Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mage: Had We But World Enough, and Time

My most recent session of Mage: the Awakening has reminded me, quite directly, of the problem of time in the system. I'm not talking (well, not directly) about the Realm of Time, which - all things considered - is pretty cogent. No, in this case I'm going back to the problem of extended casting in Mage, which I discussed at great length back in this post. My issues do still boil down to "I wish the books had included advice about this."

The particular case from this past session was that the PCs are finally getting around to putting some magical security on their Sanctum. They started, of course, with a Ward - that's a spell that stops others from teleporting in, scrying on you, or using sympathetic magic against you. Super useful, right? (That noise you just heard is the sound of a thousand D&D 3.x villains who died to Scry-Buff-Teleport tactics facepalming in their graves.) A Ward is also sort of a foundation for future protective magic. This spell is intended to be cast using Extended Casting - that is, a ritual casting in which you can keep going and just build up more and more successes.

Okay, let me back up and talk about Extended Casting a little bit more. With Extended Casting, you put together your dice pool as usual, but instead of applying penalties to that dice pool to affect more targets, extend the duration, or whatever, you just need to build up more successes, and when you're done you basically distribute those successes among the various spell factors. This is an intimidating mess to read on the page, though it's actually very logical when explained in brief. Most things you could do with a ritual have some kind of natural limit to how much Potency you'd bother giving the effect, since this is mostly-not-useful for combat effects (unless you're hanging spells with Time or creating contingency effects with Fate, but that's not what I'm here to talk about).

Not so with a Ward, though. Since the Potency of incoming spells is tested against the Potency of the Ward, there's no conceivable upper limit to how much you might want. The book only mentions Potency 5 in its example, but I can find no reason that the cabal's warlock couldn't create a Potency 20 Ward (which is what he did), or greater if he had cared to do so. Except that... what does it matter? An attacking wizard who is casting his own ritual to scry, open a portal, or whatever can just park his butt and keep building up Potency until he succeeds; the baseline Ward effect described in the book doesn't include any notification to the defender that his Ward has been attacked but has shrugged off the attack without effect.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

D&D: What's Actually Wrong With High-Level Play

This post is in reaction to the most recent Legends & Lore post by Monte Cook. This will be a serious test case for my rule against fulmination in this blog - but never mind that, go read Monte's post and come back.

I've run two D&D campaigns up to 13th level (one 3.0, one 4e) and I'm currently playing in AE at 14th level, and I can say with great certainty that the ideas and goals of high-end play don't enter into anyone's thinking when they say that gameplay breaks down at high level. Now, players and/or DMs may not prefer the power level in which they "create their own planes of existence and lay waste to planets," but that's just a matter of taste - the system doesn't push you to tell stories about those kinds of things at high level. Our AE game has discussed the concept of planar travel, but not as anything we'd ever for any reason want to do. It'll probably come up in that context a few more levels, and that's fine. The plot has gone from local to continental; we're solidly in the system's concept of "paragon" tier, if you will.

No, it's not the angels and devils that cause the problems of high-level play. No one would talk about "the game breaking down" because they're just uncomfortable with the change in style. When people say "the game breaks down," what they're talking about is that the rules aren't working. The rules break down for different reasons in each edition; it's not like designers haven't made a valiant attempt at improvement every decade-or-so. Not working may need more definition also: if odd corner-case tactics are your best bet, even though their chance of success is slim, the game is not working as designed, and characters aren't behaving according to any kind of archetypal guideline. Players can still have fun in these kinds of games, but I think everyone at the table is aware that things have gotten cheesy and walk away a little more dissatisfied.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition

This is the furthest back I can go with any experience of my own. My highest-level 2e campaigns each saw one character reach 9th level. Notable problems include:

  • Linear fighter, exponential wizard: The game was designed so that wizards would be hard to play at low levels, and would get a payoff for their survival at higher levels. The other side of that is that fighters, who theoretically start off strongest, stop really increasing in power. To be more precise: everyone's hit points hit a soft-cap, while a wizard's damage (and pretty much only a wizard's) keeps scaling up. Otiluke's freezing sphere is a great example of this; it scales up at 1d4+2/caster level, with no cap. By the time they can cast it, that's 12d4+24 damage on a failed save (save vs. spells negates); fail that save and an average damage roll means you're also saving against massive damage.
  • On the other hand, most of the new spells wizards are picking up at these levels don't deal direct damage; they're either wonderful and/or bizarre new utility effects, or they're save-or-die effects. The funny thing about save-or-die spells in 2e is that as the target becomes higher level, all save-or-die effects are decreasingly effective against it, since the target's saving throw difficulty ignores the potency of the effect in question (unless there's a specific modifier called out in the effect). I want to talk about spell scaling in more detail; see below.
  • Thieves reach a skill cap at 95%, and there's really no discussion in the core rules of what happens with their skills beyond that point - it's entirely a matter of houserule. This is a place where it was good to start off as a demihuman, but later on it's fine to be human.
  • But it doesn't matter, because at these levels, nonhuman characters can't advance any further anyway, unless the DM has opted for a rule to let them keep advancing more slowly. It's not really worth getting into how terrible this is; I know the OSR guys think it's fine because "we never played to that high of level anyway," but given that this is a discussion of high-level play, that just supports my argument.
  • A lot of high-end monsters have Magic Resistance, which in this edition is a flat and basically unmodifiable percentage chance of failure for absolutely any spell cast on that monster. This is necessary because the dragon needs an additional chance to not die instantly on the wizard's turn; on the other hand, there's no solution but to pick the one or two spells that target terrain, and thus get around Magic Resistance completely.
  • At 21st level and above, things change around a lot more, but I don't really want to re-familiarize myself with Dungeon Master Option: High-Level Campaigns nearly enough to speak about it in detail. I'll just note that the first half of the book is the book on how to be a good DM that the DMG really needed to be. Not all of the advice is really in keeping with best-practices DMing, but it's mostly excellent. Also, it introduces enough new class abilities and such that... yeah, the title of this book should have been AD&D 2.5 Edition. Someday if I feel really motivated, I might give it some deep analysis in this blog.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

LARP Thought Experiment: Alternate Cybernetics System

In the Eclipse campaign, I play a human who has been heavily modified with cybernetics. I've been playing this character since the start of the campaign, so I've had a lot of time to think about theoretical alternate implementations of cybernetics. I want to be very clear that this is not intended as a critique of Eclipse's rules - this is a thought experiment and nothing more, based around fusing two rules concepts that have worked out pretty well so far in Dust to Dust.

The quick summary of the structure is a mana-based system with a variable spell list based on opportunity cost. I like using a mana-based (well, obviously it's actually Bio-Energy) system because when I imagine the cybernetic mechanics as a whole, I envision a single internal energy source rather than one battery per module. Things can be justified in-play either way - that's just what makes the most sense to me, especially given that the reason you have to spend CP (as a stand-in for time and effort) to add new modules, other than game balance, is that you're increasing your personal reserves of Bio-Energy. I like the idea that I could re-route power from one module to another if I'm not going to have a chance to use something, or it seems lower-priority. With characters in general, I like having that feeling of adaptability and fluidity; it's what I loved about druids in both WoW and D&D 4e.

As for the variable spell list and opportunity cost, what I'm imagining is that your modules form your "spell list," but you can just go get a cyberdoc to change out your modules if what you've got isn't what you need. I think that one possible criticism of this approach is that one cyborg can be any cyborg - the sense of personal differentiation is lost - but I would counter that by pointing out that we haven't worried too much about differentiating one spellcaster of a given type from another spellcaster of the same type, at least not in terms of CP expenditure. There are also other ways to introduce personal differentiation, which I'll get into in a bit.

In exchange for some loss of differentiation, this structure offers a thematic expression of transhumanism, as the body becomes an infinitely adaptable tool with which to solve problems; while Eclipse's current system does include this theme, I think it is taken to a new height if modification to solve one problem doesn't lock the character into that kind of modification for the rest of his life. It also intensifies the contrast between mutation (involuntary genetic adaptation to suit one environment or set of challenges) and cybernetics (voluntary scientific adaptation to suit any environment), and incidentally also psionics (voluntary mental and mystical adaptation to surpass limitation). Now, I'm hardly recommending that cybernetics should be inherently better than the other two paths; as it stands, mutation reaches heights of adaptation to niches that cybernetics does not.

The systemic limitation of this idea, as in the existing system for cybernetics, is connected to "slots" of the body, each of which can be upgraded from Consumer-grade to Commercial-grade to Military-grade. These can be reconfigured, of course, to possibly narrow down the number of "spells" a character can access at a time. It is an open question, to me, as to whether I'd want to require a character to have the prereqs for something installed in order to use it - that is, would the Skin 4 module require that you also had the Skin 2 module? It could really go either way, but if it doesn't, the game's balance becomes much more delicate, simply because some of the progressions are at their best at Military-grade, while some others are good enough for 99% of all cases at Commercial-grade.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

D&D 5th Edition: OGL, GSL, SRD, DDI, and so on

I have, from time to time, done some freelance design and writing in the general area of D&D (starting in 3.0 and continuing through d20 Modern and 4e), so while I am far from an authority on matters of the Open Gaming License and its hollow look-alike, the Game System License of 4e, these are things that have affected me directly. Now that 5e has been announced, there might be room for hope for a shift back toward the robustness of the OGL; I'll explain the lessons that I think can be learned from the history of this topic. If you've been deeply invested in D&D for the past twelve years or more, this will be little more than a rehash of things you already know - and if I'm just flat wrong about this history, you're welcome to tell me.

It's like this. Back in days of yore, a guy named Ryan Dancey convinced the necessary set of people that the D&D Third Edition rules could be the foundation of a much broader base of gaming if the use of the rule set were opened up to absolutely anyone who wanted to work with it. In theory, this would serve WotC's interests by getting more people than ever before to buy the core rulebooks and any later rulebooks that WotC added to the SRD. Much like other Open Licenses, innovation benefits even the originator of the product, since they might be able to lift ideas from other products to improve or inspire their own work.

This caused a staggering boom in third-party publishing. I would guess, though I couldn't begin to prove it, that there were more people actively publishing game material in the first several years of the OGL than at any other time in the history of tabletop gaming. There were really very few rules on what you could or couldn't do in your work during that time. Just judging from the way things developed, though, I'd guess that (in WotC's eyes) a lot of that freedom led to undesirable consequences. First of all, there were companies that republished the core rulebooks in new formats, such as smaller perfect-bound books; this meant that WotC wasn't earning money for their core rules the way they'd expected. Though I could be wrong, I don't think they worried quite as much about companies that were actually doing their own thing in creating new classes. The other big thing was that not everyone operates on the same standards of taste - the Book of Erotic Fantasy caused a shitstorm, and I would guess that it was the direct cause for the 4e GSL to impose strict controls on what kinds of content people could create.

Why did WotC even care about this product? Well, part of the whole deal with the OGL was that if you followed their rules, which wasn't all that hard (though there were some irritating minor cases that I'll get to in a minute), you could put a "d20 System" trademark on your book. This gave fans useful information about the book, and confidence that it played within the sandbox that they understood. But WotC didn't like the idea of this product, labeled "For Mature Audiences," showing their trademark - let's skate calmly by the irony of that same company publishing the Book of Vile Darkness. They expressed that displeasure in the short term by requiring the BEF to remove the d20 System symbol and present only the OGL symbol. In the longer term, they put much stricter rules in place when they created the GSL for 4e.

The other thing you couldn't do with the OGL was publishing products that used character-specific names, such as Mordenkainen or Bigby. On the surface, this seems fine: just change the names, right? I mean, as a third-party publisher, I definitely don't plan to write adventures about Leomund, Otiluke, or Rary. Except that 3.0 and 3.5 were published with these names attached to numerous spells in the spell list, and adventure writers needed to be able to refer to those spells in stat blocks, treasure hoards, and so on. For a long time, third-party writers fumbled with a standardized way to refer to those spells, since just cutting out the forbidden name sometimes creates names that don't have enough information to clue readers in to what they came from, such as the sword spell (formerly Mordenkainen's sword). When publishing class spell lists, it was even worse, because changing the initial word changed the spell's position in alphabetical order.

Still, times were good for a lot of companies, and times were enough-to-survive-on for a much larger number of publishers. A lot of that third-party material wasn't great, in keeping with Sturgeon's Law, but that's not really a problem in itself. Cream rose to the top; people made money, lost money, learned through mistakes, and so on. I don't really buy arguments that shoddy third-party products damaged WotC in any way.

After the cut: the GSL, DDI, and what I'd like to see in the future.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Savage Worlds: Player-Side Review

As one of the test audience for Samhaine's system reviews, I played in a Savage Worlds session this past weekend, set in the classic D&D setting of Ravenloft. (In fact, he's even posted the module!) The GM pregenerated characters and some backstory for each of us. I played Rhys Sulien Llewellyn, a seasoned elderly elven wizard, pretty much min-maxed (as far as I know) for spellcasting: I had a d12 in Spellcasting, 15 power points, and the Wizard edge. I'm pretty sure that's really badass, even though I don't know enough about the system to be sure. When I used something described as magic missiles (really, bolts of force) to utterly annihilate two wolves at once (even if the wolves were extras), for a final cost of one (1) Power Point, I started feeling pretty bold.

But I'm getting ahead of myself slightly. The five of us were swallowed by the Mists of Ravenloft and deposited elsewhere. Before we've even introduced ourselves to one another, we're attacked by a pack of wolves. My positioning is not so great, and for a moment there I have both wolves right up in my face. Now, being elderly means that my Strength and Vigor are both rated d4. This means that my Parry (let's call it my Armor Class, if you only know D&D rules; it's the chance for the enemy to miss you outright) is 2. This is two points below the difficulty of "standard" tests; basically, missing me is very freaking nigh impossible. On top of that, my Toughness (physical resilience; basically my defense against hits causing Wounds) is 4 because of that miserably low Vigor. In brief, a stiff breeze might be a serious issue.

So when there are two wolves all up in my shit, we discuss how I can back away, protect myself, or otherwise just survive their next turn. Much like in D&D 3e and later, threatening enemies get to attack you as you withdraw. I can reasonably guess that they're going to hit me and at the very least impose the Shaken condition - and in this system, that is a Problem. Once I'm Shaken, my turn is over, and next turn I must spend my action attempting a Spirit roll to remove the Shaken condition (well, okay, I can walk at half my Pace instead, but that's really it - a condition bad enough that I might as well not have the option). If I succeed by less than 4 (do not get an extra degree of success, called a Raise), that's it for my turn. If I do get a Raise, I can take my action normally. This Shaken thing is my one towering problem with the system, but it didn't wind up being a problem for me in this fight, because I changed what I was going to do. I Tricked one of the wolves (this is a standard combat maneuver), rolling my Smarts (d12) against the wolf's Smarts (...much lower), describing the maneuver as conjuring a minor illusion of danger behind the wolf. So I get a Raise on this maneuver, and now one of the two wolves threatening me is Shaken and has a penalty to Parry. The party's swashbuckling rogue dashes over and attacks the other wolf, again imposing the Shaken condition.

The shoe is on the other foot now for these wolves. To the best of my recollection, the next round I won initiative by drawing a Joker, at which point I cast the magic missile heard 'round the world. I paid double PP for an extra missile (so I could attack both wolves) and double PP for double damage (going up to 4d6), and then I rolled a whole bunch of Raises on my Spellcasting test to reduce that cost again. Those Raises also meant I did still more damage. Oh, and I think at least one die per missile rolled an Ace (maximum value for the die), and therefore exploded. So, um. The famous mists of Ravenloft were stained a vibrant red as a result. Because this ended the fight (and in a very... colorful fashion), we didn't really get into analyzing what kind of problem Shaken would be - don't worry, I'll be going into a lot more detail about it later.

After the cut, the session recap and analysis continues.