Fatescape Under Way

Well, the first session in my new Fatescape test game was last night: it didn’t go too badly, all told, although there are a few places where the mechanics need shoring up. I’ve gone with The Shackled City as the module I’m going to run for them.

Translating the dungeon crawls into FATE is tricky, since I’m caught between several conflicting objectives:

  • Presenting the players with meaningful choices between routes through the dungeon.
  • Making sure key scenes get played out.
  • Cutting out as much of the pointless rubbish as possible.

The problem I’ve found is that if I cut all the pointless stuff and focus only on the key scenes, the dungeons become entirely linear. A lot of the meaningful choices in D&D seem to spring not from ‘do I go from A to B or A to C?’ but rather from ‘do I go from A to B via route X or route Y?’

I’m not sure yet how to convert that into FATE terms. The player choice of route from scene to scene should have consequences… hmm. I think there’s something in that, somewhere. I’m thinking some sort of flowchart-based dungeon design, where you map out which paths lead to and from which scenes (since in a site-based dungeon scenes and locations cross over to a great extent) and just make notes regarding the pros and cons of each path.

Yes, I’ll try that for the dungeons in Chapters 2 and 3. The second part of Chapter 1 offers enough interesting choices on its own that I don’t think it needs embellishment, but the following dungeons could do with some brevity.

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Marvel Heroic Roleplaying House Rules

I’ve been running an MHR game over on RPGnet for about a month now and, while I really like the system, it’s quite wonkily unbalanced in places.

That said, here is my list of house rules for MHR – this is at least partially for my own reference and partially for anyone else who’s looking into running the game.

Activate All Opportunities

This is a PbP concession rather than a problem with the game design – to keep things moving quickly, when a player rolls the dice they can automatically assume all opportunities are activated by the Watcher. The Watcher then gets to pile the Doom Pool high. So far I’ve been sticking strictly to the rules for adding dice to the Doom Pool – each PP lets you add a d6 or step up the lowest existing die in the pool – but I don’t think the game will be harmed if you take 3 opportunities and jump straight to a d10 every so often. If you do that constantly then the doom pool will be much smaller than the players’ PP stores but will have higher-value dice in it; which might be good or bad depending on the situation and the SFX of players and bad guys alike.

Counterattacks

The problem with counterattacks is that the defender has all the knowledge they need to make sure the counter hits, and the attacker has no recourse to prevent it. It makes counters far and away the best way to inflict stress, and lots of it thanks to stepping up on exceptional successes. I’ve seen two approaches to fixing this: either require that a reaction be an exceptional success before allowing for a counterattack (and that exceptional success not counting towards stepping up the effect) or spend the PP for a counter before rolling the dice, adding an element of risk. Or you could flat ban counterattacks, but I like having them around. My PbP is using the bolded solution, even though tracking precisely when people spend PP/doom in PbP is impossible – I’m happy to let it ride on the honour system.

Area

When I first read the Area SFX in the MHR rulebook I thought “this seems a bit much”. And, under certain circumstances, it is. Start with the assumption that one PP and one Doom die are of equivalent effectiveness. When someone spends 2 PP on a roll it requires 2 Doom to counteract that – but when they spend 2 PP on an Area attack against four enemies it takes 8 Doom to counteract it. (At least – since it costs a Doom die to roll an extra die and it costs another Doom die to keep that die for something.) To keep the PP/Doom economy on track I’ve just instituted the house rule that when a Doom die is spent on a reaction to an Area attack, it applies to all the reactions to that attack. So if I roll an extra die, I roll that die for all reactions. If I purchase an extra die for my total, all the totals get an extra die. I’m not sure how well it’ll work… but we’ll see.

Use Doom Dice to Shift Stress

A bit of symmetry here: PCs can spend PP to shift incoming stress from one track to another, but it’s unclear whether NPCs can or not. I’m specifically allowing them to do so, since when characters are throwing around d10 and d12 level powers you need a way to make the NPCs a little more survivable. This costs a Doom die at least as large as the stress being ‘deflected’.

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Rick Grimes: Player Character

Contains minor spoilers for The Walking Dead. You have been warned.

Recently I’ve been watching The Walking Dead with my girlfriend – who isn’t a roleplayer, although she listens with some enthusiasm to the wackier stories that I tell – and I have come to the conclusion that Rick Grimes, the series’ main protagonist, is a player character:

  • He benefits from statistically improbable events to ‘get the plot started’.
  • He’s really good in a fight. Guns, knives, fists, whatever.
  • His arrival in a situation turns everything straight to shit, while leaving him untouched.
  • Five minutes after his arrival, previously independent people defer to his leadership. Within a week “he holds this group together” in direct contradiction of the chaos he brings in his wake.
  • NPCs let him and his group hang around despite the fact that he causes nothing but trouble, eats their limited supplies, and contravenes every value they hold dear.
  • He’s heroic right up to the point where it becomes a problem for him, whereupon he switches to pragmatism of the most brutal kind.
  • Surrounded by implacable enemies, he sets fire to the building he’s in.

Does this remind you of anyone? I mean, he also loots the corpses of his enemies and steals everything in sight, but that’s just natural in a zombie apocalypse.

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Busy Busy

As usual, when I haven’t posted in a while I’ve got a lot of roleplaying-related stuff to talk about which I will now reduce to bullet-points because I still don’t really have time to go into detail.

  • I got absolutely battered as Austria (see previous post). Out of the game by the end of ’02. I made a lot of mistakes, but the definitive one was trusting Italy – which kind of annoys me, because it feels a lot like luck. I could have trusted Italy or Turkey and I chose wrong, but I’m not sure how the hell I was supposed to know that in advance.
  • I did manage to win a different game as France, but that was more because the guy playing the English was a steaming idiot and I rolled him up without even trying. It felt a little like cheating, to be honest. =/
  • Marvel Heroic Roleplaying has superseded Mutants and Masterminds as my superhero RPG of choice. It’s flawed, make no mistake, and the core book is a tangled mess of bad terminology and confusing cross-references, but it’s fast-moving and handles superheroics well. It’s also spectacularly easy to overcome most of its flaws because of the semi-freeform nature of character generation.
  • I’ve gained a new appreciation for D&D 4e, having read The Slaying Stone – which is the ‘level 1 module’ that should have been released with the game, rather than the fairly shitty Keep on the Shadowfell – and found the perfect genre for it: Xcrawl. Loosely speaking, Xcrawl is what would happen if D&D was repurposed into a spectator bloodsport in approximately modern times. Part Running Man, part X Factor. It was originally written for 3.5, but 4e is just a brilliant fit for it. It’s also suitable for a drop-in game, which has its advantages in this complex modern world of adulthood and shifting commitments.
  • Tomorrow is the very last session of Corporation, the LARP I’ve been joint running for the last eight weeks. It’s been fun at times, but by God I’m glad it’s almost over. I want my free time back.
  • I intend to fill at least a little of my newly vacant free time by staging another run of Fatescape. This time I plan to convert The Shackled City, which upon my recent re-reading is chock full of interesting NPCs for the characters to interact with. It’s got a lot of fighting in, but not quite so much as Rise of the Runelords (which was my original plan for a test run) and it wins out in terms of ‘other things to do’.
  • I recently bought and played through Diablo 3, meaning I spent the Jubilee weekend doing something that rhymes with Jubilee, at least. My girlfriend – who is not a gamer beyond the occasional venture into PopCap games – saw me playing, asked some questions, and has now logged more hours on it than I have. Just as planned… =3
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Diplomacy is bad for your health

I’ve started playing Diplomacy (the board game of armies and backstabbing in 1900s Europe) online, over at PlayDiplomacy.com.

Being Austria is stressful.

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No, THAC0 Really Is Inferior

It pops up time and time again on D&D threads: is the ‘ascending AC’ system of D&D 3.x (where better defences = a higher number) superior to the ‘descending AC’ system of earlier editions of D&D (where better defences = a lower number, dropping into negatives eventually) and their legion of retroclones?

There are a lot of spurious arguments floating around, the primary one I keep seeing being that ‘addition is easier than subtraction’. That, and that having +1 chain mail that gives a -1 bonus to AC is counterintuitive, which I sort of buy – although I’ve played enough AD&D to know that you get used to the idea pretty quickly.

Anyway, I was thinking about this in the shower this morning and I think I’ve realised why I prefer ascending AC: it involves one less step in the calculation of each to-hit roll.

d20/ascending AC

  1. The player rolls the d20 and adds their bonuses.
  2. The GM recalls the target’s AC.
  3. The two numbers are compared. Hit or miss is established.

THAC0/descending AC

  1. The player rolls the d20 and adds their bonuses.
  2. The GM recalls the target’s AC.
  3. The AC is added to the d20 roll.
  4. The result is compared to the character’s THAC0. Hit or miss is established.

OR

  1. The player rolls the d20 and adds their bonuses.
  2. The GM recalls the target’s AC.
  3. The to-hit table is consulted.
  4. The d20 roll and AC are cross-referenced on the table. Hit or miss is established.

It’s not much – just one extra step each time an attack roll is made – but it’s that little bit of extra arithmetic (or table consulting) that makes the THAC0 system less streamlined than the ascending AC system, and you make an awful lot of attack rolls in a typical session of D&D. As I’ve said, I’ve played enough AD&D to know that you can get used to it, but why should you have to?

That said, here’s a handy ascending AC conversion for Labyrinth Lord (which is my current retroclone of choice).

Attack Bonuses**

Level/HD Fighter/Dwarf/Elf/Halfling Cleric/Thief Magic-User Monster*
1 +1 +1 +1 +1
2 +1 +1 +1 +2
3 +2 +1 +1 +3
4 +3 +2 +2 +4
5 +4 +2 +2 +5
6 +5 +3 +2 +6
7 +6 +3 +2 +7
8 +6 +3 +3 +8
9 +7 +4 +3 +8
10 +8 +4 +3 +9
11 +8 +5 +4 +9
12 +9 +6 +4 +10
13 +10 +7 +5 +10
14 +11 +7 +6 +11
15 +12 +8 +6 +11
16 +13 +8 +7 +12
17 +14 +9 +7 +12
18 +15 +9 +7 +13
19 +16 +10 +8 +13
20 +16 +10 +8 +14
21 +16 +11 +9 +14
22 +16 +11 +9 +15
23 +16 +11 +9 +15
24+ +16 +11 +10 +15

0-level humans have an attack bonus of +0.

*Monsters with ‘X+Y’ HD attack as monsters of the next HD up. For example, a 1+1 HD monster attacks using the 2 HD bonus.

**It’s interesting, making this table, to note just how the numbers stack up. Monsters get murderous as their HD increase, being more likely to land a hit than a fighter at all levels up to 15 (and with more hp besides). Clerics, thieves and magic users all kind of suck by comparison although at low levels (where I assume most games happen) the differences are minimal. There’s no difference in attack rolls at all until level 3, so fighters have to rely on having more hp and better equipment until then.

Defences
To work out the AC bonus of a piece of armour, subtract the AC it offers from 10. For example leather armour (AC 8) becomes a +2 bonus, and chain mail (AC 5) becomes a +5 bonus. To make life easier, here’s a revised version of the armour table on page 15:

Armour Cost AC (desc.) AC bonus (asc.) Weight
Banded mail 85 gp 4 +6 35 lb
Chain mail 70 gp 5 +5 30 lb
Helmet 10 gp 5 lb
Horse barding 150 gp 5 +5 60 lb
Leather 6 gp 8 +2 15 lb
Padded 4 gp 8 +2 10 lb*
Plate mail 450 gp 3 +7 50 lb
Scale mail 50 gp 6 +4 40 lb
Shield 10 gp 1 less +1 10 lb
Splint mail 75 gp 4 +6 45 lb
Studded leather 30 gp 7 +3 20 lb
Unarmoured 9 +1

* Since padded armour is both cheaper and lighter than leather, and offers the same AC, I can’t imagine why anyone would ever wear leather. Perhaps it gives some sort of Cha bonus for being more stylish? Is it more durable?

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Traveller vs. 40K – Agency in SPAAAAAACE

This post stems from a discussion I was having with a friend of mine the other day (in Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury Avenue, in front of the RPG section, Purge the Unclean – a supplement for Dark Heresy – clutched in my greasy paw).

I don’t remember quite how we got onto the subject of Traveller vs. 40K, but we were both very much of the opinion that Traveller was kind of boring but the various 40K games made us want to get playing, and we started chatting about why this might be.

Traveller has its good points – and I’m not just saying that because I worked on Mongoose Traveller – primary among them the game of character-building. In a fit of contrariness the first character I ever made for MGT (and the only one I played) was a barbarian warlord whose background was pretty uneventful except for the bit where I found Space-Excalibur wedged in an asteroid. Other notable characters were the one-armed space postman (who had once started a war and couldn’t afford enough cybernetics to cover all his missing body parts) and the space equivalent of Paris Hilton (a wealthy debutante with no skills of note).

But the game itself is lacking something, and I reckon that something is agency. The default game mode of Traveller seems to be a group of near-psychopathic misfits bumming around the universe trying not to get stuck in dead-end systems where they can’t get enough water to fuel their stardrives and attempting to make as much money as possible. The thing is, you can’t really achieve much. The Traveller universe is a vast place and the scale so sensible that anything individuals do is unlikely to make any difference in the grand scheme of things. You might save (or doom) the occasional ship or planet, but it never feels like what you’re doing matters.

Compare and contrast with Rogue Trader, which is also a game of near-psychopathic misfits bumming around the universe trying to get rich. When you play RT you don’t start out scrabbling in the dirt like Traveller characters – you start out with so much money that on a personal scale it’s near-irrelevant. You start out with a warp-capable starship (with tens of thousands of souls aboard) and a bit of paper that says you can do anything you damn well like, so long as it isn’t heresy. When an RT character acts they leave a mark on the setting, because that’s the kind of scale they act on.

It’s helped by the 40K setting. Not only is it dripping with flavour that the Traveller setting lacks, but for all the GRIMDARK and the waffle about “to be a man in this time is to be one among countless trillions” it’s a setting where individuals can and do change the shape of worlds. The precendent is all over the fiction and the wargames. A single unchecked enemy – an unlicensed psyker, a genestealer, a chaos cultist – can bring about global destruction, which means that even in Dark Heresy (the 40K RPG where you are grubbing about in the dirt) your actions have major, meaningful consequences.

So, that’s what I think of that. If you want to create a scifi setting, either dial down the scale (Eclipse Phase) or dial up what characters are able to achieve with their actions (Rogue Trader, Deathwatch).

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One-Page Dungeon Contest

A few years back, somebody in the old-school D&D movement came up with the bright idea of a one-page dungeon: a small map, some sketchy notes, and you’re good to go. This is the sort of neat concept you can have with old-school D&D games, since the stat block for any given monster is maybe three lines long and traps need no more detail than ‘anything put in a hole gets chopped off’.

And, over the past few years there has been an annual contest revolving around this: the One-Page Dungeon Contest. I entered a few years back, and was somewhat discouraged that my clearly superior* dungeon didn’t win any categories at all – I’m still quite pleased about the dungeon which serves no purpose other than to give its creator a chance to fall about laughing at the unfortunate fates of the PCs within.

Anyway, I thought I’d enter again this year, since I had an hour to kill over lunch. My entry is The Cult of the Tyrant Kings, and while it’s got it’s moments – Gavrik who thinks he’s a minotaur is my favourite, followed by Usebio and Lara who have a flat 50% chance of being a couple on any given day – I think it’s going to be roundly trounced by some of the competition I’ve seen. Oh well.

Still, it’s been a useful exercise in brevity – as the editors at Purple Duck can attest, I have a tendency to get verbose when describing dungeons. Having to cram everything (21 locations!) onto one page, even without any system info, is pretty hard. Even now I’m thinking that the Tyrant Kings have legs; hitting their cult should either be the culmination of a more investigative adventure or start you off on another trail, and it was difficult to hold myself back from filling in the details in the adventure itself.

If you feel like entering there’s still time! Only, like, 10 days, but since you can knock one of these out in *checks clock* about 1d3 hours, that’s not a great obstacle.

*Dungeon may not have actually been superior. =P

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Fatescape 2.0!

Well, Fatescape 2.0 alpha – it’s still not complete, as you’ll notice if you actually read the thing (see if you can spot all the places where I went ‘argleblargle’ into the text in lieu of actual content).

Anyway, having completely overhauled the magic system and slightly overhauled the equipment system it is now ready for a second round of testing. I think I’ll try to run the Rise of the Runelords adventure path with it, since one of the stated design goals for that series was to include all the iconic elements of D&D: goblins, ogres, giants, dragons, evil archmages, a brief jaunt to another plane, and so on. If Fatescape can cope with all that and still be a fun, fast-moving game then I’ll be very pleased.

I’m also interested in having someone else try running it, with a group that I’m not in. One of my friends seemed interested so I’ll maybe nudge him and see if he’s ready to start another Planescape game – only this time I’ll not play in it, so I can get the feedback of a group of people who don’t have me to explain the rules to them as they go. I find house rules naturally form in that sort of situation, papering over the cracks where the game itself doesn’t quite reach, and I’m interested in swiping any good ones for myself.

(If you’re interested in giving it a go, feel free: here’s a handy link.)

Other News

I picked up a copy of a game called Microscope, which is an innovative take on a collaborative storytelling game that involves creating the whole of history, then zooming in on the bits that interest you and playing out no more than one scene at a time. I like it, but I can see it joining the ever-growing list of games to file under ‘neat idea, will never have the chance to play’.

It would probably be an excellent tool for collaborative world-building a la Burning Wheel, or if I was going to start a D&D (or Fatescape!) game without a predetermined setting – so perhaps I’ll get to use it that way in future – but as a game it feels lacking. Plus right now all the games I want to run – Fatescape RotR, Nobilis, Everway, Rogue Trader, Black Crusade – have settings built right in.

I think Microscope would also play very well online, with a few minor adjustments, but it’s still less a game and more a tool for enabling gaming later on. I dunno. I’d love to give it a try, in any case.

Other Other News

Doing a little more RPG writing for Purple Duck – Mark seems happy with my output even if I can’t stat up a Pathfinder monster to save my life.

A friend of mine sold me on the WH40K roleplaying games, especially Rogue Trader and Black Crusade. I also quite like Dark Heresy. Deathwatch, while more interesting than I thought it would be, still seems pretty boring.

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Gaming, Gaming, Gaming

So! Here are some things:

I have Nobilis 3rd edition! I like it, but my offer to run it for the locals was met with an echoing silence. Boo. My primary impression is that the parts that are based off Nobilis 2nd edition are clear, effective, and well-explained, while the parts that are new (Treasure, Projects) are the familiar impenetrable prose. It’s beautiful prose, no mistake, but it doesn’t explain anything.

And there’s a lifepath system for generating Nobles, which I initially rolled my eyes at but turns out to be awesome.

The art is exactly as bad as you have heard. Worse, possibly. That doesn’t matter, though, because the game is boss.

I have Everway! It’s the RPG WotC made before D&D 3.0 – a freeform storytelling game of fantasy superheroes that takes its inspiration from Planescape and classic mythology. Bearing in mind this game is from 1995 and it tanked on release I’m impressed at the ideas I can see germinating in there: point-based diceless stats, which you can also see in Nobilis; a move away from combat as the be-all and end-all; occasional spelling-out of the idea that player choices should drive the game and that all characters have a capital-M Motivation (both seen in Burning Wheel, among other places)… it says on the box “a visionary roleplaying game” and it really was.

Oh, and the primary* resolution system is something like a custom-drawn tarot deck of 35 cards. Flip the card, interpret it, move on. Clever! And very attractive. Heavily dependent on GM interpretation, though – giving the players explicit control over the outcome of their actions was still about ten years away at the time of this game’s writing – but I think, with a good GM, an interesting and flexible system.

*Well, not really primary. But it’s the one that stands out, and this isn’t a real review.

I’m playing Mage: the Awakening. If you want to read along with my exploits, I’ve started an actual play thread on RPGnet here.

Fatescape is coming along – I haven’t quite finished the magic section (the psionic stunts are missing) but it’s getting there. Now I just need to hack away at Equipment some more and it should be ready for another test run.

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