Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Negotiation Drama

One of our blog-followers asked me how to create a drama for the following scenario: the characters are members of the "Morrow Project" (Fun fact: in the original Morrow Project RPG you rolled 4d6-4 to get your stats generating a number from 0-20 with a strong bell curve. This was the inspiration for the JAGS roll. Additional fun fact: MP's sense of devotion to firearms modeling was responsible for the way JAGS determines firearms damage!)

These guys were frozen before a global nuclear war and are now defrosted 150 years or more later bringing high tech weapons and vehicles to a society that is partially medieval and partially Gamma World (there could be robots, ultra-tech weapons, and surviving AI-controlled installations, for example).

The PCs are peaceful in nature, seeking to rebuild--but there are now all kinds of warlords and fortress towns and such. One of the jobs of the PCs will be to negotiate peace and agreements between these towns. How would you do that with the JAGS Drama System.

Answer: Very carefully!

I don't have the mental cycles to do "all the math" (at least not right now) and I'm traveling which means that I'm not on my home PC with all its resources--however I'm going to sketch out a Drama for negotiation to show the thought process and give, hopefully, a foundation for the guy who asked to expand on if it suits his purposes. It's also quite likely I'll have made some foundational assumptions that will result in this drama being useless to him. That's fine.

I'll also note that "getting the numbers right" is a big part of this and it's not easy. This is DIY game-design almost by nature. That said, it's a powerful tool and we do give you a good deal of help. I think, in the future, we will give even more help (the Big Book of JAGS Dramas) but right now, this is what I've got.

Where To Start?
The place to start is to imagine what the actual game-play will be like. What's the imaginary situation(s) that you're thinking of? What would "roleplaying it out" be like if you could? What's at stake? Who are you up against?

Here are my assumptions:

  1. I will imagine that the PCs are generally negotiating against one person--a leader (a war lord or town mayor or whatever). This person will have a style and objectives and their town (material) and all that stuff in a "roleplaying" sense. There will likely be other parties involved but I'll assume each drama is pretty much PC-vs-1 NPC and that if you have to do 2 or 'n'-way negotiations what'll happen is you'll do them as separate dramas.
  2. Winning means you get your way (whatever that is) assuming there is any way they would agree to it. If "your way" means the death of the party you are against, it's right out. If you lose then one of two things happens (a) the situation collapses to war (or whatever the bad, unstable consequence is) or (b) the other person gets "his way." An example of this would be Town A is starving and Town B has food surpluses but doesn't want to give them up. If the negotiations fail (the PC loses) Town A will either attack Town B or be left to starve at the GM's discretion. It's possible that the food will still go but the price will be something like the able-bodied sons of Town A being forced into servitude or something bad like that. Generally once the drama is lost the GM will tell the players they can decide to take matters into their own hands but the morale of the loser will be really bad and so on.
  3. We will assume that roleplaying this out would look like a time-limited conversation of offer and counter-offer (or appeal to the good nature of one side ... or making threats or appeals to practical consequences or whatever). However we'll assume that in almost all cases there's a time-limit involved and that there's a pre-determined bad-outcome that is likely if the PCs can't intervene. Where a clear win-win scenario exists, the existence of the drama may mean that one side is simply being obstinate or irrational. In other cases there will be no clear win-win.

Determining the Type Of Drama
There are several types. The standard one is three rolls. Another kind is "open rolls" where each roll represents some amount of time passing or some other resource being used. I am going to opt for a Three Roll Drama against either a Charisma roll (Persuade, Charm, Recruit, or Intimidate), Diplomat, or a RES roll at -2 (I am putting in the -2 because I'll assume that raw RES without being combined with either skill or personal magnetism is weak for this).

Three roll dramas are good for time-limited situations. The selection of the Diplomat skill is a no-brainer: that's what it's for. The allowance of Charisma skills (which will be rolled against the target's WIL) is in there because if the team doesn't have a diplomat I'd assume that Mr. Slick (or Mr. Persuasive) is still pretty good at reaching accord. Since I want to encourage Diplomat, though, I am going to give it some other advantages as well (it can use Level 3 Advanced Maneuvers, for example).

NOTE: For purposes of the Drama I'll allow Charisma rolls to work on even "Named NPCs" so long as the actual roleplaying effects are mitigated by the GM. There are some complex reasons for this (I want to reward the ability without having a PC "mind-control" named NPCs) but essentially this would be explained to the players as "in the context of negotiations you can use your charming nature to be more effective but you still can't make them fall in love with you if I say they don't."

Difficulty Number
This is determined by the GM using the table in the book. The GM will also give the situation a "Flash Point" rating which is either Low, Medium, or High (possibly Very High) which determines how likely a failure of negotiation is to lead to war. This may be the "bad outcome" but will also be used in assessing Take Risk moves (see below).

The table is straight forward and will reward L3 (or L4) skills since it provides difficulty levels that just about require them to work properly (if the PC is entering very difficult negotiations it'll be tough to do with just a high Charisma Roll).

Choose Phase
So I go to Google and type in stuff about negotiation strategies and types of negotiators. It turns out there are a lot of these and they're all different. But I want to use some baselines from here so I come up with one that I like. Here are some URLs I looked at:

These are all good breakdowns of "who you might run into." The first one even has a matrix of types and outcomes and I love a matrix! However, I went with the third for simplicity. The GM will typically determine a person as:

  • A Fox: an I-win-you-lose deceptive type who is out for all gain and tricky to deal with.
  • A Bloodhound: a win-win type who will listen to reason if you can make sense. It notes that many foxes pretend to be bloodhounds
  • A Donkey: a stubborn or angry person with limited tools in their arsenal for discussion. They may not be tricky--but they are hard to deal with.
So the GM will secretly pick one of these. The PC can also pick one but can choose to change it for different negotiations. If the PC doesn't pick one, they are assumed to be Bloodhound.

I then looked at "negotiation tactics." There are lots of these (all the sites favor "find a win-win!" which is not helpful in a 'duh' kind of way). There's also lots (too much) of fine-grained advice around when to pretend to walk out or whatever. I don't want that level of detail--but I do want some PC/NPC interplay before we get cracking so I go with a Roshambo choose stage. I go with "Rock-Paper-Scissors." Here are the three approaches that will be chosen in secret (by the PC and the GM) before each roll:

  • Aggressive (Rock): the party is threatening the other or otherwise being highly assertive (threatening to walk, banging shoes on the table, etc.)
  • Principled (Paper) : the party is negotiating from a set of principles or conditions that must be satisfied (these can be rational in the case of a Bloodhound or irrational in the case of a Donkey--or a smokescreen in the case of a Fox--but it doesn't matter: that's their approach).
  • Accommodating (Scissors): While this stance doesn't give anything away the position is that the person is trying to be "the good guy" and looks prepared to give things up. This can be used to 'trap the other person' or might just be a submissive position for-real.
The winner of the Roshambo will gain +2 SPs If They Win The Roll. They get +0 if they don't (note: this could also give +'s to the roll or give SPs even if the winner doesn't win).

A Fox will get an additional +2 SPs if they choose one play they are strong at. This is also chosen in secret before the battle begins. Once the +2 SPs are won, though, the PC will know which play is STRONG for the Fox.

A Bloodhound will gain an additional +2 SPs for winning with Principled stance.

A Donkey will gain an additional +2 SPs for winning with an Aggressive stance.

The reason for doing this is that (a) choosing a stance and trying to figure out what kind of person you are up against seems to me to be "a lot like doing negotiations" and (b) it gives us something for other skills to do (see below). These kinds of decisions are also, simply, fun. Knowing that a person has a weighted victory towards one of the three choices makes Roshambo even more interesting: will they make their strong play and hope they surprise you with it? Or will they intentionally play a weaker hand and try to trick you that way?

The Use Of Skills
If the PCs have some skills they can bring them to bear during the drama.
  • Psychology: A psych roll at some negative (TBD) can tell what kind of person you are up against. If you make it well, you can tell what the strong suit of a Fox is. This happens before the drama starts if you can, at all, psychoanalyze the target.
  • Diplomat: This works the same as Psychology but at a -2. It'll still work though and if you are L3 or L4 you ignore that negative.
  • Con Artist: This will help with a specific move down below. It might also help "read" a person to see what move they are going to make in the Roshabo. You'd probably need L3 or higher skill to do this.
  • Lie Catcher: This would see through some moves (False Concession) and would also tell you when a Fox is masquerading as another type (i.e. the PC makes a "Lie Catcher roll" when introduced to negotiator and comes back and determines that they are 
The use of other skills gives other PCs a chance to get in on the action. It also gives a negotiator a chance to be deeper than one or two skills. If you could build this out more you could have room for negotiation teams (you could have guy who excels in detecting lies).

So each roll you get a free move and a standard move. Free moves are like "pushing it" and Advanced technique. Here are some Standard Moves specific to the drama:
  • Problem Solve: Someone on the PC's team is trying to come up with a "technical" solution to the problem. If they can succeed in the allotted time they get a big bonus--but this is difficult. The PC makes either an RES or applicable Science (or other) roll. They must beat a certain number of SPs by the end of the drama. If they succeed they get a lump sum of X SPs (TBD) based on the difficulty of the situation (this, essentially, is a second drama happening along side the first).
  • Pressure Them: This is not necessarily the same as an Assertive/Aggressive stance: it's a real threat. In this case it's the Take Additional Risk move with some roll (Strategy/Tactics) or Diplomat and, if it fails, then there is a check to see if you get WAR. This is based on the Flash Point level. If the character succeeds then they get SPs based on the negative they took. Again, the exact rules would need to be worked out for this but the basic idea is that on a given round you can take an aggressive move and risk WAR.
  • Make Concession: If you have something to give away, you get SPs based on what the GM thinks it's worth. 
  • Make False Concession: This is a "Take Additional Risk" move that uses Con Artist. You pretend to make a concession. If you fail? Maybe war. Maybe just souring negotiations. Whatever the case, it won't be good. Con Artist will see through this too.
  • Intractable. You can choose this. If your opponent chooses anything else you get +1 SP if you win the rolls. If your opponent chooses it as well whoever wins the roll gets +2 SPs. If you choose this and you lose the roll you lose 1 SP.
These moves need a lot of work to iron out and there could be more. The point here is to give player a chance to take some actions during the rolls and see how they manage it.

It's also clear I haven't explained all this all that well and I haven't even pretended to play-test it. But there's the basic thinking.


Friday, November 26, 2010

Death Traps

What are the odds of running into a -9 to disarm trap? That's a big question. How come?

The Historical JAGS Approach
As I've said here before, there are some "standards" that JAGS has historically applied to negatives. Let's take a look:

  • -3 is generally "hard."
  • -6 is generally "very, very tough."
  • Negatives to hit targets in combat generally max out around -4 for hand-to-hand or -6 for range. It could be more--but a Level 4 skill (Master Level) removes -6 points of modifier so if you are a (very rare) world-class master and and are targeting things that are -10 to be hit (for environmental modifiers like range and speed and size and visibility) you are taking some monstrously hard shots.
Under this framework a trap that's at -9 to disarm would be, well, pretty damn rare.

However ...
We think that in a dungeon, as per our current Post-Apocalyptic Have-Not dungeon game, a trap that's at -8 to -10 to disarm might be the case in around 5% of the traps encountered.  What the heck is going on and why do we think that?

The Thinking
So okay: you are the "traps guy" in the party. You start life with L2 Traps on a 14- or 15-. After a dungeon adventure (2 CP worth of experience) you go to 16- because you have a 13 COR. After a second dungeon adventure you pop up to L3 (another 2 CP). If you were less dedicated to begin with that might be three dungeons.

Assuming you were a 50 CP character to begin with and had 10pts of negative Traits and now have an estimated 6 CP worth of experience you are now a 66 CP character. You have spent approximately 6 of those CP on Traps skill. You are now a L3 16- Traps Expert with approximately 10% of your CP invested in being that guy.

First  Note: You Never Get Any Better
While not literally true the point has been made that improving on this state of affairs is quite difficult. You can go to L4 (an extra 10 CP or five dungeons worth of dedication). You might go to 17- for 6 CP (or so). If you can improve your COR you can get another point that way too. These are expensive and, at least for Level 4, implies you are a world-class master instead of just, well, a really good "Traps Guy."

You are pretty darn far into diminishing returns here as well unless your environment is really rocking the traps rules. Like: all traps all the time. You better really enjoy disarming traps.

Second Note: How Hard Might The Traps BE!?
If I am on "level 10" of a JAGS dungeon with a character who has been through "8 Dungeons" and gone up "a level" for each one--that is "a pretty deep level" with a "pretty high level character" am I, what? Running into -18 Traps? -8? -5? If we go with the historical solution then a -8 Trap is pretty extreme. Maybe I'm just running into -5 traps meaning I roll at -2 and therefore make my 16- L3 Traps roll on a 90%-success-rate 14-.

That's so good it's almost pointless to have me roll. It's so pointless it's probably boring. 

If this is, indeed, the case then L3 16- as the "top level" is pretty reasonable and it assumes that disarming traps at <10% of your character (by the time the guy has done eight to ten dungeons he's got maybe +20 CP?) basically just means that unless it's some kind of uber-trap you cut right through it without much difficulty and the drama comes from somewhere else.

This is "okay" and there's a reason it's the historical model.

However ...
However, we don't want that for a MMO-style Tactical dungeon adventure. For that we want a complex cross-fire of interlocking modifiers, challenges, and arms-race-style character designs. We want there to be stuff in "the dungeon" that is "challenging and dangerous" even at the traps level ... maybe especially there. So that gives us the Dungeon Challenge Framework.

The Dungeon Challenge Framework
We make the assumption that (a) a dungeon is definitionally a high-stress environment and (b) there will be some degree of 'randomness' in the challenges (they will not be carefully coded to the character's abilities. If you do make that L4 Traps guy you will, in fact, deserve a big edge rather than having the dungeon reconfigure itself to maintain the challenge level: you paid to be good and you are good).

Here's what it looks like: there's a table of randomized modifiers with about 5-8% being extreme (-8 to -10 or more) and many in the -1 to -4 range (the exact proportions are under discussion). The GM (Eric, in this case) also has categories of trap from very deadly to less so and randomly matches them and then assigns them in order to trapped doors (he's randomly creating dungeon levels using some kind of generator).

So you can run into a trap that's at -6 to detect and -9 to disarm and explodes for 30 IMP damage. And we did. It wasn't remotely fair--but that's how the dice fall.

We like this. For one thing, a L3 character reduces the -9 to a -6 (meaning it's a 10- 50% roll) so if you are L3 that'll help a lot (if you were L4, you'd reduce the negative to -3 and cut right through it with a 13- success roll). Secondly although 30 IMP X damage would've stomped us, it wouldn't have killed us (most likely) and that creates the kind of high-stress live-or-die situation we're looking for. So this seems workable (even if that example was extreme).

But You Still Don't Get Better
However, that framework has a problem: this was our second dungeon. What do you run into on your 8th? Is it more traps at -9 to disarm? or are the traps at -17 or something? And if so, what do we do about the fact that your skill level and roll still haven't gone up?

Archetype Traits
The current thinking is that you have Archetype Traits ("Thief"?) that give you SP Pools that you use in the dungeon. These pools counteract negatives and can improve successes where valuable for certain types of skills. So if you have 24 AP in Thief and that gives you, let's wildly guess, 24 SPs for the dungeon, you can use it to remove up to -24 points before you have to regroup (note: that is a lot in Thief--so it better be good). 

After spending CP on the skill tops out, the character can pay AP for more and more. The negatives for traps will go up, but not that dramatically. However, you will see more and more high negative traps which would decimate a party without the SPs to burn.

What About Other Skills and Other Scenarios?
Let's assume locked doors work the same way. Is there a Lock-pick Archetype Trait that does the same for Locksmith skill? The answer is pretty much "yes" (although Thief would work for both and probably Stealth and Streetwise too). 

In "normal games" a character will likely run into traps when other people have set them (see the movie Predators where the group runs into Viet Nam style booby-traps on the alien planet--they were set by someone long ago and are not dungeon-style moving wall, spear firining mechanisms). In those cases you are outside the dungeon framework and are back in more classic JAGS where negatives don't regularly spike to -10. 

However, let's take the "Gone in 60 Seconds" game where the PCs are stealing high-end cars in a kind of underground tournament. This could be declared the dungeon framework and you could well run into a car that is at -10 to be stolen fairly easily. We think this model and thinking allows for character Archetypes to grow in a level-based progression but doesn't require it for games where that's not appropriate.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Burn Baby, Burn

I'm testing flame attacks. These currently have the effect of burning for the same base damage for one additional round (the "Napalm" effect burns for three rounds after the initial hit). Here are some thoughts.

  1. I think that the official flame power will be that it only burns on a hit by 4+. While this doesn't distinguish it from Power Blast as much as it might, I think that it'll (A) greatly simplify the "standard" flame attack (you need a "good hit" to get the burn effect) and (B) it'll perform more or less as I see it happening: not every hit with a flame blast should set targets on fire--only some. The current "always burn" configuration will still be in there. I'll just call it Heat Ray.
  2. Right now the simulator has the burn effect happen at the beginning of the Round. This is probably necessary because of the way the simulator works (changing it would be complex) but I tend to think the actual rule will have the power burn on the flame-attacker's Turn--making that player responsible for handling it. This should reduce the value of the flame attack slightly because it'll give the burning character a chance to take action before being hit again. We may make this change to the simulator to test it. We may not: I'm facing probably 60 days of testing and have a lot of travel and work and stuff to do.
  3. I believe an 8 REA Stop-Drop-And-Roll action would prevent most burns (chemical burns being the exception). We could also test this (the simulator does allow for certain kinds of conditional emergency actions). I am pretty sure that it would not be a "winning move" (it would be a desperate move that characters would take when they really need to). We can also allow someone else to smother the flames with a cover-them-with-a-blanket action which will prevent unpleasant desperate situations where a character is going to burn and probably die if someone doesn't do something. 
  4. It turns out that 3-rounds of burn is not worth as much more as 1 round of burn as you'd think. What the 3-rounds does is: (a) result in more "both-parties-die" ties as guy A wins and then, two Rounds later, burns to death (b) it simply results in damage "after the flame-guy has already won." Most of these fights take 3-4 Rounds (note: some do take much longer--but out of 5000 we are trying to herd fights into a 3-4 round model for "good, pleasant, fights between nominal equals"). At this rate having 3 rounds of extra damage simply doesn't do that much to the situation. This is, kind of, good news: I was afraid that extended burns would rule the game. As they (generally) don't, it makes that attack less unusual.
  5. In a perfect world there would be some Advanced-Optional rules for setting targets on fire (a space suit makes it harder, wearing a lot of flammable hair-gel makes it easier, etc.) and rules for the fire spreading or going out or whatever (the "1-round rule" would be a generality). These kinds of optional rules would make fire-as-a-weapon pretty darn scary (and tactical: dousing the target with oil first would really help). I'm not sure who they help though. Almost always when I add an "Optional Rule" I say when you want to use it. I'm not sure in what game you use "advanced fire rules" because they make the experience better.
Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers and a wish for a great weekend anyway to everyone else!


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Traps, Cheap Skills, and Specialization

Eric brings up some incredibly interesting points (based on the post-apocalypse dungeon game we're playing right now as well as on a variety of theoretical discussions). I'm going to try to re-phrase / paraphrase his points here:

  1. If skills like Traps are relatively cheap, what is their role in the game? How do you address a player wanting to be "the traps guy" (or "the lawyer guy?" or whatever). Is that a valid role? How much should it cost?
  2. If you want to have more than one "traps guy" (or "lawyer guy" ... or "lawn care guy") and there's just one skill for that how do you handle that?
JAGS Philosophy on Stereotypes
One of the things I really like about what we've done with JAGS and are trying to continue is that within the spectrum of a single "stereotype" (I would say "archetype" but that word has a specific technical meaning in JAGS) there is, where the rules can address it, a broad spectrum of approaches. Let's take an example:

Imagine a Martial Arts game where you have four players, all of them combat specialists. You might have a Karate guy, a Kung fu guy, a boxer, etc. Now, let's narrow it down: the game is set in early mythical China: all anyone gets is Kung Fu. At this point, how do you differentiate it? Well, you get the strong guy, the fast guy, the hard to hurt guy, the smooth-talking Kung Fu con-artist. And so on. But what if there were different schools of Kung Fu? Well, there are: we have a big and rich special moves list (and that's not counting mythical Chi abilities) that would allow relatively low-point characters to distinguish types of Kung Fu. We also have different skill levels: you could be the ultra-rare L4 Kung Fu super-master or an L3 bad-ass. You could be L2 and be "just okay" but maybe stronger or something (the 4 CP necessary to be L3 will go a good way towards a pretty exceptional stat on standard point levels.) The Martial Arts system shows this explicitly but we're doing the same thing in a sometimes run Esper Psychic Detectives game where the ESP rules allow for various types of Psychic Investigator even though everyone basically has "the same power."
The problem is that you can't keep this up indefinitely: how do we handle the "everyone is a lawyer" game when the rules do not, and will not, list special "lawyer moves?"

In our current game, one player removed some of his traps skills as another player's Traps roll was simply much higher and he realized he likely wouldn't use them.

JAGS Philosophy on Difficulty
It's fairly ensconced in the rules that negative modifiers run from -1 to (around) -6 with rare exceptions going higher. Since a (very rare) L4 skill ignores -6pts of negative modifier it's clear that a -10 Trap (or law-problem or whatever) will be trying even for a world-class master and will pretty much ruin anyone else's chance to handle it easily (although a very good 16- L2 character would have a chance to make a -10 roll and a L3 guy would be rolling on a 40% 9- which isn't bad at all--it's just not the kind of roll you want to stake your life on).

The Standard JAGS Solution: DRAMA ROLLS!
We have a solution to all these things: it's the Drama Rolls system. If you are playing a game where every PC runs a Lawn-Care service then you would create Lawn Care Dramas and use the general skills system to provide skills that aren't in the book ... and then you'd work out how the heck that works. Maybe you have rules for smooth-talking customers (I know my last lawn-care guy tried to smooth talk me). There could be rules for recruiting the right guys (instead of people who are casing the neighborhood in the guise of doing lawn-care ... something that allegedly also happened around here). Maybe the specialist business owner with great leadership skills could get a morale boost. Maybe the person with artistic skill could do prettier lawns than the other guys?

We even have a relatively extensive chapter that would help  group put this together. But while we think that's a great answer, it doesn't fully address a couple of questions raised above and, to be honest, if the group isn't really skilled at building good dramas then it's not going to be all that great anyway (although, to be fair, if you are trying something as absurd as the Lawn-Care game you might want to do a lot of work making that drama-game before starting to play--if the group just "isn't all that good at " there's going to be problems somewhere along the spectrum of trying a game).

The bottom line is that building a good drama, even with help and examples, takes work and if you base your game around it and you blow it it hurts the game a lot. Having something that's lighter-weight and built in wouldn't be bad.

Generic Difficulty Levels or Specializations?
Eric posits a generic specialization or difficulty system where players choose one of four specialties (he uses the card suits as stand-ins for specific specializations) and if you don't have the right suit you get an additional negative.

This isn't on the face of it a bad idea in some ways. It's generic which means it has a flavor issue if you don't do the work to flesh out the specialties and I have questions about the "spread:" Do we assume that 75% of the attempts are "Clubs" while 25% are split somehow between the other suits? Or do we assume (by default) an even-spread so someone with only one specialty will suffer 75% of the time? Is it different for different games/skills? How do you know? It's also another level of decision for the GM. If I know you only have one specialty and I know what it is, when I load my encounters with things, do I randomly assign the "suit" or do I plan it to work for or against you? There's no right answer for this--but it's another decision point for the GM.

On the other hand, it does build in a way for there to be several "Traps guys" or whatever without just having the distinction be skill level and skill roll ... and it doesn't force the creation of a complex drama.

So Where Does This Leave Us?
Well, it leaves us with this: I think that the specialization system is primitive right now--too much so to just drop in. We'd need to play-test it and play around with it and figure out just how much it hurts the L2 guy with just one area. On the other hand, have some really good dramas for things like Traps--which are a staple of certain kinds of gaming--would be a good step in the right direction to help shore up specific weaknesses.

I also think that some solid rules for having help would be good: if the guy with a lower Traps skill could still assist, that would be useful.

Something Hero-System did that I really liked was they allowed you to buy helper-skills that could be anything. If you bought a skill that was "Knows streets of Baltimore" or whatever and you wound up in Baltimore and were trying to make a Streetwise roll--HEY!? My Knowledge Skill applies! That sort of thing was actually quite nice.

Maybe we could learn from that? Instead of having the four suits, have the player come up with specializations and then the GM could determine where or if they fit (so you'd have the Electronic Traps guy and the Mechanical Traps guy, and so on)?

I'm still thinking on this--but I wanted to get a response out.


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.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Working my way through the big list of attacks

Work and travel and family have been brutal.

I'm working (starting at the top) of costing the big-list-of-attacks. While there is some value to mathematical estimations of these things, I'm going to go with the big-list approach as (a) the math isn't exact when it works and is wildly off when it doesn't (b) the math is a lot of decimal devision and rounding which I worked hard to get out of the initial (long-ago) release of JAGS and don't want to hard-code back in for anyone who wants to buy "Sonic Scream" and (c) the big list of attacks will have a lot more flavor and color than a few attacks with a ton of modifiers.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Spam Allowance?

I'm up in NYC again so testing has been light. It appears that doing fractional math will work for some combinations of powers but not others--I'm still inclined to have a big list of attacks and then put the fractional math in the back or on the web somewhere.

But a bigger question is "spam allowance." let me explain:

An Interesting Realization
During testing--a long, long time ago when I was just building characters and running them against each other I realized that the guys who had a lot of points spent on stuff that the simulator didn't count as "combat stuff" lost to those who did. Things like better senses or even flight (the combats theoretically take place in a tactically restricted ring) would be down a few points from offense or defense and would suffer.

We called this the "amount of spam" the character had. At the time we were sort of categorizing characters by the amount of spam so we could test like-vs-like. When I did further tests, an even more ominous picture emerged: even a point or two of spam had a noticeable effect on combat performance. At levels where the game was commonly played a point of AP could be a 1 or 2 percent difference--or even more.

This led to a philosophy where things like flight (a really good 'non-combat' power) were like 4 AP, where as that was also the cost for a good suit of chain mail.

Philosophically this isn't as bad as it might appear: in a theoretical high-tech society a jet pack might cost around as much as some body armor and if you were commonly shot at you might prefer the body armor. This is another way of saying that the element of 'cost restriction' (that is, the degree by which the cost of the ability restricts who can get it, is matched by the availability restriction of who is allowed to buy it).

Some Common Objections
I feel certain that someone will point out that flight IS a combat power as anyone who has ever faced a attack helicopter could attest to--if they were still alive. We know. The reason it is 'non-combat' is that it is (a) not handled by the simulator and (b) it relies on tactical positioning to be useful. If you are fighting indoors in a tight room, armor will still work. Flight will not.

Another objection is that powers like ESP are very good even if they are not 'combat'--are we suggesting that tar only thing of real value in JAGS is the ability to kick someone's imaginary ass? I've seen this sort of textual deconstruction of game rules before and find it patently ridiculous. If someone on this blog wants to raise the objection, I'll be fine with going into more detail--but the answer is "no, we don't think that's all that's important--or even the most important thing."

Spam Allowance
So we have one of two options: (1) charge small amounts of AP for non-combat things or (2) have some set-aside points for 'spam' and let you buy out of those points. Both have their appeal. Let's look.

LOW COSTS: this approach is streamlined. It's easy to understand (you just get your points and start buying). There's even something pretty about having abilities like flight be around 4-8 AP. Having cool abilities be marvelously cheap can make a player feel fairly 'rich.'

On the down-side, though, it does favor characters with no spam whatsoever and, worse, it compresses all the costs into a narrow range (we'll look at that in a moment).

SPAM ALLOWANCE: the plus side is that if you say "You guys are 32 AP with 8 of that spent on spam" then everyone is both more colorful and there's a big balance problem out of the way (note, some PCs could spend more of their AP on spam, just not less). Also: you could always choose not to play with it--if we work to keep the costs of spam-things low anyway then ignoring the rule won't hurt as badly.

On the down-side, and this is huge, if we screw up in defining spam, we break the game irreparably. Also: this is another complex tag people have to follow.

What The Problem Was
So that's the background. Let's talk about why it came up. Stretching. Stretching is a two-fold power. It is an attack power (defense from physical strikes, very good grapple abilities) and it is a movement power. Stretching characters can move over obstacles. At some level of plasticity they can flow through keyholes, and so on. They can fall off a roof and bounce.

The question was: if flight is 4 AP, how much is stretching movement. We realized that since it wasn't as good as flight that left us with a value of, like, 2 AP for invulnerability to collisions, flowing up walls, and so on. We were boxed in to a pretty small box.

So we discussed spam allowance: if we could open the box up we could prevent flying characters from /having/ to leverage their flight in combat (if flight becomes expense enough then combats become an exercise in "how can I use my flight to help me"-- if that doesn't sound so bad, replace flight with 'night vision.'). This seemed like something worth exploring. The problem was that there is no good way to define 'spam.'

How Would We Do It?
There is no decision on doing this or not, yet--but we came up with a way to approach it. The definition of 'spam' will be done not by what the power is, but rather how it is coated. There are several kinds of 'costs' in JAGS.

1. Level Cost: this applies to any ability where you can buy one or more level of ability. This is all attack and armor-style defense powers, all GATs, Size, etc. It is the most common.

2. There are powers that are based on a % of your total AP or Damage Level. Things like Negative Damage Mods or extra CON or AGI. Pluses to hit are in here too.

3. Flat Cost. Powers like Flight, night vision, flow through keyhole, and so on, might have a few versions but we do not sell arbitrary numbers of levels of them. These are what 'spam' would become.

Are We Gonna Do This?
Right now? Not really--it's a good tool for us to keep in mind though. I suspect we'll play test it at some point and likely discuss it in the rules somewhere.