Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Swashbuckling: Some Basics

A recent thread on has me taking a fourteenth look at my swashbuckling FATE stuff, so I figured I'd finally start posting it. There's kind of a lot of it, actually: ideas about fencing schools, maneuvers, non-clunky (I hope) differences between weapon types, a revamped skill list, social class, and more. It's all wildly untested, though, so keep that in mind as we go forward.

Now, like many enthusiasts of the genre, I'm a fencer. Er, at least, I was; it's been years, really, and it's such a physically demanding sport that I've found it tough to get back into after time away. Anyway, the point is that it's easy to get caught up in the details of fencing as a sport and overcomplicate combat mechanics as a result. I know, because I've done it before. So I've tried to stay away from that and stick to the core of what makes FATE so good: narrative elements, cinematic action, and fast-and-loose rules.

So, to that end: Advantage.

At the beginning of combat, roll a skill for initiative. This will usually be Alertness (or the swashbuckling non-union equivalent), but certain fencing schools could let you use something else instead: Empathy, Deceit, Resolve, etc. instead. If one combatant obtains spin in this contest, he gains Advantage. (Use a token of some kind to indicate this to keep it clear.)

As long Advantage is in play, it is required to inflict consequences in combat.

If the combatant with Advantage loses an exchange, he loses Advantage as well.

In the event that neither combatant has Advantage, set the Advantage token aside, out of play.

If a combatant without Advantage obtains spin on an exchange using a non-offensive skill (such as Athletics, Deceit, Intimidation, Art, and so on), he gains Advantage, either by taking it from his opponent or by bringing it back into play. Advantage can't be gained by simply using Weapons or Fists.

Advantage isn't used for combats involving multiple combatants against a single opponent, such as a player character against a bunch of minions. That'd just be a straight Weapons (or whatever) contest.

So what's the point of this? The idea is that it would replicate the back-and-forth of a swashbuckling duel while explicitly encouraging maneuvers and a wide variety of skills in combat. The method by which a combatant gains Advantage is entirely up to the player. He can pull a Cyrano and use Art to infuriate his opponent with his rapier wit. He can use Athletics to grab onto that chandelier (always a classic) and swing into an advantageous position. He can use Might to knock over a statue into the path of his foe. And so on. If you can justify it, go for it! That, if you ask me, is very much in the spirit of FATE and SotC.

A concern here is that it might slow things down. After all, if only one guy at a time even has the ability to inflict stress, lag is a definite possibility. To combat this, and to make supplemental actions more attractive, I'm reducing the threshholds on consequences: Minor is 1-2 stress, Moderate is 3-5, and Severe is 6+. (Actually, for this I'd rename them Trifling, Middling, and Grievous, because I loves me some genre-specific flavor.)

As I said, this is untested, but gosh, it sure feels right to me for the genre.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Supers: Supers? Yes, Supers.

I've long considered a good supers FATE conversion to be the Holy Grail (or at least the Questing Beast) of FATE conversions. I've tried it, others have tried it, but I've never really been satisfied with anything any of us have come up with -- no offense to you if you're one of "us." Everything I've seen or thought of has been either too hand-wavey or way too anchored in crunch. FATE is a relatively rules-light system; anything that uses it should stick to its "core values," as it were, and not overcomplicate things with intricate stunt chains or HERO- or M&M-style effects-based power constructs. It's just that, well, most supers games work very well with an effects-based system for powers, so those of us who've played them naturally want to go that route with FATE, too. But that way lies badness, if you ask me.

Recently, I've been going back and forth on FATE supers stuff with Joe Meyer, host of "Meanwhile... The Super Gaming Podcast," which is good and should be listened to, and darned if those discussions haven't produced some pretty great ideas for supers. We'd each come up with some things independently that were more or less along similar lines.

Joe had the idea of revisiting FUDGE for its scaling rules -- specifically Strength and Speed -- and a couple pretty good ideas came of it. There's so much stuff in FUDGE; I oughtta revisit it more often. Anyway, I'm not sure if we totally agree on anything yet, but here's where I am with things right now.

Strength Scale
This measures relative physical strength between normals and the super-strong. Note that this is different from Might, and exists independent of the skill. In Might tests, add your Strength Scale to your Might effort. In hand-to-hand combat, compare the attacker's and defender's Strength Scale ratings. If the attacker's is higher, increase the degree of consequence dealt on a successful attack by a number of steps equal to the difference. For example, if the attacker is Strength Scale 2 and the defender is Strength Scale 0, a Minor consequence becomes a Severe consequence. Yes, it's rough, but, y'know, don't get into fisticuffs with Superman.

Conversely, if the defender's Strength Scale is higher, then reduce the severity of the consequence dealt by the difference -- in the example above, if that Strength Scale 0 guy is fool enough to land an uppercut on Mr. Strength Scale 2, he'll have to achieve a Severe consequence just to put a Minor consequence on him. Again, this is why your average bank robber doesn't want to go mano-a-mano with Supes.

(This owes as much to FUDGE as it does to a recent thread on Savage Worlds supers by Hudson Shock.)

Speed Scale
Like the Strength Scale, this also exists independent of the skill pyramid. For any physical action, reduce the time required on the Time Chart by a number of steps equal to your Speed Scale.

This does necessitate fixing up the Time Chart a bit, however, to give it a little more relevance in combat round. Fortunately, I've already done this!

Free action / Instant
An action / A few moments
A full action / Half a minute
Two rounds / A minute
Three rounds / A few minutes
A conflict / 15 minutes
A scene / 30 minutes
An hour
A few hours
An afternoon
A day
A few days
A week
A few weeks
A month
A season
Half a year
A year

For example, let's say the Flush (no relation) has Speed Scale 4. If a normal Speed Scale 0 guy wants to move one zone and attack, he'll be at a -1 for taking two actions in one round, each of which requires "an action." The Flush, though, can accomplish this at no penalty -- for him, moving a zone is something that can be done as a free action. It might take the average person an hour to dismantle a transdimensional particle disruptor, but the Flush can do it in a minute, tops, plus any shifts he can spend on from his Engineering roll, which could get it down to mere seconds. Running across town takes Mr. Nobody an entire afternoon, but with a decent Athletics roll the Flush can make it in 30 seconds or so.

What about multiple attacks? Well, you still can't do that, but you can make a single attack and apply it against multiple targets, although anything that actually requires a die roll will take a minimum of an action. Attacking three targets in one zone would take anyone else three rounds (one attack per round), but the Flish can do it in a single action. (He'd still only make one roll and apply it against each target's defense, because I kinda have this thing about only making one roll per round.)

How to Improve Strength and Speed Scales While Maintaining Game Balance
Uh... I'm not sure. Next!

Actual, Y'know, Powers
Powers would be not effects-based, but special effects-based. That is, start with the power theme, and make it a skill. Stretching, for instance, or Telekinesis. There'd be a good-sized but finite list of these. Each comes with a number of trappings indicating how the skill can be used. When you take the skill, you get one trapping for free, and pay for more with Refresh or Drawbacks in some proportion -- 1 Refresh for three trappings, say.
You can stretch your body. Yadda yadda yadda.
  • Offense: While you still use Fists or Weapons (I guess) to attack, with Stretching you can use these skills from up to a zone away at no penalty. You can also stretch as a supplemental action to get around shields or other barriers.
  • Defense: Your rubbery body is hard to damage, and makes it easy to dodge bullets and blows. You can use Stretching to defend against physical attacks you're aware of.
  • Maneuvers: You can use this skill to Block, Grab, or Disarm in combat.
  • Utility: You can stretch one zone as a supplemental action with nearly any other skill.
  • Movement: You can use this skill instead of Athletics to cover ground or sprint.
These are pretty much like M&M's complications in most respects, except they're -- you guessed it -- aspects. Specifically, aspects of a predominantly negative nature, like "I can't control it!" or "You wouldn't like mee when I'm angry" or "Powered Armor Requires Recharging." They should be compel-fodder. I'm not sure what the exchange rate would be (2 trappings for 1 Drawback?), but... it'd be something.

Associated Aspects
Of course, each super-skill would require an associated aspect anyway, like "Faster Than A Speeding Bullet" or "More Powerful Than An Eco-Friendly Monorail." So would improved Speed or Strength Scales, like... well, like "Faster Than A Speeding Bullet" or "More Powerful Than An Eco-Friendly Monorail."

At any rate, there's obviously still a lot to work out here, but I like where it's going so far.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Important But Non-Gaming-Related News

Sorta longish time, no post, but I've been pre-occupied with other stuff these days. For one, I've taken it on myself to review and rewrite (as needed) all the stunts in Starblazer for the forthcoming Legends of Anglerre (as it's now called -- it'll also be a standalone book instead of a supplement for Starblazer, which I think is a great idea). I've also been really taken lately with the idea of running, of all things, a Fantasy Hero game. I consider Hero to be pretty much the anti-FATE in a lot of ways, but before SotC came along it was my go-to system for years. And now I've got a hankering for it again, for some reason or other (just in time for the 6th edition to come out at Gen Con, too).

But! None of that is really news. What's news it that my wife and I are having a baby! We just passed the first trimester, and you know what they say: Wait until the second trimester to post about it on your blog.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Hyphen Con, The Importance of Making Concessions, and RIP Dave Arneson

So! Hyphen Con was once again a lot of fun. "Four Weapons and a Funeral" went well, thanks to a crop of four great players who were enthusiastic about running with the idea. I ended up using very little of what I'd planned (but mark my words, one of these days, in some game or other, there's gonna be a fight inside an astronomical clocktower) because the players basically took control of things right from the get-go and took things in their own direction. And that was awesome. All I had to do was compel some aspects to keep them from agreeing with one another too readily or unconditionally. I spent about two hours mostly just listening and adjudicating some rules.

The gimmick -- that the four PCs disliked one another but had to come to a consensus somehow -- resulted in a lot of great roleplaying, and at least one extended social conflict. That, in turn, led to an issue being brought up that's been on my mind ever since.

Here's the situation: The PCs are discussing who's going to take the place of their dead master. When they reach a stalemate, it's time to pull out the dice and start rolling Humanity (the "SotF" equivalent of both Rapport and Intimidation) vs. Spirit (the "SotF" equivalent of both Resolve and Endurance). Everybody gets in on the act, spending Fate Points and everything, and pretty soon everybody has a Minor mental consequence of some kind (Ashamed, Embarrassed, Infuriated, etc.). The late master's daughter, in whose house they're arguing, shouts, "Enough! Get ouf of my house!" This is another Humanity vs. Spirit test with two PC targets, White Crane and Tiger Jin.

(Incidentally, the way I handle mutiple targets in this sort of situation is this: Everybody rolls his or her relevant skill. The attacker's effort is applied against the defenders' higher/highest effort. Any shifts gained over that defense can be split between the two defenders, so if you have two targets with defenses of Great and Fair, you'll need a Fantastic effort to get enough shifts to affect each of them. Tagging a target's aspects or consequences only gives you shifts for that target for that target only, so if, in the example above, you have a Great effort and tag one target's consequence, you still can't distribute the resulting two shifts between your two targets.)

Each PC is in a position to take a consequence -- but I also remind them that they can make a concession instead. That is, they can continue to stay in this argument and try to win it, or they can leave the conflict by walking away and say, "Fine, I'll leave." (Or "You're right," but since she's giving them a very specific command, there's really only one way to both comply and leave the conflict.)

White Crane's player objects to this. He only has one Fate Point left, and the daughter has three shifts on him (she tagged his untagged Minor consequence of Infuriated to get to three), so even if he spends it he's still taking a consequence. He doesn't like the option of making a concession, either, because "normally in Spirit, when something bad happens to you you get something in return." This is true -- if I'd had to have spent a Fate Point to tag that consequence, I probably would've given it to the player, but since it was still fresh no Fate Points traded hands. Similarly, I could've compelled that same consequence to make White Crane just storm out of the house, and I wouldn't have had to pay a Fate Point to do it. The player would've had to give up his only Fate Point to refuse, though. This is one of the reasons why you don't want consequences. Tough, but fair.

Anyway, as Tiger Jin's player said, "It's not a choice between good and bad -- it's a choice between bad and worse." And he was absolutely right. If you'd rather take another consequence instead of leaving the conflict (i.e., surrendering), that's up to you. Neither option's really that attractive, but you got yourself into this mess, and now these are your options. It was interesting to work through this, but instead of seeing this as a problem I see it as a feature of the system, if anything. As social conflict mechanics go, I think it's pretty great.

However, there's another issue at work here, and one that both White Crane's and Tsai Lung's players brought up individually. It's essentially this: If you already have consequences on you from a social conflcit, progressing to a physical conflict is that much more dangerous, since odds are good that you'll be taking more serious consequences. That actually dissuaded Tsai Lung's player from kicking it up a notch from argument to blows, even though that's where he felt he should take things next. Likewise, White Crane's player pointed out that Tiger Jin, with his Great Humanity, was in a position to really stick it to someone by engaging them in an argument (inflicting mental consequences with his high Humanity) then forcing them into a physical conflict (which they'll enter with a couple consequences already on them). Likewise, even if everyone's in a physical conflict already, couldn't he just use Humanity to keep tagging low-Spirit suckers with consequences? These did indeed seem problematic.

At first, anyway. First of all, in any conflict, there are one or two skills that deal stress, one or two or three that defend, and some others that maneuver. In a physical conflict in "SotF," Fists and Weapons are normally the only skills that deal stress. Fists, Weapons, and Athletics are the only skills (again, normally) that can defend against attacks. Humanity, in a physical conflict, can maneuver, but that's it. In a physical conflict, Tiger Jin could use his turn to intimidate someone. If he succeeds they'll get a fragile aspect of "Intimidated," but not a consequence. Conversely, in a social conflict, Humanity is the stress-dealer, Spirit's the defense, and other skills can maneuver. White Crane could quote the Te Tao Ching to help make a salient point, using his Scholarship (i.e., Academics) to maneuver a fragile aspect ("Befuddled") onto his opponent, but doing so won't deal any stress. Heck, he can even use Weapons as a maneuver, if he can justify it, with the same mechanical result.

As for the issue of physical conflicts following (or not following) social conflicts, that seems just fine to me -- ideal, even -- thanks to concessions. Tiger Jin's a charismatic guy. He's a leader of a rebellion. He wins arguments because getting into one with him will almost always mean taking consequences. If he says something you don't like, something that pisses you off enough to want to fight, man, start fighting. Like, right away. Make a concession: "I can't beat you in a war of words, so out comes my sword!" It's either that or he gives you a consequence of his choosing. The only reason you'd stay in the argument and continue to take consequences is if you think you can beat him. It's also the only reason you'd stay in a physical conflict instead of running away.

There's an excellent illustration of this in, of all places, last night's South Park. Cartman wants half-credit for a joke Jimmy wrote, even though he didn't do any of the actual, y'know, work. Kyle tells Jimmy to totally deny him anything, and if Cartman argues, fight back. Craig, ever the practical one, tells Jimmy several times to just give in, and be glad Cartman isn't asking for all the credit. In other words, he's suggesting that Jimmy make a concession. Why? Because people who get into conflicts like this with Cartman invariably lose, and lose hard. (Cf. Scott Tenorman being tricked into eating chili made of his own parents, Titus Adronicus-style.)

One more thing, and this is really too important to be tacked on to the bottom of a long post like this: After a long battle with cancer, Dave Arneson died Tuesday night, so now, in a little over a year, we've lost both creators of D&D as we know/knew it. Gygax did the heavy lifting in terms of converting wargames rules over to fantasy wargames rules, but Arneson's the guy who came up with adding actual roleplaying to that. He's also the originator of the dungeon crawl (and dungeons, really), the concept of hit points, and lots of other absolutely integral aspects of OD&D that make it what it is, not to mention Blackmoor. His name isn't as well-known, unfortunately, but his influence looms large over even the latest edition of the game, despite the 35 years or so that have passed since his first letter to Gygax full of ideas that would one day become D&D. As Ken Hite points out, he can fairly be called "the inventor of roleplaying games." We all owe Dave Arneson a great debt.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Kung Fu: Hyphen Con 2009 Characters

Ever year in San Diego, we do a little mini-con we've taken to calling Hyphen Con (so-called because of all the hyphens in the full title: The All-Day One-Shot Game-Fest). I think this'll be our fifth (?) year of consecutive Hyphen Cons (or "Hyphens Con," if you prefer), which is pretty impressive, considering it took place at someone's house for the first few years, then last year we moved it to Andy's office, which is, like, an ideal place to run a few games at once. This year we expect to have around 20 people, which will be a new record for us. We do a potluck, run six or eight games until two in the morning... it's a good time. Last year a newcomer declared the Hyph to be "better than GenCon," and I can't really argue with him, because I've never been to GenCon.

Anyway, last year I ran a Paranoia/Star Wars game, which was a lot of fun, but this year I'm running a "Spirit of the Fist" game I'm calling "Four Weapons and a Funeral." The name comes from the four traditional weapons of Chinese martial arts: the staff (the Grandfather of Weapons), the sword (the Gentleman of Weapons), the saber (the General of Weapons), and the spear (the King of Weapons). Four kick-ass martial arts dudes who hate each other come together in Song Dynasty-era Bianjiang to figure out who's going to take over for their recently deceased former sifu after receiving this letter from his daughter:

Old friend,
It has been many years since we last saw one another. Do you recall the days when we were all happy together, and the Shao clan was still strong? I write to you now with sad news. Your former sifu, my father, Kang-Xi, is no more. It was his dying wish that one of his students should re-establish the Shao clan and return it to its former glory. As his daughter, I am charged with gathering the four of you here for the Ching Ming Festival to pay your respects and determine who is most worthy to take my father's place. It saddened him that you four, once such close friends, have been enemies for so long, ever since the day the Shao clan fell, but I hope you are able to put your differences aside for one day and fulfill Kang-Xi's final request.
--Shao Mei-Li

(Awesomely enough, the Ching Ming Festival, a.k.a. the Tomb Sweeping Festival, is actually this weekend, on April 5! I didn't plan that, but what a sweet coincidence. I love it when stuff like that happens.)

The four kick-ass martial arts dudes in question:
Kuei Da-Xia, the renowned general of the Imperial Armies
Tiger Jin, the leader of the rebellious Five and Three Society
Tsai Lung, a prominent mover and shaker in the Imperial Court
White Crane, a reclusive and sagacious martial arts master

They're pretty high-powered characters, in a way. At least, they feel more high-powered than the characters I made for "Duel at Fang-Hu Mountain," in that they're more combat-oriented. But so's the opposition, so it ought to work out okay. We'll see!