Sunday, December 28, 2014

Magic and danger warnings from the past

This sign is well known today. Even if you don't know English it still means something. The three triangle like figures and the dot in the center are clear indications of radiation. In a Mad Max, Twilight 2000, or any other near future apocalypse anyone would be aware of its message. What about 1000 years in to the future?

2000? 10000?

What if pyramids in Egypt were radioactive waste disposal units. Archaeologists in the future (today for us) enter these "tombs" and find all sorts of stuff and a lot of writing. They're marveled at it. Amazed by it. They take endless notes of these hieroglyphics which all say pretty much the same: "Death awaits you here, keep out!" Many of them die later of unknown causes. A myth about a curse arises. The curse of an old evil king's mummy. Get what I'm getting at?

Imagine is this is a radiation warning. There's a sphere and thing flying out to hit people.

What would you consider universal warning sign for magic? Remember the species that made the sign may not be around anymore. So a sign of a human like creature attacking a kobold like creature may not be effective if a human observes it and it doesn't know what a kobold is. One of those medieval paintings of a knight killing a dragon may not seem like a "beware dragon" warning to a lizard type creature.

These for example are really bad warning signs for visitors in the far future.

Got an idea for a good sign? Share it with us!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Strength as a firearm damage modifier

Strength is commonly used as a damage modifier with melee weapons, but what about firearms or crossbows for that matter (specially the heavy medieval ones). Should STR increase damage by such weapons and why?

Crossbows store their energy in a metal bow (also called limb, lath or prod). In the heavier models this is pulled by a set of pulleys in such a way that the crossbow can store more energy than what a normal human can pull. This makes it seem  like the amount of energy in the bow (and thus the bolt) can be independent of the crossbowman's strength. The same reasoning goes into guns. After all gunpowder isn't going to burn faster or brighter because one's character is stronger.

So why should strength relate to damage? My reasoning behind this is weapon weight and momentum. The bigger the bow the heavier it is. The bigger the bullet, the bigger the gun and also the recoil associated with firing the gun. As I mentioned previously in this article (Aiming, what is it and what's its worth?), aim is strongly related to damage. A sure shot is more damaging that a flesh would and certainly more so than a miss. The stronger the character the firmer the aim and the surer the shot. The stronger the character the better recoil will be handled (an issue with magically reloading crossbows too).

Something also goes on with small weapons. Being humans are not hydraulic and all, high strength is usually associated with a bigger body. A small weapon may simply be too small for the character's hand. Too much strength and too small a gun may be actually counterproductive. There's a sweet spot after which added strength becomes counter-productive.

So it isn't about having the maximum possible amount of strength, but rather having the right strength for the weapon at hand. This is something we may lose sight of in escalating-hit-point games in which the first round of combat most surely will not be the last. But when the first round may be the only round of combat making sure your character hits first and hits well is of vital importance. Having the right strength becomes more important than having the best strength. Take a moment to think how this relates to character building as well as gender and racial differences. It seems my halfling no longer requires the Desert Eagle to be effective in battle! Thank goodness, those bullets were costing me a small fortune.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Aiming, what is it and what's its worth?

So in RPGs we're used to rolling dice to see if we hit. These rolls are in turn modified by skill and in some cases aimed or called shots. If the resulting roll is successful we then roll damage and see how much the "bad guy" got hurt. So for example if my character (Ghost) wants to hit her target I see the character's skill, if the target is moving, the range to the target etc., and come with a value say 14. If I roll 14 or higher the shot hit and then I roll for the damage, say for example 2d6 and I get 12, 8, 2, 6, whatever.

Now here's what I think after this weekend's hands on experience. This model doesn't relate too well with gathered data. See the image to the right--->

That's my target after I filled it up with lead from an M4. Notice how all the shots except one are on target and in the red area. There's one shot that's off target right below the ear, but it has its matching double tap shot right on the thyroid. So no, the target didn't make it.

This is the first time I ever fired an M4 and the third time I fired such a weapon, being the first time the AK47 followed by the FN SCAR I fired shortly before. After about 10 shots I was double tapping pretty well. I highlighted four points with bright red dots, those are a double tap to the chest quickly followed by a double tap to the head. Those are "game over" shots for the target and somehow the game rules are telling me I have to roll for damage? Come on!!! Please!

Call me gifted if you want and I'm quite aware that the target is not moving and above all it isn't shooting back, but since when has that been taken into consideration in mainstream games? If the target is, for all practical purposes, standing still while talking with another NPC and totally unaware of my character or if my character wins initiative in the midst of battle the attack roll is pretty much the same. Roll 14 or better and I get to roll damage. Now if I roll 14, 18 or 20 I still roll damage and in that case I can roll a 2 as easily as a 12. This model no longer makes sense to me.

Skill is no longer related to aim, I mean I've got practically no experience and still scored some pretty good shots. Aim in turn isn't related to damage. I put a couple of rounds on the target's heart and head and I still need to roll damage? Really? Fear and movement are not well represented. More so, many players shun from morale checks and related rolls which hamper the character's performance. I'm certain my aim wouldn't be so precise if I had bullets flying my way, and if I was moving and so was my target. In this case timing and not aim is what matters most. Not only who gets the shot off first, but also the damage that shot does and how much said damage is capable of stopping the opponent from firing back.

I believe there should be a strong relationship between initiative and aim. The better I want the aim to be the less prone I am of winning initiative. Skill should not be applied so much to aim as it should to initiative. Saying this in another way, skill should be "offloaded" to initiative because adding mor skill to an almost certain shot is of no value. So being cool and in control and not trigger happy nor prone to fire before aiming is the mark of skill and experience. Although it makes sense to apply skill to aim, at short ranges skill is more relevant to initiative, and this is seldom the mechanics I see in games. Damage in turn should be related to the attack roll, or more precisely to the body part hit, and not some random roll based purely on the ammo's specs.

How does this relate to Saints and Sinners? To answer this let me break this into attack roll, damage roll and initiative.

Attack Roll
In S&S fire arm attacks are skill checks against the range's difficulty. My character is given a set of dice to roll given her skill with a certain weapon and the target's range determines the difficulty. At short ranges like 30 to 50 yards the shot is trivial and even a barely skilled character has a chance of scoring a hit. An unskilled character, one who just picks up the weapon and fires (supposing no loading is required) has a 33% chance of hitting and a skilled character (the likes of me with a bit more experience, but no real training) has a 52% of hitting. An expert would have somewhere around 88% chance of hitting. This is pretty consistent with what I observed. The odds of missing at such range are slim. It's not a question of if I'm going to hit, but rather when and if it will matter at all by then. If I put in a +3 modifier for static target the odds go up to 50%, 70% and 95% respectively.

Damage is one thing I think I got right in S&S. There is a random aspect related to the weapon's ammo, but damage is strongly modified by the area getting hit. Lower leg and arm areas add a penalty to damage, while torso and head shots add a strong bonus to damage. In that sense there is a strong relationship between impact point and damage. Impact point is in turn determined by exposed areas and attack roll. A roll that beats the required value by 10 or more is marked as outstanding success and calls for a critical hit on the target. A torso hit becomes a critical hit to a vital organ. A head shot goes into the brain, main arteries, throat, or spinal cord area. Both are surely incapacitating and almost certainly lethal shots.

The skill levels mentioned in the attack roll section (unskilled, skilled and expert) which had a 50%, 70% and 95% chance of scoring a hit respectively would have a 8%, 18% and 53% of scoring a critical and almost certainly game stopping shot. So while the expert character has only twice the odds of hitting a target than the unskilled character does, the expert has an almost 7 times greater chance of having that shot be a killer critical hit.

Initiative in S&S in not a comparison of individual die rolls by all players, it's a roll below attribute check against the character's mettle score. Whoever rolls the lowest relative to the character's mettle score wins the initiative. If character A has an 18 mettle and character B has a 14 mettle score and character A rolls a 12 and character B rolls a 10, character A wins the initiative because the roll is 6 (18-12) below mettle while B's is only 4 below (14-10). This difference is actual game time measured in quarter second intervals. In this case A beats B by half a second.

Now a character can trade in aim for speed at a rate of one difficulty per beat (equal to 4 initiative tics). Character B being an expert can trade in aiming skill for speed and get an advantage with a high enough odds to score a hit. The character's initiative goes from 4 below to 8 below and beats character A's roll of 6 below. With the modified attack roll character B has an 87% chance of scoring a hit (down from 95) and a 32% chance of that hit being a critical life threatening shot.

If I'm character A I'm at a loss now. I'm getting my shot off half a second later with an odds of hitting of 70% vs my opponent's odd of hitting of 87%. The catch is that my opponent's shot has a 32% chance of being immediately life threatening while mine has only an 18% chance.

So so far I like what I see. The rules seem to be more consistent with reality and give the truly skilled shooter a tangible advantage over the unskilled or weekend shooter. What do you think?

PS : There are a few elements I'm leaving for an upcoming post on handguns. These cover single and double action weapons, adrenaline and suppression (the effect from a shot that misses but comes close enough to cause fear). More on that coming soon, stay tuned.

Some hands on research

Had a great time yesterday doing some hands on research for Saints & Sinners at the shooting range. Boy has this given me food for though and a lot of ideas particularly related to character generation and skills.

I've to to give thanks to +Robert Brumbelow and +Jonathan Henry for making this possible and of course to all those who've also contributed by paying for a copy of Saints and Sinners, rest assured the money has been well spent and I hope this leads to an even better second edition.

I had the opportunity to test a broad set of weapons at the range and get of feeling of some of the stuff that's not on the weapon's description and some of the stuff we don't like to hear in the game, things like jams and misfires (of which I was fortunate to get a few). The weapons I tried out were the AK-47, M4 (suppressed), FN SCAR, SIG226, Desert Eagle, CZ75, Glock 17 and a pump action 12 gauge shotgun (let's not forget the zombies!!!).

The experience gave me insight into many aspects that differentiate one weapon from another even when the caliber is the same and also a lot of insight into issues that get overlooked which lead to easy min-maxing. Without these elements at play the easy choice is to gear up my character with the Desert Eagle and the FN SCAR because they've got the biggest most bad ass high damage rounds. Instead, my choice is the M4 and the SIG226. Why? They just felt better and I did better with them. No point in having the most damaging weapon if you can't hit shit.

Now I'm no expert in firearms, not by a long shot; before this I had only fired a handful of rounds and this day probably increased my total twenty-fold at least. I'm also quite aware that practice makes perfect; so a lot of the issues I'll be rising can be overcome by training. Yet role playing games isn't always about playing the super expert character or having the weapon of choice at hand.

My goal in the upcoming series of posts is to narrate my experiences, what I learned from them and in what way they can help make a better game in which character and weapon have more depth than just character attributes and weapon stats. To put a term to it I'd call it weapon personality. When character personality and weapon personality match you get something that is more than the sum of the individual parts. I also want to take a second look at initiative, because, guess what, paper targets don't shoot back! Initiative is usually the underdog of rules and mechanics. A simple system that lacks a means to portray skill and character determination and also lacks a means to relate to aim and hit rolls.

What do you think? Are there guns that just feel right and which your character would prefer over meaner looking more powerful ones? What makes them feel "right"? What advantage (if any) does this provide in the games you play and what advantages do you think it should provide?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Small words

I live in a small town were we use small words. We have diminutives for everything, including "everything". In Spanish everything or all is "todo" and the diminutive of everything is "todito". We have small trees ("arboles") called "arbolitos", and small cars ("autos") called "autitos", but it doesn't stop there; we have small favors ("favores") called "favorcitos" and small mornings ("mañana") called "mañanita"; the same applies for night "nochecita" and afternoon "tardecita". If you want to say to someone that he or she is a bit of an obnoxious prankster you'd say "How [small] funny you are today" (Que graciocito estas hoy).

Why is this? I can tell you upfront it isn't because we think so small we use small words ;)

To find the roots of this we need to go the some of the basics of the Nahuatl language, the language of the Aztecs who ruled over the vast majority of central and southern Mexico. It is here were things get interesting for those who enjoy alignment languages and the usage of language as a game element. The use of diminutives is common in the central and southern parts of Mexico, but not so in the northern states.

The Nahuatl language has the suffix "-tsintli" or "-tzintli" that is used on words when the speaker is showing reverence. Some sources indicate the suffix "-tzin" and "-tli", with -tli added to substantives and -tzin alone for adjectives, pronouns, forenames, etc. .  Water "atl" becomes atsintli  or small water, rock "tetl" becomes tetsintli, child or kid "pili" becomes piltsintli and house "kali" would be kaltsintli.

Some sources I've researched relate this suffix to the Spanish diminutive suffix "-cito" or "-ito". So when someone says they appreciate the hospitality of your "small" home they're not insulting by saying your mansion, castle or palace is small. When being served in a tavern and you're asked if they should bring you a small beer and a small bbq rib your character shouldn't take offense. Your character isn't going to be served a minuscule piece of pork and sip of beer, quite the contrary. Nonetheless you can see how this can get really ugly really fast, specially with a dwarf in the party.

Responding to the dwarven patron of the tavern that his small ale and small pork ribs have a small flavor can get your character bruised up bad. Not knowing how to use the proper terms at a given time can have dire consequences. This gives a new dimension to language skills, guild slang and culture knowledge. It can be helpful in finding out relationships between NPCs. For example Aztecs had two types of speak, the normal one and the aforementioned one with the -tzinlti suffix. Brothers and friends use the common tongue to speak with each other, but the reverential tongue to speak with a parent or godparent. Event friends who build a godparent relationship through a child will begin using only the reverential tongue.

Applied in game a NPC may give away her or his relationship to another NPC simply by the words used. Is there a hidden allegiance? Is the NPC a superior or subordinate? Do the words they speak mean literally what they say or is there a hidden message understood only if you know the relationship between both speakers?

How do you put your character's language, culture and lore knowledge skills to play in your game?


The enemy within

Author's note Dec. 31 2014,  Tracy thanks for taking the time to read this post it would have been great if you had done so a few months back when I wrote it. Sorry to see it took you so long to find it. Maybe if you hadn't blocked me? On that note I'd like to add that I'd love to continue our conversation on this matter if you're up to it. Are you? Or will you prove everyone else right by hiding behind G+'s block feature?

BTW thanks for the extra traffic!

Carry on...

I usually keep away from commenting on the whole gamergate issue unless it is something that warrants highlighting as is the case of this article brought to light to me by +Tracy Hurley last week. The article titled "Misogyny and the Female Body in Dungeons & Dragons" develops some points by misquoting the original articles. Tracy's response to me highlighting those points was, should I say, less than professional, and eventually led to a blocking (apparently a common habit of hers). Now if the whole gamergate issue is supposedly about questioning journalistic ethics, which it isn't, it is simply unacceptable to feed these trolls by giving them a reason to point out unethical journalistic practices in the group that supports female rights. Tracy brings up a post that misquotes the original articles to point out issues with gender equality. As rightful as the author's position may be, one can't simply do this kind of thing and walk out unscathed.

If the bogus idea that gamergate is about journalistic ethics is to be trampled, actions like this can't be tolerated. This is like planting or faking evidence in a trial. If caught, the criminal walks, no matter how guilty. The fact that Tracy is willing to go to such an extent as to reference or promote such articles and in doing so open the doors to the trolls to do more damage under the guise of "journalistic ethics" leads me to believe that Tracy isn't interested in the well being of women, she's interested in the well being of the fight. The fight gives her purpose and to perpetuate the fight women she can never let them be seen as equal to men, she is the enemy within.

The article addresses two old Dragon Magazine articles and raises a few points: female characters are limited in classes they can be and taking the thief as an example it claims the thief character is sub-par to its male counterpart. Added to that Tracy claims the rules are portrayed as "special" as if women were an appendix or afterthought. The article as written seems pretty convincing unless you happen to have copies of those two Dragon Magazine issues, as is my case. When you read the original articles you get a different and much broader picture.

Two Dragon Magazine articles are referenced "Len Lakofka. “Notes on Women & Magic — Bringing the Distaff Gamer into D&D.” The Dragon 1.3 (October 1976), pp. 7-10." and "P.M. Crabaugh. “Weights & Measures, Physical Appearance and Why Males are Stronger than Females; in D&D. The Dragon 2.4, pp.19-20. (October 1977)"

With these two magazines at hand lets go point by point:

Female characters are limited in the classes they can be.

Aaron, the article's author, makes an issue of the usage of the word may. Lakofka, the Dragon's article author wrote "There will be four major groups in which women may enter. They may be FIGHTERS, MAGIC USERS, THIEVES and CLERICS.", so based on this Aaron claims it is "clearly sexist language employed in this article (where Lakofka allows women to participate in game fictions through his use of the word “may”)".

Aaron fails to lookup the characters at the time and realize that at the time those were the available classes. If we reference the Moldvay Basic Red Rules (January, 1981, five years after the Dragon article) page B9 clearly reads "A human may be a cleric, fighter, magic-user or thief" Take note that Moldvay uses the word "may" regardless of player or character gender. Lakofka isn't limiting women; fighters, magic users, thieves and clerics was all there was back then.

The thief character is sub-par to its male and basically a sex symbol.

Aaron goes on showing how female characters are less capable when fighting than male ones by using the thief as an example and also focuses heavily on the charm and seduction powers of the thief to drive the point that this is stereotypical and portrays women as using their beauty and body to get what they want. Once again reading the Dragon Magazine article and knowing the rules of the time we see that that thieves did not have the fighting skill of the fighter class, and in particular the female thief requires less XP per level and is multi-classing with magic user. Magic users don't have the fighting skills of fighters, is it no wonder this is conveyed in the rules to these thief-magic-users as well? Aaron focuses on a set of spells he deems sexist, but hides the fact that the female character also has the following spells light, read languages, tarot reading, sleep, mirror image, detect magic, ESP and knock. So less with XP per level and magic use, no wonder fighting skills get hit a bit. Aaron does not do a comparison adjusted by XP and magic power, he just claims "Lakofka works to show the ways in which women fight at a disadvantage to men in a variety of contexts" and leaves it at that.

As a player who, like many of you, has played more than the uber strong fighter I know there's more to overcoming challenges in a dungeon than sword swinging yourself out of a problem. Is Aaron actually reducing the options of women by stating that the only relevant feature of a character is her fighting skill? I believe there's more potential to a thief-magic-user than just sword fighting.

Women rules are portrayed as "special" as if women were and afterthought.

Since the article focuses only on women Tracy goes on to claim this is sexist because "the default is thief is male whereas special rules are needed for a female thief".

Now aside from Lakofka's modified XP levels and spell powers, the second Dragaon article by Crabaugh brings up some modifiers like + 2 CON, + 1 DEX and - 1 STR for female characters. Tracy sees this as "special rules", now she needs to be reminded that math lacks gender and

women + 2 = men + 3, is just the same as: women = men + 1

If the article provides + 2 CON, + 1 DEX and - 1 STR modifiers to women, it could very well been written as - 2 CON, - 1 DEX and + 1 STR modifiers for men. The article would then be centered around men and the so called "default thief" in the rulebook would then be female. All it took was to multiply everything by - 1 and your whole argument got debunked Tracy.

The default is not male as Tracy claims, the default is male and female and only after the Dragon Magazine modifiers are applied does the reference points change, and the reference can be either male or female.


After pointing out the issues with the article Tracy's response came along with some unfit language and when I asked for a structured rebuttal or comment on my comment I got this and was quickly blocked afterwards.

Now I've never played with gender differences like the ones mentioned in the article nor of any other type. Yet that doesn't mean I'm going to accept an article like this as valid. You can't prove the right thing by the wrong means Tracy and your means are obviously wrong.

I see comments out of context to make them seem sexists. I see parts of the articles hidden to emphasize the difference between men and women to make women seem "less" than men. I don't see a thorough analysis that would show that women are equal if not better than men. A tunnel-vision focus on fighting without portraying the other aspects of the character class and its impact on roleplay. 

Overall I see a construction of arguments based on false or biased quotes of the reference material. When this is pointed out the response is to block me so the article deficiencies can't be refuted. To what purpose if not to perpetuate the fight? To what purpose if not to support biased journalism?

We need more than awareness to "level the field between men and women in D&D" as Tracy mentions in her post. We need to move forward and provide working solutions to achieve this. From Tracy I get the following: a misquote of some 35 year old articles, a refusal to have a conversation and a lack of a "fix" aside from "throw it away". It's 35 years old Tracy, are you trying to regurgitate the past to get more fuel to drive your war?

Many of us want a greater representation of women in the hobby, we want a level field, we want this for minorities too, but you undermine this. This is like court, no matter how sure you are the suspect is guilty you can't make up evidence. If you do, the suspect walks.

Tracy, I've tried to be impartial with your position towards others in the past, but now I see you don't want a level field between men and women, you want a fight. A perpetual fight that leads you to dig deep into the past so you may falsely portray an unlevel field so you may continue fighting. You're not interested in the well being of women, in equality, in representation, you're interested in the well being of the fight. You're the enemy within.

The original exchange can be read here

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Tzotltlan, the unclean city

In the midst of a luscious jungle valley crossed by vast rivers and decorated by beautiful waterfalls stands Tzotltlan. A city that coexists harmoniously with its surroundings and has the most magnificent gardens in all Itza. They race up the sides of the huge pyramids in wide decorated terraces that hold the most exotic of plants and animals in the realm. As with others cities in Itza its beauty also hides a horrible secret. It is a city of sorcery, infamous rituals, tyrannic and temperamental rulers, sacrifice, vice and an 85% humidity every day of the year. What would make you live in this city? Only the promise of immortality.

Tzotltlan is home to the gatekeeper and guide of the underworld of Mictlan, the great Xolotl. He is the evil twin brother of Quetzalcoatl who guides not only the souls of men to the underworld, but the Sun itself through its daily passage every night. In western terms he is Charon to Ra. He is both an evil version of Venus and a god thoughtful of the interests of mankind. He created man alongside Quetzalcoatl and helped it emerge from the shadows of by giving mankind the fires of wisdom.

Legend says that in the beginning of this era, the fifth sun, Xolotl went to the underworld Mictlan with Quetzalcoatl and together they stole the bones of past men from the underworld god Mictlantecuhtli. From these remains the made race of men was made. Then, to set the fifth sun in motion, the gods sacrificed themselves to start the new era, but Xolotl, fearful of death, fled from the executioner. First he transformed into a plant of corn, but when discovered he ran again only to transform himself into a maguey plant and once again hide from his executioner. When his executioner found him again he fled into the waters transforming into a axolotl ( a salamander like amphibian ) and was finally captured and killed in this form. He is a god that fears death and rejects it at all costs, using transformations to escape it. So do Xolotl's followers who live in Tzotltlan seek to escape death by the power of transformation.

Unlike other cities in which death is an accepted aspect of life that both closes and opens the cycle of life, those living in Tzotltlan reject this destiny preferring that others pay the price of this cycle of life. Tzotltlan is full of nahuales, shapeshifting sorcerers, warlocks and witch-priests who use their powers to extend their lives beyond their natural limit. This is usually in the form of rituals involving human sacrifice of the most horrible nature so that others may fill their place in the underworld of Mictlan and please the undeworld's god Mictlantecuhtli thirst for new souls.

Tzotltlan also houses the Ahuiateteo (or macuiltonaleque) the five hunchback dwarven gods of vice. They are: Five Vulture (Macuilcozcacuauhtli) god of gluttony, Five Lizard (Macuilcuetzpalin) god of pride, Five Weed (Macuilmalinalli) god of lust and envy, Five Flower (Macuilxochitl) god of gambling and games, and Five Rabbit (Macuiltochtli) god of alcoholic beverages. Rituals, offerings and sacrifices are done to gain the favor of these gods and fill the ever emptier lives of those who live forever in Tzotltlan. If this were not enough the common folk or unaware traveler may directly fall prey to these gods, as it is known of them to come out during certain days of the calendar.

There are nine great pyramids that stand above all other pyramids and structures in Tzotltlan. One for each of the nine circles of the underworld, and each is said to hold a portal or gate into their corresponding circle. Through them the priests can bring back the dead, condemn the living and obtain information from wandering spirits of the underworld. This is a place were the barrier between life and death fades away and the dead are thought to be as alive as the living. Great undead armies have been seen rising from these pyramids. Horrible tortures have been performed on the dead relatives of traitors and enemies in the interest of obtaining information and knowledge that will further the city-state's interests.

In Tzotltlan this morning's sacrifices are the evening's armies. Death is the currency paid to perpetuate life. Those who live in Tzotltlan have become masters of this skill and this has made Tzotltlan the longest standing empire in Itza, an empire spanning millennia.

Eons of rituals have harnessed, within these teocalli (9 temple pyramids), the powers of life and death, even the supreme powers of dusk and dawn. Control the rise and setting of the Sun and you control the destiny of every man in Itza. While Tzotltlan is a religious and intellectual superpower plagued with vice its military might should not be underestimated.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Papaloatlitlan Butterfly City

Been doing some world building work these last few weeks on my prehispanic RPG, Papaloatlitlan is the product of this, one of the great altepetls or city-states in Itza. Governed by the huey tlatoani (pronounced wey or wey-ji tlatoani) Huitzilihuitl (hummingbird feather) Papaloatlitlan dominates the western lands of the realm of Itza.

From high above the city in the greatest teocalli or temple Huitzilihuitl levies taxes and offerings from the surrounding altepetls (city-states). Supported by his army led by the brave butterfly warriors he maintains a tight control over his realm and constantly wars with distant city-states to increase his power and might in the name of Itzpapalotl, patron goddess of the city.

The city is a marvel of civil and military engineering. Its canals and causeways provide a means to bring clean water in, take soiled water out, water the gardens and fields and allow merchant ships to easily dock in the tianquiztli, one of the largest markets in the land. In it goods arrive from distant realms by sea, land and even air, as is the case of trade with the cloud city of Coamixtlan.

The market is so big it could rival the size of a medium sized medieval city. In it all sorts of goods are traded: cloth, feathers, cacao beans, coffee, cotton, yute or jute, oil, salt, corn and bean grains, chiles, flowers, spices from distant lands, fresh fish, hueyxolotl (turkey) among other foods such as vegetables and herbs. Also highly prized meals such as fried crickets, maguey worms, and ant and mosquito eggs are sold in the market. Alongside these goods a more valuable item is traded: information. Merchants are known to be spies too. The hear stories, observe the city and report back to their lord. Peace in the land is a fragile and hard to keep thing. Dominating states wish to break free of Papaloatlitlan control and further their own interests and those of their tlatoani.

Surrounding Papaloatlitlan a vast expanse of land is farmed to produce some of the greatest products in the realm and feed one of its largest cities. Peasants farm the land planting corn, the staple food of the land, as well as cotton, henequen, beans and flowers, lots of flowers. Fruits such as mango, bananas and pineapples are also cultivated and traded in the great market. Other goods that are grown and even serve as currency are cacao and coffee beans.

The farmlands are vast and rather empty areas. Spotted here and there with small farming villages or even as little as a few houses. Beautiful and colorful as it is during the day the land is unquestionably dangerous, specially at night. Wayobs and nahuales (were-like creatures and sorcerers) tend to venture out at night looking for prey and victims for their hideous magical rituals. People tend to stay home during the dark hours and journey only over the main roads and trading routes of which the city-states lacks very little of being the trade hub of all the kingdom. The land and roads are usually patrolled by the armies of the king led by one or two warrior-priests, usually a butterfly warrior. They help keep dangers at bay and remind the common folk that the king is always watching.

Located close to the ocean and within eye's reach of the east mountains Papaloatlitlan holds a stranglehold on trade in the area. Movement between the low coastal lands of the north and south is regulated by the city-state. Tight military control of the main passages through the mountains also ensure tribute to the great king Huitzilihuitl. This has ensured the dominance over the past fivehundred years and lead to one of the most powerful city-states known in Itza. A city state that holds total and unquestionable military, cultural and religious dominance over its subject states.

The city has become an important cultural center in which many rulers from allied or dominated kingdoms send their children, or are kindly invited to send their children to learn the art of war and the matters of religion in the calmecac. In the calmecac the children learn to be strong and powerful soldiers who will fill the ranks of the butterfly warriors and further the military interests of the king. They also learn about religion, all that relates to the gods and pleasing them, particularly the patron goddess Itzpapalotl ("obsidian butterfly").

Itzpapalotl, the patron of the city, is the fearsome skeletal warrior goddess who rules over Tamoanchan, the paradise for those victims of infant mortality and the land in which man was created. She is considered to be one of the cihuateteo, women who died during childbirth and are honored as fallen warriors. Their patron days are the beginning of the westward trecenas (thirteen day "weeks" in the 260 day calendar): 1 Deer, 1 Rain, 1 Monkey, 1 House, and 1 Eagle. During these days the cihuateteos descend to Earth and wreak havoc in the land, and are known to hunt crossroads, kidnapping and killing men, women and children alike.

To please the goddess the priests and warriors work continuously to keep the city in good terms with the goddess. Rituals and a close observance of the calendar are followed to the letter. The calmecac (noble school) teaches the soon to be warrior priests how to perform all the rituals and how to properly wage war against the enemy. War is both a military and religious endeavor.

The butterfly warriors are a group of highly specialized warrior-priests. Equivalent to at least captain and bishop, they are obscure figures who wage war in a dark moth like outfit that serves both as a military and religious outfit. It is the armor of the soldier, but also a source of divine power in the battlefield.

Their constantly bloodshot eyes light up as bright red balls of light during battle. Instilling fear into enemy troops. Their deadly macuahuitl (obsidian sword) will not only tear legs, arms and heads of their enemies, it will also seep in their victim's blood and regenerate the very sharp but rather fragile obsidian blades. The more victims they take the sharper and more powerful the weapon and its wielder become.

Yet the end of battle is not the end of the ritual. After defeating the enemy the butterfly warriors and the common troops devour the dead enemy soldiers, keeping the hearts for the butterfly warriors and feeding the rest to the common troop or macehualtzin. Those who survive the battle and fall prisoner to the butterfly warriors are taken back to Papaloatlitlan to serve as human sacrifice to the gods, particularly in the key trecena days (1 Deer, 1 Rain, 1 Monkey, 1 House, and 1 Eagle) when the cihuateteo are expected to descend to Earth.

Offers of sacrifice usually keep the cihuateteo at bay, usually. Sometimes their power or thirst becomes so great it is impossible to keep them back. This is particularly true when the Moon defeats the Sun and blocks it out of the day sky or during the five unstable Nemontemi days of the year count (365 day year). It is during these times that the cihuateteo descend to Earth followed their legion of the most feared inhabitants of Tamoanchan (the paradise in which Itzpapalotl lives), the dreaded Tzitzimimeh.

These bony creatures with clawed hands and feet descend from the stars during the darkest moments of the day to devour all that stands in their way. They are hideous creatures with dark obsidian skin and very sharp obsidian like claws. They have a bony neck and face and a large ornamented head. From their neck hands seem to stick out and are surrounded with the hearts and blood of their victims. They have a long tongue that comes out to strike their victims, tearing their heart out and drinking their blood. Their tongues and mouths are always soiled in blood and dripping the precious liquid from the hearts ripped out by the tzitzimimeh. From their back a snake like tail protrudes with a sharp obsidian tip the size of a small sword. It swings left and right ready to strike with blinding speed.

Here a tzitzimimeh is offered blood, hearts and flesh in return for the well being of the people.

Only one creature in our present day science fiction depicts the tzitzimimeh well and honors not only its image, but also its deadly nature.

Welcome to Papaloatlitlan, the butterfly city. I hope you enjoy your stay.

Image sources

Monday, September 08, 2014

Stamina, Hit Points and Pain

Had a great conversation with +Douglas Cole last week regarding hit points, damage and luck. He wrote a very interesting article on separating luck (karma) from bulk hit points.

Now parting from the premise that luck and hit points are two different values I'd like to develop the idea further and in turn break hit points into two values: stamina and hit points proper. The purpose of this is to build a system around these two values that grants the skilled fighter a fighting chance by not allowing a quick death, but at the same time granting the skilled fighter and the thoughtful player a quick kill in an encounter.

The hit point mechanism I'm currently using in Saints & Sinners allows for low damage weapons to take a long time to defeat the enemy while high damage weapons will neutralize the enemy quickly, possibly in the first hit. On reading this you might say, well duh! That's always been the case. Well no if we consider what low damage and high damage is and how long I'd like to fighter to last. Let us consider low damage as something that goes  from 1 to 4 hp, medium from 5 to 10 hp and high from 11 to 18 hp. I'd like a combatant taking 1 to 4 hp per hit to require 15 to 20 successful hits (not rounds) to die. The same character suffering medium damage per hit (5 to 10 hp) should last 5 to 10 hits and at the same time a high damage hit should neutralize the character after one or two such hits. This corresponds respectively to : a fist fight, a knife or sword fight, and a .45 to the chest area.

The problem here is this design requires a character to perish when he suffers 18 hp ( a single high 18 hp hit), when he suffers 32 hp (6 medium 6hp hits) and also perish when he suffers 60 hp (20 low 3hp hits). Since I'm talking about hits and not rounds or attacks, elements such as: armor, skill and luck don't play a role. I already know the character has been hit.

Without further delay here's the mechanism and how it's worked for me. First of all some definitions: stamina is the body's capacity to endure damage while hit points are the sheer life force of the character or creature. A character dies when hit points reach zero regardless of stamina value.

To make this work I'm going to do here is take a bit of stamina and call it pain threshold. This will act as a window or per-hit buffer that will allow damage to be channeled either to stamina, hp or both. The result is a damage transfer as shown in the following graph which shows damage to hp and stamina based on the per-hit damage delivered to the character. Any value below or equal to the pain threshold is dealt to stamina only. Any amount that overflows is delivered to hit points. So a character with 32 stamina points, a pain threshold of 4 and 18 hp would be represented as follows. The yellow line represents the relative damage being dealt by the blow.

Anything less than or equal to 4 causes no damage and is absorbed by stamina (the blue line). Once damage reaches 5 points it begins to overflow to hit points and stamina is unable to absorb any more damage (blue line levels out for any further damage). The character becomes vulnerable at this point as shown by the rising yellow line. Initially the line is around 3 (30%), representing small wounds. It then increases to about 6 (60%) representing serious wounds. At 23 points delivered per hit the character dies in a single attack. This is due to the fact that 23 points - 4 stamina (pain threshold) is 19, and that's one point above the character's 18 hp.

Modeling this the system performs as the following graphs show. Each graph has a blue line representing damage delivered per hit. This is a random value between the specified ranges: 1 to 4hp for low damage, 5 to 10hp for medium damage and 11 to 18hp for high damage.

The orange line shows initial stamina value and how it decays over time. The yellow line shows hit points and its decay over time.

When suffering low damage  (1 to 4 hp per hit) the character's stamina is very effective. Hit points don't begin to drop until the character runs out of stamina. This happens around hit 9 and 10. The character finally perishes at hit 18.

When suffering medium damage (5 to 10 hp per hit) the character's stamina and hit points drop alongside each other. With every hit the character's stamina is able to stop part of the damage, but not all. The character perishes at hit 6.

When suffering high damage (10 to 18 hp per hit) the character's stamina is not very effective. In this case it stops enough to prevent the character form dying after the first hit, but the second hit is a game stopper for the player. The character perishes after the second hit even when the character still has two thirds of the stamina points left.

This mechanism has worked really well for me in putting tactics in the forefront of an encounter. A quick entry into a room, a backstab, sword fights and a fist fights now fit better into place without compromising those lengthy fights we enjoy in our games nor placing our characters in the extreme danger of a highly lethal game.

Here's a quick houserule you might want to try out in D&D like games.
HP = CON + level 1 hp roll
Stamina = CON + level 1 hp roll
Pain threshold = Stamina * CON / 100, rounded up to the next integer. Example 1.1 rounds up to 2.

All future hp increase due to leveling is added to stamina, not hp. After each roll the pain threshold is recalculated. Hit points stay fixed forever, representing the underlying fragility of the character. Stamina on the other hand represents the battle hardened character. As stamina increases so does the pain threshold and the less likely the character to suffer damage to the vital hit points.

This rule will be better applied to OSR like games with low hit point damage weapons than the newer high-damage-feat-powered attacks.

This post also appears on Indie+_ and is covered by the Indie+ Community Standards.
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Sunday, August 10, 2014

A tale of two knights

There was once a kingdom who's king was concerned about the current state of things. The kingdom was not what it used to be. There was less gold in the treasury, less wealth among the people and more famine and disease. Local fiefdoms and barons were challenging the power of the king. A few had even risen to be viewed as more powerful than the king himself.

Worried about this the king called for a meeting to review the situation and propose a solution that would restore the kingdom to the glory of times past. Many lords and knights the king could trust were invited to give him counsel. They met and talked over a long period of time. People became weary of the wait. So long it took that some even begun to question the king's right to rule. Yet after months of debating on the issues the king finally arrived with a plan that was put in motion and revealed to his people.

On a designated day the king addressed his people. He stood on the high tower of his castle with his counsel by his side and made an inspiring speech on the future of the kingdom. While some questioned it and others disliked it, it was in general well accepted. Among those who disliked it there were those to who the future was placed at risk with the new ideas and plans of the king. These rebel lords took notice of two knights among the king's counsel and made a plan to bring them down and possibly with them the king himself and his kingdom. These two knights had built a reputation among some members of the court of being boastful and sometimes lacking tact when talking. The rebel lords planned to use this to ostracize the two knights from the king's court. They fed stories, first to the court and then to the people, on how terrible these two knights were back in their land. The talked about untold stories of cruelty and abuse of power in their own barony. They took time to comment how poorly these two knights treated their subjects. That what the court and the people saw was but the tip of the iceberg of what was their true nature.

The knights infuriated by these stories began to challenge them. First in court while dining in the castle, jousting or going on hunts with other nobility. But as the story grew they took to the streets, to spread the word to the city folk who had heard about their supposed bad behavior. They were yelled at so they yelled back even louder. They were berated so they berated back even stronger. Slowly but surely the common folk begun to hear and understand the true nature of the knights and that the accusations were hearsay. Gossip placed on two knights from a far away barony.

It was a slow and demanding process that built a habit in the knights to go out everyday and clean their name. Eventually their names were cleared, but the habit stuck. The knights kept charging out in the afternoon on their horses. Going to the market or the docks or wherever the found it right to meet people and challenge them to clear their name. They had won, but they kept fighting. Their anger and fury was such that they could not stop.

This went on for weeks on end, but on a simple day like today, as the two knight spoke out in a plaza against the evil rebel lords and how their sole presence was a risk to the kingdom, an old and wise monk raised his voice to suggest they be less outspoken and more thoughtful of their words. That using such un-knightly terms and expressions to address the same issue over and over again would do them no good. .

The nights infuriated by the challenge though the monk was one of them trying to silence him and letting the voice of his enemies be heard instead. One asked "Old fool, why should I listen to you? Look at what has been done to me and how I've been insulted. I deserve to express my anger at these rebel lords as much as I please and let the people know what kind of scum they are. How dare you try to silence me. Why should I do as you say?"

The old monk simply replied, "Because you are still knights sire."

Image source

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Firearm Range in Saints & Sinners

Saints & Sinners, being a modern warfare RPG, focuses heavily on firearm combat. It has two types of ranges: the physical range to the target and the apparent range to the target. The first, the physical range, involves the weapon's quality and accuracy at a given range. The second, the apparent range, is how far the target is as seen by the character's eye.

The distance to the target determines how difficult the shot will be when using a given weapon. Players look up the range on the weapon's specs and this gives them a difficulty rating for the skill check. The skill check is rolled and modified by the penalties given by visual range. The further out the target or the smaller the target is the harder it is to aim well.

Scopes don't add bonuses, they shorten the visual range. A 3x scope will make something at 90m appear at 30m. The player then applies the much lower penalties for 30m than the higher ones for 90m. This simplifies the modifiers and the building of the character. As a player you only need one table on your character sheet that shows modifiers for the naked eye. All scopes can then be converted to this range using the scope's amplification. This simplifies things considerably, specially if your character has a variable scope on the sniper rifle.

This is the first post of a series of posts showing snippet of the game's concepts and mechanics. Saints & Sinners is available as a pay what you want download on Drivethrustuff. It's less than 70 pages long and includes a 4 page quick start guide that will get you up and running in a few minutes. I'm always looking forward to getting feedback on the game so if you've played it let me know about your experience as either a player or GM.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The unbalanced game is more dynamic

Here's a thought that's been in my head that's derived from aircraft design (air combat is a hot topic in my mind these days so bear with me). Jet fighters are inherently unstable. You want them to be that way so they'll respond quickly. It's the pilot and the flight computer that keep them stable.

This has lead me to consider the following question. Are we doing a disservice to a tabletop RPG when we "balance" the game? When "balance" is done so every player has an opportunity to contribute and participate equally during a session are we using rules and game mechanics to solve a social problem which should be best solved socially? Is this "RPG flight computer" crippling the game? Making it more sluggish? Turning our "jet fighter" into a comfortable "jetliner".

Image source

Pulling punches when casting magic

I'm considering penalizing high level magic users for casting low level spells. Yea wohhahaha what you say! Here's the deal and it's not Vancian magic BTW...

Magic users use power (in this case magic points, aka mana). The more powerful the magic user the more magic points at his disposal. The magic user becomes used to working with a lot of "magical current". It's hard to open the valve for just a few drops of magic as it was when the wizard begun using magic.

I can easily get a single drop from a milk bottle and I might get one by slightly opening the water faucet, but it would be very hard for me to keep it to one drop when opening a valve to a 6" water pipe. Follow me so far?

Well here's the other aspect of the deal. Magic is a skill and as such it requires a roll. Roll ok and the spell succeeds, roll poorly and it fails, roll very poorly and bad things happen, but roll incredibly well and too much power comes out of your fingertips. Lower level spells have the risk of becoming overly powerful and draining more mana that was initially intended.

I think this can add an interesting spin to spell casters as wizards now have to operate in their sweet spot or risk being too powerful. The warlock tries to magic missile the poor little goblin in the barn and ends up nuking it alongside all the livestock in it.

Thought? Have you played with something similar to this? If so what was your experience?

Monday, August 04, 2014

Simo Häyhä - The Importance of Background Skills

Simo Häyhä was a farmer and a hunter who joined the Finnish militia like so many others. He was one of WWII's greatest snipers, scoring over 500 kills. What made him different from others who joined the Suojeluskunta (White Guard)?

I see many games initially limit the value of background skills to cap the character's strength, to leave room for improvement through experience points so something "of value" can be gained in the upcoming 40 levels. Is it worth it? Is it too much trickle and too little substance?

Simo Häyhä was good because he knew the area. I'd bet he wouldn't be such a great sniper in the African savanna. He was good because he practiced shooting after he got the training and prior to the war. He was good because he had experience tracking animals with much keener senses than humans. He was good because he had a good rifle, yet he didn't use a scope and relied on iron sights only. So he was damn good!

Question: how does background influence your character's career? I don't mean only during character generation, I mean all along. Do background skills couple with newly gained skills so together they are more than the individual parts? Can you envision skills creating synergy this way?

I'd like to see more of this in games. Not just backgrounds converting to a few pluses or bonuses during character generation, but rather something that follows the character for life and contributes to the character as it progresses.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Does camouflage matter?

Nature has a long track record of using camouflage to protect species from predators and hide predators from prey until it's too late. Many of use have encountered mimic monsters or at least heard of them. Creatures that, true to their name, mimic items in a dungeon only reveal their nature when a party member gets too close. Other fearsome dungeon dwellers will appear to be normal stalactites only to drop on unexpected adventurers, piercing them through and through and killing them on the spot.

Yet there is more potential to camouflage than just the initial element of surprise. How often is it used to disengage from combat? A strike, displace and strike again strategy would require the party to reacquire their target. Camouflage can help when running away by reducing the distance before visual contact is lost. Camouflage becomes an important element in an encounter when engaging at long distance; be this arrows or magic in a fantasy setting or long range weapons in a modern or futuristic game. You can't shoot a target you can't see. Obviously the players can always do this:

Extremely inefficient in regards to ammo and also has the drawback of giving away your position.

How comfortable would you be if a game depended only on the hiding and spotting roll? Get seen and it's game over. How much would a game change if spotting and camouflage became a central element in an encounter instead of a modifier during the first round's initiative roll? How would this influence your perception of skill and proficiency when such skills work side by side with hit points to keep your character alive?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Magic carpet vs jet fighter, who wins?

Who wins in a match between Maverick and Aladdin?

Lets see, Aladdin's carpet has the following features:

  • Doesn't run out of fuel.
  • Can make arbitrarily tight turns as it's not bound by aerodynamic constraints.
  • Can fly arbitrarily high and fast as once again it isn't bound by aerodynamic constraints.
  • Has no heat signature so it can't be easily targeted by heat seeking missiles.
  • Has a small radar footprint making it hard to target with radar guided missiles.

On the other hand Aladdin and the carpet lack:
  • A radar, making it hard to sight incoming jets (and dragons).
  • A g-suit, without which it's very hard to endure high G turns.
  • An oxygen mask, without which it's very hard to fly very high.
  • A canopy and for that matter a cabin that protects the pilot. Supersonic wind is really damaging.
  • Seat belts. Try pulling a -2G dive without them!
  • No ejection seat!
  • No 30mm canon
  • No air to air missiles
  • No fire suppression equipment. Have you ever seen a fire extinguisher on Aladdin's carpet? Neither have I. 

So there it is? Who do you think wins the day? Aladdin or Maverick?

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Crispy vs Fuzzy Crunch

Crunch is usually considered the opposite of fluff, but crunch is also the rules of the game. How can we have a game without crunch if that would mean a game without rules?

Monte Cook pointed out, when participating in a panel called Crunch Vs. Fluff: FIGHT! (Norwescon, April 2012), that  "Crunch and Fluff formed a false dichotomy that actually hurts game design rather than informs it". He compares the argument with chocolate chips and cookies. Which is more important in making chocolate chip cookies? He mentions:

Like with so many things, it’s interesting to take rpgs apart and look at their parts, but it’s incorrect to then try to say that one part is superior to another. A cookie without chocolate chips is just a plain cookie. Chips without a cookie are just a handful of chocolate chips. Only together do you have a chocolate chip cookie. An rpg without story is a board game (at best). An rpg without mechanics is an anecdote.

I totally agree with this and I'd like to put forward another way of looking at crunch. One that does not stand in opposition to fluff.

If crunch is not the opposite of fluff what do I mean when I say this is a crunchy game or this is not a crunchy game? It can't mean its fluffier since we're working of the premise that crunch and fluff are not opposite. In come the terms crisp and fuzzy.

Crisp refers to a rule set with a lot of rules, modifiers, and values to consider. Fuzzy refers to a rule set which is more open to the GM's interpretation. Crisp refers to rule sets found in games generally considered crunchy and fuzzy refers rule sets found in games generally considered fluffy.

Now if fluff and crunch are two independent values that don't necessarily oppose, then it is possible to have very crunchy and very fluffy games as well as scarcely crunchy and scarcely fluffy games. 

I'd like you to bring to mind the idea of a game with a lot of crunch and a lot of fluff. Our initial judgement might be that it doesn't exist or that it is just too complex. Now lets move the crisp-fuzzy dial. A very crispy-crunchy-fluffy game could very well be a nightmare. A lot of rules, a lot of complexity (crisp) in those rules and a lot of stuff to apply those rules to (fluff). On the other hand a very fuzzy-crunchy-fluffy game would be a rules light one with a lot of world content and who's rules apply to broad aspect of the character's interaction with the world, not only combat.

Please take note of this. In this way of looking at crunch and fluff, crunch is an indicator of how much of the fluff has an actual mechanical model in the game. Games such as D&D and Pathfinder are high fluff, low crunch and very crispy. Why is it high fluff and low crunch when it's generally understood that such games are crunchy games? Well such games have rules for a small aspect of the character's life: combat. Within that realm the rules are very crisp. Lots of modifiers, skills, feats and tables to determine combat. Move away from combat and rules become really fuzzy or nonexistent. Maybe a charisma check here and there a dexterity check at some point, etc. you get the idea. Succeed and the GM narrates the outcome as seen fit. Such games, particularly the new D&D, have a lot of fluff. Aside from the huge amount of world content and campaign settings associated with the D&D brand, the introduction of background and character development add a lot of fluff which unfortunately relates very little through the game's mechanics. Get a few bonuses, some skills, maybe a feat for a whole life's training prior to meeting in a tavern. Most of which are once again related to combat or centered around dungeon crawling.

Looking at things this way a better game would be one with a lot of crunch and a lot of fluff. I like my chocolate chip cookies to be big and have a lot of chips. Now they also have to be kept fresh in a jar. Crisp and fuzzy are like the tightness on the lid. Too little "crisp" and the seal is not airtight and the cookies soon become stale. Too much "crisp" and it's too much of a pain to open and get a cookie every time a want one.

I strongly believe that games should be both fluffy and crunchy. That as a game designer I can provide a lot of world content I've researched and developed as well as rules to convert that into a meaningful in world effect. The debate then centers around crispness and fuzziness and their effect on game speed. It is here that I see Indie games with a lot of potential to make groundbreaking changes. Develop simple yet powerful game mechanics with a broad application to the world's fluff (not only one aspect such as combat). We all know backgrounds are great and character skills are a must and character development is really cool. Challenge is how to write this down in a way that doesn't get too crispy? That doesn't require an endless stream of number, modifiers and tables to represent. Above all that it doesn't take too much time to resolve. On the other hand it can't be too fuzzy that it becomes too ambiguous on the tabletop, to open to each player's interpretation and this leads to lack of challenge. A lot of work goes into developing a game. I want to sell "a flavor". If the game is too fuzzy and way to open to the player's interpretation then they'll play what they feel like playing and not what I wanted to convey. That's the point of crunch. To convey the world as the game designer envisions it. Too much crisp and the game becomes to hard and slow to play, too much fuzziness and the game begins to lose its flavor. The stale cookies in the poorly sealed cookie jar.

This post also appears on Indie+_ and is covered by the Indie+ Community Standards.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Air combat & skills

Air combat (and naval for that mater) is a seldom developed mechanic in games. I guess if working in 2D space leads to complex game rules, working with 3D space can only lead to even more complex rules.

I can't recall an encounter in which the momentum of my character was relevant and in which STR lead to any significant effect in movement. On the other hand in air combat altitude is speed and speed is life. Keeping track of airspeed, altitude, and factoring in thrust can lead to some very complex movement rules and we're not even getting into target acquisition, tracking, leading and firing. Then there's the matter of gun fire and missile fire. It's clear to see how things can get complicated quickly.

So when facing such complexity how can I trim it down to keep the grist of air combat while keeping things simple enough to resolve in a few seconds? I also what to explore in what non-combat ways can pilot skills become relevant in a tabletop RPG.

Let me enumerate some air combat variables:

  • Aircraft performance
  • Weapon system performance
  • Maneuvers and location
  • Pilot skills
  • Pilot attributes
  • Squadron and wing man teamwork
These variables have to be combined to create a realistic yet fast paced air combat. I just don't see working every 1000ft rise or drop in altitude, turn, spin and maneuver. Yet leaving everything to a success or failure roll in which players narrate the outcome without any real aircraft, weapons nor skill constraint can be a little too free form for my taste.

In regards to non-combat pilot skills I see a great deal of applications. Although many may require the character to stay on the aircraft and that can lead to party breakup which may not be everyone's cup of tea. Nonetheless not-combat skills can be helpful in many ways:
  • Piloting entry or exit aircraft
  • Plan aircraft load to carry mission critical equipment
  • Logistics and route planning
  • Maintenance
  • Sabotage
Be it a PC or NPC, having a clear understanding of aircraft skills and a simple yet realistic model for air combat and maneuvers can add a lot to a game session.

How much has air combat and aircraft skills played a role in your games?  If so, have you house ruled or worked off a set of mechanics?

Image Credit
US Army
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Robert Cudd, a CH-47 Chinook helicopter pilot from B Company, 2nd Battalion (General Support), 36th Combat Aviation Brigade, Task Force Falcon, prepares his equipment prior to a personnel and equipment movement mission, Aug. 31, at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Saints & Sinners GM playtest feedback

Last night I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with +Tre' Grisby who ran a session of Saints & Sinners this weekend. I was really looking forward to get feedback from a GM that's ran then game. Tre has played in my games, but had never actually picked up the game and ran a session as a GM so I was excited to hear what he had to say.

Before I continue I'd like to comment that Saints & Sinners is quite different when it comes to mechanics and rules. I'd say the only thing in common with mainstream games is the presence of six basic attributes. Aside from that skills and task resolution, hit points, damage and combat, specially hand to hand combat, are very different. I wouldn't say complex, just different. With that in mind here's the feedback.

First of I'll talk about the character generation experience. According to Tre he regrets not having made any pregens. Although character generation is quick it would have helped to save some time ( about 30 to 40 minutes given all the players present). Two elements of character generation were pointed out. The calculation of the pain threshold gave an expression of "umphff" from the players. It's a one time operation involving a percentage of the characters hit points. No big deal, but certainly more complex than adding some values. Unfortunately it is a key value to facilitate damage resolution during the game. Better a one time multiplication than a continuous headache. Nonetheless it wouldn't hurt to have a lookup table to get the value based on character hit points and endurance. Saints & Sinners has fixed hit points for life so the table is capped in size to the max hit points a character can have.

The second element that took time explaining was skill and background development. Many players were accustomed to games with a class or point buy mechanics that leads to a discrete list of skills and/or in which background has a minimal impact on "in game" activities. Saints & Sinners uses a set of human readable terms, not points, to express backgrounds and skills. The whole set of skills, background experience and learning is expressed with words such as skilled, professional, expert, master and legendary and laid out in a cascading skill set. This means that if a specific skill is not mentioned the next uppermost skill level applies. Task difficulty is also expressed in human readable terms such as challenging, hard, epic, etc. These terms indicate how many dice to roll and not how many pluses your character gets. For example if your character has to program something and he's a professional programmer and is expert with php and master with Java, but the task has to be resolved in ruby then the programmer level of pro is used instead of the expert with php or master with Java. The GM dictates the level of difficulty and can even modify it for expertise. Got a time constraint and your character has never read into ruby? Task just got harder by a notch.

One bug that was pointed out with skills was the naming of the expertise levels. As it stands in print right now there are two levels called experienced and expert. Their abbreviation is EXP for both and this caused an issue when writing the skills down. Some skills were labeled EXP for experienced and expert and it was hard to determine which was which. Experienced has been changed for professional with the abbreviation PRO.

Another element that took time getting used to was team work. Saints and Sinners makes strong use of this. It has clear rules on how to apply character skills in a teamwork environment. Three players got programming skills? Let them work together to solve the problem faster and with lower odds of failure. This is even more important when the task is something like disarming a nuclear bomb. The team just can't fail. I just can't emphasize this enough!

These final observations lead to the most important observation of the conversation: how to layout the rules to address GM and player assimilation of the rules. Even when rules are simple, when they're so different and are applied in such different ways from mainstream RPGs, it takes time to break the player's habit. This lead to a slower game and courses of action that were ignored. As players and GM alike became familiar with the rules the pace picked up and new ways to interact with the world were taken advantage of. Namely time, planning and teamwork became key elements in the player's actions. Once players caught on to this the game moved from being a dungeon crawl in an Afghan village to a modern day military mission.

The modifications based on this last bit of feedback will introduce the following modification: a text explaining clearly how the game should be played and a modular approach to the mechanics. Regarding the first modification it was noted that I should have a "Read Me First" text indicating emphasis on speed, teamwork and planning instead of a foreword that nobody really reads prior to the game. Regarding the second modification it was noted that game rules should be laid out in blocks or modules indicating which are core and indispensable rules and which can be added later. The core rules are the "you must always know and master" to get the essence of the game. Things like skill rules and task resolution are core. Combat, firearm and martial, is an extension of the skill and task rules. Combat adds a great deal of elements which are to much to master in one session. The core combat elements should be identified from the additional "nice to have". To hit rolls and damage are core, fatigue and suppression rules can be mastered later. Same thing for firearm vs martial combat. Master one first then tackle the later. A star system was suggested by Tre. Each element can be labeled three stars if it is of uttermost importance, two stars if it's pretty important and one star if it can be omitted more often than not.

Overall it was a great amount of feedback that will lead to an improved update in a few weeks. I'll be working these next two weeks to include this on top of the upcoming updates I already have in mind.

Saints & Sinners is a modern warfare game set in the Vietnam era. At only 64 pages it's a quick read and easy to start running a game. You can get Saints and Sinners as a pay what you want here and follow up on the game development in the Weapons Free G+ community.