then, a number of similar programs have come out, including Darkroom (which may have predated Writeroom, I don't recall), Writemonkey and Q10. These had their own small gimmicks, and they all had the advantage of working on Windows, so I tended to view them as roughly interchangeable. But my poking around also revealed that there was a whole category of programs dedicated to writing novels or other long-form works.

This is a weird category because there are a number of really robust and interesting options available for apple, but there are almost no comparable programs available for windows. The closest I've seen is people who have adapted Microsoft OneNote to writing, and while they do so to good effect, it's definitely a case of making use of the tools available.

On the OSX side there were programs like Ulysses, Copywrite, Storymill and my favorite, Scrivener[1]. There are fine distinctions between the features of these programs, but the basics are the same. You create a collection of documents (which might be documents or media or whatever) which you can organize and edit as you see fit. Sounds simple enough, but it means that you can do things like keep your research notes, character thoughts, random ideas and your actual writing together in the same place, where it's easy to edit, hide or shift around whatever parts you need in a way that suits your writing style. There's very little in the way of formatting - headers, bold and italic, though footnotes tend to get good support - and the bells and whistles are much more about things that make writing easier, like offering a fullscreen mode.

All these functions sit on top of a database, rather than a collection of documents, which offers a lot of benefits. Most notably, you just don't worry about saving your work - it just happens. The database architecture means that you can also do robust version control, and while that may sound unnecessarily technical, it's incredibly handy to realize you can save your work like you would a video game and, if you end up with the writer's equivalent of a TPK, you can revert to the save without disrupting your current 'game'.

The upshot of this is that I started writing on the mac unless I absolutely had no choice. Now, "no choice" comes up more often than you'd think, especially if you're collaborating with others, since you need to use the software that everyone has. This got exacerbated when I picked up a netbook - I love it, but it runs windows, so Scrivener was not an option. So I went back to where I started and grabbed a full screen editor (as it turns out, they're very well-suited to netbook use).

I started using Writemonkey for the most frivolous of reasons: One of its options turns on typing sounds as you write. Actual typing sounds - you can choose between an old style typewriter, an old IBM keyboard or a bunch of other options. I'm an absolute sucker for that sort of thing, but it turns out to have been a good decision. WM was rock solid. It supports markdown for minimal formatting, it exported without problems, and it did everything I asked of it, but it was still a choice I went to out of necessity rather than any real desire.

That changed with the latest release of Writemonkey, as it added "Focus". It's a little rough to explain, but the idea is this: imagine you're writing a very long doc, and you are looking through it and realize you need to expand on one section. In WM, you can highlight that section, hit f6, and the rest of the document vanishes while you work on that one section. When you're done, just hit f6 and you swap back to seeing everything, but with your new writing now tidily in place.

Now, maybe it's just me, but I find it very easy to get a little bit overwhelmed by very long documents. This ability to just zero in on a specific section and work on it without giving any thought to the rest of the document is an absolute godsend. There are some other nice implicit uses for it - it helps with writing off an outline for example - but the bottom line is that it offers the same sort of advantage that the full screen editor does, the ability to focus on the writing without distraction.

Now, hold my hand in the fire, and I'll acknowledge that Scrivener is still my first love. I paid money for it, and it's got many more features, but it's not entirely without warts. I've heard of problems syncing the DB with dropbox, and that makes me kind of nervous. Plus, the one downside of the whole database model is that I need to export anything if I want to share it. But despite these small things, Scrivener is still the single best program I've used for organizing and writing a project, but when it comes to just writing, Writemonkey may actually be my favorite. The simplicity of it (it's just editing a text file) makes it much easier to just jump into writing something.

The good news is I never really need to choose. Circumstance tends to dictate whether I'm going to be on a Mac or Windows box at at given moment, and I now have a tool for each one which I am absolutely delighted to use to write.

1 - For the absolute best list of writing programs for both windows and mac, check out the link page at (the guys behind Scrivener).

Friday, November 20, 2009

Golden Century: Badass

Swinging back to Golden Century, the first question I ask myself is how to handle the various flavors of badass within one system. For the moment, I'm assuming a flavor of Fate because, hey, it's a pretty robust platform.

Cecil is easy. He's unstoppable, so whatever wound system I use, he'll double it. I could fiddle around with alternatives like armor-equivalence, but that seems to complicate things unnecessarily. The idea is not that he doesn't get hurt, it's that he doesn't stop coming, so a longer wound track totally does the job.

The Butcher is similarly easy - his fighting and intimidation will come out of the same pool, easy peasy. The guy is terrifying, and much of his badass will be expressed through people's unwillingness to fight him, so it's just a matter of remembering to respect that. As a GM it specifically means that I need to remember that "The other guy chickening out" is a reasonable (or even likely) outcome for scenes.

Sandon and Eira are a bit more interesting. Sandon has the fantastic situational awareness, and Eira has the classic Old Master schtick, both of which are potent but are also too colorful (and nuanced) to wave off with a simple bonus. Sandon suggests to me that his ability might interact well with the idea of scopes - he should have some bonus that relates to bringing in aspects in the environment scope.

Possible approaches include making the bonus for environmental aspects bigger for him, reducing the difficulty of creating new environmental aspects, or giving him more free tags of environmental aspects. The end result I'm looking for is that I expect him to be using the environment virtually every time he acts, so I want to reward that.

The main answer, I think, is that I will let him freely create and use environmental aspects without needing to roll to set them up and find them - so long as he describes using the environment in a colorful and reasonable fashion, he can spend a fate point on that aspect. This is pretty potent - free and open use of another scope means his bonus can get pretty high - but that also means i can afford to be a little bit strict about it. The environment has to be used in a way that directly impacts what's being done - actions that just happen to use the environment are less likely to be usable.

The downside of this approach is that it does not quite make things full on wild-and-woolly Jackie Chan style environment use (which would really require more free tags). Instead it allows for spiking efforts by bringing in the environment without any preparation or planning, and I think that captures the idea.

Thinking about Sandon also gives some insight into Eira. I can apply similar logic to suggest that her real area of strength is also a scope, specifically, the scope of the other person. As with Sandon, opening up another scope to casual use allows for badass spiking, but the mechanic needs to be a little bit different, simply because people are not quite as willy-nilly as the environment.

I think what I'd like is for her to be able to discover other people's aspects by fighting them. That has a mechanical benefit, but it also plays nicely into that old master vibe of figuring out that you carry a lot of regret around by how you hold your sword. It shouldn't be instant or transparent, but it should be fairly easy. My thought is this: If Eira wins an exchange (that is to say, would cause damage), she can forgo the damage and instead reveal one of her opponent's aspects. This will be treated like a successful maneuver, so she'll get a free tag on it (which should make up for forgoing the damage). If I, as GM, don't have an aspect to reveal, she can make one up.

My one fear with this is that, depending on how I handle injuries, then she's potentially forgoing a different exploitable aspect (the injury) to do this, which may not mechanically balance out. If that proves to the case, ti will probably make discovery easier, maybe only requiring a single step.

I think I'll also broaden this a bit so that she can do something similar out of combat with almost any thoughtful activity (pouring tea and whatnot). That is to say, her particular badass will be usable outside of fights to discern the aspects of others, though there may be some color limitations on that.

Ok, that's all 4. Feeling good about this.

Oh, as a total aside, here is the reason Dragon Age totally won for me.

One of the starting paths is an urban elf. Elves were slaves until a few hundred years ago, and they're still second class citizens, living in ghettos called alienages. You start in the alienage in Denerim, the capital city, waking up to discover that today is your wedding day. It all goes horribly, horribly wrong, but that's arguably less important than the context it goes wrong in. They do a wonderful job of giving you the clear sense that you are connected to the community, through ties of friendship and family. Later on in the game, when you get to come back to the alienage, those ties are reinforced, with nods back to the events at the beginning.

All this is prelude to some events in the endgame. I won't spoil the details, but something bad happens in Denerim, and you have to deal with it. It's presented as a strategic problem and you have a number of ways you could approach it. and I was thinking about it in those terms until the map of the city popped up, and one of the hotspots of trouble was the alienage.

I did not stop to think before clicking on it. There was no analysis or consideration, simply an utterly primal gut reaction of "MY FAMILY IS IN TROUBLE" and the need to do something about it. I don't know if that sounds as awesome as it was, but for me that kind and quality of visceral emotional reaction to a game is hard to come by, and I can't praise Bioware enough for their handling of it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fever Dreams of Relative Advantage

Still stuck thinking about relative advantage, so I'm going to flesh that out a little bit more. Also, I'm home sick and a little bit loopy, so roll with it. Dragon Age seems to be proving a decent example of the benefits of a relative advantage type of system. You level up a fair amount over the course of the game (about 20-25 levels) and gaining levels can gain new abilities, but the increase in effectiveness comes out of those abilities, which do not improve so dramatically as the actual levels. That is to say, a 20th level character can easily deal with threats that a 1st level character would have trouble with, but the difference in their capability levels is not as broad as the difference in their levels suggests.

To translate this into 4e terms, imagine that every character in 4e "locked in" at level 5, so that their attacks, defenses and hit points were all fixed at the levels they were at level 5. Now imagine, however, that they continued to gain new powers as they leveled up[1] - this means that the difference between a level 5 and a level 30 character is entirely measurable in terms of what powers they have (well, and the base-attack damage bump at level 21, but I'm setting that aside for the moment). Now, this will definitely be a profound power gap - high level powers are definitely better than their lower level equivalents - but not as profound as it looks at first. The lower level powers don't exactly suck, and higher level powers might be two or three times better, but that is a much smaller multiplier than the level difference would suggest.

But now imagine that's the game you're running, and what it changes. What does it now _mean_ to have a 25th level monster? It's attack and defense bonuses, as well as hit points, should be keyed off level 5, but its damage is pretty much unchanged. It suddenly makes sense that a troop of pikemen is really dangerous, even to a high level monster, but that certain monsters (especially ones with abilities like damage resistance) are dangerous because of what they're capable of. Elites and Solos becomes the really important currency because the bump in attack and defense can be more potent than many levels of powers (and with HP capped around level 5, they will thankfully die eventually).

This is the heir to an idea that some people tried with 3.*, of capping level advancement at lower levels to keep things gritty, and I think this approach serves much the same purpose. If you lock down early, then every +1 you can squeeze out of play suddenly carries much more weight[2], and a lot of feats and powers suddenly look a lot more interesting.

Now, 4e doesn't need this. The way it handles NPCs allows for a lot of DM hand-wavery to just say that the town guards are whatever level they need to be, and sometimes that's all you really need. I dig that approach in a lot of games, but I admit it rubs me raw in D&D - it makes the treadmill a little bit too apparent - and something like this lets me imagine the world external to my characters as fitting together in a way that suits my sensibilities.

Anyway, I think I'm feverish, so I dunno how much sense this will make, but I'm scheduling this to post because I'm hopeful there's some nugget of utility to it.

1 - And better gear. But I am temporarily setting that aside for the moment because, frankly, the frustration that comes of tracking gear in 4e is such a profound thing for me that it probably merits its own post sometime.

2- I picked level 5 because the average bonus at this point is near 10, so it's close to the balancing point between bonuses and dice being dominant. Given the way D&D works this is mostly just sleight of hand, but it's something I instinctively gravitate towards.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

4E and Power Cards

Today was originally going to be more Golden Century, but twitter discussion lead to a realization that I really want to talk about something core to D&D 4E and how that interacts with power cards.

The appeal of power cards is obvious in play with 4e - the number of powers and their exception-based design makes cards an excellent bookkeeping method, at least on paper. But there’s a catch: the actual fiddly numbers make pe-produced cards impractical - even with the description of the power it is necessary to look up the character’s attack and damage modifiers, often on a case-by-case basis. This means that the custom-generated cards from the character builder are really the only option, and even they need to be updated and re-printed regularly.

The rub is that it feels like it should be much easier than this, but the breakdown is hidden under a bit of sleight of hand. The practical reality of 4e is actually pretty simple - if you’re fighting something of your level, then you’ll probably hit on an 11 or more and miss on a 10 or less. There’s some fiddliness within the range - a 15 or more should pretty much always work, a 5 or less should pretty much always fail, but it’s really not much more complicated than that, whether you’re first level or thirtieth level. If your opponent is higher level it might be a little harder, if they’re lower level it’s a little easier.

The bottom line is that it’s all pretty much relative. Because the attack and defense modifiers scale up at roughly the same pace, they’re almost irrelevant. You could dispose of most of them and couch things entirely in terms of relative advantage, and it would greatly simplify things.[1] But doing so would strip away the sense of advancement that comes from watching numbers getting bigger.

Relative advantage would allow for the necessary information to exist purely on cards. When people imagine using power cards, they imagine something akin to Magic: the Gathering (with good reason - it’s a great model), but that’s just not practical with 4e. The number crunching not only calls for data external to the cards, but it also keeps the cards themselves from having any kind of elegance to them - a lot of what makes the magic experience work so well is that individual cards can be quite simple, with the complexity emerging in play.

But what makes it so problematic is that 4e is so *close* to being card-able that it invites frustration when the reality differs so much from the expectation. Arguably, this suggests that the space exists for someone to create a game which does fill that niche. Warhammer 3e might exist in a similar space, but it’s a big space and there’s lots to done in it.

1 - So, imagine the baseline of hitting on an 11+ against an equal opponent, and cards (assuming monsters are also covered by cards) simply introduce modifiers on that baseline rather than requiring the tracking of persistent modifiers. A particularily tough monster might be at +2 to its defense, a mook might be -1. That’s the basic shape of a pure relative advantage approach .

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Golden Century Chargen

We did chargen for Golden Century this weekend. Started with 4 players, but if this gets some legs, part of the point of the GC concept is that it will be easy to add additional cast members, in the form of other members of the golden century, to facilitate pickup play. This was the same thinking that lead to the creation of the Century Club in the game that became Spirit of the Century, so I have reason to think it's a good model.

As a warning, this is some pretty serious "Tell me about your character" stuff, but it's necessary to get it out there so I can then start discussing what I'm going to do with it.

One curious thing about this character generation is that when we started, I had no idea what system I would be running the game in. There were a few strong contenders - Savage Worlds or mods of Cortex or Fate were all in my mind - but none of them were the definite winner. I mean, I knew whatever I ended up with would have some version of aspects, but I can port that to nearly anything, but beyond that I wanted to see where the players took things and choose a system based on that.

Our four characters are Sandon, Balin, Cecil and Eira. I actually got their names later in the process, but it's easier to explain things with names. Anyway, I had a few questions in mind regarding how they'd gotten where they are, things that had happened to them and so on, but I ended up starting with a question I haven't used before, but which I am very pleased with in retrospect. It laid out a clear expectation for the game, revealed really useful things about the characters, and gave me a sense of what sort of mechanics I'm going to need to support. That question was: How are you badass?

Sandon Korga has a brilliant, instinctive sense of situational awareness. This makes him a fantastic battlefield commander, and lets him really exploit the environment in fights. Unfortunately, it is really only something he excels at in the moment - he's not the guy you want making plans or offering leadership, though his success in battle means such things are often thrust upon him.

Balin, "The Butcher" is a psycho, plain and simple. He's got knives, and he knows how to use them, but the real problem is that the crazy comes off him in waves. He's one of those guys whose indifference to the fact that he might just cut you open is so apparent as to be downright scary. Scary as he is, his reputation is even scarier, and the rumor is he ate dead soldiers at the Siege of the Dragon's Tail.

Cecil is unstoppable, simple as that. He is relentless and pushes on past any point of rationality.

Eira was a great swordmistress in her youth, but in her age the speed and strength that came with that have dwindled, but her knowledge remains. She has an old master's understanding of fighting, and has the experience that allows her to defeat foes many years her junior.

The next question was: How did you end up at the Dragon's Tail? This was followed up by a personal question to each one, based on his background so far.

Sandon, a career military guy, had done something that embarrassed his commanding officer badly enough that his C.O. had gotten assigned there, and Sandon got dragged along. Sandon, it turned out, was from a family of cobbles, and much of his military paycheck was going home to the family.

Balin had killed a man, a priest, and was there with a group of penitent brothers (Church prisoners conscripted for suicide missions) en route to the north. Balin had grown up in the slums of the capitol, with a sister sold off into slavery and doing occasional work as a thug until he killed the priest. There is a boy, his landlord's son (9 years old at the time, 14 when we start play) who thinks he's a hero.[1]

Cecil's wife had died, but had also apparently then gotten back up. He had been on her trail, and this was the last stop. We discovered that Cecil was a noble and that this was a politically important arranged marriage that both parties found tolerable, though there were no children.

Eira has working as a teacher for a scion of one of the great houses. The kid had been sent here for his safety and vanished in the last days of the battle. I asked her what she had done when, as they were heading north, she was offered a large sum to make the scion disappear. She said no, of course, but her report of the matter never made it back to the great house, so the rumor is she did him n.

I asked them to briefly give a sense of what the battle looked like from their perspective.

For Sandon, it was a blur - too hurried for any details to stick.

Balin spent much of it in the larder, acting as cook, and doing terrible and demonstrative things to the enemy bodies (hanging them from the walls, like meat). He killed a lot of men at one point when an enemy push made it to the kitchens.

Cecil very nearly died holding off the last push, and was so badly injured that he was still recovering when he got he award.

Eira spent the time protecting her ward, only losing sight of him towards the end when she was called out to a duel by one of the enemy leaders.

The next question, "what have you done with success?", was important to me because it's part of the heart of the darkness of the game. These guys are all former lottery winners, for all intents and purposes. They were heroes of the realm, and could have nearly anything, but that was 5 years ago - what have they done with it. Implicit in this is the assumption that all the glory and wealth has not improved their lives, and has possibly made it worse.

Sandon was given command of a personal unit of imperial legionnaires who mutinied during his first battle when he gave a command that would leave their families endangered (because it was tactically necessary - Sandon is incredibly unsentimental when in battle) . Their mutiny meant that they died with their families, while Sandon and his handful of loyal troops managed to hold out. By the accounting of things, it was a massacre, and Sandon's refusal to report the mutiny (to protect the honor of the dead soldiers) meant it was all on his head. Since then he's spent some time as a mercenary, but when pushed into command it tends to go badly and over time he earned the nickname "The Curse". These days he tends to take guard work under a pseudonym.

Balin was pardoned, and while he has his penitent brand on the back of his right hand, he wears his Century medal strapped to the back of the other. He tried to open a business (a restaurant, which quickly failed) and has tried to fit in with the upper crust of society with a dogged determination and a certain amount of obliviousness to his perpetual failure.

Cecil founded an order of knights dedicated to hunting the undead (and by extension, to find his wife) but he mismanaged it badly. The knighthood went broke and its command was usurped from within, and today is a fraternal order that is seeing reasonable success without Cecil.

Eira could not escape the assassin's reputation, and has sought a life of obscurity to avoid both misdirected attempts at vengeance and offers of employment.

Because it's one of my games, we came up with a quick connecting story for each of the characters:
  • Cecil served under Sandon at the massacre. Sandon was also the person who put Cecil in the position to get nearly killed at the Dragon's Tail.
  • Eira trained Cecil in sword after the battle, and made used of the knighthood while it was intact.
  • Balin disposes of bodies for Eira, when her attempts at obscurity fail. As an aside, he actually delivers them to someone else to dispose of, but everyone just assumes he does terrible things to them.
  • Sandon and Balin drink together frequently, and Balin thinks that Sandon can offer great insight into the court and is a boon to his social climbing. So Wrong.
  • Sandon and Cecil were once hired to hunt down a dangerous assassin who, after a bit of confusion, was revealed to be Eira. The three then turned on their erstwhile employer.
  • Cecil arranged for a marriage between Balin and one of his cousins. On paper it worked out well for both of them, but in practice it's an emotional minefield.

In a nod to Chuck, I asked what each character wanted and feares.

Sandon wants financial security for his family (who are the worst sort of nouveau riche after their bump in status due to him, but are now in steadily accruing debt). He fears responsibility.

Balin Wants to be respected as a right proper gentleman, and he fears losing his wife.

Eira wants fame and glory - she wants to be a legend. She fears death through creeping old age.

Cecil wants to put his wife to death, and fears the lure of eternal life might make him like her.

Lastly, I got 4 aspects from everyone - one was supposed to be the BIG aspect, the one they woudl have if they had only one.

Sandon: Korga the Curse, Unswayed by Sentiment in Battle, 'I'll Apologize Later' and Burdens of Family
Balin: Butcher, Branded, Striving for Respectibility, Intimidating
Eira: Old Master, Assassin's Reputation, Great House Connections, Last One Standing
Cecil: Unstoppable, She's Missing, Unwavering Resolve, "I can take anything, but not that"

That's a lot of stuff, but I feel like the characters are very solid. I can see a few gaps and disconnects, but they're ones I can work with. It now falls on me to think about hwo to make the world equally solid, and how to make this all work mechanically.

1- This particular harpoon ("who thinks you're worth saving")did not sink in as well as it could have - the answer is a little too protected. Not sure how much mileage I will get out of it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Truly Random Cool Thing for Monday

I had a good round of character creation on Saturday, and we're going to run a prologue this coming Saturday, so much of my brain is in that space now. I'll probably be using that for fodder for this week's posts so you all get to see how I turn this stack of notes into something to play because, well, we did chargen in the absence of system, and I will hack the system to match the characters in time for play. That's going to be fun, but challenging. But that's a topic for tomorrow.

Today I want to talk about Abulafia, which thankfully has the now easier to remember url of It is basically a giant wiki of random generators, so if you need to create a B-Movie Title, a Superhero Name, a Secret Society (or go a step further and make your own Splats) , or possibly every In a Wicked Age Oracle you can think of, this is your one stop shop.

As useful a resource as this is, it's worth noting that because it's built on wiki guts, it allows for people to constantly create new and interesting lists. There's a bit of a performance hit that comes from this - because there's a lot of referencing various text tables in different places, the page loads can be a bit slow - but the sheer depth of content is more than worth the lag.

I'm a huge fan of these sorts of randomizers, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one. It is a rare game that I don't dip into some sort of rich randomizer (like Tarot, I-Ching, Oblique Strategies or the like) to see what it shakes loose. Abulafia has the advantage of being more diverse and outright wacky than any other option, so it's a good tool for a GM to keep in her back pocket.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Pay No Attention To The Man Behind the Curtain

Just a quick post today because I was somewhat irresponsible last night, and while I should have been writing, I was finishing Dragon Age. Totally worth it, by the way. The ending was disappointing only in that it meant I could not continue to keep playing this game. I may talk more about it later, but I'll wait a bit until the glowing haze of joy has faded.

So, I'm grabbing the keyboard in the few minutes I have this morning before I need to start work to answer a question. The inestimable Paul Tevis asked me what my process was for writing this stuff, which was a little bit of a head-scratcher because I don't really think of it as a process, but Paul is awesome, so I thought about it for a bit.

I tend to think about this writing in terms of seeds - little ideas that could use some fleshing out. Sometimes these pop up in other places, like blogs or twitter (the recent spin on running raids in 4e was inspired by a comment on twitter) and I think they need a response or elaboration, sometimes they're something that I'm twigged to by a piece of news or fiction[1], sometimes they just come out of left field.

I actually have been writing about things like this for years, but it usually just ends up in one of my black notebooks (Moleskines or Piccadilly - I'm a notebook and pen enthusiast, but that's another topic for another day). I'm almost never without pen and paper to capture random ideas, and I make a habit of keeping them on hand, even if I can't use them immediately. It doesn't always work - I sometimes come back to discover some entirely enigmatic note which I'm sure made complete sense to me when I wrote it, but is now entirely incomprehensible. A few of those experiences have burned me enough that I try to be a little kinder when writing notes to my future self now, because as far as I can tell, he's not that bright.

For all my good intentions, these remain kind of disorganized, spread across several notebooks, which is bad in terms of being methodical, but is great in terms of the voyage of discovery that comes out of flipping back through them. As an example, one of my current idea pages has the following list:
  • Games as Service and the WOTC business model
  • Drama Fatigue
  • Mechanics are like superpowers - if you have one, it's what you use.
  • Myopia, Isms, and the Dawkins Effect (where people who might agree with you reject your ethos because you're an ass)
  • Internet Toxins
  • The Creative Advantages of Genre Ignorance
  • Ideas that work once ('I Am Hope')
  • Neil Gaiman's Terminator (I have no idea what I meant by this one, but I wish I did)
  • The Harmonium as Canadians
Some of these might get fleshed out, some might not. I tend to write them up in a method similar to how Iwould try to explain them conversationally, and that provides something of a natural filter on how much to write, and what to write about. If I could explain it concisely, then I've no reason to write for very long[2], but if I feel kind of idiotic explaining it to my hypothetical audience, then it might not be that great a topic.

The ideas that don't will continue to rattle around and may show up in other things, but the physicality of the notebooks means they'll stick around as long as I need. Certainly, some of these are not fully fleshed out ideas, but the process of writing or talking about these things helps me work through them (something I think Paul understands), and as far as that goes, there is a very selfish element to my writing.

A lot of what I write is for my own sake, which is why I've historically been perfectly willing to do it in a private environment like a notebook. I'm enthusiastically willing to be wrong, or to invest a lot of energy going down a rabbit hole that ends up going nowhere, for the sheer joy of it.

Translating that process to something public is, to be honest, a little weird. I find myself checking page views and comments and engaging in the usual blog neurosis of wondering if I'm talking to the void. But even that is a little selfish - each day's writing brings me one day closer to being able to set aside that worry, which is good. It's an ugly, unnecessary monkey.

Anyway, I could probably ramble on, but time is short, so I'll get this posted and just wish everyone a happy Friday. See you next week.

1 - If it's from the news, it's usually something that's interesting. If it's fiction, it's usually seeing something done very well or very badly, and wondering how to capture that in a game.

2 - This can also spawn its own ideas. Sometimes an idea is very simple to explain, but only if the person you're speaking to already grasps another idea or set of ideas. Canadian harmonium, for example, is a really potent idea to me, but that comes from an investment in A) Planescape and B) The history of the RCMP, and the contrast between the ethos of the Cowboy and the Mountie. With those two things together, it becomes possible to really flesh out the Harmonium as something more interesting (and more positive) than red armored bully-boy-stand-in-fascists. But that's a pretty specialized focus, so that one gets put in my pocket for bar talk (or maybe a home game) until I decide I really want to write a post about Mounties and my profound love of Due South.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Running a Raid, Part III

First, an aside: I figured out an easier way to handle agro. The boss must spend a number of threat tokens equal to the taunt value of the main tank on attacking the tank before he can spend them on any other attack. Makes the sequence of events much smoother. And a clarification: taunt tokens are exchanged within a given range, and only work within that range. I mention that because there might be 3 tanks in the last phase of the priest fight.

The Fallen Cardinal

I'm calling this guy level 10 because it's an easy number to work with. I was struck by the idea of the ghost of a crumbling cathedral while I was thinking about ways to bring in the environment. A transition from corporeal to ghostly to demonic seems to offer a great way to call for very dramatic transitions between fight phases.

Since he's level 10, he starts with 50 "health", gets 10 menace points per turn, and has an effective attack roll of 25. Quick math in my head says a Paladin of that level probably has an AC somewhere around 24-25, and assuming that's true, I may have to take that as an argument to move the base attack to [L]+10 and make spending menace point son accuracy something outside of the cost of the power. This has the additional benefit of giving the boss something to do with the spare one or two menace points he might be sitting on, so I'm going to call that the new rule for now.

Quick math also reveals that 50 health might be low. Let's assume a 20 man raid: even doing badly, they'll probably accrue 10 "hits" minimum per round, which makes for a quick fight, probably 2 quick. 100 would probably better, and for purposes of scaling with the number of players, the new yardstick is [L]*(number of players/2). So for our assumed 20 man raid, that's 10*(20/2), or 100

I envision this fight having three phases: the first against his physical form, a rotting corpse in the regalia of his faith (giant hat and all). This will probably be pretty straight up, with a lot of his abilities focused around summoning up other undead minions to go after people, and maybe gaining some health back from their attacks, so taking him down requires managing his minions. The next phase will be his ghostly form, rising up from his body, and this will probably be rough to fight because of the whole incorporeal thing, so he'll shrug off a lot of attacks, but he'll also probably take extra hits from radiant attacks. Last, he'll call upon his demonic masters to pull the whole cathedral into hell. This is partly because I love the visual - lit by flames and magma, with parts of the cathedral merged into the rock walls, the floor falling away to reveal magma below, leaving only a few places to stand, with the cardinal turning into a towering physical demon in the classic mould. The physical part of this fight will be the most straightforward (giving the strikers a bit of a chance to shine) but the environment will be the big challenge.

Designing Stage 1:
Ok, I want a melee attack, a ranged attack, and a summon, all bearing in mind that his usual budget is 10 menace points.

For the melee attack, I envision him just laying about himself with his ornate staff. For 1 menace point, that would be single target, 20 to hit, 1d8+5 damage. Let's jazz that up a bit, and see what he can do with 4 menace points: let's keep it single target and just jazz up the damage with a 3 point bump, bringing it to 3d8+5. That's a hefty hit, but I admit it feels like it's expensive - taking that as a note to self to possibly consider upping damage a bit.

For range, we'll make it a smite, and we'll call it 6 points, 1 base, 2 for range, 1 to shift the defense to reflex, and 2 to bump damage, so it's a single target base 20 to hit against reflex for 3d6+5 damage. Again, feels expensive for what he gets, and I think this reveals to me the problem - the damage scale I'm using (from page 42) is really scaled for single attack, but I need to scale the raid boss for _group_ attacks. He should be attacking multiple targets every round, and the way these things are pricing out, that's not an option.

So that calls for another tweak: Attacks will get priced assuming they're area attacks. If they're single target attacks, they get a free two level bump to damage. That reduces those two attacks to 2 and 4 menace points respectively, and I'm good with that.

At this point I feel like we've shaken loose most of the clunky bits, so rather than continue to show you all the work, let's get to the end point.

The Fallen Cardinal

Initial Phase: During this phase the priest is a rotting human form in the rich regalia of a cardinal. He summons forth defenders from the mausoleum beneath the cathedral to fight for him, and he draws strength from their service.

Undead Priest Phase

Health: 30
Success Threshold: 10, extra success threshold at 20 and 30.

Unholy Staff
The priest lashes out with his ornate staff of impossibly tarnished gold.

2 MP- Near, single target, vs. AC. Base attack: 20, Base Damage 3d8+5

Dark Smite

The priest calls down a column of darkness to strike an enemy.
3 MP - Long range, single target, vs. Reflex. Base Attack: 20, Base Damage: 3d6+5 (necrotic)

Dark Reckoning
A wave of dark energy washes over the priest's enemies
7 MP - Long range only, all targets in a single area, vs. Will, Base Attack 20, Base Damage: 4d8+5 (necrotic)
Notes: This is his ugly attack, and if he isn't taunted enough or he gets too much menace back from his minions, he'll spam this.

Call Minion
The Priest summons an undead warrior to harass his foes, then crumbles to dust, releasing a stream of black energy back to the priest.
4MP - A 3 token, 8/16/24 threshold minion appears in any area. At the beginning of the Priest's next turn, the minion is removed from play and he gains any remaining tokens as menace tokens. If a minion "cashes out" for any number of tokens, it also heals the priest for one point.
Notes: The priest will try to spam these whenever possible (especially if he end s up with 12 menace points) , preferably into unoccupied areas like the middle distance, and use the payout to explode in Dark Reckonings.

Phase transition: Once the priest's physical body is destroyed, his ghost form rises up to strike down his attackers.

Ghostly Priest Phase
Health: 30
Success Threshold: 10/20/30
Special: Insubstantial. Takes no damage from attacks which do not also Push, Pull or Slide, unless those attacks have the radiant keyword, in which case it takes an extra point of damage.
Environment: Lighting one of the cathedral's candles and saying a prayer will inflict one point of damage. This can only be done from the medium range area, and requires a DC 20 religion check. Failure on this check grants the Priest one MP, just like a failed attack.

Dark Radiant Burst
Blades of shadow blast out from his ghostly form, striking all nearby enemies.
5MP - Short range, all enemies in area, vs. AC, Base Attack 20, 4d8+5

Shadow Spear
A spear of shadow launches at an enemy
3MP - Long Range, single target, Vs AC, Base Attack 20, 2d6+5

3MP - The priest floats up into the air, out of melee reach, and remains there for the duration of the fight, or until he takes a 3-threshold hit (30 points of damage in a single hit)
Note: he cannot use Dark Radiant Burst while floating, so he will freely throw around Shadow Spears.

Circle of Shadows
The Priest draws a circle around himself that shields him from all attacks, and in fact draws power from their hostility.
11 MP - For the duration of the round, the priest takes no damage. Each time he is attacked, he instead accrues 1 MP.

Shadow Apocalypse
The priest has gathered enough shadows to unleash an unholy storm
18 MP -All areas, all targets in all areas, vs Will, 8d10+10
Notes: This is the classic "Do not screw up the tactics, or we all die". If the priest uses Circle of Shadows, and people keep attacking him, he'll have enough points to bust this out, which will suck immensely.

Phase Transition:
As the priest falls, he calls out to his demonic master, and the earth shakes and cracks, stone walls shoot up on all sides (or perhaps the Cathedral falls, it is hard to say). In then end, the scene is now a great stone chamber whose features echo the cathedral. Much of the floor has fallen away, leaving only three stable areas, and the Priest has transformed into a demonic figure, ten feet tall with fiery skin and a great flaming sword.

Demonic Priest Phase
Health: 40
Success Threshold: 12/24/36
Special: Fiery: Gains Resist 20 to fire attacks.
Environment: The close, medium and far ranges are now physical locations (the three remaining stone platforms). Moving between them now requires a movement power or an Athletics check with a difficulty of 20. On a failure, the character still moves, but his desperate scrabbling to hang on and the distraction it provides grants the priest 1 MP.

Notes: On paper, this is a pretty simple phase with simple powers, but the demon's mobility paired with the fact that you can't let him get off on his own, should allow for things to shift pretty easily, as the demon will always move to the weakest group. His powers are priced with the assumption he'll jump than use them. Nod to Bartoneus for sending me down this particular direction of thought.

The demon makes a mighty leap form one platform to the next.
2 MP - The Demon jumps from one platform to another, and is now considered in melee range with the PCs in that range category.

Blade Sweep
The Demon sweeps his blade in a fiery arc through his enemies
4MP - Short range, all enemies in area, vs. AC, Base Attack 20, 3d8+5 (fire)

Blade Hammer
Powerful overhand blows rain down on a chosen enemy
4MP - Short range, single target, vs. AC, base attack 20, 4d10+5

The Demon incants a powerful fiery ritual that engulfs another one of the pillars in flame and falling rock
8MP - Any range but short, all enemies in area, 4d10 + 5 (fire) and 4d8 +5 damage (falling rock).
Note: This ability can only be used if the Demon is alone in a given area

So there it is: Does it make sense, and can you see it? This was, honestly, MUCH longer than I expected, so I no longer have any true perspective on it. Normally, I'd sit on it for a week or so to polish, but I'm working on this out in the open, warts and all, so I'm curious as to impressions.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Running a Raid, Part II

Ok, so now that we have the baseline, let's see about jazzing things up a little. There are three big areas we want to address: we want to make sure there is some reason to use one attack instead of another, we want to capture some way to simulate aggro management, and we want to generally be able to jazz up the fight with special events, terrain and so on.

The first is the easiest, and we solve a bit of the third at the same time. The trick is that you can offload most of the fiddly bits onto the bad guy. The simple gimmick for this is to assign vulnerabilities to the bad guys that reflect tactical situations, and those can be paired with resistances. To give a concrete example, suppose the Boss can turn into a swarm of bugs - for the duration of this it might not take damage from any attacks except those that can hit more than one square. Or perhaps he can still be hit, but he'll take an extra point of damage from those attacks.

Provided that these vulnerabilities and resistance switch over the course of a fight, you successfully capture the idea that if you know what to do during each phase, you can fight more effectively. Now, admittedly the fact that in a WoW raid this knowledge is gained by dying repeatedly until you get it right, but that knowledge can probably be gotten some other way depending on the venue - for a convention game, for example, it might be part of the prelude.

There's a temptation to address the second point (aggro) with complex systems, causing certain actions to increase aggro, marking to move it around and so on, but that is unnecessary complication. If you step back, aggro is really just a mechanized way for the boss to "fight smart", seeking to go after the most cost effective targets - the squishy ones in particular. As a GM, you can already make that decision, targeting healers and more lightly armored PCs, so the only thing we really need is a way to allow the PCs to inhibit this.

So we'll compromise on a simple mechanic: any time an attack would mark the boss, the attacker gets a taunt token. Taunt token's can be spent to cancel a menace point which it used to fuel an attack that does not include the PC as a target. This does not cancel the attack, just the menace point - the boss can spend another or, if he cannot, the attack changes targets to the taunting PC. However, we want to model the idea of a "Main Tank" so let's add one more twist: at the end of a turn (after the last PC, before the Boss), all the taunt tokens need to be given to one character. This also saves the trouble of havign to track everyone's threat tokens.

For the third and final bit, , we need to add in a little bit of extra variety - enemies that support the boss, terrain features and so on. We don't want these to be too fiddly, so we're not too worried about details - what these should take the form of are choices - opportunity cost decisions that give a reason to choose one action or another (rather than provide only one obvious choice).

There will generally take two forms: The first will be special actions that can only be taken at specific times and places. If the fight takes place in a fallen cathedral, perhaps there are candles to be lit (which takes an action from someone in the middle range), and lighting a candle reduces the number of threat tokens the boss has, or grants attackers +1 damage or otherwise provides some benefit. These are easy to design, and simply depend upon the description of the environment. The only limiter is that these are usually only useful in a single phase of the fight.

Representing secondary creatures is a little more difficult. Mechanically, they should be represented as one more power of the boss - he spends menace to make them appear, but since it's not an attack, it's not influenced by aggro. Support enemies will appear in a given area and be represented by some number of threat tokens. They work like the boss, in that players can attack them instead, and if they clear a threshold of damage (usually the boss's level -2) then they remove one of the tokens. If there are any tokens left when the boss acts again, then they get used. What they're used for depends on the monster: sometimes they'll be turned in for straight damage to a target or targets in the area their in, but if the creature is more built for harassment, then the boss may get those threat tokens back in addition to any it generates this turn.

Now, with the reminder that this is still just an interesting stunt, tomorrow I'll try to take this theory and create a sample or two, and maybe discuss how to use some of these ideas in a less over-the-top fashion.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Running a Raid in 4e, Part 1

Gamefiend threw out the question of whether or not you could run a WoW style raid in 4e, and I've been finding myself chewing on it. I'm pretty confident the answer is "Yes", though I admit I think you'd be kind of crazy to try it, since anything that involves juggling that many players is crazy enough to really qualify as a stunt. It's something you could do at a convention, but it's probably better suited to online play (heck, maybe it's a good use of google wave). This is the a window into my thinking on this, and while it's super, super raw, I figured I'd share it as I work through the details on how I'd make it happen.

Now, you could do it as a straight-up fight, just by making a staged villain[1], probably a triple solo to make sure he has enough hit points to last, but that could quickly end in madness as everyone takes their turn to move and arrange and track their hit points and so on. Also, you'd need to add more area attacks or the things just going to get torn apart by sheer numbers.

So instead, I would probably set it up like an open ended skill challenge with an abstract map. The trick is to capture the two elements of a good raid: distinct roles, and a necessity to change up tactics.

The simplest way to do the "map" is to set up areas of engagement: Near, middle and far. Near means adjacent to the boss (where the main tank and melee damage dealers are going to be), far means at a distance (where most of the healers, buffers and ranged damage-dealers hang out) and middle is the space between, most occupied by skirmishers, off tanks, and specialized roles.

The boss, whatever he is, has a level. That level pretty much determines exactly what sort of threat he is, and also is the basis of most of his capabilities. His hit points are abstracted into the number of "Damage successes" it will take to take him down. I'm calling the ballpark on that his level (which I'll just call [L]) times 5, but this is totally unplaytested, so that might be off base, especially since it would probably be smart to scale him with the number of players. I'd endorse representing these with tokens, like poker chips, but it could just be that I'm nuts for tokens.

In a straight up fight, things go like this: On your turn you can move one "space" (or two spaces if you use any kind of movement power) or use a power (whether to attack or not). You might also do something else, but that's much more situational. Moving is hopefully self explanatory, but the actual fighting is something else.

When a player attempts to attack the boss, he can use any of his attacks, with the following limitation. Melee/close attacks require the character be near the boss, and ranged attacks (anything that would invite an attack of opportunity) need to be from the middle or far distance. If a character uses an ability to heal or buff an ally, that works normally.

An attack is always assumed to hit successfully, but most of the time the only thing that matters is the damage dealt - Raid Bosses are immune to all manner of special effects and statuses (except when they are not, see below), but benefits that help allies can still be triggered. If the damage dealt meets or exceeds a certain threshold (probably based off [L]), then it counts as a success, and the boss takes one point of "damage" - accruing damage successes is what ultimately takes the boss down.[2] However, any failure gives the Boss one "Menace Point".

This matters a lot because, after everyone's taken a turn, the boss gets to go. He has a number of menace points equal to his level, plus any he's gained from player failures. He uses them to build his attacks - he should have a list of abilities that have menace point costs, but in the absence of that it works something like this.

For 1 menace point he can make an attack against a single target in the "close" area. It is an attack against AC, where the boss effectively rolls 15+[L] and does damage equal to the low normal damage on the table of the gods (aka page 42 of the DMG)[3]. For each additional menace point spent he can enhance the attack by doing one of the following:
  • Affect an additional target
  • Affect everyone in the area (costs 3 menace points)
  • Target the middle distance instead
  • Target the long distance instead (Costs 2 menace points)
  • Increase damage one step to the right (low normal becomes Medium normal, high normal becomes low limited and so on, costs 2 points)
  • Increase the effective "attack roll" by +2
  • Change the attack to a different defense (Reflex, fortitude or Will)[4]
The boss can make as many attacks as he has menace to pay for, and certain bosses will have special abilities that they can spend menace to trigger that do more than just damage.

This proceeds, round robin, until either all the PCs are dead or the monster has taken enough damage to go down. Simple as that.

Now, this is very basic, and very mechanistic (which is, arguably, very apt for a raid) with very little in the way of tactics. It would be intensely boring because most player will simply do the same thing every round. However, this lays down the baseline for the next step, adding in important things like aggro, roles, abilities and events. And that comes next.

1 - A staged villain is one who, when reduced to zero hit points, changes rather than dies. In most cases this is a physical transformation (like clay statues that have snakes burst out of their chests when they're beaten) but it's also a useful way to simulate the changes in tactics that are familiar to video game players. Normally, each "stage" has normal hit points for its level, though you can just as easily make one stage elite or solo (but I normally wouldn't - the point of this trick is to offset the long dull endgame of solo fights). Easy to budget for it too, as each stage is just treated as its own critter, which is a little bit kind to the players, but I think it comes out in the wash.

2 - As an optional rule, you might allow additional thresholds to speed things along, and to make strikers feel more valuable. So if a creature's threshold is 11 and a hit deals 23 points of damage, you might decide it removes 2 points of damage and so on. Alternately, that might just be situational, but that's something for tomorrow's post.

3 - I am tempted to have damage be measured in healing surges rather than hit points, but I need to think about the impact this has on healing, and whether it means tanks (sorry, defenders) end up insufficiently tough. If damage is in hit points, it's the one thing that can't just be handled with different colored poker chips, but the onus of bookkeeping is on players, so it is distributed. That said, tokens or cards definitely have certain logistical advantages, especially for the large combats. Similar thinking could be applied to damage (just say that at-wills, Encounters and Dailies do 1, 2 and 3 respectively) and while that simplifies things, it's actually a bad idea because it makes things REALLY boring for the player, and removes the tactical choice-making I hope to introduce next.

4 - This is, by the way, insanely abusable, which is why the DM shoud not actually use this on the fly unless he's willing to show some restraint. It's a decent yardstick for pricing boss powers though, and I'll use it later when I craft up some demo raid bosses.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Monday Randomness: Dragon Age

Like most of the rest of the world, I am totally freaking hooked on Dragon Age: Origins. My one line summary is that it feels like a campaign GM’d by Fred Hicks. Fred is a mean bastard of a GM, so this is high praise indeed. That sense of a GM’d game is one of the hallmarks of a Bioware game, creating a world that responds to the actions of play, and Dragon Age really turns this up to 11 - the technology for the graphics and stuff is nice, but the real benefit of the tech can be seen in just how many choices the game can now support.

So, with about 40-50 hours of play under my belt, split between a few characters, I feel like it’s time for a list of 10 things to know about Dragon Age:Origins.

1. Fighter’s are the simplest class to play, and there’s a lot to be said for starting with a fighter to try out a starting background and to get familiar with the rules and controls (especially if you’re on X-Box because the manual pretty much exists to convince you to buy a strat guide). Once you have that familiarity, you can try a rogue or mage. So far my sense is that Mage is probably the most interesting to play.

2. This is a Bioware game, so get the intimidation/persuasion skill. Lacking it will greatly diminish your options in play. Also, as a Bioware game, do not buy into the idea that there is some “right” decision the game is expecting you to make. There isn’t. There are rails, certainly, but they are very wide, and your leeway within them is much more than you might expect.

3. There is no way I won't be trying all the backgrounds, and I expect this game will probably get 2 or 3 playthroughs out of me at a minimum. I've tried 3 so far (Male-Human-Fighter-Noble, Male-Human-Mage-Circle and Male-Elf-Rogue-City, my primary) and every now and again something from one of the other backgrounds shows up in play, and it really makes the world feel more organic

4. Oh, God, Backpacks. I have bought every backpack I could afford and I am still short on inventory space. This gets really annoying because I tend to be deep in a dungeon when I’m running out of space. The soldier’s peak expansion helps with this, but it’s still pretty maddening.

5. The resolution of one of the big plot knots involved a lot of watching two NPCs talk to each other. As it turns out, this is not much more fun on the console than it is on the tabletop. It's well written and interesting, but it comes off as a bit of a sour note. I don't mind watching cut scenes of events taking place elsewhere in the game - that's part of the genre - but watching my character watch a scene makes me wonder why I'm there.

6. It’s the small choices that kill you. I have yet to have any huge, sweeping choices that were particularly hard (or even terribly moving), but I have had innumerable small choices that left me staring at the screen, paralyzed, totally invested in the result. Bioware's always been good at this, but this takes it to a whole new level.

7. The game combines of a lot of voice acting talent, quality writing, and an engine that allows them quickly generate visually distinctive characters. That’s all well and good for the heroes, but it’s much more important for the support characters. It is far harder to play “Spot the named character” by looking for the one with better graphics or voice acting, and that’s fantastic, because it really drives home the sense that things can change at the drop of a hat.

8. The downloadable content has been worth the price (though I got some of it free for pre-ordering). Soldier's Peak adds an extra dungeon that has a solid story to it, which also serves as a base once you've cleared it out. Sadly, I have not been able to recruit people to come work there, so my dreams of this being Dark Suikoden have not yet come to fruit. The more expensive pack, which adds the golem, Shale, is possibly even more worth it. First and foremost, it's not a Bioware game until you throw in a killing machine with a dry wit. He's fun to have in the party, and he's incredibly useful. I have so far had at least two boss fights that I'm pretty sure I would have lost if he had not been tanking for me.

9. I am pretty sure I'm missing a lot by not reading every codex update, but honestly there's just too much, and the console is not ideal for it, especially since when I get a codex update I need to go track it down deep in the menus. In theory, this is helped by new things being highlighted, but the way navigation works, if I have to scroll down to something new, I un-highlight it without realizing it. This is a pain, and while I recognize that there are limitations to the interface that come from playing on the console, this (and some inventory management) are close to genuine frustrations. This is exacerbated by the gameplay being so fun that I already resent needing to drop out into the land of menus, so having that be a kind of rough experience is unfun.

10. I'm pretty happy with the graphics. I can niggle about things like the palette or compare it to other games that do this or that better, but the simple truth is that the graphics are good enough to convey a strong sense of place without impeding on the gameplay, and they are capable of generating the occasional moment of wow from a surprising vista or a unique animation. Sound is similarly impressive, though I find I greatly miss hearing my hero speak, a la Mass Effect.

I've been sick for days, so I've had plenty of opportunity to marathon this game and I am hooked enough that my wife has started developing a deep loathing for it. Likely I'll have to drop to less frequent play now that I'm starting to recover, but I look forward to working through it. So far I'm really excited - I'm a console RPG nut, and so far this has blown a lot of previous contenders out of the water in terms of play experience. But I am also well aware that I'm not done yet, and it's entirely possible that it could all come crashing down, or end with a whimper rather than a bang, but for the time being I will hold out hope.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Project so Far

I realized this week that this little experiment of mine has gone on for a month, so I figured I’d stop and look at how it’s gone.

At the beginning of October I began this self-imposed project of writing one entry per weekday, every day. As much as I hope you’ve all enjoyed the content, the real purpose was for my sake. I tend to write in fits and starts, so I was looking to get more consistent practice, both with writing and with maintaining some level of discipline.

So far it’s worked out pretty well, and I’ve learned a few lessons that would hopefully be of use to anyone.

I moved off of Livejournal for this one big reason - I needed to be able to write drafts ahead of time and schedule their posting, something Livejournal’s not so good at. As a secondary issue, Livejournal’s blocked at work - this is not a big deal for posting (I try to do it all the night before) but I have enough vanity that I like checking comments over the course of the day.

Blogger’s been good - it offers the features I need with a minimal amount of fiddliness. I have a self-hosted wordpress blog, and as much as I like it, it is easy to get distracted by messing around with plugins and keeping up with the latest version. That said, I do miss the flexibility and power that wordpress offers, so if I were to do it again I would probably go with a wordpress hosted blog, but the benefits are not so much greater that I would deal with the hassle of swapping over. If blogger’s spam filter proves useless, or if some other problems reveal themselves, I might reconsider, but I’m good for now.

On the writing end, its amazing how satisfying it is to get ahead of things. This week’s material on villainy was done as one block (pulled in from a One Bad Egg Project that never saw the light of day) so I got to relax over the course of the week, and that was a good feeling, but it also made me a little lax. It’s satisfying to get ahead of the game, but if I get too far ahead, it’s easy to get lax.

But the big lesson has been that I need to write less. Not less often, but rather, shorter material. I have a tendency to just keep writing until I hit a stop point, and the net result can be a little bit sprawling. That’s problematic for two big reasons. First, it makes it much harder to maintain any kind of schedule - without a clear sense of end points, it’s hard to get to “done”. The second is that shorter is better for blog posting - the occasional long post has its place, but people have a lot of material to absorb in the day, so something that’s quick to read and gets to the point has a lot to offer.

This is actually a kind of fun lesson.. The path to getting better at this will also make it easier to do, so I’m pretty good with how that shakes out.

I’m happy with how it’s gone so far, and I hope to keep it up. And I hope you all will continue to enjoy reading it, and I thank you for your attention to this little project so far.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Villain's Monologue

Before I kill you, let me first lay out my plan in exquisite detail...

One of the classic tropes of villainy is the villain's monologue, the point where he launches into a little speech detailing what he's done and why, often with an explanation of the inevitability of his success which will soon be rendered ironic by heroic effort. This is a much-maligned idea, and the running joke is often some variant of "If I were the villain I wouldn't just waste my time talking to my prisoners, I'd just shoot them in the head." We laugh and nod because that seems logical, but it's a lie.

The simple truth is that people tend to want to be acknowledged. Just being right is rarely enough—we need the other person to acknowledge that we are right and that they are wrong and to generally concede our awesomeness. For the damning evidence of this, I direct you to every internet discussion ever. Given a person with a plan, a high opinion of himself, a position of power and an opportunity to show off, it seems that a villain who does not monologue would probably be the rare case. Even our jokesters would certainly take time to explain how clever they are to just shoot the heroes and make sure they understand just how smart the person killing them is.

All of which is to say the villain's monologue is a very natural thing, and it should sound like that. It should not sound like a planned speech, but rather like an indignant internet posting. Thankfully, there's no shortage of examples for you to draw on.

For well established villains, there's also a nice emotional twist to the monologue—sometimes the characters are the only audience the villain has. Imagine for a moment that you're a super genius, about to conquer the kingdom after years of work, planning and profound cleverness. Your underlings do their job well, but none of them really understand the big picture. Who are you going to talk to, to connect with on a human level, about this thing which is the single most important thing in your life? The hero you've taken prisoner is not the ideal companion, but you two have a strong emotional bond (even if it's negative) and he gets what you're trying to do. Logic might dictate that you need to kill this guy, but the simple human need for companionship can make it really easy to defer that decision.

If this doesn't seem to make sense, take some time thinking about your own friends, co-workers and people you deal with and the conversations you have—you may find that logic is only a small part of the equation.

As a bonus, the monologue is also a useful tool for the DM who wants to demonstrate he hasn't been cheating. When the villain explains how he did things it can help the players connect the dots of events. Use this sparingly however—if the villain needs to explain more than two or three things this has crossed the line from "tying off loose ends" into "DM gloating over how much smarter he is than his players".

Other Quick Tips for Villainy
* In 4e, Just assume that all villains have access to ritual magic. You'd be amazed how much it simplifies things.

* If you game has action points, fate points, bennies or some other currency that is tied to the character (rather than a GM pool) then be transparent about it. You should absolutely be using those points to help villains survive to recur, but you need to do it out of their legitimate budget. Spending "Just one more" point on the villain for his defense or escape feels like a the kind of sleight of hand players won't notice, but I promise, they will. Just keep things where the players can see them. If the system has a general "GM Pool" then you have a little more leeway, but remember not to cheat it. Even if you fudge, find some other way to do it - cheating on budget is too blatant to stand.

* Respect where things are not. If the players are the first people in a tomb in 1000 years, that's a bad place for ambushers from the rival party to be waiting. If the enemy is going to drop from the trees and they only drop from the trees that are near the characters, things feel false and overly convenient.

* Pay close attention to where your players are directing their ire. Sometimes (perhaps often) the players are better than you at sniffing out who the long-term villain of the game should be. Be willing to change your plans in response to this.

* Be willing for your ultra-cool bad guy to look stupid. When that happens, and your players are the cause of it, it is wildly entertaining. For a demonstrations of this, see nearly any episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

* A villain that thwarts, cancels, or removes PC motivations and goals is a poorly-done villain. A villain that complicates, changes, or creates PC motivations and goals is doing his job.