Thursday, September 24, 2009

Rethinking No-Stress Consequences

I'm headed out tomorrow on a four-day Geek-End in Washington State with some old friends of mine from when I lived in Vancouver -- there'll be Blood Bowl, Space Hulk, a Magic booster draft, a PS3 with whatever it is that's good on a PS3, and, if we get to it, an RPG one-shot or two -- but I wanted to throw an idea out there before I go.

As you may or may not know, I don't use stress tracks in my FATE games, except for minions. Instead, stress goes straight to consequences. Every PC starts out being able to take one consequence of each degree -- Minor, Moderate, and Severe (usually) -- regardless of type. So if you take a Minor physical consequence and then have to take a Minor mental consequence, you take a Moderate mental consequence instead. If you have Good or Great Endurance or Resolve, you get to withstand more physical or mental consequences, but otherwise you're stuck with the three.

This doesn't appeal to me so much anymore. I used to be a little more into the hardcore idea of "narrative punishment" -- there's only so much abuse any character can take in a story before he drops out of it somehow. Having a high Endurance or Resolve was the player's way of telling the GM "My character will take more physical or mental abuse than most during the course of the story, because that's part of what makes him who he is." I liked how narrative and gamist it was without being all that concerned with simulating anything.

To prevent things from getting too out of hand what with the character-fragility thing, I've been clearly demarcating different types of conflicts, whether physical or mental. If you're in a mental conflict, you use social skills (mostly) to deal mental consequences, but can use physical skills to maneuver. It's the reverse in a physical conflict: Skills like Intimidation can only be used to maneuver an aspect onto an opponent, but don't actually inflict consequences. If you're in a mental conflict, like an argument, and want to escalate to a physical conflict, you can do that, but then there's no going back. This means that if you're going to keep arguing with someone without baring steel, it's because you're either a skillful arguer or have no intention of actually fighting. You can make a concession during an argument to escalate and essentially say, "Okay, you got me -- but now someone's gonna bleed."

This has had two major effects in play. One, arguments are short, because whoever's on the losing side is likely to escalate the first time they have to take a Minor mental consequence, lest they go into a fight staring down the barrel of a Moderate consequence they first time they're hit. If a character takes a Minor consequence like "Infuriated" in an argument, the natural next move may be to get physical -- but that's contraindicated by the game mechanics, which leads to some weirdly unintuitive metagaming. Two, there's no real parity between physical and social skills in combat, which is a big attraction for a lot of people (me included) in SotC. Piotr the troll can holler at a group of Average-quality goblin minions all he wants, but no matter how well he does the only thing he can really do with his Intimidation is create an aspect of "Scared." But he'll never scare them so bad they run away (barring some creative tagging for effect, but that's pretty hand-wavey).

I don't dig either of those. The easiest alternative is to have a set of slots for each type of Minor and Moderate consequence -- so if your game has physical, mental, and social consequences (as in "Spirit of the 17th Century"), the average starting PC would be able to withstand seven consequences before being Taken Out: one physical Minor, one mental Minor, one social Minor, ditto that for Moderate, and one Severe consequence of any type (Severe consequences are a big deal in my games). A character with Great Resolve (or Esprit, if you want to get technical -- and I do!) would be able to take another, say, two more: a second mental Minor and a second mental Moderate.

Up until recently, I'd pretty much dismissed this option out of hand, because the idea of a character who could take a full nine consequences is kinda ridiculous to me. Plus, there's something aesthetically unappealing about how the character sheet would look with that many consequence slots. However... I'm now of a mind that this is the way to go, despite those misgivings. That Great-Resolve guy might be able to take nine consequences, but he's just as fragile in a swordfight as he would be under the current system -- plus it gives the GM and the players something to do with skills like Intimidation in combat besides create aspects.

I want that pissed-off guy to jump into combat with the jackass who pissed him off if he wants to, not slink away with his Minor consequence between his legs and wait for another scene. I want Piotr to be able to scare the bejeezus out of those goblins and send them running back into the hills. More than that, I want that Piotr's player to feel like he can contribute meaningfully with his Great Intimidation in combat, instead of feeling like he made a mistake in chargen. It's perfectly in keeping with FATE if that troll shouting at his swordsman opponent is just as viable as that swordsman stabbing Piotr with his blade.

The only real misgiving I have is that a really Intimidation-focused guy against a combat-oriented guy who hasn't even ranked Resolve has the potential to be pretty damn brutal -- but no more brutal than the combat-oriented guy fighting a combat weakling. So... fair enough, I guess. (In either case, the defender would be well advised to make a concession and get out while he still can.)

How about you? What are you thoughts on any of this?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Fantasy: Simplified Armor

This occurred to me right after I woke up this morning, for some reason, and I'm surprised it took so long.

Up to now, the way I've been doing armor has been on the border of being fiddly without, for me, quite going overboard. At present, it works like this: Armor is rated the same way skills are, and is divided into three categories. Light armor is Fair (+2), Medium armor is Good (+3), and Heavy armor is Great (+4). Although it's outside the skill pyramid, you can choose to defend with armor against most melee or ranged attacks (there are exceptions on a case-by-case basis for those times when armor wouldn't logically be of any help) as if it were a skill, like Melee or Athletics. When defending with armor, you can reroll a number of minus dice up to the value of the armor -- e.g., Good armor would let you reroll up to 3 minus dice. If you do, right afterwards (preferably while the GM is dealing with someone else, so as not to slow things down) roll Endurance against a target number equal to the number of dice you rerolled. If that roll fails, you gain a temporary aspect of "Fatigued" until the end of the scene.

It works fine, but the sheer amount of space alone it takes to explain it makes it feel to fiddly to me. Instead, I'd rather take a page out of the swashbuckling game and let armor add Fudge dice to your Melee or Athletics defense up to the armor's rating: +2dF for Light, +3dF for Medium, and +4dF for Heavy. Take the best four dice, and that's your die roll. If the pool of spare dice you don't use contains at least as many minus dice as your Endurance rating, you're "Fatigued," as above. Done.

I like this first and foremost because it means not having to make a second die roll -- that's a central precept I always try to adhere to -- but also because it gives those spare dice a purpose.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fantasy: The Power of Random Limitations

So it's been a while since I've posted anything about "Spirit of the Sword," or "Swords of FATE," or "Heroes of FATE," or whatever we call it when we bother to call it anything. But most of the San Diego group got together to play it again on Saturday, and it went swimmingly. I forgot to use my own Scale and Size Factor rules when they fought that drake, but... whatever. I have a feeling the results would've been more or less the same, apart from John's character essentially one-shotting it (which was still cool and cinematic and good).

Most notable about that impromptu adventure was its impromptu-ness, powered as it was by the random adventure/NPC/opposition generator I am writing/have written/wrote for Legends of Anglerre. Call it a stress-test of an untested piece of RPG hardware. I have to say it worked pretty great. Referring to it as an adventure "generator" may be a bit inaccurate, as it doesn't determine every single detail of the adventure for you, but it does provide more than enough, in my experience, to give you the inspiration for an adventure, which is then easily created by you and your mind.

When it comes to creative pursuits, there are two things that always get me going: limitations and randomness. I love the old AD&D DMG's endless array of tables, tables, and more tables for randomly determining just about anything from the bonus on that longsword to the air quality in a room. An especial favorite of mine was the random dungeon generator -- I never got tired of that thing and the "What the hell is that doing there?" moments it invariably produced every time I used it. My own adventure generator takes a lot of inspiration from the DMG, most important of which is placing random limitations on adventure creation and forcing the user to justify how any of this makes sense.

The adventure ended up being this: The party (recently returned from the Free City of Neyid, where their defeat of a necromantic cult has earned them some renown back home) is hired by an incanter (i.e., a magic-user-type) named Abarrotz to escort him from one city to another. Exactly why he needs an escort is obvious to all: The road passes through a forest that's home to some especially fierce and dangerous bandits, led by one Kaxen, another incanter. Why an incanter has taken to a life of crime isn't known, but then again few have escaped his clutches intact enough to tell speak about it. The party agrees, and the encounter with Kaxen & Co. happens right on cue, with the party emerging victorious (no thanks to Abarrotz, who pretty much plays the victim the whole time).

Once they pass through the forest, they arrive in a small town, a waypoint for travelers along the road. Thanks to Kaxen's reign of terror, the townspeople haven't seen a ton of business lately -- so they're understandably pleased when the party shows up with Kaxen in tow. The innkeeper's prejudices make him reluctant at first to host the weirder members of the party (which consists of a human military-type-guy, a satyr shaman, a troll writer, and a jungle elf... jungle elf), but some choice words from the human and a lot of goodwill from the townsfolk eventually change his mind. Plus, the troll tells the story of the fight with Kaxen (and his "one and one score" bandits) a few times, and everyone's down for hearing that. One of the merchants in attendance even picks up the tab for their lodgings that night, although Abarrotz insists on quarthers of his own instead of rooming with his employees.

The next morning, Abarrotz is gone. Door's locked, window's ajar. The satyr and jungle elf find evidence of his passing down below, behind the inn, but starting a good 30 feet from the inn itself. There's been some effort to cover them, as well, but not enough to fool the jungle elf's Legendary (+8) tracking effort. Following the tracks leads them into a deep forest, where they're soon set upon by giant wolf spiders -- literally. They have wolf heads set upon big black spider bodies. One of them is clearly larger and nastier than the others, who seem to be her "pack." The fight ends with the party victorious (but poisoned, in at least once case -- a Moderate consequence that the satyr fails to heal). While Abarrotz is nowhere to be seen, in the webbing they find his hat.

Traveling on a little further, they come upon a hill and the sounds of battle. Atop the hill, they see Abarrotz, bleeding from a dozen small cuts and surrounded by a couple dozen gobliny-koboldy things that we immediately start calling "gobolds." The gobolds are clearly having too much fun making sport of him to kill him right away. After a brief discussion among themselves, and a shouted negotiation with their erstwhile employer for higher pay, the party takes on the gobolds, though sorely outnumbered. (And the troll takes a Severe consequence of "Spear in the Eye"! Yay, Severe consequence!)

Once that's over, Abarrotz apologizes for the deception and confesses his true purpose. He only needed the party to get past Kaxen, but his mission after that required such discretion that he couldn't risk telling them about it. Out here in the forest, according to his research, is a powerful but forgotten artifact, the Chalice of the Dragon. While he was able to avoid the wolf spiders through magical means, he was caught completely off-guard by the gobolds, who have infested the area without anyone knowing. Their presence here may indicate that they have found the Chalice, which would be very bad indeed, for it purportedly lets whoever drinks from it summon and control dragons. (Dragons are extinct in the setting, so this is an especially big deal.) Though they bear no particular love for Abarrotz, the party grudgingly admits that gobold-controlled dragons would be insanely bad and worth stopping. Plus, I manage to compel all but one of them into wanting to keep the Chalice for themselves, so they have a personal stake in it too.

The gobolds' tracks through the hills leads them to some ruins and a gobold shanty town/hut-rich village that's sprung up around it. From a distance, they see dozens more of the things going about their daily lives -- and the jungle elf sees a glint of silvery metal from within a ruined stone structure. The players, all good little metagamers, instantly agree that it's the Chalice. They come up with a plan that involves the sneaky types (the jungle elf and satyr) circling around to the side to snatch the Chalice, while the non-sneaky types (the human and the troll) provide a distraction with a frontal assault. Both teams end up fighting (and eviscerating) a bunch of gobolds, but it all goes to hell when an important-looking gobold in fancy clothes drinks from that damn Chalice. Suddenly there's a huge spitting drake thundering through the village, terrifying/trampling any gobolds that get in its way. After some back and forth, the jungle elf runs up its back and jams the pointy end of his taiha into the thing's skull, instantly killing it.

When the party recovers, elsewhere in the village they find Abarrotz and the fancy gobold playing tug-of-war with the Chalice, until the satyr charges up and headbutts the thing out of their hands. Who ends up with the Chalice is something we'll tackle next time.

Okay, so -- I didn't type that out just to go on about my game. I typed it out as an illustration of what the random generator randomly generates. Sure, it didn't name Kaxen or come up with the wolf spiders (that was the work of one of the players) or determine that they'd fight a drake in the end, but it did come up with the seeds for all that. It told me that the main plot would be about escorting someone somewhere, but that en route there'd be plot complications involving a missing person and a guarded treasure. It told me that the first encounter would be with a spellcastery leader and his 21 minions in a forest, that the next scene would be in a village (also in a forest) and that the innkeeper there would be prejudiced, and that the last encounter would involve something with Legendary (+8) (!) Ranged skill and a lot of minions. Et cetera. It gave me all the components of a solid adventure and demanded that I make sense of them, and I'm really pleased with the results. Some stuff I came up with in advance, some stuff we came up with together at the table (e.g., the players decided the artifact would be a chalice, and I was pretty quickly able to figure out what it did). Behold, the power of random limitations.

I just wish I'd remembered the Scale and Size Factor rules for that drake....

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Gateway Post Mortem Addendum

Oops, I forgot to mention some other FATE-related games happening at Gateway this year.

Friday night I played in Josh Roby's Houses of the Blooded game. I was Torr Adrente, a Wolf dude (Prowess 5, Cunning 0 -- that kinda guy) with a retinue of 20 soldiers, an ominously named sword, and a thing for my uncle's wife. Good times. I'm terrible when it comes to intrigue and subtlety and all that crap, but it was still fun. I love the die mechanic, for one thing. The only other time I've played was in a demo game run by John Wick a couple years ago (or maybe it was OrcCon of last year...?), and back then we only played with a fraction of the rules, so this was a bit of a change. Disappointed that I never got to draw my Bloodsword and see what my Doom was all about, but hey, it's HotB, not D&D.

(That said, I'm now dying to run a straight-up old-school dungeon crawl with HotB just for the sheer irony of it. And because it might make John Wick's head explode. "My name means 'Fighter/Magic-User.'")

Sunday morning, Chris Czerniak, one of the regular San Diego crew, ran his time-travelling Spirit of the Century game. It's kinda Dr. Who-ish, in that there are a couple of actual time travelers accompanied by a team of some of history's greatest heroes. When I played this game many moons ago, that list included Bruce Lee, Audie Murphy, Lord Byron, and Mata Hari, as I recall (I played Lord Byron, and crossed out a number of his aspects to replace them with quotations from Byron's poetry, because that's the sort of thing I do). I didn't play in this game -- I was busy getting jerked around by an RPGA module at the time -- but it did exist.

Sunday afternoon (and also Sunday morning), Strategicon regular Morgan Ellis ran Labyrinths of Mars, the sequel to his last Spirit of the Red Planet game. Last time, I was Throk, a four-armed Green Martian; this time, I was Kalyan, a dashing Red Martian pirate -- er, ex-pirate -- with an ornamental eyepatch, the Martian non-Union equivalent of the Millennium Falcon, and a "mostly loyal crew." I dig the planetary romance genre, even though I'm more familiar with the tropes than with the actual source material itself, so this was some fun stuff, as always. Half the reason I play in Morgan's games is to hear his excellently stentorian prologues ("This is the Spirit... of the SHAT-TERED EARTH!"), but I also got to make one of Czerniak's long-held dreams come true by proposing to his character in-game, so that's nothing to sneeze at, either.

Morgan's great at making really archetypical characters that you can instantly sink your teeth into. He has a few mechanical tweaks, too (don't we all?). For one thing, his skill pyramids have a total of just six skills, from Fair to Superb, which I totally get: It's a con game -- just pick the six most iconic things this character ought to be able to do and go with it. Characters also only have three stunts, and they're almost always custom-made. He uses the ol' -2/-4/-6 stress-reducing consequences rule, but cuts out the stress tracks, and takes a cue from Starblazer Adventures (or, more accurately, Legends of Anglerre) by having a character's Refresh equal his starting aspects minus his starting stunts. I've noticed, too, that he's taken to starting his important NPCs' skills at around +6 or +7, just so he can have a fightin' chance of dealing a consequence to someone. And fair enough, says I.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Gateway Post Mortem

So! Gateway went pretty well. The swashbuckling game was great, which easily had as much to do with my players as with anything else. I unwisely put off almost all my game prep for both that game and the D&D game I ran until the very last minute. I knew I was in trouble a few days earlier when I realized that if I were to take my printer with me to the hotel on Friday, I could just print stuff off there. This I did, and it meant running two games and playing in a third on Saturday powered by, say, two hours' sleep. I don't know how I made it, but I'm still catching up on sleep.

Anyway, this isn't a blog about me, so let's get to the mechanics.
  • The roll-and-keep Fudge dice mechanic was good, as expected (and previously experienced).
  • Also as expected, players tended to save up their Elan for when it really mattered. As evidence, I present the three simultaneous duels at the end of the game, all of which pretty much ended as soon as a player got Advantage.
  • Speaking of which: The Advantage mechanic continues to be workable in spite of initial reservations about it slowing things down. Then again, I don't think it's gotten the workout it needs, either. In the playtest we did here in Irvine, our one duel had a lot of back-and-forth. At Gateway, those three duels resolved really quickly, because the players were loaded for bear while I didn't use any Elan at all for the baddies. In my defense, it was nigh unto the time of quitting and I wanted to wrap things up in a suitably heroic manner. Still, I maintain that the primary goals of the Advantage mechanic -- to encourage a more action-packed, dramatic narrative within combat and to make all skills matter in combat -- was met... with extreme prejudice. One attempt to obtain Advantage was essentially a staredown: Esprit vs. Esprit (or Resolve vs. Resolve, in SotC terms).
  • A couple of the characters had higher Status/Social Class than the rest, and one was decidedly low-class, but... it didn't really come up, which was too bad. I blame myself for that, because it should have, but I missed it. The Baron Francois de Chevreuse had a few social conflicts in which Status easily could've acted as a complementary skill. So... my bad, there.
The basic plot involved the siege of La Rochelle in 1627-ish, which lasted for an interminably long time. Cardinal Richelieu assembles a diplomatic envoy to go into the Huguenot-controlled city and negotiate the terms of a surrender. This group includes Henri and Christian D'Aramitz (a pair of Gascon brothers renowned as among the bravest of the King's Musketeers who are also fierce rivals), Gaspar de Rocheforte (one of the Cardinal's Guardsmen, and therefore somewhat at odds with the Musketeers), Virgil (his reluctant manservant), Pascal Labrousse (a Catholic priest who secretly dreams of being a Musketeer), and the aforementioned Baron de Chevreuse (a young nobleman and the Cardinal's nephew, with an aspect of "Flighty, Arrogant, and Charming as Hell"). In addition to the stated mission, they're also to conduct reconaissance on the city's defenses and disable, by any means necessary, the La Vierge, a 500-tonne, 80-cannon ship captured by the Duc de Soubise, a leader of the Huguenot rebellion and the military mastermind behind La Rochelle's defenses.

(This is stolen in equal measure from reality and an old Flashing Blades adventure. Flashing Blades continues to be an awesome resource for the genre; I highly recommend it.)

It ended up being full of swashbucklery goodness and intrigue, including a secret message passed via a dropped handkerchief, a masked ball, disguises, mistaken identities, naked fencing, and three simultaneous duels aboard an exploding ship, among others. Best of all, as a playtest it vindicated a lot of the little tweaks and alterations I'd made here and there for the swashbuckling genre. More playtesting is needed, obviously, but it feels pretty solid now.