Monday, November 22, 2010

Still Working

Between work, family, and travel, I have lagged behind my Big List Of Attacks testing--however, it's still going. I would estimate it'll finish sometime in January (considering that Thanksgiving is this week, I'm traveling the next 3 weeks for work, and then Christmas and so on). However, the list is good and the testing is proceeding (I'm doing a form of Plasma Blast right now).

I got asked two questions in the comments so I'll take them here!

Poster Thomas5251212 Asks About Using Psychology Rolls on PCs in order to "make suggestions" to them about how an NPC might be coming across.
This is a key element of roleplaying: can I play a smooth guy if I'm not smooth? How about a sexy-vamp if I'm not real sure how to roleplay that (or just don't want to?). While there are some issues with "efficiency" of session wherein if the least smooth guy always plays the smooth-talker it may lead to some jarring results (especially if the play allows the player to say whatever they want and then make a roll to have it be convincing--this could lead, for example, to a case where a player verbally abuses an NPC and then rolls to make s/he respond in a positive fashion ... something that I wouldn't fault other players for finding distasteful*).

JAGS is very explicit about not hijacking your character: if for some reason the player's roleplaying is outside what seems reasonable or acceptable (a fantasy elf talking in modern-day vulgar street-lingo would be an example) then we think that's for the people to work out first and foremost. This also goes for your alcoholic player refusing to drink: if you're going to refuse to drink, why play an alcoholic in the first place? And if you play an "alcoholic but it doesn't really screw him at the wrong times?" Well, we're okay with that--that's one reason the negative Traits give fairly few points: they don't try to 'balance' the defect.

On the other hand, what if the GM wants to make an NPC a great leader but isn't quite sure how to pull it off ("He, uh, makes a speech like in one of those movies ... where, uh, it motivates everyone ..."). How about using the Psychology rules on PCs (something the rules don't allow) but doing it as a suggestion the way Traits work?

Short Answer: Yes. I think that's a great idea.
Long Answer: Yeeeesssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss. I think that's a great idea.

Even Longer: This is exactly the sort of advantage that you get from treating the rules as a framework instead of as gospel. Reading that the GM can strongly suggest behaviors or motivations to PCs based on their Traits is in the rules. Expanding that to Psychology is a darn good idea (it's one we didn't think of--but when looking at it, to me, it makes perfect sense). 

I'll go even further: although these rules are not fleshed out in the game as well as they ought to be, the GM could feel free to tempt players with Success Points for playing along with these.

We're considering having an optional rule where, when a player commits to a psychological manipulation as caused by the rules they can pick up SPs (subject to GM approval, etc.). This is meta-gamy in a way a lot of people won't like (hence: optional) but it can also lead to otherwise canny players taking risks they might not want to take (such as "being persuaded by the slick-talking guy who might be a con-artist") when otherwise they won't bite.

So, yeah--that works for me.

Is Intellect Worth Less than Other Stats?
This is also a good question: in a fight? If you aren't a Psi, magician, or Chi Fighter? Yeah: clearly less. And if you are then the pay-off is usually WIL and not MEM or INT. Also: what something is 'worth' is pretty heavily influenced in JAGS based on "what it's worth in a fight." 

So why are they costed the same?

Firstly, they kind of aren't: You can get more MEM for the point than WIL or INT. But that's still not gonna fix things if you are looking at "raw effectiveness."

Secondly, there are some things you can get in the basic game (and there will be more in the Revised Archetypes book) that sort of "convert" WIL into combat ability (Will To Fight). However, paying a premium on top of buying the WIL isn't going to make it work for you either if, again, you are concerned about raw combat effectiveness.

So is it worth less? In one major sense, yes: objectively from a combat perspective, if you put points in INT (and sub-stats) you will tend to fight less well than other characters unless you are directly using those stats to fight (as in a Telepath or Magician). This is, as you'd expect, pretty logical.

So why not make it cost less?

Well, there are some purely technical reasons why we don't: do we charge differently based on if you're a Telepath or Mage? Would that result in games where most tough guys were smarter than magicians--or equally smart--or whatever? Would that make sense? I also want to note that we have rules in place so that characters can be powerful espers or whatever without buying up mental stats so you can be a powerful low-Willpower Telepath ... it's just an odd way to build the character and not that much cheaper.

There are some aesthetic reasons (having brains be cheap just seems ... off to me). Having one stat cost differently than the others would be ugly and would be another rule to learn.

But the real reason? Our play experience? Our play experience (and some people I've played with will disagree) is that players don't mind having smart/will-ful/etc. characters who pay the listed price for those things. In other words, where we play, the market-economy bears this out.

Let me make two points:
  • The GM should be trying to facilitate a good time. If someone wants to play braniac characters and there's never anything for them to do in the games someone is probably failing somewhere (unless, somehow, the player and GM are fine with the braniacs never having anything to do--which would be weird). This doesn't mean that every adventure must include a logic puzzle that will be solved with RES rolls or anything prescriptive like that. It just means that if, given Drama rolls and science skills and WIL-based abilities, if players are buying that stuff and there is never any use for it, we think that there's room for improvement and the game system will support it. 
  • It's my feeling that it is better to pay points for some ability than get it for free--and if I pay a lot to be "smart" and I get to "be smart" (or whatever) in the game in a meaningful way then I'll feel supported by the system.
Let's look at that last one for a second. In a game created by a friend, everything about your character that wasn't combat was free. It was anime-inspired so we were all super attractive martial arts expects to begin with--but other things (being rich? Being able to play a musical instrument? Being a surgeon? Or a Scientist? All free). He felt this was the best way to go with the characters so they'd all be equal in combat.

I won't say it didn't work--but my feeling (and others--and to at least a small extent his) during playtests--was that having all that "color stuff" be "free" really did kind of make it "color." Except for one character's floating sailing ship--that was a hell of a freebee and he even went light on the cannons (something it wasn't clear he needed to back down on).

That same player plays a lot of scientists and has greatly shaped how I think about those characters in games (I'm not inclined to play a scientist most of the time). If those abilities were cheap it seems that, to my experience, it would somehow 'cheapen' the investment as well. 

It'd be a little like if the character in my friend's game system solved all his problems with a cannon-laden flying galleon: that thing was free ... he could fight as well as our other characters ... and he also gets to hold towns hostage and fly around when the rest of us don't even have horses and so on (of course we could all get horses--or our own flying ships ... after all, they're free, right? We determined that wouldn't be good for the game either).

So the answer is two-fold: 
(a) As I believe that a healthy gaming dynamic will give those characters stuff to do --and--
(b) It's my experience that the cost is right

I conclude that, to the question actually asked (about my experience) the answer is: the costs for those things work.

HOWEVER: people can easily disagree. I have considered (and may consider again) ways to increase those stats for games that do not include Psi, Magic, Chi, etc. It's the same issue with being very strong in a far-future space marines game: if everyone is wearing power-armor and using plasma cannons then being able to bench 350 isn't going to be worth a lot.

But that's also true in a game where everyone plays lawyers or accountants and I'd think that characters in those games might want more than just Strength re-evaluated for costs as well. I don't know any real way to do that without having some kind of computer system for character creation and a list of parameters entered by the GM--and that'd be ugly too.

* Note that I would expect the GM to have the right to intervene here and stop play until this was sorted out.


  1. On a somewhat related note, thinking about the game last night: Traps Skill, in the dungeon environment, is 1) highly valuable and 2) cheap enough that the PC's are now statistically unlikely to find traps challenging, absent an occasional bad roll.

    More generally, I think skills are cheap enough that it's not hard to get so good at one that it's use becomes (more or less) a formality.

    There are a couple of easy answers, neither of which are compelling:

    1) Jack up the price of skills
    2) Jack up the difficulty levels so that if you have a 23- skill, you're routinely facing -10 traps and have a modest 13- chance of success most of the time

    #1 is bad most of the time -- in most cases, relatively cheap skills are good for the game. And they're not *so* cheap that everyone's a chess-grand-master / master-chef / top-gun-pilot / super-hacker / doctor / etc. Simply raising the cost of skills would wipe out character distinction (amongst other problems)

    #2 Is more do-able and -- ultimately -- the game should go there in a controlled manner. Right now, -6 is about where most 'natural' obstacles top-out (sight and range mods, for example). There would need to be codified benchmarks for higher-level negatives.

    But simply raising the difficulty as the skills go up is problematic as well: It encourages a sort of treadmill effect, where you're never actually getting any better because the challenges pace improvements (again, this is over-comeable with a good benchmarking system).

    Note that Traps in a D&D-dungeon-type setting is the clear-est example of an inexpensive non-combat skill being useful and so-cheap-that-it's-trivial to get a super high roll, but any game that places a premium on a non-combat skill would be an issue.

    A #3 option we've used in some other games (the Micro-Kaiju game, the ESP game), we've addressed this by making "what you roll on" mostly *not* the skill, but a number derived from your skill *level* -- which is okay, for certain subsystems, but if you keep doing this, it simply devalues the skills in a way that's not good.

    Thoughts on solution in next post...

  2. Here's what I'm thinking as a potential solution:

    A) Generally keep basic modifiers in the -1 to -6 range, with rules for how they can go up arbitrarily, but with mods above -4 or so representing fairly extreme situations or situations where multiple, compound challenges work together to be very difficult to manage.

    B) Get more specific about what success / failure means (for skills in general and for specific situations) in a way that makes a successful roll (made by 0 or greater) always valuable but /not/ always overcoming the challenge (example: if you make your roll by 0 or more, you detect the trap, but don't necessarily disarm it)

    C) Provide a framework so that there are challenges which are difficult to over-come without additional skills or advantages. Ideally these would be fairly cheap -- the idea is to have a framework for needing and buying versatility

    In practice this would look like an optional skill-generic subsystem (much like the Drama system) for defining a more nuanced set of challenges and the capabilities a character would purchase to be able to overcome them. Like Drama, these would be invoked when playing in a game world where having a more nuanced appreciation of the challenged faced would be fun.

    To illustrate with a non-specific example: let's say that, in general, "difficult" problems (negative modifiers worse than -2) sometimes require a "specialization" or they are much worse (double the modifier).

    So, if you're a Traps guy, and you're trying to disarm a -3 booby trap, and it requires a specialization you don't have, it becomes a -6 trap (note that it's still -3 to detect).

    In a perfect world, there would be an enumerated list of specializations for every skill, but let's say we punt on that and say that there are, in general, 4 "areas of specialty" for each skill and you get one "for free" for each level of your skill above 1 - so a level 2 guy has a specialty in one area, an L3 in 2... maybe L4 definition ally gets *all* specialties)

    So let's say this -3 trap has a randomly determined specialization of 'hearts." (one of the four types of trap specialization. If the party traps specialist (assume L3 skill) has "clubs and diamonds" as his free specialties then this trap is at an effective -6 to disarm.

    The GM could specify further specialties (maybe some more rarely needed than others) and players could purchase additional specialties with CP.


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  4. Thanks for the responses, Marco. Couple of comments:

    1. I'm actually of the school that says that at least _some_ player compulsion with skills isn't a great evil, at least things that don't operate on the decision making level (i.e. using Intimidate to apply penalties to the combat rolls of characters, but not actually forcing them to leave). But I realize this sort of thing is antithetical to some game ethos, so I didn't expect you to go there, but was curious what you thought about the "advisory" option.

    2. Mental Attributes: First off, perhaps I've missed something but I'm not seeing where Mem is cheaper than Reason or Will.
    But my real issue was that as the game is written, you can play a perfectly fine scientist or lawyer without investing in any improvement to your mentals at all. To some degree this is true of almost any skill, but with the Physique or Reflex set, there are secondary properties of having them that are benign in and of itself; REA is useful for any combatant for example, and everyone wants more DP. There isn't much like that in the mental set other than Perception.

  5. On the subject of mental stat cost...ideally I suppose you want to set up the system so equally useful statistics have equal base utility, then build on from that so that a character who benefits more from STR or INT has to pay extra to get full use from it.
    I've seen a couple of systems for this in various RPGs e.g.
    1) DC Heroes (3rd ed) had what was effectively a disadvantage called 'Linking' which you could apply to powers/skills. You had to buy points in the secondary ability equal to the stat (no higher or lower); the disadvantages being that damage to a stat would lower the Linked values, and that character advancement became more expensive since raising the base attribute required you to purchase increases in all the Linked ratings as well.
    2) Savage Worlds and earlier 2.0 Twilight 2000 had systems where stats had no direct impact on skills, but where the stat set a 'soft cap' on skill improvement; if increasing skill to > the controlling attribute, the cost doubled.

  6. CJC: I've played those games too and I like what they've done. I'll note:

    1. In JAGS you can choose to link your skill to your stat or not. If your stat is a 13+ ("high") then it pays to link it. If your stat is medium (10-12) or low (9 or under) it does not. So smart people make better physicists but a low-stat aged kung fu master isn't punished skill-wise for his low stats.

    2. Skill improvement right now hits a diminishing returns point in JAGS that is /not/ based on stats. Basing it on stats would be interesting and might be a way to reward stats 11 and 12 which, right now, don't help you with skills ... it'd likely be an advanced rule or something but it is worth looking at.


  7. The problem is while smart people make better scientists, you have to be either highly skilled or have multiple skills linked to the same attribute before it saves you anything; after all, the attribute costs CP too, so the sum of the attribute+skill total has to be cheaper than just the skill alone. This isn't usually the case with modestly capable scientists only having a single science.

    With the Reflex based skills the cost of the attribute is offset because they do other things; even Coordination gives you a lot of default combat skills in effect, since you can drop back to that attribute.

    And as you noted, there's not much point in having an 11 or 12 mental attribute, other than Will.