Monday, May 30, 2016

Savage Worlds Pathfinder, Part 3: Creativity versus Linear Play

A dungeon is the classic example of linear play. You are presented with a choice, left or right. You don't have that much information to go on, except maybe if the referee is smart and drops hints about "a strange smell coming from the right" or "the sounds of shuffling and scratching from the left." At least you have something to go on, but you are still limited to two directions. Go left or right, and you are presented with a similar choice, go through the door or down the hallway further.

You aren't really thinking, you are reacting here. You are trapped in a maze. Your freedom to make decisions and alter the course of the adventure is blocked off by cold stone walls. You are expected to be the rat in the maze, wander around, and fight against oppressive limitations to show some individuality. There is the illusion of choice, but there really isn't much choice except for, "where do we go next?" Watch this:
That is a fun video and I recommend watching all of the ones dealing with torches and roleplaying. Good stuff, and it touches on the sort of "real world tombs and crawlspaces" feeling with cramped corridors, vaulted ceilings, and cool-looking pulp-inspired places. Pulp-inspired kind of veers off the historical-realism track (for fun's sake), but again, pulp-inspired isn't "100 rooms with twisty corridors" either.

Contrast this with non-linear play. You are a cowboy walking into an Old West town. Go from there. Do you rob the stagecoach? Do you wander into the saloon and look for trouble? Do you respond to that "help wanted" poster on the sheriff's office? Do you stand up for that lanky prospector being ruffled up by the local ruffians? Do you watch as the two gunfighters stare each other down?

You are only limited by the hooks and opportunities the referee presents to you. You area free agent, and you are free to chase down whatever hare-brained idea or silly course of action you can imagine. Like an open-world sandbox game, whatever you do is fine. A great referee will improvise and wing it for the whole session, and react to whatever the players come up with on the fly.

Dungeons are easy, and they focus the group's attention on one situation and location. They are useful and create tension, but after a while, they begin to feel artificial and limiting. There are no other options but "door A" and "hall B." Our group has done them to the point where dungeon based modules elicit groans from my players.
So in our Savage Worlds: Pathfinder game, we are banning dungeons. No more holes in the ground, we are tired of them. There still can be lost tombs, ancient ruins, or similar pulp-inspired sites of mystery and wonder - but not to the extent where being a mouse wandering the maze is the point of the game. If it has more than a handful of rooms or passages, forget it, we are not interested. It isn't like historically, here on Earth, there have been great examples of massive underground dungeon complexes.

Still, a pulp-inspired underground massive ritual chamber is fine. A giant maze where you have to map and wander around aimlessly is not. A lost tomb with a central corridor and adjoining chambers (for mummies to break out of) is fine, a tomb that takes up an entire piece of graph paper where the entire session is spent lost in the corridors is not. Pulp-adventure means classic action-movie inspired sets and locations, real Temple of Doom stuff, and fun and dynamic locations.
Like the stuff you see in the books, and exactly like the above. I admit, the Paizo team does a good job trying to make their adventures and world exciting, action-inspired, and fun looking - but I get this sense the d20 tactical dungeon rules fight them. The rules drag the world down. What looks fun on the cover in reality, at least when we play, is a mess of stat-blocks, slow-playing rules, tracking conditions, slow combat, and slogging through a rules system that should be "fast, fun and easy to play" but isn't. Especially now with all the books and additions to the core system.

I want the game to play like the pictures. I do not care about supporting rules which get in the way of fun. A fighter is a someone who knows how to use a sword. A mage knows magic. A thief is sneaky. Powers are powers. People learn the things they choose to learn. The people in the artwork do not have leg shackles on them chained to large iron d20s. They are "adventurers" in any game system. That mage above? Just casting a spell, and in my game, something from the Savage Worlds rules. And something not converted over, and no-one in this world speaks of levels, alignment, classes, or magic missile.

It seems dictatorial, but conversions like this are notoriously weak-legged, with that feeling of "lets go back" to the original rules hanging over the game. Being clear on "what this game is going to be like" helps a referee keep it on track, helps players know what they are getting into and how to act, and it sets expectations on how much of the original source material from the rules is going to be used. You don't want to be playing, have a player expecting to play a specific "mesmerist" or some other in-the-game class, and have that player expecting one thing while the game is doing another.

In this case, none of it. The Inner Sea World Guide is the game's bible for "what the world is" and "who lives there." That cover sets the tone for the game. The pictures of adventures and battles inside also set the tone. The peoples and places inside exist in this world.

And then the Savage Worlds rulebook is thrown down, right on top. These are the rules. This is how this world works. You should be good from here. This is how the game works, how it will be run, and other Pathfinder rules-focused books will be ignored.

End. Stop. No new books needed. Except maybe...
...and here is where the tricky part comes in. I am going to put up a yellow light when the question of "monsters" comes up. You may want to go with the standard monster list. It's easy. You may want to crack open the bestiary book to pull in some foes, and then find yourself converting monsters over. And then the slow drag of "it would be easier to go back" starts to be felt.
My advice? Don't do it. It's a trap! Stick with the monsters with in the Fantasy Companion. "Re-skin" them, if needed to look and act like the monsters you need. Remember, you are going for "pulp-adventure" not a "d20 simulator." You absolutely do not need a complete monster list to run this game; some orcs, skeletons, zombies, and a big boss beast is fine and will get your adventure through many nights. Most players probably won't notice your monster list isn't the "complete Pathfinder approved" monster list. As long as you have one or two of the recognizable "fantasy monster types" you are fine.

You are fine.

And here is where you can have some fun. You can invent new monsters now. If you reject the "standard" list, you can invent cool new monsters like a fire-elemental mummy that vomits lava and is immune to fire magic, and all of a sudden - no one knows what to expect next. Your game goes from the familiar classic-rock playlist of the d20 "greatest hits" monsters to something cool, all yours, and unique. You can mix in the old standards once and a while, mod them, or make new monsters based on your imagination.

It's like that monster on the cover of the Bestiary, the "giant troll" thing in the background. I don't care to go and look that up in the Bestiary, I will say that is a giant troll and I will go and find some stat-block for a giant in the Fantasy Companion and give it regeneration and a weakness to fire, and blammo, you are done. A giant that regenerates? Color me terrified as a player in this game and trying to deal with a beast like this. If you were a slave to the "official monster list" your mind will not be thinking like this, and you will lose all of your creativity and imagination.

Do that. Look at the pictures in the books, and come up with your own creations. That flaming dog in that picture is an "inferno hound" and then go wild giving it powers and weaknesses based on what it looks like. Your imagination and silly creations will make this game special. Refusing to be a slave to the "official lists and rules" will be your freedom. Don't go too wild, a normal griffon is still a griffon fro mthe book, but for the special and memorable monsters, have fun.

Same with magic. Same with powers. Same with magic items. Same with heroes. Same with everything. You are free to be inspired by the pictures, not ruled by the words.

Your players are not grading you on how well your conversion looks like the source material. They will not judge you that a "giant troll" doesn't exist in the Bestiary and "you obviously made something up." Gasp! The horror of doing something not by the official rules! Your game is invalid! You obviously aren't as creative as the books you paid for. You will never be able to play in a store or convention game again. Really? Sarcasm over, but honestly, these feelings come up when you dare to be creative and do your own thing. It's a byproduct of companies wanting to sell you more books, and that is their right, but never let the fear of an "official seal of approval" stop you from doing anything.

It's your game. Players are here to have fun. They will judge you if your game was interesting, fast paced, fun, and it provided a great night of entertainment.

The more input you have in your world, the better it will be. But the number one thing getting in your way of having fun is yourself and your slavish loyalty to a stack of books. You need to break those chains for this to be fun. So go ahead and break them.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Savage Worlds: Pathfinder, Part 2

So where do you begin converting a game setting to a new set of rules? My first thought is this, you start here:
..and that's it. Stop there. Do not open up the Core Rulebook, Gamemaster's Guide, Advanced Class Guide, or any other rule book. It feel strange not using this to play the namesake game; but in essence, this product is just a world guide and atlas, and you could play this with Legend, D&D 5, or any other set of rules - and many have.

Yes, it still feels strange, but look at it this way, you are still buying this book from Paizo and your interest is in this world. Well, hey, they still made the sale, and this still is a super quality product.

Play with the basic set of magic powers as defined in the Savage Worlds rulebook, and hand-wave the rest away. Thieves are thieves, fighters are fighters, and the rest should feel right. Remember, you are shooting for feeling here, not a one-to-one translation and simulation of every spell, power, feat, and magic item in the book. Just go with the base Savage Worlds rulebook.

Don't try to convert a class in. Don't worry about playing the latest archetype. Just pick a character you like from the book, and be yourself - or that character, if you prefer. Design it what it looks like. Forget about any other rules, or trying to convert something over.

You won't be worrying about "what is a +1 sword" in Savage Worlds, it will just be a "magic sword" that does "whatever" you want it to, maybe stuns on hit, does an extra point of damage, or some other interesting power.

But by all means, go by what you see instead of what's written down. That cover? It looks like a fighter and a mage battling a lich and some evil ravens. They are fighting. They are casting spells. Those could be any spells, and likely spells from the Savage Worlds book.

The key phrase here is, "in your world."

In your world, things work this way. Things look like the pictures in the book, with action everywhere and magic flying. This world isn't so obsessed with XP and leveling, magic items and character builds. Heroes start out their "playing piece" here, and they build in skill and knowledge as they adventure and solve problems. They progress along paths of their choosing, not restricted to a class or a set path of advancement.

Perhaps the sorceress on the cover dons plate mail and becomes a fearsome "spell sword" because she's tired of getting clawed by the monsters of the world. Perhaps the fighter there finds a lost religion and becomes a paladin. Perhaps the thief in the background learns a form of Elven "shadow magic" and declares herself a "shadow blade" - the first of her kind of magical rogue.

Your paths and direction are up to you, and the characters and this world are free to go in any direction the play of the game takes them in. Yes, this is also true when playing this by Pathfinder rules, but here there is no plan set forth by rules, no perfect builds sharpened by computer programs, and no overwhelming need for treasure or XP.
Monsters may be a problem. You may feel tempted to open up Bestiary I and find yourself lost in monster stat blocks. Fortunately, the links given in the previous post will give you more monsters than you will ever need. You can also pull from the Savage Worlds rulebook or the Fantasy Companion as well. Remember, you are not doing a direct conversion, so no one is going to take off points because those are not official by-the-rules Paizo goblins (tm). They just have to be good enough, or fantasy enough to work - and this is fantasy, so you have a heck of a lot of room to work with.

We do not worship rules here in this world, just adventure and have fun. Whatever the road throws at us. What is happening in the next town or village? Do they need a jaunty band of heroes to help? Does a strange haunted house on the hill only appear at night, and the town is terrified of this strange and evil place? Why, I think your band of heroes fits the bill and is perfect to check it out!

Stick with the imagery, not the words. Go with the feeling, not the mathematics. Do not feel beholden to a set of rules which are just suggestions anyways. If the rules are truly suggestions, then throwing them all out and playing with a new set of rules is just following a suggestion, isn't it? Or at least the spirit of making the game your own.

Later on, you can still crack open an adventure path or a rulebook and pull something from that for an adventure. You may want to create a special character based on a picture from one of the books, or pull in some unique monster and create Savage Worlds stats for the beast. You don't want to get caught in the trap of converting everything though, this is not how you are using the books, and conversions only lead to disappointment (and a load of wasted effort).

Think of it this way. You pick up your favorite comic book, say Batman, and you want to play a roleplaying game in that world. So you pick a rules system, any rules system, and it does not have to be the licenced one for Batman, just one of your favorites. You then play, without worrying about "the official this" or "how the Batman rules did that." You just play. Using your current system, and using the pictures as a guide.

This should seem like second nature, and "it's easy to do!" But with long-established game systems, the weight of the rules, the sheer quantity of the material out there, and the number of players wanting to go back to the original rules can feel overwhelming at times. Why do you need to do things this way? Enough people like the original game, why shouldn't you? The books are here, ready to go, and no conversions are needed!

I know we are not converting, but the power of what's on your shelf and what players say is undeniable. Large games have a gravity all their own, and I find it helpful when someone comes along and says, "You can do it another way!"

"Inspired by," are your key words, followed by, "using the imagery and feeling of the world."

When the artists painted those pictures, they were not done with a d20 and rulebook in hand. Well, at least not to my knowledge. Similarly, that world could exist in any number of parallel dimensions, and the one you happened upon is following the rules system of your choice.

This is your world, and your game. Play it how you want to play it.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Slow Lie and the Triangle of Pain

Study this chart, because it will be used to sucker you into everything from cellphone contracts to MMOs. This is a visual representation of a "frog in a slow boiling pot", and it is also a key concept in game design theory.

It is the Slow Lie.

It starts out in a typical situation like this, let's take an MMO, for instance. You're level one, you suck. You struggle to do anything. Your character power is below the content difficulty line, and you wonder why everything is so hard.

But, you put some time into the game. Your character gains power. Things get easier! You start to watch your character get more powerful, and fights become easier. You are motivated to play more because you see that first point, just ahead, where you can start to blow things out. Oh, this is going to be good.

The next thing that happens is you blow out the content difficulty. You feel like a god. Your character is the master of every challenge, and your power is unparalleled. You are having fun. You feel great. You love this game. Your character power is high, and you are on this artificial high of having that fantasy fulfilled and you feel like a sword-swinging and spell-slinging hero of the land.

But then something happens. Things get difficult. You keep playing because you THINK this is just another phase, just another plateau to overcome and you will persevere and your character power will be even greater than before. Right? But it never will. You drop below the line. The game design theory of the Slow Lie will never allow for it. You are entering the triangle of pain, and the great paywall lies ahead. Some players enjoy playing in the triangle of pain, but it only gets worse.

Your character power drops steadily. You need groups to do things. You need more effort and better tactics to get by. Some players like this phase, because they feel they are "mastering" the game by being an "expert" but that too, is a lie. Even their character power will drop. Every "power player" strategy will be relegated to how you are expected to play. Larger groups and raids will be needed as character power drops to where even five people cannot overcome a challenge.

You find yourself saying "I need help!"

And they got you.

Well, that is where the great paywall lies. If you pay, your character power will go up. If you don't, you will either stop here or suffer even further. You see this design in pen-and-paper roleplaying games with splat books that seemingly give you great power that blows out the original classes of the game. It's not that these classes are overpowered, its that the original classes in the game were never designed to get beyond the paywall at level X, and the designers are forcing you to buy this book just to play at higher levels.

The paywall can be a "pay a monthly fee to play beyond level X" in MMOs. You had incredible fun up to level X, and you are tricked into paying thinking your power will return to the pre-paywall era. But it never will. They got you, your character power steadily diminishes, and you are that frog in the boiling pot with every level your character gets, getting weaker all the time. Your "numbers" may be going up, like DPS and hit points, but in comparison to the difficulty of the game content, you are losing ground at a faster and faster rate with every level.

It is the Slow Lie. Even though your "numbers" go up, the game content is always pulling away from you. With each level you get weaker, not stronger. The longer you play, the more time you invest, and the more you fool yourself into thinking "the next level will make it easier" - but it never will. The game designers need to keep you inside the paywall, they need to keep you in the system. They will promise bigger numbers in the next expansion or next level, and the old content will seem easy, but where you need to be will always require more time, more money, and a larger expenditure of your life.

They don't want to drop off too steeply, which is why the end of the graph levels out, but keeps going down. There is a happy medium where they have addicted the long-term users, and they can keep content difficulty to character power at a certain level. The 25-man raid, the 5 person "heroic" and all those ratios are known and fine-tuned by the game designers of the Slow Lie. They need to keep the long-term players happy. They need to keep things feeling like they are getting better, and your power is going up. But at this point, the numbers and ratios are going to remain the same. You will never be as powerful as you were before the paywall, and the game design is engineered to make you enjoy being weak, but with larger and larger numbers than ever before.

Nothing changes past a certain point. The monsters are difficulty X, and the characters will be of power Y. This X will always be a "good fight" for Y, and when the X+1 monsters show up, the Y+1 characters will have another "good fight." You may notice the content difficulty line goes down along with character power. Things never really get much harder past a certain point, and the content becomes mechanical and scripted. If you know the MMO raid pattern or the pen-and-paper exploit to maximize damage (or turn denial), it all becomes easy pickings. This isn't a game you aren't supposed to win, like Space Invaders, so that content difficulty line never goes up or gets too far out of ratio with character power.

They keep you just relatively powerful enough so you don't quit.

But you will never feel epic, that is, unless you go back to earlier content, but that isn't where you need to be anyways. There are no rewards for you there. You are wasting your time there. You need to be up there on the bleeding edge, pushing yourself. Or feeling like you are pushing yourself. You will never escape that curve.

But the game will trick you into feeling like you are of "pre paywall" power. You will be an epic hero. You will have gear and trappings better than any king. You will be a legend. They will speak of you as a character of great power and influence! Your legendary power in terms of content difficulty will only be lip-service though, because you will be relatively weaker the higher you go compared to your pre-paywall selves.

And yes, when you hit that "I need help" moment where the game asks you to subscribe, or the pen-and-paper game tries to sell you another book with overpowered class options, you may be a little wiser to what they are trying to do. They are promising things will be better if you spend a little more money with them. If you felt great when that blue line was above the red one, and that is why you played, you will probably not be happy with how things go once you lay down some cash. Either you will blow things out for a while until you hit another paywall, or you will pay and things will steadily grow worse anyways as they settle you into the "final ratio" of character power to group size to content difficulty.

They are selling you "the Slow Lie" and while the game may be fun and the community worth it for a while, you will understand what sort of road that is laid out for you. And of course, how they are making you think paying is making the game more fun when the deck will always be stacked against you.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Savage Worlds: Pathfinder, Part 1

I am starting to feel the Savage Worlds love, especially when it comes to playing in the Pathfinder universe, Golarion.

That link? Probably everything you need for conversions. There are PDFs here which let you convert as deep or as basic-book as you want. You also get spells, magic items, and lots of great stuff in the PDF collections - they are well worth your time. The second link? Monsters galore, and something to pull from when refereeing so you are not winging stat blocks on the fly. And check this out:

Here are Savage Worlds stats for the Pathfinder iconics (playtest and adventure away!), and the second link provides more Savage Worlds stats for the Reaper Bones minis, which is an incredible resource in itself. Need more monsters? Try this:

That all said, wow. There seems to be a lot of support for Savage Worlds: Pathfinder conversions, and I can see why. Check out the iconic characters on the Savage Bones blog (there is a page 2 as well of them if you click Older Posts). Check this one out from page 2:

Source: Savage Bones Blog
It looks, well, simple. That is a big d12 die for agility and stealth, so I guess this character is really agile and sneaky. To a new player, the secondary statistics may need some explaining, like charisma "dash", pace 6, toughness 8(2) and so on. The hindrances and edges are nice, though I am sure you would want to look up what those do before play. The gear is well-presented, and for the most part says what it does. This looks like something I would want to play with, and it captures that "playing piece" sort of mentality that I look for in a fast-and-loose game.

The "playing piece" feeling is important, because it gives you a good grasp on "what a character is" when you consider what that character does in the game. Here? Sneaky and stabby, agile and thief-like. If you like that type of play, then you will likely choose this "playing piece" for your character in the game.

Another important point is unlike Pathfinder with it's "stick to your class" sort of feeling, I could improve this playing piece in any way I want. I could have Meri here dabble in magic for a while, learn how barbarians do their thing, devote herself to the god of thieves and learn divine magic, or just take up basket-weaving for a couple sessions. In Pathfinder, yes, you can multiclass, but it is usually better to "stick to your class" and earn the big bonuses. In Savage Worlds, since this is classless and you can spend your XP on whatever you want, you don't feel you are losing a couple levels taking the "basket-weaver" class and will never be your full level 20 rogue build because you want to dabble in a couple new skills for a while.

I think this is "one of those things" you need to grasp to do this conversion, the starting points in Savage Worlds are just that - starting points. They are not like Pathfinder's predefined character class "life paths" in any way.

Another thing I hear when running a successful Savage Worlds: Pathfinder conversion is to convert the flavor, not the mechanics. You will not be as successful converting over thousands of feats, spells, magic items, and monsters to get that impossible "perfect conversion" we all strive for. Nothing will convert perfectly, except the flavor. So look at pictures of mages casting spells in Pathfinder, and look in Savage Worlds material for spells like that, and flavor that bolt spell as "ice bolt", and so on.

You will do better to be inspired by the source material and start with the feeling, than you will trying to be complete and make a perfect replica of every rule. The world will change and become less D&D 3.5, but in return, you will be caring a lot less about the old stuff and having fun with the new. You can still toss in the occasional Pathfinder specific monster or spell for flavor, but don't feel limited by them, and don't be a slave to converting them.

Have fun adventuring in a "world inspired by" instead, and just go with it.

If you have players who are fans of the Pathfinder builds and rules, and "really want to play class X" you may find the Savage Worlds conversion a tougher sell to players. Some players are stat-mongers and strategists, and they come into the game with a pre-defined expectation of the Pathfinder experience as being "the rules are the world." These players want to play the "real thing" and they may not want a game based on feeling and "being like" the original rules.

Me? I see this as a sort of movie adaptation where a lot is glossed over, and the director is shooting for an experience "inspired by" the original source material. You know the feeling, it is like the feeling of the original Avengers movie where some comic book fans were thinking "this isn't perfectly like the comic books" but the movie itself was fun, inspired by, good enough, and everyone had a great time. If all your players want is sword-swinging adventure and mages casting "magic" in a fantasy world, the Savage Worlds conversion more than fits the role and works well. You get the benefit of a pulp-like and fully detailed world with Golarion, and you get to skip over the shelf of heavy books and just "play the essence and spirit" of the game the pictures in the books promise.

For some people, that is good enough. Not everyone wants something "rules perfect" and sometimes a lighter and more accessible experience "inspired by" is better than the real thing.

I like the open-ended playing piece experience which Savage Worlds provides. I like the simplicity. I am not so tied to the Pathfinder rules that "not having everything" will get in the way of me having a fun experience. It is one of those "is the feeling more important" considerations, and also "what do you get" out of a conversion like this.

Here? Simplicity. Open-ended characters. The playing piece feel. You focus more on the adventure and the world than you do the rules. It is about your at-the-table experience, not the math of a character build. It is a different feeling, but for some, one that they were promised and looking for when they saw the pictures and dreamed about adventuring in a world like this. The rules do not matter. The feeling matters more.

For some, that "inspired by" feeling is exactly the fun they were looking for.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Art of Plane Shift: Zendikar

OMG, this is a beautiful book. Today, The Art of Plane Shift: Zendikar came, and I am exploring a world that cannot be easily described. It has to be seen. This is more of a world-of book than an art-of book, and it shines in its presentation and style. If you love magic and want to get lost in this place for a while, this is your book.

This book feels honestly like what World of Warcraft wants to be, minus all the pop-culture jokes and silliness of Blizzard's creation. It is serious, epic, dramatic, torn asunder, lost, populated, mysterious, familiar, current and ancient all in one swipe of the brush, instantly capturing my imagination and excitement with each thrilling image and place. It is epic and deep, with meaning and a gravity of place and sense of importance that words cannot describe.

This is also not D&D, not by a long shot. This is much bigger, and more mature than the normal D&D worlds. Heroic NPCs can exist here, with no immature fear that "the player characters will be unimportant" sort of nonsense we get in the D&D world books. This is also hugely epic, with titanic creations the size of cities walking the fractured land. Turn the 3d up to eleven if they ever make a movie about this place, because you are going to need a bigger computer to render this.

Forget computers, you are going to need a bigger mind to take it all in.

Things exist here which D&D cannot easily describe, nor should it try.

I wouldn't want this to be D&D either, it is Magic: The Gathering, unique with its mana types and lands, and it doesn't feel right to fighter-mage-thief this place and kill goblins in a camp while a titan the size of a mountain walks by. Seriously. These are epic heroes who shatter mountains and conquer cities, not your average street-level rogue counting silver pieces. This is Magic, and this is greatness and power personified. D&D is trivial and minor in scope, worrying about ten-foot poles and what's in the next room. This is epic, Lord of the Rings stuff, cinematic and dramatic from level one, saving the world one adventure at a time.

This needs a completely new roleplaying game to even begin to describe, and not D&D, d20, or something we have seen before.

This is a book which will expand your mind, and open your imaginations up to possibilities great and wondrous. It is one of those which inspires and gives you the itch to adventure. It is also one that makes other fantasy worlds look plain by comparison, for good or bad.

If I can describe it in one thought, it is like the movie Avatar, when that movie first came out and blew people away, but for fantasy gaming. It changes the game. It is less so fiction than it is an experience.

Completely blown away by this. Pick it up and explore.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Pathfinder: Ultimate Intrigue

So, Pathfinder: Ultimate Intrigue?

I feel this one is mostly a mess. It shows some of the worst failings of the d20 system in rules design, and attempts to rules-ify and feat-ify basic "I do this and I say that" roleplaying. What should be in-character banter between the player and referee is slogged down by rules, stat-blocks, and game systems.

DM judgement and player creativity are replaced by book reference and rules structure. It feels terrible, especially when compared with the elegance of other systems in these situations like Savage Worlds or FATE.

Why? Because what this book forces you to do is buy feats and sink character points into skills that take away from combat, which many players will not want to do. There is little support for 'well rounded' characters in most d20 systems, as you are making choices between "combat effectiveness" and "non-combat ability" every level, and combat effectiveness usually wins. You must keep up with the Jones' - aka, the monsters and opponents of the world, so choosing "combat" is typically the safer way to go.

So now, what should be "handle it with roleplaying" is now "we can build characters around social combat rules" and I feel something huge is lost here. If a player, without a character with a social build, roleplays wonderfully in a Game of Thrones moment of drama and heartfelt appeal - am I supposed to coldly refer to the rules, state they do not have the feats to make such an appeal, and deny the roleplaying based on a failing of "social combat?"

Please, d20 game designers, stick to combat rules, which the d20 system does well. Keep the rules out of the roleplaying area, and let people play. I feel anytime designers try to make d20 do something other than combat it usually results in a complicated mess of charts and rules that takes the fun out of the game (there are a couple exceptions of d20 designs that do this well, but not D&D as a whole). Especially if you start putting a "social feat tax" on characters who want to be social, and now they suck when standing in a party alongside the established builds and highly-tuned killing machines the game has gotten us used to.

If these options were in the game on the ground floor, I could feel differently, since the default assumption would be "you build balanced characters for combat and social play." But still, creating strict rules for social roleplay feels so backwards and against the spirit of the hobby I sit here and wonder why.

I want to play a diplomat who is just as good with a sword as the fighter is, and I want my diplomat to feel like he or she can contribute equally when in combat or out of it. Making me lose combat effectiveness just because I want my character to be talky takes away from the fun of the game, and it further pushes apart the "roleplay" players from the "combat" players when the game should bring them together.

To the book's credit, it provides some new character archetypes and  build options that are fun, but the whole notion of creating a class around a Batman-like "secret identity" vigilante seems odd. My rogue or mage could have a secret identity too, you know. I could even have my mage or rogue be a vigilante. Seriously. I don't need this level of classification, and I don't need making every job-based noun a character class. The build options are fun though, and the art is pretty.

Why give all these social rules for roleplaying, and then give us hundreds of spells meant to short-circuit it? We have spells to sense lies and motives, make others seem as dishonest, and all sorts of other spells which feel like they are "quick and easy outs" for mages in social situations. Why go through a whole Sherlock Holmes adventure interrogating suspects, putting together clues, and figuring out who has the motive to lie about who killed Mr. Boddy when this complete spellbook of "forensic lie detection" powers can do the same with the wave of a magic wand? The very thing the book tries to do, create a framework for social adventures, feels marginalized by the spells in the back of the book.

Seriously. If we are trying to find out the killer, are we going to go through the detective work, or just have someone cast a spell?

Someone cast the spell and let's get on to the next combat encounter. Yes, the book says "magic is frowned upon in polite company," but really? Bust out the lie-detector, we are trying to save the world here. Divination is already a huge deal-breaker when it comes to D&D and mystery games, and after this book's spells are introduced into the mix, running social and intrigue games feels worse. Yes, there are some tricky counter-counter spells in here meant to counter divination, but I don't want to play a game of divination-counter escalation and spell-counter-spell when doing the Sherlock Holmes thing.

And not in every mystery because it feels forced and artificial. Who done it? Whoever can cast the anti-divination and social magic is a prime suspect.

Other games do this better. If I want to play mystery and social, Pathfinder is not my first choice nor would I want it to be (see Divination magic, above). I expected a "how to run a mystery" or "how to create a social adventure" type material, and it feels like we just got a bunch of misguided rules that will be ignored because:
  • People who play the game for tactical challenge will ignore
  • People who play the game for roleplaying will feel burdened by
  • Referees who are used to rewarding great roleplaying will ignore
And the rules drive these two groups apart instead of bring them together. You force social characters down a path buying social feats and powers (making them weaker when playing with the other side), and you put combat characters on their well-trodden path down of combat effectiveness (and also the path the game is balanced around).

There are times when I feel the old-school games of "roleplay is up to the players and referee" is the best way to go. If you need a stat that affects the chance of success, let it be charisma, and leave it at that. No feats needed. No skills needed. No rules or charts needed. Just your CHR modifier, and of course, the referee's judgement based on what you just said, how the NPC feels, and what is being asked for.

Come up with a DC, add your CHR modifier, and roll.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

MMO Games versus Social Games

I tell you, our discussions about game design as super interesting. I ran yesterday's article about "escalating hit points" by DarkgarX the other day, and he predictably had the same reaction, "Escalating hit point systems suck!"

So we talked about it for a while, and we managed to come to an interesting conclusion:

  • Some pen-and-paper games are more MMO Roleplaying games
  • Some pen-and-paper games are more Social Roleplaying games
Eureka! I thought, and we had this interesting discussion on what makes something more an MMO game than a Social Roleplaying game. I suppose we need some definitions first:

Social RPG: A roleplaying game where social interactions are the primary determining factor in determining success. Combat is a social interaction or the end thereof, and conflict is balanced on one-to-one fights.

MMO RPG (or Party-Based RPG): A roleplaying game where combat is the primary determining factor in determining success. Combat is balanced on many-to-one fights, where a party works together to defeat a foe or group of foes. Combat is a group-based gameplay function and less of a social interaction.

It is an interesting definition, because a lot of things start to make sense. In a game where a PC plays "Dirty Harry", the character's weapon needs to be powerful and a tool of social interaction. Combat needs to be quick and deadly, because how is a single character supposed to make a threat and hold someone off? This is a Social RPG, and weapons and combat in these sorts of games tend to be quick and deadly, and one character can defeat a foe in one blow because that threat needs to exist when violence is used as a tool of interaction between characters and bad guys.

In a MMO RPG, weapons need to be balanced for the party's contributions. Your longsword does 1d8+2, or an average of 7 points of damage. The big boss monster has 60 hit points. Is the boss monster afraid of one sword blow? Probably not. But your 5 person party is doing 7 points each per turn, so that's 35 points of damage potentially in the first volley. That is a threat. The party is the social threat, not one person. Your character is weaker socially with a singular one-on-one threat of violence, but your party is the social group making the interaction with violence here.

In a MMO, that one-on-one social contract many players assume is there with a Dirty Harry "make my day" threat does not exist. That is for the party to say, "make our day." It is a strange way to view things, but it works. Some games cater to the one-on-one interactions, and make violence and combat powerful enough for those one-on-one threats to hold water. These are Social RPGs, where they can be played between two people, a single character feels like they have the power to make threats and changes because a single character matters.

In MMO games, the group matters more than one-on-one interactions. This is why MMOs in general are more popular for groups of people, since it takes a party to get a goal done. You can do one-on-one roleplaying with an MMO RPG, but that social contract of the thief holding a dagger on someone needs to be specially considered with a coup de grace rule because the game is by default setup for a party to be contributing towards a goal, not a single person. One-on-one roleplaying exists in these games, but the social power comes from the "all for one" party and not the individual.

In a MMO RPG, you need escalating hit points. You need to balance things so the party as a contributing whole is the determining factor, instead of the one-on-one fights. The play of a battle matters, and things like boss monsters can exist. Because you don't want every fight at the table to end on turn one, things need to have some play to them and be tough. You can have a 40 hit point giant. You are a part of a team, and that team works together to solve threats and take action.

In a Social RPG, you can get away with using a flat system where weapon damages and hit points do not scale with character power. That 0.38 pistol will always be powerful and a threat. It needs to be because in a more social one-on-one interaction, you need those threats to hold water so you can roleplay them without your mind saying "OMG, that does a d6 damage! He has at least 50 hit points. Not a threat!" You can scale skill and the ability to defend or to-hit, but weapons powers should be high and fights should be deadly because that weapon represents the end-all of a threat made in a social context. That social interaction needs to have weight behind it. Combat needs to be balanced for the one-on-one and deadly.

It is an interesting difference between the style and play of these types of games, and these definitions clean up a lot of how we talk about games. Is this more of a social game? Is this mechanic more party-based and MMO-ish? Is this game's combat system more social-based, or does it assume the party is the driving force?

And a lot of our arguments about which game is better for what have cleared up between us because we can now say "this type of rule is better for social games," or, "this game is better for MMO or party-based play."

Sometimes a disagreement happens is because there is no common definition between the two sides.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Level Systems and Escalating Hit Points

I got into this discussion the other day with DarkgarX, so here goes.

He absolutely hates level systems and escalating hit points. He doesn't like these systems because he feels it makes things that should be dangerous, meaningless. Your sense of threat and scale get thrown out the window. Who cares about a gun pointed at your character's head when it only does 1d8 damage to your 60 hit points?

I know, there is the coup de grace (coo-day-grahs) rule, and this should handle it as a GM ruling. But still, he has a point when arrows and bullets are flying, and characters are laughing off damage.

Yes, heroes are supposed to be heroic.

I feel part of this comes from the "max hit points per level" house-rule, and I am cooling towards using that in my future Pathfinder games. I am leaning towards the PFS average HD + CON hit point rule:
HP (1st Level) = Maximum HD roll + Con Modifier
HP (2nd and Higher Levels) = Average HD roll (1/2 rounded up) + CON Modifier

If it is good enough for organized play, it is good enough for me. So a fighter with a +2 CON bonus has the following hit points at the following levels:
  1. 10 (max hp for the d10 HD) + 2 = 12
  2. 12 + 5.5 (rounded to 6) + 2 = 20
  3. 20 + 6 + 2 = 28
  4. 28 + 6 + 2 = 36
  5. ...and so on, +8 per level, and so on (sans in the optional +1 hp/level favored class bonus)
With maximum HD per level, the level 3 fighter has 36 hit points (and level 4 is 48), so the average hp/level system knocks a level of toughness off low level characters, and by 10th level the difference is 84 hit points to 120 hit points, or about 30% less for a fighter. Is it enough of a difference to matter?

I feel it is. At 84 hit points, taking a d8+2 damage hit is going to matter, because I could lose 8-10% of my hit points in that one strike. Enough of those, and my hero is going down. At 120 hit points, I have about 40 hit points to give, which is on average five or six more d8+2 hits my fighter has to give.
  • At average hp/level, it's 12 average d8+2 rolls before my fighter falls at level 10
  • At maximum hp/level it's 17 average d8+2 rolls before my fighter falls at level 10
Too many hit points too quickly breaks the game, and the rate they are accumulated feels like the problem here. Do those free five hits for a level 10 fighter break the game? I feel they do. If you figure 10 fights in an adventure, that is 5 x 10 = 50 free d8+2 hits in combat for that fighter for the whole adventure. What was once a balanced game of resource management becomes making sure those free hits get recharged and reset every fight. That is a huge amount of power given away for free because we like a "max hp per level" house-rule.

With less hit points, damage means more. Healers have to pay attention and use healing spells more often to maintain that safety margin - so healers mean more and healing is more powerful. Defenses that could stop attacks mean more. The monsters are more challenging. Fights are closer. The numbers aren't so out-of-control feeling anymore, or not as bad as they used to seem.

As a player, is max hp/level a good thing? Sure! Everybody wants to be invincible, and everyone wants the best character the rules allow. But max hp/level is not right. Statistically, average hp/level is closer to the balance the game designers intended; and all of a sudden, all of the game's math starts to make more sense. The danger returns. The calculations for CR start to work out a little better. Those "free hits" every fight dry up, and your margin of victory becomes tighter.

I would even say for the average monster, the same is true. Keeping the hit points of monsters down speeds up fights. It makes damage mean more. It doesn't turn the game into a DPS race where maximizing is the key to victory just because you want to reduce a massive pile of hit points to zero in the quickest amount of time possible. D&D 4 had this problem for us, where even low level fights were this massive hit point grind where the party sat there trying to finish off goblins with 30 or 40 hit points with special powers. Even D&D 5 feels a bit hit point happy for us, and I like the older, d8 scale, 1 HD orc sort of 4 or 5 hit point rabble monster. To compare:
  • Pathfinder Orc = 6 hp, 1 HD
  • D&D 4 Orc = 1 hp (minion) or 66 hp (4 HD, Orcs start at level 4 in D&D 4)
  • D&D 5 Orc = 15 hp (2-ish HD, but HD are not really used for monsters in D&D 5)
You have to factor in the damage scaling Wizards has put into play in D&D editions above 4 in those numbers, since to differentiate the game from D&D 3.5/Pathfinder, characters do more damage in the new versions of the game. Still, I like the Pathfinder Orc the best, a longbow could take one out with a solid hit, and it's another minion down (without needing the D&D 4 minion rules).

Do I like tougher Orcs? Yes, on general I do, but not to the point where the balance and scaling of the game world feels out of whack and like a video-game. To compare, 6 hp in a d4 hit die and 2 hit point commoner world is a tough foe, and a 36 hp level four fighter is as tough as six of those Orcs, or 18 common men. Those numbers feel right to me, not DarkgarX though as he is still saying it's too many hits. That d8 longsword is a powerful weapon, and still dangerous to when used against that level 4 fighter, and deadly to the 6 hp Orc.

In D&D 5, it's gonna take at least two or three hits to dispatch that Orc. In D&D 4, it's going to take a good majority of the game session. The opposite is also true. In Pathfinder, the Orc is the most deadly wielding a d8 longsword. In D&D 4, he is the weakest comparatively to the damage of that weapon listed in the book.

Scaling matters. Keeping your numbers down matters. Less means more. The original AD&D numbers and old-school ratios are good and what original D&D is based on, and I feel changing the number and damage scale hurts the game. Pathfinder is the closest to this original "keep it down" scale (minus the multi-attacks at later levels), and it keeps that low hit point and hit die feeling of danger intact. It is easy to want to succumb to "more is more" and give everyone free hit points - but I feel it breaks the game. Even the post D&D 4 scaling does the same thing in my feeling.

Less hit points mean more danger, and more danger is more excitement and a good thing.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

It's a Hobby, not an Operating System

One thing that struck me about our recent visit to At Ease Games in San Diego was the sheer incredible wall of Pathfinder books to buy they had down there.

D&D 5 was on a shelf of its own and well-presented at the front of the store as well, but the system does not have that much to buy. The three main books, and a series of hardcover modules. The store does its best to sell the system and gives it a prime spot, but there just isn't that much to look at once you have the three main books. There isn't anything else for it (expansion wise) on the shelf, in fact. It feels kind of depressing because I like the system and wish I could buy into it more.

If you value simplicity, which is an admirable trait, then D&D 5 has a lot going for it and is a desirable system. If you are into collecting and buying as a hobby, then I don't feel there is much competition and Pathfinder is the winner here. I like both systems, but as a hobby, Pathfinder gives me things to look forward to and buy every couple months.

Yes, this is at the cost of complexity, and Pathfinder is a beast if you run it with all the books. I am leaning towards "one plus" like "basic book plus Mythic" or some sort of complexity reduction subset for a game like that. But some hobbies are supposed to be exciting, complex things where you can go all out and get involved with them intimately - like model railroading where you can build a little world to painstaking detail, plant every weed, place every rock, lay down tracks and watch it go.

Simplicity? Damn simplicity, this is a hobby dammit. I can go as simple or as complicated as I want, and find groups that can go along with me. Pathfinder does this for me. The game scales, and it provides rewards to those who want to go complex and deep. Admittedly, it takes a great referee to run a game that takes advantage of that sort of complexity, but the game allows me to try and learn how to do this.

There is an argument for simplicity, in that it allows for more people to play and that it lowers the barrier to entry. D&D 5 does that. But there comes a point where I want more than the first (and only) three books gives me, and I want to buy and not rely on one-off downloaded PDFs made for modules. I want official system support, and a book to cover new options. I want expansions. I want new material. I want to drool over that shelf of books on the wall. To browse. To shop. To want. To save up and buy, looking forward to the day I check out with that new book.

I like both games for different reasons. I don't feel the value of keeping simplicity is worth never printing a D&D 5 version of Unearthed Arcana or some other book that can take us to new places. I suppose this is a reaction to the complete mess that D&D 4 gave us (in both system bloat and power creep), but you know, I would like to see something new maybe once a year, at a slow rate, just to keep things fresh and evolving.

I don't see your favorite rules system as some 'operating system' where you need to keep things simple and the same to the point of stagnation. I see it as a base from which to provide options and collectible lines of books, something to support, and something to buy into should you want to go there.

You can still play Pathfinder and D&D 5 with the basic set of books and have fun. It's just with Pathfinder, at least for me, my hobby of collecting, modding, creating, and building worlds feels supported and catered to by a constant release of collectible books and rules additions. I can build that model railroad world like I build my Skyrim modded world. This is my hobby, and I like feeding it with new ideas. I love simplicity to a point, but I can get that from many games as well. What I love is when a company goes all out and creates a hobby for me to buy into, and Paizo has done an incredible job at creating a world like this.

That Pathfinder shelf full of books and adventures is the result of hundreds of people's love, hard work, and craft towards creating that larger hobby and gaming world, and it is something I support.

And with D&D 5, I have this empty feeling a larger hobby is something I wish I could support.