March 29, 2013

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic rewards was a recent Extra Credits presentation.

They boil down to a question:  "Am I doing what I'm doing because I enjoy it or because it can get me something I enjoy?"

This is a good question to ask your players -- what parts of the game do they personally enjoy the most?

Are there any parts they do because they enjoy the result, but not the task?

As a LARP player, I find there are scenes I need to be in because of extrinsic reasons:  I want to earn status or prevent something I care about from being harmed.  And there are scenes I want to be in because of an intrinsic reason:  I enjoy novel puzzle scenes, spotlight time, intrigues, and acting out ritual behaviors (such as coronations or knightings, or vampire court or magic rituals).

As a tabletop player, I find that I intrinsically enjoy scenes that let me have influence over the direction of the story or fate of NPCs; or game scenes like puzzles and tactical combat.  From that, you can probably see why I wrote a post that urges GMs to focus on the boundaries (story) and scaffolding (game) limits for sim scenes, instead of focusing on realism, verisimilitude, and pathos.  I need a little of those things to enjoy the game, but not much.


March 22, 2013

Splitting the Party


Do your players dread splitting the party?  That may be because tactical combat RPGs scale challenges to a group, and the GM can’t alter them as easily on the fly.  Or it could be because players don’t want to sit on their hands while others get the spotlight.

Note:  I'm using a running example from the tabletop Vampire: the Masquerade game.  
If you're not familiar with it, ask Wikipedia.

Dividing the spotlight time carefully is the hardest task you will encounter when splitting the party.  Re-scaling combat challenges on the fly can be tough in some games, but altering social scenes, and revising skill roll difficulties are all fairly easy, even for a novice.  Actually, the system advantages of splitting the party may outweigh the drawbacks, if you’re careful.

Imagine you’re running a Vampire game.  The neonate PCs have visited the manor of an influential Ancillus, who doesn’t come down to visit them as they expected.  Indeed, the Ancillus’ ghouls brought them into the drawing room, left, and haven’t returned for hours.  The PCs get restless.  The manor is large, with two wings branching off the central entertaining area, plus a mysterious outbuilding. 

Brujah:  “Something’s up.  Let’s get out of here.”
Toreador: “We can’t just leave without explanation.  Let’s leave a note.”
Nosferatu: “Idiot!  This is more than just discourtesy.  Something’s wrong.  What if she’s been killed?  Then we’ll be implicated.”
Brujah:  “Fine, no note.”
Nosferatu: “Just as bad – maybe worse.  At the very least we’re on camera coming in.  Someone will find that”
Tremere:  “Can you take care of the cameras?  I want to find out what happened.”
Brujah: “I guess I’m curious, too.”
Tremere:  “Me and Tori will check out the outbuilding, then circle back and check the East wing.  Nos and Bru, why don’t you check the West wing and look for the security camera footage, while you’re at it.”

The Advantages to Splitting the Party
If the players split themselves evenly, it’s easier to share out the spotlight time.  The GM can alternate scenes back and forth between the two groups, building tension and ending each one on a cliffhanger.  Also, both groups will have an imbalanced skillset, so the advantages to providing a challenge (below) are preserved.

The big advantage of splitting the party is that you can produce high tension challenges in skill scenes without using over-the-top task difficulties.  A typical RPG party of PCs is a group of complimentary specialists who, together, possess a comprehensive skill set.  Within the group, there is usually someone good at every kind of task.  One character may focus on social skills, another on burglary, another on magic, and another on combat skills.

Character
Social
Burglary
Combat
Information
Nos
Poor
Excellent
Poor
OK
Bru
Poor
OK
Excellent
Poor
Tori
Excellent
Poor
OK
Poor
Tre
OK
Poor
Poor
Excellent

As you can see, the team as a whole is Excellent at every kind of task.   You can’t give them an easy obstacle to challenge them.  You have to constantly use tasks at the top of the difficulty scale to challenge the party.   And when you introduce such a hard obstacle, you only provide spotlight time for the character who excels at that task.

In the first example, the party split evenly.  Here’s what the two parts look like…

Group
Social
Burglary
Combat
Information
Nos/Bru
Poor
Excellent
Excellent
OK
Tori/Tre
Excellent
Poor
OK
Excellent

Now each sub-party has deficiencies.  They are still excellent at a wide range of tasks, but there is a skill area that they have some deficiency, and another where they are pretty inept.  If you give them tasks at which their characters excel, you give them spotlight time.  If you give them tasks at which the characters in the other group excel, you can use less “epic” difficulties (more “gritty” situations); you give the acting players spotlight time because they have the drama of failure; and you give spotlight time to the other team because they’re sorely missed.  They also tend to stay interested because the player of a character good at a particular task probably knows the system for that task well and may be able to help out. 

GM: “Nos picks the lock to the guardroom and Bru goes in with his shotgun ready.  On the floor is a handcuffed man in a bullet proof vest with close cropped hair, sobbing real tears.”
Brujah: “Woah.  Uh, dude, can you tell us what happened here?”
NPC: “It vanished!  I can’t feel it anymore!”
Brujah: “Calm the hell down and answer me, man.”
Nosferatu:  “Hey, buddy, what’s gone?”
NPC:  “The light!  The magic!”
Brujah:  “Oh, crap.  I bet he was Conditioned by the Ancillus.  He’s probably in mental shock.”
Nosferatu: “Can we get him to calm down and tell us what happened?”
GM: “Sure, make an Empathy check”
Nosferatu (OOC):  “I have literally one die for this.  What about you?”
Brujah (OOC):  “Uh…  Crap.  Two. I don’t want to botch this.  Let me blow a Will.  [Roll]  Just the one success.  Where’s that damn Toreador when you need her?”
GM:  “Well one success is enough for him to calm down, but not enough for him to give you anything useful right away.  You reassure him that the light could come back, and he looks doubtful, but stops crying.  At least he won’t eat a bullet while you fiddle with the security computer.”
Nosferatu: “You’re a paragon of humanity, Bru.  OOC, I don’t suppose he did well enough that he’ll give up the password?”
GM:  “No.  It’s going to be at least fifteen minutes for you to hack it.”
GM: “Meanwhile, Tre and Tori are approaching the outbuilding.  Whoever went inside didn’t leave a guard out here.  But they also didn’t turn on any lights.  The vans’ headlights illuminate the first few feet of the hallway inside the shattered doorway.  Beyond that, you can’t see very far.”
Tremere: “Shit.  Do we try to sneak in?”
Toreador: “I don’t have a stealthy bone in my body.”
Tremere: “Well, I guess we have to go in guns and spells blazing.  I can handle one with my Path magic.  You?”
Toreador: “Down a blind hall against an unknown enemy?  Are you nuts?  You’re good for one.  They brought two vans worth.  I’m a good shot, but I only brought a pistol.  What if those guys are lupines?  You’re going to annoy them with your cane?  How about we hide out here and at least see who comes out?”
Tremere: “That also involves stealth.  But at least we can call a good bonus for the bushes and darkness and stuff, right?”
GM:  “Sure, that’s worth +5.  But you won’t be able to do anything about whatever they’re doing in there…  Whoever they are.”
Toreador: “So we have to go in hot or pass up on intervening in whatever they’re doing in there.  Can we go back and get Nos and Bru?”
GM:  “Sure.  It might take you fifteen, twenty minutes to find them though.  In the meantime…”
Brujah (OOC):  “Aww, man.  I’ve been itching to try this new silver sword out on some werewolves.”
Tori (OOC):  “Sucks that you’re too busy hugging Rambo in there.”
Tremere: “Well I guess we hide in the bushes like you said.  We can’t stop them, but at least we can see who they are.  If they spot us – which, if they are werewolves, is entirely possible despite our merciful GM’s generous bonus – I say we run like the wind, scream like babies, and hope Bru and Nos can hear us and come to our rescue.”
The players will try to play to their strengths as best they can, but when they split the party, you can create situations like these where relatively easy tasks like calming a guy down or hiding in bushes are suddenly chancey and hard tasks like spying on unknown agents are totally inconceivable. 

In this way, you’re able to mix in easier tasks, challenge the PCs better, and give spotlight time to PCs who aren’t even in the scene.  Everyone gets to take a turn to act, and if the split groups are about equal in number, the net amount of spotlight time per player doesn’t change.

Uneven Split

But what if the players divide unevenly?  In reality, the most common way the party gets split is when one character goes off to scout.  What if that dialogue had gone like this?

Brujah:  “Fine, no note.”
Nosferatu: “Just as bad – maybe worse.  At the very least we’re on camera coming in.  Someone will find that.  Let’s think about this.  Something is going on.  It may be too late to do anything about it, but it might not.  What if I turn invisible and try to find the Ancillus.  I’ll come back and report if see any clues to what’s going on.”
Now we have a problem – one person is taking dramatic action, while three people sit and wait.  You have options:

  1. Run the scouting scene and make the other players wait.  When the scene ends, return to the whole group.
  2. Skip or abstract the scouting scene and move the action forward.
  3. Run simultaneous action for both groups, as if they were split evenly; but give more attention to the larger group despite the fact that there’s more interesting challenge for the smaller one.

Each option has benefits and drawbacks. 

Run the Scouting Scene then Return to the Whole Group

The first option is the typical GM response.  Some groups like to run these scenes in another room, so that the other players can gossip and go out of character freely without disrupting the game, and so that there’s a sense of mystery to what’s going on.  Other groups like single player side-scenes to be played at the table, so the scout doesn’t have to waste table time reporting everything.  He can just say “I tell you what I saw.”  

Some groups like the scene run at the table for other reasons – if there’s a more “author/director” stance among the players, they often suggest things for other people’s characters, or for NPCs, or suggest complications for scenes to add to the drama.  Some GMs even let the players whose characters are absent run NPCs in roleplay (this usually requires some prep ahead of time) or combat. 

The drawbacks of those techniques are obvious.  Plus, if your game sessions are short, running the scouting mission with just one player can eliminate half the game for the other players.  And if one player has built a scout character or just likes to go off alone, you’re going to find yourself running these side scenes all the time.

Skip Past the Scouting Scene

The second option – skipping or abstracting the scouting – is great if you want to keep the party together.  

Here’s how that would go for the example scene:

Nosferatu: “Just as bad – maybe worse.  At the very least we’re on camera coming in.  Someone will find that.  Let’s think about this.  Something is going on.  It may be too late to do anything about it, but it might not.  What if I turn invisible and try to find the Ancillus.  I’ll come back and report if see any clues to what’s going on.”
GM: “Nos, you go scouting and come back with information:  There were signs of a fight in the Ancillus’ office, and a pile of ashes with his medallion buried in them.  You could sense he was killed by a mighty sword blow, but nothing more.  You also saw the outbuilding through the office window and noticed two vans parked on the lawn next to it, their headlights pointed at the doorway, and the door itself busted off its hinges.”

The main advantage of this technique is that you totally avoid splitting the party when there would be a chance of a strong imbalance of spotlight time.  The story moves forward quickly, and the PCs don’t miss a beat.  There are drawbacks, though.  Nos invested quite a lot of resources in scouting skills and magic disciplines, and you just hand-waved them.  Another drawback is that you can’t use Nos’ flaws or other hooks to try to compel him to make a dramatic misstep. 

You can use system to abstract the scene instead of totally skipping it, if you focus on situations where the player can fail and the story will still move forward .  In this example:

GM: “Nos, you go scouting and come back with information:  There were signs of a fight in the Ancillus’ office, and a pile of ashes with his medallion buried in them.  Make a Spirit’s Touch roll.
Nosferatu: “3 successes.”
GM:  “You sensed that he was attacked by between three and five enemies and killed by a mighty sword blow.  When you stood up again, you also saw the outbuilding through the office window and noticed two vans parked on the lawn next to it, their headlights pointed at the doorway, and the door itself busted off its hinges.  Then you came back to report.”

Split Scenes and Balance Time

The third option gives you opportunities for split scenes.  One group will have a fairly complete skill set, so they will act at nearly full strength.  The other, the individual, has a focused skill set with a lot of holes.  This gives you an opportunity to provide distinct challenges for both groups. 

Because one group is just one person who has a limited skill set of skills, you will be tempted to spend more time with the smaller team or solo scout, for the reasons I discussed above.  But you can’t.  You have to be very careful to spend more time with the larger group instead, or else you have more people bored more of the time, and prone to cross-table talk and frustration. 

Suggestion

Splitting the party can be a wonderful technique for the GM, but it can be very hard if they don't split evenly. The main reason one character goes off alone is that the stealth rules in most RPGs encourage it.

Many game systems penalize the party for using more than one character to sneak about.  If two people make Stealth checks and the enemy only has to beat the lower result, that’s a penalty.  This is fine from a simulationist perspective:  Two people are harder to hide than one.  But it discourages even party splitting and encourages solo scouting scenes, which are harder to run.

You can encourage splitting the party more evenly by defying realism a little.  Instead of two stealth checks, have the second character’s stealth check provide a bonus to the first’s depending on how well he rolled, but never a penalty.  If there’s limited invisibility magic (like in Vampire), give non-invisible characters a bonus for having an invisible person take point.  After all he can see watchers well before they do, then come back to whisper what he saw.

So folks...  What tips do you have for splitting the party?

March 18, 2013

The Fifteen Minute Workday


There is a problem unique to D&D, called the “fifteen minute workday” problem.  The system gives player characters a set of abilities, some of which are powerful daily resources.  The PCs enter combat, and use their most potent abilities, leaving them “dry” of daily resources.  Then they rest. 

I'm about to make the point that while the fifteen minute workday causes problems for some styles of play, it is not a problem, in and of itself.  

Editions 1-3 of D&D had it particularly bad because only some classes had daily resources, and they were balanced against other classes who had more powerful at-will abilities, but nothing close to the power of a wizard or cleric spell.  The fifteen minute workday caused severe balance problems.  Smart DMs made the fifteen minute workday their enemy and found ways around it (see below!).

4e intended to solve the problem of the fifteen minute workday by giving every class a mix of daily and encounter resources, and making them fully refreshed between battles (instead of requiring the cleric to use daily resources to do this for the party). 

The Angry DMcomplains that this did not meet the stated objective, and in fact caused a new problem.  He’s right on both counts, but I think he misses the point.  First, let me explain how he’s right.

The Angry DM points out that the 4e system motivates players to kill the enemies they encounter as fast as possible, heedless of danger, in order to speed things along.  After all, unless someone dies in a battle, the only thing lost, battle-to-battle, are daily powers.  He also points out that this motivates players to burn up daily powers quickly, and then rest. I agree on both counts. 

The heroes, beset by monsters, exhaust themselves trying to win the fight as fast as they can, never holding back, using their most powerful attacks.  If there is no time pressure, they run through every trick they know, then retreat to rest before making their next foray into the dungeon.

Now read that again.  As human behavior and tactical combat goes, doesn’t that sound pretty reasonable to you?  

Let’s imagine you’ve got a gun with 6 bullets in it.  You get attacked by a bear.  Do you only shoot one or two bullets at it, because you somehow know that you’re expected to fight four or five bears in a day?  Do you save your bullets, and try to take the bear on with only your hunting knife, because you want to save your resources?  No!  That would be irrational.

That’s real life, but D&D is fantasy!  Fantasy characters really do fight lots of things!

Wait...  No, they don’t...  

How many battles does the Fellowship of the Ring get into per day?  Start a count for any popular fantasy series.  Count the number of fights per day, for all days the heroes have at least one fight.  What's the average?  Harry Dresden probably tops the list with an average of two or three.  If you break the Battle of Helm's Deep and the Siege of Gondor into different "encounters" it's still just three or four (and the party is split, so it hardly counts -- I still owe you a splitting the party post BTW!), and most other combat-days the Fellowship has just one encounter.


What the Angry DM wants and what the 4e designers tried to do are different.  

The 4e designers wanted to fix the problem of the fifteen minute workday:  That it causes party imbalance.  If you only had one or two fights a day, magical classes were significantly more powerful than martial classes.  I think they succeeded.  I think the Angry DM agrees on that count, more or less.

The Angry DM wants a fix for what he sees as the problem of the fifteen minute workday:  That it exists.  Unless you put time pressure on adventurers, they don’t go into a fight wounded and exhausted if they can help it.  I think that this is not a system problem, but a problem of expectations.

Angry likes the idea of heroes fighting four or five battles, gradually weakening over the course of those battles, carrying their mistakes as marks on their flesh from one fight to the next, heedless and bold.  I can dig it!  He’s a smart guy, so he has actually thought out two proposed fixes:

1.      Place a restriction on how many healing surges a PC can spend outside of encounters. For instance, a PC can only spend two healing surges at the end of a short rest and they cannot take another short rest until they’ve had another encounter first.
 2.      In order to use their best abilities, the PCs need to build adrenaline or momentum or whatever you want to call it. Mechanically, it works like this: after an extended rest, a player only has access to one daily attack power – the lowest level one. After each encounter, during a short rest, he gains access to the next highest levelone. If he has two powers of the same level, he can choose which one becomes available. The players can horde these powers or use them as they become available.

I have not tried these solutions, and they’re not entirely my style, so I probably won’t.  But just reading them, with my experience as a 4e DM, I would wager that they would work pretty well.  So if you read those and thought "I like that!" you should click the link and read more.

I don’t think they’re very “D&D” though.  Having spells "charge" over the course of the day is more "un-D&D" than anything 4e did.  And Angry seems to forget that after level two or so, the PCs were able to heal up to full between encounters in every previous edition, costing them only daily cleric spells, which are at least on par with the daily healing surges limit in 4e.  So allow me to restate and redefine the problem, and then propose several different ideas that a DM can use to deal with the fifteen minute workday.  Some of my suggestions are for taking advantage of the 4e fix; and others are for encouraging reckless grit in your players.  


First, let me restate the problem.

D&D is a unique game with a unique subgenre of heroic fantasy.  In the D&D subgenre, heroes are expected to fight multiple groups of foes before resting.  The system was always designed to require some (or all) players to do resource management, holding back on the expectation that they would have more encounters each day.  

In each edition, this was poorly implemented, and in 1st through 3rd edition, it led to a growing power imbalance between martial and magical classes.  

While 4th edition fixed the imbalance, it did not solve the problem that, absent time pressure, the rational choice is to fight as hard as you can without putting much consideration toward conserving resources, and rest more often. 

The problem of players resting too frequently is an artificial problem.  It’s only a problem if you expect the PCs to press on through 4-5 combat encounters per day, without a story reason for time pressure. 

However, there is some value to a game where the PCs are reckless and brave, daring each other to press on despite exhaustion, cracked bones, and gaping wounds.  That’s a particular style of play, and not all DMs want it.  For those that do, I have a few rule fixes that don't take away dailies.  For those who want to use story fixes, I've got some of those, too.


Some solutions

Story Fix:  Time Pressure, Perfected by 3rd Edition and Pathfinder DMs

The natural solution to player characters resting too frequently is to put time pressure on them. 

Originally in older editions of D&D, spatial boundaries were used to enforce a longer work day.  Wandering monsters were used to scare PCs out of camping in dangerous areas.  However, all they accomplished was to make PCs rest sooner to ensure that they had enough resources left to fight off a night ambush.  A better solution was to use time boundaries.

Time boundaries or time pressure is a plot device used to set the goal of the adventure.  The goal is to do something within a limited amount of time, or for something to continually get worse as time passes, motivating the PCs to take risks to avoid running out the clock. 

Typical examples include rescuing hostages before they are sacrificed for a dark ritual, killing the undead in a crypt by nightfall before they emerge to attack a sleepy village, stopping an evil curse that is blighting a few miles more of countryside each day, finding the treasure before your rivals do, exploring the sunken ruin that is revealed only at low tide, or tracking down the vampire lord as fast as possible, because one more townsperson is turned into one of his undead servants every night. 

Because 3rd edition’s balance issues were particularly bad if the PCs only had one or two fights per day, smart DMs came up with a host of time pressure plots.  You can find advice on these everywhere.  Time pressure plots are more dramatic to begin with, so they make for excellent stories.  But if you use them every time, it gets a little tedious and the time pressure loses its drama.


Story Fix: Now Available in 4th Edition

A one-encounter day in Pathfinder is an opportunity to rain fireballs on the enemy every turn, for the wizard; but the fighter has no such opportunity.  A one-encounter day in 4th edition D&D is a chance for everyone to fling daily attacks with abandon.  The DM may need to make sure it’s a tough fight (level +2, maybe more) but PCs of different classes will perform approximately equally well.

As a result, a one-encounter (or two or three encounter) day is a viable adventure design for 4e.  On the other hand, DMs can’t throw several fights at the PCs to “soften them up” for a boss battle.  A combat that has the sole raison d’etre of softening the PCs up has little value in 4e, because PCs refresh all their Encounter powers and hit points between fights, and even Action Points refresh as well, at half speed. 

Designing an adventure without time pressure in 4e, assume that the PCs will not be “softened up” at the start of any given encounter.  Assume also that the PCs can’t be “softened up”; so you may as well leave those encounters out.  Instead, only include encounters where the outcome is important either for story reasons (because it’s what the adventure is all about – e.g. “kill the lich king” or “steal the dragon’s treasure”) or for game reasons.  What’s the difference, you ask?


Story Fix:  Chance to Fail and Consequences of Failure

By “game reasons” I mean, “can the PCs fail, and if so what is the cost of failure?”  Naturally any fight carries the risk that the PCs will die.  That’s not what I mean.  I mean “why are you even having this fight?  Is that a purpose that can succeed or fail regardless of whether you all survive?”

Here’s an example.  Zombies are attacking the town.  The heroes find themselves at the edge of town, barricading the windows of the watermill where three families are holed up, when the sun sets and they hear the moaning of the undead horde approaching.  They must fight to keep zombies away from the windows that aren’t yet nailed shut, nail windows shut while zombies attack, keep the zombies from prying the boards off the windows that are nailed shut, and survive, themselves.  This requires them to spread their efforts instead of focusing fire, or else zombies will get inside and start eating helpless villagers.  The PCs can win the fight, but lose some villagers. 

4th edition, as presented, works well for this sort of encounter.  It can be the only combat in the adventuring day, or the sixth one.  It doesn’t matter.  The combat doesn’t need softening up; and it doesn’t need the PCs to be softened up for it. 

The chance that the PCs will lose a fight to the death, where the only “lose” condition is a total-party kill (TPK) is something around 1%, in a “killer DM” game.  Yes, 1% for a killer DM.  That means it’s expected to happen at least once sometime by mid-Paragon tier in 4e. 

Think about that.   If all your fights are existential threats to the PCs’ lives, even if you’re a killer DM, they have a 99% chance to win.  This is also true in 3rd edition D&D and Pathfinder, once the PCs get to second or third level.  There are minor failures – a single PC dies; or an expendable item is used. 

Even considering the minor failures players are trying to avoid, you need to mix in other win conditions to keep the players from becoming jaded by constant victory.  See my previous post on combat resolution.


System Fix:  Rest Penalties, Inspired by the Hallowed History of D&D

Tournament play is a competitive style of D&D, with multiple tables playing the same exact module with DMs who agreed to run the game in the same general style.  Players competed to earn the most experience points and treasure, have the fewest character deaths, and complete the module in the least real-world time.  Some tournament games did not allow resting overnight; but most simply penalized it by taking away XP or adding a time penalty.  I don’t suggest doing this at your table, exactly. 

Instead, I suggest you compel players with external rewards for bravery.  Fortune favors the bold!  Here’s two house rules that will cause players to conserve resources and try to fight as many battles as they can.  You can use either one or both together in any edition of D&D:
  1. The first two encounters in the day are worth 50% of their XP reward.  Each encounter after that is worth 150% XP.  If you manage four encounters, you break even.  If you manage 5 or more, you come out ahead.  If you rest right before fighting the boss encounter, to be sure you’re fresh, you lose out big time! 
  2. Tell the players that the dungeon has a level X+3 liquid cash loot pile (where X is the party level), in addition to everything else in there.  That is, this is a loot pile above and beyond the treasure expected for these encounters.  Tell them that each extended rest the party takes, the cash in the loot pile will be reduced by 1 level worth of reward (either diagetically because the monsters spent or lost it; or just as an OOC incentive!).  Add a level to the treasure pile’s starting value for every 5 encounters.


System Fix:  Metagame Risk-Reward, Inspired by newer Narrative Games

One problem the Angry DM has with 4e is that characters start every encounter fresh.  There is no mechanic for carrying wounds over from encounter to encounter.  This is a solution pulled from FATE, a game with a more narrative focus than D&D.  It gives players the chance to trade risk for reward:  Specifically, players get more spotlight time – actions in combat – in exchange for a risk – a lingering injury or penalty.

The FATE system gives players an incentive to accept setbacks for their characters.  GMs in FATE can offer or require players to accept a setback, giving them a “FATE point” in exchange.  FATE points are a kind of meta-game currency that gives characters a significant bonus, not unlike Action Points.  Every 4e character gets action points, and even Pathfinder has them, as an optional rule.  Players in FATE can also solicit the GM to give them FATE points by suggesting setbacks.  I don’t want to go that far into narrative game territory. 

Here’s a suggestion based on trading setbacks for metagame currency in 4e D&D or Pathfinder: 

Grit and Adrenaline:  In exchange for carrying an injury, curse, etc. from one fight to the next, a PC will get one bonus Action Point at the start of each encounter (on top of the usual one per two), and he can spend two per encounter, though only one per turn, as long as the injury continues.

If a character becomes Bloodied in a fight (or, for Pathfinder, takes 50% of his hit points in damage), he can accept a Lingering Wound after the battle.  This Lingering Wound is a narrative injury like a bad cut, broken bone, vicious poison, awful curse, painful burn, etc.  The player gets to describe it based on damage he took in the fight. 
  •       Lingering Wound:  His maximum hit points are reduced by one quarter (his base healing surge value, in 4e) until he takes an extended rest.  This does not alter his Bloodied value or Surge value (in 4e) or hit dice (in Pathfinder).
  •       Debilitating Injury:  Instead of reduced max hit points, the character can choose another penalty:  Slowed (Fatigued in Pathfinder) or granting Combat Advantage (Flat-Footed in Pathfinder).  A “lingering wound” is a painful injury that cannot be healed without a full night of rest, even in a world with healing magic.  A “debilitating injury” is one that isn’t life threatening once treated with basic first aid or healing magic, but which causes lingering pain for the rest of the day, like a sprained ankle or cracked rib.
Either way, the player can have this “wound” go away any time he gets healed.  But that immediately ends the benefit, as well.

Naturally, players will feel that these rules make healing magic seem weaker.  Well, they do.  But they also highlight how powerful it really is, at the same time, if a character with a punctured lung or horrible burn can be fully recovered the next morning.  If it's still too awkward for your players, use this incentive:

  • Rushing On:  This is an incentive to be reckless and cocky when there's no plot reason for it.  If the whole party decides to skip a short rest and rush into the next encounter without regaining their Encounter abilities, and they had the chance to take the short rest but passed it up, reward them with 1 bonus Action Point each for that next encounter, and let them use two Action Points in that encounter, but only 1 per turn.  Note that this only works in 4e.  Because of buff spell duration and healing spells as a daily resource instead of encounter, it's actually safer to rush from encounter to encounter in earlier editions of D&D.


Conclusion

The problem with the fifteen minute workday is that some people have an unrealistic expectation that adventurers accept several fights in a day without rest to regroup and recover, against all rational thought.  

One fix is to make story reasons for the party to choose to keep fighting.  Another is to accept that in 4e, the fifteen minute workday doesn't produce balance problems, so you should trim out all the filler combats and focus on the meaty fights that have real story and game consequences.  I gave some advice on designing your combat to have win or lose conditions other than kill or be killed.

However, some troupes may want to have that reckless bravery as a core component of their play style.  They want rational reasons to choose to have their characters take the risk of pressing on while wounded or low on power.  I've introduced two system incentives for those.  

In one incentive, players need to have four encounters a day to get the full experience points for the day, and if they press on even longer, they can start to rack up big bonuses.  In another incentive, I gave players an option to get extra actions if they take the risk of going into fights wounded.

March 1, 2013

Re-Blogging: Broadened Focus

Reinhart's game design blog discusses the idea of "broadened focus" this week.

Take a look.

The D&D Next team talks about using feats only to add breadth.  Pathfinder uses them to add power and depth, building a hyper-focused specialist.  Even 4e D&D does that, to a lesser degree.  But Reinhart's point is basically advocating a staggered breadth/depth progression.  First you focus, then you add breadth until a threshold is reached and you can focus again.

Broadening Focus in Action

I'm getting to something actually useful for GMs here, I promise!

The FATE system for skill allocation follows this rule.  You must always have equal or more skills of a lower value than you have of a higher value.  That is, if you have four 1's, three 2's, two 3's, and two 4s, you have to raise another skill to 3 before getting another 4; and to do that, you need to raise something to 2, and to do that, you need another 1.  Your skill points wind up making a pyramid:  1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4, 4 (given 24 skill points).  That system always bothers me, because it seems like a burdensome, unnecessary restriction.

On one hand you don't wind up with kung fu masters who can't run a ten minute mile, master negotiators who can't lie with a straight face, and crack drivers who don't know a crankshaft from a timing belt.  On the other hand, you DO wind up with dilettante socialite nightclub owners who are also ASC-certified auto mechanics and competent burglars.

Not only does the FATE skill pyramid system prevent you from being a master of a few things and incompetent and way behind the curve everywhere else (the problem Reinhart identifies), it also prevents you from being a master of one thing and "pretty good" at several things (e.g. 5, 3, 3, 3, 3, 3, 2, 2; given 24 skill points).

Like a lot of point-buy stat/skill games, FATE allows any character to take any skill at any level (with the aforementioned restriction).  In that sort of game, just like a class-level game, the players tend to talk with each other to make sure they have all the important adventuring skills covered.  Can everyone at least survive a combat?  OK.  Do we have at least one guy who can win a combat?  OK.  What about contacts and resources?  Social situations?  Stealth, scouting and B&E stuff?  Investigation and research?  And so on...

The party will always have someone who is good at every skill.  With the pyramid, it may not be a max-rated skill, but it will be one or two shy of max.  GMs build scenarios with skill difficulties based on that assumption.  So in a stat/skill system, a player who has invested in a minimum-level skill has basically wasted that resource.  Why would I use my "Mechanics 1" when someone in the party has "Mechanics 3"?  Why would I use my "Intimidate 1" when someone else has "Intimidate 5"?  The problem is that players are forced to spend resources on things they will never use.

A game design solution is to keep the "broadening focus" idea bounded is described in Reinhart's blog post. Basically you bring everything up to level N before anything raises to N+1, so your focus is always better, but your other skills aren't far behind.  That works for class/level systems, but for stat/skill systems, you get the FATE skill pyramid or something like it.

There are two GM solutions to the problem.  I used to run a lot of World of Darkness games (and I would still, but I don't have the time).  I found two reliable ways to make those low skills pay off.

The first is to allow players who have the skill at all to contribute a free die to help the best player.  That is, if Sam has Investigation 4, and Bill and Tim each have "Investigation 1," they can each add a die to Sam's Investigation roll.  Now you can really raise the difficulty, and the PC party can achieve some dramatic things...  if they have broad talents.

The second technique is going to be the topic of a post next week.  It's the most dangerous thing PCs can ever do.  It's generally considered anathema to gamers, yet done well, it can be incredibly dramatic. The reviled dark ritual of which I speak is...

S p l i t t i n g   t h e   P a r t y

Stay tuned!