D&D, old and new (Ropecon 09)

5 September, 2009 at 2:18 pm (actual play, Ropecon) (, , , )

In Ropecon I played Fane of the poisoned prophecies as GM’d by mister Raggi. After the con I’ve played four sessions of 4e.

Minor spoilers regarding the Fane shall follow.

Both of the games were mediocre, but for different reasons. The Fane felt somewhat directionless; we entered the place, killed some stuff, discovered some healing herbs, moved on, encountered a Cthulhuan camel, and so on. There was a big secret that we did not uncover, though the clues were there. I’m not certain that figuring out the secret would actually have been useful. On the treasure side we did find the herbs and one shelf of books, but the value of either was dwarfed by the appetite of the disenchanter-camel. Overall, I think the game might have been better if we had had a concrete goal or reason for being there. A good resource hoard to search for, say, or something more personal. Also, second journey in would likely have been more meaningful.

On the system side, we had one combat that felt too long (the moon chamber). All of them did nicely evoke a sense of danger and the need to move on, which was, I think, the point.

Overall: The play itself was fun; interacting with the environment and guessing at the level of risks. The combat system is pretty incidental I’d go as far as to further simplify it or abstract it away, since what happens inside combat is not, at least for me, that interesting. Props to James for not naming the monsters. It does make them feel more sword and sorcerish, probably due to facing the unknown and otherwordly, and less like D&D fantasy (Dragonlance, Forgotten realms, …).

Yeah: Every character made it out alive, though two, including my fighter henchman, were unconscious.

As for the game of 4e, we had some fights, found some traces of drow conspiracy, had some fights, attacked some underground temple and were all killed. Verdict: 4e is far more deadly than old school D&D. Maybe our only healer being one-shotted during surprise round also was a contributing factor.

4e does not prohibit people from roleplaying; I don’t see any relevant differences when compared to 3rd edition. What is relevant, and what is striking in contrast to old D&D (which does not have much encouragement for roleplaying, either) is that modern D&D has combats that take awfully long time. I take it that people enjoy such combats, but I would rather be roleplaying. In addition, such awfully long combats create the illusory dichotomy between using rules and roleplaying, so harming much discourse on rpgs.

Our game would have been better if we had more players familiar with the rules. Right now there was insignificant amounts of fumbling and me and the GM keeping track of rules for other players. Roleplay was, as always, as meaningful as we made it.

Overall, I probably will be playing 4e (or 3rd edition) only when there are no other interesting games available. They are still preferable to almost all board and card games, though. Chess might be counterexample, if I bothered learning it properly.

So, mediocre games but for different reasons. Clearly different games, also, with similarities being in the name and some cosmetic stuff.

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Goblins

17 October, 2008 at 5:59 pm (Burning Wheel, dungeon crawling, game element) (, , , , )

A take on goblins as actual monsters, not a race of ugly and evil and small people. Inspired by a blog post by Jeff Rients and some reviews of Changeling: the Lost.

I will further write mechanical implementations or sketches thereof to some goblin spells, especially for my dungeoncrawling game. Also, I hereby release the rules of the dungeoncrawling game (particularly their presentation) into public domain.

Born of fear and mud

Should it be so that some dark corner, or alley, or woods, or perhaps even cave is feared and dark rumours abound, there will, sooner or later, be a goblin there. Maybe goblins are born of these rumours, or maybe the rumours of the goblins.

Once born, goblins will do as their nature makes them to: Cruel tricks and stealing people, particularly children, is their calling and source of mirth. Should a number of goblins live together for a while, a shaman will emerge and a pit of mud will be constructed, if suitable one does not exist yet.

Captured children are thrown into the pit, only to emerge as ugly goblins, much like those who created them. Captured adults are cast in and emerge as ogres, deformed monsters and mockeries of their former selves, small-minded, aggressive and brutish.

Goblin magic

Goblins are demonic, or feyish, in nature, and some have sorcerous abilities. Not all do, and they are not equally adept at their use. Shamans are naturally the undisputed masters of these arts.

Boo!

Goblins are born of fear and can use it against their foes. A goblin can, in lieu of surprise attack, (attempt to) scare its foes. Everyone surprised by the goblin must resist it; those that fail are affected as though affected by normal fear effects. If any opponent succeeds, the goblin is also affected by a fear effect as though victim to its own power.

Boo! does not work in proper daylight or lighting of equivalent quality. Other goblins can hear one yelling Boo! over great distances, and they are curious creatures…

Mechanics

For my dungeoncrawly game: Roll magic versus magic, each target resist individually, effect as though the fear spell. Typically a number of goblins equal to magic result of the one invoking Boo! come to investigate at their leisure.

Burning Wheel: Will versus will, with steel test being the fear effect.

D&D 3rd: Will save DC 10 + 1/2 HD + charisma modifier of the goblin saying Boo!, failure means being frightened for d6 rounds. Shaken if you want the goblins to not be infuriating opponents. Either way, if anyone succeeds, the goblin is frightened. Spell-like ability, takes a standard action.

Goblin doors

Goblins can open doors from and to dark places, partially disregarding the distance between such places. They are so small that adults must grouch or even crawl to enter one and look like poorly made. There is typically a short winding tunnel after such a door, containing at least one corner such that it is impossible to see the entry and exit points of the tunnel at the same time. At the end of the tunnel there is another similar door, which opens somewhere else. Typical goblin door disappears once closed or left unattended and further it is impossible to turn around after losing sight of the entry door (going back is the same thing as going forward).

When opening a door one must imagine the location where the other side is supposed to be (and tell it to the GM, if appropriate). Most of the time the door opens to the desired location or at least to that direction; sometimes the unexpected happens, for which is the following random chart. Roll a suitable die.

  1. Oops: The other side of the door is the spawning place of the goblin this sorcery was used or taught by.
  2. Long ways to go: Traversing the tunnel takes d6 hours.
  3. Goblins: d4 goblins are lurking within the tunnel, just in case you would happen to wander through.
  4. Horror: An undead, demon, spirit, or some shadowy beast is lurking within the tunnel, preying upon unwary passengers.
  5. Shadows: Travellers are cursed to see everything as though it was night at all times. No light is bright enough, no colours distinct.
  6. Shadowy sight: Travellers can henceforth see in dim light as well as cats.
  7. Reduction: Travellers are gradually turned to size of the goblinkin.
  8. Permanency: The doors and the tunnel is permanent.
  9. U-turn: The exit point of the door is the same as the entry point.
  10. Scared: When leaving the tunnel the one who opened the door casts Boo! on the others who are treated as surprised.
  11. Infused: When leaving the tunnel one character with little magical or mental ability acquires some and can henceforth open a goblin door at will.
  12. Roll twice, apply both results if possible, else use the nastier one.

Mechanics

Dungeoncrawling game: After having entered the tunnel and moved so that returning is no longer a possibility, roll magic; on roll of anything but 1, the maximum distance the tunnel can cover is 20 metres multiplied by magic roll; on roll of 1, game master rolls a d12 and consults the chart. (Reduction is likely to reduce might of the character to around half; infusion gives +1 magic and goblin door at will to one character with lowest magic attribute.)

Burning Wheel: Roll will, count successes, no successes is botch, otherwise distance covered is in the ballpark of 20 metres per success. Becoming smaller reduces power by 1 and gives power cap of 6. Being infused gives a character with lowest will some custom trait that goblins have and access to goblin door. Else treat goblin door as a natural magic skill related to will.

D&D 3rd: Wisdom check DC 5 to avoid mishap, 1 is always a mishap, otherwise distance traveled equals 10 metres * check result. Shadows and shadowy sight mean dim light and low-light vision, respectively. Reduction as though being reduced to small size. Neutralise with any spell that can remove curses. Infusion gives/increases inherent bonus to charisma by 1 and gives goblin doors at will. To determine who it affects, take the highest mental score of the characters and then take the lowest of these. That’s the character you are looking for. Spell-like ability, but full-round action to open the door.

Goblin trader

Goblins are vile monsters, but also willing to help humans and others, for a price. Here’s a list of services they might grant and of prices they might ask. They are not very reliable trading partners, either, and will weasel out of an agreement if able to. Goblin traders are typically shamans out of favour within a nearby settlement.

  • Equipment the goblin happens to have, typically of poor quality – As much coins as they think you have; you would not be dealing with them if you had good choices, so better milk the situation for all it is worth.
  • Training against opponents the goblins are threatened by (say, kobolds) – Beard of a dwarf or delicious, fresh ears of an elf, or something similar.
  • Boo! at will – One live adult, subdued.
  • Goblin door at will – One live child, subdued.

Goblin magic is, I feel, suited for old school play. I doubt it would work very well with encounter-based D&D play, for example, being utterly broken and too unpredictable.

I’d love to add stats for older editions of D&D, but I don’t have the rules for any.

Licensing

Everything not keyed to rules of BW or D&D is released into public domain. The intro text is not, though.

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In spite of laser clerics, or not bashing 4e

21 August, 2008 at 10:30 am (game design) (, , )

I’m not exactly a 4e hater. (Even though laser clerics and astral diamonds and starblah armours are profoundly stupid. In my opinion.)

So, there exists a bunch of things that 4e does very right. I have not played it, so these are only from design perspective. (My bias: I like elegant game designs.) The following are not in any particular order.

Out of combat

Skill challenges are a development long overdue. They allow one to mechanically handle non-combat encounters in such a way that it takes some time, which focuses more attention on them. The challenge can be constructed so that it promotes using different skills, or at least accepts such use. The difficulty can be scaled arbitrarily by increasing DCs or the number of successful checks one needs to achieve a victory. (Two ways of handling difficulty are redundant, as one would have been enough, but it is easy enough to always look difficulty from a chart and only mess with the number of successes required. Or the other way around.) Skill challenges allow partial successes, which are essentially a form of “Yes, but…”. You track down the beast, but it has time to slay the residents of a lone farmstead. You find it resting atop a heap of slaughtered farmers. Good luck you did not fail two checks or it would have ambushed you. Or three, because it would have lead you to an ambush by an unfortunate band of orcs and slipped away in the fray.

Skill challenges are not actually mechanically interesting. To make them gameable, one would need to leave hints about the applicable skills in any particular situation.

The challenges are modular; if you don’t want to focus on a particular thing, just call for normal skill check and be done with it. Unfortunately the gamedoes not allow one to do this with combats, as of yet.

Character options

There are less options at character generation, and radically less options when advancing a character (no multiclassing). Both of these make the relevant process faster, which is good, but reduce playable options, which may be bad. The supplement treadmill is likely to greatly increase the number of options, given time (and money or illegal downloads).

At higher levels when getting a new level one does not so much gain new powers as swap old ones for new ones. This is good, because it reduces the number of options one has in play, hence reducing analysis paralysis and makes it less likely that some ability is forgotten (I have lost a 3rd edition character because I forgot he had one fifth chance of negating critical hits, and it was not fun to remember it afterwards). Also, swapping powers means that planning the character’s path 19/29 levels into future is less necessary, though not any less rewarding, which I think is a good thing.

Non-options, like 3rd edition caster/different caster or caster/noncaster multiclassing, have been radically cut down. This reduces the role of system mastery in character generation, which I think is a good thing. Nonfunctional archetypes are no fun.

Rituals

Rituals deserve their own entry. Personally, I think that rules which force one to make choices between combat and noncombat ability are a bad thing in a combat-centric game. For example: Preparing fireball or whatever third level utility spells there exist in 3rd edition. This is not a problem in games that do not focus on combat to such a degree. Actually, the problems mostly arise in games where combat encounter, as opposed to say an entire dungeon, is a discreet and central unit of game. Utility spells do not always or usually function within that unit, hence it makes sense to make them a separate resource.

The idea of rituals also fits my aesthetic preferences. Implementation not quite as well.

In combat

All characters have several, hopefully viable, actions to take during any given round. At least in theory. This is certainly an improvement from 3rd edition, where all characters have a number of theoretically viable but often practically useless options. And then there is grapple.

I am certainly intrigued by how well the roles and their special abilities actually function in actual play. Does the fighter pushing a target by one square as an at-will power actually make a difference? This I’d like to know.

Here’s a bit of game design philosophy I support: Rules are bad if they are not used in actual play. Hence, the simplified monster stats are, in my opinion, a good thing. They reduce unnecessary cruft from the rules.

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Laser clerics, or 4e bashing

19 August, 2008 at 9:44 am (roleplaying-games) (, , )

In which I shall be disgusted by the direction the feel of D&D is moving towards, not review it as a game, but rather describe why it is a new kind of game entirely.

If you’d rather read a third edition afficiando bashing 4e, go read Jukka Särkijärvi’s well-written and fun review.

I have, from reliable sources, heard that 4e is fun to play. I can’t really say without playing it, because it is an entirely new genre of games, much like Forge-games once were.

New kind of game

Some characteristics of 4e that are relevant: Extremely involved combat system, combat powers that make fluff a reasonable term in that they essentially have an arbitrary effect that the fluff tries to justify, actual coverage of noncombat encounters in a potentially interesting way.

So, essentially, there’ll be three different games you will be playing. The first is more-or-less freeform roleplaying parts, maybe with a roll or two of dice now and then. Second is structured roleplay in the form of skill challenges. Third is playing Magic: the miniature game. This is a valid genre of games. It has strengths and weaknesses, like any other kind of game. I am personally not interested in it, though I will grab any opportunity to play, should such a thing materialise.

One notable weakness is a result of the strict combat/noncombat division. Given that a cleric can probably shoot lasers or sacred flames or something, can I blind someone by using these powers in total darkness? How bright are they? My warlock also has a laser. Can I use it to harm objects? All the powers are targeted at creatures, according to their descriptions.

One can see the above as a strength, too, in that it will allow one to define how the powers work. The problem here is that the rules won’t start reflecting these definitions. If I define my warlock lasers as fiery missiles, they will still harm fire elementals. Can I light a campfire with one?

The two paragraphs above are me looking at 4e from a wrong perspective. The correct way to look at it is that combats are self-contained units of fun, and what happens in them is not necessarily indicative of what the characters can do outside them. That is the purview of rituals, skills, common sense, genre conventions and the mighty prestidigitation. Accepting this is likely to make the game a lot smoother.

Laser clerics

Philippe shows his evil side by making an attack on this post before I even had written this. He is correct in that lambasting 4e because it has laser clerics is not really valid criticism of the game, considering you can change the fluff at will, as it does not have an effect on anything, at least not in combat.

Be that as it may, there are few parts that are, in and of themselves, jokes. For example, the coin types: There is copper, silver, gold, platinum, and astral diamonds. Huh?

The setting implied by all of this material is awfully flashy. It has preciously little to do with any fantasy I enjoy. Even the D&D literature I have read is much less flashy. The Drizzt books have, in comparison, very little obviously magical stuff going on (though I am have not read the recent ones).

Maybe the style of the books comes from bad anime (defined as anime I don’t watch or like). Maybe it comes from WoW and its ilk. Wherever it comes from, it completely kills any desire I have for reading the books, running the game, or even playing it as anything except a glorified miniature game.

(A necessary disclaimer: The martial classes are an exception to practically everything I have written here.)

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Game design =/= rpg design

8 April, 2008 at 6:37 pm (definition, game design) (, , , )

During brief discussion with Phil I verbalised the idea of good game design not being the same things as good rpg design. This is obvious when discussing, say, Chess. I argue that it is also true when discussing roleplaying games, given the way I define good game design.

The definitions have my bias clearly articulated; they are there for all to see. If you have different base assumptions or definitions, your conclusions may also be different.

Definitions

Game design is building a (semi-formal) system where players can make mechanical choices that have mechanical consequences. Good game design makes this process of decision-making interesting: There are few null choices that have no effect and the best choice is often enough very hard or impossible to see, if it even exists and is unique.

Rpg design is building a fiction and a system that describes how the choices the players make affect the fiction. Good rpg design makes the process of play interesting: There are actual choices to be made, they are about something the player cares about, and there are several roughly as lucrative alternative ways of making many choices (in this paragraph several can be arbitrarily large, but not too small).

Good rpg/game design does not imply that the game itself is good, because there are numerous other factories related to that. As such, if one is only interested in how much enjoyment can be derived from a (roleplaying) game, fixating too much on the quality of the (rp)g is not advised. There is correlation: On average, well-designed stuff is more enjoyable.

Do note that the other kinds of design are immensely important (and not part of the above definitions): Designing the game so that it has a suitable social footprint (the time, effort and commitment gaming takes), building the game so that it encourages the creation of certain kinds of fiction, building functional character sheets, elegance and other usability issues, and doubtless other factors. I may someday extend this post to explicitly include some or all of those things. This is not that day.

The thesis

My thesis is that good game design and good rpg design, as defined above, are not very tightly linked. One can have an rpg that is well-designed game but not very interesting fiction-wise; likewise, a well-designed rpg need not have interesting mechanical elements.

What I am not saying is that the two design issues are orthogonal; they certainly affect each other. I am also not saying that they are independent; the quality of one factor tends to influence the other for the positive, because it is common to link certain fictional and system-level effects together.

Examples in the abstract

Assume a game with very complicated (and intense and fun) combat system. Assume the output of the system is the amount of hit points the participants have at the end of the combat. All other variables that change only affect the single combat encounter and any used resources are recovered with a moment of rest or such. This combat system is (one can assume) good an instance of game design, because it has many (mechanical) choices that are interesting. It is not good rpg design, because none of those juicy choices are persistent; all that remains is the number of hit points one is left with. To be honest, there are other potential choices one can make: Which opponent to kill, how much of one’s abilities to reveal, for example, but they are pretty minor and would work with almost all combat systems.

A game where each (player) character has a number of memories (some of which are utilitarian, some have emotional value, some both) and the character can sacrifice them to demons in order to get wishes or other benefits could be well-designed, rpg-design-wise; if the character sacrifices too much, that character can no longer enjoy from the achieved victories; if too little, something bad will happen. OTOH, sacrificing the utilitarian memories (where was the artifact hidden again?) can have much the same effect as sacrificing nothing: Failure at preventing the bad things. Game-design would only make this interesting if the memories with emotional value gave some sort of benefit; otherwise they are like spell points.

On D&D 4th

From what I have read, 4e is focused on encounters and the designer are doing game design. What about rpg design? No idea. Experience for achieving certain story points could do that, but I am more than slightly doubtful. This does not mean that “there will be no roleplay in D&D 4th”. The system just will probably not do all that much to promote the kind of roleplay I am looking for.

Bonus: Proof by antithesis

Assume that all good rpg design is always good game design. See the two example above. They are non-trivial counter-examples to the antithesis and hence the antithesis is wrong, from which it follows that the thesis is true. QED.

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To challenge or to validate

18 January, 2008 at 7:53 pm (actual play, game mastering, rpg theory) (, , , , )

More theory-related non-dichotomies. Basically, something is validated in play if the it is accepted and engaged when playing. Something is challenged when it is engaged in play in such a way that it is questioned. I’m going to apply the definitions on the level of fiction and particularly characters, though social issues can also be analysed by the same methods.

Most, if not all, games have some portion of character validation in them. Thalin is GM in a Star Wars game that started this Monday in the university group and I am playing a jedi weaponsmaster. I want my character’s skill with weapons to be validated; thus far, there has been training of less experienced jedi and no truly challenging combats. I’m totally happy with that. On the other hand, the character has some dark side influence (which is not as huge a deal as in normal SW, because the setting is quite far from canon and set in the far future) and that is something I do want to be emphasised and challenged. I don’t know how far the character is willing to go if someone, say, mocks him or irritates him, though he is darker than I originally envisioned. Finding such things out would be interesting.

Alignment in D&D, particularly that of paladins, is also a great example. Some players and game masters want the paladin to be a knight in shiny armour, all good and just and so forth. This is, I believe, how paladins were intended to be played. At least this is the way the design points towards, with the extremely great price for falling (paladin becomes worth less than a fighter in combat) and the difficulty of becoming a blackguard unless that was intended from the start. Validating play supports the paladin; opportunities to be good, encouragement to do the good thing, maybe an opportunity to redeem a bad guy in a game not focused on combat.

Some game masters want to challenge the goodness of paladins. Some players want their paladins to be challenged thusly. Should orc babies be killed? A demon has possessed an innocent child, killing whom would banish it forever from this realm. How should one act in a hostage situation? The usual method is to put two goods against each other or make choosing one of two bads a necessity. In this model, the assumption that paladins are good is often put under microscope. Are they really the shining examplars they want to be? Is it even possible?

Both methods are, of course, totally valid. As with all theory and naming, one should be aware of the differences and find a suitable middle ground. Or an extreme view. Whichever. The problem with this issue is that conflicting assumptions can lead to play that is bad (not satisfying, in other words). A GM who wants to challenge the paladin and a player looking for validation can lead to perceived persecution, while player looking for challenging play and facing only validation will feel the game falls flat. This is true on characters not like paladins, but usually to a less dramatic effect.

Riddles and mysteries are another similar issue. I see absolutely no point in them, because that is not the way and the place to challenge me. Other players find them enjoyable. Mechanical challenges likewise: Attempts to challenge the mechanical aspect of a character are something I don’t find particularly interesting. Some play to be challenged in such a way.

I am fairly certain that a game where a lot of things are challenged would lead to more volatile play and one where the central parts of the game are validated would be more predictable, and hence easier to run in scripted way.

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Alignment

16 December, 2007 at 10:43 am (game design, rpg theory) (, , , )

Omnius of Alephgaming talked about alignment. I have a bit something to say about it, too.

First, assumptions: Alignment has something to do with character behaviour. It may be descriptive or prescriptive, but some sort of connection must exist. Further, alignment does not have concrete and significant mechanical effects for most characters. If it does, at least I count it as a personality mechanic, no longer alignment, which means it gets a bit more tangled. Even further, alignment does not have an exact definition, because otherwise people would argue about it anyway due to conflicting ethics and such.

So. What purpose does alignment have? First, it can be used as a roleplaying guide. This is especially useful to new players, casual gamers, or people just not that interested in developing a compelling personality for their character, but who don’t want to play themselves. When in doubt about what the character would do, check the alignment and act according to that. Otherwise ignore it. I feel that this is a very useful function of alignment. It can be accomplished by personality rules or just writing down some phrases like “honest” or “sadistic”. But alignments are one way of accomplishing the goal.

Second, a bit more controversial, effect that alignments can have is a clear division into good guys and bad guys. Like, as a totally hypothetical example which is not in any way related to D&D, it may be that all bad guys are always evil and all player characters more-or-less good, and good defeats evil. This is very useful for high-action games with little interest in deeper issues. The enemy is evil, so slay them. One can create compelling moral dilemmas in a clear-cut world, of course, they just will look a bit different. It may be that anger leads to evil (or the dark side). Will your good guy get revenge, no matter the cost, even if the good status may be lost in the process?

One can, naturally, ignore the sides implied by alignments. Good people are those who tend to be kind and helpful and hug puppies, while evil ones are hurtful and want to hurt people and kick puppies, but this does not meant that good characters will always get along, due to such factors as personality, goals, scarce resources, whatever. The question I pose to people playing like this is: Why not get rid of alignment altogether and replace it with descriptive personality qualifiers? They do all the job that stunted alignments do and don’t imply an undesired division.

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