Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Year of Blogging

On 19 November, 2010, I created this blog and posted about the games I was running and playing. Things have changed an awful lot for me since then, with six months of unemployment followed by a new job, friends moving away, and the beginning of Dust to Dust.

Games I'm Running
  1. Dust to Dust: We've now run two World Events and two three-day events. We released our rules and our culture packets in a timely manner and before the beginning of the campaign, which are causes for pride in themselves. We've released a towering amount of content since then, with a great deal more on the way. This is the most labor-intensive thing I have ever personally attempted.
  2. Mage: the Awakening. This is the second chronicle of new Mage that I've ever run, and overall it has an edgier, more political tone than the first. We're now thirteen sessions in.
I'm not regularly running anything else these days, though I'm pondering a heavily hacked game using the Song of Ice and Fire rules.

Games I'm Playing
  1. Eclipse: I feel that the game has evolved a great deal in the last year, with a staff that seeks to explore boundaries of what's possible in LARPing, particularly when given a tightly-knit playerbase.
  2. Arcana Evolved: This game continues much as it has for the past seven years; our characters have reached 14th level, with the concomitant headaches of high-level 3.x-like D&D. It looks like our level of importance in world events may be on the rise.
  3. Smallville: At the risk of giving away Samhaine's next game for review, we're planning to play several sessions of Smallville, but set in the Marvel Universe as described here. Our character-creation session was as much fun as a very good session of a tabletop game.
  4. Arkham City: I've just finished my first playthrough of Arkham City on Normal Mode, and now I'm continuing into my New Game Plus. I loved this game; my only criticism is that many of the times that I wanted to explore the city and play side missions, the game prevented me from doing so, leading to the game feeling very short (because I'd played so little of its content). I'll be correcting this in my New Game Plus playthrough. I will probably post about this game in detail at some point soon. It feels very much like someone took Arkham Asylum and applied it to Prototype, resulting in an open-world setting with a hero I actually like.
  5. Heroes of Neverwinter: This Facebook game is a simplified version of D&D. The thing that sets it apart from other Facebook games is that it actually feels like a game.
  6. Dragon Age: Legends: This G+ game has better miscellaneous features (castle construction) than Heroes of Neverwinter, but Heroes of Neverwinter has much more interesting core gameplay and story.
  7. Magic: the Gathering: We've gotten back into playing Magic, not in any serious competitive way, but just as a way to pass an evening. It's been good fun, and not too difficult to return to after many, many years away from it.
D&D 4e is conspicuously absent from these lists, as my Road to Bael Turath campaign ended just three sessions after I mentioned it in last year's Games I'm Running, Games I'm Playing post, and the games I was playing ended at about the same time. Long-time readers of this blog will be well aware that I have a lot of things I still want to do with 4e rules, but I've become frustrated with the direction that WotC has taken their design of the game.

King's Gate, which was a significant part of my life from its inception in '01 to its conclusion, came to a satisfying and thrilling end in January of 2011. The creative debt that DtD owes to KG, and its predecessor Shattered Isles, is very great. By any reasonable measure, this LARP was a great success, and I am glad to have played in it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Hacking SIFRP: Arcane and Divine Magic, Part 2

This post continues the development of ideas presented previously, with specific numbers and the introduction of a few new ideas to the mix. As before, I'll tip my hat to Wombat Warlord, who has worked with these ideas a lot more than I have, and without whom I probably would not have pressed on with any of the rules hacks of SIFRP.

Spell Difficulty

Because the system hangs on degrees of success, there are a few more game-balance levers to take into account than in, say, D&D. Attack spells have a base casting difficulty determined by some applicable defense on the part of the target. It wouldn't be at all unreasonable to treat Combat Defense as a defense against anything that can be dodged and Intrigue Defense as anything that can be resisted with Will, leaving only some variation of Fortitude to create. This unifies spell mechanics with the rest of the combat system, as well as cutting out one of the levers one might use to balance spellcasting.

Things that are not attack spells but still need a success/fail roll and need to pay attention to degrees of success, such as defensive/buffing spells or divinations with better results for degrees of success, are generally set to a difficulty of 9 (or 12, for the spells of the highest rank; it's also possible that there are cantrips at difficulty 4). It works this way so that characters with Wizardry/Piety 1 are novices, not yet quite able to cast their first spell. Characters with Wizardry 2 do not yet find their magic to be reliable, but can sometimes complete spells - ideally when there's no pressure and failing a spellcasting roll doesn't carry any real drawbacks. At three dice, they'll succeed more often than not, and can score up to one extra degree of success. Failure remains a realistic probability all the way up to six or seven dice, though, thanks to the possibility of penalties from Injuries, Wounds, Strain, or Curses.

Spell Cost

So difficulty is the first lever. The second is the cost in Health (and Injuries and Wounds) or Composure (and Strain and Curses). The amount of Health or Composure damage that a player can endure before taking an Injury or Strain scales pretty seriously, but you're just not going to see wizards with a Will of 2 or priests with an Endurance of 2. Presumably such people wash out of spellcasting training, or experience character growth, or something. Anyway. I'd expect most PCs and NPCs to have a 4 in their "mana reserves" stat. I assume therefore that 12 Composure/Health is the power reserve of the average spellcaster, and that divine spells intended to be cast in battle need to have a slightly lower Health/Injuries/Wounds cost than an identical arcane spell, since the priest may be taking damage from actually being in combat as well.

Injuries/Strain represent a pretty remarkable amount of additional power for priests and wizards. (As a quick note, I want to say that I am well aware of how strongly these design structures resemble Mental Consequences for wizards in Dresden Files. This is not an accident, but at the same time I didn't feel like DF got the balance of a wizard's staying power quite right - if this system does nothing but re-create that one with more numerical granularity, I can go home happy.) I feel like the cost for basic spells should be about 4 Health/Composure, and if anything that's rather conservative (see Places of Power, below). This might scale up to 6, 8, and 10 for higher tiers of spells. Four tiers of spells sounds pretty good to me for this rules hack.

As a side note: Injuries and Wounds are particularly important for powering healing spells - it would cause serious problems to the game's balance if a priest could ever turn Injuries into a survivable amount of simple Health damage, or Wounds into Injuries. SIFRP rules are deadly, which is why I'm interested in using them in the first place. The long-term consequences of Injuries and Wounds are central to the system's grittiness.

Some arcane spells would undoubtedly carry a comparable cost, always inflicting Strain or Curses. This line of thought led me to some really interesting world-building: what if the setting has Laws of Magic of one form or other, and the violation of those Laws immediately results in a Curse? This creates a situation in which casting more magic than you can handle is just as bad for you as casting forbidden magic outright. Maybe these things are all part of the magical tradition that is available to the PCs, and an enemy tradition inflicts Curses for completely different things - one tradition bans communication with the dead, maybe, while another bans making compacts with elementals.

Spell Effect

The third lever is the spell's effect, of course. Cunning is the ruling stat for an arcane spell's potency, but a spell can reasonably carry its own modifiers for its final effect, much as many weapons deal a few points more or less than the wielder's Athletics or Agility. Of course, those extra points of damage are also multiplied when the caster scores two or more degrees of success, so we'll tread carefully around such adjustments; spells don't have an obvious cognate to a weapon that takes up two hands. (Which immediately suggests to me the need for a series of negative spell qualities to go with the more desirable spell qualities that Wombat Warlord has already created.)

Defensive and utility magics rely much less on the spellcaster's relevant potency stat. A healing spell that restores Health might still use the caster's normal potency stat, but spells to transfer Injuries or Wounds... not so much. Anything that doesn't operate on the same scale as Composure or Health is generally assumed to either use the potency stat in a different way, or ignore it altogether.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Don't Rest Your Head: Player-side Review

As part of Samhaine's ongoing tests of all kinds of indie-gaming systems, we recently played a very enjoyable evening of Don't Rest Your Head. I played Corwin van der Hoyt, a crosstown courier who worked for some kind of shady people; he was a Mirror's-Edge style thrillseeker. Ever since the mysterious car crash that killed his wife and the two people in the other car, though, Corwin has taken military-grade stimulants to avoid sleep, even as he wants to figure out, or remember, what caused the car crash.

These statements almost complete Corwin's character creation, even though none of them are "stats," as such. The way Don't Rest Your Head works, a starting PC only has four things you could call "crunchy" stats, and two of those are determined in a single decision. These are, in order: the Fight or Flight Responses, which determine what your character does when he goes mad. Essentially, out of six boxes, you choose three that are responses you'll use. Will you always Fight, always Flee, or some mix of the two? So you mark off enough boxes to leave open squares for your available responses, and as you go mad and choose that response, you mark off its box. Eventually you don't have a choice anymore, and you might be screwed. My other two stats are my Exhaustion Talent (Speed/Parkour/Reaction Time) and my Madness Talent (Perfect Insight - everything seems dreamlike, so that I almost know what's going to happen before it happens).

To make life easier for one of the other players, I also created his character: Andre St. John, a washed-up rock star (concept art) with an incredible ability to destroy stuff (Exhaustion Talent: use almost anything as a weapon of destruction) and an even more incredible resistance to harm (Madness Talent: Stoneskin). Living the lifestyle of sex, drugs, and rock & roll left him too fucked-up to sleep, and now he's got to find his girlfriend, who vanished one day.

A decent amount of the early game was taken up with getting the group together, but the GM handled that part with skill: a package that I was supposed to deliver was stolen from me (with a few unkind words as to my character on the side). A conversation with the guy I was supposed to deliver it to revealed that it was a "black box" - an early-90's hacking device that accomplished various things by "phreaking" a pay phone. (In hindsight, this was the first Big Clue as to where the whole plot was going.) Kainenchen's character, a thief who could summon demons, had just had her latest job go horrifically awry, and was now on the run from the cops. The fourth player was an office drone whose girlfriend had, strangely, not been killed when hit at full speed by a car; instead, she turned into a horrible monster. When he saw her at the office the next day, she was back to herself and didn't mention anything of the incident. So that was weird. Also, she started pressuring him to accept his life as an office drone forever...

(After the break: setting spoilers for DRYH.)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

LARP Design Diary: Wizard Dueling

Shortly before our most recent Dust to Dust event, we released rules for wizard dueling. In this post, I want to talk about some of the design considerations that drove this project, some of the ideas we set aside, and some of the problems that we didn't discover until after this stuff was in front of the players. The most obvious form of dueling - two players standing 10-15 feet apart and hurling packets at each other is not as engaging or tactical as we wanted. That is, it doesn't engage the things that wizards should hold up as virtues, such as preparation and forethought. It also doesn't communicate anything interesting about ritualist society.

This led to considerations of convoluted physical maneuvering, marked out by rope laid on the ground. This was more tactical, but very bulky and very public; in all probability it would also burn through huge amounts of Fatigue or mana. Because of the different balance axioms at stake between ritualists and mana-using casters in DtD, it would be very difficult to make a duel between them fair.

From there, we veered into more abstract games, including a modified form of Tsuro and Liar's Dice (Bones). These weren't interacting well with DtD's rules; more powerful wizards either had no edge at all or too much of one. These were our first (and frustrating) attempts at modifying an existing game. The good news for us is that we can revisit them in their original form, because their general style suits the feel of the setting well.

One of our early touchstones in design was Erasmus's challenge in Quest for Glory I. We liked the idea of solving problems through the creative use of spells, as that does communicate one of the intended aspects of ritualism. That line of thought brought us to a single-column boardgame implementation that included creature summoning, walls, damaging spells, and the like. Though I can't speak for my fellow designers, the thing that troubled me about it was the fear that there would not be enough viable strategies, leading to a solved or stalemated game. This design approach was eventually put on a back-burner.

Having already created a custom tarot deck for the setting, we briefly discussed the idea of creating a straight-up CCG, since several staff members are long-time players of Magic: the Gathering and other CCGs. The (staggering) amount of work involved was never something we regarded as a major hurdle; instead, we set the idea aside because playing a CCG in-character would be too jarring for many players.

I don't remember exactly how the design came to us at this point, but when we finally found it, it was as if it had been there all along, almost fully formed.