Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Problem With Damage In RPGs

Role playing games feature many kinds of conflict but physical conflict is nearly always a big part of the game. With that comes the problem of tracking damage to Player Characters and its effects. I haven't written much about the system I'm developing here on the blog, but now that I'm ready to playtest the "3D System" that's going to change. Here's a look behind the curtain at my reasoning for how I dealt with the problem of damage in RPGs.

D&D and many of the games that came after it use the idea of: "Hit Points." A character or creature can take a certain amount of damage before it's mortally wounded and goes down/dies. Hit Points as an abstraction of a character's survivability causes some confusion since it's tied to weapon damage. The concept is more of an expression of script immunity and games like Neoclassical Geek Revival are more explicit about it by calling them luck points instead.

Hit Points as a concept are illustrated by the typical action hero movie. Action heroes take a tonne of punishment over the course of a typical film. They are banged up, bruised, cut and bleeding all over, but never seem to loose their effectiveness as bad-guy-killing machines. Sometimes a particular wound will have some kind of dramatic effect for a while, such as John McLean's feet cut up by the glass in Die Hard, or Jack Bauer's heart being stopped during torture in one of the 24s. Even these consequences for critical hits are not permanent, resulting only in a quick bit of first aid or an ill-timed, dramatic nap. As characters "level up" in an RPG of this type they gain more ability to stay in the story despite the negative impact of opposing forces. Basically, they are allowed to be heroic longer and have bigger adventures. It's only that last swordstroke that really gets through the character's defences that actually connects in a way that matters. The one that brings the characters down is the mortal blow that can put a character into coma or a fight for it's life.

The Fifth Edition of D&D embraces this model by allowing characters to recover some Hit Points merely by taking a break to rest and recover and get them all back with a good night's sleep. Barbarians of Lemuria is similar, allowing the recovery of half of what is lost in a combat merely by taking a break to have a drink and rest. If Hit Points are just a matter of staying power and not actual serious wounds, they should be easy to recover.

My favourite part of 5e D&D is the fight for survival after losing all Hit Points. Rolling saves to either stabilize in unconsciousness or die without help show how deadly that last hit was. Old D&D countered the massive hit points with some things like poison and magical effects like a Medusa's stare coming down to a single roll to avoid death. Fail that saving throw and the character is dead, no matter how many Hit Points they had. Even the greatest hero could be killed by a serious threat. A poison dart was all it took to kill Achilles after all.

Playing big damn heroes is fun, so this abstraction works pretty well for a lot of games but some of the genre fiction that these games are based on takes a grittier approach. The idea that you could take a beating and still be as effective as you if were fresh also requires more suspension of disbelief than some people want in their fiction or games.

Some games stick with the hit point approach and limit them to keep things tense. Games like Talislanta and Barbarians of Lemuria have hit point values for characters that allow the character to handle a few hits, but there is no expectation they will ever be tougher than that. Traveller, which I talked about in a recent post, uses a random physical stat as a stand in for hit points. These values are pretty low compared to the damage that can be done so combat is over quickly, usually going to whoever surprises their opponents. It also makes combat in Traveller a deadly prospect that players will want to plan with care. In these cases every combat has the potential to be the last one but there's no expiration of the characters like you get with the hit point model.

At least as characters run low on hit points the players become more wary and don't want to commit to a fight they might lose. Even the highest level characters are slowly run down by a succession of combats. This change is a way of mechanically expressing the exhaustion caused by life-or-death struggle and the change in play to a slower, more careful pace is representative of the effects of exhaustion without having a direct mechanic for endurance. It's also why the Constitution stat in D&D is used to modify hit points. The healthier you are the more staying power you have for fights, adventures and shenanigans.

(One of Frank Frazetta's many paintings of Conan)

Hit locations are sometimes used to create effects from damage beyond coma/death so characters could lose the use of an arm or leg and have penalties to actions instead. I find that annoying to track for NPCs and it gets even more silly than hit points when the luck of the dice spreads the damage of lighter hits across all the locations for no effect. This one has always felt fiddly to me and never worth the effort to track.

Hit points are a nice simple solution to express a complex situation. Even when people don't understand how much is going on it still works as a game mechanic. As much as I like it in D&D and other games, I don't want to use it for the one I'm designing. Because my game embraces the pulp feel where heroes are worn down but still succeed, I decided to make damage an increasing penalty rather than a ticking clock.

Part of the inspiration came from reading Robert E. Howard's Phoenix on the Sword [Spoilers! this paragraph only] in which an older Conan is set upon by a group of assassins.  Because he's Conan, they can't get around his defences to land a definitive killing blow, but they do wound him making it impossible for him to do much more than defend himself. As the minor hits and cuts pile up he slows down and becomes more vulnerable. It is an awesome fight with great tension! It would be so much fun to play that way! As damage makes the fight more desperate players get creative to end it quickly. When that happens it's more fun for me whether I'm playing or running.

The old D6 System from West End Games had a wound track with increasing penalties. This method worked great for the cinematic action they were going for with games like the original Star Wars RPG.  There are other games that use wound tracks and some of them integrate them into the game exceptionally well. Mouseguard is a great example. I have a lot of love for D6 Star Wars though, and the more I think of it, the more I realise it may be game that gave me the subconscious push in that direction when I was deciding on the damage system for the 3D System. The pace of the game and the pulp-cinema swing of the action are things I love in a game. I've said it before, D6 Star Wars only needs little tweaking to be a sweet sword and sorcery game itself. Based on the pedigree of the wound track, I'm confident it will fit the feel of the play I want at my table.

My take on the wound track is pretty simple. Humans and their equivalents have two boxes in their tracks that correspond to Wounded and Down similar to the Wounded and Incapacitated statuses in D6 Star Wars. In the 3D System each box ticked means another -3 penalty so that Down character is rolling -6 to do anything and is more likely to push too hard and wind up dead than succeed. Other creatures will have different tracks but this model is the character kind of resilience.

The wound track is not enough though. It still doesn't catch the flavour of the fight in The Phoenix on the Sword or the other pulp fiction I'd like my games to feel like. That's why I added minor hits. These light wounds are the flesh wounds and bruising that can be shaken off or ignored with a little rest and quick medical treatment. These cumulative -1 penalties can build up in a fight and make it hard to continue a fight without ever threatening the actual life of the character. First blood is a serious advantage.'

"It is but a scratch"

The difference between wounds and minor hits is the size of the penalty (-3 vs -1) and speed in which they are recovered. A proper wound will take time to heal whereas a minor hit can be recovered from with a roll after some rest and possible medical treatment. Rolling to recover means some of these light wounds will persist in hampering the character's ability. The timeline is tight, and it means the characters can continue on, but fate will catch up with them eventually if they push things too far. This system blends the grittiness of low hit points and would tracks with the limited endurance of the hit point system.

From what testing I've done in scenarios for my #3DSytem, it looks like will work. We'll see how it plays soon enough. There's no perfect solution to RPG damage, but I'm hoping this one works out for my gaming style.

UPDATE/NOTE: In playtest the wound track created a situation one of my players dubbed the "death spiral" where the advantage gained by one side or another allowed them to push the loser into ineffectiveness quickly. That turned combat into a situation where the two sides fought for the upper hand and once it was secured surrenders started. In one case a character that was wounded stepped away from the combat and tried to help in some other way because they were too wounded to continue.

I enjoyed the moment to moment consequence and the way it changed the flow of the game from the abstract hit point style combat. I've rarely seen surrenders happen in D&D because the bad guys might be only one HP from defeat. No one wants to give up. Because the flow of the fight is obvious to everyone involved, the fight to the death is becoming less likely in the 3D System.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Religious Magic in RPGs

This post was inspired in part by the contest Zak S is running over at his blog: Playing D&D With Pornstars. The Thought Eater Tournament is a series of match-ups of two writers per topic to encourage better, deeper writing about RPG topics. The first one is about religion in fantasy role playing games and is something I've thought about a lot myself. More specifically, I've thought about the source of religious magic in RPGs while designing my own fantasy RPG.

We don't need to have actual gods to have religious magic in a game. D&D and other fantasy games have a long history of making gods characters in the setting. Certainly there was plenty of inspiration for meddling gods from the stories of Greek and Norse myth. Some of the fantasy stories that inspired the original Dungeons and Dragons had extra-dimensional beings locked in a war between the forces of law and chaos that spilled over into the fantasy world. It was often expressed as a kind of dimensional cold war fought through proxies who were champions and spellcasters given extra powers by their extraplanar backers. It also mixed in the crusaders, saints and biblical stories. D&D, especially the older editions, calls back to the legends of the middle ages and invokes the Arthurian tales of chivalry and knighthood.

With such material informing the setting it's no surprise you end up with gods granting spells to clerics and special powers given to paladins. For me it's never quite sat right though.  The idea of gods showing up, messing about with human affairs and having the odd affair of their own to create demigods has a certain quality to it, but it's more like the brat pack era of Hollywood than a group coming together over a common belief. Fantasy religions are less about faith and devotion to the idea than they are hierarchies with a supreme being at the top. They are more like corporations with clearly defined goals based on the godly portfolio coming down from head office.

With freelancers like adventuring player characters it's often a kind of contract. There's give and take with the godlike creature. Some characters who deal with extra-dimensional beings, performing sacrifices, other services and advancing their patron's goals in exchange for powers are called Warlocks/Witches/Cultists and others are called Paladins/Clerics even though at the core they are doing the same thing.

There's no reason why the existence of a god needs to be settled to account for religious magic. In a world where magic exists, reality is already disrupted. It can be bent and even broken with the correct pressure. In such a world a large enough group could form a kind of psychic pressure that could be used to disrupt reality in the form of miracles and other faith-based abilities.

A large enough group of people believing in an idea gives that idea power. The more people that believe, the more power that builds behind the idea. This power might manifest randomly in miracles and other unexplained phenomena. They could be mysterious like burning bushes, epic like earthquakes and thunder, or ridiculous like the visage of the god appearing in common food items like toast. Where it becomes interesting and gameable is when there are individuals who can tap into this power provided by the belief of faithful. People who can shape the will of others into particular effects like healing or even a plague.

These conduits of the faith would be as rare or common as is needed by the setting. They could be found leading a faith, drawing on the power of the faithful to perform miracles and gather more to their religion through these demonstrations of godly "intervention." They could even begin as charlatans who are suddenly surprised by their ability to perform real miracles thanks to the faith of their flock, despite having no belief of their own. The idea that a religious leader could fake it until they make it has all kinds of possibilities. They could also be individuals operating outside of a hierarchy as chosen champions, druids leading their communities, or even hermits serving in remote shrines.

It's the champions of the faith that are the most likely to become adventuring characters and played. Powerful missionaries carrying their message into the wide world or passionate believers living as examples in the dark times. Certainly a player character might want to build their own religion or religious faction of an established church. Depending on the campaign your group is into, the intrigue and challenge of creating a new religious order might provide the best adventure hooks.

When the characters get their power in the form of spells from some deity or demon prince there's not much incentive for them to do much in the way of religious boosting. If the character's power is tied to the faith of those following the same religion there is a good reason to spread the good word.

In game terms it could break down to numbers and distance. The larger the group the more power that would be available to an individual able to tap into it. How much of that power they could access would depend on the talent and experience of a particular character though. There would need to be some critical mass to get the minimum required to perform the most basic of miracles, the cantrip in D&D for example. It could be a number with some kind of meaning or completely arbitrary. Each level of power could require a different number of believers, growing exponentially from a single village to the population of a country or empire.

The distance would come into play as the champion moved away from the centre of religious belief. As they move farther away from the faithful the harder it is to tap into the psychic power provided by the belief of the masses. This could be overcome by setting up missions and chapels as outposts of the faith to form a kind of psychic corridor back to the power base of the faithful.

The idea that the smaller groups of worshippers could connect to the larger faith and carry the signal forward to the conduit of that faith like radio relay towers. If war or change disrupted the reach of the original religious organization the new churches could provide their own faith for the character to draw on. Regardless, there's an incentive for them to convert new followers and set up churches wherever they go. Also giving them something on which to spend any treasure they happen to find. The rest of the party might be keen to chip in since the one character's ability to access the power of faith affects their fortunes as well. The amount of available power would drop by one level for a particular distance so the faith of a theocracy might be felt and used on the far side of a continent or even ocean while a village of believers might only provide useful power out to a day's ride away.

As a factor of belief the faith magic becomes more dependant on religion and the religious instead of the terms of a contract with a god-like creature. This changes the game and creates some new incentives for players of religious characters to play their role as proponents of their religion or religious order. These are the reasons I chose this direction for the system and setting I'm working on for my own game but I don't see why the concept couldn't be used for any other fantasy RPG. It's just a matter of tweaking the setting a little.

In this model of using the common belief of the group as a source of magic rather than a god or group of gods gives the GM quite a bit of latitude in defining the place of gods in the game world. Their existence could be a question that is not answered, which is my favourite but certainly not the best. They could be remote and uncaring like Conan's Crom with the worship of lesser beings passing unnoticed. They might be like Terry Prachett's Small Gods that draw power from the devotion of mortals and are even created by it. They could need the worship to allow them power in the world. Perhaps with enough believers they could even enter it. That makes the Cthulhu cults a little more dangerous if they can frighten or bribe or fool enough people into devoting themselves to the great old one it might show up!

NOTE: This is an updated version of the original blog post. The original had an unnecessary definition of faith that people were stumbling over. I'd rather people engage the premise than debate my use of an overly simplistic definition, so I took it out.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Classic Traveller: Playing for the First Time!

Our Classic Traveller campaign is still fresh at one month old, but my wheels are spinning in my brain already!

I'm enjoying it so far. This little game is a tonne of fun! I was fortunate that our group decided to play Classic Traveller around the same time the charity Bundle of Holding put the majority of the books together for download at a huge discount. One of the beautiful things about the, "little black books," is how economical it is to print them out in A5 booklets on a typical office laser printer. I printed out a pile of books just to read them!

(Why yes, I did colour in the margins of the covers with a Sharpie. What of it?)

It seems a strange thing that I didn't play Traveller in the early 80s when I was starting to play so many other games, but the world was a much larger place back then. I lived in a city that could be best described as "remote" at the time. Without the internet and the new divided highways that connect us to the major cities in the south nowadays, we took what we could get up here. As far as RPGs went there were the TSR boxes in the Sears department store, the tiny collection of dice, modules and AD&D books at the hobby shop and a shelf at the comic shop located in the downtown core. Traveller just never made it to Sudbury. For science fiction RPGs we had Star Frontiers and eventually GURPS Space, but Traveller was a game I merely read about in Dragon. I played a myriad of sci-fi RPGs over the years, but Traveller continued to elude me.

After I joined the RPG enthusiast party that is Google Plus I heard more and more about Traveller and how awesome it is. It became something of an RPG bucket list item for me so I'm thrilled that we finally played it in our infamous Tuesday Night Hangout Game!

We decided to use the classic version of the game. The one that originally came as three, "little black books." Since the only one of us to play Traveller before was our GM he elected to keep it simple with the original game and only the basic books.

Those three books are a complete mess. They make the game harder to play than it needs to be. Don't use them. Seriously. The original books from 1977 are 'organized' along the similar lines to the original D&D, "little brown books," with one for characters and rules, another for starships and space rules, and the final one for world and adventure building. They look like they were typed out on a typewriter and cut and pasted together (which they probably were). There's no art and the layout is awkward at best.

(For the love of sanity, don't use these books!)

The good news is the game was re-released in a "starter box" in 1981 with a new layout and books separated into the core book, all the charts and tables, and the adventure book to get a new GM started. Arranging the rules in one book and referring to the reference book for charts makes gameplay a much better experience. Our group has already switched to the starter set. If you are new to Traveller, do yourself a favour and start there. The art certainly is typical of its era, but at least it breaks up the text and shows you what the standard designs of ships look like.

(Use these books instead. Trust me.)

What I love about Traveller is the scope of it. The universe is a vast sandbox of worlds where anything can be happening! The rules of space travel make communication a matter of going to a place with the news as cargo with weeks of time spent travelling in hyper/jump space. This means worlds can be lost. Wars are slow and devastating. Opportunities abound for the people who have managed to be at the right place at the right time.

Fortune favours the bold.

The implied setting is in a massive galactic empire that is preoccupied mostly with defence and commerce. The individual worlds and small collections of system are left mostly to their own devices in the vast bureaucracy that is the Imperium. There's plenty of room for adventure in such a place, doing freelance missions for Imperial intelligence, operating as a tramp freighter moving cargo from system to system on speculation, explorers searching for lost technologies from a forgotten age, couriers bringing sensitive information and packages to clients with discretion, finding opportunities for high risk cargo transport (smuggling), salvage teams/pirates taking what they can from the space lanes, power brokers getting involved in planetary politics, mercenaries doing the jobs that patrons need to keep some distance from, bounty hunters bringing in dangerous people or even kidnapping innocents... there's no limit!

There's a lot in this game that feels like the gritty sci-fi of the late 70s and early 80s. I can see the influence of Blake's 7 here and there. The movie Alien could be a Traveller adventure. So could the sequel Aliens for that matter. The psionics section looks like it is lifted directly from scripts of The Tomorrow People. With these rules I could even turn the old Canadian sci-fi classic The Starlost into a campaign.

Part of the beauty of the system is how well it has kept over the years. It still seems like a great RPG to run something like Farscape, Cowboy Bebop or Firefly. There are plenty of rumours on the internet about how Firefly is based on Joss Whedon's college Traveller campaign. It certainly translates well and the idea of it shows how a GM is not bound by the implied setting. It can be taken down to a single star system full of inhabited/terra-formed worlds clustered together in an almost clausterphobic proximity. Take away jump drives and you are back to the same age-of-sail speed of game. There's no reason to have a successful Imperium either. It could be crumbling like the last days of Rome or Asimov's Foundation series. The coming chaos creates opportunity for adventure and the necessity to search for older, better technology!

So far our game has a Firefly/Cowboy Bebop vibe to it. Playing morally flexible opportunists out in the far reaches of space is pretty sweet. Turns out we are not bad at crime. Not so good at mutiny or stealing ships, but low-violence crime is definitely our bag.

(everything I needed to fall in love with Cowboy Bebop is here in the opening credits)

That's a lot to say about the fluff for a game that is not terribly attached to the setting! There's plenty to say about the crunch too!

Crunch in the far future...

People talk a lot of crap about the character generation system and how you can die while making a character. Traveller characters are experienced, capable people. The character generation is a process of rolling up the experiences that made them that way. Not everyone makes it. Push it too far, stay in a dangerous service too long and your character is dead. The risk makes the reward sweeter and the whole process a lot more fun. There's an old joke about D&D that backstory is everything that happens before level 5. In Traveller you just roll all that nonsense and move on. Some characters don't make it to level 5 in D&D, so it goes in Traveller. If you get lucky with your stats survival is pretty easy. We haven't lost any characters during character generation yet. A couple of us had to make new characters after our first ones were blasted out of orbit by the authorities though. That was a rough lesson.

Combat is deadly! It is resolved after only a round or two. You don't want it going past that or someone on your side is going down. It gives the whole thing a pulpy, old-school feel.

(Poor Blake, maybe that surprise roll is important after all)

The basic mechanic for the game is a modified 2D6 roll for a target that is almost always 8+. The roll is modified by skills and occasionally exceptional stats. For our group success comes pretty easy when rolling two dice and adding one or two to the roll to get eight or more. Statistically, it is hard to fail as long as your characters are performing a skill they are proficient in. There's a -3 penalty for non-proficiency which is devastating on the 2-12 spread. This system reinforces the idea that you assemble a team of competent specialists to get things done. If your characters try something they don't know how to do they need to get lucky or it's not going to happen. Even rolling with zero bonus the odds are stacked against you. The simplicity of the system and the way it supports the basic assumptions of the game is elegant. I get why people who played it back in the day preferred Traveller to the mish-mash of different rules and resolution mechanics that was (and essentially still is) D&D.

("I make navigation look good.")

It's the little details that make this game feel like it could happen. For example, the ship a group is most likely to have is the Scout/Courier. A small ship designed for long distance jumps with a little room for special cargoes it's an obvious choice. The fact that one of the characters is likely to have one as a benefit of their service is important too. This ship has a weird thing about it though. The air filtration is a little wonky and the whole ship begins to smell like ass after a few weeks. There are quick fixes and expensive solutions, but the end result is the GM needs to track smell along with time for this starship. I can see the workhorse of the imperial fleet ending up smelly because some planet-bound bureaucrat decided the extra tonne of cargo was more important than the air quality.

The only thing I felt was missing from the starter rules is options for careers outside of the military or merchant services. There's just "other" as an entry that seems like little more than an interplanetary vagabond. I was thinking about writing up a set of six options to replace the single "other" option on the enlistment chart. Turns out there's already a book with 12 options already made up! I found out about The Citizens of the Imperium supplement on a G+ thread and purchased the PDF right away. It's not the all the same choices I would have made but there's no reason why I can't add to it. It certainly does the job of filling out the character options.

There are some wonky rules I'd like to see tightened up. The skills for combat are silly and inconsistent with the other skills. You have a skill for engineering to cover all work on drives and such. You have a skill for electronics for all electronics stuff. If you have a skill in flying fixed-wing aircraft you can still fly a helicopter at one less than your skill with planes. That's all well and good, but for some reason there is a separate skill for revolvers and automatic pistols. There's also separate skill for broadswords and cutlasses. All characters are assumed to have a zero level skill with all weapons so at least they aren't rolling at -3 with a weapon almost exactly like the one they are skilled with.

"It is my very favourite gun."

As a GM I'd hack that into weapon groups: Pistols, long guns (shotguns, carbines and rifles), automatic weapons, black powder weapons, laser weapons, pole-arms (including spears and fixed bayonets), short blades (daggers, knives and blades) and long blades. All of these are different enough to require a different skill. I might use the familiarity (one less than the similar skill) from the flight skill with similar weapons like short/long blades or similar firearms. We'll see.

I'm excited about where our Traveller campaign will take us. There's certainly nothing in this rules-light game holding us back at this point! I can't seem to shake a feeling of foreboding for some reason though.