Friday, September 04, 2015

Disadvantages, Disadvantage, and EXP

In an attempt to make RPG characters mechanically unique, there was a trend in the early years to include lists of disadvantages you could take for your characters. The first game I came across that did this was GURPS in the mid ‘80s but I can’t say another game didn’t do it first.

Typically, these gave you additional points to buy better stats, abilities, or advantages during character creation. After that, it was up to the GM, largely, to keep track of your disadvantages and apply them during play.

This is, obviously, a clunky system, adding extra burdens on the GM to not only be certain to apply the disadvantages but to do so fairly. Certain disadvantages might not show up much at all because of the nature of the campaign (for instance, being unable to swim in a campaign set in deep space) while others might cripple a PC due to the themes and preferences of the GM (like arachnophobia in a campaign where the principle villains are drow).

More recently, people have been experimenting with flaws that reward the player when they penalize the character. You can see this kinda-sorta in Numenera with its GM intrusions mechanic.

I’m thinking of adding it to my D&D toolbox as follows: every time a flaw is invoked to cause serious disadvantage to the PC and most especially if it actually causes them to roll with disadvantage (roll two d20s and take the lower roll, as per 5e), the PC gets EXP equal to 2% of the difference between the amount needed for next level and the minimum they needed for their current level.

Now, I haven’t playtested this at all yet. I’m guessing that a flaw that comes up more than 5 times per hour (or 20 times per session) probably needs a serious looking-at. But this puts the burden of using it largely on the player, and incentivizes them to invoke it.

That said, I’m not sure I’d use it during character creation. Instead, I’d probably use it in conjunction with something like a Table of Death & Dismemberment (such as losing an eye causing disadvantage in to-hit with missile weapons) or mutation tables. I could also see using a system like that in conjunction with mental instabilities like those found in Wrath of Demons or Kingdom Death.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Steve Wieck Sows the Wind

Ok, yeah, I think I understand. Controversy is scary, and I can’t imagine that OneBookShelf isn’t living close to the bone. Still...

First, this is just opening the door to more controversy and fights. If you think the proposed tool isn’t going to be abused next time the RPG world has another slap-fight, you’re living in a fantasy world. Mr. Wieck is in for a world of busy-work, staying on top of this.

Second, Mr. Wieck has suddenly made his opinions important. Before now, nobody needed to care what Mr. Wieck felt about the divisive issues of the day. Now? You’d better believe Green Ronin cares what Mr. Wieck’s opinions on homosexuality are. What about furries? What about tentacle monsters?

By declaring himself the arbiter of “offensive,” Mr. Wieck has painted a big, giant bull’s eye on his back. This will mean more controversy, more Twitter fights, and more heat on Mr. Wieck personally. If he’d endured whatever boycott the offended could have mustered, he’d have found smoother sailing after the storm. As it is, he’ll be dealing with this issue frequently and personally, for as long as he’s at OneBookShelf, if not longer.

Then there’s the issues with publishers, which Mr. Wieck summarizes quite succinctly himself:
Publishers who offer content on our marketplaces will understandably say to us, "We can't invest in creating RPG titles only to have DriveThru arbitrarily ban them, so if you're now banning titles for offensive content, give us guidelines for what titles you will and will not ban."

To which, I have to say, "I hear you, but I don't know any better way." A work often has to be considered as a gestalt to know if it is offensive or not.

Really? That’s the best you can do?

Moving forward, we’ll probably see a chain of events we’ve seen before. We’ll see Mr. Wieck beg publishers to pull stuff that causes scandal and hope they voluntarily choose to do so, as happened with “Tournament of Rapists.” I suspect that will be Mr. Wieck’s go-to maneuver for now. It allows him to have his cake and eat it too; he says he found nothing personally offensive in “Tournament of Rapists” beyond the title and blurb, and in the end he’s not responsible for pulling the title off OneBookShelf. Win-win for him.

Until someone fingers one of Raggi’s titles, or another publisher tells him to man up or shut up.

Before that even happens, I suspect we’ll see a two-tier approach to issues of “offense.” Big publishers will be immune; no matter how much someone complains about a WotC, Pathfinder, or FFG, we won’t see their titles pulled. (And don’t think it couldn’t happen. Remember all the fuss-and-bluster over Hook Mountain Massacre?) Green Ronin is probably safe, as is White Wolf. Probably…

But the small-time and one-shot publishers will be easy prey for folks looking for someone to abuse, or those who don’t want the competition. How many flags will it take before Mr. Wieck has one of these talks? And if a publisher wants to be able to list future titles on OneBookShelf, well, that means “voluntarily” pulling the title.

And that might have been how things shook out. Except, while Mr. Wieck might not be willing to invoke any bright line rules, James Edward Raggi IV is:
If one of my products gets pulled, or if the products of my peers are pulled without their consent, I am taking every LotFP product off of that site, which will be something of an economic armageddon for me and a hardship from everyone on my roster getting royalties from sales.

It’s not an entirely one-sided Armageddon, either. As Raggi points out, he’s a top 2% seller on OBS with “over $100,000 gross sales over the six years [he’s] sold through the site…”

It’s only a matter of time before the mob is howling for Raggi’s blood (and probably Zak S’s or Jeff’s or any of the many others he publishes). So we’ll see how it goes. Raggi’s gone out of his way to offend before. Hell, his marketing relies on it, so I’m sure we’ll see the policies put to the test sooner or later.

Dyson Logos, someone I have a lot of respect for, himself has much respect for Mr. Wieck. By putting himself directly in the crosshairs, Mr. Wieck is clearly attempting to get ahead of this issue. I’m sure he’s got his heart in the right place, but when good intentions are your paving material, your road usually ends up only one place. Whatever he intends to have happen, people will attempt to abuse the system. Whether or not they succeed is entirely on Mr. Wieck’s shoulders. Maybe he had no choice; maybe he had to step into the middle of this. I do give Mr. Wieck props for not hiding behind passive-voice corp speak; he painted this target on himself. I just don't see how he did himself or OneBookShelf any favors by doing so. As he's sown, so shall he reap.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Success Guaranteed!

Are you familiar with the Garden of Eden trap?

It’s a way to short-circuit adventures before they really begin. Basically, it works like this: the PCs need to do a thing or the adventure stops. This can take all sorts of forms:
  • The PCs must surrender to the “obviously” overpowering forces of the enemy.
  • The PCs must solve the puzzle to get through to the next room.
  • The PCs must put these clues together in just the right way to figure out where to go next.
  • The PCs must put Tab A into Slot B (usually meaning bring a portable magic item to a fixed magic item, but it can be even worse when both items are portable).

But the absolute worst is: the PCs must succeed at a die roll to continue with the adventure.

You see that last one ALL THE TIME and it annoys me every time I see it. To find the hidden enemy, the PCs must find a secret door. To secure the McGuffin you must solve the puzzle. Heck, to even start the adventure you must pass a lore or intimidation or whatever check just to even learn about the dungeon’s existence!

If the PCs must succeed at a die roll to continue, what are you going to do when they fail?

And having three options isn’t enough. What if they entirely miss that one exists and flub the remaining two somehow? What will you do?

This is called the Garden of Eden trap because if Adam and Eve don’t eat the forbidden fruit, nothing changes; they stay in paradise and there’s no rest of the Bible.

Note that this isn’t the same as combat. Even if you get a TPK in combat, the adventure can continue; it just might be with different characters. But nobody wants to build entirely new characters just because the dice are ornery and nobody can pass a Lore check or something equally inane.

Secret doors and secret passages are cool, but they should be built with the idea that they are bonus material. If the PCs find the secret door, they should get extra loot. Or they offer a way around a nasty monster they’d have to fight otherwise. Or maybe they provide a safe space to rest and recuperate.

Ditto for puzzles. Either they can be solved by brute-force or simply going through every available option (taking the time to do so, of course), or they again offer access to bonus material: extra treasure, a sub-level of your dungeon, stuff like that.

If there is something the players must know so the adventure can continue (like, say, the actual location of the dungeon), then give it to them for free. If you want them to roll a die, then let them, and then tell them what they need to know regardless of how the roll came out. If they roll really well, you might also give them something extra (like that the dungeon is inhabited by lycanthropes or something equally useful). If they roll really poorly, tell them two things, one of which is true and the other of which is a lie.

But for the love of Pete, don’t force the players to succeed at a roll to continue or finish the adventure. If you do, you’d damned well better have more material for play that evening, because it won’t be the players’ fault if gaming ends early.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A Year of 5e

As Venger Satanis has pointed out, we're a now a year on from the release of 5e's PHB. He's curious to hear how people feel about it now.

I've been playing a lot of 5e lately, more, in fact, than I've been playing any other system. I have one face-to-face game that meets at least twice (and sometimes three times per month) with a huge group (seven players fairly consistently, making the largest group I've played with regularly) and a single one-on-one game that meets nearly weekly. The game is fun.

The first thing I'll note about it is how solidly designed it is. The action economy is subtle, low-key, and the solution to issues that have plagued every single version of the game that has come before. The complexity ramps up slowly (though I have players who are still not sure what a proficiency bonus is and what you apply it to). The classes are nicely delineated. The races do what they do and then get out of the way. Backgrounds, on the other hand, remain fun up through at least the mid levels.

I've not played with any characters beyond 7th level so far, so I've not been able to see what breaks down at later levels. Nothing feels broken, but when the PCs start dishing out damage in the triple digits it'll make you pause for a moment to catch your breath. (Yes, a group of 7 PCs focused on a single target can drop three-digits worth of damage around 3rd level without breaking a sweat.) HP inflation is everywhere you look, but it actually leads to AC being less important which means low-level monsters can still be interesting threats to mid-living characters.

Magic is badly nerfed. Yes, that flattens the power curves, but I keep wanting to do things with cool spells like charm person that would have been perfectly feasible in TSR-era D&D that are now a lot tougher. Likewise, monsters are a lot more focused. The maralith is a choppy-choppy melee monster, and she really doesn't have much else in the way of interesting combat abilities. She's really, really good at chopping things up, but...

The biggest issue I have with 5e, however, is that, at its core, it doesn't really know what it wants to be. (Thanks to Natalie Bennett for much of these insights, inspired by my frustration with 5e's succubus.) EXP is principally awarded for killing things, implying that combat remains the focus as it has for WotC's entire range of D&D versions. And yet there are monsters that feel confused as to their purpose, like the succubus who's clearly fallen in the gap between plot-instigator and melee-bruiser. It's not a game about exploration (though bits of it kinda want to be), while, at times, it wants to be a game about plots and stories.

So every now and then 5e will do something to frustrate your expectations. And after you get over the shock you'll be annoyed, largely because most of the time it's such a well-behaved rules set that plays well with everyone at the table, including (and possibly especially) the DM.

It's not an OSR game, but it isn't OSR-unfriendly, and it certainly fixes some of the issues you run into with TSR-era D&D. If you're a fan of the OSR and you're thinking about running 5e, the first thing I'd suggest houseruling is EXP. EXP-for-gold fixes a lot of 5e's more obnoxious issues. Pay very close attention to the rules for bonus actions and concentration; neither work the way you might assume and both make the game a lot more manageable at the table.

I haven't bought anything for 5e yet beyond the core books. I'll probably pick up the Rage of Demons adventure book just to see what they do with it, and how they do things like stat blocks and the like. So far, it's been very friendly towards updating old works and I've not felt any lack of cool things to throw at my players. We'll see if that continues to the be case as their current PCs rise in level, retire, and we start new campaigns.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

5e Licensing: the Plot Thickens?

If you listen to this interview with Mike Mearls at GenCon, you’ll hear the latest on third-party licensing for D&D 5e. The fun starts just after 45 minutes into the interview. Most specifically, Mearls says:

The plans we had grew bigger, and more complicated… what we have might not be exactly what people expect, but I think it’s just going to be seen as objectively better.

So what does that mean?

No idea, honestly. I think, however, we can safely rule out a blanket open license a la 3e’s OGL.

One thing I picked up from an interview with Ryan Dancey (I think on the Fear the Boot podcast) was that the OGL didn’t quite work the way they expected. Dancey and Co. had assumed that DMs would use the OGL to publish their homebrew adventures. (Keep in mind that, at this time, adventures were seen as loss-leaders; necessary support to grow an RPG, but individually unprofitable.) Instead, what they got was a flood of splatbooks.

And a flood of new character options is absolutely not what WotC wants to see for 5e. If you got back to Mearls’ comments from GAMA or the early part of the Tome Show interview, you’ll hear him talk about how important it is to keep the game lean, to not drown players (and especially DMs) with lots of new options, special cases, and new mechanics.

So I’m predicting a license that discourages character options, alternate games (i.e. True20 or Fading Suns d20), and the like, but encourages publishing adventures, settings, backgrounds, monsters and treasure. The push will be to use backgrounds, and not new classes or class paths, to make characters better fit the setting. Maybe races. Races could go either way, but I suspect they’ll be discouraged as well. And spells? Probably allowed, but that’s a grey area that might fall too close to making new classes and class variants.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What is Interesting?

Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque has tackled the question, “What makes a monster interesting?” The answer provided is the old standby of solutions to the been-there-done-that doldrums: reskinning.

With apologies to our good host at G&D, I've always been meh about reskinning. Call an ork a “bizak” and it's still an orc. Sure, describing goblins as "diminutive, wizened, man-like fey, each wearing a cloth cap that appears to be dipped in blood" is awesome the first time the PCs run into them. (And I love that description, by the way. Makes them sound like something from an Alan Lee illustration.) The second time, they'll just be “more of those wizened man-fey” and the third time they'll be “goblins” (or, possibly, “red-caps.”)

The problem with reskinning is that it's just kicking the can down the road. You've made a boring monster more interesting for a single encounter. What about the next time? And the time after that? You could just use different monsters every time, though if you're going to do that, why not just use different monsters before resorting to reskinning? There's almost certainly a goblin-analogue in Fiend Folio you haven't used yet, like xvarts or dark creepers.

What really makes a monster interesting is what the players can do with it. If your “wizened, man-like fey” are just another EXP-piƱata, well, ok, the PCs attack, dice are rolled, moving along. On the other hand, if the PCs can confound them by wearing their clothes inside out, that's a bit more interesting. Goblins you can trade with are more interesting yet, especially if they allow you to push deeper into the hex-crawl or are the only source for certain goods.

I want to return to that “inside-out” thing, though. Monsters that invoke fairy-tale logic are some of the best because they prod the players to interact with the world in non-standard ways. Vampires are awesome for this because they're nearly impossible to kill otherwise. But everyone knows how vulnerable they are if you expose them to sunlight or find their coffins. Now, suddenly, all sorts of things about the adventure are important: where is the nearest holy ground, what time of day is it, do the PCs encounter the vampire deep underground or in a tottering ruin or at a public event where exposure could thwart its plans? Players who couldn't care less about the campaign's calendar are suddenly very interested in the phases of the moon when they know they're up against lycanthropes.

Finally, monsters are interesting when they have a noticeable impact on the world. Goblins hiding up in their caves are not terribly interesting. Goblins who are raiding merchant caravans and driving up prices are a lot more interesting. Goblins who have infiltrated a walled city's sewers and are stealing babies for some nefarious purpose are more interesting yet. And they get even more interesting when they're feeding those babies to a black dragon who will rise from the sewers and wreak havoc should the flow of babies be interrupted by, say, a group of do-gooding adventurers. When slaying the monster doesn't mean just additional EXP, but also affects the world around them (lower prices at the blacksmith or the gratitude of a city no longer on the verge of riots), that makes the whole world more interesting. That's one of the cool things about dragons in the old stories. Slaying a dragon wasn't just an extra notch on the knight's sword hilt. It meant a new lease on life for the entire community the dragon was preying upon, it meant a happy reunion for the princess and her family, it unleashed a flood of lost wealth returned to the local economy. 5e kinda gets at that with their regional effects for “mythic” monsters, one of the things I very much appreciate about the new edition.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Blue Rose: the Kickstarting

Blue Rose is now a-Kickstarter-ing. As promised, they've dropped the (justly praised) True20 mechanics for their new AGE rule set. I can certainly understand how that makes sense from a business standpoint, and while AGE isn't the rules I'd go to for this project, I can also see how this will nicely expand what they've built for their Dragon Age pen-and-paper RPG.

There's a bit of blah-blah about how brave and edgy the game was. Of course, I don't read Green Ronin's hate-mail, but I was pretty active on Big Purple in those days. Mostly what I remember were complaints about how the humans of Aldis were slaves to some bizarre magical deer who picked their rulers. Even worse, in the eyes of many, was the fact that this magical deer supposedly rooted out treachery and corruption. In the “perfect” kingdom of Aldis, what was there for heroes to do?

I was generally of the opinion that these complaints were a bit overblown, since the setting seemed a perfectly playable version of Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar with the serial numbers filed off. Still, it looks like they've tackled that issue with their “framework” stretch goals. Even if they don't get published, they should give DMs ideas on what sorts of things you can do with the setting.

And I suspect at least a few of the stretch-goals will be hit, considering they're more than halfway to their original goal now, on the first day of the Kickstarter. Here's hoping we get a fun game that takes a slightly different perspective on the whole High Fantasy genre. I'm not sure I want them to bother selling it to the uninitiated or not, but I certainly don't want them to sell out the genre they're aiming to emulate. There's a lot more to “Romantic Fantasy” than just talking animals and gay characters.