Friday, August 30, 2013

Strange Mechanics: The To-hit Stack

    I have this idea in my head and no idea how to use it.  But it's been bugging me for a long time, so I'm going to write it out and maybe one of my gentle readers can figure out how to make it work.  The idea is about the ubiquitous "to-hit" roll.  Combat is an abstract, moreso in some systems like D&D (Monsters & Manuals has a good post about that), but it always covers several different possibilities.  My idea is to just break down the possibilities into a stack, and the to-hit roll then describes what happens in that stack.  Not making any sense yet, bear with me:

    The first, base part of the stack, is Dodge.  Dodge is how hard you are to hit in the first place.  This is a function of size, dexterity/nimbleness and awareness (hard to dodge something you can't see).
    Then we have Block.  Shields are the stereotypical defensive weapon, as they are mobile coverage, but weapons are also defensive.  Parrying an attack with a sword means that attack didn't hit you, right?  So block covers anything that will prevent an attack from landing on you.  Note, this then does not count blocking with your forearm or other body part - since the attack is hitting you, just with possibly reduced damage (however a special ability/feat may allow you to use your innate block against weapons by saying you block the flat of the blade or the arm/limb that's attacking or somesuch).
    Next part of the stack is Coverage.  This is a function of how many hit locations/body parts you have covered.  Full plate covers a lot of your body (but still has a few holes/vulnerabilities) while a mail shirt only covers some - but a spherical force-field covers everything.
    Sort of combined with Coverage is Openness.  Basically, what of you isn't covered.  This is a separate part of the stack for reasons I'll make clear in a moment.  It is a split between the two, so there is a total of, say, 50 points to represent your size and body (for medium creatures, possibly modified for larger/smaller?).  Wearing armor that covers half your hit locations means you have 25 points of Coverage and 25 points of Openness.
    Lastly is Vitals, which is a modifier of Openness and based on your creature type.  People are funny, we can actually take a lot of abuse, but we have some very soft and squishy spots that can kill instantly (or nearly so) if damaged.  So this is the 'critical hit locations.'  It is a fraction of your Openness (say, 10%), representing the vulnerable sports on your body that are not protected by your armor/defenses.  However, some creatures like undead and constructs do not have any squishy bits, so they do not have a Vitals score.

    Now, my crazy idea is this- what if we give a score to each one of these, and then stack them on top of each other, and then roll to-hit and see where in the stack we land, which will tell us what kind of hit we made?
    Example, say you target is a goblin.  He's small and fast, so he's got a Dodge of 40.  He has a small shield and short sword, but being smaller than human their defense is reduced, so they total a Block of 10.  He's got patchwork armor over half his body (say, chest and both arms), making his Coverage 25 and Openness 25.  And being a living creature he's got squishy bits for a Vitals of 3.  If we stack these from Dodge up we'd have:

Dodge         1 - 40
Block          41 - 50
Coverage    51 - 75
Openness    76 - 100
Vitals          101-103

    So, if we rolled percentile (1-100) we could see exactly what happened.  A roll of 23 is a total miss, the goblin danced out of the way.  A roll of 37 means the goblin deflected the attack with his shield, still a miss but maybe costs him 1hp for the effort of the block (or perhaps the shield takes the damage and could possibly break?).  A roll of 60 is a solid hit on his armor, so subtract the armor's damage reduction from the attack.  A roll of 88 is a hit on the unarmored part, so you cut the goblin's leg and it takes full damage.  Hitting the vitals, rolling above 100 would require some type of ability or "aim" action that gave you a bonus chance to hit - and could mean anything from blindness to instant death.
    What makes the idea go crazy, and turns my brain in knots, is what happens if you can alter the stack.  So, say you have an armor-piercing weapon, it totally ignores armor (or, at least the type of armor the goblin is wearing).  Now the stack's bottom is the same: 1-40 Dodge, 41-50 Block; while the top changes to Openness 51-100, Vitals 101-103.  Say you feint, removing the ability of the goblin to block- 1-40 Dodge, 41-65 Coverage, 66-90 Openness, 91-93 Vitals.  You know, actually looking at this on paper I realize you don't need a Vitals score, just to say weather the target has Vitals or not since it is always the top-most range of possibilities. (though, it might be interesting to say that going over the vitals means a miss - you're trying so hard to hit a small target that you completely blow it; but that seems like it would make getting a critical hit harder than necessary, hmmm...)  Or if you entangle/tie up the goblin so he can't dodge or block: 1-25 Coverage, 26-50 Openness, 51+ Vitals (which works for me, there are stories of headsmen who needed more than one swing to execute someone).  Attacking from the sides or rear might negate the Block part of the stack too.
    Let's add another layer of complexity- what if you could modify the roll to hit as well?  So, say that everybody rolls d20s to hit, the number of dice being determined by class.  Wizards roll 2d20, Thieves roll 3d20, Clerics roll 4d20 and Fighters roll 5d20.  We'll let strength add to the roll, so a strength of 10 is a +10 to the dice roll.  So the Str 10 wizard has a pretty low chance of hitting the goblin, and will get blocked even on a good roll - the goblin's just too fast.  Thieves might get the armor, clerics might get an open shot but only the fighters have a chance at the vitals.  Again though, if you can aim, or cast a spell boosting your to-hit or something you can make the odds better (or sneak attack, can't dodge/block what you can't see).  And against a slow moving zombie everybody has a better chance to hit (though no Vitals since it's undead - or maybe it does have Vitals if it's a shoot-em-in-the-head type zombie).

    I just love this idea because it breaks things down explicitly, none of the annoying "what does a hit point or attack roll really mean" abstraction in a game like D&D.  But I hate this idea because it means a whole lot of extra calculations and possibly dice-rolling that seem like they would negate the benefits.  I don't know if I'll ever think of something to make this work.  Actually, I've been thinking of going the opposite direction, making combat more abstracted than even D&D by having the character roll both offense and defense for each round (which I realize says nothing, I'll maybe post later about some of my combat ideas and the great bloggers who inspired them).  Anyways, now that I've writen this out hopefully it will stop scratching at the back of my head and leave me alone.  I don't think I'll ever use it, but if you can figure out a way to make it work - go for it.  And as always, comments are welcome.

PS- I think the impulse to post this came from reading B/X Blackrazor, he has a recent series on "fighter love" that is worth reading: (for part 2, also look for part 3).  And has a cool combat idea of skipping the to-hit roll and just rolling damage to speed things up:

Now what? Action Outcomes in Travellers Beyond

    I posted a while ago about converting Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn to my Travellers Beyond game.  One part of that, which might not be easy to understand, is the Action Outcome system.  TB is meant to be a modular-style game, that is, you can mix and match and connect different parts of the system to properly describe what you want.  This design idea came from the birth of TB, when I liked the games I was playing, I just wanted to use different rules with their settings.  So the hooks and classes describe something about your character and what he/she/it can do.  But, you also need to know the outcome, the change in the game world, that comes from each action/ability.  Which is why TB has 5 pairs of Action Outcomes:

    The first pair deals with measurements:
Increase - raises a stat.  Like 'healing', which increases your current hit points up to your maximum.  Or 'boosting', which increases both your current and maximum totals.  It also covers 'creating' or adding a brand new stat you did not have before.
Reduce - lowers a stat.  So 'damage' lowers your current total, 'limiting' reduces current and maximum, and 'destroying' completely eliminates an existing stat (though, Darth Vader did say "no disintegrations" ;).

    The second pair deals with control:
Operate - encourages something to happen.  This is not a mod, like a +2 to a roll, rather it bends the odds, like roll two dice and take the highest.  This can be for an action, so an Operate/Talker encourages you to talk to or interact with someone/anyone, or it could be for a target, so your best friend could be a form of Operate in that since they like you it is easier for you to interact with them (which, if you were fighting would also give you a bonus because you know them so well).  I've also recently thought this could be used to off-set penalties.  So, say the base target number to defuse the bomb is 15, but you have a -10 to your roll because it's raining and you're using your pen-knife instead of the proper tools.  But if you had the special ability of "so awesome I can defuse a bomb with my teeth" it might be an Operate/Worker(bomb disposal) that would off-set the penalties (some or all) but still keep the base target of 15.  Or, a thermal scope on your gun that can see through smoke would off-set the penalties for shooting through smoke, but not the penalties/target number for range or armor.
Constrain - discourages something from happening.  This is kind of backwards from Operate.  Operate/Talker makes it easier to talk, but Constrain/Talker makes it harder to do anything else.  So, all Fighter, Explorer, Investigator and Worker abilities would be at a penalty (roll two take lowest) while Talker would be a normal roll.  Rage, for example, is a Constrain/Fighter - it makes everything other than fighting harder to do (you could also say it was an Operate/Fighter making fighting easier/better too).  Like operate this can be a type of action or a target. Note: I do not like "save-or-die" effects, and this includes mind control because I think taking away control of a character from the player is just about a cardinal sin of RPGing.  Thus, while constrain  makes something harder, it does not dictate what has to happen.  The character can ignore or deal with the changes.  So a "mind control" ability that makes a Constrain/Fighter and Constrain/your friends - that is, harder to not fight and harder to do anything targeting someone other than your friends - does not force you to attack your buddies, but it makes you pretty much useless otherwise (roll 2 or 3 take worst).  This is a fine line, having control yet being crippled is not very fun either, but I think it is better than totally taking away control.

    Next pair deals with information:
Understand - presents information.  This is where the GM tells you more and more, and goes from generalities to specifics.  So your "Undead Lore" ability means the GM will give you a breakdown of roughly, between x and y, how strong a skeleton or zombie is.  I have sub-groups for present, past and future in here - so present is perception, seeing what's around you right now, past is forensics, looking at a crime scene and seeing where people where and what they did, while future is seeing something before it happens.  The sub-groups are just to make some abilities cost more than others.  So seeing the future costs more than seeing the past because in general seeing the future is more useful.  It also makes fun twists like having a bonus to see the future but a penalty to see the present because your mind is so lost in what-might-be that you can't focus easily on the here-and-now.
Deceive - hides something or presents false information.  So lies, stealth, disguises and forgeries, hidden doors and traps, fog - anything that makes it harder to tell what's going on.  I don't yet have some sub-categories I like.

    Then we deal with structure/change/interaction (not sure how to describe it in one word):
Transform - changes something into something else.  For example, casting a spell that changes a sword from Reducing health to Increasing health is a transformation.  Turning a person into a frog, or something colored green into something colored blue is a transformation.  What you are trying to change sets the cost or difficulty, and it is all or nothing; that is, if you can't meet the cost then nothing happens.  You can combine Reduce and Transform to get a sort of partial transformation effect, or create a nested list of transforms from cheapest to most expensive. (the all or nothing is just to distinguish this from increase/reduce, I want to keep each AO a separate type of effect)
Avoid - prevents a change, which could be any other AO really.  Dodging out of the way, re-winding time, negating or cancelling an ability are all avoids.  Like transform this is all or nothing.

    Finally we deal with connections (or perhaps influence):
Bond - uses one thing to influence another.  So your strength influences the damage you do with your sword, your teammate's feint creates an opening for you to strike (the 'aid another'), the lich comes back from the dead (or undeth?) until it's phylactory is destroyed.
Separate - negates influence.  Pretty much this cancels an existing bond and I haven't found anything bigger for it yet.  This last pair has not really fleshed out very well for some reason.

So, in the Mistborn conversion, there were two lines at the beginning of each ability like so:
    Iron ("Lurcher") [Bender]
    (Reduce/Physical(distance)--Others/metals only)
The first line has the name of the ability (and the type of hook, in this case "Bender" is a type of the Extraordinary Abilities hook), and the second line has the Action Outcome and Target.  In the case above, the AO was Reduce, but specifically it was a Physical reduction, and more specifically a reduction of distance.  The target was "Other," that is, not the character, and specifically metals only.  So this power reduces the distance between the character and a source of metal.
    Let's take a hypothetical example, and say we have a power that creates a field around the character that shields from laser beams.  There are several different ways to describe this.  If we say the field bends light, then it would likely be an Avoid/Physical--Self/light only.  If the field interrupts or reduces light, it might instead be a Reduce/Physical--Self/light only.  What AO is chosen effects how the ability works.  In the first case, the Avoid, it would completely negate the laser/light-based attack up to the strength of the ability, but anything stronger would not be effected.  That is, say the Avoid field is strength 5 and it is attacked by a strength 10 laser - the character would be hit by a strength 10 attack because Avoid is all or nothing.  On the other hand, the Reduce field would instead subtract its strength from the attack, so in the above example the character would be hit by a strength 5 laser (the base 10 minus the reduce 5).  However, every ability has a cost that is paid when the ability is used.  So the Avoid would pay its cost (in "battery power" or "magic points" depending on the hook it comes from) only when attacked; while the Reduce would pay a constant cost while it was running (I know that sounds like splitting hairs, but in the overall system it makes some sense). Abilities may also have more than one AO.  Take the Reduce light-bending field I've used for my example: I could add to it the AO of Reduce/Mental(perception)--Self/visual only.  So the field would not only bend away light-based attacks aimed at the character, it would also reduce the character's visual perception ability, because all the light-bending makes it hard to see out of the field.  Since TB is point-based, this type of disadvantage would help pay for the advantage of bending light in the first place.

    The Action Outcome system is one of the parts of TB I am rather proud of.  I think it does a good job of describing what something does, how actions effect the world, which helps when deciding how powerful an ability is/what it should cost and what that ability is good for/meant to do.  If you want to use an ability in a creative way, the AO pairs and fields give you a framework to see how far away your creative idea is from the baseline of what the power was designed for.  So far it also seems to be fairly atomic, that is, its the smallest set of building blocks for defining how something works.  But, most importantly, what do you think?  Feel free to leave some feedback/comments below.

Invisible Tragedy

    There's something I wanted to comment on, taking a break from my last few game-related posts and looking at the real world for a second.  I'm currently living in Prescott Valley, Arizona helping my Grandpa (some day I'll update my Google Profile that still says Colorado).  Last month there was a terrible fire in the nearby city of Yarnell that killed 19 firefighters.  All of the men were members of an elite "hotshots" crew and they were the entire team (except for one person who survived because he was on lookout and not with the others).  There was a gigantic and immediate outpouring of support, with fundraisers at the local bars, museums, BBQ joints, supermarkets, special concerts held, and even a massive memorial at the local concert hall that had the Vice President among the other dignitaries.  According to the paper, over $11 million were raised in only a few weeks.  It was a great and noble thing that the community did, and that I'm sure went around the world as well (the local paper just talks about local charities after all).
    So I feel a little like a creep to poke at it, but I will.  First, while the 19 firefighters were killed, and that is a tragedy of course, there were also many who lost their homes (about 100 I believe) in Yarnell, homes and possessions now burnt to ash.  Again, of course, it's better to be alive and broke than dead - but being suddenly homeless is a pretty big shock to the system (take it from someone who knows) and being homeless with your entire family is harder still.  These may be "little tragedies" but they are no less tragic for it.  Some of the hotshots were classified as part-time workers, and when the wife of one of them went on the news because she and the other survivors will not be receiving as much in death benefits - that story almost drowned out the fact that the federal government was not going to send any aid to the city of Yarnell to rebuild.  A recent story was about the money raised and how the groups in charge of it were trying to decide how to split it and hiring tax advisers to help those who receive it invest or otherwise use it wisely.  Again though, what about all the people who now have to rebuild homes and replace a lifetime's worth of possessions and memories?
    What bugs me, and maybe it's because I'm just a terrible person, is that while all this attention is going to something tragic, there are lots and lots of equally tragic things that nobody bothers to look at or talk about or start massive fundraisers for.  The same day those firefighters were killed women were being raped, people were being murdered by people they knew, husbands were burying wives, drunk drivers were destroying property, and, well, all the craziness and horror that is life was going on all around us.  The sorts of day in and day out horror that we've just become immune to, not even desensitized, but forgotten.  Death, loss, pain, crime, these are day to day events around the world.  Yet no one cares (except for the victims of course), no massive pushes or organizations because these things are everywhere.  Dog bites man isn't a story, but man bites dog is - so the old newspaper saying goes.  And while the families of the firefighters have lost husbands, who were possibly the main source of income as well, and thus some financial support would be a blessing indeed - again I can't help but wonder about all those smoking ruins that were once homes and think that they could use a little financial support too.  Bigger still, what about all the other, unseen tragedies that could use some help?
    Thing is, I flashback to several years ago when I first lived in Colorado. I was volunteering for The Tollgate (run by Cross and Clef Ministries), a day shelter for the homeless, where I was the cook (I was homeless too at the time).  We had a close partnership with WINN Ministries (whom I would also volunteer for later) who provided a lot of food and general support.  That year I believe it was a tsunami and a hurricane (my memory is faulty on the specifics, too long ago).  So people were flooding the Red Cross and the Salvation Army with donations for those tragedies.  But money donated there was money not donated to small, local non-profits like us.  We had a very, very bad year - and in fact the Tollgate would close.  We never had any national news talking about the homeless (except in derogatory ways of course), WINN was trying to unite and mobilize churches to help their neighborhoods and never a peep about them.  These were silent tragedies that the two groups, along with countless others throughout the nation, were working to help.  Day in and day out.  Because tragedies happen day in and day out.  I just wish that the people who donate to these big events, the tragedies that make the national news, would instead split their money in half.  Donate half to the big event, and donate the other half to a local non-profit or charity - because the invisible tragedies leave behind just as much suffering as the ones that draw headlines, and in every neighborhood there is somebody, some group, that is trying to help those not fortunate enough to get a spotlight when tragedy strikes them.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Converting Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn to Travellers Beyond

    In my last post I talked about the TB classes and Hooks, which while possibly amusing was also not terribly useful I bet.  So let me try to illustrate how my hook/class system works for TB.  I am going to convert the magic system used in the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson into the TB format.  Now, if you haven't read the Mistborn books this might not mean anything to you - so you should go read them right now !!! :)  Seriously, if you like fantasy at all, even just a tiny bit, you have to read Brandon Sanderson.  The Mistborn series is a fantastic trilogy about God Emperors and overthrowing them, with a very unique magic system based on metals.  It was then followed up by The Alloy of Law which took fantasy into the old west era.  Not to mention the great work he did finishing Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, and his book Warbreaker (the first of his works I read).  He's got another series, Elantris, which I haven't read, and a few more books aimed at younger readers I also haven't read, yet.
    Anyways.  Mr. Sanderson's books are awesome, and his magic systems are very unique.  In the Mistborn series all magic revolves around metal.  Different types of metals can give different powers.  There are three classes of magic, Allomancy, Feruchemy and Hemalurgy.  I am only going to present my notes on Allomancy here.  So, read along and see if anything makes any sense (I firmly believe a well-designed game is somewhat intelligible even if you haven't read the rules - so here's a test of how well-designed my game is so far).

Allomancy- the ability to 'burn' ingested metals to gain supernatural abilities.  One is either a Misting and has only one of the following abilities, or a Mistborn and has all (Mistings are somewhat common while Mistborn are very rare).  Hereditary power of the nobility, a skaa Allomancer has noble blood somewhere, and will be put to death if discovered (note, for skaa this ability must come with the Secret Hinderance or else the character would have been caught and executed).  For nobles being a Misting or Mistborn is a position of status.  Mistings tend to work openly, selling their unique abilities while Mistborn tend to hide their abilities and work in secret as spies and assassins.  Mistings are often referred to by a nickname given in parenthesis below, and burning that type of metal is also sometimes referred to by the same/similar nickname.

Extraordinary Abilities  (Augment/Evolve/Bender)
Powers are based on the metal being used:

    Iron ("Lurcher") [Bender]
    (Reduce/Physical(distance)--Others/metals only)
  Fighter- as this can only bring the metal source to the character, it can be used to attack if the source of metal is behind the target, which is a form of Indirect Combat using the Maneuver skill instead of Offense; this can also be used to pull metal weapons/items out of the hands of others which is a Disarm using the Offense skill.
  Explorer- used for limited travel, by pulling on a heavier or anchored piece of metal one can 'jump' directly towards that metal.  Combined with Steel by a Mistborn allows fully three-dimensional movement in an area with lots of metals, like a city.
  Investigator- burning this metal allows the character to see faint blue lines leading from them-self to all nearby metal sources, the strength of the line increasing for more metal and decreasing the further away (a large, far source looking roughly the same as a small, close source).
  Worker- metals can only be moved in a straight line towards the character, they cannot be turned or twisted; also the weights involved determine if the metal source will move or if the character will move instead (the lighter one being the one to move towards the heavier).
  Talker- not typically useful in conversation except for possibly distraction or intimidation.

    Steel ("Coinshot") [Bender]
    (Increase/Physical(distance)--Others/metals only)
  Fighter- frequently used for combat by throwing coins or small metal items the character is holding (which uses Ammo), uses regular Offense/Weapon skill and Ranged Combat rules.
  Explorer- used for limited travel, by pushing off a heavier or anchored piece of metal one can 'jump' directly away from that metal.  Combined with Iron by a Mistborn allows fully three-dimensional movement in an area with lots of metals, like a city.
  Investigator- burning this metal allows the character to see faint blue lines leading from them-self to all nearby metal sources, the strength of the line increasing for more metal and decreasing the further away (a large, far source looking roughly the same as a small, close source).
  Worker- metals can only be moved in a straight line away from the character, they cannot be turned or twisted; also the weights involved determine if the metal source will move or if the character will move instead (the lighter one being the one to move).
  Talker- not typically useful in conversation except for possibly distraction or intimidation.

    Tin ("Tineye") [Augment]
  Fighter- not significantly useful in combat if one can already see one's opponent, can be used to reduce the penalties for Ranged combat or when fighting with limited visibility (ie, darkness, smoke).
  Explorer- the perception increase can be used to detect creatures, ambushes and hidden or concealed people/places/things.
Investigator- aids in finding clues and investigating locations.
  Worker- not significantly beneficial.
  Talker- aids in detecting lies/deceptions and seeing through disguises/forgeries, only works reactivly though (ie, does not give a bonus to tell a lie).

    Pewter ("Pewterarm" or, more vulgar, "Thug") [Augment]
  Fighter- the boost to strength and speed are added to all Offense, Defense and Maneuver rolls as if the character had a higher Physical attribute score.
  Explorer- allows for faster sprinting and as a bonus in pursuits.  Can "pewter drag" (see below) for an extended period to increase non-combat/overland movement rate.
  Investigator- not significantly beneficial.
  Worker- adds to all Physical-based activities (ie, manual labor, sports).
  Talker- not significantly beneficial, except for Intimidation.

    Brass ("Soother") [Bender]
  Fighter- against opponents with Emot-based fighting abilities (ie, the Rage power of a Barbarian) this can be used to decrease that effect and it's corresponding penalties (for the example of Rage, it would decrease both the bonus to attack and the penalty to defense).  Can be used as a bonus when a Talker skill is being used to try to stop combat.
  Explorer- not significantly useful.
  Investigator- only gives a bonus when used during an interrogation.
  Worker- can be used when attempting to get another to do an action/work.
  Talker- this can be used to reduce the difficulty of a Talker action/skill related to a specific emotion (when that emotion would conflict with what the character wants the target to do), however, it does not give any special ability to read emotions.  Can effect only one person or a group.

    Zinc ("Rioter") [Bender]
  Fighter- against opponents with Emot-based fighting abilities (ie, the Rage power of a Barbarian) this can be used to increase that effect and it's corresponding penalties (for the example of Rage, it would increase both the bonus to attack and the penalty to defense).  Can be used as a bonus when a Talker skill is being used to try to start combat.
  Explorer- not significantly useful.
  Investigator- only gives a bonus when used during an interrogation.
  Worker- can be used when attempting to get another to do an action/work.
  Talker- this can be used to reduce the difficulty of a Talker action/skill related to a specific emotion (when that emotion coincides with what the character wants the target to do), however, it does not give any special ability to read emotions.    Can effect only one person or a group.

    Copper ("Smoker" or "Coppercloud") [Evolve]
    (Deceive/Mental(perception)--Self/Allomantic powers only)
  Fighter- not significantly useful, though can hide the character's Allomantic abilities from an opponent burning Bronze (however, note that several Allomantic powers have some sort of visible effect).
  Explorer- can be used to hide oneself and those nearby (same Range-band) from someone burning Bronze.
  Investigator- hiding one's abilities, and/or those nearby, makes it more difficult for an investigation to Suspect the character and/or accomplices of having Allomanic powers.
  Worker- not significantly useful.
  Talker- makes you (only) immune to the effects of Brass/Zinc, but also unaware of those metals being burned to influence you.

    Bronze ("Seeker") [Evolve]
    (Understand/Mental(perception)--Others/Allomantic powers only)
  Fighter- can be used to reveal what Allomantic powers an opponent possesses, as they are used.  Cannot penetrate a coppercloud unless your ability is of a higher scale.
  Explorer- can be used to detect active Allomancers in the vicinity.  Cannot penetrate a coppercloud unless your ability is of a higher scale.
  Investigator- not significantly useful since it only detects active Allomantic activity and not past events.
  Worker- not significantly useful.
  Talker- not significantly useful.

    Gold ("Augur") [Evolve]
    (Understand/Mental(perception)--Self/Time(alternate present only))
  Fighter- not significantly useful.
  Explorer- not significantly useful.
  Investigator- the insight into one's own possible life-paths could help reveal any Mysteries in the character's background.  It could possibly be used to track one's own position on a scale of corruption (ie, if moving from the "light side" to the "dark side") by burning periodically to see changes in one's alternate selves.  Otherwise this is not significantly useful.
  Worker- not significantly useful.
  Talker- not significantly useful.

    Electrum ("Oracle")  [Evolve]
    (Understand/Mental(perception)--Self/Time(future only))
  Fighter- the ability to see one's own future will counter the effects of Atium on oneself (ie, the character's Fighter skills will not drop to 0 against an Atium-burning opponent) but gives no other bonuses.  Against non-Atuim users it gives a bonus to Defense only (as it does not reveal anything outside the character).
  Explorer- the future-sight will reveal any traps or surprises that effect the character (not those that effect others around/near the character).
  Investigator- not significantly useful.
  Worker- not significantly useful.
  Talker- not significantly useful.

    Atium ("Seer") [Evolve]
    (Understand/Mental(perception)--Others/Time(future only))
  Fighter- reveals every action another person could take before they happen, reducing the Fighter skills of all opponents to 0.  If both character and opponent are burning Atium the opposing effects cancel each other out and there is no change.
  Explorer- will reveal any ambushes or surprise attacks by another person, but does not reveal the actions of objects/places/things.
  Investigator- not significantly useful as it only shows the actions of people and not places/things.
  Worker- not significantly useful as it only shows the actions of people and not places/things.
  Talker- not significantly useful, it does not allow one to hear reactions of others (though reading lips or faces could give some indication to how a person would respond to an action by the character).

    Malatium (not commonly known) [Evolve]
    (Understand/Mental(perception)--Others/Time(alternate present only))
  Fighter- not significantly useful.
  Explorer- not significantly useful.
  Investigator- Seeing the alternate paths of another's life can be potentially helpful in determining their character, and possibly reveal any Secrets or Mysteries related to their past/actions.
  Worker- not significantly useful.
  Talker- Seeing the alternate paths of another's life can be potentially helpful in determining thier character, and possibly reveal any Secrets or Mysteries related to their past/actions.

    Ammo/Fuel--Must "burn"/consume metals to maintain abilities, each has a different rate.  Short duration- atium (trns) ; Medium- pewter (min) ; Long- tin (hrs?), copper [note: Mr. Sanderson does not specify durations in his stories]
    Rarity--Gold is highly valuable (Luxury item), Atium is highly valuable and its sale is controlled (Luxury item, to purchase character must have the Allies & Influence (Organization: Noble Houses) Hook, or it must be stolen by taking the Secret Hindrance/Suspicion), the others are only moderately valuable (Material or Refined items).
    Ingestion--the metals to burn must be ingested, usually carried in vials of metal flakes suspended in oil.  It takes an action to drink a vial.
    Limited Compounds--only certain metals are usable for Allomancy, the ones listed above (plus a few others), and they must be mixed in the proper way.  Attempting to burn an improper metal can make the Allomancer sick or even be fatal.
    External Targets Only--an Allomancer cannot effect metals inside the body (ie, the iron inherent in blood or metals that were ingested by another Allomancer)[note: this is technically possible if the character can increase their Allomantic powers by 2 Scales, ie, Flaring is not enough by itself].

Development and Usage:
    Snapping--even though Allomancy is a hereditary gift, it lies dormant in the character.  In order to be able to use the power the character must Snap, go through a significant physical and/or emotional trauma, to awaken the ability.  It is possible, though extremely rare, for a significantly positive experience to also cause the Snap.
    Unconscious Usage--as an innate ability, a Misting or Mistborn will typically burn any metal they need even if unconscious.  For example, if wounded and unconscious a team-mate could force a Mistborn to drink pewter which would then be used to increase all Physical checks to resist dying.
    Flaring--metals can be burned at a faster rate to gain a larger increase, this uses the metal up at x5 the normal rate, but gives a bonus of +1 Scale to the effect (thus, using pewter would normally be Human-scaled (same as the character) but can be flared to make it Enhanced-scaled, with the appropriate increases to damage/effect and penalties to aim/precision)
    Dragging--with a sufficient supply of metals one can burn the longer-lasting types for an extended duration.  This process, called dragging, is potentially harmful to the body however.  Dragging a Pushing metal like Pewter requires an extended rest when the drag ends, and if wounded the loss of temporary strength could kill the character (also, any items carried with enhanced strength will be dropped, possibly harming the character, when that strength wears off).  Dragging a Pulling metal like Tin makes one Addicted to that metal over time.

    So, does this make any sense?  Even if you haven't read the books, do you feel like maybe you could use this magic system in your game and know what it could do?  If you have read the books, does this feel the same, is it a good guide for playing a Mistborn/Misting character?  Granted, there are no numbers, no explicit rules, but right now I'm more curious about the format and feel.  Please leave a comment below, I know I mention that at the end of most of my posts, but in this case I really, really mean it.  Travellers Beyond is a game I have been working on for many years.  It exists pretty much only in my head, so I really need to know how other people see it.  As I said, this is an incomplete fragment, but does it seem like something you would want to learn more about?  I hope to keep posting more examples of how TB works (well, the pieces of it I have, it is a work in progress after all) in the near future.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Why I Hate Classes and How I'd Improve Them

    I've been following a lot of old-school blogs, that is, bloggers who love the original Dungeons & Dragons (usually pre-2nd edition) - which I find amusing because I am not an old school player/GM.  I have played D&D, starting with the Red Box and up to 3.5 with a detour to my current game of Pathfinder.  I like D&D well enough, but I don't love the system.  For two main reasons, first it is fantasy-based.  Now don't get me wrong, I love fantasy and I love magic - but I also like science-fiction, and I really love mash-ups of the two.  My favorite settings were Torg and RiftsTorg was an Earth almost like ours that had been invaded by other realities.  So England had been taken over by a fantasy reality, Egypt by a pulp fiction reality, parts of America by a cave-man prehistoric reality, and on and on.  By crossing state/country lines you could be changing more than the scenery.  Rifts was a far future post-apocalypse Earth where magic had been accidentally released and now 'rifts' - doorways between dimensions - open at random and drop all sorts of strange beings into the world.  This kind of cross-genera role-playing is impossible with D&D in any of its versions.

    But the biggest thing I don't like about D&D, and what I'd like to bend you ear (eyes?) about in this post, is the class system.  Classes bother me because they conflate at least three different things: what someone does, what someone has and how someone acts.  Let me explain by examining the core classes that have been (mostly) central to D&D through all the editions: the fighter, magic-user, thief and cleric.
    The fighter is the simplest class, and the one I like, because it is so focused.  The fighter fights.  That is, they hit things, shoot things, stab things, and generally kill things that get in their way.  This is class as "what someone does" in its purest and proper form.
    But add on the magic-user, and now things get muddy.  The magic-user, as the name suggests, uses magic.  They may use magic to fight, to kill things, or maybe not.  They may just fly off into space or turn invisible and hide.  Because unlike the fighter, the magic-user class is not about what someone does, it is about what someone has.  The magic-user has the ability to cast magic.  What they do with it is another matter entirely.  It is perfectly possible and common to see a magic-user slinging spells killing things alongside the fighter swinging a sword killing things - and while both are fighters, one has magic and one has steel.
    So let's throw in the thief and mix it up even more.  A thief class is not about what they have, or even what they do.  Let's back up, a thief is, at heart, a criminal, right?  And a criminal is someone who breaks the law, right?  That is class as how someone acts.  Criminals/thieves may "do" a wide variety of things (pick locks, hide in shadows and then back-stab/assassinate, fast-talk/con vulnerable old ladies, etc, etc, ad nauseam).  They may "have" all sorts of things (magic can help with a lot of those activities, so can weapons and tools, even just plain old innate charisma).  What defines them however is "how" they act.  And I think a part of the uproar over adding the thief class way back in the day, and why some hate it today, is because they unconsciously realize it is a different type of class (though most overlook the whole fighter-does/magic-user-has dichotomy) that does not fit quite right.
    The cleric is another, even worse, conflated class.  A cleric 'does', they are the only ones who can heal, a cleric 'has', since they cast magic, and a cleric 'acts', because they follow their deity of choice.  But a cleric of a rage deity should be doing a whole lot more fighting than the oddball "no sharp objects" class we originally got.  Even now, with Pathfinder, a cleric deity (as measured by the two Domains chosen) is frosting and fluff, not real substance.  So this class is the poor duck-billed-platypus of the game, a hybrid of ideas without any proper structure.
    Which is the other problem I have with a class.  When you choose a class, you are choosing a future.  You have locked and rail-roaded yourself through the grave.  Your class progression tells you exactly how you will advance, what you will become good at, and you don't get to change things.  This has been given a little more flex in recent years with multi-classing, and Pathfinder in particular with all the Alternate Classes in the Ultimate line of books.  Still, once you get on that train, it is hard to turn it.  Which amuses me since so many people hate, with a fiery passion hate, being rail-roaded in a game but do not blink an eye at doing it to their character's future.  One reason I like skills is that I can put points in the skills I want and leave points out of the ones I don't and so progress my character exactly how I think my character should progress (in fact, I would love to get rid of the "base attack bonus" and have a separate skill for every weapon group (so, say, "long blades" or "axes"), then also have a skill for every magic group (abjuration, evocation, etc), and then you could really and properly make a hybrid fighter-mage class)(but I digress).

    So what, you may ask, who cares if classes conflate different ideas?  Well, firstly this is a game, and games have rules, and when things get muddy the rules can break down in new and interesting ways.  Take, for example, choosing an encounter.  As GM this is a difficult and important decision to make- what monster(s) should I throw at the party?  After all, we want to challenge the party, not kill them all (though, some GMs don't care, they figure the party should run away from any challenge too great - but that's not always as easy as it sounds).  So we need to know about how strong the party is, then compare that to the monster, no problem, right?  Ummm.... well, let's see.  The Base Attack Bonus is kind of the starting point, how likely you are to hit.  And every class has a different BAB.  But then you get magic items, which increase the chance to hit and the amount of damage done.  Then there are spells, which usually hit, and do variable damage based on the spell and the caster level and the number of said spells memorized, and for some spells the type of target changes the damage too.  The thief does only a little damage, unless he backstabs and then he does a lot of damage, but only to targets that take critical hits.  And then of course, what kind of damage?  Fire spells and magic items won't be very useful against a fire elemental who's immune to fire.  All of which is just the tip of the iceberg of considerations needed.
    Now, all of that is not just the fault of the class system, it's the abundance of mechanics in general (which I'm sure any old-schoolers reading this are screaming to their monitors).  However this does illustrate that when you conflate different concepts it makes measuring them more difficult.  A level 10 fighter could be horribly and quickly slaughtered by a level 5 fighter, if said level 5 had a ton of magic items.  Because the fighter class measures what you can do - but equipment measures what you have, and that influences what you can do.  The fighter armed with lots of magic items and the magic-user who can fight are roughly equal - both can do and have things.  By tracking them separately you can get a better feel for what is close; by merging them together, or not tracking them at all, you have a much harder time.  We track how much gold is in a character's pockets, but the amount of gold spent on items is just as much a measure of ability/power as the amount of xp spent on levels.
    Secondly, there is creating the character you want to play and keeping that character playable.  Sure, my fighter can splash some magic-user levels, and suck at two things.  But what about Gandalf, he sure could fight, and cast a few spells?  What about making a character along those lines?  The thing is that a class is all or nothing- you get the whole package or you get nada, zip, zero.  I mentioned above splitting weapons and spell-casting into different skills.  This way I can make a level 5 character who can swing a sword and cast a fireball like a level 5 fighter or wizard - but who can't shoot a bow or summon a monster at all (assuming a balanced skill point system).  Buy splitting the class into skills, which is the basis of class as what you can do, I can make myself good at one thing by being bad at another - and that is an interesting strategic decision.  By taking levels in multiple classes I just suck at everything.  Since this is my game and my character, I kind of figure I should be able to do whatever I want (within reason of course, again you take some sort of penalty or missed opportunity for your benefits).  Conflated classes make it easy to play that particular stereotype, but do not let you do anything outside that box (again, something key to old school play that is totally missing from old school character design).  I don't blame my friends for not wanting to ever play a paladin or cleric because those are very limited stereotypes with limited appeal, but I can describe or imagine one that might interest them (at the cost of having to make a custom/prestige/alternate class; and just how many classes can you track before your head explodes?).

    So now that I've ranted about why I don't like something, let me say how I'd fix it - or, at least, some of the basis of my own game, Travellers Beyond.
    First off, I like class as measuring what you can do, and that really means measuring skills.  I've created 5 classes: fighter, explorer, investigator, worker and talker.
  • Fighters, well, fight.  There's a reason that class has been around forever.  But fighter skills/abilities are broken down by the desired outcome for the fight: kill, cripple, incapacitate, subdue, and survive.  Kill abilities, well, kill things.  Cripple are the 'critical hits' that reduce the opponent's ability to act/fight (blind, deafen, dismember).  Incapacitate is like cripple but not as long-term or harsh: blocking a magic-user's ability to cast spells or disarming someone is incapacitating.  Subdue means to take someone alive, and includes grappling and entangling/paralysis.  While survive is meant to get you out of the fight in one piece, distractions, 'aid another' and reading an opponent's fighting style go here.
  • Explorers go places and see things.  Survival, trap disarming, finding secret doors, picking locks, navigation and transportation, carrying cargo, all of these are explorer things.
  • Investigators seek out information.  This is a class I'm having trouble with, because it is kinda conflated itself.  At the same time though it seems just different enough to possibly warrant its own class/abilities.  I may not keep this one (which is why TB is a work in progress).
  • Workers do work, they craft, heal, design, maintain.  A lot of these are 'downtime' activities, if you've got Ultimate Campaign.  Not always something you'd do in the adventure - though I'm trying to make a system where you could play as doctors investigating an outbreak of a new virus, or even just like the TV show House.
  • Talkers do all that interpersonal stuff.  They bluff, diplomacize, intimidate, etc.  The thing is, each person has a different personality and outlook, which sets the target numbers for using each different skill on them.  So you have to read the person and the feedback from your dice to see if what you're trying to do might work or if it will just make them storm off and stop talking to you.
    Those 5 classes cover the "what do you do" part, and also what do you want to do - that is, what kind of adventure do you want to play.  If everybody is a fighter, then you all want to fight things, and will likely become upset if I as GM throw a lot of political intrigue and talking at you.  If you're all explorers then you want to travel and see the world and get past all those traps and locks and find all those secret doors.  The classes tell the GM what sorts of things the players want to see from the adventure/campaign.

    Then we have hooks, and those are the "what you have" section.  There are 2 groups of hooks, Metaphysical and Special Item, and each group has 5 individual hooks.  On the Metaphysical side:
  • Extraordinary Abilities are special, innate powers.  This could be low-key/realistic meaning you are an Olympic athlete or Nobel Prize-winning scientist.  Or they could mean leaping tall buildings with a single bound and moving anything made of metal with your mind.  Because these are innate, they are hard for others to take away from you or block, but they also are hard to control.  When you're strong enough to carry a plane, you have to hold yourself back to shake someone's hand and not crush it.
  • Martial Arts covers training and study to be the best at something.  I have long been and am still debating re-naming this to Kung Fu.  Both have 'fighter' connotations, but kung fu was really about being excellent at anything, not just combat (and it is still used this way sometimes).  Training is not very spectacular, and it grows slowly, but is also very reliable.
  • Pattern Users are what we call magic.  Defining and categorizing them has been the biggest headache of the whole game design process.  "Magic" encompasses so very many different things.  This is part innate and part learned and totally dependent on the character and nature of the person using it.  I've discarded dozens of systems for this and have yet to find one I like.
  •  Split Beings are characters who have been changed from their original state.  A vampire is a split being, the human base and the vampire transformation, so is a werewolf.  But even the Hulk, normal Bruce Banner and Giant Green Rage Monster in one body, is a split being.  The Sorcerer from Pathfinder, a person with an arcane/magical heritage, is also one.
  • Allies & Influence covers when what a character has is a tie or relationship to another character or group.  Animal companions, familiars, henchmen, being a soldier or city guard - even up to King or Media Tycoon; all fall in this hook.  Here what you have is not your own power, but rather you can call upon the powers of others to assist you.
    All the Metaphysical hooks are focused on the character, even Allies & Influence is about the character's relationships, actions and obligations to others.  The Special Item hooks are all things outside the character:
  • Cybernetic Implants are foreign objects implanted or attached to the character to give new abilities.  The cyberpunk metal limbs and cranial computers go here, but so do magic tattoos and grafted demonic wings.  The trick is that these are not innate like Extraordinary Abilities, this is something different, and unnatural, which damages the self-image and psyche of the character.
  • Weapons & Equipment is pretty much self-explanatory.  You have stuff.  By tracking it as a hook we can measure how much stuff you have objectively.  But remember, things that are outside you can be taken or disabled the easiest.  Disarming a sword-wielding fighter is a lot easier that disarming a spell-casting fighter.
  • Vehicles & Constructs covers boats, powered combat suits, houses, secret lairs and even starships.  These are the really big items, the ones that carry/hold you.  That size and scope also limits them (Moria is not a place for horses, after all).
  • Fabrication & Harvesting is the newest hook I've added.  It just seems like something that needs to be a bit bigger than a skill.  Batman has the bat-belt that always carries a new and unusual item, for whatever class/skill/purpose he needs.  This one is really rough though, and I'm not sure about its future.
  • Hacking/Cracking is the last hook (bet you're glad for that) and its all about taking over other things.  The traditional element of this hook is the computer hacker, but even the D&D 3.5 Use Magic Device skill is a part of this, so is a non-Pattern User disabling magical traps (hacking magic).  Even time travel (hacking reality) and psychological warfare (hacking people) can go here, as well as secret identities (hacking organizations).
    Between these 10 hooks and sub-hooks you can define any ability that any character in a game, book or movie has.  Combined with the classes you get a good image of what that character can do and what the player wants to do.  A Pattern User--Investigator is like an oracle or diviner, while a Pattern User--Fighter is the traditional fireball-throwing catapult.  A Hacking/Cracking--Explorer is the trap-disarming character, while the Hacking/Cracking--Talker might be a mentalist or hypnotist.  Most characters will have two, even three hooks (4+ should be rare).  A D&D fighter has Martial Arts for training and Weapons & Equipment for stuff.  A D&D magic-user is a Pattern User, but also Fabrication & Harvesting for creating magic items, and likely is carrying some Weapons & Equipment as well.

    The last part are 'class as actions' like our thief.  Sadly for this one I do not have a neat list of stuff to show you.  I've been creating and discarding about as many psychology systems as magic systems and have yet to find one I like (for either).  This is such an important part, to me, of building a character - and yet is so darn hard to make a group of categories or classes that isn't overly-broad or too-specific.  Someday I hope to have an epiphany and find something I like for this.

    Well, that's my rundown of classes and why I don't like them, as well as what I'm trying to do for my own game.  Is this any help to anyone else, or even interesting enough to read?  I don't know.  I love game design, as challenging and headache-inducing as it is, so it fascinates me.  As always feel free to leave your own comment below.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Crazy RPG Idea: Skills as Cost & Handouts

    Here's a crazy idea, based off something bouncing around in my head.  I've been reading a lot of posts about skills, and how they can be a straight-jacket for creativity, stop players from engaging with the game, and make character creation take way too long.  Which I get, and I agree with (though I think a well-designed skill system is not as bad, look at Microlite20 and how you dynamically combine a short list of skills and attributes, kind of like Ars Magica's magic system - that I think (not being able to playtest it) would mitigate some of these issues).  But at the same time they do provide some benefits by being able to distinguish characters beyond class and set some objective limits and ranges on what a character is good at.  In thinking about it, I had a crazy idea that I want to run up the proverbial flagpole: what about active skills as cost and passive skills as handouts?
    For example, an active skill is Acrobatics, Climb, Swim, even Perception and Disable Device can be used this way.  You have a skill level, which we'll convert (how would depend on the system) to a die type.  Higher skill lower die type.  When you do something related to that skill you can automatically succeed, but it takes a number of turns/rounds/instert-your-timekeeping-system-here equal to what you roll on that die.  So, Bob the Barbarian has a low Perception, but he wants to search the evil necromancer's lair for loot, so he rolls his d12 and gets a 7.  It will take 7 turns/minutes to complete the search and turn up everything hidden in the room (assuming anything is there of course, if there isn't anything hidden then he just wasted the time) - now, the nice thing is the GM knows exactly how many 'wandering monster checks' to roll or if he wants to throw in a random encounter.  And if Timmie the Thief did the same thing, his higher skill would mean rolling a lower die, like a d6, for only maybe 1 or 2 minutes/checks.  That way there is an objective cost and the player can still fall back on the skill if he doesn't want to role-play the situation out.  Also, it sets something for the GM to use when the player is not the active element.  Here's an example, one of the things I wondered about a skill-less system is this: a player has upset some evil mage, said evil mage sends a thief to steal a lock of the player's hair (for casting evil spells upon the character).  With skills this is stealth-of-thief vs perception-of-character check.  Without skills this is tricky, because the character is not doing anything for the player to direct/describe - do you rail-road the player into not seeing it, or seeing it, or what?  With this system, maybe you could roll, and that is how many turn it takes to realize what happened, and thus how far back the character is for the ensuing pursuit?  I think a lot of things could work this way in a more impartial manner, while empowering characters to still do whatever they want.  I would actually say this is "off-screen" time vs role-playing which is "screen" time.  What do I mean?  Well, if you just want to roll your skill you take the time and the wandering monster checks.  But, if you role-play it out, tell me where and how you're searching, then magically no time will pass.  No wandering checks, no troubles - you'll trade your own personal effort for any additional complications.  That way if you want to dig in and really play something, great, you'll have fewer troubles.  But if you get stumped or lost, roll and take the hit of something happening (maybe goblins hear you banging around the secret door you couldn't figure out how to open and they open it to attack - now you've traded the searching you didn't want to do for the fight you may enjoy more).  This could even work with attributes.  The 18 Strength fighter needs d4 tries to break the door, while the wimpy Str 8 mage needs d12 attempts.
    The other part of the equation are the passive skills, things like Knowledge and Profession and even Survival in a way.  These are handouts.  Charles Ryan has an awesome post on his blog about "5 Things Everybody Knows" ( -don't have the exact page as I saved it to my hard drive) - basically giving your players 5 simple general things about the setting and elements in it.  Which is great, the characters live in this world after all, so they would know some things about it.  For the Knowledge skills though, what if that character got 6, 7, 10, or 15 extra things?  After all, that character knows a lot more, so why not represent that knowledge with a player handout?  This way the player gets the benefit of the skill at character creation, they can see into the world more, instead of rolling it reactivity at the table.  And if the payer took the knowledge skill then odds are they really do want to know more about the game world.  This is hampered by the fact that the books are open, and so something like "monster lore" is hard to give as a handout when your players have already memorized Monster Manuals 1-through-infinity.  You'd need to have custom monsters, or a more home-brew setting for this to work best.  You can also give ranges, another thing that might be fun.  Print off the page with a monster, but double-sided.  One side, that goes face down, has all the stats that you the GM refer too.  The other side has a bunch of blank lines.  For each point/so-many points of monster lore you fill in one line, player's choice (?), with a general descriptor.  For my Travellers Beyond game I use 5 Universal Ranks, mapped to a 1-20 system they are:
    Weak (Wk)            1-4
    Competent (Co)     5-8
    Strong (St)             9-12
    Exceptional (Ex)   13-16
    Legendary (Lg)     17-20
For Pathfinder-style ACs just subtract 10 and give the scales above (though AC inflation breaks this down pretty quick).  Attacks use the scale for the monster's BAB (since there are a ton of fiddly numbers that inflate that too).  Special attacks/abilities could just be the title/name of the ability without the mechanics.  So this way, your players see blank monsters that fill in as they adventure and you still have access to all the numbers you need (at the cost of a bunch of lose papers instead of a neatly-bound book and extra prep time).  You can also make all sorts of variant and custom monsters to mess with you player's heads.  Other passive skills like Profession could be a list of related facts.  So a Profession: Mercernary gets a list of Merc groups in the area, Soldiers get descriptions of the local armies.  Merchants might get a breakdown of what trade goods are most saught after by the neighboring cities (for planning your next trade caravan).  Even Survival could work this way, give the players a crude hand-drawn map of only the biggest things/cities in the area, and give the Survival guy an actual hex map with a few points of interest.
    Some skills are still hard to use even with these modifications.  Craft is always a tough one.  I personally always make at least one crafter, just because I hate random treasure drops and want to be able to get the items my character needs instead of having the gods of the dice drop something too weak or even too powerful.  We had a level 6 group that ended up rolling incredibly well for a staff of healing (of some kind, it did the actual Heal spell), which I felt would imbalance everything so I put it in the closet and forgot about it until level 12 (and we got by fine with potions and the clerics).  Craft lets me get the items I actually want instead of random stuff.  It takes up the focus of a whole character though, and I'm not sure how to make it more generally applicable.  Appraise is another tough one.  I'm sure I could think of lots more, and I'm just using the Pathfinder skill list, other games have way, way more skills to work on.
    Anyways, so this was my idea for how to make skills more useful.  Different systems may or may not be able to modify something like this, games like GURPS are just so dependent on skills you have to use them as-is (though those players most likely have no problems with tons of skill lists, so don't need this either).  More "old-school" D&D-styled games might benefit from this type of system as a middle-ground of player and character skill.  This idea came from several places, and I mentioned Charles Ryan above, but let me throw a few links at you.  First, the Hack & Slash blog is the ultimate source for an in-depth look at skills: the link goes to the last post in a series, which has links to the others.  Ars Ludi has a good post on "Don't Roll, Think" ( ).  And The Dragon's Flagon talks about "Why I Scrapped Skills" ( ).  All of these are great blogs to poke around, if you are a D&D-type player or not (always good to check out other systems IMHO).  As always, feel free to leave a comment below.

The Homeless Nerd Reviews: The Wolverine

At a glance- troubled superhero fights great odds and finds love and self-acceptance

What is it?   With X-Men: Days of Future Past coming out next year, and all the success of Marvel movies, apparently we need something to revitalize interest in the X-Men franchise.  This movie takes place after X-Men 3, which is an odd choice on several levels.  First, X-Men 3 was a pretty bad movie, and it would have been better to take the Highlander route and pretend it never happened (I kid Highlander, but I actually like the series, 'nother post though).  Also, in the comic books Wolverine went to Japan before he ever met the X-Men.  Still, we get to see more of everyone's favorite angry mutant (though he's written more as perturbed, or grouchy, and only gets angry when he screams apparently - not like the comic character).

The acting-   I have always thought Hugh Jackman has done a fine job as Wolverine.  Mind you, this is Wolverine the movie character, not Wolverine the comic character.  Comic Wolverine is short, the shortest character on the X-Men team (except perhaps Jubilee, who is a teenage girl).  Comic Wolverine is also angry, like really angry, like old Norse Berserker angry - scenes with him tend to use a lot of red ink.  I can see where nobody in movies likes to be short (look at how Tom Cruise is always filmed as taller than he really is)(not that I'm saying Mr. Jackman is short, from what I gather he isn't, rather why they didn't hire a shorter actor) and to keep the series PG-ish you have to tone down the violence (though, why use such an inherently violent character then?)  So for what he was given, I think he does a good job.  I do not remember ever seeing the leading ladies of the story, they do okay.  Mariko (Tao Okamoto) and her friend Yukio (Rila Fukushima) are watchable but evil-poison-doctor lady (Svetlana Khodchenkova) is like a bad over-the-top Jim Carry villain, not the actress' fault but rather the writer's.  Psycho-dad (Hiroyuki Sanada) might have been interesting if he actually got enough screen time for me to care, and old guy (Hal Yamanouchi), well, is there (again, I didn't like the writing for him).

The story-   We start off with our hero in the Alaskan wilderness, dreaming of Jean Grey, whom he had to kill in X-Men 3 because she went crazy and was trying to wipe out humanity.  Traumatized by what he did, he lives alone like an animal, away from all human contact.  This was the first part of the story that I didn't like.  I hate the, well, wimpification  (if I can make up a word here) of all my favorite superheroes.  Batman goes all waa-waa whiny and hides for 8 years, now Wolverine goes all waa-waa whiny because he saved the world but had to kill a woman that he loved, while she was involved with another man (whom she killed).  I can understand pain and loss, sure, what I hate though is when heroic characters have to be reduced to "mere mortals" in some misguided attempt to make them more likable.  I don't want them to be likable, I want them to be heroes.  Heroes go on, they endure, they may hate themselves but they don't wimp out and hide in a corner - that what mere mortals like me do, and I can see my own life anytime I want.  Plus, to me, from reading the comics, Wolverine doesn't get sad as much as he got angry- I could easily and happily see a tormented Wolverine going out and beating the hell out of every bad person he could find; that would seem much more appropriate to the character.
    We also have a flashback to Japan during World War 2 where Wolverine was imprisoned as a POW or something, apparently right across the street from Nagasaki.  Okay, I get that Wolverine has super-healing and dropping a nuclear bomb in his vicinity is just an inconvenience - but the fact that he had a regular human with him totally ruined that scene.  My. Normal Guy is dead, dead, dead from breathing in all that radiation dust even if he somehow survives the explosion itself (and note to Hollywood, explosions expand to fill all available space (the "mushroom cloud" itself is because the pressure wave going down rebounds off the ground and then goes up taking dirt and debris with it), being down or to the side or behind something doesn't help at all if you are too close to the blast).  So a mysterious young lady tracks down our Mr. Fussypants hero and says the guy he saved in Japan is dying and wants to give our hero a final gift.
    So Wolvie goes to Japan.  The bath scene was actually my favorite moment of the whole movie.  Finally he meets with old guy.  Old guy says he can 'cure' Wolverine and make him mortal again, free him from the curse of eternal life.  And here was another moment when I saw my character going, 'screw you bub' because while he always fought and struggled with his own nature, comic Wolverine never gave it up.  He was the best at what he did, and took pride in that, and went to Japan, in comics, to try to harness and control his endless rage so he would be better at killing the things he wanted to kill.  Movie Wolverine also turns down the offer, but not as dramatically as I'd liked to have seen.  Of course, things get complicated.  Old guy dies and his daughter is attacked at the funeral, and Wolverine rushes in to help her - only, he discovers he is not healing as fast as he should be.  Oh no, he's losing his powers.  Really?  Again, the whole point of a super-hero is that they have super-powers, you can't really separate one from the other, but I already ranted about my disdain for the mere-mortal/super-hero thing above, so I'll let it go.  I will say that the fight on top of the bullet train was cool, it was a nice little twist on the typical train fight sequence.
    Alone at last with the girl, old guy's grand-daughter, Wolvie gets in touch with his softer side.  She's heard stories about him all her life from old guy, so she's a little infatuated with him.  They run, they hide, she gets kidnapped (come on, like you didn't see that coming even from my terse description).  Wolvie finds out evil doctor lady put a thing in his heart that is techno-magically stopping his healing factor (said healing factor being the thing that spits out bullets when he gets shot, no, no, won't go there).  Which actually leads to one of the other few good scenes, Wolvie cuts open his own chest and pulls out the thingie - which is a totally-hard-core Wolverine kind of thing to do.
    Then we have our climax.  Minor spoiler alert here (though I'll talk around it), you might want to skip to 'My Recommendation' if you haven't seen the movie.  Last chance.  Okay, so we see the Silver Samurai, which I actually liked as a giant robot instead of a person, I thought it was one of the few changes from the comic original that was for the better.  SS-bot is coated in adamantium, the indestrictable metal that also coats Wolvie's bones and claws.  Inside is the evil mastermind of this whole overly-long affair, which was a big mistake.  It should have been Mariko inside.  Really, if the whole sub/co-plot is how Wolvie is tormented about killing the woman-he-loved-from-afar, then having his new love, Mariko, inside the bot (which would be remotely piloted or something) would have made a hell of a lot more sense.  It would have been dramatic.  And, if SS-bot is adamantium  and heats up hot enough to cut through adamantium , then a) adamantium isn't really indestructible like we were told and b) it would melt itself into a fairly harmless little puddle !!!  Finally, the ending dream sequence with Jean is totally stupid.  She asks why Wolvie killed her, he says she was hurting other people, and then she leaves presumably never to torment his dreams again - well no duh stupid, that's why you did it in the first place!  He didn't kill her for fun, or because he was tricked, he did it because he had to and our 'revelation' here is nothing new or surprising.

My recommendation-   if you like the character, catch the cheap show (and be ready to cringe) - otherwise you can miss it and be just fine (go rent X-Men: First Class instead, it was actually pretty good)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Magic Systems in Role-Playing Games, or, Why I Rarely Play My Favorite Character

    Eric Treasure over at The Dragon's Flagon recently had a post titled, "How old school D&D gets magic (mostly) right." (on a quick side note, I don't know how I got into reading so many "old school" blogs when I myself am really a "newer school" player)  In addition to his post, I've been combing over a lot of blogs for role-playing opinions and ideas and suddenly I felt the need to weigh in on magic (as if enough people haven't).
    I'm going to start however, being me, in a very round-about fashion and tell you about my favorite character, in fact, one of my favorite characters ever, and then later I'll explain why I hate playing him.

    Thorvin Wolfensson is the bright, gifted only son of minor nobles in the trade city of Riverwatch.  As a child he would often travel with his father, head of the Metalsmith's Guild, and being both very outgoing and un-restrainably curious would ask the smiths many questions.  On day he met a smith wearing a strange pendant, a tree with a smithing hammer growing downwards from the trunk.  The smith told Thorvin it was the holy symbol of Hesphaesus, the Great Maker.  Hesphaesus was also commonly called the Silent God for he had few worshippers, and yet he was integral to all the Gods.  He created the world, at the behest of the other Gods, as well as all life on it.  He also created all sorts of weapons, armor, and items for the Gods themselves and special gifts for those mortals favored by the Gods (the first magic items).  Fascinated, Thorvin would begin attending the small meetings of the worshippers of Hesphaesus (which his parents were neutral about) and he also began learning crafting (which his parents were thrilled about), at first metalsmithing and then driven by his endless desire to learn, every other craft he could get someone to show him.
    In his teens, Thorvin's latent magical gift developed.  After a terrible sickness he began moving objects and producing lights uncontrollably.  The head of the Wizard's Guild, out of respect to Thorvin's father, personally tested the young man and said that his gift was very strong despite having developed late.  Thorvin thus entered the Novice training at the Tower of Wizardry.  It was here, while meditating one day, that Thorvin's life truly changed.  While seeking in his mind for the flows of his power, an exercise to begin learning how to shape spells, Thorvin saw his magic as coming from his life-force itself - and suddenly he remembered the teachings of Hesphaesus.  In a flash he saw the Great Maker as not only making physical things, but as shaping the very fabric of reality itself, and Thorvin saw his magic as a gift from Hesphaesus, a way to also create, as the God did.  This revelation opened a door in Thorvin's mind, and he felt himself drawn outside his body, beyond the Material Plane to the very forge of Hesphaesus himself.  Thorvin would never speak of what exactly happened in his vision, but he felt himself chosen to be a priest of the Silent God, to build and make and shape, and to use his gifts, magical and mundane, to help all living things.
    Upon discovering his dual abilities of arcane and divine magic, Thorvin was moved out of regular classes and into a special dual-apprenticeship with the Tower and the Radiant Church, who worshiped seven primary Gods but welcomed all peaceful faiths.  Growing quickly in power, Thorvin made a name for himself with his unusual (though not unheard-of) abilities.  And, as a son of the nobility, he spent all his free time at parties, dances, banquets and generally socializing.  Being very intelligent Thorvin easily remembered every detail of the people he met, his curiosity meant he would happily talk the ears off anyone, asking them questions about themselves and their profession, and he had an easy-going charm that naturally drew people to him.  His faith in the Great Maker led him back to crafting, as a way to bridge his public life from his family and station with his private life of the arcane and divine.  Thorvin learned quickly to blend his magics with his crafting to produce stunning pieces quickly, and would give them as gifts or make them for a specific person.  This sent him back often to the blacksmith who first introduced Thorvin to Hesphaesus.
    After a longer-than-usual apprenticeship, given all the directions he was being pulled in, he graduated from the Tower, was Invested as a priest of Hesphaesus, and then called for a special meeting with the Mayor of Riverwatch.  Thorvin was told that a previously unknown army of Drow had been mobilizing and that there were signs they were using or associated with some type of extra-planar entities.  Given his unique perspective as both arcane and divine spellcaster, the Mayor asked him to join a small, elite group of adventurers who had discovered the Drow and were investigating further.  Eager to be of service, Thorvin readily agreed and began using his varied spellcasting ability to support his new comrades, who would quickly become his new friends.

    And that is Thorvin, my Cleric 3/Wizard 3/Mystic Theurge 6 character for Pathfinder, and one of my favorite characters ever.  He is the kind of magic character I like best, the Archmage, a true master of magic.  I'll grant you that the fighter/mage hybrid is fun, made lots of them, and the hard to play fighter/magic-user/thief is also fun for the pure jack of all trades type character.  But if you're going to do magic why not go all the way?
    The funny thing is, Thorvin almost didn't get made in the first place.  To help explain that, you need to know a little about the DnD/Pathfinder magic system, which I will briefly describe in case you don't know.  Spells are given levels, from the weakest at 0 to the reality-bending, world-shaking strongest at 9.  Every magic using character has a certain number of slots for each level, each slot holds one spell.  So, say you have a typical 5th level Wizard with no bonuses.  You would have 3 slots for 1st level spells, 2 slots for 2nd level spells and 1 slot for a 3rd level spell (I'm skipping the 0th level because they are wonky) - in total you would be able to cast (3+2+1) 6 spells in a single day.  In the morning you memorize your spells, and have to pick a spell for each slot.  Those are the only spells you have access to for the entire day (which is why Thorvin almost didn't get made, splitting between two spellcasting types meant he would have very few spells and they would all be low level - until I found that you could make an item to hold spells, and sunk every gold piece into it; Thorvin currently has over 50 spells per day, and even lower-level spells work fine if you cast enough of them).  When you cast a spell, you 'forget' it, it is gone and you cannot re-fill that slot until the next morning when you read it out of your spellbook.  This is the system called Vancian magic, named after the author Jack Vance who used something very much like it in his series of Dying Earth stories.
    Vancian magic has been a part of Dungeons and Dragons since the very beginning.  A humble level 1 Wizard (or Magic-user) knew a single, humble level 1 spell.  So the party would go out, find trouble, the Wizard would cast his spell (holding it until absolutely needed), and then putter around in the background.  He'd hold the torches, bind the wounds of anybody who went down in combat (this was before the Heal skill), draw the map, and generally do those things that are helpful to the other characters but boring as hell to play.  Which character would you rather play, Batman or Alfred?  As the Wizard leveled up he would find scrolls (one-shot spells) and wands (one spell with 50 shots) and thus would be more useful.  He would get a few more spell slots, though having to choose them before you knew what spell you needed limited their effectiveness.  It was better to rely on items to do the casting more than one's own, innate ability.
    Which, well, is exactly how Jack Vance set up the system, at least that's what I gathered from reading his stories.  The Dying Earth stories are actually techno-fantasy.  In Vance's world there are computers (well, brains in jars) and flying machines and such alongside the spells that can be cast then forgotten.  Both share the same underpinning, they are forgotten.  No one remembers how to use the technology (an entire city lives in thrall to its machines in one story) just like wizards forget their spells.  Most of the books of spells are gone, only one great wizard has a huge library of spells - and he lives on another planet/dimension.  It is, well, a dying world, slipping into barbarism and forgetting its once-great glories.  That was the world he wanted to create, both incredibly powerful and kind of pathetic.  More dystopian than high fantasy.  So how on earth did this system end up in the high fantasy role-playing game of D&D?
    Honestly, I have no idea.  I am not a scholar of D&D, I started playing with the Red Box (so called because it was a red box, it had a red dragon and barbarian or fighter on the cover) and continued through 3.5 (I skipped 4th edition and went to Pathfinder).  My only guess is based on something Mr. Treasure mentioned in his post that I referenced at the beginning of my own now overly-long (and still growing) post.  I want to quote a few parts of his post to comment on:

    I think it's fairly self-evident that in a game, magic must be limited and restrained somehow.  It's all well and good in a novel or a movie to have a magic-wielder manifest powers as the plot demands, but a game requires clearly comprehensible limitations.  Unlimited use of automatically successful abilities makes for overpowered characters and boring games.  The tension and excitement of the game comes from uncertainty, which is accomplished in several different ways.  The most obvious one is randomness, a recourse to the dice to decide the success or failure of an action.  Another source of uncertainty is the asymmetry of knowledge between DM and players.  The players don't know what's behind the next door or inside that locked chest until they interact with it in-game, and the DM can never be completely sure what the players will do. Asymmetry of knowledge also generates uncertainty in the management of finite resources.  The utility of using a resource now must always be weighed against possible future need.  A flask of oil might be just the thing against that owlbear, but will you live to regret it when your lantern gutters out three dungeon levels below the surface?  Different methods of introducing uncertainty to an adventure encourage different strategies of coping with the uncertainty, which ultimately is one of the most important factors distinguishing one character class from another.
    ...Making magic a limited resource allows it to function very differently from mundane skills.  Spells often allow automatic success, but you only have a limited number of them per day, so you must be judicious in deciding when to use them and when to rely on less certain but unlimited means.  Using magic to solve problems becomes more than a question of flavor; it's instead a choice between the uncertainty of the dice and the uncertainty of finite resources against an unknown future.

    I think he hit the nail on the head here.  D&D started from wargames, and making tactical choices about when to use a resource is kind of a staple of wargaming.  Thus, the Vancian system works on a mechanical level.  It is a powerful yet finite resource, and it is capable of doing things that nothing else can (have to cast a spell to fly or teleport) which works the 'dissimilar assets' and 'resource management' paradigms of tactics.  You also have to 'maneuver' by keeping your wizard in the back, safe from harm, to have him when you need him to unleash his abilities - and then keep him safe in the back again until tomorrow.  From a mechanics standpoint, consciously or not, I think the designers and players of D&D realized that Vancian magic worked for the wargame/role-playing hybrid that this, then brand-new, game was blazing a trail creating.
    Except, well, this isn't a wargame, D&D is a role-playing game, and that means thinking beyond mechanics.  Let's try a little role-playing.  You are Derf, the mighty man-at-arms.  Your powerful thews, sharp sword and strong armor are good against almost anything.  You can take a licking and keep on ticking.  As you are at the inn having your last drink before setting out on your grand adventure, someone walks up to you.  He is scrawny, pale white from not getting enough sun, squinty-eyed from always reading by candle-light and wearing pajamas.  He introduces himself as a wizard who is also looking for adventure.  He offers to go with you, helping you in exchange for some of the loot.  He can cast spells, well, a spell, a sleep spell, so he can put something to sleep, well, something not too strong; a goblin, sure, orc maybe, dragon forget it - and not any undead or animated statues or plants, things that don't sleep in the first place.  Oh yeah, no elves either, they don't sleep they just 'rest their eyes.'  He has a dagger, about the size of the one you eat with.  He can read and write and stuff, carry your cloak (but not much else, scrawny remember).  He wants to grow in power so that someday he can fly over walls, teleport into bedrooms, wish himself immortal, disintegrate everything that stands in his way and create his own plane of reality.
    And you think to yourself, this isn't a companion, this is a baby megalomaniac who might someday destroy the world.
    So you take him out back, beat the hell out of him, and tell him that for his own good you're locking up his spellbook and will let him read it if he behaves.  You're bigger than he is, so you can get away with it.  But, well, this spellbook thing is basically a weapon of mass destruction with illustrations and coffee stains, so you get a few of your buddies.  You overpower the wizards (just go after the young/weak ones first, mob the medium ones, and put "do not disturb" signs around the old ones) and take all their books, locking them up in safekeeping.  Still, they might be useful so you let them go with you as long as they also behave.  Speaking of books, this whole 'writing' thing looks dangerous, better do something about that.  Maybe if you get the clerics on your side you can outlaw writing, let the clerics handle it (and they can edit things as needed even) and just tell people what to do.  Anyone who disobeys you, you sick your pet wizards on (who will be glad to actually be able to cast their spell).  Now you can set up a utopian society where everybody does what they're told and no new, scary things could be invented that might destroy reality (and suddenly you're playing Dragon Age :).
    At least, that would be a hell of a lot smarter thing to do than actually take this guy out and help him get the keys to ultimate power.

    Mr. Treasure, in his post quoted above, makes a great point about magic being able to do whatever the plot demands.  Which makes me wonder, what do we use magic for anyways?  Why do so many stories, and even the fantasy genera, have magic?  What is magic exactly?
    My dictionary has magic as, "Any art that invokes supernatural powers," which I think gets our salient point: the supernatural.  Magic is not natural, it is super-natural.  Well, what does that mean?  Sure, magic users are powerful, but so is nature.  A lightning bolt sets off a wildfire that destroys hundreds of thousands of acres of forest.  A hurricane flattens anything in its path, so does a volcano erupting.  Even the humble river slowly carves out the Grand Canyon.  And magic users have access to a wide variety of spells, but so does nature.  Animals fly, swim, burrow, live next-door to underwater volcanoes.  They communicate over vast distances, have built-in compasses, see by hearing and in the dark.  Some crazy animals even build cities and shopping marts.  What really sets apart magic from nature?
    Well, in my opinion, one thing: caring.  See, nature doesn't care about you, or anything or anybody.  Nature is.  That wildfire wasn't personal, the hurricane didn't single you out for retribution, and the shark doesn't ever say to itself, "awww.... that baby seal is so darn cute I can't eat it."  Nature doesn't care.  On the other hand, if you find yourself on the receiving end of a fireball spell, you can bet there is a very unhappy wizard on the delivering end.  Happy wizards heal you, neutral wizards disarm you, and angry wizards disintegrate you and the city you happen to be standing in.  They care.  The great power of magic is simply to impose one's inner state on external reality.  One of my favorite literary wizards is Harry Dresden, from Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series of novels.  There is a scene, and I don't have the book with me so I'm paraphrasing out of memory, when Harry doesn't cast a spell.  See, he had just been in a fight with a magically-enchanted scorpion - said fight ending with him dropping an elevator on said scorpion; and oh yeah, he was in the elevator at the time.  All while trying to protect the non-magical police officer Karrin Murphy, his friend, who was trying to arrest him (over a misunderstanding).  It was not a good day.  Harry is outside the building, Karrin is being taken to the hospital (scorpion), and he decides to go after the evil wizard who created the scorpion.  But he forgot his staff, it is inside the building.  He doesn't have time to run up the stairs and back down (no elevator, currently) so he thinks about casting a simple spell of Air to bring to staff to him.  But he doesn't.  He doesn't because he is so keyed-up and angry that he knows his simple spell will likely take out half the building with the power/force/rage of the winds he would summon.  So he heads out to do battle without his staff.  I love that passage because it, to me, is the heart of being a wizard.  It's not about the fancy tricks, or even the power, it's about yourself.  Magic is your own nature given life and form in the outside world.

    This is why I love magic but hate playing it in a game.  Game wizards are just mechanics, walking catapults with lists of creative ways to kill things.  They have some flavor, a little color, but really they do not have the one key element: caring.  Their power does not come from their character, because we play role-playing games and not character-playing games.  Well, most at least.  There are some games like Sorcerer or My Life With Master or similar that actually have mechanics for how a character's nature effects their abilities.  But they are in the minority.  If you like Pathfinder, as I do, you just accept that your magic is not really very magical.  You role-play it the best you can, in-spite-of and not because-of the rules.  In part that is unavoidable, nobody has come up with a good system to even describe how people feel/behave - just search Wikipedia for "categorization of emotions" and you'll find lots of different systems with anywhere from 6 to 48 emotions and complex inter-relationships.  Without a decent understanding in the real world, how can we model it in a game?  So I do not say this to put down any existing systems, but it is a sad lack in gaming for those of us who like magic-users.

    Anyways, a few last comments and I'll wrap this up.  Mechanically my favorite system is actually in Microlite20, that is 3.5-based and wizards spend hit points to cast spells.  So a fighter risks getting hit, but his armor might protect him, in order to do damage.  A wizard will guaranteed do damage (mostly) but also guaranteed take damage from casting.  It makes a nice symmetry.  I would love to try it with my own Pathfinder group if I could get all of us to experiment with it (and, well, get all of us in the same city - we live in the same state, different cities).  For my own game, Travellers Beyond, I am trying to design a system of magic that is along the lines of 'caring'-based, but can attest that it is a very difficult thing to pull off.  Meanwhile, I take out Thorvin from time to time and read lots of interesting posts on magic and magic-users.