Saturday, March 22, 2014

Character Creation by Card Draft

Not that long ago in G+, Rob Donoghue proposed the idea of distributing secrets to players at the start of play by means of a card draft. Shortly before Cam Banks posted the same idea, it occurred to me that starting character stats could be distributed with a card draft too. Now, Cam Banks is at least a thousand times more famous than I am, but I'm still going to take my own run at the idea. By no means is this approach right for every game, so I'm also going to talk about the kinds of games where it could fit well.

The strength of the idea is that character creation should wind up a lot more organic than a completely planned system, while at the same time including elements of choice. The weakness of the idea is that players who only want to play one race, class, or background, or players dedicated to optimization, may not get what they want. There's also a pretty reasonable chance that two characters in the same group won't be balanced against one another. I haven't tested the idea yet, by any stretch of the imagination.

Start with a deck of cards with a variety of different abilities or bonuses written on them. Personally, I like the idea of cards involving two choices; in a D&D context, this might be "+1d4 to one ability score, or begin play with a treasure map to a destination within a day's journey." Now, it's probably the case that a lot of players choose the numerical bonus over the story option, but that's not the worst thing in the world.

A deck suitable to a group includes enough cards to give them stats, and to make sure each player has several choice points. For D&D, this might mean a final hand of 10-12 cards per player, of which they use all but one or two to determine the character's abilities. For WaRP, this might mean a final hand of eight cards, of which 4-6 determine the character's abilities. As in a draft for a card game, you generally want to leave in some room for discarding cards you simply got stuck with, and never especially wanted.

The drafting mechanic itself is nothing new. I recommend splitting the (shuffled) deck into a number of piles equal to the number of players; each player selects one card and passes to the left. A snake-draft style is fine, but slow, since every player has the whole deck to consider.

I strongly encourage a strict ban on table talk during the draft. The whole point of the idea collapses if players discuss and collaborate in the process. Also, with this many choice points and ways for players to influence other characters, many groups would find that one or two players "quarterbacked" the experience, rather than allowing the characters to form organically. Guidance from a more experienced player is usually helpful to making sure newer players have a good time; I'd simply say that drafting has enough choice points that it may not be appropriate for groups whose players have widely differing amounts of experience with the game.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Menzoberranzan Rebuild: Lloth

About six months ago, I wrote about my conflicted relationship with the Forgotten Realms setting, and mentioned that I might like to rebuild Menzoberranzan and the conception of the drow as a whole. My problem with them is that the Menzoberranzan boxed set is written to support an urban, all-drow campaign, but the drow style of kitten-eatin' evil is just not interesting to me. My three-word pitch for a revamped Menzoberranzan: arcanopunk inverted Venice. My approach won't be for everyone, but that's fine - I like what I like. Unrelentingly evil villain protagonists are overdone at this point - and even Walter White would not have been compelling if the show had started with the tone of Season 5.

Important Note: I began collecting FR material somewhere round 1994, and stopped collecting FR material right around 2005 or '06. The finished work won't cleave to canon, so don't be surprised when I miss some points in discussion along the way. My primary sources are the aforementioned boxed set and Drow of the Underdark (the 2e one, not the 3.5 one published on '07).

Second Note, Far More Important: This post is going to discuss religion, including real-world religion. It may be searingly offensive to readers who identify with the religions mentioned. Offense is not intended; where it results anyway I offer my apologies, as I have an outsider's ignorance on religions and spiritual traditions other than Episcopalian Christianity.

My starting point is the Queen of the Demonweb Pits and her priesthood. Menzoberranzan is the "default" drow culture and city of FR - other drow city-states define themselves by their difference from it. For example, the cult of Lloth rules the city with absolute control, as she is often said to do for all dark elves - but if I recall correctly, Vhaeraun has his city, Ghaunadar has its city, and Eilistraee has a camp or something. (I am not checking the whole of FR's text for this.) I digress; the point is that it doesn't make any sense to change Menzoberranzan without changing the character and the religion responsible for its madness.

The Lloth in the text isn't overburdened with motives that one could reasonably parlay into results. She encourages constant murder between the drow Houses, ruthless racial purity and supremacy, capriciousness (a dodgy virtue by any standard), and total matriarchy. I do believe that one could write a setting with a very active god (as Lloth is described as being - she's apparently in avatar form all the frickin' time) who is almost completely unpredictable. Actually, TSR did this, three years later, and the way they did it is the start of my model for Lloth 2.0.

So what if Lloth were inscrutable rather than capricious? In final form, the actions can be relatively similar - the Lady of Pain is described as Mazing people for any visible reason, or none, and flaying people just by casting her shadow over them. Untouchable, awful power fits in fine with inscrutability; by virtue of having stats, Lloth must be a step down from the Lady of Pain. (Whether or not gods or the avatars of gods should have stats, and thus be possible to defeat in combat, is another argument; let's briefly short-circuit it by saying that FR's answer is a consistent Yes, throughout the product-line.) Making Lloth seem inscrutable requires little more than giving her a guiding purpose - an alignment shift to be sure, but I have a sufficiently low opinion of alignment rules that I am not attempting to maintain consistency with a classic Chaotic Evil alignment.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Quintessence Design Diary: Skills and Attainments

In working on Quintessence of Dust, I decided that I liked some parts of D&D Next's skill list, and didn't like others. Of course, I've talked about D&D Next's skill model extensively. I particularly liked the skill-die model of earlier playtest packets, with skills rated +0 to +1d12, and with each skill carrying a preferential but non-binding attachment to a particular ability score bonus. On the other hand, there's a lot I don't like, especially when it comes to skills designed to manage character knowledge.

So I composed my own skill list, and introduced Attainments to cover the things that I want to track, and even use to modify skill checks, but that I wouldn't classify as skills. I've talked about the resolution mechanic of Quintessence before; Attainments are scaled like task bonuses and are often appropriate to use as such. (I'm not 100% satisfied with this, and it may need some alteration - but this is a design blog, y'all, I don't claim to get it right the first time.)

Each skill is made up of three or more Tasks - specific applications of the skill, allowing characters to further specialize. The Tasks also say a variety of things about what I expect a Dust to Dust tabletop game might involve; many of these would be unusual choices for other settings. The actual text includes more discussion of each Task's coverage, but I don't want this post to become unbelievably long, so I've cut that text for now. (Also, some Task names are ambiguous or misleading without that text; filing "Plot a Route" under Acrobatics seems weird until you get that I'm talking about studying an area for acrobatic passage, more or less like studying an area in one of the Assassin's Creed games.) There are plenty of valid arguments to be made that some two tasks should be collapsed together, also. Tasks include recommended ability score modifiers; the ability scores of QoD are Strength, Agility, Vitality, Intellect, Wisdom, and Spirit.

Easy checks use Action Difficulty 5.
Normal checks use AD 9.
Hard checks use AD 13.
Very Hard checks use AD 17.
Legendary checks use AD 21.