Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Core of FATE Core

EDIT: I was more than a little distracted by my son while writing this post this afternoon, so some of this came out, um, not as clearly as I would've liked. So let me clarify.

When I mention Ryan, Chris, and Brad below, it's because these people are giants to me in the FATE world. I regularly read Ryan's blog and eagerly await Mythender. I had the pleasure of working with Chris on Legends of Anglerre. I stand in rapt admiration of what Brad and the VCSA team did with Diaspora. I look up to them. As part of writing FATE Kerberos, I've studied the work each of them has done with FATE and learned a lot. Their opinions on FATE Kerberos, should they choose to take a look at it, will matter a lot to me. A whole hell of a lot, actually. You put their names on a book and I'm going to want to check it out.

With that in mind: My first FATE experience was with Spirit of the Century. There are three names on the cover of that book: Fred Hicks, Rob Donoghue, and Leonard Balsera. That was only about five years ago, but I associate them as closely with FATE as I do, say, Ken St. Andre, Michael Stackpole, and Liz Danforth with Tunnels & Trolls, one of my favorite RPGs as a kid. Or Gygax with D&D. Or Merle Rasmussen with Top Secret. Or Steve Perrin and Greg Stafford with Worlds of Wonder. In my mind, there's that same level of celebrity association between those names and that game, even though I know plenty of people had just as much influence and history (or more so) with those games. It's a gut-level reaction. 

So imagine my horror when I get messages from two people saying, in so many words, "I think you may have offended some people with that blog post." Let me tell you, there are a lot of places I don't want to be, and On Ryan Macklin's Bad Side is definitely one of them. (Please, please don't let me be the new You're Wrong guy. Please.) I'll apologize to Ryan personally, but please consider this a repudiation of the idea that he, Chris, Brad, or anyone else who's had a big role in the development of these games I love is somehow less deserving of respect than Fred, Rob, or Lenny. I'd never intended that, and I can't tell you how sorry I am that that's what came across.

And look, I don't know Ryan personally, or his complete history with FATE. I look forward to meeting him this year at GenCon or Gamex or wherever we might get to run into one another. I at least want to play Mythender or Vicious Crucible sometime before 2011's out.

(While I'm at it: Lenny, I know those core-of-FATE ideas didn't spring from Fred's mind fully formed. I know  they're the result of work he's done and discussions he's had with you guys on SotC and DFRPG. But I still think it's fair to say that, at this point, they are what he sees as "the defining properties of FATE," even if he didn't do all the defining himself. I didn't mean to discount anyone else's hand in that process.)

I'm going to leave the rest of this post intact for... I dunno... posterity? I don't want the comments to not make sense, is I guess what I'm saying.

Don't call it a manifesto, but Fred Hicks has posted the defining properties of FATE as he sees them. The goal of the piece seems to be to address that old FATE issue: Why are the books so big? Fred spends a paragraph or two exploring the idea of overwriting out of love for the game, but most of it's devoted to distilling FATE into far more basic terms than you usually see (more basic even than the excellent Tri-Fold FATE).

It's an interesting read, especially considering Fred is one of the creators of FATE as we know it. I mean, it'd be one thing if someone like Ryan Macklin or Chris Birch or Brad Murray did it, but none of them has the same depth of history with the system that guys like Fred and Rob Donoghue or Lenny Balsera do. (Speaking of which, Lenny's SotC summary is here.)

In places, I want to read it as "This is what FATE is, and this is what FATE isn't," even though I know there's no way Fred intended it as something as divisive or judgmental as that. But I can't help cross-referencing every bit of it with what I know of all the FATE games on the market now (and, of course, FATE Kerberos) and seeing how they measure up to these Hicksian ideals. I can only think of one that, to me, doesn't quite hit every point he raises, which just goes to show how much any given FATE game shares with any other despite their many differences.

If you're writing a FATE game, it's a good road map. If you've never played FATE before and want to know what it's about (although, I mean, if that were the case, how did you end up reading this?), it's a good overview -- not necessarily of how any given FATE game works, but what FATE, as a system, is trying to accomplish. Certainly it's a better entry point for newbies than the SotC SRD, which can be a bit like drinking from the firehose.

(BTW, Fred, why couldn't you have written this back when Icons came out? It would've saved me from developing a new pet peeve.)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

[Kerberos] Playtest Packet #4 Is Away!

Thanks for your patience, and sorry it's a bit late, but if you're on the playtester list Playtest Packet #4 should be in your inbox already.

And if you're not on the playtester list, why not? Drop me a line and get in on this!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

[Greyhawk] Experience & Advancement, Part the First

Much credit and respect to Rob Dohoghue's blog entry as the genesis of this post: http://rdonoghue.blogspot.com/2010/10/role-of-spending.html

So, Spirit of Greyhawk is NOT dead, but had been on something of a hiatus for two reasons:
  1. The demands of the non-RPG world just became too great to allow for any progress in the back half of 2010.
  2. I had hit a bad case of writer's block with The Spirit of Greyhawk campaign (which tends to drive my postings here). The campaign storyline has been building to something of a "watershed moment" and I didn't feel as though I had enough planned to make it work the way I wanted.
Anyway, New Years' Resolutions and blah-blah-blah commitment to gaming blah-blah-blah, we got the game going again last weekend and though I was no further along to solving reason #2 above, I decided to stop delaying, put on my "Big GM panties" and really run the game as a "true" Fate game: stop worrying about lack of planning and let the players really have a say in where and how the game played out.

As most of you Fate-faithful might already have guessed, I was worrying too much about lack of planning. The session was actually one of the most engaging and fast-paced of any we've ever had. Being a Fate-GM, I had a very proud moment while we were cleaning up the Buffalo Wing bones, dice and empty cups when one of the players shook his head and said, "This session would have made for an amazing story to read or watch!"

In large part I credit that sentiment to a new rule I implemented with the goal of getting the players to stop "hoarding" their Fate Points--using the expenditure of Fate Points as the basis for character advancement.

Earning Experience Points
I've implemented Rob's rule pretty much as stated in the blog entry linked above:

"You can treat Fate points as XP by keeping a bowl in the middle of the table. Every time a player spends a FP, it goes into the bowl. The GM might also randomly toss into the bowl when he wants to reward general awesomeness. At night's end, the points in the bowl are converted to XP and divided among the players. Give any extra to whoever the table considers the night's spotlight player, or just let it ride til next time."

Playtest Experience
It was as though the clouds had parted: FP hoarding (or spending them only in a reactive sense) was a thing of the past. Declarations, tagging and Aspect powerings o' plenty. In a single 5 hour session, two 5-phase PCs had racked up 11 XP for the party.

Some examples of Player-related Awesome from that Session:
  • Declaring a large chandelier was hanging DIRECTLY above a wounded Villain, and the various rituals in chamber that involved the creation of a vortex (long story) had weakened the chandelier's chain, thus making it primed for use in a "Death from Above" attack.
  • PC encircling a villain's neck with his "chain whip" weapon while she tried to strangle him with her bare hands (big Wagnerian woman!), then using his Athletics skill and "Parkour" aspect to run up a wall and flip over the villain, thus simultaneously breaking her stranglehold on him and breaking her neck.
  • Correctly guessing/tagging another villain's "Mama's Boy" aspect to send him into a wild frenzy (cuz the PC had killed his Mother in the prior bullet point) causing him to scream in rage while attacking wildly and thereby negate any protective benefit of fighting within an obscuring mist.
  • Another correct guess/tag from the party that the geothermal vents upon which the town sat meant that the occupied mansion they had just cleared MUST have an escape tunnel somewhere and used it to free the mansion's servants. "If there's gonna be an escape tunnel ANYWHERE in the city, there'll be one in the mayor's mansion!"

This was (for me) the first time a Spirit of Greyhawk gaming session really FELT like a Fate "High Fantasy" game, rather than a Fantasy game that just happened to use the Fate ruleset. As a GM, I really felt the power of collaborative storytelling and that my job was to provide strong characters and settings to surround the PCs, keep a few things in my back pocket just in case, then put the pieces in motion and just let it happen.

And again in large part, I believe it was due to providing the players with an explicit mechanism to empower them to actively engage in the Fate system.

So now that Experience Points are a reality--how should Advancement be handled? There are other Fate implementations out there that deal with advancement in many different ways, but considering that Spirit of Greyhawk is attempting to stay consistent with players' expectations for how the gameworld works, I found that just lifting them "as is" into SoG wasn't going to work for me.

So here's my current thinking on how SoG will handle Advancement...

Spending Experience
Creation Phases and Levels
Spirit of Greyhawk makes the general assumption that each Creation Phase (as documented in Spirit of the Century) is considered as being the equivalent of "2 levels" in the source material. In other words, a Wizard with 3 creation phases is equivalent of a 6th-level Magic-User.

In Spirit of the Century, each creation phase is basically credited with having the following benefits:

  • 2 Fate Points added to character's Refresh
  • 1 New Stunt
  • 2 New Aspects
  • Increased Number and Proficiency in Skills (discussed below)
Skill Points
If you consider each +1 in a skill as costing 1 point, the SotC 5-phase character would have the following...

1 x (+5) Skill = 5 Skill points
2 x (+4) Skills = 8 Skill points
3 x (+3) Skills = 9 Skill points
4 x (+2) Skills = 8 Skill points
5 x (+1) Skills = 5 Skill points

...for a total of 35 Skill points. At it's most basic, you could just divide the points by 5 (Creation Phases for a SotC character), make the statement that each phase would be worth 7 skill points and be done with it.

However I don't think that's really consistent with how this gameworld works and would be counter to the expectations of those players familiar with the source material.

Greyhawk Assumptions - Experience & Advancement
The following are derived from the Greyhawk source material:
  • As a rule of thumb, it takes roughly 2x as much XP to get from one level to the next. In other words, it takes about 2x as much XP to get to level 3 that it took to get to level 2. Then another 2x as much XP to get level 4 that it took to get to level 3.
    NOTE: This is FAR from a constant, and at many classes' higher levels, this multiple starts to drop off.
  • XP rewards are constant with respect to who is earning them. A level 3 player killing a particular monster gets as much experience as a level 10 player would from killing the same monster. This means that a higher level character had to either do MORE of the same things, or kill tougher monsters (and get more treasure) to increase at the same pace as their lower-level counterparts.
  • If a 1st level PC were fighting a monster with a 12th level PC in the party, even though the 12th level PC might have done the lion's share of the damage to the monster and might have been solely responsible for killing the monster (with the 1st player being little more than an extra target), the basic rules state that 1st level PC gains as much XP for the kill as the 12th level player.

Phases: Skill Amount and Proficiency
Given the assumptions listed above, consider the SotC pyramid progression looking at the number of skills and at what degree of proficiency they are:

Phase 1:
1 Skill at Average (+1)

Phase 2:

1 Skill at Fair (+2)
2 Skills at Average (+1)

Phase 3:
1 Skill at Good (+3)
2 Skills at Fair (+2)
3 Skills at Average (+1)

Phase 4:
1 Skill at Great (+4)
2 Skills at Good (+3)
3 Skills at Fair (+2)
4 Skills at Average (+1)

Phase 5:
1 Skill at Superb (+5)
2 Skills at Great (+4)
3 Skills at Good (+3)
4 Skills at Fair (+2)
5 Skills at Average (+1)

So, working from that, we could take the following progression of total skill points needed to achieve each character creation phase. (NOTE: I've expanded the pyramid out to 9th level to be consistent with the SoG Ladder, as well as to see if the progression holds up at the high end.)

Phase 1: Earn 1 Skill point total.
Phase 2: Earn 3 more Skill points for a total of 4 Skill points.
Phase 3: Earn 6 more Skill points for a total of 10 Skill points.
Phase 4: Earn 10 more Skill points for a total of 20 Skill points.
Phase 5: Earn 15 more Skill points for a total of 35 Skill points.
Phase 6: Earn 21 more Skill points for a total of 56 Skill points.
Phase 7: Earn 28 more Skill points for a total of 84 Skill points.
Phase 8: Earn 36 more Skill points for a total of 120 Skill points.
Phase 9: Earn 45 more Skill points for a total of 165 Skill points.

While this progression is not a perfect fit with the source material, I think it's close enough out of the box to not worry about having to come up with something else.

Playtest Experience

Back to the last playtest session of SoG: we have two PC's at "Phase 5", or the equivalent of 10th level. As I had stated, the party had accumulated 11 XP total in one 5 hour session. For right now, I'm going to generalize that into a convenient "1 XP per gamer per 1 hour of gaming time" guess-stimate.

This means that for characters to get from Phase 5 to Phase 6, they would need to earn another 21 skill points each. Restated in source material terms, that means for 10th level characters to get to 12th level (remember that 1 phase = 2 levels), they would each need about 21 hours of gaming time to get there. From the perspective of my current gaming availability (5 hour game session every 2-3 weeks), that sounds pretty reasonable or perhaps even stingy. But then again going from 10th to 12th level is no walk in the park!

...So, any comments? My goal here is to try to stay true to the assumptions players have when they are playing in "Greyhawk", while staying as close as possible to the Fate system as implemented by the Evil Hat folks.

Coming up next:
Going further off into the weeds with more specifics for spending XP and Advancement for a Fate game in the Greyhawk gameworld.

Monday, January 17, 2011

[Kerberos] Playtest Packet #4... Delayed

I'd expected to send out the next Playtest Packet today (Sunday -- let's pretend it's still Sunday and not nearly two hours into Monday), but events conspired otherwise. I've been doing a lot of fiddling with trappings, and that's taken more of both my attention and my time than I'd anticipated. So be patient with me, playtesters, if we cycle through a few permutations of custom/Strange skill construction over the next week or two.

In the meantime, I'm still plugging away at getting the actual rules -- y'know, how to do stuff -- into acceptable shape. I've been consulting every FATE game I own for this, so it'll largely be a "best of" collection. ("Best of" according to me, of course. YMMV.) I've also been cleaning up the existing text, making a few alterations that have come up in our discussion forum, and that kind of thing. Which is useful and good, of course, but it also delays getting the new stuff out.

So hold tight, folks. There's another one of these things arriving in your inbox in the next couple days.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

[Kerberos] Playtest Packet #3 Away!

The third Playtest Packet (which includes the first two Playtest Packets in a revised form, plus some new stuff) has gone out, so if you should've received one but didn't, let me know.

One thing the playtesting process has pointed out so far is that while the chargen process isn't necessarily complex, it sure looks complex. This has been kinda frustrating for me, as the barriers to entry seem a lot higher than they actually are. In my head, everyone on my playtest list I haven't heard from has reacted the same way: "Character points? Lists of things? Tables? I'm out."

Overcoming that reaction, real or imagined, has been... a process. And that process has been all about organizing information to make it easier to digest. Take the big list of trappings. It started with putting them in a table, then adding one-line descriptions to each, and finally onto classifying them by function (e.g., Offense, Movement, Perception, etc.). So hopefully that will simplify things for people -- now you can figure out what you want the skill to do and just look at the categories to get the broad strokes. Also, the roadblock of Prohibited trappings has been replaced with the toll-road of Incompatible trappings. Instead of being arbitrarily told, "No, you can't do that -- build the skill a different way," now you can put any collection trappings together under a single skill, and the worst that'll happen is that it'll just cost a ton of points. That's a change in game mechanics, obviously, but the biggest reason it's in there is so people don't have to worry about building a cool Strange skill only to discover that this trapping isn't allowed to co-exist with this other trapping, so back to the drawing board, chump.

There's a lot of other stuff in there, including Ben Baugh's excellent chapter on social class (which meshes with the rest of this effortlessly), so if you're on the list you can look forward to that. If you're not on the list and want to be, get in touch with me on RPG.net or Facebook or something and just say the word.

Monday, January 10, 2011

[Kerberos] We Like Change

Yesterday's chargen playtest at DiceHouse Games really opened my eyes to a few problems in KFC. For one thing, just being in the midst of six people completely new to the rules (mostly) and trying to make characters was an experience. Even better was the fact that it was six people of varying experience with FATE: We ran the gamut from Tony, who's barely touched FATE, to Morgan Ellis, my oft-mentioned platonic FATE mate and frequent Strategicon scheduling determinant.

My primary concern with this all along has been whether (or, to put it more optimistically, how much) it would appeal to the FATE community, so I took Morgan's fist-shaking during character creation and mutterings about crunchiness as something of an answer. Admittedly, this version of FATE doesn't really have your standard three-aspects-and-go character generation. I mean, there's nothing stopping you from doing that, I suppose -- Archetype aspect, Social Class aspect, and Conviction aspect, then figure it out as you go -- but it'd take quite a bit more familiarity with the quirks of this particular system before you could, say, slap together a Strange skill on the fly.

Desmond was another one. He spent the better part of two hours trying to put together four Strange skills to represent a suit of power armor (coin-operated power armor). I'm still not entirely sure what the hold-up was, but I know of a few things changes I can make and things I can clarify that should speed up the process significantly.

And that's the good news, really: We spent a few hours making characters and, more importantly, talking about making characters, and that discussion was full of little revelations and insights that have already made this a better game. I implemented a number of changes to the already-extant 50+ pages of playtest material, and I'm ready to move on to some more setting-specific stuff. Not that I've forgotten about writing the, y'know, the actual rules at some point -- how conflicts work, how long things take to accomplish, how hard it is to break down a door, etc. -- but that's coming too. I'm trying to take it three things at a time.

If you're interested in this, it's not too late to get in on the playtest. Email me or contact me on Facebook or on RPG.net or something. I'll send out a new Playtest Packet sometime this week that will include a link and password to our KFC forum on the Arc Dream website so you can join the discussion.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

[Kerberos] Playtest Packet #2 Away!

The lean-and-mean Playtest Packet #2 has gone out to the playtesters. If you're on the list and don't receive it sometime today, drop me a line and let me know so I can rectify that.

What's in this one? Mostly Archetypes. There's a good deal of detail on the Faerie and Magus Archetypes (which were fun to convert from ORE to FATE) in particular, plus a few paragraphs on how magic works in Victoria's Century. The PDF incorrectly says that it also contains errata, but it doesn't -- I put it together in the wee hours of the morning, and simply forgot to include it. I'll continue to post errata in our forum on the Arc Dream site. Join us there, won't you?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

[Kerberos] Playtest Packet #1 Away!

All right, so I may have been a little liberal with my use of the word "today" yesterday, but whatever -- the first playtest packet for KFC has gone out. If you signed up as a playtester, look for it in your inbox. Check it out, then come on down to our forum on the Arc Dream site. See you there!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

[Kerberos] Playtest Packet #1 Going Out Today

Either today or this evening (I'm betting on this evening, personally), I'll be sending out the first packet of playtest materials to everyone on this big list of playtesters I have here. This packet will contain:

  • Arc Dream's don't-call-it-an-NDA "Be Cool" form. This is important and you should read it.
  • Character creation rules.
  • The password for the KFC playtest forum on the Arc Dream message boards.
Again, my prime concern for KFC is character creation. Does it make sense to you? Does the math seem right? Does it make characters you feel would be fun to play? Does it make characters that demand you play them right now? What kind of horrible abomination of a game-wrecking character can you make with it? That sort of thing.

So be on the lookout for that, impatient playtesters! Excitement!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Five, Four, Three, Nose, One -- Happy New Year!

To kick off 2011, I want to plug a couple of FATE projects on the Web. Granted, they were brought to my attention by the very people who created them, but that doesn't make them any less impressive.

The first is Malmsturm, a German FATE-powered game which, I believe, will be available in Germany soon, if it isn't already. If you can't read German, but enjoy puzzling through shaky translations of it, you might want to try to read it here and see if you can make heads or tails of Google Translate's take on it. Personally, I've found myself not up to the task, but the sheer amount of information there tells me that it's something worth checking out for those who are.

Speaking of sheer amounts of information, Emlyn Freeman has been meticulously detailing a complete setting, and FATE mechanics to go along with it, at RealmCrafting. There's a lot of detail there involving Emlyn's process of creating everything from cities to religions; in some ways, it's kinda the opposite of what I do here, in that I usually don't go concern myself with stuff like, y'know, flavor, so if you're missing that sort of thing, definitely check out RealmCrafting. In fact, check it out anyway. There's a lot there, and something's bound to inspire you.

As for me, I'm hard at work on KFC. Today I'm finishing up the Skills chapter and getting as much of the rest of it done as possible. If all goes according to plan (as it so often does!), character-creation playtest materials will go out mid-week. We're doing some sort of playtest next Sunday, as well, at DiceHouse in Fullerton, CA, although that may also be constrained to making characters. Honestly, it's the only aspect of this FATE supers thing that hasn't been playtested. Obviously, we're going to be playtesting the rest of it as well, but right now the thing that concerns me is whether this character-generation method makes as much sense to everyone else as it does to me.