Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pendragon: The Great Campaign


From December of '06 to May of '10 (was it really that long?), a certain famous game designer ran a Pendragon campaign. There were one or two spans of hiatus in the campaign's run, but on the whole it ran more consistently than most games. I wish I had a count of how many sessions we played; I strongly suspect that I played more sessions of this campaign than any other single campaign.

The campaign started with seven players, which diminished immediately to six when two of them broke up. Over the next three and a half years, we changed almost the entire player roster, such that the last session had only two of the original players. The character roster changed even more often, though that's part and parcel to Pendragon; our second characters were the descendants or adopted heirs of our first characters.

I'll be commenting extensively on Pendragon's rules here. I want to preface that, though, by saying that the campaign was hugely enjoyable and I wish it had not been cut short, as it was. (Even so, the GM managed an unbelievably cool final session.)

Pendragon's combat mechanics are very strange to me, a long-time D&D player. It's a d20 roll-under system, where you want to get as close as possible to your actual score in that skill. If your skill score is less than 20, a roll of a 20 is a critical failure; once you have a skill of 20, you can no longer critically fail, and unless there are penalties or it is a combat roll, you can no longer fail. You're now only curious to see whether it is a critical success or a regular success.

Skills can range far above 20, creating ranges of critical success. If you have a 21 in Sword, for example, you now crit on 19-20, where previously you only scored a critical success if you rolled the number of your skill. This is fine for scores that are just barely over 20, but it becomes ridiculous when your base score is 25, you have a +5 from being mounted, and a +25 from a critical success in inflaming a Passion. You're now rolling against a 55. Once you would score a critical success on a 1 or higher, the system has absolutely no idea what to do with itself, and (here I don't know if this is rules-as-written or rules-as-interpreted) you start counting upward again for a "double-crit." This double-crit has no additional effect except to allow your double-crit attack to defeat a crit defense, or the other way around.

If that made sense to you, then you've either played the game, or you don't understand what's going on.

Combat rolls have an additional oddity. Where other games give each party in a fight a separate chance to attack, Pendragon resolves your exchange of blows with your opponent simultaneously. If you hit, your opponent necessarily does not, because he lost the roll. In an unusually literal way, the best defense is a good offense, unless you're berserking, in which case everything I just said goes out the window.

Until things went asymptotic and the GM changed the rules, a critical success in combat allowed you to roll twice as many damage dice, though your flat adds do not double (flat adds are rare). Since armor is a fixed value, you're either nicking your opponent (or doing nothing at all, on a poor damage roll) or utterly devastating him. This is fine and reasonably entertaining (in a "track damage on the leaderboards" kind of way) when it's the PCs killing the NPCs. It's a little worse when it's the NPCs annihilating the PCs, or (much worse) one PC accidentally murdering another PC in what was theoretically a friendly joust.

(When mentioning "accidentally killing someone in a joust," someone always wants to bring up the argument of simulationism - "that sounds realistic." I would accept this, except that you have less control over those kinds of "accidents" as you become more skilled. We had one friendly joust in which one player's rolls instantly killed every opponent her character faced. Admittedly, that player was fine with this; the rest of us felt a little more squeamish about the deeds of good Sir Abattoir.)

Somewhere around the campaign's midpoint, when we switched to the second generation of characters, the GM changed the rules on how critical hit damage would work. We had been seeing the Saxon in the party utterly dominate combat, such that anything that challenged him would wipe the floor with the rest of us. The GM, I want to say, made this change only after extensive deliberation and discussion with the players. He changed things so that your extra damage dice from critically hitting were extra rolls, but you couldn't keep more dice than your base damage or six dice, whichever was lower. This worked pretty well for a long time, until the progress of the campaign improved our armor to such a degree that 36 points of damage was not a meaningful threat. While a few such hits would be a problem, we had 12 or more points of armor, 6 points of shield defense, and 3 points of chivalry defense; with a Constitution of 16 or better as several of us had, there was no longer any possibility of Major Wounds.

To boil this down a bit: character health, damage output, and mitigation increase over the course of the campaign, but they increase unevenly. At all stages of the game (under core rules), a big guy with a two-handed axe can expect to thrive and outperform the sword-and-shield knights who are in theory the central figures of the genre. Our efforts to improve this situation showed that Pendragon does not like meddling game designers, and Odd Things will result.

In my next post on Pendragon, I expect to talk about character niches; Pendragon's range of character concepts is much narrower than most games, and that has some interesting effects on how the players interact.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Crafting System Design: Weaponsmithing, cont'd

The Weaponsmithing design laid out in my previous entry continues here. I've mapped out ideas for how a number of different recipes might progress, though I'm still not getting into specifics on the value of the materials or how much of each is required. I'm also adding options for the creator at some levels. Some of these options apply only to specific types of weapons: a slaying arrow can still only enchant an arrow, but that enchantment is part of the Bane Weapon progression.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Crafting Systems in Tabletop Games: Part Two

There are a few design parameters I want to clarify before I dig into this.

1. This is for the E6 variant of D&D 3rd edition. This is important; I don't know, or care to guess, how well this plan would scale. I will worry about broader level ranges and other game engines once I've established a model that works on a more limited scope. You could look at this as a rapid-prototyping design approach.

2. This is for a sandbox style of play, not a mega-adventure on a timeline.

3. I specifically reject other boundaries to what I may or may not change in the function of 3.x to make this possible.

To address my problems with crafting in D&D 3rd edition as described in Part One of this series, I am introducing informed, weighted randomness and supply management. The version I'm working with at the moment has some things in common with Dust to Dust's Forge Magic.

In addition to their existing character class, all characters gain a secondary class. This replaces Craft, Profession, and the money-making functions of Perform and Tumble. A partial list of these classes includes Weaponsmith, Armorsmith, Jewelcrafter, Noble, Guardsman, and Merchant. These classes represent ways that PCs spend their downtime. These classes range in level from 1 to 6 just as the core classes do in the E6 variant. Several of these do not make anything, because not every character should be a crafter.

Enchantments on equipment are no longer permanent. Their duration is measured in a number of 24-hour-long activations; so, for example, a newly-enchanted weapon might have a duration of four activations. While the item is not activated, it acts like a mundane object of its kind. Once it is activated (a free action), its effects persist for 24 hours, though a flaming sword does not burn through its sheath or anything like that.

Enchantments on equipment do not include bonuses to attack, AC, or saving throws. These bonuses, where necessary for balance reasons, are coded into the progressions of their core classes. Enchantments are instead just the adjectives: flaming, ghost touch, holy avenger.

Crafting Systems in Tabletop Games: Part One

Start with the understanding that I love crafting and crafting systems. This love comes first from MMOs, but it also applies to LARPs. I like spending my time and energy to get stuff in a way that I can control. I like feeling that I've exerted that degree of control over the gameworld, sufficient to go from Thing A, Thing B, and Thing C to the new and much more interesting Thing D. (Okay, I'm not explaining this well. Nothing labeled "Thing D" is "much more interesting.")

I have also played crafters in D&D 3rd edition games for a long time. My spellcasters tend to need an interesting way to spend feats, and my fighter-types want something to spend skill points on that will add the illusion of depth. Particularly with the magic item creators, I've liked spending time and resources more efficiently than just buying the item outright (if, in fact, it was available for purchase in the first place) to make the game more fun for party members. Further, characters who can make magic items are just neat. I liked making a magic sword in KG for this very reason, and I liked making imbued (minor magic) weapons more frequently.

Ultimately, though, my experience with crafting in tabletop games and LARPs has had a number of dissatisfying elements. My character in Arcana Evolved has faithfully improved his Craft (Armorsmith) skill every level. From the lofty height of 12th level, I have buyer's remorse. If I had spent those skill points in anything other than a Craft or Profession skill, I think that I would get more joy of them. This is because, in a pseudo-simulationist way, it takes several months of uninterrupted effort to turn a small amount of money (material costs, which are directly part of my character's stash of gold) into, if I'm lucky, three times as much money (the value of the finished piece). For my character to have these uninterrupted months, the story has to completely stop, since it takes all of my character's time and energy to do this. Alternately, I can work on it only in my spare time, stretching it out to a year or more of work. No thank you.

With magic items, I'm again relying on the other players and the GM to agree to character downtime. Further, it needs to be actual downtime, not fakeout downtime in which things look calm only to erupt into plot happening (this is called "rising action" and in most other ways is, you know, good; in this case, the game says that I can't participate even after my 8 hours of labor are done for the day). There's also no game to the crafting of magic items in 3rd edition. I satisfy the spell prerequisites or I don't; struggling to learn Nystul's Magic Prerequisite so that I can make Maxwell's +1 Hammer of Banging doesn't sound like fun when I already satisfy the spell prerequisites for Trogdor's +1 Burninator Sword. This is because, well, the party is going to have to go out of its way to get something, so we might as well cut out the middle man (that would be me) and quest for something even better for Maxwell, which will presumably be +2 and silvered. Making the game more fun for Trogdor is as good as making the game more fun for Maxwell, and doesn't frustrate me or annoy my party members with my unreasonable demands that we do something other than follow the main plot.

It also isn't interesting because I'm just subtracting a known number from the number next to g.p. on my character sheet, subtracting another known number from the number next to XP on my character sheet, and telling the fighter that he now has his +1 Burninator Sword. That's a transaction, not a game. It's more interesting than an interaction with a merchant NPC only in that I can feel a little bit good about spending feats to make that transaction more efficient (but it also cost me a feat and some XP). In addition to not being a game or challenge of any sort, it's also entirely antiseptic.

AD&D 2e tried to handle this with a page in the DMG offering two different general approaches to players making magic items: one in which the party quested for obscure things that did exist, and one in which the party quested for obscure things that, at least on their face, didn't exist. I appreciate that they were trying to sustain some mythic feel here, but this goes back to some of the problems I mentioned earlier on a much grander scale. The logical flow of desires from initial want to final means of acquisition went way out of its way. If this is all an excuse on the DM's part to make the acquisition of the magic item a multi-step process, I can respect that, but that loses what I like about crafting: I had to get so many other people involved that I've lost what I like about crafting magic items for party members in the first place. I can no longer say, "Here, look at this neat thing I made for you." Now I'm saying, "I am the plot device by which all of these things that you struggled to gain are made into your final goal." To which the recipient responds, "Uh, what?"

I want to feel like my crafting involves taking materials in the game and turning them into something useful. Dumping gold pieces on a merchant to buy unstated materials (and no, 4th ed, residuum is not an improvement) lacks story and interest. The obvious response is to make either the player or the DM describe what it is that I'm buying from the merchant at Supply Chain Unlimited, and if a DM told me that I couldn't make the magic item I wanted because I had exhausted my ability to convert cash to unspecified material components, I think I would be justifiably annoyed. What I'm getting at here is that the items don't have an independent reality in the game, and asserting that there are totally-arbitrary components that do have an independent reality and limit in the game without changing any other part of the system is ridiculous.

I'm ignoring here the logical problems of absolutely fixed cost that attempt to avoid gameplay problems. One mission at a time, and fixing D&D's economy is beyond my poor brain anyway.

In my next post in this series, which I will probably write during the day tomorrow, I'll lay out an approach to a new crafting system for D&D 3rd edition (well, 3.x) that Kainenchen and I worked out on Friday. One could reasonably wonder why in God's name I'm designing for 3rd edition when 4th is all that I'm running right now. The answer here is twofold: first, that I am considering running an E6 version of 3rd edition (if you don't know what this is, don't worry for now; I'll explain it in a future post); and second, that kitbashing is a thousand times more fun in 3rd than it is in 4th.

Moreover, I am aware that I have raised the point of crafting in LARPs only to drop it again, but I don't want to make this about the design of Forge Magic in DtD at the moment.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Games I'm Running, Games I'm Playing

Let's see.

Games I'm Running
1. D&D 4th edition. This game has run from 4th level to 13th, over 42 sessions so far. If you care to read more, there's a wiki. This game pretty well exhausts my need to run high-powered games.
2. Over the Edge. I've been posting session logs from this (tabletop) game sort of obsessively, because the first two sessions have been a lot of fun. This game taps into my need to run esoteric mystery/conspiracy games, an itch previously scratched by my currently-on-long-hiatus Mage: The Awakening chronicle.
3. Dust to Dust has not yet had its first (LARP) event, but it takes up plenty of my time and creative energy. It is, as a setting and rules set, the purest expression of my aesthetic preferences in fantasy that I could create (with a huge amount of help, that is).

Games I'm Playing
1. D&D 4th edition: three games, and all of them have wikis: Armistice, Book of Serpents, and Custodians. Custodians is, sadly, on a bit of a hiatus because of scheduling challenges. It is the game that showed me how much fun 4e's skill challenges could be.
2. Arcana Evolved, which is an... adaptation, I guess you might say, of D&D 3rd edition. I think this campaign has run around 50 sessions at this point over the last six years or so. Safely assume that I have years and years of design commentary on this. Come to think of it, I really wish I had noted every design critique we've discussed over the years, because it would be highly educational. (These are the benefits of gaming with people who are smarter than I am, but less interested in blogging about game design.)
3. King's Gate. This swashbuckling fantasy LARP is nearing its final event. It has been with me since I was a sophomore in college, and I haven't really come to grips with the concept of its end.
4. Eclipse. This space fantasy LARP has, curiously, gotten me to expand my voice as a writer more than most other things I do.
5. Chaos in the Old World. This boardgame is another impressive product from Fantasy Flight Games. I can't say enough good things about their ability to communicate flavor through mechanics. FFG is the beginning and the end of the counterargument to the statement that rules don't matter. I take a more jaundiced view of their organizational abilities, particularly with regard to rulebooks.
6. Arkham Horror, less often than Chaos but still frequently. This is another FFG boardgame. Between myself and one of the other regular players, I think we now own all of the expansions. This game is one of my favorite places to mine for ideas for Dust to Dust.
7. League of Legends. I'm enjoying this Multiplayer Online Battle Arena game much more than I really thought I would. I'm still terrible at it, but I've found places where my staggering weaknesses as a player can be hidden behind a mask of diminished expectations.
8. Metroplexity. This is a browser-based adventure game made by people who really, really loved Kingdom of Loathing and wanted to try something in a different genre. This is the best imaginable place to steal ideas from for Over the Edge.
8. World of Warcraft. This makes the list only because I am currently paying for it. My account got hacked and I got it fixed, but I haven't yet gotten them to unlock it because I don't really care very much. I should either play or stop paying.
9. Dungeon Siege II. My girlfriend had a copy of this lying around, so I installed it and started playing. I... have some stern words for the designers of this game, but that will wait for another post.

Games I've Played Recently Enough To Comment On Them
1. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3e, obviously.
2. Batman: Arkham Asylum. One of the best Batman-based media experiences I've ever seen.
3. Pendragon: The Grand Campaign. My disdain for the rules of this tabletop game is known far and wide, but the campaign itself was one of the most brilliant and satisfying I've ever played in, bar none. This campaign is the beginning and the end of the argument that good players and a world-class GM can make a great game out of anything.
4. Song of Ice and Fire. This tabletop game deserved a much longer run than it got, but it was excellent. Its strong rules design has kept me coming back to it to mine ideas for non-commercial projects.
5. Psychonauts. This platformer video game was a whole lot of fun, even though it is now a few years old. I would love to see a sequel.
6. Prototype. This video game is, I guess, Grand Theft Auto 3 meets 28 Days Later. I know there are a lot of other games to which it is frequently compared, but I haven't played any of them.
7. Spirit of the Century. This tabletop game, advertised as being easy to pick up and play with a minimum of preparation, was run in exactly the opposite way by its incomparable GM: he burned himself out by putting so much prep work into each session that it was publication-worthy. Still, we had some really good times in the sessions we played.
8. Earthdawn. I'm not precisely sure which edition of this venerable tabletop game we were playing. It has a lot of interesting ideas, but I don't prefer some of the ways they were implemented. Balance issues abound, with everything that late-80's/early-90's game design believed about class balance.

If this post has given you the impression that I eat, sleep, and breathe games, you are not far off the mark. If this bothers you, you can get in line behind my parents. I'll remind you that this was vital market research (and I say that in seriousness; I learned a lot from these games that I couldn't have learned any other way).

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3e

This journal entry concerns two sessions of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay that Samhaine ran. If this doesn't interest you, move along, for you'll surely get no joy of this post.

I have liked the general flow of WHFRP3e (hereafter WH - I haven't played any other tabletop incarnation of WHFRP, so for me there's no available confusion), with its card-contained abilities, since we first opened up the box and started poking through it. Their action cards, talents, hero-team cards, villain group cards... all of these store data in a very useful and intelligent manner, much as in FFG's other favorite game of mine, Arkham Horror.

Both games suffer from the same serious issue, though. Once you need information that is in the rulebook rather than somewhere on the cards, you have a problem. If you need to understand what the color-coding on a monster tile in Arkham Horror means, you kind of have a problem. If you need to know how the normal (not stunt-based) functions of your character's skills work in WH, you're in for some hunting. FFG can't organize a rulebook to be readily navigable to save their lives. The rulebooks for both of these games are pretty small, but there are several of them. I believe WH's boxed set has three, and the expansion books surely have more. AH has one, and its expansion Dunwich has one, and Kingsport has one, and King in Yellow has a double-sided page, and Black Goat has a double-sided page. Then you get into the fact that Dunwich contains errata and clarifications for the AH core rules, and it turns into even more of a hot mess.

It's an issue. Not an insurmountable one, but at this point I play both AH and WH just often enough for things to get blurry in my memory. If I ran WH every other week, I'd look these kinds of things up often enough that they'd imprint in my mind. (And then I'd really be screwed when they released errata - not that D&D 4e is a damn bit better about that.)

I really love the decision-making that goes into WH combat. There are three main defensive actions: Dodge, Block, and Parry. It's important that they're Actions, not passive defenses, because when you're attacked you choose one or more of these to put on cooldown to impede the attacker's swing. My hunter in this most recent WH game also had the talent "Catlike Reflexes," which was a lot like another Dodge that was on a cooldown that takes three times as long.

Speaking of cooldowns: I find the ways they use recharge timers to be very interesting. They use the same basic mechanic to accomplish both "time until reusable" and "time until effect expires." With some effects, you find yourself deliberately generating additional recharge timers, and with others you find ways to hurry your recharges along. One very useful support role that a party member could play would be to just remove the main tank-type's defensive recharge tokens. WH does almost as good a job of supporting coordinated party play as 4e D&D.

Difficulty scaling for most kinds of rolls is weird, thanks to the custom WH dice. You have blue Attribute Dice, which can sometimes be replaced with red Reckless or green Conservative dice. You have yellow Expertise dice, white Fortune dice (these things are damn near worthless; three faces out of six don't help you), black Misfortune dice (these things are awful; three faces out of six screw you) (ahem), and purple Challenge dice (these stand in for higher difficulties, so they have no purpose but to screw you in varying degrees). The game does something that is unexpected on first glance: good dice and bad dice that are obvious inverses don't cancel each other out - you just build a more and more ridiculous fistful of dice. One of the rolls I made tonight (for Threading the Needle, I think?) had 4 blue, 1 red, 1 yellow, 7 (!) white, one purple, and maybe 1-2 black. Putting together the correct fistful of dice and then totaling the results is almost exactly as cumbersome as calculating attack and damage in D&D 3.x or 4e; WH only loses out if it's a hassle to get the dice from the other players, since the core set includes only enough dice for one player at a time to use them.

The other part of difficulty scaling that is weird is on skill use. When your relevant attribute is low, you roll a small number of dice and you have a huge number of Challenge Dice. (Four challenge dice is comparable in my experience to an automatic failure, and many skills have penalties for increasing degrees of failure. This leads to "First Aid is almost impossible at the start of play.") As your attribute increases (and in all likelihood you have more expertise dice and fortune dice), your challenge dice also decrease. Conceptually, this would be like low-level D&D characters aiming for DC 25, while high-level D&D characters aim for DC 10. I haven't played a WH character of anything other than starting build, though, so it's hard for me to know how this plays.

The starting adventure that comes with the boxed set is strange. We got cut up very badly in the opening fight, and then had no way at all to heal Wounds. (WH has you randomly draw your starting career, and none of us were healer-types. Three dice does not make for an effective First Aid pool.) It became clear that the bad guys were about to spring a really horrible ambush on us, and we would have had absolutely no chance of winning in our current condition. (All three of us were injured, each with one critical wound, and the fighter was poisoned.) This is the point at which we started acting rather than reacting, and thanks to Samhaine's willingness to roll with our plans, we averted the entirety of the bad guys' plans. It showcased how the game's mechanics supported some good fast-talking, which our gambler had in long supply.

While I don't want any of my current games to end, I have vague dreams of someday running WH in the style of a West Marches game. I'd just want to hard-cap the game at 4 players; I've seen WH slow down to a crawl even worse than D&D with 6. The reasons for this are complicated, but I've enjoyed writing this post, so I might talk about that one in some future entry.

In which we clarify that which will be our matter

So, I'm currently in an odd in-between state with regard to employment that displeases me quite a lot, but provides me with lots of time. I filled the first few weeks of this time with, ah, market research. Best thing about being a game designer: it's easy to justify buying and playing a huge variety of games. Similarly, the best thing about being a writer (especially a writer with misbegotten ambitions of being a novelist) is that I can justify buying and reading a huge number of books. (Here we run into a problem with multi-classing: it's expensive to keep your implements for both classes up-to-date.)

WHEREFORE, I possess the following:
1. Time, & a Desire to Squander It;
2. Opinions, & a Compulsion to Share Them;
3. A Desire to Amuse an Audience, However Small; and finally
4. A Recognition that my Writing Will Be Improved Through Use,

THEREFORE proclaim it, Westmoreland, that I will endeavor to write at regular intervals about gaming. My blogging proceeds in what I hope will be an entertaining style, laden (as you see) with asides in the form of links. I will write about anything that pops into my head relating to games. This may include tabletop games, video games, board games, or LARPs. In keeping with one of my other blogs, I also invite questions.

Some ground rules:
1. I will not blog in that man's company that fears his fellowship to blog with us.*
2. Even while sitting on the high horse of my aesthetics for gaming, I will not be a jerk. I will, at most, state my reasons for disliking a thing in a clear and concise manner. Fulmination in critique can entertain, but it continues the despicable decline of the broader discourse. This will not be easy for me, as I am... excitable, at times.
3. Rule 2 applies to those leaving comments as well.
4. Rule 4 and later rules will be announced as I discover the need for them.

* I have no idea what this denotes, in context. I assume that I will figure it out as my post-count increases.

And finally, an explanation: Harbinger of Doom comes from the t-shirt I wear to my D&D games. (Lest you think otherwise, this is also a way to make sure I run laundry every two weeks. I don't wear it if it's not clean.)