Thursday, November 22, 2012

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Recent Gaming Innovations: The Marvel Approach

After D&D, various superhero games are my favorite things to plan, run, play, and generally mess with. I have a lot of them from Superhero 2044 onward, and they all tend to follow a similar design philosophy of being superhero simulators. This is awesome and a ton of fun to play and run and argue over how many tons Superman can lift and other similar trivia. This has spurred a lot of mechanical innovations over the past 3 decades as well, giving us Champions' point-based character creation, the original Marvel's results chart and Karma system, DC Heroes' universal table and scaling system, and Mutants and Masterminds Power Level system. All of these have been around for a while though.

This year saw a new contender: MWP's Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and it started with different premise: comic book simulator, not superhero simulator.  I would expand it to include movie and TV simulator as well. It's a major shift among the universe of spandex-clad rpg's. It feels completely different in play as there is a lot less focus on how far I can throw that mail truck compared to Dr. Science's flight speed in meters per round, and a lot more on the dramatic side of things. Players have more control over the flow and the environment through assets and plot points. One of the great problems of previous superhero games is coming up with a system that can handle the comic-book scale when it comes to hard numbers on things like ranges and speeds and lifting weights. MHR solves this by coming from a different angle entirely. Some might say avoiding the question is not answering the question, but by taking this different approach the question basically disappears. I will use something I put up on the blog recently to illustrate my point:

I've seen a lot of statblocks in my time  - individual NPC's and swarm type units but I've never seen one for a committee in a noncombat encounter. In most games this kind of thing would be a placeholder roleplaying scene in between fights. Not here - they get a statblock like everybody else and it's resolved via the standard game mechanics. At various times in the past I've played around with using a more narrative, episodic approach and here is a game that is built from the ground up around that premise. In this encounter Iron Man's "powered armor" power may not prove all that useful, but all characters have affiliations, distinctions, and specialties on their sheet - here's a place where some of them can shine and the mechanics for resolving this are the same ones used for combat and everything else.

Another shocking change from traditional supers games: no character creation. OK, well there is a system but it's all of 7 pages and is basically think about it, decide what it should be, talk to the DM and you should be able to figure it out - no real-world benchmarks, no point values, no set list of powers or advantages or disadvantages. Considering that a major focus of most games is on building exactly the character you want or  rolling up a solid character this is a nearly heretical approach but it works for me because in a Marvel game I'd rather focus on playing Marvel characters. I know not everyone feels the same, but I don't need Aluminum Man to fight alongside Spiderman or Colossus - I have other games for that and I'm perfectly happy having him fight alongside Solar Flare or the Iron Magician and roam around Freedom City or Atomic City. If Colossus and Spiderman are running around Marvel New York then I'd rather play Iron Man!

I think another thing that attracted me to it is that it's the complete opposite of D&D 3E/4E when it comes to design and play. For example: I can't see this game benefitting at all from a character builder or a battlemat, and I consider both nearly essential for 4E and extremely handy for 3E play. I've played more of those two games than any other by far over the last 12 years. I like them a lot, but it's nice to have a different flavor of game available when I want to take a gaming vacation. It exercises different parts of the brain, and it feels good.

Now I like my 12d6 Energy Blast (Armor Piercing, Explosion, Extra Knockback) as much as anyone and I'm not going to go all-storyteller anytime soon. This game will not replace the games I already know and love. But it is incredibly refreshing to see something this different pop up with a major license in a genre I thought was pretty much settled. I now have a way to play "supers" with a system unlike any other. It's one of the great revelations in gaming for 2012 for me personally and I wanted to call it out this week.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Recent Gaming Innovations: Forced Movement in 4th Edition D&D

I come here not to bury 4th edition but to praise it - there are some things in it that I really liked - after I had a chance to get used to them. One of the biggest: forced movement effects such as push, pull, and slide.

Why is this an innovation? Because despite decades of gaming most RPG's are reluctant to give people control over someone else's character as a routine part of the game. There's an unstated assumption in most games that while you can kill and maim someone's playing piece you cannot move them around without their consent. It's a huge blind spot that I never really noticed until after I had been playing 4E for a while and then started looking at other games again.

Why does this matter? Well it mainly matters in tactical games where the players tend to use a battlemat and mini's, which describes most of D&D 3E, 4E, Pathfinder, and a lot of other D20 games, plus GURPS and Champions. I tend to think of Champions as the king of tactical games as there are so many options within that system but one that is curiously lacking even there is the ability to move a character that is not your own. Being able to force opponents to move adds numerous tactical options and expands the range of interesting choices available to the players and the DM.

From the player perspective going back to AD&D there were a few things that allowed you to impose a condition on enemy movement - charm spells, confusion spells, gust of wind (though it doesn't do much). Note those are all spells too - fighters don't have much aside from grappling/overbearing and maybe the man catcher rules that came later. Also those mainly rely on the DM to determine how things go - nowhere does it say the player gets to move them around the area.Even turning undead leaves a lot of options for the DM as far as where the undead end up.Third edition gave us Bull Rush and Trip, but even those have pretty limited effects. Moving over to Champions there are powers that let a player restrict a target's movement like entangle, but about the only way to force movement is through mind control or knockback! You can get creative and do something like a teleport useable on others but even that is a little clunky.

What 4E did for players is give them many powers and abilities where a target can be pushed away, pulled towards, held in place, slowed, or knocked down, expanding the universe of "damage" to include the usual normal damage, conditions, AND movement effects, and it wasn't limited to mind control/charm effects or super-strength. There's an at-will power for fighters that lets them hit for damage and then knock their target back one space - no feat needed, no magic needed. There's a wizard at-will that lets them push a group of opponents back a few spaces. The key differences from other RPG's:

  • It's widely available - almost every class has some options in this area and they are not tied to feat chains
  • It's player-initiated - I can take an action to make this happen
  • It's player-controlled - I get to inflict the forced movement, not the DM or another player.
  • It's immediate - it happens on my turn, not the target's turn

These things really liven up encounters as it is much more difficult to corner a group that can move enemy units around when they need to. Backed into a dead end room? The Fighter uses Tide of Iron to push his way into the door, then the wizard moves up behind him and Thunderwaves the enemy back into the corridor, enabling the rest of the party to move out and engage, possibly clearing an escape for the entire group. It also gives a standard game mechanic for pushing the enemy into the campfire or down the stairs or off of a cliff and allows almost every character to have a chance to pull off fun tricks like that.

Now this works for the monsters too - no longer does the DM have to "discuss" it with a player who is harpy-charmed - he just imposes the effect and moves on

Alluring Song (charm) At-Will
Attack: Close burst 10 (creatures in the burst); +9 vs. Will
Hit: The harpy pulls the target 3 squares, and the target is immobilized (save ends). Deafened creatures are immune to this effect.
Sustain Minor: The harpy repeats the effect against any target that has not yet saved against it.

Like that - it's clear, simple, and does what it should. This actually speeds up play in this case, though that is not really a global feature of 4th Edition. It also means that the monsters can knock people off of bridges and balconies and things too, whether it's from an Ogre-punch or a Harpy hovering over a chasm calling to victims on a tight mountainside trail.

This lack of forced movement is not limited to RPG's - The Chaos Marines in Warhammer 40,000 had a psychic power in their last codex named "Lash of Submission" which allowed the caster to move an enemy unit 2d6 inches on the tabletop. This was widely viewed as overpowered and was much hated by their opponents, so much so that in the new codex released last month that they no longer have the ability. People really hate it when you get to touch their pieces!

To wrap up, 4th Edition D&D was the first RPG i can recall that really made forced movement effects a common and consistent part of the game. This added numerous new options to the typical combat encounter which I see as a good thing and added another tool to the toolbox when facing a battle situation. There was so much of a storm around 4E that I think a lot of the more innovative concepts in the game may have been lost in the furor. Hopefully things like this post will remind people of some of the strong points, and hopefully we will see more things like this creeping into other games.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Recent Gaming Innovations: Savage Worlds Explorers Edition

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I thought I would post a bit this week about some of my favorite recent developments in this hobby we share.

My totally arbitrary cutoff for this is things released in the last 5 years.

My first nomination is the Explorer's Edition of Savage Worlds.

Now why one particular edition of one particular game? Because this one gave us a complete multi-genre RPG in a 160 page full-color softcover rulebook for $9.99. I have never seen another RPG with the bang-for-your-buck value of this game.

One of the things people love to complain about in gaming is having to buy multiple rulebooks - this is one book. People complain about the high cost of said rulebook - this one is not costly. People complain about edition obsolescence - while small tweaks have been made with each new printing Savage Worlds at the core is the same game as when it was first published in 2003, so this is not really an issue.

Now I was already a fan of the game and have been since the pre-release discussions on the SW mailing list years ago, but this version took the "Fast, Furious, Fun" mantra and added "accessible" as a descriptor. I've given at least one of these away to a friend and kept one in my car for a period of time for those "what are we going to do tonight" conversations that come up at times. I've run pirates, cowboys, fantasy, and superheroes with these rules and plan to do even more in the future. I've run it with heroclix, D&D mini's, warhammer figures, and legos in the past as well as completely free-form with no figures at all. It's a powerful system that always has me shaking my head at just how much we can get done in a session compared to more traditional, complex games.

The particular aspect I want to celebrate here though is the price. With a ten dollar cost of entry how can you not have this on your bookshelf? And no, you don't need to go buy Deadlands to make it playable.

Here's a link to the book. Note that this is the new version released just a few months ago - and it's still $9.99. I picked up a copy over the weekend at the FLGS and it's even better than the original version.

Here's a link to Savageheroes, which has a long list of player-developed settings

So much of what we discuss online are the finer points of mechanics, design, and running a game - none of that matters if no one can afford to pick up the game. While I have embraced the PDF age of smaller RPG's as much as anyone I still like having a book on the shelf and in my hands and I don't think I could buy this as a PDF and print it out for under $10 - there is just no downside to picking up a copy of this game. Instead of spending $50 on a copy of the core book for some big game, you could pick up 5 copies of this, pass them out to your group, and start a new campaign where everyone has a copy of the rules right from the start!

Anyway that's the first Innovation I wanted to salute - a gold star to Pinnacle for creating this book and another one for continuing it this year!

Motivational Monday