Dragon Age

March 2, 2011

I had a lot of fun on my first playthough of the Dragon Age computer game, even if I never could finish a second playthrough.  So I am looking forward to Dragon Age 2 in a few weeks.  After looking at the developer’s notes for the tabletop adaptation by Green Ronin, I picked that up as a simple to use RPG.  While I like it, it has a few problems. 

One of these, which Green Ronin has no control over, is that Dragon Age 2 is coming out, and its making some changes to the game system.  I watched some of these in a livecast demo and Q&A session, and they look nifty – I liked the way the new talent trees are presented, and the concept of building cross-class synergy into the trees.  For example, a mage talent can let them do x6 damage versus staggered targets, but to make a target staggered you need a warrior.  All this has made it hard for Green Ronin to release the promised second set for their RPG, although they did put a beta out for playtesting.

Some of the problems, however, are of Green Ronin’s own devising.  In the computer game all three classes (Mage, Warrior, Rogue) have an energy system called stamina.  Part of your stamina pool can be invested in passive buffs, and part left for active sue by talented abilities. Stamina slowly regenerates and healers can help boost it as well.  It works okay.  In the RPG, however, only Mages have an energy resource mechanic – mana – for use with their spells.  Warriors and Rogues get nothing: fundamentally they are back in classic RPG days of swinging a sword repetitively, at least until they get a stunt roll (about a 40% chance) which allows them do funky moves.  The plus side of not have an energy resource is that there is less book keeping involved.

I also found in play, that spell debuffs that work fine in a rapid-moving computer game, such as a paralysis spell that lasts 1d6+6 rounds, are a complete disaster in a slow-moving table-top game where no character has any ability to remove such a debuff (short of GM fiat or divine intervention).

The other big problem, is that while Rogues and Warriors do want to spend their experience gain across a broad range of attributes (strength, dexterity and constitution for offensive and defensive abilities), Mages want one attribute and one attribute only – Magic.  The Magic attribute increases their mana pool, their chance of successfully casting a spell, the difficulty of resisting their spells, and the power of their magic wand (which functions as their default attack if they don’t want to cast a spell).  They have no reason to boost their other ‘primary’ attributes.  This can be fixed, mainly by tying abilities like the spellcasting bonus to other stats (such as Cunning), but I can’t do this mid-campaign (both my mages intuitively min-maxed their characters and howled when I suggested a balancing fix).

Now one reason for wanting all three character roles to have their own resource system is that you can make interesting decisions in-game about when to spend the resource.  It also avoids Flat Mana Battery syndrome, where the mage unleashes hell in the first encounter, then complains of a headache and retires back to the tavern for a cuppa and a lie down … until their mana pool is replenished.  So I spent a little time brainstorming some generic uses for such a resource system within the AGE 3d6 + stunts framework.

(1) Fatigue: allow characters to spend energy so as to succeed on tasks.  So if a target number (TN) is 17 and they roll a 13, then by spending four energy points they can succeed and roll damage.  Players would be encouraged to do this whenever they have a double and potential stunt to use, so while potentially open to abuse, it does give them some narrative control: “I really, really, want to hit the bad guy on the horse fleeing into the distance…”

(2) Stunt Size: allow characters to spend energy to increase the value of their stunt die roll.  I would be inclined to limit this to double the value of the actual roll, or to build in some kind of scaling, otherwise most stunt rolls could be turned into 6s, whch eans the lower value stunts might never be used.

(3) Stunt Effectiveness: allow charcters to spend energy points to boost the efectiveness of individual stunts.  Similar to 2, but the charcter choices are a bit more constrained by the RNG of the initial roll.

(4) Rerolls: a more RNG dependent version of (1), where you spend energy to roll a die again, but there is less chance of success.

(5) Talent Triggers: build energy point usage into individual talents, e.g. letting a rogue do more damage, or additional effects (such as a bleed or stun) with their standard backstab ability.

(6) Last Stand: a special ability that could only be triggered with your very last energy point, e.g. a warrior’s beserker rage, or a mage breaking their magic staff in a fiery explosion.

At any rate, my brain is thinking, and I’ll be trying to deconstruct the Dragon Age 2 talent trees and thinking how they can be reworked into the tabletop RPG, along with some kind of reworked energy system for all three classes.


Decline & Fall III: Mechanics

January 4, 2011

Map

Main change to the map is dropping from a map with 60 sectors, to one with 25.  This pretty much worked, keeping counters to a reasonable density on most of the map.

Random Events

After years of trying to balance a deck of cards so that it would create a sequence of events that crumble that Galactic Empire in a slow decline I gave up.  It was too hard to reward players for playing cards that accelerated the decline and fall.  So I decided to make the cards players pick up a resource that allows them to do things in other players turns, hopefully increasing the interactivity in the game.  As a new ways of doing events I created a table, which players would roll on each turn to see what bad things would happen to the Galactic Empire.

This mostly worked, although I had too many different flavours of each broad type of crises (popular, elite, military).  In revision, I am merging six types of crises into three types.

Confidence

I created three confidence tracks: popular, elite, and military.  Confidence was a 0-12 value, which was crucial to playing event cards, triggering civil wars, and resolving crises.  I intended that confidence would always be slowly dropping over time, ensuring no player would remain Emperor forever.

This failed badly in implementation.  In a four player game, the fact that the Emperor would never choose to reduce confidence, plus a few rolls of 7 on the Crisis chart (Peace: confidence +1), was enough to make the confidence levels stay above 7-8 for much of the game.  For the playtest I made the first Emepror abdicate so we could test the Civil War emchanics, but subsequent Emperors also retained high confidence levels.

Revision: eliminating the peace roll on the crisis chart will remove a random element, the event cards will be changed to have less confidence boosting outcomes, and the way crises are resolved or exploited will result in confidence more often going down, not up.  I will also change how confidence values are set, from 1d6+Emperor Confidence Value, to 6+Emperor Confidence Value (so each Emperor will get at least one full turn as Emperor, unless the 1/36 chance Civil War is thrown on the Crisis Chart).

Leaders

I created sets of popular, elite and military leaders.  The intent here was to add a bit of chrome to the game, as the leaders were of variable quality, and to create an interaction with game events and confidence levels, e.g. a Court Martial event could only affect military leaders.  I thought of popular leaders as having dynastic relations, so for Civil Wars I said popular leaders had to be claimants before elite/military leaders.

Atomic Power

This was the ‘money’ in the game.  It was earned by controlling sectors where power was generated (2d6 roll with chits like Settlers of Cattan), or by being a Viceroy or Emperor.  In play, it was time consuming to determine where income had been generated, and exactly who was owed how much.  The Emperor also tended to be fabulously wealthy, as did whichever player controlled the most Viceroys, with the remaining players being impoverished.  This was bad, because the Civil War requires atomic power, and making the Emperor rich and the Usurpers poor meant that it was too hard to overthrow the leading player.

Revision: I’m dropping the tax chits and multiple layers of taxation.  My intent is to try and create an inflation mechanic. I hope to do this by giving each player a steady, but slowly increasing income, which I call Sinecures.  The goal is that when players reach the end game they should have enough power to do some expensive bidding auctions, or to fully participate in Civil Wars.

Fleets

In past games I have started each player with a large number of fleets, which during the course of the game have slowly reduced in value through attrition in battle.  Its always been nice as a player when you ended up with the last of the Old School Battleships and got to enjoy crushing some of the junk the other players had.  After reading Adrian Goldsworthy’s book on the decline of Rome I wanted to try and link the decline in military power to specific actions by the Emperor.  So there was a mechanic allowing the Emperor to subdivide an existing fleet into two weaker fleets, taking control of one of the new fleets, and the other fleet remaining controlled by the existing controller.

This worked out okay, but with the long Imperial reigns the first few Emperors ended up with more fleets than other players.  Fixing Imperial longevity will alter this, but I am still thinking about other means by which I can reach the design goal: an expanding fleet that is growing weaker over time.

Combat

I borrowed from the Dragon Age tabletop roleplaying game and created a critical hit chart.  When a player scored a double on any of their three dice, then the one die of the three with a different colour was read to give 1-6 points that could be spent on the critical hit table.  There is about a 40% chance of each of the two players in combat getting a double, so most battles (but not all) will see one player (or both) players get critical hits.  This gave players some interesting decisions to make, and removed the need for large numbers of combat cards in the card decks.

This worked well, although a need for separate Winner/Loser charts was identified.

Civil Wars

The intent was to have something like the Coup Phase in Junta (last years version of Housewar was called Junta in Space).  So as the game is played crises accumulate, the Emperor becomes unpopular, loses the confidence of their followers, and dies, thus triggering a civil war that lances the boil of afflications in the Galactic Empire. This leads to a new era of short-lived peace and prosperity before yet another Civil War.

The key mechanic driving the Civil War was that each turn you had to pay power, unless you controlled the Imperial Capital, and if you ran out fo power then your claimant to the throne (a nominated leader) died.  Last leader standing wins the war (although players could all agree at any time who the next Emperor would be).  Tax was not generated during the war, although critical hits did let you steal power from other players or loot sectors.  This worked in that players were compelled to fight over the Capital, and civil wars tended to bankrupt people.  This did make the Capital a cluttered sector full of units.

Revision: add a Blockade rule, where if all the sectors around the Capital are controlled by one player (or a coalition of players), then the power rule is inverted (people in the Capital pay power to stay in the war, people blocakding do not).

Summary

First playest of this incarnation of Housewar demonstrated that it was not a fair and balanced game.  While we had fun, when we reached the end game there was a clear leader, and the game needed soemthing that other accelerated the end of the game, or allowed the trailing players some hope of victory. Some mechanics did not work as intended and will be revised, some worked very well and only need a small amount of polish.