Showing posts with label game design. Show all posts
Showing posts with label game design. Show all posts

December 11, 2009

The Complete, Unabridged Manual Of How To Play Roleplaying Games


Has it all been said before?

The RPG internet community has roots that extend back more than two decades. Yes, it's true - people were discussing roleplaying games on the internet before it was even the internet. Shocking. I know. Go here to boggle your brain. OK... back? Now that you have read advice on gaming that is some 25+ years old... you might now be wondering the same thing: Is it possible that everything there is to say about gaming has been said? Is tabletop gaming a finite creative space? If you take the collective meta-mind of the tubes (read:teh intehnetz or teh blogezfear) - is there anything really new for the community to discover? Has the community as a whole really made any DING! groundbreaking revelations in the last few years?

I might argue NO. I might even say that everything the RPG blogging community rants about has been ranted about by thousands of people for close to 30 years. I should really post some screenshots from some early Dragon magazine "Letters to the Editor" columns... but I think you get my point.

I'm not talking about new creatures, adventures, villains, worlds, creative settings, dice, types of miniatures, or even rule systems. That's all in the field of content - which is arguably inexhuastible. That would be like asking if every story that could be written has been written. Of course... that may very be true too. But that's another issue.

I'm talking about advice. Comments, shared with others, about HOW to play. HOW to be a better game referee, GM, DM, storyteller, marshall, or whatever you call it. What works - what doesn't. How to build tight social groups that faciliate immersive play. etc. What's new? If you were to read everything that has been written before, in chronological order: at what point in time would you say "OK... nothing new here". Would it be the early 80's? Gaming has changed alot since then. Perhaps the mid-1990's? Maybe never?

Is it possible that I'm completely out-of-the-park off base here?

I'm still going to say no - so if I'm not off base, and I am on to something... then has anyone tried to make a definative guide to roleplaying games? I'm not talking about D&D For Dummies. I'm talking about something akin to Black's Law , but for tabletop roleplaying games. A reference that everyone hails as being the de facto jumping off point for further discussion. A manual on RPGs in general, in all its crazy variations on a theme that is not tied to any one game.

A manual on HOW TO GAME.

If such a book exists, please let me know. Perhaps Gygax's Master of the Game counts - but I have yet to read it yet. Have you? Is it any good?

May 20, 2009

Towards More Cinematic Gaming: Part 3 - The Sword vs. the Sledgehammer

Towards More Cinematic Gaming: Part 3 - The Sword vs. the Sledgehammer

#1:   Two level 3 fighters square off:  One is carrying a longsword the other a warhammer.  Both are completely unarmored and equally specialized in their weapon.  Who wins?  the longsword, it does 1d8!

#2:   OK now the same but a shortsword vs a two handed warhammer, both remain unarmored. Who wins?
Definitely the great hammer! it does 2d4 and gets strength and a half!

#3:   Now the swordsman is wearing full plate armor, the great hammer remains unarmored. Oooh tough one. but full plate is awesome so that makes up for the less damage! The swordsman should win!

#4:   This time they both have tower shields and chainmail. One has a bastard sword and the other traded his greathammer for a shortsword. Well bastard sword is better so it woudl win.


FYI this is one of the issues that bother me most about D&D.  Please ignore any rhetoric I leak out. Lets go through the examples.

#1: Maybe.  Probably come downs to luck.

#2: Wrong. The shortsword is a much faster weapon, and the large hammer heavyer and easyer to dodge. Since they are unarmored, they are less vulnerable to the slow sledgehammer and more vulnerable to the laceration/penetration of the short sword.

#3: Wrong. In fact the heavy plate armor makes them more vulnerable to the sledgehammer since it makes you much slower. Hammers do all their damage as concussive crush injuries which plate armor is woefully too thin to stop.  All the heavy armor has done has made him easyer to hit, and have a harder time attacking, while doing little to protect him from the hammer.

#4: Wrong. The shortsword of the gladius makes a thrust the only effective maneuver; but doign so penetrates chainmail. Swinging a large sword is slower; chainmail and shield are ideally suited to stopping a slashing attack. 

So why is it that the longsword is so popular in D&D? Same reason it was with the Gauls and with nobles. Swinging a big sword looks cool and makes you feel powerful. In fact it was a fairly uncommon weapon in medievil history not only becasue of the cost, but becasue it penetrates armor poorly.

What does D&D do to balance armor penetration, speed, and damage of a weapon? Incomprehensibly very little.  Why is it important?  Doing so brings more diversity, choices, and cinematic outcomes into combat that are built into the rules and not the whim of the GM.  From a player perspective that ususal equals more fun.

Fortunately there are some very easy solutions that dont slow combat down significantly.  For the life of me I cant figure out why one of them was not implemented into D&D4E. These are just a few I have used in my games; please share with me what you have used in yours. Warning: this gets very house-rule-heavy:

Method #1 (easy, fast): You get wider critical hit range when your opponents armor is vulnerable to your weapon type. Similary, you cannot get a critical when your opponents armor specifically protects against your weapon type. No need to think it out ahead of time; but if a player rolls high, say 16 - 19, then the GM can consult a similar chart:

- Unarmored: WEAK vs: slashing and piercing. STRONG vs: very heavy or slow weapons.
- Chainmail: WEAK vs: blunt and piercing (historically true, despite hopes to the contrary). STRONG vs: slashing.
- Plate: WEAK vs: blunt, grappling, and pole-arms (they cant dodge well, and a polearm generates such mechanical energy no armor can adequately stop it). STRONG vs: slashing and piercing.
- Shields: WEAK vs: grappling. STRONG vs: slashing against a single opponent.
- Tower Shield: WEAK vs: grappling, STRONG vs: everything on a given facing.

Method #2 (a lot more 'real' but a bit slower): Armor is damage reduction. ie instead of chainmail being AC 4, it is DR4.  Specific weapons have individual Damage Penetration values, ---> Those that dont can make called shots, critical hit, or grapple to bypass armor.

Some theoretical examples:
- A warhammer would be d4, but have 8 points of damage penetration (DP), (thus it exactly negates plate armor.)
- A shortsword would be d6 with DP 3 if the player is trained/specialized in its use.
- A longsword would be d10 but without damage penetration.
- A player using a Shield can opt to force a single opponent to re-roll an attack, or give a bonus to parry.
* dont forget your strength bonus and specialization bonuses

(modern examples)
- a typical firearm has some degree of damage penetration
- a shotgun would be high damage without any damage pentration
- a sniper rifle would afford the user free called shots after a full round of aiming.

Although rules such as these seem onerous, they arnt much more data than is already lisrted in the extensive item charts in D&D4E. Since it all can be charted, it is just a matter for the DM to keep track of them.
Method 2 can be carefully balanced to any probability of outcome, but would require quite a bit of DM time to go through all the weapons, armor, and monsters. Method 1 is a lot more usable right away, however, so I would recommend that method first.

Of course there is also Method #3: Your Method. Please share with us!

- Tom W

Qualification: you'll have to trust me that my occupation gives me a lot of experience with injuries.

May 14, 2009

Towards More Cinematic Gaming: Part 2 - Fate

Its D-day. Omaha beach. Shells falling, flying. The landing ramp drops as your craft beaches; your platoon rushes forth. 4 take their last bloody breaths to machine gun fire before they can pull out of the water...

Yet in all the bloodshed and senseless death, Heroes are forged, and the darkest period of human history now has a glimpse of dawn breaking...
Note: If you don't read any of my poorly written posts, please read this one. I think this one can help D&D the most!

Back in college as I watched Saving Private Ryan in the theater it dawned on me. The difference between good intentions, and true heroes is only one thing: Luck.

Fate was all that separated them.

My buddies and I had recently finished a Dark Sun D&D campaign where we had no less than 75 characters die over 2 years. In the end the characters that survived had that same attribute: luck.

Sure there had been other campaigns that were run where when the PC's got in over their heads, the GM would make the baddies retreat or take us prisoner alive, even though that made no sense. In the end we felt cheated because we knew we really failed the mission but the GM had such a close minded view on the adventure it was going to turn out the same way no matter what stupid decisions we made.

Then we started a Shadowrun campaign. FYI: character creation in Shadowrun takes a while. Suddenly the quick death of a sniper rifle was a lot more annoying! So assuming that if we made enough characters and some would eventually survive, luck would still be all that separated them.

Can we SKIP that step and codify luck directly into the mechanic of the game? A game engine built with Fate as a defining attribute?

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay had already been around for quite a while even back then and it had an interesting idea: each character had d3 Destiny points at character creation. When the player spent one they could literally say what happened next, no dice roll required. The DM could throw in a few permanent scars or villains who mysteriously escape, but overall the DM could not overrule what you said happened. As a player I used one to jump my horse over a small canyon to escape a gang of bandits. The DM had my horse die but I managed to catch a small tree root on the other side and pull myself up, receiving a crossbow shot that took my forearm off at the elbow; but now I had a cool steammagic artificial arm made for me by the grateful town wizard!


So I figured that's what we needed to make dangerous RPG settings playable. The basics of it were that you got to split your character points at creation up between the usual stats as well as a 7th "Fate attribute." Fate would determine how many Fate points you got per adventure / level / etc., and could be spent to essentially break the rules. Not spending ANY fate points on an adventure got you a 15% XP bonus, so we would keep a stimulus to try to survive on your wits alone.

Contrary to many other house rules we made up, the system worked! Suddenly the player, not the GM got to decide exactly how lenient the rules would be for them, with the trade off being lower beginning attributes. The Die Hards could still start their character at zero fate, spend their extra attribute points on enormous strengths and dexes, but if the dice killed them; they died, no excuses.

It worked fabulously. Suddenly the kid-gloves were off of the GM, encounters became a lot more 'real' instead of handed to us on a silver platter. Clever use of Fate points at key decisive moments made the "movie" we were all acting out always come through with great moments and fun. Villains now had a mechanic where they could realize that their "luck had run out" and they had better escape to villainize another day. Yet the players still got a great sense of accomplishment since they knew they depleted the bad guy of his fate points, and if he had not escaped, they woudl have surely had him. Furthermore, each time the players cornered him his Fate total would be a little less. It even as a side-effect resulted in an entire new "character class" where a character had very mundane stats but was supernaturally lucky. Sort of like Long shot from the old Marvel comics. And to top it all off we now had a way to decide who that elven sniper attacked first: the character with the lousiest Fate!

d20 Star Wars includes a primitive fate system with their Force points (took WotC long enough, WHFRP has been around for almost 20 years), but all they do is add the tiniest bit to die rolls, or auto stabilize. Its not really fleshed out very much. What we did all those years ago was a bit more extensive: (this is literally the chart we made copied from our 20 page house rule set)

  • Receive a hint/premonition
  • Re-roll any die roll:
  • Auto-stabilize bleeding wounds one category
  • Downgrade any lethal wound to injured and at 0 hit points (unconscious)
  • Downgrade any lethal wound to wounded and at 1 hit point (conscious)
  • Heal 33% of your stamina, and ignore pain for the rest of the encounter
  • Declare a natural 15 on any die roll
  • Alter any attack to a clean miss when possible (ie not a nuclear explosion) 3 fate points
  • Declare a natural 20 on any die roll 4 fate points
  • Spontaneously execute a magical spell, even if you are not a mage 5 fate points
  • (subject to GM approval of course)
I can't encourage enough for you to incorporate a Fate system of your own design into your games. We had a blast doing so. Please share with me if you have had any similar ideas or mechanics of your own that you use for D&D or other d20 games.

P.S. I think Tom Hanks has a really high Fate score.Back in college, as I watched Saving Private Ryan in the theater, it dawned on me that the difference between good intentions and true heroes is only one thing: LUCK.

May 7, 2009

Towards more Cinematic Gaming, Part 1 - RPG Statistics

The d20...

So easy, so iconic. So flat.

Ah, but what I am talking about it the statistical distribution of outcomes. I love the d20 for its ease and its iconic fun-ness, but I hate it for the fact that getting a 1 is just as likely has getting a 20, or a 7 or an 11 for that matter.

Thus the likelihood of success is easy to calculate, but is always linear. You simply add up the numbers from the chart above that would be considered a success. Need a DC15? Six possibilities - 30% chance.

Although this is fine for quickly and easily determining difficulty and outcome, there are several problems with it.
  1. The outcome is not predictable, since a 3 is just as likely as a 12. A 1 just as likely as a 20.
  2. The outcome is always binary: i.e. you either succeed or fail. You survive the Death/20 poison or you die. Outside of a critical you can't hit 'really well'. Your damage dice are completely independent of your hit roll. It is IMPOSSIBLE outside of a coup-de-grace for James Bond to kill any non-mook with his Walther PPK, no matter how skilled the shot.
This can result in a break from disbelief of the players, because when that really skilled +20 player rolls a 3; he still hits but we all still see the 3 and cant help but imagine him clumsily pulling off a hit by the skin of his teeth. We feel let down by the 3, Ultimately our minds want to see a high to-hit roll result in a "better hit" than a low one. Similarly when a player rolls a 19 and then a 2 on his damage dice. Pity the letdown of the less-hardcore gamer who sits patiently waiting for their turn with the expectations of helping, then roll a 4 and then dejectedly sit out of another 20 minute pass through party actions.
How many times have you scored a Natural 20 only to roll a 1 on the damage dice?
Can it be made better? Can it be made to better fit mental expectations? Does it even matter?

Honestly, I don't think it matters much with novice gamers. The novelty of playing D&D sustains them alone. However many experienced gamers depend on "feeling like they are there", and if suspension of disbelief is broken they quickly become bored.

In college, I was fortunate to have a great group of gaming buddies who were all in engineering and good at math. We played multiple campaigns and constantly tweaked and adjusted the rules set until it was nearly unrecognizable. Our usual modus operandi was that if the outcome of a rules set did not fit what we would imagine, then we would change it until it did. The mathematical gymnastics were still easy for us then, and the result was such a gripping sense of 'reality' in our games that even simple missions were extremely memorable and a whole hell of a lot of fun. Unfortunately, it typically took a new player months to learn the rules, until then they just acted their characters and the GM would do the necessary dice mathematics. (ironically, this made it closer to a 'pure' RPG). I dug up my old house rules changes and they are... ready... 60 PAGES long. Not doable by any means for those with a full time job.

Ok enough rambling.

Lets take reality first. Many would agree that the vast majority of results of chance events in life fit into two distributions:
The Bell Curve

and the Poisson Distribution (when outcomes are uncommon, or when deviation from the mean is biased)

(I am leaving out bimodal and other polynomial distributions)

The Poisson Distribution is far more common than you would expect, especially once bias is taken into account. For example a skilled marital artist is far _less_ likely to make a mistake than he is to pull off a move extraordinarily well. That is because his training lets him feel when things are not quite right and correct his balance, etc. The 'success' tail of the distribution would be broader, and the 'fail' curve would be more truncated and abrupt. For an unskilled or fatigued fighter the outcome would be more normalized and flat.

Both situations definitely do not fit the flat curve of the d20, although god-bless-it, the d20 is easy, fast, and looks cool. So what I ask is: Are there any other easy and fast options? I'll share what I have experienced in some of my games, though please, comment and share how you have tackled this issue in yours.

  1. The most obvious simple answer would be to roll 2d10 rather than a d20. this generates a bell curve of outcomes, and is thus a bit more predictable. Downside is that critical success is still just as likely as critical failure, and the outcome is still binary. FYI: this is a very easy change to incorporate into a campaign but be advised, high numbers are about half the likelihood, so in general you need to half the magnitude of all situational modifiers. You only have a 10% chance on 2d10 to get a 17+. EDITORS NOTE: Using 3d8 approximates the same effects as a d20 (~5% chance to get a 20), but still leave a nice bell curve for the rest of your rolls. Of course, you can also roll a 24 this way too...
  2. One could just stick with the d20 but make the degree you beat the targets reflex defense affect the number of damage dice rolled. A basic form of this is used for the barrage rules in d20 Star Wars for banks of laser weapons on large capital space ships. Basically the weapons bank had a huge + to hit (like +30) but only did low base damage (2d8). But for each couple of points it beat your AC by, it did another 1d8 cumulative. SO most of the time it would do a little damage to you, but sometimes it would do a whole lot, and taking evasive measures to raise your AC directly affected how much damage you took.
  3. Mix the two and you get a decent Poisson distribution. One could roll 2d10, but depending on character skill, have broader crit ranges, and re-rolls of low numbers. Critical hits will add an additional d10 to the roll. (Ex: an expertly trained swordsman might crit on 15+ as well as reroll any individual 2's or 3's on the d10's. While untrained swordsman crits on 19+ and does not reroll anything.) this generates a fairly nice curve without too much mental gymnastics. (BLUE: Roll 2d10. RED: Roll 2d10, Reroll individual 1's, If roll 20, then add 1d10, shown in yellow). Thus although the expertly trained swordsman still mostly rolls an 11, fairly rare for him to get less than a 6, common for him to get in the teens, and has a low but real likelihood of getting 20+ (~1.2% of the time)
  4. Some old-school systems such as Shadowrun (and more recently Vampire: The Masquerade) build asymmetrical distribution into their core mechanic. They roll skill # of dice against a target number, with number of success as the outcome (iterative dice model). Very similar to the skill challenges of D&D4E. For example you might have swords skill 5, so you roll 5 d10's against a target number reflecting how difficult your target is to hit. You therefore generate a # of success as the outcome. Usually 1-2 with the occasional 0, 3,4, or 5. By adjusting the target number you can easily change your distribution bias from left to right. In the hands of a very mathematically inclined GM this method can be made to duplicate very 'real' feeling games. Unfortunately it needs either a ton of trial and error, or a someone with a graduate level statistical background to wrap their head around the probabilities when generating rules on the fly. It is very difficult to write rules in this system on your own.
  5. Old school Marvel Super Heroes basically just mapped out a Poisson distribution to percentiles and then made this big chart on the back of the players guide. You would roll percentile for everything, then cross with your skill mastery level on the chart and determine outcome. It actually worked pretty well, but you basically spent your whole game reading small numbers on charts. It was also fairly difficult to generate rules on the fly to fit a novel situation as in #3.

So where does all this leave me?

I'm not really sure where it leaves me. I am currently playing a d20 Star Wars SAGA campaign and I am enjoying it. But on the other hand I still find the core d20 rules extremely arbitrary. The 2d10 method is a nice quick change, but attribute bonuses then become very dominant, and the assist actions becomes very powerful. These are not necessarily bad things.

I crave my old statistical knowledge that allowed quick and agile use of the iterative dice model. I must admit those were the best adventures we ever ran in terms of mental satisfaction of both social and combat aspects of RPGing. Im not sure what it was; those rule sets felt very alive. They were hard to learn, but god dammit those were some fun-to-play rules. We played pre-made adventures then, and now matter how boring thought the adventure was going to be, the rule set never failed to keep us on the edge of our seats.

Recently I have played a small one-shot d20 adventure where we made beating the AC by 5 double damage dice, and beating it by 10 triple damage dice, etc. Natural 20's ignored AC. We also rerolled 2's, 3's, and 4's depending on if you were skill focused or mastered. The results were OK, and still played fast. I think were going to try method #2 in our next one-off and see how it goes.

April 30, 2009

Towards More Cinematic Gaming: Intro

Quick Introduction: 'names Tom, 32 years old, fairly grognard on the continuum, though I often follow the Rule of Cool as made famous by Chatty DM.  I have played D&D since basic, but I must admit its not my favorite system, though it is rather easy to pick up and play. I have been encouraged to blog-ize some thoughts and musings on RPG's and RPG mechanics by a good friend, so well here goes. What I am interested in and what I will be sharing are feelings/ideas/improvements on the building blocks of a good RPG. The ultimate goal would be a mechanic that was easy to use while keeping the players sense of 'reality" (i.e. suspension of disbelief) towards the end of having more engaging, interactive, and thrilling adventures.
Lets face it, D&D and RPGs in general are basically the ultimate choose-your-own adventure. Each player plays a character they could imagine in a Lord of the Rings movie (or Blade Runner etc.) and acts out both the personality and actions of that character. It goes without saying that the reward is to see what your character would accomplish and what friendships would be made if you were "there" in that campaign setting. Can you find your sister? Save the princess? Stop the raising of a long-dead Cthulu god? Make it from rags-to riches in post-apocalyptic earth?

OK, we go: Yeah, you search and then you find her. Then you save the princess from a dragon. Then you stop the cult from raising Cthulu just in the nick of time. And yeah... you get rich and become ruler of the world. OK campaign done.

Happy? No? Which brings me to my first point.

The story is no fun without struggle and problem solving. No matter how cool the story is, its just a cool novel unless it is driven by player decisions. If the mechanic is good enough, the outcome of the dice/rules will fit with the players mental image of the scene being played out.  If the mechanic is good enough, even the most humble goal is still exciting to achieve. A lousy mechanic just breaks the feeling that you are "there" and then it is just your buddy telling you arbitrarily whether you succeeded or not.

I have played a decent number of RPG systems, I’m sure some of you have played more. D&D since basic, Marvel Super Heroes, Shadowrun, Cyberpunk, Judge Dredd, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, whatever.. theres no need to belabor the list. And I think we can all agree there are things we like about each and every system. The merit/flaw system from GURPS. The success chart of Marvel super heroes. The wounding mechanic of Judge Dredd. Destiny points first done in Warhammer Roleplay over a decade ago. The skill web from Shadowrun. Vehicle combat from the latest WotC Star Wars RPG.

So why do we like these elements? Is there something in common? Is there a way to combine or adapt them?

Can we come up with a better core mechanic? (An can we come up with one that uses d20 at its underpinnings?)

This is what I have been musing on with old college geek friends for over a decade. Please be sure there is no vanity here. I'm sure my musings are just as flawed as anything else. There not even really mine, sort of an amalgam of discussions and thoughts from many friends and an entire childhood of gaming. I am really curious of other peoples thoughts and solutions.  On the other hand, D&D 4E has a solid system right now, that is easy to get into, so if you are satisfied with it, just stop reading and go have fun!

But if you are like me, you feel hindered by the current rule set. All too often the results of the dice feel random and arbitrary, and more like I am playing WoW than actually _being_ Lothar, Barbarian of the Hill People.  The 'official-ness' of the rules brooks very little deviation from them.  Just take the 60 year old Regent, level 12 hero, who no matter how the dice lay, can survive any fall short of a few hundred feet. Hell why even build stairs?

Similarly, many times in my current campaign (as a player) I say something I want to do, and there’s no mechanic or even a guideline on how to handle it. At least 50% of my actions and decisions never end up having any meaningful game effect. Unless I fit exactly into a 5' by 5' square, have the appropriate feat, and never move diagonally, the game doesnt know what to do with me.

OK moving along.....

What I hope to discuss in future posts are the following, in no particular order
  1. statistical distribution (flat vs. bell vs. Poisson vs. logarithmic)
  2. target hitting vs. damage (i.e. the blow dart vs. the sledgehammer)
  3. Overbear rules
  4. Fate / Force / Destiny
  5. Feat design and merits/flaws at character generation
  6. Luck based skills vs. experience based skills (i.e. firing a crossbow vs. speaking French)
  7. Magic mechanics
  8. Vehicles / large monsters
  9. Wounding, healing, and dying
  10. Shock/blood loss
  11. High level characters and skills
Once again, the goal is not to make a stat400 course. Ideally I would like to use the D20 system as the base from which to build on. The goal is to come up with house rules, or an alternate mechanic, that more easily and flexibly lets player input affect game outcomes and more closely fit the cinematic expectations and likelihood of success or danger players imagine in their heads during a game. Storytelling takes ropes the players in emotionally (if your  a good DM), while the closer the fit between characters attributes, danger, and outcome, the greater the thrill intellectually. Most people love the Lord of the Rings, and in that movie the most impressive feats are walking on snow and a grey colored cloak. Hell the final battle is just to drop a ring in some lava. It was the struggle of the characters through perceived danger that was so endearing and made the story so rewarding.

More to Come. -- Tom W.

The above image was taken from Rory's Story Cubes. They looked so cool I just had to order a set for myself - we'll see how they turn out. -- jonathan.