Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Yet Another Project - Everything as combat

    I haven't been posting as much as I'd like, after hitting a bit of a slump now a new idea has taken hold of me.  Since the dawn of RPGs we've been discussing the different between the detail of combat and non-combat systems.  Recently though I've wondered, what if everything really did look, and mechanically act, like combat?  This is a very big topic, that requires first understanding combat and then its framework and then porting said framework to non-combat activities.  I'm currently working on 7 posts, and they are really just the tip of the iceberg.  I'm not sure if this is going to be a very good idea, honestly I'm working on it because I don't know - I have to see it on paper (so to speak) to be able to judge its utility.  I am not going to try to get the whole system done before posting it, that would be a long wait, but I'm trying to get the first section, about combat itself, finished to post while I work on stretching it to everything else.  I hope to have something soon, and for any regular readers I apologize for the slowdown recently.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Master Of Orion 2 - Possibly the best game ever

    I never did play the first Mater Of Orion, and I only played the third one once - it did not impress me.  However, Master Of Orion 2 is a game I have played off and on for I don't know how many years.  It, along with Starcraft and Diablo 2 and others, are games I have cherished and periodically returned to, despite all the newer and prettier games I've played since.
    For anyone who might not know the game, a quick rundown.  MOO2 is a 4X game, that is, explore, expand, exterminate and something I can't remember.  You start with one little planet in a big, less than friendly galaxy.  You have several options for victory.  You can get elected as president of the galaxy, or you can wipe out to the last being (and/or enslave) every other race in the galaxy.  Or you can fight the dreaded Antarans, a very unfriendly race that lives in another dimension and pops out occasionally to attack anything in sight.  To win, by whatever means, you have to produce food for each colony, research and build technology, juggle colonizing new planets while supporting and protecting the ones you own.  You have some basic diplomacy (mostly placate your enemies to keep them from attacking until you're ready to crush them later).  There is a lot of mouse-clicking, oh goodness is there a lot of mouse-clicking.  Pouring over menus and trees and buttons to micro-manage your colonies only gets harder and harder as the game progresses.
    For the second time now I've achieved my goal of populating the entire galaxy.  That's been my own, unofficial victory condition.  Every planet has a size, limiting how many people can live on it, and a terrain type.  Barren worlds are like the moon, airless.  Terran worlds are like Earth, while Ocean and Arid worlds are wetter or dryer respectively.  Radiated worlds are like Barren but they also get hit with radiation that makes maintaining your colony more expensive, though you can research a radiation shield that turns them into just Barren.  The type of planetary terrain can be improved through Terraforming, which is a semi-difficult research project.  Terraforming moves any world from Barren one step closer to Terran.  Then, a much bigger research project allows Gaia Transformation, which turns the planet into a veritable garden of eden.  But then there are the Toxic worlds, which you can't do anything with.  Oddly, Toxic is the only type that cannot be improved, no Terraforming, no Gaia, nothing.  Some time back, when I was playing more often, I got the idea in my head to turn every planet into a Gaia paradise.  You can also turn Gas Giants and Asteroid Belts into Barren planets, so I decided to do that too.  Every world must be perfect and fully populated, that was going to be my own victory condition.  I ignored the Toxic worlds since I couldn't do anything with them (you can colonize them, but barely).  It takes a really long time during which you have to fend off, and eventually defeat, any other races plus weather the Antaran attacks (which become negligible late-game).  Mostly, you have to micro-manage a whole heck of a lot of colonies, setting up each one just right to be self-supporting and armed to the teeth.
    For some reason I decided to play it again.  Amazingly it works fine on my Windows 8 laptop (it's a Win95 game, am I dating myself or what?).  I always make a custom race.  You can build a race by spending points, taking some disadvantages gives you more advantages.  For disadvantages I took reduced farming, and penalties to spying, ground combat and ship defense/offense.  Farming is a big deal at the beginning of the game, but it's pretty easy to research tech that lets 4 farmers feed 42 people (mind you, each "person" is 1,000,000 individuals).  Ground combat is something that never happens to me, I arm my colonies with the most advanced weapons so few ships survive trying to land - plus I can off-set this with another advantage and build it up with technology.  Spying is another that can be off-set or built up easy enough, and I play with few enemies so I can make my own spies to counter theirs before we meet.  Ship combat is a negligible penalty, it's really easy to build advanced targeting computers that hit anything you want, or just build more ships than the other guy can field.  For advantages I always take Creative, I've never played the game without it actually.  MOO2 has a pretty big research tree, and normally you only get to select a few things to invent/develop.  With Creative however, you get everything - and while investing in technology is slow, by the end of the game it makes you very, very powerful.  I also always take Subterranean, it lets you have more people on every planet, since your race lives partially below-ground; it also off-sets the ground combat penalty.  That leaves enough points for one more advantage, and it varies every time I play.  Telepathic is nice, you can mind-control enemy colonies and instantly take them over, and it gives a bonus to spying that off-sets the penalty I take.  Cybernetic lets you eat only half as much food, the other half comes from your production/industry, which helps off-set the farming penalty, though its mostly just useful at the start of the game.  Omniscient lets you see every planet without having to fly a ship to it, and it makes it a lot easier to plan how you want to grow for the future.  Which I take depends on my mood, I went Cybernetic for this last game (plus something else).
    For this last game I fudged a bit, I made the game as favorable as possible.  While there is a difficulty setting, and I always play Hard (the Impossible level is aptly named), the biggest challenge is how many races are in the game.  I set it at only 2, so me and one AI opponent.  That is very favorable for a Creative race, since it takes a long time to meet the other guy I was able to build up my tech tree much higher than he did.  Also, my opponent turned out to be the Bulrathi, who are great ground combat fighters, but his ships were pathetic and had no chance of getting past my colony's defenses.  You can see every star, but not the planets in that system until you fly there.  Some systems however, the ones with the biggest and best planets of course, are 'protected' by space monsters.  Crystals, dragons, worms, amoebas - all kinds of mean critters who like to munch on starships.  But a long time ago I read a little hint that has worked great.  Normally you would wait until you could build a bigger and better ship to fight the space monsters, but there is a way to do it with just a few little ships.  You can arm your ships with missiles, and they have a certain number of shots.  But if you take only 2 shots, you can buy the MIRV advantage, where each missle carries 4 warheads - thus doing 8 shots worth of damage in only 2.  Turns out almost no monster can survive being hit by 5 of these ships (destroyers, each with 6 of these missiles, so a grand total of 240 missiles worth of damage) and they are very easy to make.  That's not really a cheat, just the most efficent way to get to the best planets.
    So after 695 turns I had colonized the entire galaxy (except the nasty toxic planets) with a total population of 3,976 (the largest planet had only 42, I didn't count exactly how many planets I had colonized).  Each planet was a paradise, fully built and equipped with protective armaments, heavy industry, scientific research, more food than anybody could eat, and zero taxes.  I am a benevolent dictator.  I wiped out the Antarans in a fairly tough fight, but I only took 12 ships against them, and not the biggest I could build, just to have a bit of a challenge.  I could have easily flown 20 Doom Stars with Stellar Converters (read: Death Stars) and wiped the floor with them in half the time, but that wouldn't have been as interesting.  I shudder to think of how many hours I played in real time, but it did only take 3 days (which I did do other stuff in).  And while this was the second time I've colonized the entire galaxy, I've played this game more times and years that I can count.  It's just so much fun.  I've never been able to find another game like it that I've enjoyed as much, though for some time now I've been focusing on free games and this style is pretty complicated for an indie developer.  There is a Free Orion, that re-created MOO, but it does not like my computer (think I need to try updating my video drivers, and so far I've had other things to do the limited time I have with the library's internet).  Still, this is a good reminder that super cool graphics are not the end-all be-all of a fun computer game.  I have a few old DOS and early Windows games that I still like to play.  Star Craft, Diablo 2, Wasteland, Planet's Edge, Knights of the Old Republic 1 and 2 are way more fun than their MMO counterpart, IMHO.
    Anyways, just a note of affection for an old game, one that I'll no doubt be playing even more years from now.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Strange Mechanics: Success & Effect & Location

    I think it was the old Top Secret/SI game that had a mechanic I liked.  You rolled percentile for success, and the ones die was your hit location.  The torso was 0 and the head was 9, so the only way to hit the head was to roll kind of high and yet still under your skill total, which made it fairly tricky.  I have always liked this system (though only played the game a few times, way back when) since it combined the hit location with the success roll.  For some reason, recently, I have been thinking about it again and wondering if you could add the effect as well.
    So, you have a 50% skill for attacking someone.  You roll.  Anything over 50 is a miss.  Anything under/equal to 50 you look at both dice.  The ones die is your hit location (0-4 torso, 5-6 right arm, 7-8 left arm, 9 head - for melee, which focuses on the upper body).  The tens die is your base damage (so from 0 to 5 max, since your max skill is 50), add your weapon's damage modifier on a hit.  I'm also thinking instead of exact location, you could just use coverage in general.  So maybe everybody/thing who takes critical hits (after all, a wall doesn't really care where you hit it at) takes a critical on a 5-9.  But someone wearing a half suit of armor reduces that to 7-9, and a full suit is just 9 only.  This lets the GM choose where to make the hit land depending on the circumstances of the fight instead of looking up a table.
    There are two ways I'd modify this.  Some things alter your base skill and some things alter your actual roll.  Most modifiers would be to skill, increasing or decreasing your skill level that you have to roll equal/under.  So, close range might be +20% while high wind might be -10%.  Simple.  But, some things would modify your roll, that is, the number you use off the dice.  So someone who is vulnerable to your weapon (silver, fire, whatever) might be a +5, or, add five to your tens die for damage.  An aimed shot might be +3, adding three to your ones die for hit location (or maybe just letting you move it by three points towards wherever you were aiming, depending on general or specific locations).

    This gives you three different measures off of just one roll.  Which has a nice feel to it, in theory.
    The thing is, the more I play with math and different resolution systems the more I wonder if percentile isn't just a better option.  Having the odds out there explicitly seems nicer than making the player do mental mathematical gymnastics to decide their chance of success.   Granted, I do like the bell curve, and the Fate-like systems that go +/- your base skill, they do give an intuitive feel for where you generally stand (since it's what's on your character sheet).  But I keep wondering if a simple percent-based system might be the easiest to understand and use, and if you could also get some extra information out of it, like with this system, it sounds even better.  I don't know, just something bouncing around my head.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Trying To Make Sense Of Alignment

    As a part of my work on streamlining the Pathfinder/d20 system, I have had to ask myself if I want to keep the alignment system, modify it, or drop it.  I'm not a fan of alignment in general.  I like the idea, but it seems too broad to really be useful, and all the spells and abilities that are tied to it opens up a can of worms.  Having a "holy" sword that is "good" sounds nice - but how does a holy weapon to a deity of nature respond to a good-aligned cleric of artifice?  You would think that despite both being essentially "good" they would still not get along.  That's just something true about life - we can see another person as being good, but still disagree or even fight with them.  Now, adding the second axis of law-chaos helps a little, so maybe the nature item is chaotic while the artifice is lawful, but that doesn't help enough.  The problem is that so many things get filed under one general heading.
    I was reading through Ultimate Campaign, looking at the alignment section in there, and I noticed something.  That book gives a list of core concepts for each alignment, and I saw that sometimes the same thing appeared on different alignments.  For example, the concept of "freedom" appears in chaotic good and chaotic neutral.  But that made me wonder, maybe the system was backwards?  Instead of the alignment as a top-level group with concepts under them, maybe instead it should be looked at as core concepts and how each alignment views them?  So I though I'd try to work a short, trial list of core concepts, and how each alignment would view them:

So, take Freedom.  The big question is, what does freedom mean to you? and each alignment reads it differently:
⦁    LG- Responsibility.  Freedom means having to accept and stand for the consequences of your actions.
⦁    NG- Happiness.  Freedom is what makes you a better person, allows you to grow.
⦁    CG- Conscience.  Freedom is listening to your inner voice that tells you right from wrong, not being coerced or tricked by fickle feelings.
⦁    LN- Obedience.  Freedom is when you fulfill your alotted place, where you belong, and do not strive or fight for more that you are, or are worthy of.
⦁    N- Detachment.  Freedom is when you are removed from concern about the consequences of your actions, when you flow in harmony with your purpose.
⦁    CN- Independence.  Freedom is when you can be your own self, your own identity, and are not beholden to anyone or anything else.
⦁    LE- Control.  Freedom is when everything and everyone bows to your will.
⦁    NE- Amorality.  Freedom is not caring, not tying yourself to some dogma that says you are such and such for whatever it is you do, having nothing over your head to rebuke your desires.
⦁    CE- Power.  Freedom is when you have absolute power so that nothing and no one can stand in the way of your doing whatever it is that you want.

And let's try a few others:

Love -
⦁    LG- Faith.  Love is belief in and obedience to a higher power (or principle) than the flawed and earthly.
⦁    NG- Sacrifice.  Love is giving of oneself for another, putting aside your own desires, possibly even life, for a person or goal or principle.
⦁    CG- Amor.  Love is a meeting of the eyes, a recognition of one unique identity to another.
⦁    LN- Agape.  Love is loving thy neighbor as thyself, a gift given to all.
⦁    N- Respect.  Love is acknowledging the divine in the other and oneself.
⦁    CN- Eros.  Love is passion, desire, the fire of life.
⦁    LE- Pleasure.  Love is what you desire, what feels good, lust.
⦁    NE- Chains.  Love is bondage, to another or one's emotions.
⦁    CE- Betrayal.  Love is a weakness, something to be used against your enemies.

Truth -
⦁    LG- A Gift.  Truth is greater than mortals, a gift of insight.
⦁    NG- Reason.  Truth is found from careful thought and examination.
⦁    CG- Mutable.  Truth is in the eye of the beholder.
⦁    LN- Tradition.  Truth is following the wisdom of the ages.
⦁    N- Silence.  Truth is found when one stops seeking it, and simply listens for it.
⦁    CN- Unknowable.  Truth is beyond mortal understanding, everyone clings to their ideas and desires, no one knows the real truth.
⦁    LE- Absolute.  Truth is what has been spoken, and there is no room for question and no other truth.
⦁    NE- Need.  Truth is whatever you need it to be for your benefit.
⦁    CE- Will.  Truth is what you desire and impose on reality, what you make of the world.

Justice -
⦁    LG- Divine.  Justice is right and wrong, as laid down by a higher power/principle.
⦁    NG- Relative.  Justice is dependent on the thing done and the people involved.
⦁    CG- Forgiveness.  Justice is only meaningful when it helps to change people for the better.
⦁    LN- Penance.  Justice is paying what you owe for your misdeeds.
⦁    N- Balance.  Justice is restoring balance.
⦁    CN- Revenge.  Justice is an eye for an eye, a hurt for a hurt.
⦁    LE- Punishment.  Justice is pain to alter behavior.
⦁    NE- Failure.  Justice is for the stupid and incompetent who get caught.
⦁    CE- Cowardice.  Justice is for the weak, who hide behind laws and law-bringers instead of doing what they will and enforcing it themselves.

Existence -
⦁    LG- Purpose.  Existence is finding and fulfilling one's purpose, to help both self and others.
⦁    NG- Compassion.  Existence is understanding yourself and all life around you.
⦁    CG- Betterment.  Existence is growth and struggle to improve oneself.
⦁    LN- Obligation.  Existence is a duty to those who gave you life and those you share life with.
⦁    N- Discovery.  Existence is constantly finding out new things about oneself and the world.
⦁    CN- Acceptance.  Existence is knowing oneself and one's place in the world.
⦁    LE- Discipline.  Existence is a wild chaos that must be tamed and brought to order.
⦁    NE- Fulfillment.  Existence is experiences to be lived to the fullest.
⦁    CE- Struggle.  Existence is survival of the fittest, nothing is given, it must be taken.

    The thing that I like about this idea is that you might be different alignments for each concept.  Or, even, you might be a different alignment for different aspects of each concept.  For example, you might think that between people love is betrayal (CE), because you were once deeply scarred, and now believe that true love is faith (LG) in a higher, non-human power.  That seems more "real" to me, people are rarely one single dimension, we have contradictions and exceptions and places where we just don't fit into the box.
    Really though, the question is: what good is having an alignment system?  Why do we bother?  Why not just hand-wave it and say it's "role playing" and leave it at that?  Alignment is funny since it is a subjective thing given objective mechanical application.  There are items with alignments, that will fight any owners who don't match.  There are the detect good/evil/law/chaos spells, and attacks that do extra damage against certain alignments.  So it's not just used as a guide to role-playing, it actually comes up in the game.  Which is where I have a problem with it.  It's a little too vague to hang so much on mechanically.  If Detect Evil can instantly identify a murderer that short-circuits the whole point of having an investigation, and if it can't then that limits the usefulness of the spell.  I would rather make it role-playing only, just a guide and inspiration for how the character acts, and drop it from the rules altogether.  Still, I think of the aspects in Fate, how they are both benefit and hindrance, and that seems more like a system I could get behind using.  But it would mean essentially adding a third axis to the system.
    I'm not sure what I'm going to do.  For now I'm dropping alignment from my own little home-brew.  It gives too many problems for too little benefit.  But it has just enough of an appeal to make me want to find or forge a system to use it.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Some Funny Filler

    I recently took a mini-vacation down to Phoenix to visit my friends, and it's been hard to get back into the groove of writing.  So, since I haven't been posting as often as I'd like, here are some random funny pictures to take up some space.  Some are from Facebook posters (George  Takei is great) and some I don't know where I got them from:

Microlite 2d10 Fantasy Preview 3 - The Theory of Magic

    Here's a little more of my Pathfinder/d20 conversion, this time it's the basics of the magic system.  One thing I really wanted to change with magic was the power level.  I think that having spells like "Wish" makes mages so ridiculously powerful that they would be killed on sight in any semi-sane universe.  So I'm going to drop the top end just a little bit.  Also, there are a few spells that seem like they should be innate abilities (like Read Magic, and the question of- if you have to cast a spell to read magic how did anyone ever learn the read magic spell in the first place?).  I also want to make the "gift" of magic separate from being able to cast, so you can make the 'latent' characters who have the gift but don't know what to do with it.  I also want to make cleric magic more like the Wild Magic of Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory's Obsidian Trilogy (The Outstretched Shadow, To Light A Candle, When Darkness Falls).  There, every time you cast a spell you have to pay a price by doing something - the main character casts a finding spell for a lost key and ends up having to rescue a cat in a tree.  This feels more 'cleric' to me, the idea that you are supposed to be working on earth to further your deity's goals.  It's a good fantasy series if you haven't read it.  Actually working on the spell schools has been a very long process, I hope to get the first, Abjuration, done soon.

============== Magic ==============

    Magic is the ability to manipulate reality.  All of reality is made up of two conflicting forces: Order and Chaos.  One cannot exist without the other, yet they work in different, sometimes opposing, ways.  Order seeks to connect, to add, to stabilize, to entangle and complicate.  Chaos is singular, unique, transitory, unpredictable.  Embracing and surrounding them both is what's known as The Flux.  The Flux is the unknown and unknowable foundation for all reality, for all life, and for all magic.  A mage, which is a generic term for anyone who can access magic, has been touched by The Flux.  The way they have reached The Flux determines what kind of magic they can use.
    Those born with a portion of The Flux inside them have the Mage-Gift and are Wizards.  They access Arcane magic, harnessing the raw purpose of The Flux to bend reality.  Even though they are born with a gift, they must study long and hard to train themselves how to master it to cast spells.  Some, known as Ethermancers, focus on only one or two types of spells to cast.  Others, known as Sorcerers, have received their gift because of an encounter with a magical creature or effect in their heritage or past experiences, and work to evoke more of this gift in their bodies.
    Those who have been touched by the gods, sentient creatures of The Flux, are Clerics.  They are the True Believers, embracing their encounter with Divine magic.  They do not control their magic, instead they are given it by their patron deity, in Doctrines of behavior or association.  While most will tend to a congregation of believers or a sacred place, some will choose a more active life, moving through the world to further the goals of their deity (and sacrificing their own desires) as Palladins.  Others will seek to unify themselves with their deity, becoming one with extraplanar forces, as Oracles.
    Lastly are those who have opened themselves to The Flux, channeling it through their bodies.  Every living thing is a small reflection in microcosm of the macrocosm of The Flux.  By seeking the inner gates that connect the mortal to the supernatural, they achieve Enlightenment and access Psionic magic.  The Psions study how magic moves through their own bodies, while Manifesters create the strange material known as ectoplasm.  Strangest of all is the Instrumentality, who follows a pattern of life itself, making the immaterial manifest.

The Three Sources of Magic
    There are only three ways to harness The Flux.  Be born with it, making magic something to be learned, called Arcane magic.  Be given it, bestowed through a deep connection of belief, called Divine magic.  Or, awaken it, channeling it through your body and experiences in the form of Psionic magic.  Let's explore each one further:

Arcane magic
    Focused on manipulating energy and matter around the caster, this is the sort of default or middle type of magic - the type by which the others are judged/compared.  Casting this type requires speech and movement to help create the unique conduit between the world (via speech) and the mage (via movement).  The words are typically a constructed language, personalized to the mage's way of perceiving and interacting with natural forces.  There are rumors of the "true language of magic" that would give the wielder incredible power, but if it exists it is not commonly known.  Movement is typically provided by hand gestures, though some mages go for more elaborate things like dance, or even another skill like playing the lute.  It is possible for the arcane mage to cast without these, but it takes more power and skill (see the section on casting spells later).  As this is a learned skill, the maximum Magnitude that can be cast is equal to the wizard's Mysticism skill level (including the Mind attribute).

Divine magic
    In some ways is the easiest.  Unlike the other types of magic, the cleric is not the one casting the spell - they are instead asking their patron deity to cast for them.  Because of this, their power is not relevant, it is the deity providing the energy needed for the spell.  It is the job of the cleric to be the focal-point for the deity to act in the Mortal Sphere, to go to the places needed and to call upon the deity to do what is needed.  Since deities are extraplanar beings of The Flux, they cannot enter the Mortal Sphere directly without causing great changes to reality and risk to themselves.  So they act through their clerics, and occasionally more directly through Avatars.
    This relationship, as a petitioner, makes the cleric operate very differently from the other two types of mages.  First, the cleric can ask, but there is no guarantee of answer.  It is up to the deity [read: GM] to choose to fulfill the request.  A deity may also alter the spell being asked for in a great or small way to suit its own purposes.  Second, the cleric's MP total is spent and recovered differently.  A cleric's maximum MP represents time spent in prayer and contemplation of the deity, the closeness of the cleric to the deity (note, not to the church or other worldly organization, but to the deity itself).  A cleric does not use any skill for casting, this is not a learned ability.  Instead, the cleric's maximum MP is the highest magnitude spell they can pray for without personal cost.  A cleric can pray for a greater magnitude spell, but they must be willing to take some sort of penalty, HP loss, attribute reduction, or something as a show of faith and need.  If the prayer is denied, then the cleric loses only 1 MP for the attempt.  If the prayer is granted, the cleric loses MP as usual.  If a higher-Magnitude spell was granted, the cleric loses all his MP (but does not go negative) and must accept whatever penalty the deity chooses (known and agreed to before the prayer is granted, usually).  To regain MP, every deity has a list of actions that are Accepted, Encouraged and Praiseworthy (worth 2, 4 and 6 MP respectively).  This MP gain for actions can take their current total above their maximum, but they still use only the maximum for bonding to magic items and other permanent effects.  They also have a list of actions that are Taboo (-3 MP) and Forbidden (reduces current MP total to 0, -2 max MP if current total is 0 already - if this reduces the character's max MP to 0 then they have been excommunicated by the deity and lose the True Believer feat and all spellcasting ability, and their max MP remains at 0).  A cleric must do something, perform actions, to regain the deity's favor to pray for spells without penalty.

Psionic magic
    The Psion moves The Flux through themselves in order to cast spells.  This is almost the opposite of divine magic, and the psion is even more contained than the arcane caster.  This has both benefits and drawbacks.  A psion must increase the magnitude of any spell with a Range greater than Touch by +2.  However, a psion does not need to speak or move to cast, and they can also use their own bodies as power, taking 1 HP in damage for 2 MP (which cannot go beyond the psion's max MP).  A psion can cast a spell of a Magnitude equal to his Mysticism skill +Str (since they are both learned and innate casters)

The Thread of Magic
    All magic users have a Thread, a bond between themselves and the raw power of The Flux.  The different types of Threads offer different benefits and limitations to each type of magic user.  Let's go over each Thread in detail:

The Arcane Thread opens your mind and senses to magic, allowing a few special abilities:
⦁    Detect magic - as a full-round (AOO) action you can reach out to sense the flows of magic around you.  This is only a Vague sense, and you can close your eyes and still feel things instead.  You can sense other mages, and if they are arcane or divine or psionic.  You can also sense any latent gifts.  You can sense any magic items, but only that they are magical, not any details about the item's abilities or name.  Any active spells you can sense the School and Element (but not the exact Technique or Aspect), as well as the general power as Weak (Magnitude 1-6), Moderate (7-12) or Strong (13+).  You need a direct line to the spell/item to detect, if something is blocked behind a wall or in a container you can only sense if there is magic "nearby" with no details.
⦁    Write magic - you can also channel a small amount of magic into your writing.  This does not cost any MP.  The writing can be visible or invisible, if invisible then it takes someone with the Mage-Gift or a spell of Divination to read it.  You can write one thing visibly and another invisibly on the same surface.  With Arcane Writing it is impossible to tell a lie, at least, anyone reading it will know it's a lie (as far as you knew when you wrote it), and the writing carries emotional nuances just like body language, tone and inflection of voice do when speaking face-to-face.  The traces of your identity are not enough to form a Mark, but you do reveal a part of yourself, giving another spellcaster a +2 bonus on any Spellcasting BAB rolls to effect you.  Anyone reading it also gets a +2 Communication check to understand your meaning (if it was written in a different language than the reader, for example).  You can also create a Sigil, a unique and personal symbol of your magic (and therefore being) which can be visible or invisible, and acts as a Mark and +5 Spellcasting BAB for anyone who possesses it to cast targeting you.  Often joining magical groups will require you to hand over one as a surety of good behavior.  A visible Sigil can be copied, but anyone who can read magic will be able to tell it is a fake.
⦁    Read magic - you must use Detect magic to tell if there is any invisible magical writing, but you can read magical writing at will.

True Believer
Anyone can choose to believe in a deity, but the True Believer has been directly touched by the divine and has opened a channel to their deity.
⦁    Consecration - through a ritual you can set aside an area, item or person for your deity.  It must be something your deity would be willing to bless (ie, a nature deity would not generally consecrate a construct or undead).  For an item or area this lasts until another deity places a different consecration on the same thing/place (which negates both, so it has to be done twice to change deity), for people it lasts as long as the person believes in the deity.  Items and places give a +2 bonus to Spellcasting BABs by the same faith at that area or to that target, and give a -2 to all other faiths (note, Divine only, Arcane and Psioncs ignore this).  People receive the Brotherhood benefit below.
⦁    Atonement - a True Believer can bring others into the fold, by spending 1 MP on a willing person that person can also be given the True Believer feat (though they still have to pay for it).  A True Believer can also help another Believer who has fallen by performing a Forbidden act.  This takes time, and the recipient must be honestly willing to change, but it can eliminate the max MP penalty.  As a full-round (AOO) action the True Believer can commune with the deity to find out what the deity desires the Believer to do for an immediate and specific choice, option or course of action.  The deity may respond to do a certain thing, not do a certain thing, or that it does not matter/no answer.
⦁    Brotherhood - any beneficial spells cast on you by a member of your faith are treated as 2 Magnitudes higher for effects (you choose the bonus).  Also, any harmful Divine spells cast on you by a different faith are at -2 Spellcasting BAB.

Unlike the mental awakening of the arcane, or the spiritual awakening of the divine, the psionic has awakened to life itself.
⦁    Energetic Body - the psionic can spend 1 MP (only, cannot be combined with anything else like Ki pool) to gain a +2 bonus to a single physical or mental action (like Athletics or Knowledge, but not Communication).
⦁    Controlled Mind - the psionic can Invest 1 MP (reducing their current and max until ended) as a move-action to create a Mental Barrier, giving a +2 to Will Saves, but a -2 to any Spellcasting BABs, it takes another move-action to let down the barrier.
⦁    Trance - you can alter your consciousness in two ways.  First, when you take a rest you can instead choose to Meditate and transfer all the HP you would have gained into MP instead.  Second, you can open your mind as a Medium and sense the presence of any nearby spirits, which allows you to use your Communication skill to speak with them, however in this state you have a -2 to Will Saves (and you cannot have your Mental Barrier up).

Forms of Magic
    The most diverse way of using magic is through spellcasting, but it is not the only way.  There are three methods of delivering magic into the Mortal Sphere:

    Some mages can touch an item and imbue it with the power of The Flux.  This can take many forms.  The Palladins of Healing deities call it "lay on hands" and they imbue the person touched with positive extraplanar energy for healing.  There are Arcane casters who can Imbue items with magical properties, creating temporary magic items out of common objects.  And some Psions have learned how to use mujdra hand-symbols to create a channel of internal power, Imbuing themselves with magic.  There is a feat for each type of Imbuing, and the exact rules and usage is described in the Class Creation section.

    Rather than cast magic into the shape of a spell, some mages release raw energy into the Mortal Sphere.  Divine mages can become Beacons of the Faith, creating a powerful field of energy drawn from their deity.  This surge creates two opposing effects to two opposing targets, like healing the living and harming undead or increasing skill checks and decreasing spellcasting checks.  Each deity has different effects they provide.  Another way divine mages work is by taking the deity's power in themselves and creating an Avatar Aura.  This gives the mage an immunity to something, like fear for example, and gives all those nearby a bonus to resist the same.  Or it could give them a bonus to do something, and a lesser bonus to those nearby.  Arcane mages may create Elemental Fields that increase or decrease a certain Element.  While psions can perform Skill Channels, weaving energy into the things they do and increasing the effects beyond the natural - as with the blend of magic and music performed by the Bard.

    All of the above have limited effects, each ability does only one specific thing.  Spellcasting, however, is the ability to weave magic into any shape or form desired.  Because it can have so many different effects, the rest of this section will describe it in detail.

Classification of Spells
    Spells can take many, many different forms, since each is a specific alteration of reality.  However, over time mages have discovered deep commonalities between spells called "Schools."  Within each School are several "Techniques."  But these only describe the type of change being made, there is also the consideration of what in the real world is being effected.  These are called "Elements" in general and "Aspects" in particular.  The skill of magic use is in knowing how to execute Schools and Techniques after gathering enough power to overcome the Elements and Aspects being effected.
    Since it is effectively impossible to separate the action from the acted upon, next we'll describe each School and Technique, while highlighting the Elements and Aspects each was designed to influence.  Afterwards we'll look at how they can be separated to define exactly what a mage is capable of.

Limits of Magic
    Before we look at the individual Schools of magic, it is important to keep in mind that while magic is an incredible force, it too has limits:

⦁    The Burden of Free Will - you cannot take away choice from another sentient being, you can punish for disobeying, you can distract and entice, reward for obeying, but you cannot steal away choice (which is the fundamental expression of The Flux itself, to deny it would be to deny that which reality is built upon).  Note, however, that choice can be given.  When one bonds to a magic item or Patron force one gives up a piece of one's own soul to create the conduit for power to flow through.  Eventually this can diminish the soul enough to make the person a slave to the force or power they are now inextricably linked with - even still, they did it to themselves, they did not have to create the bond in the first place.
⦁    The Separation of Death - you cannot bring back the dead, when the soul leaves the body it leaves the Mortal Sphere and goes to another extraplanar space; only the Gods, who exist there, can send it back (they rarely will however, and they would always, always charge a very high price- plus the soul in question has to be willing to come back).  However, if you are prepared beforehand you can re-direct the soul in the moment it leaves the body and send it somewhere else.  Souls are eternal and cannot be destroyed.
⦁    The Turnings of Time - magic cannot alter the past, though it may view it.  One can attempt to alter the future, however it is constantly changing and virtually all spells attempting to do so will have unexpected consequences as the future they planned for does not come precisely to pass.

    In addition to these limits, there is the limit of a mortal spellcaster channeling the raw power that under-pins reality.  No Mortal mage of Medium Sentience can cast a spell with a Magnitude greater than 20.  Mages with a greater or lesser Sentience have a + or - 2 for each size category away from Medium.  Fae and Outsiders gain a bonus to this limit (+2 and +4 respectively), but Endowed have a penalty (-10) because most of their power is tied up in their existence.  There is a way to get around this, by casting the spell in a slower form as a Ritual, which will be described later.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

First Play: The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

    I play Pathfinder, and like it overall as a game.  I've played Descent and Runebound with my friends, which are RPG/Board/Card Game hybrids, and enjoyed them a lot.  So I was very happy to see the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game when we visited the local game shop.  Not keeping up much with the news, I had no idea it was out.  I persuaded my friend to buy it (I'm evil that way, and it just entailed showing him the box), and we played a few games with just the two of us.  So I thought I'd post something about it here, since I do movie reviews why not broaden my horizons?

First impressions

    The box is big, huge even, and then you open it and find a slim rulebook and lots of empty space.  Which gives the momentary feeling of being cheated.  But you're not.  After reading the booklet I realized that Paizo has committed to this game, and the box is designed with extra space to hold future cards/expansions.  I give them credit for this, my friend has about twenty Munchkin boxes all lying around, and having one big box for them is much neater.  There is a fair amount of game in the cards included, and you also get the first expansion, part 1 of the epic Rise of the Runelords campaign (which is 6 parts total).

    My friend also got the Character Add-On, which adds the Barbarian, Druid, Monk and Palladin to make all 11 of the Core Rulebook classes available.  After reading the slim booklet of rules, I also realized that the game was more complicated than the small amount of verbiage suggested.

Our first game
    So we split the cards into all the different types.  Your first card is your character. 

I was sad to see that they did not try to simplify the existing RPG rules into a card format (hard, granted, but doable).  Instead this is it's own game.  That's a very important first note for my readers who are considering the transition, like me, from RPG to card - This Is A Different Game.  We didn't know that though, so I took the Wizard and my friend took the Thief (they use the iconic Pathfinder characters, which I am not thrilled about).  Our cards had our attributes, each of which was a die type.  So his Dex was a d12 (or 10, I forget) while my Int was the d12.  We each had a few skills, which were a +2 bonus to the roll.  Unhappy point #1- a flat die is wildly unpredictable, so I was sad to see them use just a single die for the base results.  You can, however, add extra dice through cards or abilities which helps a little (though trying to figure out if 1d8 + 1d6 + 1d4 gives you good odds against a 14 can be trying).  You also have 2 or 3 special abilities on the character card, as well as your hand size.  You have a separate character deck, made up of 15 cards, that are split between your Weapons, Armor, Spells, Items, Allies, and Blessings.  Each character has a hand size between 4 and 6 cards that are drawn from this initial pool of 15 randomly.  Unhappy point #2- I hate it when I have the ability to do something, and can't because of random draw.  If I have my quarterstaff in my character deck, why can't I carry it with me?  If I don't draw it then I don't have it, though it may turn up later (usually after I needed it).  This is very, very un-RPG-like, which is part of my warning above.  The booklet had a list of cards to start with for each class, and not knowing any better we just took those.
    Now that we had our characters ready, we needed to set up the adventure.  We didn't want to start playing the campaign without our other friends, so we just did the generic sample adventure. 

The adventure has 3 Scenarios, each Scenario has multiple locations.  There are 3 locations, +1 for every player after the first, so two of us had 4 Locations for each Scenario.  We laid out the first Scenario's locations.  Each location has 9 cards in its own deck.  The Location card says what kinds of cards and how many to draw from the box.  In addition to the cards for characters, there are Monsters and Barriers.  Then, each Scenario also has a Villain and Henchmen.  Our first Villain was some bandit leader, he had a name so that you could tell he was a bad dude.  His Henchmen were generic Bandits.  You take the Villain and add enough Henchmen so they total the number of Locations, so we took our 1 Villain and added 3 Henchmen, then you randomly distribute one to each Location.  Finally, you shuffle each Location deck to randomize it.  Okay, Unhappy point #3- the 10 card location decks and 15 card character decks are pretty small to shuffle.  I would have liked it better if you just rolled a d10 and drew the card type specified (though, admittedly, that makes it harder to remove cards from the stack, which is part of your goal).
    Characters and Locations in hand, we needed the timer.  You draw 30 random Blessing cards, and they form a deck to track time.  At the start of each turn (though we found doing it last before handing over your turn worked better for us) you reveal a blessing from the stack.  When you reveal the last one that's the last turn to solve the Scenario or you loose.  This was meant to add some tension, force you to be quick, but with all the randomness, you really only have so much control over how long a game takes.  I think you could drop this and not notice the difference.
    I went first, since I had read the rules (though, as we discovered, not quite gotten them all) on the drive home from the store.  You start by picking a Location, I went somewhere.  We had a card table set out, and the takes a fair amount of space - expect to usurp your playing surface.  There are several actions you can take, in order, and only 3 you have to take.  So you can choose to do nothing, just sit and wait, which sometimes will be a viable move.  I chose to "explore" my Location, by turning face-up the top card on its stack.  There are two general groups of cards, Boons are the Weapons/Armor/Spells/Items/Allies/Blessings that make up your character deck

 and Banes are Monsters/Barriers/Villains/Henchmen that try to thwart your noble efforts.  Both have a score to acquire (boons) or defeat (banes).  There is a box on the card that lists an Attribute and Skill, or just says Combat, with a number.  You have to roll equal or higher than the number.  So if you have a skill, great, that's your attribute roll +2.  If you only have the attribute, not so great but might be possible.  Combat depends on your character, most have a specific attribute and skill used, but it defaults if you don't have any skill, like my Wizard, to just Strength.  If you roll over for a boon, you take it into your hand.  If you roll over a bane you defeat it.  Combat is a little different.  If you roll under on a combat check, you have to discard 1 card from your hand for every point you are low (so Monster is 11, you roll 8, discard 3 cards).  This matters because at the end of your turn, you have to draw to re-fill your hand if it is lower (or discard down if it is higher).  If you can't draw enough cards, because you've taken too much damage over time, then you are dead.  Which means you're out of the game.  Supposedly there are cards to revive a character, but not that we saw in the basic set.
    This leads to Unhappy point #4- no hit points.  By using cards as hit points you get some strange side effects.  Say you have a potion as an item.  You drink the potion, discarding it (or, more likely, Burying it by putting it back in the box) - so you have basically just done 1 point of damage to yourself.  Out of the 15 you start with.  Now, you can draw cards to "heal" in a way, but only up to your hand size, any excess get discarded.  Some abilities, like spells, get Recharged by putting them on the bottom of your character deck.  Which is kind of good, no "damage" taken, but now you can't use them until you "damage" yourself by discarding something to bring them up in the character deck.  It is a very strange, hard to grasp, cycle that makes you (or me at least) wonder a lot if you should play something or if that would be a bad idea.  I will say that, like with the RPG, you need a healer.  But given that tracking health is second nature to any RPG or even card player (heck, the Yu-gi-oh guys have hundreds of health) I don't get why they invented this wonky mechanic instead.  It was very difficult to get used to, and I honestly still don't feel like I grok it after 4-ish hours of playing.
    So I explored, got beat up by some monsters, my friend explored, did a lot better then me since he could fight.  My friend found the Villain and defeated him.  Here was where I didn't quite understand the rules.  The victory condition for the Scenario seemed to be, defeat the Villain (which is fairly obvious, but not explicit - the card really should just say so, then there would be no doubt for a new player).  But what I didn't realize was that defeating the villain in combat was not the same as defeating the villain.  See, even though you beat the villain in combat, it just runs away.  You draw some more cards, and randomly distribute them to the remaining locations.  The only way to finally defeat the villain is to "close" each location (other than the one the villain is in).  You can try to "close" a location by defeating the villain, or a Henchman, or some cards (none of which we saw) will allow you to.  Closing a location costs something listed on the location's card.  It may be discarding something, effectively taking damage, or fighting something, or making a skill check.  Once a location is closed, the Villain can no longer hide there, so you work your way through them one by one.
    At the time we first played we didn't realize that (my confusion over the word "defeat," thinking it actually meant what it said).  So we went on to the second Scenario.  This meant putting away, re-shuffling, and re-building all the decks.  We had each found some cards, the boons, but we still were limited in the totals listed on our character cards - so even though I had found a wooden shield, I had to get rid of it since I could not have any Armor cards in my character deck.  I could have given it to my friend, but he didn't need it.  We laid out the new Locations, got our new Villain (a poisoner) and his Henchmen (Poison Traps), and did it again.  This time, I got mauled in a few combats, and set off a Poison Trap instead of disarming it (I needed a 5+ on my d6 Dex, I thought I could do it) and the next monster was way higher than I could possibly defeat (he was a 14 and I was out of my combat spells, since they randomly move through your deck).  So I died.  My friend had no way to revive me, and no desire to play solo, so we packed it all up.

Reading the cards and making new characters
    Now, having actually seen the game in action, we decided to stop and read everything.  We opened up the Character Add-On and added those characters and stuff into the box (since they were basic, or rather core, cards - the Runelords adventure/campaign box stayed separate).  We read over everything to get familiar with it.  About half of the cards are labeled "Basic" and can be taken by a new character.  The other half are more advanced items that have to be found during play.  So we split every deck in half, read over all the "Basic" cards, and had a better handle on what we would need to re-play the adventure (then we had to shuffle them back together, there is a lot of shuffling).  We read over all the classes, and my friend decided to go for Ranger, since he could peek at the top card of each Location stack (awesome ability), and I went Bard since I could use both Arcane and Divine spells to Heal, Find Traps and Aid (though I forgot to split the spells into the 'basic' ones so I think I took a spell or two I wasn't supposed to - it's hard where there's so much stuff written on each card and you're playing on 2 hours of sleep).  Unhappy point #5- why not just put a level requirement on each card in the corner?  Level "0" could be the "basic" and level 1+ you have to draw?
    Knowing now what we were getting into, and choosing cards to help (really, the suggested cards in the booklet were not well geared for the sample adventure), we decided to play again.

Second time's the charm
    The second playthrough went smoother.  We had worked out a strategy with our characters, had a general idea of what challenges awaited us, and had prepared for them specifically.  We had mostly gotten the rules (like Magic the Gathering they are simple at heart but each card can mess with them) and I could heal us.  We made it through all three Scenarios and felt a mixture of elation and exhaustion.
    At the end of each Scenario you get some reward, usually just drawing a card from the box - which you may not be able to keep depending on your character deck limits, but you might get one of the better magic items.  At the end of the Adventure you usually get a bonus feat.  Now, each character card has your stats, but then there are also boxes.  Each box is a feat, Skill Feats fill in a box for your attributes/skills while Power Feats fill in a box for your character deck or class abilities.  Each box is a +1 to that type of roll, or that maximum number of cards, or for abilities expand how the ability works.  Unhappy point #6- if you have to write on the cards, you should really include extras.  Since we only had one of each card, we would have had to write the info down on a piece of paper.  And since that would have basically made a character sheet, we might as well as just used the sheet instead of the cards.  In this case we didn't care about advancing, we were just testing the system.  If you had a group of friends and some wanted to be the same character type though, it would be better to print off your own sheets and ignore the cards.
    Having spent several hours playing this, we packed it all up and called it a day.

Final thoughts
    As one last Unhappy point- I wish they gave some GM love.  The Scenarios seem to be built on basic lines, so many cards of such types, and so I wish they gave some guidelines for making your own adventures.  You could also pre-select the types of cards for each Location to fit with that location and theme (finding the chest in the woods felt weird) to make more RPG-like adventures.  And since you need a big villain, apparently, it would be nice to have more than 3.  Granted, there is the Rise of the Runelords, but what if I want to go my own way?
    I don't know if I like this game or not.  The hard part is that it just doesn't feel like an RPG, yet it's using all the RPG trappings.  That makes for a weird disconnect between what you think you'll be able to do and what you actually end up able to do.  I have a half-dozen ideas about how I would house rule the system, so in that respect it feels exactly like an RPG.  I'm not sure how easy it would be for someone new to pick up, I might have been hampered with my RPG background, actually.  Conversely, I don't know how helpful it is for teaching someone new about RPGs.  It has left me with a strange feeling - not quite eager to play it again and yet not opposed to the idea of playing it again.  All other factors being equal, I think I'd rather play a pen-and-paper game, this has a fair amount of prep time with all the cards to draw and shuffle and I can throw off a quick adventure about as easily.  I do think that playing it more, getting used to it's quirks and differences, would make the game more appealing.  Sadly, I had to go back home so I'm not sure when I'll see my friends to play again.  It is not a bad game, and I don't want to discourage anyone from buying it.  But at the same time, I would play it first somewhere, hopefully a local game shop would demo it, before making the commitment.  It is definitely different.  And compared to Descent or Runebound, well, it really didn't strike me as quite as good.  Both of those other games had a fairly strong RPG-feel to them, and this almost-but-not-quite captures the same.

P.S.- here's a legal blurb since I'm using some of Paizo's pictures (their website says to, and it has their link for more info):
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Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Homeless Nerd Reviews: Riddick

At a glance- sci-fi action, monsters, and attitude

What is it?  My philosophy for movies is that you have to look at them as what they are, not what you want.  For example, I love good dialogue in a movie (part of why I like old movies).  But with a movie like Riddick, you don't watch it for its snappy dialogue.  Now, you expect that there will be some good one-liners, but this is a special effects action film first and foremost.  So, as the third movie (not counting one animated film) beginning with Pitch Black (which I have only seen parts of) and then The Chronicles of Riddick (saw it, liked it well enough), this is all about the main character.  Riddick is a criminal and murderer, so everybody says repeatedly, but we never see him actually hurt innocent people or kill for just the fun of it.  He's a dark anti-hero, in a science-fiction universe that is not the happy, bright, lens-flare future of Star Trek.  Riddick is tough, surviving impossible odds, and can see in the dark.  And it seems like everyone in the universe is hunting him.  This is the bar that the filmmakers have set for the franchise, and the measure it must be held to.

The acting- Vin Diesel is Riddick, he's stamped the role with his own personality (and physique) to the point where I doubt anyone else could pull it off.  Matthew Nable is a mercenary who wants to capture Riddick, who happens to be worth more dead than alive.  Katee Sackhoff, from the new Battlestar Galatica series, is another merc.  And honestly the rest of them don't stick around long enough to get attached to.  Karl Urban does return as Vaako, but only for about 15 seconds.  Given that the film is more about the action than the acting, they all put in good enough appearances.

The story- Conan the barbarian rose through the ranks to become king, which the movies never addressed because it's not as exciting as running around slaying monsters.  I think something of that fantasy barbarian inspired the sci-fi barbarian of Riddick, who in the last movie also became king of the Necromongers.  Which, not being as exciting (though it could be if you did it right) means that he has to leave.  He makes a deal with second-in-command Vaako (mistake #1).  Vaako supposedly knows the location of Riddick's home planet, and for a trip there Riddick agrees to step down.  Of course, Riddick is betrayed and left for dead.  So our opening is Riddick, stranded alone on a dangerous planet, in the Man vs Nature, and Monsters, motif.  Eventually he finds an outpost used by mercenaries, and realizes he has to get off the planet as soon as possible.  So he activates a beacon, telling the mercenaries that he's there - and he is worth a lot of money so they soon arrive.  Two teams of mercs land, and Riddick tries to reason with them, then starts killing them.  For, dum dum dum, the planet is full of mud-monsters (part scorpion and part crocodile), and a gigantic storm is going to bring them out (along with the requisite darkness) and everyone needs to escape.
    Not having seen the first movie, I was told by my friends that it was a lot like the first movie.  The mercs are not good guys, you really don't mind watching them die.  Riddick is actually a pretty decent guy for being a murdering psychopath.  The planet looks fairly alien, and the monsters fairly scary.  We see Riddick showing his indomitable will to survive (he is very Conan in that respect), and his predatory cunning, and his voice-overs help make up for his general lack of dialogue.  There's no deep thought required, just watch the sci-fi barbarian, who in a world full of guns always ends up using a knife.  That simplicity, though, is a part of its charm.  You don't need to guess the mystery or contemplate the deep meanings, you just go and watch and enjoy.  I went to see it just to have something to do with my friends I was visiting after the hours and hours we had been talking and catching up.  For some casual entertainment, which was what it was meant to deliver, it delivers.

My recommendation- catch the cheap show, if you liked the series or the Conan movies, otherwise you won't miss anything if you skip it