Monday, June 27, 2016

Rules Anthropology and System Mastery

One thing that always amazes me about the d20 rules is how the rules feel stuck in anthropology. D&D 3, D&D 3.5, Pathfinder, D&D 4, and D&D 5 all rely on the theory of system mastery, which requires a set of rules to have a certain level of in-built complexity. This complexity means players need to learn the game, and it creates a class of  'player experts' who are walking encyclopedias of game knowledge and reference.

Following the theory of system mastery, the game in theory cannot be simple. There needs to be built-in exceptions, tricks, little twists and turns of rules, gotchas, and I-don't-know moments of vague presentation that require a college level of mastery of a particular rules set. The more arcane, the better, because this allows the 'player expert' to become more valuable to a particular group or setting.

Anthropology? You feel like a scientist digging through the history of these games to just be able to play them. They are incompatible with each other, have enough small changes between them that one game is realistically all an average person can play, and some of the assumptions you carried over from previous editions will trip you up. It's why I still like Labyrinth Lord or Basic Fantasy as my go-to D&D games, they stick to the core design, there isn't much to learn, and there isn't much to mess you up.

Self-Taught Experts

That "power of knowledge" is an important thing. It both creates a barrier to entry (noobs suck at the game), and it creates a barrier to exit (why would I give up all this knowledge and power). It gives those who invest the time a certain level of importance in communities, power over others, and value. If the game is widely played, the more value that person has in a community, gaming group, or forum. Also, if the books needed are expensive and voluminous, the investment in the game keeps people from leaving as well. No one wants to have wasted all that money.

You can short-circuit all of this and say, "I don't have the time," and walk out. You can go to a simple rules system. Many modern designs cater to people without the time to learn all this complexity, and these keep today's time and interest-strapped people in the hobby. They are also exit-points for people that are tired of the heavy games, as a group can only really maintain interest in one large game at a time.

Some modern non-d20 games follow the system mastery model as well, such as Fantasy Flight's Star Wars RPG. While the basic mechanic is simple (as presented in the starter sets), once you go all-in with the main rulebooks there are enough gotchas where you need an expert to sort things out. This is similar for Shadowrun, GURPS, and other games where the weight of expansions and rulings have turned a once-simple game into something more complex.

Games do not need to be that complex. Complexity is not depth. A simple game can have wonderful depth without complexity, take chess, for example. This is where great design comes into play. Some designers seem to give up on designing elegant, simple, yet very deep in strategy rules, and go for the arcane, complex, and exception-filled almost spaghetti computer-code level of complexity when depth by the base mechanic cannot be achieved. The depth is obfuscated in the complexity of the rules.

Modern Designs

Some games are by-design simple, and this applies to the OGL retro-clones, Savage Worlds, Legend, AGE System, FATE, and many modern designs. These games have simple rules of thumb, unified mechanics, and a simple set of core rules which are extended to handle anything. If you know how to do one thing in these games, you can assume many other things work similarly and you are on your way. Some players love the elegance of unified design simplicity, while others love system mastery and the power of that complex knowledge.

A lot of indie games embrace simplicity, because it is a lot easier to test and balance a small set of rules-of-thumb than it is an encyclopedia of specific and carefully-balanced rules. I feel the age of huge, complex systems is passing us by, as even D&D 5 has recognized the need to simplify to increase "what can get done" at the table during a session. They streamlined and simplified monster stats, character complexity, and the amount of modifiers and conditions you needed to remember, and players reacted positively to the changes. As a result, the games move faster, players can cycle through more encounters during a session, and a game session can end with a feeling of progress and completion in regards to a story.

Savage Worlds goes in a different direction than D&D 5, with combat meaning less and all actions taking on an equal level of importance in regards to story completion and advancement. Conversions of modules from Pathfinder, OGL games, and D&D 5 to Savage Worlds typically eliminate encounters meant to "level up" the party and focus more on tasks, social encounters, and roleplaying. D&D 5, in comparison, is the more 'video game' and 'XP and loot' type experience, where Savage Worlds is the more the story-based experience.

There Comes a Point...

When you don't have the time to invest in heavy games anymore. It is happening to us, and I have this feeling Bestiary 5 and Ultimate Intrigue will be the last Pathfinder books we will buy for a while. I love the world, I love the mod-able-ness, I love the art, and I love the system, but enough is enough. I can't run this much, and I can't manage this much complexity anymore. If I play, it will be with a subset of books, but even then I question if investing myself in a reduced subset of that complexity will be worth the payout. Learning and mastering a simpler game at this point may give us more bang for the gaming buck.

Even the new Star Wars RPG still feels bloated to us, and we've reduced the game to the base three books. It is the problem with everything being a heavy game, you want to play them all, but one person really can't master and maintain interest in this many large games. They makes these games complex with the theory of system mastery so you won't leave for another game, and then when you collect too many of them, everything in your gaming world collapses under the weight of complexity.

OGL games are cool, and they "get there from here" in terms of providing a dungeon experience for the complexity and time spent learning them. Savage Worlds is also cool and simple, and covers so many genres that it is worth learning because the payout in "fun for time" is very high. D&D 5 is interesting, but we haven't had the time or interest to put into it as much as I'd hoped, plus the OGL games do a good job at the dungeon and loot experience anyways so we haven't had much pressure to jump in.

In our group and for our time, Pathfinder, Shadowrun, and the new Star Wars RPG feel like the losers here. We don't have the time to put into and enjoy them as we would like, and something has to give. When you need to make choices, you typically start throwing the heavy systems overboard first (or you stick with one heavy system and throw out everything else). This isn't to say they aren't deep and fun games, it is just the complexity and time needed to put in to enjoy them fully is very high.

I will probably reorganize my shelves to reflect the new order, and focus on what is right for our group. This is also a consideration when you design a game, do you want it to be so complex that is pushes out other systems, or do you want it to be rules-light and easily accessible? I don't think many games nowadays can compete with the big heavy-hitters out there, so writing a large and complicated game will put you at a disadvantage of competing for attention of players and also being pushed off a shelf due to the heavy nature of your rules.

We do have a lot of large, complicated games sitting in boxes because we don't have the time or mental space to run them (Rifts, GURPS, and others). I feel bad about a couple more being on their way to storage, but really, what can we do? It is best to focus on the games you love, and the ones you have time for, rather than so many you are unhappy you don't have the time and mental effort to play them all.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Article: Interview with Greg Costikyan

Not to be missed, a guy who wrote the games I grew up with:

My favorite part of the interview:
Yes. Take risks. Don’t view roleplaying as an interaction with a rules set. Imagine yourself as your character. Improvise. Do what your character would do, not what min-max analysis of the situation tells you makes sense.
Great stuff from a true legend, check out the article!

Monday, June 20, 2016

The D&D Power Curve and The Avengers

One of the commonly held beliefs in the D&D sphere is that the game is the most fun in the 6th to 9th level range, and the enjoyment of the game drops off rapidly on the high end. Above 12th level, why play? The complexity and overpowered nature of high-level play puts off a lot of gamers, ourselves included, and it just feels like no edition of D&D could ever solve the problem of high-level play.

Hit points are in the hundreds, damage output is cranked up to the max, the party waits for the mage to cast that one spell that solves the adventure, encounters are near-impossible to balance, and the main source of fear in the game is insta-death traps and attacks. In a low-level game, there is still some play with the numbers, and there is still a sense of fight and fair play. At high levels, you worry about 'not losing all your work' like your high-level character is some spreadsheet you have been working on all day that never hit 'save' on.

Then why do these levels exist? To say "this game has high-level play?" What use are high levels in a game if they aren't any fun? To be fair, D&D 5 simplified the matrix of rules and options at high level (by reducing feat bloat and simplifying stat blocks), but we don't feel solved the problem of play above 12th level, and this problem goes back all the way to the days of the original D&D game for us in 1980.

You still are this character with hundreds of hit points, a massive MMO-like damage output, and "large numbers" but no real power. For us, for a high-level game we would rather be playing a game with superhero rules since that feels better, and a superhero system is designed to challenge and balance "mighty heroes" better than a D&D polyhedral system that is better scaled to handle characters under 10th level.
There is a point when a D&D character transforms into someone who belongs on The Avengers. At this point for us, D&D breaks in terms of being able to rate, resolve, and provide challenges to the character - and even more so, handle a group of superheroic characters.

A game that would handle The Avengers easily in terms of providing challenges, fights, and balanced superheroic play for a group of players works better for us. Playing a superheroic-fantasy style game with D&D with characters above 12th level is a slog for us and our group, where if we spin these characters up with most any superheroic rules set, it kinda works. It feels right. We can rate and handle fights and challenges better. There is balance again. We know how strong that fighter's shield is to various attacks. We know when the barbarian's fist can knock down a wall. We can rate the mage's powers and understand their power better.

Better yet, with a superheroic rules set, the dice range is designed to play with those characters better and we are not rolling ten or twenty dice for damage for every attack, every turn. We're not adding thirty to a d20 just to beat a forty. The target numbers and dice ranges are in check. The damage output is not some annoyingly-high number of polyhedral dice thrown on the table every turn. The game was designed around a high power level, and it works well handling both normal people and Thor and the crew.

D&D and also Pathfinder's high level games feel like texting using a flip-phone to us in this age of smartphones. They rely on scaling damage and well-worn game-breaking magic. They break the dicing system and number ranges we enjoy in the low-level game. They become tedious to use and apply to high-level groups. For us, these games start out good, get great, and then fall apart quickly past 9th level.

And the next table over the group playing an Avengers game with a superheroic RPG is whooping it up, knocking down evil foes, breaking through walls, and handling high-level play fast and easy. Their magic systems work and don't break the game. High-level foes are easy to create, and are fun to fight in a balanced and challenging way. And we are over here trying to piece together characters with dozens of very-specific feats, huge pools of damage dice, spells that solve the adventure anyway, and a system that is straining to provide a decent and definable challenge to the group.

It feels like we are trying to send a text message with a flip phone, and pressing the "2" on the keypad multiple times to cycle through the first four letters of the alphabet, the number two, and some punctuation marks.

For one freaking letter.

And they are over there with smartphones, texting away with next-generation on-screen keyboards, and having fun.

D&D's low level game is good, and its mid-level game is fun, but we have never found a version that plays as well as a superhero game does for us when characters get to a power level of "great power and great responsibility."

Monday, June 13, 2016

Kickstarter: Scarred Lands (and Savage Worlds)

I did some research once upon a time on "lost" d20 license settings, and managed to track down one of them that looked really cool: Scarred Lands. This was a fun non-D&D setting that played by the d20 rules, and I love those types of settings because players have no idea what to expect. In checking around for this setting, I found this:

Recently, the rights to the setting were purchased by a group of fans and creators, and now the setting is being re-released for both Pathfinder and D&D 5 rules. No Savage Worlds version is a bummer, since that is what I want to play this with, but I will wing it and make due with the two source-books I bought used (but are in great condition). If I go for a new book, it will be likely Pathfinder's version, since I am bought-in there, though the D&D 5 version looks to be more popular.

Is there hunger for a new D&D 5 setting? I could honestly see interest picking up here for something like this.

The book is supposed to ship in August of this year (2016), so hopefully we will see something soon here. Pre-order via Kickstarter and you will get all sorts of cool PDFs, but if you wait you will just have to settle with the new book. I am on the fence here, but the new book looks cool. I am wondering if it is cool enough to replace my original two books, so I am going back and forth about diving in.

Now, Ghelspad is the "main" setting, while an add-on book for a tropical continent called Termana exists, but I want to focus on the main land of Ghelspad and adventure there. Still, there is something about this setting that screams Savage Worlds to me, the mix of cultures, the unique peoples, and the pulp swords and sorcery feeling of the setting just does not feel like D&D or Pathfinder to me at all. With a "dungeony" type game, this will likely focus on dungeon-ing and that slow grind of character power advancement.

With a more pulp and action-oriented rules set, such as Savage Worlds, I am going to get more of what I want from this, the mix of cultures, roleplaying, searching lost temples, and a more Indiana Jones style feeling than other games could provide. The cultures in the two original books do this for me, they have these wonderful pen-and-ink drawings of all the various peoples of the world, and I can imagine a wondrous sort of "age of adventure" in a Victorian-era "lost Africa meets Conan" style of feeling to this world, and I want a game that does that sort of intrigue plus adventure well.

With a D&D or Pathfinder, I feel the old standbys of "I roll a dwarf and talk like a Scot" or "I roll an Elf and act like Legolas" come into play, and the game becomes "the race to increase character power" over "living in the world." Pathfinder (at this point and for us) is very hard to remove from its base setting, and D&D just feels like Grayhawk or Faerun to us. It is hard to remove those rules from those settings, even though they are generic, I feel they still come with a lot of baggage of how things work and how the races interact.

With a Savage Worlds rules version of this world, all those assumptions get thrown out the window. You can't "play it safe" and just focus on "character power" like you can in dungeon and class/level style games. Your motivation is the story and who you are in the world. There is a motivation for "character improvement" but this motivation is guided by the story (and performing better in it), not a rules set which exists on a separate level.

Skills matter. Character development is the direction in which you choose. You can be a "fighting diplomat" or "royal archaeologist" in Savage Worlds without having to choose between rogue or bard or fighter. Your character fits in better with the mix of cultures, and your motivation becomes "become a better diplomat" or "become a renowned archaeologist" without surrendering yourself to a class an XP chart that does not describe your motivation or role in this world. Because you are not forcing players into strictly defined class roles (and progression paths), your players' characters can be closer to the peoples and stories of the world.

Character power in a world like this is not just combat ability, it is how good you are interacting with the world and which skills you choose to do that with. While that can be combat ability itself, combat ability is not the entire game.

I like this world. The peoples, lands, and cultures of this world are its strong suite - even moreso than Faerun IMHO, and even moreso than Grayhawk or even Golarion. Golarion does come close to this, but this does not have that carefully partitioned and sterile "theme park" feeling I get from Pathfinder's campaign setting.

Ghelspad is a mix. It is a wonderful mess. It is not designed with the goal of keeping a Gothic horror area intact and separate for future adventure paths, it is a messy and sloppy historical feeling wonderful mix of cultures and kingdoms all fighting and/or living together in a messy, crazy world. Cultures paint over each other's histories and borders. Peoples and cultures are lost to the world here. Ancient civilizations lie underneath the new ones, undiscovered and unknown. Lands are being incursion-ed upon or invaded. Tribes don't get along. Grand plans of expansion are underway for some lands; and other kingdoms are old, decrepit, and rotting from the core.

Corruption exists. Injustice flies a banner over entire swaths of land here, and this is not the simply-drawn cartoon-injustice of a demon-run land, this is the personal and heartless nature of mankind itself. Man is his own worst demon, and this wickedness is drawn across this world with dark hearts and savagery. It is personal. It feels real. It truly is a lost gem of a setting.

I would have loved to run this as-is, as a throwback and interesting retro-3E setting re-imagined through the pulp lens of Savage Worlds, but I am happy that Pathfinder and D&D 5 players will get a chance to take a fresh look at this interesting place. I will still run this as I had imagined it, but I may just pick up one of the new books because this is a worthy group of creators to support - and a world worthy of adventuring in.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Announced: Starfinder

Check this out:

Pathfinder, in space? And a release date in 2017 at GenCon. From the article:
Next August, Paizo will be releasing the Starfinder Roleplaying Game—a new science fantasy RPG based on the Pathfinder universe and rules, but complete and standalone. It'll be backward compatible, so you can still use all those Pathfinder RPG bestiaries, but will feature all sorts of new classes, races, equipment, and other elements uniquely suited to our far-future setting.
Color me slightly interested. In a setting book. I would have loved for this to be done as a part of a Pathfinder 2.0 with a rules simplification, more modern social play aspects, and a multi-genre setting - but  it is being added on to what already exists. Which for us and our collection, is a whole lot, and while we know you don't have to play with anything else but Starfinder, I really, really don't think I would want to use the existing Pathfinder material with a game like this (even though that is a huge part of the appeal).

My problem is, there are a lot of other games out that we feel do sci-fi better than d20. Fantasy Flight's Star Wars RPG is excellent, we just picked up Savage Worlds' Space Compendium, there's Traveller, FATE, Star Frontiers, and a lot of other systems which feel like a better alternative to "d20 in Space."

Escalating hit points? The abstract AC system where powerful weapons need a huge plus to-hit (to get through tough/high-AC armor)? A skill system which rewards combat-focused builds over social and technical ones? These d20 mechanics have always had a tough  time converting over to sci-fi, at least for our group, and I am a little wary about this being anything more than a worldbook thing than something we actually play.

As an expansion for Golarion and Pathfinder adventures? I can see that. The strength of their existing world is what is going to be the draw here. Space monsters in bestiaries would be cool, as long as they are not borrowed too heavily from sci-fi movies and fiction out there (xenomorphs) and we get a bunch of cool new space baddies. More space societies, planets, dangerous places, and aliens done in the Paizo style? I am all for that.

The rules? Not so convinced, but then again, we shall see.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Savage Worlds: World of Warcraft, part 1

So, let's convert World of Warcraft to a Savage Worlds game. This is a tough challenge, because the players that would be interested in this type of a game will be conditioned by the rules, builds, classes, DPS rankings, gear, treasure, drops, and mechanics of the MMO. We will get to that later, but let's start this by gathering up our source material first. Our go-to book will be this:

As a background resource, this one looks like it will do the job. Of course, you are going to have a lot of players more familiar with the world and lore in various places, but this book will serve as your "tentpole" reference book for the world and its places. You can go two ways from here, what's in the game is lore, or what's in the book is lore. If you go with the game, you will be tying yourself to the MMO very tightly, and your game may suffer as a result with constant comparisons of "that is not in the game" or "the game does it differently."

If you start at the book, you may be a little better off, because you can start here and make up the rest. I am not a big fan of tying things too closely to the game, because the MMO is still just a videogame, and the scale of the in-game map is all off compared to a real world. If you stuck to the game, most of the continents would measure eighty square miles, or an area of land about nine miles by nine miles - something that could fit into an average town or city on real-world Earth easily. A real World of Warcraft is going to be much larger, the map will "fractal out" and have many more interesting locations, and you will have many more places to explore and adventure.

The cities will become larger, easily filling the same size as the entire MMO world - just for one city. Think of that. Stormwind will be a massive city, surrounding area with smaller holds and fiefdoms, and garrisons and holds far beyond that. You will need to think big for each of the faction's capitals, and expand the land considerably. You can still keep the same "directionality" to your maps, Stormwind would spill out southwards from the mountains, and touch the coast to the north, but things will get much larger, and much more spread out.

In addition to bigger, you are going to go much smaller. There will be thousands of square miles of new places to explore, along with many new areas of unexplored wilderness and savage, wild lands stuck in supposedly "settled" lands. You can invent towns, villages, and forts as you wish, keeping the in-game places as the tentpoles, but having the freedom to fill in thousands of miles of new places, both big and small, to fill out your world. Unexplored areas will be your biggest addition, even in a seemingly "simple" place like Elwynn Forest you are going to have thousands of square miles of unexplored wilderness, places to go, and lost ruins to explore.

What will make your game different is the scale and unexplored places angle to your creation. You will literally be trying to create a world from this material, and fill in the blanks that a videogame adaptation of a "real" place cannot cover. Be prepared to make a lot of maps as your world grows and fills in places from the imagination of you and your players. Use the game locations as tentpoles, and you are free to fill in the rest - as long as it doesn't overshadow what players are used to, it won't matter. You don't want to create a kingdom larger and more powerful than Stormwind, but there is more than enough room for imagined places less important and smaller that could be just as interesting and memorable.

Could there be two smaller kingdoms within Stormwind's sphere of influence that constantly compete and fight? I am sure there could be room for that, and you could base an entire area around that mini-story within the Warcraft world, and inside of Stormwind's lands. If you side one with the Defias Bandits, and the other with a dark warlock faction, you could tie these new places back to existing factions and make them seem more "at home" in the world. Now you have a story framework, some new locations and characters, and a place other than Stormwind to adventure in.

It's like if a game maker crated a "Colonial USA" MMO, and put "Colonial Boston" right down the road and coast from "Colonial New York" - and skipped everything in-between because "it wasn't important" or "it would make the world too big." There's no Connecticut, Rhode Island, Hudson River, or southern Massachusetts - just a road with maybe a couple farms and hills, and a river or two. Out at sea, even more is removed, with no Long Island, Nantucket, Boston Harbor, or Cape Cod. While all the architecture and trappings of the land look great and feel like the time, a lot is missing from the real world that should be there for an authentic experience.
Your job will be creating that "authentic experience" for this world.

Remind your players "the real world is much larger" and your game will focus will be exploring these places - old and new. You will likely be putting down new towns and adventure locations everywhere in the world, like new swamp towns and ruins in the Wetlands, and you will use that similar "world building" process everywhere you go. It will be hard to NOT fall back on the MMO, so when you travel to a new area, you may want to pause and fill in a couple new places and get your scale right. You don't want to create a wonderful new and massive Stormwind area, travel to Darnassus, and have that new location be the same, small, MMO scale because you didn't have the time to think about this new part of the world.
You can base these places on lore, which the above book provides generously should you decide to go there. I personally would save this sort of lore for later, but the Dark Horse book is good because it gives your game a sense of history and background drama. It also prepares you for the "current" lore a bit better than an MMO resource, and sets your mind up better with a sense of place and history.

Again, you are not playing a "World of Warcraft MMO simulator" you are playing a Savage Worlds game based upon this as source material. We will get to items, gear, classes, and suggestions on how to run all this within the rules framework next time, because I wanted to focus on how I would setup the world and the sense of scale this time.