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.