Stress Pool Mechanic

February 11, 2016

Back in November I promised a more mechanics focused article on some of the systems I was exploring. Edits since the original post are in bold.

I have read my way through a few more D100 variations, including the playtest kit for the Revolution D100 system I backed on a European crowd sourcing platform. While RD100 tries to marry the aspects/tags of Fate systems with the gritty simulation of D100, its just not quite working for me in the way its set up. I took another look at Fate, and yes its still a thing of beauty, but I still can’t quite get my head around it.

I skimmed through various powered by the Apocalypse systems, and finally kinda got it after reading a couple of blogs explaining the Dungeon World game (not DW itself though, that still had me going “huh?”). On balance, I think the attention paid to writing style, communication about play style, and adherence to fiction is what makes AW and its followers the best change in roleplaying in a very long time. The simple 2d6 die roll just doesn’t grab me (compared to the escalation mechanic in Dogs in the Vineyard which had me going “wow” once it sunk in). Reading these games makes me feel like an old curmudgeon at times, just not able to keep up with the hipsters. Its a pity I missed playing Sprawl at Christmas, that might have given me a few more clues.

I read through some finished Kickstarter deliveries for SymbaroumNumenera, and Shadows of the Demon Lord. All solid D20 games, but not quite what I am looking for. Numenera in particular stands out as a game that promises a particular style of gameplay (exploration), but builds characters good at doing something else (combat).  SOTDL I think would provide me with a better than D&D5E experience, should I ever desire a short three month D20 campaign. I glanced at 13th Age again for long enough to remind myself that something about stacking Hit Points up to high totals just makes my teeth itch and gorge rise these days. Still waiting for 13th Age in Glorantha to troll off the Kickstarter production line. For some OSR vibes I looked at Planescape – I think I would have really enjoyed that setting 25 years ago, but I never came across it in my university gaming crowd.

One takeaway I had from a binge of reading focused on mechanics for corrupting characters (hello Blue RoseCall of Cthulhu, Vow of Honor and many other titles) was that its pretty much an established conflict gauge with little scope for novelty or exploration of new boundaries for moral choices.  I did try playing around with more of three-pointed triangle gauge, but it just felt a bit too complex. This led me to the idea of corruption as a shared party element. Something that all the characters (and players) have a stake in. More on that in a bit (see Husk below).

I looked at Pendragon again, and thought, what if I treated magical power the same way Pendragon treats Glory. Something you gain in big lumps, +50, +200, +500, etc. Then when you cross a threshold, say 10,000, you ascend to a new tier of magical power. Still thinking about whether this is just a recolour of experience points, or whether it is both permanent XP and a one use resource for game stuff.

At Kapcon I got to run a couple of dice pool game systems. The Paranoia system was pretty simple (Roll stat + skill D6 + computer D6, 5+ is a success, a 1 on the computer die is a fumble) and lots of fun in play. I also ran a fantasy hack of the Cortex Plus system from Firefly. This was slow – too much time was spent assembling the dice pool. I also looked at FFG’s Edge of Empire, where the unique dice are pretty, but my brain gets tired trying to read the results – definitely a dice pool system where you want a computer application to eliminate all the success/failure ties for you.

I read The Clay that Woke by Paul Czege. Its an evocative setting, playing Minotaur servants in a crumbling city run by decadent humans. While I grasped the broad thrust of slef dsicipline versus giving in to anger, the actual mechanics were fiddly enough to make me skip forward to the story fluff. The Gaean Reach has been a teenage flashback guilty pleasure, an rpg based on Jack Vance’s Demon Prince books. If I ever want to run a vengeance focused game, I’ll be looking at this again.

Among a huge pile of Bundle of Holding stuff a couple of titles have stood out over the last six months: Spears of the Dawn (a game set in a fantasy Africa), The Books of Days/Gates/Law (a D&D 3.0 fantasy Egypt, which had me salivating for sand and Pyramids).

In my to read soon pile are: Mindjammer, Colonial Gothic, Blood Red Sands, Urban Shadows, Starfare, Nefertiti Overdrive, Cold Steel Wardens,  Witch, and Starvation Cheap.

The Husk of the Broken God

But I should get back to actual mechanics. Lets start by assuming this is done with some form of roll-under-skill D100 system with doubles (33, 44, 55, etc) as special success (or failure with consequences if > skill).

Going back to the shared conflict gauge for the party. My central idea is that the party are all connected to a fragment of a dead God. I refer to it as the Husk for short. The Husk is like a mana battery and a spell book. It gives the PCs “moves” that are not available to ordinary mortals, it can help fuel their magic, and attempt high risk actions. The more you tap on the slumbering Husk, the greater the risk of arousing and empowering the fragment, to the point where it attempts to take over one of the PCs. So its “corruption” but with a “tragedy of the commons” element. Even if your PC is pure and honourable, if the other PCs keep calling on the power of the dead God, your PC could be the one who gets hit by the possession attempt.

Mechanically it could work like this:

  1. The Husk has a pool of D10s. Green D10s for “sleeping power” and Red D10s for “roused power”.
  2. A player can take one or more D10s when making a skill check. This is done on a “Ask for forgiveness, not for permission” basis.
    1. To discourage the first player from grabbing all of the available dice, the GM can assemble a failure with consequences roll from the dice used. For example if a player with 50% skill rolls a 53% with their inherent skill check, and gets results of 40, 60, 7 and 6 on the four Husk dice, then they can build a success (43%) but the GM can also build a special failure (66%).
  3. Green D10s generate an extra singles die – increasing the chance of a special success. If you get a special success using a Green die, convert the Green D10 into a Red D10.
  4. Green D10s are exhausted when used, refresh at the end of the scene (but see 6 below) or if a PC makes some kind of in-fiction appropriate attempt to subdue or control the Husk.
  5. Red D10s generate an extra tens die – increasing both overall success and special success odds.
  6. If you get a special success using a Red die, convert a fresh Green D10 into a Red D10. If no fresh Green D10s are available, convert an exhausted one. If all the dice are now Red this triggers something like a possession or manifestation of the dead God.
  7. Red dice are not exhausted when used.
  8. For each die you grab for your skill check, reduce the power cost of special ability use by one.

Needs playtesting and polish, but its a work in progress.

The Stress Pool

Now to my idea of a Stress Pool. This idea came to me when I was thinking about fatigue systems. RD100 has a book-keeping heavy one that requires you to track at least two gauges (stamina and strike rank), and trying to get players to accurately track penalties for their characters is a hard ask. So here is my Stress Pool idea:

  1. For each beat in the scene, add a stress marker into a pool shared by all the PCs.
  2. A player can try to reduce stress by blowing an action on an appropriate in-fiction move (e.g. in a battle they might remove their helmet to get fresh air, in a salon they might withdraw from debate to grab another drink).
  3. A player can also exploit stress in a risky move – with player/GM agreement on what is at stake if things go wrong.
  4. For each stress marker used the player rolls a penalty D10 as a Disadvantage – both increasing their chance of failure, and of failure with consequences. Alternately, a player can ask for pain – with each stress marker being a damage roll against them (use the highest die rolled, rather than combining all of them I think)
  5. Stressful failure is worth XP (the reward for success in a scene/episode is Power, which unlocks new abilities, XP improves your skill at using those abilities) with the XP gain being equal to the number of penalty dice used. If you use two stress dice in one scene and three stress dice in another scene, that is +3 XP not +5 XP.
  6. Should the Stress Pool reach 10, the GM has freedom to impose something “interesting” on the party, resetting the Stress pool to zero (or half?).

Tone could vary a lot – stress failure could result in blood and pain, or it could be more in the nature of picaresque comedy or slapstick humor. As a shared resource though, the players are all in competition for the XP reward. Needs playtesting and polish, but it would let me side step all those annoying fatigue systems by simply having the players invoke it in game fiction when they justify why stress is hitting them.

Now I wonder if anyone else has done anything quite like this? Its been another week of “snap”, with that idea I had for building an ancient Alexandria-like adventure city with the name Iskandar, well John Wick had the same idea for his 7th Sea kickstarter. I have also been ruminating about a setting focus of just-before-the-fall Golden Age like Atlantis/Numenor, and look what turned up on Indiegogo this week: Chariot: Roleplaying in an Age of Miracles. Not that I would ever quite want to go down the new age crystal road this journey is taking with my own design, but its another example of ideas being cheap, finished product being hard work.

Next post, I’ll try fleshing out some more setting focused ideas on Halflings.

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Unit Density & Fleet Mechanics

September 14, 2011

A Couple of Map Design Notes

Many years ago now, I read a guide to designing variants for the Diplomacy boardgame.  One part of this guide was a deconstruction of the map, which noted that for every three spaces on the map, there were a maximum of two units in the game (once all the units were built).  The most common outcome of a Diplomacy game between players of equal skill is a draw, something the game’s combat resolution system tends to encourage.  But we can postulate that as unit density increases on the map, so does the chance of a draw, or of a series of grinding attritional combats.  Conversely, as unit density reduces on the map, the chances of someone winning increases, and combat is more likely to be dominated by movement, flanking and encirclement.

When constructing an area map, the map has two key elements.  First, the area nodes.  Second, the links between the nodes.  When I visited a PBM company in Auckland in the early 1990s, one of the observations made a game designer there was that the more links connecting into a node, the harder it was to defend/the easier it was to attack.  Going back to Diplomacy, veteran players know that the ‘corner’ powers of Turkey, Russia, England, and France, are all much harder to eliminate early in the game than the ‘central’ powers of Italy, Germany and Austria-Hungry.  Games that have defensive terrain, like mountains, can make high-link nodes easier to defend.

Players = Map Units?

One of the principles I have adopted for designing the Grand Strategy game for Buckets 2012, is that the map will be designed to fit the number of players that pre-register, with a hard cap of 35 players.  If we have 35 players, then we need to calculate how many significant map units we want based on that.  Having one unit per player has some advantages, as each unit could be linked to an identifiable commander.  On the other hand, we do not want the map game to be compulsory for all players.  Having more units than players might also give the players something to choose between when making map decisions, which is good as long the decisions are interesting.  We probably don’t want more than 3-4 units per player however.

So, let us assume 2 units per player, although in practice some players may get to push 3-4 units around the map.  35 x 2 is 70.  Making the map the same density as Diplomacy, would then take 70/2 is 35, 35×3 = 105 map nodes.  That would be 21 map nodes per map table.  That’s not a wildly impractical amount for the space we assume we will have in 2012, but if the game hall was smaller I would have to consider dropping it down.

The Deep Space Option

One option for the game map is to have a Deep Space zone that players can hide in.  Space is big, really big … so big that different players in the Deep Space zone will never accidentally encounter each other.  What the Deep Space zone can do, is facilitate retreats or give space for pirates to lurk in.  By being linked to every node, it reduces the number of empty nodes required to give a bit of breathing room on the map.

Crinkling the Fjords

If every map node has exactly five links, then the terrain is going to lack a bit of variety.  Without actually drawing up a sketch map, I think we can safely assume that nodes towards the centre of the map will have more links than nodes on the edge of the map.  We might make a few nodes “safe” space and say they don’t have a link to Deep Space.  Each map should have a couple of outlier nodes.

At the moment, I am still looking at using the catabolic system for the game economy, with two of the main units being Capital (represented by dice, which can move between nodes) and Power (which cannot move between nodes and can be marked on the mode).  As links represent in part trade routes, the maximum number of Capital dice in a node could be determined by the number of links.

For a side game, I am thinking about something closer to a Civilization or Settlers of Cattan collect-the-set and trade card game.  For this, I could probably identify specific nodes with production of specific resources (such as “Alien Erotica” and “Tastes Like Chicken”).

Fleet Movement

At Buckets 2011, we had major issues with movement, in part related to the Queue system having too many players at each game table.  For 2012, we might try for five map tables to spread the players out a bit.  That is not a complete solution, however, as there is nothing to stop the players all crowding into one game map for some reason.

What a movement system needs to encompass is:

1. Who moves next?

2. What can they do with their move?

3. How long do they have to finish their move?

In games like Diplomacy, everyone moves at the same time.  I do not think this will work well for me, as the combat mechanics are likely to be more complex, and they are likely to suffer resolution sequencing issues when more than two factions occupy a node.  So I have identified three options so far for movement mechanics:

First, just stick with the Queue system, and serve each player on a first come first served basis, with a break every 20 minutes for the GM to tidy the map up.  This makes every player at a map table important, but it can lead to long queues if one table becomes more important than the others.

Second, the Faction system, where movement order is random, but each faction gets one turn before another faction has a second turn.  This means Factions just need to leave one player at each table to maintain their presence there.  One potential issue is the possibility of Factions occasionally getting two turns in a row (last to move in one set, first to move in the next set).  This could be mitigated by resolving each faction in a fixed turn order, but that might make the game dangerously predictable when you consider how alliances might manipulate it.

Third, the Pulse system, where each player has a set of order counters.  Each Pulse, the players stand around the table, place order counters down by units they control.  Each order counter has a unique initiative number.  When the counters are revealed, resolve each order in its initiative sequence.  If you have a few players at a table, you will get through a lot of pulses. More players will slow things down though.

What the Pulse system could allow us to do, is to make the tactical options for each player different, by giving them all slightly different sets of order counters.  This is one thing we can do with a strict pre-registration system that I have not been able to do in the past.

Some Possible Pulse Orders

Resolution would start with 00 and go up in ascending order.  Here I have grouped similar orders in bandings I think are logical (some influence from the Game of Thrones boardgame here).

00-00 Corruption, reduce capital by 1 in any sector, take 1d6 credits

01-05 Hasty Assault (cannot spend tech)

06-10 Defence (can spend tech)

11-15 Move (cannot spend tech, can be fleet or capital)

16-20 Prepared Assault (can spend tech)

21-25 Build (spend capital/power to gain ships/tech)

26-30 Invest (spend capital/power to build power/capital)

99-99 Bluff (nothing happens)

Order counters could be arrow shaped to indicate the direction of movement.  Other orders are possible, feel free to suggest anything I missed in the comments!


Redesigning the Decline & Fall Game (again)

August 29, 2011

So I am starting work on the redesign of “Housewar”, the decline & fall of the Galactic Empire boardgame I usually play each Christmas.

Objectives

You win if you get the most Glory. The exception to this: the player with the most Blame loses, regardless of their Glory score.  So while players will try and score Glory, they are also trying to shift blame away from themselves and onto the other players.

Conspiracy Cards

Past versions of the game have failed to balance event cards.  So I am trying a new track.  Each turn a player can draw five conspiracy cards, representing plots they can start against other players.  Each plot has two different triggers.  When the target player does either of the triggers, the plotter can reveal the conspiracy and make a die roll to see if the plot succeeds.  There may be a bit of a tradeoff here, between the small easy to get benefit, and the bigger, harder to get benefit.

Rather than have a lot of different cards, I am going for six types of cards, nine versions of each, with three of each flavour (elite, popular and military).

Part of what I am looking for here, is more direct interaction between players that involves contingent events, and the anticipation of something happening in the future.  Some restrictions here: you can start one plot per turn against other players, and you can have a maximum of five plots started against you.

Blame

Blame can be shifted between players, removed, or pinned on a player (i.e. it then becomes part of their permanent blame score and is counting to determine if the player loses the game).  Conspiracy cards can manipulate blame but the three main blame manipulations are:

1. Each player places one blame in front of them each game turn.

2. Each player can move half of the blame in front of another player once each game turn.  Because you cannot move it away from yourself, there are diplomatic oportunities here to form reciprocal arrangements with other players, or to agree to shift all the blame towards a particular player.

3. At the end of each Civil War, the new Emperor gets to allocate blame for the Civil War:

A. The Emperor pins one Blame to one player of their choice (the person they like the most)

B. The Emperor pins all but one Blame to one player of their choice (probably the person they dislike the most)

C. The Emperor does not get any blame pinned.

D. The remaining players pin half (round up) of their Blame.

Confidence Tracks

Working to avoid the yo-yo oscillations of last year, the confidence tracks will be much more negative sum.  Initial confidence value will be 6+ Emperor attribute value (1-6), so a 7-12 range.  However, with each Civil War, the maximum confidence value will be reduced by one.  So the interval between Civil Wars should reduce as the game plays on.

In the Emperor’s turn, they increase a confidence value by one.  All other players reduce a confidence value by one.  All players gain power tokens and a side benefit from adjusting a confidence track.

Military: gain some fleet tokens.

Elite: shift blame.

Popular: pin blame.

Players could run one track down to quickly trigger the next civil war, however, players who defect from this co-operative strategy will gain more power.

Glory

One problem in past Housewar games has been a large degree of variability in glory scored between players.  So in this version all players get at least one opportunity to score glory each turn.

1. The Emperor gets to reign, and score 1-6 glory and possibly generate some power.

2. Non-Emperors get to indulge in decadence, where they score Glory based on the number of blame markers in front of them.

3. Some conspiracies, when triggered, allow a player to score one point of glory.

The sweet spot is for incoming total glory to be just above incoming blame.

Civil Wars/Battles

Not too much to change here, the system worked reasonably well last year, so just some fine tuning.  I’m keeping the requirement to spend power or hold the capital each turn in order to prevent your claimant being killed.  I am adding a power gain at the end of the war based on territorial control.

Counters

I am dithering between having specific House units, or just having Imperial units with markers to indicate control.  The latter probably means less counters overall.  The former makes it much easier to tell at a glance who controls what on the map.

Rather than having a lot of fleet counters, with high value fleets degrading into low value fleets over time, I think I can get away with around 40 fleet units.  Possibly discard one at random from the game after every Civil War.

I am thinking of having House specific leaders (again for the ease of seeing who controls them).  I am also considering permanent removal from the game, if killed in combat (about a 7% chance per battle) or if they become Emperor.  This means a player who is Emperor a lot early on, may hurt in the end-game if all their good leaders are gone.  13 leaders per player should be enough.

Rules

So far, I have managed to keep the rules at four pages in length.  I really miss having my own printer, it was much easier to generate playtest components with one at home.