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February 22, 2013

Optional Rules

I try to reserve my game design commentary for guest posts on Chaos Engineering but I had to vent here.  Optional rules generally suck.  D&D Next is going to have an epic list of optional rules, and I think that's going to make it the most shaky, buggy edition ever written.

There are really two kinds of rules:  Terminal rules and intermediary rules.  Terminal rules adjudicate something.  Intermediary rules modify or impact another rule.  A rule for controlling a runaway carriage-and-four is a terminal rule.  A rule that increases your chance to hit for standing on higher ground is an intermediary rule.  Terminal rules interact with other rules (the rules for being run over by a carriage, for instance) but they don't change how those rules work all the time.  Optional terminal rules tend to replace the original.  That's not so bad, but the reason the original is the original, and the optional rule is optional is that the designers thought original rule was better.  Intermediary optional rules are worse.  They modify the system.  But they're also not usually play-tested.

If you have N binary (using or not using) optional rules, there are 2^N different combinations of those rules that can be applied -- 2^N versions of the game.  If you have X hours of playtesting available, you have X/2^N hours per combination of optional rules for testing them out.

But that's silly.  First of all, nobody would actually test all the possible combinations.  The chances that two will interact very badly are pretty high, but so are the chances that a game designer or playtester reading the rules over would notice it without actual playtesting.

The designers should try several one-shot playtests with some of the optional rules, focusing on the ones that they feel will be most commonly used, in combinations they think will be commonly used together.  They should also tap one or two groups to run whole adventure with all the optional rules.  That way they can catch the worst bad interactions.  They should also run several groups through the same adventure, each with a different optional rule turned on to see how each affected the game in isolation.  That's still a lot more playtest load than you'd need for just a core game or a game with one or two optional rules.

131,000 D&D Next's

Mike Mearls has listed 17 optional rules in Legends & Lore.  He's not leading the development of the next edition of D&D.  He's leading the development of the next one hundred thirty one thousand editions of D&D.  To be honest, some of these rules he suggests are not compatible with each other, so maybe it's more like ten thousand editions.

The problem Mike has is that he's either decided -- or been ordered -- to write a GURPS of D&D:  This is supposed to be a universal D&D that satisfies all the players at least some of the time.  He doesn't realize that every edition of D&D so far has been that universal game.  Let's look at AD&D 2nd edition.

 AD&D Second Edition sucked.  It was the dark ages of D&D, where players, fed up with a system that sucked, moved on to other games.  No longer dominant in a world with Shadowrun, Vampire, Werewolf, GURPS, and Champions, AD&D languished and faded in the 1990s.  But it's also the edition known for the most diversity in how troupes played it.

What caused this versatility?

Well it sure wasn't the system -- not even with Player's Option.  Some might say it was how bad the system was that made everyone play it differently, since to make it function you had to interpret things anyway.  Those people are wrong.

It was the modules and settings.  Do you want to play an epic game where gods are overthrown and continents are destroyed?  A plucky heroic game?  A street-level punk game in a doughnut-shaped city at the nexus of the planes?  Star Trek D&D in space?  Far East political intrigue?  Outlaw revolutionaries in an impoverished desert world?  Horror?

If your group liked spying, intrigue, crime, mysteries, dungeons, wars, high magic, low magic, tactical combat, or theater of the mind, there was a setting or module for you.  The only thing good about 2nd edition was all the modules and settings.

Know what else happened in the 1990s?  The World of Darkness happened.  The core system was built for brooding self-destructive personal horror in Vampire, but it was adapted for violent dark superhero Werewolf, X-Files wizardpunk Mage, goofy Changeling, and more other settings than I can recall.

Ingredients for Success:  A system that functions, a setting that adapts it to work slightly differently.

The smoother and more well-balanced the system, the better the play experience is going to be; naturally.  The better the core play experience is, the better your modular versions are going to be.

Say it with Setting

So my advice to Mearls is to package the optional rules in specific campaign settings, playtest them later, and release them later.  Focus on a single core system that does the core D&D stuff well -- exploring dangerous locations and fighting monsters.  If you want rules for "speeding up battles that involve lots of monsters and the characters" write them into the new Thunderspire Labyrinth module series, and put the rules for "mass combat between armies" into D&D Next's Birthright DM's Guide.  If you want to include "rules for horror and sanity" put them in the D&D Next Ravenloft Boxed Set.  Add the rules that give "mechanical weight to character motivation" into the Planescape Next boxed set, because Planescape, with its factions and focus on alignment and intrigues, just cries out for that sort of mechanic.

Oh and this idea about an optional rule "treating the DM and players as co-authors of a narrative with a specific focus" wasn't even new in 1990.  Folks have been using D&D that way for ages.  But again, if you want to make specific optional rules for it, put it in a module or setting.

February 15, 2013

Combat Resolution

Note:  This is a re-visiting of the Conflict Resolution post from January.  This is more detailed, and has no spoilers for anything :-)

Combat is so common in RPGs because for many of us, it's a fun escape, a way to add or resolve dramatic tension, a tactical challenge, an exciting adventure fantasy, or a cathartic power trip.  The reasons players and GMs enjoy combat in RPGs are as vast as the reasons characters and villains get into combat.

The sad thing about most RPG combats is that the way combat ends is almost always the same:

The heroes win by killing their enemies.

The US homicide rate for 2011 is 4.7 per 100,000.  The aggravated assault rate is 241.1 per 100,000.  For every murder there are about 50 assaults.  Even assuming 2 people are charged for each incident, that's 25 times as many non-lethal fights as lethal ones.

Most RPG systems have very simulationist rules for combat, simulating attacking, defending, accuracy, damage, health, wounds, unconsciousness, and death.  The rules for alternate resolution tend to be scant if they exist at all.

Historical Alternate Resolution Mechanic: Original D&D

The first foray into alternate resolution rules came form D&D's morale system.  Sadly, I believe the rules for Morale in Original D&D were more complete and gave the DM more combat resolution options than the rules for Morale in 3rd or 4th edition D&D.  In fact, the Master Set rules for Original D&D had rules for...

  • One side fleeing the other in an Evasion before combat starts or after a retreat or fighting withdrawal
  • Retreat from combat (similar to the Withdraw option in 3rd edition, only more punitive)
  • Fighting Withdrawal
  • Monsters deciding to break off a chase during an Evasion
  • Monsters being scared off from the first time they take damage
  • Monsters being scared off when one of them dies
  • Monsters being scared off when half of their side has been taken out by any means (fled, unconscious, dead, magically controlled, etc.)
  • Fighters with Weapon Mastery scaring off monsters
  • Various spells and magic items scaring off monsters
Morale rules are not an example of Golden Rule Chicken even though it's an instant "takedown" that only works against NPCs.  They're usually designed to be effective for the PCs only when the PCs have an overwhelming advantage, to keep battles from dragging on pointlessly.  The Original D&D rules for morale were designed that way (with the exception of the "first time the monster takes damage" morale check).

Sadly, alternatives to killing all your opponents have gotten worse, not better.  In 3rd and 4th edition D&D, you can kill or knock out your foes, and there are rules for binding unwilling enemies in 3rd edition and Pathfinder that work only for characters decently optimized for it.  The rules for scaring off your enemies exist, but are very hard to do.  And the challenge rating / xp budget systems for the latest D&D editions serve to discourage players from scaring off enemies:  They tend to retreat back to their friends, making the next combat harder.  Two average fights is less taxing than one hard fight in the latest editions of D&D.

Other popular modern games have bad rules for alternate resolution as well.  The new World of Darkness system has a whole combat chapter and two whole hardback supplements dedicated to combat.  They still make you fight it out all the way.  At least the old World of Darkness had a morale system:  Most mortal foes would pass out or panic and flee after taking 4 damage.  But then, most of the time you were battling [other] monsters, so even then it didn't matter.

More Than Just Morale

Here are some ideas for alternate combat resolutions for your game:

  • Arrest:  The goal of the fight is to capture one person and not cause any collateral damage.
    • Challenge 1: Talk him into coming peacefully or scare off his allies.
    • Challenge 2: Capture him so he can't escape.
    • Challenge 3:  If there is a fight, he will try to flee, and his allies will try to impede the protagonists.  
  • Protect:  The goal of the fight is not to have one.
    • Challenge 1: Avoid enemies, using stealth or speed.
    • Challenge 2: If enemies are encountered, bluff or talk them down.
    • Challenge 3: If a fight breaks out, some of you impede the enemies while the rest get the person/item to safety.  
  • Guard:  The goal of the fight is to keep an area from being penetrated by enemies.
    • Challenge 1:  Notice intruders.  The enemies will try to slip past without a fight (see Infiltrate, below!)
    • Challenge 2:  Avoid distractions.  The enemy might try to trick you into diverting your attention.
    • Challenge 3:  Dissuade intruders.  Scare them off, while gathering information about them to help you watch out for them if they return.  If they flee, the challenge is to decide if you want to chase them or not.  It could be a distraction.
    • Challenge 4:  Defeat intruders.
  • Infiltrate:  Get past defenses and guards.  This is a common RPG combat scenario!
    • Challenge 1:  Evade notice.  Get past the guards without being seen.  Use a distraction if necessary.
    • Challenge 2:  Keep them from raising an alarm.  If you meet guards or civilian noncombatants in the area, they may raise an alarm.  They must be dispatched quickly.  This means using up powerful resources on relatively wimpy enemies.
    • Challenge 3: Egress.  Get out without raising an alarm.
  • Self-Defense:  You've been attacked, and your goal is self-preservation.
    • Challenge 1:  Reduce the enemies' offensive strength.  The typical RPG method for this is to focus fire on the most dangerous foes first.  Alternate ways to resolve this is to scare off the less dangerous foes; flee to favorable terrain; or have tougher friends circle around weaker ones.
    • Challenge 2: Escape!  This definitely means retreating to safer ground, trying to hide, or flat-out running.  See below!
  • Escape!  You want to get away from somewhere or someone, not necessarily kill them.  
    • Challenge 1:  Break out.  The GM should be lenient on players trying to get out of combat.  If the PCs are in prison or tied up or held at gunpoint, they have to come up with a creative way to get away.  This probably involves trickery (Stealth, Larceny/Thievery, Bluff/Subterfuge).
    • Challenge 2:  Move fast, and move smart.  Not only do you need to run fast, you need to run somewhere.  Just running randomly leads to Scooby Doo scenarios, which can also be fun if the GM is good at splitting the party (note: post about splitting the party).
    • Challenge 3: Avoid combat.  Use stealth or terrain or smarts to avoid getting caught again.
  • Pursuit:  This tends to start with an NPC trying to escape arrest (above) or a failed skill scene like shadowing or spying.  Or it could be an assassin or other kind of villain attacking the PCs, failing, and fleeing, and they don't want her to get away.  Or the PCs could have been in a straight up fight to the death, but one of the other side got scared and ran off to warn his allies, and they can't let that happen.
    • Challenge 1:  Keep up.  Obviously.  Most systems have foot/car chase rules.
    • Challenge 2:  Hard choices:  Do you shoot the guy in the leg and risk killing him?  That could be way outside your moral code.  Do you shoot a fleeing man in the back?
    • Challenge 3:  Interception.  Once the PCs catch up, they have to intimidate, knock out, restrain, or kill him.
  • Smash and Grab:  A blitz attack on your enemies gains you the objective (stealing an item, rescuing a prisoner, or getting past a barrier)
    • Challenge 1:  Hit hard and fast.  This isn't too far from Drive Off, below.  You're taking the enemy by surprise with the goal of having them be too shaken, wounded, disabled, or scared to follow when you leave.  
    • Challenge 2:  Disable their means of pursuit.  If they have horses, cut the stirrups or scare them away.  If they have a car, slash the tires.  
    • Challenge 3:  Get what you came for.  Do it fast.  If you waste time, the enemy will regroup, realize you're not a big threat, and capture you.
    • Challenge 4:  Get away before they know what hit 'em.  
  • Tough Front:  This challenge is avoiding a combat with a hostile force.  Say the 'runners are in a bad neighborhood and the razorgangs and juicers start to hassle them.  Or the coterie is negotiating with a mafia don who knows they're vampires and has a strega watching for any signs of bloodsucker trickery.  Or the heroes have run into a pack of gnolls who demand, "why shouldn't we just kill you?" in their barking speech.
    • Challenge 1:  Walk tall and show them the stick.  This is almost purely roleplay.  If the players make the unfriendly force think they're too dangerous, a fight will break out.  If the players make the unfriendly force think they're being tricked, a fight will break out.  If the players make the unfriendly force think they're weak, a fight will break out.  
    • Challenge 2:  Deception.  Typically the PCs also have to conceal their real motive, too.
  • Mugging:  The PCs want to steal something or get a character to do something, and they decide to go about it by forcing an NPC to hand it over or do it at sword/gunpoint.  This covers the typical liquor store robbery "empty the till!" all the way through forcing a madman to give you the shutdown code for the doomsday device.  In each situation, the tension comes form a different part of the process.  The liquor store robbery might be more tense because of the danger someone will come along and call 911 or the clerk will go for the sawn-off under the counter.  The doomsday device scenario's challenge is overcoming the madman's psychotic resistance and craven duplicity.
    • Challenge 1:  Isolating the victim.  If there are others around to raise an alarm, the ploy won't work.
    • Challenge 2:  Standing lookout.  If others stumble on the scene, the ploy won't work.
    • Challenge 3:  Overcome resistance.  The victim might put up some resistance.  You have to convince him you're serious (skills like Intimidate come in handy here).  
    • Challenge 4: Watch for duplicity.  Captives tend to try to hit silent alarms, pull concealed weapons, etc.
  • Being Robbed or Captured:  The reverse of mugging has different challenges for PCs.
    • Challenge 1:  Avoid isolation.  The GM should give the players strategic risks that offer rewards in other challenges (say, investigating the possibility of vampires in the neighborhood) for taking risks that isolate them in dangerous areas.  
    • Challenge 2:  Don't get caught off guard.  This could be the simple "spot an ambush" system of stealth and perception in most games, but the fact is those systems are biased against the sneak.  In some systems, you can use a drama metasystem for this.  7th Sea and FATE, for instance, both offer systems for giving the players meta-game currency in exchange for accepting a setback.
    • Challenge 3:  Duplicity.  They want the datachip?  Give them a fake chip.  Distract them while your pal sends a text or gets a weapon.  Delay until help arrives.
    • Challenge 4:  Turn the tables.  The duplicity is just a means to get enough advantage that attacking your captors isn't suicide.  Reinforcements, repositioning, distracting them, lulling them into complacency -- all good ways to get things back to a fair fight before you roll initiative.
  • Drive Off:  Every D&D-style dungeon challenge should be this sort!  You're not looking for monsters to kill, just running into them as you explore.  When unintelligent monsters attack, your goal is to drive them off so you can keep exploring.  Even Goblins and other cowardly or small intelligent foes can be driven off.
    • Challenge 1:  Scare them without making them feel cornered or driving them into a fearless frenzy.  This could involve killing one of them quickly, or using an overwhelmingly powerful attack, making a loud noise, or making showy attacks (perhaps using Intimidate and Bluff/Subterfuge depending on the system).
    • Challenge 2:  Make sure they don't come back.  Either scare them off really well, wound them so they have a good reason to stay away, chase them far enough away that they'll have a hard time coming back, or set a lookout.

(That's probably not even a complete list.)

I'm not going to post rules for all these ideas for every game system.  As a GM, though, your goal is to make these means of resolving combat just as interesting as combat.  If a simple Intimidate check resolves it, it's pretty boring.  You need to ratchet up the risk and offer tactical options with varying risk/reward ratios (such as using limited resources for lower risk and higher reward; taking a higher risk for a greater reward; etc.).

Each situation has multiple challenges to it.  Consider offering players an alternative solution that makes one challenge easier and another harder.  Or consider playing with flaws.

Alternate Solutions Example:  Imagine the PCs are police detectives investigating a murder connected to a bad part of town.  A gang of street toughs accosts them.  They have to put up a Tough Front.  If they flash their badges, they can resolve the challenge easily, but it may get back to the people they came to investigate that the cops are sniffing around the area.  If they flash their guns, they can make it easier to resolve the situation, but there's a chance the toughs will make them for cops; or that the toughs will not mistake them for cops and instead for a rival gang that they feel then need to attack.  If the GM makes these options clear to the players, they will feel more tension, because the GM just explained the consequences of their decision and risk is making a consequential decision with incomplete information.  The GM might also hint that these street toughs may or may not be connected to the crime they're investigating, thus making the players aware just how incomplete their information really is!

Flaws Example:  Imagine a team of vampire hunter PCs attempt an Arrest to capture a suspected vampire pawn.  One player's character has a short fuse, or perhaps he's slipped a bit down the slope of Morality (the World of Darkness stat), and the GM suggests he might want to try something more akin to a "smash and grab":  Disable the pawn hard and fast (with a kneecap shot, pistol-whip to the teeth, or blood-gushing smash in the nose) and then scare off his allies with the sheer brutality of the initial attack.  The GM suggests it would trigger his flaw (and give him XP or Willpower or some other system reward); and of course it gives him some angsty drama and spotlight time, to boot.


When making your game, make sure alternate combat resolutions are just as fun as fighting it out!

February 8, 2013

Golden Rule Chicken

I'm going to make up a new term:  Golden Rule Chicken

The Golden Rule:  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  In RPGs and LARPs, the rule can be applied to character power:  If you can do it, so can I.  Of course, generally the GM employs things the players cannot -- deus ex machina needs to be wielded by a qualified deo, right?  But the GM is also limited in what he can do to the players.  It's not a shared story telling experience if the GM randomly kills them, so land mines, accidents, and poison all need to be turned into opportunities for dramatic action, not just instant, unexpected death for the players' characters.

Chicken is a game where two people race cars toward each other, and the chicken is the one who steers out of the way first.  It's a stupid game.  Don't play it.

Golden Rule Chicken is when an RPG player plays chicken with the golden rule.  He wants a quick, easy, and certain-to-work way to kill bad guys, capture people, get away with anything... but he doesn't want it used against him.  Either the GM has to be the chicken and let him have power that the GM cannot employ for the story, or the player has to be the chicken and concede that he should limit himself for the sake of the game, the story, or the genre, or verisimilitude.  It's a stupid game.  Don't play it.

What do you do if a player tries to play Golden Rule Chicken with you?

Option 1:  Say no.  Authority is as authority does, and the GM has the authority to veto something that makes the game less fun.

Option 2:  Take out the nerf bat.  Make the poison/car bomb/etc. fairly weak.  When the villain who should have died survives, horribly disfigured, and wreaks his revenge, it will be pretty dramatic.  Poison is ripe for nerfing because in real life, poison takes minutes to kill you.  And in those minutes, you can shoot a lot of bullets, cast a lot of spells, etc.  Plus, monsters tend to be immune or resistant.

Option 3:  Consequences.  In D&D, using poison is an evil act.  In the World of Darkness, hurling sacks of dynamite around gets Homeland Security coming after you.  Warn the players of the consequences ahead of time, and don't let them try to argue their way out of it.  Explosives are ripe for consequences, regardless of the genre.  Space marines could be court marshaled, steampunk heroes could fall on the wrong side of Scotland Yard, and vampire hunters could get the FBI and ATF looking into them.

The thing is, you can't just let them have it.  I know it sounds harsh and arrogant, but I've run games where I let the players have an instant death attack.  Things got really boring after that.  You have to take it away or contrive something rather silly like "the villains gave all their henchmen antivenom kits just in case they meet you."  Or "Grenades won't work.  They brought Bruno Mars."

If you think the super-weapon would be genre appropriate, and the consequences would also be fun to explore (using a truck bomb to kill a vampire in Hunter), employ Option 3.  If you think the super-weapon would be genre appropriate for the game you're running, but not especially interesting and dramatic (using bombs in Godlike, for instance), use Option 2.  Else, use Option 1.

February 6, 2013

World Building

I found a post on Gnome Stew that I couldn't disagree with more.  My position on detailed world building is that it's not necessary, and you don't have to do it if you don't enjoy it.

The writer suggests writing a detailed schedule and description of a village that's not even the central point of action for a fantasy game.  I've argued why that's a waste of your prep time, and explained how to get the same effect without all the effort.  I wrote how to use conceptual "white space" to fill in those details in the players' imaginations here.  Remember, I'm a huge prep GM.  I prep a lot.  I'm not afraid of prep.  I just don't want to suggest GMs prep a pile of stuff that's not going to be used.

The result of that work is a chunk of rich greybox text that ends in "so what do the PCs do now?" I've argued why that's a waste of your table time.  While color scenes are valuable sometimes, I advocate cutting to the chase.

The greybox text is nice, and has a strong feel of depth.  But you don't need to invent a calendar and routine for the town to get it, or engage in amateur civil engineering to give the town a purpose and ecology to support it and this that and the other...  Fantasy heroes aren't urban planners.  They're generally adrenaline junkie vagabonds with a do-gooder streak, incredible luck and martial skill.  Fantasy adventures don't care about the town calendar or the history of the village wall... unless it's relevant to the dramatic action.

Your story doesn't care about a lot of the town's details.  It cares about what the down does for your story.

Your NPCs don't need a detailed calendar.  If you decide today is washing day, it's washing day.  Better, if the story would be more fun if it were washing day (say there's a foot chase down side streets), you can make it washing day without throwing away a good half hour of work because you didn't commit to a calendar.

I don't mean to be cruel to the author, Patrick Benson.  The article is well written, and it supports a world building style of GMing.  That style of GMing creates results that are just as good as the results created with my advice, it's just slower.

If you are the sort of GM who really enjoys world building, go read the post and follow his advice!  Just be aware that the results you're getting don't require that much work, and you should only do the work if you enjoy it -- or if you plan to publish a campaign setting book!

February 1, 2013

Risk in Game Design

I wrote this post for Reinhart's blog a month or two ago, and it took him a while to post it.

EDIT: New link here -

I forgot how much I developed that idea!

Go read about risk and game design.

See how D&D makes PCs 99% likely to win a fight and see how that's OK.  And see how I would explain that in the DMG if I were its author!