Friday, March 30, 2012

Heroic Adventuring

I ran a game last night on relatively little prep. I was using Dave Chalker's Marvel Heroic RPG-D&D 4e hack, and I threw together some notes to create the adventure as quickly as I could and threw them up on google plus, just because they're a nice showcase of how I think (NARCISSIST). However, fate conspired - the children would not go to sleep, and we went to bed much later than planned, which meant I needed to abbreviate things. At which point I then discovered that while we were waiting, one of my players had read the notes anyway. So much for that.

So, I used two guys with swords. Strapped to the altar of something best unnamed, brought there by the gods' demand, wheedling and pushes, and the assassins have found them. As ever, it worked like a charm, and I'm being asked to run more of it tonight, so that' nice.

It was also very informative to me as I ran the hack, both for Cortex+ hacks in general and the 4e hack in specific. For reference, we had a human ranger, human rogue and half-orc cleric. A lot of the system went really well, but there were definitely some bumps. Breaking it down:

  • First off, in general, the heart of the MHRPG system is basically bucket based. You get a set of buckets (affiliation, powers etc) and you get to build your pool by taking a die from each bucket (assuming it applies). On some level, creating a hack is as simple as coming up with your own set of 3-5 buckets and filling them in. Buckets may have their own rules (the distinction bucket works differently than the powers bucket), so when you add a pool, it's also the place to hang more or fewer rules.

  • Physically, I represented each bucket with an index card, so players picked a card for race, a card for class, and so on. This worked well for chargen, but also had a neat effect in play - the players started using them to physically build their pools, putting the die on the card as they used it. If there was no die on a card, it was a cue to check that card for a contribution to the pool. Once there was a die on every card, they could pick them up and roll them. Ended up working with assets too, since they just grabbed them physically and put the die on them.

  • The cards worked so well, that I may design a game based solely on that hook sometime.

  • I added an extra bucket for Gear. It had weapons, armor and focus items. The base die value for weapons and armor was based off the weapon and durability ratings of the character. Thus, the rogue (weapons d8, no durability) had Daggers d8 and Leather Armor d6. The Cleric (Weapons d8, Durability d8, divinity d8) had Spear d8, Chainmail d8 and Holy Symbol d8. I was prepared to make things magical by effectively adding powers or extra dice (fiery d6, etc) to them but I ended up skimming over that in play. Curiously, I'd really put this in to help the fighter classes have an area to stand out (fighter gets a step up in weapon or armor, and Paladin's get an armor bump) but ended up with fewer of them on the table.

  • I did not bring enough d8s. I need to buy a TON more.

  • Part of the reason I needed so many is that the pools really gravitated that way. The game was colorful and novel enough that I don't think it really got in the way, but there was a lot of sameness to the final dice pools.

  • I changed up the area attack rules to curtail them a little bit. Basically, to make an area attack (assuming you can - powers, PP and stuff play in), you remove a die from your attack pool, and ad a number of targets based on the step-size of the die (so d6 gets you +2, d8 +3 and so on). Any hit that you don't have a damage die for is a d6. Classes with area attack abilities got a bonus die that they could spend without reducing their pool (so, the ranger could add a d4 to his pool for multi attack purposes, meaning he could attack 2 targets all the time). It worked ok, but the interaction with d4 is a little weird, so I'd probably change it so it starts at d6 (d6 for +1, d8 for +2 and so on) and not allow d4s to be spent in this fashion.

  • I also ended up taking a more conservative approach to Plot Points that made them much more tightly tied to opportunities. This was a genre shift, and while I'm not sure I'm 100% happy with it, it had some very nice properties in play that I think I need to explore a bit further. Distinctions still paid out as normal, but the trick was in the rolls. Basically, Opportunities were the central point of everything - an opportunity was a chance to spend a PP *or* to earn one. If you did not use an opportunity (that is, spend a PP or use an ability) then it earned you a PP. Net result was fewer PPs, but when PP's were spent, they were more concretely tied to the action. One mixed result is that the results of the dice ended up standing a lot more often than the do in Marvel - not sure that's good or bad, just different.

  • One thing I'd tweak with this is probably end up going a little bit closer to Leverage and it's use of d4s for a variety of effects. More opportunities is probably desirable, and may be a better way to address the fact that limits end up working a lot less well outside of the super-hero context.

  • But that said, making opportunities a little more front and center provided a really nice area to hook in mechanics. The Rogue, for example, got tweaked, so it could use an opportunity for a damage step up (no PP Cost). Didn't come up all the time, but the one time an assassin handed the rogue two opportunities and turned that d8 hit into a d12 hit went very badly indeed.

  • Initiative system is still solid gold.

  • Doom Pool ends up being an interesting balancing mechanism. If you find you've slightly over-powered the opposition (as I did) you can offset it by not spending from the pool. Handy.

  • [EDIT] Just remembered. We had two fights - I did nto make much use of scene elements int he first one, but did in the second, and the players (not experienced Cortex players) absolutely gravitated towards them with no real urging on my part. One more argument to maybe dip a little more into the Leverage bag.

Still some room for fiddling, but I feel like I've got a lot of good data to work with here. There will be more heroic swordplay in the future.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Don't Take The Affiliation, Even Though It's Awesome

Affiliations are one of the neat ideas in the Marvel Heroic RPG. They touch upon what I had to say about normal the other day because they are (arguably) the central part of any roll you make in Marvel. That is to say, you could conceivably make a roll where none of your powers, distinctions and such apply, but you simply could not make a roll without using affiliation.

For the unfamiliar, affiliation is basically a measure of the character's interaction with others, measure in three values. One is for actin on your own, one for working with a partner, and one for working with a group. When you take an action, you use the value appropriate to the situation.

Now, this is a great mechanic for a bunch of different reasons.

First, it's a nice shorthand for more sophisticated social mechanics (as one might find in, say, Smallville). It has a social component, and it tells you something important about the character (for example, Wolverine is really good at going solo, while Captain America is a stronger team player) without really bogging things down.

Second, it's concrete enough to have a little bit of a tactical feel to it. Which die you use depends heavily on the fiction, and you can usually choose your actions to play to your strength, but not always. The GM can push things towards a tension point, or certain fiction effects (like, say, a speedball special) might depend on making the less-optimal choice. But, for all that, it's reasonably painless - less-optimal is still not _bad_ (which is an important trick t remember for lightweight tactical engagement).

Third, it really _feels_ appropriate to a comic book. It speaks to solo titles and super-teams and heroic team ups, which are really the meat and drink of super heroic comics.

So here's the catch. like all Cortex+ games, Marvel is crazily hackable, and the first thing people end up bumping their nose against in a Marvel hack is how to bring Affiliation into their game. After all, it's very clearly an awesome mechanic, so converting it is an important step, right? not so much. See, all the reasons that Affiliation works so well in Marvel are reasons you don't want it in your game. It represents something specific to comics which is probably not present in your game. That is to say, most fiction has a certain central dynamic, which is sticks to for the duration. Comics are distinctive in how often that dynamic changes, and how the roles of heroes change. If you can't say the same of your game, then you don't want it.

Instead, you wan to take it out and put it on the shelf, then thoughtfully regard the hole that it left behind. It's an important hole. As I said before, it's the foundational element of building a roll, the thing that comes up EVERY TIME you roll the dice. But at the same time, it's not necessarily the obvious thing - consider that for Marvel, that would probably be powers. From the perspective of supers, that seems far more foundational. The rub is that powers are varied and complex - your foundational die needs to speak to the game more than the action of the game.

Now, there's an easy solution. Just throw in some stats - Mind, Body, Spirit maybe - and you've got a completely functional replacement. But if you do that, you're actively passing up a chance to say something about your game, so don't fall back on that unless you absolutely have to.

Anyway, just something to think about.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What Makes a Skill

Yesterday, I stole one idea form Bulldogs! and today I'm going to steal another.

Back in the day, Feng Shui presented a very interesting way to handle skills that worked very well for it's wide, loose model. In short, a skill represented three things. The first, Physical Ability, was the traditional meaning of a skill - actually doing the thing the skills described. If the skill was guns, it means shooting people. If it was Thief, it meant breaking picking locks and such. All standard enough.

The second thing, Knowledge, measured how knowledgeable you were about the skill in question. Thus, if you had a high guns skill, it also meant you had an encyclopedic knowledge of guns. This worked very well for the action-movie focus of the game, since that tends to be how action heroes operate. The thief may not be "The Smart Guy", but he can rattle off the details about a specific type of bank vault with nothing more than a glance.

The last thing, Contacts, measured the character's connection to the community surrounding the skill. This meant you knew who the other big players were in your space ("He was killed with a golden bullet through the left temple, the signature of Midas Mayhem!") but also the broader network around it, including gun dealers, collectors, specialists and so on. Among other things, this meant that a thief could find a fence or a gun-bunny could get his hands on a bagfull of guns without much real hassle.

Now, I don't know if Laws took this from another game, but for me it was a total eye-opener. By establishing these Skill Components, he'd neatly solved a ton of problems from more detailed systems that emerged from a disconnect between the character as envisioned and the character as supported by the rules. That is, even if you bought up your core skill, you would usually need to also buy up the far less rewarding Knowledge and Contact skills to avoid looking like a chump (or, as was more often the case, ignore them and hope the GM did the same).

I internalized this approach in my own play, to great satisfaction. In time, I added my own spin in the form of a fourth Skill Component for Perception (So gun guy could spot a sniper or a concealed carry without being Sherlock Holmes) and happily meandered onward.

But for all that, there was a bit of a downside to this, since it did not map to all sill lists, especially if you want to go to a finer grain. As an example, Feng Shui had the Intrusion skill, which covered a wide range of thiefly pursuits, and that worked. But if you ever needed to split it up (into, say, Burglar and Stealth) then you ran into weird questions, like what exactly Stealth Contacting meant. Is there a big Stealth community out there? Do they have a very sneaky newsletter?

Bulldogs! strikes at the root of that problem by taking a similar (but more detailed) breakdown and building _up_ from it to construct skills. The basic idea is that a skill can be used to do the following things: overcome an obstacles, make an assessment, make a declaration, place a maneuver, attack, defend or block.

Now, what exactly those mean has some system-specific weight, so if you're not clear on what "make an assessment" means, then don't sweat it (or go read SOTC) but what's important is that those are, effectively, the seven mechanical things that a character can _do_ in the system, so using them as the baseline to define the skills makes for super tight engineering.

The idea is not portable in and of itself - those 7 things are fate specific - but the idea is a fascinating lens to take to another game and ask what characters can actually _do_. Curiously, you can end up coming around to a similar space as Apocalyse World's moves this way, albeit from a somewhat different direction. In both cases the bones of system are laid bare, and the construction on top of them is made apparent to the reader.

So, yeah. It's a good trick.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Space Race

Before I start, let me give a quick plug for a young gaming blog, The authors are a pair of talented and inspired writers who are already off to an excellent start, and promise many cool things yet to come.

Anyway, it should be obvious that I'm a big fan of Bulldogs!, and if it's not obvious, I suggest taking a look at the lower left hand corner of the back cover, which should answer any questions about where I stand. It's a fun game standing firmly on a well-loved piece of sci-fi real estate and, notably, just launched its own foray into fiction with Redwing's Gambit, by the ever talented Monica Valentinelli, if that's your bag.

For all its explosive, sci fi fun, I want to really call out two pieces of gaming technology that any designer might want to take into account. Neither is FATE specific (though one leans that way) and both could be powerful seeds for other games.

Today I'll talk about the first, the handling of race. Race is a tricky thing - in fiction as in life - but it's also an essential part of this sort of sci-fi. Alien races need some manner of hook to make them something other than different colored rubber suits, but at the same time it gets very dull when every member of the race is incredibly similar. The classic racial template model tends to stray a bit too close to the latter problem - it works very well when you have one alien of a particular type on the crew, but as soon as you introduce a second one, it gets weird. Think of any six episodes of Star Trek and you can probably see the problem.

However, if you stop and think about any six episodes (well, any six *good* episodes) of Deep Space 9, you can get a sense of what you want to see. Since DS9 had so many recurring alien characters, it was no longer sufficient for "Ferengi" or the like to be a sufficiently distinguishing feature to leave it at that. Instead, it was a starting point to build a character on. Bulldogs! has found a way to build that into chargen, and quite cleverly.

See, it starts with a list of 10 aspects for every race. They're good, colorful aspects and they paint a nice and complete picture of each race. Presenting them this way spared the author the need to write up long descriptive blurbs for each race that restates the content of those aspects. The aspect tell us plenty about the race and about how others might feel or react to them. That's all implicit in the aspect list itself. It's a dirty trick, and a super clever one.

If you stop there, this is basically just a clever presentation of the classic racial template - good, but dull. The twist comes in application. A character is only expected to take two of those aspects.

It's a simple thing, but the impact is profound for a couple of reasons. First, it creates a range for a lot of different aliens of the same species, but it does so in a way that doesn't abandon the complete picture - the fact that your character doesn't use 8 of the aspects doesn't mean those don't exist, it just means they're less important to you. The full list provides a context that the narrowed selection takes advantage of. To put it in concrete terms, it means Klingon poets might be a rarity, but they're not impossible to make (or even penalized) - just pick the aspects that dovetail with your concept.

And as a bonus, it makes the GM's job MUCH easier for creating NPCs. The simple act of choosing _not_ to use some baseline aspects can tell you plenty about a character. Plus, if you're feeling lazy, you can just use more than two of them if you need to quickly stat someone up.

It's also worth nothing that the game gracefully avoids the "Humans are the baseline" problem which often accompanies these systems. The human-equivalents are handled in exactly the same way as everyone else in this regard.

For interested GMs, it's super portable to any system that uses descriptors of any sort (whether they're feats, distinctions or anything else) to construct groups. Races are the most obvious application, but it's easy to see how this could be used for organizations in the vein of White Wolf's old splats. Hell, it could be narrowed in scope and be used to create fencing schools. Anything where you need things to share a common root but have different expressions could be well served by borrowing this idea.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Normal (d6)

I cheat a bit when I run Leverage and its variants. According to the rules, when the GM spends a PP to create something, it's created at d6. I'm less kind, and when I create things, they're d8s, and for all intents and purposes, I have an infinite budget of d6s that I can use for anything, anytime.

At first blush, that make seem unbalanced and abusive, and I'll concede it's a little mean, but the reality is that it reflects a specific piece of perspective I have about Cortex+, that is to say, what I consider normal to be.

To my mind, in the language of Cortex+, d6 is effectively the die that means "normal". It's the die I pick up to fill gaps when nothing else really applies. If there's a security guard who matters solely because the players eyes have fallen upon him, he's a Security Guard d6. If he matters enough for me to spend some points on, then he should be exceptional (or terrible) and interesting, which merits different dice.

It's also no coincidence that this is the midpoint between the two die values for a distinction. D6 is what D4 is worse than and D8 is better than. Obvious on the face of it, but it underscores why I take D6 as the baseline. If nothing else interesting is going on, just grab a d6.

(Mechanically this also comes in handy when the GM needs to build a small pool. Even if that security guard is a d8, if he's making a roll tangential to any other resource I have in play, it's easier to just add in a d6 to fill out your hand, so to speak)

There's an interesting shift that comes from this, because you stop seeing the world as being built up from zero and more in terms of how it deviates from the norm. It spares you of the obligation to fill in details prematurely. If an NPC is introduced and you don't know anything about him, just use two or three d6s when appropriate until you hit upon the ways in which the character is noteworthy.

This is in some ways a nod back to Over The Edge, where the baseline for any action was 2d6, and you could always fall back to that, but your specific strengths and weaknesses could change that. Having that baseline allowed for much simpler character sheets because it removed the need to note everything, only demanding that which deviated from the norm (and which was, one hoped, therefor interesting). You can see it in other systems too, though it is sometimes more muddled.

This idea bounces around various Cortex+ implementations, but it's precise meaning and role depends on the system. I've noted how it impacts my Leverge play, but it's perhaps even more interesting in Marvel, where the d6 is the placeholder die. Mechanical effects that need a die that's ok use it (like area attacks) dip into it, but for anything interesting, it gets passed by. Ever wondered why there's not a d6 option for specialties? Easy answer: BECAUSE YOU'RE COOLER THAN THAT. I admit, I do dip into d6s for Marvel, but when I do, it's almost always a sign of something mundane - as with Leverage, it's suitable for something that doesn't grab, but which needs mechanical representation.

There's an obvious question here: if d6's are that dull, why bother rolling them? Never make a boring roll, right?

Well, that's the interesting and subtle trick of the d6. It's true, it's not too potent, but every now and again you get boxcars and a surprise. It's important to remember this because normal does not need to mean boring. Rather, it's the baseline by which players can judge themselves. A too-easy success (as many mook rules provide) provide surface awesome but can ultimately feel hollow because anyone can overcome it. D6s have just the right amount of challenge to make your bigger dice feel rewarding and just enough threat to make you wonder if it's _really_ worth trading that d8 for a d4.