Wednesday, March 17, 2010

D&D Animated Series to Blame for Magic Item Lurve

I started playing D&D in 1984, the same year the D&D cartoon came out. In case you don't remember this show, it's about six kids who ride the Dungeons & Dragons roller coaster at the amusement park. The ride somehow propels them into a fantasy world where they meet Dungeon Master, a pudgy, bald midget dude who instantly gives them magic weapons. The ranger gets a bow with no string or arrows, that shoots unlimited arrows. The barbarian gets a magic club. The cavalier gets a magic shield (no sword, no horse). The thief gets a cloak of invisibility. And the acrobat gets a magic staff, which can appear in her hands at will. The point of the show was for the kids to find a way back home. It was a cute show. My daughter and nephew are both six, so I decided to use them as an excuse to purchase and watch the series again.

My buddy Tony got the core AD&D books from his parents after seeing the cartoon. He had me over to play. What's the first thing he did? Assign me a magic item. Heck, we didn't even roll attributes yet. So now I know why my friends and I, and probably so many others who started out in those times, were obsessed with magic items in D&D.

I don't know why this is important, but I thought I'd share.

And for the record, the kids want to know more about D&D now. Mission accomplished. :)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Play-Thru: Leverage - The Quickstart Job

Margaret Weis Productions has announced Leverage: The Roleplaying Game, and with that has released the Quickstart Job. As would be expected, Leverage is powered by the Cortex System. The back of the book bears a logo that says "Cortex Plus." Given the many differences between the Cortex we already know and what is in this quickstart, it's appropriate to have at least a slightly different name. I've had a chance to run the Quickstart Job twice, with mostly different groups. My roleplaying group has been chosen as a playtest group for the game and had this in hand before release. It may be helpful to read my post about Cortex before continuing on. Also, anything I say could be different in the final release of the game, as it's still in development. This is really just what's in the quickstart.

Before I get into the game itself, I should probably talk about Leverage, the property on which this game is based. Leverage is a show set in our modern day. It's basically Ocean's Eleven meets Robin Hood. Nathan Ford is a former insurance investigator who hit rock bottom when his employer let his son die by refusing to cover the boy for a medical treatment that could have kept him alive. Given a chance to get even with his former employer, he wound up working with a team of criminals, each experts in their field: Parker, the really crazy (and completely adorable) master thief, Eliot, the "retrieval specialist" and resident muscle, Hardison the expert hacker, and Sophie the grifter (and occasional love interest for Nate). Over the course of working together, the group finds purpose in helping people get back at companies that are able to bypass the law with their power and money. The concept is, only thieves have a chance against such corruption.

The moment I saw the show, I was thinking roleplaying game. In the second season, they nudged me along by actually calling out the roles of each character: Nate was the Mastermind, Sophie was the Grifter, Parker was the Thief, Eliot was the Hitter, and Hardison was the Hacker. The more I thought about this as a roleplaying game though, the more trepidation I had about the whole concept of a heist/caper RPG. In my opinion, I've never truly seen the concept done right. Either you end up playing a modern dungeon crawl (don't split the party) or you have players twiddling their thumbs waiting for each specialist to do their job. In the best play circumstances, the GM's prep job is ridiculously cumbersome. The Leverage RPG seems as if it will find a sweet spot for me.

Gone from Cortex are skills. The character sheets have the traditional attributes in place, but instead of skills, there are stats for each role: Mastermind, Grifter, Hitter, Hacker, and Thief. Like skills of old, they're rated in die types, so the core mechanic of Cortex is basically intact, Attribute + Role Die. Instead of a difficulty number, the Guide (GM) rolls dice to generate a more fluid difficulty. On a glance I thought I'd just do away with the dice and have the Guide take the average roll, but that's where the new stuff kicks in, and Cortex becomes a roll-keep system.

Remember Traits from Cortex? They're slightly different now. They're a little like Aspects from Fate, really (small wonder since Rob Donoghue and Fred Hicks are on the development team). If a trait is helping you, you get to roll an additional d8. If a trait is hindering you, you roll a d4 and take a Plot Point. This leads me to another divergence.

Whenever you roll more than two dice, you still only keep the best two. This is now how you spend Plot Points. You spend them to keep more of the dice you rolled rather than to add dice to roll.

Whenever a player rolls a "1" on any of their dice, regardless of which dice they keep, it triggers a Complication. These are situational issues that come up, which give the Guide dice to add to his rolls whenever appropriate to the task at hand. For instance, if Nate causes a scene to give Parker some time, and the player rolls a 1, the team now has to deal with HEIGHTENED SECURITY d6, whenever it would apply. If HEIGHTENED SECURITY gets triggered again (with a roll of 1), it could be stepped up to a d8 and so on. The good news is 1) the Guide has to abide by roll-keep as well and 2) whenever a player rolls a 1, they receive a plot point.

The players have access to similar ammunition in Assets. They can spend a plot point at any time to create an Asset like SOPHIE DISTRACTED THE GUARDS d6 for a scene. If the Asset is purchased after the Guide rolls a 1, the Asset lasts for the rest of the story.

Needless to say, the Plot Points fly in all directions.

There is one combat encounter in the Quickstart Job (with a potential for two). I love the way it's handled. Basically, the player has an Endurance based on the character's Vitality. The bad guys get 2 plus one for each bad guy. So if a character has a 6 Endurance, and he's fighting three bad guys (5 Endurance), it seems like a pretty close match. Basically the player and Guide have a series of opposed rolls. Whoever wins takes an endurance from the opponent. Two get taken with an Extraordinary Success (win by five or more). Description of what's happening occurs between rolls. When someone's out of Endurance, they're Taken Out. It should be noted, too, that the outnumbering side gets additional dice for their numbers. So if three guys are rated at d8, the Guide would roll d6+3d8 to oppose the PC. If this is a Hitter the mooks are fighting, they're likely going up against 2d10 plus any Traits, Talents, or Assets that apply. In one of my plays, Eliot grabbed a WINE BOTTLE d6 and a FULL GLASS OF WINE d6 going into a fight.

I mentioned Talents. These are similar to Feats or Edges in other games. They let you break some rules or give you special perks, essentially. Eliot has one where, if the Guide rolls a one, he can spend a Plot Point to remove a die the Guide rolls for the rest of the encounter. Basically, he's Taken Out one of the bad guys.

The Quickstart Job is setup at the beginning of the con itself. There's "boxed text" of Nate and Hardison explaining the job, then the team is already on the scene. You of course play as the cast of the show. On both plays, my groups finished in two hours, counting rules explanation. The Quickstart Job doesn't mention the rules which I'm guessing will be included for job planning and other roleplaying opportunities. Feedback was nearly universally positive, and everyone wanted to see more. Even here in the desert, I can hardly wait for Summer.

Who is this for?

If you're a fan of Leverage, you need to check this out. Indie or Hippy gamers should totally check this out. It's Cortex laced with Fate and Dogs in the Vineyard. If you're frustrated with heists and capers in your modern games, there's something here for you.

Who should stay away?

If you prefer tactical play over narrative, this might not be your cup of tea. If you're not happy if there's no big combat in a game, you'll probably not enjoy this. If you hate the show and movies like Ocean's Eleven, 10-foot pole rule (also, we probably shouldn't hang out).

Honestly, I can't really see any group getting nothing out of this game. It had everyone at my table's wheels turning. It's inspired at least one campaign in a different genre already. What are you waiting for? Grab the Quickstart Job, and "let's go steal a holding company."

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Rolling Dice and Social Encounters

One of the most common arguments to be had in the roleplaying community is whether or not one should make skill checks for social encounters. This can range from interrogating a subject to the simple collection of information. Recently I've developed a new opinion on this subject--I used to be firmly in the camp of "just roleplay it out"--and it's one I'd like to share. I believe, in the interest of fairness, all encounters in a roleplaying game should be resolved in a similar way. This belief is based on two principles. The first is fairness. The second is anything important to a campaign can be a complex action.

Fairness is something often overlooked by roleplaying groups. It should be covered in a group's social contract (a subject for another time--for now, let Google be your guide), but most groups don't have them, at least not knowingly. In such circumstances, the rules of the group are usually governed by whomever is the Alpha--the leader. For instance, I've always argued in favor of "just roleplay it out." And do you know why? I'm good at it. I've been told I could sell Bill Gates an iMac. Is that really fair? Should I have an advantage over the other players because I'm good at social conflict in real life? I think not. Let's apply a pro "roleplay it out" stance to combat.

Let me introduce my friend Bill. Bill is skilled in at least four martial arts by my count. He's a hiker and a climber. Bill's in pretty good shape. And if you're reading this, it's more likely than not that Bill can kick your ass. So let's say you take "roleplay it out" as your method of resolving combat. Most people doing that at a table with Bill at it would be insane--suicidal or at least masochistic. Roleplaying games already know this, though. So it's not an issue. But is combat really more pivotal than social encounters? It depends of course.

The real question to be asked in a game is, "how pivotal is the action a character is taking?" The only honest answer is, "it depends." But when social encounters are supposed to be important, most game systems fall short. Some games have attacked the problem by having generic conflict mechanics, which can be applied to anything. Some game systems have full-on combat systems and give lip service to other complex actions by having a generic mechanic. One game system I have to applaud for their social-to-combat ratio is the one behind Green Ronin's A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying. The combat chapter is longer than the social conflict chapter, but the social conflict mechanics are every bit as deep and basically use the same system.

I believe comfort level is the real issue behind this. Most gamers are media consumers. In media it's easy to learn how to describe a fight. But couldn't the same be applied to the social? Not always, and with good reason. When you describe combat, you're using a tool other than your hands and feet to do it. When you describe a social conflict, that's not the case. The very mouth you use to communicate is the one the experts use when they're arguing. But honestly, some people aren't good at describing a good ass-kicking either. They get to roll the dice. Why shouldn't those taking social actions?

I think the answer is most gaming groups do it backwards. We say what our character will do, then we roll the dice. This is overlooked in combat. We're just used to describing a combat action and having it not pan out because of dice--it's the norm. (I think this is why diceless systems came into being.) But when we give impassioned speeches or make excellent arguments and roll a failure, it just feels wrong. Part of the reasoning is conditioning--for the first several years of roleplaying's existence, combat was king. So many groups have either dispensed with rolling for social actions completely or they roll and don't let the talented people (like myself) take the stage.

I think with a simple twist it's easy to start repairing this damage (as perceived by me) without abandoning our favorite, non-social game engines. Roll then describe. Need to persuade somebody? Make your rolls then act it out. The roll tells you how you need to do. Those who aren't comfortable with acting out social can skip all the details. Those who are comfy with it can go for it. There is a problem with this method. Getting people to act on failure can be tough. At least in combat, the overall outcome is uncertain. Would most gaming groups act out a combat scene knowing they couldn't win? I don't think so. It's still unfair to ask it of players in social situations, but I think its better than the alternative. Another option would be to derive mechanics from combat and apply them to other encounters yourself.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Looking into Old School

Recently, I got into the tabletop Dragon Age RPG from Green Ronin. One of the reasons I like it is because it invokes an old school feel, in presentation and play. This got me thinking about the old school renaissance again. Last year I was looking into this stuff, until I got sidetracked. But between really enjoying Dragon Age and seeing Swords & Wizardry (a retro-clone of OD&D--if your not sure what I mean here, check out this episode of TGTT) being run at the most recent Tucson RPG Guild gathering, my interest is piqued again.

If you aren't sure how to quantify what old school is, check out Matthew Finch's excellent A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming. If Matt's essay doesn't make you want to play in a dungeon crawl or build a dungeon, or at least make you think about the way your play, feel free to ignore my posts with the "old school" label.

On a related note, I picked up the PDFs of Goblinoid Games' Labyrinth Lord Revised (LL) and Advanced Edition Companion (there are free "no art" versions, but buy the full art versions--totally worth it). LL is a retro-clone of early-80s Basic D&D, and the Companion allows you to add AD&D-style character depth to the simpler basic rules. I had a customer service-oriented issue, which I brought up to Dan Proctor, the man behind Goblinoid. That was last night. This morning, he not only got back to me, but he totally solved my problem. I'm decently sure Dan had no idea who I was when he got my email, so I can only assume this is how he treats everyone. Either way, I told him I'd spread the word on his awesome service, so here it is. Thanks again, Dan!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

To Screen or Not to Screen?

In a fairly recent conversation on the Pinnacle Entertainment Group forums, I argued in favor of using a GM screen to, at least occasionally, hide rolls. The longer the conversation continued, it got me thinking about my philosophies regarding this. Then I read this post from Rob Donoghue's blog, and I had an epiphany. I'd already done some "roll then describe" stuff with my group, but I never applied it in as wide a scope as Rob's article suggests. I also held on to at least a few secret rolls prior to this read. I resolved to give it a try when next I ran a game, which happened to be my first run of Dragon Age last week.

I sat at the table, GM screen in front of me--I had created three additional panels of tables, to supplement the reference on the back of the GM's Guide, in an effort to minimize book flipping. I sat there, GM screen in front of me, and explained how roll then describe would work at our table. The players seemed game to give it a whirl, so we went for it.

When the first combat encounter began, I realized soon that I needed those tables, but I also felt like I was cut off from the rest of the players. The screen I was using was of the vertical style, and I've been using horizontal-style screens for years. I'm sure that extra height added to my discomfort. Since my screen was custom, I pulled the sheets out of the screen. My wife suggested I put them back-to-back in sheet protectors to save space, which I did. We made the quick adjustment and got on with our combat. I must say I have never felt so engaged with my players. I've gone sans screen before, using my hands to hide a roll, but I never actively paid attention to the difference in feel at the table until now.

I can honestly say I don't see myself ever using a GM screen again, outside of having it handy to check out a chart. And if I ever fall back on secret rolls (something I no longer intend to do, but who knows what a given system will require?), there is always my hand to hide them.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Play-Thru: Dragon Age

Last night I ran Dragon Age for the first time. I won't be posting "actual play" here because I'm running the included adventure in the GM's Guide. I'm not a fan of spoilers, either in the giving or the receiving. If I ever post true actual play, it won't be with a published adventure. In my previous post, I started talking about Dragon Age, but for completeness, I may repeat some of what I said there, here.

For those not in the know, Dragon Age is based on the video game of the same name. Chris Pramas of Green Ronin designed it with a new system called the Adventure Gaming Engine (AGE). I've played roughly 90 minutes of the video game, so I don't feel I have the knowledge to compare the two, so I will be ignoring any comparisons to canon.

My understanding is the pen and paper version of Dragon Age is meant to attract newcomers to the hobby, so it's written with novice players in mind. To that end, everything about the presentation of this game evokes "entry to the hobby." The player is primed for the setting, taught to make a character, then taught how to use it. All the while, excellent play advice is given. The GM's Guide gives tons of advice on running a game, which can most often be applied to any game. There's some additional rules info as well. A small bestiary is included, along with guidance on rewards. The book finishes off with an introductory adventure, which is designed to introduce the players and GM to the mechanics of the game. The GM is treated to inline advice on running the game, including reminders to remind the players of their options.

One final note on the books. This is "Set 1," and it only covers levels 1 to 5 (sound familiar?). Many have complained about this fact. I, on the other hand, applaud the choice. For one, I love the Red Box feel of that. For two, I think it allows this first set to really drill down on getting the players going. The message is clear: here's what you need today; now go play.

We played through the first three scenes of the game last night, and so far, I'm impressed. My only quibble with the books is the rules for Advanced Tests are only in the GM's Guide. Advanced Tests are AGE's way of dealing with extended actions and remind me of Skill Challenges from D&D 4E. This is great since Skill Challenges are one of the few positive takeaways I have from 4E (I reviewed 4E on TGTT awhile back, and it was mostly positive, but I soured on the game rather quickly). Before getting into the details of Advanced Tests, I should discuss the other mechanics of the game.

Character creation is mostly random, which turns out to be a good thing. First, it evokes old school, an obvious design goal of this game. Second, it makes creation easier for newcomers, another design goal--mission accomplished. I was initially turned off by the randomness, in part because the sample characters Green Ronin provides could not have been made unless all the players were extremely lucky or cheated on their rolls. I was going to use a point buy system but decided it was counter to the goals of the game. So I went with an old D&D house rule. Since abilities are derived by rolling 3d6, I had the players roll 3d6, but re-roll ones and twos. My instincts were dead on, as the characters the players came up with were pretty well in line with the samples.

Characters are made up of Abilities, Focuses, and Talents, essentially. Abilities are your basic stats; there are eight: Communication, Constitution, Cunning, Dexterity, Magic, Perception, Strength, and Willpower, and they start out ranging from 1 to 4. Those Abilities are derived from a 3d6 roll and a table reference. Average is considered a 1. Focuses are used instead of skills; they're attached to Abilities. If you have a Focus, you add two to your result. Focuses aren't required unless otherwise noted. Talents are similar to Feats or Edges. They give you little extra things you can do, like re-roll a failed result, use an action faster, etc.

After you roll up your Abilities, you'll choose your Background. Backgrounds add a layer to race and class. Basically, they give you Focuses, Ability raises, Languages, and Weapon Groups. They are also how you choose race, and they're the gateway to the three classes, Mage, Rogue, and Warrior. I had a concern about Dragon Age only having three classes, but Backgrounds make it much more interesting, alleviating my concern.

Like Backgrounds, classes give you access to Weapon Groups, but they round you out with Talents, Class Powers, and Starting Health. Mages will choose spells as well.

Gear is handled well. Characters have starting wealth, but they also receive automatic adventuring equipment in addition to their money. It sets you up with the basics, plus weapons and simple armor. Everything you need is in here, but I must say the first thing I looked for was a 10-foot pole and was disappointed (only on a nostalgic level).

OK. So you have a character; what's the system like? I have to say AGE is very cool. In other media, I might say awesome! Here's the gist of the system: roll 3d6 (one of which is a different color--the Dragon Die), add the Ability, and add +2 if you have the focus. Target Number (TN) is determined by the GM, with 11 being Average, and it goes up or down by twos.

In combat, a character must have the appropriate Weapon Group or suffer a -2 to their attack roll and half damage. Characters can still take a Focus later, to add the +2 as well. There is no listed botch mechanic (unless I'm forgetting), and the Stunt Points system takes the place of critical hits.

If you roll doubles when making an attack roll (or casting a spell), and you succeed, the number on the Dragon Die gives you Stunt Points, which must be spent immediately or lost. Stunts are effects that can be added in addition to normal damage. The obvious one is here, adding additional damage. All the other Stunts are most commonly found in other RPGs as maneuvers declared before an attack, and in those cases, they usually cause the innovative player to take penalties and often fail. For instance, if you want to knock a character prone in a given RPG, you'll often have to do some special maneuver that requires opposed rolls, penalties to your attack roll, or worse: both. In Dragon Age, this stuff happens after you roll. It also makes it more cinematic, and, in my opinion, more like fiction.

In fiction, the protagonist often gets the best of her opponent through providence--the character either sees an opening or has an epiphany. Stunts mimic that perfectly. You make an attack; you roll doubles and get Stunt Points. Here's how it could be narrated:

I melee attack the guard on my right, and when I strike my target, I see that he's off balance, so I follow through, knocking him prone. My momentum carries me through to attack my other opponent. I deal 14 damage to the prone guard; then I hit the second opponent for 11 damage. I then step past the downed guard, putting some distance between me and the standing one.

You can totally do that in AGE, if you get a 6 on your Dragon Die. What I like is the game rewards you for rolling the doubles rather than penalizing you for having interesting ideas.

The one drawback I expected to the Stunt Point system is the potential for analysis paralysis, and I was right. When doubles were rolled, it stopped the table cold. I expect the issue will improve in extended play. Here's the interesting part: it didn't hurt the game. Even with the extra time things took--we only got through the first three scenes of the adventure--everyone had a blast. And by the end of the one combat we did, veteran gamers were already flying through the stunts.

The Dragon Die has a couple other uses in the game. For one, it determines how well you succeed at a given task. So if a rogue is jumping between rooftops and gets a 1 on the die, he barely makes it or at least lands clumsily. If he gets a 6, he may look like an Olympic athlete. The included adventure also has tables for investigation bits, where the Dragon Die determines the level of detail found on success. I can conjure many uses for the Dragon Die, thanks to this little detail.

The final use of the Dragon Die is for Advanced Tests. Like I mentioned, this is when you are taking an extended action that requires detail and/or the measurement of time. Basically, you have the task TN, like a normal action, and you have a Threshold to reach to complete the task. When you succeed at a roll, the Dragon Die gives you a number of points toward meeting you Threshold. Each roll can be a measurement of time to say how long something takes, or it could be used for social encounters. An example for social could be to convince an angry crowd to not maul you to death, say TN 13, Threshold 10.

Health in the game is very straightforward. If you reach zero, you're dying. Your friends have rounds to save your bacon. There are numerous ways to heal to keep your character going. I like this, and it doesn't feel as forced as the way 4E does it, meaning it never feels like you clicked on something to heal--though I guess that feeling would be more appropriate in Dragon Age, given it's actually based on a video game IP.

The magic system in AGE is interesting. There are Stunts available, and they do everything from making spells cheaper to use to strengthen them to making them harder to resist. Spells cost Mana points to cast, and there's a skill roll. Many spells give opponents a chance to resist. The ability to resist is determined by the spell and the TN is determined through a Spellpower: Magic ability plus 10, with a +2 if you the mage has the appropriate Focus. One cool thing about mages is they all have an ability called Arcane Lance, which is a low-powered, ranged attack that doesn't use Mana points, so a mage is never completely useless in combat, regardless of Mana level.

I look forward to exploring the AGE system more. I sincerely hope this system is expanded out and used for other genres. Giving the system a separate name from the IP certainly paves the way for more genres and even licensing.

To be honest, it's hard not to gush about this system. It's an inspiring design, and I want more. I'm already coming up with multiple ideas on my own. I'm going to love tweaking this game. My only hope is that Green Ronin a) gets the other boxes out quickly and b) decides to use this system for other things and/or license it out.

Who is this for?

I'd say this is definitely meant as an entry level RPG, though the system has so much potential. It's also an excellent rules light system. Indie gamers looking for a crossover product should check this out as well.

Who should stay away?

If you like "crunchy" systems or a lot of attempts at realism, this is certainly not your game. If you are looking for a treatment on the Dragon Age setting, be warned: this is just a primer on a small section of the world.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Thinking About Dice

Lately, with my decision to play new RPGs this year, I've been checking out a few new games. What's been interesting me most, for some reason, is innovative dice mechanics. For years I've been narrowing down what I like and don't like in a dice mechanic. Here's what I've come to so far.

I like roll up systems better than roll under. It just seems fundamentally off to me to want a low number. It gets really wonky when a counter-intuitive mechanic is added in, such as when an opposed roll looks for the highest roll, while staying under the target (I've seen so many systems; I wish I could say what it was--probably a BRP derivative of some sort). I get the logic, truly, but this reminds me of some encounters I've had with mentally unstable people over the years: do you want me to roll high, or do you want me to roll low? Make up your mind! Roll up systems make you feel like you're trying to reach a goal, at least, so I'm cool with that.

I'm somewhat lukewarm to dice pool systems, with the exception of the excellent Ubiquity system--I went over this one when I talked about player facing rolls. Most dice pool systems have a couple of problems for me. For one, and this goes to success-based dice pool systems, it seems anti-climactic to roll 10 dice and come up with a result of "three." The feeling is almost akin to roll under systems. Roll up dice pool systems (decried by many) are better, but if I have to add up a ton of numbers, I'd rather it be for damage than to find out if my character "made it up that wall." I think the Cortex system hits a sweet spot for me--attribute die, skill die, trait die, roll up.

I like roll-keep systems. I can't pinpoint why, to be honest, but I can say with all honesty that I've always loved the most popular roll-keep style games, including John Wick's L5R and 7th Sea games and Shane Hensley's classic Deadlands. Of course my recent go-to system, Savage Worlds, is a simplified roll-keep concept as well.

Over the years, I've lost interest in single-die systems. There are three I love, though: Mutants & Masterminds, Unisystem, and Gumshoe. But this is in spite of the single die. (M&M is my all-time favorite supers game because it does everything Champions ever did with relative simplicity. Unisystem is the home of my all-time favorite, if ill-fated, modern urban fantasy setting, Witchcraft. Gumshoe stands, in my opinion, as the best investigative game engine ever conceived.) When I roll a single die, I often get the "you mean that's it?" feeling. I have no other explanation. I could go on about dice curves and probability and such, but honestly, my feeling toward single-die system seems purely emotional to me.

Speaking of innovative dice mechanics, I've been checking out Dragon Age from Green Ronin. Powered by GR's new Adventure Gaming Engine (AGE), it uses three six-sided dice for resolution and d3s and d6s for damage. Like BASH!, the fun stuff is triggered when you roll doubles, but this is particularly in combat and spellcasting. I said you roll 3d6, but one must be a different color. This is the Dragon Die. When you roll doubles on an attack or a spell, and succeed, the Dragon Die result is the number of Stunt Points you receive to modify what you're doing. Combat stunts can range from an extra damage die to knocking the opponent prone to adding to your defense. There's more you can do of course. You can even use multiple effects if you have the points. On its face it seems very exciting, reminding me of those times in fiction when the protagonist sees an opening, perhaps getting lucky, and takes it, to staggering, climactic effect.

There's been a lot of talk over the years about RPGs that penalize players for being innovative (most of them, really). If you want to do this extra thing or that cool thing, there's a penalty to your roll. To me, this Dragon Die/Stunt Points mechanic seems to mimic fiction better. It neither rewards nor punishes innovation, but relies on providence, much like the hero in a story.

I do have one concern about AGE, and this comes more from my board game experience than my roleplaying experience: analysis paralysis (taking too long to make a decision). The stunt system in Dragon Age has the potential to stop a table cold as a player peruses the stunt table, like a restaurant menu, for the perfect stunt. I think if the issue occurs it will most likely be a temporary one, as folks get used to the system.

Tonight I get to find out, as I'll be running the game for family and friends. Two of the players are kids, a pre-teen and an early teen, so I'm excited. I'll report back here about the experience at the table.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Magic in Swords & Sorcery

In the last year or so, I've really rekindled my love for the swords and sorcery (S&S) genre. I'm talking about Lankhmar, the Black Company, and, to a lesser extent, Conan. Specifically, I've been thinking about the role of magic in a S&S game.

For me, the Lankhmar books seem to nail it--protagonists don't use magic; magic uses them. Magic is a sinister force which happens to the characters, much the way nature happens to them. I find the magic systems I'm aware of lacking here. They either simply don't work this way, or attempts to model this approach are just tacked on an existing system.

I'd love to see a system designed around this type of magic.

In a game like this, the magic chapter would be found in the GM's section, right alongside the bestiary and foes chapters. It would be another tool in the GM's arsenal, used in storytelling. Players would encounter magic, and, should they wield it, they would wield it temporarily and at great peril. Those in the world who wield magic would be alien to the PCs, either changed by magic or never human to begin with. Were a PC to make use of magic too often or too long, they would be changed in some way. Indeed, every instance in which a PC encounters magic, they would be in danger of some sort of corruption or mutation, physical or otherwise.

This concept makes for an interesting design goal.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Read-Thru: BASH! Ultimate Edition

Recently, I've been looking for an easy-to-run game to use with new players. As providence would have it, I found a complimentary coupon code in my email, from the fine folks at Basic Action Games, which netted me the PDF version of BASH! Ultimate Edition (Basic Action Super Heroes), the latest iteration of a rules light RPG that manages to keep it simple, while allowing players to reenact every major trope of super-powered fiction, be it comics, movies, or cartoons. Overall, the game definitely scratches an itch for me.

The Basics of Basic Action

The core mechanic is a 2d6 roll, multiplied by the appropriate stat. The dice themselves explode in an odd and cool way: if you roll doubles, you get to roll an extra d6 and add it to the dice total before the multiplier. If your extra die happens to match the original doubles, you get to roll and add another, and this repeats till the bonus die doesn't match. Again, all this before the multiplier.

A typical stat goes no higher than five, but different circumstances (equipment, powers, etc.) can bring the multiplier up beyond 10, depending on the power level of the game. There's potential for some very high results. For instance, when playing a cosmic-level game, there is a 200+ success level (called Beyond Imagination). Regardless of this, BASH! seems like it will handle all power levels, from pulp heroes like the Shadow, to the Power Cosmic-wielding Silver Surfer.

Like many modern games, BASH! has in-game currency, called Hero Points. Hero points can be used to add to rolls; they can be combined to buy Hero Dice, which can be used to great effect. The Narrator gets equivalent currency in the form of Setbacks and Villain Dice respectively.

The game includes over 70 powers, and I could find nothing of note missing from the list. There are simple systems in place to modify powers to make them cooler or cheaper. The amount of customization is astounding, given the ease of the creation system. We're not talking 80s Marvel game easy (due to BASH!'s point buy character generation--random will almost always be easier, if not more desirable) or Champions (or even Mutants & Masterminds) depth (no higher math required), but it hits a sweet spot that appeals.

The details of the system manage to stay light while giving players options to imitate great comics moments like the Fastball Special. The knockback rules guarantee all kinds of genre-appropriate property damage. There are even rules in place for completely scalable, improvised weapons--from lamp posts to city buses.

Over half the book is for GMs. The Narrator's chapter is packed with tips for running a game. Given my recent interest in player-facing rolls, I found it interesting that the rules for minions make fighting them completely player-facing. While only minions work that way, it's nice to see the concept in use in another game. An additional nice feature in this section is a series of random encounter tables.

The Settings chapter provides genre-specific tweaks for running in 10 different styles, including all the proverbial "ages" found in comics, as well as pulp, super teens, cosmic, sci-fi, and fantasy. Included are ideas for mixing genres as well.

Finally, there are appendices, which include an archetype appendix, broken down by character scale, and a whole section on alternate mechanics for the game, which includes several different resolution options to include dice pools, playing cards, and Fudge dice.

What I Would Change

The book starts out with a glossary of terms and leads right into character creation and rules, which is great, but I found important rules hidden in the Powers chapter (which comes after the rules) that aren't necessarily power-specific, like the details on how area effect works in the game. Also, the minion rules are hidden in the Narrator's chapter, which wouldn't be a problem if the writer didn't make a big deal out of the need for transparency between the Narrator and the players in a super hero game. Why not just put all the rules in the rules chapter?

BASH! uses quite a few tables. I'd like to see the tables put together at the end of the book or in a free download on the website. The book does include a dice roll chart on the back of the book (for those who don't want to use a calculator or wait for someone to multiply 23 by nine in their head), but it's the back cover of the book, which is black--printing that table for those who need it would use a ton of ink. I did notice a more printer friendly chart available on the website, which is a good thing.

The core mechanic of the game is so different (in a good way) from others I've seen. This book needs tons more substantive examples. For instance, sometimes modifiers are applied to dice rolls (before the multiplier), sometimes modifiers are applied to the multiplier, and sometimes modifiers are applied to the final result. A few more examples might help a reader contextualize which to use in what situations better. Also, there are success levels in the game, but sometimes you have to beat a target number by a certain amount--essentially a target number modifier.


While this is a locked PDF, which I'm not a fan of, BASH! is fully bookmarked, and the publisher left copy and paste capability intact. There's no printer-friendly version, but BASH!'s clean layout couldn't get much more printer friendly without removing all the art, which has always seemed wrong to me.

Who is this for?

Anyone who's ever wanted to try a supers game but was intimidated or turned off by the front-loaded, math-heavy character creation typical of the genre should check this game out. BASH! also seems well-suited to introduce new players. Old school gamers would probably get a kick out of this game, as it leaves much open to GM interpretation. Finally, I'd feel pretty comfortable handing out some of the archetypes from the back of the book and running a pick-up game with this, no notice needed--and who doesn't have a need for that?

Who should stay away?

If you like highly detailed character options, this is not the game for you. If you find yourself wanting more realism in a game, move along. If you want a lot of detailed rules for every possible maneuver, I'd also recommend checking out another product.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Player-Facing Rolls

A lot of RPG rules are promoted as getting "out of the way" of the story. Many of them actually succeed. As a GM, one thing I've always looked for is, "what's in it for me?" One feature I'm a fan of is when a game allows (but doesn't require) the GM to make all rolls player-facing. What do I mean, you ask?

In the typical RPG model, players roll dice for antagonists, and GMs roll for everything else. Some systems have options in place to either reduce or remove the need for the GM to roll dice. If a PC attacks, the player rolls to hit; if a PC is attacked, the player rolls to defend. This is player facing. Two systems come to mind for this: Cinematic Unisystem and Ubiquity. They go about it in slightly different ways.

Cinematic Unisystem, the engine behind Eden Studios' licensed properties like Army of Darkness and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, breaks the game's stats down into three scores (by combining stats and adding an average die roll), which provide the check number and target number for anything affecting the NPC in question. To paraphrase my friend Thomas Deeny, the GM and the players are essentially playing two different games. The method Cinematic Unisystem uses could be adapted to a lot of games. In fact, D&D 4E and Star Wars Saga Edition use a similar philosophy to come to its Defense numbers (which replaced the original d20 Saving Throws)--attribute bonuses plus average die roll.

Ubiquity uses a dice pool system with very simple math behind it--each die has a 50% chance of success--so you know if your dice pool is 10, for instance, your average roll will bring five successes. Since the core mechanic is opposed rolls, it's easy to see how a GM would never have to roll. Even if there's an odd number of dice (in which case, Ubiquity rules you just roll one die to find out which way it goes), the GM can simply choose to round in a direction based on the situation--it's basically one more way a GM can set difficulty.

Not all systems can be made to work this way without extensive modification. For instance, no system with exploding dice could be modified to work this way easily. It would just make for too many wonky situations. Systems with no opposed roll mechanics--or at least target numbers derived from theoretical opposed rolls--are also off the table if one is looking for easy conversion to this resolution method.

I'm a fan of player-facing rolls because I find dice-rolling more enjoyable as a player than as a GM. Also, it really does help a system get out of the way of a story and gives the GM much more control over the pacing at the table. Few things slow a table down like waiting for the GM to roll for a bunch of attacks or defenses. And in the case of games with an opposed roll mechanic, it cuts the total number of dice rolls in half. Finally, games without the wild factor of GM rolls tend to be easier to prepare for.

If your system of choice lends itself to this type of change, or if you have a chance to try a new system, I recommend giving player-facing rolls a try.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Cortex is Not a Savage Worlds Clone

Last year, I decided I would run a regular game that wasn't Savage Worlds in 2010. Sounds simple enough (why would an experienced GM need to make that kind of resolution?), but it is in fact a tough thing. You see, I've tried it before. I've read other games, run one-shots. But for multiple reasons, I've always fallen back to Savage Worlds--at least since 2005. One reason is my group, especially my wife, is really into Savage Worlds. The system's comfortable to us and Savage Worlds is really versatile. Also, with my busy life its tough to gain a familiarity with a system like the one I have with Savage Worlds. But for my sanity as a "system guy," I have to do it. So I publicly declared I would (see, I did it again--damn!).

On my search, I decided I wanted to look at modern games. I looked at White Wolf's World of Darkness and decided it was too much fluffy reading to find both the rules and the point of the game. I thought about adding the core rules in with Second Sight, but I got frustrated in trying to find the mechanics plainly explained--did I mention I was spoiled by Savage Worlds? I thought about going with something like Hunter, then I realized I'd be going through over 300 pages of Second Sight-like reading, plus a re-read of the World of Darkness corebook (200+ pages), and thought better of it. Don't get me wrong. I like White Wolf. I think their products are cool. But I just don't have the time and patience to act as a GM, at least the way I'd want to, with their rules. But Hunter did intrigue me, so I at least had a lead.

Enter the Supernatural RPG from Margaret Weis Productions--sort of. I should go back a bit. Last year at Origins I grabbed a copy of the Cortex rulebook--because I was intrigued that it came with a PDF download code--and promptly tossed it on my RPG shelf when I got home. I even downloaded the PDF and promptly tossed it on my RPG thumb drive (nearly eight gigs of gaming goodness). A couple weeks ago, I opened the book for what was basically the first time (I did open it that one time to get the PDF code, ya know). It seemed pretty interesting, but I wanted something all-in-one. Then, enter the Supernatural RPG--really.

Another aside: I should mention there's a special relationship between those who love the Cortex System (which powers Supernatural) and those who love Savage Worlds. The basic belief is that one copied the other. On the surface, I can see where this comes from, and since Savage Worlds came first, I get it. There are some similarities, too: Cortex uses die types for Attributes and Skills just like Savage Worlds. Savage Worlds has Edges and Hindrances, and Cortex has Assets and Complications (they even both use "minor" and "major" descriptors, at least for the negative Hindrances and Complications--at least in the Serenity iteration of Cortex). Savage Worlds has bennies; Cortex has Plot Points (a name that will initially confuse the hell out of a Savage--it did me, at least). When the Serenity RPG came out, I bought it immediately (sort of--it sold out so fast I ended up with a second printing). Then I flipped through it and saw the die types and major and minor Complications. Then I went to the Pinnacle forums and saw them compared. My group ended up running a Savage Firefly game in lieu of Serenity, and the Serenity book sat on my shelf.

I can't say whether there was any copying going on or not. I've been told they are just close because of their core mechanic. Cortex's came from Sovereign Stone, and Savage Worlds' came from the Great Rail Wars (and before that Deadlands). I have been told Cortex's designer, Jamie Chambers, was a Deadlands fan. But to be honest none of this matters. The pen and paper RPG business is too small and too incestuous to pretend it matters. What matters is the results--good game or no?

Back to Supernatural (for real, this time). I picked it up because I thought I was cheating. I could pretend I was using a new system, but it was so much like Savage Worlds (I'd heard), it would be nothing to learn it and run it. Also, Supernatural was a self-contained, monster hunting game of just 180 pages. To run Hunter, I'd be going through 500+ pages of material. If I wanted to explain the setting, I could just have my players watch the show--we have DVDs of Cute Boys Hunt Monsters (my wife's name for the show) in my house. So I read the intro and game basics chapters of Supernatural and skipped character creation in favor of the play rules--I was all set to start comparing them to Savage Worlds. What a surprise I would find.

First off, the Complications (and the Assets, for that matter) weren't using "minor" and "major" like Savage Worlds' Hindrances. They were using die types instead. And in many cases they'll be rolled. Huh? That's different. It's a full roll up system, rather than Savage Worlds' roll and keep. There are Life Points (a really cool hit point system) instead of the tiered Wound system. Combat rounds are three seconds, not six. And Cortex didn't get any mechanics from miniatures games like Savage Worlds (the minis thing is a sticking point for me--I generally don't like using them), so you can just skip minis if you please. The biggest difference I found is in the way bonuses and penalties are assigned. Savage Worlds has bonuses and penalties to roll results. Cortex adjusts the die type up and down in steps (which reminds me of a rules-light version of Earthdawn's Step mechanic). There's also adjustable difficulty numbers. So die steps are applied to character conditions, and difficulty levels are assigned to environmental conditions.

The bottom line is Cortex is very different than Savage Worlds. And I like it. I've settled on it for my non-Savage regular game this year. Is it better? I don't know. I haven't played it yet. I'm running Supernatural next month at SAGA's Tucson RPG Guild meeting. I'm not running Supernatural at home though. Why, you say?

I found out that the Cortex System has done a ton of evolving. Serenity could be called Cortex 1.0, Battlestar Galactica could be dubbed 2.0. Supernatural and the Cortex book could be referred to as 2.5. This came up when I joined the Cortex forums. I was then contacted by Cam Banks, current Guy In Charge of Cortex. Cam comped me a PDF of the Big Damn Heroes Handbook (thanks, Cam!). This book is an add-on to the Serenity RPG and brings that game's system up to 2.5 with optional rules. It also goes a bit further with some new, indie-inspired mechanics for Cortex. I put it to my Facebook and Twitter friends I was torn between Serenity and Supernatural. Between some comments there and discussions with my wife, I've decided to go with Serenity, but thanks to my buddy, Berin "Unclebear" Kinsman, I may end up introducing aspects of Supernatural into the 'Verse.

I'll post more on my experience with Cortex as it comes up.

Monday, January 4, 2010

What's this?

Good question.

This is where I'll be writing about all things gaming related. My posts will discuss game theory, mechanics, play, etc. I'm mostly interested in writing about tabletop games like pen and paper roleplaying games and board and card games, but the occasional video game or some other category may come up. Also, there's no telling what other geekery I may feel the need to write about. If it's plausible a guy like me may be interested, it's plausible it could show up here.

So why blog about it?

Well, my life is pretty much consumed by gaming. Nearly everything I do is gaming related. I manage a board and hobby game store, I produce two gaming podcasts (The Game's the Thing and Smiling Jack's Bar & Grill), I work on the suite of gaming podcasts produced by Pulp Gamer (I'm actually affiliated with them beyond the "cast" level, too--more to come on that front), and I'm a freelance writer, editor, and budding designer in the pen and paper roleplaying business (there could even be a small publishing business in my future--we'll see).

Oh, and I play games, too. Funny, that.

Summing it up, I guess I just have a lot to say. I sincerely hope you enjoy what comes of this, and I welcome your comments.