Monday, January 31, 2011

A Magic Trick

I mentioned earlier in the supernatural/Leverage hack a couple types of dice that allow you to simulate more dangerous monsters in a fair fight, specifically kept dice (which are used in addition to the usual two) and hard dice (which always roll their max value). In comments, I also mentioned Hurt dice, which aren't rolled, but are treated as part of the pool when you calculate damage. Between these dice and a little bit of manipulation of damage thresholds (that is, how quickly things get taken out), you have the basic tools for modeling most monsters and other nasty beasties, particularity because the bulk of them are purely physical threats.

The bulk, but not all. There are weird powers and other craziness to deal with, but rather than reinvent the wheel, I would just drag Smallville into the mix. Smallville has an incredibly robust system for modeling powers that works in terms of how they work in fiction (rather than in physics) and it would take very little reskinning to translate heat vision over into flaming breath.

For supernatural, the real trick is handling the _weaknesses_ of the various supernatural menaces. A lot of the things that show up are simply too dangerous to fight, even unfairly, unless you have some particular trick up your sleeve.

Now, I mentioned knowledge-based weaknesses before, but it bears repeating. When the weakness is to an action (like vampire's vulnerability to decapitation or zombie's to getting shot in the head) then so long as the characters know this, it is assumed that all their actions are in pursuit of this end. As such, there's no real mechanical concern with making "called shots" - you just fight and do what you can.

Other weaknesses, such as to salt or iron, may benefit from a mechanical representation, but that is thankfully very easy.

A mild weakness pretty much guarantees that you will always have an unfair fight. Going after a werewolf might suck, but if you're armed with silver, it levels the playing field. A mild weakness is generally something that the critter is vulnerable to (so it can't heal or ignore) but which is not necessarily much more dangerous to it. If you need to kill something by stabbing it through the heart with a particular weapon, that's a mild weakness, since you have the means to kill them, but you don't make them any less dangerous.

A medium weakness is like a mild weakness, except the substance actively hurts the creature. Any damage you inflict is considered one die step higher.

A serious weakness will drop the creature with a hit of any quality. Don't bother with damage - if you hit, it's done. Now, "done" may have various meanings - it might mean incapacitating (like holy water to demons) or temporarily dispersed (like hitting a ghost with salt) but it usually means something short of destruction. Serious weaknesses are usually very important to keeping hunters alive, but are rarely a long-term solution to whatever problem is on hand. Serious weaknesses may include things like demon traps. One important note: many serious weaknesses are not also mild weaknesses. That is, they don't necessarily make it an unfair fight.

An absolute weakness is like a serious weakness, but it's final. This happens, and the fat lady has sung. Simple as that.

Now, here's an important thing - serious and absolute weaknesses are very common on the show, but very uncommon in RPGs. The idea of being able to kill a big bad in one shot is at odds with our training that such an action needs to be accompanied by an extensive fight scene. Now, I'm not saying there shouldn't be a fight scene - landing that critical blow can be a big deal - but there's not always going to be one. That might be anti-climactic, but consider the earlier post about structure: if the "hard part" of the adventure has been finding out what's going on, or getting your hand on the weakness, it's ok for the final fight to be short. But if you get right to the fight, making it a cakewalk is satisfying for nobody - the only time you're going to want to do that is if the big bad was a fake-out, and you have something else up your sleeve to fill the time.

Anyway, between the simple dice tricks, Smallville powers, and a basic weakness model, you should be all set for ghouls, ghosts and every other bit of nastiness you wan to throw at your players.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Adding the Monster

One of my absolute favorite tricks in Leverage is that there is no obligation to stat the opposition from the getgo. Structurally, there are certain questions you need to answer about the mark and such, but the mark isn't really the opposition. I'm thinking more about characters like Sterling, the ones who can really give the players a run for their money and who make for interesting challenges. While the GM _can_ write them up, the system doesn't require it, and in fact offers a much more elegant solution.

The trick to this revolves around the primary use for complications (situations where a player rolls a 1). Complications give the GM currency which can be most easily thought of as narrator plot points. The GM can use them to introduce twists and complications in the form of slapping new descriptors down on the table. So, for example, let's say the players are casing a joint and they produce some complications. The GM might use those to say "Ok, there's an Insurance Investigator checking the place out too, that might be a problem". And if that GM is me, then he picks up a sharpie and writes "Insurance Investigator d8"[1] on a post-it note and puts it down on the table. That's now in play, and the GM will pick up that d8 any time the Insurance Investigator comes up to mess with the players (and a clever player who finds a way to leverage the investigator might be able to pick it up too).

That's a good start, but where it gets fun is that the GM can add to it as he gets more complications. Let's say that this investigator is in a really good scene, and based on how it went (and the complications I have to spend) I add "Sees more than he let's on d10" to his post-it. Later on he ends up in a scrap on the player's side and one of the _players_ spends some plot points to add "Old Army Buddy d8" to the note.[2]

The net result is that if an NPC is interesting enough, he will develop stats over time that emerge organically from play. This is pretty cool, and to come around to the point of this post, it can be turned around as a fantastic way to handle monsters in an investigative game.

See, the thing about Supernatural's monsters is that a lot fo them are throwaways. There are certain recurring types (demons and vampires, for example) but a lot of them are just some familiar-sounding name out of the mythology of your choice. Now, it's totally possible to build a monster in advance based on an idea, but that's not the only way to do it. It's entirely possible to build a monster from it's _effects_.

To illustrate what I mean, imagine the monster's stats as a blank sheet. As you start the adventure, you describe the gruesomely mangled bodies of the victims. With this point, you have revealed something about the monster - whatever it is, it's capable of making injuries like this. So you note down "Monstrous Claws d8" or "Heavy Cleaver d10" or whatever caused the wounds. If you want to leave it uncertain, then "Monstrous Claws? d8", with the question mark indicating that you might refine the descriptor later.

Later on as they talk to the Sheriff about what he saw, the Sheriff talks about unloading his revolver into the thing's back and it not even flinching. Slap down "Bulletproof? d8" on the sheet, leaving your options open, Maybe it's a ghost, maybe it's heavily armored, maybe it just shrugs off gunfire. When you get a better idea, you can scratch out Bulletproof and write down something more precise.

Sometimes information might be wrong (bad witnesses or the like) so feel free to note that with extra question marks ("Can fly??? d8") so that you know which information you can ditch if it ends up contradictory.

Continuing this over time you'll find yourself creating a complete picture of the monster while your players are doing the same thing. In effect, their investigation is your monster creation process. At some point it will all fall into place (for you or them) and all you'll need to do is slap on a name (and for that I really recommend having a list of monster names on hand in advance).

Not every game will suit this approach, and it definitely is a better tool for the GM who likes to discover things while describing them, but if you need to pull a session out of the air, this lets you do so with only the barest outline of a plan, and build it as you go.

[↩]1 - In my house rules, complications are a tad more potent than they are in base Leverage rules, starting at d8 rather than d6, on the reasoning that since d6 is the default die (that is, the die you roll when there's no relevant descriptor) the GM has an infinite budget of those.

[↩]2 - Note that the player has just done two useful things there - created a connection to the character AND given him something useful in a fight that the player can add to his pool in the fight.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Setting Up The Menace

Like many modern shows, Supernatural episodes tend to fall into one of two categories: arc episodes and standalone episodes. Arc episode tie into the larger plot and may have an unsatisfying conclusion since their ultimate resolutions further down the line (they may also not make as much sense without seeing previous episodes). Standalone episodes are pretty self contained. Even if they make a nod to the the bigger plot, it will just be in passing. Rather, the episode will follow the general shape of, "Hear about threat, investigate threat, discover threat, threat escalates, resolve threat" where the threat is usually the monster of the week. There are exceptions to this model, often to fantastic results, but that's the underlying shape of it.

With that in mind, when I talk about adventure structure, I'm talking with the standalone episodes in mind. This is not because they're the better ones (in fact, they usually aren't - Supernatural's arcs are what make the show for me) but because they make a solid foundation to build on. Once you can do a solid monster-of-the-week game, you can build from there to other ends.

The thing to consider when talking about the structure of games is that, like Leverage, the most important element is information management, but unlike Leverage, Hunters start out much more in the dark about what's going on. At the outset of the game, they discover something bad is happening somewhere and go to investigate.

1. News Report of Strange Event
2. Many news reports of seemingly unrelated events
3. Rumor among truckers and travelers
4. Mystically Portentious Sign
5. Contacted by friendly Hunter
6. Contacted by another Hunter
7. Contacted by former hunter
8. Stumble across it
9. Become Victims
10. Contacted by mysterious forces

1. Local disappearances
2. Traveller disappearances
3. Pattern of Deaths
4. Exotic Deaths
5. People seeing strange things
6. Odd Behavior
(This could probably get fleshed out to 10, but I'm not sure how many ways I can restate "Weird deaths or disappearances")

Once they find the problem, there is usually a period of time spent looking at what has happened and trying to figure out what could have caused it. This period might be very short or very long, and it will shape the episode. Basically, the "hard" part of the episode is going to be one of the following:
  1. Finding out what the creature is (and by extension, its weakness)
  2. Get their hands on whatever they need to exploit the weakness (get the arcane widget, find the body, find the lair)
  3. Applying the fix (Actually shooting/burning/stabbing/whatevering the thing, performing the ritual or the like).

In RPGs, there's often a temptation to make all three of these the hard part, and the result is adventures that turn into long slogs. By making only one of them the real problem, pacing stays pretty sharp, and the formula becomes MUCH more usable. If the problem was ALWAYS that the monster was unknown then every show/game would be about research, which would get dull fast. Ditto the other hard points. Shifting emphasis between these three consistent points (Research, Investigate, Apply) gives you the benefits of consistency while still providing versatility.

So that gives us a basic frame. Next thing we need to do is plug in some monsters.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Hunter Combat

It struck me last night that there should probably be one more Hunter Weapon, Cunning. this represents low animal cunning and trickery, and all the areas where books won't save you. Mechanically, it's the fallback weapon, when nothing else quite applies, which is important, because I as thought about it, charm was going to end up getting rolled a LOT if there wasn't something to roll over to.

Also, since Superage and Levernatural are both terrible words, I'm just going to call this "Hunters" and leave it at that.

So with that said, let's get on to kicking things in the head.

Since Combat is a bit more common in the context of Hunters than Leverage, we'll uses a slightly more fiddly damage system revolving around "statuses". Those statuses are Hurt, Tired, Confused and Scared. During a roll where there is a possibility for damage, the loser gains these statuses as die traits, at a level equal to the highest opposing die not used in the roll. If that value is lower than the character's current status value, then just increase their status by one (if there's no unused die, treat it as a d4).

Frex: Frank is started by a ghost who wins a roll and scares him. The ghost rolled 3d6, keeping a 4 and 5, not using the 2. Since the highest unused die is a d6. Frank is now Scared d6

If the exact same roll were to happen again, Frank's Scared d6 would bump up to a scared d8.

Status Effects
When a character is carrying a status, it is initially just an inconvenience. So long as the status is less than the appropriate stat (Sharp for confused, Tough for Hurt or Tired and Stubborn for scared) then the character rolls an extra d4 along with rolls where the status might apply. So long as stress is at this level, it's easy to get rid of - it just needs the character to spend a scene doing something dedicated to removing it, such as putting on bandages, taking a nap and so on.[1]

Once the status equals the stat in question, it's become a serious matter. In addition to the d4, they now put their status die into play, allowing opposition to roll it against them. At this point, getting rid of the status will take some serious downtime, possibly in a sickbed.

When the status exceeds the stat, the character is taken out of play in a manner of the GM's choosing (though this may be a great time to spend plot points to soften the blow). Alternately, the player can spend a plot point to stay on his feet for one scene. He can keep doing this, paying plot points every scene to stay on his feet, as long as he has the budget for it, but once he stops, he's down.

Like most of the rest of the world, critters are defined more simply than players, as traits. Most critters have a core trait that reflects what they are like Vampire d6 or Wumpus d8. They might have more traits, but that core trait ends up being very important for much of what the critter does.

Killing Critters
When critter's take a status (usually hurt), they also roll the d4. Unlike Hunters, critters usually go down as soon a status equal's their core trait. A lot of critters can be killed in perfectly normal ways using this system. Some monster may be a little tougher or more fragile (being taken out as if their die level was higher or lower) but none of that's very complicated. (and yes, when players take something out, they describe how it happened, that can matter a lot).

Where it gets problematic is when you start dealing with things that can't be killed in a normal way. These tend to fall into one of three categories:

1. Dispersible - You can beat these things, possibly very easy, but that only gets rid of them for a scene. Ghosts are a great example of this (though they're a bit more complicated).
2. Fast healers - These things shrug off damage done. They take statuses normally, but they only remain in effect for the next roll, then they're gone. Vampires and Demons work this way.
3. Invulnerable - You just can't hurt these guys. Think Angels.

In each of these cases, there is usually some way around this resistance, and it's a function of knowing what that is and getting your hands on the right tool for the job. Finding out and acquiring the thing you need makes a good adventure seed for oddball monsters, but a lot of them are standard enough (silver, iron, salt, holy water) that hunters are usually equipped. In such a case, all that's required is that the hunters have the tools and describe using them.

This applies equally well to knowledge of weaknesses. Decapitating a vampire is not a function of making an awesome roll, rather, it's a function of taking one out and being able to describe it in a way that includes decapitation. Smart players will make sure the scene includes enough large blade to make sure that's reasonable.

One interesting point about these weaknesses is that they're often two-layererd. There's a reasonably simple trick for fending the critter off (iron and salt for ghosts, holy water for daemons) but actually getting rid of it requires something more substantial (like salting and burning the bones, or an exorcism). This two-tiered structure tends to work itself well into plot design.

Nasty Critters
This merits more discussion later, but in short, a lot of monsters aren't going to make it easy for you to kill them. Even if you have a gun full of silver bullets, a werewolf is strong and fast, enough so that you may never get a shot off.

There are a lot of different potential critter tricks, but here's the key one. Depending on the scariness of the critter, their core die might be treated as a kept die, or a hard die (or in some cases, a hard kept die, which is nasty).

A kept die means that it's always added to the total, effectively letting the critter keep three dice (one of which is always that core die).

A hard die is never rolled, it's just set down as it's maximum value.

A hard kept die means it is always added to the roll at it's maximum value. This is, mechanically, pretty terrifying.

Fair and Unfair Fights
So, given that die advantage, what's to keep a hunter from just getting torn apart? Something as fast and strong as a vampire should, by all rights, have no more trouble with a highly trained hunter than you might with an exceptionally fierce rabbit. Thankfully, hunters know this, and they cheat.

All of those rules about hard and kept dice apply in a fair fight. A fair fight is generally one where both sides know it's coming (or at least the other side does) and has time to put their game face on. A good hunter knows to avoid any fight like that.

Unfair fights are ones that start with your opponent off balance, and keep up the pace so he stays that way. Most unfair fights begin after a successful skill roll of a non-combat kind. Maybe to sneak up on something, maybe to confuse it, maybe to just piss it off. If a hunter uses a success like that to launch an attack, then it's an unfair fight, and there are not hard or kept dice.

However, if the hunter can't win the fight quickly, and the critter has the opportunity to catch its breath and get its feet back under it, then it goes back to being a fair fight. And that's just no good.

All right, enough for today, I think.

[↩]1 - This may seem like a kindness, but the reality is it's an invitation to the GM for something bad to happen. If you think about any horror movie you can, the worst things happen when the characters stop to recover their wits, get some sleep, take a shower or the like. As such, don't just hand wave these scenes - make sure the players describe exactly what they're doing and how it lets their guard down. This is not to say that you ALWAYS attack them in these scenes, just often enough to maintain tension (and consider whether you want to attack on the same status they're recovering from or not)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Superage (or maybe Levernatural)

So, I had reason to sit down and do character creation for Supernatural last week. Still a solid game, but character creation frustrates me, and underscored some of the decisions made for Leverage. So, naturally, I started doing the conversion in my head. So with that in mind, I present "Hunters", a Leverage hack for dealing with supernatural threats.

I. Character Creation
Step 1: Attributes
I shortened up the attribute list on principle, though I recognize and such list is pretty arbitrary. It mostly let me err on the side of choosing stat names that people might actually use in conversation. They are:
Characters have 6 attributes
(Sharp is probably the only one that really requires explanation, and it covers awareness and perception. Stubborn is what more fancy-pants people call willpower.)

Take 1d10, 2 d8's and 3d6's and distribute it among those. At your option, you may drop one of the d6s to a d4, and either increase a d6 to a d8, or a d8 to a d10.

Step 2: Weapons
I went round and round on this for a while, trying to map roles to hunters, but I realized there's an essential difference between hunter's and the thieve's of leverage. While the thieves may have a unified purpose, they do different things. Hunters all do the same thing (kill monsters), just in different ways. So rather than roles, hunters have WEAPONS. These are skills and abilities they apply to the hunt.

Every Hunter is armed with five weapons that help keep them alive in tough situations. These weapons are more important than any knife or shotgun, they're the essential strengths of the hunter, and they break down as follows.
Fists - Whether it's back street brawling or seven different black belts, this is the ability to throw a punch or kick.
Books - Research is not the most exciting part of a hunter's life, but it can be the most important. weapon in their arsenal. When it come time to find the right arcane antique or incant the correct exorcism ritual, this is the weapon to bring to bear.
Guns - Shooting things. It's kind of amazing how well this can work as a strategy.
Tools - The toolbox or lab may not be as dramatic as the arsenal, but there are times when bullets aren't going to do the job. Building or repairing things may not seem too dramatic until you realize that things include bombs and cars. (Oh yeah - this covers driving.)
Charm - Sometimes you can talk your way out of things you can't shoot your way out of.

Take 1d10, 1d8, 2 d6's and 1d4 and distribute it among these weapons.

Step 3: Distinctions
Each player picks three distinctions. Distinctions are descriptors like "Army Brat" or "Friends in Low Places" and they work the same way they do in Leverage (that is, if it would help, add a d8 to the roll, if it would create a problem, add a d4 to the roll and gain a plot point). It's worth noting that specific gear (like, say, a car) probably deserves to be a distinction.

Step 4: OPTIONAL Mark
The player may pick a fourth distinction which has some magical significance. It might be a curse or a bloodline or a destiny, or most anything else. The TV show provides no shortage of examples of this. Mechanically, this works just like any other distinction, but for the GM this is basically a big cosmic "kick me" sign. By marking your character, you're guaranteeing that the mark will come up a lot over the course of play, specifically, bringing in supernatural interest.

Players may remove marks if they are resolved (assuming that's possible) or may add a new mark during a season break. A character may only have one mark at a time.

Ok, so that's the opener, tomorrow we'll get into combat and monsters, and meanwhile I'm chewing on some scenario tables.

Monday, January 24, 2011


A while back I talked about Brown M&Ms, small things that you can look for that reveal that there might be problems with the larger system. I was doing chargen for something this weekend when I spotted something that was very much a brown M&M for me: the driving skill.

You can tell a lot about a modern game by how it handles driving. As a fairly ubiquitous skill (at least among adults in a modern American setting) it is actually an anomaly to find a character who can't drive, but such characters do exist, so it's necessary to account for them. At the same time, you will have characters for whom driving is their thing, and they need to be effectively distinguishable from people who are just basic-competency drivers.

That's a tricky problem, and most of the solutions for it are pretty awkward. For example, one option is to make it mandatory that everyone buy the driving skill to whatever the system considers competence(assuming that the descriptions match the reality of the dice) but that kind of sucks for players who are usually already a little squeezed for points.

You can address that by giving basic competence level in driving for free, but what about the guy who can't drive? Does he get to use those points somewhere else? Plus, have you just made it much cheaper to make Driving Guy than Shooting Guy?

Then there's the classic "Everyone can drive, but you only need to roll the dice when doing something dramatic, like a chase or the like". Now, I love this sentiment, so why is it a brown M&M for me? Because if this approach is the exception rather than the rule in a game, then there's a problem. Are you rolling for boring things with other skills? Have you thought about what other skills can do without rolling? I think this is a great approach if it's the approach for all skills, but otherwise, it's a lazy solution.

Now, for all that this is a sticky problem, there have been games that have handled it well. Over The Edge had a default competency level of 2d6 for things that common sense said you should be able to do (run, drive, jump and so on). The nWoD system makes you buy it, but makes it cheap to do so because (unlike many other systems) the first rank of a skill conveys fair competence, mechanically. Systems that let you default to using just stats for such rolls offer a somewhat half-assed solution, but it's better than nothing.

While driving is really iconic for me, it's not the only skill that runs into this problem. Pick any game with a skill list and consider which of these anyone could do. The whole athletics category jumps to mind, but there can be other fun things like reading and writing which can also get a little weird.

This can seem like a very small thing, but it's exactly the sort of detail work that makes up the hard 20% of making a game sing. Just something to bear in mind.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Building a Challenge

Ok, let's do this thing:

Climbing the Mountain
Ok, the mountain. It's big, it's windy, it's snowy, there are bad things living there that want to eat your face. You guys need to get to the top, probably because there's some ancient city or something up there. I dunno. Make something up. For reference, let's say this is about a level 5 challenge. I want to make it a big, but not hugem one, so I'm going to create a budget based off about 3 monsters. That's 192 situation points to play with

The baseline challenge here is probably going to be the ongoing storm. I could probably do something complicated revolving around decreasing temperatures or the like, but honestly, it's a to simpler to treat this as straight damage. So, let's start from this baseline:

Winter Storm
Initiative: 0
SP: 192 (82 after budgeting)
AC: - Fortitude: 20, Reflex: 19, Will: 17[1]
Icy Winds (Standard, At Will)
+9 vs fortitude; 1d8+2 cold damage against all targets

With nothing more than that, the challenge would be simple: Every round the storm attacks, and every round the players make skill attacks, following this general logic:

Circumvent - Take risks to do cool things like cross ice bridges and otherwise look awesome, mostly with athletics or acrobatics.
Manipulate - Really, this is just a matter of sucking it up and struggling on.
Understand - Find paths and routes that minimize exposure to the storm, using Nature or perception.
Smash - Smashing isn't really an option - you can't fight the storm, so it's not really on the table.
Powers - Using a power with a strong movement component counts as a skill use. If it has a damage component, then use that, but if not, then for an encounter power do 1d10+4 base, and for a daily, 2d8+4.

Base damage will be (1d6+4/1d10+4/2d8+4) + Stat + 1/2 level. Since I want to reward certain options and diminish the effectiveness of others. I want the rangers and such to get their chance to shine here, so use of Nature will get a damage bump of one step (Possibly up to the 4th level, 3d6+4). On the other hand, just slogging along is kind of dull, so I think it will drop damage by one step.

That's enough to cover the basics, so now we need to jazz it up.

First, let's start thinking about things that can happen to jazz it up. It's a wintery mountain, so attacks by monsters and avalanches both spring to mind.

For monsters, I'll throw in a pack of half a dozen wolves (Level 5 critters) using their stats as normal, so I'll take 60 SP out of the challenge to budget for them, making them 10 HP apiece. And, actually, I'll take another 10 to make the leader of the pack a grizzled, scarred old alpha with 20hp and +1s across the board (a poor man's elite).

Now, I could do the Avalanche by making it an attack the storm makes (effectively an encounter power), but I want it to have a little more substance, so it's going to be it's own problem. I'm going to take another 40sp from the budget for it. That's low enough that it's not going to be too tough to overcome, but it's not trivial.

Initiative: 0
SP: 40
AC: - Fortitude: 21, Reflex: 18, Will: 19
Wall of Snow (Standard, At Will)
+11 vs Reflex, 2d8+4 damage and target is Scattered

"Scattered" is a special status, indicating someone's been separated from the group. On the plus side, they can no longer be attacked by the Avalanche. On the downside, if the wolves comes, no one can help you out. A scattered character cannot make any attacks against the storm. To remove the scattered status, a character (either the scattered character or another character who is not scattered) must make a nature check with a DC of 20 (effectively passing up a chance to attack the storm.

Attacking the Avalanche

Circumvent - Outrun it, or do something like jump from passing boulder to passing boulder (Acrobatics)
Manipulate - Ride it out! (Athletic or endurance)
Understand - Find Shelter! (Perception or nature - as with the storm, nature gets a damage bump.
Smash - No options
Powers - Using a power with a strong movement component or with a Wall component (something that might create shelter) counts as a skill use. If it has a damage component, then use that, but if not, then for an encounter power do 1d10+4 base, and for a daily, 2d8+4.

OK, I think that covers it. Does that seem playable?

1 - These defenses are about a point high for a monster of that level. That's intentional, since skills are going to be a bit higher than attacks at this level.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What Doesn't Work

I put out a call for challenge requests and got some interesting ones, but what struck me that that many of them were most interesting for why they don't work, so I'm going to be doing counter-examples today. These are all things you might want to do in a game, but they're not necessarily good candidates for the combative model of challenges.

1. Convincing a judge that the defendant is innocent
I admit I'd be leery of trying this on in play because it's very hard to draw in the whole group. Legal arguments support tag teaming very poorly. However, you could make a larger challenge out of the investigation AND the case, especially if you were willing to go all Law & Order on it. That is to say, the investigation actions could diminish the SP of the prosecution's case to the point where the lawyer's arguments can do enough damage to the case to finish it off.

The problem with this is that it's difficult to create any real sense of urgency to this. There's potentially big stakes (especially if the player's are arguing their own case) but it's difficult to come up with ways for the investigators and lawyers to be threatened. Instead, you'd need to do something like put this on a timeline, allowing only a limited number of rounds. Mechanically, this works fine, but it overlooks one key element: If players are doing an investigation, then it's probably because they _like_ investigation, so doing it entirely as abstract rolls probably removes some of their enjoyment of figuring it out.

So while I wouldn't make a challenge out of it, I might steal a bit from the model to mix with an idea from Gumshoe, and put clues behind small challenges that generally don't fight back. That is to say, players will always be able to find the clues, so long as they look for them. If the philosophy of this approach is uncomfortable, then there's no need to use it. It's just an idea for using clues to get to other things, rather than playing to get to clues.

2. Indiana Jones Escaping from the Rolling Boulder

Fred actually did this one very effectively in play. Putting the boulder on the map and simply moving it forward was more than enough of a threat to represent the idea.

3. Research something in a library

Research is pretty boring stuff under the best of circumstances, but unless the books are jumping off the shelves to attack the players, there's not much back and forth to it. You're pretty much just marking time to get the job done. Curiously, this is one of the tasks that a vanilla skill challenge can handle quickly and discretely, provided you think letting your players fail at research isn't super lame. Which it is, if it's plot-driving.

Of course, if the books ARE attacking the characters, then you may have the most awesome library ever.

4. Survive a Plague

This is an interesting one for a couple of reasons (setting aside existing disease rules, which are actually pretty good). First and foremost, are you _really_ going to let your characters die from the plague? I mean, I guess you might if you've got some crazed ideas about realism, but would that really make a fun game for anybody?

Second, it's very passive. Unless you want to roll a lot of hand-washing and water-boiling actions, then this is not going to be a lot of fun or particularly interesting.

Both of these suggest that this might be a great _backdrop_ to something else (dealing with a dungeon while fighting off a disease is one of those ideas that's good on paper, but has been lame in every published implementation I've scene). Alternately, it might be a good problem at a larger scale (protect a town from the depredations of plague) , but on a personal level, it's just not engaging enough.

So why talk about what doesn't work? Because I think that's important to understanding a tool. See, here's the thing: I _could_ use the combative challenge to model any of those things, and when I was younger, I had a sort of geeky machismo which would want to do so just to illustrate that this particular tool "can do anything!". That was a little silly, because I wasn't smart enough to distinguish between something you can do and something that's not worth doing.

The purpose of this idea is not to create some sort of super-catchall replacement that keeps you from ever having to use another tool. It's to add another tool to your bag, one that handles a different kind of situation. Yes, you might use this method and stop using skill challenges (or vice versa), but as a GM, you'll be better prepared for play if you could use either, and can pick the tool that best fits the situation (or better yet, steal parts from both or either tool as needed).

This is one of those things that books and rules can only help so much with. They can help tell a GM how to use EVERYTHING, or how to use one thing really well, but the reality of play is going to take you somewhere between those points, and learning what not to use is a critical skill in navigating those waters.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Mapping the Challenge

Not every challenge needs a map (or equivalent) to work well. Often the challenge revolves around something large and amorphous which can be engaged by any character at any time. However, maps make challenges more interesting.

It's possible that's backwards. It may be more accurate to say that challenges with different fronts, which allow different courses of action, are more interesting, and it's simply that those challenges also tend to want maps. But that gets enough into chicken and egg territory that I'll stick with the simpler version: Maps are a way to make a challenge more awesome.

There are two things a map is going to do, in a purely abstract way, which drive play. A map reveals what elements of a challenge are in play at the moment, and it creates a geography of use. That is to say, if there are two seperate parts of the challenge, then that is roughly akin to there being two separate "rooms" for characters to enter, depending upon which part they wish to engage.

Implicit in both of these is the idea that there's more than one element to a challenge. Mechanically, the GM has used the SP pool to buy one ore more problems (what I'll call these sub-challenges) to harass the players. It's important to be aware that the GM rarely _has_ to buy problems to run a challenge, but doing so keeps the challenge from being too abstract.

To illustrate all these ideas, let's use a ship passing through dangerous waters. This is easy to model as a challenge - the ship has hit points which the storm attacks, player actions try to run out or weather the storm. However, this is kind of a dull challenge on its face. The level of engagement is kind of abstract, and when played at a high level, the fact that there's no sailing skill (or equivalent) in 4e introduces a lot of skill confusion. If we want to make this a more exciting challenge, we want to make the actions more diverse and personal.

So, let's say I take the SP I budgeted for that storm and I start dividing it off into problems. Thinking about it, there are three big issues on the ship: navigation, keeping the rigging intact, and manning the bilges. Right off the bat, I could use those to create three "zones" where players would need to choose to array themselves (The rigging, the wheel and the hold), so they can attack the problem tied to that area. From the players perspective, this calls for an allocation of resources because even if the rules for moving between zones are simple (change zones instead of making an attack against the challenge) you don't want to waste time on that when things get tense.

From the GM's perspective, this allows me to threaten different things in different ways. For example, let's assume I'm designing the problem that the navigators are facing the same way I would a monster. Sure, it's got a basic attack (storms buffet the ship, do some damage) but I can also give it other attacks that threaten other things. How about a rechargeable "Waves smash over the side of the ship" attack that threatens the players directly rather than the ship? Does some damage and forces them to spend some time (an important resource) tying themselves down, something that may cause complications later. With that, the guys manning the wheel and trying to keep the ship on course have concrete things to do and deal with which are anything but abstract.

That illustrates the separation that the map allows, but there's also the element of the reveal. In my game, each of these "zones" would be represented by an index card or post-it for players to put their minis near to indicate where they are. After they've beaten one of them, I would then place another note on the table: "The Sea Monster" (because I love the classics).[1]

As GM, I know this sea monster has always been part of the challenge, but if I'd laid it out with the other problems at the outset, it would have changed the nature of the scene into "Fight, and also this other stuff". By breaking the challenge into problems, I can control the sequencing, and only after the players are already invested in this "other stuff" to I roll out the monster, so that they're facing a very real choice between keeping the ship safe from the storm and keeping the people on the ship safe from the thing grabbing people off the deck.

Obviously, you can get much more sophisticated than this illustration. A challenge might have lots and lots of small problems, with the problems scattered around the map or coming in waves, but the basic structure is easy to achieve.

Implicitly, problems also end up simplifying the issue of initiative. If problems act on their turn, like monsters, then multiple problems means multiple actions. This spares us needing to do any initiative tricks to maintain a sense of pacing, since that will just happen organically.

Now, I want to reiterate that not every challenge needs a map - the trap from yesterday, for example, can do fine without one - but if you expect the challenge to be large and engaging, then building ti as a map of problems is going to make things a lot more engaging than just build one big lump of trouble.

1 - Conceptually, you might also think of the challenge as a dungeon. It opens with doors into 3 rooms (Navigation, rigging and bilge) which all exit onto the large "sea monster" room, which you get to by beating the "monster" in the room you went through. You could, if you particularly like the idea, build entire challenges as abstract dungeons (because dungeon is just another word for flowchart).

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How Challenges Hurt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Challenge Strikes Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 14, 2011

This Is Not A Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Fighting the Situation

What are hit points?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Situation - The Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 10, 2011

Canon is Overrated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 7, 2011

More Mage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Fortune Cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 - Why yes, I AM an Everway fan.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

App Pricing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Castle Ravenloft - The Game

Ok, so now that I've drooled over the contents of the Castle Ravenloft game, how does it actually play? Short answer is: pretty well.

Right off the bat, it passes one of my biggest tests: It plays fast. A given session takes about an hour to play. As an old guy with a kid, this is a big deal for me. It means weeknight games (sometimes even, *gasp*, multiple game) are a possibility. We've knocked out 4 games so far, both of them in pairs, something that was absolutely delightful.

At a high level, the game plays a lot like a 4e dungeon crawl, with the dungeon building out randomly and each tile equating roughly to an encounter. You play recognizable 4e characters at first level with powers represented as cards, with numeric values like AC streamlined but recognizable. Over the course of play you'll encounter monsters, traps and random weirdness, all attempting to kill you while you attempt to achieve some objective based on the scenario you're playing.

The scenario's are the rub. Over and above the dozen or so in the box, there are more of them online - both official and fan created - and they provide the real variation in play. They also provide a lot of the challenge. Of the four scenarios we've played so far, three were cakewalks - straight tactical romps. The fourth very nearly wiped us, primarily because it added extra considerations that kept us from playing optimally.

That's awesome. One problem I often have with cooperative games is that they can easily turn into puzzles to be solved. Yes, there might be some randomness that could hose you, but given the right kind of approach, a game like Pandemic can be solved more than played. Adding extra limitations, especially dynamic ones, really cuts into that and brings back the game. That said, I'm a little fearful of how the scenarios will hold up to repeated play. I know I don't really want to duplicate one until I've tried them all, but given how fast games play, it's going to be a problem eventually.

In the end, I can't really speak to how well CR works as a pure boardgame, but as a streamlined D&Dish experience, it's great. The random element introduces enough tough choices to keep things interesting, and some very clever mechanics really keep you on your toes. For example, the map is made up of tiles (which in turn are composed of squares). Player movement and adjacency are determined by squares, but pretty much everything else is measured in terms of the tiles. This leads to some fun exploits (fights on tile borders) but it also has a big behavioral impact.

See, the sequence of the game is pretty much 1) Player acts 2) Player reveals a new tile and monster 3) Bad things happen. This means that you pretty much get rushed by monsters ALL THE TIME, and you depend on the next player to deal with the monster you revealed. This means that if you want to be really efficient, you stay together, except there's a catch. Most bad things happen to everyone on a tile, so if you group up to best fight monsters, you're more vulnerable. This tradeoff means you need to stay on your toes, staying close enough together to cover each other yet not so close to all get caught in the fireball (This is also why events that move players around can really mess with you).

This revealed something surprising to me. There are several decks in the game, one for monsters, one for loot, one for events, then one for the dungeon tiles themselves. The Monster and loot ones work roughly as you'd expect, but the other two have interesting subtleties. First, while the monsters seem like the most obvious threat (especially in the case of villains - boss monsters of certain scenarios), it's the event deck that really drives things. No one event really overwhelms things, but it will kill you by inches. It provides a constant drumbeat of menace that really sets the tone of the game.

The dungeon tiles are something I didn't put much weight on at first. They're pretty and clever in their interlocking, creating lovely dungeons, but at first they seem like a timer. You have an objective tile somewhere in the deck, usually 9-12 cards down, and all you need to do is churn through the tile deck to get there, right? So I thought, until that one game that went badly - the shape of the dungeon in that one ended up having a big impact of play, forcing us into tactical decisions at times and at other time giving us advantages we could leverage against the bad guys. It was, in part, a function of the scenario, but it revealed possibilities to me that I will keep my eyes open for.

Like most such games, things are nominally equally difficult dependent on the number of players because the rate of opposition action is tied to player action, but I suspect more players makes life a bit easier. More synergies, better ability to cover one another as well as other advantages. It's not a huge thing, but it seems noticeable. Time will tell.

Anyway, in case it's not obvious, I enjoy the game a lot, and I totally feel I got my money's worth out of it. It's not flawless, but most of my complaints are minor, fixable thing (difficulty to distinguish minis, slightly flimsy cards, a serious need for an official FAQ and a good example of play), with no obvious dealbreakers, except possibly replayability. We shall see.

So, go play it. But when you do, make sure to read the cards carefully. It's really important to be aware of what is or isn't an attack as well as what phase things happen in. This is an area where your 4e assumptions may hurt you, so take the extra minute to actually read, not just assume it's what you expect. We made a few mistakes like this, and each one of them hurt us.