Category Archives: Mechanics

Synanthropes: How much difference can one word make?

So, here I am, working my way from Synanthropes v. 3.1 to 3.2. It’s a bit of a slog. But there’s one change, at least, I’m very excited about: DANGERS are gone. Stricken from the game. OBSTACLES are in.

Oh, there are other tweaks going on… Dice are different, in that you start with more of them but only succeed on sixes. In theory, this will increase the odds of doubles being rolled, and increase the imperative to seek out every opportunity to net an extra die possible, because seeking out every little advantage is very much in character for these little explorers. Will it work, or will it just make you feel too weak, too helpless against this big, scary world? We’ll see.

Clues are being tweaked as well, to keep the game pace rapid. I’m decreasing the number of clues required by two, and doing that by making the answer to one question a clue for the next. Other advantage: this means that the answers to questions will be by necessity spread out a bit… it’s a bit less freedom in the clues you get, but should make the overall flow of the game better. Will it work, or will it make the whole affair seem a bit too stagnant? Time will tell.

There are a few more nips and tucks in the works, but honestly, I think the most important change I’m making from one version to the next is replacing that one word, turning Dangers into Obstacles.

Because I believe in the power of words. A game lives and dies on its terminology. The difference between a successful run of any given game and an unsuccessful one (or even a great run and a merely good run) is in the attitudes that the players bring to the table, and those attitudes are shaped by a million different units of context, making them brave or timid or prone to explore or vindictive or argumentative or straightforward or whatever. The only means I have at my disposal of manipulating the attitudes of players (especially when I’m not at the table, facilitating) is through the appropriate use of words, to tick the right little boxes in that contextual supercomputer that is the brain which activates the subroutines for, in the case of Synanthropes, “I want to explore!” “I want all the stuff!” “I want to argue!” and so on.

For instance, “Artifacts” is a good word for making folks want something. It sounds important! That’s why each floor contains a Human Artifact. If it were called “Human Trash” or “Human Detritus,” then why would anyone care? It’s valuable, because I SAY it’s valuable, but if you keep referring to a thing as trash, over and over, then you begin to think of it as trash, or at least, begin to underestimate its value because it’s being associated with trash. But Artifact? Well, that’s a dead sexy word. Sounds like it belongs in a museum. There’s a hint of magic to it. It conveys in inherent mystery. Human Artifact.

So why are Dangers now called Obstacles?

Simple. A Danger is something you avoid. It’s there to be evaded, worked around, worried about, and, if necessary, faced–but not faced willingly.

An Obstacle is something you OVERCOME. It’s there to be pushed through, to be dealt with, to be faced as a matter of course… you want what’s on the other side of the obstacle, because it’s important! If it weren’t important, why would there be an obstacle in front of it, eh? Eh?

As a player, dangers are scary, obstacles are inviting. As a Narrator, Dangers are vague… they could be put anywhere, be anything, wiggle around uncertainly. Obstacles are concrete: they are between the players and the door, or between the players and the Artifact, or both. Sure, a clever Narrator can and should play around with placement, but when in doubt, “this thing is in front of the door to the stairs” is a never-fail proposition.

Certainly, there are other implications, one of which being that everything on the list of obstacles must be something that stands between the players and the conclusion of their mission. I’ll drop a few of the more argument-based dangers, and add a few more creatures and constructs to stand in everyone’s way. That’s minor. That’s just… busywork, at this stage. The shift in tone and presentation is going to be more relevant, I think, to keeping the game moving the way I want it to.

Will it work? Well… I’ll find out Tuesday, I suppose.


Escape Velocity: Breaking down the Launch

Breaking down the Launch.

(Part two of a series about designing Escape Velocity. Read part one here!)

Short reminder of the rules of Escape Velocity: You build a rocket out of cards, each of which is a component, that you lay out in front of you. You use this layout to determine some starting facts about the launch, then shuffle those components and play them one at a time.

I’ve been doing a little designing, and I have an idea what the components will look like:


Uh. In theory they well look better than this. That’s a Lateral Turbine Thruster, and the little lightning bolt in a circle is a point where it attaches to the body of your rocket. It’s a work in progress, but I do like that it’s currently got a lot of things to consider: Altitude, G-force, Danger, Safety threshold, Drag, Special abilities, Connection points AND its physical place on the rocket all play a part, and that’s keen, man. Keen.

But while that’s something I’m working on, I’d like to talk a bit more about the mechanics of the game.

The heart of Escape Velocity, I hope, will be the Launch phase. Ever so much of the game exists in vague and nebulous thoughts in my head, but the Launch? That I know what I want it to look like. This:


I… I want it to look like a sword, I guess? Okay, I’m cool with that. It’s a sort of a sword, made out of cards which have been laid down on a smooth bit of table; in the event that I do not finish this in time for the Minigame deadline, or I’m not accepted, it might be best to restructure that into a small board, but for right now I’m restricted to using cards, and cards will work just fine.

Let’s break down the bits with the handy Color Coded Chart.


In green, the meat of the thing, is the velocity/altitude track. I put the slash because I’m not sure which is the better term, although I’m leaning toward the latter. Either way, this is the road from Earth to space. As you’re building your ships, you will add the ten, nine, eight, etc. cards to this line every turn, to serve as a visual reminder of the limited time remaining to assemble your rockets. The bottommost card in green is meant to be a little rocket, and when you draw that from the deck it signifies that now is the time to blast off!

In blue, beneath the blast off card, are cards for weight. The weight of your ship will be determined by how many cards you used constructing it… every five cards on your ship adds one “Weight” card, for instance. These are always added below the altitude track because they are a part of it, representing the added difficulty big ships face even getting off the launchpad. The pawn representing your rocket is placed at the bottom of this line, as in the picture. Bigger ships have a longer climb ahead of them, and a huge enough ship faces a significant challenge just getting to the blast off card; it’s possible to build a ship which can’t even make it off the launchpad. Smaller ships might not have any weight cards at all, for an easy takeoff, but they won’t have a lot of components during the actual launch.

Drag, in purple, is also determined by the construction of your rocket, although in this case it’s a matter of symmetry. The drag card is two-sided–on one side an arrow which will point either left or right (depending on which side your rocket is overloaded), and on the other a neutral circle (if you built a symmetrical rocket, with the same number of cards on either side of the central control module card).

Some components will naturally drag you to the left or the right when played, illustrated by that little arrow in the corner, which you indicate by shifting the Drag card a space to the left (putting it under G-Force) or the right (under Danger). You can go a space beyond in either direction as well. After that, any further drag will make the rocket spin out of control, so you have to compensate with specialty components or components with drag in the opposite direction. Oh, why the double-sided marker? Because some components DON’T have drag of their own… unless your ship is asymmetrical. If your arrow points to the left, then anything that says it has no drag actually has drag to the left.

Danger, in yellow-gold, is the representation of all the tiny things which might just go wrong. The construction of your ship might increase it–components are attached using different types of connection, represented by symbols in the point of attachment. In the above card, it’s an electrical connection, rather than a fuel line, mechanical, or nuclear connection. You have to match point to point, but they don’t need to be of the same type… electrical can connect to mechanical, but that indicates a jury-rigged rush-job, and increases your chance of danger, pushing the card up one spot even before your launch. Additionally, some components are so badly-built or experimental that using them knocks up the danger as well. This matters because each card has a “Safety” value, somewhere between 5 and 10, If you play a component whose safety value is less than the current Danger value, your rocket explodes. And of course, you have to play all of your components.

Finally, in red on the left, is G-force, which is easier to explain. Anything that increases altitude also increases G-force to some degree, and very little (if anything) lowers it. When it increases, move the card up the appropriate amount. If it hits 10, your astronauts are crushed beneath the weight of their own hair. Don’t, uh, let that happen.

Launch phase, then, is a quick process, in which you shuffle your components into a little deck which you’ll play out one card at a time and note the results on the board. So, if you played the Lateral Turbine Thruster as your first card, your launching setup would look like this:


+3 to your Altitude/velocity, +3 to the G-force, drag to the left, and danger up by one. Because the Safety Threshold is well above the current danger, we don’t explode, and because we’re under altitude 7, the special effect doesn’t hit (not all are altitude-based, many factor in the prior card or alter the next one, some are inherent bonuses/detriments, and some are optional effects, like the parachute which lets you abort a mission at any point). Repeat until you’re out of cards OR your ship is crushed, blown up, or thrown off course. Leave the pawn where it is–standing up if you survive, on its side if you don’t. Highest standing pawn wins, unless everybody is blown up, at which point the highest pawn wins. Compare budgets in case of ties. Some components may have alternate victory conditions, that’s still being determined. Lots is still being determined. But the launch… that’ll look like this.

Escape Velocity!

Hey, here’s a couple ways magic could work (but consider other options if you want to)!

… yeah, okay, I guess I can talk about how Fate is a a supremely hackable game, and that’s all well and good, but what does it prove, exactly? Not a whit.

So I’ll just go ahead and write that sidebar I was thinking would be nice to have.

1) Low Magic– think Conan, or Xanth, or any setting in which magic powers are best thought of as individual gifts. For instance, the Twilight universe. Ugh. Anyway. A wizard in this sort of low magic setting isn’t someone capable of a multitude of spells, so much as he is someone capable of one single act of magic, which is rare enough that it makes him notable.

We create a skill; call it “Magic” or “X-factor Mutation” or “Psionic gift” or what have you. Anyone who wishes to have access to magic MUST take this skill, but it does very little… depending on the setting, knowing Magic might be useful in a knowledge check, or having Psionics might be generally useful in creating advantages with a little mindreading, but those should be minimal functions, and there are absolutely no direct attack or defense applications.

The ability to actually DO something is a stunt, one which creates a rules exception (for instance: Power of the Blaze: You may make a command of a source of fire nearby, which will attempt to obey you. You may ask the fire to extinguish itself, grow hotter, or travel where you wish it to go). In order to activate this stunt, you must roll using your “Magic” skill against a target set by the GM (or, if your spell is usable as an attack, against someone’s defense).

Advantages: This makes it easy to make every magic-user quite unique, but doesn’t allow any one to be so powerful that they are overshadowed entirely. The spells attached are necessarily powerful, and might be easily made delightfully idiosyncratic. The GM can do a lot of fun things when the caster fails or ties as well; a psionic attack might have a minor cost expressed in mental stress and a major cost as a a Minor Consequence, for instance. A tie roll for the Power of Blaze spell might work, but force the caster to take the aspect “Now I’m on fire!”

2) High Magic– For worlds of arcane schools, where just about everyone knows a little magic; many D&D-style universes run like this, or the Elder Scrolls, for instance. This might also apply to worlds of high technology which allows for myriad powers.

Rather than one “magic” skill we create a dozen, a score, a ridiculous number of arcane schools: Evocation, Illusion, Charms, Transfiguration, Necromancy, so on and so forth. There’s a fair amount of work on the outset here, because we need to know how all of these work, and the players all have to be on the same page; is there any way Necromancy can be used as an attack? What is considered an Evocation? Where do fireballs come in? (In another setting, it might be “Just what can Power Armor do? Can a Cybernetic Enhancement Suite be a form of attack? Where do lasers come in?” or something of that nature). Lots of questions. But once we have these schools set up as skills, being able to cast is simply a matter of using the skill to do something appropriate to that school, provided the skill is at Average or above–no casting with a Mediocre skill!

Advantages: It’s very easy to take on a little extra magic, if that’s something that interests you. It’s very, very hard to excel at all forms of magic; players still start with ten skill slots, so a player who wishes to be master of all ten schools of magic is going to, by necessity, ignore all other possible skills. Great wizards are therefore terrible at being anything but wizards, and even folks who wish to be primarily casters are going to wind up with gaps in their skill set if they want to have any luck with basic athletics, rapport, or will.

3) Middling Magic– Great for a world of superheroes, or wizards who can’t rise to truly epic power levels but still have plenty of options within their sphere of influence.

Rather than defining a number of magic schools at once, every player is allowed to create a single skill which reflects her High Concept; if she is a “Downtrodden Illusionist” then she can create the skill Illusions. Optionally, the skill might come from another aspect… if my Trouble is “Fighting the curse of Lycanthropy at every step” then I might be able to create the school Lycanthropy. Like in high magic, take some time to discuss how all of these skills can be used… when can Lycanthropy create an advantage, and can Illusions ever be used to attack, things of that nature. Every player then takes the skill they created, but no other “Magic”-type skills. They can take stunts off this skill as usual, but nobody else gets access to it (unless they also have an aspect that would confer this skill; some NPCs might, though the other PCs probably should not).

Advantages: This gives the players a broad set of wondrous abilities to work with, but doesn’t force magic to take over the setting; its great for superheroes who need to have flexible skillsets within their power and who don’t want to see someone who has the same exact power as them. It’s also easy to code in mundane folks (no special skill) or more powerful threats (two or more special, unique skills). Also, this makes the creation of magic/powers very much player-focused, which is always good.

GMotW: The Electoral College

1960 cover
“Players should now claim the state seals for every state where they have state support cubes. At this point, players may total up their electoral votes (displayed on the backs of the state seals) and determine the winner.”

I’m feeling a bit political. Just a bit. So I’m looking at a rule from Z-Man Games’s absolutely delightful 1960: The Making of the President. It’s a game about a close run for the US presidency that puts players in the shoes of Kennedy and Nixon. And it’s a rule which you can see in a slightly less “gamey” form in no less a document than the constitution of the United States, good ol’ Amendment XII:

“The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed.”

… that is to say, my game mechanic of the week is the Electoral College system.

“But wait,” you (theoretically) say, “The Electoral College isn’t a game! It’s how we elect the dang old president here in the dang old USA!”

To which I say… oh isn’t it? Of course it’s a game mechanic, and you can see this by looking at how interesting it makes 1960, which is, incidentally, a terrifically fun bit of political strategics that I’m not allowed to play with my wife anymore because I always win (it’s okay, I’ve never beaten her at Dominion, so we’re pretty even). It allows you to view states as strategic tools and compare them effectively; Michigan is twice as important as Tennessee  but roughly half as important as New York. If you have a lock on Texas, I can’t equal that out quickly, but if I’ve got enough momentum in the West I can grab all four corners and that’ll be pretty close. If it’s down to the wire, maybe we’ll both fly to California and throw campaign points at one another because nothing else can change fast enough to make a difference. The Electoral College allows Kennedy and Nixon’s players to create varied strategies regarding how they approach the map; this is what lets the game be about more than drawing cards that make you look good and pumping time into issues and advertising. The most basic choice is between pumping your efforts into the big three–NY, CA, and TX–and defending them from attack, or spreading the love around to the other 47 which get you significantly fewer votes per campaign point spent, but can’t be taken away so quickly, but there are any number of variations to try; focus on one quadrant of the map, keep your best cards hidden until debate season and then sweep the big states, throw everything you’ve got into endorsements and then just keep your opponent as deadlocked as possible, so on and so forth.

It’s a neat system, and it’s fantastically gameable. Just like in real life.

“But wait,” you (theoretically) say (again), “In real life there are no contests over New York or California or Texas anymore. That’s not how campaigns have been run for the past two decades or so!”

True, I say. That’s when we go off on a long talk about metagaming. You know, the game about the game… the reason that tiers exist in fighting-type games: there are methods for working with Meta Knight that allow him to outpace Kirby in every way possible, such that competitive players don’t play Kirby anymore. To say nothing of Ganon, who nobody wants to play as. Metagames, the reason you can write a book about chess that’s longer than, like, ten pages.

Metagaming is the reason one can look at an element of the game, for instance the entire state of Washington, and acknowledge that it is, by and large, irrelevant. Oh, it’s got points, and if you can snag them that’s good, but there’s no impetus to do so as anything but a half-hearted side-action when you’ve got campaigning energy to spare and you’ve already locked in California.

But that’s in 1960 again. In real life, the Electoral College metagame is so gosh darn locked in, neither Washington nor California matter, which is why, if you are politically minded, you’ve probably realized that the past six months of campaigning have been spent all but exclusively in trying to win over Ohio and, like, six other states out of fifty. Presidential Candidates focusing on a West-coast state? About as likely as chessmasters opening a game by moving their knight into the A or H column!

(This is incredibly unlikely. I looked it up.)

Now, this is about as political as I’m likely to get here, so let’s swing away from things that don’t work really well for management of a country and re-iterate how well they work in order to codify a facsimile of a country, because they do. They let you game, they let you metagame, and they let you scheme (which really makes you feel like Nixon), and it’s just a game so nobody really cares that Alaska is literally not worth campaigning in under any circumstances. Ain’t no cardboard Alaskans getting disenfranchised!

Bleh. Enough of that.

GMotW: Settlers of Catan.

Settlers of Catan cover

Settlers! Oh, a classic. Oh, THE classic. There are folks for whom tabletop gaming means Monopoly, and folks for whom it means Warhammer 40K, and folks for whom it means Fiasco, but if you get those three together around a big-ass hexagon I don’t doubt for a minute they can come together and have
a delightful time celebrating ruthless imperial expansionism.

Woo, take that indiginous peoples! We gon’ cop some resources!

Ahem. Settlers has a long history, a ton of expansions, an empire of its own, and a game mechanic of the week:

“If you roll a “7,” no one receives any resources.”

The whole point of Settlers of Catan is to get resources, so why am I excited about a rule telling me not to do so? Indeed, one which means that one roll out of six is going to mean that nothing gets produced, even though all I need is ONE. GODDAMN. SHEEP. in order to build this last settlement and nudge my way gently toward victory?

One of the defining features of Settlers, one which tends to get a little lost or muddled as expansions are added, is that its really a game about low stakes and narrow margins. It’s a game in which no player can be more than seven points ahead of another, and it’s not difficult or even really uncommon to steal the two-point Longest Road or Largest Army away from someone else; four points of swing in a game where every point matters is pretty nuts, you know. In my experience this often leads, especially with Longest Road, into an arms race, where whomever has the longest road is frantically trying to keep it going, at least until her opponent gives up or she maxes out on road segments.

Because the stakes are low, and the margins are slim. Two points is everything to a settler, and in the same way a good shepherd spends an entire afternoon searching for a single lost sheep, a good settler spends turn after turn after turn defending a her two points, ignoring the opportunities to build a settlement or cash in for a development card. The margins are that small.It’s easy to recognize a board where this has happened: the roads go nowhere. They drift off, well away from settlements, curcumnavigating the island, passing on two sides of the desert, nearly looping around themselves. There are only 75 places to even stick a road on this dang board, it’s not easy to make one go nowhere interesting, but man, when an arms race develops, you can tell. And why does this happen?

Because that four-point swing is DEATH. The game functions at its best when we are scrapping for every point, when we’re desperate for every resource, when we’re willing to overlook the fact that Orange is a self-serving conniving little bastard who only wants out wood so he can build a new settlement right where we want to put one, because dammit, dammit we NEED that ore or we’re never going to get a city to crawl out of the mud on this god-forsaken rock!

(Maybe your games of Catan don’t get as dramatic as mine do? Maybe you’re playing Settlers of Catan wrong?)

…which brings me back to rolling a seven. It does a lot; it moves the robber, it halves hands which have gotten too big, it lets the roller engage in a bit of petty theft, but most importantly it stops resources from being produced for one turn in six. It does a lot to ensure that resources are scarce, because if they weren’t scarce, I wouldn’t give a crap and a half about my longest road. I’d say that, well, two points suck to lose, but let’s just drop a road out to here and lay a settlement and quick-upgrade it into a city because I’ve got a MILLION resources to use or trade and now I’ve got two points back that ain’t nobody going to take away from me, and then I’d move on with my life.

But no. I can’t count on resources coming up. I have to hold on to every point I got with a desperate, manic fervor. I have to roll the dice with my heart in my throat knowing that even in the mid-to-late game, when I’ve got settlements on nearly every number and can count on getting something for my trouble most of the time, there’s a one-in-six chance that I’m going to suffer the heartbreak of a seven, and I’ll need to stretch my meager hand a little more if I want to scrape together another desperately-needed point.

GMotW: Dominions & Discard Piles

“A player places cards he Buys or otherwise acquires during the game on his Discard pile unless he is specifically directed to place them elsewhere.”

Oh yes, Dominion (and by extension, Donald X. Vaccarino), how I love you. Enough to make you a Game Mechanic of the Week.

I’m not willing to say that Dominion is the best board or card game on the market right now, but I sure as heck am willing to put the idea in your head, and I’m definitely willing to suggest that if you haven’t played Dominion or any of its expansions, then you should make plans right the heck now. Or just scoot over here and play an online edition. Go on. I’ll still be here when you get back.

The conceit of the game is that you are a lord with, well, a dominion, and you spend your turn acquiring funds, and useful buildings and workers to make it run, and the ever-important huge plots of land. Everything is represented by a card, and your deck of three estates and seven copper coins will swell to bursting in a handful of turns, as you get more and more great STUFF. It’s fantastic, its wonderful, and it creates this wonderful balancing act: money boosts your buying power, action cards let you do useful things, and land is what gives you victory points. It all gets shoved together in one deck, though; you can’t choose what you draw, and you draw a new hand every turn. In this way, it’s a great impression of being a feudal lord: you make the best use of the resources you have at this moment, and try to engineer what resources you will have in the future to benefit you, and don’t let your greed for land distract you from the fact that land is actually a drain, taking up valuable space.

One of most clever ways this is enforced is by preventing you from using the stuff that you have. When you buy a card, it gets thrown on the discard pile, and doesn’t enter your hand until you’ve gone through your entire deck, at which point you reshuffle the discards, knowing that whatever useful item you have acquired will show up at some point, but never being able to tell when exactly that point might be. Doing this strips away your ability to do any short-term planning; you can deal with what’s in your hand right now, and you can set up possibilities down the road, but the next turn is always going to be a mystery for you. More to the point, the cards you acquire aren’t useful immediately, mitigating the possibility for a player who draws a decent hand to suddenly steamroll over everyone else by buying up All the Cards.

It’s also a lovely testament to the power of exception-based gameplay. The rules to Dominion are ridiculously simple: play an Action card, Buy one card, then Clean up your area of the table. A, B, C. The fun comes in the Action cards, which let you do things like getting an extra Buy, or an extra action, or a free coin to spend, or trash a card, or draw some more cards, or gain a free card, or… you get the idea. You get to do some fun stuff, which works, without becoming convoluted and terrible, because the basic rules as written are so simple and specific. Just from this one, I can see a half dozen different ways an Action card might twist it:

Add a card right to your hand for possible immediate use.

Put a card on top of your deck, ready for next turn.

Put a card on the bottom of your deck (which fluctuates wildly in how useful it is).

Put a card on your deck and then shuffle the deck; it’s coming but you don’t know quite when.

Put a card in your discard, then shuffle the discard pile right back into the deck.

Put a card next to your deck. On any following turn, discard a card from your hand to pick it up.

… and more, ever more esoteric variations, each of which alters the playing field by messing with this one simple rule, because, like all of the rules of Dominion, it’s made to be broken by the action cards. OBVIOUSLY having a bureaucrat on hand means you can guarantee some money on the short term; he shifts cash for you! Obviously having a trading post means you can get some money immediately; it’s where money comes in! Obviously a chancellor can let you discard your entire deck; he, uh, uh, makes things flow more efficiently while he’s there such that the items you acquire aren’t going to lie fallow for some time. Something like that; there’s a thematic layer there which the mechanics supplement. It’s lovely.

That said, I don’t think I’ve ever won a game of Dominion against my wife, which is why I don’t know when if ever I’ll be playing it again.

Aliens and Otherkind

One thing that strikes me in gaming, and I’m far from the first to make this complaint, is that aliens and other non-human races are rarely anything more than humans in funny hats. We see this in full display in D&D and its ilk, which is unambiguous in making human a default template for all creatures: squish human down and give it low-light vision and you’ve got a dwarf, turn it green and pump INT into STR and it’s an orc, and so on.

Obviously, you can give your non-humans different powers and limitations; you can say the robots get no benefit from medigel and ghosts can walk through walls as if they were open space. But they’re still fundamentally human. Talk about culture, talk about psychology, fill in a thousand generations of fluff to explain why drow get +2 to Torturing or whatever, and they’re still HUMAN. A talented and clever role-player can make them seem like a true Other, and that’s all well and good, but from a basic, mechanical level, they’re still based on the same mold: everything in the D&D universe sees the world in terms of Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Constitution, Wisdom, and Charisma. That is the core of EVERY race, and that prevents them from being truly alien; even if you stick something in the world with a 0 in Strength, or a -1 or a ‘null’ or whatever, that’s still a part of their mindset, it still defines their approach to the world, and it prevents them from ever being truly alien from the default, human template.

What’s interesting, or what I find to be interesting at any rate, is that there is a world of differences to the default human template. Oh yes. In D&D, there’s no such thing a fatigue; you don’t get tired. In GURPS, you have fatigue points, which can drain. D&D humans are adventurers who don’t stop. GURPS uses 3d6, which creates a bell curve with 10 as the average roll. D&D uses a single d20; 10 is still an average roll, but every number is equally likely. GURPS heroes are far more consistent than their D&D counterparts. My point isn’t that one of these is better or more realistic or more fun than the other, my point is that one can try to build one character using both systems, keeping him or her as equivalent as possible between the two, and still end up with two characters who are ALIEN to one another. Two identical dudes whacking kobolds with a sword, one of whom is like “what do you mean you can’t keep this up for a full16 hours without passing out?” and the other is like “what do you mean, 5% of the time you just straight-up miss for no obvious reason?”

To put it another way, one has to conserve energy but knows every hit will most likely count. One doesn’t, but knows they might not. These two humans are more alien to one another than any human/non-human pair within either system.

The big question then: can we use this to our advantage? Funnily enough this is something one sees in board games or card games fairly often of late: two sides who function so differently as to be playing effectively different games (see Netrunner or Fury of Dracula for quick examples). In RPGs though? I see a form of it in DnDNext of all places, where the different classes function in a manner incomparable with one another (i.e.: wizard magic, warlock magic, and sorcerer magic, which are both mechanically AND narratively differentiated from one another at a fundamental level). But even then, the stats are the same, swords get swung the same. I want to see it turned up a notch.

I want to see a game where the stats are different, and not even really related; where one group has standard ability-style stats, while another has In a Wicked Age’s purpose-style stats, and still another has Apocalypse World’s style-style stats. Elves can do feats of strength, but only when acting For Others. Gnomes can pull of feats of strength, but only when its Cool to do so. Humans can pull off feats of strength if and only if they have high Strength. In this instance, it’s easy for players to game the system (or systems, as the case may be), but it will create characters who are forced to approach problems in wildly different ways, and who can never truly place themselves in one another’s shoes.

One step further? What if their basic interaction with the game world was different? What if they used different mechanics altogether? There’s a pile of d6s on the table; the humans build pools to try and gain a target number of successes, the mer-folk roll a pool of assumed successes and count those which come up as failures, the pixies roll a pool and add it all up trying to hit a target number, the robots roll a set number of dice and try to form patterns, and the manotaurs don’t even look at the numbers, they just collect dice and spend them to punch things really, really hard. OH MAN that would be a nightmare to adjudicate and OH MAN the concept of balance would be even more laughable than it inherently is but OH MAN, OH MAN I could totally get behind such a thing.

But that’s an extreme example. Even at a more minor and controllable level, changing the stats a PC uses can alter how they see the world. I have Strength, Constitution, Intelligence, Dexterity, Wisdom, and Charisma. You have Battle, Endurance, Knowledge, Speed, Perception, and Trickery. We are similar, but we are different. We can be Otherkind.

In which I design some DnDNext classes!

I know, exactly what you were hoping for. Hey though, we’ve got two new classes to look at and I am SO HAPPY that I could just about faint because, friends, because they have put in something that I love. That I yearn for. That tickles me in all the good ways. Classes which are mechanically DIFFERENT. Utterly so. Not just in the effects that they have, not in the roles that they play, but at a fundamental way: sorcerers, warlocks, and wizards are all arcane classes, they have the same life-goal (cast some spells) but they feel different from the ground up.

The three arcanists are all playing slightly different games, you see. The wizard’s is a game of prediction, planning, and the constant, low-level hunt for More Spells to satisfy their need for infinite flexibility… on a day-to-day level, at least. From moment to moment they are utterly inflexible, and rely on what they have on hand. The sorcerer’s game is simple resource management (they call it Willpower, but we all know its Mana), with this mutation caveat: they gain powers by losing mana and being transformed by their bloodline: better to give in now and be powerful or be cautious and remain flexible? The warlock’s game is about finding the right moment: he exists at all times where the others are near the end of the day: two spells from empty. But man, those spells are intense, and once he catches his breath, he’s back up to fighting speed.

It’s great! It’s a fantastic melding of mechanics and story, where one acts in service of the other. I LOVE when mechanics and story act in service of one another. I wrote a paper on it once. Good times.

This, I think, is what DnDNext is doing really, really RIGHT at the moment: making different classes feel really different. Can they keep this up?

… probably? I don’t know!  I’m excited to see, but you know what else? I’m excited to attempt. Yes, why not. I want to make some classes… call them Class Predictions for where 5E is going to go. SO. Who’s next? Well, who else would we consider to be core classes?

Paladin, of course. Ranger. Barbarian. Bard? Sure. Why not.

Paladin: Let’s get the easy one out of the way: non-Vancian divine caster. Bam, right here. I like the Paladin as something of a cross between the sorcerer and the warlock; that is, he gets a pool of mana (call it “Faith” or some such) that has to last him through the entire encounter, but he can renew it once he’s had time for a short rest and, most importantly, a short prayer. This keeps him encounter-focused, which makes sense for the Tank of the Gods. The biggest challenge is healing, if we want to make HP recovery difficult (which I think isn’t that great an idea, but I can see the trouble with an infinite HP-fountain). Simple solution: all his healing effects require the expenditure of hit dice on the part of the healed. BAM, so you can heal at increased effectiveness, but you can’t heal indefinitely. Optional: a negative effect which occurs when he spends his last Faith point.

Ranger: Okay, easy mode: expertise dice, but for rangery things! That’s really the easy mode for every martial-type class, so we’re not going to use it. We’re after mechanical differentiation. My inclination is to focus on the “hunter’s quarry” aspect of the Ranger: he focuses on one creature and can make its life hell. So, he chooses an enemy, spends an action observing it, and gains Advantage against it (rather like the 4E Avenger). So, middling damage, great hit percentage, good striker. Fun enough? No? Well here’s where we pull in an aspect of expertise dice: every time he rolls, he can sacrifice this Ranger’s Advantage in order to fuel a useful effect, such as a dual-weapon attack or a disarming shot or, better still, shout an order to his animal companion, depending on his ranger schema. Optional: favored terrain, favored enemy, all that rot which I can take or leave.

Barbarian: Another option where emulating expertise dice makes sense, only we’d call them RAGE DICE!!! or sommat. Boo to that. Still, the nature of the barbarian is to leap in and out of a berserker state, we need not change overmuch from 3.X… though I’d like to do away with the post-rage fatigue, because, man, what’s fun about that? Still, I want a better measure of berserk rage than flat bonuses and counting rounds, because tactical elements make things so much more compelling. So… rage dice. BUT, but, but, he starts with two or so, earns one a round, and can’t spend them until he starts raging. They recharge when he’s not raging, though he needs a critical mass to re-enter a rage state. Optional: self-destructive potential of rages. Being fatigued for a while is lame, but losing a hit die whenever you enter a rage is a more long-term worry.

Bard: Hm. Difficult one, because, well, what IS a bard? Pulling from D&D history, he’s been devine, arcane, mostly rogue, mostly wizard, loremaster, quick-wit, and so on. There’s too much to go on, so let’s start from scratch. Let’s challenge the basic assumption that Bards Cast Spells With Music. No, bards have some magic, but its minor, and supports their jack-of-all-trades aesthetic; useful but never game-changing. To me, this means cantrips; no mana, no limits, just a tone of level-0 spells. Bards are cantrip masters, like Swiss army knives: a million tiny tools, coupled with some skill bonuses and excellent performance ability. Optional: music-based buffs. If they’re included, they’re like stacking cantrips, or Pathfinder’s Words of Power: each round you add another tone, which causes a tiny effect which adds onto previous ones, up to a level-based maximum. Easy to disrupt, but potentially useful.

Okay, so, it’s August 21st as I write this; no further classes have been revealed yet. I’d like you all to note this, so that if the remainder get shown, and the Paladin/Ranger/Barbarian/Bard are exactly like I predicted, I can declare myself to be a prescient GENIUS.

On the Generation of the Stats

Yesterday I went on a bit of a rant about random stat generation. That’s fine; rants are good for the spleen, after all. But today i felt I’d like to talk about that a little bit, and start clearing up in my own head why it is I feel this way. You can come too! Everyone’s invited!

First, let’s define a few terms. When I say random generation of attributes, I mean that certain fundamental characteristics of a character are decided using dice or another randomizer, like cards or what have you. Specifically, this is a concern over statistics of a character, not over actions of a character… using dice to determine how many HP a character loses is totally fine, but using dice to determine how many HP she HAS to lose grates upon me. Likewise, randomly determining skill levels and attribute values is frustrating, even if every use of those skills and attributes involves a dice roll. Random equipment and appearance factors and mutations and whatnot… that’s potentially here as well, unless there’s a dang good reason I should step into the world with random stuff in my pocket and DNA (Gamma World, for instance, where mutations come and go with the breeze and most equipment is laughably useless). And just for the record, even when the randomization is heavily weighted–“Roll 5d6, dropping the lowest two, eight times, dropping the lowest two, and put them in any order, and if there’s anything still under ten reroll the whole process again”–I still hate it.

Why? Well, let’s start by rescinding something… yesterday I called random generation a pennyfarthing: i.e.: an outdated technology which is notable only for its ridiculousness to modern eyes. Well, that’s unfair of me. Random generation has its place, and makes perfect sense, for people who see character generation as a part of gameplay. You see… a set of game mechanics creates a world, after all, one which operates on a set of rules and which, more often than not, features an element of chance in every interaction. Obviously, then, an element of chance exists when you come into this world; just as a person doesn’t choose who or what she is born as, a gamer shouldn’t be able to choose exactly what his or her statistics are. Like a real person, she just makes do with what she is given, apportions her energy as best she can, and runs with it. Fine. That makes for certain challenges, both for a person whose rolls average low, and the person who is forced to take a dump stat for one preposterously minimal roll. Even the high-roller with two 18s has to figure out how to play their character as the superhuman it is, and some folks love that roll-playing challenge. That’s fine. That’s dandy.

… that’s simulationist. UGH, it pains me in the gut to even bring up the term, to talk of that triad of simulationist/gamist/narrativist, but reductive as it is, it really does apply here. Random generation makes sense for a game that is about presenting a World that is meant to be, in its own terms at least, realistic. You know what, though? Screw realism. Screw it! I don’t want it here!

(Aside: I know that my viewpoint here is biased but I am utterly, utterly baffled by people who disagree with me. In RPGs and video games as much as in more traditional media, I am a fellow who craves stories because I value what they can offer BEYOND mere realism. Mamet can tell us all about how life is a desperate and pathetic struggle, but Beckett can do it better. The various Counterstrikes can be visceral and exhilarating, but never as much as Team fortress 2. Stylizing the world can purify it, cutting off the dross and leaving behind an idea more powerful than one which sits in a simulacrum of the real world.)

I am (heavy sigh) narrativist in my viewpoint. The story is the thing… the progression of characters and plot, not according to the rules of the world but according to the confines to the drama. To me, an essential part of this is separating character creation from the game, because the character is NOT a part of the world. No, no, a PC exists in the Abstract Story, which is an external affair. She is crafted, and has a journey put in front of her, and a purpose in life, and all that good stuff which is anathemic to random generation. What if I don’t want to tell the story of the guy with a 3 in Charisma? What if I don’t want to tell the story of the lady with three 18s? It’s not a balance issue, it’s an ownership issue: she is my creation, so I cannot help but take umbrage when control is taken away from me, just as much as I would if the GM declared that she walked into an obvious trap against my will.

When do you gain ownership of the character? DnDNext makes it clear to me that ownership begins at step two, after the attributes are generated but before they are assigned. That’s not okay with me… I want ownership from moment one. I don’t think that makes me unnecessarily greedy–I’m not opposed to playing a character who is weaker than his associates–but it does make me controlling. I’m okay with that.

You disagree? That’s fine too. Play however makes sense to you. But I am going to be a little perplexed and, yes, annoyed when a game I have some emotional investment in makes it clear that they don’t stand with me.

More on steam…

Continuing from yesterday: I’m working on a steampunk RPG because I have a particular genre philosophy which I don’t think has been effectively met yet. The game must be about Props, because that’s essential, but there must be an inherent steampunky aesthetic to the props, and to talk about that I’d like to briefly mention my old fried Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura.

Crafting was a major part of that game, at least if you went the non-magical route, and so it is likely to be a major part of my game (though I’m not even close to sure of the mechanics as of yet). The idea was easy enough: you get a blueprint for something, say a Tesla gun. It asks you for two ingredients, always two… in this case, a Tesla rod (a short-range electric weapon) and a sniper rifle. Now, on the one hand, there’s something ludicrous here: there’s nothing in a sniper rifle that makes sense in this application–it fires bullets super-fast using applied chemistry, and a Tesla gun fires bolts of electricity. Bits of the Tesla rod make sense, until you note that the primary ingredient in that is a shocking staff, a melee weapon which needs have no ingredients that send the bolts of energy flying. But that’s part of this aesthetic… pieces of gadgets aren’t really there for the reasons they would be in real life. No no… they convey ESSENCES. The staff has the essence of electricity in it, which is lent to the rod which alters that essence to bolts. Next, there’s the sniper rifle… it’s got chemical energy-powered bullet propulsion, but really it’s got the essence of distance… that’s what it brings to the party, and that’s the logic we need to have on hand when we set about crafting.

So that’s what I want to work in. And the first step of that is to look at the ridiculous steampunk frippiries… the gears and pipes and blinking lights… and say “Okay, these need to make sense. Even if they’re just hot-glued on and not connected to the mechanics, they have to have an essence which they bring to the party”. And from that we get the four Styles, the closest thing this game has to traditional attributes.

If it is Props which make an Adventurer, and we are here of the assumption that it is, then what is it that makes the particular class of Adventurer which we would call Steampunk? What is it that separates the paragon of Victorian science from those lesser sorts of adventurers (note the lack of capitalization) who delve dungeons and sling spells? What distinguishes a proper Adventurer from a pulp-noir detective or a Lovecraftian un-hero or even an atom-age science hero?

Well, Style, of course. Doesn’t it stand to reason? Oh, certainly, there are ideologies to be dealt with… there is a zeitgeist unique to the steampunk world, but that’s not as fundamental as the fact that, blast it all, if you’re a steampunk Adventurer, you have gears all up on your hat and whatnot. You’ve got springs and wires all sticking out of your shoes and winding up your calves. Your watch is decked out in flashing lights and gems of a modestly alchemical bent. In short, your Props are covered in Steampunk Filigree: decorative nonsense in a particular decorative mode.

Oh, but it’s not nonsense, is it? Though an observer might think that you have merely hot-glued some old cogs to your battered top hat, they don’t realize that, because you are a Steampunk Adventurer, this fashion of Decorative Filigree actually works! Gears and cogs are used in watches, which are meant to be unerringly precise, yes? And so it stands to reason (a certain sort of reason) that gears and cogs are emblematic of precision in all their forms. Thus if you have rifle which is covered in gears, it is de facto a more accurate rifle than one without! The logic is unerring. So too, if pistons and valves are used to provide the raw power to machines–they are the muscles of automatons–then an object decked in pistons and valves must allow its operator to use more force. A hat with such mechanical fripperies isn’t useless: it allows your thoughts to be more forceful, granting you a greater capacity to think your way through a puzzle.

Springs and wires are essential to the tools of thieves and assassins–hidden blades rely on the silent transfer of energy–and so objects of that bent are especially subtle, and lights and gems are the domain of alchemists and other fringe scientists, and objects of that construction can better perform acts of alteration and manipulation.

Accuracy, Force, Subtlety, and Alteration. These are the Styles of a Steampunk Adventurer, and they are bound immutably to gears, pistons, springs, and lights, respectively. A Steampunk Adventurer’s Props are ever-accompanied by one or more of these decorative elements, which enhance its abilities in a way which makes perfect, logical sense.

Styles and props, you see, work together in a manner drawn from my own Lifestyles of the Lich and Famous; a prop gives you a pool of dice, and your styles determine the die types it contains. Gluing gears to your hat means that you can pick up an extra die for Accuracy when you’re using that prop (which, if it’s like most hats, means that your Mental Accuracy–that is to say, your perception–is extra strong).