The Colors of Magic - Available Now

May 28, 2013


FYI:  I've applied to include Google AdSense ads on this site.  I'll limit the ads and make them inconspicuous colors etc. -- as much as possible.  If they clutter the layout too badly on PC, mobile or tablet screens, I'll remove them.  If AdSense is a pain in the butt to use, I'll stop using it.  If my friends all start going broke because they're buying stuff from ads on my little gaming blog, I'll stop using it.  Heh.

Anyway...  Why add ads?  Well, I thought "why not?"  I mean, if they don't hurt the site, so what?  I could make enough money to buy a pack of gum every few months or so.  I expect that this little blog may get 10,000 pageviews by its first birthday.  That's not a lot, but if 1% of the views leads to an ad click, and I get 20 cents a click, it's a case of good beer, right?

Anyway, don't feel obligated to click the ads if they're not genuinely interesting to you.

May 24, 2013

The Horror-Hunter Ladder

In collaborative storytelling, the group has to be in agreement about what kind of story is being told.  This is usually defined by genre, but within genres, there are slippery sub-genre attributes.  The most dangerous of these slippery characteristics for a GM is the axis of darkness and cynicism vs. heroic simplicity.  This isn't just a style question -- we're talking about the expectations that drive the conflict, the protagonists' behavior and the protagonists' chances to succeed at their aims.

Within the fantasy genre, there's a "ladder" from horror -- the darkest kind of fantasy -- to superheroes, which has become its own genre.

I like the name "Horror-Hunter Ladder" because it sounds cool, and because superheroes are their own thing.  "Hunter" means heroes hunting evil monsters, corrupted cultists, and vile demons -- a sub-genre of both medieval and modern fantasy.

I'm all about good communication.  I think that the GM of any game needs to make clear with the players the kind of story he wants to tell.  Because the GM typically adjudicates the actions of the PCs, and because the Horror-Hunter Ladder defines how those actions can resolve problems, the GM sets the tone more than the players in this particular case.

Let's face it, when expectations clash, people aren't usually aware it's happening, and if GM and player expectations clash, the GM is going to "win" and everyone is going to lose.

Talking about genre expectations helps give the players a chance to persuade the GM to shift his expectations and gives the GM a chance to communicate his expectations clearly.

GNC means "Generate New Character."
It's shorthand for "PC is killed, driven insane, retires, or otherwise removed from the game and the player must generate a new character."

Example: Clash of Expectations

How can genre expectations actually color the action resolution system for an RPG?  Aren't the rules the rules?

Let's say the players assume they're playing in a Hunter-genre D&D game (see the ladder above).

The GM's expectation is that he is running a game of Heroes, but not quite Hunters.  That slight mismatch in genre expectations can be catastrophic:  The GM has a town threatened by a growing population of low-level lizardfolk when the mid-level party of PCs arrives.

GM expectation:  The PCs are heroes.  There are shades of grey morality in this conflict, but the heroes can resolve them.  Neither the lizardfolk, nor the villagers, are evil; though the villagers are probably more sympathetic to the PCs.  The lizardfolk and villagers need to work out a truce.  The heroes will broker the truce.  The challenge is convincing both sides to stop fighting and share the land.  There are lots of ways to broker the truce -- threats, bribes, persuasion, religious solutions, doing favors, etc.  Maybe they won't even broker a truce.  Maybe they'll persuade one or the other side to move away to new lands.  The players are free to do it any way they want.

Player expectation:  The PCs are hunters.  Monsters are evil and must be slain.  The challenge is killing all the monsters.  The expectation is that the heroes will attack the monsters, and they will fight in small groups until the heroes reach the final boss, which will be a hard fight.

Player action:  Go to the lizardfolk lair and slaughter the first group of lizardfolk they see.

GM reaction:  The lizardfolk, low-level monsters, cannot be a threat in small groups.  But en masse, they can overwhelm the party.  After the PCs' ambush kills most of the lizardfolk sentries on round 1, the remaining survivors of the small group retreat into the lair, and then the whole lair turns out to capture the PCs.

Note that the GM doesn't break the rules of the game at any point.  Nor do the players.  Also note that the GM is having the lizardfolk react in a realistic manner to the player characters' actions, consistent with his genre expectations, but counter to the players' genre expectations.  In fact, the GM could have the lizardfolk kill all the PCs, but she doesn't -- she has the lizardfolk capture them so that the story can go on.

Their expectations are only one step apart on the ladder, but it makes a big difference!

From a Heroes perspective, the situation can still be resolved from a lizardfolk prison -- it just gets a little more complicated.  The war between the lizardfolk lair and the village can still be averted.

From a Hunters perspective, the PCs have to break out and kill all the monsters.

The situation will continue to be plagued my misunderstanding if there is no open communication between the GM and players on genre expectations.

The problem is not the GM railroading the players -- she's adapting to their action and creating a realistic response.  She's even having their action succeed:  The PCs slaughter most of the lizardfolk they attacked in an instant of brutal violence, driving the rest into panicked rout.

The problem is not the players being stupid -- they're acting like players approaching a typical D&D dungeon crawl.  They even used smart tactics and ambushed the guards.  In a Hunter-style D&D game, they would expect the next encounter to be a little harder because the retreating guards warned them, but still winnable.

Now imagine a clash of expectations more than one step apart!

How to Use the Ladder

Feel free to print the Horror-Hunter Ladder out and hand it to your players to open the discussion up as to where in the genre you are.  Don't be inflexible!  Even though the GM has a lot of power here, she's just one of the players at the table.  If the majority of the group wants to play a game on a different rung of the ladder than she had in mind, the GM should accommodate them.

Shifting between rungs during a campaign is possible, but communication is even more important!  Adding a Horror-rung session into a Hunter-rung D&D game can work if the players know that they're going to be encountering no-win situations and suffering defeat a lot more for the duration.

May 17, 2013

Building Encounters Angry DM Style

The Angry DM has an entertaining and wise post again.  Go read it!  This post on Run a Game discusses his instructions for making awesome encounters.  You can read mine first since a lot of what I'm saying summarizes and comments on his points, but you owe it to yourself go read the original.

You'll also find he has an entertaining and persuasive writing style.  Speak of which, let me quote the thesis of the essay I'm referring to, directly.  He urges DMs to build encounters (whether on the fly or in prep) and run them with the following process:
"Figure Out the Dramatic Question, Sources of Conflict, and Structure; Adjudicate All the Actions, but Watch for the End of the Encounter; then End the Encounter"
Angry gives us this procedure.  Despite the title of the post, the process is more like 6 things than 4.  Let me break it down into a list, then go item by item, briefly:

  1. Figure Out the Dramatic Question
  2. Determine the Sources of Conflict
  3. Add Structure if Needed
  4. Adjudicate Player Actions
  5. Watch for the End of the Encounter
  6. End the Encounter
Figure Out the Dramatic Question

Angry's "dramatic question" is the objective of the scene, written in yes/no question form.  Just having a fight in a dungeon is fine, as long as you know why it's happening.  And once you know why, it may be that the players will decide to resolve the fight differently perhaps with some other means than a fight.

In addition to what Angry says, I would argue that the GM needs to make sure the players know the dramatic question.  Let me cut your obvious objection off with an example:

"Assassins leap from the shadows, gunning the envoy down with incredibly precise blaster fire, then turning on you as he drops to the floor.  They are prepared to fight their way clear, but they also seem prepared to die here."

This is a random attack and a fight to the death.  The players don't know why the scene is happening.  But if you stop and think of the dramatic question, this random combat scene suddenly becomes more interesting...  But to make sure the players have the dramatic question in their mind, it helps to add something to the introduction of the scene to communicate it:

"As he collapses, the envoy gasps, 'Whyyyy?'  Apparently even he didn't know who sent the assassins or why.  Curious..."

The dramatic question is "will the PCs get a lead as to who sent the assassins and why?"  This question constrains the combat, preventing the PCs from using plasma guns, grenades, or other weapons that will destroy evidence.  And they might try to subdue one or more of the assassins to interrogate them later.

Determine the Sources of Conflict

By this Angry means "what does everyone want to achieve in this scene?"  This creates more options for alternate resolution.  After all, if everyone gets what they want, nobody has to die.  The wolves want to protect their territory, so if the heroes can get through avoiding wolf bites by running like hell or sneaking through cautiously, they win.  He hints that social scenes need internal conflict -- that is, the NPCs need multiple motivations, so that one can play off the other.  This also works for combat:  Bandits want to get rich.  This leads them to rob the PCs, which means they have to overcome their resistance with violence.  But the PCs aren't the only people on the road, and they also want to live.  Once it's clear that it's more costly to fight than to run away, the bandits will do just that.  Tracking conflicting motivations can be done intuitively, or the DM can use game system or a kludged system Anrgy invented to track this...

Add Structure if Needed

Some games have morale systems, or systems for determining when combatants are beaten down.  Others lack these systems, and even these systems don't cover all possible situations where NPCs have conflicting motivations.  He suggests, if you feel the need for structure, writing down the NPCs' motivations, and giving them scores from 1 to 10, starting somewhere from 2-9.  The players' action choices can influence the NPCs' motivations.  Set an end condition.  His example is pretty good:

The orcs begin with a ferocity of eight and a fear of two. Each time something happens that makes them want to run away or leave, increase the fear score. Each time something happens to make them more dedicated to killing the party, increase the ferocity score. If the fear ever equals the ferocity, the orcs flee.
That's a kludged on morale system.  Note that 4e D&D's morale system is entirely up to the players -- it takes a Standard Action to Intimidate an opponent, rolling a skill check against his Will defense plus TEN to force him to surrender.  That's a terrible system.  First of all, it has no suggested situational modifiers.  Say the monster is the last orc left out of ten that attacked the party, he's bloodied, and surrounded.  Wouldn't he be thinking about surrender without it even being suggested to him?  3rd edition was even worse.  Successfully intimidating a monster gave it -2 for a round.  That's it.  The old morale systems from 1st and 2nd edition were erased and not replaced.  Pathfinder did not correct this problem.

Something Angry doesn't say, and I feel needs to be said, is that the GM needs to communicate his structure to the players.  The NPCs' motivations don't have to be obvious to the players, of course, but if they have the opportunity to move footballs in a scene, the players won't deliberately try to move them unless they know about them.  Unlike the dramatic question, the GM doesn't have to explicitly communicate this to the players, instead he should make it clear when their actions change the score somehow.  Whenever a player action changes the score, even if you're handling it intuitively instead of with Angry's 1-10 system, let the players know with some narration.  If there's an opportunity to change the score in a big way, hint at that too:

"The orcs attack with a fierce cry, 'Death before dishonor!'  It appears that they would rather die in battle than be seen as cowards in front of their warleader."

So they're going to want to take out the warleader first...

"As the warleader falls, his soldiers stop screaming blustering threats.  They turn their full attention to the thrust-and-parry of the melee, fighting for their lives now, instead of their honor."

So they're expecting that when the orcs start to see their lives threatened, they're going to look for ways out...

"Your blow opens a bloody wound on the orc's arm.  He shifts his grip on the falchion, taking more of its weight on his other arm and steps back to a more defensive posture, looking worried.  A sudden change in the tide of the battle now could spook him."

Now you gave them a clue.  They can do something flashy and scare the orcs off.  Maybe a critical hit, or a "nova turn" or a single potent spell...  Their options are wide open.  They can also decide these orcs don't deserve to live and fight them down to the last, slaughtering them to a man.  But it's up to them.  By employing multiple conflicting motivations, the players' option space has opened up

"After the fireball, half the orcs lay motionless on the floor.  They seem to be glancing around, as if looking for a clear escape route.  Now it's Orc #3's turn.  He shifts back and then runs out the door, leaving just two singed and wounded orcs facing you.  They back out of reach of your weapons cautiously, inching toward the door.  What do you do?"

If the players want to chase down the orcs and slaughter them to a man (orc), you misjudged what the players thought the dramatic question was (it was actually "will the PCs kill all the orcs?" not "will the PCs survive the orc ambush?" or whatever).  That's not bad.  All it means is the players are about to start a new encounter, whose dramatic question is "Will the PCs hunt down all the orcs that ran away?"  A creative DM might come up with interesting consequences for failure there.  Or if you're not feeling like running that scene, you can hand-wave it and let the PCs catch the orcs automatically without running it as an encounter.

Adjudicate Player Actions

Go read Angry DM's post about this.  Remember, you can prep the encounter, but you can't prep the players' action choices.  So go ahead and come up with some structure for likely contingencies, but be prepared to be flexible if the players go outside the box.  This tends to be hard on prep GMs like me.  Prep GMs invest a lot of time into designing encounters to be fun and interesting.  This is why I hate plot killing magic in games.  It's hard to predict when you've got a good dramatic scene, if a player with access to that stuff will just say "I cast X" and shortcut everything.  More on the continuum of player empowerment next week when I discuss what I call The Hunter-Horror Ladder.

Watch for the End of the Encounter

Angry says the encounter is over when one of the following happens:

  • The dramatic question has been answered
  • The conflicts are clearly resolved
  • Most of the players have run out of decision points

The first two are already covered, and you should read the original article for more information on them.  The third is interesting.  Decision points for him are like my definition of risks -- consequential decisions without knowing all the facts.  If everything is known, then the choice is obvious.  If the decision has no real consequence, it's not important.  But decision points can also be narrative decision points:  When the players have control over which way the story goes, that's still in play.

Angry has a great analysis of a scene as a bunch of unknowns (barriers to resolving questions and conflicts).  As the scene progresses, the players take actions to resolve the barriers.  They also use up their own resources.  As their resources are consumed, their options dwindle.  As the number of barriers are reduced, their decision points dwindle.  It is possible to reach a point where the question has not been answered, and the conflicts aren't all resolved, but the majority of players have run out of decision points.  The fighters are surrounding their enemy.  The wizards are spamming the same spell (or are out of the good ones), etc.  In this case the encounter is over because the players' choices have little impact on the outcome, so they're just going through the motions.

Often the players seem to be out of decision points because they're repeating actions over and over (regardless of whether they have other choices).  This is usually a signal that the dramatic question has been answered:  The players are using the same weak attacks over and over because they know they're going to win anyway.

End the Encounter

The Angry DM recommends you use no more than three rounds from the point where you realize the encounter is over and the point where you end it.  It's usually easy to end it sooner.  This is easy with non-combat encounters, because you don't have a rigid order of actions.  Combat encounters are a little more tricky.  In my experience running D&D, the players realize they're going to win an encounter about one or two combat rounds after the DM does.  This gives the GM time to drop strong clues that the enemy is demoralized and ready to flee or surrender, and have them disengage.

In Sum

Go read the original post!  Actually it's part of a series of posts on DMing that seems to be the Angry DM's magnum opus, so to speak.  Go read them all.  They're very good.

May 16, 2013

Morale, Pursuit and Evasion

To answer a question on a previous post, no, there are not a lot of ways to resolve combat other than kill or be killed in D&D.  It's a major flaw with the game, but in next week's post on The Horror-Hunter Ladder, you'll see why that's not such a big deal for the game.

But to satisfy my raging nerd curiosity/pedantry, I decided to do twenty minutes of research and pull out some history of D&D's alternate conflict resolution systems...

Click here for just a selection of the rules from original D&D's morale, evasion and pursuit system.  From the Rules Cyclopedia edition (the one I cut my teeth on).  This isn't everything.  There are pages and pages of this stuff.

The entirety of the 3.5 ed D&D evasion and pursuit rules.  
There are no morale rules in 3rd edition or Pathfinder's core books.  I haven't checked their supplements.  The upcoming Pathfinder Ultimate Campaign might have morale rules.  I'll let you know if I see them.

Evasion And Pursuit

In round-by-round movement, simply counting off squares, it’s impossible for a slow character to get away from a determined fast character without mitigating circumstances. Likewise, it’s no problem for a fast character to get away from a slower one.

When the speeds of the two concerned characters are equal, there’s a simple way to resolve a chase: If one creature is pursuing another, both are moving at the same speed, and the chase continues for at least a few rounds, have them make opposed Dexterity checks to see who is the faster over those rounds. If the creature being chased wins, it escapes. If the pursuer wins, it catches the fleeing creature.

Sometimes a chase occurs overland and could last all day, with the two sides only occasionally getting glimpses of each other at a distance. In the case of a long chase, an opposed Constitution check made by all parties determines which can keep pace the longest. If the creature being chased rolls the highest, it gets away. If not, the chaser runs down its prey, outlasting it with stamina.

The 4th ed Morale system is under the Intimidate skill (Click for details).  The word Morale does not even appear in the 4e monster manual.  

4e Evasion and Pursuit is handled as a skill challenge, which may be the most awesome way to handle it of all editions.  

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.

May 3, 2013

It's a Mystery

Today I'm talking about mysteries in RPGs.  I've run/played RPG mysteries three ways.
  • The Clue Chase
  • The Gestalt Mystery
  • Building a Case

The Clue Chase

aka Gamer Standard

The most common way mysteries are done in RPGs and modules is a clue chase. The characters are following a trail of clues (hence the name) from their discovery of the crime to the inevitable dramatic confrontation with the criminal.  The benefit of the Clue Chase is that the GM can design a series of scenes, with planned challenges (combat, skill, RP, etc.) and pre-prepared NPCs (monsters, witnesses, etc.).  Each scene contains a clue that the protagonists will discover that leads directly to the next scene.  Usually there is a sense of urgency, turning it from a trail to a chase to add excitement and take away from the fact that nobody is actually solving a mystery.  

But usually nobody minds because it's a lot of fun -- the scenes are never extemporaneous and the GM has had a chance to prepare a lot of material ahead of time.  Resolving a mystery with a Skill Challenge in 4e would be an abbreviated Clue Chase, for instance.  If there's some time pressure, you can write a clue chase with divergent paths, to give the players some control over the direction of the story (do you investigate person A or B with your limited time?).  You can also use divergent paths to allow the players to fail:  If they don't draw the right conclusion in Scene 1, they go to Scene 2B, etc.

The Gestalt Mystery

aka Cheating

Gestalt is the apprehension of a phenomenon as its whole, not the sum of component parts or origin and construction.  This technique creates very good stories, but doesn't work with very simulationist players.  Here's how it works:  The GM creates a mysterious circumstance (The Crime) to which he has no explanation in mind, but which seems fun and dramatic.  The protagonists encounter the crime, and propose a theory as to What Happened.  Then they go investigate that theory.  The GM usually decides to accept the second, third or perhaps fourth theory that the players invent as true.  So the first theory is disconfirmed.  The GM introduces the previously-unplanned fact that the suspect has an alibi, for instance.  The players keep coming up with theories, they keep investigating them, and the GM keeps disconfirming them until the appointed theory is arrived at, at which point, any clue that the PCs want to find that supports their theory is invented on the spot, and no disconfirming evidence will be invented.  

It's cheating, plain and simple.  But because possibly the players -- and definitely the characters -- are doing real mystery solving, it makes for a good story from a narrativist player's point of view.  Players who don't have much of a narrativist creative agenda may feel cheated.  It may help to let them know that you're trying something "more high concept" before starting this.

Building a Case

aka The Hard Way

So you want real mystery solving, but you don't want to cheat?  Sure!  It's gonna cost you, though.  For the players to solve a real mystery, you need to have a real mystery.  You need to establish exactly what crime happened, how it happened, why it happened -- including all the details and evidence of the contributing events -- what evidence of it exists, and who knows it.  I've run three of these and they take a ton of work.  You have to build a timeline of events and work it over, proofreading and continuity checking to make sure there are no missing threads or contradictions.  Then you present the protagonists with the crime as they discover it and all the initial evidence.  Finding evidence is never hard in this sort of mystery -- they just have to think of the right questions.  The players need to examine the evidence and build a case -- the theory of suspect (or unknown subject with certain hypothesized characteristics)/means/motive/opportunity or who/what/when/where/why and how.  Then they search for confirming evidence -- which, if they guessed well, you will almost surely already have (or have a strong implication for) because you thought out all the details ahead of time.  If they did not guess well, they will not find the evidence.  Or they may find disconfirming evidence (alibi).  They have to refine or rebuild their theory and repeat until they have the mystery solved.  Very little system gets involved -- if the PCs fail to find a clue because the system caused them to, the story is unnecessarily delayed.  So if you use system at all, it should be tangential to finding the clues/witnesses.  It's a lot of work.  But it's real mystery solving!

Tips for the Hard Way

The "murder board' they use in the TV show "Castle" is something that will help your players.  They can construct a timeline, list suspects, evidence, witnesses, and possible motivations; and thereby organize the requirements for the means/motive/opportunity clues they need to identify the correct suspect.  A timeline establishes opportunity.  Witness accounts and physical evidence then demonstrate means.  And motive comes from a mix of circumstantial evidence (business deals, romantic affairs), character witnesses, and interrogations.

One thing I liked about early seasons of Castle is that they portrayed the detective work as actually constructing theories and solving a crime.  Richard Castle's off-the-wall theories forced Becket to think outside the box to solve crimes that weren't so straightforward.  Lately, the writers have been lazy, leading to a "clue chase" where they go from suspect to suspect, learning one new fact each time, until they come to the killer.  But at least they have a theory each time.

Also, I found it helpful to set out an outline for the players that said:
1. Gather evidence
2. Propose theories
3. Test theories
4. Refine theories (go to Step 3)
5. Catch the criminal

This helps clear up the process for players who have grown used to clue chase mysteries in RPGs.

Step 1 is not the only place evidence is gathered.  Step 3 is also an evidence gathering step, but there's a big difference.  In step 1, you're gathering enough evidence to make a theory.  In step 3, you're only looking for specific evidence.

Would it be better to just put in a lot of time and manpower to collect all the evidence possible, knock on all the doors, and then induce from the evidence who the killer is?  Yes, if you have time and manpower.  But since the PCs are just four of five people, and they're usually running against the clock (fictional detective Harry Bosch famously forgoes sleep because he believes if you don't catch a killer in a few days, your chances of ever catching them drop almost to zero).  Further, until you have a theory, you might not realize something is evidence, even if you find it.  The show "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" famously demonstrates this:  Usually in the show the first crime scene leads to a theory that leads to a new crime scene.

Step 2 is the process is deduction:  You need means, motive and opportunity to commit a crime.  Suspect A probably has means, motive, and opportunity.  Therefore Suspect A is the killer if we can show he has means, motive and opportunity.  Note that the players should be encouraged to propose multiple theories.  They don't have to agree on one, so if they disagree, let them each pitch a theory, and then test them all.

Step 3 tests the theory:  We asked around and Suspect A has an alibi, so he did not have opportunity.

Step 4 is more deduction:  You need means, motive and opportunity or an accomplice who has them to commit a crime.  Suspect A probably had an accomplice in his friend Suspect B.  Therefore, Suspect A and Suspect B are the killers if we can prove Suspect B had means, motive and opportunity.  Go to step 3.

System Note

The Hard Way does not work in games with a good deal of "utility" magic, such as editions of D&D before 4th edition or Mage: the Ascension.  All the plot-hacking magic both helps and hinders the players.  First, utility magic makes solving a crime really hard if the crime could be conceivably committed by or with a magic user.  "What if he cast Magic Jar to take the body of the butler, and then used Nondetection to hide that fact, got in with Dimension Door, killed the prince, and then used Stone Shape to hide the murder weapon before casting Suggestion on the barkeep to force him to serve as an alibi?"

On the flip side, magic that cuts through mystery is equally disruptive.  The murder weapon is missing?  I'll use the sphere of Correspondence to find it.  One witness is lying?  I'll use Detect Lie to figure that one out.  Vampire: the Masquerade had a low-level power that effectively let the character witness any murder.  Constructing a mystery to foil these powers requires involving antagonists with magic themselves, and that puts us right back to the "too much magic" problem.

4e has magic, but not so much that mysteries are totally screwed.  Most 4e magic is combat-related, though "Speak with Dead" still exists, and more powerful plot-hack magic can be found as high-level rituals.  Stick with low-level PCs, and anticipate what rituals they have and you should be fine.  Other games with magic can work as well.  For comparison, I ran four sessions of a "hard way" mystery game using this technique in Changeling: the Lost.  Mostly the characters' magic guaranteed that they would find clues or be able to spy on suspects without error.  Detective fiction, of course, uses the same conceit only without magic -- authors like Doyle, Christie, Sayers and contemporary authors like Hillerman and Connelly always make their detectives incredibly competent at basic policework (finding clues, interviewing witnesses, stake outs) so that they have all the clues they (and the reader, in the case of modern detective fiction) need to solve the crime.

In sum...

As a final note, the Hard Way technique is genuinely hard.  Only use it if you have the time and dedication to really stick with it; or else aim for a limited run or purely episodic game.  When I tried it, I built a myth arc and used episodic mysteries to drop clues to it.  That was not so smart; since it turned out to be harder than I thought to prep, and I let it peter out.  A clue chase has a lot of story potential and lets you prep more for specific scenes.  If in doubt, go with the old standby.  But if you want to try something more "advanced" I hope I gave you the tools to do it.