Atomic Robo Skill Calculator

Atomic Robo is one of the latest incarnations of Fate (not to mention an excellent comic). It is great, but that’s not what the post is about. There are many reasons to love that particular version of the system, and modes are on top of that list. On paper, it sounds easy: just pick your modes, assign them ranks, and you’re almost done. This is especially attractive for NPC creation. Unfortunately, it’s not quite enough to say your robot crocodile has Beast +2 and Action +1, you’ve got to remember which skills belong to those modes, too.

It is a minor annoyance, but why suffer spending a minute on it when you could spend a few days writing an automated spreadsheet to calculate everything. Which I now present to you: ARRPG Skill Calculator.

A few words on how to use it: first and foremost, for the love of all that is holy, only edit blue fields! Everything will go haywire otherwise. And speaking of editing, you’ll need to copy it to your Drive to actually work with it. The entire purpose of the spreadsheet, at least to me, is the cell containing all the skills in one line – it’s made my own prep so much easier. If you need to add new weird modes, there are a few examples in the ‘Modes’ sheet to get you started. If you add a weird skill, update the ‘Skill cost’ sheet. And… that’s about it, really.

I’ve put an absurd amount of effort into getting Science working with just about any combination of silliness you can put into it. Try using the Gearhead mode to see an example. There are limits on how many weird skills you can have in the spreadsheet, and how many Science specializations a single character can have, but hopefully you won’t ever hit them. Obeying the rules is entirely up to you – there are a few sanity checks in place, but I’m sure you could find ways to make an “illegal” character with it if you wished to. Also, the spreadsheet does nothing to handle milestones, because hahahahahano.

Do let me know if there are any bugs you find, or if you have any suggestions for improvement.

Boss Decay

We’ve all been there. You unleash an awesome boss monster on the party, expecting it to last good solid 5-6 rounds, only for it to suffer from premature evisceration. So what do you when your dracolich drops on round 3? You can leave the players unsatisfied, or cheat and pump up its hp, or use this one weird trick.

This idea only applies to D&D and D&D-like games. And it doesn’t mess with any of the math of the system, either!

Double the hit points of your boss. Decide how many rounds you want it to last, the aforementioned 5 or 6 is fairly standard. Divide the original hp by this number to find the boss’ decay, then round it to something easy to use. Finally, give the boss a trait: the first time it is hit in a round, it takes extra damage equal to the decay number. That’s it. 

So if you have, say, a Tarrasque with 1200 hp that you want to last at least 6 rounds (a setup with nice, round numbers), give it 2400 hp instead, with decay of 200. If the party is doing as well as you expect them to do, on round six all the extra hit points will be gone, and they will be facing the original 1200 hp Tarrasque, hopefully about to defeat it. If they have unleashed crazy synergies or maybe simply 5 crits in 3 rounds, they’ll kill it on round 5 or maybe 4 instead, the undecayed bonus hp acting as padding. Importantly, good tactics or plain luck will still have mattered.

Once the decay is done and all the bonus hp are gone, you’ll probably want to “switch off” the decay trait – everything is back to normal. Or maybe the boss turned out to be tougher than you thought, and the party actually needs the help decay provides to finish it off.

A possible tweak involves dividing the decay number by 2 or 3, and having the decay trait trigger corresponding number of times per round, but only once per player. This removes the emphasis from landing one attack each round, instead bringing it back to fighting the boss, though I don’t expect this to be an actual issue in play.

This idea is, in a way, a reverse of 13th Age’s escalation die. Whereas the ED guarantees the battle will eventually swing in PC’s favor, boss decay guarantees the swing will not be too abrupt.

First Impressions: Goblin Quest

Goblin Quest

Oi, listen up. I found this here Goblin Quest game. That makes me the Goblin King Boss. Y’all gottsa do what I say, or else I’ll hit you with it. And I say we’re gonna play Goblin Quest. 

Task One: Explain what goblins are

That’s us, dummy. Look at yourself. Small, green, smelly and stupid. But you have brothers! Or maybe sisters, no one bothered to check. We run around and get into trouble. We also die sometimes, but that’s not too bad. There’s always more goblins. We are foot soldiers in the army of Evil. That means we fight people’s feet, mostly by having them trip over us. There’s also other Evil folks here, black wizards and orcs and hobgoblins and bugbears. The book talks about them, so we know who we’re dealing with. But we are the most importantest, that’s why the game’s about us. 

The world is our ostrich. What we think goes. We are like hyperactive five-year-olds that way, finding treasure in dung heaps, cobbling warmachines out of cooking pots and getting ourselves gruesomely killed. If we think we can do something, we probably can. Or we could die. There’s lotsa dying. 

We have clutch-names and just names and Ancestral Heirlooms and Expertise and stuff. We write it all down, and we draw ourselves on the goblin sheet. That’s important. It’s also very important, the book says, to speak in goblin voice. Silly book, how else would we speak. 

Task Two: Explain what Goblin Quest is

It all starts with a plan. We make one. Mine is better, because it has more boom. But maybe we can add boom to your plan, that also works. Once we know what we want to do, we make a list of three tasks. No, that’s four fingers. No, that’s six. Where did you get six fingers? Awesome, I’m sure that bugbear wouldn’t mind. We make a list, and for each task we make another list. Lotsa lists. We can also have a Goblin Master order us around, but we don’t need one. 

Then we roll some dice, Fiasco-like. Fiasco. That’s like. That’s like when other people pretend to do things like us, but not as awesome. There are tables with Things Wot Can Go Wrong, and we pick some from the ones rolled. Then we are off on a quest!

Going task by task and stage by stage, we describe what we do, and then we roll a die. If some of our things from the goblin sheet apply, we roll more dice. That’s good and bad: all results apply. Which means we could succeed more, or we could get ourselves killed quicker. Make that good and good. Each stage has a difficulty, we only need that many successes to move on. It don’t matter what we do, as long as we advance the plan. And eventually we’ll have advanced it all the way to the end. We’ll all be a little wiser, and a lot deader by then. 

Task Three: Play Goblin Quest

It’s that simple, even a goblin can play it. With three goblins (at a time), we finished the game in under three hours, including rules and setting explanation. The game doesn’t outstay its welcome. And it’s funny, because it gets out of the way and lets us be funny. The octopus-wizards and the idiot orcs and the irrepressible goblins help. And speaking in goblin voice is important. It breaks down the barriers, making it that much easier to be silly with your ideas.

Sometimes, the dice can screw you: we found the bugbear kitchen to be a deadly place, full of hungry bugbears. Sometimes, the dice can be on your side: panicking, jumping up and pulling on a wizard’s fake beard actually works. Walking through a magic circle with said beard because you’re now a wizard doesn’t, though. It’s also possible for the dice to stall you on a single scene, until you start running out of ideas. But eventually they relent, and you move on.

Two of us have actually run out of goblins by the very end. One of the goblins had shown up on a trapeze as we were flying away on a griffon, rolled two wounds on his first action to steer the griffon, and failed to stick the landing. A very swift goblin, that one was. There’s very little strategy in the game, very little one can do other than have fun with it. Which is liberating: you don’t worry about making bad decisions. Of course you’re making bad decisions, you’re a goblin.

It’s possible to make your goblins too silly, though. If none of the things on your chara-, er, goblin sheet apply, you’re stuck using only one die. But it’s also in your hands to change the situation so that you can get that Expertise: Competitive Belching into play. I did stall a very slowly moving gargoyle with it. The gargoyle may have been roaring slowly, but I think I won that competition.

And the story you get in the end, ridiculous and hilarious in equal measure, it’s a kind of story that can be retold to others. Rarely does this happen with other games. Most other games have distinct cool moments, and sometimes an enjoyable plot that’d take too long to convey. On the other hand, “so, we were goblins and decided to steal the shiny thing in the sky because it was destroying our night. We liberated fighting roosters from bugbear kitchens (they may have been ducks, we kept calling them cockatrices), climbed to the top of the Black Wizard Tower borrowing chairs along the way, did a countdown (hardest task in the game) as the armies of Good attacked, and flew up on our chairs tied to flightless birds. We did kiiind of get the shiny, and actually killed the elf queen in the end by landing on her.”

It’s not a kind of game you can play often, though there are plenty of rules hacks in the book to give it a different flavor which we are yet to try. But as a back-up plan for when someone fails to show up to the games night, it’s wonderful.

Musings on the Apocalypse

Catchy title, if not entirely accurate. You see, I want to ramble about Apocalypse World Engine games, but I haven’t actually played AW itself, only tremulus, its lovecraftian horror offspring. Still, I’m under the impression the games are mechanically similar enough (sharing the engine and whatnot) that this is a reasonable basis.

At its most basic, the mechanics of AWE can be described as “when you do something you may not succeed at, roll 2d6 plus an appropriate stat; on 10+ you do it, on 7-9 you’re going to have to compromise with the GM, and on 6- something interesting, usually bad, happens.” Player moves provide some constraints and mechanics for specific outcomes, and GM moves provide a slate of options to choose from. It’s not entirely accurate either, but we’ll keep this definition for now.

The issue many critics of the system have is that there’s no mechanical connection between what the PC do and what the GM can spring on them as the result of their failure. Something interesting happens. If a PC is trying to lock-pick a door into a seemingly abandoned mansion without being detected and rolls 6- on an Act Under Pressure roll, anything could occur. The lock could get jammed. A groundskeeper could come round a corner. Or a maniac swinging an axe. Or a distant wolf howl could send shivers down their spine. Or a bullet could hit them. Or… You get the idea. It should make sense, naturally, but that’s left entirely up to GM.

That’s not the way a straightforward game like D&D would handle it. In it, you fail – you do nothing. Maybe you get to try again, maybe something occurs to prevent you – but not because you made the roll. The same groundskeeper could show up. The same maniac, the same bullet. But not because of the roll. Even in games which embrace the “fail forward” ethos like Fate (and 7-9 is failing forward in AWE), the outcome of a failed Overcome roll like trying to open a door could be either simply failing or succeeding at a major cost. Such as “if you stick around long enough to get it right, you will be spotted by the groundskeeper whose footsteps you now hear.” It would be quite odd for a Fate GM to offer an axe-swinging maniac as the cost for success.

And this trips people up. Sometimes, it trips me up. I’m quite happy to see an axe-swinging maniac appear in a horror game, but why should my Reason stat impact the probability of it happening? How does failing to open a lock make the maniac come out? It’s entirely possible to avoid making such moves, to only have events occur that logically follow from the action itself, but the system doesn’t demand you do so, and I believe that’s purposeful.

That’s because AWE doesn’t have a task resolution system. It has a narrative rhythm system that masquerades as a task resolution system. It doesn’t tell you whether you succeed or fail, it tells you whether a good or a bad thing happens.

There are no difficulties in AWE, you always roll the same dice against the same numbers. There’s close to nothing players can do to stack the odds in their favor, they can only try and make some outcomes narratively inappropriate. Whatever PCs do, whatever happens, roughly the same proportion of good and bad/interesting outcomes will occur across every game.

But what about stats, you may ask, wouldn’t they affect this? And indeed they do. But once you start to consider AWE from this point of view, stats take on a different role too. Rather than helping or hindering characters in their tasks, they encourage players to match their actions to their characters’ capabilities. It’s not that having a low Reason score means you’re more likely to meet an axe maniac while you pick locks. It’s that you shouldn’t be trying to pick locks if you have low Reason. And if you’re desperate enough to try, the tension is already high and bad things will be happening to you. It’s narrative logic of tension and drama, not of skill and consequences.

We’ve started with a definition of the core mechanic of AWE, and I warned you it wasn’t quite right. That’s because you don’t roll dice when something may go wrong. You roll them when a move is triggered. The rules encourage you to not think of the moves or mechanics at all, until you need them. To never go “I use Act Under Pressure to pick the lock,” but “I pick the lock and, oh, looks like I’m Acting Under Pressure.” The rules act like an impartial observer, sometimes interfering to introduce a new direction in the story. In a way, AWE may work better if the players didn’t know the rules at all. Without the tangible link between lock-picking and axe-swinging maniacs, there’s no contradiction.

Is this the intended interpretation of the way the mechanics are meant to function? Probably not. But that’s what I get after squinting, turning my head just so, and staring at AWE for a while. The deeper, almost subconscious workings of the system. The narrative truth behind the mechanical lie. But perhaps we need the lie of actions and consequences to get us to follow along, to fool us into thinking we’re in control while the narrative rhythm does its thing behind the scenes.

Musings on Hit Points

This is going to be a little bit different. I don’t really have a point I want to make, nor am I attempting an exhaustive analysis of the topic. Rather, it’s a bunch of thoughts on it, which may or may not lead somewhere. Expect such posts to be shorter and (more) rambling than usual. 

Some of my players have admitted recently that they didn’t enjoy the combat in Fate that much. They felt that often there was little threat to their character, and while the narrative side of it was fun enough, the actual mechanical impact of a turn in which they inflicted one stress upon the enemy, and would need to do so several more times to finish the fight, was lackluster. They had contrasted it with D&D 4e, in which the mechanics were interesting to them (to one more than to another), and so they didn’t mind the long fights.

It makes sense: the fun part of Fate is the narrative, and all its mechanics merely help to move it along. The actual rolling dice and inflicting damage part is plain – it’s how you inflict the damage that’s interesting. And it’s my fault for failing to make all fights exciting in their own right, not just because they’re a fight. 4e had a reverse problem, that I had more or less solved for myself: while the fights were interesting, their outcomes were not. The solution was to offer different outcomes, not just the predetermined victory of PCs.

But back to the topic at hand. A conclusion one can draw for the stated complaint is that hit points (stress boxes, in this case) make a round of combat matter less. Indeed, had each roll posed a risk of inflicting lasting consequences, there would be no boring rounds of hit point attrition. Why do we even have hit points? In a way, hit points are only interesting when they run out – that’s when something changes. Note that when talking about hit points, we also talk about variously varying damage they ablate, so I won’t mention it specifically.

Mechanical element

Hit points are a piece of the mechanical puzzle, along with attack and defense skills or parameters, dice sizes and pools, position on the map, etc. By manipulating these elements we play the game. They offer us a chance to demonstrate a mastery of mechanics, take risks for a chance of rewards, make mechanically meaningful decisions.

In games like D&D 4e where mechanics are a source of fun, it is obviously an important role. The more elements there are, the more interactions between them the designers can come up with, the more varied the abilities and resulting experience will be.

In games like Fate where mechanics offer the backbone on which the fun parts rely, this is somewhat less relevant. You may not care about taking some damage as that has no bearing on the plot… unless you take a few more points of damage and receive a consequence, or get defeated, or don’t attempt something dangerous you would have otherwise.

Protection from Goblin Dice

Hit points are a buffer against a random bad roll or three that would cause an unexpected and, presumably, undesirable result. Swingy, dangerous combat could be a goal of the system, of course. In that case the hit points would be set low relative to damage (see low levels of earlier editions of D&D), or there would be some alternative side-effect of fighting, like crippling critical hits. In most modern games, though, it’s unfashionable to have a character die from a stray bullet.

It’s a question of just how much of an impact random chance should have on the game. The more hit points, the more time there is for statistical averages to reassert themselves.

Verisimilitude

It’s got to feel “right”. A barbarian should have more hit points than a wizard, and a bazooka should do more damage than a rock. Hit points are one of the easy ways to signify and communicate the relative potency of weapons, characters or events. How hot is that fire? 5 damage hot.

Time to be cool

Related to the previous two items, hit points determine how many rounds a fight takes, and that determines how many actions players get to make. Again, it’s got to feel right. It’d likely feel anticlimactic if you were to defeat your archenemy with one punch. You want the time to exchange insults and blows. To use your abilities and prove you are better, not just luckier. Unless, of course, abrupt death is part of your game’s genre.

The reverse is also true: time afforded by hit points becomes unwelcome if there’s not enough interesting stuff to fill it, narrative or mechanical. If your fight is 5 rounds of going “I attack” while standing immobile in front of your enemy, you can probably do with a few less.

The journey, not just the destination

It’s not just who wins, but how they win. By focusing only on the final outcome of a scene, which side runs out of hit points first, you lose what makes the scene interesting. It’s no better than replacing a social encounter with a single Diplomacy check. Yes, the NPC we’re talking to will either agree to help us or not. But ideally we actually enjoy the act of talking to them. Similarly, ideally we enjoy the action not just for its outcome. Ideally, each hit point lost is a single step on a journey. It’s up to us, players and GMs alike, to make that journey exciting.

First Impressions: Fate Core

Fate is not exactly new. The system has been around for over a decade, in many different guises and variations. The latest iteration, Fate Core, was released in 2013 after a massively successful kickstarter, and I finally got around to running it. We’ve played through a small campaign of superheroes in Sydney which started off ridiculous and lighthearted and ended up ridiculous and dramatic. Here’s how it went, and what I thought of the system itself.

Origin Story

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We’d spent the first session on character and setting generation. Following the advice in the rulebook, we made up setting troubles and aspects, and just talked of the overall mood and elements we wanted to see. There’s a lot of emphasis on group consensus and player creativity in Fate, and this initial session is a great introduction for players unaccustomed to having a say, not to mention GMs unaccustomed to having to listen.

This is currently my preferred method of starting a campaign: I still have the week between sessions to come up with plots and ideas, and players have all contributed and know what the game will be like. A marked difference from the start of a more “traditional” game where a GM shows up with their own pre-written campaign and players take part in it. No, it is our game in Fate.

Which is not to say that the game creation session is necessarily a smooth experience. The intertwining first adventures of the characters you are meant to make up, from which their aspects are to be derived, felt too restrictive or too insignificant to base an aspect on. The initial independent adventures were fine, but coming up with the way other characters tied into them turned out to be a drag as not all original ideas supported the suddenly complicated multi-faceted plot. I don’t think we’ll use this approach next time, as discovering aspects in game is more fun anyway.

The setting aspects we’ve created at the start had barely been used as actual aspects in the campaign, but were there to tell us what was important. It’s an area I’d like to work on some more, as it seems like a fascinating idea. Chalk that up to inexperience.

Aspects

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Already mentioned a few times, aspects are a major element of Fate, the thing that ties the narrative to mechanics. Each aspect is a pithy phrase describing a character or a situation. It’s something to shine the spotlight on, the important part in a scene. When aspects help you, you can spend fate points, a meta-currency, to improve your roll. When aspects disadvantage you, you earn fate points for going along with it – the aspect compels you.

This is a crucial part – because aspects are tied to the fate point economy, there is little reason to be concerned about their “misuse”, the broadness of their interpretation. Players still pay precious fate points for it, and it’s up to them to say what is an appropriate application of an aspect. But should they go to far, it’s up to the group consensus to call them on it, not just the GM.

Aspects are how I thought about my scenes and my characters before I knew aspects existed, much less played Fate. They are the noteworthy, stand-out, cool parts. They are the plot points, what stories revolve around. It’s a cheat in a way, a short-cut. In other systems, I’d come up with a distinctive idea for a scene or character and then figure out how to express it mechanically. In Fate, aspects translate that very idea into mechanics on their own. They are not always the most appropriate tool for the job, of course, and Fate offers other mechanics to represent different ideas.

Aspects are also very tricky to get right. Another thing that requires experience, figuring out what ideas and phrases work, and which never get used. Thankfully, the rulebook is full of suggestions and advice on this and other topics. It really goes out of its way to teach and demonstrate how the game is meant to be played.

Vagaries of Fate

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The system uses weird 6-sided dice, with a minus on two sides, two sides blank, and a plus on the last two. You always roll 4 dice and add up their values, which means the bell curve they form is very sharp, the result likely being within 2 of the skill value. Together with the low variation in skill values (lowest is 0, max for starting characters is usually 4), this means each skill point is important and the ability to add +2 or reroll by spending a fate point is of huge importance, while still preserving the possibility of an outlier roll which shakes things up.

Should things not go your way, you have multiple ways to mitigate this. The already mentioned fate points; the stress boxes which let you soak up some harm; consequences which let you soak up even more harm but become an aspect for some time, thus having an impact on the further scenes; succeeding at a cost. All these, the costs and the consequences, are what you pay to stay in the scene, to have your say. But if none of these are enough, if everything fails and things are gloomy and you’re no longer willing to pay the price, you can concede, and be rewarded for it with fate points. The victor will determine how it ends, but you still get a say. Unless you pushed it too far, ran out of everything and are taken out. That’s the ultimate price you may be willing to pay – risk anything and everything happening to your character.

That’s another major element of Fate: something always happens. No matter the roll, no matter the action, one way or another, things always progress. The story doesn’t stall. Well, almost always. The Attack action is distinct in this regard, as it doesn’t normally offer any options for the attacker or defender to do anything if dice indicate a failure. It’s the only part of the game where you can “whiff”, wasting your turn and your time, and I look forward to Fate Core: Core Harder that solves this.

But coming back to the Something Always Happens dogma, there is an incredibly important advice given in the book which applies to all games, not just Fate: only roll if both success and failure are interesting. If only failure is desirable, offer a fate point to have the PCs fail without a roll. If only success is interesting, offer a success at a cost.

Another achievement of Fate, due to rewards for compels and conceding, is that a failure of PCs is not a failure of players. The story goes on, and the system gives players fate points to regain the upper hand and succeed. In fact, fate points can be viewed as a reward for players for going against the interests of their characters for the sake of a better story.

Deceptively simple to learn

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We’ve covered aspects and dice. Other than that, there are skills which offer flat bonuses to activities, stunts that modify them (or the rules, which is trickier), four types of actions and four types of outcomes, and that’s pretty much it. We’ve had a player entirely unfamiliar with the system join us for the last quarter of the campaign, and jump right into the action. The game is very easy to pick up. But that simplicity is deceptive.

The problem, at least for me, is that Fate makes sense. You nod along as you read the rules. You see patterns in the way the four outcomes are almost identical for the four actions, with understandable variations. It all fits together. But because it makes sense, the little details don’t stand out. And once it comes to actually applying the rules you have to remember if tying on an Overcome roll is meant to give a success at a minor cost or a boost (the former), or if you can check multiple stress boxes at once (you cannot). I’ve read the rulebook several times, and only by the end of our 10+ session campaign was I somewhat confident in my rule knowledge.

On the other hand, it doesn’t really matter if you give out a boost or a success at a minor cost. Nothing will really break. As long as you understand the overall intent of Fate, you won’t go wrong.

Hard to master

TeamVanquish_cover_4_3What Fate offers are simple versatile tools. It’s easy to pick up a brush and smear paint onto a canvas, it’s much harder to actually paint something worth looking at. The system may offer all the brushes and paints and whatever it is painters use (you can tell I’m not one), but it’s your clumsy hands that will be fumbling with them. Coming up with good aspects is hard. Judging which mechanic to use is sometimes hard. Offering good compels is hard, offering good costs is hard, integrating player aspects into the plot is hard. But many of these difficulties are not actually difficulties of using Fate. Rather, the are the difficulties of cooperative storytelling. The rules help in this endeavor much more often than hinder.

It’s easier when you don’t have to worry about players running out of fate points, but that just means you’re not worrying about PCs being uninvolved with the plot. Weak compels mean you’re not really putting your PCs in trouble. Weak aspects mean you can’t identify what’s important about your character. It’s not your fault, either. Cooperative storytelling is hard. With a decade of roleplaying experience under my belt, I’ve learned to get my ideas out onto the table reasonably well. But mixing them up with the ideas of others is something I’m still learning, and Fate is pushing me in this direction.

Facets of Fate

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Not only is Fate a toolbox, it’s a customizable toolbox. Unsurprisingly, the book on customizing it is called the “Fate Toolkit”. Remove stress, change the way skills are distributed, do whatever you want with it. Just like you can unsuspectingly break the rules without breaking the game, you can purposefully change them to better suit your needs. And there are plenty of existing settings and mods out there for you to use or steal from. This has actually been a source of some confusion for us: a player had tried the Dresden Files version of Fate before, and another has seen Fate Accelerated. Similar but different, they compounded my shaky knowledge of the rules.

As we’ve played a supers game, we referred to the Fate supers book, Venture City Stories for its mechanics. It left a bit of a mixed impression, in that we’ve never used some of the rules it suggested, the drawbacks of powers or their special effects, and barely used the collateral damage ones. In part they were too fiddly, but mostly I think it was that we were still learning the system and having those extra bits was just too much to keep in mind. And then we’d already established how things worked, and re-introducing these elements just didn’t seem worthwhile. Still, the overall idea on how to represent superpowers worked, and worked well.

Another comic book adaptation of Fate has recently come out, the Atomic Robo RPG. Being the latest iteration of Fate, it actually solves some of the issues I’ve mentioned, and makes a few other interesting changes. It makes for a great introduction to the system.

Playing the same game

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That’s what it comes down to, all the talk about collaborative storytelling and player input. In other games, the GM adjucates, guides, decides, prepares. The roles are fundamentally different, it’s a different game the GM plays. In Fate they do all this too, but not from a position of power. They negotiate, they consult. Together with the GM, the players gleefully conspire against their characters. Together with the players, the GM drives the story forward – to where they all want to go. The campaign we’ve played wasn’t just our game, it was the same game.

Take a closer look at the illustrations of this post (aren’t they gorgeous? They were all made by one of the players, Oinkfrog). In the credits box on the side, under “Story”, it lists all the players, not just the GM. This wasn’t the result of some discussion, that was just the way Oinkfrog felt about it. And I couldn’t be happier.

So what are you waiting for? Fate Core is Pay What You Want, so you can get it for free if you’re still unconvinced, and pay them later. Try it!

 

Paradigms of Play

…in which Magician talks of himself in third person and reinvents GNS. Well, not quite. GNS (at least as far as I understood it) concerns itself with the desired experience, the agenda of the game: to win, to tell the story, to be true to something. What I want to discuss are different approaches to play itself. The process, not the end result. The paradigms of play. Note, that unlike GNS which suggests a game shouldn’t try to fulfill more than one of its letters, these paradigms are sometimes changed during play, typically in different kinds of scenes. And unlike GNS, I will not be trying to give one-word pithy names to these ideas. It’s not a finished thought, after all, but an exploration of this concept. Here, then, are the paradigms of play I’ve identified.

Fiat Gated Ingenuity

In this paradigm, players come up with creative solutions to problems they face, with (typically) GM acting as the final arbiter as to whether these ideas work out. Rules may be used to resolve individual steps but rarely if ever apply to the entire solution. Social interaction is often handled this way: PCs discuss issues at hand, making a check every now and then if prompted; GM determines how convincing their arguments were, and what NPCs decide to do in the end. Looking for something is another example, and one that is frequently discussed in this context along with the next paradigm. Players declare where and how they look. If they didn’t think to look under the bed, they fail to find the monster hiding there.

FGI requires players to overcome challenges.

Abstract Game Mechanics

In this paradigm, player characters overcome challenges via the interface of abstract game mechanics. It doesn’t really matter what they do, as long as there is a line on a character sheet or in a rulebook that lets them do it. Combat, typically the most rules-heavy part of a game, tends to work this way. This is also what skill checks were made for: in D&D 3e we don’t really know what a rogue does when they search for and disable traps. Rogue-ish things. The GM’s influence is much more limited here, they get to set the difficulty of a task and sometimes to judge the applicability of a rule in question.

AGM requires player characters to overcome challenges.

Mechanically Supported Creativity

This paradigm lies somewhere between the other two, yet is distinctly different. Game mechanics are still king, but a creative justification of their use is required. A primitive example of this approach can be found in skill challenges of D&D 4e, where players may have to look for an explanation as to how they use their best skills to overcome a seemingly unrelated task. A more refined version exists in Fate Core, where looking for a trap might see characters create such aspects as The Wall is Hollow Here and Location of a Draft.

MSC requires players to describe how their characters overcome challenges.

A question of playstyle

Naturally, these paradigms of play are not absolute, and any given situation in a game is going to exist somewhere in between. There are no firm boundaries between them, and each group has to find their own playstyle, their own approach. My own D&D 4e game handled combat as a straightforward AGM affair, mostly used pure roleplaying (read: FGI) for social interactions and tried to use the MSC approach to non-combat challenges.

A large part of this is what tools a system provides in support of these paradigms. Though even if a system doesn’t support a paradigm, this can be overcome to some extent with houserules or playstyle. For instance, a common houserule of giving a bonus to a well-described action, to some extent formalized in D&D 5e as Advantage on a roll, gives some mechanical weight to player creativity, thus moving a very AGM-centric system towards MSC.

Of particular interest here is AD&D and its predecessors, however you count them. Although it lacks rules for exploration, there arose a culture of FGI that was almost universal, transmitted not through the rules text but through published adventures, Dragon articles and, crucially, word-of-mouth. This leads to a curious situation where a modern gamer giving AD&D a shot is likely to have an entirely different experience from the one they would have had back in the day, despite using the same rules. Rules of AD&D do not transmit its culture, and a different playstyle is likely to arise from their literal reading.

Clash of paradigms

A system may have tools, but it is up to the group to use them, one way or another. Just because there is Advantage in 5e doesn’t mean everyone will play it in a MSC manner. If anything, it is the worst of both worlds: it does little for those seeking a FGI experience (it’s not about getting a bonus to the roll, it’s about not making the roll in the first place), while leaving Advantage for creativity purely beholden to the GM – a significant drawback for MSC. Which is not to say Advantage is a bad rule, far from it. But it really needs players and GM to be playing within the same paradigm, and 5e doesn’t do much to enforce that. While Fate’s fate points superficially share the same fiat issues, they are the foundation of the system, interacting with it on multiple levels. Fate points tie into aspects, which are not only often created by the players but explicitly moderated by the group as well. Fate strongly encourages the MSC paradigm and requires group consensus to run at all, making it much less of an issue.

Elaborating on this further, there are two classes of potential issues here. First, the system may not handle the chosen paradigm well. Once again, I turn to D&D, my muse, my curse. Despite, or probably because of, the fact that it doesn’t exist, it attempts to sit on all three paradigms. It can’t afford to pick any one paradigm for anything as there are those who have always played it the other way. The exception, as usual, is 4e, which was quite honest about its methods and functionality, and people still attempted to play it differently. 4e tried to stick to AGM in combat and largely ignored everything else, and the backlash was immense.

A system can’t support all three paradigms for all possible contexts equally well, that much is obvious. It could try, with lots of self-reflection and explicitly optional rules, but that’s not something D&D does. And the more a system relies on one paradigm for a context, the harder it is to utilize a different one within that context. 4e is so reliant on AGM combat rules that willfully breaking them FGI-style basically guts the entire system. A large part of this blog has actually been devoted in the past to introducing MSC elements to 4e combat, enabling and rewarding player creativity while not invalidating the core game mechanics. A lesson learned as a result of all those efforts is that it’s frequently more efficient to emulate “creativity” by presenting non-standard mechanistic options to players, rather than trying to embrace the truly original solutions they may come up with. The rules framework of 4e simply doesn’t leave much space for off-the-cuff innovation within it, page 42 notwithstanding.

Inventing dynamite or a boom-stick falls squarely into this category. In this particular case, a player utilized the existing rules for alchemist fire but bundled many such items together, trivially overcoming challenges by the sheer destructive force of their creation. The game can’t handle the ten-fold increase in damage output as PCs are not “meant” to do that: creativity breaks its mechanics.

It doesn’t exactly help that one of the paradigms, FGI, considers rules to be secondary to the fiat judgement. It is this approach that results in the so-called Oberoni fallacy, where any problems rules may have are considered to be immaterial because rules are already trumped by the GM. Seen through this lens, one of the main criteria for good rules is how easy it is to ignore them. This is in stark contrast to the desire for clear unambiguous rules which enable the AGM playstyle, which in turn is different from the desire for rules flexibility that would let player creativity integrate into the game. None of these criteria are necessarily exclusive, but any given system ends up either emphasizing one over another, or being an unfocused mess. Yes, I’m once again talking about D&D, how perceptive of you to notice.

The other class of issues is due to a clash of paradigms within a group, be it between fellow players or a GM and a player. As an extreme example, imagine a GM presenting a puzzle to players, only to have them declare they roll Intelligence to solve it (GM expects FGI, players go with AGM). Alternatively, imagine players flooding a dungeon with a decanter of endless water – an FGI solution to an AGM problem. And it’s not just the players who can be the cause of a clash: the infamous tucker’s kobolds can be seen as FGI used by GM (with themselves being the fiat arbiter, never a good sign) against characters who are not on the same playing field, trying and failing to respond to ingenuity with game mechanics.

The hobby even has many derogatory terms for those playing against the expectations of the group: rules lawyers, munchkins, rollplayers. Curiously, all these refer to players who prefer mechanics more than you do. For the other end of the spectrum the best I could find or remember were “special snowflake” or “magic tea party”, though those’re not quite the same.

As an aside and perhaps a topic for a future post (whenever that may come), it’d be curious to look at these paradigms through the lens of Games People Play.

A new perspective

That’s what I hope this post will give you. Since I’ve started writing it, I kept seeing examples of paradigm mismatches, some of which I’ve provided above. Armed with this new terminology, perhaps we’ll be better suited to tackle them. And of course, the definitions are not set in stone, feel free to challenge them.

Settings, Systems and Stories

I have my own setting. Many GMs do, that’s hardly newsworthy. I’ve developed it over the course of several campaigns, starting with D&D 3.5, then 4e, and now a 13th Age being run by one of the past players (exciting, seeing it take on a life outside my own head). It’s a D&D setting, is what I’m getting at. But as I’m recovering from D&D’s influence and considering using other systems to tell different stories in that setting (or, hell, telling non-interactive stories in it), I’m realizing just how much it has been affected by D&D. It is heavily based in D&D mythos, and I’m fine with it. But the setting itself is post-apocalyptic, with one of its core ideas being the construction of a better world out of the ruins of the old one, and actively rejecting some of the old ways. It’s been distressing, to find just how much the new world resembled the old D&D world, in ways I didn’t even think about.

It goes beyond heroic violence being a social norm. There is a pantheon of gods, most of whom have not featured in any game we’ve played, and even I’ve started to forget their names; a confused and confusing afterlife semi-attached to these gods; all the races from all the rulebooks; huge differential of power level between individuals. None of these things are bad, per se. But they haven’t been put in with a purpose behind them. They are not there to serve a greater vision, but because that’s the way things are, or D&D is, to be more precise. So while I take a scalpel to my setting and carefully consider which parts to excise, I’m also pondering the role systems play in our stories (quadruple points for namedropping both blog and post names in the same sentence!). And yes, I’m aware of the fact that System Does Matter, that’s not quite what this post is about.

Setting

What is a setting? The context for adventures. What exists, what doesn’t, how people and cultures behave. Settings provide an inspiration for stories. You may never have thought of being double-crossed by a dragon running a corporation before you’ve heard of Shadowrun. In D&D, many stories feature eponymous dungeons and/or dragons, as that’s what heroes are supposed to be doing there. Setting suggests stories.

Ideally, a setting also provides space for your own stories told within its bounds. A good knowledge of the setting will help you find the home for a story you wish to tell, place it within the context of the larger world. Want to explore alien planets in Eclipse Phase? Go gatecrashing. Want to explore a clash of cultures and racial prejudices? Be a half-orc in a D&D world. However, not all stories fit a setting without being reshaped by it. If you want to explore alien planets in a D&D setting, perhaps you’ll be satisfied with exploring the outer planes instead. Setting shapes stories.

It is up to your group as to how much you’ll let these two roles of the setting come into play. In addition, settings themselves differ in how strongly they affect the stories told in them. Some mostly providing background elements, others are basically made for a specific activity. And, of course, people change settings. You may decide that alien planets are just what you want in your D&D (Spelljammer!). Or disregard the survivalist angle of Dark Sun and just be psionic dungeoncrawlers.

System

If the setting suggests what’s to be done in it, the system handles the how of it. What the characters are capable of, what obstacles the rules support and how they are to be overcome. This has a direct impact on the games you’ll be playing. If the setting features flying ships, but the system offers no rules for interacting with them, you’re less likely to do so. If the rules emphasize combat, you’ll likely be fighting a lot. It’s not that the rules or lack thereof will prevent you from flying ships or finding peaceful solutions. But mechanics encourage behaviors, and behaviors make up stories.

If you’d indulge my waxing metaphorical, imagine the potential narrative of the game as a forest, and the game itself as a traveler in the middle of it. You can take the game in any direction, climb any tree, explore any aspect of the world. Rules are the pathways running through the story-forest. They will take you to some destinations faster. They’ll focus your experience, help you overcome some hurdles along the way. It’s easy to feel like a kick-ass wizard, when the rules tell you you can shoot fire out of your fingers.

These rules-pathways will also limit the story by their very nature, as long as you adhere to them. There often are beautiful plot-lakes just off the trodden path: you may wish to see your villain escape, but that may not be an option on the battlemat. You can always depart from the rules-path, but the more well-developed the rules, the harder it is to then climb back onto it. Hopping off the D&D 4e tactical combat highway is perilous. All of this is to say: pick the rules that will take you where you want, to the stories and experiences that you desire. System encourages stories.

It does more than that, though. Built into many systems is an expectation of not just the stories that’ll be told using them, but the overall direction these stories take. Characters advance in power, wealth and influence. They go from fighting orcs to slaying dragons to vanquishing demons princes. There are story arcs implicit in the design. System affects dynamics of stories.

Coming back to flying ships, if they are a major part of the setting, it makes sense to pick a system that can support them, either on its own or with some extra setting-specific rules. It’s a standard practice, to provide rules for new ideas introduced by the setting – whether these rules are official or homebrew. However, this is only an issue if your story has been affected by the setting in such a way as to include these elements. System supports setting.

Story

A more fitting name for this element would have been “experience”, but alas it doesn’t alliterate. Either way. Story arises out of setting and system (and players, obviously), so it can’t affect them directly. Instead you can base your choice of setting and system on what you want to see in your story. Story determines setting and system.

Except sometimes, the setting is created to fulfill a story. Rules are written to provide a specific experience. This is particularly true of indie mini-games. Don’t Rest Your Head’s Mad City and mechanics all serve a single goal: to let players experience the plunge into insanity and insomnia. At other times, the setting doesn’t really exist before the game, it is a map full of blank spots. That’s the way Dungeon World functions, filling out the blanks as the story progresses. Sometimes, story creates setting and/or system.

Unintended interactions

As you can see, these three elements are in constant interaction. Not all of these interactions are beneficial or intended.

A story event could utterly unbalance the system: it may be a fine plot for 1st level PCs to find Mjölnir (a +5 artifact hammer of awesome) on their first adventure, but D&D 4e would not handle it well. A setting may not anticipate the special breed of awful that are PCs, allowing them to demolish a significant chunk of it for fun or profit. Similarly, a setting may not actually match its rules implementation: once gods and kings have stats, sufficiently dedicated PCs can kill them, and not necessarily when you anticipated or wanted them to.

More insidious, perhaps, is the influence the system can have. There’s a reason D&D PCs are sometimes called murderhoboes. You may wish to play a game about gallant knights, but if the system provides incentives to kill and pillage, results may be mixed. Often only by looking back at your story can you see just how off-track it’s gotten. Which is restating the “system encourages stories” point – it’s that important.

And, finally, the system can warp the setting beyond recognition. Using D&D4e? You may expect high-magic heroic fantasy. In addition to that, you’ll get a high proportion of population capable of teleportation, resurrection, warlock pacts, primal spirits, etc. All explorations of high-magic heroic fantasy. Not necessarily a part of your fantasy. You can reflavor or make fit some of these, remove others. Still more will remain, embedded within the system, hidden. Those teleportation powers? Eventually, PCs will figure out they can drill holes everywhere to gain line of sight (and therefore teleport access). From that moment on, there will be holes and hole plugging in your setting.

It’s very important to recognize that most systems have been made to simulate the life of protagonists. They are focused on a specific set of activities the PCs might do. What’s more, they are designed to evoke the setting as seen by PCs. The further you go from these activities and this point of view, the less thought out and functional the rules will be. It follows, then, that it’s dangerous to apply system rules designed for protagonists to the larger reality that surrounds them – the setting. Results of taking this to the extreme (as well as attempting to rationalize the setting through the rules), while fascinating, are infinitely far from the setting you started with. And of course it didn’t help that for the longest time, game designers did their best to do just that.

Harmony

So what’s the moral, after all these ruminations on things that seem obvious as soon as you state them? The moral is obvious too, and one that I’ve been pushing for some time on this blog. Know all the elements that go into your game, including, yes, setting, system and story. Know how they affect one another, know that they will, and consider how to limit the effects you don’t want. Choose these tools such that they work together in harmony, not struggle against one another and yourself.

Passages & Plunder 1 – Welcome to the Underworld

And now for something completely different. Not a roleplaying game at all. A board game. A board game that I’ve been working on for the last year and a bit, and that’s approaching the public playtesting stage. Slowly. Inexorably. There’s been a lot of private playtesting done with various groups of friends, and the game is in the late stage of its development, but it’s been stuck in that stage for a while. This post, and any follow-ups, are my attempts at self-motivation masquerading as a design diary. By making it public, I’m committing to seeing it through to the end.

Sales pitch

What is the game about? To borrow from the rules it took me a month to write: “Welcome to Passages & Plunder, a game of exploration and greed. In it, players are in charge of a colony recently established in the newly discovered underworld. Their task is to protect the colony, explore the dark tunnels and obtain as much treasure as they can. All the players lose if the colony gets overrun. But only the player who has brought back the most treasure will win!”

Okay, but what does this actually mean? First of all, it means I’m easily amused. But it’s not a coincidence the name is evocative of D&D. I wanted to convey that old-school spirit of dungeon crawling. Each expedition your colonists go on is an adventure for them. The players act as quest givers, the movers and shakers of their little underground city. Which is not to say it is yet another emulator of D&D, I’ve tried to create a distinct, somewhat weird world.

More importantly, it means the game is a cooperative one, that gradually transitions into competitive. I’m trying to have my cake and eat it, too: one of the main issues any cooperative game faces is an experienced player taking over and telling everyone what to do. This doesn’t happen here, as everyone is in it for themselves, even if they’re forced to work together. And work together they do. Another common pitfall many games face is solitary gameplay, where players barely have any way to influence or interact with others, and therefore might as well be playing separately. While players in P&P have little ways to actively affect each other, short of exiling someone particularly uncooperative, they must rely on each other to survive. The rules and moves are kept purposefully simple and transparent, so that each action players take, they may have to justify to others. At its core, Passages & Plunder is about how much others will let you get away with, and how much you can rely on them to do their part.

This is what board games are best at, what distinguishes them from other forms of entertainment in my opinion: the social aspect. You play with your friends through the medium that the game provides. I’ve tried to maintain the balance between the fun of just solving the puzzle of the game and exploring the underworld, and letting players interact. Everything in the game serves one or both of those goals.

Does it succeed? In the very first playtest of the very first raw version, two of my good friends, somewhat drunk at the time, ended up yelling at each other about who should feed the colony. I knew I had something good right then. And yes, it is that kind of game, that tests friendships. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but that’s the way it ended up.

Major Elements

Now that you know what the game is about, here’s what the game is, what major elements it has, and why it has them.

The underworld

It is out to get you. Each turn, its menace grows, which makes it harder to defend the colony. It is a timer of sorts, an ever-increasing pressure. There is no set amount of turns the players get; rather, they evacuate when they feel like they won’t be able to hold out another turn. And if they’re doing well and really pushing into the depths, the underworld will push back, increasing menace. It is a self-adjusting difficulty. Eventually, it gets so high that the players have no choice but to evacuate, signalling the end of the game.

Each turn, a calamity strikes, presenting another challenge to overcome or survive. The severity of the calamity scales with menace. This makes the underworld less passive, not just waiting for players to come and plunder it, but fighting back.

The board itself is a map of passages, with expedition cards placed on them at the start. They are the places and locals you’ll plunder. At the edges of the board are deep expeditions, with greater challenges and greater rewards. I’ve tried to create a sense of place, of delving further and further into the hostile tunnels. This is one of the areas that needs some extra work, I feel, but I’ll get to that in a future post.

The colony

The game starts with players collectively coming up with a name for the colony. Again, a sense of place, of ownership. There are buildings to be constructed, spells to be cast, and colonists to be sent out on expeditions. The colony aspect of the game is entirely cooperative. Spells benefit the colony. Buildings benefit the colony. Colonists don’t belong to any one player, but are recruited by them each turn.

The main way players accomplish things is by assigning these colonists to various tasks. It’s not really a worker placement game, though: the colonists differ from one another in their skills. This is the main mechanic of the game: a given task may require 3 “points” of labor, and to accomplish it enough colonists must be sent that, together, have these 3 points. There are 4 skills, and each colonist has 1-3 in all of them. This means that even if a colonist is ill-suited to a task, they still can contribute. And so it becomes an uncomfortable choice, and another way to argue about not “wasting” your colonists on a crucial task, because they could do so much more elsewhere. It’s all about the temptation, and the justification.

Another important part of the design is the “chunkiness” of choices. You can’t make symbolic gestures, can’t donate 10% of your income to the colony. If you only have 3 colonists in a turn, what you do with each of them matters.

No Randomness

There are no dice rolls involved. There is hidden information represented by cards (oh, so many cards), but most of those cards can be revealed with a bit of effort. You can plot out your turn from the start, but can you trust others to do their part? You can scout out an expedition before embarking on it, but what if others beat you to the punch? Whatever happens, you only have yourself to blame.

Dynamics

The colony being cooperative means players don’t build up a power base. Instead, each turn they start on a sort-of equal footing. Again, it’s not about having the best strategy, it’s about manipulating your friends. Which is not to say you can’t have a strategy. You can scout ahead and learn which colonists to recruit this turn. You can make a show of being useful, and demand allowances for future transgressions.

This still felt like it wasn’t enough, like the game only really mattered in the second half, when the colony was decently established and competition could begin in earnest. To remedy that, I’ve recently added secret agendas, fulfillment of which grants bonus points at the end. These are long-term goals dependent on the overall state of the colony, such as how many colonists there were, or how high the menace has risen. They introduce something to strive for over the entire game. Agendas are yet to be tested, but I have high hopes.

Wrapping Up

The game starts cooperative. But everyone knows that at some point, all pretense will fly out of the window. At some point, the temptation of profit will get too high. Will you be guilted into saving the colony while your friends stuff their coffers? Will you be stuck with an impossible choice between losing because you’re dead and losing because someone else won? There are quite a lot of interesting dynamics that crop up, but I’ll save them for another post, this one’s gotten too long as it is. Hopefully, it’s given you a good idea of the game, and, even more hopefully, some of you are now interested enough to give it a try when the public playtest is ready.

The Peculiar Case of the Owlbear in 13th Age

The owlbear is an iconic D&D monster. As such, it is present in 13th Age, and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s sneaky, brutal, and can even tear limbs off:

Feed the cubs: An owlbear that scores a critical hit against a hampered* enemy tears a piece of the creature off (GM chooses a limb) and will subsequently attempt to retreat with the prize to feed its cubs. The torn-up enemy is stunned until the end of its next turn.

*Its attacks hamper enemies until the end of its next turn, and it does 2 attacks whenever the escalation die is even.

A mechanically simple yet thematic ability, something 13th Age excels at. Without it, the owlbear is a decent if a bit bland monster. With it, though, the owlbear deserves an entire post. Here, then, is a detailed look at all things owlbear.

Gamechanger

The owlbear has its own victory condition, distilled into a single ability and distinct from dealing damage. It even departs as soon as this condition is achieved, leaving the maimed PC behind. The fight really is over at that point, the purpose of the encounter fulfilled, and it’s a lucky coincidence that the mangled PC couldn’t have put up much of a fight anymore. It doesn’t make sense from the in-game point of view, to leave the perfectly edible and weakened prey behind, but it plays out much better this way. The party now has to deal with their bleeding comrade – unless they decide they need the limb to ease reattachment, in which case the fight becomes a chase, a different scene with different goals.

Furthermore, should the owlbear achieve its victory condition, it will have a significant impact on the story. Importantly, you are not in control of this: you can’t choose to have it win by scoring a critical hit. This means you shouldn’t introduce an owlbear into the game unless you’re ready to face either outcome. Which says a lot about our expectations and the nature of D&D, when regular deathly conflict is not expected to change the course of the game.

There is a cop-out, though. The ability text is ambiguous, and it doesn’t have to mean the whole limb was lost. It could be just a flesh wound, a chunk torn off from an otherwise functioning extremity. Just a stun on a crit. How boring that suddenly seems.

Not a monster, a predator

The owlbear changes the typical dynamic between PCs and monsters. Facing an owlbear has consequences. It is not a foe to be thwarted, it is a fellow predator, dangerous beyond the abstractness of hit point loss. Hit points have always had a tenuous relation with actual bodily harm. It is easy to shrug them off. Sudden loss of an arm makes a PC vulnerable in a way having only 5 hp left (or even being killed!) can’t. As such, it can also be uncomfortable and disruptive to the fantasy that is D&D. While many groups wouldn’t care, it is still something to consider before you introduce the creature.

Sometimes the owlbear gets you

Crippling PCs is somewhat mean, one might argue. Fortunately, the dice provide the GM with plausible deniability, absolution through not just rules, but randomness as well. It’s not the GM’s fault the owlbear is so nasty, and it’s really not the GM’s fault it rolled a 20. This is, of course, a lie, but a very convenient lie.

There’s precious little PCs can do to avoid getting maimed, either. Limb loss coincides with damage being dealt, but the two are not directly connected. While PCs spend the whole game interacting with damage and can have various abilities to negate or overcome it, the owlbear really doesn’t care. They can try and disengage any time they get hit, as it’s only the repeat attack that has a chance to tear a limb off. This may even be appropriate, a wolf pack tactics of distraction and flanking. Yet it seems like it won’t necessarily be doable in a given situation, and it certainly won’t be reliable.

No, the only way to assuredly not get your limbs torn off is not to engage the owlbear at all. Therefore, if worst does come to worst, it wasn’t your fault, and it wasn’t the GM’s fault. It really was the owlbear that got you.

Perceived threat

After all of this talk of limbs torn being torn off, a question naturally arises: does this mean that an owlbear that failed to execute its signature move has failed as a monster, not a predator but a sad bag of hit points, a Chekov’s Gun that never fired? After all, the owlbear is not likely to actually tear a limb off. It needs to score a critical hit against a target it’s hit on the previous turn: even when fighting a couple of owlbears, that’s nowhere near a given. At a glance, this looks like a typical misapplication of goblin dice: a swingy roll with high impact on the game. Multiple rolls throughout the fight improve the situation, making it less of a freak accident if it does happen, but the crucial fact remains: the PCs are the “goblins” whose fate is being decided here.

It is fortunate, then, that the owlbear’s primary contribution to the game is not the loss of limbs. It’s the fear. The “holy shit” moment when the players learn of what the owlbear can do. The tension of every roll. This is what makes it an exceptional monster. The threat is more important than its unlikely fulfillment. The players will pay attention when you put the beast before them.

A mismatched hybrid

The owlbear is a ruse, a contradiction, a beak sewn onto a bear. It’s more akin to a Medusa than, Orcus help you, a random encounter. It is an awkward fit for a game about slaughtering monsters without thought or consequence. But just like its strength as a monster to be fought is not in what it does, but what it could do, its strength as a monster to be dissected is not in what it is, but what it represents. Namely, a meaningful, dramatic scene with multiple clear consequences – an owlbear of a scene, if you will.

It doesn’t really live up to its potential. It creates a new victory condition, but doesn’t allow players to affect it. It creates consequences, even if they’re not fitting for the game. And still. Even though all we found was just a bunch of feathers covered in glue, there had been something there, a pair of huge yellow eyes that blinked once and disappeared into the darkness, making us wonder why we’d fight anything else. Isn’t roleplaying, in a way, just chasing owlbears?