Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Gyre, the Fractured City: An Introduction

Some of the twelve worlds are nearly indistinguishable from our own. Others are barren wastelands, sylvan paradises, or dystopian nightmares. They may be ruled by magic or by technology or by sheer greed and ambition.

Between the worlds, lies Gyre.

The great cycle brings each of the worlds in line with Gyre. When a world is aligned, the gates of Gyre open to it. It is said that it is through such traffic that the worlds first diverged from each other.

The Lords of Gyre control the cycle and the gates. Some say they control the twelve worlds themselves.

The people of Gyre reflect the diversity of the twelve worlds. Many are as human as you or I. Others are Neanderthals, elves, cyborgs, talking animals, and even stranger things. Cultures lost on the twelve worlds might still survive in Gyre, and there are certainly cultures in Gyre that have evolved separately from those on the twelve worlds.

Within Gyre, culture and belief have power. When a person passes through a gate to Gyre, their bond to their own world is fractured, opening them to a possibility to wield that power. This ability can be diminished if they leave Gyre for one of the worlds, but this is unpredictable. Some people have left Gyre and imposed their will upon some of the twelve worlds. The eighth world, for instance, is ruled by an oligarchy of mage-kings who come from Gyre. Their infighting has largely torn that world apart.

When the great cycle passes through all twelve worlds, there is a thirteenth point on the cycle. During this time, all gates are closed and none can leave Gyre. Still, sometimes, there are those who  pass through the seemingly-closed gates into Gyre during this time. Some of these seem to come from the twelve worlds. Others seem to come from somewhere else... perhaps other worlds that never fully align with Gyre.

Many things are said of those who pass through into Gyre during this thirteenth period. What is known, about them is little, but all agree that they have been marked by fate and have the power to change Gyre itself...

* * *
This might be the setting/premise for the next game I run. The PCs would be new to Gyre, entering during the thirteenth period. Various factions in the city might hunt them, seek them out for help, or hope to use them as pawns. In the meantime, they would learn about their potential, explore the city, and choose their own allies and enemies.

There are three main inspirations here. The first, and probably most obvious, is Sigil (Planescape). I'm not using anything like the D&D cosmology, but a city filled with gates to strange worlds is pretty hard to beat as a setting. I'm also influenced here by the whole philosophy-as-magic thing, though that's going to get filtered through the second major influence, which is Unknown Armies. I see a lot of conceptual connections between Unknown Armies and Planescape (and once wrote up a weird amalgam of the two). I'm likely to use Unknown Armies as the basis for the rules for this game, though there will be a few tweaks to magic (mostly to make it more flexible)... and combat. The combat system in Unknown Armies is, as far as I can tell, intentionally bad. The third major influence is Don't Rest Your Head. I'm not necessarily going for the ultra-surreal-and-frenetic nature of that game, but  I am certainly influenced by it here. The PCs are newcomers into a strange world tangentially connected to their own where they are powerful and special... and the powers that be in that world will certainly take an interest in them.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Thoughts on hit points and misplaced abstraction

Hit points are an abstraction of a combination of physical durability, tenacity, skill, luck, narrative importance, and... well... probably a few other things.

Damage, however, typically scales directly with the size/power of the weapon used.

There's a disconnect here. At first level, I can maybe take a hit or two from an ax... but probably not more than that. At tenth level, I may be able to survive a dozen such hits. Why? The answer is, typically, that hit points are an abstraction... that not all of those hits represent actual connections between the weapon and my body... rather they represent me wearing down my reserves and such.

If that's the case, then why does damage scale according to the weapon? Is fighting someone who is armed with an ax more strenuous than fighting someone who is armed with a dagger?  It might be, but that certainly isn't how weapon damage is scaled.

Moreover, most people don't describe combat that way. In most games that I play in, if I hit on the attack, the damage gets described as a wound. Why? Because I hit on the attack. Describing the effect of a successful hit as a wound is natural. Similarly, healing is nearly always described in terms of healing wounds. This is behind the problem that many people have with healing surges in 4e.

One way to describe the problem here is to say that it isn't hit points and damage that should be considered abstract, but rather hits - most successful attacks shouldn't actually hit the opponent.

Once this is accepted, a new way to abstract combat opens up. Hit points represent physical durability. Weapon damage represents the deadliness of the weapon. A single actual hit from a dagger in the back might be able to kill even a high level character. The trick is that it is exceedingly unlikely that a high level character would ever get hit in the back with a dagger. We need to introduce something like abstract hit points and apply it to attacks. Borrowing a bit from FATE, let's call this Stress.

Introducing stress

As characters advance in level, they don't really gain hit points. They might become harder to hit outright. They also gain more capacity for stress. What is stress? Well, when an attack would hit a character, that character can choose to take on some stress to prevent the attack from being successful. This might represent a near miss that throws the character off, but it could just as easily represent a twisted ankle or strained back that results from dodging (or falling) out of the way. All the abstractions that went into hit points are applicable here. When a character fills their capacity for stress, they can't take on more to avoid hits.

Stress and other subsystems

In a system with stress, armor should provide direct resistance to damage, whether that is a flat number or a variable. This provides characters with a meaningful choice of whether or not to take stress. If the threatened damage is likely to be absorbed by a character's armor, then taking on stress may be unnecessary (particularly if you expect to need that capacity later).

Healing could focus on primarily on hit points, but something like 4e's healing surges could be used to relieve stress. Once abstracted stress is separated from hit points, it makes sense for things like inspirational speeches to have an effect.

Various class abilities could trigger at specific stress points. Perhaps having stress makes it more difficult to cast spells. Warrior-types might gain the ability to use special attacks when they have a certain amount of stress (Final Fantasy Limit-Break-Style). There are several possibilities.

Perhaps (without certain special abilities), you can't take stress to avoid a surprise attack. This would make a dagger in the back a very serious danger for high level characters even without depending upon a backstab damage multiplier.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Roleplaying in the Secret History of...

The mystical secret history genre (think Tim Powers) is ripe for roleplaying. Unknown Armies sits squarely in this space, and many modern-setting games are compatible. They work because people largely share a sense of history and historical importance. If I say "the lost survivor of the Titanic" or "the sketchbook of Aquinas" or "the last words of  Eva Braun," there is a social and historical context that gives these things meaning... and the potential for power.

In a homebrewed fantasy setting, this sort of thing is difficult. Players won't have the established knowledge to make such things meaningful to them. Telling them facts or expecting them to read up on histories you've written is unlikely to be effective. This can be accomplished more effectively if the characters care about the historical facts in question. I need to think about how to do this most effectively.

Still, this is one of the best uses I can think of for long-established campaign settings. With the right group of players, running a campaign around secret histories set in Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms or Tekumel... or even Middle Earth... would be simple... and could be incredibly compelling.

Thinking about it, there are a lot of classic D&D adventures that could really be recast in this light - many of them are centered around ancient tombs of historically-important individuals. Reworking them might largely be a matter of tone and objective.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Reversing Initiative: A Modest Proposal

Here's an idea for tweaking initiative in Pathfinder and other games that use d20-style system. It is loosely based on some ideas from Exalted. The system there had some neat ideas, but it was far too complicated. The system here is simplified quite a bit and requires minimal deviation from the basic d20 ruleset:
  • Each participant rolls a d20, as normal, but they subtract their initiative modifiers instead of adding them.
  • Find the character with the lowest initiative. That character goes first.
  • Each action happens immediately upon the initiative rating of the character who performs it. That action costs an amount of Delay. Add the Delay rating to the initiative count. That is when the character will be able to act again.
  • Different sorts of actions have different degrees of Delay:
    • Free actions: 0 delay if performed as part of an action with delay 2 or more. 1 delay otherwise.
    • Immediate actions: add 1 delay to your last action
    • Swift actions: 1 delay
    • Move actions: 4 delay
    • Standard actions: 5 delay
    • Full-round actions: 9 delay
  • When time is measured in rounds, 1 round=10 delay
  • You may delay your action normally.
  • The initiative count proceeds upwards. It stops only at the end of combat.
Five effects of this system:
  1. You don't have to wait around too long for your turn to do something.
  2. You need to pay more attention to what is going on. Combat is less of a series of states and more of a fluid thing.
  3. Some combat manuevers (such as charging) become much more useful.
  4. Characters who plan elaborate multistep things to do on their turn will have that broken up (and possibly disrupted).
  5. You get to brag about how long (or short) your combat was. "I killed that dragon at initiative count 29! That's a personal best!"
Six optional rules tweaks for use with this system:

  1. Surprise. If you start combat unaware of your opponents, roll initiative as normal. You cannot act normally until you are aware of your opponent, however. Delay until your first opportunity to notice your opponent and make a Perception/Spot check, which is a standard action (5 Delay) with a DC set by the circumstances. If you fail this, you may retry it on your next turn. The difficulty is likely to be lower by that point.
  2. Quick Attack Option: You may make a single attack with a light weapon at 4 delay. This attack is made at -1 to hit, and you may not add a strength bonus to either your attack or damage rolls.
  3. Haste causes all actions to have one less delay, except for movement actions and full attacks, which have 2 less delay. Slow causes all actions to have one more delay, except for movement actions and full attacks, which have 2 more delay. These effects and modifiers to attack rolls and AC are the only effects of these spells.
  4. Attacks of Opportunity add two to the Delay of your last action.
  5. The Dazed effect simply adds 10 to a creature's Delay. To add some uncertainty here, allow the dazed creature an optional second saving throw against the effect. If it succeeds, the effect ends after 8 Delay. It it fails, the effect ends after 12 Delay.
  6. Two Weapon Fighting can be handled as follows: Attack penalties remain the same when fighting with two weapons. When making a full attack, you get an extra attack with your off-hand weapon as normal. In other circumstances, instead of getting a free attack with your off hand weapon each round, you may attack with both weapons as a standard action that has 6 Delay.
Despite the above, I'd avoid adding in too many deviations from the basic Delay costs. That's the road Exalted went down, and I feel like it rendered the system cumbersome.

This hasn't been playtested at all. If you try it out, let me know how it works.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Pushing your Luck

Let's revisit a topic that I brought up five years ago. I've never liked that luck tends to be handled in RPGs by a reroll. The other day, while driving into Baltimore, I think I realized why: a reroll is a test of skill.

This is largely system-agnostic, but I'll describe it in d20ish terms. Let's say my character is running away from an ever-expanding pool of acid and needs to jump a chasm to join the other PCs in safety. If I have a +10 to a roll and need to get a 20 or more on a d20+10 roll in order to succeed, then luck plays no more into a reroll than it did in the original roll. Sure, I'm getting a chance to have the luck work out the second time when it didn't work out the first time, but a success on that second roll wouldn't typically feel any different than a success on the first roll - nor would it usually be described differently. If I roll a 5 on the first roll and then succeed with a 16 on the second roll, would any of the other characters (or even my character) say, "Wow, that was lucky!" in response to a success on a luck reroll? Probably not. In game, there is usually nothing to distinguish success on the luck reroll from success on the original roll.

Luck bonuses are even worse here, as you don't even have that second roll to differentiate the effect of an unusual degree of luck.

It is certainly true that, in either of these cases, good attention to description can make a difference. If the second jump roll gets described as me falling a bit short but catching a convenient handhold rather than me just jumping successfully across the chasm, then the effect of luck can be seen in game. In a game where these sorts of successes are consistently described in terms of lucky breaks then, if I have a lot of luck rerolls (maybe because of some feats I took), other characters will tend to see me as lucky (rather than just skillful).

A side note:
All the OSR folks reading this have probably already said... "duh." In old-school play, this sort of thing is typically seen as part of the GM's responsibility. That's not to say that all such GMs are good at it - or view their responsibilities equally... and, really, in such games it is usually the initial die roll where luck is seen as coming into play. I find this situation really interesting, but its a topic for another blog post.

How can we support such descriptions with game mechanics, though? I can think of a couple ways. My current favorite is what I call "pushing your luck." In this mechanical variant, luck bonuses don't apply to standard rolls, and rerolls are special. When you fail a roll that you could have otherwise succeeded in, you can try to push your luck. Roll a d20. On a 20 you succeed due to the intervention of something lucky. On a 1, you hit a patch of bad luck and you not only fail, but suffer some other effect (insert typical botching rules). If you have a luck bonus, that expands your range of success on the d20 roll.

Characters might have a limit on how often they can push their luck. This would depend on genre and tone, but I'd suggest once per game session, plus one for any time they could take a luck reroll (due to feats or whatnot). There might be feats or luck powers that would allow people to push their luck on certain rolls that they wouldn't normally be able to succeed at as well.

Unless your game features a lot of luck bonuses, pushing your luck is fairly balanced. It offers chance at a lucky break, but not without a risk. Moreover, it provides a clear indicator and convenient hook for describing when luck comes into play.

Monday, January 09, 2012

A game designed for web based play?

When RPGs were created there were some assumptions that were made. They'd be played around a table. Players would have paper and writing implements. You'd be playing with people you know.These weren't outlandish assumptions. They probably weren't even conscious.

These assumptions led to some very basic game design decisions. Players could roll dice as a randomizer - everyone around the table could see the results. If you needed to, you could record die rolls (or other things) on paper. You could include rules that depend on things like having a clockwise order around the table or knowing who the youngest player is.

Today, some of us play RPGs remotely over the internet, whether that is via Skype, G+ Hangout, or some other system. We've adapted around assumptions like the ones mentioned above. For our dice rolls, we might depend on trust and self-reporting - or we might use an online program that shows everyone's results. Instead of setting up miniatures on a table, we might use a shared online document or a virtual game table. Instead of proceeding in a clockwise order, we might establish an arbitrary order when needed.

We're playing games designed for a tabletop in another medium. We're adapting.

...but what if there were RPGs designed specifically for such a medium? RPGs designed to be played by people online who aren't all in the same location? I'm not talking about MMORPGs. I'm talking about something analogous to a tabletop RPG. Something flexible. What would such an RPG look like?

I think we could fairly safely assume that it wouldn't have dice. If it has a randomizer at all, there'd be no reason to limit it to the number of choices governed by the size of physical dice.

That's a fairly trivial difference, though, all things considered. I think an online-play rpg could be a very different sort of game.

What do you think such a game would look like?

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Dwarves of Kor

In the new game I'm running, Dwarves are weird.
Before the refugees settled in Kor, they had no idea how weird.
First off, the dwarves who headed to the surface were all young. Dwarves in Kor will live nearly a thousand years. Typically, dwarves spend their young adulthood either in the military, in an apprenticeship, or as an entrepreneur. Adventurers fall into this last category.
Second, at about 300 years (give or take a century), dwarves begin growing two fleshy appendages on their cheeks to either side of their nose. These limply hang down into a dwarf's beard. Covered with hair, they could easily be missed from a distance. Dwarves say these organs allow them to "taste" metal and minerals from a distance. When already-skilled smiths grow their whiskers, they can become nearly legendary in their abilities. (As a side note, these "whiskers" are erogenous zones. Some scandalous dwarves shave them. Calling someone a "metal-taster" is a comment on their sexual promiscuity.)
Third, despite the famous dwarven work ethic, many older dwarves don't seem to actually do anything. Rumour has it that the pillars are filled with chambers in which 800 year old dwarves sit, staring at walls. This might be an exaggeration, but older dwarves often move and react slowly, and it is not unknown for one to sit down at a table in a tavern and stay there, unmoving, for days. Other dwarves don't seem to bat an eye at this (and the tavern keeper will happily close up the tavern around his immobile guest) - indeed, they seem to show deference to such dwarves. Either not all older dwarves have this tendency, or it might come and go. Possibly both.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Kor, Dwarfhome

As mentioned previously, I recently started running a new Pathfinder game. It is set in Kor, an enormous, ancient Dwarven city-state.

Kor means "home" in Dwarven.
Kor is more than a city. It is nearly a nation into itself. The Open Market - where dwarves trade with outsiders - is itself larger than most human cities were... and it only occupies a corner of the floor of the enormous cavern that is Kor.
Depending upon how you look at it, Kor has either three or twelve main sections. The cavern is dominated by twelve enormous pillars - formed where giant stalagmites and stalactites merged. Each of these is owned by one of the twelve Great Clans. Within the high city, each of the pillars is capped by a huge keep. The pillars themselves are filled with passages and chambers and have structures built upon them. They serve as the homes for many of those in one of the twelve clans. The outside of a pillar might be covered with shops, artisans' studios, cafes, and taverns run by those in the clans.
Those outside of the clans live in the Low and Middle cities.
  • The Low City: This comprises the floor of the cavern. It is home to most of Kor's large industry and the aforementioned Open Market. The Low City is loud and busy. Successful merchants and crafters may have private estates in the east, closer to the polyp farms. The western and northern parts of the Low City tend to be less desirable real estate.
  • The Middle City: This is a series of walkways and platforms that cover much of the height of the cavern. They have accumulated haphazardly over time (probably expanding out from the pillars). Now, the roads of the Middle City connect pillars, stalagmites, stalactites, and dwarf-made towers. Some areas of the cavern are much more built up than others. The Middle City has, historically, been where younger dwarvenfolk proved themselves. It has also been a center of criminal activity. Currently, many refugees live there in makeshift structures (often made of canvas).
  • The High City: This is carved into the roof of the cavern itself. There are few large buildings in the high city other than the great keeps, the Forum, and the Throne Hall (though these are all monumental in scope - the smallest of them being the size of a respectable surface
    town). The few outsiders who have been to it have found it stark and somber, but dwarves tend to find it peaceful and beautiful.
The PCs in the game I'm running aren't dwarves. They are members of the aforementioned refugee class - most of whom are humans.

Seventeen years ago, the sky went dark. The surface became uninhabitable and nearly devoid of life. Horrors came out from the dark corners of the world to which they had been banished.

Some few surface dwellers took shelter where they could. Kor was one of the places they were welcomed. Still, the dwarven society changes slowly... and it was not built to accomodate a sizeable minority of non-dwarves.

The game is going to focus on political intrigue, mystery, prejudice, and destiny... with a healthy dose of high weirdness.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

New Year, New (for me) Game: Discovering Pathfinder

I'm late to the party, but I recently discovered that Pathfinder is pretty cool.

Back in November, I picked up a few of the core Pathfinder books. I hadn't really looked at the game since the early days of the open playtesting/beta/whatever.

I was impressed.

Pathfinder isn't D&D 3.5. I think I assumed it would be D&D with the numbers filed off, a few rules tweaks, and some rebalancing. It could be described like that, but I feel like it is really its own game insofar as it has a different design philosophy than 3.5 did.

D&D 3.5 was all about the expansion of options. Obscure new feats, prestige classes, and other rule subsystems created a tone that encouraged players to scout out strangeness. The rules encouraged players to multiclass, play unusual races, and otherwise seek out "cool stuff" from fringe supplements.

Pathfinder is all about making the core PC options cool. Base classes are not only filled out so that there aren't any "dead levels" at which the class doesn't give you any benefits, but they also gain powerful capstone abilities at 20th level. The new favored class rules (choose any class as a favored class at level one... gain +1 hp or skill level - or another bonus based on your race/class combo - each time you take a level in that class) encourage you to stay single-classed. The class archetypes in the Advanced Player's Guide allow you to tweak base class abilities to fit your character concept.

I think the class archetypes are one of my favorite features. For instance, there are Bard archetypes that swap out the Bard's performance abilities for themed abilities. Some of these are subtle: the Court Bard gains abilities that are little more than tweaks of standard Bard abilities. Others are complete class rewrites: the Arcane Duelist swaps out performance for abilities that magically enhance her combat abilities. Some archetypes essentially replicate base classes in 3.5: the Sandman removes Bard performance abilities and replaces them with spell-stealing and a bit of sneak attack (basically recreating the Spellthief).

A big part of what I like about Pathfinder's approach is that it uses carrots rather than sticks. Players aren't punished for making choices that the game designers don't want them to make. Instead they are rewarded for making choices that are deemed desirable. The favored class rules are an obvious example of this. Class skills are another. You can learn cross-class skills to your heart's content in Pathfinder. They don't cost any more than class skills. They don't have a lower max rank. Instead, if you take a single rank in a class skill, you get a +3 in it. As a result, PCs tend to have at least one rank in each class skill. Another stick-removal: nothing has XP costs. If you buy an item creation feat, you aren't penalized for using it. Why would you be?

Pathfinder doesn't really address my biggest gripe about D&D 3.5 - that it is all about the next level and the eventual build - except by trying to make PCs a bit more interesting at lower levels (primarily via more feats and more little, colorful abilities). Is that enough? Maybe. Is it better than 3.5 - a game that I enjoy despite its flaws? Yeah.

I think that's the appeal here. I like D&D 3.5, and Pathfinder incorporates all those things I like about it and improves on them.

I've started running a Pathfinder campaign. Follow-up post on that is coming soon.