Thursday, June 30, 2011

Achievement-based Advancement

So, a blog much more widely-read than this one recently posted about doing away with XP tables and transitioning to achievement-based advancement. This reminded me, naturally, of Samhaine's series "To End an Era of Exp," particularly the concluding post. Notably, Samhaine was really talking about video games, but the ideas there might be applicable to tabletop as well.

I was thinking about what's really going on here, and it seems to me that this is pretty much the same as using 4e's quest-goal rules as the only source of experience points. Telecanter's idea, then, is a quest-only system with meta-game quests. (Just to be clear, I use the term meta-game here without prejudice.) A goal like "survive a dicey combat" is a goal about the game side of things, while "defeat the ogre warband" is a specific story application of the same goal. "Outwit a trick/trap" is a game goal; "Only the Penitent Man Shall Pass" is a specific trap to bypass within the progress of the story/dungeon. Neither way is particularly better - my point here is just to show variations on the scheme.

As it looks like Telecanter realized in his following post, an achievement-based system does not play nice with editions of D&D prior to 3rd, in which classes have uneven advancement charts; sorry, OSR guys. It's also less than ideal for systems that aren't based off of character levels, such as the World of Darkness; while you could assign a number of character points to each specific achievement, it's not as interesting a change - XP aren't replaced, just bundled.

Anyway. Thinking along these lines, a GM could use these meta-goals to encourage any number of different things. The first that comes to mind for me is stunt usage: page 42 of the 4e DMG has rules that offer scaling DCs and damage values for stunts, but from what I can tell the vast majority of gaming groups don't think to use them this way. Thus a GM might offer an XP bonus of (25 xp * current level) to all party members each time a player comes up with a new and unique stunt. If this seems too generous, offering that bonus a limited number of times per session or per level would be reasonable.

In the comments following Telecanter's post, more purely in-world achievements were discussed, which brought to mind for me the circle tests used in our LARP magic systems. SI was the first game I know of to include a circle test mechanic, and from the beginning we've faced the same problem in its implementation: players need the specific intervention of an encounter in order to continue their advancement, and they grow understandably frustrated when many events pass before their circle test encounter finally shows up. On the other hand, these encounters can be some of the most personal and intense scenes in the game, since SI's sorcery and all of KG's schools of magic tailored those encounters to the character. The problem with something like this in the proposed achievement-based advancement system, of course, is that not only can the player not advance within his form of magic, he can't advance in any other way either. At least in CI/RBP games, you can just spend your XP on something else, or save them for a future large purchase.

There are a lot of fiddly details at stake here, each with their own benefits and drawbacks. I won't try to go into each possible iteration, because I'd like this post to remain at least marginally readable and less than a hundred pages long. The one that I think is important is offering slightly more goals than the number required to advance. Much like earning merit badges in Scouting, players will probably always see some of the achievements as the lowest-hanging fruit. Certainly this is how I've seen players approach plot goals in the past, when they've tabulated everything they want to accomplish.

Outside of replacing experience-based advancement, it would be cool to have in-play organizations that reward specific accomplishments: the Fighter's Guild or your Warrior Order rewards you for vanquishing a superior foe, demonstrating mastery of a particular strike, and forging your own weapon. The Ancient and Accepted Order of Ruby Magi promotes you when you (pick three): rediscover a lost spell (or create a new one), defeat a frostwraith (the Order's stated purpose), donate a completed magic item of at least a certain value, and undertake the Third Trial of the Burning Gem. This folds back into the organization advancement systems presented in the 3.5e DMG2; what I find particularly interesting about this is that you could write these goals in an in-character way and thus make them completely a part of the roleplay. I guess that's my only real problem with meta-game achievement-based advancement: if the goals aren't things that the players can't help but complete in the course of play, the characters will need to seek those things out, and may lack solid in-character motivations. Much as I hate to hear in-character references to experience points, I would hate to hear "we need to find someone or something to outwit... that's really our main goal at this point."

Anyway, below the cut: Sample Achievements. Ten per level, pick... let's say eight.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hacking 4e: Martial Schools, Part 1

I wanted to do something kind of big and special for my 50th post in this blog, but I've had some trouble deciding between the various post topics bouncing around in my head. I chose this topic firstly because it was the one that Kainenchen was the most enthusiastic about, and secondly because if the idea goes well, it will become the part of an ongoing series... because, well, it's a pretty damn deep hack of 4e.

Martial Schools

One of the systemic innovations that King's Gate brought to the Chimera Interactive rules set was martial schools. The details of how these work is not really germane to the topic here; the relevant point is that these martial schools gave richer rules support to thematic fighting styles. I think swordplay is cool, and I think that each martial school could be a class in itself. I also really like the active defenses of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3e, because these evoke for me a feeling of cut-and-thrust combat.

There are some additional changes that I would make, beyond just introducing new classes, in the core of the game system to support these ideas. Some of these changes I've discussed previously, such as wanting swordsmen to feel like they need to seek out masters of their art for teaching. Also, factoring in scaling bonuses to attack and damage to a character's level progression, rather than requiring them to acquire ever better magic weapons, armor, and neck slot items. (Magic items for these slots still exist, but they are only the adjective part, not the static bonus part - it's a flaming longsword, not a +2 flaming longsword.) This change is important because I would eventually like to reintroduce mechanics for disarming an opponent, and possibly breaking an enemy's weapon. To do this, I'd like to shift as much of the math as possible off of the weapon or other piece of gear.

The change that is really a big deal, but necessary to get the math right some of the other things I'd like to do, is that all defenses, including AC, go down by 2. This will allow me to put more relative importance on powers that improve defenses temporarily.

Further changes will be explained as I proceed. Without further ado, I present a class adapted from King's Gate, for the simple reason that I wanted to start with something familiar to me. (I do not own any part of King's Gate, and if I piss one of my friends off with this, I'm sure they'll let me know.) Swordsmen of the Roux martial school are lightly-armored duelists who fight with one longsword and one shortsword, and the school emphasizes grace and footwork.

Roux Swordsman

Role: Striker, secondary Defender
Power Source: Martial
Key Abilities: Strength, and Dexterity or... maybe Charisma

Armor Proficiencies: Cloth, Leather, Hide, Chain
Weapon Proficiencies: Simple melee, simple ranged, longsword, shortsword, rapier
Bonus to Defense: +2 Reflex
Hit Points at First Level: (fill this in later; as fighter)
Hit Points Per Level Gained: (as fighter)
Healing Surges Per Day: (as fighter)

Trained Skills (Choose Four): Acrobatics, Athletics, Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate, Perception, Streetwise

Class Features: Bonus Feats: Two-Weapon Fighting, Two-Weapon Defense. Probably more stuff TBD.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

New Race: The Parthic Rite

Back in January and February, I posted the veytikka, the beruch, and the kagandi. A fourth new race was always intended to go along with them, though I've struggled with the name (originally "rindari") and concept of this race for quite some time. My goal is that this race is something new in the world, created as the result of a ritual. In theory, a lot of races in tabletop games were created through (successful or flawed) ritual at some point in their history - I point here to the Bael Turath backstory for tieflings, the creation of mojh in Arcana Evolved, and probably plenty more. This is a variation on those ideas, placing the ritual as a single event (unlike the rituals that create each separate mojh) and in the recent past (unlike the distant, mist-shrouded history of the Turathi tieflings).

From a rules side, I also wanted to try something different; 3.x has templates that characters can receive, while 4e has the not-quite-a-race-in-itself revenants. Revenants have access to their own pool of racial feats (many of which are crazy awesome) while also gaining access to the feats of their designated "original" race - whatever they were in life. This can reveal some marginal exploits that have cropped up over the course of 4e design. As I've mentioned before in passing, Dwarven Weapon Training is a very good feat, intended as far as I can tell to compensate dwarf fighters, Strength paladins, melee rangers, warlords, barbarians, wardens, Strength clerics, and runepriests for the fact that dwarves don't get a racial bonus to Strength. Instead, they gain from a single feat both +2 to damage with a broad category of weapons, and access to superior axes and hammers (which generally boil down to a free +1 or so average damage, though the Brutal property makes these even more notable). In the original rules, this is a very good feat, but its rules balance is just fine - the compensation is pretty much necessary. When you take this feat as a revenant (+2 Dex, +2 Con) assassin (attack stat: Dex), it's not compensation - it's just weapon-induced facial murder time. (Power creep being what it is, though, it's only on par with Githzerai Weapon Training... fucking fullblades.)

But I digress: the point I want to make is that I want this race to be a +0 ECL template for 3.x (because even +1 ECL makes a template incredibly unappealing to most spellcasters, and pretty unappealing to non-spellcasters), so I'll be thinking about applicable drawbacks. I want something that is comparable to revenants, but perhaps bearing a stronger resemblance to the original race. Thanks to these tricks of the rules, the two versions will have some meaningful differences in how they work in-game.

The Parthé, Parthala's Kindred, the People of the Rite

Twenty years ago, the mage-priest Parthala learned of a forthcoming demonic invasion that, if not halted in its earliest stages, would result in the ruin of an entire continent. She needed a small army in short order, but over the course of three months could find only four hundred volunteers to what seemed like a suicide mission. Desperate now to transform them into a capable fighting force, she performed a ritual that she had found in the most ancient and secret depths of the archives of the Talendi church. Church records hinted that this ritual had been performed at least once before, but even the names of the lands in which it was performed were unfamiliar.

In a single and costly ceremony, Parthala's four hundred volunteers were transformed and empowered for battle. Talend and Vashtal together stripped Parthala of her power for a year and a day as a rebuke for her presumption, but they too wished to see the demonic invasion prevented, and they permitted the ritual to succeed. Those transformed by the ritual, who have come to be called the Parthé, can gain unbelievable physical prowess for short periods of time, though the energies that fuel this state take a toll on them. The Parthé included humans, kagandi, and even a few veytikka (the beruch not yet having left Erenn Kemesa). The ritual left an outward sign of its power upon them: veins of copper cover their skin, concentrated especially around the eyes and over the heart. They otherwise remain recognizable members of their original race.

In the end, Parthala's Kindred turned aside the demonic invasion, though only sixty-eight of them survived. In the time since then, they have learned that the ritual's power descends through family lines, whenever two Parthé produce a child. A Parthé who produces offspring with a non-Parthé of their original race creates a Parthé as their firstborn, while all later children will be normal.

Though there have been some who have since condemned the Parthé as dangerous abominations, reactions to them are largely positive; the survivors were heroes even before joining Parthala, and many hailed them as saviors afterward. Parthic veytikka in particular have found that they are more readily accepted than their unchanged kin.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Religion in Fantasy and Fantasy Gaming

Reading a post in a blog far more popular than mine, my imagination wandered far off from the writer's points. He says we're all doing it wrong with polytheism in D&D, but... I don't know, I've never really cared about recreating Roman polytheism in detail, because among the many things I am not, I am assuredly not a religion major. What I do want to talk about is a bunch of different neat ways I've seen religion done in fantasy and fantasy games, in no particular order.

The Gods are NOT Your Friends - Shattered Isles, HP Lovecraft

Shattered Isles - Drakhara

  • Cultists are rare (aside from Drahathi)
  • No proselytizing, but open to making deals
  • Active in the world; often physically present
  • Can be killed
  • Responsible for creation
  • Few-if-any cosmic-level servants, temples, or other "holy" sites

SI's Drakhara were Elder Gods, involved in if not responsible for the creation of the world, and they were inimical to mortals, though not universally malicious. (This is all based off of what I recall from the campaign, and thus is subject to dispute from others who were better informed on this particular topic.) From the mortal perspective, these beings were enemies and should be destroyed at absolutely any cost, including the potential ruin of a whole nation. Banishment to the Outer Dark was also possible and used in one case, though it required a complex set of circumstances (and a really good gimmick battle).

That's the main difference, then, between SI's Drakhara and Lovecraft's famous Mythos. The Drakhara were in the world and active Right Now, and it was possible to destroy or banish them - a far more humanist approach, since the game was intended for long-term play and player involvement. SI needed further to allow conversational interaction with its villains to get across much of their characterization. To this end, one Drakhara was killed in the climax of the first campaign, through an interesting set of circumstances, and one was teleported away to the Outer Dark about midway through the second campaign. N'goloth had individual mortal or formerly-mortal servants (not really characterized as cultists), while the Gathi had the Drahathi elves in his service (those who had once been oathsworn to keep him bound - and thus known as the Oathbreaker elves) - still not exactly cultists, though I never did learn why the Drahathi did what they did; they were, in any case, significant recurring opponents over nine years of play. Drakhara didn't proselytize, though they did cut deals - and once they had their hooks in you, they absolutely never let go.

Lovecraft's Mythos
  • Cultists are common
  • Cults recruit; the Elder Gods drive mortals mad, causing them to become worshipers
  • The gods are asleep or outside of reality
  • Cannot be killed
  • Destructive to all of reality; involvement in Creation is unclear
  • Some sites resemble temples; some have heralds or other cosmic-level servants

Lovecraft's various Elder Gods cannot possibly be killed by the meager forces arrayed against them. In the generally-accepted "correct" approach to Lovecraftian gaming, the PCs are absolutely never going to kill Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, or any of the others, but those gods either sleep or seek to intrude from outside of reality, so the PCs have the potential (and nominally achievable) goal of keeping them in slumber or preventing their entry into the world. These beings are so utterly alien that conversational interaction with PCs would be pointless, would strip away what makes them the unknowable horrors that they are. As far as I know, most Elder Gods have human or near-human cultists, just to give PCs something to fight in the early part of their very brief lifespans. (I mean, all of those guns that PCs have learned to use might as well be valid weapons against something.) The closest the Elder Gods come to proselytizing is driving people mad enough with knowledge of their existence that they come to serve - it's not entirely clear to me why cultists decide to sign up in Lovecraftian horror.

The Gods are Primal Urges - Shattered Isles (elements), King's Gate (Altera, Totems)

Shattered Isles - Elements

  • Either you're born with a tie to an element, or you have no particular reason to interact with the Elements. The elements are not really in competition with each other.
  • The elementals have certain expectations of your behavior
  • Elementals are active servants - both as enemies and allies
  • The Elements cannot, in concept, be destroyed, but could be manipulated or corrupted
  • These are the building blocks of creation
  • PCs can become cosmic-level servants as a retirement option
  • Dorums are... sort of like elemental temples

From a certain point of view, SI's six elements and sorcery were the PC-friendly gods of the setting, with elementals as something like divine messengers. Tal Elan and Tal Shar had the ghosts of those who had gone before as their comparable but quite a lot rarer messengers. Dark Sun presents gods in a similar elemental form. Some campaign settings that follow this pattern give them personal names, and some have clerics of Fire, Water, and so forth. In each of these cases, there's really no purpose to proselytizing - insofar as someone worships or serves Fire, it's typically acknowledged that other choices within this paradigm are about equally valid. These gods tend to be pretty disinterested in humanity overall, but will grant them favors if importuned in the right manner. SI's elementals, for example, would teach spells and undertake various tasks more-or-less willingly if fed a fistful of Essential Elements - accreted, solidified energy harvested from ley lines. In SI, you really only interacted with elementals if you had a tie to that element; a nonmagical person didn't stand to gain anything from the elementals, and neither the element nor the elementals had any interest in their worship or service otherwise.

King's Gate - Totems

  • You're born with a tie to a totem, or you have no particular reason to interact with them
  • The totems had very strong expectations of certain behavior; violating these codes of behavior harmed the PC and that person's bonded Ylanni spirit
  • The totems worked through visions, but otherwise were not directly active in the world; the Ume were active, cosmic-level servants
  • The totemic powers themselves - Wolf, etc., - could only be threatened by cosmic forces; the "deity" here is actually a collective of all spirits of that type
  • Not responsible for Creation; the Ylanni wander from world to world
  • PCs can become cosmic-level servants as a retirement option

King's Gate's first campaign had really no gods, while the second campaign revealed a great deal more about history and cosmology that changed this. The Ylanni, totem spirits to which some people were bonded, were... sort of like animal gods, but again had no interest in any kind of interaction with those who weren't tied to them by a totem bond. In the second campaign, we learned more about the Ylanni, including the First among them to come to the world of King's Gate, who were called Ume. Still, not gods; they were countless and diverse individual spirits, for all that one might refer to the group en masse.

King's Gate - Altera

  • Worshipers were common in the past; in the present day, only one race is even aware of them and still worships them
  • Presumably in the past they had expectations of behavior; in the present day their rites were known only to the kezhekai
  • Possibly active in the world; few clear expressions of power
  • Can't be killed because there's nothing to kill or threaten; could be forgotten entirely, though
  • Might be believed to be responsible for creation
  • No significant proselytizing
  • No known cosmic-level servants
  • Altars in the wilderness or among ruins

The second campaign further introduced Altera, powerful entities that were worshiped in ages long past, but were forgotten in the lore of the modern world. This was an excellent example of creating doubt as to whether these Altera existed as real, conscious entities at all, or whether they were names applied to elemental dualities and impulses. It seems that there had to have been something behind them, but it is difficult to say what; some incidents clearly seemed to indicate purpose and will. If these beings existed, though, they did have an apparent desire for worship and service. One of the four Altera was not like the other three: where Mena, Talo, and Ia were driven by impulses more-or-less according to the elemental natures, only Runa (as the representative of Tal Elan and Tal Shar) had positive and negative moral impulses. KG did an excellent job of keeping all four mysterious and entirely unknowable.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Mage: Combined Spells, Part Two

In my last post, I talked a bit about spells that combined Arcana to do interesting things. This time around, I'm looking directly at the character sheets of the mages in my game so that I'm creating things they might want to buy their way into - attainable within 1-2 dots of Arcana purchases, ideally. That might still look impossibly far off at their current rate of XP gain, but as I intend this campaign to keep going for a long time yet, I'm sticking pretty close to the book-recommended XP rates. XP for sessions so far has ranged from 3 General and 1 Arcane to 4G/4A. So when I note that a character is, say, 14 General XP away from the minimum to use an effect, I'm aware of what a tough sell that might be. Actual player use, therefore, is a secondary goal and largely out of my hands; just learning more about the system by creating something within it is the real goal. I will be discussing those PCs at some length, though, in the context of what I'm suggesting.

Invocation of the Man-Slaying Talon (Life 4, Matter 3 by the rules on p. 128, or as a rote... something less clear, but Life 3 and Matter 2 form the basis of this effect)
Dice Pool as a rote: Stamina + Survival + (lowest of Life or Matter) - 2
Dice Pool as an improvised spell: (lowest of Life or Matter) - 2 + Gnosis
Practice: Weaving
Action: Instant
Duration: Prolonged (one scene)
Aspect: Vulgar
Cost: 1 as a rote, 2 if improvised

The mage grants himself fangs or bestial claws that have been hardened and sharpened with Matter. His first success in this casting causes his Brawl attacks to deal lethal damage; every success past the first grants him the 9-again property on one Brawl attack roll made during this scene.

Looking at this, the character in my game I would theoretically be making this spell for is Danny, a Thyrsus brawler with Matter as his one out-of-specialty Realm. Were he to wish to pursue this rote, he would need to spend 24 XP to go up to Life 4 (which of course he wants to do anyway - it's just a matter of time) and 35 XP to go from Matter 1 to Matter 3. The latter is never going to happen, and I can't blame him; the opportunity cost here is staggering for too little of a payoff. The group has a Moros mage, quite a good one, so it's not like he's shoring up a weakness in Matter that the group is suffering. He would have to either spend 2 Mana every time he wanted to use this effect, or pay further experience points for the rote (though I'm not sure if this counts as a 3-dot or 4-dot rote) and reduce the Mana cost to 1 (which I'm basing off of Alter Accuracy's Mana cost of 1). So I'm ready to write this idea off as a failed design, to my chagrin, unless for some reason it really captures the player's imagination. (At which point he would begin a death march of at least 15 sessions to garner the XP I've mentioned above...)

It might, in theory, be worthwhile for an NPC mage at some point, but only because enemy mages have a lot of strengths that it can be really hard to bring to the fore during play - therefore I think it's okay to have them do some things that would never be optimal for a player but that show off multiple strengths in a single round of action.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mage: the Awakening Combined Spells

First off, I am returning from just about abandoning this blog for the entire month of May. I hope that I'll be able to post here more regularly in June. May saw an end to six months of unemployment, as well as the writing frenzy of the second Dust to Dust world event, so the things keeping me away were good things, but still.

About two months ago, I started up a Mage: the Awakening game, described here. This is the second chronicle of new Mage that I've run. I can't offer meaningful comparisons between this game and Mage: the Ascension, because I never played or ran that edition of Mage, and only own the books because a friend was dumping his collection in the course of a move. Someday I'll read them, I imagine, but that's not what I came to tell you about.

From all these years of playing D&D, I have come to expect a certain kind of complexity in the final effect of a wizard's spell. Whether it's Pages from the Mages, Spell Compendium, or just about any of the 4e controller classes, I've come to expect some spells to do damage and something else. This is entirely possible in Mage, and the book goes to some length to offer rules for this. Relatively obscure and complicated rules, but rules nonetheless.

In the two Mage chronicles I've run, I've started the PCs as Sleepers who Awaken during the first session. I do this for a number of reasons: because the transition is interesting (though it's an area that I don't always handle as well as might be hoped), and because it's easier to integrate characters into the tightly-woven setting of Awakened Boston if they're newly Awakened rather than long-time mages. Most importantly, because the setting of Mage is complicated (Orders, legacies, local cabals, all kinds of stuff), and since it's absolutely not reasonable to ask players to sit down and read the many relevant parts of the books that only I own. So I'm trying, with what I think is some success, to run the game on the assumption that the characters have justifiable ignorance of the world around them. Sometimes I stumble over things I have forgotten I need to reveal. One of the problems of this approach is rotes, which according to the fiction players learn from their orders. Except, of course, that these PCs are five sessions in, and we're nowhere near having them join orders, as far as I can tell.

Just looking at the rulebook, though, the treatment of rotes is kind of odd. The book gives the initial impression that there are maybe one or two rote versions of any given improvised spell, each of which is aligned with an Order, and that's that. This doesn't make a damn bit of sense with what rotes are, and a further reading undermines the notion thoroughly. So what are the attributes and skills that make up rotes? Well, they could be just about anything; though you wouldn't bother to learn all of them (by spending experience points), it's totally reasonable that there might be a huge variety of different rotes representing the same improvised spell.

This leads me to consider writing and introducing rotes that do some of the more gamist things that I have in mind, and handing them out as the result of dedicated research (for which, thank God, there are extensive rules), teaching, or loot. For example, a Death rote (possibly with a lesser Life requirement) that amounted to the D&D spell Vampiric Touch is pretty reasonable and classic. How about this:

Hand of Greed and Gluttony
Dice Pool: Presence + Occult + Death, or (in another imagining) Dexterity + Larceny + Death; the version introduced would depend entirely on what kind of character might potentially receive it in-play
Practice: Unraveling and Ruling
Action: Instant; subtract target's Stamina
Duration: Lasting
Aspect: Covert
Cost: None

The mage must first grab hold of the target, with a roll of Strength or Dexterity + Brawl - target's Defense. If successful, he can cast this spell as an instant action the following turn. Each success deals one point of bashing damage to the target. For every two successes, the caster enjoys the additional benefit of one temporary health level that can only receive bashing damage. At Death 5, this spell deals lethal damage, and the temporary health levels can receive lethal or bashing damage.

(On one level, I would be inclined to require Life 2 to cast this spell, looking at its secondary effect as a kind of triggered Self Healing, but I'm torn - the player in my game who might ever want to cast this spell doesn't have high Strength, high Dex, or high Brawl, so do I really want to make it harder by also requiring two dots of Life?)