Monthly Archives: June 2011

Riddle Me This – Or Not

I am not a fan of puzzles in dungeons.

The primary reason for this is that there is precious little in-game reason for a puzzle to exist in a dungeon (or any other site-based adventure). The reason for this lies in the correct use of security protocols: a dungeon is a place where you put things that you want to keep away from just anyone, but you have to either want to allow access to the ‘right kind of people’ or just be flat-out incapable of destroying whatever you’ve locked away down there.

Aside I: With a little modification this theory holds for any adventure site. Take the fortress of an evil archmage, for example: the item which he wants to keep safe is his own person; he can’t destroy the item, for obvious reasons; and he wants to make sure that the right kind of people – those bearing gifts, or with legitimate reason to visit him – can get through.

So, with this in mind, every security protocol you put in place has to act as a screen – allowing the right kinds of people through but keeping others out. It’s the same reason that sensitive data on computers is kept encrypted and password-locked* – it has to be accessible to the right people, but no one else.

Aside II: Not every encounter is a security protocol. The evil archmage’s pet hydra has a perfectly good reason to be loafing around in the dungeon – and that reason is tasty halfling-based comestibles – but he’s not intended to screen anybody. He just happens to be there.

A guard post functions to let people through who are recognised by the guards and/or who know the password, but stop everyone else. A trap functions to let people through who know how to avoid it, but stop everyone else. A lock lets people through who have the key. A puzzle lets people through who know the answer… and anyone who’s smart enough to figure out the answer. It’s a lot like replacing the password on your email account with an integral equation that must be solved to proceed: you know the answer, but so does anyone else with the right knowledge and time to calculate. Would you trust the contents of your inbox to anyone with an A-level in maths?

Unless you’re specifically filtering your dungeon so that only smart people can pass a certain point – and I can think of a couple of dungeon concepts where that might work – there’s no reason for a puzzle to exist there.

I’m also not a huge fan of puzzles outside of dungeons, for different reasons. Typically they either exist to challenge the characters – in which case a single die roll normally takes care of that – or they exist to challenge the players, which have a whole host of problems of their own: any puzzle easily avoided will be avoided, and any compulsory puzzle will either be trivially easy (therefore pointless) or completely impossible (therefore derailing the entire game).

I think that puzzles can be done well – a murder mystery, for example, where the characters must interview suspects and reach their own conclusions about what happened – but that such things are a rarity.

*Unless you work at Sony. Fuck you, Sony.

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Go Go Gadget Nostalgia

Last night I happened to download some of the old roleplaying material I’d chucked into online storage back in 2008 in case my hard drive died (which it did). I find it quite reassuring to plough through old stuff I’ve written – most of it was pretty good, although a few turns of phrase here and there could use some work and the game mechanical elements vary from ‘acceptable’ to ‘man what’; by and large it’s nice to discover that the stuff I wrote all those years ago was as good as I thought it was at the time.

Principle among the documents I recovered was ‘RuneQuest Reloaded’, something which originated as an alternative system for rune magic in RuneQuest – replacing the ‘attune rune, learn spells’ system with power trees associated with each rune – and quickly burst its banks to become a sprawling reworking of the core rules with an integral setting.

What surprised me was that RQRL (even in its current incomplete state) ran to some 25,000 words – which is a lot of words for something which is still primarily new spells! I didn’t realise I’d written that much. It certainly didn’t feel like 25,000 words when I wrote it; I just knocked out a rune every couple of days and voila. Now that I have it, though, it seems like a shame to bin all that work. Mongoose have since lost the RQ licence, but the rules they wrote remain as a game called (for now) Legend – perhaps I can cannibalise RQRL for that.

So I suppose that’s another thing to add to the queue of gaming projects, right behind my d20 revision and Fight! – a game based on the 2007-2008 game Thrash, intended to simulate the storylines (and combat) of fighting games and battle anime. Since the creator of Thrash was kind enough to release it under a Creative Commons licence, I can cheerfully co-opt all his hard work and bury it under a deluge of new material.

I can also play BlazBlue until my brain melts and leaks out of my ears, and call it research. Which is nice.

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Bandwagon update

Math is hard.

Making basic classes for a d20 system that fall within acceptable bounds of smack takes a hell of a lot of thinking behind the scenes – a lot more than I expected. I’ve taken steps to reduce the number of variables I’m working with and the range of those variables, and it’s still a pain in the backside.

Oh well, back to the grindstone. I’ve started, so I might as well kick it into a playable shape before abandoning it to the world at large.

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Oh look, a bandwagon *jump*

So over on the GitP forums I got into a thread talking about what people wanted from the next edition of D&D. Glib comments about me not really wanting to play D&D any more aside, someone mentioned wanting characters to have things to do in combat and things to do out of combat, without having to choose between them.

And that got me to thinking.

D&D 3.5 has a set of rules for gestalting – taking two classes instead of one. (This always seemed needlessly powergamey and complicated to me but one man’s poison, etc.)

Rift (the MMO) has a system where a character can adopt three ‘souls’, each giving them a specific niche set of powers – my cleric, for example, has a soul that gives her tanking powers, one that increases her damage output, and one for single-target heals.

Vanguard (an older MMO) had a system where each character had their regular MMO fightin’-type powers and a separate track of social powers.

And now that I think about it, all MMOs track crafting abilities and combat abilities separately.

So! I thought about creating a d20 system with gestalt as standard, with a ‘combat class’ on one side and a ‘utility class’ on the other. I sat down and made a few notes, had a few thoughts, and 90 minutes later I’d sketched out about a dozen classes, some new feats, better skill use and a magic system closer to 3.5 psionics.

And now I figure I should finish it off, I suppose. I mean, everyone else and their mother are making a d20 revamp so I might as well give it a shot too. When it’s done, I’ll add it to the downloads section on the right. I may or may not post updates here or elsewhere.

Specificity? What’s that?

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D&D, Exalted and ‘game space’

Recently I’ve noticed an increasing tendency in myself that, when thinking about which games to run, I tend to ‘home in’ on indie games and other one-book-complete systems as opposed to heavily supported product lines. Give me a core book, a sample adventure and some example antagonists and then leave it the hell alone.

For a while I thought this might be because I have become that most dreaded of creatures: a gaming hipster, always playing obscure games that you’ve probably never heard of and rejecting the mainstream on the grounds that popular = bad. *shudder*

But then I started dissecting this attitude. Why did I dislike 3.5 so much but like retro-clones? Why did I like Pathfinder when it was virtually identical? What is it about Exalted 2e that makes me slump with despair whenever it’s mooted as a system?

The answer to all the above is this: the vast and sprawling ‘game space’.

And by ‘game space’ I mean the total mechanical content of the game. D&D comes in about eleventy-billion books, most of which I do not own and have never read. The content for Exalted is spread across 20 books, half a dozen websites and two blogs. I have neither the time nor the patience to keep up with all of this.

The issue I have with an expanding game space is that every new release adds more mechanically distinct options for the players to solve problems. In D&D it’s spells and class features (and entirely new systems, like skill tricks or psionics or incarnum). In Exalted it’s charms, sorcery and artefacts. As the GM you have to track all of this to make sure that nothing in there invalidates the upcoming challenges you have planned.*

The important thing is ‘mechanically distinct’. I don’t mean power creep, where a new power is just flat-out better than an old power – that’s a separate problem – I mean that a new power provides a win button for a specific scenario that was previously tricky but possible to navigate, or that a new power makes a previously impassable obstacle passable. To pull an example from D&D, when a wizard hits level 9 and gains teleport a whole class of encounters becomes irrelevant. The new mechanical option invalidates those challenges. When a level 9 wizard’s player picks up the Spell Compendium… it’s all over.

Compare and contrast with 4e D&D, where all the extra races, powers and magic items really only amount to new ways to win in combat** (leaving non-combat challenges intact), or FATE, where you have an almost-infinite range of possible characters but new mechanical ways to solve problems are limited to stunts or powers (depending on which version of FATE you’re using).

So that’s why D&D 3.5 and Exalted are off the list of games I’d be willing to run these days, and why the aggressive proliferation of supplements for Pathfinder is increasingly driving me away. I have better things to do with my time than spend it tracking game spaces.

*Or you can ban all these new sources, but I find that problematic for a couple of reasons. First is the battle of wills that you must undergo with the player who wants something from the new source. Much like corporate law, ‘my game, my rules’ is a very straightforward concept with less than straightforward execution. Second is when the new material is actually a good thing – if it’s rich in flavour and cool stuff, for example, or if it fixes problems with the game as it stands. It’s good to let this stuff in, but it might still screw with your planned challenges.

**With a few notable exceptions, like that warlock utility power (level 2) that grants an at-will one-square teleport. In combat it’s underwhelming but out of combat it makes the warlock a challenge-dodging machine. The only thing that can stop him going where he pleases is a wall at least five feet thick.

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I love Planescape. I make no secret of this; I’ve got almost a complete collection of the original material and I’ve committed most of it to memory by now. Whenever I run games, the planes always intrude sooner or later. So, a couple of years ago I was thinking of running a Planescape game but I hit a bit of a snag: no version of D&D I know seems up to the job.

FATE, on the other hand, offers immensely flexible character creation (hooray for aspects), an integrated system for social shenanigans, characters who can be capable without being overpowered, and the ability to prep four sessions’ worth of adventure in about three hours.

So I took Spirit of the Century – the only FATE game I had access to at the time – and added enough D&D flavour to it that you could run Planescape with it: alignment (in the form of aspects), levels (an arbitrary measure of power), a reshuffled skill list, a more granular equipment system and a magic system that better reflects how D&D works.

And the result is Fatescape. You can see a link to it on the right-hand side.

It’s not quite finished yet – quite apart from the typesetting elements and writing that still needs doing, the magic system needs an overhaul and the healing mechanics have been changed based on playtest feedback but not yet incorporated into the pdf.

I feel here is an appropriate place to mention the existence of Strands of Fate, a generic FATE-inspired game that’s supposed to be able to simulate any kind of game with the basic FATE engine. When I started writing Fatescape, Strands of Fate didn’t exist; now it does I still think Fatescape is better for D&D emulation*.

Also, Fatescape is free. Freeeeee.

*If I ever run Exalted again, though? Totally doing a SoF conversion.

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Hello World

Eventually I plan to fill this space with stuff about games: primarily roleplaying games, but I’m a wide-focus gamer. I may also use it to plug fiction that I write, and as a vehicle for thoughts too long to go on my Facebook feed.

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