Friday, March 25, 2011
One of the things I look for when reading a game book is interesting parts I might want to use with another game. Now I admit that I do not find something I can actually use all that often, but when I find a particularly cool sub-system I still like to note it down. After all, just because I haven't found a use for it yet doesn't mean I won't find a place for it down the road.
Something that comes up in almost every RPG is NPC reactions to the player characters. Some games have systems to account for this , like most versions of D&D. Some largely leave it up to the DM but this can be tricky over the course of a long term campaign as the DM may fall into a rut, broadly categorizing huge groups of NPC's without a ton of thought. This is especially true in sandbox campaigns or city campaigns where large numbers of random strangers may interact with characters or bear witness to their actions where some kind of reaction is justified. When called upon to do this session after session it can be difficult to insert enough variety to keep things interesting.
One thing that can help add variety to NPC reactions is some kind of random reaction system. Now this does take some of the burden off of the DM but it doesn't always make sense, giving the DM another problem to solve in figuring out why this guy likes or doesn't like the party. What if we skipped the surface step of "how does the NPC feel about the players" and get right to the heart of the matter and find out what matters to the NPC, which allows the DM the much simpler step of then using that motivation to determine how the NPC feels about the characters. That's the theory behind the NPC motivation system from T2K, and it's one I like a lot.
How does it work? Take a regular deck of cards. Draw two - the highest value card is the primary motivator for that NPC, and the lower value is the secondary motivation. The suit and the value tell you what the motivation is as in:
Clubs (Violence) - Club NPCs have a greater tendency to react with or use violence than others
2-4 = Somewhat Violent: Not intimidated or frightened by threats of violence and not afraid to use it when called for
5-7 = Moderately Violent: Aggressive and prefers to use violence as a solution
8-10 - Very Violent: Loves a good fight and wants to be a warrior or is a warrior
Jack = Murderous: The NPC has either committed a murder or is planning a murder. Not just killing someone but a deliberate and secret killing of someone for personal gain.
Queen = Stubborn: The NPC is set in their ways and resistant to change and persuasion by others
King = Brutal: The NPC is a sadistic brute who enjoys inflicting physical injury on others
Ace = War Leader: The NPC is an unusually good leader in combat situations. They have a grasp of tactics and stay cool under fire.
Diamonds (Greed) - Diamond NPC's want to be rich
2-4 Somewhat Greedy: Will sell items for cash/gold even if alone and in the wilderness
5-7 Moderately Greedy: A very hard bargainer, likely to be cash/gold only, and easy to bribe
8-10 Very Greedy: Always open to bribes (may even expect them), deals only in gold/cash, may plan treachery if he thinks the PC's have considerable wealth and thinks he could get his hands on it
Jack = Coward: will run from danger whenever possible, will cower and refuse to fight if he cannot run
Queen = Lustful: driven by lust, typically of the opposite sex, and may be all members or one member in particular
King = Selfish: Will never help without demanding (higher than usual) payment, will never give anything away for free, and will jealously guard possessions
Ace = Generous: Will gladly give anything he has to someone in need, will make trades that do not favor him, and will refuse payment for help with many tasks
Hearts (Sociability) Influenced by their love of people, tends to be friendly, loyal, and just
2-4 Somewhat Sociable: Amiable, talkative, and cooperative with most people
5-7 Moderately Sociable: Strong sense of duty and loyalty to whatever group he joins
8-10 Very Sociable: Strong commitment to justice and the welfare of everyone he meets and looks for the good qualities in anyone he meets
Jack = Wise: Always exhibits good judgement and offers sound advice
Queen = Loving: Loves someone so completely that they would sacrifice themselves for that person - could be a spouse, a parent, a child, or a friend
King = Honorable: Scrupulously honest in all dealings and his word of honor is an absolute bond. Will carry out an honor-bound task to the point of his own death. Contemptuous of liars and oath-breakers.
Ace = Just: Sees justice as the greatest virtue and the main consideration in determining a course of action - no respect for cheating and backs any attempt to right an injustice
Spades (Ambition) Seeks personal power and influence
2-4 Somewhat Ambitious: Inclined towards boastfulness and a desire to impress peers
5-7 Moderately Ambitious: The NPC looks for a position of responsibility in any organization they join
8-10 Very Ambitious: The NPC is driven by a desire to manipulate and control the people around them and to be in charge
Jack = Pompous: Arrogant and conceited, considers himself clearly superior to everyone around him
Queen = Ruthless: Lets nothing stand in the way of achieving goals and has total disregard for the needs of others
King = Deceitful: A liar and maybe a traitor if the opportunity presents itself
Ace = Charismatic: A leader who others are naturally drawn to and want to follow. Likely to have a large and extremely loyal following
There are almost zero mechanical bits in these descriptions in the T2K rulebooks. The idea is that some NPC's will be created in advance and will likely have motivations and goals already determined by the DM, but random encounters and background NPC's that are suddenly brought to the fore mean the DM needs an easy system to determine what drives them and in turn how they would react to the PC"s. I think this system serves that purpose quite well. It's also mentioned that for groups it's best to determine the motivations of the leader or leaders only and not worry about the grunts, a good piece of advice. Some of these motivations may seem contradictory but resolving that contradiction can lead to some very interesting characters. Say you draw "Brutal" and "Wise" - to me that screams "Barbarian Chieftain" or maybe Tribal Champion who advises the chieftain. Or maybe a smart crime boss with a really short fuse.
It would be simple enough to assign mechanical bits to each of these results to more closely tie them to the particular system you run. For something like 3rd or 4th edition D&D it could be as simple as some +2's or +5's to certain skill checks like intimidation or diplomacy or even a bonus to Will defense vs' certain attacks. That's the kind of thing I would likely decide on the fly rather than tie it into the table, but that's something each DM could determine themselves. It might also be useful for setting the difficulty level for some PC skill checks - "Stubborn" would be tough vs. diplomacy, "Violent" would be resistant to Intimidate, etc.
How else is it useful? Well if the local crime lord is Violent and Greedy that's something the PC's can find out with a little legwork or some streetwise rolls and from that they might determine that trying to threaten him is pointless but offering him 25% of their take might enlist his aid. If someone is Pompous but Loving then maybe a hostage situation is the key to gaining their aid or obedience. This kind of thing is incredibly helpful if you're trying to run a game where violence is not the only answer. Now I'm a big fan of games where the main goal is to break things and hurt people but some games are not all about that. Even games where it can be, like say Shadowrun, can benefit hugely from putting this kind of info into the game as it opens up those other channels besides gunplay. If the local Yakuza Boss is Honorable and Greedy well then we have at least two obvious approaches here once we find that out. Most of these motivations should be pretty obvious to those around the NPC and thus detectable by the PC's with some effort - money, carousing, streetwise skill, whatever your game provides.
I've used this system in several campaigns over the years - T2K of course, Mechwarrior, and Rifts. It is especially helpful if you're a DM who is used to running games with a ton of races where attitude tends to be expressed on a racial level - Dwarves dislike Elves, Klingons hate Humans - because it can be tough to make NPC's distinct when everyone is human. This system can help enforce some differentiation among groups in your campaign. Also, if you keep drawn cards out during a session, you reduce the likelihood of duplicate results which helps ensure some variability in the motivations. That's not always an issue - I remember when I drew two war leaders in one session and they ended up being leaders of rival gangs in an area - but if it matters to you it's one more way to handle it that's better than a table roll.
I could also see using it to liven up those Fantasy and Sci-Fi games where cultures tend to be monolithic. I've not used it with D&D but after reviewing it again I just may try it as it does have a pretty nice range of attitudes and using two cards gives a more complex personality than many "roll on this table" approaches to the problem. Maybe THIS Klingon is Ambitious but Generous. Maybe this Elf Merchant is Violent and Lustful. Maybe this Demon Prince is Pompous but Wise and can actually tell the PC's something useful about their quest. Part of it is painting a picture of the world, part of it is coming up with interesting characters, and part of it is shaking up expectations. I can also see that if you do not like the broad range applying to all races, maybe you limit it for some, as in "When drawing motivation for demons, ignore all Hearts". This would limit some of the stranger options but would still leave a lot of variability among personality types. If my D&D players end up going Against the Giants I would probably use the full range as I see giants as having a broad culture, but supernatural things like demons or undead might benefit from some trimming.
Anyway, that's my nugget for the day - an old system many may not have played and probably would not think to search for handy role-playing material has an easily-adapted system that's useful no matter what kind of campaign you're running. I could see it being used in everything from Supers to Vampire to Fantasy Game X. Think about it and see if might add something to your game.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Lurking outside what appears to be the final chamber of the Ogre King's tomb the party observes a single zombie ogre standing near a dark pool. Inlaid into the floor is the horned skull symbol of the ancient ogre god. At the back of the room the same symbol hangs on the wall with wisps of black vaporous energy drifting off of it. The same grey-black vapor drifts about pool in the center of the room and everyone in the party knows that this is the link to the shadowfell that they have been sent to close. A loud chanting coming from somewhere in the back out of sight tells them that they are not too late - the king has not completed his ceremony yet - so they determine that they must take action now.
The battle begins simply enough. The single undead ogre guardian is blasted by spear, sunblade, magic missile, and a fiery blast from the warlock. As a second undead guardian emerges from the back near the horned skull symbol, the barbarian explodes into the original zombie and blasts him apart with a ferocious spear charge. As the second ogre zombie joins the fight the first one reappears in the pool, somewhat battered but clearly in fighting shape again, only seconds after being destroyed.
At first the heroes are undaunted as they have seen this kind of thing before with slain undead getting back up. Within seconds the first ogre is down again and with a mighty roar the Ogre King emerges from his chamber and charges into the fight wielding a great iron spear and a ferocious attitude. Then the first ogre reappears in the pool again and the heroes realize they might be in trouble.
Deciding on a course of action the party decides to concentrate on the king, hoping that if they bring him down then the ceremony will not be completed and the link will be closed. As the King fights he sings a battle-chant (in ancient giant speech) that at first seems to be recounting his history but the heroes realize there is more to it than that.
They came from a far kingdom/
They attacked my people, corrupting many with their magic/
The Pool of Twilight gave them limitless power/
The only way to fight them was by using the only magic they could not corrupt – the power of the Pool of Shadow/
Raising my fallen warriors I led the attack and drove them back to the cave of steel/ I could not breach it but I had a vision that they would return so I went back to my city and began a great ceremony/
This tomb is a vessel for channeling mighty magics and now the time is right to bring them back and destroy the pool once and for all/
A vicious melee locks in around the king and while chanting he also inflicts some serious harm on Kordan and Uthal who are right up on him during the fight. Eventually though the power of the heroes overcomes even his mighty defenses and he falls, staggering back into the Pool of Shadow. In what appears to be a moment of clarity he urges the party to find and destroy the Pool of Twilight in the Cave of Steel near the river as now is the time for the others to return and with his fall his warriors will not be around to stop them. He then collapses into the pool as a howling wind springs up and the pool begins to spin and shrink. The vaporous energy in the pool swirls and is sucked into a point in the center and then disappears, leaving nothing but an empty basin, a ruby-studded belt, and the great black spear wielded by the king. Then the ground begins to shake and the still-standing guardian ogre moves back into the tomb at the back of the cave as the symbol on the wall explodes into fragments. Uthal grabs the spear and belt as the party retreats out of the tomb and back up the long path to the surface.
Discussing the king's final words as they climb, the group eventually emerges from the black rock and discovers that it is night on the surface. They make their way back through the ruined city and arrive at the gates to civilized Phlan around midnight, forcing them to wait outside the city until dawn when the gates open again. They make camp, examine the two magical items they recovered, and discuss plans for the next day.
During the night however some unwelcome visitors make their way into camp. The night watcher notices a robed human standing on a ruined wall 50' away from the camp and as he does the man gestures and the ground in the camp explodes upwards, startling many awake and also alerting them to the two humans stalking towards the camp from another direction. As the two enter the disrupted camp daggers ignite with green flame and the female calls out "Greetings from the Fire Knives" and they move in, slashing and tumbling and leaping amongst the startled heroes as the wizard rains spells down from a distance.
A fight breaks out all over the area as the two knife-fighters strike again and again. Kordan engages them but can't stop them from stabbing Althea. Jovanni takes long range action against the enemy wizard and manages to disrupt his spellcasting long enough for Uthal to charge. The enemy wizard fires back and turns the bard into a rabbit! Frightened, he leaps down Althea's shirt looking for a warm place to hide as the startled wizard moves away from the vicious knife-wielders. Mikal takes the opportunity to blast one enemy, draining the life from her with a vampiric embrace. Uthal takes down the enemy wizard and Jovanni changes back to his normal shape.
Seeing the odds change the way they have, the last Fire Knife attempts to run off into the ruins. Annoyed and upset, the party unloads a volley of ranged attacks into him, from spears to magic missiles and eldritch blasts, slaying the assassin before he can flee to safety.
As dawn approaches the party waits outside the gate and debates what is more urgent - the threat of the Pool of Twilight or the Fire Knives recurring efforts to kill them.
DM Notes: This was a very satisfying session as we wrapped up the Ogre King adventure with a good fight that opened up some future possibilities and brought the Fire Knives back into the picture with another ambush in the ruins. I've tried to run this campaign in a non-linear fashion, with the party having 2 or 3 or more choices about what to do next at any given point. Now once they have made that choice, some of the adventures have been pretty linear (the Ogre King's tomb was very linear) but I've found most players don't care so much about that if they had some choices going into it, especially if the dungeony parts are fairly short. The beginning was pretty much the only way to start but we were all very new to the system at that point and it needed to be. Since then I've added some options and not all of them have been used. As those unused options accumulate, I could probably run another party through the ruins and not re-use any of the material I have already run through, which is kind of cool and makes the city feel like more of a lived-in place as opposed to a simple linear series of expeditions to be run. It's a little weird, but for the first time in many years I'm actually excited when they skip past some material I have worked up - it makes it feel like I'm doing my job right.
Our fights this session lasted 8 and 5 rounds respectively so the idea of having a shorter but still interesting fight is good. I think less than 10 rounds is a good sweet spot to aim for so I'm keeping that in mind when I choose monsters and set up encounters.
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
I haven't posted much about the Basic D&D campaign lately but I have been working on a map using Hexographer and considering some house rules for the game. The map will come later but here are the rules as they stand several months into the campaign.
First the old ones:
- Max hit points at 1st level
- Natural 20 to hit = maximum damage for that attack
- Natural 1 to hit = dropped weapon unless shooting into melee, in which case it means an ally is hit
- 0 hit points= unconscious, not dead. You then lose 1 hp per round until aided by another or you reach -10 at which point you die.
- Anyone can "bind wounds" as their action for a round or after combat. Binding wounds adds a d3 hp to a wounded character and wakes up an unconscious character. It does nothing for a dead character.
- Monster XP = 100xp per hit die
New ideas that I am looking to implement:
- Using a single weapon with nothing in the other hand grants a +1 to hit for melee attacks with that weapon
This is to explain and allow the Duelist or Swashbuckler type character seen in the artwork sometimes
- Using a weapon in each hand allows a character to roll the normal damage die for one of the weapons and a d6 then take the higher of the two for their damage.
This is to give some kind of mechanical system for using two weapons in the game which has been requested
- Using a two-handed weapon lets the user add a +1 to the damage roll on a successful attack
This is mainly to give two-handers a small bump to keep them even with the other choices. It also means battle axes do a little bit more than a sword in exchange for being a two-hander
- Using a weapon and shield means that attacks happen as normal but the wielder can benefit from the new shield rule below
- Shields shall be Splinntered is in effect. the original post by Trollsmyth is here but here's a summary
You get the usual -1 to your AC with a shield. However, any time you take damage, you can opt instead to say your shield absorbed the force of the blow. The shield is shattered and must be discarded, but you don't take any damage from that hit. It's quick, it's easy, and it's valuable. My take on magical shields is to allow them one free "splinter" per day per plus saying they regain their power overnight.
My take on using them against magical attacks is that instead of soaking up an attack a player can "splinter" one to automatically succeed on a saving throw against a damaging spell effect, and yes you can wait until you fail against it just like you would splinter after a successful to-hit roll
For all characters:
- A failed "save or die" roll does not cause instant death but drops you to 0 hit points and you immediately begin the death spiral of -1 hp per round until aided or you reach -10 and die. This applies to poisons and death ray type effects. Petrification still turns you to stone, Massive damage still does massive damage, etc.
- Someone hit by poison can be stabilized at 0 hit points but cannot regain consciousness without a potion or spell effect to neutralize the poison
- Level drain effects allow a saving throw and drained levels return at one per week, assuming you are not turned into a wight during the battle.
They are bad mainly because there's nothing the player can do to stop them - you can play a dwarf in plate with a shield and carrying a potion of neutralize poison, but if the spider hits and you roll a 3 to save, you're dead, despite taking all the sensible precautions that you could. If someone gets to you and administers the potion then you may come out alright but that's a big if, and if you don't have such a potion you're just screwed. I've considered making it a form of ongoing damage to give a character time to drink his own potion instead of making them dependent on another character but I'm stopping short for now.
For level draining I'm also thinking about adding in a restoration spell (maybe a level 3 cleric spell).
One thing I am very much against when house-ruling old school D&D is complicating the game, I'm working on a separate post about why someone would play Basic D&D nowadays and one of the reasons is the simplicity. Most of my house rules do not require any additional die rolls or make one divergent mechanic work just like another one in an attempt to keep things as simple as the rest of Basic D&D.
Thinking through all of these house rules also got me started thinking about a more drastic option too, but that's another topic for yet another post.
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Another in an occasional series of reviews of older games...
Shatterzone was a product of West End Games. I'm still not sure why at the height of their Star Wars d6 line they felt that it was a good idea to come out with another sci-fi RPG using completely different mechanics, but they did. There was a fair amount of press in the gaming magazines when it was released but I never played it or knew anyone who played it locally. Mechanically it was similar to Torg which I kind of liked so a few years ago I got a copy of SZ complete with cards. Having a bit of a sci-fi itch lately I decided to dust it off and look through it.
When the occasional outbreak of edition wars and old school vs. new school erupts into online warfare I like to think back to those simpler times when all gamers got along and everything was cool even if you didn't personally play it... oh wait. Here's a scan from 1993's Shatterzone Player's Guide:
Keep in mind that is the top of page 3, the first page of game text in the book! Second paragraph of the game and we're already slamming other games and declaring "what is fun". I will also point out that despite the talk of creating a life story there is no mechanical system for this in the box - no lifepath system as in Traveller, Star Trek, or Cyberpunk, all of which had been out for several years when this was released. In fact, starting players are encouraged to use a prebuilt character template (similar to the Star Wars d6 templates or Shadowrun archetypes) from the back of the book, which seems to go against this stated approach. The whole create a life story thing boils down to think about where your character came from and pick skills and abilities that reflect that
|Dave's character pays the price for angering the DM|
Plus, look at that picture. That's the cover of the Player's Guide. If I'm going to spend all of that time working up a background and history for my character I don't want him getting blown in half in my first session. Don't think that's anomalous either - there are a ton of pictures like that inside the books too. Characters getting shot or stabbed or blown up is a common theme. I think the illustrations are actually more violent than in the first 3 editions of Shadowrun, which seems like of an odd choice to me.
How does task resolution work? It's interesting. The base roll is 2d10 which is then compared to a "Bonus Chart" which gives a result that is then added to the relevant stat or skill. The chart is below and with an 8-12 giving a range from -1 to +1 you can see that most of the time skill checks are going to come out around the skill level with only small variations. Now the dice explode on a 10, and there are points a PC can burn to roll again, and there's a card mechanic that can come into play as well so it is possible to get some ridiculous rolls but most of them should be pretty close to the base ability. This is interestingly close to FATE (or Icons, the game I see and like the most that uses that similar mechanic). The problem I see here is that tasks are typically given a difficulty number and to succeed the character must meet or exceed this number. Looking at the templates most skills run from 8-12 with a max of 14 for 1 or 2 skills per character. The GM's guide says a DC of 9 is Average while a 12 is Difficult. My personal standard for these kinds of things is that most player characters should be able to pull off "difficult" rolls without straining on anything they are even sort of good at. This setup falls right at the end of that scale, so I would want to monitor it closely in play, because few things are more frustrating in an RPG than assuming that "Skill Level X" in a game means you are good at that skill, then finding out in play that no, you're really not all that good. It's even worse when you discover that a starting character can't even be all that good = the only way to get there is with a whole lot of play. I think that this game is right on the borderline, but the other mechanics - there is a level of success mechanic - might mitigate this to some degree.
|I still think that 1d minus 1d is easier|
The biggest mechanical difference between Shatterzone and most games is the Action Deck. This is a deck of 100 or so custom cards that have a multitude of uses within the game. Combat begins when the GM turns over a card which indicates the initiative order. Players are given a number of cards at the beginning of the game and can use them during a session to take various actions. They can be traded in for Life Points (the SZ version of Action points or Fate points or Force points). They can make certain actions easier or more difficult during a given scene or round. There are also subplot cards which can be used by a player to generate a subplot like a romantic interest or the return of an old enemy to enhance the current adventure. There are 15 pages of rules on using the deck in the game so it's not a simple add-on that can be ignored like those new 4th edition D&D cards. This is an inherent part of the system and is probably one of the things that makes SZ actually worth playing by giving it a different feel from many other RPG's.
|I'm not kidding...|
So what kind of campaign would someone run with this game? Well it's hard to say. There's not a ton of guidance in this area in the box. I suspect that the Traveller standard of "Merchants and Mercenaries" would work here. There is a fairly detailed personal combat system, personal interaction system, and there is a space combat system and a ship construction system too so one could run merchant and military adventures pretty easily I think. A campaign similar to Star Trek or Babylon 5 with characters who are part of the fleet could have some possibilities as well. The Shatterzone is clearly intended to be a focus of play but as dangerous as it's supposed to be I'm not sure too many PC's are going to be anxious to fly a ship they own into it and risk all of the bad things that could happen there. It only gets 6 pages in the universe guide and I was a little disappointed with that - it's the name of the game after all! How about we spend some time on it in some detail?
Now the question: is a relatively low profile sci-fi game from 1993 worth playing today? I have a somewhat backwards answer to that. I don't think the universe alone as portrayed in the basic set is worth converting to another system. I don't see anything compelling enough about it to pull out Savage Worlds or Star Hero or Traveller and say "we're playing with the Shatterzone background for this campaign" and that's typically what I would do with an older game - drop the clunky unfamiliar mechanics and use a system we already know to have fun in a cool universe. In this specific case I think the mechanics have enough flavor that I think they are the attraction rather than the background for the game. If someone decided to learn the mechanics well enough to play and run a game efficiently, I think it's worth considering changing the background to something else. There's nothing wrong with the SZ background and that's probably where I would start but it might really shine for say a Babylon 5 campaign or something like a Stargate game (you could no doubt steal some stuff from Torg to help with that too).
|Not safe on a ship either...|
The game's biggest attraction is also it's biggest disadvantage: all of those unique mechanics. The stat/skill resolution is different from most other games and relies on a chart. The Value/Measure system is different (and uses a chart). The cards add a whole separate mechanical subsystem. It's a big bundle of unfamiliar mechanics that don't really overlap with any other game but Torg. If we look at "system families" in RPG's there are the old school D&D type games, d20 games, the Basic Role Playing family, Hero, GURPS, FATE, Savage Worlds, White Wolf, d6 system, and others. This one doesn't really cross over with any of those and the one other game it's related to was never all that popular either so there's not a big pool of players and not a ton of online support. I know this went on to become the "Masterbook" system in the waning days of West End Games but I also know you can still find plenty of Masterbook in any discount bin in the country - not exactly a testament to its popularity.
|How could this game fail?|