May 10, 2013

God Machine Chronicle System Review


Review: God Machine Chronicle (system)

Rarely do we see a top-tier RPG system go through a change so candidly as we have just seen, as the new World of Darkness Storytelling system has updated to the God Machine Chronicle (GMC).  The free rules update includes honest and reflective comments explaining some of the reasons the systems have changed.  The free PDF can be found here.  The full God Machine Chronicle book is available here.

World of Darkness: The God Machine Rules Update
Generally, the changes show a very self-aware tabletop RPG system.  It is honest with players and wants players to be honest with themselves and the GM about what they want.  I highly recommend it.

I’ll describe a few of the major changes.  Most have been improvements on already-strong systems, but I’ll identify a few areas where the rules are weak or poorly designed.  I think the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, and GMC would be an ideal system for a horror game. 

The good…

Flaws are the new Experience Points

 First, this is the World of Darkness, which I have lauded as a pioneer of the idea of flaws. In sum, a flaw (to use the old word – it’s now called a “persistent condition”) is a mechanical trade off for a player making an inexpedient decision. 

The mechanical trade-off gives a player social permission to cause his character to screw up, suffer, or even harm his teammates by rewarding him with a game-mechanical benefit.  Remember, the game table is a social contract, and players taking inexpedient actions that affect the group for no trade off would feel like a violation of that contract.  The evolution of Flaws shows a twenty-year growth from a character flaw trade-off (play a flawed character, please – we’ll make it worth your while!) to a behavioral trade-off (let your character flaw inconvenience you, please – you’ll get a bonus in exchange!) to the entire experience point system in GMC.  Yes, now all character advancement is tied to the mechanical trade-off of screwing over your character in exchange for “beats.”

The system terms have changed, so bear with me:  A beat is 1/5 of an Experience.  One Experience buys a Specialty or Merit dot or Willpower dot.  Two buys a Skill dot.  Three buys an Integrity dot.  Four buys an Attribute dot.  This is a static progression (new for WoD) so it’s just the cost listed – no more.  This fixes the exponential cost system they had before, but while it fixes a problem, alone it isn’t innovative. 

How you gain Experience is the innovation.  A wallflower player will never get much Experience.  You get 1 Experience for every 5 Beats.  You get a Beat for the following things: 
·         You get 1 Beat when the game session ends.  That’s 1 automatic per game session.
·         You get 1 Beat for good roleplaying, character development, smart strategy, etc.
·         You get 1 Beat when you achieve an Aspiration.  An Aspiration is an out of character goal the player has for his character, though player and character goals probably align a lot, such as “find out who killed the professor.”  An aspiration can also be a negative goal, based on your expectations of the game to come, such as “get wounded in combat” or “get caught breaking into the mansion.”  Regardless, aspirations should be things you, as a player, would like to see happen.  The GM is supposed to read them all and try to make them happen for you, at a gradual rate of about one per game session (on average).  You keep three at a time, replacing them as they’re fulfilled (or rendered irrelevant), and “Ideally you should be able to accomplish at least one of these Aspirations per game session” (p151)
·         You get 1 Beat when you intentionally take a Dramatic Failure.  If you fail a roll (or are made to fail a roll due to a Condition), you can choose to make it a Dramatic Failure and take a Beat.  You can get this Beat only once per scene.  One example in the book involves fixing a car, so it doesn’t have to be an epic scene.  This also keeps the GM from handing out too many pointless rolls, because if I’m a player and a roll seems pointless, it might as well earn me some XP!
·         You can get a beat from certain Conditions (temporary status effects that sometimes reward you for playing well).  Not all Conditions provide Beats, but they can cause you to fail rolls, which you can then turn to Dramatic Failures, and therefore you can get a Beat.   You can get a Condition beat only once per scene.  Flaws are now “persistent conditions” and can provide a lot of Beats.
·         You get 1 Beat when you take enough damage to have a wound penalty (leaving you only 0-2 health boxes before you go down).
·         You get 1 Beat when you get a Dramatic Success or Dramatic Failure at a Breaking Point.  More on this later. 
·         You get 1 Beat if you surrender in combat.  More on this later.

So you see, Flaws have evolved into a whole system to encourage players to torment their characters in exchange for system rewards.  GMC is a horror investigation game, similar to Call of Cthulhu. Giving the players the opportunity, encouragement, and rewards to have their characters make mistakes and screw up greatly enriches the game. 

Word of Warning!

 Now, I have a few responsible players in my social circle who are creative, smart people who contribute to the story well… but they tend to fade into the background during the game and speak up rarely.  A whole scene can go by without them saying a word, and they’re happy to do that.  These types of players will suffer in the new Beat system. 

Under GMC’s rules, these players are going to have a little more motivation to step forward.  In order to keep things equitable, the GM will have to take more of a facilitator role, helping garrulous players to know when to step back and soliciting contributions to help the wallflower players step forward.

Combat is Now Self-Aware

The new combat section opens with this sentence:

“These rules supersede some of the combat rules presented in the World of Darkness Rulebook, providing a lethal focus to fighting along with a unified system of conditions and reasons for characters to stop fighting before the other guy’s only fit for the morgue.” (p195)

The new combat system has multiple options! I’ve strongly advocated for alternate combat resolution multiple times here, and I think they delivered!

First, everyone in the combat states their intent – a sentence starting with “I want…”  If one side gives in to the other side, they get Willpower and the other side gets their Intent.  No combat required!  There are rules for what happens if some surrender and some don’t.  Characters who surrender take a Beat and get a Willpower.  Once again, there’s a reward for “losing.”

The next step is that the combat can be run as a single opposed die roll, if it’s not a dramatic scene where tactics really matter.  The book strongly suggests using it either for cutout mooks or for exceptionally badass combat PCs.  I can imagine using this rule for scenes where being attacked is a clue, but the actual combat isn’t really interesting; or for when PCs plan to jump NPCs who they can easily defeat (arresting a corrupt lawyer who’s trying to run away, for instance).

There’s an optional Beaten Down condition, where anyone who takes [Stamina] in Bashing damage or any lethal damage at all has to spend a Willpower to attack (but not to dodge or run away).  It is not clear when GMs should turn this rule on and off.  I can’t imagine using it in most combat scenes where the blow-by-blow tactics are interesting enough to run it turn-by-turn. 

The Beaten Down optional rule lets the GM turn on (and off) the sort of combat where one side drives the other off or tries to achieve a goal other than kill everyone on the other side.  This optional rule can be turned on and off within a session to reflect different types of scenes, so the best advice I have for you is to turn the Beaten Down rule on (explicitly of course) when none of the combatants declares an Intent that could possibly involve killing their opponent. 

If you do get down to rounds and initiative, you’ll like the changes in GMC.  First, merits with multiple attacks are gone.  In my direct experience, these could be broken.  Second, weapons no longer add dice to attack pools. In the original nWoD rules, a rifle added 4 dice, so you would never miss, but only do about 1 more damage than a fist.  Now a rifle deals [successes]+4 Lethal – much better!  This makes guns relatively much more powerful than melee combat (since you still don’t get your Defense against ranged attacks), except the merits they’ve added make disabling opponents in melee a realistic option.  Building a grappler, or a cop with handcuffs, or a called-shot attacker is pretty effective, and disabling or knocking out enemies doesn’t cause Breaking Points like killing does.  It’s still easy to build a combat bad-ass.  It’s going to cost you a lot of Merit points, but you’re going to be really dangerous.

If you want a good tactical combat game, play 4e D&D.  GMC is not meant to be a perfectly balanced game for battles.  In the new Integrity system, you make a Breaking Point check every time you kill a person, regardless of why.  If the GM ran a game with a lot of fights, you would run out of Integrity very fast.  This is not a game where a gunfight happens every session.  It’s very interesting that firearms combat is incredibly effective, but killing people is not actually going to be your goal most of the time you get in a fight.

The list of Environmental Tilts is…  odd.  There are Tilts for fighting during an earthquake but not for fighting in concealment (mist, fog, darkness) or tight quarters?  Mist and fog are covered under the Concealment penalty, but still...  I would assume dark, smoky, tight quarters are a lot more common in horror games than earthquakes and floods.


Integrity is a Great Sanity System

 The update ditched the “Morality” system and replaced it with an “Integrity” system.  The old “hierarchy of sins” model for Morality was based on the old Vampire: the Masquerade “Humanity” system, where you had a crisis point for committing an act, and if you failed, you grew more monstrous and callous.  The lower on the scale you went, the more inhuman acts you had to commit to reach a crisis point.  A vampire who didn’t care if she accidentally killed the victims she fed on, but tried not to do it intentionally at least would hover around 4 Humanity, rarely ever risking dropping below that.  The Morality system worked a lot like that.  A brutal thug who wanted to avoid a murder rap, but didn’t care if he beat someone to within an inch of his life would hover around 4-5 Morality, no matter how many people he worked over.

The new Integrity system has no such hierarchy, and it’s tailored to the character.  Some acts always trigger a Breaking Point (like killing).  The Morality system triggered a loss based on the character’s behavior.  The Integrity system can trigger a Breaking Point based on experiences that a character has – even witnessing atrocious acts committed against other people.  And it varies by the character:  If a teenage skater finds a rotting corpse, he’s likely to have a Breaking Point, but a Medical Examiner might not.  If a gateway to hell opened, both would suffer a Breaking Point.  In that way, the system works like Sanity in Call of Cthulhu.

Also unlike Morality, Integrity loss speeds up the lower you go.  It’s also like Call of Cthulhu that way.  You start with a bonus to Breaking Point checks, and as your Integrity drops, you lose the bonus and get a penalty.  In reality, people don’t get hardened by a traumatic experience, without a lot of time and coping work (the difficult but rewarding process of coping and growing as a person that many trauma survivors have is represented by spending Experiences for Resolve, Composure, Willpower or Integrity dots).  Also like Call of Cthulhu, Breaking Point checks put Conditions on characters that cause them to act frightened, desperate, or shaken immediately after their experience.

Like the rest of the system, die pools can vary greatly – PCs roll Resolve + Composure at a breaking point, which varies from 2-10 dice, and it is modified by a bonus from the character’s Integrity and a modifier given by the GM based on the trauma of the situation.  Watching someone get kidnapped from a Starbucks window might cause a check with a bonus (after all, at least it’s not me; there’s no blood; no supernatural, etc.) while being attacked and maimed by a wolf-man might be a check with a large penalty.  I think this system was designed to make outcomes heavily determined by the GM, to make players feel relatively powerless when a Breaking Point occurs.


The bad…


Extended Actions are still Crummy 

Extended actions get a little improvement.  The intent is clearly to create a situation where a task takes a lot of time, and characters feel the pressure between rolls, and can see that things may not be going well.  The problem is that with the wildly varying die pools in the game, it’s almost impossible for GMs to pin the right modifiers and target numbers of successes onto the scene to make it likely to go how he envisions. 

Worse, they still didn’t give us good rules for multiple characters working on an extended action together, which is almost always how it’s going to work in practice at the table.  The original nWoD Teamwork rule remains:  The assistants all roll first, then, “[a]ny successes collected from assistants are added to the primary actor’s dice pool as bonus dice.”  There’s not much motivation for the assistants to use Willpower, because it doesn’t have enough impact on the ultimate success or failure of the joint project in this case.  I guess I’m hoping for a system closer to a 4e Skill Challenge, where everyone’s participation is potentially equally helpful or hazardous.


The New Social System Sucks

My biggest complaint about every World of Darkness system to date is that they seem to conflate “having lots of rules for social stuff” with being a game that stresses the importance of social interactions.  They seem to think more social rules -> more social game.  What game mechanic systems do is simulate a real world situation with approximated probabilities, using dice to generate an abstraction of success or failure.  Social systems do just the same thing:  They abstract all of the cool manipulation and intrigue of the story into a die roll.  That’s not always a bad thing.  There are three reasons to do it, in my opinion. 

1.       Players want to play characters whose social skills are different from their own.  Either their character is awkward while the player is confidant; or the character is suave while the player is hesitant. 
a.       This motivation is common among simulationist players
b.      This goal is satisfied by having any social system at all – even an old school D&D “Reaction Check Modifier” satisfies this.  Dividing social skills into a few different, commonly used types is a slightly more complex, but still effective idea.
c.       A more detailed system does not improve the realism the system adds to, it reduces it by interrupting the role-play.
2.       GMs want to turn a social scene into a mini-game, with risk/reward trade-offs.
a.       This motivation is common among gamist players
b.      In order for this goal to be achieved, the system needs to present opportunities for risk (making consequential decisions with limited information) and clear rewards for it.  The 3rd edition D&D Intimidate system does this well, for example:  Intimidate gets an NPC to act Helpful for now, but future reactions will start at Unfriendly (if not Hostile).
c.       By their nature, social scenes often involve risk and rewards under constrained conditions and limited information without involving system:  A mysterious figure offers you a deal.  Do you take it?  A powerful man is offended by your accusation.  Do you backpedal or double down?  The priest is telling you something shocking… but is he manipulating you?
3.       In order to tempt players to have their characters make bad choices or screw things up, a system needs to stop the action and let those other systems come into play.
a.       If system doesn't stop the action and intervene, the players and GM will just talk it out, and the system of Beats and Persistent Conditions, Vices and Virtues, etc. will not get involved.  Naturally some system should get involved occasionally to pause the action.
b.      Pausing for system gives a player a chance to trigger these rules.  But it only needs to pause the system about 4-5 times to give every player a chance to involve his Flaws.

The Social Maneuvers (SM) system creates a kind of extended action, where you have to break down Doors, and each Door takes a certain amount of successes on social rolls to break down, and the time between rolls is based on the Impression the NPC has of the PCs.  The problem is that the GM can’t really control things like bad die rolls, so a social scene that is supposed to resolve in a few hours during a party could get shifted to a week-per-roll scenario with a bad Impression.  Or a character with great stats could jump-start a one-roll-a-week slow con situation where the GM planned to have scenes interspersed with the social persuasion, so that the whole thing is achieved in a few hours.  All of these factors are manipulated by a highly simulationist system that reflects character relationships and skill levels and successes rolled. 

So where the simulationist objective is satisfied (even over-satisfied) by the old nWoD Storytelling System, the GMC version doubles down on system complexity.  The other two creative agendas are not much advanced.

From a gamist perspective, the SM system gives you the same two strategic choices you had before:  You have the choice to blow Willpower to do better (which you had before) and you have the choice to go soft or go hard (which you also had before). 

From a narrativist perspective, the SM system stops the action for system intervention at regular intervals.  This is a tiny improvement over what we had before, where the GM stopped the action and called for a die roll whenever he saw fit.  Some GMs would stop the action frequently; others never at all.  So the new SM system organizes things so that the GM creates regular opportunities to influence an NPC.  But it also knocks puts more weight on dice than on the best way to tell a dramatic story.  The dice determine when a persuasion succeeds.

I would recommend totally throwing out the Social Maneuvers system and house-ruling any Merits that refer to Doors and Impressions to give large bonuses to social skill rolls.  For instance, the “Sympathetic” merit could change from “eliminate two of the subject’s Doors” to “reflexively make a Persuasion or Empathy roll into a rote action once per Chapter/Session.”  It’s an easy modification.  Just make sure to stop the action every ten or fifteen minutes to call for a roll, so as to make the system and character stats relevant; and to give opportunities for players to involve complications from Conditions and Vices, etc.


Overall Assessment

I’ve got a lot of experience with the nWoD tabletop system.  The new God Machine Chronicle improves it a good deal.  It’s still not a fine-tuned and well-balanced tactical system.  Players can break the game pretty easily.  But no matter how optimized a fighter you are, a vampire has a major advantage you can’t compete with easily.

Horror RPG systems have a hard balance to strike.  They have to give players narrative control enough that they step back from their characters and feel comfortable letting their characters make mistakes or suffer defeat.  If the players get too close to their characters, they will have a hard time doing this.  But if the players get too much narrative control, the effect of horror isn’t well transmitted.  Horror relies on powerlessness, and for the players to feel powerless, you need to write a system that can occasionally make the players feel powerless over the course of events in the story.  I think GMC does this well.