Friday, February 27, 2009

Fantasy: Aspects Redux

Ah, aspects -- the very best part of SotC! These days, people are adding aspects to their non-SotC games like it was bacon. Andy used them in a D&D 3.5 Ptolus game a while ago, we used them in an M&M noir/superhero game back in 2007, and etc. Coming up with them is fun, but it pretty much ends in character creation, barring maneuvers and declarations. So I wanted a way to make character aspects even more interesting and interactive in-game. This has gotten a bit of a playtest, at OrcCon, and once the players got used to the idea they took to it like a cheeseburger to bacon. (I have a thing for bacon tonight, apparently.) Anyway, let's get to it.

Character aspects come in two varieties: permanent aspects and story aspects.

Permanent Aspects
Every character begins with five aspects, one per phase. These are your permanent aspects. If you have an aspect of "Wild Jungle Elf," then you can pretty much count on always being a wild jungle elf for as long as you're around. They're the constant core of your character, and can only be changed at significant points in his life. Those changes have to make sense, though -- it may be plausible to alter the "Wild" bit someday, but it'll take something truly extraordinary, verging on the impossible, to mess with the "Jungle Elf" bit. More on this below.

Story Aspects
Every character begins with two empty slots for story aspects to be filled in as play progresses. These are the more ephemeral, story-specific qualities of your character that you determine (or discover) on the fly. They can (and should be) things that are relevant in the moment or to the story, but may not be later, either because there's an in-character reason for it (e.g., if you give yourself an aspect of "Protective of Jimmy" because you've grown fond of a particular NPC who isn't likely to be involved in the next story arc) or because you just decide you want to go in another direction. Maybe you realize that have a "Burning Hatred of Mountain Dwarves" in a plot that involves mountain dwarves, or maybe your trusty sword is no mere sword, but is instead the "Sword of My Forefathers." It's up to you.

When the story arc is complete, a couple things happen with your story aspects. First of all, erase them -- or you can choose to erase all but one instead. If so, the one you keep becomes a permanent aspect. This is appropriate if you've really decided on or discovered something significant about your character. Mark this aspect with a star on your character sheet so you know not to erase it in the future. Second, you receive an additional empty story aspect slot (so you'll have two total story aspects in your first story arc, three in your second, and so on). This represents your character's increased experience, commitment, and adaptability over time, and gives you the chance to make changes in his personality mechanically significant and immediately apparent.

Your total combined number of permanent aspects and story aspect slots can't exceed 10. In other words, once you've received your fifth story aspect slot, regardless of how many prior story aspects have been converted into permanent aspects, you don't receive any more.

Converting story aspects into permanent aspects can also result in receiving additional boons. At your sixth, eighth, and tenth permanent aspects (in other words, the first, third, and fifth times you convert a story aspect to a permanent aspect), pick an additional boon appropriate to the aspect.

Let's take renowned actor, playwright, and secret agent Paskal Salaberri. Like every other starting character, he has five permanent aspects and two empty story aspect slots.

Permanent Aspects:
  • “What is the world, if not a stage?”
  • “A thousand faces, and none of them mine.”
  • Danger at Every Turn
  • On His Holiness’s Secret Service
  • A Friend in Every Audience
Story Aspects:
  • [blank]
  • [blank]
Through the course of play, the party ends up in far-off Brightmar. Paskal's player decides that the character is well-connected no matter where he goes, and has a contact in this foreign town who can get him information. He makes this contact a story aspect, like so:

Story Aspects:
  • Rinaldo the Informant
  • [blank]
Later, Paskal's in a tight spot, combat-wise, and needs an additional boost. Paskal's player declares that his years treading the boards have necessarily resulted in some extensive training in stage fencing. Sure, it's not life-or-death fencing, but still -- it should count. He makes this training a story aspect:

Story Aspects:
  • Rinaldo the Informant
  • Stage Fencer Extraordinaire
At the end of the story arc, Paskal receives an additional empty story aspect slot, and the player has the option of erasing one or both of the existing story aspects. He figures he won't be hanging out in Brightmar with Rinaldo all that often, but being able to fight seems like the sort of thing that will always come up, so he decides he'll keep that one. Now his story aspects look like this:

Story Aspects:
  • [blank]
  • Stage Fencer Extraordinaire*
  • [blank]
This being Paskal's sixth permanent aspect, he gets another boon. The player goes with Focus: +1 Melee with swords.

Giving Story Aspects to Other Characters
Players can also assign story aspects to characters other than their own, if everyone involved is willing. To do this, offer the other player a Fate Point and declare what the story aspect is. If the other player accepts, he writes it into an empty slot and takes your Fate Point. If he refuses, he doesn't write anything and you keep your Fate Point.
  • Why pay the Fate Point? You're dictating something about someone else's character -- it's essentially a small measure of narrative control, and it'll cost you. Why doesn't the other player have to pay you a Fate Point to refuse, like he would with a compel? Well, it's not a compel, for one thing, and for another, if that were the case you'd go around trying to stick everyone else with your wacky story aspects ("Hey, I'll pay you a Fate Point if you're 'Unusually Sensitive to Colors'!") with the expectation that they'd have to refuse just so you could retire on a pile of Fate Points. So no, we're not having that.
  • Why would anyone accept -- or why wouldn't they? Maybe they need the Fate Point right now and are willing to give up a story aspect to get it. Keep in mind that if someone else wants to dictate one of your story aspects, they're probably doing it with their own interests in mind. If you accept, expect to end up protective of their character, or supportive of their character's goals, and so on. If you're fine with that, then take the Fate Point and the aspect. It would be a little ludicrous, or at least a waste of a Fate Point, to dictate a story aspect that the other player would like anyway.
Changing Permanent Aspects
Apart from first-session fiddling -- that is, players realizing that one or more of the aspects they came up with really don't reflect what they had in mind, which is definitely grounds for alteration -- the only way permanent aspects can change is through a Severe consequence.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Fantasy: Phases Redux

Here's a look at how we're handling what's arguably the most important part of character creation -- phases -- in the "SotS" game we're starting next month.

In SotC RAW, as you probably know, character creation happens in five phases: Background, The Great War, Your Novel, and two "guest-starring" roles in two other characters' novels. That works well for a game built around human characters all born on the same day and adventuring in the pulp era, but taken out of the 20th-century context I think it can feel a little forced.

For one thing, putting it in a different time necessitates coming up with another "Great War" to fill that second phase, which can come off as arbitrary unless you're working with a specific timeline and setting. Second, while the idea of "starring" in "novels" is absolutely perfect for pulp, with the fantasy genre it rubs me the wrong way. There's a deeper layer of metagaming going on when you talk about your character having starred in a novel, and the implication that he or she is merely a protagonist in a book instead of a living, breathing person. Third, if you're taking out the idea of a novel for the third phase, then the fourth and fifth phases have to be revamped, as well, just to be consistent. Fourth, when I think about all the things that would be important to a character, following a fairly strict chronology seems overly restrictive.

Instead, we'll use conceptual phases. This is hardly my invention; I've seen this, or a variation of it, as a house rule here and there, and I like it so much it's going in.

The possible phases, then, are Origins, Profession, Goals, People, Beliefs, Possessions, and Adventure. Pick five in any combination. It's possible to take one more than once, if you really want to emphasize some portion of your character that much more. It doesn’t have a mechanical effect, the way it would in FATE 2.0, but it helps to focus your character.

Origins: Where are you from? What's your race and/or culture? How were you raised, and with what values?

Profession: Do you (or did you) have a "day job"? What trade(s) do you know, and where did you learn it/them? Are you a mercenary? A pickpocket? A sorcerer's apprentice (or the sorcerer himself)? A Jack-of-all-trades?

Goals: What do you hope to accomplish in life? Where do you see yourself going? Do you want to rid the world of evil, or merely rule it? This can be as specific or as general as you'd like.

People: Who are the important people in your life, if any? Friends, enemies, superiors, lackeys, secret admirers, the secretly admired... who and where are they?

Beliefs: Does your character have any important beliefs that drive him as a person? Note that they don't actually have to be true.

Possessions: Does your character own something that helps define who he is? Or maybe he used to own something like this, but lost it -- and wants to get it back.

Adventure: Briefly recount an adventure you've already had. Did you ransack some ancient ruins? Escape from the city guard with a purloined loaf of bread? Conduct a magical experiment gone awry? Engage in a public debate? It doesn't have to be life-threatening, but it does have to be exciting.

Instead of waiting for the final two phases to establish connections, players are encouraged to cross-pollinate with other players at any time. All phases are game for this. For example, two characters raised in the same village could appear in one another's Origins phase; if they've remained life-long friends (or enemies) and helped defend their village from a bandit raid, they might also appear in each other's People and Adventure phases. Or, given the propensity for PCs in fantasy games to start out as total strangers, they might not cross-pollinate at all.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Fantasy: Boons

Those character sheets I posted for the "Spirit of the Sword" game I ran at OrcCon generated a little confusion. Specifically, the question "What are boons?" was asked. So... here's an answer.

Boons (I'm not crazy about the name, but that's another issue) are my attempt to include something like stunts without actually including stunts. My only real problem with the fix I came up with before is that it's a little flavorless -- it's missing the cool names stunts have, like "Unsafe at Any Speed" or "Master of Disguise" or "Right Place, Right Time." But then I realized that the character sheet already has something like "cool names," in the form of aspects. So if PCs in "SotS" get one aspect per phase, and one boon per aspect, boons should have the same feel as stunts, but even more personalized to the character.

The process goes from phase to aspect to boon, each determining the next. In a sense, the same way that the aspect is the distillation of the phase, the boon is the distillation of the aspect -- or a concise, mechanical reflection of the phase.

Anyway, enough philosophy. Here's the current writeup on boons.

Boons are those qualities about your character which put him or her above the common crowd. They provide guaranteed situational benefits, special abilities, and can sometimes let you bend the rules in specific ways.

Boons fall into nine general categories:
  • Focus: +1 [skill] with ____ -- Fill in the blank with a broad-category use of the skill (+1 Melee with axes, +1 Art with music, +1 Athletics with climbing, etc.). No two Focus boons can modify the same skill (e.g., no matter how many times you take +1 Melee with axes, you'll only benefit from the first one). The Focus boon should reflect how you see the character when you picture her in your mind. If you were to paint a portrait of her, what would she be doing? Is she swinging an axe? Is she performing on stage? Is she crouched in the shadows?
  • Specialty: +2 [skill] with maneuvers or +2 [skill] with assessments/declarations -- This is pretty self-explanatory: a bonus to maneuvers or assessments/declarations with a particular skill. There's a list of maneuvers in the SotC SRD, but this applies to any use of the skill in question to put an aspect on someone else. From the SRD:
If the target is another character, the maneuvering character and the target make opposed rolls, using whatever skills the GM deems appropriate. Success is usually achieved if the maneuvering character generates at least one shift. A successful maneuver may add a temporary aspect to the targeted character; the target can either accept the temporary aspect, or spend a fate point to avoid accepting it. An aspect that results from a maneuver is temporary and does not last very long ... The temporary aspect may then be tagged for a bonus on a subsequent roll. The first tag usually doesn’t cost the tagging player a fate point, but subsequent tags usually do ... If a character is simply trying to increase the difficulty of another target’s action, this is considered a block action, and should be resolved as such....
  • Substitution: Use [skill] instead of [skill] when ____ -- Fill in the blank with a verb reflecting a specific condition or circumstance (Use Melee instead of Intimidation when fighting, Use Art instead of Rapport when dealing with other musicians, Use Athletics instead of Melee when attacking from surprise, etc.). In terms of the role it serves in fleshing out your character, Substitution is usually comparable to Focus, but with a different mechanical effect.
  • Ease: Ignore penalty to [skill] for ____ -- Fill in the blank with a specific, static penalty in the SotC SRD (Ignore penalty to Melee for using improvised weapons, Ignore penalty to Art for a distracted audience, Ignore penalty to Athletics for climbing a slippery surface, etc.). The "penalty" may actually be removing an increased difficulty to a static task, but whatever. It's the same basic idea.
  • Item: The character has some sort of special possession, along the lines of Weapon of Destiny, Personal Gadget, Prototype Car, etc. The item has three improvements that only apply when using or wearing the item in its intended manner -- generally bonuses to one or more skills. If two bonuses are applied to the same skill, or to the same use of one skill (if applicable -- e.g., +2 to attacks with Melee), then instead of a third improvement, the GM picks an aspect, preferably something detrimental (e.g., Slow, Unwieldy, Two-Handed, Dark Oaths, Glows Brightly When Activated, etc.), as the third "improvement." The improvements allowed are as follows:
    • +1 to a noncombat skill
    • +1 to attacks with a combat skill (Melee or Missile)
    • +1 to defense with Melee or Athletics
    • Use one noncombat skill instead of another noncombat skill in specific circumstances
    • Use one combat or noncombat skill in place of a combat skill (This is the improvement that lets you use a melee weapon at range or a missile weapon in melee, such a throwing a dagger or fighting hand-to-hand with a bow.)
    • An aspect
  • Companion: In general, I don't see this one as being all that applicable, with the exception of animal companions -- so we'll throw it in, using the revised companion rules from "Spirit of the Season" as a base. Animal companions start with four advances. Taking this boon more than once can add more advances to the same companion, though at diminishing returns. Taking it twice for the same companion nets you another three advances, taking it three times another two, and taking it a fourth time yields but one additional advance.
    • Quality: Every tier of skill quality costs an advance. Basically, you get one skill in each tier you pay for, up to Good. For example, if you spent three advances on your companion's Quality, you'd have an Average skill, a Fair skill, and a Good skill. Your companion can take a number of consequences equal to its Quality, as well, one per degree of severity: one Minor at Average, one Minor and one Moderate at Fair, and one Minor, one Moderate, and one Severe at Good. As long as your your companion is attached to you, its skills complement your own. Another example: If you had Average Melee and Good Athletics and your companion were a Fair-quality wolf with Average Athletics and Fair Melee, when your wolf's attached to you you get a +1 bonus to Melee from your wolf (because its Melee is superior to your own) but no bonus to Athletics (because its Athletics isn't).
    • Quantity: By default, you have one companion. With this advance, you have more than that: another one or two if you take this advance once, and up to three more if you take it a second time. However, your companions' maximum Quality is reduced by one each time you take this (Fair if you take it once, Average if you take it twice).
    • Independent: Normally, your companion can't act on its own without the expenditure of a Fate Point. With this advance, you don't have to pay the Fate Point.
    • Breadth: Expand the companion's skill pyramid by one degree, up to a max of two skills at its apex. For example, if your wolf companion's Quality is Fair, taking Breadth once gets it another Average skill, and taking it twice gives it a third Average skill and a second Fair skill. It can't get a Good skill, though, without another advance spent on Quality.
    • Communication: You can communicate with your animal pal somehow or other. Maybe you can growl its language, or it understands yours, or you just have some kind of empathic link.
  • Unusual: Spend a Fate Point to do something special not otherwise covered by the above three options (e.g., Enemies denied gang-up bonus when you're armed, Use Art in place of any social skill when dealing with other musicians, Ignore all penalties when climbing, etc.), as long as it's cool with the GM. Basically, take every stunt in the SotC SRD that requires a Fate Point expenditure and put it in this category.
  • Heritage: A collection of three very specialized benefits derived from your racial or cultural descent, and are most appropriate for characters who exemplify their race or culture. These are things like +1 Craft to stonemasonry for a dwarf, +1 Rapport when haggling for a city-dwelling sort, and so on. For balance purposes, they should not give bonuses to anything combat-related.
  • Magic: The gateways of magical ability. The four types of magic are Alchemy, Artifice, Incantation, and Summoning; the fifth type, Necromancy, is the purview of evil, and its practitioners are so hidden in shadows that many don't even realize they exist. Each different type of magic requires its own boon to learn. Thus, if you wanted to be both an alchemist and a summoner, you'd need Magic: Alchemy and Magic: Summoning.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

OrcCon 2009 Aftermath

This year's OrcCon was pretty awesome by nearly any metric. My playtests went really well, plus I got to play in Andy's Clone Wars game (I'm such a sucker for the Clone Wars these days), try out the faux-retro Mazes & Minotaurs (which was fun, but had the effect of making me want to play Agon instead), and do a little con-specific shopping. On the downside, there was a shocking trend of players (and even a couple GMs!) not showing up for games. The most egregious and surprising example of this was my friend Chris's Mouse Guard game, Sunday morning. He had five people sign up for it within an hour of its start time, but only one showed up -- and that guy was one of the friends we'd gone there with. So that was disappointing.

But, as I said, both "Spirit of the Fist" and "Spirit of the Sword" went well. Based on the playtests, it looks like we're getting down to some real fine-tuning now, almost entirely on "SotS."

The mass-combat thing was met with some skepticism, but worked smoothly -- and, more importantly, was fun, despite lasting about two hours. There were some logistical elements that could've been better, but they were really circumstantial. It wasn't always easy for everyone to find their own individual units on the battlefield, especially when a bunch of them were clustered in a single zone. For zones, we used a bunch of 10" hexes I'd cut out of foamboard, which the players then got to place individually to make up the battlefield themselves. The units were represented by index cards that doubled as their "character sheets." This in and of itself wasn't really a problem, but with everyone standing all around the table, the cards were facing every which way, making them more difficult to read. Color coding them would've gone a long way towards solving this, but, like I said on the day, it was enough work to cut out a dozen hexes and print labels for a few dozen units. Anyway, as far as I'm concerned all that logistical stuff was far less important than how the system performed, and it performed well. And when it came time to shift from the wargame table back to the RPG table, the players came up with some good aspects for the Adventure phase (which, in this case, was the battle we'd all just fought), and had no trouble giving themselves some good story aspects as we went (a favorite, off the top of my head: My Brother Is An Idiot).

For those who are interested, the scenario was this: The PCs represented an alliance of Kurglaff (human barbarian-types in the mold of Vikings, Celts, and Cimmerians -- mostly Cimmerians) and satyrs (more or less analogous to Native Americans) against a huge army of jerk-head dwarves. Their goal was to fight their way through a bunch of dwarven troops and capture General Kalmettin, to be ransomed back to the dwarves in exchange for the freedom of a bunch of Kurglaff that the dwarves had abducted and enslaved.

This conflict was the justification for the mass-combat bit. Each player commanded two units, and two PCs had lieutenants under them as well. I'm not an especially tactical thinker, even if I enjoy tactical games, so it was no surprise to me that the players dominated. It took all I had to get rid of just two of their units (and unfortunately, both of them belonged to the same player), while they had obliterated all but three of mine. Play proceeded pretty quickly around the table. I could see people considering the battlefield even when it wasn't their turn, which was exactly what I wanted. They made good use of the zones' aspects, too. One player, Elizabeth, gave one zone the aspect of "Lake," then I gave it "Lake Monster," then she later used that against me, invoking it for effect to prevent my troops in that zone from moving. They were too busy dealing with the lake monster to advance!

When my dwarves were just about wiped out, the sought-after general's war machine crashed through a sinkhole and fell into a deep shaft in the earth. That's when we exited mass combat and zoomed into the PCs as individuals instead of commanders. They descended into the sinkhold and into a huge cavern, where they got a closer look at the war machine, which had been smashed into inoperation by the fall. Several dwarves had apparently suffered the same fate, but most had escaped via one of the large tunnels that led out of the cavern. Dwarven boot-tracks led away from the machine and into one of the tunnels, and at its entrance was another dwarf corpse. Upon inspection, it became clear that this one had been killed not by the fall, but by a blade of some kind. Thanks to an Epic Survival effort, Torin the barbarian woodsman was able to identify some unusual tracks in the soft earth as belonging to an insect of some kind -- specifically, a giant one, seven or eight feet tall.

Here I had the PCs make Resolve rolls to resist the psychic influence of an unknown subterranean horror. I'd intended to have the two lowest rollers fall victim to it, but when we had a tie for #2, I thought "What the hell?" and took all three. Each of these three consequently gained a secret aspect -- "Possessed by the Blob" -- that I didn't reveal to the players. Instead, I just told them that they had a secret aspect, and offered each a Fate Point. "I'm compelling your secret aspect to walk down this tunnel and into the darkness." The idea was that they'd been taken over by something, but didn't know what that something was. They all accepted the compel, and soon disappeared into the pitch-black tunnel. But the darkness didn't bother them, and they moved as if they knew exactly where to go. Voices whispered to some unknown part of their minds in words they couldn't understand, yet found easy to obey.

The others, startled by the suddenness of their departure, reacted in two ways: two rushed in after them and were soon unable to see a thing -- a problem which didn't seem to bother the other three -- while one had the presence of mind to light a torch. When she caught up to the first two, by the light of the torch Leaf-Crossing-River, arrogant satyr hero, was able to find the tracks of his missing companions, plus those of a number of dwarves and the trail of the insect-things Torin had identified earlier.

On the heels of this discovery, the three pursuers encountered one of the things face-to-face. They could just make out its form at the edge of the torch's radiance: a huge creature, some seven feet tall, vaguely resembling a praying mantis, with compound eyes that glowed a pale green. Rain-Splitting-Rock used her Incantation magic to put a "Charmed" aspect on it, which the player then invoked for effect to have it stand aside and let them pass. A non-violent solution!

Meanwhile, up ahead, the three entranced PCs came up against some glowing eyes of their own in the dark. They called for another round of Resolve rolls, which I was happy to give them. Faced with this new development, Torin and Thunder-Over-Mountains fought off the alien influence and were startled to find themselves in the total darkness of an underground passageway, with only a few pairs of glowing green eyes for visible company. Colmac First-Born, wielder of a demondbound sword called the Prison of Vurlon, wasn't so resolute. When an unseen hand took his in the darkness, he followed it willingly, leaving the other two -- who could now see for the first time that Colmac's eyes glowed a pale green -- to deal with a now-hostile insect-thing. Though he couldn't see anything but its eyes, Thunder-Over-Mountains, the bighorn satyr, immediately rushed forward and delivered a carapace-cracking headbutt, while Torin's arrow struck home between the thing's glowing (and easily targeted, apparently) eyes. Another arrow flew out of the darkness behind them and finished the beast off -- and a moment later, Leaf-Crossing-River, Rain-Splitting-Rock, and Queen Molmoria, mother of Colmac and Torin, arrived, bringing with them torchlight and visibility.

By this time, Colmac was long gone, being led by his unseen companion further underground. Eventually, he came into another huge cavern, this one full of pairs of glowing green eyes -- hundreds, in fact. Most clearly belonged to more of the insect creatures, but around 25 were much lower to the ground: the dwarves who'd fallen during the battle, including, one could surmise, Kalmettin. Behind this mass of insects and dwarves, dimly backlighting them all with its own sickly green glow, was an enormous, amorphous being of some kind, pseudopods waving languidly in the stale air. The whispered voices in Colmac's head were now much louder, though no easier to comprehend, and the shocking sights in the cavern both startled him back to awareness (a succcessful Resolve roll to shake off the thing's influence) and unnerved him (a failed Resolve roll -- call it a SAN check -- leaving him with the mental consequence of "Unnerved"). "Torin, my brother," he called out, "don't listen to the voices!" He turned to run... and the mass of bugs and dwarves surged forward as one in pursuit.

Back the way he'd come, the other five heard his faint, panicked cries. "My brother is an idiot," sighed Torin, while Thunder-Over-Mountains bolted off to save him (with, I believe, something around a Legendary Athletics effort -- he spent some Will on that, I think, plus he had the help of his eagle companion, whose bonus to his Athletics effort was rationalized as the raptor being able to guide his master by following the human's scent trail). Colmac turned a corner just as Thunder-Over-Mountains did, and the two collided in the darkness. Thunder-Over-Mountains looked up to see the the steady advance of eyes (both short and tall) advancing down the tunnel.

"Is the general we're after in there?" asked one player, then another (Tom Cummings, showing his familiarity with the system) answered that question with a Fate Point: "Yes, he's in the front." Thunder-Over-Mountains leaped into the fray, cutting down minions in an attempt to give the others a chance to extract Kalmettin and get away. Colmac felt the bloodlust of Vurlon come upon him -- i.e., I compelled one of his sword's demonbound aspects, taking away a Doom Point -- and charged into battle against all sense and reason. Torin and Leaf-Crossing-River assisted at range, while Rain-Splitting-Rock sang a song of confusion that gave Molmoria the opportunity she needed to pull Kalmettin from the crowd.

After that, it was basically a race down the tunnels to the sinkhole to escape with their prize. At the last moment, though, Colmac was unable to resist Vurlon's thirst for death, and threw Kalmettin (who'd been hobbled with a well-placed arrow through his ankles -- ouch!) to the ground, raised his sword, and shouted "Vurlon must feast!" Molmoria threw herself atop Kalmettin to dissuade him, to no avail. Just as he brought the sword down, an arrow from Torin's bow struck the greatsword, sending it flying from his hands to bounce off the defunct war machine and stick into the ground at the entrance of the tunnel they'd just come from (he won the Disarm by a margin of 5, so... that was the justification for Colmac being at a -5 to retrieve it). "Leave it!" commanded Molmoria, sick to death of the damn sword already, but Colmac assured her he could handle it. "That's what your father said...," she mused. The barbarian prince snatched up the ancestral sword mere moments before a hundred insect-things poured into the cavern. The PCs barely made it back up the shaft to the surface -- a successful mission!

Whew! That was pretty long, but it was a lot of fun and I wanted to write about it. One thing I really liked about the group was that only one of them was from the San Diego group (Chris, who played Colmac). Oftentimes, when I run these games, half or more of the players are made up of people I already know and game with on a regular basis, which kinda skews the experience a bit. Generally speaking, I want to playtest with strangers, both to me and to the system, to get as "clean" a test as possible. In this case (and in the "SotF" game) I had three who were familiar with the system and three who weren't, but everyone was able to grok how it worked just fine. And Tom said it was -- and I quote -- "a lot of fun," which is a pretty big endorsement in my book.

Chris had some good feedback about both the mass-combat bit and how I'd handled weapons. James Ritter, who played Rain-Splitting-Rock, the priestess/magic-user, wanted to use Incantation magic in the mass combat, but I hadn't worked that out just yet so I had to deny him. Right now there's a very definite split between player characters/leaders and units -- leaders fight leaders, and units fight units, but there's no crossover. However, there really should be a way for magic to have an effect on units on the battlefield, so I'll have to figure something out. It may just be as simple as rolling Art against a difficult of 3 + the unit's Spirit to put an aspect on them.

At any rate, I'm looking forward to the "SotS" campaign we're starting next month in San Diego. We'd intended to make characters at OrcCon, but... there was just no way.

(P.S.: "Spirit of the Fist" may not have gotten a write-up like this one, but it went well, too!)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Fantasy: Talk of Updated Rules. Also, Rambling About Consequences.

In a quickie attempt to meet the stampeding demand for rules updates, which I honestly didn't realize existed until today, here's... something. On the whole, the stunts-ectomy greatly simplifies things. I would kick myself for all that time I spent poring over the stunts chapter of SotC and making minor adjustments, but the truth is that there really isn't anything wrong with that approach. Sticking closer to the SotC RAW is still totally valid, so if you're into that, go to it.

Me, I'm going a different way. Right now that way is called "Boons," but I don't know if I'll stick with that. It's basically replacing stunts with this, with the change of limiting the +2 narrow-specialty bonus to maneuvers only. Otherwise, I've recently experienced, it's just too open to abuse -- the drawback of only getting that +2 with, say, your father's sword is not commensurate with the benefit, and creates an artificial situation where the GM will constantly be forced to try to steal said sword to make the drawback worth it. In FATE, a +2 is too huge to just give away so carelessly. However, I love me some aspects, and I love maneuvers because they create more aspects in an interesting fashion, so limiting that +2 to maneuvers will hopefully encourage the use of them. That, or it'll discourage people from taking the +2 boon in the first place. Either way, I'm happier with the result.

Anyway, for this weekend at OrcCon, I'm going the route of higher Endurance/Resolve allowing the character to take more consequences: +1 Minor at Good, or +2 Minor and +1 Moderate at Great, all of the appropriate type (physical or mental). One of the PCs, Rain-Splitting-Rock, has Great (+4) Resolve and Good (+3) Endurance, and can take as many consequences as a character could possibly withstand under these rules (three more mental consequences, one more physical consequence). I'm doing something similar in "Spirit of the Fist" -- the big consequence-withstander in that group of PCs has Great (+4) Spirit, allowing her to take a total of three Minors and two Moderates (Endurance and Resolve are combined in "SotF" as a different skill -- Spirit).

Here's my it's-not-hit-points rationale for this: I see a character's skills in FATE as an indication of how he'll solve problems. It's not necessarily a literal indication of how good or bad the character is with a given skill, though. For example, if you're playing a silver-tongued swordsman of some repute, you can have Average (+1) Melee and be no less of a swordsman -- but if you have Great (+4) Rapport and Good (+3) Status, you'll solve most of your problems through talking or weight-throwing-around than through violence. And if you have an aspect or two that can relate to your skill with a blade, you can still perform in combat when it counts. Your apex skill says to the GM "Here's what I want this guy to be about," regardless of his backstory.

So then. Endurance and Resolve are both passive skills. Endurance is almost never rolled, and Resolve is almost always rolled in response to someone's else's action. If you put either of these skills at the apex of your skill pyramid, you'll succeed more through perserverance and toughness than through offense, generally speaking. For this to make game-mechanical sense, or at least have a game-mechanical payoff, the character has to be able to withstand abuse. Since stress tracks are gone, the only way to do that is through consequences. I usually have a hard time expressing what I see as the difference between consequences-as-hit-points and consequences-as-narrative-protection, but... well, I do see a difference between the two. One is the literal ability to withstand damage, whereas the other is narrative stick-to-it-iveness.

Let's take the aforementioned Qing Pei-Pei. She's not the "toughest" character, strictly speaking -- not the strongest, or the best fighter. If you're looking for a combat monster, she ain't it. But she's stubborn and headstrong (and maybe lucky) enough to keep going somehow, no matter what's thrown at her. Having Great (+4) Spirit and Fair (+2) Weapons tells the GM, "Go ahead, put me in over my head -- I can take it!"

Does that make sense? Or is it so friggin' obvious that there was no point posting it?

Monday, February 9, 2009

OrcCon 2009, Mass Combat, etc.

So I've been derelict in my duties as of late, at least publicly. Behind the scenes, I've been sweating over the two games I'm running at OrcCon (and which I've utterly failed to pimp here). This has included revamping "SotS" pretty severely, to the extent that at least four or five posts I've made on it are now pretty irrelevant to its current iteration, ripping out the spine of "Spirit of the Fist" and putting it back in again, and playtesting the mass-combat system for the first time (very elucidating -- and, more importantly, fun).

Like I said, I've pretty much neglected to post anything about the "SotF" (Saturday at 3:00!) and "SotS" (Sunday at 3:00!) games I'm running, and I've also been slow to follow up on my first post about the mass combat system, but I think I can kill two birds with one stone here.

Here are revised character sheets for the two characters -- Silver Crane and Shining Yu Shu -- I mentioned last month. If you want to read more about the mechanics behind what's going on there, I invite you to check out my "Spirit of the Fist" site. Saturday will be the first playtest of these revised rules, but I'm expecting good things. That first "SotF" playtest was fun, but it wasn't nearly as dynamic as I would've liked. These changes should go a long way towards fixing that (fingers crossed).

And here's a one-page cheat-sheet on the mass combat rules I slapped together for my "Spirit of the Sword" players. I'm pretty pleased with how stripped down the whole thing is. I just hope they (and you) feel similarly.

Oh, what the Hell -- as long as I'm linking to stuff, here are a couple character sheets for Sunday's one-shot. Namely, they're a couple of Kurglaff barbarian-types from the Denbecan clan: Molmoria, the clan's warrior-queen, and Torin, her punier-than-his-older-brother son. For those of you who've been following along at home, a quick look at those sheets should reveal some pretty significant divergences from "SotS" as it's been presented here.

One last note: That "Spirit of the West" one-shot I ran a couple weeks ago didn't go that well. I mean, the players said they had fun, but I didn't feel I presented them with any significant challenges, and I missed a number of opportunities to just make things more interesting. Basically, I let them walk roughshod over the opposition, and it ended up being not especially rewarding as a result. To me, whether or not a FATE game is fun hinges largely on how threatened the PCs are, and these PCs were not threatened at all. Letting one of them run around with an effective Fantastic Guns skill that he could use to both attack and defend was only the most obvious of the poor decisions I made. But anyway. The scenario's still a viable one -- so much so that my good friend and co-setting creator Andy will be running it using Boot Hill at OrcCon on Sunday at 3:00. Check it out!