Pax Victoria at Buckets of Dice 2013

June 4, 2013

Some things worked well, other things did not. Afterwards I remarked that I really needed a co-GM whose sole task was to keep whispering in my ear “Too complex, make it simpler”.` That we only completed four full turns in four hours means I failed to design the time structures of the game – I had wanted to complete eight game turns.  This was largely due to the large number of teams (eight), and the land mechanics being too complex.  The map also ended up being a bit cluttered.

SAMSUNG

Some things did work well.  The map itself was pretty to look at, although we had some stability issues on the tiny tables.  Marking hex terrain with a thick coloured border around the hex also worked very well.  Next time I should try and get hold of a decent wargaming table to mount the map on. The physical appearance of the game counters was also good.  I spent a few hundred dollars on dice, leader stands, and wooden/plastic tokens from The Game Crafter  and from http://www.blankdice.co.uk/. I also used sticky labels printed out on my laserprinter for the counters, rather than spray adhesive. Overall it was a better looking game, and an easier to assemble game than most of the games I have done in the past. Lots of reuseability in the components, so people will see them again.

I also think the pre-game strategic options and diplomacy worked well.  It also meant I had to have the game 99% finished a week before the Con, rather than the night before the con.  It also motivated me to actually throw some content on my www.housewar.org website.  This had room for improvement, as I failed to take into account that some people would be too busy in the week beforehand.  Ideally people should be able to delegate or select proxies.  It was a real buzz for me to walk into the Con at 0900 and find people already plotting for the Grand Strategy game that night.

The picture above shows the state of the game at the end of the night. A few cities and sea zones had changed hands, but because the Orange-Black, White-Green wars had been largely one on one affrays, no truly decisive land action had taken place.  The neutral islands had been occupied, so if the game had lasted longer, the sideline players would have started intervening.  Naval combat did not start until turns 3-4.  What this tells me is that I had too many sea areas for the number of naval forces in the game, and that everyone was more interested in dividing up and grabbing colonies rather than fighting each other.  So one simple fix there is to start teams with island colonies, and to reduce the number of sea areas down a bit.

Naval movement and combat worked well.  Land movement and combat did not. As well as some rules complexity, people found it to hard to see what was happening on the front lines. The leader stands hindered as much as they helped, as people found it hard to calculate hex radius distances, and the support units cluttered up the map.  The off-map reserves really needed better mechanics for voluntary deployment and removal, as it encouraged players to do counter-intuitive meta-game tactics, like deliberately leaving gaps in their line and trusting their neighbour not to exploit.

Amphibious movement and invasions were too complex and time consuming given the brief number of game turns completed. Almost no one chose Guards units as a strategic option, which makes me think that I should have called the units Marines, as they were actually the best units to do an amphibious attack with.

Trade mostly took place away from the map room, I have no idea how well that worked, but at least we didn’t run out of cards this year.

I did get feedback on the night that players wanted to build units.  I am thinking about this.  I tried keeping the game simple by having the builds effectively take place before the game began, but several teams wanted the option of building up their navy mid-game and it just wasn’t possible in the Rules As Written.  This is something I will work on for the next version.

With eight teams, teams were averaging around five to six minutes for a game turn, not the two minutes I had hoped for.  If I had built a second map just for naval actions, then I could have split the moves up a bit and had less overall downtime for the teams.  The bonus action (“The Big Push”) was ignored by some teams early on, then towards the end everyone bet big on it, which told me both that the economy was generating too many resources and everyone had figured out how important a second full action was.  The “shells” on the game map proved too fiddly to keep track of, so I would dump them from the game.

A lot of teams, when they got to the map, tended to give orders by telling each other what to do, not by telling a Gm what they were going to do. It makes me think that going back to the old, old system of the team leader having a free minute at the start of a team’s turn to look at the map and give orders, followed by a set time of the team’s minions moving pieces and not talking except to tell a GM they are attacking, might be a better system for getting things done quickly.

I liked the game enough, that I will run it again at Kapcon 2014. So people in Wellington or further afield, now is your chance to volunteer to help out.  For my 2014 Buckets game, I am pondering about running To Reign in Hell, a game where the players represent legions of Demons trying to take over Hell.  I’m sure I can adapt Dante’s classic map somehow.  I’ll have another blog post on Pax Vicky in a couple of weeks when the survey I am running concludes.

I also ran a simple Dragon Age tabletop game, where the players were Djinn working for the Ottoman Empire in an alternate history 1960s.  A successful investigation of a dodgy hospital exploiting a leper colony in Jerusalem ended with icky alien bug like things being squished.  The stunt system worked well at making the characters look baddass, so Dragon Age may become my convention system of choice.

I enjoyed the Dresden Files LARP on Sunday night of Kapcon. It helped that I was paired up with an extrovert who was my long lost brother, and we had fun roleplaying crazy Russians on Circe’s Island. Which sank. But I freed my brother from being a vampire’s thrall, earned brownie points wit the Catholic Church for retrieving one of the holy swords of the cross for them, did not get hunted down the Warden, did facilitate the defection of a White Council member to the Red Court, and got a free ride to Paris from the Queen of Summer. Not bad for a poor boy from the Ukraine who can talk to the (mostly) dead.

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Reversion to the Sword

April 1, 2013

A couple of ideas in relation to roleplaying games:

(1) the idea of a culture deliberately abandoning gunpowder weapons and reverting to the sword, as happened in Japan.

(2) social implications for magic users based on medieval cultural practices of war.

…and a few notes from my Dragon Age game.

Reversion to the Sword

I’m inspired by Noel Perrin’s Giving up the Gun: Japan’s reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879.  Japan had a culture which encountered firearms, quickly adopted them, and had the industrial skill to manufacture and improve on the imported technology.  After some trial and error, firearms became crucial weapons used in battle.  Yet, after unification under the Tokugawas, Japan largely gave up the use of firearms for 250 odd years.

A few key points here:

(1) Someone has to want the use of firearms to be given up

(2) They need enough power to make this happen

(3) There needs to be no external threat requiring firearms to be dealt with.

Japan had a unified government (2), which was based on a Samurai social class which was distinguished by skill in traditional weapons.  Firearms were easy to learn, affordable, and any peasant with an arquebus could kill a veteran Samurai at range.  So the potential threat to the social order motivates (1) and the Japanese disarm both firearms and other weapons held by the peasants.  As an island nation, Japan was able to isolate itself from external influences (3) and it took a long time before anyone outside Japan was motivated enough to go and take a look.  The real history is probably more complex than that, and Perrin’s work has had strong criticism for simplifying history to fit his views, but its a good basis for a narrative.

For a cliched fantasy setting, the traditional feudal class of western Europe would stand in for the Samurai, but I can also imagine that miracle wielding Priests and sorcerous mages would also stand opposed to the spread of firearms (“I spent thirteen years learning how to cast a fireball, and that buffoon learns how to fire a handgonne in three weeks”).  Having multiple centres of social power opposed to firearms would make it harder to reintroduce them.

So, people know firearms existed, and probably have a name for them that the elders know, and they are largely not around anymore, except possibly as a prerogative of the higher social estates, or for agents of the government.  If not an island nation, or otherwise isolated by distance and harsh wastelands, perhaps the realm is a very large Empire – one so old and powerful it has no peers or rivals to challenge it.  Another alternative might be that there is a Dark Lord ruling the realm, and they have forbidden the use of firearms, even if this is sufficiently contrary to reason to ensure the Dark Lord’s demise when the forces of good invade with their Boomsticks.  One side-effect of being a post-firearms society, is that you could have other post-medieval technology around without it being too out of place.

So in these settings what roles do firearms play for players?

  • potential macguffin to drive the plot of an adventure (find and rescue/destroy the gun, gunpowder, gunsmith, book of gun lore, etc)
  • possession is a symbol of favoured status in the realm
  • or possession is a sign of rebellion against the realm/membership of a criminal gang, cult or clan of ninjas
  • a character element – demonstrates the character is not a good member of a social class opposed to firearms
  • a potential reward/power-up gained through adventures
  • possibly a long term goal to research/engineer the lost technology
  • if the bad guys have firearms, then they can be painfully scary bad as the lead slugs penetrate enchanted mithril like a hot knife through butter
  • weather is important … firearms don’t work so well in the rain
  • if gunpowder is hard to find/expensive, then as a scarce resource decisions about whether or not to use it to kill an Ogre should be interesting decisions for the players to make.

Magic and War

I was reading Richard Abels Cultural Representation and the Practice of War in the Middle Ages (Journal of Medieval Military History, Volume VI, 2008) which, inter alia, looked at how medieval knights reconciled chivalric literature/culture (how war should be fought) with the brutal realities of combat (how war must be fought if you are to survive it).  Keeping in mind that in any given society there will be multiple cultural interpretations of correct behaviour, I thought it interesting to think a bit about how magic users, as an estate/social class like knights, might perceive warfare and how it should be approached.

One approach is for the mages to adopt attitudes similar to the medieval church, being inclined towards peace rather than war, and moderating the practices of war to minimise non-combatant suffering and collateral damage to (for example) libraries, laboratories and isolated towers where mages live.

Honourable, unremarkable and shameful behaviour:

  • honourable behaviour is that which enhances reputation (martial glory, should involve a degree of risk to the wizard concerned)
  • unremarkable behaviour is the normal day to day actions that do not attract comment (if a magic user is busy being a magic usurer and concentrating on material profit, its unlikely to be viewed as honourable behaviour)
  • shameful behaviour (cowardice, oath-breaking, black magic etc).

Circumstances and context play a role here.  A mage who kills prisoners who have just been captured and are still in armour, when the prisoner’s friends threaten to attack, is unlikely to be thought to have engaged in shameful behaviour.  The mage who takes their prisoners off to a secure location and then sacrifices them to a demon, is probably going to be thought ill of.  If the cultural group has some vilified enemies (heretics, orcs, demon-worshippers, etc) then harder methods may be used against them than against more honourable opponents.

For medieval knights, there is a strong connection between honour and prowess (being a good warrior in battle).  If mages share this view, then honourable action for a mage in battle involves using their magic to great effect, not hoarding their spells for later use.  A key difference here, is that in most game worlds, mages are “squishy” and non-users of serious metal armour.  So a mage takes big risks on the battlefield, one stray arrow and ten years of college education goes down the drain.  Looking at examples from Joinville’s Life of St Louis, Knights would discuss honour mid-battle, when trying to determine if going for help or running away was an honourable course of action. Running away and leaving your comrades behind is nearly always going to be seen as shameful action, which is a potential problem for squishy mages.

Where a mage differs from some medieval knights, is that they will be literate (although after about the 12th century literacy was getting common among the higher nobility, in part because you needed it if the lawyers were not going to rob you blind).  This means a mage is quite capable of correcting the course of history by making sure that the written account of a battle shows that their conduct was honourable (“I did not teleport away until after the standard fell and the King was captured…”)

One reason for the raiding and looting that occurred in medieval warfare, was that “war must pay for itself”.  Wars were often funded on the basis of expected profits from invasion. Fortunes could be made in minutes after a successful battle (When King Jean the Good of France was being squabbled over by various parties as to who had captured him after the Battle of Poitiers, he is alleged to have said “Gentleman, I can make you all rich!”).  So nobles at war paid for their troops with a mix of cash, loot, chickens and promises.  A mage is going to expect at least the same.  A mage serving as a mercenary is probably after hard currency, or perhaps first choice of the relics captured on campaign.  A mage fulfilling feudal obligations probably has customary limits to that obligation, perhaps 40 days service in the field.  A knight would expect to have their horse replaced by their Lord if it was killed in battle, a Mage will expect similar reimbursement for alchemical expenditure, loss of apprentices, harm to familiars, etc.

One of the medieval writers on warfare and its customs wrote “call no man a soldier if he does not know how to set fire to things”.  While the chivalric ideal of warfare emphasised noble deeds of arms against other knights and nobles, the knights of the middle ages understood that warfare as it was actually practiced involved rape, pillage and destruction.  Now any decent mage should have a fireball spell, so that means they can do the practical side of destruction easily enough, and perhaps mages are effective at intimidating reluctant peasants into revealing where their food stocks have been hidden.  But after consideration of the dirty necessities, what particular actions would a mage engage in, in order to enhance their reputation – which is why the knights are seeking deeds of arms, as reputation increases their status among fellow knights and the chance of rewards from the King.

If the mages in our fantasy reality have a code of conduct similar to the chivalric code, then we can expect a degree of adherence to that code. For example, picking up on an element of Samurai culture, for formal duels and battles between mages, you could have a cultural tradition of introductions.  In this case, the introduction involves telling your opponents your true name.  So if a mage flees the battle, their enemy has the ability to use their true name to easily find them through scrying magic or to work up a more effective curse or voodoo doll.  Thinking a bit further about dueling  would it be possible for mages to engage in a “martial sport” of a magic tournament, which provides a warlike training setting, competition for prizes, but is expected to be sub-lethal in outcomes (but not guaranteed).  Perhaps mages have an expectation of ransom from other mages, or a tradition of servitude for a set period if taken prisoner.

One important element of deeds of arms, is that they are public.  People see you doing them.  So if a mage is deployed in skullduggery, or the magical equivalent of electronic warfare, opportunities for public recognition and renown are slim.  Effective results may convince the King to reward, but a large pile of bodies with your signature singe marks on them is undeniable evidence of your prowess.  This suggests to me, that on a battlefield a mage is likely to add a few twists to their spells, to make them showy.  “The blue fireball, your majesty, the one that toasted their champion, that was my spell, as you can see it turned my fingernails blue…”

My Dragon Age Campaign

My “Secrets of Samaria” game has been running for almost three years now.  One current frustration is that the player’s characters have just about out-levelled the available rulebooks, and the third set has been “Coming Soon” for about six months now.  On the whole the Dragon Age system is a simple old school system.  Where its creaking a bit is from the combination of high hit point totals and a system where armour reduces damage. Now that most of the party has either high defence or high armour scores, its getting harder and harder for me to challenge them.

On the whole, the players still seem to be having fun and are interested in uncovering the next few “secrets”. It has been very worthwhile for me, seeing them get a clue, then cross-reference it back to stuff that happened years ago, and figure out the connections, back story, probable NPC motive, and then proceed to formulate a cunning new plan.  So in that sense the year or so I spent thinking and writing up background before the campaign started has paid off very well.

I have found that social interactions really eat up time.  The players blitzed a dungeon level in less time than it takes to do the formal introductions for a Clan Ball in the Eleven Capital of Trion.  On the other hand, the players do enjoy the social stuff, but I did not plan ahead, having three major social challenges for the party prior to the dungeon.  That took eight sessions (including travel time to the city), which with fortnightly games was over four months real time.  I can improve a bit there.

Anyhow, the players have started figuring out all of the major factions and what their goals are, they just have to make some decisions soon about who they will ally with long-term in order to prevent the Dragons from setting the whole world a fire in a few game years…

… so I am starting to plan story arcs that can bring the campaign to a satisfactory conclusion, but there is probably one-two years left at least.  My brain is starting to turn towards future projects though, possibly something involving Runequest VI.

 


Can Elves be fat?

June 19, 2012

Thinking about the next tabletop RPG campaign I could run when my current Dragon Age game has run to a conclusion, and I find I am ruminating a lot of the standard fantasy races.  There are some definite clichés out there, and I know my own background of early and sustained reading of Tolkien means that for me Dwarves, Elves and Orcs will always look in my mind like how Tolkien described them.  Part of my ruminations are thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of hewing close to genre convention, and whether or not a wide array of fantasy races helps or hinders the campaign.

Interestingly, in my current campaign, only one player chose to be non-human.  He chose to be a Telchari – a hairless Dwarf with a reputation for poison and treachery.  No one was interested in Elf (three exciting flavours), Half-Elf (created in a way similar to Alexander the Great’s marriage of Persians and Macedonians), Goblin (a quirky underdog), or Vargr (Viking culture bipedal wolves imported from Traveller).  Everyone else is human, although two of the characters emphasise the two of the different human cultures I designed (and the other two don’t make much of their background).

Uses of Race for a GM

Fantasy races come pre-packaged with useful sterotypes in way that pet cultures do not.  An elf is an elf, in any world, although I might have to say, these are elves with the following twist that makes them not like everybody else’s elves.  But if I told you the main human cultures in my current campaign were Talian, Ostian, Musorian, Kamarian, and Mandanese … well there is no short cut to knowledge there, you would have to go do some background reading or pay attention to what I have the NPCs say in-game.

So in a sense, the cliché is a useful short cut for rapid world building, in much the same way as the corrupt republic, fanatic caliphate and the remnant empire are (those are terms I think from the Rough Guide to Fantasyland).

Uses of Race for Players

Lets pretend … races often have appealing attributes for lets pretend games, such as Charisma for Elves and Toughness for Dwarves.  People might also want to indulge in flavour of the month make believe – I mean, who wasn’t tempted by the wood elf ranger template after seeing Orlando Bloom as Legolas in the Lord of the Rings movies?

Niche: when you’re the only pointy eared, scaly, whatsit in the party, its easier for the other players to remember who you are, or to at least make reference to you.  This suggests that there are diminishing returns from designing more races than players in your campaign, unless one or more of the races are intended as significant enemies.

Languages: different races often have access to a wider array of languages, which can be useful for investigation, research, diplomacy, bargaining and other communication related endeavours.

Friends: being the right race can mean access to exclusive areas (such as the Elf-Queen’s bath house), and might mean that accompanying heroes are not executed on sight.

Enemies: and the Elder races usually come with roleplaying hook baggage of a long list of other elder races they have pissed off over the millenia.  A little animosity can be a good hook for roleplaying interactions between characters (although too much can break the party).

Themepark Dungeons: Elven ruins are different from Dwarven Ruins.

Is Race Just a Stat Sticker?

Most tabletop RPGs happily modify characteristics based on race, a +1 bonus here, a -1 penalty there.  Definite emphasis on nature, not nature, in how characters start games.  Your parents are more likely to influence skills and initial wealth, and their ability to buy oranges during a famine has no effect on whether or not you reach your full height.  Gender differences also tend to be underplayed, and its rare for a lot of sexual dimorphism (the Drow come close, with the favouring of women over men, like their Spider Goddess Lolth) so you don’t get 7 feet tall male Ogres and 5 feet tall female Ogres with different CON and DEX modifiers.

Both Dragonquest and Empire of the Petal Throne were two early RPGs that established their worlds were sexist, but had a cultural out for women to behave like men.  Some RPGs also have lifepath systems for background, and these could take into account influences other than racial background to make characters more varied. Partly I just think the natural bell curve of differentiation within a race is more important than the difference between races.

The mechanics of racial modifiers, bonuses and penalties are important to me, because in order to be able to GM a gaming system, I have to be able to translate ideas and concepts into game mechanics. A major reason I could not run 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons was my inability to understand the mechanics they gave player characters in that ruleset.  I just could not fit all the options into my head.  Dragon Age on the other hand, was simple and old school, easy for me to develop campaign material for.

The Problem of Origins

In an evolutionary paradigm, how likely is the co-existence of multiple sentient species in close proximity to each other?  We don’t have a lot of evidence on Earth, although there is an overlap between early humans and Neanderthals.  An awful lot of fantasy backgrounds just handwave it by saying the Gods did it.  Empire of the Petal Throne did well by saying its a terraformed world that was a luxury resort, so the inimical aliens are the natives and everything else settled there before the world fell into apocket universe.

Interbreeding … just what exactly is a half-Elf?  Notice you hardly every see it referred to as half-Man?  Miscgenation is okay for Elves, but something about being less than 50% human makes people twitchy.  Somehow in RPGs, half-races only tend to appear when they have some kind of cool factor, like half-Dragons.  You don’t see half-Dwarves/Gnomes or even half-Halflings very often.  If such hybrids are a bit like mules, should they be sterile?

Some possible reasons for lots of different sentient species:

  • outsiders from the otherworld/fey realms
  • exiles from Heaven/Hell/the Moon
  • alien invaders from elsewhere (via ley line gates perhaps)
  • created in ye olde God wayes
  • first people (only works for the first race you design)
  • long-lost cousins, separated by vast distance and now reunited
  • not dead, just sleeping
  • occupied very different environments (water/land/poison vales/carnivorous forests/underground)
  • dying out/last of its kind, being replaced by upwardly mobile species.

So, How About Those Fat Elves?

Webcomic The Noob is one of the few places I have seen overweight elves depicted – in part because the portrayal of the avatar characters in the online game is made to resemble what I presume is the real world person.  Doing a quick google image I found exactly one non-Christmas elf image of a fat elf at: http://sleepless-katith.deviantart.com/art/Fat-Elven-Warrior-v-01-77252912.  So fat elves is not a common idea out there.

So why would elves be fat?

  • Perhaps its a comedy moment in an otherwise fairly straight fantasy (thin elf, thin elf, thin elf, fat elf, thin elf …. wait a moment…)
  • In a world wracked by famine, being overweight would be a sign of wealth and power, and could also be seen as a sign of beauty (as was I think the case in some late medieval/renaissance paintings)
  • It could be a sign of sin, such as gluttony, in which case the overweight elf is also a fallen elf
  • Magic curse “Cannot Resist Cupcakes” (probably the weakest idea here)
  • Lotuseaters, the elves eat food that makes them indolent
  • Perhaps the Elves simply appear fat due to good nutrition, unlike those poor malnourished humans.  This implies some degree of wealth for the Elves, so perhaps they are prosperous merchants
  • Habitat: maybe they live in a nice food rich swamp, unlike those wasteland forests where their poor thin cousins dwell
  • Supply and demand, not many Elves, and a whole lot of elf berries in the forest (“Yes, its tragic, last of our kind, fading out, but got to keep our strength up  – would you like another crumpet?”)
  • Body chemistry, if the elves are outsiders to the world, they may have trouble digesting its food properly (“If only we had an appendix like you cursed humans!”)
  • Oppression of the Elven Tyrants: they eat cake, while the serfs eat … nothing.

Kitset Package

I think I need to avoid woodland feral Elves, remnants of an ancient Empire, as I am seeing a bit too much of them lately in Witcher 2 or the Dragon Age computer games.  When I build a race I do like a couple of varieties, perhaps an 80/20 split between dominant culture and subversive culture, or some kind of triumvirate (good/bad/ugly or rich/poor/MIA).  So let’s have a few different types of Elves:

  • Fat Merchants: with their mastery of languages and natural charisma, aided by the odd strategic marriage, these elves survived the fall through trade, and with prosperity comes a degree of girth and belt expansion usually associated with Dwarves.
  • Feudal Fanatics: remnants of an age of chivalry fading in an age of gunpowder, devoted to their lost Queen, and at war with the Black Prince. Not as overweight as the other two types of elves presented here, but their prediliction to chivalric charges against overwhelming odds mitigates their toherwise healthy outdoor lifestyle.
  • Yakuza Clans: urban elves surviving in the underworld of the human hegemony, their diet is ruined by awful human junk food.  A fat urban elf is a very dangerous elf, because they will be the high elf in the local crime clan.  Notched ear initiation symbols and freaky tattoos optional.

Space Age

December 6, 2011

I am working on a SF adaptation of the Dragon Age RPG rules, hence the name Space Age.  Probably the three biggest changes I am making to the rules are (1) no classes (2) no levels and (3) much lower initial health and maximum health.  Changes (1) and (2) are linked together.  For a futuristic game, restricting initial player stories to three classes feels to narrow to me.  Instead, I prefer a broader range of modern professions to be available as background elements in the character generation.  By having no levels, what I will have instead is sessional experience, which the players are free to spend as they choose on developing their characters.  They could emphasise developing their attributes, their skills, or their masteries.

Low health pools reflect a desire on my part to fit multiple short combats into a single four hour gaming session.  When characters have 60 health, 10 points of armour, a defence of 18, and the weapons that only do 2d6+3 damage, then combat becomes very drawn out … it only starts to get tense if you drop into a zone where a special success and stunt points could let an opponent do 4d6 damage.  So why not start combats in a state of tension?

Low health does incentivise play towards being cautious, setting up ambushes, and min-maxing defences and healing options.

From a mechanical point of view, I can have pistol weapons doing 1d6 damage, rifles doing 2d6 damage, and then I can have exotic high tech weapons doing 3d6 damage.  I would rank light armour at three points, medium armour at six, and heavy armour at 10 points.

Initial health depends on background more than constitution.  So characters from privileged backgrounds, who get the benefits of literacy, education, credits, etc, start with low HP totals (as low as 10), and characters from proletarian/feral backgrounds start with higher HP totals (as high as 15).  There are no levels, so Constitution is a one-time bonus at the initial character generation.  In play I would allow a limited number of HP boosts to be purchased, and one qualifier for these would be “survive being reduced to zero health” – a hard to kill feat.  I think someone would be doing well to get over 30 HP though.

For background, my inspiration draws on classic space opera like Andre Norton’s Solar Queen series and various Forerunner books, Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy, and Whedon’s Firefly/Serenity. Technology will include various pulpy tropes like Ansibles for FTL communication, FTL travel, intimidating Blaster weapons, stun guns, cloaking devices.  I am not sure about cyber/biotechnological modification, its not intended to be a Cyberpunk in Space game.  I’ll write more about the background in another post, although I imagine the setting to be a few centuries post the start of the diaspora from Earth, after first contact with aliens, and immediately after the end of a brutal war against a Saberhagen style exterminating menace.

The next trick, is to figure out what the players do.  There are two types of space RPG campaigns, those where the players have a starship, and those where they do not.  I have run both in the past, with mixed success.  Another option is to imitate Deep Space Nine/Babylon-5, with the characters based at a Casablanca Crossroads of the stars, in which case all the trouble comes to them rather than the other way around.

I’m leaning towards a trading/espionage game, with the players floating the eddies of vast political currents.  So a ship would be useful.  I think I’d make the ship the reward for successful completion of the first major story arc.  The starship does act as a mobile base, but it can also act as an anchor, as the players need to be very careful about its security.  Destroying a spaceship is just about as bad as killing a player character in terms of emotional impact.

A common way SF groups get split up, is simply by having a couple of people decide to stay on board rather than go shopping.  A solution for this that I’d like to try, is to adapt Ars Magica and allow the players to have multiple characters.  So one character can be bridge/engineering crew, another character can be a security red shirt, and a third character could do something more interesting (they can be the emo ninja with memory loss and a shiny forerunner artifact embedded in their spine).

Still a long way from looking for players, as the Dragon Age game has at least one more year to run yet.


Traps, Tanks, and some other Things

November 15, 2011

Well, I’m still waiting for my copy of Skyrim to arrive, so I have some time to write about other things.

I am still having fun playing World of Tanks.  After researching all the upgrades for the KV I decided to muck around with Tank Destroyers and Self-Propelled Guns (artillery) for a while.  This was fun and educational, seeing the artillery interface made it clear why I had died easily in certain places on the map, and I gained a new appreciation for large rock outcroppings.  Actually playing artillery can be super-frustrating, you may be stone to the heavy tank scissors, but light tanks are paper to your stone.  The light tanks move too fast for you to hit, and the slow heavy tanks have too much armour for you to damage (I cheered when a shell hit a Tiger II and managed to inflict 2% damage) so you end up hoping wistfully for a medium tank to decide to park itself out in the open for the time it takes you to set up the shot.

Tank destroyers are a bit less frustrating in play.  Their low profile makes you hard to spot, so they are excellent if you have the patience to sit in an ambush position, or know where to go for a long-range sniping shot.  A Hetzer with a 10.5cm cannon satisfyingly one-shots many light/medium tanks and its the only tank where I have ever managed ‘top gun’ with seven kills out of 15 of the opposing team of players.  Without a turret though, its vulnerable to being flanked.

Still, when my dreams were filled with green targeting recticules, I decided I needed to wind back how much I was playing this little game.

Traps

The players in my tabletop game will be off doing a tomb crawling expedition soon.  So, naturally, there will be traps.  And undead monsters.  But its traps I have been thinking about.  There is one rogue in the party, who has invested heavily in trap detection and removal masteries, allowing him rerolls if he fails a spot/disarm check.  So having traps present is a payoff for how he has built his character, helps the team, and makes up for not being as good in combat as the combat focused characters.

I do wonder though, if the process of traps is too predictable.

Most of the time, in every new shift in the game environment, he announces he is looking for traps.  If he finds one, he tries to disarm it.  Trap disarmed, party moves on, rinse and repeat.  Partly I think its dull, because its action by just one player, while everyone else waits.  Without an external factor, such as pursuing guards, its not terribly exciting.  Low damage traps are also pretty much a waste of time in Dragon Age, as the party can just stop, take a breather, and regain 1d6+Constitution+Level Health Points, so with level 6 characters, traps doing less than 10 damage are just wet bus tickets.

So I thought a bit more about what traps are, and what else you might tie into their key purpose – defending a location.  As well as doing some sub-lethal damage (because, to be blunt, save or Die traps will just make my players cry) traps can also:

  1. Block movement in a particular direction.
  2. Channel movement towards a different direction.
  3. Split the party into two or more groups.
  4. Sound an alarm.  Could be silent, could be noisy, maybe the entire dungeon just starts quietly vibrating.
  5. Summon/teleport guardians to the location (Release the hounds!).
  6. Physically trap/pin/cage the intruders in that location (Sharks optional).
  7. Mark the intruders, like paint/dye/glowing goo.
  8. Attach a locator beacon to the intruders.
  9. Communicate information to the intruders (Achtung Minen!).
  10. Trigger a time delayed device (This dungeon will self-destruct in six cycles)
  11. Apply a debuff to the players (poison, disease, exhaustion, fear, etc) rather than just a few HP.

What I’ll try and do this weekend, is have some traps that require more than just one person playing with their lockpicks, the environment setting and situation should require another pair of hands or eyes I think.  Perhaps a slowly flooding dungeon, where once you choose to fall back, you know you’ll never get to the last chamber in the tomb.

Traveller World Gen

Thinking back to the random craziness of Traveller worlds, I begin to think that worlds might have fit better together if they had been designed in clusters, rather than just retro-fitted the explanations.

Terror Australis

I also mused briefly today about what an Australian themed expansion for World of Warcraft might look like:

  • A continent full of critters that are Level 100 Elite Mobs!
  • New Wombat Race!
  • Ford Falcon mount for engineers!
  • A rejigged economy where you sell minerals to the Chinese gold farmers!
  • New Class: Tasmanian Mutant!
  • Every monster has a poison attack!
  • Forests teeming with Drop Bears!
  • Legendary pavlova recipe!
  • Ozzie rules PvP, where damage can only be inflicted while jumping!

Grand Strategy Game at Buckets of Dice 2012

I emailed the pitch in for this today.  Not too far removed from earlier discussion here, but the next big chunk of design work will be in mid-February, after Canterbury Faire is finished.


October 24, 2011

I am in one of my phases where I write up some game mechanics, then delete them for being too derivative.  So while I am doing work on the “Xmas Game” I do not know if I will actually get one finished.  In the mean time, some notes on games I have been playing and games I am looking forward to playing.

Star Wars the Old Republic Beta

Not much I can say here due to the NDA. Bioware did a short beta test just for testing the Oceanic connections and I was lucky enough to get an invite.  I am not regretting my pre-order from Amazon.

Lord of the Rings Online

Over the last year I have slowly levelled up a level 30-ish Guardian character in LOTRO.  Its a free-to-play game, but I did spend some cash on a mount and opening some questing zones.  While the Lord of the Rings lore is good, its very, very grindy.  Two points stand out here: advanced combat abilities that are only learned after you have used a basic combat ability a few hundred/thousand times, and the crafting system, where you effectively have to relearn prior tiers of skill in order to master each new tier.  Tactically, the levelling game is more interesting the World of Warcraft, as failure is quite possible if you attack on elite mob or pull too many trash mobs.  I only tried an instance once, and the combination of inability to generate multi-target threat combined with rapid mob respawns turned me off trying again.  After playing the SWTOR Beta, I don’t think I’ll be spending more time in LOTRO.

Dragon Age (tabletop)

My once a fortnight tabletop campaign continues, with the players having reached Level Six.  In the last session, they ran into an interesting moral challenge and my amoral mage jumped a different way from that which I was expecting (he refused to take the Red Book of Monsters from the time-shifted Ebon Tower after a fragment of a God told the party the book could be used to summon monsters that could sunder the world).

Some quirks in the game engine are now becoming apparent.  By Level 10 a character will have at least doubled their health from Level 1, if not tripled it, as well as improving the ability to avoid being hit and to mitigate incoming damage … but their outgoing damage will only have increased by about 1d6 per round.  So against a similar group of “heroes” the chances are that a combat would take an entire game session to resolve.

The Rogue class is annoying, as in each and every combat round they have to make an opposed bluff check in order to gain an attack bonus and 1d6 damage.  Without the bonus damage the Rogue is not competitive in damage dealing.  The extra die roll each round is time consuming.

Mages are annoying, definitely glass cannons, which makes them either overpowered or vulnerable.  If an NPC mage uses a crowd control spell, they can eliminate a player character from an entire combat (which means a bored player), but in return solo enemy mages are not viable as foes – they simply cannot survive without a small horde of minions to intercept/disrupt the players.

My rough rule of thumb now, is that for an enemy to concern my players, it needs to do a minimum of 6d6 damage per combat round (after accounting for missed attacks and armour absorption), otherwise the fact that the party mages can pump out 6d6 healing per round means most combats end with the players on full health.  While I have given out the odd health/mana potion, I don’t think anyone has ever had to use one of them.

Still, the core engine still appeals to me and I am tinkering with reworking it into a SF setting – I am mucking around with ideas for Sidhe, Fomorians and Stargate style Egyptian monsters all turning Earth into a post-apocalyptic setting, with some bright ultra-tech human colonies out in space.

World of Tanks

This is an online “lobby” game, consisting of 15 minute player versus player matches in which each of the 30 players controls one World War II era tank.  Between matches you repair and research.  The tank capabilities and vulnerabilities seem faithful to history, although there are a few fantasy tanks in play which never got off the design board and onto the historical battle fields.  At the moment tanks are limited to US, Russian, and German designs, although I expect we will eventually see British and French designs as well.  The game has been sufficiently successful that we can expect to see World of Planes and World of Ships in a couple of years.

I chose to play Russian tanks, and have slowly worked my way up to my first heavy tank, the KV.  Unlike my previous tanks, its slow, really slow, and the turret is also a slow traverser.  Historically, it was a killer when it ran into German Panzer IIs and IIIs, but in WoT I am as likely to run into Tiger IIs and IS-4s, which I can’t really damage and which can one shot me in return.  Tactically, rather than moving constantly at max speed as you do with light tanks, the KV needs to work in formation with other tanks to avoid being flanked and also needs to skulk from bit of cover to bit of cover.  Out in the open its easily spotted and immobilised by artillery.

Overall, I find WoT to be a really good way to spend 30-60 minutes of spare time.  It also goes well with listening to some heavy metal music.

World of Warcraft – Firelands

My guild has lost two DPS players (rogue/hunter) but continues to raid.  We managed 6/7 boss kills before the content was nerfed, then 7/7 shortly afterwards and are now 1/7 for hard modes.  I’m not sure the content nerf was good for us.  We do not have the throughput in DPS/HPS for many of the hard mode fights, but now the normal mode fights are so trivial as to be boring.

What we tend to do now, is spend two hours wiping on hard modes on Thursday night, then clear up to 5/7.  On Monday we go back and kill the last two, and as we get better at killing Ragnaros we use our remaining time on Tier 11 hard modes.  On Sundays I lead a casual raid, but it is struggling as several of the players there simply cannot meet the DPS requirements – we need 15k DPS and they do 10k – the fights take too long and our healers run out of mana, or the time delay makes the wheels fall off and the fight becomes a train wreck.

I am happy with my Holy Paladin healing, I managed to rank sixth in class in World of Logs for healing the fat fire spider Beth’tilac in the second week of Firelands.  Considering how Paladins 1-6 were all in Tier 11 Hard Mode gear I was pretty chuffed with the accomplishment.  My Retibution Paladin DPS though … it sucks, hovering around 12k for most fights, although on a static tank and spank it can reach 18k.  Part of the reason the DPs is low is that because I do not enjoy it, I don’t practice it.  I’m not sure why I don’t enjoy it but there are two bits of the play style I struggle with: use of cooldowns and proc dependence.

It’s hard for me not to agree with Gevlon over at the Greedy Goblin, that the sheer complexity of the “Boss Dance” in fights is making raiding less fun.  This is especially the case for melee damage dealers in any fight with significant movement, as the loss of contact time on the boss reduces DPS.  It is a never-ending race, in which Blizzard alternates between buffing classes with new abilities, then upping the difficulty of new fights.  In patch 4.3 we are being promised a buff to melee DPS … but I have to say as a raid leader, I have no desire to recruit more melee DPS into the raid group because unless their player skill is exceptional.

Over at Blessing of Kings, a comparison of a Wrath era fight and a Cataclysm era was posted to illustrate this point:(http://blessingofkings.blogspot.com/2011/09/firelands-nerfs-and-difficulty.html)

Marrowgar:

  • One mob
  • Tanks stack on each other to split damage
  • Avoid fire
  • Dodge bonestorm
  • Kill bonespikes

Shannox:

  • Three mobs
  • Dodge traps
  • Burst one add with large spells
  • Heal one random target who takes high damage
  • Trap and kite one add until a stacking debuff wears off, failing this increases tank damage
  • Avoid aoe spear damage
  • Damage increases significantly as fight progresses

What I would prefer, is a few more fights that stretch my ability to play my class well, as opposed to how well I have memorised the exact dance steps for the special mechanics on a boss fight.  My own feedback on class design for the next expansion was “less is more”.

On the whole though, I think Blizzard made a serious mistake in Cataclysm by making two of the tier end bosses be recycled bosses from Vanilla WoW (Nefarian & Onyxia, and Ragnaros).  Yes, the fight mechanics are different … but it still felt like a failure of imagination to me by the Blizzard design team.

Upcoming Games

Games I am looking forward to include: Star Wars the Old Republic (December), Guild Wars 2 (2012), Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (11 November), and the Mists of Pandaria expansion for World of Warcraft (2012).

For information on SWTOR I recommend the http://torwars.com/ fan site.  My Sith PvE guild is now part of the Oceanic “daisychain”, a collaborative effort to ensure as many ANZAC players as possible all end up on the same starting server.

Guild Wars 2 is attempting to eliminate the holy trinity, so all characters will have heal/dps options.  Defences will include active dodging by the players, and if you “die” you actually get a different set of combat options while knocked down.  Could be a quality of life improvement, but it might be a much stronger evolution of the genre than SWTOR is shaping up to be (several press reviews describe SWTOR as WoW with lightsabres).

I preordered Skyrim after watching some gameplay videos, especially of combat versus dragons.  It looks like combat is very sandbox, many different ways to solve each tactical problem.  I enjoyed the other Elder Scrolls games, so this will fill the gap until SWTOR is released.

Mists of Pandaria will be an oriental themed expansion for WoW.  I know a few people have gone “WTF! Panda!”  but last time I looked WoW had already jumped the shark (the Goblin starter area has a quest involving sharks with laser beams mounted on them).  I’ll be happy with MOP if I can dress my virtual dolls in Samurai armour.

Probably the most significant announcement was a complete rebuild of the talent system, rather than spending points every few levels to boost power and access new abilities, many abilities will be granted with class spec, and talents will be a choice of one of three options every 15 levels.  When you hit 30, you can’t go back and choose a second Level 15 option, as each set of options will compare like with like, you are unlikely to be forced to choose between utility or survival or throughput.  I like the sound of this new system … fits with my “less is more” preference.

Wowhead already has a talent calculator preview available at: http://www.wowhead.com/mists-of-pandaria-talent-calculator


Dragon Age 2 Review

April 5, 2011

I installed off a shop bought CD, decided I did not need the 8GB worth of high res textures you can download off the net. At first the game crashed very 30 seconds, but updating the drivers for my graphics card dealt with that. I also chose not to buy any of the additional content (I didn’t do that with the first DA game either). In play, the game would sometimes freeze for 5-10 seconds, but actual crashes were uncommon (certainly not more common than Fallout 3 New Vegas).

I have heard some people complaining about the game being dumbed down. On the whole, I really enjoyed the streamling of the system. It was much easier to use the action bar in play, because the characters had less abilities, but the abilities packed considerably more punch. I liked the fact that I did not have to worry so much about gear, there was usually one solid upgrade for each slot in each of the three Acts. It was also much more fun to play a melee class, with a more dynamic movement that felt more like a console game than a traditional desktop RPG

I played through on normal difficulty. If I got frustrated on a boss, I just went easy mode for a while. I don’t like mico-managing potions and NPC positioning, or having to rewrite the default AI priority list mid-fight. That said, for normal encounters your NPC side-kicks were good – none of the issues I had in DA:origins were my archers constantly charged into melee and my mages exploded themselves.  The boss monsters were interesting, but I think I’d rather have had smaller health pools and more boss monsters, the fights really dragged in places.  Fights with trash packs also got a little too predictable on normal difficulty – they nearly always came in two waves, with the second wave rapelling into the fight like ninja.  Ninja dwarves, ninja mages, ninja spiders, ninja slavers …. everyone went to ninja school it seems.

I liked the artwork and feel, especially the armour … the fantasy spikes were minimal except on some ACT III armour and this matters to a re-enactment snob.

Voice acting was nice. Makes me hopeful it will work well in the Star Wars MMO.  Having labels on the dialogue options that indicated the type of response (direct, tactful, charming, flirting, etc) also helped me make decisions.  Still hard to anticipate the consequences of those decisions though.

The game starts with an introductory demonstration that quickly weaves you into the story, then resets for a real go.  A major part of the game design is that the bulk of the game takes place in three Acts, each spread about three years apart.  So over a decade you go from penniless refugee to established noble in society.  As with DA: Origins its not not to collect a travelling ensemble of companions, and one of the amusing decisions you make is which pair of snarky companions to bring along for their respective diatribes.

No spoilers here as to the final outcome.  I will say that mages are slefish, whiney, and ungrateful and I really don’t know why I bothered helping them in the first place.  Still, the end was nice and I will look forward to the sequel.

Is there replay value … I don’t know.  After finishing it I went back and levelled a mage to level 7, so I could see what the specialisation mastery trees looked like.  I found, however, that I was largely making the same decisions, and there was almost no branching content, so with one playthrough you probably saw 80+% of the game content.  If you can go back through and make different decisions then, yes a second playthrough is probably worthwhile.

Takeway stuff useful elsewhere: the mastery trees were very well done and a considerable improvement on the bloated talents of DA: origins.  Most trees had seven major talents, each with 1-2 upgrades that made the talent more powerful, rather than just giving you an extra situational ability to use – that in DA:Origins you never used because you were out of stamina by the time you worked through your optimal damage talents.  The stamina/mana reserve system was also more intuitive to understand I think.

Summing up: I got two weeks solid entertainment for $99, with some minor future replay value, and some useful ideas for my tabletop game.  I give it a 4 out of 5.