Thursday, September 09, 2010

Free Sharable Online Battlemap - from Google

I think I've mentioned that I've been playing in a D&D game via Skype. In general, it has been working quite well. The biggest frustration has been combat. Without a battlemat, combat in 3.5 is... well... tricky.

We considered a few options. Last game, however, our GM hit upon a great, simple solution: Google Docs.

She set up a spreadsheet in the form of a grid, and she shared it with all the players. We could all edit the sheet simultaneously. We just typed our PCs' names into the appropriate squares and cut and pasted them around as needed. The cell backgrounds are easy to color, and you can even drop in images... or Google Draw pictures that you create within the document.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Should I run a game?

I'm more of a world-builder and game designer than I am a GM. I've certainly run games before, and most of them have been fairly successful, but I get a lot more satisfaction out of creating (or modifying) a setting and planning a game than I do out of actually running it. The social aspects of running a game are fine. I like playing host.

I think part of my issue is a strong belief that the PCs should be the protagonists of the story and at the center of the narrative. If I'm GMing, then I'm going to be pushing that... which, to some degree, means that what I'm doing is playing support. Sure, it is necessary support... but I'd rather be in the starring role. I want to be a player in my own games, yet that way lies madness... and, I am certain, a poor experience for everyone involved.

All this comes from my inkling that I should GM a game. Kenneth, who is running the Dresden Files game I've been playing in, has asked me a couple of times if I'd be interested in running Shadowrun.

Now, I like Shadowrun well enough, but I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of the setting and timeline, so I said that if I ran it, it would be in a somewhat variant/abstracted setting. This idea, of course, took root in my brain and sent out tendrils. I now have an idea for a setting that I can best describe as a post-apocalyptic Shadowrun/Unknown Armies hybrid... with high-tech corporate arcologies separated by wastelands infected by wild animistic/memetic magic. I find the setting compelling, but should I run a game based in it?

Friday, August 06, 2010

Investigation in RPGs

Right now, the two games that I'm most actively playing in are primarily investigation-based, and this has gotten me to start thinking about the challenges of running an investigation-based RPG.

The trick to running an investigation-based game, I think, is to not make the investigation itself the hard part. The Dresden Files game I'm playing in is a bit guilty of this. In that game, a lot of the challenge comes from trying to figure out what's going on. We investigate clues, and we might get information from them, but that information rarely suggests a clear next step. One of the players has (a couple times) just asked the GM if she could roll her Investigation ability to try and figure out what to do next. This isn't ideal.

How could this be better? New information should usually have an obvious next step attached to it. It doesn't have to come with that information. It doesn't have to be the ideal next step - there might be far better choices available to the PCs... but as a GM, you ought to make it obvious that there are things that PCs can do to advance the plot.

The other game - the Planescape detective agency game I'm playing in - had a great example of not making the investigation the hard part. We were hired by a woman to find out if her husband was cheating on her. Here, the investigation was straightforward. We staked out his place of work and followed him. The tricky part was the decision-making. We were fairly sure that his wife wanted us to fabricate evidence that he was cheating on her (so that she could divorce him). We had to decide whether we were willing to do that (there was a lot of money involved). When we found out that he wasn't cheating on her, but was involved in some other questionable activities, we had to decide what to do with that information and whether we wanted to act on it. This (not the investigation per se) is what made the story compelling.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

What I'm Playing Now

The Dresden Files RPG
We met up with some local(ish) gamers and decided to give the new Dresden Files game a try. I'm the person with the most FATE experience in the group, but I'm not GMing. That's OK. I get to play. It is a low-ish powered game, and I'm playing an aspiring wizard/art student. The game is set in Baltimore, which is the setting fleshed out in the book. It also has the advantage of being local. We're planning a field trip at some point to locations that show up in-game.

So far, the game is fun. There's a bit more reliance on dice-rolling and a bit less in-character roleplaying than I'm used to in this group - but only a bit... and I am wondering how much of that is a matter of people's comfort level. Angela and I didn't know any of the people in the game going into it... and few of them knew each other... but things appear to be working out.

System-wise, I have mixed feelings. I really like a lot of the tweaks to the system that they implemented for DFRPG. On the other hand, there are some places that are vague to the point of being problematic (Thaumaturgy rules - I'm looking at you!). My other big gripe is that the skill list is far too large and has some arbitrary distinctions.

I think that an analysis of the rules will be another post... once I get the hard copy of my books. (I've been using the free-with-preorder PDFs).

The Bridge Company (D&D 3.5, Planescape)
I'm also playing in a game with my old gaming group in Illinois via Skype. I've been a bit wary of this in the past, but I use Skype daily at work now. It seems to be working. The PCs in this game are the employees of a private investigative firm in Sigil. So far, it is a lot of fun. I am playing an Illumian bard/paladin. The character was adopted and had thought himself human (something was surpressing his sigils) until recently. I'm treating bardic music (and spellcasting to some degree) as functions of the Illumian language - which is pretty cool in play.

Other games
Angela started to run a sequel to her long-running D&D campaign, but it has stalled due to scheduling issues. We've also been in two goofy, low-key 1st ed campaigns - one of which has also had some scheduling issues lately... and the other we haven't made it to in several weeks... and will likely end up dropping out of due to schedule conflicts.

Kenneth (who is running the Dresden Files game) has been pushing for me to run Shadowrun. It is tempting, though I haven't come up with a compelling angle yet. I also recently picked up Mutants and Masterminds, which is my current game-system-crush.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Spells vs. Rituals

When 4e came around, one of my big criticisms was the ritual system. I mean, I liked the idea of rituals, but the way that they were implemented seemed driven wholly by game balance. It didn't make any sense to me that the vast majority of utility magics cost time and money to use while combat spells were quick and free.

I knew that I wanted both spells and rituals in Destined, and I also knew that I wanted the distinction between them to make sense. My solution was to make rituals into more formal versions of spells. Spells are quick, flexible... and dangerous. Rituals are slow, more static, more reliable, and far more safe.

How are spells dangerous? I'd discussed how to limit magic use here before. I don't think I explained what I settled on. The first thing to note is that to cast a spell very effectively, you need a number of degrees of success which can be used to do things like increase the spell's duration, range, damage, etc. On the flip side, spells have a penalty to their casting roll based on their power level. Spellcasters will be scrounging for bonuses (there are a variety of ways to get these) and will need to manage them wisely. They can get by on casting spells without bonuses, but those spells will tend to be much less effective... and they are far more likely to fail altogether.

When a spellcaster fails a roll to cast a spell, he has a choice: he may accept the negative shifts on his failed roll as a penalty on all his future spellcasting rolls for the day (until he gets at least four hours of sleep) or he can suffer a penalty such as fatigue or damage that is based upon his degree of failure. If the spellcaster just barely fails, then he doesn't suffer either of these problems. Instead, the spell misfires. In general, this means both that the spell has an effect that is slightly less useful than that of a one-success casting and that it has some unintended (and unwanted) side effects. For example, a misfire on a simple Light spell might result in one of the caster's fingers glowing in flashing colors that fade over the course of a few days. If a spell misfire occurs and the GM sees an opportunity for a spectacular spell failure, he may offer the spellcaster a fate point (which the spellcaster can later use for a bonus). If it is accepted, the GM may describe the misfire any way she wishes. In general, established rituals do not misfire. This is one of the benefits of rituals, but it also accounts for their cost.

It is possible for a spell to be cast as if it were a ritual. You could perform a ceremony that ends with a fireball... and no chance of misfire or backlash. There are other costs involved in this, though.

I'm actually really happy with my ritual system. Nonspellcasters can, potentially, learn rituals. In some ways, they can even be better at using rituals than spellcasters (though it is more of an investment for them to learn how to use them in the first place). The primary factor here is that identification and learning rituals depends upon the Lore skill rather than the Spellcasting skill. In addition, many (particularly more powerful) rituals must be performed at auspicious times, and the caster must calculate the next time they will be able to cast it. For a rare and potent ritual, it might be a number of years before it can be next used effectively. If a ritual has an
auspicious time listed, this is the length of time until it can be cast. The caster can attempt
to calculate a sooner time; this, too, is a Lore roll.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Destined sample character: Drilla the Rat

Here's a sample starting character for Destined and my first draft at a very simple character sheet. Drilla is a bit of a hard character to pigeonhole. She has a bit of magic, but with her low Spellcasting (and noting ameliorating that), she isn't going to be very reliable in using it. She's competent (but not outstanding) in combat. She has a solid base to build on in a variety of directions (though it would be rough trying to make her a socially-competent character). I included the text of her feats and spells for those who might be curious.

Drilla the Rat

High Concept: Rat Shaman
Other Aspects: Uncertain Ancestry The rats, my children Take care of the street, and it will take care of you Stench of the sewers Relentless

Athletics: 6 Combat: 4 Persuasion: 1 (First Impressions: -2)
Lore: 3 (Streetwise: 4) Will: 6 Spellcasting: 1

Reflex Defense: 6 Toughness Defense: 5 (+2 armor) Initiative: 6

Languages: Low Tongue, Gutterspeak, Gobble

Display of Prowess (Will)
Choose a skill other than persuasion. When you are attempting to intimidate someone, you may display your prowess with this skill. When you make an intimidation attempt, you may choose to roll this skill. The degrees of success or failure modify your persuasion dice roll.

Danger Sense
In the first round of combat, you gain access to your reflex defense immediately, instead of at the beginning of your turn.

Rat Swarm (Creature Companion)
You have an animal or other creature that is a faithful companion. You share an unusual
rapport with your companion, who could be a pet, mount, or familiar. Your companion is
an NPC that is run by the GM and created by the GM in consultation with you. Your
companion will have an aspect reflecting its loyalty to you, and you may use your fate
points to compel this aspect. Doing so, however, does not give your companion the fate


Illuminate – Level 1 (-0) (Basic Spell)
Effect: A glowing light as bright as a torch appears. You control its movements: each light may float anywhere within arms reach or remain stationary.
Duration: 5 minutes (extendable)
Degrees of Success: Increase the number of lights by one (+1). Move the light(s) anywhere within your zone (+1).
Aspects: Light
System: If you need to roll to control the created light – if, for instance, using it in a maneuver – the ability rolled is Will.
Notes: You may use this spell as an attack to impose the consequence Dazzled at a cost of three successes.

Whispers – Level 1 (-0) (Basic Spell)
Effect: You can link yourself to a single target you can see. You hear your target's words as whispers. In addition, you may make your own whispers heard to any target you can see.
Duration: 10 minutes (extendable) or continuous Concentration
Degrees of Success: Link to an additional target (+1 each). Subvocalize your whisper without actually making any noise except at the location of the target (+2).
Target: A creature within line of sight.
System: If you link to a target, the target may banish that link with a simple success on a Will roll.

Rat Form – Level 1 (-2)
Effect: You turn into a giant rat, about 30 lbs in weight. While in rat form, you cannot speak or cast other spells, but you gain some of the rat's physical attributes. When you attack with your bite, you do not count as unarmed.
Duration: five minutes (extendable)
Degrees of Success: You may spend degrees of success on a one-for-one basis to increase your Athletics rating and the damage bonus of your bite.
Aspects: Rat
Target: Self


Animal Servitor
Requirements: Small animal Modifiers: -1 Casting Time: 30 minutes Duration: Eight hours (extendable) Type: Nature Effect: This ritual binds a small animal (such as a rat or a small bird) to you for use as a messenger or spy. While the binding is in effect, the animal can be used as a conduit for a Whispers spell (assuming the caster can cast one). It will go to a location that the caster designates, provided that it is well-known to the caster. The caster will know when it has arrived, and can then use it both to speak (with the caster's voice) and hear. The animal can carry a small object (like a homing pigeon). The caster can have the animal seek out a specific target when it reaches its destination. The target must be no more than two zones away from the destination and must either have been present at the time of casting or have been indicated at that time (the latter costs 2 successes).

knife (+2)
light armor (+2/0): piecemeal scraps of leather, fur, and canvas

Monday, March 08, 2010

Destined: What is it?

I'm just about done with the first full draft of the game I've been writing. At this point, it is over 100 pages, although nearly half of that is devoted to things like spells and feats - long lists of things with write-ups.

So, what sort of game have I written? Originally, I set out to create a fantasy version of Spirit of the Century (a Fate based game). Angela and I had used Fate to run a modern fantasy game, and she wanted a D&Desque version so that she could run a fantasy campaign with them. She'd used 3.5 last time, but the prep work was too intense, and she isn't keen on 4e. So, yeah. I told her I'd make her the rules she wanted. Then I thought I'd throw out some of the bits of Fate that neither of us were thrilled with and fuse the Fate and d20 systems. The end result isn't really either. From Fate, I took Aspects and Fate Points. The similarities don't precisely end there, but the feel of the game will be very different.

Some highlights:
  • The base mechanic is 3d6+skill+modifiers. Despite my love of the d12, the only dice you need are six-siders. People who love Fudge dice and Fate's ladder will be disappointed. OK. If you want to impose the ladder on Destined, it would be trivial to do so.
  • Six skills: Athletics, Combat, Lore, Persuasion, Will, and (sometimes) Spellcasting, plus the ability to have areas of player-defined strength and/or weakness within those skills.
  • Really simple, but very flexible character creation.
  • Power level gauges that reflect character strength without dictating it - useful for judging the appropriate difficulty of encounters for PCs. If you are familiar with Mutants and Masterminds, think in those terms.
  • A flexible, tactical combat system. It functions a bit like a cross between Spirit of the Century and Mutants and Masterminds... with a some resource allocation thrown in. It doesn't require a battlemat (it uses zones), it doesn't use stress tracks, it expands the idea of consequences (merging it with d20's conditions), and it includes an abstract system for gauging combat advantage. How long do combats take? I still need more data on this, but they seem to take significantly less time than in d20.
  • I scrapped the idea of a rigid social combat system. I've rarely gotten it to work well in play without it feeling very artificial. The social manipulation system in Destined is designed to have the same functionality without the structure.
So. What am I going to do with this thing?

I'm going to play it.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Monsters as Terrain

Long ago, I wrote about the problems of fighting big monsters. Part of this came from watching my housemate at the time play through Shadow of the Colossus. In that game, you have to climb giant monsters in order to attack them at their (few) vulnerable points.

D&D, with its recent emphasis on a two-dimensional grid, has a huge problem accounting for these sorts of tactics. Instead, it seems to assume that you are always attacking giants in their shins. Or something.

In Destined, I think I've figured out a way to handle this. In general, I'm using the zone system that is found in FATE. Basically, a zone is a roughly-room-sized area. Normally, you can attack anything in your zone in melee combat. Ranged weapons can usually attack things a couple of zones away (depending on the weapon type). The borders between zones may or may not be difficult to cross. If two zones are connected by an open door, there's no problem (unless someone is blocking it). If there is a wall between the two zones, however, there's a difficulty that must be overcome to cross it in combat.

So, what I'm doing is giving big monsters their own zones. I'm still working out how, exactly, this will work, but the basics are simple. That giant? His back is a zone. It is non-trivial to get onto this zone, but if you do, the giant might be limited in how he can attack you. Maybe the giant's armor is weaker there, too...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Orcs have lousy memories.

No. That's not right.

Orcs have superb memories that retain far more detail than that of the average human. If you ask an orc about his breakfast, he's likely to be able to tell you how many bites it took him to eat it.

That's assuming he didn't take a nap in the meantime.

For orcs, sleep works as a memory diffuser. It works gradually. An orc will remember yesterday about as well as a human. A couple of days before that will be fuzzy. Anything before the last week is a blur.

Unfortunately for orcs, this has made them prized as slaves - for both labor and warfare. After the first week of slavery, they barely remember another life.

Reminders help, though. Stories. Visual cues. Notes. They'll dig up old memories (or at least memories of old memories) that the orc can't normally access. This is why so many orcs get tattooed. If there is something that they want to remember, they mark themselves with it. When they see the tattoo, the memory comes back to them.

This is also why orcs, at least the literate ones, keep diaries.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Destined: Too Many Spells?

My working title for my FATE/d20 mashup ruleset is Destined. Why? Obviously because it's derived from FATE and it has two Ds in it.

My current game design conundrum, like my last one, focuses upon the nature of the magic system. I have a few options:
  1. A ton of spells of various power levels. This is the D&D option.
  2. A few spells, most of which are available to beginning characters, but:
    1. would have more powerful/customizable effects depending on the result of your spellcasting roll (more powerful characters will tend to do better on this...)
    2. include explicit support for customizing/skinning spells (the Bolt spell could be a Fire Bolt or an Ice Bolt or a Force Bolt... and each of these would function slightly differently.)
    3. include feats that give extra options to basic spells (the Necromancer feat might let you use Charm to affect undead)
    4. include rituals (already part of the system, though often used as plot devices) that give new options to the spells you have (a ritual might allow you to prepare an object so that when you cast a spell like Mage Hand that doesn't normally allow fine manipulation you can effectively animate that object).
    5. Some combination of (a) - (d)
I was originally looking a (1)... with some of (d) added on. The more I thought about it, the more I'm tempted to go with (2)+(a) - (d)... or at least (b) - (d)... though (a) seems like a good idea for the inclusion of divine magic.

Some people like to play wizardy types because they want to manage the spells. I suspect that just as many people (at least) avoid playing wizardy types for the same reason. If I just had a few basic spells and the system was designed so that you could effectively play a wizard with just those... but you had the option of tweaking a few dials... that might be ideal.

What do you think? What sort of spell lists do you like to see in games?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Haiti: How To Help

I know that I'm not the only one who has watched the devastation in Haiti, shellshocked... and not knowing what to do. My current financial situation hasn't really allowed me to make the donations that I'd like to make.

What I can do, however, is encourage others to help. If you are still looking for a way to do something, Drive Thru RPGs is matching donations to Doctors Without Borders. They are also offering a huge PDF bundle for $20. 100% of the proceeds from the sale of this bundle will go to relief efforts through Doctors Without Borders.

I'm proud to have contributed to a couple of the titles in the bundle. There are a ton of things in there - including full RPGs (Serenity, Roma Imperious, QAGS, Shambles, Seven Leagues), supplements full of additional material for several systems, adventures, setting material, maps, and more. It is advertised as being over $1000 worth of material, but it is important to realize that a lot of these PDFs are very inexpensive to begin with... Check it out.