Grim and Gritty, or Glam and Sticky?

June 16, 2015

JoyceMaureira_SORCSPLASH (2)

In which I will eventually consider my own play preferences, but first…

I have been doing a lot of reading on roleplaying game design over the last few weeks.  So much so that I suddenly started dreaming in GURPS mechanics last week. Which is odd, as I have never owned a copy of the GURPS rules, just a few of the setting supplements.

My reading started with me thinking about cooperative magic mechanics, magic mechanics in roleplaying games in general, tropes entries on magic, and some Wikipedia research on shadows and weaving.  I also listened to some podcasts at Narrative Control. Chatting with friends, I got feedback that my pitch was more of a Gotterdamerung/final days pitch than a real post-apocalyptic pitch, which I thought was valid.  This led to me thinking a bit about noir settings – and the very next day Bundle of Holding decided to have a noir themed release.  I am still working through that pile of information (and the rulebook for Ars Magicka 5th Edition from another Bundle of Holding offer a few weeks back), but I think a noir influenced setting might require multiple flying cities (so you can have a Casablanca in the middle of it all).

I can go back and forth on the setting. While its important, trying to build it without a better grasp on system is likely to be a waste of time. Figuring out the best system for the setting depends on figuring out exactly what I want the characters to be doing in the game system and what I want the players to be doing around the game table.  So I need to do some research to try and figure out if an existing game system already does what I want, or if I need to build my own system.

Cooperative Mechanics

Many game systems are silent on the issue of character cooperation to resolve contests in the game. Some games allow one character to assist another, but few of the mechanics I looked at are built explicitly around a group of players all making decisions about the contest outcome. Here are three that I found:

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition: everyone makes a roll, if half the characters succeed, the group succeeds. Dull.

Runequest 6th Edition: the extended skill check system can be used for group tasks. The GM sets a difficulty (suggested base is 100), and the characters do skill checks, +25 for a success, +50 for a critical success and -25 for a fumble. Not quite as dull as D&D, but close.

Blades in the Dark: Characters take turns at being “on point” for an operation (which is based on teamwork). One of their options is to lead a group action: all players roll six sided dice, the best roll is used, but the leader takes one “stress” for each roll of 1-3. Players in “backup” roles can also influence this, e.g. by taking stress to roll a bonus die. Extended tasks are handled with progress clocks, which reminded me of the damage clocks in Apocalypse World. Overall I found this system was exciting my imagination, and I plan to run a Blades in the Dark game at Kapcon in 2016.

Magic Mechanics

Starting with Runequest, the sorcery system is close to what I want, but many of the spells are either lacking in obvious utility for player characters, or are too powerful for player characters. In play, I am not sure there is enough width to the spell list to make a combination of magic form 5-6 characters worthwhile.  The current edition also makes magic very all-or-nothing, either a spell overcomes the defences, or it completely fails, and this is a paper-scissors-rock subgame game.

I am not done reading Ars Magicka yet, but its rich and detailed magic system is primarily focused on the individual mage. While the troupe/covenant playstyle is interesting, its not what I am looking for.

D&D/F20 suffers from my dislike of Vancian magic. Too weak at low levels, a campaign killer at high levels.  If I have to rebuild the entire magic system, I might as well look elsewhere.

Note: there are a lot of roleplaying game systems out there that I have not played, or are unfamiliar with. I would be happy to hear suggestions of game systems I should take a closer look at. Information in forum posts makes me think I should take a look at FATE, and in particular The Dresden Files.  I only know the Mage: the whatever games in brief summary.  Heroquest and Riddle of Steel fall in the :too damn complicated” box for me.

Not satisfied with my search for illumination, I have been thinking about my literary influences, and also doing some research on roleplaying game design.

Roleplaying Game Design

Time to post a few links:

The Power 19 are like an extension of the Big 3, and most of the 19 feed off/interact with them, so I will just repeat the Big 3 here:

  1. What is the game about?
  2. What do the characters do?
  3. What do the players do?

Hard questions that are worth answering. I don’t think I have solid answers yet but some initial bullet points are:

  1. The game is about the transition to a post-peak magic society, and shaping the age that is to come (its about surviving the apocalypse long enough to make a difference).
  2. The characters are a cabal of mages, who share a fragment of a broken God, and the sum of the whole is greater than the parts when they weave their magic together.
  3. The players have to decide between escalating or escaping from contests, how much personal gain they want to try and twist out of the cabal, andwhat they want to do with their broken God.

Another part of my research was trying to figure out how dice pool mechanics work. I was sleeping under rock when these came on the scene, and I was intimidated by the wall of d6s required to fire an AK-47 in Shadowrun.  I think I get the concept now, and while an “exploding die” can be fun for criticals/fumbles, I still think my gut feeling is right that throwing large numbers of dice to determine contest outcomes has a big downside in terms of the mental energy required to keep processing the maths.  Star Wars: Edge of Empire has a dice system I would like to know more about, but the game is petrified in dead tree format, so it is going to be a while yet before I get to read it.

RPG Design Patterns was a good read. I think the best insight it gave me was on “Conflicted Gauges”, where is where a mechanic in the game is situationally good or bad.  For example, in Call of Cthulhu a high Mythos Lore skill is handy when trying to remember facts about eldritch monsters, but a disadvantage when trying to make Sanity checks.  There was a lot more in there, but this is going to be a long post already.

The RPG Design Handbook gave me some other questions to think about:

  1. How does the game make players care?
  2. What behaviours are rewarded, and how are they rewarded?
  3. Will the system let the players play the game the way I intended it to be played?
  4. Authority in the game – who gets to decide when the conversation moves forward and the decisions are locked in place?
  5. Credibility in the game – who has the right to challenge the shared fiction, and who gets to win that contest?

Literary Influences (Appendix N)

I think its worth listing some of my literary influences at this point:

  • Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files
  • Steven Erikson’s Malazan Tales of the Fallen (a spinoff from an AD&D campaign converted to GURPS, rpg.net has a good thread discussing Warrens)
  • Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence (I have only read the first two books, but I like what I have read)
  • Mark Smylie’s Artesia comics and first novel The Barrow (one of the best literary interpretations of a dungeon crawl ever).

I have not been influenced by Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, even though I worked back to it when searching for “magic + weaving” on Google.

Play Preferences

My tabletop roleplaying gaming started in the 1980s and was firmly rooted in the first generation of games: Dungeons & Dragons, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, and Traveller. Most of the campaigns I have played in or game mastered, have been in those systems, or a D20 version (like Fading Suns).  Kapcon has been good for being exposed to indie games, but prior to the Bundle of Holding, it was rare for me to look at other game systems on a regular basis.

Its interesting to reflect on my play preferences and how they differ when I am a player or a game master.

As a player I like:

  • rolling dice and sometimes getting lucky
  • being effective in combat
  • having a solid background hook for the character
  • a clear niche for my character
  • progression over time (and don’t make me lose the game in character generation by failing to understand what my character build should be)
  • some kind of direction about what we are doing in the game.

As a game master I like:

  • contest outcomes that give me some direction about what to narrate next – this is the main weakness of the d100 game engines, what does 57 mean?
  • faction ambiguity – players will always attempt to immediately kill anything within line of sight that is flagged “obvious villain”, and will feel like utter failures if you refuse to let them roll for initiative before you finish the opening monologue. So I like shades of grey and intrigue as a GM.
  • a system I am comfortable tinkering with for the house campaign (i.e. I understand everything inside the black box and feel comfortable about pulling level A to get result B)
  • running long, multi-year campaigns (most narrative games cannot do this to my satisfaction)
  • building a detailed setting for the house game and doing prep before each session (when I stop enjoying prep its time to think about wrapping the campaign up)
  • subverting cliches
  • the lightbulb moment when one of the players figures out the big secret!

While there are a lot of grim and gritty roleplaying games out there, there are not a lot of glam and sticky games. These reflects the wargaming roots and the mania for combat simulation. Still, maybe someone will make a game some day about playing 1970s rock stars and their groupies.

What might an ideal cooperative mechanic look like?

I do not have a solid idea yet on how to articulate these ideas as a mechanical expression.  Rolling some dice probably, but if I want something closer to the stories of literature/cinema, then I need a way of divorcing myself from the simulationist mania.  I would like the game mechanics to incorporate these ideas:

  1. The Cabal of Broken Gods: as a resource shared between the players – encourage the players to work together by making it advantageous to do so. Maybe the cabal lets you cast spells known by the other PCs but not by your PC? Maybe the cabal has a bonus pool of magic points? The cabal obviously needs its own character sheet (a character sheet is a promise).
  2. Magic Weaving: the players need each other’s help to cast effective spells, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Other PCs can give a die roll bonus, share the cost, benefit from the cast, etc.
  3. The Tapestry of Shadows: the potential threat of losing control over your character, or otherwise increasing a potential threat.
  4. Betrayal: the potential to twist a cabal weaving to your own benefit.
  5. Escalation: as the contest progresses, the player has to make the decision to escape or escalate. Think of the classic mage duels, no one dies in the first fireball, its a sequence of move and counter-move (and after scribbling this idea down I read about escalation mechanics in Dogs in the Vineyard for the first time)
  6. Going “all out”: a choice by the player to commit everything to the contest, with dire consequences for failure, the last option on the escalation ladder
  7. Escape: so common in literature, so rare in tabletop gaming. I want to make escape a valid choice for players, by having some kind of reward for bailing out of a fight they might lose (e.g. +1 Luck Point), and by making it easy (e.g. mages can teleport).

I am doodling some diagrams, trying to see if I can build some conflicted gauges around 3-5 magic resources.  For example, having a strong talent in Wild Magic could help you create new magic, but might make all your spells harder to control.  Other potential axis are destructive/creative, permanent/non-permanent, clarity/confusion. One thing I want to avoid, is writing up 666 different spells. Much easier to have just a small number of useful spells. Some important considerations for magic in the setting itself:

  • is magic an individual gift, or can anyone do it?
  • is magic powered from within the self, or by tapping into a universal magic force field?
  • is magic a fixed list of specified power, or can the players be creative/improvise on the go
  • is there are hard limit to the magical energy a character can tap – I think this is important because in much the same way players dislike going to zero Hit Points, they also dislike using their last Magic Point/spell, but it did occur to me that I could build into the reward system an explicit bonus for spending that last magic point
  • how quickly does magical energy refresh?

Publishing

I did some quick market research this week. Tabletop roleplaying games make up $15m of the $750m hobby gaming market. Boardgames have a greater share of the market at $75m. Most of the market is taken up by miniatures ($125m) and card games ($500m+).

The bulk of the tabletop game market is dominated by the Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder systems.  Outside of the F20 market are a handful of universal game systems, such as GURPS, or more focused systems, such as World of Darkness that have large followings.

I think if you want to make some money in publishing a new game setting, you have to think really hard about not using some flavour of F20.  If you want to publish a new game system, I think you need to be focused in your efforts. Write two pages, not twenty pages, write twenty pages, not 200 pages.  Having looked through a number of the universal setting free game engines, I would be unconvinced that the world needs another way to roll dice on the table.

Military Muddling

Finally, a shout out for my friends at the Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group in London, who have migrated their old club newsletter into the blogging age. Military Muddling may be of interest to people who are keen on historical game design and megagames.

The artwork in this post was taken from the art pack for The Silent Legion.

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The Red Eye School of Sorcery

December 31, 2013

Continuing with my campaign development over the holiday break.  My plan is to eventually develop five orders of sorcery, along with some religious cults and mystic orders, for use by player characters.  For this school of sorcery, I started with the Scholastic Order template on page 308 0f the Runequest VI rules and then modified it a bit.  The background is loosely inspired by some of the Odin myths, and I have subverted the standard trope of the reclusive nerdy mage, by making the order a bit more interested in the pleasures of the flesh.

The Red Eye School of Sorcery

The most obvious sign of a Red Eye mage, is that one of their eyes is missing, usually as part of a deliberate initiation ritual. A true master of the school can be recognised by the fact that both of their eyes have been removed! Note: the missing eye(s) cannot be regenerated by any magic means. Eye patches are often worn, and prosperous members of the order wear red coloured robes made from expensive fabrics, and for formal occasions a cloak of raven feathers. If they have a staff, it is usually white.

The first eye removed by this order is deliberately destroyed in a magic ritual that creates a charm for the sorcerer that makes them harder to be found by tracking or scrying (increase the difficulty level of such skill checks by one level). The loss of an eye makes all sight based perception checks one level of difficulty harder.

The Red Eye school originated in the Moon Age, a sorcerer known as Sarak of the Wandering Eye was exiled from Mal’s Court after making the mistake of propositioning all three of Mal’s daughters at a Ball. In the Shadowlands he was trapped by the Queen of Thorns (after mortally offending her in a botched seduction attempt) and impaled on the Whistling Thorn Tree. Trapped on the tree, with his life’s blood staining his previously white robes, and carrion birds circling around, Sarak endured pain and agony. Eventually the Raven flew in close and bargained with Sarak teaching him a song that would free him in exchange for a morsel of flesh. While Sarak felt tricked when Raven took his eye as the “morsel”, he was free to continue his wanderings, fumbled courtings, and led a long life of research and discovery.

Sarak’s book of knowledge is known as the Veiled Volume, and it is written in a language taught only to members of the order, and it can be read by people who are blind.

The Red Eye Order rose to prominence in the Rebellion age, when people rebelled against the tradition’s and restrictions of the Shining Court. Red Eye sorcerers were happy to share their discoveries of different ways of doing things, and quite happily broke with old conventions. It has largely retained a presence in the Imperial Court, apart from a period of suppression during the time of the Harem Emperor’s, and is responsible for tuition of the Imperial family and maintaining the Imperial library.

The order continues to be involved in significant research, discovery and exploration … along with some of the major court scandals. While scholastic, its members are not known for denying themselves the pleasures of the flesh, if anything they experiment with discovering its limits of endurance.

Magic Points

A Red Eye sorcerer regenerates magic points after the sun has set for the day.

Runes

Truth and Magic.

Skills

Insight, Invocation (Red Eye), Language (Blind)*, Lore (Any), Perception, Shaping, Willpower.

Spells in the Veiled Volume

Abjure (Pain), Evoke (Razantar), Eye for an Eye (Castback), Intuition, Mystic (Hearing), Perceive (Magic), Raven’s Song (Neutralise Magic), Raven’s Wings (Fly), Red Light*, Sense (Knowledge), Wandering Eye*.

Red Light Spell

This spell can be used to illuminate an area with a red light, emanating from a point chosen by the caster. The light is just sufficient to read by, but will not disrupt vision at night time (unlike a bright light). While the red light persists, the caster can augment their Seduction checks with their Invocation (Red Eye) skill.

Wandering Eye

This spell is used to animate an artificial eye crafted by the Sorcerer (as well as delicate cogwheels and mechanisms the eye usually requires wings from a small magical creature and a small ruby). A lens or monocle is also crafted to go with this. In use the spell is similar to Project (Sense), although the physical eye can be detected and destroyed, but the receiving view piece can be shifted between different people.

Gift – Summon Ranaztar of the Thousand Eyes

When the sorcerer is inducted as a full member of the Order, the masters will summon Ranaztar to oversee the ceremony. If Ranaztar detects disloyalty in the heart of the Apprentice, it will devour both of the Apprentice’s eyes, and then the Masters will expel the apprentice. Otherwise Ranaztar assists the Masters in destroying the eye the Apprentice will sacrifice. When the sorcerer becomes a Master, they can summon Ranaztar and sacrifice their remaining eye (which Ranaztar adds to their collection) in exchange for one of the following gifts:

  •  +1d6 INT
  • a Lore skill at 100% (this cannot be Forbidden Lore).

A master sorcerer of the Red Eye can attempt to summon Razantar at any time, provided they can gift it with the eyes of magically powerful people or creatures.

Duties

Novices and apprentices are required to assist higher ranked members of the order, and often spend long hours copying library manuscripts. Adepts and other high rank members are obliged to assist anyone who comes to them with a novel problem (although a gift is customary after the problem has been dealt with). There is an old Imperial Law requiring all children in the Imperial family to be tutored by a Red Eye sorcerer, although given the rate at which past Imperial tutors have been executed, exiled or imprisoned by the Emperor’s, this is not a popular duty. The order as a whole is hostile to the puritans in the Covenant, supporting imperial campaigns against them.


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.

 


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.