Friday, December 2, 2011

Some Math for Icons and Savage Worlds

ICONS has some pretty simple math. Abilities are rated from 1-10 and players roll 1d6 - 1d6 then add the result to the relevant ability to beat the target number which is typically an opponent's ability score. Since the roll tends to give a result of zero you can pretty reliably predict whether or not the characters will be able to succeed at a given task. There are things that can modify the target (darkness, etc.)  There are also ways to gain bonuses to rolls. There is some motivation to do these things as exceeding the target by 3 is a special success and by 5 is a major success and can yield some additional benefits beyond "you did it".

Character creation uses a table that limits character stats to a 1-8 range weighted towards 4, 5, or 6. A straight 3d4-2 roll would accomplish a similar effect while leaving the slight possibility of a 9 or 10 stat out there if someone wanted to go that route. As it is the "global" average lines up very well with the "global" target number. If you want to make things harder, give your villains higher stats and lower stats will make things easier. The good thing here is that assuming the human average is a 3 means that heroes averaging a 5 will clean up against them easily, as they should. Bumping "quality" thugs up to a 4 and "Elites" up to a 5 for their main stats should provide a noticeable bump in difficulty without being overwhelming - that comes in with the 8's, 9's, and 10's.

As with most things ICONS, the simplicity of the mechanics conceals the elegance of the design - the math works really well. ICONS tends to not be a very crunch heavy game anyway so this approach fits perfectly.

Savage Worlds has a little more crunch to it. The base target number is always 4, with 8 being a "raise" and each subsequent jump of 4 equals another raise. There are modifers to different tasks that can change this but let's use 4 as a baseline.

1d4 = 25% chance of success (which will then explode and give a chance of a raise at 6% - that's a 4 plus another 4)

1d6 = 50% chance of success (exploding for a raise happens 14.9% of the time - that's a 6 plus a 2+ on the next roll)

1d8 = 62.5% chance of success and the possibility of a raise on the initial die roll (12.5%)

1d10 = 70% chance of success (Raise is now at 30%)

1d12 = 75% chance of success (Raise is now at 41.7%)

Ratings can go above a d12. The next step is d12 +1, then d12 +2, etc.

1d12+1 = 83% chance of success (Raise = 50%)

1d12+2 = 91.6% chance of success (Raise = 58%)

1d12+3= 100% chance of success (Raise = 66.7%)

Further increases are really just upping your chance of a raise, which hits 100% at +7

There is also the Wild Die, which is an extra d6 that all PC's and important NPC's get to roll alongside their normal die type. The higher of the two applies. This is a "PC's are Special" type rule that ups the chance of success somewhat (especially noticeable if you're rolling d4's and d6's otherwise) but since it applies to all player characters equally then I think we can ignore it for now.

So...are there sweet spots in the Savage Worlds system?  Well there is that weird kink in the curve for raises on a d6 where it's slightly better than the chance of a raise on a d8. For normal successes though, a d6 is twice as good as a d4 and the rate of change drops at each incremental increase after that.Clearly the jump from a d4 to a d6 is the most bang for the buck, especially considering that base attributes start as d4's and have to be raised beyond that. Based on this I suspect that it's better to raise all five attributes to d6's than it is to have 2 d8's, a d6, and 2 d4's but only if you have an intentionally broad character! If you intend to specialize in certain skills tied to one attribute then I think the d10 level is pretty effective as it pushes your base success chance up over 2/3 and it doubles your chances of a raise over the d8 level. Plus you would have 2 points left to raise other stats to a d6 - no sense in sucking at everything else if you can avoid it.  Adding +1's to a d12 roll seems very inefficient but at higher experience levels that may be your only option.

Let's look at it in the context of combat. The target in melee is Parry, which is 2 + half of Fighting. Damage is compared to Toughness, which is 2+ half of Vigor. Meeting or beating these is a success, beating by 4 is a raise, and each additional increment of 4 is another raise.

Average human stats are d6's so assuming getting in a fight have a d6 in Fighting then most people's average Parry & Toughness = 5. Effectively what this does is shift everyone down one notch on the chart, roughly. Due to the way exploding dice work, certain target numbers do not change the odds. If you're rolling a d4, the odds of rolling a 5 are the same as rolling a 4 (d4 + d4). For d6's a 7 is as likely as a 6, for d8's a 9 is as common as an 8, etc. It does impact the Wild Die so there is an effect overall even for the d4 roller, but the base odds on your "main" die don't change.

You could go d12 in Strength, d6 in Vigor, then d4's in Smarts, Spirit, and Agility.  Given the presence of the d6 Wild Die you actually still have pretty decent capabilities with your other stats and be pretty nasty in hand to hand combat.

So the baseline for Savage Worlds - the d6 - will succeed about half of the time on a normal test. That's a pretty solid base but could be unsatisfying in play because it also means that the average character fails at the average task half the time too. The Wild Die bumps the success chance up to 75% in this case which makes for a much more satisfying game for the players without breaking the universe for everyone else. As skill (die types) increases this has less and less impact, so it nicely expands the "middle ground" for the system and then takes a lower profile as things ramp up. I think it's a very well-done mechanic.

There are of course various edges that can affect certain kinds of rolls and hindrances that will let one buy stats up another point or two but those are not universally available. Also, even with a little more crunch than ICONS, I'm not sure that SW is worth much agonizing over the math. Higher dice = better chance of success in every case (even if raises have that one kink) so most of the time the higher die type should win, though SW's other cinematic mechanics (Wild Die, Bennies) can be used to overcome this.

Anyway there's my math homework for the week. I do like the d20 systems out there but they are kind of plain probability-wise as everything is so simple: +/-1 = +/-5% chance of success, regardless. Efficient but boring math-wise!  Thank goodness for the multitude of choices out there that still try out other approaches and let us flex our brains in slightly different ways from time to time! Each individual approach may not be better than a particular standard but having options is always preferable to a boring uniformity.

Some other time (some other website if you care about it right now): GURPS, Hero, and those dice pool games.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Varying the Approach

One thing that's been pretty consistent over the years in my gaming circles is the way we run things. It's pretty much people sitting around a table, screened DM at one end, battlemat & markers & dice & character sheets around the edges. The number of people and the size of the table varies, but this has been the Way It Is Done for me and the people I have played with since the early 80's. I've run every edition of D&D this way as well as Hero, Gurps, Traveller, and all the others. I'm of the opinion that the reason for this is because it works!

That looks about right

However, I try to stay open minded about how I do things like this. During one of my 3rd edition campaigns I was a little tired of toting the 8 X 4 table in and out of my living room so I decided to play without a giant table. It felt weird to not have a big table and a battlemat with everyone around it but having the players scattered around the living room made for a more casual atmosphere. I did this several times, mainly when I knew it would not be a combat-intensive session, and it seemed like the players did get into the non-mechanical aspects of the game more than was typical. I probably would not do it if the evening was going to feature an assault on a dragon's lair but if it's the lord mayor's summer masquerade ball I might do it just to change things up.

I also typically have everything I am running printed out and on the table or behind my screen - mostly because that's how I've always done it. In my main 4E game some of my players started bringing their characters on tablets and smartphones and it kind of surprised me. I suppose it's a logical continuation of the character building tool - build it on the computer, export it to some device you carry aaround all the time anyway. At first I was opposed to it but I realized there really wasn't much reason to rule it out as long as I can see it on demand. So I let it go and we had zero problems with it.  Heck, with a dice rolling program you can be game-ready without carrying anything extra! Even the rules are available online, so if you want to go totally electronic it is an option now, at least for D&D 3E & 4E (and probably others as well). The no-dice thing is still a little weird though. We all have a ton of dice - stash a backup dice bag in the glovebox!

I like this better than the spreadsheet approach but I think they outsmarted themselves on the d4's

Technology side note: Remember when printing out character sheets was a challenge? We used to go up to the library and pay a nickel or a dime per copy to get our blank sheets and we tended to be a little stingy with them because there was some effort involved in replacing them. That was the age when purchasing pre-printed sheets was a big deal - some of them even came in colors other than white! I remember writing programs in BASIC to print D&D sheets on my old dot-matrix printer but they were never as good as the pre-printed ones. Also, games that came with a pad of character sheets were just awesomely cool as well - James Bond 007 and one of the Lords of Creation adventure modules came with these.  I think one of the forgotten bonuses of the age of the internet and the cheap inkjet printer was freeing us from the tyranny of the copy machine! Even after that some games still put out packaged sheets. One of the supplements for Underground came with a pack of character sheets (and kill stickers!). Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing 2E had a supplement pack that included a pad of sheets too. Kinda retro but I still bought them.

Yep, that was it

The last few years I have picked up quite a few smaller games and supllements as PDF's. I used to always print them out if I intended to actually use them in play, otherwise they were just for reference.  When I decided to run ICONS I realized everything I had was electronic and I was low on printer ink. Not wanting to waste time and ink printing a 100+ page rulebook AND a 30 or so page adventure I decided to run completely electronic, something I had never done. To be really radical, I didn't get out the mini's, or the battlemat, or the table either. This was 3 Apprentices and myself sitting around the living room with no books. They had their dice, pencils, and character sheets and I had a laptop and my notebook and a pen. It went amazingly well! The change in approach from my usual table setup really emphasized that this was something different and they went with it - no complaining about the lack of maps or anything else. Now ICONS does cater to this approach by not being the kind of game that demands a grid - it's not that detailed of a tactical exercise - and it doesn't even have the DM roll dice. It was the perfect opportunity to change things up and I was very satisfied with the result.

I do not own this, and I am comfortable saying that.

I know those of you playing online are likely unimpressed with these revelations but these are big changes for me. Now I would not do the mapless thing with a Hero system game, 3E or 4E D&D, or probably even Savage Worlds as those games benefit from a richer tactical experience. I might give it a try with our Basic D&D game though as an experiment. The all-electronic thing I would probably be willing to try with about any game, and some of those more detailed RPG's might benefit from it even more! I'm not that interested in game-running programs but for keeping multiple books in an easier package I am a little bit interested. The only problem is that I have a LOT of books for these things, so it's likely to only happen for newer games. - and games not behind a paywall that charges per month.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Deadlands crawls into the light

The other game we played over the holiday was Deadlands, specifically the Savage Worlds version. I got interested in Original Recipie Deadlands back in the 90's and have a just-about-complete collection of it and the nuclear version as well. I got interested in Savage Worlds back when it was just a discussion on a mailing list in the early 2000's and own quite a bit of material for it. That said it was a looong time before I got to run either one. I've mainly run Neccessary Evil in Savage Worlds (a Supers campaign) so I was very pleased to have the chance to run Deadlands in it. Finally!

Apprentice Who isn't as excited about cowboys as he is about Star Wars or Superheroes so he decided to take a pregenerated character I downloaded from the Pinnacle site and scurried off to play some Xbox while Red and Blaster made their own characters - even at this stage of their gaming careers they absolutely hate running characters that they did not create. That said Who did pick a winner. He was seriously considering the Guy With the Lightning Gun but ended up going with the Guy With the Gatling Shotgun. It's hard to go wrong with a gatling shotgun.

Apprentice Blaster was flipping through one of the older books and decided a Texas Ranger looked pretty cool and so went with that as his concept. He's big, tough, strong, and not too bright, but he's good with a rifle and in a fight so he was happy. No, we don't have a name yet.

Apprentice Red was instantly hooked on the Huckster concept. He's pretty smart but not much good in a hand to hand fight. Fortunately his magical abilities mean he doesn't need to  be up close to hurt people. His card tricks allow him to attack a single target at range, cause an explosion, and protect himself. Again, no name yet.

After all this character building time was growing short so I told them they were at a small town in Missourri waiting on a train headed for Denver. They had arrived separately but realized they were headed for the same destination and so spent several hours getting acquanted in a local saloon. Now it was nearing sundown and they decided to take a shortcut through a wooded area to the train station.

As they move through the brush, wolf howls break out and soon enough six wolves move into sight. The two men stop to see what the wolves are about. The pack catches the scent and charges in. Cards are dealt out and combat begins!

Blaster's Ranger puts a rifle round into one of the lead wolves and drops it in one shot. Red's Huckster tries to blast one of them but is off just a little bit. The Ranger drops one more with a shot from his rifle. Then the card-slinger drops a perfectly placed blast on top of the main pack and blows 3 of the wolves away in a storm of burning cards. One wolf manages to run up on the huckster and gets his jaws on one arm but the Ranger blows it away at point blank range. The two then hustle on towards the train station, arriving in time to catch the ride to their next adventure.

I do like the SW initiative system - using the the cards just feels so different that it breaks the typical D&D mindset and puts us in a different place. It worked well enough with superheroes but it feels even more "right" with western heroes. Switching initiative every round was something the Apprentices were also unused too, as most of our games use a more static system.

Combat moves fast, very fast, and I was once again elated to play with the awesomeness that is No Record Keeping - Basic NPC's and monsters are either Up and Fine, Shaken,  or Dead, sort of like minions in 4E D&D. Special characters (called WIld Cards) can have up to 3 wounds but these are marked with poker chips instead of being tracked by hit points or on a chart. I use white chips for Shaken, red chips for Wounds, and blue chips for any oddball status I need to mark which is pretty rare. Unlike my usual campaign logs where pages are covered in long descending hit point tracks, my notes for a session of this game just covers actions of note and lists which opponents or NPC's were encountered.

Playing it again, even as just a brief warm-up, reminded me all over again why I like this game so much. It's a beautiful system which feels like you're getting a lot done in a short period of time but with enough detail to make it worth doing. It is very much on the "Cinematic" side of things with characters blazing away, shaking off wounds, and moving on to the next big action sequence. It is more detailed than say ICONS, but less complex than M&M. There's enough mechanical crunch to make it interesting but not enough to need rules-heavy supplements. Most of the supporting material is campaign material with a few rules tweaks or additions to flesh out that particular universe - superpowers in Neccessary Evil, expanded rules for sailing ships and ship combat in Pirates, more 1870's-specific gear in Deadlands, 1960's gear in Tour of Darkness, etc.

This session also helped me recognize bits of other games in there too. There are elements of d6 Star Wars  in Savage Worlds that really jump out at me now after having gone through that system in some detail, including changes that I would make to that system as far as movement and actions and paring the skill list down to its core. I think if I ever go for a lighter Star Wars game it will use these rules.

In addition to the official material, there is a very strong community attitude of do-it-yourself online. There are numerous conversions of other games out there and numerous home grown sets of campaign material. Check out this page - everything from Harry Potter to World of Warcraft to TORG to Eberron to Star Trek and Warhammer 40,000 - that's a pretty wide range!

So this session got things started - what's my plan? Not sure. I'm going to run them through the old Deadlands starter adventure "Comin' Round the Mountain" (which I have never gotten to run) because I think it looks like fun. Hopefully that will happen this weekend and we can include Apprentice Who in this one. After that I may run a little thing I had written up years ago set in the Great Maze and after that well we will just see where things go. It's very unusual for me to go into a potential campaign situation without some kind of outline but I don't really feel the need for that yet with this game. Since we already have ongoing D&D 4E, Star Wars, and ICONS games with occsional forays into D&D Basic and MSH I don;t thin I need to over plan this. Plus I don't have a really compelling idea for a long term campaign of this yet. I'm feeling it as more of an episodic thing, more like "this week on Deadlands - the Night Train!" rather than a zero to hero epic that spans 50 sessions and 2 years of real time. I think the more segmented approach will work here so I'm going to try it that way for now.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Holiday Campaign Necromancy - Zebulon Space Returns!

The extended holiday weekend was a good one with much family time, football, Apprentice Twilight's birthday, and general goodness. The long-awaited return of our X-Box 360 from the grave cut into some of the home game time but I still managed to work in two sessions with the Apprentices, the first of which was the resurrection of our Star Wars Saga campaign. Binder still on shelf, notes still on computer, ideas still in head ... DING! It was the one game that Red, Blaster, and Who could all agree on so that's what we played first. The outline for it is detailed here but in short it's a conversion of the old Star Frontiers Volturnis campaign to the Saga version of Star Wars. We got off to a strong start earlier this year and we all had a good time but it was bumped back several times in favor of more D&D and then stopped coming up in conversation. Things are better now.

When we last left off, the PC's (two Jedi padawans and a rodian scoundrel) had fought some space pirates in the corridors of their ship, discovered it was damaged beyond repair, made it to an escape pod, and crashed on an unfamiliar planet. That was Chapter One as outlined in my Campaign ... Outline.

Chapter Two begins with the stranded heroes picking up their packs and getting their bearings. With the 3 salvaged survival packs in the pod they figured they had about 4 days worth of food and water, more if they stretched it. Surveying the land around the mfrom atop the rocky outcrop they had smashed into, they saw desert, lots and lots of Tatooine-esque desert, with some mountains in the distance. They also spied a small dome-like mound a few klicks from their rock, so they decided to head their first.

At the mound they find that it is hollow and entered via a small opening. Inside is a well. There's not much room but they can all 3 fit inside so they take shelter from the sun and Apprentice Blaster's Kel Dor Jedi decides to sample the water. Blowing his Survivial skill check, he decides that any well someone would protect must be good and takes a nice big drink of it. Aprentice Red's Human Jedi does somewhat better with his Survival check and remembers that ground water can be dangerous so he should use the toxin scanner in his survival pack before drinking. This begins what I suspect will be a long-running joke about "remember that time in Jedi Scouts when we went camping?" and it was pretty funny. He determines via the scanner that the water is heavy in arsenic and should be boiled and trapped in a tarp for safety.  They are trying to determine if they have firestarting gear when Apprentice Who's Scoundrel draws his blaster pistol and shoots some rags they have gathered, pointing out the obvious. Late in the day a sandstorm blows in and they decide to wait it out inside the well dome. Once it's over they head for the mountains, making occasional Survival checks and Perception checks to navigate to rock outcroppings and rough patches as they travel, seeking shelter and signs of civillization.

On Day 2 they hear the sound of a vehicle in the distance and hunker down in a convenient rock formation (Stealth checks), realizing that they have made no effort to cover their tracks as they travel. A skiff approaches from the way they have come, back towards the crash site, likely following their tracks. It's pretty high up but three figures peer over the side and it bears an unfamiliar insignia, a circle of red stars. Uncertain as to whether it's friend or foe, Apprentice Blaster's Jedi stands up, hands clear, and hails them. They hear a clear "yep, they're from the ship" a split second before the three open up with blaster rifles. Annoyed at the response, frustrated by the 50 meter gap (no lightsaber throws or force leaps here), and tired of traveling by foot, he yells out "try not to hurt the vehicle", pulls out a blaster pistol, and returns fire, frying one of the presumed pirates. Apprentice Red tries to focus on the force but can't quite pull it together, but the Rodian drops another hostile in one shot, staying down in the rocks for cover. At this point the remaining shooter calls out "go go get us out of here" to the unseen pilot and the skiff streaks away over the desert. Since it headed towards the mountains the trio decides they must be headed in the right direction. They are very disappointed that they did not acquire the skiff and decide their best chance to get a vehicle is to leave their tracks visible to try and lure in pirates or scroungers. Leaving VERY OBVIOUS tracks they continue walking towards the mountains, being even more careful to look for shelter as they go and especially as they end their marches each day.

Day 3 is largely uneventful until they spot something moving towards them under the sand (described to them as looking like Bugs Bunny when he travels underground). Blaster and Who pull guns while Red charges towards it. As it closes the last few meters, a "fin" pops up out of the sand and then a whole bunch of teeth are suddenly headed for the impetuous Jedi. Blaster and Who open up on it and wound the thing but it clamps down on Red's leg and we learn about the concept of the Damage Threshold in Saga Edition. Wounded pretty seriously, Jedi Red manages to concentrate long enough to force blast the thing off of his leg and onto its back where it expires from the massive trauma inflicted. Dubbing it a "Sand Shark", they study the beast as the Scoundrel Treats the Injury with a medpack.

Unshaken by the attacks on Day 2 and Day 3, the party continues on Day 4. Stopped for a rest they suddenly see plume of dust rising up behind them. A couple of dozen riders crest a dune within view and pause. Five of them break off and approach closer, with one of them finally stopping the dinosaur like beast he rides, laying down his weapons, and approaching with tentacles out and making sounds the heroes do not understand. Jedi Red reaches out with the force to make contact and to his surprise is contacted back! Jedi Blaster joins in and soon everyone is sharing thoughts of peaceful intent, danger in the desert, and the need to head for more friendly countryside. The  octopus-like creatures are called the Ul-Mor and offer aid to the trio if they agree to join the tribe - this is a tribal law thing. They do and are soon following along on borrowed Lopers, riding across the desert. The Ul-More mention an underground shortcut to their homelands and a ritual of manhood needed to become full members of the tribe but the team is just happy to be headed out of the desert among friendly folk.

DM Notes:
It was good to dust off the rulebooks and campaign notes for this one. There was time spent at the beginning refamiliarizing with characters and rules and filling in any blank spots on the character sheets (except for name, apparently) and recalling the overall situation.

Star Frontiers has a device called a Toxy-Rad gauge that detects poisons. I'm not sure if Star Wars does or not but I included it because it made sense. That was more fun with poison than I've had in a long time. "Jedi Scouts" or "Padawan Scouts" - it was funny in the room, and the firestarter question was funny too.

The patrolling pirate encounter in the original is just supposed to be a dramatic thing to let the players know the pirates are active on the planet. That seemed like a letdown too so I turned it into a combat encounter. There wasn't much chance they were going to get the skiff but a gunfight beats a simple flyby any day. The pirates in the original are the "Star Devils". This led me to a bit of a crisis - would Star Wars have a "Devil" reference? Trek does, but Trek is Now + 300 years. Star Wars has nothing to do with the real world, history, or religion, so I don't think it would, so I changed it on the fly. It caught me off guard but it's kind of important for giving the bad guys an identity.

The Sand Shark - what it's called in the original module - is just a reskinned massif stat-wise, which I described as a cross between a shark and an alligator. Both of these outdoor combats helped make the Jedi players aware that while sabers and force powers are good indoors, some of them have serious limitations in a wide-open outdoor environment and that 30 meters is not nearly as long there as it might seem on a gridded map. Damage Threshold is an alternate axis of damage, separate from hit points, that inflicts a -1 to -5 on actions, depending on severity. Lots of damage at once, poison, fatigue, radiation, and certain weapons can send one down the condition track, eventually causing unconsciousness. It's a nice blend of simplicity and effectiveness and gives the game an alternative to hit point damage for showing effects.

The Ul-Mor encounter went pretty well with Use the Force checks and diplomacy and actual role-playing all combinning nicely. There is some curiousity about exactly how they get inducted into the tribe but they're willing to wait and see. They all thought the idea of octopus-people riding dinosaurs was kind of cool and I will agree that it's not something you see everyday and that it's not really out of place in a Star Wars game.

The total laughing breakdown of the game came when I was describing the desert and one of them thought I said "Trampoline" instead of Tattooine right after someone else had made a comment about force-hopping across the desert and this rolled into jokes about the "wide, flat, low-gravity desert world of Trampoleen" that had us all laughing our heads off. It's pretty good when they can make me lose my focus with a sustained funny, so this run was an all-around win.