Tuesday, November 26, 2013

LARP Design: Magic Items

There are a lot of lessons of good game-running that carry over between tabletop and live-action gaming. This post, though, concerns itself with an area in which the two are quite different. As usual, I'm talking about a certain band of LARPing, not all LARPing. (There are almost no statements that apply usefully to all of LARPing without being tautological.) So this is about games with a campaign-style structure: characters continue from event to event, accruing both Abilities and Stuff. (Characters also accrue less-tangible things, like Plot Relevance and contacts, that are major advantages in the game - anyway.) Be warned, this post is going to rehash a lot of basic concepts.

The thing about Stuff is that it is separate from Abilities. Abilities (the things that are intrinsic and inseparable from the character, purchased with experience points) increase over time, and generally someone who is ahead is always going to be ahead, though a newer character can catch up with a longer-term one by specializing (if and when the other generalizes), can close the gap (either because skills grow more expensive or because experience point income decreases - the former model is common in CI/Ro3, while the latter model is found in NERO and its family of games), can go to additional effort to catch up (depending on circumstance), or can arrange things so that the other player has to miss out on opportunities for experience points (don't ever do this - it makes you an asshole and possibly a criminal). This isn't a post about comparative experience-point mechanics, and I'm not interested in arguing relative virtues of these models right this moment. The important point is that for the most part if A has more experience points than B early on, that will remain true later, and experience points are for most games the best interdisciplinary measure of power.

So this brings us to Stuff. In the fantasy genre, most of the Stuff we care about is reasonably described as Magic Items, though some settings have highly valuable nonmagical commodities as well. In this case I'm not interested in currencies or trade goods - those are things you might use to acquire relevant Stuff, not Stuff in themselves. (I'll get some real terminology in a minute, don't worry.) In settings without magic, there's still usually some kind of Stuff to gain in the course of play, if only because it's so satisfying to upgrade one's gear and get cool new toys. These are typically better than whatever the baseline starting gear is - or they're providing things completely unknown to normal gear. So from here on out I'm going to call them magic items rather than Stuff - but you steampunk, western, and sf folks just keep in mind, I'm talking about your Uber Death Rays or your wacky new steam-powered cybernetics.

So the general purpose of magic items, in both LARPs and tabletop games, is to grant a new and tangible benefit to the user. Magic items might reasonably be rewards for one's efforts, available through purchase, the source of the story and conflict in themselves, or all of the above. If a character's experience point total is an objective measure of power, magic items are boosts to that total - albeit ones that may come with drawbacks or the possibility of loss. Quantifying that increase in power is sometimes unclear, but that's not particularly important; cursed magic items that have no benefit, or represent a net loss in power, are pretty rare. More on this in a bit.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Third Year of Blogging

This is my third Anniversary Post for Harbinger of Doom. Its predecessors are here and here. In these posts it is my custom to talk about the games I'm running and playing, since I otherwise largely abjure blogging about matters of normal life. Much like when I started this blog back in 2010, I'm out of work - game design and writing are fickle fields, especially if you aren't a programmer.

Games I'm Running

  1. Dust to Dust has now run eleven three-day events, three one-day events, and two World Events. The game has continued to thrive, though the work of running the game is no easier than it was - the challenges keep changing. I love it, though: in this season we got to stage some of the scenes we had been planning since the early planning stages.
  2. D&D Next: If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I've been blogging obsessively about the public playtest of D&D Next and my campaign. Prepping for DtD events always disrupts the schedule of my D&D game, but we still found time for twenty sessions over the last year.
Games I'm Playing
  1. Eclipse has ended its first arc and run the first event of its second. The four-day closer of the first arc was quite the blowout, and the transformed setting going into the second arc is a brave new world indeed.
  2. Oceanhorn is a new iPad game that does everything in its power to capture the feel of the original Legend of Zelda in a 2.5D perspective. I'm maybe two or three hours of play into it, but then I lost a lot of time because I got stuck on finding the key to one locked gate and re-explored most of the setting trying to figure out if I was supposed to do something else first.
  3. Robbery Bob: I just picked this up, though I guess it's been out for awhile. It's a stealth game, tuned to the relatively-low-difficulty mobile gameplay environment. It's way more fun than it has any right to be.
  4. XCOM: Enemy Unknown: I finished this maybe two months ago. It was really, really outstanding, and once I get Enemy Within, I'll probably start over from the beginning.
  5. SolForge Beta (on iPad): I'm impressed so far, and I'm looking forward to the next content update.
  6. Hearthstone Beta: This game is pretty excellent, though as more people play it I get comparatively worse at it.
  7. Path of Exile: I wouldn't say that action RPGs are really my bag, but I like this game quite a lot. Its only weakness, in my mind, is the difficulty of understanding some of the choices you make - its learning curve for active and passive skill selection is brutal. Other than that, it's pretty amazing. And really-free - I don't feel like I'm missing out on major parts of the game by not paying.
  8. Lords of Waterdeep: WotC has started capitalizing on the incredibly deep IP that D&D represents with a series of boardgames: Castle Ravenloft, Wrath of Ashardalon, other thing, and most recently this game. I haven't played all of them, but I've played enough to say that this game is a ton of fun and I can't wait to play again. I have not yet tried out the mobile version, though.
I want to mention one of the last games I worked on for MFV.com, Quarriors! They have now announced its upcoming launch, and I am very excited about this. I enjoy the boardgame version of Quarriors!, but I enjoyed its mobile version even more as we worked on it. I don't know that MFV.com and NECA have announced its release date, but I would definitely encourage you to pick this one up, because I think it's a great product.

I expect that the coming year will sharply curtail my available time for both gaming and blogging, but I plan to continue both to the best of my ability.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Skyrealms of Jorune Review: Part Two

It's been a long time now since I first cracked the cover of Skyrealms of Jorune and began my detailed examination of this famously strange game. It's been a pretty slow news week on the D&D Next front, what can I say? So here we are, in Chapter Two (Creating Your Character) of a book that is far more daunting than its 216 pages would imply.

The chapter starts with a bog-standard introduction to roleplaying and the interpretation of dice. Let me just say that my heart really goes out to anyone whose first experience of a roleplaying game is picking up a copy of Skyrealms of Jorune and trying to make something playable out of that. The mind boggles - it is hard to imagine a game less friendly to new players. A twenty-year veteran of roleplaying games (hint: me) would find the game forbidding. The first-timer section should have said, "Okay, you did the right thing in buying our book, but before you play this game, go play something less complicated, like Champions or maybe D&D with all of the options turned on, and also a towering pile of house rules. Once you're comfortable with that, come play our game."

Now, part of the reason I say this is to be snarky. The other reason, though, is that Skyrealms of Jorune goes way out of its way to emphasize the subversion of expectations and default behaviors. Much of the effect is lost if the player doesn't have at least a few other games (and their underlying expectations) under his belt before starting in on this one. Ironically, the last twenty years or so have also seen geek culture (including a whole lot of roleplaying) pervade pop culture and awareness to a continually surprising degree.

The chapter then recapitulates the descriptions of the PC-playable races, in slightly more approachable terms than used in Chapter One. On the other hand, a player coming into this chapter without having read Chapter One will need to look up a word in the Reference section about once every three to four sentences; the text also drops placenames steadily. I think if they had done about 30% less of that, it would be a great bit of text, seeding a ton of evocative names that would intrigue players for later. As it is, the place-names and setting jargon make the text too dense to really absorb on the first or second reading, and nothing quite hooks me.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Lore Game: Knowledge Skills in Tabletop Games

With a lot of my posts about game design, I talk separately about how things work in tabletop games and live-action games. When I came to the topic of lore skills, I first discussed how they work in a number of local LARPs, because I feel like LARPs have a better handle on both the creation of an intricate, deep lore game and I find DtD's implementation of Lore skills more satisfying than any tabletop game's implementation of knowledge skills. The former point you'll have to take on faith if you're not a LARPer already, but the latter I hope to explain in some detail. I'm going to start, once again, with an examination of how different tabletop games handle those skills. The only rhyme or reason to how I picked these games is that, well, I own copies of them.

Second Edition D&D

2e was D&D's maiden voyage into the wide world of skill systems that could actually be called such. I'm going to skip over a lot of its bizarre parts, like the way weird little subsystems sneak in through skills, some skills are blatantly better than others thanks to their combat applications... like I said, I'm skipping it. The point is that there's a separate skill for every field of endeavor that the designers could justify in a medieval-to-Renaissance-era magical world, sliced as thin as possible (Animal Handling, Animal Lore, and Animal Training are all separate skills). Later books introduce still more of these, which has the unstated (and, at the time, unrealized) effect of narrowing the applications of prior skills.

In a pattern that will be repeated for every tabletop game with a randomizing component, the character's knowledge of any particular fact or ability to answer any particular question is based on a die roll like any other skill check. In 2e, difficulty isn't really modulated off of the task in question, but off of the skill itself, as in most roll-under systems. The difficulty can be modified with bonuses or penalties, but the game doesn't really emphasize that. Also, much like in D&D Next, a character's native ability (from ability scores) hugely outweighs training as a factor in overall competence in skills.
While I'm in the midst of a lengthy digression on 2e's skills, it also presents an alternate rules option that is a randomized approach to assigning a background, and decides you don't really need any rules to attach to that. The weird thing about this is that it's in the Player's Handbook.
The specific case of Religion is an outlier among skills. Sure, they all introduce strange little subsystems, and that's... great... but Religion tosses out everything else about how knowledge skills work. Your first proficiency slot gets you basic access, while slots beyond the first either improve your skill value by 1, or you can gain the ability to check for knowledge about the religions of a broader region, or you can gain such familiarity with one religion that you no longer need to roll a check to answer questions about it.

Third Edition D&D

I realize most of my readers are thoroughly familiar with 3.x and don't need this summary. It's included here only for completeness. Knowledge skills are the equivalent of other skills, and the rules are just as stingy about handing out Knowledge skills as class skills as they are with anything else. The game defines ten Knowledges, noting that the list is expansible with DM permission. Each of them grants a synergy bonus to another skill as well (or turning undead, in the case of religion). Intelligence is a double-dip benefit to Knowledge skills, as it grants skill points and an ability score bonus to all knowledge skills. This has the regrettable outcome of making clerics, paladins, and so on terrible at Knowledge: Religion, since they need to spend skill points on other things also. It is a grueling, uphill march against the system to play a fighter or rogue with significant ability in knowledge skills, all told. Even for a high-Int character, though, a list of ten knowledge skills to purchase individually means that probably no one character has every Knowledge to any particular degree.

Early on, the value of a skill might be mostly from your ability score bonus, but at higher levels, most of the skills you care about get most of their bonus from training. Also, the system supports racking up huge skill scores, and thus scales DCs to challenge the experts at high levels (a fact that directly informs 4e's skill design). It also has the result of pushing non-specialists out of the action.