Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Martial Schools for 4e: Rowan Berserker

Way back in June, I worked out the first few powers for a Roux Swordsman character class and suggested additional attack descriptors that might lend more of a cut-and-thrust feel to 4e combat. Today, I'm working on the Rowan Berserker school, also taken from King's Gate. They fight with shields made of rowan, and share in the tree's incredible strength and toughness. The choice to make the berserker school shield-users is strange in the context of D&D, but in KG they had powers involving beating their weapons against their shields, and I certainly plan to retain that.

This class takes a certain amount of inspiration from the Warden, though I write it without the PH2 open in front of me. It is, at least, a defender in light armor who draws on the wisdom of nature, and I've carried over the Warden's high hit point and healing surge values to support the Rowan Berserker's approach to life. What I haven't (quite) done is carry over the shapeshifting aspect of Warden daily powers, because it's a little more mystical than I care to go with this class. I do, after all, still see them as a martial school, not a primal one.

If you're wondering about the High, Middle, and Low descriptors, click on the Roux Swordsman link above, where I lay out several of the ideas behind these martial schools and cut-and-thrust combat.

Rowan Berserker

Role: Defender, Striker secondary
Power Source: Martial
Key Abilities: Strength, Constitution

Armor Proficiencies: Cloth, Leather, Hide, all Shields
Weapon Proficiencies: Simple Melee, Simple Ranged, Military Melee, Military Ranged
Bonus to Defense: +2 Fortitude
Hit Points at First Level: As per Warden
Hit Points per Level Gained: As per Warden
Healing Surges per Day: As per Warden

Trained Skills (Choose Four): Athletics, Endurance, Heal, History, Intimidate, Nature

Class Features: Heart of Rowan, Rager's Yell

Heart of Rowan: Add either your Constitution bonus or your Dexterity bonus to your Armor Class when wearing light armor. Add your Constitution bonus to your damage when making an attack granted to you through a mark you placed.

Rager's Yell - Rowan Berserker Attack 1
With a primal yell of challenge, you beat your weapon against your shield; your foes must face YOU before they can threaten your allies.
At-Will - Martial
Minor Action  Close blast 3
Target: All enemies in area
Effect: Target is marked until the end of your next turn, and takes a -2 penalty to attacks that do not include you as a target. If the target makes an attack that does not include you as a target, you may make a melee basic attack as an immediate reaction against that target if you are within range.
Special: You may not use this attack more than once per round.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Hacking SIFRP: Arcane and Divine Magic

About a year ago, Wombat Warlord and I spent a good bit of time working out ideas to add a robust and flexible magic system to Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, because we liked the core of the system enough to adapt it to other fantasy settings. In particular, WW was preparing for the Birthright game he now runs. He's modified his system further since I last did any work with it, so this post won't be offering direct commentary on what he's using, only presenting what we did at the time and improvements I'd still want to make.

As a quick summary, SIFRP has 19 separate ability scores, because it doesn't separate "ability scores" and "skills" the way D&D does. Where D&D treats Charisma as a "ruling stat" over Bluff, Diplomacy, Streetwise, and so on, SIFRP has Deception, Persuasion, Status, and the like as equally available abilities. Each ability is rated in d6s, and an average level of skill in any ability is two dice. Target difficulties scale so that average tasks are within easy reach for average people, while highly skilled characters will be counting up degrees of success on average tasks. Players gain additional dice from skill specialties, rolling more dice based on the degree of the specialty, but only keeping a number of dice equal to their ability score. The system does a solid job of making all of these abilities useful.

From these ability scores, there are derived stats: Intrigue Defense, Composure, Combat Defense, Health, and Injuries. Intrigue Defense is a difficulty rating for attacks from other characters that would cause you to lose Composure, while Composure is your health pool for social attacks, and Disposition is a variable armor value that applies to intrigues. Combat Defense is your ability to avoid getting hit by an attack; heavy armor reduces this number, but soaks damage. Health is a very small number, but it's expected that characters will take Injuries (which are relatively short term) and Wounds (which are long-term) in a prolonged combat.

Characters also buy Qualities, which are more-or-less feats, including feat-like progression. Through Qualities, fighting styles become increasingly like prestige classes, with situational bonuses and exceptions to the rules. SIFRP's existing mystical abilities - green dreams - are also handled through Qualities.

Two New Abilities

One thing clearly absent from the SIFRP ability list is any magic-focused stat, though Animal Handling applies to green dreams. There are cogent arguments to be made for Knowledge, Cunning, Will, and (for some settings) Language, but adding magic as a primary function to any of these stats would be severely unbalancing. Therefore we decided to add Wizardry for arcane magic and Piety for divine magic. Unlike normal abilities, however, these abilities must be unlocked with the purchase of a Quality, and then must be purchased up from a base score of zero dice.

There are two different Qualities that a character can use to get some benefit from Wizardry: Hedge Wizardry and True Wizardry. True Wizardry carries the additional prerequisite of any bloodline Quality, as Birthright's more powerful magic is available only to those with a mystical bloodline. A similar pair of options are presented to character pursuing Piety: Touch of the Divine and Power of the Blood.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Retrospective

From March of 2009 to March of 2010, the Monkey King ran a campaign of Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying for a group of six players, eventually expanding to seven. I'm not sure at this point how many sessions we played, but I would guess that it was somewhere between 15 and 20, and the GM MK significantly accelerated our XP gain. As part of character creation, we created House Vervain, named (in my head) for the Vervain Hub in the Vorkosigan Saga... because I'd never heard of vervains before. (Go me.) But it wasn't the first time that a group of PCs accepted the name that I came up with off the top of my head, simply because it was an idea.

Much like the active and interactive character creation of Technoir, the group involvement in House creation is excellent for getting campaigns started with energy and player investment. The House has stats! I can watch them go up and down! My victories make them go up! (Fortunately, we did not face a lot of losses that would make them go down.) My character, Arden, was the House maester, and I invested in abilities that would improve our Stewardship rolls.

Like many fans of the series, we tied our family in with the Starks, and situated our lands about as far north as the southern edge of the Queen's Gift allowed. The MK fleshed the area out with both canonical and invented Houses, and over the course of the campaign revealed a deeper backstory for House Vervain that tied us into the Age of Heroes. We had three actual members of House Vervain and three (eventually four) people who worked for the House; the maester I played was (uncharacteristically) actually a member of House Vervain. His story was that Oldtown had made him a maester, but sent him back to his own House in disgrace because of his unseemly interest in magic. The other two House members were the lawful heir and the much more suitable... but illegitimate... son, sort of like if Robb and Jon didn't really like each other and were wickedly funny about it. Both were archers. The other four PCs were a septa with maxed-out healing ability, a guard captain with Jaime Lannister-level swordsmanship, a Mormont fighter chick who preferred to disarm her opponents at Point A in this handy chart, and (the last to join) a Braavosi mercenary captain who concealed her gender from some-but-not-all members of the group, to endless comedic effect. (She was also Braavosi water dancer and an incredible badass in her own right.)

Discussing these details about those characters brings me to the second thing we loved about the system: PCs start off pretty awesome in this system. I think most of us started with one skill at 5 dice, and several skills in the 3-4 range, though I was not the only person to purchase a Flaw at character creation. (Arden was utterly terrified of Greyjoys and their super evil religion. This was a significant hindrance in the campaign.) Relative to the named characters of the novels, starting PCs seem to be about on par, so it's just political pull that PC Houses will typically lack in the early going. I don't require this in games as a general rule, but it feels like the right move here; the protagonists of the novels come across as well-matched for one another, either in direct contests of skill (Jaime and Brienne), or with comparable strengths in different fields (Tyrion and anyone). In Westeros, significant people have typically heard of new characters long before those new characters come on-camera, creating the impression of a widely-dispersed society that is knit together by surprisingly strong bonds of reputation. SIFRP follows this trend by making PCs people who matter from the beginning. Most of us had a skill in which we could not realistically fail, and it was more a question of how unbelievable our success would be. The game has a long enough skill list, however, that we still had significant weak points.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Tabletop Systems: What I'm Missing

At present, the tabletop systems freshest in my mind are Arcana Evolved (a cousin of D&D 3.5), D&D 4th edition, Technoir, Mage: the Awakening, Over the Edge, and to a lesser extent A Song of Ice and Fire RPG. This odd melange of systems and genres naturally leads to a discussion of each system's high points and what I'd want to take from each if I were to start work on my own tabletop rules system. Each one scratches an itch that none of them manage entirely.

AE, and by extension D&D 3.5
The long-term choices that I make for my character are particularly satisfying in this system, because they take a concrete form and typically carry implicit tradeoffs. Though it varies by ability scores, the type of armor my character will wear is a meaningful choice, and it makes sense to own more than one suit of armor and more than one set of weapons.

The nature of multiclassing in this system feels the best to me, in that my character really would be stopping his studies in one field in order to advance in another.

The scaffolding of the magic system, with its discrete spells, appeals to me. I don't prefer AE's automatic knowledge of all spells of a given level and rarity, because I like the way that wizards need to purchase, research, borrow, or steal spells in order to progress. (This has everything to do with why DtD ritualism is the way it is.) Were I to hack 3.5, nowadays, I'd rework the cleric and druid to have to learn spells the way the wizard does. I'm not sure what I'd do about the bard, but a relatively invasive rework is probable. Minor spellcasting classes with limited custom lists might or might not get changed.

For better and for worse, 3.x exists within the conceit that enemy NPCs follow the same framework of creation as PCs. This leads to a colossal amount of work that some of the best 3.x DMs circumvent with Excel-based character creation or by only running published adventures. This leads to its own kinds of weirdness, such as specific abilities that are only balanced if the character using them is probably only going to survive for one encounter (e.g., regenerating 3 hit points per round).

AE in specific has some pretty good races outside the standard array of elf-dwarf-halfling (well, mostly outside of halfling...), but its rules accommodate their sizes only poorly. I am of two minds on AE's class list; sometimes you want a generic advancement that will let you have something from another part of the rules set that you want (feats or skill points) but you don't want deeply-enmeshed setting flavor. AE won't offer you that - all of its classes have strongly implied social roles that are very hard to overlook. As a result, multiclassing seems very odd here.

D&D 4e
As far as I'm concerned, the single best thing in 4e is the presentation and nature of powers and the way they represent different tactical choices in combat.

The second best thing in 4e is the way monster abilities, the variety of player abilities, and terrain leads to interesting, varied fights. Writing an interesting combination of monsters, terrain, and any other ambient conditions takes work, but it's not terribly more work than previous editions of D&D. Some of the terrain is higher on the flashy magic and gonzo fantasy than I would prefer, admittedly.

The magic is often too solely gamist for me - while I'm happy that healers can heal their allies without sacrificing too much of their in-combat time to it, granting mystical protection to your allies by hitting enemies with a mace doesn't really feel right to me, all in all. Bards and warlords work a bit better in that regard than clerics.

When 4e first came out, I was comfortable with the total divide between "how PCs work" and "how NPCs work." As time has gone on, it has bothered me more. For actual monsters, I'm fine with things like Elite and Solo status, recharge mechanics, and so on. For things that should be like PCs (particularly NPCs intended to be allies or foils to PCs), I think it reminds the players that it's just a game and they shouldn't try to understand what the NPC is doing. It's possible, in 4e, to design NPCs that do the things players do, but only in limited and awkward ways. This is more obvious in 4e's spellcasting characters than anywhere else in the game.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

When a Bad Idea is the Right Idea

Often in gaming, characters are faced with options that are Obviously Bad Ideas, whether in terms of a plot hook, a magic item, a bargain of some kind, or a button that just begs to be pushed. Some characters are rational and cautious, and avoid such involvement; probably the most classic case of this is Call of Cthulhu investigators burning every book they find, unread, in a laughable attempt to forestall their doom. In my experience, such characters generally also can't understand why another character would make the opposite choice to investigate, to push buttons, to make deals. The most extreme cases of this type have little option but to retire from adventuring, as total non-involvement is rational, safe, and boring.

On the other hand, every game has button-pushin' apple-biters (as we called them in King's Gate); these characters vary widely by degrees. Sometimes they're doing this because they don't care about the consequences (a significant subset of these are outright evil characters making dark bargains). Sometimes they're bored and looking for excitement. Sometimes they think they've got a handle on the situation (sometimes they're right).

On the gripping hand, you have the GM's view of the whole situation. Because the GM is equipped with perfect knowledge of the situation, this view is both nuanced and necessarily correct, and that leads to a new set of conflicts and problems. GMs can fall into thinking of something Obviously Bad as Obviously To Be Avoided. From this stance, it logically follows that the character is foolish to get involved with whatever it is, and then that foolishness should be punished so as to teach a lesson. (Sometimes this is the correct response on the GM's part, so that characters won't do increasingly ridiculous or obnoxious shit.) GMs can also be baffled by the character's conclusion that Obviously Bad means Obviously To Be Avoided - these GMs quickly become frustrated with the PCs' refusal to pursue any of their delicious plot hooks, especially those hooks that the GM has dressed up with evocative, creepy stories. From the GM's perspective, this can look like the player doesn't trust the GM not to use every choice as a chance to screw the character and wreck the player's fun.

The consequences of these differences in view can be problematic, leading to more bickering and recrimination than engaging conflict. The thing is, narrative structure demands that consequences involve conflict and problems, and the nature of non-solo roleplaying is that one character's problems splash onto other characters as well. The character saying I told you so! is also suffering some of the brunt of the conflict, and as often as not this only heightens the bickering.

When players are sufficiently afraid of the weird things the GM puts into the world, survival instinct trumps curiosity. Characters stop engaging with the world, because they believe that only bad things can happen to them as a result. Years of gaming with rat-bastard GMs of many stripes has bred a very strong strain of this approach into gamers. This response is well-supported in fiction - it's called "refusing the call to adventure," and in gaming it's a roadblock to actually getting to the fun.

At the other extreme, there are players who have no fear whatsoever of consequences to their characters... or anyone else's character. "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" is a general guideline to this school of thought, and taken to its extreme it is a very selfish playstyle, bringing down consequences on everyone around them - consequences the GM must carry out, because actions without consequences ruin games in yet another, different way. Those consequences are a key part of the social contract between GMs and players.

There is, in short, a very difficult balance to strike here. The most important thing is variety, and making sure that that variety reaches all of the characters. You want players to have to think, consider, and possibly look for more information when they come across a mystery, a magic item, or a button to push - if they don't have to think about it one way or the other, it wasn't really a choice, and the essence of all roleplaying games is choice and consequence. The balance, then, is between trust and fear - trust that there are good things out there, and it's okay to explore the world and see what happens; and fear for your character's safety. It's the same kind of trust that readers put in writers when they bother to become invested in characters, and the same kind of fear for the characters we care about that gives tension to the conflicts. (Pro tip: if you're reading A Song of Ice and Fire, you should trust GRRM to create an interesting ride along the way, and trust that he is going to murder several of your favorite characters in the most horrible ways possible by the end, while still enjoying the tension along the way. The demise of your favorite character is a foregone conclusion.)

Sometimes, too, I think it's important to write plotlines such that curiosity and investigation are not only rewarded, but prove to be the way forward when other avenues have been exhausted. If it convinced players to look for a new path rather than continuing in a course that is frustrating them, that would be a great victory for almost any game.