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.

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.

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.

Directed

In this post you’ll find several separate ideas smashed together to make a unique (far as I know) add-on system, which transplants directorial narrativism based on informed choice and stated unknowns onto a system of your choice. Don’t worry, all these scary words will be explained. Ideally, it will provide players with a structured way to step out of their actor role and into director’s seat for a moment at a time, while also providing the GM with a structured way of soliciting player input. It steals liberally from games mentioned below, and others besides them. It is simple and untested. Use at your own risk, report back. I call it “Directed”, making resulting games Directed D&D, Directed Dark Heresy, or Directed Whathaveyou.

What is it about? Imagine. It is the start of a typical adventure. The party has arrived into a new town, located the local tavern, and found a mysterious hooded stranger there, about to dispense a quest. If your players are anything like mine, they get ready to interrogate the stranger, and pick up dice to roll Sense Motive or its equivalent. Then the GM raises her hand and announces: “The stranger will, in fact, betray you; but trust him anyway, it’ll be fun!” …What? Lets back up, all the way to theory. Or, if you’re impatient, skip to the rules.

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A Fistful of Gold Pieces

Come in son, take a seat. Lets talk about money. “Money” is an incredibly complex idea, one that permeates our society and influences many aspects of our life. Its roles are many, its mechanics are arcane, its biases are poorly understood by most of us. Generally, we accept that the more of it you have the better, and stop there. Its no wonder money and wealth in our games, being simplified representations of some aspects of real world money, are complex matters as well.

Let us look at the roles money play in roleplaying games. Just as with its real-world counterpart, we tend to accept it at face value in whatever system we use, which means we accept whatever the game designers assumed its purpose would be – not necessarily something we want to do! This is particularly true of go-to systems like D&D, which suffer a bit from being “generic” (not to mention a certain Generic system here): they have a particular purpose behind them, yet they get used for all sorts of applications, to which they may not be well suited. So, what is money? What are the categories of its usage in games? Continue reading

Next: on a serious note

In the three days since I put them up, my notes on D&D Next playtest materials have become the most read post on this blog. Hot topic, eh. It has been pointed out repeatedly that while observant, they’re too sarcastic and childish. I’d say there was a clear warning saying these were personal notes and not an analysis, but obviously that wasn’t communicated clearly enough. Failing that, I’ll do the next best thing: I’ll write the actual analysis that I said I wouldn’t. Yes, I’m caving it to peer pressure. And yes, I fully expect this post to get only a fraction of the views of the previous one. On with the show.

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Notes on D&D Next Playtest

As I was reading the playtest materials sent out yesterday by Wizards, I made notes of things that stood out, in hopes of making a post out of them. About half way through I realized I have no desire to write any analysis on these notes, and you’ll see why soon. Instead, I’ll put them up here for what it’s worth.

First and foremost: this is a cut-down version of the rules. WotC wants to see which parts of the rules are essential and shouldn’t be left out. I’m all for it. So some of these points will undoubtedly disappear after a few iterations.

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4eLite

Following is a substantial mod of 4e, an attempt to cut away many of its unnecessary complications by getting rid of legacy elements and any attempts at simulation. Pure gamism & narrativism. No Red Queen’s races, no sacred cows. At the same time, the goal was to keep most of the original material viable and functioning essentially the same way. Not many explanations as to why certain elements are removed are provided – that’d take too long, and this post focuses on actual rules you can play with. Feel free to ask, though.

As I was writing this, one concern kept creeping up: would it still feel like D&D? I get rid of some of its essential elements, after all. But having run several sessions with this rule set, I can confidently say it hasn’t diminished our enjoyment of the game in the slightest. Your mileage may vary, obviously – let me know if you try it.

Why bother?

4e tries very hard to be balanced. It knows it works best with all the numbers within a certain range of one another. It shouldn’t be too hard to hit your opponent, just as it shouldn’t be too hard for the opponent to hit you. Attempting a task reasonable for your character should result in success more often than failure, but still not be guaranteed. With that in mind it goes out of its way to make sure that no matter how far you advance and what abilities you take, you won’t jump off the track. Naturally, this approach presents all sorts of constraints on characters and monsters, most of which are entirely unnecessary. Instead of moving the target along with projected average character progression, it’s much easier to set the critical values to what we want them to say, bolt them down and move on. Which is where this mod comes in.

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Perfectly Spherical Adventurers in Vacuum

4e adventurers can do a great many things on the battlefield, arguably more than in any D&D edition before. They dart, fly and teleport; taunt, pummel to the ground and plow through. Due to the nature of character powers, they can do so anywhere and anyhow. What works on a swaying ship in a storm will work just as well in a tavern brawl or at the heart of an exploding volcano. Adventurers are, by design, a thing in themselves, a perfect sphere in vacuum.

Which is why we use terrain powers and environmental effects to make encounters truly different from one another. That and enemies, of course. But while environmental effects are cool, they tend to focus on battlefields interacting with characters, not the other way around. Everyone may be forced to make an Acrobatics check at the start of every turn on a ship in stormy waters, falling prone on a failure. As for terrain powers, most of the ones I’ve seen allow characters to spend their actions on something they normally wouldn’t be able to do. Isn’t that what we want? Well, not really. Players have spent significant time on building up their perfectly spherical adventurers. They have likely thought out all sorts of little combos and contingencies. They have picked their powers to cover various tactical situations. They don’t need an option to do something entirely different. This is especially true for standard action powers. The character building philosophy of 4e doesn’t mesh well with terrain powers.

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