Friday, December 25, 2015

The Experience Point System

One of the facets of fantasy role-playing gaming that has bothered us over the years is the experience point systems in games. Granted, these are a staple of role-playing games, with XP charts going up into the millions to reflect what it takes to be maximum level and all that stuff. But really, are they needed?

In casual games where I don't know if the group will be around the next week I am giving a level a session. In any sort of casual game I prefer giving out larger rewards, or have games where some improvement is reflected at the end of the night, even if it is Legend's 1-10% per-skill improvement.

Give me something here, game! I get s strange feeling sitting there and saying "nope, nobody improved tonight, nice session all!" It's not that I run gimme games, it is just that I want a game that awards something more than empty numeric progression at the end of the night.

Going by the book and awarding 900 XP when 1,000 would level everyone is a pretty dickish move, and I don't really see the point in having a system that maths every point down to the fraction, divides contributions, and generally goes out of its way to short players on XP awards. Yes, in these cases, I would tend to just give out the full 1,000 XP and be done with it.

The CR system out of D&D 3 and Pathfinder feels off to me. I am not a fan of math that tries to rate something as subjective and subject to roleplaying solutions as "challenge" and I don't find the system at all useful when it is used with a full mathematical calculation rating this, that, party level, composition, and so on. If you introduce one overpowered splatbook class or high-level mage to a party it throws the whole system out of whack.

I mean seriously, if an Orc is only worth 50 XP, make him worth 50 XP and be done with it. I do not want to sit here with a calculator to figure out encounter difficulty. If you can come up with a chart saying at level 1, an average encounter for a group of five players should be a total of 250 XP, then say that and rate everything accordingly. I can pick five 50 XP Orcs, or two Orcs and a 150 XP Ogre.

And don't have me dividing things or multiplying by something like 80% because of any factor either, keep XP simple and straightforward.

But then again, why? Just say "if you have a great adventure, give everyone a level" and then structure your level system around that. If you are worried about running out of levels too quickly, then make the game go 50 levels and set the bar there. Get rid of the whole system that just grinds on as levels go higher, and that grind forces players to become increasingly greedy themselves as they maximize their point earning opportunities. Make it about completing stories and adventures, and get rid of the math that punishes having fun.

Yes, there are tropes in role-playing, and an ever increasing XP pile is one of them. However, we shouldn't be blinded by keeping them around if they encourage a negative play experience, especially at higher levels. Leave tracking millions of experience points to video games and MMOs, where slow progression keeps you paying a subscription fee, and think outside of the box. Create reward systems that encourage play and reward coming back each week, and tailor them to a feel-good reward at the end of a long session.

To me, getting rid of the math and ever-decreasing rewards feels like a better answer than sticking with systems we held onto for far too long, and we need to engineer better end-of-night experiences other than, "Come back next week, I know you are 33 XP short of level 9, but you'll make it!"

Friday, December 18, 2015

You Just Save-or-Died My Story, Not Cool

One of the interesting things about the new D&D 5 edition is we are back to one-shotting players and taking characters out of the game. There are one-shot 'take you out of the game' spells, official podcasts with DM insta-kills, and the old-school feeling of deathtrap dungeons and random PC death is back big time. It is cool to see the old-school feeling back!

Right?

But, um, dude. What about my story?

What do you mean your story?

When I generated my character, there were these tables, and they were all like, hey, wow, you get a random story attached to your character when you spin him up. And I was like, cool, hey, that is pretty nifty, now I can be like those dudes from Lord of the Rings and all.

Then you made me make a save-or-die saving throw and insta-killed my guy.

Dude, not cool.

Hey, don't blame me, old-school is back. This isn't D&D 4, a game that goes out of its way to make sure nobody feels slighted or marginalized at the table, that everyone's contributions are important, and those "ruin the night for one player" moments were written out of the game. Those days are over. This is the return of the real, and we are back to the old way of doing this, so toughen up and get with us old-schoolers, right?

Dude, I liked my story. Why have a story on your guy if the game is telling you to run around and kill our player characters off like some psycho in a slasher flick?

Oh yeah, I forgot this isn't AD&D, or even a retro-clone like Basic Fantasy or Labyrinth Lord. In those games, some of the true old-school classics, your guy was just a couple 3d6 rolls and some hit points, and you didn't even get a story chart to roll on. Heck, you didn't even name your guy until he got to third level and was worth caring about.

Yeah, well. Dude, I grew up playing World of Warcraft, and I am pretty used to the idea that losing my guy warrants a call to customer service. He may be the same hero who saves the world along with 5.5 million other players, but that's my story, and I am entitled to it.

Well, we have to be fair here, would you be that angry if I, as DM, insta-killed your Pathfinder character?

Well, dude, yeah. I put a lot of time into that build!

As I recall, you copied that build from someone else's forum post.

Dude, not cool. Even though someone else came up with it, I punched it into Hero Lab. Plus the paper I used to print it out, and the toner. It's a lot of work.

So let me get this straight. You don't play the old-school games because player death is easy, the characters are too simple, and the story parts are more compelling than the mechanics?

If I am going to spend my Saturday playing a game, I want something out of it, dude. I want my character to be a part of something, to matter, and for my choices to mean something. Just 3d6 in six scores doesn't mean anything to me, I want to design my guy, and have those choices matter. I want there to be some story to play through, and for that story arc to be a part of character design.

What about the concept of 'you make your own story?' You know, where what you do in the face of impossible odds is the compelling narrative, and watching dozens fall before the one true hero rises is a part of the fun?

Dude, the first guy I spin up is the one true hero.

But D&D 5 has save-or-die!

The game also has built-in stories. Where is the fun in having my character get killed before his aunt finds out he is a thief? This is story-based game.

Story-based does not mean 'player protection' from bad decisions. Even story-based games are like that. You walk a tightrope here, if you make great decisions, you may get the satisfaction of advancing your personal story. Fair trade?

Not if it is save or die. Dude, even if I played this for the combat and tabletop side I would be pretty pissed if I failed a save-or-die saving throw. All that work, all those adventures, just game over. It's a pretty rotten thing taking a character off the board with one roll. If I fail, I want it to be because of my bad decisions, not a cheap "you lose, thank you for playing" 50-50 roll.

It's the cheap thrill of Russian roulette with my player character, not cool.

Where this Started

You know, sometime long ago these games used to be about the thrill of working through a simple rules system that was deadly and absolute, and working out a way to survive and profit despite the sheer impossibility of survival. Many characters did not make it, because they were just that, playing pieces in Monopoly where you laughed if one of them fell off a cliff and you chalked it up to "how the game works." They were easy to spin up because they were so disposable, and you weren't supposed to invest yourself in them all that much.

Nowadays, things have changed.

How so?

I agree that if you are playing a story based game, save-of-die sucks. I also think it sucks in a tactical game, because it robs you of your input, and it does feel like a Russian roulette mechanic for cheap tension. In a classic old-school game, I see its place though. Old school isn't about fair, and you stayed away from save-or-die monsters or situations, because you got XP directly from treasure, not the artificial challenge rating of monsters. Somewhere along the line someone introduced the concept of "if it is a good fight, players deserve XP" when that wasn't in the game.

The concept of XP for a good and balanced fight that you will most likely win comes from the admission that the game is mass-market entertainment. I feel it is a dumbing down of the concept, making the game more like a videogame, and putting in an artificial slot-machine constant-feedback reward system that keeps players coming back.

Save-or-die was in old-school games to discourage you from doing a straight-up fight with that medusa. It was better to sneak past her, find a way to deal with her other than combat. If you stole her 1,000 GP brooch, you got 1,000 XP. Any way you got it was fair game.

Nowadays, the medusa is engineered to be a fun encounter 'worth' the XP she is assigned. You get no XP for treasure, so you are forced to fight her for the XP. In a way, it is more bloodthirsty because you are putting a point value on a life (defeated however), rather than a goal or a treasure. This is a concept taken straight from videogames that reinforces the "kill for experience" sort of very basic and almost darkly sinister motivation for the game. Now, 'killing' means 'defeating in any way, knocking out, etc' in many games, but the points are 'owned' by the encounter.

There are also 'story XP' which is a system that attempts to cover story-players as well.

I do feel D&D's reward system has been messed up for a while, ever since AD&D 2nd Edition where they started the story award XP system formally, and also reset monster XP along those levels.

If the game wants to be story based, then remove XP for killing things.

If the game wants to be hack-and-slash, then remove story XP.

Reward Systems

Personally? I like story-based XP systems. I think XP for killing is a bit cold and bloodthirsty, like a genocidal bounty system. I liked the XP for GP thing of old-school play though, in a fun sort of way because it encourages creative play. The goal is to out-think the monsters and grab the loot. You are like this group of Ocean's 11 thieves looting and sneaking your way through dungeons, each person with a special ability (healing, fighting, sneaking, magic) but with only one goal - grabbing the loot the easiest way possible.

If the king wants to pay your party a "story award" of 10,000 GP for rescuing the princess, then pocketing 10,000 XP is also your motivation. The XP are nice, but really everybody, we are here for one reason and one reason only, shiny gold coins.

In this context and the original game's motivation of "XP for treasure" a save-or-die mechanic makes sense. You are a playing piece out to accumulate as many GP as possible. Yes, some monsters and traps are "save or die," but the balance is to not fight them or be stupid enough to step into them. You certainly don't get XP for the artificial reward of "beating" them, so trick, avoid, and circumvent these monsters as best you know how and the tools given to you will allow.

So, save-or-die is in there, but it is something to avoid?

Exactly. It is a different design and motivation for the entire game. Balance issues clear up because there is not an artificial reward tacked onto a creature, so there is no need for a CR system to rate difficulty. An owlbear is an owlbear. Fight it if you think you can, or avoid it if the dungeon designer was smart enough to put another way around. Save-or-die was a disincentive, not a game design mechanic someone needs to balance.

The definition of "railroading" in pen-and-paper games changed too. In the old days, railroading was that a module designer forced you to solve a problem one way, or forced you into a fight you could not avoid. When RPGs went story-based, railroading was forcing you to play the story the module designer's way. In the old definition, railroading was more about giving the players choices in how they wanted to approach a situation. It was about the freedom to approach a problem and allowing for that.

It is partly D&D's problem because of its heritage. D&D by its nature is a "big tent" game that takes inspiration from many fantasy sources. This means the reasons people play the game are just as varied, and the game has to support many types of reward systems. It needs videogame XP for hack-and-slashers. It needs story XP for roleplayers. It got rid of XP for GP, which I think is a mistake.

Understanding Fairness

But yes, understanding reward and motivation are key to understanding why save-or-die mechanics work in some games and not others. It is ultimately about that feeling of unfairness, but to decide if something is unfair, you need to understand both the motivation for play and how the reward system works. Some games have simple motivations, so judging what's fair is easy. Other games are more complicated, and you layer in characters that take hours to design, or story systems on top of bounty systems, and things get more complex.

Fairness is ultimately judging if a reward is worth the risks, and not feeling cheated should things not work out. In a way, fairness measures how you feel about defeats and successes, and the satisfaction of the proportionality of a reward given a risk.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Bounded Accuracy vs. Simulation

For over 40 years D&D has had an issue with the to-hit system. At first, they had giant AC versus level tables for each class; then they switched to a system where different classes had different to-hit bonuses at maximum level, and they metered out the to-hit increases every level. It meant if you weren't a pure fighter, forget hitting anything at maximum level because all the monsters at max level were balanced for a fighter's attack bonus.

D&D 3 and Pathfinder follow the sort of design theme of great classes (fighters) get +20 at max level, sucky classes (rogues, clerics) get +15 at max level, and really sucky classes (mages) get a +10 at max level. Mind you, if you are fighting an AC 30 monster, great classes will hit at 50% of the time, sucky 25%, and really sucky will be like "5%, why even try?" Of course, mages will be flinging spells, so that 5% never really matters. Feats and proficiency make the difference, and one had to take into account damage output, but the base system is still set in an assumption of some classes are better than others when hitting a target. There is also a multiple attacks thing here with high attack bonuses, so damage output is linked in.

D&D 4 sets everything on a sliding scale, using 1/2 your level plus your ability score DRM to give you your attack bonus. You must have a high ability score, maintain it, and have the recommended magic items for your level to "keep up with the Joneses," aka the monsters. If a monster was 4 or more levels above you, forget it. If a monster was 4 levels below you, you could care less about them. It was a very MMO feeling game that was balanced "on the levels" and had a flat balance.

D&D 5 preserves the flat MMO-style balance, and puts everyone on the same to-hit chart, but makes the maximum bonus a +6 for everybody. Everything else, monsters, magic items, and combat, has been realigned to fit within this new model. This is called "bounded accuracy" and it is the central design premise behind the new D&D, to get those numbers back in control and make everyone feel they can contribute. There are plenty of problems with this, such as the lowest-level monsters being able to hit high-level heroes (in the context of this system), and high-level heroes still having a high miss rate that still feel unsatisfying for many. The system also breaks with mass attacks and does not scale well with larger groups or attacks that add conditions on hit (poison).

Then again, it feels like they have been wrestling with making the abstract AC and level-based to-hit system for 40 years and they still haven't got it right.

Abstract Accuracy

It is difficult to criticize the D&D to-hit system because it is intentionally abstract. You can get into a long argument with other players and fans of differing editions, and all you will be doing is arguing over is if mauve or thistle is more "purple." Because the system is so abstract, the designers need to carefully "code" AC and attack bonuses in with each edition to make the game work. In computer programming speak, D&D's combat system is spaghetti code and a mess of special cases, and it needs to be hand-tuned any time they move to a new edition or they make a new expansion or book for the game. The AC and to-hit numbers have to be directly balanced against the monsters from level 1 to 20, or everything breaks down.

In D&D 4, it did not feel like the later levels were as well-playtested, and things felt like they broke down the higher level you went. There were so many erratas and rules changes over the life of that game it spun your head, along with a second version of the monster manual coming out in Essentials that changed the math again. Every monster manual changed the math, and it hurt the experience for us.

Simulation Games

Contrast this with a more simulation based game with a less abstract system. If my fighter has a 60% chance to hit with a sword, it doesn't matter if I am swinging it at a level 1 goblin or a level 30 dragon, I am still making that piece of metal strike that other shape no matter what that other shape may be, 60% of the time. The effects of what happens will vary greatly upon what I hit and the personal power I have, If I am as strong as a hill giant I will expect to splatter the goblin and hurt the dragon. If I am as strong as a human, I expect the goblin to take a wound, and the dragon to laugh and say he didn't even feel it.

Most of the time. Exceptions and great rolls always exist.

You can give a rogue and a fighter the same to-hit, and work out the differences with powers, techniques, and ability scores. You can do away with abstract levels and subjective armor class values entirely. You can rate armor on protection, and let the dice fall where they may because you created a simulation system where things in your world work a certain way.

Your characters exist within themselves, not in the context of a carefully balanced level system.

Level Systems

Now, level systems are great because they let you change the math and put out a new edition. The only exception was AD&D 2nd Edition, where they cleaned up the original AD&D rules and improved the presentation greatly. They really didn't change the math, but they streamlined it and created the "I don't understand why nobody gets this" THAC0 system, but I guess many had a problem with it. THAC0 (to hit armor class zero) was easy enough to understand, but they should have made AC increasing and flipped those around, and just said to-hit is your base plus target AC, like they did in 3rd Edition.

Negative AC in AD&D sucked, and it was likely nobody ever thought ACs lower than zero were ever needed. Explaining negative AC felt like explaining THAC0 to the uninitiated.

But part of the problem with an abstract system is linking level to to-hit, especially when it starts blowing out your dice range. Having a +20 to hit at 20th level, plus ability DRMs, plus magic item bonuses, plus feat modifiers, plus situational modifiers can get you to a final to-hit bonus of +30 or more easily. On a 1-20 scale, a +30 makes the entire number range of your randomizer meaningless. You are rolling between 31 and 50, and trying to hit an AC of 42.

The mind boggles, the numbers are so high, and the DC and AC numbers are again on that meaningless, super-high if +10 is better than give me another +20 MMO number scale that never ends.

Bounded Accuracy is the New Coke

I am not convinced D&D 5's bounded accuracy does much to solve the problem of D&D's abstract system other than change the numbers again. There were some D&D and Pathfinder mods (E6 most notably) which put a level cap of 6 on the game, and this appears to be where the bounded accuracy idea originated from. E6 is a laudable game modification for D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder, it assumes that 6th level characters are the most powerful in the game world and lets the monsters past that be the world's "boss creatures" and teamwork is needed for beating them.

You throw out the entire upper three-quarters of the game to do so, but it does get that sense of scale and challenge back that D&D loses when a thief levels past the power of an adult red dragon. Where D&D 5 and E6 differ is that in E6 there is a huge world out there more powerful than any single hero could ever be. In D&D 5, every hero can be a level 20 monster some day, yet they still need level 30 monsters out there that are even more powerful than that.

But limiting everyone to the same to-hit chart and capping it at +6 (plus mods)? Really, none of my players really like advancing that slow, and it feels like a grind. Your hit-points go up normally, so you have these hundreds of hit point monster characters walking around with a +3 or a +4 to-hit, and your sense of heroic scale is all skewered. I would prefer the level cap to six to a slow grind to twenty and a +6 when I get there.

Yes, bounded accuracy makes the numbers meaningful again, no question.

But I feel you give up too much. High level characters lose their sense of "being good" and the harsh d20 and its variability stomp all over a modifier range that starts at a +5% to-hit bonus and ends up at a +30% to-hit bonus for epic characters. Even with ability score mods and magic items it doesn't go much higher, and high level characters feel like they are just talented normals. It feels like you are just fooling with the numbers again instead of fixing the problem.

Wonderland

It all feels like D&D's power curve has been messed up since the original box set that level capped you at three, yet the monster lists had 9 or so hit die dragons. Sooner or later, you could level past those dragons, and we entered a strange fantasy land where we needed bigger and bigger challenges to overcome. D&D has always had this "videogame in pen and paper" feeling to me, where of course characters are entitled to incredible amounts of hit points and power, and the sense of scale between normal people and high level characters reaches absurd levels.

D&D 5, despite bounded accuracy, I feel does not address this problem, as the higher levels in that game still entitle characters to massive amounts of hit points and damage output that boggles the mind compared to a first level character. The difference between high-level and low level has not changed, only the dicing model has gotten flatter and everyone can hit each other now.

It still feels like a videogame to me. I feel that a dragon like Smaug out of the Hobbit is beyond the power of any single hero in that world, and any hero could ever be. In D&D and Pathfinder, this isn't the case. I get this World of Warcraft feeling where characters are driven primarily by advancement than story, and personal power is the name of the game. It isn't down, it doesn't feel realistic, and the abstract system keeps you from ever understanding or balancing it because it is so carefully tuned and system-wide teeter-tottering on the sum balance of its parts.

If you disagree with two-handed weapon damage and change it, you break the rest of the game.

Abstractionification

It isn't D&D or Pathfinder that is at fault, I feel, it is the abstraction and the magnitude. Once you abstract one piece, you have to abstract everything, and then the balancing act begins. Level based to-hits and ACs that could mean everything from a high dodge to tank armor along with out-of-control hit points and damage make the entire system feel more like an ever-higher level Facebook game requiring more time and clicks than something that models reality.

If there was a D&D game out there that got it right in terms of comparative power and the weak against the impossible, I would be all over it.

I want games that make me fear the dragon, not know that someday I will out level it. I want games that give me a basis in reality, rather than hand wave it away and apply an arbitrary number to it. This is likely a personal preference thing with me and my players, and I try my best at explaining it, so don't feel bad or get angry if you enjoy these games. These are systems that within their own spheres, work, and they are tuned to work well.

But they don't feel real, they feel like videogames.

But a character with 200 hit points when a normal person has 5? I lose it. I can't relate. That number is meaningless in reality, and really only has a place in electronic gaming to me. Same thing with wildly high to-hits, damage outputs, or world-ending spells. It is an unrelatable world-crushing Superman to the common-man Batman.

It is having it all versus being a hero without.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Taking a 10 and 20

D&D 4 and D&D 5 mostly did away with the concept of taking a 10 or 20 on a skill roll, yet this still lives on in the Pathfinder game. The concept of the "take a 20" mechanic is this:
If I spend so much time at the task that I iterate through every possible roll, I will at least roll a 20 once in those tries and succeed.
So you trade time for certain success. With taking a 10, you choose to take an average roll. You can check out the rules here on the d20 SRD. We have always had a couple problems with the entire take a ten or twenty mechanic, so here it goes.

Statistics 101

First off, assuming you will get a 20 in this period of time would have driven my statistics professor crazy. He would have come right back at me and said "you could roll 100 times, or even 200 times and you are never guaranteed a 20 in that sequence, the probability goes up, but it is never a certain thing." With taking a 10, there is no such thing as an 'average' roll on a single test. The average on one test is the roll, whatever that may be. Again, my statistics professor would have called BS on both these mechanics.

But Really, in Play...

I don't have the same problem my statistics professor has, because I know these rules are shortcuts to simplify and speed up play. Take a 10 though, yeah, I still have a problem with that since it feels so nonsensical.

First off, taking a 20, the real reason this bugs me is because D&D 3 and all variants accept the fact that you can retry all skills indefinitely. Forever. You can buffalo your way through any skill check by rolling again, and again, and again until the end of time. If you imagine this with a social skill check trying to convince a king to lend you his magic sword, it goes something like this:
"Can I have your magic sword, my king?"
"No."
"I need it to defeat the dragon, may I have it sire?"
"No."
"My chances of rescuing the princess would be greatly increased-"
"No."
"Can I?"
"No."
"Can I have it?"
"No."
"Can I?"
"No."
"Can-"
"No."
"Can I? Can I? Can I? Can I? Can I? Can I?"
"No."
"..."
"No."
"Can I?"
"Okay, take it."
Like any interaction with a three-year old, it assumes the DC you set for any task is merely an annoyance for the players to brute force their way past. We grew up with atomic "pass-fail" skill checks. If your thief blew his lockpicking roll, that was it, that lock could not be picked until the thief raised their lockpicking skill and knew some new tricks to try again. The concept of taking a 10 or a 20 to get automatic success felt alien at the time 3E was released, and truthfully, it still feels strange to us today.

Roleplaying, the Great Second Chance

Yes, there are certain times you should be able to make a second attempt. Let's say you are trying to make a persuasion roll and blow the first one. Normally, that should be it, the person refuses and you need to find another way. However, the player is clever and changes their tack with a second offer, roleplaying out a great 'other reason' why the person should go along with the plan. As a referee, I would allow a second check, but at a penalty since this person is already negatively inclined against this persuasion attempt, and second chances should be rare. But it was a great reason and fit within roleplaying, so it should be allowed for fairness. A third try? At that point you are begging, and I would disallow it, or put such a penalty on the attempt you would have to be a saint with a blessed d20 to succeed.

The king would give you a funny look though. Really?

But yes, great roleplaying should be the basis on which second tries are allowed. There is a limit, of course, but this feels right to me.

Pass-Fail Improv

Pass-fail tests. I love them. If players fail at something, they need to have backup plans or think of another way around, or use another skill. As a good referee, I am not going to tell them to pack up their character sheets, the adventure is over, goodbye and see you next week if the party can't pick a lock. There will be another way in, or the players may be clever enough to figure a way around it. Knock on the door. Climb on the roof. Smoke em out. Something. Just please be more creative than giving up and telling me you take a 20, because I won't let you. that one shot you had was the sole cumulative effort of all you knew, and that was the once shot you had. You rolled a 3 and blew it. Try something else.

As a DM, don't put your adventure in that situation either.

I find players are more creative, start buying backup skills, and become more involved when I use pass-fail tests with them. They understand that moment will not come again, and they make plans in case it fails. They can't sit there and burn time for automatic success, because that's not the way the world works. You can't take a chemistry test until you pass it.

In a movie, when a hero attempts to pick a lock and fails, that is usually never revisited again. The brute in the party kicks it down. The smart kid hacks the computer. Someone tries the window and finds it open. Someone asks, "Is there a back door?" Another character pulls out a welder. Dramatically, it feels right.

Everybody Wins but Nobody Cares

Somewhere, I believe rules like this slipped in because a dungeon master somewhere let his or her players bully them into making successive rolls until they caved in. The player, whoever it was, sat at the table believing that roleplaying was just like a videogame, and you could press that "use skill" button and roll the virtual dice in the CPU again and again until they succeeded.
Player: "What? Come on! I keep trying!"
DM (sighing): "Okay, roll again."
No. Seriously? Life isn't like that. you can't show up at the job interview the next day after they told you to get lost. Your skill roll at this one task was it, and your character gives up trying because it isn't possible. No matter how you feel as a player, you need to figure out another way forward. maybe you shouldn't have skimped on the skill, maybe the task was to tough, or maybe it was just bad luck. Regardless, in that game world, your character failed, and you as the invisible hand of the player must chart a new course and find a new way.

If you roleplay a second chance, I'll give you that. Don't expect it to be easy, and you better have a new angle to come at this problem, but I am fair and love creative play.

Death, the Great Exception

Death is always a great exception to the rule. If your party is fending off a goblin horde, and your thief is trying to pick that lock so everyone can escape, I will let you try again and again until you all fall to goblin blades or get that blasted door open. There may be increasing penalties as each attempt fails. This also feels right. I generally allow in-combat checks as long as there is a chance of grave danger ever present and threatening to strike every turn. In a movie, one character picks the lock while the rest hold off the horde, and everyone is screaming at the thief to get it open.

Out of combat, there is no pressure to succeed, and no life-or-death consequence (yes, even in the grand sense where the princess is behind the door and needs to be set free). With a constant and real threat, yes, I generally allow second chances, and really, this falls under the above "roleplaying" exception for second chances. You are under fire, and need to get the door open. Your character gets second chances because the pressure is on and the adrenaline is pumping. The danger of failure is real. You will succeed. Maybe.

It feels right. It feels dramatically correct and it also reflects real life experiences. Once the threat passes, the pressure is off, and whatever that last check was stands.

Another Exception, Skill-Ups

Let's say your thief fails and comes back to that same lock later with a higher skill level. Yes, I would allow a second check since you learned some new tricks. Or maybe a long amount of time passes, like weeks, then yes, a fresh try could be allowed. This is also being fair, while still staying strong on the pass-fail result of the original check.

This has Always Been How We Played

Really, this has always been how we played roleplaying games. We let the original skill check stand, fail or succeed. We only allowed second chances though creative roleplaying. Players always found another way around, or understood they needed great skills and redundancy of skills and plans to avoid being put in a bad situation by an unlucky skill check.

Taking a 20 felt so lazy to us. It felt like skills checks were inconveniences to play. To us, skill checks were play. Taking a 10 meant nothing, I mean, in what sense could you say "I do an average job" in the chaos of the universe and dungeon crawling where anything could happen?

Even when we play Pathfinder, we disallow taking a 10 or a 20. I would rather just DM fiat "no roll needed" for those simple tasks than to allow a buffalo-through assumption of videogame-inspired try-fail-repeats at my table. If a skill check is that simple, really, why roll? Yes, 3E and Pathfinder say "roll if failure is important and has consequences", but to us, every roll is important and has consequences - because any roll important enough to make at the table should be that important.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Adventurers and Only Adventuers

DarkgarX and I had a discussion and it started like this:

"It is funny how some superhero RPGs assume that the X-Men and the Avengers have the same motivations...."

Now with the old Marvel Superheroes RPG, it had this feeling, at least for us. Now, what is this feeling. I can sum it up by saying that this happens when a roleplaying game automatically puts you into a "default role" based on the fact you are a hero.

You see this with D&D and also Pathfinder, you are some sort of treasure hunter or other "adventurer" class that goes out and loots and kills for experience and profit. In most other games, these people would be called bandits, but I digress, the game has a feeling it puts you into a role just based on the fact you are playing it.

Factions and the world story are secondary, and these games typically don't want to put you in a specific world role because of their generic-fantasy roots, or it is just easier to assume by default those generated in the system belong to this generic adventurer class.

Traveller had the same feeling for us, that the game mustered you out of whatever service the tables put you in, gave you a starship, and said, "Go forth and adventure, space citizen!" And that is typically where our Traveller games ended because space is a huge place. I know it is up to the group to decide what they want the players to do, if they all still work for the scout service or whatever, but the game provides little direction to do so, and we were young, so we wondered what the point all was. Today, yes, we know more and can handle a universe-sized sandbox, but as kids, no, we weren't prepared.

Contrast this with Dragon Age, or even the Pirates of Legend games. In a setting-specific RPG, you have factions ready to join and be a part of, and those factions have missions ready and waiting. I would even put games like Gangbusters (more so) and Star Frontiers (less so) in this category, since those games have built-in worlds and factions a player can jump right into and get going.

Dragon Age is an interesting game, since it pulls so heavily from the lore of this world, and there are many factions to join up with or play against. It is a wonderful world, and very rich in detail and backgrounds, and I will say the world almost feels Star Wars: The Old Republic like in the factions and history. I would have wished Wizards did as good of a job with Faerun, but it often feels Wizards doesn't focus as much on lore and characters as they should. I feel there is always this invisible stalker hovering over Wizards and to some extent Paizo when it comes to lorebooks concerning powerful NPCs, and the tired trope that powerful NPCs make the world unfun. The D&D 4th Edition worldbooks were almost devoid of any personalities or powerful figures, and they felt sterile and useless for our group as a result.

Exactly the opposite feels true for me and my players, powerful NPCs make the world interesting and compelling. Give us a world full of great good guys and bad guys, and we will have adventures in it all day. What is Lord of the Rings without Gandalf?

Dragon Age also has a "goals and ties" system that attempts to give the players a reason to band together, so the default assumption of the adventurer class is still present in the game. They also have a fun-looking "player organizations" system that lets players create factions and run them, so there looks to be thought put into a sandbox-style game and crafting motivations within it beyond the 'kill for loot and XP" motivation of other games.

But back to the original thought. The adventurer class and the default roles of the hero. I find this to be a little less common in generic RPGs (such as GURPS, Legend, and others), since there is literally nothing else to do, so you need to come up with the factions yourself. You need to start by saying "let's spin up a party of ghost hunters" and use the rules to make that happen. With the D&D style games, you can get away with "let's spin up a hero and wait for the DM" sort of generic adventurer role, and things still can work.

I don't think it is a strength, in fact, I think this is one of the things that turns me off to the current incantations of D&D and Pathfinder, the assumed lack of a world and a faction. It isn't the game's fault, of course, because they are toolboxes, but there is something strangely un-generic about these traditional high-fantasy games that feels different than an entirely generic game.

Yes, you can make your own world, and make your own factions, and more power to you if you do. But you can get away without doing it and still have it work. With other generic games, creating a "generic hero" without knowing why is often a recipe for disaster. Fantasy does tend to be simpler in its motivations, so you can get away with designing to fill a role (tank, healer, DPS) and fit right in to any story by "wanting to help out."

It is interesting to compare this to a generic fantasy game such as Legend. With Legend, if you spin up a character, there feels like there is little or nothing to do without a story happening or factions in some sort of game world to motivate players to a call to action. Referee input is needed in order to get going. With the D&D variants, it somehow feels different, like you can start playing without a story and a faction and be fine. You could happily adventure for adventure's sake, and begin leveling up and gathering loot. This admittedly is a strength of the system, since the motivation for leveling is strong and built-in.

It also feels like a weakness of these systems, because by default there is no need for a strong motivation. It is the same "get in and level your guy" sort of motivation MMOs have, where you disconnect yourself from any care about the story or quest text, and play for getting to the next level. I suppose this is a legacy of "XP for monsters" and the hack-and-slash nature of that reward system. It is also interesting to note that if you remove the "XP for monsters" part of D&D and only award story XP for achieving goals, the motivation to level without background decreases a bit. You would still go out to get loot, but killing for XP is now not an option and players are pushed more towards story and not random violence for XP.

Motivations are fascinating things, and the reward systems in games can be setup to reward players who do setting-supporting activities (like Gangbusters). Other games try to walk a middle ground and support generic motivations, like D&D, but this also creates a paradox where you can advance by not supporting a faction or playing through a story. It is an interesting "not choice" for the game, and given a lack of a specific game world with specific story lines and factions, can create a generic adventurer class whose sole motivation is to level.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Level System

This one started over coffee. DarkgarX mentioned to me that once levels were put into the game, the dynamic of the game changes from story to advancement. The feeling goes from "what am I doing in the game world" to "how can I get points?"

Now, admittedly, this is a pretty negative view of level-based games, but it is an interesting "advancement dynamic" that I am sure is present in all games. Everyone wants to do well, and everyone wants to get levels or skill points in a non-level based system to get rewarded at the end of the night and advance their characters. So this pressure is present in any game system with an advancement system present.

But do levels change things?

Levels, the Elephant in the Room

I always found it funny that levels are the one thing you can't talk about in-game in-character, yet in D&D they control everything, from character power to spells to monster hit dice. My Pathfinder world design, Realms of Proteus, tries to do away with that and allows in-game characters to speak freely of their level and stats, so there is a fun bit of power and meta gaming going on there, but for the most part we use euphemisms, "seasons" or some other sort of relative explanation of power and strength.

But do levels change things? Is the primary focus on hit-points and levels a factor in making the game more mathematical and cut-throat?

In a pure story-based game, you have this outward focus on how your character fits into the current story and overall game world. Your stats can be increased, and the focus of improvement is to allow your character to better be able to influence the story. A higher persuasion skill lets you persuade more NPCs, and thus your influence over that story grows. You can think of story based games as a fight to control the ever-shifting narrative between the players and the referee-controlled NPCs.

Levels. Hit dice. Tactical combat. Damage per turn. Whiff rate. Condition spells. Attacks of opportunity. Advantage and disadvantage. Here we go with traditional D&D style level based games, and a whole host of hard mathematical statistics comes into play. Not only do you have to be good at controlling the narrative, you have to be able to know how this hard math works, and master the combat rules. Levels make this easier, but also complicate things as you go up.

Levels vs. Narrative

Do levels fight the narrative push and pull? They certainly distract from it a bit, because all of a sudden you are not purely worried about narrative influence, to do good and control the narrative, you need to master the combat system too. You need levels to get better at this system, because roleplaying matters little in raising combat power. You need XP to get better, and you need to defeatefoes and solve problems.

Note how D&D type games lump problem solving and combat in the same pile of XP. If you solve problems with roleplaying and get XP, you get better at controlling the narrative (roleplaying skills), but you also get better in combat. You could have a 20th level character who just got roleplaying XP in their career and never touched a weapon, yet this person would be a better fighter than 99% of the people on the planet. You could have the inverse, a combat-only barbarian who never spoke a word being a diplomatic master negotiator at the narrative-influencing social skills just because of their level.

I think it is this connection between the ability for a high-level character to influence the narrative and the "let's have combat for XP" part of the game that troubles me. In a purely story-driven narrative game without levels, all you are doing with advancement is ticking up the skills you want. If you just want to be a talker, all you buy are social skills. If you just want to be a fighter, you work on fighting skills. Levels remove that granularity and ability to specialize, now yes, there are more social style classes in the D&D style games, like bard or thief, but those classes typically force you into a skill-monkey role and take away your ability to excel at combat.

D&D's classes make those choices for you.

You want to fight? Be a fighter! You want to be a fighter who excels at narrative control and social situations? You are out of luck, roll a rogue or a bard. Yes, as a fighter you can put skill points and feats towards social abilities, but typically (Pathfinder is a good example), the more skill-point heavy and social-focused classes are going to have an easier time of buying these feats and skills.

In D&D, King Arthur is King Arthur because he can kill very well, not because he has the skills and social power over the kingdom's narrative that a king should have. There's a disconnect there, and a simplification that I feel makes pure-story based games focused on the narrative a better choice for pure roleplayers than D&D style games.

Levels vs. Storytelling

I have had pure roleplayers at my table who played D&D 3-5 because that's what our group played. I always felt bad for them because they could care less about this mess of combat rules and gaining levels, and they just wanted to have fun. We did a good job accommodating them, but the game we played (D&D 4) required an attention to builds and rules that I felt turned them off to the whole game. We had some that loved the battle chess aspect, and we still like this part of the game, but the combat and level rules felt like an artificial limitation put over the game for players who were more interested in narrative control than "kill for treasure and XP."

If your players are more concerned with mathematical concerns and tactical battles, D&D works better, and I will go as far to say that D&D 4 works the best for players who want a Warhammer style figure tactical combat experience. D&D 5 tries to bring the story back to the table, yet it still has the baggage of a tactical game based on resource management, and a level system that connects narrative control and combat ability into one lump sum of XP. D&D style systems also pre-choose your character's lifetime ability to perform narrative control and combat contributions from game #1 with your choice of class.

Yes, you can switch careers and multiclass in mid-stream, but King Arthur is not a bard nor a rogue.

Answers?

I don't feel there is a good answer for this in the modern D&D style games. Again, we are hit with the abstraction of the class and combat systems, and this limits our choices. Of course fighters are the ones with the swords that never think their way out of a situation. The game assumes "fighters fight" and gimps their skills and gives them the best damage output and choices in swinging swords. I would love to see a D&D system "off the rails" that let people be people, reward skills used, and got rid of the abstract class and level system entirely.

Yes, Legend, Runequest, and other games do this, and they do it well.

There is a choice here of how much control you feel you should have (as a player) over your control over what happens at the table. If I choose to be a social character, I don't want my choices limited to, "well, pick a social class and suck at combat for as long as you have that character." If for a couple sessions I want to improve combat skills, let me improve combat skills. If for some others, I want to be the master of parlay, let me do that and improve my social prowess.

This is not about being a "fan" of a game, I collect them all and love reading them, so count me in as a fan for them all, as my shelves will attest. What this is about is taking a look inside yourself and asking, "am I getting rewarded for the things I want to do at the table?" Does a game force you into a role that later on you may regret or limit your contributions? Yes, a good referee can adjust things and give chances for everyone to have fun, but if your game takes a turn for the political, can your combat-focused character adapt?

It is again about understanding what each game does best, and finding games that fit your view of gaming and how your contributions are rewarded. We have moved beyond the "network effect" where every game has to be a modern version of D&D, and we are moving into an era where games are designed around a almost niche "way it plays" and the reward and contribution systems are designed to fit that game. You see this in videogaming with indie gaming. The big-box games are always there like the Call of Duties and D&D games, but a huge market is developing for custom and unique experiences that are off the level system tracks and as diverse as the players in our hobby.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Mail Room: Pathfinder Occult Adventures

Today the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Occult Adventures book came, and it is a fun sort of super-hero themed expansion for Pathfinder, with the Hero lab module and the PDF. I could totally see making X-Men style characters with this book.

It is a strange direction for Pathfinder, but in a way, fitting. Pathfinder feels more about adventuring with heroes that don't fit the normal "fighter, mage, thief" roles and the game does it very well. This plays to a strength of the system, you can literally play through a module with one person playing a Professor X style psionic, another playing a Sherlock Holmes investigator, and a third person playing a Conan style barbarian and have it all work together. D&D 5 feels limited to the same roles we have seen before (simple, but then again familiar), and kudos to Paizo for pushing the edge and putting out books that break the hero mold and let us play something new.

The game is changing, and I can't really consider Pathfinder to be in the same game-space as D&D anymore. Both are dungeon games and focus on heroes battling evil, but how they go about it is vastly different. D&D gives you a simplified system with preset roles that we are all familiar with, the ranger, the paladin, and the mage. We choose a role and we make choices as we level, but in a simplified framework where our choices are guided. D&D 5 is a lot like Fantasy Age in that regard, where set heroes level up preset advancement paths.

Pathfinder is a superhero game with heroes that can mix anything and be anything. Sherlock Holmes the bare-fist-fighting monk? Sure. Merlin the barbarian? Let's do it. A Clint Eastwood style gunslinger cleric? Sure, why not. All in the same party together out saving the world, one bad guy at a time...or hordes of them all at once. The fun here is in the possibilities, and while you pay for it in complexity, the options and potential is endless.

Last Day for Hero Lab Pathfinder Module Sale!

Remember, the sale on Pathfinder modules for Hero Lab ends tomorrow, so if you have been waiting for a sale, this is your last chance to jump on these great deals.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Basic Fantasy: 4+4 Races and Classes

During the audio Podcast discussing Basic Fantasy, Chris Gonnerman mentioned his perfect version of a fantasy game was “four races, four classes, and that is it.” Of course, there are plenty of web supplements for the game that add races and classes, but Chris sticks with his original idea that “4+4” is all you need for a perfect fantasy game.

You can see where the inspiration for this comes from, the basic four character roles are covered: fighter, mage, thief, and cleric. No, you do not have infinite choice, as is normal with any modern role-playing game. With a lot of games, such as Pathfinder, you can be a bard, or a druid, a barbarian, or any other fantasy staple. Basic Fantasy supports that too, but elects to keep the core game simple with 4+4.

Infinite Choice is Good?

Is infinite choice desirable? If you run a grocery store, you will quickly figure out that offering customers infinite choice is a path to confusion and lower sales. You really only need so many choices when it comes to buying cornflakes. I mean, really, namebrand or generic is about all the choice I want to make here. With classes in a fantasy game, admittedly having more choice feels like a good thing because you want to have a rich and varied world with many different options for players to find a unique and satisfying role in the world. The same thing goes for races, you would feel, with more options feeling like a richer and more varied fantasy world.

There are times I feel when limiting race and class choices actually produce a more compelling world. I find my creativity is heightened when I have less choices and I have to become creative when making something unique. If all Basic Fantasy has our the 4+4 race and class choices, I have a world where humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings all have to coexist. There can be no other fantasy races beyond possibly monster races, so these four races will have a history together and you will find that you are starting to create a rich background in order to make this limited choice more unique.

There are times when you have infinite choice where if you have a race that fits a custom role you will tend to pigeonhole that race into that role. Let’s say in my world I had a custom race of “bear people” that lived in the North lands and where your stereotypical barbarian tribe race. With my custom bear race I just pigeonhole them into that role. Without the bear race, I will have to take one of the four races that I have available and create a tribe that acts in that role. I just want these people to be big, hairy barbarians so I don’t really need a race of bear people when I could just quickly modify one of the four and everything stays simple. I could get rid of the hairy part and just put a tribe of elves in this role, or leave them hairy and use dwarves. I start having to be creative with the limited choices I have, and yes it really is a flavor question, but it does highlight not having choices and having to make do with your creativity.

The same can be said for classes. In a world with just fighters, thieves, mages, and clerics – the conflicts and interactions between these four views of the world become simple. The mages, of course like magic and the arcane world. Clerics see the world differently, worshiping gods and the powers of the divine. Fighters and thieves fill the roles of law and chaos, respectively.

Less Means More

Without druids, there is no “cult of nature” making the world’s background a little simpler. Without bards, there are no ways of casting magic through song, making arcane science just a little bit simpler. The same can be said for barbarians, which are just angry fighters anyways, so the method in which military conflicts are handled in this world are simpler. You do lose some extremely flavorful classes, such as paladin, so there is a trade-off to limiting classes, especially when a lot of players expect to be able to play characters in these roles.

But there is a point to limiting choices in that the game really only needs to fill the four most important roles when it comes to dungeon exploration: the warrior, the guy who steals things, the healer, and the magic user. The game is about dungeon exploring and filling one of those four roles inside of a dungeon environment. The paladin, while an extremely popular and flavorful class choice, is a hybrid class that fills two of the four roles, and is less desirable when you are trying to give every player at the table a unique role to fill that does not cross over another player’s role. In order for the game to remain at its purest state, you need to make a choice between warrior or healer, and choose to do one of those roles in the game.

When Do You Want Choices?

In a more story-based game, I would say go for it and have lots of custom classes because ultimately the story is more important than putting a player in a predefined and strict role. In a more limited environment, such as a dungeon where you need to make important choices based on limited resources and defined character roles, I understand the design decision behind limiting classes so a player has to work hard at being effective in the role that they chose. A mage cannot fight, and there is no spell blade class, so you need to use magic highly effectively in order to survive in a dangerous environment when you are a mage. Again, this is a limitation, and it is forcing you as a player to become creative within your role to use the tools best to supply to you to overcome challenges and obstacles.

With infinite choice, of course I can settle right into a comfortable role where I can play my paladin, fight all day long, heal myself, and have most of the powers of the cleric while I swing my sword. I do not have to make choices based on if I want to fight more or if I want to do divine magic more with this character in this game. I can have it all, and I do not have to make that choice. This is why there are so many custom classes in games like Pathfinder, the game is trying to cater to a wide audience by supplying infinite choices so a player can come into the game and find a role that is custom crafted to their play style. When you have to make a hard choice about what you want to play, this is admittedly more difficult, and therefore less desirable when you’re trying to make a game that appeals to a wide audience.

Although with newer books, I feel Pathfinder has too many classes. Another day we will discuss that.

The Difficulty of Choice

That said, I do like games with limited choices in that if they provide compelling choices than I am attracted to the difficulty of having to make that choice. If the choices are meaningless, there is less of a reason to play. If any choice is good, I am also less interested. I like having to make a hard decision and live with it and do well within that role.

I also like that the game does support modeling it so a player that really, really wants to play a paladin or barred can play one of these classes. It is not the default way of playing, but it is supported because given today’s games you need to support these choices. The game does put limits on you, but is not so strict that it says you absolutely cannot play one of these classes. There is a little wiggle room, and that is more a strength of the system then it is a weakness. I do like thinking in the mode where the original for classes are the primary classes in the world, because of the simplification of player choices, and also the creativity that a referee has to work within in order to create a unique game world.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Fantasy Age vs. Pathfinder

I was struck by the simplicity of Fantasy Age versus a more complicated game like Pathfinder. Both are high-fantasy RPGs and they do what they set out to do well enough.

Fantasy Age is a simple game with a simple, unified core mechanic. It plays fast, is super easy to pick up, and does a great job with progression and the sort of lighter adventure and solve the mission job it sets out to do. I have a slight issue with post-roll stunting and still feel Legend does this better, but it is a good mechanic (with tweaking) and I look forward to Blue Rose's release next year using the same system.

But then again, I still get this feeling that Pathfinder just captures my imagination better. It feels like fantasy to me. The worlds and options presented in its books (both first and the excellent third party supplements) open up infinite worlds of adventure. Despite some of the issue I have with how large the game has gotten and the almost too-many choices now availible, I feel there is still a strong core of fun to be had that a more simple game such as Fantasy Age just can't capture.

Complexity vs. Depth

Pathfinder has depth, and loads of it. While yes, some of the depth presented has a great deal of complexity to it, you can use as much as you want (as is the case with every game). But as I drill down into Pathfinder's depth, I find a lot of reward for paying the price and using the complexity in my games. The deeper you go, the moer tedious the game becomes, but also there is another deeper and strategically rewarding game at the highest level of complexity.

You can play Pathfinder two ways, the first being an almost a Pathfinder Beginner Box style of game that plays like an action game. Ignore encumbrance, AoOs, and limit actions to something more simple and straightforward. The game becomes an action game, and you get 75% of the reward of playing. Nothing stops you from house-ruling in PBB as the way you play and keeping things simple, so it's all good.

The second way of playing the game is by drilling down to a level of complexity you enjoy, and playing at that level. For some, that means playing 100% by the rules, using all the tactical combat rules, encumbrance, and playing the game almost as a fantasy combat simulator. It is admittedly a more difficult game, becuase something as simple as what loot you choose to pick up could be a matter of life or death later as you are fleeing an encounter. I like this level of detail, and while it slows things down, it gives players more choices during a play session other than "where do I swing my sword next?" Action-gaming is fun and great, but sometimes I like to see how a group of players gets together and deals with a world hostile to their presence in it, and watching them make decisions and survive in a rules-set that is unforgiving and applied with a firm hand.

It is the same reward you feel when you beat a video-game on its hardest mode. You get this real sense of accomplishment and feeling of mastery that a more simple game just does not provide.

Simple for the Right Reasons

Yes, if I am here for the good times and story, I am more apt to play a simple game such as Fantasy Age with the group. Perhaps this is our first few times together and we need a simpler game to get the ice broken and see how the personalities and play styles mesh.

If this is a game about romance and I purposefully want the rules to get out of the way (such as in Blue Rose's case), I am also more apt to prefer a simple game that gets out of the way so we can focus on the drama and relationships. I perhaps could play romance-style games with Pathfinder, but the urge to drill down into full-simulation and combat mode is there, and I prefer players at the table to not focus on those aspects of the game.

I could bring up D&D 5 here because it relates to the discussion. D&D 5 at its current state just feels like it captures a more basic dungeon-ing experience centered on the brand's core worlds. It feels like a Fantasy Age in a way where the game is streamlined and simplified, and that is a good thing for playing stories focused on the conflicts and characters in those worlds. But again, for me and my groups, it feels like there is something missing, and it feels like the Fantasy Age thing again. I like depth. D&D 5 is early in its run, where Pathfinder is settled in and comfortable.

Sometimes, I want and I crave depth. It's not an all-the-time thing, as I love my pick-up-and-play games too, and also the simple and focused experiences. I like for my games to dive in and give me those complicated character design choices. I like for options to be fiddly and force you to learn. Gaming is never a One Ring thing where one game rules all; as gamers, I feel it is cool to have different games for different moods.

Depth Budgeting

Depth is also a thing you budget, just like complexity. You an put depth in different places, but you need to pick and choose what areas of your game you desire a deeper experience, and which areas should be simplified and kept streamlined. Where and how much complexity and depth is one of those game design choices you can plan out, or stumble into - but you need to plan this out to have a game that feels like it has a balance of simplified areas and complex ones that deliver a great and deep play experience.

So Pathfinder still calls to me in a way as it sits there in all its refined and voluminous glory. I like the game, and I like the world. Is it simple and fast-to-play? No, it is clearly not a fast food sort of game for fast food sorts of moods. But it does have depth and a complexity I can appreciate and embrace for what it does. It is a classic version of a classic game, and it does a good job on a couple of levels, both simple and complex, and it has the weight of both first and third party support that is second to none.

Fantasy Age, by contrast, is also a young game with support to be seen. I look forward to the refinement that may come out in future games, and I love the core 3d6 mechanic. It is a fun ice-breaker game with simple rules and quick options, and it is focused on storytelling - not survival and character building. It does what it sets out to do well, and is an interesting option to the Dragon Age game (or an upgrade of it, if seen another way). It does not have the depth of a more mature game, and I don't feel it needs it for what it sets out to do, so there is that to consider.

But what strikes me here is how depth can be seen two ways, as complexity that should be simplified (as D&D 5's direction went in), or as something to be enjoyed and savored and as a feature of the game that reflects maturity and something more to consider than just story-based action gaming. You worry about more from everything to character design to in-game choices, but you are rewarded more for maing the correct decisions based on the moment in time you make them.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Theorycrafting and Pathfinder: More is Better

I was checking out threads on people's experiences when it comes to just sticking to the main Pathfinder book, and I came across this discussion on the Pathfinder forums:

http://paizo.com/threads/rzs2rx4g?Core-Only-How-does-it-change-things

Ouch.

So if half my group shows up playing summoning druids I am just going to rub my temples in a mock headache and tell them what? Yes, there is a lot to be said for "play what you love," but the thing I dislike about the theory-crafting crowd is...

...they are ultimately and 100% right about a lot of things.

The base game is, in a way, broken, and the later books have done a lot to fix things and make all options viable and balanced. The expansion books have their own sets of problems, but the Pathfinder game was written in a "patch as you go" sort of way and if you are not playing with a full set of books you aren't playing with something that approximates an even playing field between classes.

What I don't like about theory-crafting posts is that they tell me my illusions of a simple game using only one book are nostalgic dreams built upon an assumption that less is better. And these posts are for the most part right.

In this case, Pathfinder is a lot like an MMO in this regard, a lot of people reminisce and love the concept of playing the game by the original rules and before any expansion, but those feelings are typically never really based in reality - they are based on feelings. And with feelings, you get emotions all wrapped up in the mix, and things just become a big mess. It is better to go by facts, and you either accept the original game has its flaws and live with those, or you play with the new stuff and get all the fixes and complicated add-ons.

The old days in most MMOs did suck, and things are for the most part better now. Despite the few changes you probably disagree with and the complexity the MMO has added, the thousands of things that were fixed over the game's lifetime are just such a better experience you forget how clunky things were and how much of a game was to play before all the tweaks were made. There were exploits back then, and most MMOs had huge problems the designers later fixed.

Star Wars Galaxy NGE need not speak up at this time. Please sit down. I said most MMOs, but I will admit before the NGE there was some pretty broken stuff. The problem is afterwards, everything was broken, but that's another story for another day.

It is a tough part of my feelings about Pathfinder, I love the game, but to play the best version - you play with a full set of books. If I want a simple game, I will play something else.

That fact is hard for me to accept.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Occult Adventures, and Huge Sale on Hero Lab

I took the jump and ordered Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Occult Adventures, and it's also worth noting the Hero Lab module for this has been released as well.

There is also a huge sale going on until November 8 on many of the Pathfinder Modules over on the Hero Lab site, so if you have been waiting (like me) to pick some of these up and complete your collection, it is worth it to do so now!

I didn't want to wait a month to start diving in, the reviews for this one are that good. Perhaps this book will be the base for a limited run game set in the 1920's with a distinctly Pathfinder feel. I am overdue for a redo on my Pathfinder game world, and I can envision a major clean up and some big changes to come in my metaplot and how things are organized for my players. More on this soon, and a Design Room article on what looks to be a major shot in the arm for the Pathfinder system with this book.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Upcoming Pathfinder Books: November 2015

I am really tempted to buy Occult Adventures book for Pathfinder, but I am waiting on two other books before making the plunge. This book is already out and getting great reviews and re-invigorating the Pathfinder player base, so it looks to be a great buy and worth the time to read and play. It also solves the "I want to play an ice/fire/etc mage" problem Pathfinder (and also D&D) have with players coming in from games and MMOs where those options are available. In other words, these sorts of options have been a long time coming, and sorely needed. I am looking forward to them, and I have high hopes for this guide.

The first "must also purchase" is Bestiary 5, and you can never have enough monsters. I am hoping there are some more occult and psionic-themed monsters in this guide that will fit well with the psi-using classes in the above book. What are heroes with new sources of power without creatures who dabble in the same powers? Great heroes deserve great monsters. This is coming the 18th of November, and that is when I will likely dive in.

The second is an odd guide called Occult Realms, which looks to be the Golarion-specific campaign guide for the first book, and it presents additional character options, monsters, setting, and background info. I don't ike the fact this information has been broken off in an additional guide, but if it is purely setting-specific, I could see why. I will need to read some reviews and test the waters before I decide this guide is 'official' for my group. You know how this goes, sometimes an add-on book like this adds a lot, and other times it doesn't justify the addition of another guide to the mix.

And of course, yes, I want Hero Lab support for all of the above as well before I dive in. At this time it is available for the first book in this list, and not for the two unreleased books (obviously). What use is owning these books unless your character creation tool of choice supports them? One bad thing about Hero Lab support is that it lags a little behind the book's final release (and understandably so), so it may push off my purchase of the second two by a couple weeks. It is a thing with me, if I have the books in hand I want to start jumping in and building characters. Having to wait to do that dampens my excitement a little, so I would rather wait a few weeks than to have that gap between reading and using the books.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Star Wars RPG: Spinning Up 100 Characters

DarkgarX and I are spending a couple nights and just spinning up an entire group of characters, around 100 of them in fact. I know you are not supposed to use the PC generation system for NPCs, but it is a fun way to learn the classes and system, and go through all three of the books in order and have fun with different designs and classes.

We are designing from all three books, so our groups are an interesting mix of rebels, criminals, and jedi students. It is a motley crew of a strange mix of personalities and character types, and we love just spinning up characters and playing with character options.

There is a min-maxing thing you can do here, especially in regards to combat skills and your starting scores. However, we play a more balanced game where more skills than just combat are important, and we try to stay true to the character and not worship the combat system. With these dice, it is difficult at times, because the allure of spinning up a character who can toss a fist-full of dice at enemies is so strong.

Resist the urge of the dark-side of min-maxing...

Some of the rules regarding the book-specific stats (obligation, duty, and morality) are weak, and in some cases not explained (how duty changes). We had to hit the forums for answers, and even then it wasn't entirely clear.

Mixed groups with obligation and duty? Sounds fun, and we have some very strange groups that could be hit at all angles for missions and bounty hunters looking for group members. I wish they would have added information on mixed parties, but we managed to figure out a system that works for us with these sorts of groups.

We almost wish jedi had a "external" stat like this, but instead, they have an inwardly-focused morality trait that rates how they act in the world. It is admittedly very jedi, but I like the external book-specific stats and their potential for trouble and complications so much I wish the jedi had something like this as well to force them to get out into the world and put things at risk, be a part of something bigger, or have trouble lurk around every corner. Yes, they are jedi in the Empire and it is not the safest place to be, but I like the mechanics of the other book-specific stats.

The skill system took some getting used to, and we wished there were some character design tutorials to go through. It took us a while to figure out that class skills began at level zero and you had a number of rank-ups to raise 3 or 4 of them to a +1. So there is a difference between an "untrained class skill" and a normal "untrained skill" that threw us. We had to redesign our first couple characters once we grasped this, but having a sample design in the book would have smoothed this out for us greatly.

Once you get a hang of it, character design is fast. I wish the game shipped with "character design sheets" with one side being the class description and skills, and the other having the talent tree. I wish I could print out just these sections to work with, and staple them into a handy booklet. PDF please, I'd buy the game in PDF form a second time just to have this ability. Or I could photocopy. Yes, I could photocopy for personal use, but bleh on the time and mashing the book to get it looking good.

All in all, this is a fun character creation system, and one we will be playing as we run a small campaign this fall with the game. More update on this soon as things get rolling, but until we begin, more character design fun awaits us.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Star Wars RPG: Too Many Books!

With three main books and six add-on character books, our Star Wars RPG experience is feeling a little bloated. I know, these are stand-alone games, but we play in a big universe, and now we are constantly flipping back-and-forth between books to generate characters and reference material.

Yes, this is our fault for buying too many books.

But this is also the game's fault for spreading everything out in so many guides. A lot of the character archetypes in the add-on guides are cool, but I feel they aren't really much different than what you could create from the classes in the main books. There are some cool options, yes, but part of me feels they aren't the 'core experience' classes that we got in the main three books.

Some of them are also very splatbook powerful, by the way. I don't see these as 'oh cool' I see them as a 'oh no why did they escalate character power' sort of thing.

While I love having options, I could see just buying the core three books and sticking with those as a good option. Still, they are nice books with great production quality and tons of info.

Yes, this is starting to feel like Pathfinder. There is a part of me that wants to go back to basics with that game and just play my world with the original two books. There is a point when too much is too much, and I want my simple game back again.

You know, the way things used to be? Part of that feeling is a false 'the old times are better' thing, while another part is a truth that simple was honestly better.

How many more splatbooks can they print? Well, I will admit now I will be buying all of them, but the prospect of sorting through three main books and possibly twelve add-on books has got my head spinning (three books with four add-on class books each).

I guess we will clear another shelf for these and have fun with what we got.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Star Wars RPG: A Slow Session

Our Star Wars campaign is still getting on its feet, and last night's game was a slow session. One of those where "most of the characters get 5 XP for participating and only one or two get a 15 XP reward sort of games.

Yeah, most of the group played salvage bunnies in a junkyard while two of the characters went off and had all the fun.

They need to get a derelict starship up and running, so it is going to take a lot of work. Maybe I will give the entire group a reward after the thing gets space worthy as a story award.

The two characters who had the fun? Card sharks playing a strange version of "Texas Hold-Em Sabacc" that they made up on the spot and conned the rest of the bar into a game of. They actually made up the rules they played, dealt the cards to NPC 'players', and everyone got a good laugh out of all the silly antics these two put on. It made no sense, the rules were setup totally in favor of the house, and my two players kept repeating "everybody wins, everybody plays" so many times it became a running joke - yes, even though any NPC who played got fleeced by this highly silly con job.

It is also a stupid, silly moment uniquely Star Wars. Well, not the Texas hold-em part, but what is Star Wars without something totally stupid and silly happening every once and a while? Players need to be able to laugh and have fun every once and a while, and it brings an occasional break to the seriousness of the game. While I like to run my games really gritty and serious, I know when people need to kick back and laugh, so we take time out to have hilarity like this between the dark and realistic parts.

The larger campaign arc is appearing, and I am starting to see where this game is going! I can't share it here, but it is a fun and very twisted take on the whole Empire and Rebellion thing that will have both sides wondering who to trust, and also be throwing both sides in with each other with shifting loyalties. How is my galaxy setup?

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

We are playing in a post RoTJ galaxy, and this is sort of mixed in with the Star Wars: Aftermath continuity. The Imperials are on the run (and largely holding out in the corporate sector and a large fleet around Courusant as two major factions). The capital fleet holds onto the "Empire as government" view of things, while the corporate sector Imperials have been taken over by a faction seeing the Sith way of life as a religion. This kind of parallels the book, and it is a fun way to split the Empire into two warring yet sometime cooperative factions with a lot of distrust between each other.

It also brings in the more commonplace Jedi and Sith into the game by the RPG's aesthetics. There is a large faction of Sith that see their way of life as a religion, and there is one faction of the Empire holding onto that belief.

The New Republic is what we would call the rebels nowadays, and they are awash in victories and an unstable political atmosphere. What they want is Courusant, and they are blockading the capital system and even resorting to using space pirates to break the will of the Empire. Did I say the good guys are resorting to underhanded tactics? Yes, there is a lot of corruption in the New Republic's halls, and Hutt money is flowing like wine. Any player who deals with the New Republic has come away with a bad taste in their mouth as nobody knows who to trust, and the New Republic's freshman senators back-stab and deal under the table to grab power.

The inmates are running the asylum, and the entire galaxy is worse then when it started off under the Empire. Even Ackbar's fleet has been called back to his homeworld as the bickering raises the possibility of proxy wars between factions inside the New Republic.

The Jedi? Remember, we are in the RPG's world, so the Jedi are a little more common that the official universe. These are the children of those taken down by Order 66, untrained and they are scattered to the wind of the galaxy as they find their own paths. I am keeping the prospect of a new Jedi Academy out of the picture for a while, as this is a bit too EU for this game, and I want Jedi players surviving on their own without a school to run home to. If a player starts a new Jedi order? More power to them, and this could be a force of stability in the galaxy.

If they do.

What is so fun about this setup is there are characters from all sides that can get together and play, plus a clear and defined set of bad guys. Some of the more stability-minded Imperials could team up with the players and work towards a common goal, and the Empire can even play the hero in some situations. The bad guys are clearly the Sith-as-religion types, bloodthirsty Republic power-grabbing types, and the Hutts, and unchecked, they will destroy this galaxy quicker than anything you know. In short, this is a war of stability and civilization against the forces of intolerance and corruption.

Both sides are guilty of corruption and intolerance. And there are heroes on both sides, Empire and Republic, that will stand against that tide.

What am I hoping? That there will be a new faction led by the righteous few who will bring peace and stability to the galaxy. This must be led by the players. If they choose to be profiteers or do otherwise, they will see the galaxy slowly slide into war and madness. It will be a choice I can't force, but one I can subtly present as an option as NPCs from both sides seek their help.